Photon Anime Review
US Release By
6 30-minute episodes
1997-11-21 - 1999-02-18
What's In It
- Catfights (a LOT)
- One-sided Superpowered Fistfights
- Creepy Magic Fights
- Rapidly Decimated Space Fleets
- Cute, Underdeveloped Heroes
- Mass Stupidity
- Violence: 3 (significant)
- Nudity: 4 (heavy)
- Sex: 3 (significant)
- Language: 3 (significant)
On the backwater desert world creatively known as Sandy Planet, Aun has stolen her village's holy item and run off to marry a rock star. This isn't the first time, so, as usual, the elders send her adoptive brother Photon out after her--a kind-hearted little fellow with superhuman strength and not too much going on between the ears. But, not as usual, this time Photon runs into Keyne, an intergalactic rebel who crash-landed on her way to find a powerful project of her grandfather's. And then he accidentally engages himself to her. Then a megalomaniac named Papacha shows up to capture Keyne and take over the galaxy. Oh, and the galactic princess Lashara, Papacha's love, is wondering where he's off to as well.
Anyway, it's not long before Keyne and Aun are competing for Photon's interest, Papacha's started a one-sided rivalry with him, and the fate of the galaxy lies in the hands of a bunch of idiots.
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Roughly speaking, Photon is an old-school AIC/Pioneer harem show that features an odd emotional infant as the male lead, forsakes most of the romance, almost all of the drama, ratchets the humor up four or five notches, and fills the rest out with of totally tasteless situation comedy. The series has two huge plusses: a characteristically imaginative world, and the villain Papacha: The perfect, lecherous combination of posturing vanity, self-centered megalomania, and outlandish habits backed by a spectacular performance in Japanese by Kouichi Yamadera. Add in spot-on comedic timing, and you've got the potential for an outright hilarious series. Just two problems: It's relentlessly stupid, and there's zero plot until the first half of the last episode, which is so dark, wrenching, and random it seems to have come from another series entirely. Oh, and the dub doesn't have as much going for it--an even weirder take on Photon, weaker performances, and Aun is even more savagely annoying.
How much you enjoy the series as a whole will depend a lot on how much the random serious turn near the end bothers you, whether it's too silly and base to appeal to your sense of humor, and how willing you are to ignore (or enjoy) the mass stupidity and complete and total lack of plot. Personally, I think Photon is funnier than it has any right to be.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Photon is superficially a standard harem show--a collection of lively women, a villain or two, and a clueless male at the center of it all. Within this genre it stands out as crude, cartoony, and having an odd emotional infant as the male lead. Most importantly, though, Photon is funny. Very, very funny.
Up front, it has two problems: It is outrageously stupid (if that's even a negative) and it has a confused bout of seriousness near the end.
The last couple of episodes are comparatively straight, but that's almost expected in any comedy with even a passing amount of plot, and the transition isn't jarring. The problem is the first half of the last episode, which comes out of nowhere and seems to have been spliced in from an entirely different series.
That dark, borderline-disturbing fifteen minutes or so introduces a totally new villain, hauls out a bunch of confusing and entirely meaningless plot, and nearly inverts the mood. In whatever (serious) series it belongs in it would have been an effective climax, but it has no business in Photon. Fortunately, it doesn't last long; the remainder of the episode goes on to have exactly the sort of wacky, mildly dramatic, generally humorous climax that you'd expect.
As for actual plot, there really isn't any. People are doing stuff, there's a lot of incoherent babbling about some sort of Aho/Anti-Aho mumbo-jumbo, and in the last episode it all turns out to relate to a plan for galactic domination and some other incomprehensible sidestep. None of it makes the slightest bit of sense, but frankly I was laughing too hard to care.
And that's the good: Photon is hilarious. It's also pure stupid and requires a slightly warped sense of humor, but something funny enough to bring me to tears more than once is rare, so I have to give Photon its due. Bawdy, chaotic, multi-layered, and full of tasteless humor and outright cartoon slapstick, this is a Pioneer/AIC comedy taken to the limit.
Without question it's the villain who makes this series. Papacha is the perfect, lecherous combination of posturing vanity, self-centered megalomania, and outlandish habits. He is simultaneously so vile and so pathetic that you can't help but love him. He's followed everywhere by the Pochini, a band of tubby gofer/cheerleader/yes-things who do their darnedest to set up his dramatic entrances. Oh, and he spends the bulk of the series wearing nothing but a pair of striped boxer shorts (it's a hot planet). In most of the rest his hirsute form is covered by naught but a censor spot or two.
The other unique character is our hero, Photon. Part sweet innocent, part powerful superhero-type, and part simpleton, the original Japanese version and the English dub seem to disagree about whether he's a mentally underdeveloped child or--in USM's rewrite--an adult who looks and acts like mentally underdeveloped child.1 His doe-eyed innocence and loyal personality make him hard not to like, his emotional and intellectual underdevelopment and extremely needy nature make him passably interesting as a character, and his superhuman strength makes him meaningful to the plot and a tad mysterious. On the annoying side, it's uncomfortably unclear whether his "suitors" want to be his girlfriend or his mom, and it doesn't make any sense that they're falling over themselves for him either way. Still, he's an unusual center for the plot to revolve around.
The rest of the cast are a stock lot from Tenchi Muyo, El Hazard, et al: Feisty Keyne (an appealing mix of normal, mean, and a touch of honestly sweet), "cute" Aun (even meaner and viciously annoying), and the innocent, naive princess Lashara. There's also a cute squirrel/computer Ryo-ohki rip-off. Later in the series, one of the yes-things, Pochini #1, takes on a bigger role, and is, ironically, the most sympathetic character in the whole show.
Aside from Papacha, Keyne and Aun's brutal one-upsmanship is the other main source of humor in the series. The field of battle ranges from cookoffs to an unrelenting stream of insults and breast jokes (lots of breast jokes).
It's a bit hard to get past the humor, but the bonus character is the setting. The world of Photon is just the sort of creatively constructed place that makes other AIC/Pioneer series so memorable. Imaginative locales, customs, and abilities--Aun can freeze time in a bubble around herself--abound. About the only generic thing is the obligatory hot springs. The series is also loaded with technology either so advanced that it looks like magic, or actually is--fanciful devices for starting fires, whimsical hoverskiffs, and write-on spells. Importantly, the characters treat all this in the nonchalant way they should--nobody explains how a bunch of magic marker (good pun) lines levitate a ship--making it that much easier to suspend disbelief. I love that sort of thing, so this series scores big.
Visually, Photon is surprisingly attractive. There's consistently fluid character animation, properly exaggerated gag animation, and even some snazzy action. As cartoony as it is early on, I was surprised how little it bothered me, and how little it affects the solidity of the world. The character designs are attractive, if not imaginative (excepting the almost-too-cute Photon and the downright weird-looking Papacha), and are drawn in the bright, crisp style you'd expect from a Movic/AIC production. The backgrounds are fanciful and detailed, and although most of the series takes place in a desert (it's called Sandy Planet for a reason), there are still a number of interesting locations. The mechanical design is equally fun, contributing hugely to the atmosphere.
The Japanese acting is good stuff. The unquestionable star is Kouichi Yamadera's Papacha: A perfect blend of studly, silly, and "I'm Bad!", with oodles of flourish and extra touches (clearing his throat before laughing maniacally, for example). On the opposite end of the spectrum, Junko Takeuchi gives Photon a likable, childish tone that matches his look and odd personality quite well. Her performance also manages to make his ultra-innocence believable without being annoying, and that's impressive. Yui Horie's Aun, on the other hand, is annoying, but she's written to be. Along with relative unknown Yumi Kuroda as Keyne, the two female leads do their part to carry the humor--their rapid-fire back-and forth banter, pot-shots, and outright insults are smooth and funny.
Speaking of which, the comic timing in Photon is absolutely dead-on, both among the cast and in the purely visual scenes (a particular situation involving a doll popping a seam and the half-asleep villain reacting in proxy comes to mind as a perfect, off-handedly hilarious example).
The English dub is far less remarkable--generally a little lower-key than the original, and the timing isn't nearly as sharp. Keyne is underacted for the part by Suzy Prue, and although Tara Jayne's Aun is true to the original, she's even more annoying, which I wouldn't have thought possible. The big difference, though, is Photon, who is a completely different character--Scott Cargle's deadpan, mature-sounding voice clearly establishes the character as an underdeveloped adult. This interpretation is weirder and somewhat less likable, though it still works. About the only cast member who lives up to the Japanese version is Pochini (Pochinis, actually)--high pitched and funny.
Music-wise, the series opens with an interesting, exotic instrumental piece (after the first two episodes--apparently they skipped the opening to fit in more jokes before that), and there's a lively, fun end theme (rather less silly than I would have expected). Haruhiko Nishioka's background score is sparse, but appealing and relatively creative--some exotic tunes similar to the opening and a couple of in-story gag songs and intro themes that had me laughing.
In summary, Photon is an old-school AIC/Pioneer harem show that forsakes most of the romance, almost all of the drama, ratchets the humor up four or five notches, and fills the rest out with heaps of tasteless situation comedy. It even manages to serve up an imaginative world as a side dish. How much you enjoy the series as a whole will depend a lot on how much the random serious turn near the end bothers you, whether it's too silly and base to appeal to your sense of humor, and how willing you are to ignore (or enjoy) the mass stupidity and complete and total lack of plot. Personally, I think it's funnier than it has any right to be.
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Shares a similar theme, characters, and style with all manner of harem shows. To single out a few of the most similar Pioneer series from around the same time, it shares creative worlds and characters with the variety of Tenchi Muyo and El Hazard series. Among those it is probably the most similar to either the wilder parts of GXP, or the final episode of the El Hazard: Alternative World series.
Notes and Trivia
Photon is credited as an original idea by Tenchi Muyo creator Masaki Kajishima. Its original incarnation was a radio drama segment of the same name that aired on the show "Ai Orikasa's Moonlight Cafe" in 1996. The plot differed, as did the cast--Ai Orikasa voiced Keyne, for example (this probably explains her small part as Aun's sister in this anime version). There were also two radio drama CDs released at about the same time as the first volumes of the OAVs (LaserDisc only, as was often the case in Japan during the '90s), but these are not related to the original KBS broadcast. Somewhat ironically, there was no Japanese DVD available until late 2003, three years after the US DVD release. There was also a short manga adaptation by Hiroshi Kanno published roughly concurrently with the anime; it has never been available in English as of this writing.
The much newer Tenchi Muyo spinoff Tenchi Muyo: War on Geminar re-uses many of the character names from Photon, as well as the general concept of Aho and the koro critters. As there is no apparent connection in the setting or plot, it is probably just a nod by the creator to his own earlier work, but it could be interpreted to mean that Photon takes place at some very distant time in the same world.
There are two ongoing puns in Photon, both of which were probably intentional, but only one of which most non-Japanese people would notice.
The first works equally well in English; the fact that the "holy item" used to draw magical spells happens to be a "magic marker" is not a coincidence--they're called "majikku inki" in Japanese.
The other one is the Aho power the story revolves around. "Aho" is a common insult that comes from the Kansai dialect, meaning "idiot" (actually, most Japanese insults mean either that or just an insulting form of "you"). Even the bastardized version of Papacha's name (translated by USM as "Papachump") is, in Japanese, a mangled version of "Aho" (with a similar meaning). It makes the English subtitle of the DVD, Idiot Adventures, a particularly apt description of the plot, although I'm not so sure that was intentional.
Finally, a note on USM's rather confused DVD age notes: Although the box itself lists no age restrictions (except for the drastically understated "contains violence and brief nudity"--what do they consider not brief?), the video has USM's standard "Adults-only" warning intro. It also has their boilerplate notice that all characters shown naked or involved in hanky-panky are 18 or over. This may be a response to the vast amounts of nudity, and it fits with the voicing of the dub's take on Photon, but I get the feeling it was mainly because Photon is shown naked in relative detail and they didn't want to get any pedophilia complaints, even though everything that happens to him could just as easily be interpreted as mothering.
Footnote 1: Although Photon's age is never stated, the fact that he's drawn naked and with detail implies that he's young enough that it couldn't be considered sexual, due to the way Japanese laws worked at the time the series was made. Specifically, there was no issue with small naked children running around in an asexual context, but detailed full frontal nudity of either sex as an adult (or at any age approaching adolescence) was largely a no-no. Thus, Papacha gets a censor spot (thankfully), while Photon is exposed. Due to the way US law works, in contrast, USM apparently decided to go the exact opposite direction and treat him as if he were an underdeveloped adult, which is how he's voiced in their dub; this is confirmed explicitly by the boilerplate warning on the video stating that all characters shown naked are at least 18. I'll leave it up to you which interpretation is creepier in terms of the "romantic" angle.
US DVD Review
USM's original DVD (later re-released at a budget price) is a solid but more or less standard example of their work from the era--it features English and Japanese soundtracks (stereo in Japanese, Dolby 5.1 in English, which sounds noticeably better), and reasonably sharp video. Being that it's based on the same masters as the dubbed tapes, the even-numbered episodes roll the dub cast, while the odd-numbered ones leave the Japanese credits intact, although the basic Japanese cast is translated on the reverse of the box cover (it's visible through the clear case, as with most of USM's DVDs). Extras include a meet-the-cast special feature (thankfully available in both languages) and a whole bunch of stuff viewable through a cheesy little (Windows only) application on a computer: The basic cast of both languages (same as the box), the complete production staff, complete scripts of all six episodes (now that's a special feature!), and a fairly large gallery of stills (which look oddly dark and grainy) and a few cels. The images are also all available in a folder on the disc, if you're so inclined.
Photon looks silly, but is not for children. A lot of mature themes, generally crude jokes, raunchy situations, and a whole lot of nudity (particularly early on--Keyne spends the entire first episode naked, although the villain thankfully benefits from a modesty dot or two). Add some more serious violence and disturbing situations at the end and I would say it easily qualifies as 16-up on balance. Even USM couldn't seem to make up its mind--the back of the box laughably claims "brief nudity" (brief if you're a nudist, maybe), but the video itself has their standard "adult" warnings on it).
Violence: 3 - Mostly very silly (and bloody), but some serious stuff toward the end.
Nudity: 4 - A whole lot of female nudity and some exposed men as well.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - Raunch abounds.
Language: 3 - Not too much outright swearing, but fairly crude.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Photon Earth: Junko Takeuchi
Keyne Aqua: Yumi Kuroda
Aun Fleya: Yui Horie
Papachareeno: Kouichi Yamadera
Pocheeni 1: TOMO
Pocheeni 2-28: Yuu Asakawa
Lashara: Yuri Amano
Bulan: Akiko Hiramatsu
Aun's sister: Ai Orikasa
MaMamie: Marie Ichino
Koro: Kozue Yosizumi
English Dub Cast
Photon: Scott Cargle
Keyne: Suzy Prue
Aun: Tara Jayne
Parachareeno: Tristan Goddard
Pocheeni 1-28/Aun's sister/MaMamie/Koro: P.M. Lewis
Lashara: Carolee Goodgold
Bulan: Mina Sands
Formerly available in North America on one bilingual DVD from the late US Manga Corps, which was re-released in 2004 in a budget version with a different cover. Prior to the DVD, was originally available on three subtitled or dubbed VHS volumes.
There are plenty of DVDs available through Amazon used at a relatively reasonable price at last check, although the once-cheaper newer release is for some reason unreasonably expensive: Photon (original version), Photon (rerelease) .