Monday, March 19, 2012

Jing: King of Bandits in Seventh Heaven Review

All right, it's been about a week since my last post (not that I'm a weekly blogger or anything) and spring break has started, so it's about time for another review. I had actually meant to get this out sooner, but my brother has been getting me to play a lot of Heretic and Hexen with him, so I've had less time to work on my posts. Anyhow, the review. Jing: King of Bandits in Seventh Heaven is the OVA sequel (perhaps "side story" would be more accurate) to the original Jing: King of Bandits anime series. It is 3 episodes long, each about 27 minutes in length, and was released in 2004.

Premise: Jing, the infamous King of Bandits, finds himself and his feathered partner Kir behind bars in Seventh Heaven, the most notorious prison complex in the world. There, they seek to steal the Dream Orb from the convict Campari. But before doing so, they must escape from the prison of dreams that Campari has conjured for them.
 -- ANN

Wow. Jing: King of Bandits in Seventh Heaven (it's a mouthful, so I'll just call it Seventh Heaven) is a very confusing show for a number of reasons, but there's one in particular that astounds me: how much better Seventh Heaven is than the original anime. How can the staff, studio, and source material remain the same and yet come together to make such a superior series? It simply baffles me. But, you probably want a review, not questions, right? Right. Let's get started, shall we?

Any series that starts with comic-book style sound effects clearly has an excellent sense of style.
     Seventh Heaven is superior to the original in every way. This being the case, I feel that it's appropriate to follow the same formula I did with my review for that, so first up is the art.

It looks weird, and that's kind of the point
     Probably the worst thing about the original anime was the visuals. They're inconsistent, sometimes poorly drawn, and even contain a few mistakes. In Seventh Heaven, however, the visuals may actually be the best thing about it. They're eye-catching, functional, stylish, and well-drawn. Before I go any further, though, there's something you should realize. About 80% or so of this series takes place in dreams. That has a huge effect on the visuals. That environment inconsistency problem present in the first show is no longer an issue here. In fact, it actually enhances the visuals here. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll start with the basics, and get into the style a bit later. The first question you should be asking is whether or not the objects are well drawn. The answer is an emphatic yes. The character designs are still wonderfully consistent and well done across all expressions, but they aren't the extent of the good art. Objects themselves (spheres, spoons, trains, staircases, etc.) are well drawn regardless of whether or not they're in motion, and littler things like the details on clothes are nicely done too. On the whole, quite a bit more than merely "acceptable." The best thing about the art in Seventh Heaven, however, has got to be the backgrounds and immediate physical settings.

Wacky stuff like this is cool and you know it.
      Now, as I said, most of this show takes place within dreams. This is a really good thing, because it allows for a wacky, surreal, and constantly changing settings. Taking the example I used in my review of the original, let's say that Jing is in a coatroom. He enters a straight hallway and walks 5 meters forward. Then, he turns around 180 degrees and walks 5 meters back. However, he is now in a dining room. In the original, this kind of thing was a problem because obviously it doesn't make sense in reality. In Seventh Heaven, however, it not only works with, but as I said enhances the series, because it's all within dreams. It doesn't just tell the audience what's happening is a dream, it shows the audience what's happening is a dream. And that is in and of itself an accomplishment. Dreams are not exactly easy subject matter to nail down, but Seventh Heaven manages to do it. What is so good about this, though, is how it makes the story and plot events so much better. Knowing that the environment can change at any time makes the chase scenes more intense, because they could run into a dead end or more danger at any time. Likewise, it makes the scene where Jing performs magic all the more believable and interesting because he can do pretty much anything inside a dream. That's all that needs to be said, really. The backgrounds and environments added greatly to the atmosphere, style, and plotline of the show. Excellent.

The kind of cool and crazy environment you'd only find in a dream. Or a M.C. Escher illustration.
     The last part of the visuals I'm going to discuss is the animation. The animation in Seventh Heaven is really quite good, surprisingly so after watching the original. I thought that the animation in Jing: King of Bandits was good, and indeed, it was. But it simply can't compare to the animation in Seventh Heaven. Characters and objects move and interact with each other in believable ways, and things look like they're actually moving. The most noticeable thing about the animation, however, is the inclusion of 3D animation. Now, I'm not a big fan of 3D animation and 2D animation in a single product. I mean, Last Exile did a great job with it, but aside from that there are few instances of it looking good (at least, as far as I'm concerned). It just looks...unnatural, like if the art style suddenly changed midway through. In Seventh Heaven, though, the animation actually works quite well. It looks a little out of place at first (as 3D usually does in anime), but once the dreams start, it begins to stand out less, even looking good. Again, because everything is weird and dreamy, having a visual effect like 3D pop in seems natural. Granted, it rarely stands out to you so much you have to stop and take notice. It's not like you'll go "Oh! Okay, they're doing stuff in 3D now. Okay." You just see it, notice it, and move on. So that's the first hurdle with 3D in a 2D series overcome. The second is the quality of the 3D animation itself. I was also quite surprised here. In the very beginning, with the weird alligator prison car, the legs moved naturally, in the exact way I would expect a, uh, weird alligator prison car's legs to move. Not much more to say really. The animation is great, the 3D is good, and the blending of the two is better than one would expect. Before I go any further, though, there's something I'd like to bring up. Throughout the review, I've been comparing Seventh Heaven to the original Jing anime, and I should make it clear that Seventh Heaven is not merely good because it's better than its predecessor. This series doesn't need to be compared to something worse for it to be good. The visuals are better than the visuals in the original, but they're also good in and of their own right. This holds true for all the major points of Seventh Heaven. I'm merely comparing the two to give you a point of reference (because I assume you're only interested in the OVA if you already seen the original). With that out of the way, we can talk about the sound.

Guess what you see on your screen when this shot comes up
     The sound in Seventh Heaven is also a cut above the original, for a few reasons. Let's start with the voice acting. Mitsuki Saiga and Ryusei Nakao reprise their roles as Jing and Kir (respectively), but the most notable improvement comes in the form of better voice acting for the minor characters. Most of the cast, including those "characters" that say only one or two lines, have solid voice acting. Even beyond this, there are a number of bigger names in the industry (Rie Kugiyama and Romi Park, to name a couple) that voice minor characters in Seventh Heaven. Without getting too nerdy, though, the voice acting in Seventh Heaven is, plain and simple, great, with two solid leads and a few great VA's in supporting roles. The script remains rather basic, which gives them only so much room to show their capability, but overall the VA's do a great job. The best thing about the sound, though, like the original, is the music. This time adhering more to one specific genre, psychedelic jazz, the soundtrack is excellent. It perfectly matches the dreamy feeling of the show. Really, with the short lines that the script creates in abundance, the music takes front seat with the sound, and does so admirably. At times, there are sections where no one speaks, and there are no sound effects. Because the music is so good, though, the auditory experience is still rich and full. Overall, great sound.

Jing (left) and Kir (right)
     Next is the characters. There are three main characters in Seventh Heaven: Jing, Kir, and Campari (mostly Jing and Kir). I'll start with Jing.

     Jing is still a pretty cool protagonist. Now, if you were to pick one thing that wouldn't change from anime to OVA, it would probably be the main character. And indeed, Jing is not very different in Seventh Heaven. But his character is so much better executed. He shows his emotions a (very) little more and is a little less in control, but he is no less cool or confident because of that. It's the little things, like him shouting in surprise when the floor gives way and he falls, that make Jing's character better in Seventh Heaven. He feels more alive than he did in the original anime. The other reason Jing is better in this is that he has more empathy. One of the reasons we liked Jing despite him being a thief was that he's a nice guy. This is even more true in Seventh Heaven. I mean, he's still not a saint, and he's pretty short with hostile people, but he's polite in a "dude" kind of way. He even spends the second half of the last episode helping someone out (though it furthers his goals). Of course, Jing is still not an especially deep character. Though the second episode involves his past, it reveals little about him as a person, and is vague on the life-changing details of his early childhood.  Little new information is revealed about him, nor is he very dynamic. Still, that's in keeping with his character and the style of the story, and a dynamic main character is rarely a good idea for a serial adventure like JKB. All that aside though, the bottom line is that Jing is still cool, still collected, and still never at a loss, but he feels more alive and more likeable. Next is Kir.

Never change, Kir.
     So, I don't know if I've ever said this, but Kir is pretty awesome. For one, he's a talking bird that hits on all human females with an vivacity and tenaciousness that would put thousands of beach studs to shame. Also, he can shoot laser beams from his mouth when he attaches to Jing's arm. That's pretty awesome, at least in my opinion. In all seriousness, though, Kir is an enjoyable character. He plays a lot of roles - comic relief, sidekick, companion, straight man, and, of course, lady killer - and he plays them well. Like Jing, he isn't especially three dimensional or dynamic, but that doesn't make him bad. Kir is unique and fun to watch, and that is enough for this kind of show. That said, Kir, like Jing, has gotten better in Seventh Heaven. Much like how Jing has more empathy, Kir has more emotion. His reactions are bigger and more varied. Furthermore, his reactions are more common. This consistency with what he reacts to helps his character feel more alive (much like how Jing's reactions did with him). Kir is not an especially deep character either, but he is quirky and entertaining. In contrast to both Jing and Kir is Campari, who is comparatively uninteresting but actually goes through a character change.

     Campari is a rather interesting character, and one of very few in the franchise to go through some kind of arc. Campari is rather resigned and downtrodden at the beginning of the OVA, though not in an entirely obvious way. By the end of the series, however, he has changed and regained some of his inner fire and compassion. Few characters in Jing: King of Bandits have this. Most are static, or not dynamic, as I've been saying. Now, JKB is hardly the only show with largely static casts. Many recent (and older) series are simply devoid of characters that change internally. That's one of the reasons why Campari is so refreshing; he's an attempt, a successful one, at a story technique used less and less in anime. The rest of Campari is less than breathtaking. As I said, he is uninteresting compared to Jing and Kir (and the rest of the crazy cast, really), and even though his mysteriousness is kind of cool, he's not all that amazing to see on screen. Which doesn't make him a poor character, not by any means. He's simply more interesting for his character's change than for his character itself.

You know that any series which shows a random still of the protagonists before the title has got to be classy.
     Before I move on to the next section, there's something else I should discuss quickly. In my review of the original, I talked about how Kir Royale was a poorly used special attack in the original. In Seventh Heaven, they fixed this problem too. The first fix is that Kir Royale is now Jing's truly exclusive attack. In the anime, Jing also had an arm sword, which he used quite a bit near the end. Despite this, he used Kir Royale about 90% of the time, making it feel like an overused special attack (which it was). In Seventh Heaven, though, Jing has no other weapons (you can't very well fit an arm sword into a prison jumpsuit, after all), so Kir Royale is his only attack. The greater fix, though, is how often he uses it. I believe the attack is used only 4 times throughout the series, twice in the first episode and once in the other two. Furthermore, 2 of those times, the attack is used to break out of something, and not on actual opponents. This has the effect of making the attack actually seem special. You see, it's not that there are only 4 places that Jing could use it; plenty of opportunities present themselves. It's that Jing only chooses to use it in 4 places. Kir Royale is used sparingly, which affords it a "special" quality. Better than this, though, is that it requires Jing and Kir to solve things a little differently. Most of the action is resolved by running, and in fact the last two thirds of the first episode are all one long chase sequence. This is a really good thing. It would feel a little awkward if Jing and Kir could prevail in a dream by using such concrete and tangible methods as their signature attack. Jing has to use his wits (and legs) a little more, and it helps pronounce that Jing is in the territory of someone else, someone who has more control over it than he does. Because the attack was poorly implemented in the original, I feel that how well it is used in the OVA deserves a mention.

     Yet another area in which Seventh Heaven surprised me was the story. First, the basics. The story at face level is pretty good. The plot advances in a straightforward and logical (at least, as logical as one could expect from a dream setting) fashion, and it pulls you in and along well enough. Although the second episode is devoted to a story from Jing's youth (it concerns his first meeting with Kir), it does still serve some purpose in furthering the story. Without getting into it too deeply, the construction of the story is superior to the three-parter in the anime by far and feels more cohesive overall (second episode included). Again, kind of ironic, considering the setting. What surprised me the most about the story, though, was something I didn't even notice the first time I watched Seventh Heaven. This thing is advanced storytelling. I was absolutely amazed to see things like symbolism, image foreshadowing, and deeper meaning, and in Jing: King of Bandits, no less! These are the kinds of things I expect from Kino's Journey, not mainstream OVA's. That said, it was a pleasant surprise. I mean, none of these aspects are done as well in Seventh Heaven as they are in Kino's Journey, but the mere fact that they are included is a reason to rejoice. But enough about their inclusion; let's get a little more specific (not too much more, mind you. This is already a hefty review, and this is the kind of thing that could fully occupy its own post). There are a number of examples of foreshadowing in Seventh Heaven, worked in very subtly in the art. Additionally, little pictures and phenomena that seem insignificant actually serve to set up future events. Even our first view of Campari includes some hints that let you start piecing things together before you're told what's going on. The symbolism and deeper meaning are a little harder to identify, but they do exist, if you look hard enough. Again, there's nothing super amazing in terms of higher storytelling, but it's just so refreshing to see it in a "popular" anime.

     The atmosphere of Seventh Heaven is superb. Where much of the charm of the original came from its atmosphere, the OVA's atmosphere simply oozes style. I mentioned that the anime felt "weird, psychedelic, and even dream-like." Imagine how amplified these things are when the show is in a dream. You're almost instantly caught up in the mood of the show, and it really feels like you're watching the characters move from dream to dream. I also said that the ideal conditions for watching the original were if you were watching a sleepy, possibly drunk version of yourself watch the show. For Seventh Heaven, just imagine that feeling, but even more. Granted, Seventh Heaven is good enough that such things are not necessary to enjoy it, but if you want to experience the full potential of the show's atmosphere, then that's probably the best you can do.

     There's one last point I want to make before I end the review. In my review of the original, I talked about how it was actually a quote-unquote kid's show, and how that made its mistakes more excusable, because the standards were lower. Its mistakes were excused because of its intended audience. In Seventh Heaven, the dream setting may have seemed to be similar. I talked about how things are better because of the setting. But, there's a fundamental difference here. In the original, the mistakes were mistakes, and those mistakes were made partially excusable because of who it was intended for. In Seventh Heaven, however, the "mistakes" (such as environmental inconsistencies) are not mistakes at all. They add to the atmosphere, and make perfect sense within the setting. This, perhaps better than anything else, exemplifies how much better Seventh Heaven is than the original.

     Jing: King of Bandits in Seventh Heaven is a drastic improvement over the original anime. Literally everything is better. The characters feel more alive, the visuals are without mistakes (and add a lot to the mood), the sound is more focused, and the story is actually good. If every episode in the original had been like this, than Jing: King of Bandits would have been an amazing show.
     Plot/Story: The story of Seventh Heaven is interesting and well made. The plot progression is natural, and since Jing isn't in total control of things, there's some actual tension involved. The second episode slips a little, being devoted to a story from Jing's past and not the one at hand, but it does serve to advance the plot and it sets some things up for later. Probably the best thing about the story, though, is the fact that higher tier storytelling techniques like subtle foreshadowing and deeper meaning are worked in. Overall, a good story.
     Characters: The characters are a step up from the anime, which comes as a big surprise, considering that the same two characters are in the lead. The characters of Jing and Kir are implemented better, and Campari marks the first time someone other than a Jing Girl goes through an arc. Additionally, the minor characters don't feel as much like plot tools or cardboard cutouts, and are enjoyable despite their relative lack of growth or screentime.
     Sound: The sound in Seventh Heaven is fantastic. The music fits the visuals, story, and style of the series perfectly, and is well made to boot. The sound effects are fairly negligible, but are solid nonetheless, and the voice acting is also a step up. The script has a little more substance to it (though not much), so the protagonist's VA's are able to showcase their abilities a little more. The voice acting for the supporting characters is also quite good. Great sound.
     Visuals: One of the best things about Seventh Heaven is the visuals. A lot of weird things happen in dreams, which are largely a visual experience. Yet somehow, this series manages to capture that experience accurately. Excellent use of shadows, slick animation, and eye-catching perspective shots add up to make this show a rich visual experience. Superb art and animation all around.

Overall: Jing: King of Bandits in Seventh Heaven is a good show. A refreshingly well told story, solid characters, and strong visuals and sound make this series worth your time. I recommend Seventh Heaven to anybody who likes psychedelic settings, anime that appeal to the senses (good visuals and sounds), and/or an OVA that is greatly superior to its source.

Got feedback? Be it suggestions, requests, criticisms, or even <gasp> compliments, I read it all, so go ahead and post a comment!

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