Blu-ray Review: MARDOCK SCRAMBLE (SECOND COMBUSTION)
It's almost ridiculous how fitting it is to review a Mardock Scramble film during Easter, what with the series' strange obsession with eggs so far. On top of that, it tells the continuing story of someone's resurrection, although that is where all comparisons between its protagonist and a certain deified prophet end.
Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion is the middle film in an anime trilogy about Rune Balot, an under-aged prostitute who is murdered by a mob-boss, but brought back to life as a nearly indestructible cyborg. Witness protection is apparently a VERY literal thing in the future, and as the detectives on the case fear for Rune's life, they have changed her into a walking weapons platform who can also communicate with all machinery.
The first film basically set up THAT story, and in its finale we saw Rune going berserk against a small army of hired assassins. It ended with Rune encountering another cyborg just like her, only a lot stronger, who proceeded to beat, pound, and shoot her into pulp. It was a cliffhanger of triple-cursing caliber, and when I reviewed the first film, it left me VERY anxious to watch the second film.
And, courtesy of Kaze and Manga UK, here it is. Last week they released Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, and this is my review of that release.
After their fight at the end of the previous film, a badly wounded Rune and Oeufcoque have to recuperate in a secret military research facility called "The Paradise." Rune feels terribly guilty about the harm she's caused to happen to Oeufcoque, and looks for ways to redeem herself. As she makes new friends in The Paradise, Rune learns that with her new enhanced body and data-managing skills, she can be of great help in the investigation against Shell, the man who tried to kill her.
As Oeufcoque heals and Rune investigates, she discovers that the evidence the detectives are looking for is hidden in a casino. But the assassin called Boiled is hot on her trail, driven by jealousy about Rune's relationship with his former partner Oeufcoque...
Within the first minutes of this film, we see Rune naked, Rune naked covered in blood, extreme violence, Rune naked, opening titles, and Rune dressed in what appears to be two handkerchiefs. Yes, we're back in the world of Mardock Scramble, all right...
When I wrote the review for the first film, I wondered where they would go with this franchise: derivative sleaze, or intelligent thriller. Based on the second film, the answer seems to be that Studio GoHands still tries hard for both options. While this episode doesn't show Rune having sex and never even mentions her past as an incest-victim-turned-prostitute, its creators still try to get some mileage out of footage showing Rune naked. Sometimes this is justified as a valid metaphor or actually features in the story, but at other times it's just a gloating look at Rune in the shower. Which is still creepy, on top of questionable, as she is supposed to be 15 years of age.
The first thing Rune notices when she wakes up in hospital is a teenage boy caressing her naked leg. She recoils, but within a minute she uses emotional blackmail on the kid to get her way, Rune-the-rape-victim immediately turning into Rune-the-manipulative-survivor-at-any-cost. It is nasty and exploitative ... and reveals what ultimately tips the balance into the film's favor: the splendid characterization of Rune and the people surrounding her.
For if it all would have been empty eroticism featuring a (too) young naked girl with a big gun, I would have dismissed it quickly as trash. And at times, the trilogy veers that way. But the first film managed to get a lot more interesting because of the way Rune's psyche was portrayed. Instead of a straight rape-revenge thriller with a science fiction twist, the focus on the story was on Rune being fed up with life, due to the terrible abuse she had suffered. The first film shows how she rediscovers the will to live, as well as the joys of unconditional friendship, only to maybe lose it all at the end.
Now, in the second film, Rune doesn't just want to stay alive, she wants to be worthy of it. She wants to be useful to the people who helped her, and find redemption and self-worth through her actions.
And as an engine for the narrative, this totally works. The series may be exploitative, but Rune as a character is very easy to feel for, to empathize with. And her friendship with the mutant mouse Oeufcoque is both touching and shown with honest feeling.
As for action: the first film didn't exactly lack for violence, and neither does the second one, even if it is a much different affair. Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion doesn't feature many fights as such, but one sequence with a deranged serial killer cutting limbs off his victims borders on torture-porn. But again, while it smacks of being sickening for the hell of it, what happens next certainly scores a few points.
So this film is just as schizophrenic as its predecessor. It works as exploitation and as an interesting thriller, but the two directions do make for uneasy partners here, and cause some stumbling in the storytelling. I wish the series would rely a bit more on the thriller side and less on the fan-service side, especially since it's lolicon fan-service we are talking about.
Still, some of the environments are stunning all by itself, and the science-fiction angle is quite philosophical at times. A huge data bank that uses a water-for-data analog tops this list, with some truly magnificent designs. And the many egg jokes are back as well, of course, now not only apparent in the names of everyone (Shell, Boiled, Scramble, Easter...) but also in the very designs of the hardware and even the vehicles.
On a technical front, Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion is as impressive as the first film. The artwork doesn't distinguish itself much in intricate detail, which is a bit of a surprise because in the first film it actually did. Instead, the second film depends more on visual tricks done through inventive use of the color palette. Rainbows explode from the screen whenever the action takes place inside the Paradise research center, a visible cue that you're never sure if what you see is actually real or a virtual representation. But each environment has its own look, adding a glamour which is quite unique. The style of the drawings is more realistic then most anime these days, and I really like how it looks.
Again, there is a cliffhanger. Again, there are plot holes. Again it's just over 60 minutes long, meaning damn short for a theatrically released film. And with only one film left, I do not think the series will solve all of its weak points.
But I cannot wait to see how it ends. As long as I don't get egg in my face for supporting it so far...
Just as the first part of this story, this second part is shamelessly nasty and exploitative. But thankfully it also kept everything that made the first film worth watching, meaning above-par characterization and excellent art.
Now bring on part three already!
About The Disc:
I can keep this really short and say that the disc is very fine indeed. Whether they're working together with Kaze or not, Manga UK has a damn good track record on the Blu-rays they have released, and this one for Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion sure doesn't disappoint. Well, unless your player cannot handle region B discs, because this one is region-locked.
The lack of fine detail in the film itself may not make it a demo for HD, even if the Blu-ray does look somewhat better than the DVD even in this regard, but the extensive use of color does. This film rocks with color, and the Blu-ray shows it off best.
For sound you can choose between Japanese and English soundtracks, and both are excellent DTS HD 5.1 mixes. Subtitles are fine, too.
As for extras: the best one is probably that both the theatrical and the director's cut are on here. The difference is something like two minutes of additional scenes, but unlike in the first film, where the DC was FAR more lurid than the theatrical cut, these do not cover more explicit sex or violence. Often it is just a few people talking longer, or meeting someone.
Also on the disc is a long trailer for Mardock Scramble: The Third Exhaust. Damn... hope I get to see that soon. Trailers for the second film itself are also on the disc.
Finally, there is a 20-minute segment where you can see the creators and voice actors of Mardock Scramble tour conventions and speak to fans. Not truly a making-of, and a bit of a marketing puff-piece, but still a nice addition.
All in all, this is a fine and pretty inexpensive Blu-ray edition for this film. If you liked the first one, there's no need to hesitate picking up this release.