Blu-ray Review: MARDOCK SCRAMBLE (FIRST COMPRESSION)

(Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in New York City!)

Remember Mamoru Oshii's first Ghost in the Shell? If not, chances are you will once you see Mardock Scramble: First Compression. Set in a similar not-too-distant dystopian future where cyborgs walk among us and every little girl may turn out to be an indestructible killing machine, this film firmly establishes itself as sexy cyberpunk.

And indeed, the lead character is a prostitute who gets killed, then resurrected as an ehm... indestructible killing machine. One that wears either skin-tight clothes or barely anything at all. Oo-er! And to be even more edgy, she is underage. Yes, we have lolicon titillation abound involving a gun-carrying minor. Not the nicest set of anime clichés to add to a cyberpunk setting, probably.

So is Mardock Scramble: First Compression a piece of derivative garbage to be dismissed immediately? No, actually not. It is quite good actually.
Or should I say: it is quite good actually, so far? Read on...


The Plot:

Rune Ballot is a fifteen years old prostitute who gets murdered by Shell, a notorious criminal involved with organized crime. A small team of private detectives manages to revive her though, for the purpose of using her as a witness for the prosecution. As Rune's body is dying and further assassination attempts are likely, the detectives get clearance from the government to perform a "Mardock Scramble" on Rune, a rarely allowed procedure which will save her life while also turning her into a nearly indestructible walking weapons platform.

Mardock_Scramble-ext1.jpgBut when Rune awakens she is not interested in taking revenge, or whether or not she is still human. To the dismay of the detectives, Rune wonders why she should consider it worthwhile to stay alive at all, judging from the pretty terrible life full of sexual abuse she's had so far...


The Movie:

Many anime series are not invented from the ground up but are adaptations of manga or the popular illustrated novels so special to the Japanese. "Mardock Scramble" is such a property, a series of thrillers written by Ubukata Tow of which the first was published more than a decade ago. Due to its popularity several adaptations were planned, including a series of direct-to-video anime chapters by studio Gonzo. Despite lots of anticipation by fans, this anime series was canceled before a single episode had been finished.

But a few years later we now have this: Mardock Scramble: First Compression, the first of three movies which are expected to cover the entire story. The second film is finished as well and has been distributed with a theatrical run in Japan already. Fans are avidly awaiting film number three which can arrive any moment.
Doers of the deed are studio GoHands. Ehm... who? GoHands is an outfit which has been doing lots of behind-the-scenes work over the years, but I cannot remember them taking on anything quite this ambitious all by themselves. I was happily looking for Production I.G. to appear in the credits and was surprised to see these guys instead.

So maybe this is their big calling card to the world, their journeyman piece of sorts. It would explain why it seems to be so lovingly made: impressive attention has been paid to even the tiniest details and the animation is incredibly smooth and layered. The world of Mardock Scramble: First Compression may look cheap and dirty, but on a technical side the film surely does not.

Design-wise it is a bit cobbled-together. In the character designs you see bits and bobs appear from Ninja Scroll and Otomo's work, while the overall look is indeed very reminiscent of the first and second Ghost in the Shell movie. There are worse styles to follow though, and this particular one hasn't been quite done-to-death yet.

So far we have a derivative world setting, derivative design, very strong technical execution, and very icky lolicon fan service. That doesn't yet tally up to a big positive. But next we get to story and characterization and there the true points of light start to appear for me. On the surface the story seems kooky-cutter and made up for the single purpose of having a pretty young thing gun down enemies twice her size and getting naked once in a while.
But that accusation doesn't quite hold because the focus is more on Rune's desperation than it is on how cool she is supposed to be. And this is because Rune as a character is far better fleshed out than is mostly the case in these stories, probably because the script was written by Ubukata himself.

Rune is often confused but never silly. An incest victim from early youth onward, she entices all the time but it is a tired world-weary way of getting attention rather than yummy titillation. She has breasts and these are shown, but there is no funny bounce or jiggle. And impressively, while she outwardly doesn't seem to mind getting naked in company you can almost see the mental barriers going up, the distancing when she does it. You almost see her think "there we go again". Instead of automatically joining the detectives in their fight for good, her first reaction to the technician who saved her is an accusation: "you raped me". Meaning that once again she is being taken advantage of, with strangers having taken liberties with her body even though there is no sex involved this time. Her attitude and feelings (or lack of them) ring true.

When Rune finally does relent and cooperates it is because of a beginning friendship with Eufcoque, one of the detectives and one of the few truly original creations in the film. Eufcoque is a mouse whose mind has been boosted to reach human intelligence, and whose body is so full of nano-technology that he can change into a range of instruments, weapons included. In him, Rune finds a friend who is never sexually attracted to her and therefore poses no danger, and he is the only person she opens up to. He is also an illegal experiment and the moment he stops being useful to the government, he is on a blacklist to be destroyed.

This first film basically lays the groundwork and that's it. At a mere sixty minutes sans credits it really doesn't have time to do anything else. It does manage to end with a bang though, as Rune starts to appreciate how her new body can be used in a destructive manner. It even shows her going viciously overboard and discovering there are terrible consequences for her and the few things she still holds dear. And there is the mother of all cliffhangers. Seriously, I can imagine cinema audiences getting really angry once the end titles appear. I sure dropped an F-bomb. To the film's credit, it means I was probably more invested in the story than I had realized...


Conclusion:

Undeniably nasty and exploitative, Mardock Scramble: First Compression is nevertheless intriguing enough to be watchable. Excellent technical merits, some surprisingly intelligent characterization and a huge cliff-hanger make sure that I'm eagerly awaiting the next two films. There is lots of promise of this story turning into a great thing instead of a rather creepy "ecchi" one.

Those films had better be good though, because if the trilogy as a whole turns out to be just a bunch of derivative sleaze after all, I'll be very cross indeed.


Mardock_Scramble-ext2.jpgOn to the BluRay:

In the United States it is Sentai who holds the rights to all three movies in the franchise, and they have released their own versions of Mardock Scramble: First Compression regioncoded for region A. This review however is based on the Kaze / Manga UK BluRay which has been regioncoded for Region B.

And there is loads of good news here. For starters, the video quality is terrific. The movie is almost as computer-enhanced as the lead character is, causing all sorts of visual embellishments, impossible details and subtle color differences. The BluRay fully does justice to all of this.

Second, the disc features both the Theatrical Cut and the Director's Cut. The "Mardock Scramble" franchise contains plenty of adult content but features a lead who is a minor, so in the Theatrical Cut a lot was implied rather than shown to avoid controversy with distributors. But for the Japanese home releases a few minutes of extra footage was added (or changed as you can see in the examples here). The Director's Cut doesn't change the film into a hentai all of a sudden, but it does make it sleazier and dirtier.

The total difference in runtime between the two cuts is less than three minutes, and the additions mostly feature snippets of Rune remembering the incest which caused most of her traumas, and people examining taped sessions from her life as a prostitute. This is the material which caused the BBFC to rate the Theatrical cut as "15" and the Director's Cut as "18". Given the combination of sex, violence and a minor I'm surprised this title wasn't just banned outright by the BBFC.

Mardock_Scramble-ext3.jpgNext we have soundtracks. The theatrical has a 5.1 English soundtrack but only a 2.0 Japanese track, while the Director's Cut only has the Japanese track with forced English subs.
I've stopped bitching about the unavailability of original HD-soundtracks in Japanese on these discs as the absence is not Manga UK's fault. Rather, it is the Japanese rights-holders trying to prevent the Japanese from buying these discs cheaper elsewhere. So while I'm not happy about it, what can I do? Both the English dub and subs are very good.

It is a bit difficult to discover just how many soundtracks and subtitles there are, as this is a typical Kaze disc. They employ a labyrinthine structure to their menus which starts with your country, then only shows you what is available for that country. Check "Dutch" and you have far fewer options than "French", for instance. Just so you know: Dutch subs are on here, as are Italian. And a French soundtrack.

Next we get to the extras and a similar thing happens as with the soundtracks. There are several promos and trailers for the film, but that seems to be it. IF you choose "English" as your language, that is.
Choose "French" and you also get a 30-minute interview with creator / scriptwriter Ubukata Tow, which is quite good and describes the whole production in detail, but you can only watch it with French subs. Funnily enough you suddenly also get extra trailers for another few titles like The Castle of Cagliostro and King of Thorns. Those French!

Nobody gets a trailer though for the second film, Mardock Scramble: Second Combustion, which is odd as it has been finished and theatrically released already. Ah well, there is always YouTube I guess...

So in the end this a mighty fine disc if you just want to see the film. Visually it is perfect. The soundtracks are fine, and fully English-friendly. It is light on extras though, especially if you're not French, but overall I really liked it.

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