(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)