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Blassreiter: The Complete Series, Part 1 (FUNimation Entertainment, TV-MA)

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blassreiter-header.jpgBy the end of this half-season set the cast has been completely run through the ringer, making it hard to imagine what they could do for an encore but leaving you eager to find out.

 

 

 

The first episode of Blassreiter does a remarkable job of tricking you into thinking that it's a completely different type of show than it actually is. It introduces us to Gerd Frentzen, a motorcycle racing champion left paralyzed from the waist down after getting caught on the racetrack in a battle between two savage monsters known by the public at large as "Demoniacs." These Demoniacs are the result of a terrifying plague spreading across Germany, a blood-borne virus that merges reanimated corpses with technological devices to create mindless biomechanical "Amalgams" protected by impenetrable armor, armed with incredible power, and capable of unspeakable violence. A few days later, Gerd appears miraculously healed, and able to turn himself into an Amalgam at will.

As we follow Gerd through his accident, recovery, and transformation, it seems that he is, for all intents and purposes, the star of the show. That first episode closes out with Gerd transformed into an Amalgam and on the side of the angels, using his newfound powers to fight alongside the Xenogenesis Assault Team (or XAT), a special task force that struggles to stop the Demoniacs while searching for the source of the plague, teaming up with his former racing pal and current XAT agent Hermann to put the smack down on the evil beast that tore apart the race track. With a demonically-powered, motorcycle-riding hero teaming up with a squad of heavily-armed, motorcycle-riding super-soldiers, surely we have 23 more episodes of these badass, budget-busting, bike-ridin' ‘bot fights to look forward to, right? What's not to love?

But things quickly get a lot more complicated. When Gerd catches his ex-girlfriend in the arms of his ex-team manager (the "ex" part in both halves of that equation a direct result of his paralysis), he loses control of his newfound powers and starts to spread the infection. The XAT is now faced with a terrifying new mission: trying to track down and kill a new breed of indestructible monsters that can now hide in plain sight. Their only hope is to track down Joseph Jobson, the mysterious Amalgam that appeared on the racetrack with Gerd, and appears to be the only Amalgam in full control of his transformation. Hermann sets out to save Gerd, but he's got his work cut out with him since his partner, Amanda, is preoccupied with caring for her adopted "little brother" Malek, who is becoming increasingly withdrawn due to constant run-ins with a particularly brutal group of bullies at school. The conspiracy deepens as Beatrice—the sultry, green-haired doctor who gave Gerd a pill that caused his first transformation—begins infiltrating the upper ranks of the XAT. The pale-faced Joseph lingers in the background, silently observing the XAT as he forebodingly whittles a small wooden Virgin Mary. At first, all these paths are running in parallel, and the lack of a central character to focus the viewer's attention could have shaken the show apart. But the surprising twists just keep on coming, and once all these paths start to intersect, that's when the fireworks in Blassreiter really get started.

And that's also where Blassreiter really benefits from being released in half-season boxsets. Even though an awful lot happens in the first four episodes, at that point the show's overall direction is still a complete mystery. Gerd, the star of the first two episodes, is reduced to a background character, and the remaining cast is left competing for the viewer's attention. If people were buying this show in four-episode chunks, I can't help but imagine a lot of people giving up on Blassreiter after one disc because the show isn't "going anywhere." In contrast, by the end of this half-season set the cast has been completely run through the ringer, making it hard to imagine what they could do for an encore but leaving you eager to find out.

Blassreiter builds a compelling mystery, but it isn't without its cheesy moments. So much of the drama in the early episodes is fomented by having people conveniently overhear conversations they aren't supposed to hear, and a lot of time is wasted with unnecessary repetition, as characters look off in the distance pensively as conversations that happened seconds ago are repeated ad nauseam for (melo)dramatic effect. But the constant forward momentum tends to overcome any momentary clumsiness.

Given the show's melodramatic nature, the English dub is spot-on. It's not so much that the acting is better—the Japanese actors actually do a much better job of pulling subtle emotions and nuance out of their characters—but the bare bones subtitle script robs the show of its punch. The dub just plain fits the material better, packing in the ludicrous action movie dialogue ("I'm wasting good machismo here!") and enough casual, unnecessary swearing to give you flashbacks to the dubs of the early-90s. The dub does play fast and loose with the original script, however, sometimes completely changing the intended meaning: when the XAT starts to suspect their boss of some shady dealings, team member Al says "I'm all for it" in the subtitles, while in the dub he dismissively mutters "Frankly, I don't give a shit." Given that, anyone looking for a faithful translation should probably avoid the dub at all costs, but its over-the-top nature makes an effective addition to the show's overall grim-and-gritty atmosphere.

Given past Gonzo efforts like Last Exile or Burst Angel, it's not surprising that the studio leans heavily on CGI for Blassreiter. Virtually everything on the screen that's not a run-of-the-mill person is computer generated, from the ornately-designed Amalgams to ordinary cars, trucks, and helicopters. When it's done right, it works beautifully: the carefully choreographed Demoniac fights, with their constantly shifting camera angles and wicked use of slow motion, are a sight to behold. Unfortunately, for pretty much everything else, the CGI doesn't work so well: the vehicles are distractingly bare bones, and the motorcycle-riding humans suffer from too many slight imperfections and weirdly unnatural hand movements (also known as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within syndrome).

The more traditional animation is fairly minimalist but looks fine on the screen. The character designs are typically nice—realistic looking, but distinctive—and director Ichiro Itano does a good job of keeping things visually interesting by using unusual zooms and pans across the screen. Given Itano's reputation for hyperviolence in works spanning from Violence Jack and Angel Cop to the more recent Gantz, he's remarkably restrained: Blassreiter is action-packed and violent, but never gory, with much of the most gruesome action happening just off screen.

The half-season boxset is typical of other recent Funimation releases like Romeo X Juliet or KenIchi the Mightiest Disciple, with a cardboard case to house two DVDs in individual slim cases. In a nice touch, the reversible tray cards for the discs also double as mini-posters, one an uncharacteristically cheesecake shot of Amanda and the other a solemn portrait of XAT members Brad and Alvin. Extras include textless versions of the opening and closing songs, a pair of Japanese promotional videos, Funimation trailers, and commentary for the set's final episode by ADR director Tyler Walker and dub cast members Jamie Marchi (Amanda), Eric Vale (Alvin), and Chuck Huber (Brad).

Blassreiter features moments of intense emotions, but for the most part it hammers them home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. This is a bracing series for fans of over-the-top action, with enough new twists to the formula to make it worth seeking out, even if it's not quite a must-see. | Jason Green

 

Click here to learn more about Blassreiter, or watch the show yourself for free—legally!—courtesy of these online streams from FUNimation Entertainment and Crunchyroll.

 

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