At the present moment in time, it feels like shounen action shows (aimed at a predominately young male audience) are all the rage in the wonderful world of anime. Despite the limited exposure Japanese animation gets on UK television the likes of Naruto, One Piece and Bleach are well known. It's tough not to spot a video game based on those properties when visiting gaming stores and the same can be said about their respective mangas adorning the shelves of geeky bookstores. I am however not a huge fan of the genre. I gave both Bleach and One Piece a shot, but ended up tiring of them after a while. Lesson learned, I didn't even bother with Naruto (the orange jumpsuit wearing ninja) and his hundreds of filler filled episodes.
I guess my palette for anime has become a little more sophisticated after gorging vast amounts of Dragonball Z during my teens. There's only so much yelling and endless training montages, in lieu of proper story, that one man can take during their lifetime. Being the masochist that I am, I cannot however resist dipping into the shounen-fighting genre from time to time - suckered in by the flashy combat before being reminded how shallow it all is. My latest foray into the spectacle of shounen comes in the form of Buso Renkin. I was intrigued to see if it would differentiate itself from other mindless action shows given that the writer of the respected Rurouni Kenshin franchise created it. The short answer to that question is - no it doesn't distinguish itself in terms of originality, but that's not to say that it's lacking in entertainment merit.
Since digging into the extensive stockpile of DVDs I purchased, during a recent trip to London, it is becoming rather apparent that (nine times out of ten) you cannot have an anime show without a high school protagonist. This week's example of that archetype is Kazuki Muto, whose life gets turned around after he attempts to save a girl from being attacked by a giant serpent like creature. During the rescue attempt Kazuki suffers a fatal wound after getting impaled through the chest. Luckily for him the lass he protected (Tokiko Tsumura) repays his good deed by replacing Kazuki's dysfunctional heart with an alchemic device called a Kakugane. The gizmo's regenerative abilities not only save his life, but also allow him to summon a weapon known as a Buso Renkin, which in his case takes the form of a lance.
Kazuki learns that the slithering beastie responsible for puncturing his torso is a homunculi - a creature born by combining a human with a plant or animal. As homunculi have a taste for humanoid flesh, Kazuki decides to team up with Tokiko who is hunting the reptilian monster and the mastermind who created it. They both agree that leaving a giant snake to run amok isn't a good idea given that it may opt to munch on Kazuki's sister and friends who study at a nearby high school. The alliance proves to be a success; eventually leading to Kazuki joining the ranks of the Alchemy Warriors group Tokiko is affiliated with. From that point on Muto begins an intensive training regime to strengthen his new found powers... well this is a shounen show after all.
The series gradually leads up to the Alchemy Warriors confronting Victor - a former member of their organization who has transformed into a powerful red-skinned homunculi who feeds off the life force of others. Unfortunately for Kazuki the Kakugane that is keeping him alive is gradually mutating him into a crimson skinned life stealer too (all this red flesh makes me think that these guys have never heard of sun lotion.) Kazuki's former allies in the Alchemist Army are ordered to terminate his existence, before he turns into a Victor level world threat. Poor Kazuki now finds himself in a race to save the Earth from Victor, before he himself is corrupted, whilst also evading capture from his former friends. I guess that's what you get for not minding your own business and getting involved with a monster-fighting girl.
As far as heroes go Kazuki Muto is fairly generic in comparison to other anime leads. He's somewhat goofy, strives to make himself stronger and has a heart of gold (or should that be heart of Kakugane.) I didn't find his personality to be particularly noteworthy and his appearance made it hard to believe that he is capable of saving the world. At least the youngsters in shows like Dragonball and Naruto can claim to be trained fighters, but Kazuki is just your run of the mill Japanese student. Although deeply intense when battling homunculi he is far more easy going when interacting with friends. A lot of the show's comedy comes from his exchanges with his sis and other schoolyard chums including the annoying Hideyuki Okakura (who sports one of the most gravity defying hair styles I have seen in quite some time.)
Even though Kazuki can be described as being nothing special, at least his partner in crime Tokiko manages to be a more captivating character. Sporting a wicked scar, that may be a nod to the star of Rurouni Kenshin, she's a badass fighter who goes into combat brandishing a four bladed Buso Renkin. It's refreshing to see a female character that can kick arse in a genre that normally relegates anyone with boobs to the role of damsel in distress needing rescue.
As you may expect from a show fronted by two teenagers, romance does blossom between the leads. Although normally composed, Tokiko's stonewall expression does crack during the lubby dubby scenes - especially when the pair get caught in the act, which gets her all flustered. One thing I can give the show credit for is that it treats relationships more maturely than other animes do. Things develop naturally and by the end there's no doubt that they are an item that care for each other. This is different from other animes were characters clearly have the hots for each other, but never get beyond blushing during intimate moments.
Buso Renkin's cast starts small, but as you get further into the series more and more characters get introduced. Sadly most of them are nothing more than two-dimensional clichés who appear just because the story calls for new faces to challenge the main characters. From the supporting cast I did however enjoy Kazuki's mentor Captain Bravo, whose wardrobe consists of a cowboy hat and indestructible silver trench coat. Kazuki's rival Papillion also stands out, in more ways than one. He's a scientific genius who seeks to become a homunculi to stave off the terminal illness he suffers from. He pretty much steals every scene he is in with his overly flamboyant displays. I'll need some mind bleach to erase away the images of seeing him take on Kazuki wearing nothing more than a butterfly mask and thong.
Despite having the writing pedigree of Nobuhiro Watsuki backing it up, Buso Renkin fails to elevate itself above the plethora of action anime shows saturating the market. I personally think that Rurouni Kenshin is a little over-rated, but even so it is leaps and bounds ahead of Buso Renkin. That's not to say that it's a bad show, but I'd be hard pressed to recommend for anyone to seek it out given that it's devoid of original ideas. There were points early on were I cringed at how silly it was, but things got better as the show progressed. The introduction of comedy helped alleviate some of the problems I had with the opening episodes that treated themselves far too seriously given the goofy premise.
The plot has more holes than a packet of Polo mints, but some good action helps you overlook its shortcomings. Harder to ignore however is the voice acting of the English dub. Spike Spencer seems to be having a blast portraying the campy Papillion, but that enthusiasm doesn't extend to some of his co-stars. The delivery in some instances could be described as deadpan, which doesn't work in a show were the participants are meant to be passionately screaming out the name of their special attacks. Other criticisms I have include the underwhelming final battles, which don't live up to the standard of the show's earlier duels. They pretty much hype up two of the fights in question only for them both to end in a few seconds.
It reeks of rushing things to wrap up the story within the space of twenty-six episodes. That said I do appreciate that Buso Renkin manages to tell its tale, within a reasonable timeframe, without dragging things out. The rapid pace ensures that pointless filler is kept to a minimum, which is something other animes could learn from. In terms of quality it is a tier below the likes of One Piece or Dragonball, so I would rate it as being on the same level as something like S-Cryed. I cannot lavish glowing praise upon it, but if shounen shows are your thing Buso Renkin should prove to be an entertaining if unremarkable viewing experience.