Westerns have changed immensely over the years. At one point, they were merely over-the-top serializations like "The Lone Ranger", promising daring deeds week after week to get little tykes back into the theaters. Then came the dramatic tension and moral conundrums of High Noon and its ilk, where shooting the bad guys down didn't come without personal ramifications. Within the last few years, Westerns like Unforgiven and Open Range have been introspective and slower than molasses, puncturing the silences with violence that's quick and dirty. Regardless of what style the Western takes, it's a film genre that seems unique to America, and it's never been represented in many cultures at all.
It doesn't mean, however, that anime doesn't occasionally try the 10-gallon hat on for size. The popular Trigun certainly has its share of gunslinger tendencies and arid desert showdowns, and Cowboy Bebop makes fun of the genre while paying it homage often. But Early Reins is the first attempt I've seen at the real thing...at least envisioned through modern Japanese lenses. Early Reins forgoes all the psychological drama and dirt of modern Westerns, harkening back to when the old serials were king...with the strange reversal that all the heroes are, in fact, heroines. Early Reins is a non-stop bundle of clichés, surprisingly graphic violence, and forward motion. It's a show about one thing: action, action, and more action. Those who expect more will be disappointed; those who expect just that will be enraptured.
We meet a group of six women heading on a train in the late 1800s. One's the spoiled rich kid, another's the town crooner and seductress, and so forth. Our main character, though, is Margarette, a confident young lady who has plans to become a sheriff...despite the fact that the only thing she's ever shot was no bigger than a tin can. The Yankee soldiers on board the train aren't prepared for the attack that comes, though. Robbers try to commandeer the locomotive, but a few of the gals make an effort to stop the hijacking in progress. But even as they have a modicum of success, there's more to come...bandits on horseback, the end of the tracks steaming ahead, and a surprise that will shock all of them. As individuals, they don't stand a chance; as a ragtag team, they might just survive the guns a-blazing.
Early Reins does not exist to please critics. Although the character designs are enjoyably perky, the animation looks every bit the digitally edited mess. It's a personal quirk, I know, but I do not like where we're headed with digital pans and computerized artwork that defies the human touch. Meanwhile, everything here is a formula. Each girl fits a pre-defined role. The plot, ludicrous as it is, is an amalgam of every serial ever made. The bad guys have no personalities, which put them only a quarter step up from the heroines, who aren't even introduced by name until over half-way through the show. There's not a shred of logic or sense to this show, and it falls apart the moment you poke at it. Even Margarette's character development is ridiculous, as in a half-hour she goes from barely able to cock a gun at a bandit to doing rolls and gunplay that would make Trinity and Neo proud. If I were reviewing it from an unemotional perspective, I'd declare it a rip-off and be done with it.
I can't do that if only for the lamest of reasons, and that's because I liked this haphazard train wreck (no pun intended...ok, maybe intended a little). Despite the myriad reasons to trash this little OVA, I personally found it entertaining. Only afterwards did I have time to put together why this OVA should be so bad. While I was watching it, I found myself absorbed into the broadly violent miniature epic. Its sole purpose is to be an action extravaganza, and it delivers on that one count. It's got holes in it bigger than a creek bed, but as a mindless excursion, it's fun.
Early Reins is currently only available via Bit Torrent download, and I expect that will be the case for the foreseeable future. It's too short and has too limited appeal to really find an audience here, though the admittedly cute heroines could sell a lot of DVDs based on cover art alone. Action fans will want to tune in. If you really like Westerns, well, don't expect much from this anime take on the genre, and you might stomach it. Otherwise, you'll probably find it too ridiculous to give it more than a passing glance.
Early Reins -- graphic violence, brief innuendo -- B-