Panda-Z's simple animation and short running time make for an extremely strong showing in this category. At 35 minutes total running time per disc there's plenty of room to work with, and the results are about as close to flawless as I can remember seeing. The only problem I was able to notice was a moment during the credits where jump-cutting combined with text could cause a split-second bug-out of artifacting, which would vary in intensity (and sometimes disappear altogether) on discs two through four. But everywhere else is perfection. Colours are rock solid and the widescreen image is sharp as a tack.
Housed in a brick case with double-sided flippers, the six discs of Panda-Z take up only about a third of the space the original releases would need. The flippers can actually be fastened inside the case so that they stay put when it's shut. The discs on the flippers were a little difficult for me to dislodge, though. The series' extremely simple style of artwork decorates the covers, front and back. The back cover is a little out of the ordinary, but in a good way, in that it lists all the episodes by disc so that you can locate your favourites easily.
While the show is "silent" in the silent movie sense, the menus are silent in the quite literal one. A character from the show takes up the right half of the screen while the left side is saved for the selections. You'll probably use the menus here less than usual. The only thing you can do on the setup menu is turn off the subtitles (and I can't imagine many people doing that, since they don't obscure anything), and the show itself only runs thirty minutes per disc, so most people will watch a disc's episodes in one sitting. The extras menu is the only one likely to see any real action. Everything is laid out clearly, though and access times are fast.
In addition to the usual clean opening and closing sequences, Panda-Z sports a couple of neat extras in line with the show itself. The 3D animated sequences are a good bit of fun, often outclassing the main program where laughs are concerned. The live action bits are more of a mixed bag, though the segments where a Panda-Z action figure squares off against pets had me giggling inordinately. (And that closing image of the Panda-Z in the setting sun is way more awesome than it has any right to be.)
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
As a four-panel comic strip is to a typical manga, so Panda-Z is to a typical anime show. Each episode runs about five minutes instead of 25. The focus is on gags rather than a continuing story, so the episodes stand alone for the most part (there are a few running gags, but these are spread out so far that none of them are on a disc together). And Panda-Z had roughly the same effect on me that four-panel mangas usually have. Some of the episodes were uproariously funny; some were good for a smile or two; and some made not the faintest bit of sense.
The world of Panda-Z is a world of robots, nearly all in the shape of animals. The robots can be divided broadly into big robots and little robots. These groups can be further subdivided into good robots and bad robots. This may strike some readers as simplistic; but Panda-Z is not a show that encourages complexity. The stories are as simple as the artwork and animation, both of which are essentially what you would get if Hello Kitty suddenly turned mecha. The premise is that the good robots are fighting against the bad robots. The causes of this conflict are not clear; but since they are of no importance to the show whatsoever, there's no good reason to think about them. Every now and again the little bad robots will get their big bad robots and have a fight with the little good robots in their big good robot, Panda-Z. That's all there is to the war. In fact, the bad robots seem more interested in having snacks and finding out what secret their leader conceals beneath his cloak than in defeating the good guys. In between the slapstick battles we see each side going about simple activities, sometimes separately, sometimes together. They might play cards, get medical checkups, make a buck, or try to rescue another robot that's been stranded by rain.
The interesting thing about Panda-Z is that it tells these simple stories without spoken dialogue. Instead, it uses intercut title cards, like a silent film would. The show lives and dies by its visual storytelling - and it does both from episode to episode. Character designs are actually quite good within the limits of the style. The big robots are particularly creative - one episode is good simply as a traditional mecha battle. And those rescue bears are pretty much irresistible. The animation is as simple as the design. But when the material is there, the timing is often spot-on. The trouble is that the material varies widely in quality. Some episodes had me laughing out loud - the best are the rescue robots trying to save the nurse during a rainstorm, and the hero trying to avoid his shots. Other are incomprehensible or just plain boring. A lot of the time the show has an odd little charm to it. Even at its worst it's never just the same old thing. At its best it's good in its own peculiar way. Most anime comedy uses speed and exaggerated reactions to get its effects. Panda-Z's characters can barely emote at a basic level - often the only flexible facial features are eyebrows - so the comedy tends to be very understated, relying on absurdity of situation and the classic slow burn. The minimalist approach works more often than it doesn't. The mileage the show gets from simply holding a shot or cutting back to the same reaction multiple times is surprisingly high.
If the show doesn't succeed at everything, the only area where is consistently fails is in its music. Again, just like in a silent film, music plays over the action continuously. And Panda-Z's music not only comes up short quality-wise, it's exactly the wrong kind of music for the show. Cute, bouncy tunes, or even better, mock-heroic marches could have enhanced practically any episode in the set. But alas, we're stuck with crummy generic rock music groaning interminably, without any connection at all to the images on the screen. Most of the pieces sound almost like eight or ten second cuts looped for five minutes. I'm tempted to recommend watching the show muted.
During the course of watching Panda-Z, I found myself wanting to like the bizarre little show, but I'm not entirely sure I succeeded. I can't help but wonder if I would have liked it if only the music hadn't been so unsuitable. All the same, I laughed a little too often to dislike the series; but it was just too inconsistent, and I was too worn down by the repetitive muscal score, to really get behind it. Still, I'm glad that the show is finally out in a form where the price is reasonable enough for people to give it a chance. It's cute and weird, and sometimes very funny. If you're in the mood for something different, it doesn't get much more different than this.
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 2.0 Language,English Subtitles,3D Animation Clips,Clean Opening,Clean Ending
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.