Blu-ray Review: MARDOCK SCRAMBLE (THIRD EXHAUST), Sleazy Yet Satisfying
This month, the third and final film in the Mardock Scramble trilogy was released in the United Kingdom. As I have seen and reviewed the first two films (here and here), I felt obligated to check out the ending of this story as well. Like with the first film, the second film ended with a big cliffhanger, so I quickly plunked in the disc to see what happened next.
And there was another reason to anticipate this title: the first two films were schizophrenic creations, trying to be trashy exploitation and poignant psychological drama at the same time. Does the trilogy still teeter uneasily on the brink of both, or does this third act plunge into one of those two sides?
Time for a review:
In the first two films, Rune Balot was introduced as a teenage hooker who was picked up and murdered by Mafia gangster Shell. Her remains were revived by the police and put in an armed-and-armored cyborg body, so she could safely testify against her murderer.
Several assassination attempts and upgrades later, Rune has become a formidable warrior indeed, superstrong and nearly indestructible. Able to access and process data better than any normal human, she has discovered that Shell has left valuable information about himself at his casino. Now, Rune and her shape-shifting mouse Oeufcoque infiltrate the casino, not just to get Shell in jail, but also because Rune wants to find out why Shell wanted to kill her so badly in the first place.
But Shell himself, or even the criminal organisation behind him, may not be Rune's biggest worry. Shell's rogue bodyguard is Oeufcoque's ex-partner, who is insanely jealous of Rune and a lot stronger than her...
Neither as sexually explicit as the first film, or as nastily violent as the second film, Mardock Scramble: Third Exhaust is a remarkably slow-burn affair for a third act. Gone is the porn-watching assassin with a vagina on his hand. Gone is the sick maniac who cut limbs from victims with a red-hot burning razor-blade.
Instead, for a lot of the film's short running time of 70 minutes, all that we get is a long, drawn out battle of wits over a Blackjack table. This section is all the more sedate since Rune does not talk (her voice comes out of a box while her lips don't move), while her shapeshifting partner Oeufcoque is disguised as an inanimate glove. The first half of this film may just be the most inactive action anime ever!
Kudos therefore to director Kudo Susumu, for managing to avoid boredom. The focus is here on Rune's character arc, as she slowly but surely gains confidence, and learns to find self-worth in her successes. At the same time tension builds, as her initial murderer Shell is in the same building and a nasty confrontation is inevitable.
And even though the film's finale does contain the requisite action, it is notable that the stakes are entirely about Rune and Oeufcoque, and no longer about catching any criminals. A good thing that is too. The end fight is hardly original, earlier versions of which in the previous chapters were easily more spectacular. But this time, there is an emotional goal which gives it an unexpected edge. Instead of fearing for the leads' personal safety, you hope they can find some sort of closure and happiness. And that is a commendable achievement.
Having said that, this mature focus does clash with the adolescent exploitation. While it is not as prevalent as in the previous two films, Rune's outfit does become transparent near the end for no reason other than titillation. I understand the function of fan-service, but after three hours of watching Rune grow as a person, is it really necessary to still gloat over her breasts?
And while Rune's experiences with incest were actually handled in a surprisingly realistic way, the same subject is now also used as a too-easy explanation for aberrant behavior in other characters. It's lazy psychology at best, and incredibly insensitive exploitation at worst.
Still, you can't help but get the impression the series' supposed sexiness was reigned in a bit on purpose, so that it would not clash too much with the character development. Just as Oeufcoque gives Rune a handhold to rejoin humanity, so does his character provide the series with a legitimate unique high point to distinguish itself from similar, more lecherous entries in anime.
It also helps that the film looks good. The designs are simple but pleasant, and not the most common in anime. Artificial grain and color are used to great effect as well. It's a shame though that we don't get to see more of Oeufcoque's exquisite animation while he is in mouse form, as we only get a few seconds of flashback this time. Ah well...
If this trilogy would be a run-up to an ongoing series, I would not hesitate to revisit this world. The talent involved have proven themselves able to sprinkle enough gold in the trash to make the end result likable.
Warts and all (and there sure are some warts), the Mardock Scramble trilogy has a satisfying conclusion. The series keeps being a bit too sleazy for its own good, but the focus on characterization and the relationship between its two leads save it from being garbage. The ample technical polish added to the animation doesn't hurt either.
While not the best entry in the anime cyborg sub-genre, it certainly is not the worst, and worth checking out.
About the Disc:
The version reviewed here is the Kaze-Manga UK release, coded region B (Europe, Africa, Australia). As is usual with Kaze's UK discs, a first screen asks if you want the French version or the English version, both choices going to separate menu screens, locking out the exclusive content for the other language. It's always worth checking the French version, as the previous discs had some extra content in the French menu not available to the English option, like extra trailers, interviews and such.
Whether English or French is chosen, you get access to Japanese and English soundtracks for both the theatrical and Extended Director's Cut of Mardock Scramble: Third Exhaust. While the differences were very much notable in the first film (where the Director's Cut warranted an "18" rating rather than a "15"), here the three extra minutes just add a bit of background and flavor. As for A/V quality, I can be short here: audio and video on all versions and dubs are great, just like with the two previous films.
Extras are not plentiful, but what you get goes surprisingly deep. One event shows a blackjack competition held between creators and publishers of the series, and this item goes into great detail explaining the intricacies of the game. At nearly three quarters of an hour, it's almost ridiculously thorough, but it's hard not to immediately rewatch the first half of the film afterwards, because your understanding of the game will have improved so much.
Another long item (I consider more than half an hour to be pretty long) is a dual interview with creator/writer Ubukata Tow and the Japanese voice-actress for Rune, Hayashibara Megumi. While there is plenty of backslapping in there, both are remarkably honest about the toll this project took out of them.
There is also a recorded convention discussion, detailing the making of the three films, which contains plenty of funny moments and candid observations. Finally, there are trailers and promotional spots.
All in all it's a pretty good disc, in line with the other two films in the series.