Monday, July 15, 2013

Heroman Review

"You are definitely... my hero!"

Heroman is a 26-episode anime produced by Bones. It ran concurrently with a manga produced through a joint effort by Bones, Square Enix and Stan Lee, and first aired in 2010. It is currently stuck in licensing hell thanks to the Almighty Mouse's unyielding grip on all things Stan Lee, and I predict it will remain there for a couple more years at least, but it is up for legal streaming on Crunchyroll. The manga is currently licensed by Vertical.

Joey Jones is an ordinary boy with ordinary concerns: he lives with his grandmother, goes to school, works part-time at a local cafe, hangs out with his best friend Psy, spends time with his crush Lina, and avoids her aggressively protective older brother Will. He's always loved heroes, though, especially since his father died a heroic death to save his companions during a mining accident. He also has a bit of a complex about being untalented and useless, so when one of Will's friends throws away a remote-controlled toy robot, Joey feels bad for it. He takes it home and fixes it up as best he can, naming the toy "Heroman". His friend and resident mad scientist Professor Denton, meanwhile, has been seeking to contact extraterrestrial life, and after years of hard work he announces to Joey that he's finally done it. That night, a mysterious bolt of lightning strikes Joey's house, transforming Heroman into a powerful giant, and turning his remote control into a gauntlet Joey can use to control him.

However, the lighting heralds something much more sinister; as it turns out, the aliens Professor Denton contacted are none too friendly. The Skrugg are a parasitic race of conquerors that seek to consume and exhaust the Earth's resources and purge it of its population, armed with otherworldly weapons the humans can't hope to match, size and strength that put humans to shame, and an uninhibited urge to devour. Joey quickly discovers that Heroman has the power to stop them, but Joey has to learn to use him first, and fast, or the world powers might be forced to resort to nuclear weapons to destroy the Skrugg, and his hometown along with them. But will even that be enough to stop them?

How ironic that Stan Lee would have to go to Japan to make a good old-fashioned American style superhero show, but in an era where it's more common to see parodies, dark twists and subversions than the genuine article, it's nice to see a callback to the good old days. The heroes are very heroic, the villains are very evil, and we never question for a moment which side is in the right. The robots are awesome, the monsters are creepy, and the action is a blast to watch. Ordinary teenagers have ordinary teenage problems, nosy adults worry about their kids, and life gets a hundred times more complicated when you have to balance out superhero work. They just don't make shows like this anymore, which is a shame. I have nothing against complex or innovative storylines, but I hope people never lose their appreciation for simpler pleasures like this.

Heroman was made by Bones, which means it has some of the best animation on the market. The visuals are fluid and detailed, and also incredibly stylish, with lots of bright (but never garish) colors, expressive faces, and some increasingly cool and imaginative battles. It's also nice to see how much effort went into the design work; it's true that a lot of the character designs and outfits fall into basic stereotypes, but they're at least American stereotypes instead of Japanese stereotypes of Americans. Some of the characters do suffer from anime hair, though. Everything else, from the layout of Joey's hometown to the cars, cafes and even the houses are unmistakably American-looking. We probably have Stan Lee to thank for that authenticity, and it's part of the reason a lot of people, myself included, say the show would do well on American television. This is one of the best-looking kid shows I've ever seen.

The music score consists primarily of loud electric rock. It's intense, fun to listen to, vaguely reminiscent of Soul Eater's score and just as effective in setting the mood for all the series' fun action scenes. The show brings out some softer pieces here and there as needed, but the battle music is what you're going to remember.

I just have one language track to judge this time. As always, I have a hard time judging the voice acting in a language I don't speak, but to my non-fluent ears it sounds like a perfectly comic-booky archetypal cast, which is exactly what the show needs. There's not a lot of subtlety, this isn't a very nuanced show, but the characters that are meant to be over-the-top sound deliciously so. They shout with passion, laugh heartily and even carry the show through its tender moments. Heroman's voice, comprised solely of groans and grunts, is uncredited and possibly synthesized, but man does he sound like a big badass robot. Joey is the only male character voiced by a woman, but he's supposed to be a very wide-eyed and boyish character (he even looks androgynous), and Mikaku Komatsu gets this side of him across fine, so I'm okay with this.

As far as teenage superheroes go, Joey Jones is cut from the same cloth as Peter Parker. He's not particularly popular, but he still has good friends he can count on. He's not particularly intelligent but he does have a clever streak. He's at that age between childhood and adulthood, where he has concerns like whether his love is reciprocated but still retains a boyish heart. It's a decades-old character archetype, but if executed well it can still make for a likable lead, and that's just what Joey is. His friends and relatives all fall into the simple and likable category as well, they can all more or less be summed up in two or three sentences, but when push comes to shove you still find yourself rooting for them. All of them, that is, with the exception of Joey's best friend Psy, who is implied to have once been one of "the cool kids" and possibly a bully himself before a leg injury got him removed from the football team. It's not terribly important to the story, but a little extra effort is always welcome in my book. Joey's brash but caring sister Holly, zany mad scientist Professor Denton and mutual crush Lina have their moments to shine as well, creating an all-around lovable core cast.

As per the title, though, the real star of the show is Heroman himself. This series is a no-holds action spectacle, plain and simple, to dwell on anything else for too long would be completely missing the point. The Skrugg are definitely a viable threat, aptly modeled after cockroaches with strength and weapons humans can't match. They just want to take over the world and kill everyone, and all the other villains have very simple comic book-y motivations for what they do. And you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way. It is immensely satisfying to see Heroman beating up the arthropod invaders, discovering more powers he can add to his arsenal, all the while showing off his flashy all-American paint job. Occasional use of stock footage notwithstanding (and the stock footage is actually pretty awesome) the crisply animated fight scenes only get more imaginative as Heroman gains new powers and new enemies.

After a little while Joey even gets some powers of his own, thanks to his gauntlet, and actually, I'd say giving him the chance to fight alongside his giant robot was probably the show's biggest stroke of genius. It adds that touch of human involvement to the fights that we just couldn't get from the silent, stoic Heroman, who only occasionally shows signs of sentience. By giving Joey a more direct involvement in the fights, which only increases as the story progresses, we're given a good look at Joey's personal growth, and that's handled quite well. The best part is, it never gets too dark or violent or complicated for children to watch and enjoy right along with you.

Compelling as it is, Heroman has as many problems as any awkward boy in high school. The show is pretty well-written on a whole, but the pacing isn't always up to scratch. I mentioned earlier that this isn't a character-driven show, and while they're all very likable, their development is nothing we haven't seen before. Make no mistake, the show's character drama works really well when it's used sparingly; it's cheesy and often melodramatic, but that's the point. During the lulls between battles when the characters have to carry entire episodes on their own, though... well, it's still pleasant to watch, but it's definitely not the show playing to its greatest strength. Meanwhile, we only get brief snatches of development from Psy, the character that does seem to have some hidden depths.

The series' low point comes in the middle, when Joey finds himself on the run from a government agency and has to hide out in the woods without making too much of a scene. Yeah, the whole "fugitive evading the authorities" story gets old really quickly. You can always be sure the show has something more waiting just around the corner, though, and when it's all cylinders firing, it's an absolute delight. The series concludes with a grand-scale finale that offers a satisfying resolution while still leaving enough openings for a possible second season. Most importantly, even if the characters aren't complex enough to carry the show all on their own, you still find yourself rooting for them all the way through. That's all I ask of an action show: caring about the characters enough to want to see them make it out alright.

That's the heart of what makes this show work, actually. Action and cool-factor are nice, but if there's no emotional investment, what's the point? That might not sound like much, but it's something I see people forgetting far too often. It's such a simple story that while writing this review, I initially found myself grasping at straws to find something, anything to say about it that isn't already obvious. But then I realized that being able to sum this show up in not so many words isn't a bad thing. It's a typical story we've seen dozens of times before, doubly so if you grew up reading American comic books, but it feels so sincere and passionate that it's hard not to cheer for it all the way through. It doesn't have to try too hard to be groundbreaking, all that matters is whether it makes the audience want to keep watching. Bring on the aliens, the mad scientists, the mutant plants, the rogue machines and scary weapons, the cool powers and wacky inventions! It's a lot of fun, dammit! That's all I have to say about Heroman at the end of the day, and it's all anyone ever should have to say about it. Isn't that enough? My next review will be a surprise (which is code for: I'm working on it, but I don't want to commit in case I get lazy and give up halfway). Keep it American!

Special thanks to burk for requesting this review.

Final Grade: 7/10

It's a lot of fun! Just... it's a lot of fun!

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