DRAWN & QUARTERED
COURTESY A.O. VISION
Capt. Ahab and his motley crew pursue a great white battleship in this futuristic anime version of "Moby Dick."
Remakes put sci-fi spin on classics
"Seven Samurai" and "Moby Dick" go modern
Every piece of literature or cinema through the years that has been deemed "classic" often became that way because of some signature moment.
Everyone remembers, for instance, the section of Herman Melville's great novel "Moby Dick" where Capt. Ahab, drifting through space after his ship was destroyed, stared down the great white Federation battleship for the first time.
Film buffs might also recall the pivotal moment in Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" where a giant mechanized samurai whipped out his giant sword and took down an entire building, shocking both his intended victim as well as a bunch of innocent observers.
OK, so these scenes are not from the "Moby Dick" or "Seven Samurai" that most people remember. In the anime series "Hakugei -- Legend of the Moby Dick" and "Samurai 7," the classics get kicked up a few notches and infused with a healthy dose of frenetic sci-fi action.
One series plays loose with its source material; the other hews more closely to it, creating what could be considered a contemporary remake. Both are worth watching, but for different reasons.
The more radical of the two series' revisions takes place in "Hakugei -- Legend of the Moby Dick." Sure, there's Ahab, haunted by memories of a previous encounter with Moby Dick and prone to obsessing over certain matters without thinking about the consequences. But in this case, Moby Dick is not a great white whale, but a great white battleship capable of destroying entire planets.
There are also whale hunters, but the whales they seek are not those magnificent beasts that people take boats out to see off Lahaina. Instead, these "whales" are derelict, abandoned ships drifting through space that these men loot for fuel, parts and other valuable cargo.
The story centers around Lucky Luck, a teen who seeks out the captain and his crack team of hunters aboard the Lady Whisker in hopes of recruiting them for a mission to protect the planet Moad from the Federation, which wants to destroy it. To accomplish this, Lucky sneaks into Ahab's base of operations on King Kuron, passes a series of tests and becomes an apprentice.
During one of the Lady Whisker's whale hunts, the crew comes upon a capsule with what appears to be a human body inside. This body is actually Dew, a discarded android with few memories of his past, save an encounter with a certain great white battleship ... the same battleship that haunts Ahab's memories and currently has its cross hairs set on Moad.
And so Ahab and his crew set off for Moad, determined to take on the great white demon. But first, Ahab gets arrested by his longtime rival, Detective White Hat, and the crew has to bust him out of jail. Then there's the haunted ship encounter, the diversion to another port, the encounter with a woman from Ahab's past, a stowaway who is smitten with the captain ...
This gap of several episodes, where the main conflicts are essentially pushed aside, serves as a double-edged harpoon to the series: While it is nice to see the sense of camaraderie and fun among the crew members develop, and the humor seen in these moments is a welcome break from the tense moments, it also means that it takes a while before anything develops with the pursuit of the Moby Dick and Dew's mysterious ties to the ship. The stuttering development of these main conflicts might take longer than some viewers can tolerate.
ADV's reputation for putting out some of the best English dubs in the industry also shines here, with Kira Vincent Davis as Lucky and John Swasey's piratey spin on Ahab being particular standouts.
While the world of "Samurai 7" also contains radical changes from its source material, the core story remains the same: A farming village under siege from a group of marauding bandits seeks out seven samurai to defend its crops. As a production that sought and received approval from Kurosawa's estate, many elements, including the names of the seven samurai and their basic personality traits, remain the same as well.
Yet from the moment the groups of warring samurai robots go flying across the screen in a scene more befitting of, say, the futuristic warring robot epic "Gundam" franchise than Kurosawa's quaint masterpiece, it immediately becomes clear that this is not a strict, by-the-books remake. The bandits are now rogue samurai who pilot giant robots that loom forebodingly over the landscape, taking bales of rice with their mechanical arms. While much of the architecture retains its samurai-era charm, there are also modern touches, like motors, sign boards and electric lights.
This is a work that fleshes out the story and makes it appealing to contemporary audiences while still retaining the core of Kurosawa's original work. All of this is presented in the lush blend of 2-D and 3-D computer animation that Studio Gonzo has been known for producing over the years.
The 26-episode structure of a TV series, with close to 11 hours of content to fill, affords more of an opportunity to add this flavor than Kurosawa's three-hour, 26-minute film could. So we meet the water priestess, Kirara; her sister, Komachi; and their bodyguard, Rikichi, as they set out to recruit defenders for their village.
The audience gets taken along on their journey through the streets of the merchant city Kogakyo, joining in the group's sense of discovery as they find samurai to join them in their quest. Some, like the young samurai-in-training Katsushiro and the brash mechanized fighter Kikuchiyo, sign on right away; others, like eventual group leader Kambei and the lone wolf Kyuzo, take a bit more convincing.
(And yes, it is possible to cheat a little and see which samurai will accept their calling, just by watching the opening credit sequence carefully. But where's the fun in that?)
The only gripes with this series are technical in nature and repeat long-standing problems with Funimation's U.S. anime releases: Trailers for other series at the beginning of the DVDs are un-skippable, making a long marathon session of episodes almost mandatory for viewers who do not want to see the same trailer every time they load up a disc. Those people who want to watch the series in Japanese with English subtitles must also use the "angle" buttons on their DVD remotes if they want to see the opening and closing credits in English, as the disc automatically defaults to using the original credits written in Japanese with the Japanese subtitled option.
Yet Funimation also deserves credit for including 30-page booklets with each DVD, crammed full of interviews with the Japanese production staff and assorted sketches.