Friday, July 13, 2012

Iria - Zeiram the Animation Review

Iria - Zeiram the Animation is a six episode OVA series made by Ashi Productions. Each episode is 30 minutes in length, and the series was released in 1994.

(Note: This is yet another series that has a terrible summary on ANN, so I went and made my own)

Premise: Iria and her brother Glen are skilled bounty hunters who take on all kinds of jobs. One day Glen is given a job to recover the crew and cargo of the Space Station Karma, and through various circumstances Iria ends up tagging along. While on the Karma, Iria and Glen encounter the alien being Zeiram, a meeting that marks the first of many conflicts between it and Iria.
 -- John Sato

     Imagine if The Terminator was something like four hours longer in duration. Sarah Connor would encounter the Terminator 15 times, always managing to just barely escape or narrowly defeat him in an ambiguous fashion from which he can survive (e.g. an explosion). Then, in the very last part, she destroys him by attacking his weak point (let's say the chip in his head). Congratulations, you just came up with the basic main plot for Iria - Zeiram the Animation (henceforth Iria Zeiram). This series is an interesting little piece of anime history. It has a plot you'd only find 90's OVA series (and all that implies), and the quality of execution goes all over the place. When it gets it right, however, it gets it really right, becoming a wonderful (and largely unique, at least to anime) sci-fi adventure. The characters are a similar conundrum; the supporting cast is almost beneath mentioning, yet the main lead is fantastic. I'm getting ahead of myself, though. Let's start technical.

     With a few minor exceptions here and there, Iria Zeiram really does look quite good on a consistent basis. Motion is fluid, plentiful, and looks perfectly natural. Excluding the second episode (which we will get to), the creators cut no corners when it came to the actual animation, and that's quite apparent. No, it's not without flaw, but the vast majority of the time I could make no complaints. The actual art is, if anything, even better. A lot of detail was put into the designs and backgrounds, something that shows. A good example is when Iria is flying through an asteroid field and you can see the asteroids reflected (and moving accordingly) on the cockpit glass. As for the art style, though I'm a personal fan it can still be appreciated by anyone for being very "90's" and anime-esque, in a Rurouni Kenshin kind of way. All in all this is a very visually appealing series.

It looks awesome and you know it.

     The sound is less stellar, though hardly bad on its own. The music, especially the OP (though I've never given unduly attention to OP & ED songs), matches to some degree the Eastern retro-sci-fi style. It could do better, certainly, but it's passing and usually fits the events on scene well. The sound effects...well, they're typically good enough, but at times they can be just horrible. This series actually has a really great example of how important sound effects are. There's this one scene where this scientist guy is standing in front of a row of tubes with floating organic matter in them. All of a sudden the tubes start glowing, and something that sounds like someone cracking their knuckles underwater starts playing. It makes absolutely no sense, and the problem lies with the sound. It doesn't serve to explain the events onscreen at all. What's happening with the tubes? We have no clue, and nothing in the show is adequately conveying it to us. This is why sound is so important. When you can't have a character explain what's going on and the visuals are vague and ambiguous (ominous glowing, for example), they can be the only thing explaining what is happening to the audience. Now, with that tirade over, I should note that the sound effects in Iria Zeiram are still okay overall. A horrendous lack of quality does rear its ugly head in a few instances, though, so it had to be mentioned. As for the voice acting, it's rather...lackluster. Iria's VA does a good job, but the side characters voice acting can only really be called passing, or at worst poor (something Fujikuro demonstrates time and time again). From a technical perspective, the sound may have been the worst thing in Iria Zeiram, though that really isn't saying much.

It's not exactly the singing of the angels, but it's rarely unbearable, either.

     Moving on, the plot in Iria Zeiram is. . .ambitious, I'll give it that. Like I said at the beginning, it's really quite similar to The Terminator, only drawn out to miniseries length. In each episode, Iria encounters and fights Zeiram, until the sixth and final battle. This, however, is only one of the four main stories that Iria Zeiram tells. Yes, I said four, which is why I called the plot ambitious. The first is the main story about Iria fighting Zeiram. The second is the story of Iria and her relationship with her brother. You could almost call it a hidden narrative, since it has much less to do with the actual plot points, but it is arguably the much more important (and certainly the more interesting) story. The other two stories are better described as arcs, both of which are told over the course of three episodes. Let's talk about the arcs.

     The first arc involves a conspiracy (which I won't spoil for you) surrounding the large Tedan Tippedai corporation. This story is actually quite a cool one (as conspiracies often are), with action, coverups, and power plays. It's not the best made corporate caper story ever weaved, largely due to the other things going on in the episodes (and the unfortunate fact that it includes episode two), but it's still engaging . The second arc, sadly, does not continue this. It shifts from a cool, interesting sci-fi conspiracy plot to a B-movie alien invasion plot about a guy sitting in a lab while instruments measuring. . .something. . .do "things." The biggest change between the two is that the first arc is the main plot of those episodes, while the second arc is not. For the first three episodes, Iria is more concerned with dealing with the conspiracy than with Zeiram (though it still plays a large part, being the main overarching plotline). In the last three episodes, however, Iria's confrontation with Zeiram becomes the most important plot still going on. And yet, we have to suffer through a whole ton of boring convoluted science. . .stuff, for lack of a better word, that in the long run doesn't really matter. The story of the second arc is tangential to the main one, and it's just boring to watch. Honestly, neither of these are arcs are so important that they make or break the series, but they still have a noticeable effect on the overall quality of each half.

A not at all subjective graph depicting roughly how good each episode is. Now bow before my talent with MS Paint.

     But enough about the story, because now I want to talk about the action. I will be frank; Iria Zeiram has some of the best action I've ever seen in anime, period. (it should be noted I'm talking about the shooty-punch kind of action, not the mental-duel kind you'd see in Death Note.) Almost without exception, in every fight there is a clear goal, which is to say there's no gratuity in the action. What's makes them stand out is that the series knows to keep the fights really fun, fast-paced, and just straight up exciting to watch while ensuring they're to the point. Iria has all sorts of cool gadgets she uses in her fights, like grappling hooks, low light vision goggles, and every type of explosive device/trap imaginable. A great example of all this is the scene in episode three when Iria is trying to get to the upper floors of a certain building. She rushes in immediately and starts going up through the elevator shaft. She destroys a several elevators, uses a nifty gadget to cut one of pull ropes, and uses the force of one of the explosions to ascend to the floor she needs to get to, all the while being shot at by security guards. This whole scene only takes a few minutes and is very fast, but you can follow everything that's happening and Iria is always working towards her clear goal of getting to the upper floors. And as for the action itself, don't worry; there are no resemblances to El Cazador De La Bruja here. Everything makes sense spatially (in other words, the fights have good choreography). I can't gush about this aspect enough, so I won't try.

     Finally, I want to talk about the characters. Most of the characters in Iria Zeiram. . .well, they're kind of awful. Thankfully, the cast (excluding Iria) is limited to about 7 people, but the fact of the matter is that only two of them have any real impact on Iria as a character, and the other five of them are almost in the way. That's okay though, because Iria makes up for them by being a great character. I should note that the rest of this review contains or refers to SPOILERS of the minor type. Honestly, the plot of Iria Zeiram is something you can still enjoy even if it's spoiled for you, and like I said I'm only going over minor stuff. Still, if you want to remain totally unspoiled, then just scroll down to the bottom of the post for my final thoughts.

"Oh, it's you." << Really all that needs to be said about the side characters.

     Okay, so Iria's character. Probably the biggest reason Iria's character is so good is what it accomplishes. Iria goes through the rather basic arc of having strength, realizing weakness, then attaining strength again. It's hardly innovative, but the executions excuses all lack or originality (that and the fact it had 20 years less of media abusing the archetype when it was initially released). Let's get into it, then, starting with the first arc I mentioned.

      Iria and her brother Glen share a bit of an interesting relationship. Iria's brother Glen is the second most important character in the show, even though he's present for the least of it. With him serving as Iria's mentor as both a bounty hunter and in life in general, the two are quite close. This becomes the basis for Iria's whole character arc. In the first episode, Glen is caught in a massive explosion after his fight with Zeiram. Iria clearly thinks that he's dead, yet she holds onto the thought that he's alive. He's practically her guardian, and it's clear that he played a big part in raising her (Iria and Glen are orphans). It makes perfect sense that she'd want to hold onto the idea that he's alive, as he's been the symbol of strength and capability for her throughout her life. However, Iria starts coming to terms with accepting Glen as dead, and as a result loses her confidence. Indeed, she even says she's becoming a nervous wreck. That covers the first two parts of the arc.

     In the less than stellar episode two, Kei, a street urchin who serves as Iria's foil, is introduced. While honestly a terrible character, Kei does set into motion Iria's next arc. As she realizes in the final episode, Iria is starting to take a position like her brother's in her relationship with Kei, and in life in general. So over the course of the series, Iria deals with the loss of an important elder figure in her life, overcomes that loss, and takes her brother's place. There are two things that make this so good. The first is that it's all very subtle, even though it seems rather obvious in retrospect. The series has no interest in beating you over the head with the main character's arc, and I appreciate that. The second thing is that Iria remains a "strong" lead throughout. Even when she loses her confidence and gets to her weakest point, she's still all kinds of cool, and she's always capable.

     That leads to the second thing I like about Iria, which is that she's just plain cool. She's capable, strong-willed, and competent. Her design is if anything under-sexualized (the few tomboy traits she has downplay it as well), and she always knows what she's doing. I find it pretty cool that Iria Zeiram was able to balance that kind of a character with an arc whose basis is a period of weakness, let alone that it balanced it well. I'll leave out any analysis of how she measures up as a "strong female lead" as I'm less than qualified to make such determinations (though I do think this was somewhat progressive for a 1994 OVA series), but suffice to say I was impressed with Iria as a character on all fronts.

For whatever it's worth, this shot only pans upwards.
     I know I began the character's section with "finally," but I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up one more thing about Iria - Zeiram the Animation. This series has one of the strongest first episodes I've ever seen. Yeah, its not without it's flaws and the very beginning is kind of in poor taste, but it highlights pretty much everything good about the show; great action, character development, a weird sci-fi setting, and fightin' aliens. Equal to the excellence of this first episode is the absolute horridness of the second episode. It exemplifies everything wrong with the series; terrible side characters, KIDS (clearly awful), the occasional stumble in Iria's portrayal, and a plot that doesn't really matter. Even worse is that it takes things the show did right and does them terribly. A lot of the action is boring, stale, and poorly animated (though Iria's fight with Zeiram is still pretty good), the cool first arc basically has its story interrupted, and Iria suffers from a sudden deficiency of sound judgement. The reason I'm highlighting all this is because I want to mention that this episode is exceptional within the series - that is, it's an exception, not a rule. While the subsequent episodes weren't quite as fantastic as the first one, they never get as bad as the second again, and I just wanted to point that out.

Okay I'll stop talking now.

     Iria - Zeiram the Animation is, to use a cliche, a hidden gem. It isn't the greatest thing ever, but it does a lot of things right, and it has typically excellent animation, amazing action, and a very good lead. You could do a heck of a lot worse with an OVA series from the 90's.
     Plot/Story: Iria tells a number of stories. Not all of those stories are told well (like the second arc), nor are all of them interesting or particularly good (the overarching "fight Zeiram" plot). But for the majority, they are interesting and well told, and the fact that the series fits so much into six 30 minute episodes is impressive. There are a few plot holes here and there ( can usually make reasonable explanations, so let's call them "plot sinks" instead), but they don't detract from the quality of the story enough to really bring the series down.
     Characters: If this section were instead called "main character," the rating would probably be significantly higher. Iria is a great character; she goes through a genuinely interesting and well done arc, and is a refreshing change from the cardboard cut-out supporting female casts we seem to get nowadays. Unfortunately, the supporting cast for Iria Zeiram are less exceptional. A couple of them bring about changes in Iria which makes their presence acceptable, at least, but most are boring, annoying, and unnecessary. Since Iria has the most screentime, I'd have to say that the "characters" of Iria - Zeiram the Animation are quite positive, but it's also true that the side characters probably could have been much better.
     Visuals: A classic art style that's very "anime" yet far from "moeblob," excellent animation, and detailed, aesthetically rich artwork. What's not to love? There are a few relative gaffes here and there (most of them present in episode two, not surprisingly), but overall the visuals are consistently strong.
     Sound: Decent music, passing voice acting, and okay but sometimes very poor sound effects make the sound in Iria - Zeiram the Animation slightly above average, but nothing more. It's not like it'll be grating on your ears or anything, but it won't be pleasant, either.

Overall: Iria - Zeiram the Animation is an quality OVA series with generally high production values, a strong lead, and absolutely fantastic action. It can get a little hard to bear at times (read: episode two) and the story is sometimes a little muddled/convoluted, but not enough to stop you from enjoying it. I highly recommend this series if you like action, and the alternative Eastern styled sci-fi elements are a treat.

Got feedback? Complaints, arguments, suggestions, requests, or whatever else? Leave a comment!

Note: This review underwent heavy edits on June 25th, 2013. They were largely wording changes to promote a more engaging read (as opposed to opinion changes), but I felt I should make sure and mention them.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for your thoughtful review, I watched this last night and really enjoyed it myself!