- HD DVD/DVD Twin-Format Disc
- HD-15 Single-Layer/DVD 5 Single-Layer
- Japanese Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (1.5 Mbps)
- Japanese PCM 2.0 Stereo
- English Subtitles
Exclusive HD Content
- PiP Featurette
- HDi Enhanced Content
- Web-Enabled Content
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Freedom: 4 (HD DVD)
Bandai Visual / 2006 / 25 Minutes / Unrated
Street Date: February 26, 2008
List Price: $39.99
Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Editor's Note: This disc contains several HDi-enhanced extras which may require a firmware upgrade to your HD DVD player. If you experience playback issues, consult your player's manual for instructions on how to download the latest firmware update.
As a guy looking for new ways to say the same thing for the fourth time, I hope you don't mind this inevitable swing at a very dead horse. "The Freedom Project" began as a Japanese promotion by Nissin Cup Noodles to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Commissioning a six-episode anime series called 'Freedom,' the company tapped design legend Katsuhiro Otomo ('Akira,' 'Steamboy') to add a classy flare to what could easily have devolved into an extended commercial for noodles. Bandai Visual has brought the series to the US, dropping each episode on individual HD DVD/DVD twin format discs.
The last three episodes have been a blast. The year is 2267 and the surface of Earth has been ravaged by a devastating climate shift that killed the majority of the planet's population. The survivors colonized the moon, coming together to create Eden, a utopia that quickly devolved into a crime-ridden civilization of street gangs and disenchanted citizens. Rising from the ashes of this oppressive dystopia, a young dreamer named Takeru (voiced by Daisuke Namikawa) stumbled onto a secret that threatened to unravel Eden's web of deceit. With a photograph of a mysterious girl in hand and a horde of war mechs on his trail, Takeru and his friends managed to escape Eden. When last we left them, the gang was in a clunky shuttle headed for Earth, the one place where Takeru could finally uncover the truth.
Unfortunately, the series takes a dramatic downshift in its fourth outing. Instead of following the pace established in the first three volumes, this episode practically pauses all plot development upon Takeru's crash to Earth. Emerging in the remnants of desert-swept Las Vegas, he and his friends initially believe the planet has been completely obliterated. It would be a moment of incredible despair if the episode didn't open with a shot of the girl from the photograph watching the ship descend through the atmosphere. This single shot nearly ruins the entire episode -- it tells us she's alive and well, living in a thriving community, and will definitely be found by Takeru. The rest of the episode plods along as Takeru meets a band of hippies on a post-apocalyptic bus and makes his way to the home of the girl in the photograph. There isn't any plot progression, no meaty character development, and very little to make this a crucial episode in the series.
Don't get me wrong, if the 'Freedom' series was bundled as a single, six-episode release, a slow mid-stream episode wouldn't be so painful, but when only given 22 minutes of material at a time (when you don't include the opening and closing credits), every episode really needs to have an impact. 'Freedom 4' is a letdown that makes me worry about the amount of material that must be resolved in the last two episodes. In my review of each of the previous installments, I complained that the minimal runtimes on the 'Freedom' releases made each episode feel much too short for the sales price. Ironically, volume 4 is my least favorite installment and drags on for what seemed an eternity, despite running the same length as the other episodes.
It's also troubling that the series takes a break to introduce a band of nomadic hippies; an annoying group of survivors that felt like a waste of space. They essentially exist to propel Takeru from point A to point B while filling in as much of the series' expositional void as they possibly can. This cheap shortcut in storytelling feels out of place and, frankly, beneath the tightly scripted plot that's been established throughout the first three episodes. The characters didn't register as whimsical or funny to me -- in fact, their brash gags get old as soon as their rickety bus pulls into view.
Worst of all, the minor developments that do occur in 'Freedom 4' changed my perception of Takeru. Before now, he was a budding hero of sorts, defying authority to get to the bottom of a conspiracy everyone else in Eden was more than happy to ignore, but in this fourth episode, his character takes a comical turn and suddenly acts his age, whining and flailing about in stereotypical anime teen fashion. The last climactic moments of the episode have him parading about in a skintight, yellow jump suit that completely undermines his pre-credits discovery. What was once an intriguing young character has quickly become a troublesome focal point of a story teetering on the edge of losing my interest.
Still, I hold out hope for the remaining episodes. It's entirely possible that my harsh reaction to this specific episode has more to do with viewing it as an individual release than if I were viewing all six episodes back-to-back. So consider yourself warned, 'Freedom 4' slams on the breaks and risks undoing everything that's come before it. I really hope the next two volumes have something special up their sleeves to make up for this lumbering bore.
(Note that Bandai Visual has confirmed it will release the final two volumes of the 'Freedom' series as planned. Fans can breathe a sigh of relief that the recent demise of the HD DVD format hasn't changed BV's plans.)
'Freedom 4' is the fourth US HD DVD to be released on a dual-layer twin-format disc (following the three previous installments in the series). Unlike an HD DVD/DVD Combo Format disc, twin-format discs are single-sided -- one side has a printed label and the other looks like a standard HD DVD. A DVD player will automatically access the DVD-5 layer of the disc, while an HD DVD player will access the HD-15 layer. The end-user doesn't have to fidget with any confusing technical options - instead, the twin-format disc does all the thinking and eliminates the problems that some users have experienced with two-sided discs.
The one consistent element 'Freedom 4' brings to the series as a whole is yet another stunning 1080p/VC-1 transfer. 2D animation simply looks spectacular in high definition -- crisp linework, sharp details, and solid color fills make this series one of the best looking anime titles on the market. Better still, the picture isn't plagued by noise or artifacting, and each frame is extremely clean. This overall precision allows 'Freedom 4' to emerge as a remarkable demo disc, while making the impressive standard DVD presentation look bland by comparison.
Like the previous HD DVD episodes, the only hitch in the presentation is the original source. Static banding and artifacts appear on background images (suggesting these blemishes were present in the graphic files used on the animation cells) and fine linework is a bit pixelated at times (look to the thin lines around characters' eyes and lips). Thankfully, these minor nuisances are relatively insignificant when viewing the presentation as a whole. 'Freedom 4' looks as good as the first three volumes and gives me one thing to feel confident about when it comes to future episodes.
'Freedom 4' features a Japanese language Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps) that does a decent job with this episode's limited soundfield. While the audio tracks on the first three volumes of the 'Freedom' series were afforded plenty of aggressive scenes, the fourth episode is largely driven by front-heavy conversations. Aside from the shuttle crash and a few, brief rides on a bus, the rear channels are silent and unsupportive.
Even so, one can hardly fault the audio track. In spite of the underwhelming sonic experience, the soundscape has obviously received an appropriate amount of attention. Crisp dialogue, great prioritization, and subtle channel movement keep things sounding good regardless of how quiet the episode gets. Sound effects occasionally drift over the top, but dynamics are strong when called upon -- to their credit, the sound designers still know how to tap into the LFE channel, using it from time to time to liven up the proceedings. All in all, 'Freedom 4' sounds as impressive as possible given the circumstances.
The only bonus that appears on both the HD DVD and DVD layers of 'Freedom 4' is a high definition trailer for the fifth episode.
Like previous HD DVD installments of the series, the exclusive features on this release are presented in a classy manner, but would really benefit from more significant content. Additional behind-the-scenes featurettes or commentaries would certainly help offset the sting of the disc's high cost.
- Picture-in-Picture Computer Graphics Simulation -- This overlay presents the design work and production sketches that comprised the third volume's creation. It lasts the entire length of the episode and is generally interesting to watch, but the PiP content is merely presented in standard definition.
- HDi Interactivity -- As the PiP video plays, the placement, size, and transparency of the overlay window can be adjusted on the fly. It's also possible to access English credits and other storyboards via buttons on your remote, but the extra options fail to hide the fact that there isn't a lot of content on the disc to dig through.
- Web Enabled Content -- If your player is connected to the internet, it's possible to access downloadable content including additional trailers and TV spots.
No easter eggs reported for 'Freedom: 4' yet. Found an egg? Please use our tips form to let us know, and we'll credit you with the find.
The 'Freedom' series continues to be haunted by the limitations of Bandai Visual's single-episode release strategy -- it truncates the available amount of supplemental material, it's far too expensive for the average consumer ($39.99 for each episode), and it makes a slower installment like 'Freedom 4' feel like an underwhelming disappointment. A technically solid audio track and a gorgeous video transfer keep things mildly reasonable, but they can't possibly overcome the shortcomings of this release. 'Freedom 4' is impossible to outright recommend -- if you don't already own previous volumes, give this one a rent long before you consider shelling out any cash.
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