To commemorate their 20th anniversary, anime powerhouse Bandai Visual tapped Gonzo Studios to develop a project based on a popular science fiction novel by Chohei Kanbayashi. The result was 'Yukikaze' -- a five episode OVA series that aired in Japan before finding distribution in Europe and the United States. While anime enthusiasts had to wait as each episode was released individually (with a drawn-out schedule and pricing structure similar to that of Bandai Visual's 'Freedom' series), 'Yukikaze' still managed to maintain the attention of fans across the globe. Personally, I didn't have the opportunity to view the series when it was first released, so I was rather excited to have a shot at its high definition debut, but I found myself wondering if it could possibly live up to the pretentiousness conveyed by its original release schedule and astronomical price.
When a dimensional portal appears over the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, a mysterious alien race pours out of the rift and begins attacking Earth. Referred to as the JAM (based on their strategic battle techniques), these fierce fighters make no attempt at contact or peace; their lone impulse seems to be the destruction of mankind. As the armies of Earth force the invaders back through the portal, an elite aerial combat organization called the FAF is developed to counter the unique capabilities of the aliens. This new division of the world's air force enters the portal and establishes a human base on planet "Fairy" to prevent future invasions.
Decades later, the people of Earth have all but forgotten the JAM, going so far as to question whether an alien attack actually took place, but despite their doubt, a bitter war between FAF and JAM fighters still rages on in the skies of Fairy. During his years of combat, Rei Fukai has become attached to his advanced aerial fighter, Yukikaze. Its artificial intelligence makes Yukikaze the only sentient entity Rei can connect with in such a violent world. Of course, this doesn't exactly sit right with his friend and superior officer, Jack Bukhar; a man desperate to communicate with his reclusive comrade. When Yukikaze uploads its consciousness into a JAM fighter, Jack is forced to keep Rei in the fighter's new, alien cockpit as much as possible. As Yukikaze develops its sentience and Rei becomes more reluctant to live as a human, Jack has to save his friend, prevent the hybrid Yukikaze from falling into enemy hands, and decipher the bizarre new tactics of an old enemy.
'Yukikaze' accomplishes quite a bit as an anime series. The aerial combat sequences are a feast for the senses -- explosions, cluttered battlescapes, and whirling fighters keep the action intense and the heart pounding. Intricate plotting keeps the story fascinating as well. I appreciated the lofty ambitions of such a challenging, mature script. In fact, the numerous twists and turns in the tale had me asking questions and dealing with the consequences of the answers in conjunction with Jack and Rei. Best of all, the main characters were revealed to be mere pawns in a game of political intrigue, dangerous betrayal, and their own identities. They suffered like anyone in their position would and they questioned their existence and purpose throughout the story. Thematically, 'Yukikaze' hit many of the same metaphysical notes that have allowed the new 'Battlestar Galactica' television series to remain so rewarding over the years.
Unfortunately, it all gets bogged down in the mix. There are so many crosses, double-crosses, and triple-crosses that cross the original double-crosses, that I couldn't keep up with the story as it unfolded. I know full well that repeat viewings would help alleviate this feeling, but I didn't have the stomach to sit through it all again. Furthermore, while I enjoyed the tension of Rei and Jack's tepid relationship, I was too distracted by the ambiguity of their supposed romance. Every time they engaged in the odd love triangle developing between them and Yukikaze, the series lost steam. Honestly, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest if the male leads were homosexual, but the tiresome are-they-aren't-they subtext injected into the story seemed pointlessly vague to me. I would have enjoyed the series far more if their relationship was defined (or at the very least revealed as the story progressed).
I wanted to love 'Yukikaze.' It offered fantastic set pieces, exciting battle scenes, and some weighty sci-fi ponderings for anime fans who don't enjoy being spoon fed Dragon-Ball-Frosted-Flakes, but it wasn't meant to be. An overly dense plot, some mind numbing developments, and an ambiguous central relationship left me feeling distracted and detached. 'Yukikaze' is worth watching, but it certainly won't appeal to everyone.
While Bandai Visual has comfortably spread all five AVC-encoded episodes of 'Yukikaze' across two dual-layer discs, the studio decided to forego properly remastering the series in 1080p and merely upscaled a 480p video source to 1080i. Framed in the series' original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, colors are bold and solid, offering strong primaries and deep blacks. Fine detailing on the ships are quite good as well - sure, the filmmakers constantly stifle the image with an intentional, sun-drenched haze, but it suits the tone of the piece. The CG-animated aircraft have a convincing three-dimensionality that immediately upped the impact of the presentation. Thankfully, even though the CG elements feel a bit disjointed from the traditionally animated characters, the transfer doesn't call much attention to the discrepancy. As it stands, the animators did an excellent job of balancing the two techniques and the BD presentation doesn't betray their efforts.
Unfortunately, the transfer fails to best other high definition anime on the market. Banding is an omnipresent issue that leaves aerial shots looking stocky and stilted. Pixilation pops up frequently (particularly around characters' eyes and mouths) and aircraft edges are often undone by pesky aliasing. Artifacting and source noise also appear throughout each episode, undermining the cleanliness of the transfer and seriously disappointing this anime enthusiast. For the most part, I didn't have to discover that 'Yukikaze' was an upscaled presentation... I could just tell. Don't get me wrong, the Blu-ray transfer looks better than the series' standard DVDs, but it's missing the stability and clarity of better BD anime releases. To be blunt, it's an average effort that fails to justify the $150 price tag attached to the set.
Mediocre PQ aside, Bandai Visual has graced 'Yukikaze' with two excellent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks -- an English dub and the original Japanese language mix. However, while both offer the same stunning technical quality, the English dub was packed with corny line delivery and overacting from beginning to end. Maybe it's just a personal preference, but the Japanese actors inject the series with a dramatic tone that isn't as convincing in the English dub.
Dialogue is clean and centralized across the front channels, prioritization is spot on, and sound effects benefit from consistent LFE support. Low-end extension is astounding to say the least - whether I was listening to the FAF engines, the JAM fighters, or either force's missiles, the explosions and gunfire that litter the soundfield are powerful and intense. The rear surrounds regularly contribute to the experience, adding another dimension of sound during aerial battles, and a surprising amount of ambiance during quiet interior scenes. Conversations aren't an excuse to shut down the rear speakers, but a reason to demonstrate the prowess of the sound designers and their efforts. Best of all, planes whip across the soundscape with transparent pans and perfect accuracy. I love when sounds so effortlessly move around my home theater - this oft-overlooked attention to detail makes immersion so much easier.
All in all, 'Yukikaze' sounds fantastic, offers a compelling listening experience, and has two TrueHD tracks that will appeal to Dubbies and Subbies alike. If you're looking for a reason to work through the price, this is it.
All of the supplemental features included with this 3-disc set are exclusive to the Blu-ray edition of 'Yukikaze.'
'Yukikaze' confused me more than it engaged me -- for all of its exciting aerial combat sequences and morose brooding, I couldn't get a firm handle on the characters or the plot. The Blu-ray edition is a mixed bag as well. It includes a pair of exquisite TrueHD audio tracks, but only offers an upscaled 1080i video transfer and a piddling collection of special features. Considering the high price Bandai Visual attached to this 3-disc set ($149.99 for a 186 minute, 5-episode series), I expected a lot more. Rent this one if you can find it, but approach a purchase with extreme caution.