COLONY DROP “BUY FUNIMATION PRODUCTS” CORNER: DRAGONAUT

(SPECIAL COLONY DROP COMMUNITY ADVERTAINMENT AND EDUCATION SECTION)

First and foremost, we’d like to thank the team at Funimation’s viral marketing site for hooking us up (oh ho ho!) with Dragonaut. All those people work their asses off, day and night, to crank out some of the best ad copy you’ve ever seen. The whole industry is in their debt.

Furthermore, this article will contain spoilers for the remarkable plot that Gonzo and Nihon Ad Systems have created together. You don’t need to stop reading here, though: the story of Dragonaut is such an achievement that it’s no less (or more) entertaining whether you know what happens in this show or not!

Here at Colony Drop, we’re always telling you that somebody or other is bringing about the fall of the Great Japanimation Empire, but it’s not often that we talk about who’s saving it. For the last two years, we’ve taken it as a given that only US anime distributor Funimation and its erstwhile partners at Gonzo have been out there saving the art of Japtooning.

With its affordable box sets, directly modeled after the masters of low-cost anime distribution in Hong Kong, Funimation products have successfully protected American anime fans from the extortionate costs and high quality of Japanese home video releases. As a bonus, these box sets also safeguard the far-off Japanese consumer from accidentally and unfairly “reverse-importing” a high-quality product for an affordable price.

On the other hand, the mostly departed, dearly remembered Gonzo was the studio that worked harder than anyone in the Japanese animation business — Gainax, Kyoto Animation, you name it — to give nerds all over the world their valuable first experiences with fanboy disappointment. These master artisans expertly crafted series after series that started off promising, dipped to mediocre as soon as possible, and reliably ended at poor. You might recall their most successful work: the Hellsing TV series has impressed and immediately let down millions of people.

It was a valuable service that they performed, but one that few of the so-called “anime fans” out there understand. In many ways, Gonzo died because the fans failed them. It’s hard to stick to your goal of making consistently forgettable anime when everybody just pirates it off the Internet, deletes the files, burns the hard drive, and then forgets the good times they had with that show when it comes out on DVD. Now, Gonzo hung on as best they could: save for a few anomalies, their anime went above and beyond to get it wrong every time, but fans just didn’t give the company the financial support they needed to keep half-assing the bad work they were born to do. The only flourishing fragment of the company is the games branch that runs online RPGs: now, there’s an audience that appreciates the value of mediocrity and is willing to reward it financially. Sadly, that’s more than we can say for anime fans.

Today’s review subject, Dragonaut, is perhaps Gonzo’s last stand: an ambitious attempt from the studio to outdo every other lousy anime they’ve produced, to burst through mediocre into fully awful for one final hurrah. Did they live up to their reputation? We are happy to report that Gonzo has shattered all expectations.

(As our review copy is of the second box set, this review joins Dragonaut in medias res: the Gonzo aficionado will, of course, tell you that the studio does its finest work here, when the animators, beaten into submission by their miserable hours and unlivable pay, care least.)

Dragonaut, an animated adaptation of a concept created by the visionary artists at Nihon Ad Systems, revolves around a pair of cardboard cutouts who are, as we are repeatedly assured by a supporting cast that exists only to praise them, deeply in love. Cardboard Cutout A is an homage to, possibly, Keiichi from Ah! My Goddess? Is Gonzo revisiting Rosario + Vampire‘s Tsukune? Or is he a reference to the seminal classic Happy Lesson‘s hero Chitose? There are so many flavors of lifeless non-character in Japanimation, and the beauty of Cardboard Cutout A is that he is indistinct enough to be any one of them. Cardboard Cutout B, our heroine, is a dragon. The marketing materials included with the DVD set inform us that “real dragons have curves”, which is perhaps why the young lady’s perpetually gleaming booty shorts— or her “draconic nature”, as I came to call them— are more memorable than the character herself, who only says things like “yes” and, preferably, “Mm-hmm.”

The rest of the characters were apparently designed by focus groups run by NAS: regardless of whether they ever justify their existence in the show, every possible cliche is represented. There’s the best friend whose unrequited love for the hero drives him cartoonishly insane in a way you’ve probably seen ten or twenty times before, the butler, the hot-blooded guy who doesn’t do anything but have a cool name, the spunky girl who differentiates herself from the rest of the women by not having huge-to-giant tits, and the rest of the women, whose personalities are contained in their huge-to-giant tits.

All that said, the real triumph in character design by committee is certainly Sieglinde, the one-note rich girl character whose every word and action is carefully scripted from the “How to Play a Tsundere” manual that aspiring Japanese voice actresses are savagely beaten with every night of their training until they have fully internalized its contents. Gonzo and NAS are to be commended for avoiding the temptation to give these characters even the tiniest spark of individuality or humanity; leave that kind of time-wasting foolishness to half-hearted B-grade projects like K-On. This is the major leagues, and when you’re at the top of the bad Japtoon game, you can’t afford to leave any room for quality or take chances putting in things that human beings might enjoy. There are only archetypes courting demographics here.

This non-cast runs through a plot that is less a story than a series of disconnected events that simply happen in sequence. Some of the characters are really dragons, meaning they can transform into biomechanical CG dragons — a clever homage by Gonzo to fellow slacker studio DEEN’s workmanlike adaptation of Kinoko Nasu’s literary masterpiece Fate/stay night — that, true to form, clash horribly with the 2D animation and are piloted like giant robots by a human that they’re bonded to (spoilers: the bond is love). The good dragons fight the bad dragons, and, somewhere in there, a gigantic meteor (which is also a dragon, we think) is on a collision course with the Earth. The masters at Gonzo keep production values high enough, with two or three genuinely impressive bits of animation, that not even chuckling about bad animation is an option to distract the viewer from the intense tedium of watching Dragonaut.

In one next-episode preview, the least essential cast members read the script of the next few episodes and are shocked at what they discover. This is not because the story takes any unpredictable twists, but, as evidenced by the quality of the writing, because the script book has likely been cobbled together just moments prior out of duct tape and gift wrap. One of Dragonaut‘s high points is the bath/wedding/death scene in the incredible 16th episode. After a fight with a go-nowhere villain we’ll call Brown Dilandau, the gang conveniently (in case you didn’t catch this, a character says right away that this is a very convenient situation) comes across a Japanese-style hot spring underneath the surface of Mars, inside the enemy’s home base. Over on the girls’ side of the bath, a quiet moment is taken to reveal that our heroine is dying, due to magic dragon stuff.

Now, when people in this show find out that the heroine is dying, they have one response, which I will borrow from our dear Sieglinde later in the show: “It isn’t fair! Why does it have to be like this? I was so envious of what you had! It’s so unfair that something so beautiful will have to be lost forever! Why? Why does it have to be this way?!” Their love is indeed beautiful. We know this not because we’re ever shown how these two people get along, or even what they’re individually like: rather, we know their love is the most beautiful, perfect, and greatest of all things because everybody around them says it over and over again. There’s a point in the show where the two run off to a little house in the forest to live together for a year; this only lasts five minutes in the show, and the only indication that a year has passed is the tsundere coming over to their house and saying so, followed by “jeez”, “I can’t believe you”, and other things from the aforementioned tsundere guidebook.

Indeed, back in the bath, our breast-lacking supporting cast member describes in detail how merely being witness to the cardboard cutouts’ love has changed her life, and, furthermore, that the two need to have a wedding ceremony right away. They do so immediately (magically-conjured dragon rings are involved) — of course, before the vows are formally exchanged, said supporting cast member, having already marked herself for death with her previous monologue, is murdered by Brown Dilandau and his girlfriend. Don’t worry, she comes back at the end!

These two life-size standees need only to stare blankly into each other’s expressionless eyes for the heavens to move. The power of the love shared by these two concrete slabs, and only these two non-entities in the entire universe, awes all before them into submission and magically overcomes whatever situation they’ve found themselves in. This includes that troublesome “heroine is dying” issue that was played up for dramatic effect up until the last minutes of the show, when love cops them out of it. A single copout in this ending is hardly up to Gonzo’s standards, however; upon witnessing the protagonists’ staring ritual firsthand, the main villain immediately admits defeat and simply leaves Earth as the credits roll. A masterstroke.

Dragonaut is utter trash. It’s one of the worst series we’ve seen in years: bad-but-fun anime like Crystal Triangle are awful in weird, crazy, exciting ways, but Dragonaut is a veritable well of anime cliches hacked together into animation as lazily as possible by a staff that appears to be as exasperated to be making the show as we are to be watching it. The bonus gag episode is almost not terrible, ending up better than the entire show preceding it, but after the first ten minutes, it goes back to normal: that is to say, terrible. The CG dragon dogfights look terrible. The lazy stabs — more like pokes, really — at otaku meta-humor throughout the show are terrible. The ending is like everybody in the office threw their hands into the air and said, “fuck you, I’m going home”. Everything about Dragonaut is absolutely terrible.

As such, we at Colony Drop demand that you buy it. Buy Funimation products with every fiber of your being, and purchase both Dragonaut box sets — preferably at the original retail price as was intended by the creators — today. Together, we can save anime. It starts with you eating up whatever awful crap these people throw at you like a goddamn dog, and we promise you that as soon as our check from Funimation clears, it will continue.

(SPECIAL COLONY DROP COMMUNITY ADVERTAINMENT AND EDUCATION SECTION)

21 Comments

  1. Sometimes they say that criticism is easier to write then praise, but when I come here and read such genuinely heartfelt spite it’s clear that I still have much to learn. Bravo.

  2. “The lazy stabs — more like pokes, really — at otaku meta-humor throughout the show are terrible.”

    That something that gets me mad, gets me mean mad about a lot of the animated dreck coming out of Japan in the past decade or so – this sort of cheap, oily meta-humor. It’s lazy, it’s stupid and devoid of any real satiric or parodic value, and too often dumb fans praise almost any mediocre show that features it as being “smart”.

  3. I *liked* the Hellsing show. It got me to buy the manga, which I imagine was the point of its creation. And it’s not exactly Gonzo’s fault for how it ended, considering the series wasn’t even close to finished when the show aired. As for Gonzo’s financial problems, I think the company should have invested in more in-house properties, so they’d have ownership over any residual sales from merchandise. And your review of Dragonaut makes me think it’s a poor man’s Breath of Fire.

  4. >Oh wait. the ending. yeah, dammit.

    Well, you could look at it this way. You never have to worry about getting the BAD END with Gonzo – they’re all bad. Saves time, and it’s cheaper that way!

  5. Can’t say I disagree.

    I’m generally a pretty tolerant guy, whether that’s good or bad in the eyes of critics, but Dragonaut had so many problems that a few episodes in I couldn’t even physically stand to watch it and decided to just experience the rest of the series vicariously through blog posts and comments.

    Needless to say, I don’t regret my decision.

  6. “Their love is indeed beautiful. We know this not because we’re ever shown how these two people get along, or even what they’re individually like: rather, we know their love is the most beautiful, perfect, and greatest of all things because everybody around them says it over and over again.”

    Considering that otakus like romance so much, anime would be a lot more digerible if at least they were well written. Anime really sucks in romance, maybe because its audience never had a relationship with a human being.

  7. You demand a decent script, of what now, a bunch of trite created for teenage girls? Cmon now.
    THIs is the kind of stuff that girls mean when they say they like Anime (no not “animation”). You should see the softpedaled review of it on ANN.
    It’s clearly intended as a slightly more grown up version of their Kiddy grade and Kannagi, the chick’s hair is pink now but just as plastic looking.
    Looking at the third set of pictures down, what you see? You see “girly”. It is so clearly the intent of the entire show that there was no room
    for a plot. When all the audience wants is “kawaii” and “sexy” and pink, the story don’t matter.
    What I don’t get is how you think this is intended to sell Funimation products.
    Besides the DVDs, which won’t sell, what other products? The dragons might have been thrown in there to tempt the boys to watch, but I don’t see any games of this coming, do I?
    Do they expect to sell figures? Of what? That girl that looks like a candy cane? Who would buy it?
    Try explaining this to your parents, when they visit your house and ask: “Why do you have a standing doll of a drive-thru waitress on your shelf?”

  8. >Kevin

    Dragonaut looks to me like it’s being pitched pretty firmly in the boys demogaphic. A general rule of thumb with anime is something: IF protagonist=boy AND heterosexual THEN audience=boys. It’s a wish fulfilment thing, where an ordinaryteenageboy (TM) meets a beautiful, mysterious alien girl and then destiny (TM) does the rest.

    Not sure why the idea that something is aimed at girls should be any impediment to it having a good script anyway though. Princess Tutu isn’t far short of a masterpiece, and Shojo Kakumei Utena genuinely is a masterpiece (although with Ikuhara it’s often hard to work out who his intended audience really is). Point is, there’s nothing wrong with holding trash culture to high standards.

  9. @Kevin

    Dragonaut looks “girly” because moe is girly, even when its target audience are adult males. In theory girls like cuteness and sappy romances while guys like big guns and explosions. In the western world, something like K-on would be clearly aimed to the same audience of Hannah Montana or Camp Rock but in the otaku subculture, shows like that are created specifically to adult males.

  10. @ Oscar,

    Meanwhile,girls are getting into giant robots…although they are mainly interested in bishie boys piloting those giant robots.

  11. Where do i see explosions in this show? I haven’t watched it, and have no reason to. It’s aimed at both girls and boys, but girls more so than boys I think. Most anime fans these days (I mean the young ones) are girls. It’s easy to assume it’s driven at boys because of the moe female with shiny skin, but girls dig that these days. I believe that this is what is ruining animation. The male audience won’t like this, it’s too flaky. And as I understand… they don’t like it.

  12. Thinking about Dragonaut in terms of the intended audience being boys or girls is missing the point. The intended audience is otaku (in this case, incidentally, mostly male ones) and Japanese otaku at that. I cannot emphasise enough how little Japanese anime production companies care about audiences anywhere outside Japan. They are the core audience who the producer must target ruthlessly by hurling all the infantile fetish elements at his disposal. Fortunately the otaku doesn’t care about the quality of the writing; he cares only about these fetish elements and the series is a success or a failure based on whether they are combined in a satisfying way for him. You might think they’re girly, but, man, that’s only because you don’t understaaaaand!

    Perhaps in America there are more girls who’d dig something like this, but they are emphatically not the audience that the producers had in mind. Certainly in Japan, I can’t imagine something like Dragonaut would induce a fujoshi to raise an eye for a single second from inking the flower petals on the background of whatever boys’ love doujinshi she was working on at that moment.

  13. Considering that Gonzo made it (and especially considering the “BEST SELLING NEW ANIME IN USA OF 2007!!” Witchblade connection), they might have actually had the American audience in mind with this one.

    And if they didn’t, I’m sure they were praying for international sales after disc 1 of “Dragonzo,” as it’s affectionately called on 2ch, sold under 1,500 units in Japan! Maybe Tokyo Ad Systems just needs more people who know how to pander to otaku on board.

  14. Dotdash: I’m really late to make this comment, but Dragonaut actually makes a full-on attempt to appeal to the fujioshi demographic with the rival character. This is cookie-cutter stuff: the rival character, seeing himself as betrayed by the hero, is madly fixated on killing him. Of course it’s homoerotic to begin with, but Dragonaut goes as far as it can with it.

    Towards the end of the show, his dragon– a hot chick who hasn’t been able to catch his attention for the entire show– says outright, “You loved him, didn’t you?” This leads to a fistfight confession scene where the hero and the rival roll in the grass together as the rival declares his angry, punching love and sobs about how everything was to protect you, Jin, EVERYTHING. And after that, the rival is a good guy!

  15. All sounds frightfully Top Gun.

    In any case, either Gonzo have very intelligently observed a trend among fans towards absorbing fujoshi elements into their worldview, or they are hamfistedly scrabbling after every possible demographic they can lay their meaty paws on. Hmm… I wonder…

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