While HD DVD purists don’t have a lot to look forward to these days, the anime enthusiasts among them can still count on this penultimate episode of ‘Freedom.’ Unless you’ve spent the last year wearing Blu-tinted glasses, you probably already know the gist of Bandai Visual’s HD-exclusive series. Still, for the sake of stragglers, I’ll briefly plow through it again. “The Freedom Project” developed from a Japanese promotion of Nissin Cup Noodles’ 35th anniversary. However, instead of relying on a typical ad campaign, the company tapped design legend Katsuhiro Otomo (‘Akira,’ ‘Steamboy’) to work on a sci-fi anime series. Over the course of the last year, Bandai Visual has brought the series to the US, releasing individual episodes on HD DVD/DVD twin format discs.
I was genuinely impressed with the first three episodes of the ‘Freedom’ series. In the year 2267, a devastating climate shift has killed the majority of the planet’s population, forcing the survivors to establish a lunar colony called Eden. As the colony is revealed to be an oppressive dystopia, a teenager named Takeru stumbles across a strange photograph of a girl on Earth. His discovery threatens to unravel Eden’s deception and attracts the attention of the colony’s authoritarian security bots. In the ensuing chaos, Takeru commandeers a clunky space shuttle and makes a hasty escape to Earth to uncover the truth. Sadly, the series fell apart during its fourth and fifth outings as the young boy joins a group of traveling hippies, dons a ridiculous yellow skinsuit, finds the girl in the photograph much too quickly, and ultimately has to help his new friends weather a fierce hurricane.
Alas, ’Freedom 6’ doesn’t salvage the series. Using Ao’s flashbacks to hop between the retreat from Earth, Takeru’s present attempts to save the planet’s survivors, and a later shuttle launch that will reunite the Earthlings with their colonist brethren, this episode is all over the place. Honestly, it wouldn’t be so bad if other entries in the series had established non-linear storylines and varying plot devices, but it’s a confusing, disjointed mess that doesn’t mesh with the first five episodes. Takeru’s transformation from a boy to man is missing, essentially undermining the tale’s coming-of-age roots. His relationship with Ao is abruptly realized, without any chance to understand her function in the story. Worst of all, Eden’s deception is tossed to the back burner, leaving one to wonder what episodes 4, 5, and now 6 have to do with the overall story. I’m holding out a sliver of hope that ‘Freedom 7’ will somehow walk on water and tie it all together, but I can’t imagine how that will be possible.
I commented in my reviews of the earliest episodes that ‘Freedom’ didn’t feel like a promotional endeavor -- its characterizations and storylines were intriguing, mysterious, and full of potential. This latest entry cements my opinion that Nissin Cup Noodles really just wanted to do something different and garner some attention. There's no thematic cohesion, organic plot development, or character realization. Instead, the series has proven itself to be a parade of pretty pictures with a few absorbing ideas sprinkled in for good measure. The moment Takeru launched for Earth, I felt divorced from the tale, his quest, and his inevitable search for the truth. His motivations and, in turn, the driving momentum of the series lost its way and followed the path of least resistance.
As the ‘Freedom’ series draws to a close, I’m finally able to evaluate the overall run and augment previous opinions of various episodes. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a soft spot for the first three episodes, but in light of the most recent entries, I can’t help but feel disappointed. While I’m sure there are still folks out there who love every episode, I have to disavow the series as a whole. It’s jarring midpoint transition left me in the dust and it hasn’t been able to justify its alterations to the crucial themes of its story, characters, and central conflict.
’Freedom 6’ is the sixth US HD DVD to be released on a dual-layer twin-format disc (following the four 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.
Just like every other episode released in the series, ‘Freedom 6’ boasts a phenomenal 1080p/VC-1 transfer that almost justifies the disc’s high price point. Sharp lines, a stable palette, and a vibrant eruption of colors make this series one of the most eye-catching animated releases on either high-def format. Each and every frame is incredibly clean -- aside from a few instances of inherent color banding, there isn’t any noise, encode artifacting, or soft shots to be found. Better still, perfect contrast and inky blacks create a three-dimensional picture that practically leaps off the screen. The ‘Freedom’ series may be finishing out its run on a dead format, but Bandai Visual would be wise to reference each of its HD episodes when encoding their future Blu-ray releases.
After a disappointing stretch of sonic boredom, the ‘Freedom’ series finally delivers a boom-n-thoom littered soundscape that lives up to the impressive mixes featured on earlier episodes. The Japanese-language Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio may seem like a relic in a modern era of Master Audio, but it still has no problem getting the job done. Dialogue is clean and well-prioritized, LFE support makes the shuttle launches deafening and realistic, and subtle ambience helps flesh out the episode’s quiet, conversational scenes. The rear speakers don’t have a lot to do when the focus leaves the rumbling ships, but they still pepper interiors with convincing acoustics that expand the soundfield and pull it away from the front channels.
In the end, the ‘Freedom’ series has always sounded quite good and has only faltered when its storyline has slowed to a crawl. I may not be a fan of the sixth episode, but it certainly won’t give audiophiles anything to complain about.
This episode only features exclusive content on the HD DVD layer of the disc.
Sigh. What was once a promising series developed to contrast oppression and freedom has devolved in a lightweight blend of anime clichés and syrupy caricatures of authentic dreamers. Thankfully, Bandai Visual hasn’t allowed the technical qualities of the ‘Freedom’ series to follow suit. ‘Volume 6’ features another gorgeous video transfer and a powerful audio track. The supplemental package is still pretty weak, but it’s satisfactory considering the disc only contains a single episode of the series. Obviously, if you’re a fan of ‘Freedom,’ purchasing this penultimate entry is a no-brainer. However, if you’re new to the series this is definitely not the place to start.