Man, there are so many ups and downs in this show, to the point every positive seems indistinguishable from a negative. Back when I watched it for the first time, over a decade ago, I remember how long it took me to complete it. I could marathon episodes for 12 hours straight but this one just doesn’t motivate you to watch more than a couple of episodes at a time, while at the same time does not leave your mind either. But I got to admit that seeing the crap Sunrise makes after 2006, I can definitely appreciate the vision animators had at the end of the 20th century. Everything was dark and depressing, portraying a very bleak future engulfed by twisted technology. Having as director Yonetani Yoshitomo, who also made Brigadoon, the most unappreciated anime in existence (and personal favorite) is doing nothing but adding more fuel to nostalgia. But are all that enough to deem Betterman a good show? Aesthetically wise, it’s an instant and very loud yes, but if we see it more critically, it comes closer to a silent no.
You see, the thing the show does very well is making stuff creepy by hiding them from the viewer. Like everything else back then, it was mostly hand drawn and heavy on black, thus grim and unsettling to watch for long. It is not scary by showing deformed demons and guts splattering across the screen. In the contrary, it hardly shows what the hell is exactly going on, and when it finally does, the actual monsters are not very ugly or nauseating. Remember how creepy the fog effect was in the first Silent Hill games? Well, think of something similar but with light, or the absence of it. You never see something as it really is because it is either hidden in the darkness, behind a wall, or looks intentionally blurry. When darkness envelops something that you know it can kill you but you otherwise don’t know where it is, or how it looks like, it makes it ten times scarier, and adds to the dementia factor the anime was going for.
The weirdness starts right from the very opening of the show, which has this very soft and sad lullaby, full of real life footage by some scuba diving session, as we see images of the characters passing by. Although there are segments in the show where the action takes place in an ocean, there are no live action bits and the music is almost never so melancholic. This makes the opening to feel very misleading when it comes to what the show is really about. It should be, you know, exiting you, not making you feel like this is going to be some sappy drama, especially when it is mostly psychological horror. If anything, I would say this was better suited to be the ending song, where the viewer could be hinted how most of the characters will not find their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
And what a surprise, the ending song would fit far more if it was the opening one. Very dynamic, exciting, and the lyrics are all about the themes of the series. In fact, it is the best music piece in the whole show and something I still listen to from time to time. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-qxoj3Mx-0) I don’t know if this switcharoo was done deliberately to throw off the viewer’s expectations, but it was definitely very off putting.
Did you notice how I didn’t say a thing about the characters all this time? Well, it’s because they are quite plain looking and boring to care for. The show focuses almost entirely on being eerie and doesn’t give a damn about making its cast feel special. The protagonist for example is your generic beta male dork with glasses, paired with a tom boy girl, whose only distinctive feature is a multi-colored lock of hair, that is somehow an inherited trait, since her brother has it too. The same plainness extends to how all other characters and monsters look, making it feel almost uninspired if you don’t take into account the aesthetics. You could say that they were going for the effect of making the characters look plain and thus defenseless against the supernatural stuff they face. You wouldn’t be worried if they looked like trendy looking muscular alpha males, would you now? But that doesn’t fix how boring they look, especially when you see what a huge contrast their cartoony and colorful appearance has next to the spooky shadowy backgrounds.
You must also take into account that this is not a high budget production, even for its time. Lots of corners were cut to make everything look as simple as they cool, so the animation procedure wouldn’t take too much time. The lead monster definitely looks and usually moves around amazingly, but everyone else is very cartoony with very choppy animation. The addition of low brow fan service and slapstick humor don’t help either, since they feel like they are used to chew time and excuse the lack of fluent animation by making it seem it is some sort of gag comedy. When it isn’t; it’s psychological horror.
Now, the actual plot of the show is yet another controversial aspect. The set up is quite generic; teenagers with sexual awkwardness and a dramatic past, become part of a secret organization that fights genetic freaks with a mecha. On one side it is usually semi-episodic, meaning that elements from one event cross over immediately to the next one, like a slowly developing detective mystery. On the other hand, the majority of the duration is spent on silly school comedy and battles with monsters of the week, which almost always have a very predictable outcome; this macho dude always pops up and saves the good guys when they are in trouble. Also most of the cool ideas don’t last more than a single episode. Here you are with a great bio-ultra-killing worm that can annihilate all life on Earth and you hardly see it for more than two episodes. There are a hundred awesome concepts for recurring villains and world threats that last less than 30 minutes each. Meaning that the mystery part is done quite well but there is very little of it as a whole.
The themes of forced evolution of life and its dehumanizing effect are also looked into to a satisfying degree, I remember my pretentious overthinking younger self having a blast with the way they kept bringing mythology, science, religion, and philosophy into the mix, making it feel far bigger than how it actually plays out. What can make a man better than he already is? The initial approach is genetics; enter gruesome biological experiments. Then there is the state of mind. You can’t have a great body without an appropriate mind to come along. Revelations and master plans come up. And then we have the perfection of the soul, so here comes enlightment, shedding of the physical boundaries, and disgust for inferior beings by ascended beings. Really, the story gives a lot of food for thought, and it’s almost sad to see how they are treated as an afterthought for comedy and battles.
At least they bother to explain and explore all that, plus the ending is solid. Ok, it’s also vague since you are not exactly sure what happened to most of the characters, but it definitely wraps up all major plot threads. But I can’t defend the writing as crafty either; Betterman is a walking plot devise that exists to save the heroes in almost every episode with hax powers. There will always be a way to beat a super monster in 5 minutes, the villains appear and disappear at will, stunts get killed in a flash but the main characters survive better than cockroaches.
Betterman is title forgotten by almost everyone. Anime fads come and go faster than sex partners, dragging down to obscurity most of everything they are attached to. It is a memorable series if you bother to follow it to the end but it definitely trips at many points, as it gives low priority to all the really good parts. It will make you a better man when it comes to appreciating an era that is no more, when a heavy atmosphere was far more important than cute girls doing cute things. Not a great show by any means, but worthwhile if you already exhausted all the major titles of the same kind. … As long as you manage to finish it and understand what the hell all is about.
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