Science-fiction is a great genre. Not only do you have the Hollywood, ‘cowboys in space’ adventures, but an equal part can be more intellectual, exploring human nature through application to technology and fantastic worlds. Ghost In The Shell, the original incarnation, was a fairly heavy-handed existential debate under the guise of cybernetic crime fighting with some infamous setpieces that arguably set the standard for anything ‘cyber’-related to come, and Innocence, its sequel, was… well, a return to the figurative.
There seems to be a great disparity between the mental thrillers and the actioners. It’s hardly surprising that ‘mecha’ is its own genre in anime, given the prevalence of giant robots in Japanese science fiction. And while these often weave political (Gundam), personal (Eureka Seven) or existential (Evangelion/RahXephon) subplots, they don’t normally take such a turn for the verbose or philosophical that others do, like Ghost In The Shell. Mardock Scramble is definitely meant to follow in its footsteps, and probably Battle Angel Alita’s as well. Here’s how it squared up…
It’s difficult to know where to start, really. I’ve already compared it to the gold standard in anime’s speculative science fiction and I don’t want to keep using that as a baseline- not everything is trying to be a remake of something that’s come before. So let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. Mardock Scramble is about Rune Balot, a young prostitute with a history of family abuse, who is left for dead by a notorious gambler Shell Septinos. Shell has funded a great deal of the city’s wealth and prosperity through his dealings, and he has an addiction, it seems, to turning prostitutes into blue diamonds, which he wears on rings on all but one of his fingers. He’s been a target of criminal investigators some time, and when Balot is rescued by ‘ambulance-chaser’ Dr Easter, she is rebuilt into a cyborg for the purpose of submitting evidence to trial for Shell’s crimes. She is paired with an artificial intelligence (and weapon) called Oeufcoque (pronounced ‘Off-cock’ in the English dub) and the film follows her as Shell tries to take her down and stop the trial from happening.
The premise is suitably gritty, and there’s little left to the imagination about the gruesome facts and pasts that each of the characters has. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that Shell himself is actually rather weak as villains go, demonstrating little thus far of what actually makes him so powerful, and without much of the depth (or even caricature) of the other antagonists. The more dramatic force in the story is actually Shell’s oddly-named bodyguard/hitman Boiled, who is relentless in his pursuit of Balot. Similarly, the characters with the most life in them out of ANY of Mardock’s cast are the Bander Snatch, um… hitmen, I suppose, but they’re far more psychotic than your run-of-the-mill guns for hire. Seriously, they’re gross. And it’s a pity that they steal the show, because there’s a huge potential for a lot of interesting dialogue and character development.
As it stands, the character with the most depth (as opposed to scene-stealing ability) is Oeufcoque, as he struggles to both supervise, guide and train the twitchy, nervous Balot through her new body and the battles she has to face. Dr Easter is an instantly-forgettable, cut-out rogue scientist and Balot herself appears not just as a watered down character, but a generally watered down person. The better moments for her when she actually gets emotional about something, and admittedly these moments are nicely done, but there’s nothing really new in her portrayal as a mysterious and highly-advanced female weapon. I also found it rather contradictory that, given her history, Balot was still portrayed as a sexualised character, frequently being nude between costume transitions (or, you know, just because) or wearing impractically revealing clothing. It irritates me that the series seems to be rely quite heavily on unnecessary gore and/or sexualisation to make it ‘dark’ rather than the themes, events or characters themselves, which are for the most part very predictable.
For the story itself, it’s passable, but odd logic and poor explanation leaves you wondering if you might have missed a vital bit of exposition somewhere along the line, and a lot of the time you’re left to just presume a lot of the rest. It seems sloppy to me when the imagery itself denotes a visually rich world. The premise itself is somewhat shoehorned in. The Mardock Scramble program which enabled Balot’s life to be saved in the first place is never properly introduced or given any relevant backstory and completely bypasses why, exactly, she needs to become this killing machine when she’s herself a victim of crime. It’s this rather arbitrary plot evolution that leaves me a little cold, but at least if you’ve seen it before then you can suspend your disbelief and it’ll be something you’re very used to anyway.
As a side note, remember when you buy this that it’s the first of a trilogy- I won’t spoil the ending by telling you why that’s relevant, but bear it in mind.
The better moments in Mardock Scramble are between Oeufcoque and Balot as she works through her feelings- these are quite touching, and Oeufcoque’s portrayal as a golden mouse is a lovely piece of imagery. The best sequence is the last fifteen minutes, when the Bander Snatch group launches an assault on Balot’s hideout. The bullets fly with terrific pace and it shows that this is where the focus is highest- even the animation seems to step up a notch, leaving it sharp and detailed, and actually quite exciting. Prior to this, the animation isn’t much to write home about, save for Ouefcoque.
Overall, I think it fell short of my expectations. I wasn’t expecting Ghost In The Shell, but even as young-female-assassin-bot animes go, this lacked a lot of the emotional or intellectual depth that it could have shown given the scope for material. It had some nice quiet moments and a great-paced (and well-animated) action crescendo, but just didn’t reach out as a gritty classic.
– Hugo Jackson
Mardock Scramble – The First Compression is released on Monday 16th April 2012 by KAZE UK through Manga Entertainment on both DVD and Blu-Ray.