Licensed by Royalty
This review is constructed using "rent-by-mail" DVDs. The positive side is this means I can get access to commercial series without trying to buy everything. The negative side is that it's seemingly impossible to get long sequences at once. Thus even more so than normal these reviews are a work in progress, it may change as I get access to more material, but I have to write the review to remember what I've seen. For this particular series I think I've seen enough (2 DVD's) to give a reliable sample.
The setting is a world very much like our own, but all of the pieces have been re-arranged just a little to give it an exotic air... and make it a playground for the people we will meet in the next paragraph. The show centers around the royal kingdom of Ishtar which has access to modern technology but has the flavor of Imperial England. Or put another way it's like the classical vision of England shifted forward into the modern age. It also seems to have no shortage of politics and intrigue, both internal and external. The Royal family depends on the loyal service of talented agents to keep the country safe from those who would threaten it.
And none are more talented than the team known as L/R. The Blond Jack Hofner is handsome and charming, but behind the smile he's a master at manipulating people and spotting the secrets they most want to hide. His somewhat scruffier partner is Rowe Rickenbacker who, while pretty perceptive, prefers straightforward solutions to problems... including mixing it up in hand to hand if it comes down to that. They're both impossibly talented as individuals but as a team, with a couple of others providing support, they're unbeatable.
Oh dear me, this show so desperately wants to be clever, cool and witty... and it so doesn't come close. I can only imagine the sinking feeling I would have had if I'd bought this disc. It is not "bad" as such, it's even moderately watchable, but at the same time it's in no danger of being called "good". The first count against it is that it stinks like something manufactured by a marketing committee. Almost every element of it will be familiar, the most obvious being James Bond movies and the whole "spy" thing. However the characters are also trying for the laid back cool of something like Cowboy-Bebop. But it's all too obvious to work, the characters are so busy posturing and posing that it feels deeply artificial and, as a result, shallow. The lack of back-story, the way this world sort of exists as a stage, doesn't help either.
It is also fair to say that writing the sort of material they are aiming at isn't easy. Spy stories depend on clever twists and complicated sequences of events, one discovery leading to another as the "sinister plot" is uncovered. That's a very tall order to do in a single anime episode, and this one just doesn't make it. As an example, by no means isolated, one of their plans depends on getting captured by the enemy so they can talk their way out of it. This is not a "cool" or "clever" plan, it is just too logical for the villain to simply kill them. Instead it feels like the characters are so certain of their star status they know the story will bend around them. It's lazy writing and it quickly becomes irritating.
Likewise the demands on the character work are high. The leads are too "cool" to go into long dialogs, or displays of high emotion, so a lot has to be done with presence, body language and the power of the few words they speak. And once again the writing isn't tight enough to manage it. There's lots of posing, generally with a cigarette as an accessory, and dry dialog... but it lacks power and spark. It makes it clear that the story has been arranged for them to deliver these lines, rather than for them to be a result of the way the character attacks the story.
I could also go into the few gadgets I saw, but there's not much point, they really are as silly as you can expect. I'm sounding negative, and I am, but it is not just because this is an extremely average anime. From a totally neutral perspective it is reasonably watchable, a bit of action, reasonably likeable cool characters, and a pretty classic genre to work in. But I found it especially irritating because I didn't feel any heart in it. It has been produced as product, probably designed by a committee, and constructed with a target demographic in mind. And that's not the sort of thing I like to see in any media.
The production definitely doesn't help. It has this extremely "open" style, relatively little linework and large area's of relatively flat color. This makes it look more than a little under-detailed. The technical design work is very average, look at the helicopter gunships in episode 2 for a laugh, and the fights tend to rely on "swish" marks to indicate a volley of rapid attacks, whereas most fight fans would rather see the sequences acted out in full. Although actually in the episodes I watched it was surprising how little action there was, the show has a surprisingly patient pace, probably so the characters can practice being cool (or because action is expensive to animate). The Japanese voices are fine, the music is "cool" music in style but the Japanese renditions of English songs sort of ruin the effect.