From the land of the remake for a younger, hipper audience, here’s Birdy the Mighty once again! Based on a comic by Masami Yuuki, one of the creators of Mobile Police Patlabor, this is the second animated adaption, following a four-episode OVA series in 1996 which was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. I’m told this specific version of the story is based on Yuuki’s “restart” of the comic from a few years back, so I’m not sure who I should blame for the various changes to characters and plot elements. Decode‘s being directed by Kazuki Akane, the director and one of the writers of Noein, a favorite show of mine, so I figure I have to give it a shot.
Birdy is the story of the titular mighty scantily-clad space policewoman who accidentally kills human junior high school student Tsutomu Senkawa while pursuing a suspect. As a punishment, Birdy is required to share her body with Tsutomu’s spirit until a replacement can be produced. Tsutomu can live his life normally except when Birdy has to go fight crime, at which point she transforms her body back to normal and punches the shit out of things. Neither of them are particularly pleased with the arrangement, but as with all wacky buddy comedies they’re going to have to learn to work together to succeed! The 1996 OVA series is a fun superhero romp with some entertaining characters and situations, including what might be the only time someone walking in on a female character in the bath has been funny, but it’s over too soon and sets up for a sequel which never happened.
Decode is a new modern production, though, which means the big dumb 80s character designs, conservative navy-blue school uniforms, and most of the entertaining secondary characters have been booted out in favor of newer, hipper, and younger designs. Tsutomu’s family, the OVA’s comic relief crew, are sent out of town on business before the end of episode 1, so like 90% of all anime protagonists he can live on his own with no parental supervision while still a high-school student. Tsutomu’s school buddies take a more prominent role (including a new romantic interest), and Birdy has her own sidekicks, like her partner Tuto and a gaggle of various other alien cops who appear in two early episodes and don’t do much. Oh, and in the great tradition of any show where alien characters get stuck on Earth for more than a few days, she’s stuck working an embarrassing “cover” job to pay the bills – in this case, she disguises herself as an incredibly air-headed model and Tuto masquerades as her stereotypically-gay manager, complete with exaggerated mannerisms and “cute” speech. Neither version of the show’s going to win many points for creativity.
Things take a bad turn after the first few episodes, unfortunately. Tuto, being a parental figure for Birdy, is promptly killed off in episode 3 in a brutal running gag subversion, presumably in the hopes of returning to the Birdy/Tsutomu dynamic that powered the 1996 version of the series. But the writers seem to have forgotten that what made the original work was Birdy and Tsutomu complementing each other and working as a team; Tsutomu was the weak and cowardly one with brains (or at least knowledge of Earth culture and technology) and Birdy was the one who hit things really hard. In Decode, Tsutomu is usually just along for the ride, or in full-on “I can’t believe the incredibly obvious truth about my girlfriend’s possession by a monstrously destructive alien parasite and oppose your efforts to kill her” mode. The only time he gets to do much is during the finale, and that’s just a stock heroic sacrifice which conveniently resets the characters and situations to exactly where things were ten episodes ago in preparation for season two, airing early in 2009.
Decode does retain one of the OVA’s more distinguishing features: the expositionary sub-plot, focusing on the humans involved with the nefarious schemes Birdy foils and the people out to catch them. It also does a much better job of integrating this sub-plot into the main storyline: while the OAV’s detectives investigating mysterious deaths linked to a World War II-era super-soldier program provides most of the villain’s background and motivation, the characters involved only very briefly encounter our heroes. In Decode, the down-on-his-luck photojournalist and his much more successful former classmate the TV anchor are acquaintances of Tsutomu, and so the two groups end up investigating the same incidents from different perspectives (and even helping each other out) on a fairly regular basis.
I’m not a fan of Decode‘s character designs. Birdy herself is almost unchanged, aside from tweaking the pattern of her multi-colored hair, but Tsutomu and friends appear to have gotten several years younger and lost all the mid-90s design charm they once had in favor of the same boring, flat-shaded modern japanimation style seen in Moécross Frontier and its ilk. Even Birdy’s cyborg lizard-dude mentor looks like he’s made of plastic.
Decode‘s fight scenes are one of the show’s brighter spots, even if they bite off more than they can chew on occasion. The fights are nice and brutal, with lots of dudes (and chicks, and robots) getting punched and kicked into walls and thrown by their hair. But when the action gets particularly intense, either the detail level or the fluidity drops dramatically. Even as early as episode one, movement gets choppy when Birdy starts getting acrobatic, and the monoshading gets even more severe. I applaud the attempt to try for more exciting angles and motion without resorting to the slow-pan-over-still-frame trick, but it doesn’t work quite as well here as it did in Noein, which was much more flexible about its art style to begin with. And frankly, the new scenes just aren’t as visceral and exciting as the 90’s version – nothing comes close to the brawl at the theme park.
Don’t get me wrong, Decode isn’t terrible. It’s competently produced, and it’s not a simple retread of the previous series, even if they threw out much of what made the first series entertaining (and, indeed, much of their new material as well). If you really want to watch a “new” superhero action Japanimation, it’s this or Casshern. Or you could just go watch the 90’s version, it’s way more fun.