Taking a Ride on the Bee Train

"In the land of Twilight under the moon
We dance for the idiots."

-Yuki Kajiura lyrics, .hack//SIGN soundtrack

My relationship with studio Bee Train is a little confusing even to me. I do not enjoy most of their library. In fact, if I ever wanted to cash in on instant clicks for negative coverage around here and do a list of the worst series I've ever watched, I dare say their signature title Noir would make a... beeline to the top. Yeah, their work is so lackluster most of the time, they don't even inspire the good puns, folks.  And yet, I've watched a good portion of their work all the way through. Voluntarily. I do not consider myself a masochist, and no matter what my seasonal viewings may seem to suggest, I don't actively seek out bad series to puke on because I have limited time on my hands that gets shorter every day. Maybe one intentional viewing of something terrible a year to keep my baselines properly tuned. This begs the question of why I'm wasting my time with all of this, and even have a certain affection for titles even if they are more than a skosh terrible.

My initial thought leans towards director/Bee Train founder Kouichi Mashimo, who directed the first half of Dominion Tank Police, my touchstone to becoming an official anime fan. The thing is, I first watched and was entranced with Tank Police on a broadcast of the second half, which was directed by somebody else entirely (Yes, I know, the pretentious half of the OAV that totally betrays the tone of the series. I was 13!). I didn't even make the connection until much later thanks to Central Park Media's name romanization that doesn't play by the rules (It's credited as Kouichi in the shows that are streaming on FUNimation, so we'll go with that one even if Google recognizes Koichi and FUNimation's own website spells it differently than the show. Not confusing at all). Perhaps I am simply allured by the mystery traps Bee Train lays out. Oh, they know how to draw in viewers with tempting enough bait. Widespread lesbianism, secret Illuminati-esque organizations, and enough occult and ancient technology cloaked in the shadows to keep make people tune into the second episode and beyond, even if they overuse the amnesia trope like they have to clear a factory surplus. The easiest answer is Yuki Kajiura, one of my favorite composers whose scores mostly outclass the anime they were in before Madoka came along.

Whatever this case, this "hospital for animators" subsidiary of Production I.G as Mashimo called it was meant for nurturing artistic sensibilities over commercial success, and it rarely ever appears that way. It seems especially disingenuous given their early works were adaptations of video games like Arc the Lad and Wild Arms. Granted, they at least took an adventurous stab at Wild Arms by making an entirely different story, but the yarn about a seasoned gunslinger trapped in a ten-year-old's body really didn't grab me and Arc the Lad was close enough to the second game that I simply skipped it since I'd already played through its PlayStation counterpart.

NOTE: This will be no means be a complete chronicle of their entire library but instead an overview of my personal experiences. So if you're longing for a view on Avenger, sorry. In an age where 3-4 episode volumes were sold at full price as the norm in the mid 2000s, Avenger was immediately put on budget pricing from the outset. That set off all of the alarm bells.

My experience begins with the Yuki Kajiura soundtrack to Noir. It has aged poorly since the synths are way out of date, but it was a kind of badass New Age music I didn't know I needed in my life. Every inch ached with intrigue and mystique which led me to the series proper. I did not expect to have the disdain I had when I got to the main event. It seems a simple enough show about one professional assassin named Meireille who takes in a amnesiac teenager Kirika who has oddly built-in skills involving killing people. They team up to take on various jobs while peaking the interest of an organization called the Soldats that may be controlling everything behind the scenes. Perhaps it is best described as being too simple.

The first entry in the girls-with-guns trilogy is every lazy, lousy, cheap anime trick in the book to get a title on extreme budget tightening limping across the 23-minute finish line with material that hardly has enough story to last 13 episodes, much less 26 (But they get there with a hefty dose of one-off episodes). Much worse is the shortcuts that are passed off as stylistic choices. You could say the trait of rarely showing blood spilled is an artistic choice if it wasn't for an episode entirely written around the bad guys following a trail of blood to our heroes. Digital sunsets reflected in the eyes of the characters are created with an awful and distracting effect that looks like someone's shining an orange laser pointer. The opening spiel explaining the line of killers known as Noir is stretched to take up as much screentime as possible as well as one moment when one of the leads looks into a pocket watch and has a flashback that eats up a solid minute per episode as well. This isn't Ed Wood putting his heart and soul a work he doesn't know is garbage. This is a director with talent knowingly wasting your time with parlor tricks. I re-watched the first couple episodes and the people I wanted to most compliment were the background and foreground artists who made something that looked good to distract from everything else the series lacked. Kouichi Mashimo deserves some credit as he storyboards most of the shows he directs and he has a good vision for much if it, but the talent greatly underperforms to bring his vision to life. On a similar note, the HD revolution has made it more than obvious the sky backgrounds are paintings with smudge marks on canvas visible. That's an unfortunate drawback which will follow the studio for a few series.

Many are told time and time again to wait for Chloe. Chloe fixes everything. It's all money once Chloe is a fixture in the story. I will admit it's an improvement because they're officially addressing the main plot in ways other than leads Meireille and Kirika shooting men in black with static animation in the middle of empty French streets and rooftops where constant gunshots don't awaken anyone and police response to multiple homicides in the open is about an hour. But you see, Chloe is more the writer of, "now KISS!" Mary Sue fanfiction who forces the lesbian undertones to become lesbian overtones. She is the lead character of her own story and she tries to force herself to replace one of the leads, so even if she provides a character boost, it mostly feels like manipulating the show to give the people what they want. That's not to mention it underlines the leads don't have much chemistry together so they literally NEED a spark to keep the entire series from constantly flatlining. Like Weiss Kreuz was a boring series that just happened to have attractive gay men as assassins, Noir is the female equivalent. This may have been a relatively untapped market at the time, but nowadays, you can have all the lesbians and bi-sexuals you want in about every genre, and many of their relationships are executed much better than this. The Soldats also do that thing Spectre and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation do where these institutions that secretly shape the world are only a handful of individuals at its core. This makes it easier to put a rushjob on destroying them for the climax. However, Noir can't totally commit to an ending that determines whether they're done with the story or not and is completely unsatisfying as a result.

Even the music fails because they funnel the track selection of the show to two or three essentials and most of it is putting the trademark action theme "Salva Nos" on repeat. They did this so much, I was able to analyze individual sections of the song and discovered an irritating hi-hat loop that completely ruins every listening of it thereafter. Noir's quality aspects are pulled into an event horizon of tediousness and become just as uninteresting as everything else. It is the antithesis of entertainment and I hereby suggest all black holes be renamed Noir holes (I'm pretty sure the French are already doing that).

Moving along, .hack//Sign was part of an ambitious, multi-media franchise launch. It was half of the experience with the other half being Bandai's 4-part faux-MMORPG series on the PlayStation 2 that came with the Liminality OVAs. I have limited experience with the games. I finished the first one and quit halfway into the second when it turned out to be more repetitive and sparse gameplay (Imagine either Xenoblade Chronicles games with 1/10th of the enemies, uninspired scenery, little character interaction, and combat stripped down to the bare essentials). It was certainly ambitious yet not ambitious enough at the same time.

It takes place in a virtual RPG where the people within it seem resistant to adventuring and more planning to adventure. It is dull, talky, loves stalling, and the music selection involves paring down the swath of Yuki Kajiura tracks to simplistically playing during certain settings and times until the episode ends. Whenever the administrator is talking with her mods-really, these banal exchanges happen constantly-"Fake Wings" plays. When an ending episode has a bit of information to tease the viewer for the next episode, it's "Key of the Twilight" time. And so on. On early episodes, the music is mixed so badly into the overall sound, you can hardly hear some conversations. Not that the conversations are particularly stimulating. Does the Key of the Twilight exist? Is it good or bad? Does main character Tsukasa exist in the real world? Is he good or bad? Let's hang out and discuss these issues for 10 episodes unnaturally in dungeons that have no monsters for whatever reason.

So what does .hack have that Noir does not? A chaotic neutral player killer by the name of Sora, for one. His entire game is playing every side against the middle for his own amusement. He lives for the attention, going so far as to give sound effects to his entrances. Sora's Japanese voice actor Hiroshi Yanaka is having the time of his life, savoring every ounce of uncluttered scenery with drawn butter. The show actually improves at around the halfway point, too! Once Tsukasa's situation is properly introduced as a person who may or may not be dead, it makes him far more interesting than when the first half which has him wandering seemingly at random into the lives of others while he flippantly states how much he doesn't care about them. Oh, and he has a conversation with a talking cat we can't understand most of the time while hanging out next to a sleeping woman. It's hard to explain the second half without spoiling matters, but the series becomes more visually arresting with locales like an abandoned online castle, and dramatic weight is actually there instead of counting on esoteric plot points to spur interest. I don't think it quite saves it, but the effort makes it at least watchable, which is not a word I would use when I was trying to take a look at Noir for a second time.

.hack//Sign also has the BEST Yuki Kajiura Engrish songs. They were there casually in the background in Noir, but most of them were so subdued and the most amazing one was not really well utilized ("Maze" is an old-styled march with lyrics that would make a sentence diagrammer convulse on the floor with foam seething out of their mouth with such word combinations as,"If you seek for the fire in your eyes..."). .hack lets you know right out of the gate it's going to have the greatest Engrish with its opening song "Obsession" by Kajiura and her band before Kalafina, See-Saw. Blaring the phrases, "How come I must know where obsession needs to go?! How come I must know the direction of relieving?," it's a rush of sugary energy that greets every episode. I only wish the rest of the show picked up the slack, especially the opening animation with a choppy woman in a VR headset dancing around and the makers transparently repeating the same idea 4 times over and over (Repetitive openings with constantly reused ideas in Bee Train projects are almost a drinking game of their own). "Key of the Twilight" also reaches a surprising amount of poetry given the stilted knowledge of the language involved ("Come with me in the twilight of a Summer night for awhile...."). There's something exceptionally fun about the way these unsteady words burst out with the confidence of a Cirque du Soleil show, and for whatever reason, I can run through entire verses from Kajiura's repertoire and yet I have severe trouble remembering lines from my favorite poem and one of the supreme marvels of the English language, "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. This is one of my guilty pleasure ultimate sin s.

I'd like to think I buck general opinion not to simply to be contrarian, but because I see things in certain titles others don't. In the case of Madlax, I honestly can't fathom why this seems to be the least liked of the girls-with-guns trilogy. This is Bee Train with a budget to fully realize their vision. Action is dictated by the story rather than filling time. Anonymous men in black do exist here, but they aren't such worthless fodder and the high-energy encounters are saved for more important encounters. There are choreographed action sequences. There are interesting visual metaphors, especially involving a flower field that seems to connect the living and the dead only one character can see. I have a genuine affection for the characters and their conversations with each other. Animation is solid! Pacing feels like they're taking the exact amount of time they need to tell the story they want! I get to know all of the people in the first episode and why they're doing what they're doing and not just wonder who the main man in black was who pulled focus when he nonchalantly surrendered! This is a GOOD series!

Probably the best idea people weren't keen on is separating the two leads at the start. There's Madlax, an assassin in the fictional jungle country of Gazth-Sonika taking assignments from both sides of an incredibly bloody civil war, and Margaret, a teenage girl from the civilized country Nafrece who seems to be missing a part of herself after she went missing for months and can only operate as a human being for a few minutes a day. Their fates slowly come together on two separate ends of an investigation into the criminal organization Enfant who utilize the power of ancient books to literally reprogram people into their command. The first volume of the initial DVD in the U.S. had an interview with veteran writer Yosuke Kuroda (Currently penning some episodes of Drifters) where he was throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the story, and he spoke of an instance where Kouichi Mashimo still jumped down his throat yelling, "Is that all you've got?!" In a friendly way, from the tone of the interview. I hope, at least.

It is an intricate story with many moving pieces that converge in surprising ways. Enfant actually being this evil organization that is run by a couple of guys makes sense here. The natural inclination of these girls-with-guns shows is to pair the two main girls, but they do the complete opposite (Madlax still has a lesbian fling, though she and Nadie from El Cazador de la Bruja are technically bi-sexual). The leads also have touching relationships that fit their characters. Madlax is a lonely person whose only interactions is her assignments, which leads to a sort of intimacy few people have with each other. Unfortunately, most of them must flame out due to the nature of the beast. Margaret is surrounded by people who are determined to protect her, including a literal combat maid. They keep her safe, but also trapped in her own little world. They are charming, likable, and they have solid rendezvous when the two worlds intertwine. The only two aspects that keep it from being one of my favorites is the villain and the ending. Friday Monday is a poncy guy wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask whose need for an endless war never really becomes clear besides being an evil guy. While the ending more or less completes the story, it lacks a proper crescendo and cops out of its ultimate sacrifice (Though that is a common thing among the girls-with-guns trilogy, so... points for consistency?).

While Noir is my most disliked title, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles might be the biggest letdown by a country mile. It's one thing for Bee Train to deliver a substandard product with their own original titles, but it's quite another to take someone else's golden goose to the slaughterhouse. Clamp's ambitious project slamming all of their works into one grand adventure was met with a severe lack of ambition from the people animating it. Clamp is known for ornate character designs oozing with style occasionally to a fault, but there will be no style getting in the way here. Everything looks flat and lifeless, designs are oversimplified, and animation is stiff with a bare minimum of effort. It is high adventure that looks like a particularly drab corner of the Gobe desert. Now, I was particularly hard on the adaptation of xxxHolic's style, but at least it HAD style.

Tsubasa is the worst of Bee Train projected on the highest stage. The story in Reservoir Chronicle was dry enough melodrama, relying on the audience's familiarity with the Clamp characters to pull the emotional wagon. Bee Train captures none of the emotion in the writing and animation and has the most dependence on a Yuki Kajiura score with a studio that constantly relies on it. The 4 CD Future Soundscapes OST collection is a glowing tribute to the spirit of adventure, beauty, and excitement, and the show does as little possible to pay the bills. The execution of the main storyline is bland, their filler is bland, and like Noir, it's anti-entertainment where everything falls into a void of emotion. Just don't watch it. It's not even worth the two paragraphs I set aside for it. And yes, I know I'm using an image from the Production I.G produced OVAs instead of the series proper, Mr., Ms., or Mrs. Smarty Pants! I ain't going back....

The finale of the girls-with-guns trilogy, El Cazador de la Bruja, is one of those anime that is so hilariously awful in an entertaining way. Despite the budget being drastically cut back and not looking up to par with its contemporaries, it starts off strongly enough. Kajiura does an exceptionally effective imitation of Ennio Morricone to add an edge to the prologue. The future-esque, western-esque setting works a lot better than Wild Arms. The plot is kind of a buddy roadtrip where amnesiac girl Ellis (natch) and bounty hunter Nadie are trying to break through a barrage of people out for Ellis' bounty stemming from the murder of the person designated as her father. It's generally a very jokey series despite the somewhat harsh premise (The humor mainly driven by Ellis's childlike behavior), but with enough of a mystery to keep the drama side interesting with some frighteningly effective villains.... at least, at first. Then writer Kenichi Kanemaki (Author of a TON of trashy scripts... and part of Yugo the Negotiator) simply could not deliver on the promises the first ten episodes made. The series constantly torpedoes itself, modestly at first when Nadie is faced off against cringe-inducing transvestite thugs (even listed in the credits as Transvestite A and B). I wish they were one-off goons, but they're genuine supporting characters for far too long. Ugh. It gets progressively worse from there.

To understand the show's failure, you have to understand how good it could've been. We have a mishmash of western, witchcraft, human cloning, ancient ruins, and other such aspects anime has a knack for combining seamlessly. As I've said before, the antagonists start off smashingly with Rosenberg as the fabulously rich genius who is always a step ahead of everyone to the point where he constantly taunts a woman sent to secretly infiltrate his organization with the knowledge that he knows who she is and what she's sent to do. His muscle is a creepy teenager named L.A. (Yes, L.A.) who is frighteningly obsessed with Ellis and wields the kind of destructive wires that can slice through concrete and would probably be exceptionally unwieldy in real life.  Oh yeah, and when he first sees Ellis, they have an extremely awkward moment where the show stays in closeup shots and it looks like they're both masturbating. Genuinely disturbing stuff. With top-notch early stages, Cazador spends the rest of its time whittling down the effectiveness of its villains until Bananya would be a more effective adversary. Then there are little goofs as well that add up like when Rosenberg plays back a one-camera recording and it magically has multiple angles from where L.A. couldn't possibly have been standing, almost like they were re-using animation from the previous episode to save money. At least they stop with annoying noises on their eyecatcher graphics. I know the point of an eyecatch is to let the audience know the show is back in business, but on DVD, their choices of sound effects for about every series up until now scratch the ear.

When the roadtrip kicks into full gear, Rosenberg sees himself to his scenic villa where he spends the majority of the story. It is here where he becomes the main character of every Fellini knockoff featured in Roger Ebert's I Hated Hated HATED This Movie that has a rich guy who does nothing but naughty things to an empty vessel of a steaming hot sex partner. Literally every moment of Rosenberg during this time is him getting an update from his henchmen before, during, or after some intense boffing with his girlfriend who we learn next to nothing about. Before he does this, he makes it a project to shame L.A. for going too far in his stalking of Ellis to the point where L.A. is a worthless sad sack who only occasionally works up the energy to be a mediocre psychotic stalker. The menace simply withers and dies, and the rest of the show gives so little of a shit about what to do about itself that it becomes hysterical. Now, I watched this with less-than-legal sources way back when it came out because after the anime market crashed, I figured this had no chance. I haven't gotten to this part of the legal translation's part yet so I can't tell you if it's accurate, but I distinctly remembered the line of dialogue, "Hello, White House? Can you put me through to someone important?" At least they intentionally made the taco song funny. It is that kind of attitude that undermines and permeates the show. Yet the two leads who have a sweet chemistry between each other and all of this has a goofy charm to it such as when nuns in a missionary arm themselves with golf cubs to stop those who soiled holy land with gunfire.. If that's your kind of amusement, go for it. There's even a genuinely touching scene with one of Yuki Kajiura's best songs, "Forest," as a bonus.

By the way, don't expect much from the floating Incan ruins in the opening. The Final Sacrifice has a better one. Seriously.

I'll end this coverage on Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom. I bring up Yuki Kajiura a ton here because it's her soundtracks that stick with me the most. With Phantom, she is replaced with Tatsuya Katou trying to do an impersonation, and people who should not be trusted said it was an improvement. It's a kind of world music mash-up and one or two hip-hop action tracks that would later be completely eclipsed by Taku Iwasaki's score to Jormungand. The parts imitating Kajiura rarely go anywhere besides basic atmosphere, and when it tries to be hip and with it, um, it is as laughable as you think it is (And I'm usually the one who usually defends Japanese music that tries to be "cool" and instead is cheesy as hell). Well, Yuki Kajiura got to score prestige projects like The Garden of Sinners in the wake, so I shouldn't be too disappointed.

Yet Phantom is almost one of their best works. Now make no bones about it, it's rock stupid and operates on a visual novel logic as it is based on one. It's one of those where you take the writer's word for it on a computer screen with static backgrounds, but when put to an animated world, the reality of the whole endeavor starts to unravel. We have yet ANOTHER amnesiac (This time a guy) who gets caught under the massive organization Inferno's heel. They give him the dehumanizing name Zwei (German for two), and force him to become trained into their syndicate by assassin Ein (German for one, of course) who is far more of a Bee Train type lead than her student who is all regular visual novel guy. This is one of those ridiculously huge organizations that is also ridiculously wealthy, flaunts it, and yet is as secret as the Illuminati.

 It's all dealt with much better than Noir as it is unflinchingly dark. These people are in an extremely soul-crushing line of work unlike the leads of Bee Train's signature work who never seem to have any kind of emotional reality connected to what they do or their relationship to each other. But it also acts like an eighties sleaze-fest action movie with enough cocaine involved to attempt bombast and gravitas. There's a straight shot of uncensored breasts and Scarface reference within 40 seconds, so it's very much intentional. It catches enough of the style to be an entertaining guilty pleasure. Not that there aren't actual pleasures to be found. Lizzie Garland is secretly one of my favorite characters as bodyguard to the Inferno organization who tries to be as much of a consciousness as the corrupt institution will allow, but she's incredibly deadly and sexy when the time calls for it. There are also two killer plot twists that break up the series into thirds and they are mighty dramatic blows I wasn't expecting. It isn't until the final third that Bee Train derails the whole venture and it's not even totally their fault.

You see, the original visual novel gave you a choice in what you wanted to do. Either you could go through the brooding drama, or you can experience a romantic high school melodrama. So when the adaptation is inching towards its climax, that's when Bee Train decides to indulge on the VN's other side and it completely changes tone, attitude, and even brings in an opening that paints its darker aspects as a seemingly fever dream within a slice-of-life love triangle. The whiplash is ferocious and any attempts to take the show seriously again fail horribly. Which is a shame, because when it gains its bearings for the finale, it is the rare Bee Train work that nails the ending with a bittersweet mix that acknowledges even characters with the best of intentions forced into a bad situation don't get away clean with the acts they've done. It's almost film noir in its simple, subtle ending. The animation was already lagging behind almost all of its contemporaries and even the house composer had moved on to greater things, but this was one of the last gasps that showed they could at least make a presentable show.

Alas, even after doing a short for Batman Gotham Knight for some cash (It's actually not bad if you get beyond an absolutely atrocious CG golf ball. It shows a bishy Bruce Wayne and how his public persona helps in his moonlighting detective work), Bee Train has been in hiatus since 2011. With their track record of mediocrity, I shouldn't miss them. And yet, I do. With an exception of Noir and Tsubasa, their series are strangely memorable even when the work is the definition of forgettable. They've stayed with me for better or worse for over a decade, at least. It feels like the ending of Cool Runnings where the team crashes their bobsled in the Olympics. They were underdogs I was kind of rooting for even if their results before weren't impressive in the least and everything got smashed up right around when they were about to break through. Aw well, at least I have a Yuki Kajiura mix CD that is completely fire from this whole exercise....


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