Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, February 08, 2009
      ( 2/08/2009 11:13:00 AM ) Bill S.  

ALCHEMY SKIRTS The first question for any newcomer to Nobuhiro Watsuki's manga and anime is "Who the heck is Buso Renkin, anyway?" Turns out the eponymous subject of this popular shonen series is a magical device, a catch-all name for a series of tactical weapons powered by a paranormal alloy containing the "concentrated essence of alchemy." Said alloy, called the kakugane, takes the possessor's "fighting spirit" and manifests it into a personal weapon.

Our entry into the world of Buso Renkin -- where alchemist warriors battle evil creatures known as homunculi -- is a high school sophomore named Kazuki Muto (English voice: Steve Staley). Kazuki is temporarily killed by a homunculus in the "haunted factory" (shades of Scooby Doo!) near his school. He's rescued and brought back to life by a female warrior named Tokiko Tsumura (Tara Platt), who revives our hero by inserting a kakugane into the teen's lifeless body. Because the device is in sync with his fighting spirit, Kazuki is reborn into a new life as a warrior trainee. His Buso Renkin weapon: a giant Kirby-esque lance that he ultimately calls Sunlight Heart.

Tokiko -- a tough dame with a red scar across her face and a predilection for spitting out the phrase, "I'll splatter your . . . guts!" in the heat of combat -- feels responsible for our hero, so she takes charge of training him. Decked in a schoolgirl outfit, she shows up at Ginsei Academy, where Kazuki, his giggly freshman sister Mahiro and three goofball friends live and study. The concentration of young spirits in the Ginsei dorms, we're told, proves an irresistible lure for the homunculi, who get their strength from devouring human energy. Tokiko, who would otherwise be a high school senior, is devoted to killing the monstrous creatures, so she's clearly in the right place to ply her trade.

One of the students, a sickly rich kid named Koshaku Chono (Spike Spencer), has himself been experimenting with creating homunculi from various animals. Chono hopes to become a homunculus, so that he can live forever. Theatrically, he christens himself "Papillon" and wears a butterfly mask, sending out his creations in search of his own kakugane. With this, he believes, he can achieve immortality.

Much fighting follows, natch, with Matsuki and Tokiko shouting out their Buso Renkin battle cries before charging against their monstrous enemies. The woman warrior's weapon is a "Valkyrie Skirt," a series of robotic limbs that sprout from her thighs and good work, well, splattering the enemy's guts. Midway into Viz Media's 13-episode box set, a third alchemist warrior enters the fray, the comically deep-voiced Warrior Chief, who both takes on the role of house parent and the responsibility for further training Matsuki.

The homunculi prove to be arresting visual creations. Born of both animals and humans, they can take on a variety of both monstrous and amusing forms, their original host heads periodically popping out of their bodies for horrific/comic effect. The monsters are created when an embryo attaches itself to a host body; when they attack the brain, the transmutation is nearly instantaneous, but if they connect anywhere else, the process takes more time. We see the latter occur when Tokiko gets attacked by one of the slithery embryos in the second episode, setting up a race against time as Matsuki attempts to find the hidden Papillon and retrieve the antidote.

Buso Renkin's animation is limited in the familiar TV style. With the exception of one character's outlandish pompadour, it's fairly straightfaced, though it can turn more brazenly cartoony when any of its characters do a comic reaction take. While the first box set hides its rating on the bottom of the box, the series is aimed at "Older Teen," which makes some sense. In addition to some mildly graphic violence, there's a sexual dynamic to the series that may be inappropriate for some younger viewers. Early on, we're given a scene where Matsuki ogles short-skirted Tokiko's thighs and ass, while, even more strikingly, we're later shown a bath house sequence where boy and girl students compare each other's (unseen) "size." This leads to several follow-up jokes that I suspect might throw some parents.

Too, there's a subtext of sexual outlandishness to the series' major villains that more than once got me recalling the old movie version of Diamonds Are Forever. Main nemesis Papillon is as flamingly campy as you can get (at one point, one character even calls him a "pervert"), while a moon-faced homunculus baddie speaks, in the actor's words, "like Julie Child telling you how to cook a pot roast." In the latter half of the set, we're introduced to a "married" brother and sister team who themselves wish to become homunculi, though the English language version at least dilutes the incestuous undertones once we're provided the characters' history.

Viz's DVD set provides both dubbed and subtitled versions of the thirteen episodes plus audio commentaries by the team responsible for Americanizing the cartoons. Play the English language version with closed captioning, incidentally, and you can see the difference between dialog that more closely reflects the original and the colloquialized dubs. There's also a documentary in the final disc, "Behind the Scenes of Buso Renkin," which interviews many of the American actors and shows the process of producing the dubbed series. It's a definite kick to see actress Platt talk about and deliver Tokiko's signature line, though Kazuki's hero voice is conspicuously absent from this feature. If nothing else, the feature depicts how much fun it can be working with this stuff.

As an anime series, Buso Renkin may lack the emotional resonance of another boyish fantasy anime like Hunter X Hunter -- on more than one occasion the elaboration of story mythology comes at the expense of the storytelling -- but it has its high points. In Episode Eight, "A Night in the Dorm," for instance, one of Papillon's homunculus henchbeasts attacks the school dorm with a sound wave that turns Kazuki and Tomiko's classmates into shuffling living zombies. The resulting zombie sequences are enjoyably mounted, with more than one visual nod to classic horror movies. In the box set's cliffhanger episode, an army of homunculi that ultimately merge together into one giant Homunculus Super Adult Form attacks the school. Just that name got me chuckling.

Adults: they spoil everything!

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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