It’s a tale as old as time, and yet it still takes place in the distant future… After space on Earth started to become scarce, the human race expanded to the stars, developing the technology to terraform planets and claiming them for the sake of creating brand new civilizations. As you might imagine, this brought untold chaos at first, as disputes between these super-sized settlements erupted into large scale wars, where an insurmountable number of lives were claimed. Enter the Galactic Union, an all-powerful government that was formed to stabilize the relationships between these warring worlds and unite all of humanity under one rule!
Enforcing this rule and keeping the peace is the GOTT: The Global Organization of Trade and Tariffs, and at their beck and call is the loyal ES Taskforce, a small legion of two-person units that take assignments from the Galactic Union and serve and protect the people unified within! Out of the six known teams, one that stands out is the team of Eclaire and Lumiere, a chipper teenage brunette and an elegant little girl with a blue braid. They don’t look like much, especially when they’re pulling off their second job as corporate receptionists, but if you commit evil deeds while they’re on call, you’ll have to deal with one of the most intimidating duos in the galaxy. They’re more than meets the eye, and as the shadowy secrets about their employers start to come to light, the galaxy will soon learn what it means to underestimate them.
Here it is, my first review for SciFi July, and… I haven’t ever discussed Studio Gonzo, have I? I mean, I wrote up a Gantz review several years ago, but that was LONG before I actually learned how to write reviews. Well, that’s never seeing the light of day, so I guess my intro to all things Gonzo will take the form of the apparently immortal 2002 classic sci-fi series Kiddy Grade. Now, with your typical Studio Gonzo production, you can expect it to fall on one of two sides of the scale… It’ll either have gorgeous high-budget animation, or dirt-cheap animation that does it’s damnedest to appear as visually pleasing as possible. Kiddy Grade falls very securely on the low side of the scale, but they’ve made a LOT worse looking shows than this.
Yes, I should get this out of the way right now… The fact that it had a low budget couldn’t be more obvious if it was on the street pan-handling. Key frames… AKA, moments when there’s no action on screen other than mouth flaps, brief bursts of movement and embarrassing motion loops… Are everywhere. Even at their scarcest, they’re in every other scene at least. Thankfully, these issues never pop up during the action scenes, so while it’s not a good look per se, it’s somewhat excusable considering how cleverly Gonzo was able to portray the femme fatales kicking villainous ass without having to sacrifice frame rates to compensate it. There’s a lot of CG used for the characters’ space ships and guardian mech robots, and while it doesn’t really mesh with the 2D animation style of the rest of the series, it’s not too bad on it’s own merits.
While the animation is relatively good, at least compared to other Gonzo shows of it’s time, the artwork is a lot stronger. The color palette is bright and diverse, standing out beautifully against the backgrounds, most of which are monotonous and gritty with realistic wear. That’s not to say the backgrounds are never impressive, as there are some very appealing outdoor scenes, but the dullness of spaceship interiors and even space itself complements the characters nicely. The character designs are diverse almost to a fault, as each pair of ES members looks increasingly unique to the point that I could imagine them being pulled out of the sketchbook of a caffeine addict on a 5 Hour Energy binge. Simply put, with it’s highly distinctive art style, there are no other characters that look like Kiddy Grade characters.
The music is made up mostly of electronic tunes, meant to convey the spacey, futuristic feel of the show, and does so in an ambitious fashion. The soundtrack was fairly new for it’s time, but looking back at it fourteen years later, it’s been done a lot better since then, causing what was once a unique sound to feel kind of generic to our spoiled ears. The opening, on the other hand is a lot more standard, and was probably considered generic even back in 2002. Setting aside the video for a moment, you have two options with this opening… A dubbed version and a subbed version. I’ve heard countless people recommend the sub, but is it that much better? The singing is definitely louder and more confidant, but it opens on a pair of cringe-worthy Engrish lines that sound awkward in both pronunciation and wording. The dubbed version fixes this problem, which earns it some points, but it also features a far duller-sounding singer, and the lyrics… Like most anime theme lyrics… Do not translate well to English. I want to recommend the subbed version really badly, but those damn opening lines, though…The Ending theme, in both languages, is a much more pleasant listen.
The English dub is from the very early stages of Funimation, and as such it shows a lot of quirks from that period of Funi’s existence. There are plenty of names in it that you really don’t see as much anymore, such as Dameon Clarke, Scarlett McAllister, Gwendoline Lau, Rebecca Paige, John Myron, Antimere Robinson… Just a ton of names that either haven’t worked in years or only had a brief stint in anime, and for the most part, none of them are really that impressive here. The exception of course is Demeon Clarke as the shady auditor Armblast, but even this role is a far cry from the acting chops he showed as the original Scar in FMA. There are a few modern names sprinkled throughout, such as Eric Vale, Vic Mignona, Alison Victorin in her debut role, Chris Sabat doing a pretty sweet European accent, and Clarine Harp doing something other than DVD design, and yeah, they’re all really good… But none of them can touch Colleen Clinkenbeard and Monica Rial in the lead roles.
Monica Rial is probably one of the most well known voice actors in the business. Her name is almost guaranteed to be on any anime fan’s favorite actor list, and for good reason. She’s a consistently good performer, and has been ever since her first day on the job. In contrast, a name I see disturbingly little of on those lists is Colleen Clinkenbeard, who may actually be the most under-rated and taken-for-granted performer in the industry. Kiddy Grade was her debut not only as an actor, but as an ADR director, and while I’m disappointed to say both jobs amounted to some rough results in the beginning of the show… The acting was somewhat underwhelming, voices weren’t always matching the lip flaps… It improved rapidly on both counts towards the middle, showing off a lot of the latent talent that she had both in and out of the booth.
Yes, the dub takes a while to get off of it’s feet, but that’s mainly due to the growing pains of a duel first timer. Colleen has proven herself since then to be a highly respectful director and writer who can easily navigate the minefield of localizing a dub without bastardizing it, and has shown in several instances that she can hit all the slanginess of a Jamie Marchi dub without suffering from any of the tasteless Jamie Marchi excess. As an actor, she’s shown a surprising consistency across a wide range of voices, giving her a chameleon quality that can make her very difficult to pick out, even when she’s playing a bubbly and upbeat character like Eclair. Pair her with fellow veterans Monica Rial and Laura Bailey, and you’ve got a dub that’s pretty damn good at it’s best moments. It’s not necessarily better than the sub, but if you’re looking for a time capsule of early-2000’s Funimation, I highly recommend it.
Okay, so, let’s set aside my earlier plot synopsis for a second and go over what this show’s really about. Kiddy Grade is the story of two femme fatale law enforcers with charisma and power to spare. One is a hacker that can manipulate and even astral-project herself into any kind of computer system or machine, and the other has super-speed, super strength, and a tube of lipstick that can turn into a razor-sharp whip. They work for a supposedly benevolent organization, but corruption in the upper ranks forces them into political conflicts where they eventually have to engage in space battles and mecha fights against their peers and coworkers.while gradually revealing their own troubled past.
Why am I bringing this up? Because Kiddy Grade has one of the most awesome sounding premises I’ve ever heard. I don’t know a single person who could hear it and not immediately put it on their “to-watch” list. It’s a title that’s endured in the popular conscience for 14 years without fading into obscurity, so one would naturally assume it to be of some quality, or at least a sizeable fanbase willing to overlook any problems it might have. And yet, when I go on Facebook to say it hasn’t aged well, I’m met not with anger, but likes. When I complain about some details that don’t fit right in retrospect, I get responses pointing out MORE inconsistencies related to the plot over-all before anybody comes in to defend it. Keep in mind, this is happening in very similar fan groups to the two that I got booted out of for talking shit about Guilty Crown, so where’s the flame war over this? And while we’re on the subject, why can’t I watch more than a few episodes at a time without pausing to do chores?
To answer this question, I’m going to be dissecting three specific episodes of the show. Depending on how high their respective ep. numbers are, I’ll be using different amount of detail and spoilers for each one. First up, let’s take a look at episode five, Day/Off. I’m going to be running down the entire episode in detail, but don’t worry… This isn’t Cowboy Bebop, here. Important spoilers don’t happen until much later.
To start, Eclaire and Lumiere have the day off from work, so they each decide to spend it differently. Eclair goes out drinking with a friend, and Lumiere goes to the opera. Sounds like a great set-up for some one-on-one character development, right? Well, let’s see what happens. An employee at the club approaches Eclaire, commenting that she looks too young to be in there. His manager comes along and says that he’s new, and not to bother the lady… Not because she’s an ES member, mind you, but just because “kicking people out makes us look bad.” Which makes no sense, because serving alcohol to minors definitely looks worse. She dances with a guy, and when he tries to kiss her, she shoves him through the air and into the table where two criminal organizations are making a deal. They both assume the attack was orchestrated by the other side, which doesn’t make sense, because who plans to have a human being thrown at their table? Even Monty Python wouldn’t come up with a strategy that absurd.
On her way to the opera, Lumiere hears a lonely little girl crying behind some bushes. The little girl kisses her and puts her into a trance so some big men can abduct her. Which makes no sense, because didn’t we just see Eclaire successfully fend off a kiss from a much larger man? Why would her partner just stand there and let it happen? Lumiere wakes up in a storage room with a bunch of other kids who were abducted as well. Which makes no sense because are there really that many kids walking to the opera alone that she just happened to be one of them? Seeing how quickly she escapes her bindings, its fairly obvious they didn’t know about her power, so it would have to be random, right? And how was the trap girl immune to her own lipstick?
The crime organization recruits Eclaire to work on a mission to pay off her debt to them… Which makes no sense, because not only should she have bolted during the confusion, but they were the ones who misconstrued a clutzy coincidence… And she winds up face to face with the ship that her partner has just killed the pilots and taken control of, which makes no sense because not only is she supposed to be elegant, or because an agent who needs permission to make arrests shouldn’t be able to kill so easily, but because coincidence is the tool of lazy writers. Anyway, this leaves a lot of unconscious kids to be returned home, but as it turns out, Lumiere has found an on-board computer with a database of the names of all the abducted kids, past and present. This makes no sense because A: Why would they keep a record of kids they don’t have anymore? B: Why would they need a record of ANY of their names? C: If they’re using it for ransom purposes, they must know names of the kids before trapping them, so why go after Lumiere, who doesn’t come from a rich family? D: What about the honeypot kid? Is she a robot? Was she brainwashed? Did they rescue her as well, or was her part in the story done once the audience got their yuri-loli tease?
If you’re having trouble pinning down my first specific complaint, count up the amount of times I said “Didn’t/doesn’t make any sense” in the space of one single episode. This isn’t an exception, but the rule. The entire series is like that. Out of almost ninety percent of the things that happen in this series, none of it makes any sense. It’s either poorly explained or it won’t be explained until later. Characters make decisions that are not only stupid, but baffling in terms of the logic they use, forming plans that are either overly-complicated or horribly misguided, or both. The freaking white rabbit is easier to follow than this series is at most points. Even an issue as basic as what the characters are becomes confusing. They are just humans with nanomachines prolonging their lives, right? Well how the hell can their consciousness jump into new bodies? A brain transplant? Are they robots?
For my second point, let’s take a somewhat more vague look at episode 14, Steel/Heart. A thing happens in this episode, and while I won’t go into specifics about who, how or why, two of Eclair and Lumiere’s closest allies are… Um, I know this isn’t the right word, but I’ll say “Brainwashed” to avoid spoiling too much… to kill them. Our heroes fight valiantly, but are unable to save themselves without destroying their friends. Now, this should be an emotional moment, yes? There should be feels here, but alas, there are none to be had. I can’t stress enough how important hope is when you’re trying to write a tragedy. In order for a character’s death to make an impact on the viewer, there has to be some sort of hope that they’ll survive, but no, as soon as the “brainwashing” takes place, they might as well have put a big countdown timer on the screen, because we’re never given any indication that our heroes can do anything but delay the inevitable.
And furthermore, their death doesn’t have any feeling of weight to it because despite their constant presence in the story, we’re only given one highly forgettable episode to suggest that they even WERE characters to begin with. But then again, that’s only about half as much time as any other supporting character is given, so why not? There is a huge cast of characters in Kiddy Grade, and while they’re wildly diverse in terms of appearance and powers, they just have jack shit in terms of personality. Oh, they have quirks… There’s a sibling team where the sister refuses to let her brother call her ‘sister’ on the clock, and there’s a child/adult team that’s always arguing about where to eat, and… Other… Teams… And that’s about as far as any of them go. All-in-all, the actions of any given team could easily be swapped out with the actions of any other given team.
Even the two main characters fail to leave much of an impression. Lumiere is probably the most interesting character in the cast, as she can at least claim to be elegant and have refined tastes, but she quickly turns that into a gimmick by constantly saying “A lady should be more elegant.” She’s the precocious loli, which is more of a trope than a trait. Eclaire is of course the main character, so by the tradition of lazy writing, she has to be the perfectly righteous and idealistic hero. She’s a martyr waiting to happen, and it gets annoying really fast. There’s at least one villain who shows promise, but her motives seem confused between altruism and misanthropy. The Noblesse, who are supposed to be the true villains of the show, are native-born Earthlings, and they are nothing… I repeat, nothing… But upper-crust snobs with sticks up their asses and a contempt for all people lower than them.
Speaking of the noblesse, my final example isn’t so much an episode as a plot twist that happens towards the end of the series. I won’t spoil it, but it’s the first step in what might be a huge downfall for the Noblesse, and it has a lot in common with April O’Neal’s expanded connection to the Ninja Turtles that was revealed in the latest TMNT movie. Only in this case, it’s like the turtles were absent and just barely eluded to for four-fifths of the story before coming in like an exposition wrecking ball to tie everything together. Oh, and you’ll also have to imagine that April’s been firmly established to have a lot more important things to do than play nanny through the formative years of a bunch of freaking turtles. Seriously, these are supposed to be warriors with respectable authority, why the hell was one of them on nurse-maid duty? And it’s this final little twist… One that even Shyamalan would have sent back to the drawing board… That proves just how terribly, terribly written this anime is.
The series attempts, at about the halfway point, to explain how all of the events that happened up until that point were part of one interconnected plot, and it’s delivered through status reports to the chief of the GOTT. There are two problems with this, the first of which being that the explanation grinds the pace to a complete halt, and rather than sounding like a canon summary of events, it sounds more like an imaginative fanboy on Reddit tying to connect all the Pixar movies together. The stretching is that bad. Second of all, when you really look at it, this one episode gives away the one thing the creators of Kiddy Grade had been going through all of this BS to try to accomplish.
Yes, there was a legitimate goal in mind, here. These writers had an agenda, and once you start making the comparisons, it’s kind of embarrassing what they were trying to do; They were trying really hard to make Kiddy Grade the Evangelion of it’s genre. That entire sequence was a callback to an episode of Evangelion where the Angels that had been defeated thus far were listed off in a similar report. The narrative is constantly pushing meaningless religious symbolism, like the concept of sacrifice and rebirth, crucifixes, and hell, the organization our cast works for is called Gott, the German word for God. An entire episode is spent on Eclair trying to pull herself together psychologically after a random flashback brought out some erased memories, and the episode is a laughable attempt to copy the mental depth of a show that wasn’t all that deep in the first place.
So after all that, why is this show so well remembered? Why has it thrived for so long in the public consciousness, when all of the best things it has to offer are now dated? How does a combination of pathos, faux complexity and poorly directed fanservice demand so much name recognition in today’s market? Well, it all comes down to Kiddy Grade’s sense of style. I can’t think of any anime before or after this one that had the same kind of aesthetic to it, giving it a weird sort of iconic feel.
People like things that are unique, and that’s one word I can definitely apply to Kiddy Grade. It fails to tell a good story, it fails to build good characters, and in the end, all it really has to offer is spectacle of two good looking girls kicking ass, like it’s the pretentious version of Dirty Pair… Which is all some people want, I guess. That’s not to say it didn’t have any good ideas… On the contrary, I think it had a ton of good ideas, but what it didn’t have was a good enough writer to make them work… And sadly, that’s pretty damn important.
Kiddy Grade is available from Funimation. It was originally released stateside in an 8-disk box set that, despite the hefty price even then, came with a pretty attractive set of trading cards based around the eye-catch artwork of the episodes. If you’re looking for something cheaper, they did recently release the series in Anime classic thinpack form for a much more reasonable price. There have been three movies that were meant to retell the story of the series, but they haven’t been released stateside… After nine years and counting, I think you can give up waiting any day now. There have also been a handful of light novels and manga serials, but these have also sadly not seen the light of day on our side of the ocean.
While Kiddy Grade is a clusterfuck of failed story-telling, with a title that more than describes the level of maturity that went into it, I honestly can’t say I hated it. It didn’t make me feel angry or insulted, nor did it ever make me feel bored. Than again, I’m going to attribute those points to the fact that it just didn’t make me feel anything, positive or negative. It’s not that bad a show to watch if you don’t mind having your brain turned blissfuilly off the whole time, but as I’ve said many times before, I refuse to do that. Then again, with or without my approval, it’s an anime that’s survived for almost a decade and a half, and through whatever black magic it’s strange title has been casting, I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay. I give Kiddy Grade a 4/10.