Wednesday 26 October 2016

Anime REVIEW: Beast Wars II

Beast Wars II

While the majority of the Transformers franchise’s 35-year history has been available officially or via fansubs for many years, there are two particular series that have repeatedly eluded English-speaking fans. In 1998 Japan experienced a delay between receiving seasons one and two of Beast Wars (the latter of which became known as Beast Wars Metals), prompting them to fill the gap with their own Beast Wars shows. These were of course Beast Wars II and Beast Wars Neo, both of which were traditionally animated in comparison to Beast Wars’ CGI. Both shows have remained completely unreleased in the West, and thanks to a recent DVD release in Japan and the hard work of Karyuudo Fansubs it is only now that Beast Wars II (read aloud as Beast Wars Second) can be enjoyed with full English subtitles. Has this elusive piece of Transformers history been worth the wait, or is it a forgotten gem that was forgotten for a reason?

Lio Convoy
The Lion King II: Simba's Prime

The planet Gaia is home to a powerful but unstable energy source known as Angolmois energy, which has come to attention of the Destron (or Predacon if you’d prefer) Emperor of Destruction Galvatron. On Galvatron’s pursuit are a team of Cybertrons (Maximals) led by the courageous Lio Convoy, whose mission is to stop Galvatron from mining the Angolmois Energy and protect the planet Gaia. Lio Convoy is supported by Tasmanian Kid, Diver, Scuba, Big Horn and Apache, while Galvatron’s soldiers include Starscream, BB, Dirge, Thrust, the Autorollers and his own younger brother Megastorm.

As the two sides battle on the planet Gaia more groups of Transformers appear – allying themselves on both sides as well as taking a neutral stance in the conflict. However Galvatron’s plans begin to unfold as he summons the artificial planet Nemesis to Gaia, destroying everything in its path as it makes its slow journey to suck Gaia dry.

Grinning like a Ninja Turtles toy

The words “Japanese-made Transformers series” are enough to make any Transformers fan shudder, and usually it’s with very good reason. Despite the higher-end collectors market TakaraTomy seem to aim with the toys, the show itself seems to aim for a much younger demographic than its American counterpart. This leads to considerably more slapstick in the plots and dialogue, which was something Beast Wars especially fell victim to. Though not without its comedy, at the time Beast Wars offered a considerably darker and more structured form of storytelling than what had previously been seen in Transformers. The Japanese version was stripped of this as much as possible, leaving it an overly comedic husk of its former self.

Beast Wars II unfortunately gets off to a quite similar start, beginning with a painful slog of episodes enough to put anyone off watching the series in its entirety. The plot barely moves forward as the Cybertrons and Destrons battle it out in numerous self-contained episodes, with each new character introduction more tedious than the last. For the majority of these episodes Galvatron remains completely unconscious, waking up every now and again to go on a rampage that makes him seem more like a difficult child than a feared Emperor of Destruction. In his absence the Destrons are led by Megastorm, who constantly flip flops between being a merciless tactician and someone incapable of getting a single thing right. On the Cybertron side of things the core team remain largely unremarkable throughout this run, overshadowed by the dull Insectrons and the wonderfully un-PC but horrifically annoying Jointrons.

God Neptune
Seacons + Pirates = Success

However things begin to change with episode 19 with the introduction of the Seacons – a group of pirates who are of course repaints of the G1 combiner team (and able to merge into the fearsome God Neptune). At this point the show really begins to pick up, offering a great run of episodes where the main characters really start to come into their own. This continues with the introduction of Lio Junior, Santon and Skywarp (who can combine into Magnaboss), with Lio Junior making a surprisingly good child-friendly character as well as offering a subplot that (given its subject matter) usually wouldn’t work at all in Transformers. As those three stick around the Cybertron team becomes more close-knit, and Lio Convoy begins to display far more qualities as a leader. Breakout characters include Lio Junior and Scuba, the latter being just so damn cool that you can’t help but wonder if he could take the Destrons down all by himself if given the chance.

Similarly the Destrons personalities also begin to flow through in a far more enjoyable way. When Galvatron isn’t unconscious or standing around grimacing he’s a pretty interesting leader who fully embodies the old Megatron slogan of “Peace through Tyranny”. In fact, while his motives may be questionable he gives a far better definition of justice than Lio Convoy, who constantly retorts with typical hot-blooded anime quotes that don’t actually make a lick of sense when you think about them. Meanwhile on top of Megastorm’s treachery there’s also that of Starscream’s, which is a different kind than that usually employed by his namesakes. Undoubtedly one of the show’s best characters, this Starscream is less about vying for power and more about constantly making himself look the best in the eyes of his leader – keeping his ambitions to himself and his partner BB while sneakily manipulating his comrades. He’s the villainous opposite of Scuba, a suave bastard who you just can’t help but love.

Starscream and BB
Stupid sexy Starscream

Much like the original Beast Wars this series is notable for not featuring any human characters as such, although in the case of Beast Wars II there is an equally tedious counterpart. Artemis and Moon are two androids who watch over the planet Gaia, frequently commenting on the show’s events and offering small factoid segments at the end of each episode. Very rarely are they actively involved in the show itself, with the Transformers only becoming aware of their existence at the very end when their identities are properly revealed and they start displaying various deus ex machina-like powers. The pair are the very epitome of how childish Beast Wars II can get, as Artemis swoons over Scuba and Starscream (and occasionally even Galvatron) while Moon berates her with his cutesy verbal tic. Even with their involvement in the final arc the show would lose nothing from them being cut altogether, and their inclusion only serves as an obstinate reminder of the show’s target age range.

Artemis & Moon
Yup, definitely anime

While a Transformers series is always a toy commercial of some sort, Beast Wars II is quite unique in that it features very few unique moulds. The only new toys created for the show were Galvatron, Lio Convoy and Moon, with the rest of the cast filled up by various Beast Wars, G2 and even a few G1 repaints (many of which hadn’t been released in Japan). It’s pretty cool to see to see previously toy-only designs animated with better decos, and the whole idea of the Destrons being vehicles (destroying the environment)and the Cybertrons being animals (protecting the environment) works really well thematically. This is mixed up a bit when the Destrons receive an upgrade about two thirds into the show, as Megastorm becomes Gigastorm (going from a G2 Megatron repaint to a G1 Trypticon retool) and the main four soldiers gain new Transmetal bodies – making it now a case of “proper animals versus robotic animals”. Sadly though this doesn’t work quite as well visually, mostly because the toy-only Transmetals all had pretty ugly designs that don’t look half as good as the ones that actually appeared on season two of Beast Wars.

The main problem is that Beast Wars II works TOO much like a toy advert. You get your core characters that appear throughout the show, but the show itself can be broken down into distinct segments that are all pushing a different set of toys. First it’s the main cast, then the Insectrons, then the Autorollers, then the Jointrons, then the Seacons, then Magnaboss and then finally the reformatted Destrons. The format is particularly off-putting for several of the subgroups because once they’ve had their few episodes they disappear from the show almost entirely save for some clip-episode appearances and popping up right at the very end.

Optimus Primal (Convoy)
Lion meets Munky

A pretty horrific start suggests the worst for Beast Wars II, but thankfully the show is able to pull it together around the 20-episode mark and become a relatively enjoyable series providing plenty of action and great characters. Though it never reaches anywhere near the quality of the original Beast Wars series (or many other Transformers shows for that matter), it’s by far not the worse the franchise has ever had to offer and retains its value and one of the obscurer parts of Transformers history. The ability for English-speaking fans to view the show in full has been a long time coming, and one can only hope that one day the same can be said for Beast Wars Neo.


Karyuudo said...

Thanks very much for the extensive review on this series and linking to our page. We're very proud of the hard work we put into subtitling this.

Alex said...

No, thank you for subbing it! It was a dream come true to finally watch the series properly and I'm sure most other Transformers fans feel the same. It was only possible with your brilliant work, so thank you again!

JF said...

one thing you forgot to bring up regarding this series is.... the animation........ there's no getting around it. the animation is some of the worst if not THE worst of the 2D Japanese transformers shows. Worse then Robots in Disguise, worse then the CGI in Energon, worse then Victory, Masterforce, and Headmasters, and worse then Armada.