A brainchild of the late 90s, Betterman is a dark sci-fi about a very bleak future engulfed by twisted technology. Like most b-grade anime of that time, the budgets were not the best and the animators were often resorting to simple tricks such as using live action footage instead of bothering to animate something. It’s why the opening looks so weird, combining the actual ocean with generic anime designs. And yes, they are generic despite having weird multi-colored hair like Yugioh characters. It was a trend at the time.
Following the path brought forth by Neon Genesis a few years back, whenever you don’t have the money to show something, go for minimalism and keep things vague or unfocused. 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 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.
It excels at maintaining a thriller atmosphere for as long as it’s keeping the monsters hidden from the viewer. Remember how creepy the fog effect was in the first Silent Hill games? Well, think of something similar but with darkness. You never see something as it really is because it is either hiding in the dark, behind a wall, or looks intentionally blurry. It makes it ten times scarier, and adds to the dementia. Unfortunately this trick is ruined when eventually they show the monsters, and they are not that scary in broad daylight.
The characters are as I mentioned already overall plain. So are their designs. The protagonist 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. They are also so colorful compared to the mostly dark sceneries and stick out like a sore thumb. They also do typical anime ero-crap that feel very out of place with the eerie tone of the story.
The plot is all over the place. 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 up 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 more effectively than cockroaches.
Not a great show by any means, it’s worthwhile for its atmosphere and philosophical concepts and passable for everything else.