Sometimes an anime just isn't by the guy you think it's by. This happens all the time, particularly when an artist or designer lends their skills to a project outside of their control. For example, you might get the sense that Space Battleship Yamato is a creation by Leiji Matsumoto, but it's not...he just created the character models. The same is true of Freedom. It looks a lot like Akira, the 1988 stunner by Katsuhiro Otomo, and for good reason...the character design and mechanical artwork are his. But that's where his link to this project ends; it's not his plot nor his characters. Personally, I'm glad to see an anime with a multi-racial cast and lead characters who look like they might just be Japanese, and I enjoy Otomo's stylings. But does the rest succeed? Mostly. Freedom is unique in that it has a shaky beginning and ending, but the middle section is pretty great.
The nutshell version of the story: in the far future, humanity has settled on the moon. The massive city there, Eden, is the last remains of civilization...or so it's believed. As far as anyone knows, the earth was rendered unhabitable by warfare and whatnot and remains a ball of dust. Those in Eden live comfortable if bland lives. Of course, teenagers despise bland, and Takeru and his friends Kazuma and Biz race bikes and get themselves into trouble, though they are good kids. Their races are simply a way to break the tedium. But all that's about to change...pulling community service duty after wrecking his ride, Takeru finds a photograph in a crater on the moon's surface. That picture was taken on Earth...and the beautiful girl in the snapshot wrote on the back, saying that the planet is fine. Stunned, Takeru and company begin on a journey to find out the real truth of Eden and their long-abandoned homeland.
One reason why it's easy to mistake Freedom for an Otomo flick is the animation. It is cutting edge stuff, with obvious 3D and rotoscoping. It is also, sometimes, problematic. I mean, there are things about it I loved, particularly the moments when it appeared like we were literally watching an animated manga. The level of detail is aces. It's always striking. But when the technology doesn't quite have the human touch, it pulled me out of the story. Character motion here is much more fluid than most anime...but those movements are also sometimes robotic in their precision. There are a few moments when bikes and characters seem to be floating on the background rather than interacting with it. These might seem petty in a show so brilliantly rendered, but everything else looks so great that these items stand out, and not in a good way. Still, much of this is amazing to view, truly a spectacle.
But spectacle doesn't mean much without plot, and here's where Freedom both rises and falls. The first episode, when immediately followed by the second, is pretty strong, introducing us to the characters and establishing the world. However, I can see why when the show was initially released, there were real concerns. Bandai originally tried to use this title to show that Japanese pricing would work in the West -- one twenty-two minute episode at $35 -- and it failed spectacularly. The first episode is solid but incomplete, and when you can get an entire season box for the same price as an episode...let's just say that I'm glad they finally repriced this thing.
By the time the second episode was in mid-swing, however, I was engaged, and by the time the story takes a drastic turn in episodes four through six, I was duly impressed. The story goes places I never expected. The initial storyline made me think we were in for yet another variation on Megazone 23, and while that wasn't off-base, after episode three it goes on a complete tangent right until the finale. The second half really focuses on relationships, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. In particular, we get to see Takeru and Biz grow up a bit. In this short a series, character growth often takes a back seat, and it won points from me on that.
But nagging problems do creep in eventually. There are leaps of faith that are hard to take. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that the technical capabilities of a decimated world turn out to be far more than anyone could reasonably expect...and ancient rockets turn out to be surprisingly easy to launch and navigate. Who knew? There are other things that people expecting hard sci-fi will notice, but even the casual viewer like myself will find credibility being stretched.
Unfortunately enough, this becomes especially true during the final episode. After making me a fan during the second half, the final episode turns out to be...well, not a dud, but a bit of a botch job. After the emotional layering of previous episodes, the finale winds up being a lot of running and escaping and being captured and speechifying to the people in charge and then perhaps escaping some more and then, oh, maybe, getting captured again. It's just out of creative gas. Not so bad as to spoil the previous episodes, the ending merely makes us glad the whole thing is wrapped up. A stronger conclusion would have easily raised my letter grade up into the A- range, if not higher. However, this is a very high B+, and if you can get your hands on it at a reasonable cost, don't let the problematic end deter you.
That said, it pays to find out what version you are actually buying. The original release on DVD/HD-DVD hybrid is sans dub and extras, and I wouldn't recommend it unless you find all of the episodes together at a steal. Instead, I would suggest going for the two disc version (sold seperately as Part 1 and Part 2), which includes a dub I thoroughly enjoyed and extras that, for once, are pretty entertaining. (The director and writer come from Japan to Anime Expo, and their hunt for the starting point of Route 66 is a hoot.) As of March 2010, this is the version to get...a complete box was announced and then cancelled, it seems, so don't be fooled if you think you can get it all in one package right now.
Freedom isn't the next wonder from Katsuhiro Otomo. It isn't the best sci-fi to come along in a while. But I was entertained, and if you can get past its faults, Freedom is an enjoyable series, especially now that the price point has come down out of the stratosphere.
Freedom -- violence, brief profanity -- B+