Tuesday 29 November 2011

Toybox REVIEW: Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger mini-pla Machalcon

It's been a fun ride, but sadly the last of the 'main' Gokaiger mecha is upon us (I say main because there's a rumour the Gokaiger vs. Gavan movie will feature another Gokai machine) in both DX and mini-pla form. But the last usually proves to be the most exciting, and it's no exception with Gokaiger! The final machine in their arsenal is a brand new character, rather than new decos of characters that featured in previous series. Machalcon is the son of Speedor and Bear RV - the red and yellow engines from Engine Sentai Go-Onger. Machalcon takes up three candy toy boxes, however his wave is included with a re-release of the Gokai Galleon. This is because box 2 of Machalcon also comes with (scaled down versions of) Gozyujin's arms, meaning that the ultimate Kanzen GokaiOh mecha is completely self contained within the assortment.

As you could expect from a figure that takes up three boxes, Machalcon is considerably larger than his Gokai machine friends - about as long as GokaiOh is tall. That being said, the second box does feel a little on light side, merely containing Kanken GokaiOh's helmet, fist and Gozyujin's right arm. Compared to the contents of the other two boxes, I do wonder if this could have perhaps been split between them. The model looks great stickered up, lots of detail and not in dire need of any paint. I painted the mini GokaiOh swords and fist (the latter due to my utter hatred of wrap around stickers), but the stickers look like they'd do the job fairly well too.

The transformation to Go-On GokaiOh is straightforward - simply take off GokaiOh's legs and plonk him in the slots on top of Machalcon. That's it. So much like GaoGokaiOh, the combination isn't particularly exciting, unless you quite like half a robot perched on top of a cartoony formula one car that is.

What's exciting about Machalcon is the combination for Kanzen GokaiOh, the 'ultimate' mecha of the Gokaiger series. To transform, Machalcon is split into multiple components (the back end is split to make the legs, the front is folded to make the chest area) and attached to a limbless GokaiOh (hence only the need for the galleon for this combination). The front wheels are then attached to the figure via a hole at the back the the helmet (with swords clipped on) placed on the head. You can use the Gozyujin arms provided with Machalcon for Kanzen GokaiOh, but in all honesty not only are they the wrong colour but they're also short and stubby. If you own the Gozyujin minipla (and if you don't, you should because its the best in the line) the arms from that figure look MUCH better on it.

The articulation is great, allowing a variety of poses with joints that you wouldn't see on a DX version of the mecha. I found balancing issues with the legs a bit tricky at first due to the wheels, but that soon passed. The giant fist has some posability - the thumb is able to move, as is the joint section of fingers.

The minipla is a fantastic scaled down, posable representation of both Machalcon and Kanzen GokaiOh, but the set suffers from one flaw that prevents me giving it full marks. That flaw being the same one any version of Kanzen GokaiOh suffers from, and the main flaw of the series mecha - an abundance of spare parts. Certainly the assortment is self contained, but this so called 'ultimate' combination leaves out all of GokaiOh's limbs and the majority of Gozyujin, which is pretty disappointing when you consider some the final mecha that have come in the past using all the mecha from its respective series.

Still, it's a great end to what's been a great line of Gokaiger toys. See you again next year for some Gobuster minipla!

Friday 25 November 2011

Anime REVIEW: Tiger & Bunny

Traditional Western superheroes aren't something you often see in anime. In a universe populated by mecha, vampire and magical girls, there just didn't seem to be much demand for costumed heroes with a variety of superpowers. Other than Marvel's poor effort at bringing four of their properties to life as anime over the last year, no series really spring to mind. Until Sunrise's Tiger & Bunny came along that is. Released this year, Tiger & Bunny is a 25 episode TV series that saw two heroes with the same power (but VERY different personalities) team up in a futuristic world when superheroes are part of a reality TV show.

Taking place in the fictional Sternbuild City, superpowered individuals known as NEXT have been around for around 45 years, with some of them becoming heroes. Each of the city's most famous superheroes work for a sponsor company and their uniforms also contain advertising for real-life companies. Their heroic activity is broadcast on the popular television show "Hero TV", where they accumulate points for each heroic feat accomplished (arresting criminals or saving civilians, for example) and the best ranked hero of the season is crowned "King of Heroes". The story focuses on veteran hero Kotetsu T. Kaburagi (aka Wild Tiger) who is assigned with a new partner following a company buyout - the young Barnaby Brooks Jr (nicknamed 'Bunny' by Kotetsu, much to his dismay). However Barnaby and Kotetsu have very different opinions on what being a hero really means, and while competing for points against other heroes such as Blue Rose, Rock Bison, Sky High, Dragon Kid, Origami Cyclone and Fire Emblem, the two also try to crack the mystery of the Ouroburos organisation and the murder of Barnaby's parents - the event that set him on the path to becoming a hero.

The series's main storyline is split in two - with various one shot episodes scattered in-between. While the two halves deal nicely with a overarching plotline with two very different sorts of antagonist, the one shot episodes are great at expanding the diverse range of character on show in the series. The supporting cast are equally as deep (and memorable!) as Kotetsu and Barnaby, and in many cases often stole the show for me.

For the more keen comic book fan, there are a lot of references (some definitely intentional, some maybe not) dotted around to look out for. I thought Wild Tiger's transition from a classic silver-age style costumed hero to armoured suit not only played on the strength of the current popularity of Iron Man but was also a good commentary on how comics have shifted towards a more armoured look for their characters (the new DC 52 is an excellent example of that). As far as the more blatant references go - Blue Rose's secret identity is "Karina Lyle". Enough said.

One of the surprising factors of the series is how obvious product placement actually works in it, in fact I'd say it thrives on it. Each hero has their own sponsor, with many real life companies like amazon.co.jp, Pepsi, UStream and Bandai (alongside their S.H. Figuarts line). While some of these have obvious impact on the marketing of Tiger & Bunny (the main toyline is S.H. Figuarts - which have been in extremely high demand), the series has a lot of fun with others. Each episode's commercial segment contains a specially animated advertisement for Pepsi Nex (a zero-calorie version of the drink available in Japan) featuring Blue Rose. It's extremely well done, and only a shame that other companies didn't jump on this idea with their respective heroes. In many ways the show is both a celebration and parody of modern media.

The animation is of the usual Sunrise quality - crisp, clear and never boring on the eyes. The show also blends CGI and animation better than most series in the past have, despite it not being the best design choice in the world for some moments (it works well for armoured characters like Wild Tiger and Barnaby, but not so much for costumed heroes like Fire Emblem). The character design is excellent - with each hero having their own visually distinct look and at the same time being distinguishing from each other outside of costume too.

Tiger & Bunny is not just a fantastic series that stands apart from other anime due to its subject matter, but it also would make a fantastic transitional anime for those who are fans of Western comic books but are yet to try anime. While superheroes is a predominantly Western affair, with Tiger & Bunny Sunrise have gone and shown that the genre not only can work as an anime, but can also grow from it. A refreshing and much needed take on both anime AND the superhero genre.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Toybox REVIEW: S.H. Figuarts Gokai Blue

Another month has passed and that means another Gokaiger figuart is available! Bandai's second figuart Gokaiger release is none other than Gokai Blue aka Joe Gibken. Gokai Green is the next in line (he saw release last week in fact) and Yellow, Pink and Silver are to follow in December and January. I'll keep this review shorter as to not repeat myself six times over, so anyone looking for a more detailed review check out my Gokai Red review from a month ago.

Once again Blue has the excellent sculpt and build I've come to expect from this line. The shade of blue is perhaps somewhat darker than I originally expected but not by too much, and this helps the gold highlighting stand out more vividly. The joints are very flexible and removing hands doesn't prove too tasking, while at the same time when attached the fit firmly and there's little chance of them dropping off during posing.

Gokai Blue has a very similar amount of accessories to Red - the mobirates, gokai gun/saber and variety of alternate hands are all the same as seen in his release. However Blue does have a few extras of his own to get excitedly - firstly would be that his two included keys (folded and unfolded) are both blue (well, obviously!) but most importantly, he also comes with a 3-blade piece and a 2-blade piece to recreate his finisher from the fourth episode of the series - the Final Wave Five-Blade Style Blue Slash. To go along with Blue's excess blades, this means there are also a total of FIVE key-filled swappable ports for the weaponry. So while at first glance his extras may seem very similar to Marvelous', it's the little extras (taken from one-off appearances no less) that make them stand out.

Of course, what would any Super Sentai figuart be without its first wave bonus item? Gokai Blue is no exception, and included is his own Gokai Darin (or wheel) which is used to pilot the Gokai Jet and GokaiOh. Unlike Red's darin this is a much smaller wheel, but has a more distinct cockpit feel and comes with a separate chair piece. This version will be the same both the releases of Green, Yellow and Pink - albeit in their respective colours.

Yes I realise I'm giving another figuart a full-star review and yes I realise the figure is almost exactly the same as Gokai Red, but SH Figuarts figures really are THAT good. Gokai Red was a top notch figure, and Gokai Blue follows suite so deserves just as much praise. If you're comfortable with just owning Gokai Red that's fine, but anyone looking to complete the team can know full-well that so far, 2 out of 6 have been absolute winners.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Toybox REVIEW: S.H. Figuarts Shinken Gold

My third trip into Bandai's S.H. Figuarts line is yet another Sentai, only this time it's not a Red. Shinken Gold is the 6th member of the Samurai Sentai Shinkenger team, and the second (and last) to be made available at retail. Shinken Blue, Green, Yellow, Pink and Red (Kaoru ver.) were all Tamashii web exclusives).

Much like his red team mate, Shinken Gold has a fantastic sculpt which captures both the simplicity of the suit and the raised visor pieces on the helmet. The gold and blue colouring compliment each other nicely, with the gold not being too flat nor too shiny. He uses the same system of joints as Shinken Red, so unless you are familiar with how they work you might want to be careful when initially posing him just so there aren't any accidental breakages from putting pressure in the wrong places. Removing the hands is a simple task and stay firmly on the wrist joints when applied.

Shinken Gold also comes with a fantastic range of accessories - besides five extra hands, there is also 3 different versions of the Sakaramanu (fully sheathed, partly sheathed and then blade/sheath), the Ebi and Ika origamis, the sushi disk, DaiGoyou (lantern mode) and his arm/stick weapon...thing. So no humongous sword like the Rekka Daizantou that came with Red, but still an extremely impressive set featuring pretty much everything Shinken Gold needs (although a Sushi Changer might have been good too). The sheathed Sakaramaru slots into a hole on Gold's belt when its not in use, and the sushi disk also fits on the other versions of the sword so that he can be posed ready to perform his finishing attack!

The initial run of Shinken Red/Gold also came with a first wave bonus, in the form of a non posable Kuroko figure. Since Gold came out back in March I was surprised to find a kuroko included with my order (which was from Amiami if you're interested). For a free gift, its a pretty good in-scale figure that would look good along any Shinkenger (but mainly Shinken Red).

Figuarts have wowed me yet again. From the amazing range of accessories to how dynamic the figure is when it comes to posing, there's very little to fault when it comes to Shinken Gold. Its shame the rest of the Shinkengers did have a mass release, because if they did I'd certainly be tempted to buy them all (I'm tempted enough as it is). With Figuarts Shinken Red and Gold available at retail at Toys R Us stores in the US, this is a great time to get into the line without having to resort to overpaying for them.

If the Kamen Rider figures are just as good as the three I have already (and the five I have ordered), this could very easily be my favourite toyline of all time.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Series REVIEW: Juken Sentai Gekiranger

Juken Sentai Gekiranger is the 31st Super Sentai series, taking over from GoGo Sentai Boukenger. 4000 years ago, a martial art known as Jūken was created by man named Brusa Ee in which one mimics the abilities of animals as well as trying to attain spiritual peace. However, dissent grew among the creator's ten students. Three of them believed that they should use the suffering and hatred harnessed within humans to increase their power, using their power to assume monstrous forms; the Three Kenma. After murdering Brusa Ee, the Kenma gathered followers to practice an evil form of the Jūken style known as Rin Jūken Akugata. The other seven students believed that true strength should come from within and engaged their former friends in a great war, ending the fight with a forbidden technique to seal the Kenma' powers at the cost of losing their own human forms in the process, becoming the Seven Kensei. Followers of the Kensei created the Geki Jūken Beast Arts school: the Jūken of justice whose sport discipline enhances the human body with the self-produced positive Qi called "Geki". It is taught by Grand Master Shafu, one of the seven Kensei, using a sports goods company named "SCRTC" as a front.

In the present day, a fallen student from the Geki Jūken school named Rio turns to the Rin Jūken style, rebuilding the Rinjū Hall and bring the long-dead Rin Jūken users back to life as kyonshi to collect Rinki, Geki's polar opposite Qi, in order to resurrect the Three Kenma so that through them, he can become stronger. To fight them, Shafu trained Ran Uzaki (GekiYellow) and Retsu Fukami (GekiBlue). Along with Jan Kandou (GekiRed), a feral boy raised in the woods, the Gekiranger team is formed and later joined by two other Geki Jūken users, Retsu's presumed dead brother Gou (GekiViolet) and Ken Hisatsu (GekiChopper). However, an even greater evil is using the two sides for its own agenda.

The Gekirangers themselves, while not awful, are probably the weakest link in the casting. Jan is incredibly annoying and hyperactive, speaking in his own nonsensical language. His growth at the end of the series comes a little too late for my liking, but its better than it not being there at all. Ran is severely underused, especially when taken into consideration that she's the team leader, so comes off quite flat. Retsu starts in much the same way, but grows as character once Gou arrives on the scene. Gou himself was certainly my favourite Gekiranger, pulling off the badass loner turned badass team player really well, complete with an epic werewolf introduction. Ken, much like Jan, started off as annoying, but grew on me as his time on the series went on. I also enjoyed how he had to earn SaiDain rather than being initially introduced with it.

The kenshi are great bunch of characters, no matter how you may feel about the animal costumes. While I felt this worked really well for some of the characters (Shafu, Bat Lee and Sharkie Chan) there were others where it fell a bit flat (Elehung, Michelle Peng and Bion Biao). Each of them have their own unique skills and personalities, with some playing off each other better than others but as a whole making a colourful and respectable force. Keen eyes will notice that each of the Kensei is named after a prominent figure in martial arts movies.

Gekiranger's real strengths lie in its antagonists. Rio is by far and large the best character in the series, his desire for power and need to be better than everyone else the plot's main driving force. Stealing every scene he's in, Rio's character is interesting in that while he very much remains a threat, due to his relationship with so many of the cast he never feels like a generic villain, receiving far more development that almost anyone in the show. But what struck me most is that Gekiranger never feels like a simple good vs. evil plotline - the battle between the two schools is one based just as much on rivalry as it is between their allegiances, making the exchanges all the more exciting.

When Mele isn't acting like a lovesick teenage towards her master, she's an equally engaging character. Her loyalty and love (when it isn't being piled on too thickly) are interesting character traits, and her honour when it comes to fighting makes for some of the series' best episodes. Even when Rio isn't in charge these two characters exploits deservedly remain the focus, which helps shape the twists and turns the series' climax has to offer. Their fighting form designs are superb, as are the other Rinrishi that appear (ostrich and pig monsters non withstanding).

The two other antagonist groups are the three kenma on Rin Jūken, and then in the last quarter the GenJūken -the show's "big bad". The three kenma's more menacing animal designs is are a great foil to their more friendly animal appearance. Meanwhile the GenJūken offer an injection of mysticism to the monster designs, and while not as strong as the original ones displayed the different styles between the groups well while keep the flair of the show much the same. Their leader Long proves to be an excellent main antagonist, devious and sowing seeds in the story all along.

Gekiranger's aesthetic when it comes to the suits themselves isn't one I'm overly fond of. The costumes are very basic, primarily made up of one colour with some black to break things up a little in places. The helmets are equally basic. Later the three main characters master the power of KaGeki and receive 'super mode' upgrades, the suits then having an much needed infusion of white and sharper details on the helmets. GekiViolet and GekiChopper's suits are better, they all rank pretty low on my list of favourite sentai suits. Certainly different, but too plain to be what I personally would call good.

The Gekiranger equipment was also mixed. What I really liked about the change devices for the season was that since there were 3 slightly different styles of fighting between the team, it meant there was a plausible reason for them all to have different ones. Jan, Ran and Retsu all used GekiJūKen and so had the GekiChangers, while Gou fought using ShiGeki and so had his GongChanger. Ken also used GekiJūKen, but his weapon-based style gave him the SaiBlade. I wasn't too fond of the projectile side of the SaiBlade, given that I appreciated the series more simply for avoiding weapons like that as much as it could. The same could be said for the GekiCannon, which while different to other giant cannon weapons in Sentai series' had the same effect.

Gekiranger's mecha line up is particularly interesting, as they aren't actually mecha at all. The team's Geki beasts are in fact physical manifestations of each ranger's geki, and are brought together to form a Geki giant. While the individual animals are all excellent, I thought the giants were a bit mixed. First we have GekiTouja, the first and my favourite of the 3 (or 4 depending on how you count it) giants in the series. GekiTouja stands out from previous sentai 'mecha' by being a lot slimmer and agile, rarely using a weapon and instead focusing on more hand-to-hand techniques. It brings a refreshing change to the "oh so predictable" battles, and GekiTouja is a unique and colourful design. It even came with some power ups in the form of the elephant, bat and shark spirits. Coincidentally, the order they're introduced is also the order I'd rate them - the elephant is great, the bat so-so and the shark pretty ridiculous (although underwater battles do make a pretty cool spectacle). These add on's could also be used on the second Geki giant - GekiFire, who I wasn't so much a fan of. The combination of a gorilla, gazelle and surfing penguin didn't really flow as well as three cats, and the overall design was more akin the standard sentai fare, much to my disappointment.

Luckily, GekiTouja kept making regular appearances as GekiWolfTouja...the difference being that he had a wolf for a leg instead of a cheetah. Don't get me wrong, while I'm happy to see as much of GekiTouja as possible, giving GekiViolet an offshoot of an existing giant where his beast isn't even the main limb just seemed to not give the character enough credit if you ask me. Finally there was GekiChopper's SaiDain, who was a bit different to the rest as it was actually an existing physical being. SaiDain could become the giant SaiDaiOh, which while looked good didn't really fit with the aesthetic of the rest of the giants (obviously due to its different origins). SaiDain also combined with GekiTouja and GekiFire to create SaiDaiGekiFire and SaiDaiGekiTouja respectively.

Finally, as rarity in the franchise - Rio and Mele also had beast spirits that could combine with GekiTouja, creating GekiRinTouja, who is fantastic in every respect.

I went into Gekiranger not expecting a lot, but the series took me completely by surprise. Despite having a fairly weak cast and some design choices I wasn't too fond of, its superb plot and supporting cast were enough to keep me hooked throughout the twists and turns of its 49 episodes. While not perfect, Gekiranger is a thoroughly enjoyable series and comes highly recommended to everyone, especially people who are looking for a Super Sentai series that is a little different from the norm.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Movie REVIEW: Macross Frontier - the Movies

Back in December 2009 I gave the Macross Frontier TV series a 5 out of 5 review. Not only was it a brilliant series, but it was also my first foray into the Macross franchise, which quickly became one of my favourite anime properties. But the Macross Frontier story didn't end there (well, it technically did, but work with me here), as 2 feature films were released in 2009 and 2011. These films, titled 'The False Songstress' (Itsuwari no Utahime) and 'The Wings of Goodbye' (Sayonara no Tsubasa) do not follow the events of the TV series, instead offering an alternate story with the same characters much like 'Do You Remember Love?' did with the original series. I decided to patiently wait until both films were released so I could review the entire story, and now that time has come. Since I've already reviewed the series, I won't go into the initial premise of Macross Frontier, and will begin by taking a look at the first of the two movies.

The False Songstress
Those looking for the first of the two films to be something entirely new are going to be rather disappointed. Much like most anime films these days 'The False Songstress' is a streamlined version of its TV counterpart, cutting out side plots and unnecessary details in order to focus on the characters more. Some things are sped along (for example Alto and Ranka are school friends already, rather than meeting for the first time) and a bulk of the film is made up of footage from the TV series, with the climax being all anime animation very different to anything in the show. Whether the film achieves greater depth to the characters is left to interpretation, as I felt the romance between Alto and Sheryl had far more weight than it did in the TV series (as a Ranka fan, leaving me quite disappointed).

While 'The False Songstress' does in many ways feel like a watered down version of the early half of the TV series, the look and feel is definitely amped up. The show was stunning, but this is really something else. The sheer beauty of the movie is apparent as soon as Sheryl hits the stage for a brilliant performance of 'Universal Bunny', complete with dancing clockwork robots and some risque intimacy between a good and evil Sheryl Nome (her black and white bunny personas). Following on from this are some fantastic aerial fights between the VF-25 valkyries and the Vajra aliens (who have received a bit of a makeover for these releases), cultivating in a brilliant showdown between the two on a waterfront while Sheryl and Ranka look (and sing on).

Back on the subject of Sheryl Nome, this is definitely her movie. Ranka still has a very clear presence, but overall she's completely overshadowed by Sheryl in terms of plot, development and music. Ranka's songs are 90% commercial jingles, while Sheryl has some fantastic tunes like the aforementioned 'Universal Bunny', and 'Pink Monsoon'. Her mini-album that was released to coincide with the movie trumps most of her songs that were present in the show. That isn't to say that the popular songs from the show are gone though - 'Aimo' is more important than ever, and 'Lion' finally works its way into the show itself as the show stopping finale piece.

Don't get me wrong it's great film, but other than some gorgeous eye candy it didn't really do much that series hadn't done better in terms of story. However it was important set-up for what was next to come...

The Wings of Goodbye
While 'The False Songstress', despite events happening a little differently, followed the series quite closely and contained a lot of re-used footage, if anything it was merely a set up for this. 'The Wings of Goodbye' takes the Macross Frontier crew in a whole new direction, and finally answers the burning question that the series never answered - who will Alto choose, Sheryl or Ranka?

While it's great that this film takes things in a completely new direction, offering something to everyone, it does suffer a little from its limited time frame. The movie contains plot twist after plot twist, and by the end of it you aren't quite sure who the real villain is (or you could just assume like me that everyone but the SMS seems to be). Nevertheless it has some great action scenes, besting 'The False Songstress' when it comes to explosive climaxes and even featuring a very special cameo for Macross fans.

If the first movie was Sheryl's moment in the spotlight, I certainly felt like this one was Ranka's. Even though Sheryl has a lot more importance than Ranka when it comes to the plot development, Ranka's screen time has been amped up and her songs completely overpower Sheryl's. Much like the effect 'Universal Bunny' had in the first film, 'The Wings of Goodbye's money shot is Ranka's live debut, where the newly dubbed 'Superdimensional Cinderella' performs a colourful version of her brand new song, 'Niji Iro Kuma Kuma'. One of the film's best highlights is when Ranka performs her iconic 'Seikan Hiko' alongside Lovely Bomber (one for the Macross 7 fans) at Alcatraz prison (the San Francisco homages are even more apparent in the movies!), leading into a duet of new song 'Get it On~Kousouku Climax' with Sheryl Nome.

While the Macross Frontier movies may lack the charm the TV series had in terms of story, everything else has certainly been amped up to 11. The songs all feel bigger and bolder, and the art/CGI is one of the best looking pieces in modern anime. References to the previous 25 years of Macross (remember, Frontier was created as the 25th anniversary series to the franchise) are far more minimal than the series, so not only is this an excellent condensed Macross Frontier adventure (but be aware it ends VERY differently to the show), it is also possibly a better stepping stone for newcomers to come aboard the franchise. An excellent duet of movies for both fans and newcomers alike, much like the very duet that star in it.

Both films (separately and together) earn: