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Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Freedom

Since embarking on this journey through Katsuhiro Otomo’s career, I’ve covered all of his non-Akira anime writing and directing, leaving only those works with which he is more tangentially associated. His very first credited work in the anime industry was as character designer for director Rintaro’s (Neo Tokyo, Metropolis)1983 movie Harmagedon. Apparently Harmagedon is not only bonkers, but also kind of terrible, plus currently unavailable to procure legally. It was never released in the UK, and the US DVD is long out-of print. I’m not going to bother with that, so please forgive me.

Nissin Cup Noodle: Staple moon food. Honest.

Otomo’s other anime work as character designer, that didn’t also involve him as director, was 2006’s very unusual 7-episode OAV series Freedom Project, henceforth referred to as Freedom. He also designed the show’s mecha, and following that, his contribition to Freedom ended following pre-production. However, because the visuals of the show are so obviously beholden to his inimitable style, I think its inclusion in my retrospective is entirely justified.

They sure love their Nissin Cup Noodles.

Freedom was conceived as a celebration of Nissin Cup Noodle’s 35th birthday. Yes, it’s essentially an extremely glossy, three-hour-plus extended advertisment for cup ramen, the freeze-dried noodle you reconstitute with boiling water as a high-salt, high-carb, low-cost, hypertension-inducing snack. Somehow that inspired this show about space colonies, totalitarian governments and teenage rebellion. I’m not going to complain though — however it was financed, and however much obnoxious, egregious, ridiculous product placement it contains — Freedom is a fantastic anime.

It must have been about 5 minutes since they last had some. Time for some more Nissin Cup Noodles.

Initially released right at the dawn of the next-gen HD disc media wars, Freedom’s first six 22-minute episodes were released individually, bimonthly, on HD-DVD in Japan, and then also in the US, at eye-wateringly high prices ($40 per single-episode disc), obscene for what, ultimately, was promotional material. Unfortunately, by the time the 45-minute double-length final episode was complete, HD-DVD had died an ignominious death, and it limped reluctantly onto the competing blu-ray format instead. Bandai Entertainment Europe (Beez) released all seven episodes in the UK over four blu-ray discs in a £70 limited edition box set back in 2007. The UK anime blu-ray market back then was desolate, HD anime was sent out to die and no-one bought it. Manga Entertainment rescued the license in 2011 and re-released the whole thing on a single blu-ray disc, alongside two DVDs at a much more sensible £35 price point. That’s the version I have.

Never ever travel without your favourite snack, Nissin Cup Noodle. Okay, okay. I’ll stop it now.

Although Otomo’s contribution began and ended with pre-production character and mecha design, many of the production team were comprised of ex-Steamboy alumni, that long-gestating movie having only exited its tortured decade-long production cycle in 2004. They brought with them experience of Otomo’s cinematic sensibilities, including a penchant for big-picture spectacle and, of course, explosions. Even the first couple of episodes feature high-speed futuristic motorcycle races, highly reminiscent of Akira’s first moments.

Otomo’s creepy red mecha things are very cool, relentless antagonists. The action scenes are fluid and exciting.

Even minor and background characters look like they’ve stepped out from one of Otomo’s manga, and main character Takeru bears more than a passing resemblance to Akira’s Kaneda. Otomo’s style is very individual, and doesn’t fit the typical anime mould. He doesn’t do enormous eyes or levitating bosoms, characters are realistically proportioned, yet maintain a kind of cartoonish charm, even considering the fact that most character animation in Freedom is achieved via CG.

The backdrops are exquisitely painted and look beautiful.

Don’t run away! I’m fully aware that anime does not have a great reputation for CG, especially not considering such recent abominations as Berserk (2016), EX-ARM (2021) or anything involving Polygon Pictures. Freedom takes a little while to progress past the cel-shaded uncanny valley — certainly in the first few episodes, the characters move with a kind of common CG weightlessness, like someone forgot to include gravity in the simulation. In a way, this is almost fitting, because these episodes do take place on the moon in what one might imagine is a reduced-gravity environment. It looks goofy as hell, though.

It’s podracing time!

Unlike cheaper, nastier CG anime productions, there aren’t horribly skipped frames to cause nausea-inducing judder-o-vision, though the price for this is sometimes unnatural smoothness in character motion. It does improve a lot as the show progresses, however, and the CG works well for the plethora of fantastically-designed mecha, whether spaceships, murderbots or motor vehicles. Some of the vehicles give me real Star Wars podracer vibes, and the races involving them are pretty cool. Despite what the first episode might suggest, the races aren’t the focus of the show, though.

The moooooooooooon!

Main character, 15-year-old Takeru and his friends Biz (short for Bismarck) and Kazuma live in a domed city within the lunar colony Eden, intially build as a starting point for the (cancelled) human colonisation of Mars. 160 years previously, Eden lost contact with the Earth during some kind of climate apocalypse, apparently triggered by the fall of an enormous space station from orbit. This reportedly ended all human civilisation on the planet, leaving the moon’s Eden colony the last surviving remnant of mankind. It seems extra-terrestrial octopus monsters may also have been implicated, but it soon becomes clear that the history taught to Eden’s children is little more than far-fetched propaganda.

Takeru, Kazuma and Biz. The cel-shaded CG does a reasonable job of avoiding the uncanny valley plasticky appearance found in many lesser productions.

Eden’s authoriatrian, isolationist society is tightly-controlled, the populace continually monitored by electronic tracking bracelets, their future careers and roles mapped out for them. Individual ambitions are discouraged and everyday life is governed by strict rules and regulations. On the inside surface of each of the enormous city-sized domes is a projected blue sky, each with an image of the red, destroyed Earth prominently featured, as a reminder of mankind’s propensity for self-destruction. Journeys outside of the sealed domes onto the unprotected vacuum of the lunar surface are limited to maintenance crews/community service teams only, and travel further than 30km from the city is forbidden.

Takeru is most definitely motivated by the appearance of a pretty girl the same age as him.

When Takeru and his friends are ordered to participate in disciplinary community service following a high-spirited racing mishap, he finds on the nearby lunar surface the remains of a crashed rocket containing flowers and photographs of a teenage girl and some younger children. Words written on the back read “We are safe. Is anybody out there?” His curiosity piqued, Takeru commandeers a moon buggy and travels beyond the permitted limit. Eden is situated on the far side of the moon, which, as it is tidally-locked, never rotates to face the Earth. Once he reaches the terminator boundary, Takeru sees the real Earth for the first time — a beautiful oceanic blue marble floating in space above him. Not a dead, dust-red graveyard like his goverment has led the populace to believe.

Time to steal a rocket, a standard teenage rebellion thing. It’s just like taking your dad’s car without permission.

This discovery inspires Takeru and his friends to mount an escape from Eden, and relentlessly chased by government forces, he manages to commandeer a rocket and heads to Earth in search of the girl who sent the photographs. To say much more would spoil a really great story that deserves to be watched. The basic premise is very reminiscent of other scifi stories involving closed societies based on a lie — like The Matrix, Megazone 23, Yuki Yuna is a Hero — but it’s executed fairly well. Also, the concept of teenagers rebelling against a corrupt/inflexible/unfair adult society is so endemic throughout YA fiction, anime, and videogames that it would seem trite to criticise its inclusion here. This trope will always prove fertile for narrative fiction, closely associated as it is with the metanarrative concept of “The Hero’s Journey”.

Yeah! Screw authority!

Freedom is split into three main acts — Takeru discovering the truth of Eden, Takeru on Earth, and then the conclusion that satisfyingly resolves most story threads. Overall, the story is spread over about four years, with a couple of significant time jumps to account for minor things like building rocketships safe enough to withstand travel between celestial bodies. It could easily have been expanded to a full season of twelve episodes or so. There are many allusions to NASA’s Apollo program, with a great deal of very detailed technical information about rocketry and space exploration. It’s clear that someone on the staff was a giant space nerd, and the attention to detail adds authority. The clean-lined CG aesthetics suit the gleaming white spacecraft well, although I noted that the climactic rocket launch sequence in the penultimate episode can’t quite match the insane detail and obsessive artistry of Hideaki Anno’s similar (but incredibly hand-drawn) scene from Royal Space Force — The Wings of Honneamise from almost two decades previous.

Taira: Takeru crosses orbits for her — several times.

Unusually for anime, Freedom features a refreshingly multi-ethnic cast. While the lunar colony is (save a single black character) a mostly white, or at least pale Asian monoculture, once on the Earth we meet a variety of people from different cultural backgrounds. Taira, Takeru’s love interest, appears to be of Indigenous American descent, and she holds her own against the otherwise mostly male cast. Her upbeat attitude and sense of adventure remind me a lot of Nadia from Secret of Blue Water.

Random punch-up!

The only character I’m not totally sold on is Takeru’s friend Kazuma. His later character arc is muddled, and some of his motivations and actions towards the conclusion of the story don’t make any sense. They seem driven more by the needs of the story than any organic development, a need to demonstrate the corrosive nature of power within a totalitarian society. He and Takeru have a kind of pointless fist fight that starts for stupid reasons and ends without any actual resolution in their differences. Everything is just suddenly, inexplicably “fine”. I can forgive that one lapse in narrative logic however, when the rest of the show is pretty narratively tight, even if the middle section is somewhat necessarily slowed down.

Takeru demonstrates Traditional Space Sparklewear to his new friends. They are not impressed.

The English dub is pretty good, though I found that for some reason during the final episode the blu-ray audio started to lag. Not sure if that was the fault of my PS4, or of the disc itself. Also an oddity — the 6-minute prologue that runs before the first episode proper isn’t dubbed, so is subtitled. That seems like a very strange omission. Also while it’s possible to watch the rest of the episodes both dubbed and with subtitles on simultaneously, this appears to be impossible with the first episode. These seem like fairly significant mistakes, but they don’t detract too badly from the overall experience.

I binged the whole 3-hour-plus blu-ray in one sitting, it was so compelling. It’s rare that a single anime story can engage me for such an extended length of time without my attention drifting, but Freedom grabbed my attention and held it captive for the full duration. Now that it’s no longer so stupidly expensive (I picked up the blu-ray/DVD combo set for £8 secondhand from CEX), I can heartily recommend this show to anyone who enjoyed recent hard SF anime like The Orbital Children.

This is the UK edition, which should still be resonably easy enough to find.

Freedom
Directed by: Shuhei Morita (Tokyo Ghoul, Short Peace — Possessions)
Written by: Katsuhiko Chiba (Outlaw Star, Baby Steps) and Dai Sato (Eureka Seven, Ergo Proxy)
Character and mecha design: Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Steamboy, Memories)
Production Studio: Sunrise
Japanese HD-DVD/Blu-ray release: November 24, 2006 — May 23, 2008
UK Blu-ray/DVD release: October 10, 2011 (Collector’s Edition)
UK distributor: Manga Entertainment
Runtime: 203 minutes
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English audio
BBFC rating: PG

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