HD DVD
Give it a Rent
3.5 stars
Amazon
$37.75
Usually ships in 24 hours Buy Now»
Overall Grade
3.5 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
4 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4 Stars
Supplements
0 Stars
High-Def Extras
1.5 Stars
Bottom Line
Give it a Rent

Freedom: 1

Street Date:
June 26th, 2007
Reviewed by:
High-Def Digest staff
Review Date: 1
June 19th, 2007
Movie Release Year:
2006
Studio:
Bandai Visual
Length:
25 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

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.

Introduction

This HD DVD release of 'Freedom 1' is unique in several ways: not only is it the first anime title to be released on HD DVD in the US, but it's also the first US-release of a "Twin-Format" HD DVD/DVD disc. Not to be confused with double-sided HD DVD/DVD combo discs, twin-format discs can contain up to three layers of recorded content on a single-sided disc. 'Freedom 1' uses two of those layers -- a 15GB HD DVD layer, and a 4.6GB standard-def DVD layer.

As if that weren't enough, 'Freedom 1' also boasts a tweaked VC-1 encode that was reportedly co-developed by both Microsoft and Bandai (the disc's distributor). To top things off, the disc includes several never-before seen advanced HDi-enhanced extras, including a customizable picture-in-picture track, and several supplementary features accessible only through your HD DVD player's internet connection.

So, we've established that this is a most unusual HD DVD release -- but is it any good? Read on...

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

The anime series 'The Freedom Project' is the result of a unique marketing manuever commissioned by Nissin Cup Noodles in Japan that has evolved into a six part Original Video Animation (OVA). Normally I would shrug off this kind of production as simply a corporate gimmick, but this one is intriguing in that it boasts Katsuhiro Otomo ('Akira,' 'Steamboy') as its lead character and mech designer. For those new to anime, Otomo's involvement with Nissin on 'Freedom' is the equivalent of Martin Scorsese working on a television show commissioned by Campbell's Soup.

The direct-to-DVD series itself is being released one half-hour episode at a time every few months in its native Japan, backed by a publicity blitz that has littered streets and subways with posters, banners, and character art for over a year now. Given the onslaught of awareness that has surrounded the series in Japan, US anime fans (myself included) have been clamoring to get a look at what all the fuss is about. Uniquely, 'Freedom 1' makes its U.S.-based home video debut *only* as a twin-format HD DVD release, meaning that this is the only edition of the disc currently being released in the U.S.

As the series opens, we learn that in the middle of the 21st century, Earth was devastated by a dramatic climate shift that killed billions. The survivors colonized the moon and formed a new society called Eden, which was built as a series of lunar cities meant to form a utopia, but it's become a grimy neo-Tokyo with abundant problems. The year is 2267 and Eden educates its children until the age of fifteen. At that point, they're granted a brief period of freedom before they're reintegrated into the system to serve in a pre-assigned position in the workforce.

Takeru (voiced by Daisuke Namikawa) has just graduated and wants to race in a dangerous series of tunnels with a shoddy vehicle (Lunar Terrain Vehicle or LTD) of his own design. His friends Kazuma (Shotaro Morikubo) and Bis (Kappei Yamaguchi) support the young dreamer and help him with his LTD's mechanical problems, but the direction of the series is set when Takeru stumbles upon a secret that threatens to call Earth's fate and Eden's livelihood into question.

Before I jump into my critique, I should mention that my biggest disappointment with 'Freedom 1' was its length. In following with the Japanese DVD release scheme, this disc includes only the first episode of the series, which (subtracting the opening credits and the end credits) only lasts a little over twenty minutes. As a result, it's tough to get much of a feel for the story or the characters.

That complaint aside, I'm an absolute sucker for Otomo's artwork and I was really struck by the expressiveness of his characters. With so many near-photo quality CG films in theaters these days, I'd almost forgotten how much I love the quaint realism applied to the screen with quality traditional animation. Thanks to a solid script, colorful characters, and emotive dialogue, I had an easy time immersing myself in Takeru's underground subculture.

I also quite enjoyed the rough line art of the production and the painted backdrops used to frame the character animation. Character lines are crisp, but the backgrounds look as if they've been reprinted from a manga comic. This disjointed look is appealing because it has such strong roots in graphic novel artwork -- the resulting effect is like flipping through a manga and watching as it comes to life on the page. The addition of CG animation (even when its used for the main characters) isn't distracting, and generally blends well with the 2D animation. The only hiccup is consistent with every anime that uses this blend of old and new -- the CG animation has noticeably more frames per second than the hand drawn elements.

Even though this disc only contains the first episode, the story does have a nice setup. Once I've seen the entire series, I may end up reversing my thoughts, but taken on its own, 'Freedom 1' does everything an opening volley should -- it develops tension, introduces endearing and sympathetic characters, and sets the stage for more epic events to transpire. The city feels intentionally dead and the despair inherent in the survivors of humanity is immediately apparent, creating a really nice contrast that propels the rebellious Takeru forward -- his dreams and aspirations are more believable because Eden is so superficial.

I suppose I should mention the cringe-inducing theme song ("This is Love") by Japanese pop singer Utada Hikaru. I dig all of the eccentricities Japanese culture sprinkles into anime -- it's part of the appeal for a fan from the US, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand the continual use of pop songs that seem to contradict the tone of the anime they accompany. The end credits of 'Freedom' feature a percussion-heavy score that (in my opinion) is far superior and more fitting.

As it stands, I'm really looking forward to seeing future installments of 'The Freedom Project.' I wish more episodes were available at once so I could get more of an overall feel for the series, but the fantastic art and the intriguing story are enough to get my initial buy-in. Hopefully this series will continue to impress and not fall into the clich├ęs of the genre.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

As I mentioned in the introduction to this review, 'Freedom 1' is the first twin-format HD DVD/DVD to hit the US market, although from looking at the disc itself, you'd never guess it's anything special. Unlike combo discs, one side has a printed label, while the other side looks just like a normal HD DVD disc. Pop it in an HD DVD player or a standard-def player, however, and the twin-format disc starts to work its magic, auto-detecting the player format and hopping to the proper layer without the user having to make any selection.

Presented in 1080p with the VC-1 codec, the HD DVD presentation of 'Freedom 1' is a vibrant wonder that looks very good all around. The standard-def DVD transfer included on this disc (encoded with MPEG-2) looks good as well, but in a direct compare, it doesn't come close to the high-def presentation.

Bandai has said that it worked with Microsoft to optimize the VC-1 codec for anime, and the results are quite impressive -- the HD DVD layer boasts vivid colors, perfect black levels, and crisply detailed linework. Most impressively, the textures in the background paintings are phenomenal. Just look at the lunar surface and the industrial imperfections of distant buildings -- you can see the brush strokes of the hand-painted elements. I was also pleased to see that the color fills fit snuggly into the linework -- there aren't any instances where the seams of the animation show through the high-def presentation.

There are a few problems, but most can be attributed to the master print rather than the HD DVD transfer. Slight color banding is present in places like the orange sky during the first street race, as well as on the visors of the spacesuits later in the episode. However, the banding doesn't shift with movement which leads me to believe it was present in the original coloring of these elements. Likewise, when the bikers first confront each other on the street, the orange sky has slight compression artifacts littered across the expanse. Again though, when the shot pans, the compression artifacts are unaffected -- leading me to conclude that the compression is an element of the original graphic file used in the background, rather than the HD DVD transfer.

The only issue that seems to be presented by the VC-1 encode itself is a slight pixilation to thin lines (particuarly around the eyes of the characters). This isn't distracting per se, but does pop up quite frequently once you start looking for it. All things considered, however, these issues are so insignificant that most fans won't even notice -- the picture is gorgeous, and only makes me excited to see more 2D animation released in high-def in the future.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

Unfortuntely, the audio package on this HD DVD forces fans to make an annoying choice -- either you go with a full Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps) or a front-heavy uncompressed Linear PCM 2.0 track. The use of surround channels on the Dolby mix provides the best overall audio experience, but the PCM track provides the best sound clarity. Because the bike races are more exhilarating when they fill the soundfield, I personally recommend the Dolby mix.

Both tracks are presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles. Each mix boasts clear dialogue, good prioritization, and subtle channel movement. Sound effects are typical for anime (occasionally drifting over the top), but explosions and crashes are authentic and convincing. Treble tones don't waver and the bass ranges boom and rumble (just listen when Takeru fires his boost rocket near the end of the episode). Even better, the Dolby surround mix features an impressive soundfield that feels full and rich -- the racers whiz across the entire soundscape and eerily move from the rear channels, to the front, and back to the rear channels in half a second.

Like most 2D animation, the sound design tends to explode during action beats, but feels a bit empty during character interactions and dialogue scenes. There doesn't seem to be many varying room acoustics in 'Freedom 1' except for moments where an auditory discrepancy would be painfully obvious (inside a spacesuit or a tunnel for example). Overall though, the sound design seems to have received a lot of attention and it feels weightier than some of the soundwork I've heard with other anime series.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

The only supplement included on both the HD DVD and DVD layers of 'Freedom 1' is a trailer for the next episode of the series. There are, however, several additional HD DVD-only supplements...

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

The HD DVD-exclusive supplements on this edition of 'Freedom 1' are the result of a partnership between Microsoft and Memory-Tech. The disc uses HD-i technology to add an extra layer of customization to your experience, and while it does offer some intriguing ideas, overall this package feels a bit more like a tech demo than it does a solid offering of supplemental material.

Here's how it works: when activated, you can choose from several features that appear alongside the screen that contains the episode itself. Pressing "A" on the remote displays the show's production credits on the right side of the screen. In this case, the effect is choppy and mildly pointless, but if used for something other than credits, this option would seem to have great potential. Pressing "B" shows ongoing storyboards for the entire episode on the left side of the screen. This is an excellent use of the technology -- being able to watch a progression of storyboards side-by-side with the episode is quite enticing (especially for manga fans). The only technical downside to these two options is that it's not possible to have both supplemental windows open at once.

Pressing "C", meanwhile, will bookmark up to seven scenes that can be accessed later from a disc menu. This isn't anything new or exciting, but it seems to be popping up on more and more high-def releases so someone must be using it.

The other significant feature included on the disc is a "3DCG Simulation Video" that shows the framing of the CG elements in the tunnel race. Displayed in a picture-in-picture window overtop the finished scene, this one is also fairly standard but it does feature some nice customization options. Again, these make for an impressive tech demo, but don't really enhance this particular supplement.

Pressing "A" on your remote allows you to change the size of the PiP window (there are seven different size options provided), pressing "B" adjusts the transparency of the PiP window (with 4 levels of opacity), pressing "C" swaps the main windo video with the PiP window video, while pressing "D" resets all of your changes to the default settings. Pressing the directional arrows, it's also possible to move the PiP window anywhere on the screen. The only hiccup to these welcome options is that the video content in the PiP video isn't presented in high definition -- when I popped it into the main window, the picture was pixilated and flooded with noise.

Finally, there is an option to access locked content and to download additional content if your HD DVD player is connected online. You can download the original Japanese TV commercial in standard definition, access the series' Prologue, and watch the trailer for the first episode.

Unfortunately, as I reviewed this disc the host server that houses the supplemental content for 'Freedom 1' was offline -- it's not scheduled to go live until the disc is released to the public. But even though I can't access the material yet, I still have some complaints.

My major issue is that if there is content already loaded on the disc, a user shouldn't have to acquire an online access key to view it. You've already shelled out your money and now you have to jump through hoops to get your money's worth -- it's not a process that respects our positions as fans.

Secondly, I have a lesser complaint. While tech savvy consumers will be able to keep the content they download on external hard drives, most fans will have to download the content, watch it, and then delete it in order make room for future content on this or other releases.

All in all, while the added features in this HD DVD edition of 'Freedom 1' are certainly a novelty, and demonstrate great potential for future releases, unfortunately there isn't enough quality content included here to really show them off.

Final Thoughts

Groundbreaking in more ways than one, I really enjoyed this first episode of 'The Freedom Project' on HD DVD, and I have every intention of checking out the rest of the series -- the picture was beautiful and the audio package was full of life. And while the advanced technical features on this disc don't add much to the overall presentation, they're certainly impressive and fun to play with. Having said that, given the fact that the main feature on this disc is only twenty-five minutes long, the list price of $39.99 ($27.25 at Amazon) is likely to be a tough sell for all but the most dedicated anime fan. If you're not already a fan of the 'The Freedom Project,' your best bet may be to try to find this one as a rental before you buy.

Technical Specs

  • HD DVD Single Layer 15GB
  • DVD Layer 4.6GB
  • Twin Format Disc

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/VC-1

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.78:1

Audio Formats

  • Japanese Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround (1.5 Mbps)
  • Japanese PCM 2.0 Stereo

Subtitles/Captions

  • English Subtitles

Supplements

  • Trailer

Exclusive HD Content

  • Featurettes
  • Storyboards
  • HD-i Technology
  • Downloadable Content
  • Trailer

Review Components:
- 52" Sony Bravia XBR3 1080p Flat-Panel LCD
- Toshiba HD-XA2 HD DVD Player
- Yamaha 7.1 (840w) with Klipsch Synergy series 7.1 speakers
- HDMI and optical audio connections

Puzzled by the technical jargon in our reviews, or wondering how we assess and rate HD DVD and Blu-ray discs? Learn about our review methodology.

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