The still-fledgling Blu-ray market may not be the first place to turn to fulfill your Japanese animation fix, but it’s certainly the best place to see gorgeous anime like the ‘Freedom’ series as it was meant to be seen. For those of you who missed lead designer Katsuhiro Otomo (‘Akira,’ ‘Steamboy’) and director Shuhei Morita’s six-volume ‘Freedom’ HD DVD run last year, a bit of backstory would probably help. Born as a Japanese promotional endeavor by Nissin Cup Noodles to celebrate their 35th anniversary, “The Freedom Project” sidestepped clumsy product placement in favor of focusing on a futuristic world of paranoia and propaganda, and a group of teenagers fighting to uncover the truth of their existence. Sound strange? Imagine if McDonalds commissioned an R-rated Pixar film, gave the animation house full creative control, and told them to do what they do best, and you'll start to realize the novelty of the “Freedom Project.”
The year is 2267, and the surface of the Earth is uninhabitable. After a dramatic climate shift killed a majority of the planet's population, the survivors colonized the lunar surface of the moon and banded together to create Eden, a utopia that quickly devolved into a grimy civilization of street gangs and disenchanted workers. When children turn fifteen, Eden allows the teens a brief respite from school before forcing them to work in pre-assigned jobs across the colony. Amidst these demoralizing circumstances, a trio of students – a young dreamer named Takeru (voiced by Daisuke Namikawa), along with his friends Kazuma (Shotaro Morikubo), and Bis (Kappei Yamaguchi) -- long to win illegal LTD (Lunar Terrain Vehicle) tunnel races.
After earning a stretch of community service when one such race doesn’t turn out as well as the boy hoped, Takeru stumbles onto a mysterious photograph and a shocking secret that threatens Eden’s grip on its citizenry. After narrowly escaping a legion of war-mechs, the young rebel finds himself investigating everything he's ever believed. Struggling to find answers to dead-end questions, he sets his sights on Earth -- the only place where he has any hope of uncovering the truth. As it turns out, humanity's devastated homeworld isn't the barren wasteland the Administration Council claims it is. Risking their own lives, Takeru, Kazuma, and Bis decide to leave Eden and get to the bottom of the Council's lies.
When I initially began digging through ‘Freedom,’ I was hooked. The first three volumes are a near-perfect introduction to Takeru’s world, his story, and the central conflict of the series. Personally, I love when filmmakers create a shining, city-on-a-hill utopia that slowly unravels and reveals itself to be a dystopian mousetrap. Eden is a fascinatingly complex beastie that becomes a menacing villain in its own right. Likewise, Takeru is little more than an average kid with high hopes, but that's precisely what makes him so endearing. As it stands, the opening trifecta of the series builds palpable tension, introduces a trio of endearing and sympathetic protagonists, and effectively sets the stage for more epic events to come.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Katsuhiro Otomo ('Akira,' 'Steamboy') is the series' lead character and mech designer. His visual style is integral to the world of 'Freedom’ -- the unfinished line art that appears in the final product makes the animation feel like a published manga, while the painted backgrounds bring an added sense of depth and a distinct texture. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Otomo’s art is the foundation of the series’ soul and the characters’ likeability. With so many CG films dominating theaters these days, I'd almost forgotten how much I love the quaint realism and emotive authenticity that can be achieved with traditional animation. Thanks to the first three volumes’ solid scripts, colorful characters, and natural dialogue, I had an easy time immersing myself in Takeru's plight.
Unfortunately, ‘Freedom’ takes a dramatic downturn for its fourth, fifth, and sixth episodes. While I don’t want to spoil the exact turn of events for those who are new to the series, I can warn you that the plot slows to a crawl, the characters become obnoxious and occasionally grating, and the overall tone loses credibility as it begins to fishtail from bland developments to jarring, non-linear distractions that, quite honestly, seem like they belong in an entirely different story. To make matters worse, the underlying mysteries that haunt Takeru (and the viewer) throughout the first three episodes are undermined by a deflating revelation at the start of volume four that completely ruins any sense of tension or ambiguity ‘Freedom’ had managed to build.
By the time I finished the sixth episode, I was convinced that Nissin Cup Noodles wasn’t looking to do anything more than garner attention for their company after all. ‘Freedom’ limps towards its conclusion without much thematic cohesion, organic plot development, or character realization. Instead, it devolves into a parade of pretty pictures with a few absorbing ideas sprinkled in for good measure. The moment Takeru reached Earth, I felt divorced from the tale, his quest, and his inevitable search for the truth. His motivations and, in turn, the driving momentum of the series lost its way and followed the path of least resistance. It’s an altogether disheartening and underwhelming turn of events.
Thankfully, the seventh and final episode (which was never released on HD DVD) offers patient and forgiving fans a proper return to form, as well as a legitimate climax and relatively satisfying ending. While it can’t possibly justify the painfully misguided second and third acts of the tale, it does manage to merge the uneasy dystopia of the first three episodes with the flighty, free-love twists and turns of the next three entries. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to juxtapose two competing philosophies, but I wish the story had remained strong enough to keep me invested in the outcome. Ah well, Morita at least closes out the story with thematic weight and dramatic style.
So what’s the verdict? ‘Freedom’ is an odd bird that will win over a lot of anime junkies, only to lose them over the course of three episodes that abandon everything that initially made the series great. Still, if you manage to survive the disappointing shift at the beginning of the fourth episode, you’ll probably adore everything that ‘Freedom’ has to offer. I would suggest renting this one long before you consider buying it. Sure it’s more affordable than it was on HD DVD (the entire set is only $82 at Amazon), but it’s still too expensive to warrant a blind buy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
In the past, I’ve been pretty critical of Bandai Visual’s packaging, but the Blu-ray edition of ‘Freedom’ arrived in one of the classiest box sets I’ve laid my hands on. Inside an eye-catching outer sleeve, a heavy cardboard shell houses four black BD cases and a high quality booklet. Neat, clean, and comparable to the other high-def cases on my shelves, this sturdy box set shouldn’t give anyone a headache. Larger studios should take note -- this is the way to do it.
Instead of recycling the same HD DVD video transfers that were forced to relinquish a full disc layer to standard definition versions of each episode (due to Bandai Visual’s ill-advised twin-format experiment), the studio has given each Blu-ray volume of ‘Freedom’ a new 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, as well as more room to breathe on four 50GB dual-layer discs. The results are impressive to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, the HD DVD visuals certainly weren’t disappointing and still look just as amazing. In fact, I didn’t detect any major differences between the two. However, unlike the HD DVD twin-format discs, Bandai’s BD-50 presentation should leave little doubt that all seven episodes are technically unhindered and look as good as they possibly could.
Minted directly from the source, each episode of ‘Freedom’ features lush, vibrant primaries, achingly inky blacks, and flawlessly detailed artwork that makes the series one of the most attractive anime productions available in high definition. Even the textures in the background paintings look phenomenal. Take note of elements on the lunar surface, near the crumbling buildings on Earth, and along the industrial imperfections of the distant towers in Eden -- you can see the brush strokes of the hand-painted art and practically feel the effort that went into every frame of the production. More importantly, Otomo's striking design work really lends itself to this formidable level of high definition presentation. Line art is crisp, color fills are stable and reliable, and contrast is bright and vivid. Pause any scene and you have an image that would look fantastic hanging on a wall.
To my relief, I also didn’t encounter any heavy-handed post-production meddling, transfer-related artifacting, or troublesome source noise. While faint banding pops up from time to time and static compression artifacts can be seen on a few background images, such issues are relatively negligible and rarely distract from the otherwise impeccable picture. Need more convincing? Get a hold of the DVD episodes (included on the same discs as the previously released HD DVD versions) and make a quick comparison between the BD and SD transfers. Granted, the DVD presentation is impressive for standard definition, but it can’t even begin to match the high-def visuals on any front.
The only legitimate technical problem worth noting is a bit of minor aliasing that affects some of the series’ finer lineart. However, it’s never a serious detriment, but rather a brief hiccup in a stunning presentation. The Blu-ray edition of ‘Freedom’ may not boast an absolute reference quality presentation, but it will provide fans with a fantastic demo experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Freedom’ ups the ante with three Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks -- a 24-bit monster that features the original Japanese voice cast and a pair of 16-bit English and French mixes that should please the various dub junkies among you. No matter your decision, you’ll encounter crisp, clean, and balanced dialogue set against booming LFE resonance and aggressive rear channel support. Low-end standouts like Takeru’s LTD, his episode three escape craft, and the climactic shuttle launch sound heavy and healthy, making it clear that the series has serious sonic priorities. Likewise, subtle elements like Takeru’s breaths in his lunar suit, plantlife rustling in the breeze, and the chimes and whirs of the various spacecraft showcase the sound designers’ attention to detail. Taken as a whole, the series offers an inviting and immersive soundfield that was more convincing than I expected from a seven-episode anime.
The only nitpick I have is the fact that interior acoustics and environmental ambience occasionally disappear during quieter character interactions or conversations. When the action is intense, the soundfield ropes you in… but when everything slows down, the mix drifts forward into the front channels and loses a bit of its luster. Luckily, these moments are few and far between, leaving the overwhelming majority of the episodes with extremely impressive audio.
Aside from several individual episode previews and recaps, all of the supplemental content featured on the Blu-ray edition of ‘Freedom’ is exclusive to this release. Read on…
The series itself may not have left me in the best of moods, but this Blu-ray box set will make a fine addition to any anime fan’s collection. It features seven gorgeous video transfers, a slew of exciting TrueHD audio tracks, and a solid dose of exclusive supplemental content. The only disappointment is that the HD DVD PiP tracks are missing, but the fact that they were underwhelming features in the first place takes away some of the sting. Ultimately, considering you can nab the box set for $80 on Amazon (the HD DVD releases were $35 per episode), the Blu-ray edition of ‘Freedom’ is worth a look.