Aquarian Age Vol. #1 (also w/box) (of 3) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Thursday, September 02, 2004
Release Date: Tuesday, September 14, 2004



What They Say
Kyota and his pals Shingo and Junichi dream of becoming pop idols. At a New Year's show they get their lucky break when a Cosmopop agent discovers the trio and offers to manage their debut. Then things take a turn for the weird when Kyota begins having visions of magical girls battling one another in the air - only he's not dreaming! For centuries, five supernatural factions have waged war for supremacy over mankind with legend prophesizing that one day the Aquarian Age will begin and one group will reign supreme. Now Kyota's dreams must take a backseat to his destiny as he may hold the power to turn the tides of war in favor of whichever faction can control him.

The Review!
A battle as old as time itself rages on and is about to reveal itself to a new generation.

Audio:
For our primary viewing session, we listened to this show in its original language of Japanese. The series has a very good stereo mix to it with plenty of directionality across the forward soundstage both in dialogue and sound effects, particularly during the battle sequences. We checked out parts of the show in the English 5.1 mix and that came across very solid as well with a bit more volume to it and a slightly greater clarity to the directionality. The music for the show is from one of my favorites and I think it plays out beautifully here even if a touch louder than I think it should be. Overall, we had no troubles with either track during regular playback.

Video:
Originally airing in 2002, Aquarian Age is presented here in its original 1.85:1 widescreen letterbox format. The series was not released with anamorphic materials in Japan and this release matches that as the materials are likely simply not available. That said, this transfer looks very good overall and is quite pleasing on the eyes. Cross coloration is simply not visible here and there's very little in terms of aliasing, which is partially helped since while the show is fully animated, there are more stills used here than normal I think. The only thing that catches my eye worth noting is that some of the solid colors don't maintain a solid feel throughout. They're not getting blocky, but you can see some of the movement in them, such as various dark colors and characters hair at times. It's worth noting that it's only visible when we're upconverting to 720p. On our 23" 16:9 set, this is barely visible at all.

Packaging:
With a sizeable cast to choose from, the option to go with one or two or multiple characters is a hard choice. The first cover goes with five of the characters given some face time and it's a good choice of characters overall, with a couple of the more mysterious ones getting some time and the leads having their images just a bit larger than everyone else as it's set against a starry backdrop. The back cover has a foursome of images at the top and provides a couple of good paragraphs worth of summary that goes over the basics. The discs extras are clearly listed as is the various technical information which fills out the grid along the bottom just below the production information. The cover is also reversible though it's one wide image instead of a variant of the front covers design. The image is a gorgeous shot of the characters from the front cover in different positions and sizes plus another half dozen or so characters added into it. It's a great image and looks really spiffy when you open up the keepcase and take everything out. Two things are included in the keepcase. One is a multi-page foldout from the folks at Broccoli that explains the trading card game that the show is based on and displays a number of cards and some of the basics. The other piece is a booklet that has numerous staff and cast comments from the Japanese production as they talk about their experiences on the show as well as a glossary. The glossary is a bit tricky since it explains numerous terms that haven't really come about yet but provide some basis for understanding what's going on. I'm very tempted to classify many of them as spoilers at this point but at the same time they may be "givens" for a Japanese viewer.

This release also comes in a disc + box to hold the three volumes for the series. The box is of the thin flimsy kind that seems to be used for most of the three disc releases these days. The artwork for the box is filled with really good designs in a wraparound fashion with the two leads at opposite ends. The background for it is a soft white with blue mixed in that's a bit bland. Overall, it's not one of the best built boxes but it looks good. A small sampling of US created cards from the game are included as well. I'll thinpak the series and then slide the movie in a regular keepcase into it and call it good.

Menu:
While not the best menus I've ever seen, the ones used here work really well for the show and are probably some of the best flowing pieces I've seen from an ADV menu yet. The main menu is simply a series of blacks and blues with shifting water motion effects playing across it set to the end song theme. When you move to the submenus, a bit of transitional animation plays where it morphs the menu slightly to bring in the new material and it's practically seamless on my decks. This is rare in general and I've only seen them this smooth on a number of Nightjar menus in the past. Though simple in general, they fit the theme well and they're pretty slick. Access times are nice and fast and the disc read our players language presets perfectly.

Extras:
For the extras section, it's good mix of material for both language fans. Since David Williams is directing this show, you know the video camera is coming out at some point during the dubbing and the actors are going to have to be quick on their feet. This release is no different as the first volume has what looks to be the first segment of a Behind the Scenes piece. For this one, it's used with him asking a number of the actors what they think of auditioning and how they approach it. There are some amusing bits in, particularly when Jessica Boone reveals what's really going on when she gets all serious and I have to say I just laughed at Sasha Paysinger's reaction to seeing the camera. My only complaint about this kind of extra and it seems to be fairly consistent with in-house produced pieces like this is that there are no chapter stops. After watching this, I wanted to point out a particular section to my wife but had to scan through the entire thing, rewind, etc. It'd be much better if there was a simple skip skip skip go methodology to it. Regardless, this is a good spot of fun and I'm looking forward to more.

For the Japanese language fans, there's a promotional trailer that runs a few minutes that shows how the series was promoted early on before it started airing and includes some great Kajiura music to it. The opening and ending sequences are done in clean format and we get a round of production artwork as well.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Ever since the first trailer hit for this show oh so many months ago, my wife and I have been really anticipating this show. Between the animation style and the music attached to it, since we're both admitted Kajiura junkies, just seemed to scream that it was something we were going to be interested in. Adding what we could discern of the storyline from the trailer and little bits here and there afterwards, that anticipation did not dwindle at all.

Aquarian Age takes place within the timeframe of "now" and focuses on a small group of friends who are all going through a period in their lives where things are going to change drastically no matter what happens. In a change of pace, they're all different ages. The group is made up of three guys and one girl. The girl, Yoriko, is in college but as we learn more about her we find that she's fighting against a destiny that her family has had in place for her for centuries likely. Of the guys, the three are together as a band. The two older guys, Shingo and Jun, live together in a small apartment to make ends meet while the youngest, Kyouta, lives with his family above the convenience store that they own. Kyouta's in his senior year of high school and isn't exactly sure what he wants to do with his life. Yoriko, who really wants to be considered his girlfriend but has never really pursued it seriously enough, continues to urge him to go to college and not used the store as a fallback. At the same time, Kyouta's wanting to really give the music life a go, which his friends do as well. But they can't really push forward until he makes a decision once school ends since, well, you're not supposed to be in a band or have outside jobs during your high school career for the most part.

The group actually manages to catch a break after their New Years performance where they go up to one of the bigger towns in the area and perform along the street where other groups perform as well. They've caught the eye of Yukimura, a producer from Cosmopop who thinks she sees something in their work. The opportunity is there for the guys to go in and record a professional demo that she'll produce with them in order to sell them to the higher-ups in the company and start them on their path to fame. It all moves so fast that the guys are a bit stunned, well, outside of Shingo who is just ready to live up the high life, but they move forward with it and begin working back and forth from their daily lives and starting a career. As things move along, little connection is made with Kyouta's school life and only a few people there seem to really realize it's him even though a lot of girls are seemingly swarming the trio whenever they show up in public.

During all of this, Yoriko is struggling with a change of her own that's being forced on her. Being the daughter whose father is important to the temple, there are often obligations in general that must be followed. For Yoriko it's even worse as there is a bigger history for this group, one that goes back far into time. As we learn early on, she's the chosen leader of the newest generation to fight the battle against the various forces that are seeking to gain during this particular age but she's been putting it off for as long as she can. Her doing so has caused a number of those on her side, the Arayashiki, to be involved in some minor infighting and a general breakdown of structure since they aren't getting what they need from her. But one of them, Rumiko, continues to push her into accepting her destiny and to face up to it. The first part of that is to give up completely on Kyouta and let him get on with his life without her. Something that Kyouta's new manager also has been less than subtle about.

Mixed into both tales are various battles that occur wherever Kyouta seems to be at. These battles aren't generally visible to the public at large and to the viewer they're often just shown as bands of light that are banging against each other in the sky or swooping along the streets. Their effects are felt by the real world though as minor earthquakes and a lot of shaking. The people they're visible to are those that are involved in the ancient struggle, which lets us get familiar with the various sides pretty easily. What we do see is an interesting mix of types, as one side seems to favor normal looking people in combat armor while the other seems to be a mix of semi demonic looking creatures and the like with human level intelligence. There are a number of forces that are watching from the sidelines and playing different kinds of power games to gain control. With the idea that this has been going on for as long as it has, there is definitely a feel that some of these people have been at it far longer than others and are playing a much deeper game.

The first five episodes of Aquarian Age are interesting in how they play out. With a lot of series, be it short like this or a full season show, would do what these five episodes do in the space of one or two episodes normally. For a half season show to do the first five episodes like this is surprising but it seems to really work in its favor. While the ancient battle is given as a backdrop and you know that there are changes to come in the remaining episodes, the time given to the characters here, both the leads and the secondary ones, really lets you get a feel for their relationships and the tightness of the group in general. You get to know how Kyouta's trying to figure out his life while still muddling through part of it as the band starts to make some movement. The battle elements creep into each of the episodes in different ways, sometimes more overtly than others, but the focus continues to really be on the characters and their relationships here.

The look and feel of the show is just as enticing as the storyline is. The animation style and artwork, which at times feels a bit heavy on the outer lines, looks really good. It's done in a style that I've liked in similar shows like Chance Pop Sessions where the color palette is really full and solid. There's plenty of animation throughout it, but with so much exposition at times and a lot of moments spent where you're supposed to be imagining internal monologues, there's an equal amount of shots where it's just simple pans or almost static images. This comes across very strongly in one scene where the trio is waiting for the sun to rise and there's barely even any dialogue or sound for fifteen seconds or so. Complementing the animation is another fantastic score by Yuki Kajiura. I love the music to this and it seems to fit in perfectly with the show but I will say that it sounds like she took no change in style from the .hack//SIGN to doing this. The music is essentially interchangeable if there is vocals included in it. Some of the incidental music does move away from what she was doing before though and that helps.

This series also manages to make out well when it comes to the vocal songs by the characters in the show. Often you'll get a music based series where the leads only know one song, one refrain and that's it. Aquarian Age mixes in two groups here and each of them seem to have either more verses to sing of their main songs or have a couple of songs between them that lets you feel like you're hearing something different every time they perform. This goes such a long way in breaking the monotony that can plague a series where music is critical to some extent since having the same thing playing constantly can be draining, regardless of how much you like the song or the music in general. In general, the score for this series is very evocative of the mood that's trying to be set and does a great job of building that up.

In Summary:
Aquarian Age actually gives out a lot of information in the first five episodes but little of it is about the overall battle that's being waged. The small nuggets we get from that are a mixed bag of somewhat campy material and intriguing ideas, especially if you read the spoilers in the booklet's glossary. With the heavy focus on the group of friends and what they mean to each other during a stage in their life when hard choices are made, this is an interesting story that's wrapped into something larger that I suspect will become much more apparent in the remaining eight episodes. This is a good launch to the show but it's keeping a lot of its secrets to itself still and just tantalizing us with them.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 5.1 Language,English Subtitles,8-page production booklet,Clean opening and closing animation,Production sketches,Original Japanese trailer,Behind the Anime video

Review Equipment
Panasonic PT50LC13 50" LCD RP HDTV, Zenith DVB-318 Progressive Scan codefree DVD player via DVI with upconversion set to 720p, Sony STR-DE835 DD/DTS receiver, Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: A-
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: B+
Age Rating: 15 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: ADV Films
MSRP: 29.99/39.99
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Letterbox Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Aquarian Age