Yasuomi Umetsu is back. The artistically stunning character designer and (most recently) director of the controversially graphic action thriller Kite has returned to similar territory in his follow-up, Mezzo Forte. Although it shares a couple of similarities to its gloomy predecessor, this show is a comedic romp for the post-Pulp Fiction world. With loads of style and visual panache, as well as a surprisingly interesting story and developed characters, Mezzo Forte is a find for the mature anime fan...as long as you're watching the edited version. The unedited version, with specific sequences made for an adults-only audience, takes the fun, humorous vision and destroys it by making it unspeakably disturbing and undeniably pornographic.
Mikura's a shorthaired firestorm ready to take on the world with her friends Pops and Harada in a near-future world. Willing to take dangerous (and illegal jobs) for a handsome salary, they get involved with kidnapping a psychopathic baseball team owner, Momokichi, who's got a penchant for taking out his own team members with a wooden bat when they aren't performing. Getting a hold of him is only half the problem, though, because his daughter Moname's violent nature makes him look like Mr. Rodgers in comparison. Once the crew lays hands on Momokichi, it becomes clear that they've been contracted for a job that might be too much for them to handle. And when you're in a business like this, you make plenty of enemies willing to gun at you for little more than a promise of a buck.
Mezzo Forte succeeds in a lot of places Kite fell apart. Although it contains some graphic violence like its cousin, it offsets it by using black humor to its advantage, particularly in the first episode. Frankly, the opening OVA is a blast to watch. The action sequences are choreographed impeccably; like a Tarantino film (or one of many clones), the dialogue and energy get us past the ferocity on-screen. Meanwhile, for a show barely an hour long between its two parts, Mezzo Forte creates enough of a back story for our heroes (make that anti-heroes if you like) that we become immersed and want to see more. This doesn't even get into the uniquely interesting character designs, the homage paid to Lupin III and other action greats, and the dramatic music that carries the whole thing along. (The show slows down a bit to handle the plot during the second episode, but that's still forgivable.) The whole thing plays like a really good pilot, and indeed, Umetsu stated in an interview that he originally thought he'd like to see the show become a series. Although that's doubtful, it's a good start.
However, there's a crisis here, and that's with the unedited version of the show. As my friend Pete Harcoff over at the late, great Anime Critic puts it, "Imagine splicing in five minutes of porn footage during Beverly Hills Cop and you'll get the idea." The footage adds nothing to the story, and absolutely nothing is lost by excising it. In fact, a great deal is saved by removing it--the two sequences are so disturbing, so jarring, so against the grain of the rest of the feature that they destroyed the enjoyability of the rest of the show for me. Considering his skill as a director, as well as some comments he has made about Kite, I have to wonder if Umetsu was contractually obligated to deliver those scenes. This wouldn't excuse it, however. Since I don't recommend or even review hentai, I cannot and do not in any way, shape, or form recommend the unedited version. There's still some nudity and adult content in the edited version, certainly, but nothing extraordinary.
That being said, the edited version of Mezzo Forte is a breezy, violent take on the "girls with guns" genre, worth your time if you don't mind realistic bloodshed and a bad attitude. Meanwhile, I'll be sitting in my critics' corner waiting for something that shows Yasuomi Umetsu is still capable of the greatness he exuded in Robot Carnival's "Presence". Hopefully he'll take us back there soon--this is good, but he's talented enough to do even better.
Mezzo Forte (edited) -- graphic violence, nudity, adult dialogue and content -- B+
Mezzo Forte (unedited) -- same as above, but with two graphic and disturbing sexual scenes -- F