Anime fans of a certain age may well remember the initial release of Sony’s Playstation 2 games console. I recall it vividly, particularly for the initially sparse roster of releases available for eager gamers to snap up. One of those early releases was Konami’s Zone Of The Enders – an action-oriented mecha heavy game, sporting cutting edge visuals and that combination beloved of so many anime fans and gamers alike: Robots! Explosions! Planets at war! And MORE robots!
In spite of the fact that the game wasn’t quite as amazing to play as it was to look at, and fell in the direct shadow of Konami’s Metal Gear Solid II, Zone Of The Enders spawned a direct sequel, ZOE: The Second Runner, as well as another game for the Nintendo Gameboy Advance. The franchise had that rare quality that so few video games could boast: an absorbing, immersive and involving back story and universe. So, only naturally, it follows that there should be some kind of tie-in product to capitalise on that. Cause and effect, supply and demand and all that, one thing leads to another and we find ourselves here, with a review of the 2001 OVA ‘Zone Of The Enders: Idolo’, produced by Sunrise.
Now here’s the thing: The story told in Konami’s ZOE games was one of a young boy discovering an all-powerful robot and dealing with the horrors of war. The problem posed when adapting that storyline to anime is that, frankly, it’s been done a billion times over – arguably in the Gundam franchise alone (zing!) – so, Sunrise have taken a perhaps unexpected route.
Using the ZOE universe as a setting, Idolo tells a completely new, very different type of story. So different, in fact, that I suspect most fans of the games are likely to have a very strong reaction to it. Konami’s in-game story has been almost completely ignored. For one thing, there’s no appearance or even mention of Jehuty, the mecha from the games, its young pilot, or any of the pre-established characters. The only exception is Viola, a side character from the console games, who is here present as a stalwart sidekick for ZOE’s new lead, Radium Lavans.
Set in the year 2167, we’re introduced to the Mars Vs Earth scenario that is central to ZOE. Human colonists resident on Mars have to put up with an onerous existence, living at odds with their oppressive Earth-dwelling counterparts. Radium Lavans and his friend Viola are trained pilots of LEVs – humanoid fighting machines with the most unintentionally giggle-inducing cockpit arrangements known to man. Witnessing the hostility directed at his people by the Earth forces, Radium harbours an understandable resentment towards them, and is chosen to test pilot a new, experimental type of LEV called an ’Orbital Frame’. This is Idolo, a nimble mecha possessed of great strength and firepower, which employs the use of a strange material called metatron in its structure. This metatron, it turns out, will have a rather unexpected effect on Radium, and give him the outlet to unleash his frustration and anger at the Earth oppressors. Embarking on a series of test operations with Idolo, Radium’s initial feelings of empowerment soon run the risk of developing into something less noble… with tragic results.
So, yes, like I said… VERY different to the content of the game series. Still, it should be noted that game fans aren’t going to feel completely short-changed. The story plays out in a recognisable universe, with the mecha and location designs feeling very much like they belong within Zone Of The Enders canon. There’s also a nice nod to the games in the use of ‘Kiss Me Sunlights’, a song which should be familiar to gamers, as the show’s ending theme. It’s performed by Heart Of Air, and it’s really rather sweet.
If there’s anything to count against this movie, though, it would have to be the overall presentation. Bearing the Sunrise label, expectations are raised for something a bit special. Sadly, it’s clear from the outset that in spite of the OVA status of this release, we’re looking at TV grade animation. It’s pleasantly fluid, and communicates everything it needs to more than capably, but this is by no stretch one of the better-looking shows to come from the studio. This is all the more galling considering Zone Of The Enders’ Playstation credentials. The game featured some jaw-dropping visuals for its time. Similarly, the game’s sequel was also a bit of a looker, and even included some tasty anime cut scenes. The standard of the visuals here isn’t bad, but you may well find yourself wishing they could have been a little more upmarket. Even with my not-even-casual experience of the games, I certainly felt disappointed.
The soundtrack fares somewhat better, though. Hikaru Nanase’s work still brings that term ‘TV quality’ to mind, but there’s a good deal of atmosphere and energy to it. You’ll not find yourself humming any of it, but it’s a good effort, supporting the story very capably. There’s no dreadful rawk-tastic chugga-chugga-grind-grind guitar shredding, which seems to have blighted every other action-oriented show I’ve watched just prior to writing this review. Points are clawed back for that.
ADV’s dub is also rather good, coming off as a more mature effort than some of the more ‘cartoony’ attempts out there. I suspect that most of the voice actors present here won’t be well known to anybody reading this, but they do a great job for the most part, with Boni Hester particularly good as Radium’s fiancee Dolores.
Ultimately, the key with ZOE: Idolo is to leave expectations or preconceptions behind and enjoy the story that’s on offer – a sentiment that is, thankfully, rewarded. Happily, I can report that, while Idolo may not be the prettiest or most technically stunning hour of anime you’ll ever witness, it’s still a pacey, decently told story. It fair rattles along, with Radium’s transformation from a misguided, downtrodden idealist to something akin to a monster deftly handled, without feeling too rushed or forced at any point. No mean feat, considering the short running time of this feature and the wealth of in-universe story information that’s waiting to be doled out. In fact, Idolo is a great example of a movie that makes good use of a short run time. It struck me on re-watching the OVA for this review that I never felt bored at any point, and that none of the scenes dragged or felt unnecessary.
Eagle eyed ZOE fans will be aware that this OVA was immediately followed by a TV series, titled ‘Zone Of The Enders: Dolores i’. Inevitably, once the end credits of this OVA have rolled, you’ll be left wondering if what you saw has any bearing on the following series, and where things could possibly go from the finale. I could tell you, but in this instance the guessing and finding out is all part of the fun. Who knows? I may even address that in another review…
For now, all I’ll say is that ZOE: Idolo can be enjoyed as a standalone experience, but works well alongside the material that follows it. Refreshingly different to the host of other mecha shows floating around, you could do much worse than to check it out.