16 Jul 2011
Hybrids are all the rage these days aren't they? Whether it's cars or mixing up solar, gas and wind energy, it seems that everyone wants to chuck every possible idea into the pot and give it a big ol' stir, and with Xam'd, Studio Bones prove that they're no different.
Sentan island is an idyllic, almost Miyazaki-inspired paradise, home to peaceful inhabitants leading peaceful lives. Among the populace is Akiyuki Takehara, a normal teenager with a kind heart and impeccable manners. Sadly, it's these qualities that lead him to help a young girl onto his schoolbus, which she promptly blows up. The explosion leaves Akiyuki with a jewel embedded in his arm and a lot of dead classmates. The jewel is a sentient creature which turns Akiyuki into a Xam'd, a psychadelic looking creature of incredible strength. Struggling to gain control of his newfound abilities, he happens upon a mysterious girl who offers him a choice - follow her and live, or stay and turn to stone.
Xam'd is a beautiful anime, and the Blu Ray release fits the lush visuals like a glove. Everything is sharp, eye-poppingly colourful and fluidly animated. Likewise the music is fantastic, especially the opening theme Shut up and Explode by Boom Boom Satellites which is effortlessly cool and exciting - in fact, it's the coolest anime music since The Pillows provided the soundtrack to FLCL.
The dub is pretty good, and real effort has been made to seperate the tone of various lead characters, but the sub adds a layer of emotional depth that the dub fails to convey, making it my choice of the two.
Xam'd borrows liberally from other sources - it takes its aesthetics from previous Bones series Eureka 7 and various Miyazaki films, most obviously Mononoko Hime. The mecha designs would fit straight into Cowboy Bebop and the premise of organic armour is straight from the pages of The Guyver. Throw in a pace and cast that would suit Last Exile, and you really do have a hodge-podge of ideas and styles that only occasionally mesh well together.
The problem with Xam'd is that while it borrows many of its ideas, a trick also performed by Gun Sword by the way, it fails to understand why those ideas worked. Xam'd lacks the humour that gave Cowboy Bebop its humanity, and The Guyver clearly provided an enemy and agenda against which to pit our hero.
Xam'd, in contrast, has no urgency. Emo naval-gazing and long, introspective dialogue does not provide the human element which it badly needs. The plot is confusing, and never establishes any real urgency. True, there are fight scenes littered throughout the show, but they're largely unsatisfying and lacking in awe. It's also hard to care about fights when you can't care about the people in them.
I get what the creators were trying to do with the crew of the Zanbani postal ship on which Akiyuki finds himself. The metaphor for family is so ham-fisted that the cardboard cut-out characters are almost embarassing. This trope has been around so long that to fail at conveying it is pretty inexcusable.
For example, the captain has literally no backstory to explain her callous and jaded attitude, and only perverted delivery man Akishuba raises a smile with his sarcasm. The arrival of Raigyo, a cool, older Xam'd, makes the crew more likeable with his effotless charm, but it's really too little, too late by the time he shows up (and the crew absolutely fawns all over him, which makes you wonder how they got on without him). I don't know why Bones are obsessed with putting annoying children in their shows, but the kids running around the ship are almost as annoying as those on Eureka 7, a series I gave up on completely by volume 7.
All that said, you can't fault the show on a technical level. It has some great animation, awesome music and bizarre, eye-catching designs. Sadly all the flash in the world can't make up for a cast who seem to be walking around in a dazed stupor and a pace so leaden it should come with a health warning.