Gate Keepers 21
Mike Toole rates it:
A successful period piece is good because it manages not only to tell a compelling story, but to successfully capture the "spirit of an age," as Hakagure would put it. A standout anime period piece would be something like Rurouni Kenshin, a lively comic adventure that still conveys the excitement and uncertainty of the Meiji Restoration quite well. The original Gate Keepers TV series, to which this OVA is a sequel, sold itself as a period piece, because it took place in 1969. That was a fundamental flaw of the series-- very little about it really felt like 1969. The only truly visceral moment was an episode that began with Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Otherwise, Gate Keepers may as well have taken place a few months ago; the characters' patter, the style of the artwork, and the fresh-sounding music all felt too recent.
That was my only problem with Gate Keepers, an otherwise charming adventure series that I thoroughly enjoyed. The "21" in Gate Keepers 21 stands for the 21st century; the story, in this case, takes place not in 1969 but in 2001. Unfortunately, it looks like the original Far East Branch of the top-secret AEGIS organization didn't do its job well enough 32 years ago, because creepy, pallid, black-suited "Invaders" continue to appear and menace the general population. For the 21st century, the original fresh-faced "Gate Keepers," kids with powerful psychic abilities that allowed them to neutralize the Invaders, are replaced with just one lone Gate Keeper-- the sour-faced Ayane Isuzu.
Ayane isn't an antihero by any means (that title falls to Reiji Kageyama, one of the original show's big villains, who has a mysterious role supporting the good guys in this series), but she does possess a glumly sarcastic, seen-it-all attitude that's surprisingly endearing. As Gate Keepers 21 opens, she stalks marauding Invaders (who, with distorted faces and elongated limbs, appear to suffer from Marfan's disease, and are much more fearsome than Mahiro Maeda's sleek, streamlined originals) fearlessly, primarily employing specially-modified mobile phones to create artificial "imitation gates." When she gets riled enough, Ayane will use her own gate power-- the Gate of Wind, just like the original show's Shun Ukiya. That right there is a pretty broad hint at the character's pedigree.
But as tough as she is, the sour-faced girl can't really handle the ever-increasing population of Invaders by herself. By chance, she notices that a classmate, the sweet, slightly daft Miu Manazuru, also possess the Gate ability-- Miu uses the Gate of Flight to escape from a slightly overeager date. On the advice of Kageyama, Ayane tries to recruit Miu to be a Gate Keeper. She isn't convinced this is a good move-- Miu is humble and genuinely curious about both the Invaders and Ayane, but is also flighty and prone to panic attacks. The pair only really get along because of Miu's niceness; Ayane needles and harangues her relentlessly. For someone fighting against the Invaders, bad guys powered by the ill will of human beings, Ayane sure is bitter.
While Gate Keepers 21 works just fine as a stand-alone series (the six OVAs are spread across two discs), fans of the original will really be in heaven with this one. The show retains every bit of the original's poise and style, from Keiji Goto's smoothly detailed character designs to Gonzo's technically proficient, action-packed animation. These first three episodes are also thick with cameo appearances and references from the original series; as I said, familiarity with the original isn't essential, but it certainly helps. One thing unique to this sequel, however, is its opening sequence, a light, dreamy song laid over remarkably subdued (but still detailed) animation and still scenes. Pioneer's usual strong DVD production (with the now-standard soft subtitles for signs and titles) completes the formula, giving this release a lot of visual luster.
Gate Keepers had an excellent dub (provided by Animaze) with a powerfully talented cast, so I watched the bulk of the series dubbed. (The only performance I really loved in the Japanese version of the original was Takehito Koyasu, ragingly playing against type as the lovably truculent, loudmouthed Chotaro Banba.) As such, I tackled Gate Keepers 21 dubbed as well. Despite a studio change (Media Concepts handles the dub here), this adaptation is still very, very good. Ayane is played by Riva West (Reba West?), who manages to sound believably young (Ayane's only 17) while conveying the character's abrasiveness well. Kay Jensen is similarly solid as Miu. Disappointingly, Reiji Kageyama is not portrayed by Johnny Yong Bosch, as he was in the original series; still, Ron Allen (nee Kirk Thornton, who also directed the dub) does well with the role. Happily, Lia Sargent returns as the waifish, mysterious Yukino, though she also voices late arrival Satoka less convincingly. In the Japanese version, Ikue Itani as Ayane was the only performance that really leapt out at me, simply because it's so unusual for the cute hero girl to be such an asshole.
Despite the much darker tone, Gate Keepers 21 is loads of fun. The action scenes, which include multiple car chases and a big encounter with an old villain, look and sound great (thanks partly to a pumped up Dolby 5.1 soundtrack), and the characters are credible and original. Part of the fun of the original Gate Keepers was its relentless indulgence in cliches, but most of that is abandoned here in favor of Gate Keepers 21's darker, meaner setting. There are humorous moments, but Gate Keepers 21 is much closer to being a straight thriller than its predecessor ever was.
Gate Keepers wasn't a good period piece, because it failed to give a convincing picture of what 1969 was like. Gate Keepers 21 succeeds, in part, because its story is much more immediate. The series also simply gets it, when it comes to portraying the 21st century. The old Invaders allegedly gained sway by exploiting human anger and fear; the newer, scarier Invaders target people who simply lack empathy, and infect them directly. (In one amusingly creepy scene, an Invader encounters a hapless rock n' roll dude wearing a t-shirt featuring a blazing skull and the legend, "KILL ME." The Invader follows the shirt's instructions.) This is eerily indicative of Japan's current culutral zeitgeist, where otaku rarely leave their perches on message boards and mobile phone networks, and apathy and self-centeredness are slowly breeding a newer, scarier "me" generation. This begs the question: are the "invaders" an insidious hidden enemy, as some characters believe, or simply the manifestation of abhorrent human behavior?
Added: Thursday, October 16, 2003
Related Link: Pioneer Animation