Action and comedy, drama and romance - Saber Marionette J is one of those shows that just seem to have all the right moves.
What They Say
Welcome to Japoness, a society where the only females are emotionless androids known as "marionettes." Martial arts student and all around nice guy, Otaru, accidentally discovers and wakes a marionette named Lime. He soon learns that Lime is very different from other marionettes.
After waking two more marionettes, Otaru finds himself facing tough challenges as they battle the evil Faust and his Saber Dolls. Can Otaru rise up to the challenge while teaching the marionettes about human emotions?
Considering the age of the show, the stereo mixes included sound a little bit better than I expected. Directional moments don't exactly dominate, but they pop up often enough to make you feel like you're listening to something more than stretched mono. Voices keep mostly to the center but even those get thrown left or right from time to time, especially in the English version. All in all a satisfying mix. The parts of the dub I checked sounded pretty good to me, so this is one of those shows where most viewers can go either way and be happy, according to their personal preferences. The inclusion of the Spanish language track definately gives this area a boost as well.
When you look at how old these discs actually are, they have remarkably few problems transfer-wise. Those that do exist are the sort that are common in a lot of earlier DVDs of cel-based shows. There's a bit of grain, dark areas aren't always solid, and there are some small rainbows here and there. The more serious problems are source issues. Quite a few specks and scratches, show themselves, and much more distractingly, the show can suffer from some pretty heavy frame jitter. This varies a lot from episode to episode: sometimes you can't see it much, or at all, and other time it can be really tough to ignore - especially when you have the subtitles on. On the plus side, the colours stay pretty solid and blocking during active shots is minimal to non-existent. Since the problems vary so much it was tough to assign an overall grade. It's really not that bad, or that great, all things considered. I've certainly seen worse from other discs made around the same time.
This area has your basic treatment for Bandai's Anime Legends line, with all six discs collected in a double-wide keepcase with flipping hinges. The show was originally released as three "doubles" some time before that was cool, and the disc numbering reflects that. The cover image is effective enough. Otaru wielding his sai, the marionettes underneath, and the logo in the middle make up a picture that's far from the worst face for the show. The back does a good job of laying out the extras and technical specifications. As usual for this line, it feels like a good compact, economical package.
The design of the menus are good and nicely in-theme. For the main menus an important piece of marionette circuitry forms the background, with selections worked in as pieces to the overall design. A short clip from the disc's episode plays in the center. Everything is laid out logically, but the episode selection menu makes you take an extra step by going to a separate submenu to choose which part of the episode to play. Access times are pretty fast - half the time. Every even-numbered disc (or every "disc 2" if you want to think of it that way) has a horrendously slow setup menu, and that pulled the overall grade down a notch or two.
The extras are not too far out of the ordinary, but are decent enough. They're only on every other disc in the collection, though. The databanks are character profiles that are about the usual in terms of information, but have a frustratingly small amount of text on each screen, forcing you to press buttons more than you really ought to have to. Combine this with the slowness of the menus and these can be kind of a pain to work with. The three music videos included interested me more. They work with footage from the show itself and didn't introduce any new material as far as I noticed. But the (subtitled) songs are good and get an extra boost by being encoded in 5.1. I watched them all after I finished the show, and I can't remember if they contain any spoilers if you watch them as they come along; so if you're sensitive to those, use caution.
(please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The planet of Terra II is a lot like Terra I, that is, the Earth; or rather like certain parts of the Earth. There are six city states corresponding to six Earth countries constituting the settlements. The one that mainly concerns us is called Japoness, and I'll leave you to guess which country that's modeled after. Considering that the planet was colonized by force of circumstance after a spaceship accident, the people of Japoness and the other settlements have carved out a largely comfortable existence on the planet that they were forced to make their home. They have houses, businesses, entertainment, civil order, and no more than usual to worry about. The only thing they're really missing is the other half of humanity. You see, there were only six original survivors of the crash - and all of them were male. The entire population of the planet consists of cloned reproductions of those six men.
The story begins three hundred years after the forced landing on Terra II and centers on a young Jack-of-all-trades named Otaru. The people of Terra II have a vague inherited recollection of women, and have invented robots called Marionettes, which are female in appearance but obviously just machines. But when Otaru stumbles across a Marionette that laughs, gets angry, feels pain, and throws cars several times bigger than herself, it becomes obvious that even a brand new planet like Terra II is hiding some secrets.
All of this takes some time to tell, but I'll be misleading you if I give the impression that Marionette J's beginning is full of exposition. In actuality it starts with a blaze of speed. There's the emergency landing, a breathless pursuit across the rooftops of Japoness, the activation of the Marionette, a martial arts fight, a car chase (kind of), and a collapsing building. And that's just episode one. It's hard to name a lot of shows that pack this much into the first twenty-odd minutes. In another way it is like a lot of shows, in that it starts off with some of the best material and saves the rest for last. It's a "hammock" show: the highest points are at the ends. But there's not much sag in the middle.
The midsection of the show is largely concerned with the Marionettes themselves, in the form of their relationship with Otaru and also in their larger significance in the future of Terra II. Their relationship early on is competing for Otaru's affections and alternately squabbling and collaborating with each other, depending on whether or not Otaru is in danger at the moment. Which he is pretty often, thanks to the rival city-state of Gartlant and its Saber Dolls - the dark versions of the three Saber Marionettes.
At this point Saber Marionette J might remind you of other shows, but it's better than most of them. There are obvious and less obvious reasons for this. The obvious one is that Saber Marionette J is simply a very well executed show. It's a show that can do a lot of things well. Action, comedy, drama and even mecha are all given their turns in the spotlight; all of them work well and work well together. The series moves easily between episodes where Otaru and the Marionettes infiltrate enemy territory or fend off attacks from the Saber Dolls, and episodes where they open a burger stand or take part in an idol competition. A favourite light episode of mine features Lime running amok through a museum of priceless but not very impressive historical artifacts (archaeology doesn't amount to much on a planet that's only been inhabited three centuries). The less obvious reason Saber Marionette J succeeds so well is that it's always got a little more up its sleeves than you'd guess. If Saber Marionette J reminds you of other shows, it reminds you just enough to fool you into underestimating it.
The first episodes of the show were a blast, but once all the Marionettes showed up with their ... well, I was going to say "soda flavour names," but I can't remember sipping on a nice tall glass of bloodberry cola - I guess I'd have to go with fruit names for them, though I can't claim to remember sitting down with a bowl of bloodberries either. (If I had I'd never have got up again - they're poisonous to humans.) Anyway, once Lime, Cherry and Bloodberry have all shown up I started to get the feeling that I was in familiar territory, and anybody who's seen an anime with harem elements, or at least knows the general features of the subgenre would feel the same. And that's where Saber Marionette J shows how smart it is.
Saber Marionette J is a series with cliches that avoids being a cliched series. It does this by means of some very clever misdirection. Like any good harem show, or any bad one for that matter, the "girls" have varied and contrasting personalities that correspond to the usual stereotypes: the cute, energetic one, the traditionally feminine homemaker, the tough, sultry, but good-hearted one. So far so good - or bad, if you don't like harem shows. They all want the heroes affection to themselves and bicker with one another to get it (at least for a while). None of this is out of the ordinary. But it's there for a reason. It's there to hide the extraordinary. The show uses cliches to disguise its originality, and the originality looks all the better for being unexpected.
That is where Saber Marionette J shines in a way that is unique to it. It brings a new sheen to elements that other shows have used, and probably overused, by not only giving them reasons that make sense within the plot, but reasons that are essential to the entire story - and a very good story, too. This is, I imagine, much more difficult to do than making a new kind of series out of new materials. But Saber Marionette J has other excellences. The characters are wonderful to watch. The Marionettes and Otaru are the center of attention, and rightly so. The Marionettes are designed to grow, and their development over the course of the series gives the story the emotional depth it needs to work the way it's meant to. Lime is the character who grows the most - there are reasons for this as well, but you'll have to find them out for yourself - and much of the heart the series has depends on her. So does a good bit of the comedy, which the series is never too far away from. But the show owes a lot to Otaru. He's far from the usual loser or nice guy hero you'd expect to find at the center of an anime harem. He IS nice, sure; but he's a scrappy, determined, resourceful nice guy: a nice guy who knows what his fists are for and isn't afraid to use them when necessary. The whole supporting cast backs the main characters up without distracting undue attention. The most effective dramatically are the enemy Saber Dolls, also treacherously stereotypical, and their relationship with the villain, which acts as a kind of sobering opposite to the relationship between the Marionettes and Otaru. Both relationships taken together show the power of love, for good and for evil - and how easily the one can become the other. It's just one of those areas where Saber Marionette J digs a little deeper than you think it will. It's pretty good at doing that.
There are shows that are all around good entertainment, shows that do a lot of things well and hit all their marks. Saber Marionette J is a series like that, but at the same time it has a little more. Deceptively clever, fast, funny and exciting - Saber Marionette J is all of these things, but also something a little more. It's a story that transcends the limitations of its genre. It builds something new out of old lumber. There's something of this unusual contrast even in the designs of the characters themselves. In a way they're look like they're part of the big-eyed, cute mainstream family of design. But once you notice they have hands that could wrap most of the way round a cantaloupe, wear shoes the size of their goofy, grinning heads, and accessorize their costumes with Christmas ornaments, you realize these people are a little too much fun to worry about looking cute all the time. And Saber Marionette J is too busy having that same kind of fun to worry about anything other than being a remarkably entertaining show - one that always has a little more to it than you might expect.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Interviews with Tsukasa Kotobuki,Music Videos, SMJ Databank,Image Gallery, Textless Opening, Textless Ending, Saber Marionette commercial Collection, Exclusive Man and Machine Video Clip
Sony 35" KV-35XBR88 SDTV, Sony SLV-D370P DVD Player (via generic component), Yamaha RX-V550 DD/DTS Receiver, Infinity Primus C25 and 150 speakers.