Saber Marionette J
When has an idea's time come and gone, and when is it time for an idea's return? This question is very appropriate when looking at anime, primarily because so many anime programs steal from each other. When you drink one too many times from the same creative well, you start to get a stomachache--not because the water's bad, but you've simply had too much of it. At first, that's what I thought was true of Saber Marionette J. During the first two episodes, I nearly wrote it off as another Tenchi Muyo clone where an unlucky guy gets stuck with strange women and madness ensues. However, it's a show where you have to hold on a while. After it gets rolling, it becomes clear that Saber Marionette J is going to spike differently from its brethren and enter virgin territory. Though I can't claim to have seen a lot of the show, braving the first couple of episodes is worth getting to the heart of some very funny (and endearing) material. What's also surprising is that it mixes action and comedy pretty seamlessly, so it breaks easy definition.
In another place and time, a spaceship of human colonists is destroyed, and only six men survive the crash landing on a planet they name Terra II. Forced to clone themselves rather than face extinction, they populate this planet over an expanse of time, though they lack the ability to create an actual female. As our show begins, we are introduced to Otaru, a young man who's made a living selling wares in the country of Japoness, scraping up just enough money to get by. An honest, friendly guy, he's often picked on by Hanagata, a rich snob who happens to have his eye on Otaru for a best friend (cough, AHEM, cough). Otaru's life changes dramatically, however, when he accidentally activates a special marionette named Lime. Marionettes are not uncommon--they look like women and are used by the rich to do chores and other subservient tasks--but Lime is special. For one, she acts almost human, showing emotion and interest in life itself, which simply isn't supposed to exist in a marionette's programming. Second, Lime imprints on Otaru and decides to make it her prime task to love and defend him. As the story progresses, we start to see some sort of strange relationship developing between them. If that wasn't enough, there's a nearby country whose fuehrer, Faust, is plotting a grand scheme to take over Japoness from the shogun. Otaru and his growing group of friends get messed up in the intrigues that follow from foiling that plan.
I hate reviewing television shows, especially when I don't have the opportunity to see the whole thing before giving a basic review. However, sometimes that's what one has to do. Thankfully, Saber Marionette J finally kickstarts itself after two opening episodes that are, frankly, dull. Though I couldn't see that much more of the show, the third and fourth episodes get into a groove and don't let go, winding up to be amazingly funny and surprisingly compelling. It's not the animation that does it--though it's bright and colorful and the character designs acceptable, it uses a lot of essentially still shots to cover the fact that it's a show on a TV budget. It's also not the basic concept, which we've seen time and again in anime.
What makes Saber Marionette J different and unique is that, for its strong action scenes and government takeovers, it's a "kindler gentler" take on the whole "unworthy male surrounded by crazy women" genre of anime. Take a look at any series from this group, whether it's Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2, or Tenchi Muyo, and you see what I mean. The main relationships in those stories are antagonistic ones--the leads have an active dislike of each other that fades only after huge amounts of time, and they wind up together more because of fate than genuine affection. Though this can make for great comedy, it can be taxing on the viewer. Here, we're dealing with genuinely likable characters--even Hanagata, the flaming jerk, is entertaining and sympathetic at times. It appears that the battles to be fought will not be with each other, but with the enemy at hand: Faust and his battle marionettes. What also helps is that the third and fourth episodes are gutbusters that kept me laughing aloud. I'm hoping the show will keep that pace up and not fall back into the monotony in which it started. I do throw in one disclaimer: this is a planet of all men. As such, I wouldn't be surprised to see more gay humor in the mix, since it certainly exists here in limited form; if it bothers you, be aware.
Ultimately, my rating now for the show may be lower than my final rating, because the opening falters but then gets on its feet. If it continues to improve, I will be coming back and revisiting this title...and I hope to get the chance to do so soon.
Saber Marionette J -- violence, mild language, mild homosexual undertones -- B+