Tuesday 23 July 2019

Anime REVIEW: Shinkansen Robo Henkei Shinkalion

Shinkansen Robo Henkei Shinkalion

Every year there are dozens of anime series released whose main purpose is to sell toys. With these toys mainly limited to Japan, the shows rarely reach a worldwide audience (be it through streaming or otherwise) and many are simply forgotten about. There are however the ones that do that little bit extra and do get noticed across the globe, even if both the show and toys fail to officially make it out of Japan. Shinkansen Robo Henkei Shinkalion is the latest venture from TakaraTomy to expand their long-running PlaRail toy line, teaming up with the Japan Railways Group to create a transforming robot show deeply rooted in Japan's love for its rail system. The 76-episode series was animated by OLM, Inc., whose experience with merchandise-driven shows led to them to previously work with TakaraTomy on both the Zoids and Tomica Rescue Hero revivals.

Hayato HayaseThe Shinkalion

With his father working as a staff member at the Saitama Railway Museum, it's no surprise that grade schooler Hayato Hayasugi has grown up to be such a huge railfan. However one day he discovers that his father really works for the Ultra Evolution Institute – an organisation that battles an unknown enemy using transforming bullet trains known as Shinkalions. After inadvertently proving his aptitude as a pilot, Hayato joins the Institute as the driver of the E-5 Hayabusa.

As further Shinkalion candidates are found across Japan, Hayato and his new friends discover their enemy to be the Kitoralsus – an ancient humanoid species driven underground who seek to reclaim the planet. But throughout the battles Hayato continually seeks to reason with the Kitoralsus, hoping that the Shinkalion can actually help unite the two races harmoniously.

SeiryuFighting the Kitoralsus

If you're in any way familiar with the likes of GaoGaiGar or the rest of the Brave Series then you should immediately feel right at home with Shinkalion. In addition to being another TakaraTomy-driven show Shinkalion feels like a natural extension of the franchise both in tone and execution, offering a narrative that's accessible to both its target audience and older viewers alike. Above all of the action the show champions equality and understanding, and though it can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed in its presentation (less in a preachy sense but more that the dialogue can get overly repetitive) it's a strong message that feels just as relevant now as it always has. Over 76 episodes Shinkalion has plenty of time to develop these ideas without rushing them, even leaving space for a sort of epilogue arc to follow what feels like it could have been an ending. Of course with something that long not everything is going to be completely dedicated to plot and there are certainly areas where Shinkalion could have easily been trimmed, but what filler it does have rarely goes without some sort of purpose.

Plus if you've ever wanted a less orthodox way to learn about the Japanese National Railway system then you've come to the right place. Much like the toy aspect of the show Shinkalion's association with the Japan Railways Group means there's an element of commercialism to it, but Japan has a deeply rooted love for its railways and Shinkalion never once forgets that. Hayato's obsession is often played for laughs but the series is full of fascinating facts and history about both the trains themselves and the lines they run on, as well as some really obscure trivia that's quite clearly there for older viewers to pick up on. A show about transforming train robots is exciting enough on its own, but tying it back to real life in that way just makes it all the sweeter. Japanese children get to imagine it really is their heroes zooming past them, and it's that kind of magic that truly makes a show feel special.

The Shinkalion in train modeThe cast of Shinkalion

Despite having what can be considered a core unit of Shinkalion pilots (starting at three but eventually bumping up to five), the series does feature a rather sizeable cast of characters and does its utmost to ensure everyone plays an important part. In addition to the pilots themselves there's also the numerous staff that make up the Ultra Evolution Institute, Hayato's family, the families of the other pilots and (saving the best for last) the Youtube sensation that is Azusa Ueda. Some characters are obviously less notable than others, but whether it's comedy, back story or simply episodic conflict they're providing no one ever feels at a loose end. For example, there's no denying that the introduction of pilots from other Ultra Evolution Institute branches across Japan is a mainly an excuse to debut more trains (and thus, more toys) but spreading them across the whole of Japan and giving them different traits and interested based on those areas gives the show a much bigger scope. The action isn't kept to a single area, and the show takes frequent visit to different prefectures and landmarks across to Japan to enhance that real-life, educational feel.

But on the subject of main characters, Hayato may be the hero of the story (he's the one with the big moments and the best robots after all) but it's by no means a solo effort. Hayato shares a great dynamic with his teammates Akita, Tsuaranuki and Shinobu – each of whom have their own distinct personalities and interests. Even Shashot, the show's mascot character, gets some excellent focus episodes to make him feel fleshed out. While many of the cast have their own catchphrases you'll potentially be sick to death of by the end of the show, no one stands out as being especially unlikeable. Meanwhile the adult characters bring as much fun to the table as they do authority, creating a good balance between the age groups as well as comedy relief that doesn't always come from exactly the same sources.

ShashotBlack Shinkalion

Equally so the Kitoralsus play a big part in that success, as their evolution from unknown antagonists summoning monsters of the week to a subterranean race that just want their home back is what keeps the story engaging. While it may not be an entirely original premise, it's one that continually works with great characters written around it. Seiryu, the driver of the Kitoralsus' own Black Shinkalion, perhaps goes through in most development in the whole show – and in some ways because of this Shinkalion feels as much about him as the lead as it does Hayato. But while sympathetic villains are important in adding depth to the series Shinkalion enhances its themes of understanding with villains that are stuck in their ways and simply won't listen to reason. But even then it still offers hope in the suggestion that over time there will be some common ground to unite them.

As is the case for most "modern" mecha series (especially ones that fall under the same age bracket as Shinkalion) the show uses CGI models for both the Shinkalion themselves and the Kitoralsus mecha, as well as the containment field arenas the battles usually take place in. Due to the fights taking place in almost wholly CG environments there's actually few instances of the renders clashing with the 2D elements of the series, and though the quality-wise it's fairly standard CGI-anime fare the models are detailed and fluid enough to provide fast-paced and nicely choreographed action sequences that have the right level of weight behind them. Being a robot show it makes frequent use of stock footage, which despite looking good can get particularly grating at times. The transformation and combining sequences especially, as these are done for every Shinkalion in the scene and almost never shortened – leading to longer and longer stretches as more trains are introduced. Being at its core a glorified toy advert this was always going to be the case, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating to watch.

Azusa UedaMiku Hatsune

Finally of course there's the crossover element to the series, something it should never be solely defined by but helped put Shinkalion in the spotlight for so many fans watching outside of Japan. First there's the inclusion of Vocaloid poster-child Hatsune Miku, who has a recurring role in the series as the pilot of the Shinkalion H-5 Hayabusa. Not only does the character look like an 11-year old version of the digital idol and voiced by Saki Fujita (who provided the voice bank for the official software), but said voice has also been auto-tuned to match that of the "real" Miku. Though it's a little strange to hear such a digital sounding voice alongside so many naturally human-sounding ones, Shinkalion's take on Miku as a studious kendo enthusiast is a nice spin on the character that doesn't adhere to the obvious path. So much so that it's a shame she isn't used more in the series, however it's important that the show stand with the strength of its own characters rather than being propped up by star power.

But perhaps more significant is episode 31 of the series, which sees Hayato travel to a version of Tokyo-3 and encounter none other than Shinji Ikari – piloting a version of Evangelion Unit 01 based on the real-life 500 series train seen on the Sanyo shinkansen line for a limited time. As well as numerous visual and dialogue homages the episode also features cameo appearances from other Neon Genesis Evangelion characters. Paying tribute to a show as thematically dense as Evangelion in a show that skews toward a much younger audience might seem like an odd move, but Shinkalion pulls it off spectacularly. The episode has plenty to offer Eva fans all while showing off the visual charm of the original series to newcomers, making it one of those ideal tribute episodes that feels like something special even if you have no experience with the source material. Seeing Shinji smiling in such a wholesome environment free of Evangelion's angst will strike the heart of any fan that's watched and suffered alongside him over the years.

The TYPE EVAThe smile of Shinji Ikari

Shinkansen Robo Henkei Shinkalion could have so easily been a forgettable toy advertisement that just happened to have some surprising cameos, but even with the Vocaloid and Evangelion elements removed it's so much more than that. Instead it's a spiritual successor to the super robot shows of the 80s and 90s, produced not only with a love for the genre but more importantly a real passion for Japan's railway system. Though the hallmarks of shows in this intended age range may occasionally hold it back, it never stops it from being a series full of action, comedy, emotional and educational moments. At 76 episodes long it's certainly an investment, but absolutely one worthy of your time.

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