Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pumpkin Scissors Review

That blue light, so cold and damp. I can still see it, like the ground fire of the will o the wisp. Makes me wonder... if he was some kind of monster during the war?

Pumpkin Scissors is a 24-episode anime produced by Gonzo based on a manga by Ryotaro Iwanaga. It first aired in 2006, and is currently licensed by Funimation, formerly ADV Films. The manga was licensed by Del Rey, but to my knowledge its publication has been discontinued.

In a Europe-esque region, war has just ended, but peace doesn't come that easily. Wartime legislation allowed the bigwigs to seize and abuse greater authority over the people, weapons have found their way into unsavory hands, and years of war have sown the seeds of hatred and resentment in the people's hearts. The Pumpkin Scissors team is a group that specializes in war relief, delivering supplies where they are needed and removing oppression and corruption wherever it may appear. At least, that's what their captain Alice Malvin would say. The rest of the military, and the people for that matter, look down on them as an attempt by the army to boost its P.R., but Alice really does believe in her job and tries her best to make a real difference. During one mission, she and her team meet Randel Oland, a soft-spoken giant and former member of the now-disbanded 901st squadron who prefers not to talk about his past. Randel is armed with a terrifying "Door Knocker" gun that can pierce a tank's armor at point blank range and an eerie blue lantern that, when activated, turns him into a killing machine more than capable of using it. While Randel quickly finds himself at home with the team, his past isn't so quick to forget him, and the team starts to uncover one secret after another about the mysterious government project known as "The Invisible Nine", and with it secrets that history might rather leave forgotten.

While I believe that a responsible critic should judge each creation on its own individual merits, there are times when the existence of a comparable alternative that surpasses the subject in question on just about every level is evidence enough that it could have been "done better". That holds especially true in this case, where said alternative is widely considered to be essential viewing for anime fans. I mention this because from the military-ruled state to the lower class that's still suffering from the wounds left by war, right down to the noticeably similar art style, Pumpkin Scissors comes out looking an awful lot like a poor man's Fullmetal Alchemist. Take Ed and Al out of the equation to focus almost entirely on Roy and his gang, and then switch Roy out for an idealistic novice, and you pretty much have Pumpkin Scissors, complete with a dog as their team mascot. Oh, and replace Armstrong with a stoner (okay, not really) who lives under a bridge. Having said that, if you know my opinion of FMA (it's a high one to say the least) then you'll know that my saying Pumpkin Scissors isn't as good is hardly a condemnation. If you didn't like any iteration of FMA you almost certainly won't like this, but for the 99% of you who are still here there is an actual review ahead.

I really didn't want to have to make fun of Gonzo again, and indeed this show isn't nearly as ugly as Glass Fleet, but that's not saying much. It's not terrible; the use of CG is minimal, the lighting and backgrounds are competent, but the character designs have a tendency to get sloppy and uneven at the drop of a hat, the movements are stiff, fights aren't especially well-choreographed and lacking in dynamic action, and it's a pretty rough package all-around. The only moments the animation really shines are the mind trip sequences where we get a look into Randel's head and how it's been tampered with, which sport excellent color choices, good use of shadows and some minimalistic but surprisingly effective design work, and members of The Invisible Nine are genuinely creepy and threatening. Other than that, this show sits comfortably at the lower end of okay.

The music is a mix of military trumpets, whistles and drumbeats with a few wind and orchestra pieces mixed in. This sounds fitting in theory, but in execution it’s unfortunately a bit on the forgettable side, and I guess that’s all I have to say about it.

I just wish I could call the English dub forgettable, but that would be a generous compliment. Oreldo is pretty good, but Alice is just okay, Randel sounds stoned half the time (I'm not sure if that was intentional), and about a third of the tertiary characters are downright unlistenable. Apparently ADV was undergoing a merger at the time and they ended up with a lot of voice actors who, to put it bluntly, can’t act. A few shows got the short end of the stick, and this is definitely one of them. Awkward accents and ridiculously slurred speech patterns abound. The Japanese soundtrack, while not outstanding, is at least much more consistent, so I'll have to recommend going sub over dub for this one.

Setting aside the (unfavorable) FMA comparisons for a moment, Pumpkin Scissors does have a lot of good to offer, and the first pleasant surprise is its characters. Alice initially comes across as something of a female Naruto: she's brash, straightforward and charges in headfirst with little strategy, complete with an orange outfit. Thankfully, it quickly becomes clear that Alice is not as naïve as she initially appears; she clings to her child-like idealism not because she doesn't understand how the real world works--she's the daughter and probable heir of a high ranking noble house and fully understands that responsibility begins at the top--but because she believes that such idealism is simply what the world needs to make their time of peace really mean something. It's not realistic, but both she and the show are aware of this, and that turns into the show's biggest saving grace; while FMA was much better at moral ambiguities and gray areas, a little idealism really can be a refreshing change of pace every now and again. That said, Alice should be flayed alive for giving her team the name Pumpkin Scissors (she tries to explain what it means to her but utterly fails to make it any less stupid). Her subordinates Martis and especially Oreldo also have hidden depths, and while they're not given as much time as I might've liked they're still far better fleshed-out than many lackey characters in similar positions. It's clear, however, that Randel is supposed to be the real meat of the story. I'll get back to him in a moment.

Even though Pumpkin Scissors is supposed to be about war relief, I think its greatest strength is addressing separation of the social classes, a problem that can become especially apparent during war and its immediate aftermath--after all, nobles have the resources to endure through hard time and the crafty ones can even profit from them--but it's a far cry from exclusive to wartime. Still, the increasing tension during a postwar depression and the lack of work and rations is definitely truth in television, and I think it's a pretty nice touch. The show does a pretty good job of portraying the discontented masses who are tired of being abused and mistrustful of those born into riches. I'll also applaud the show for not making all the nobles look like pompous assholes (though there are certainly a few like that), in some cases they even show genuine guilt for not taking more responsibility for their fellow men. Again, Pumpkin Scissors is a very idealistic show, but it still manages to feel honest about it without feeling like it's trying to strongarm the audience into listening, and while it can get a bit corny and on-the-nose with its messages, you still want to believe in the ideals it's pressing.

Now to talk about the downside, namely: Randel Oland. He's Pumpkin Scissors' newest recruit and the only member of the team who actually saw any action in the war. What's more, he's actually a very gentle and peace-loving soul at heart, but he's been brainwashed to transform into a terrifying human juggernaut who can single handedly bring down a tank, a side of himself he clearly wishes he could leave behind but keeps tapping into either out of necessity or sometimes just a pure uncontrollable urge. This, unfortunately, makes him sound a helluva lot more interesting and well-developed than he actually is. One problem with the show is that it can't really decide how much self-control Randel is supposed to have when he's in his blue lantern state. Most episodes seem to indicate that it turns him into a complete killing machine, but there are multiple occasions where the show breaks this rule, seemingly on a whim, and it's never treated like a feat of willpower or personal fortitude. It just sort of happens whenever the writers feel like he needs to come and save the day, and this really keeps his personal struggle from having the gravity it feels like it should, it just feels forced and makes his character feel needlessly mopey. He's seven hulking feet of missed opportunity.

Perhaps a guilty conscience might've made up for it, but he doesn't seem to have one of those either, or if he does we never see it. We get the impression he's deeply hurt by what he saw during the war, but most of the show's attempts at developing him are focused on his half-baked existential crisis as a human weapon, all else ignored. Now yes, it is charming to see him slowly warming up to his teammates and forming a tighter bond with them, but even his casual interactions are pretty dull, and it doesn't help that the show has a crappy sense of humor. For every one heartwarming moment there are ten that just leave you scratching your head wondering how you're supposed to react, and the show even makes frequent jokes about the other big gun Randel is implied to be carrying... enough said. It just doesn't have FMA's finesse when it comes to balancing different tones, and in half as many episodes it manages to include a few nearly pointless filler episodes with lame plots. The worst part is that the show peaks at episode 17, the climax of a really, really good arc that seemed to be setting Randel up to face what he is and what's hidden in his past, only for him to get over it the very next episode in a resolution so forced it leaves a bad taste for the rest of the show, just when it was about to reach new heights.

I really need to stop reviewing manga/light novel adaptations with ongoing source material, because complaining about read-the-manga endings is getting old, and Pumpkin Scissors has just that. Honestly, though, it's astounding how much in this show goes absolutely nowhere; In addition to Randel's inconclusive character arc there's the implied government conspiracy surrounding the Invisible Nine, Alice's relationship with her enigmatic fiancé Lionel, her implied sixth sense, and a myriad of other loose plot threads hanging around waiting for a second season that, if sales are to be believed, will probably never happen. No, all we're left with is a six-episode arc with enough staring contests that it probably could've been cut down to three, and it certainly wasn't the right place to end the show. To be fair, the arc actually got a pretty heartfelt resolution, but that's like sticking a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Not a lethal wound, mind you, but the damage is done, and what's left feels like it's long since bled out the best of its potential.

But maybe I'm being too harsh. While Pumpkin Scissors certainly isn't anywhere near as refined as Fullmetal Alchemist, it does have heart. It really cares about what it has to say, and tries to say it in a memorable way. This may be an "if you have nothing else to watch" recommendation, but I'm recommending it nonetheless, for better or for worse. The characters are surprisingly easy to care about, it's somehow charming even when it's stumbling around meaninglessly, the setup is a good one, and on the one in a hundred chance it does eventually get a second season I'll be rooting for it all the way through, even if I have to chuckle every time I hear them say the name "Pumpkin Scissors" with a straight face. Next review, Stan Lee invades Japan and the Skrugg invade America. It's Heroman. Keep it classy.

Special thanks to NoahClue for the request.

Final Grade: 6/10

Sophomoric execution, but it just manages to get by with a surprising amount of charm.

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