Review copies provided by the studio.
My satellite provider dropped G4 over a year ago, so I haven’t been able to watch the Marvel/Madhouse anime collaborations. (I’ve barely seen a reference to them online since the project was announced, making me wonder if G4 is somehow blocked in every comic fan’s home.) Thankfully, the X-Men and Iron Man series have been released on DVD, without any of the annoying clutter that G4 no doubt pastes all over the screen during pivotal moments of the episodes.
Both series are written by Warren Ellis, and apparently translated into Japanese by the Madhouse production staff, then translated back into English for the American airings. I initially thought these guys were very serious about making this authentic anime, since my DVDs were already set for Japanese language with English subtitles when I hit play. Only after watching the first X-Men episode did I realize that you can turn off the subtitles and listen to an English translation. And, surprisingly, the English dubs are very enjoyable. The X-Men receive some of their best voice acting ever, and the dubbed Iron Man is mercifully not the annoying voice chosen for the recent Avengers Disney XD cartoon. By the way, I wouldn’t be so quick to turn off the subtitles. The translated text often doesn’t match the spoken English dialogue, and some of the incongruities are interesting.
Much of the look of the X-Men series comes from the movies, while New X-Men and Astonishing X-Men serve as the main inspirations from the comics. Speaking as someone who doesn’t particularly like much of this new-fangled continuity, I’ll give Warren Ellis some credit for providing more reasonable rationalizations for many of the events he’s adapting (Emma Frost’s secondary mutation, for instance). His use of Armor as the latest replacement for Kitty Pryde also makes sense, giving the series an organic connection to Japan. One of the DVD extras features an interview with Madhouse’s producers, which reveals that they found Ellis’ original ending far too depressing (Warren Ellis, you say?) so they changed it to better reflect Japanese sensibilities. The story is still clearly Ellis, though, for better and for worse. The pacing of the series is leisurely to say the least, and the show never quite creates a balance between extremely long conversation scenes and extremely long fight scenes. Conversely, the character interactions work pretty well, the dialogue is often sharp, and the “horrors of science” villains blend perfectly with Madhouse’s art.
Iron Man might as well be named Iron Man: The Movie: The Anime. This is flagrantly the movie interpretation of the Iron Man mythos, minus Pepper Potts, whose role is downplayed in favor of two potential Japanese love interests. Visually, the series is amazing (with one glaring exception I’ll get to later), while the stories are mostly done-in-one action pieces that pit Iron Man against mech-influenced interpretations of the old Avengers villains, the Zodiac. It doesn’t pretend to be as deep as the X-Men series, but it’s very entertaining and I think most Iron Man fans will really enjoy it, although the return of one major character from Tony Stark’s past might infuriate them.
Now, these are absolutely beautiful cartoons. I would have to be a spoiled, obnoxious fanboy to complain about the visuals in these shows, but I will. Assuming that the X-Men movies have done well in Japan, I can understand going for an amalgam of the movie and Frank Quietly comics when designing the costumes. And, Cyclops’ ridiculous shoulder pads aside, these costumes look fine. And yet…the first episode opens with a flashback to the previous year, featuring the X-Men in their retro-style costumes from the early issues of Astonishing X-Men. Not only are these superior designs, but they finally bring us an anime interpretation of Wolverine in his cowl. I’ve wanted to see the “real” Wolverine animated anime-style since I was twelve…and I get it for about five seconds in this series.
The Iron Man series also has a design element that perplexes me. The producers have decided to do Iron Man’s armor as a CGI model, along with most of the mech villains he fights. These aren’t bad CGI models, of course, but I have no idea what they’re doing here. When the Iron Man anime series was announced, I think most of us had a very specific style in mind for the armor, and it wasn’t CG. When I think of anime, I think of the classic armor and robot designs from Robotech, Gundam, and Transformers: The Movie. There is a specific anime look for this material, and it’s not reflected by computer-generated models. Any animation studio could create a CG Iron Man -- the movies are filled with CG Iron Man models, so it’s not like we haven’t seen one -- I wanted to see a genuine anime Iron Man armor.
Those are all very fannish complaints, I understand. These shows are pure eye candy, and the stories are solid enough to attract fans of the comics and the movies. Hopefully, the DVDs are going to perform well, because I’d like to see a second season for each show. And maybe someday, we’ll be lucky enough to get a Madhouse interpretation of Spider-Man. This horrible Ultimate Spider-Man thing wouldn’t prevent a simultaneous Spider-Man cartoon, would it?