I've been watching Madlax, currently airing in Japan, being fansubbed by ANBU/Lunar and Ayu, available through IRC or torrents. Genre: shounen action, girls with guns. From Bee Train studios (Noir, .hack//SIGN), directed by Mashimo Koichi (Noir, .hack//SIGN, and [cough, gag] Bakuretsu Hunters)
I'm hooked. This is probably the most intriguing anime I've seen since Utena. It can't compare to Utena in thematic depth; it's basically an action show, its strengths are plot, atmosphere, and character. But it does those things very well indeed.
The show's story orbits around two 17-year-old girls, Madlax and Margaret Burton. Madlax is a smart and ruthless assassin/bodyguard in Gazth-Sonika, a country in 'southwest Asia' that has the flavor of both Pakistan and Indonesia. Margaret is a shy and dreamy schoolkid in 'Nalfres', a country a good bit like France. 12 years ago, both were involved—probably together—in some sort of war-torn environment, in which Madlax's father died, and Margaret's parents vanished. Details of exactly what happened, where it happened, and what the true relationship of the girls is, are still unclear by episode 19. They grew up separately, Margaret as wealthy orphan, Madlax as a solo mercenary. Now their destinies begin to intersect again, in the middle of a geo-political struggle involving a third-world civil war, a worldwide crime syndicate, a religious cult, and the fairytale-like denizens of another world with two moons.
What's good about Madlax?
1. Lots of cool elements: mysticism, parallel worlds, a mysterious/dangerous/powerful/ancient book similar to the famous Voynich Manuscript, a crime syndicate, a colorful and dangerous third world country, girls, guns, and lots of mystery about where all of this is going.
2. Very little of the dumb stuff in anime that makes me cringe: fan service, shounen harem crap, over-the-top cuteness.
3. The music. OMG, the music. Composed by Kajiura Yuki, performed by FictionJunction YUUKA (lead singer Nanri Yuuka), this is the best anime OP/ED/BGM I've come across since Utena. Kajiura has written some of the most evocative/scary choral bgm I've ever heard, which shows up at moments of high tension, sometimes action tension (car chase, gunfight), and sometimes plot-point tension.
4. The characters. Two main characters, and a dozen minor ones, all of whom are artfully developed through their words and actions. I'm impressed by the attention lavished on even such minor characters as the 'bibliodetective' or the freelance supercomputer hacker that makes them feel like unique individuals, not stock. The main supporting characters, such as Vanessa Rene, and Rimelda Jorg, a government-employed assassin, are rich and deep, and a joy to watch evolve. Vanessa is an adult friend of Margaret, an IS-trained business executive. She's an attractive and sympathetic character, but no more an action hero than any other average yuppie. But she's sucked into the plot vortex, gets shot at with increasing frequency, and finally winds up with Madlax in a full-blown firefight. When, in the aftermath, she figures out that this is what her life is going to be like from now on, and asks Madlax to teach her how to fire a gun, you just want to cheer. Go, Vanessa!
5. Tremendous general production values: 'camera' angle, lighting, gorgeous watercolor backgrounds, exotic sets, sure-footed editing. The sequence of shots at the end of episode two, for example, is just a superb use of editing, music, and shot selection to create a mood of eeriness and rising tension, until we get not one, but two major revelations, bang-bang, that will reverberate through the rest of the series, and the episode comes to an end.
6. Great art. The character designs are nice, but nothing special. What is especially interesting is the use of planes of color, rather than line, to define form and create three-dimensional space. Anime always does this more than American cartoons, but it's carried farther in Madlax than in any other show I can remember. Some of the facial close-ups seem to be composed of nothing but planes of color, with barely any line at all. The cityscape backdrops look like huge glowing ornaments.
The title character as shinigami.
Margaret Burton bullet dancing in the OP. With her school bag. I do so love bullet dancing. I swear I'm going to include a character who bullet dances in a story, RSN.
A tense moment. Madlax and Rimelda (whom Madlax refers to as the kowaihito), eyeball to eyeball.
Our Greek chorus of lost children, who pop up from time to time to look poignant and say enigmatic things. By episode 19 their identity is still unclear, although there seems to be some affinity between the girl and our two heroines, and between the boy and (perhaps) the series' male Big Bad.
Note the book in the girl's hands. And the fact that the legs of both characters are clad differently. (It's hard to tell from this screen-cap, but the boy is wearing shorts on his right leg, and long trousers on his left.) No, I haven't figured out yet what this means.
Of the two fansubbers doing this series, I have a slight preference for the ANBU/Lunar collaboration. Ayu's translation seems a little less supple.
One OST CD has been released and is available from CD Japan, a second OST will be coming out at the end of September. I'll be getting both. A couple of the Region 2 DVD's have been released, but don't have English subs, alas. I'm surprised this series has not yet been picked up by a US distributor, but I'm sure it will be eventually. There's an LJ community: madlax. It's not terribly active. .hack//SIGN got mixed reviews, but I'm been so impressed by Madlax that I've ordered the first three DVD's of Noir.
== kyuuso == imploring with tears in one's eyes
|Left radical is the radical form of 'water'. Right radical is 'stand' (立), used phonetically to indicate 'fear'. Henshall suggests as a mnemonic: 'Person stands weeping watery tears.'|