Yukikaze Vol. 1

We're almost caught up.

After seeing most anime titles released in the West years, if not decades, after their entry dates in Japan, Bandai Entertainment is taking a bold leap with Yukikaze, a new aerial combat title. The series is slated for 5 episodes, with the first two being released in the U.S. in late February 2004. However, only the first three OVAs are complete as of this writing in January 2004. Will the ending make the show a hit or a bomb? I can't tell you. What I can tell you is that Bandai is going all-out to promote this dark blend of CGI and gorgeous animation. And though it's sometimes a confusing bag of never-seen aliens, sentient fighter jets, and human angst, the elements mostly work, and those with the home theatre systems to fully enjoy it will want to make it a top priority.

Yukikaze takes us to an alternate history where the JAM, a bizarre alien race from a planet called Fairy, created a portal from which to attack Earth 33 years ago. An international coalition of forces pushed the aliens back and traveled through the portal to continue the war back on alien turf. Those forces are now in a precarious position, since the aliens have all but disappeared from the scene. Is the war over? Obviously not, since sorties are regularly shot down, but there are many questions to be answered.

Enter Rei, a fantastic fighter pilot with a severe lack of social skills. He's the pilot of the Yukikaze, a top of the line plane designed to become one with its user. In combat, a fighter that looks for all the world to be a friendly is declared an enemy by Yukikaze, and Rei shoots it down. He's grounded for the incident and Jack, his senior officer, chastises him. Jack is Rei's best friend, but Rei is so withdrawn it makes any relationship near impossible. On Rei's next flight, Yukikaze is shot down, but he survives only to have visions about strange people who want him to reveal the secrets of the Earth forces. Is Yukikaze actually a sentient being that can talk to Rei, or is Rei out of his mind? Have the JAM infiltrated the Air Force and somehow become an insidious part of their own organization? And will the dreams Rei has about an imprisoned fairy ever come to fruition? Volume 1 leaves us tantalized with these questions.

Yukikaze is made for big screens and big sound systems. Sometimes, I'll watch anime away from home on a smaller screen (about 20") with lackluster stereo. For some shows, it works. But when I watched Yukikaze, it just didn't feel quite right. So I took it home for a test drive on a 27" TV and full Dolby Digital sound. What a difference! Because the show has discrete 5.1 sound in both Japanese and English available, I was able to watch it in the original language and still get the immersive experience.

And an experience it is indeed. Most of the aerial combat sequences are all done with CGI, and it's done well. If you hate CGI, don't bother watching it and don't complain to me about it. I thought it looked stunning. In particular, there's a canyon run sequence that's nothing short of incredible. Combined with the "did something just fly over my head?" soundtrack, the dogfights are as exciting as anything Hollywood has produced in 2003. The artwork in quieter sections is also gorgeous. The score, audibly absent from the battle sequences, superbly underscores the slower sections.

All of this is meaningless without a plot, however. Yukikaze does have one, though it's along the lines of "what the heck just happened" titles like Gasaraki and Boogiepop Phantom. I'm getting tired of shows that pretend to be mysteries because the audience isn't given enough information to figure out what's going on, and Yukikaze suffers from this. From the origins of Yukikaze to Rei's twisted dreams, we aren't privy to anything, even tidbits the characters already know. I shouldn't have to read the copious liner notes to understand what's going on, and even those don't explain everything. In fact, the main reason I'm giving this a cautionary B+ rating is because there's no way to know if we're going to eventually be let in on the joke or not. Clean storytelling this is not.

But all is not lost, particularly because the relationship between Jack and Rei is intriguing. After reading blurbs comparing the show to Top Gun, I expected something a bit brash and flippant. Instead, the heart of the show is not the combat but the complicated and dark relationships on the ground. Jack and Rei are already intriguing characters in just 75 minutes, which is hard to accomplish. It will be their story, not the airborne warfare, which will determine whether the rest of the show will be worth keeping.

All in all, I am captivated, frustrated, and absorbed by the world of Yukikaze. The creators should have worked in a bit more storyline and explanations for their world. However, what they've concocted is still an interesting brew that I'll savor further when the rest of the series is released.

Yukikaze Vol. 1 (Eps. 1 & 2) -- violence, mindtrip material not for children -- B+