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DVD Review

DVD cover

Birdy the Mighty: Decode
Part One: Episodes 1-13


Starring (voice): Saeko Chiba and Miyu Irino
Manga Entertainment
RRP: £24.99
Certificate: 12
Available 11 July 2011

Birdy Cephon Altera is an interstellar space agent sent to Earth to investigate the appearance of aliens under the secret identity of a popular idol. A frantic late night mission causes her to catch an innocent schoolboy in her deadly line of fire. Thanks to a special space technology, Birdy knows a way to restore his life by joining their two bodies into one. Now Tsutomu and Birdy must share the same body, mind and adventures while his broken flesh slowly heals...

Birdy The Mighty: Decode is a series with a simple premise and a somewhat complex genesis. Starting life as a prematurely cancelled manga by Masaami Yuki, creator of the Patlabor manga, Birdy was until now best known for a memorable four-part 1996 OVA from director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who injected it with the muscle-tearing body horror for which he's notorious. Rebooted under slightly different form in 2003 by Yuki and since then running quietly in Weekly Young Sunday magazine, this 2008 TV series tells the story of Birdy and Tsutomu's meeting once again, making further changes to the story and characters. Fortunately, you won't need any knowledge of the earlier versions to appreciate this highly enjoyable show.

A major point in the favour of what could have been a rather pedestrian sci-fi anime is the presence of Kazuki Akane (Vision of Escaflowne), a distinctive and intelligent director whose earlier series Noein: To Your Other Self crept out of nowhere to become one of the best TV anime of the 2000s. Akane seems to be a rarity among contemporary TV anime directors in that he really values and understands good animation, and while Decode shows the limitations of its mid-range budget, the use of individual body language and character motion is exemplary throughout. Birdy's loose-limbed, exuberant fighting style in particular is a delight to watch and elevates her combat scenes into something to behold - the fight in episode one that concludes with the disturbingly graphic pulverising of poor Tsutomu is a natural attention-grabber and the kind of set-piece anime series tend to squander their budgets on, yet Akane surpasses it more than once during the series.

Just as it should, the animation contributes much to Birdy's characterisation - it's easy to see, long before we're told, how she earned the nickname 'Birdy the Berserker Killer' - and the contrast between her brash forcefulness and the shy, awkward Tsutomu is nicely handled without being overdone. Indeed, their growth together, which could have been by-the-numbers odd-couple comedy, is handled so well that it slips by almost unnoticed until this first season's conclusion.

Decode introduces several characters not present in the earlier versions, and while Akane might have made these changes to earn positive comparison with Noein - both feature a close-knit group of childhood friends under threat of a growing otherworldly menace - the school-age characters don't quite have the charm or verve of Noein's cast, such that it's easy to grow frustrated at their cutting in on Birdy's screen time. The decision to shuffle Tsutomu's parents and sister offstage to make him a home-alone teenager also counts against the show - his befuddled family's reactions to his bizarre circumstances were a highlight of the OVA - and is sadly typical of contemporary anime, many of which find any excuse to have their bland teenage male leads living by themselves rather than go to the effort of portraying semi-credible domestic settings. Worse yet, the two-dimensional villain, a megalomaniac Indian businessman, fails to command much presence and comes dangerously close to 'shady foreigner' stereotyping of the kind that anime, despite its frequent wilful blindness to race in Japanese society, can do without. It's a shame Decode doesn't make the most of Yuki’s own stylish signature villains, renegade scientist Christella Revi and her bruiser henchman Gomez, reduced here to virtual cameos.

Even with these points against it, Decode surpassed my expectations. The animation, as mentioned above, is often superb - some of the best seen in the past few years - and even when it doesn't maintain such high standards, the show has a feel of light and space that carries it through. Both the musical score and voice cast are terrific, with special praise due to Saeko Chiba as Birdy, whose dual performance as the tough space-cop and her whiny airhead alter ego is one of the best leading roles I've heard. Birdy isn't just a very good anime, it's a fine example of a superhero cartoon, and in a time when those are in short supply, I think it deserves your attention. And the second season promises even better things.


Richard Hunt

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