Catblue Dynamite Anime Review
US Release By
Stylish Retro Action
42 minutes (5-7-minute episodes)
Robert and Bill are two small-time drug mules in late '70s New York. Just back from Miami, times are good for them until, for no apparent reason, a horde of masked gunmen show up, dead-set on killing them both. Luckily, Blue happend to be meeting Robert for payback on a favor. Luckily because Blue is a cat--literally, if you go by her ears and tail--who's as deadly with a sword as with a gun. She can also talk to ghosts of the recently-deceased, and has a spectral sidekick who goes by John Doe... if you believe in that sort of thing. Either way, with what they're up against they're all going to need nine lives.
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This action-heavy one-shot by Romanov Higa uses every action-scene trick you can think of, from John Woo to Michael Bay, to produce a simple but solidly entertaining and slick-looking ride fit for a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. The plot is framed as an excerpt of a longer series that doesn't exist, but it's pulled off well--the characters are clearly established, and it feels coherent and whole. The period-appropriate English-only dialogue is above average, in particular Anna Kunnecke, who gives Blue plenty of playful personality. Most memorable, though, is the funky '70s setting, which is pulled off impressively well, from the period-appropriate English dialogue to the lived-in urban decay of the backgrounds to a disco-with-guns shootout. The action, of course, is the reason for watching, and while the emphasis is on style over logical choreography, it looks gorgeous--punchy, flashy, and exciting.
Catblue Dynamite looks great, feels spot-on '70s funky, and has just enough characterization to hold it together and make you care. It's style over substance in the extreme, but if you're in the mood for a light-hearted '70s action flick with some decidedly modern flair, it's an easy call. It's free to watch, too, so there's no excuse if it sounds interesting.
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CGI action anime auteur Romanov Higa has a style more influenced by Hollywood action movies, John Woo, and the Wachowskis than traditional anime, and in this short little web-original series he pulls every action-scene trick you can think of together into one shallow but slick-looking and solidly entertaining ride.
As with Higa's other anime outings, the story is framed as if it were an excerpt of something larger, in this case going so far as to label it "Episode 05." Unlike those other attempts, however, this "episode of a TV series that doesn't exist" really works--a bit of narration at the beginning clearly establishes the setting and characters, and it feels coherent and whole. It wisely sticks to a simple, succinct plot, which leaves sufficient time to cover it.
It was originally done as a series of 5-minute shorts, but flows quite smoothly watched straight through. The end is the closest thing to a weakness--it seems to sort of fumble the tension at the climax--but it's otherwise impressively well-paced for what is essentially one long string of action scenes with plot tucked between them.
And what action scenes they are; Catblue Dynamite may not have a big animation studio attached to it, but the gun-ballet (or, rather, gun-disco) fight sequences, acrobatic swordplay, and brief-but-brutal car chase would be entirely comfortable in a big-budget summer blockbuster. Also unlike his other works--and an improvement over them--is less reliance on ultra-slow-motion; there are plenty of stylish Woo-esque bits, but the majority of the shootouts and melee fights are at full speed. The all-3D visuals are motion-capture based, so the character animation has a very realistic feel to it, but it's still crisp, punchy, and loaded with extreme acrobatics. The faces are reasonably expressive as well, dodging a frequent problem with CGI anime.
Of course, while the physics and motion are realistic, the choreography is decidedly not--as spectacular as the gunfights look, they make no sense in terms of spatial logic. "Can't hit the broad side of a barn with an automatic weapon" is an understatement with these faceless minions, and a funked-up shootout on the dance floor has as much to do with posing as shooting. Oh, and two-pistol style isn't enough for Blue--on account of a prehensile tail, she can shoot three people at once. And does, repeatedly. Not that any of that is a bad thing, so long as your taste runs toward all style, no substance.
The cel shader used for the production is quite good, and although the art does have a bit of the "shiny" look of things like the recent Appleseed films and Vexile, which I'm not particularly fond of, it still feels like anime. That said, it's also loaded with funky '70s cinematic style, including some great split-screen bits. The backgrounds are a step up from Higa's other works--gorgeously detailed, run-down city locales that feel dense and lived-in. It basically looks like a Dirty Harry movie directed by John Woo with a bit of an anime twist.
The '70s motif isn't limited to the visuals--the whole thing is a kind of action-homage to classic gangster films, and in almost every way it feels just right. From the white suits to the oversized shades, the two drug mule protagonists could have walked right out of Donnie Brasco or Saturday Night Fever. The dialogue isn't quite as dead-on--there are slightly awkward lines here and there--but it's easily good enough to maintain the retro feel without the sense that the writer was trying too hard at it, or trying to show off its '70s-ness.
Speaking of which, interestingly the whole thing was in English from the start (there's even decent lip-flap match), which helps quite a bit with the believability and avoids any tough choices about acting quality versus appropriate language for sub fans like myself.
There are really only five characters, and of those the three living leads do most of the talking. Despite not having any other anime credits to their names, the acting is surprisingly good, and deserves a lot of the credit for how entertaining the whole thing is. Matt Lagan is relatively convincing as likable wiseguy Robert, and Herbert Kendrick is fun as the smarmier, panickier, jive-flavored Bill.
The high point, however, is Anna Kunnecke as Blue--playful and sounding very comfortable in the role, she gives life to the cheerful banter. Combined with the expressive facial animation, her spot-on performance makes an archetypal character more entertaining than she has a right to be. Blue holds the whole thing together, and I wouldn't at all mind watching more of her (or her co-stars) were the series to continue some day.
The remaining two aren't so hot. Dominic Allen is flat but passable as the less-talkative John Doe. The only real problem is Ruthann Morizumi as the villain--I think she's supposed to sound Russian, but mostly she seems to be fighting to hide an accent, and is very stiff regardless. Fortunately, she doesn't say much.
The soundtrack completes the retro picture--fittingly funky, with story-specific and period-appropriate disco songs woven in. The sound effects and foley are mostly quite good, although a little quiet in comparison to the action onscreen--in particular, the cars conspicuously lack the roar that a boss muscle car would emit.
Put all that together and you've got a stylized-action-heavy one-shot that looks great, feels spot-on '70s funky, and has just enough characterization to hold it together and make you care. It's style over substance in the extreme, but if you're in the mood for a light-hearted '70s action flick with some decidedly more modern action flair, you're not going to go wrong with Catblue Dynamite. It's free to watch, too, so there's no excuse if it sounds interesting.
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Romanov Higa's earlier action-heavy mini-series, URDA, is quite similar, if more serious in story and not as smoothly assembled, plus set during WWII. His other short, Tank S.W.A.T. 01, is the same general thing in a Dominion-inspired cyberpunk setting, but also not as successful in terms of execution. If you like the retro setting, Riding Bean might be worth a look, and for gun action with more logic and less '70s in a US setting there's Gunsmith Cats (although it has no actual cats in it). If you do want not-so-cute catgirls and far more extreme action, there's Geobreeders, although the style is wildly different.
Notes and Trivia
Catblue Dynamite is an original concept by Romanov Higa, who also wrote, directed, and did a significant chunk of the animation for it. It was originally released straight to the internet as 5-minute mini-episodes. It's currently available outside Japan as a legit ad-supported stream of the whole show on Crunchyroll.
The official Catblue Dynamite website actually lists titles and plot synopses of episodes 1-4 as if they had been broadcast, as well as for the "not yet aired" episodes 06 through 08. There are no plans to animate any of them to my knowledge. The episode that does exist, #05, is titled "Stranger in the Alley," a play on the song "Strangers in the Night," the Frank Sinatra version of which factors into the story.
Romanov Higa is known for his semi-indie 3D CGI anime work, most notably prior to this URDA, a very similar short series of action-heavy mini-episodes about an alternate take on WWII; it's available in the US from Media Blasters. Higa had been tapped to direct Appleseed: Genesis, a TV series spawned by the recent movies, but that project apparently was canned early in production due to budget and/or legal issues.
There is an "official" singer (Blue cosplay included) of Catblue Dynamite's theme songs, Catblue Mimi, whose music video accompanies the show at the end. While her songs are in Japanese, the actual theme songs used in the production are setting-appropriate English versions by a different group.
The dialogue is relatively good when it comes to period accuracy, but there are a couple of obvsiouly anachronistic slips. The most obvious is a mention of J-Lo, who wouldn't have even hit puberty at the time.
Speaking of dialogue, the Japanese subtitles aren't all that literal; I'm not sure if this is because the final English script was spiced up from Higa's original, or if the subtitles were kept straight to make it easier to follow for Japanese natives.
US DVD Review
No DVD exists as of this writing; it's online streamed only in Japan and elsewhere.
There's a lot of coarse language and a high body count, but the violence isn't unduly graphic; probably 16-up, 13-up if you don't feel strongly about the violence and language.
Violence: 3 - A whole lot of people get shot, but it's action-movie violence, without a whole lot of blood.
Nudity: 1 - Blue has a mildly skimpy outfit.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - The main characters are drug runners, and there's some mature conversation.
Language: 3 - There's a fair amount of profanity appropriate to the characters.