A mysterious force called Algernon seems to be linked to a series of bizarre and lethal incidents. Young nerd Keita, possessing unusual abilities that allow him to help pilot an experimental mecha, is drawn into the fight against Algernon, which is lead by a joint venture of a industrial company and secretive agency called Mode-Warp. However, it seems someone else is also interested in the activities of Algernon, a strange man who can change himself into a monster. Is this "Betterman" friend or foe?
Big mecha. Check.
Young teens who possess unusual ability to pilot mecha. Check.
Angsty mecha pilot. Check.
Childhood friend who helps draw someone into a web of intrigue. Check.
Transforming superbeing. Check.
Excessive technobabble. Check.
Silly attack names. Check.
Insertion of vague mythological/religious references. Check.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Betterman seems almost to be making an active effort to include numerous anime cliches whether or not they are particularly important to the plot. The mecha, for instance, seem totally unnecessary in a lot of ways, and the utterly detailed scientific explanation that the relatively generic cute female scientist gives every time Betterman does some new super attack almost struck me as silly as the 'freeze and explain the move name' technique they used in Baoh.
The plot moves along at what can only be called a confusing pace, with every episode introducing more questions than answers about what is going on. There is some information that I felt was almost unfairly held back. It is a bit after the second half of the series begin when they explain what they mean when they are talking about Algernon. It seriously changes your perspective on what they are working against and on a certain level I felt vaguely annoyed and somewhat cheated that they didn't tell me that to begin with.
The leads aren't particularly inspiring either. First we get Keita, weapons obsessed geek. That kind of pretty much defines his character. He likes military things, he gets to pilot a mecha. Neat! Then we get his childhood friend who he just reunited with Hinoki (they pilot the mecha together you see). Though I liked her unusual character design, she has spent most of the series depressed and talking about how worthless she feels. While I won't say she doesn't have reasons to be depressed, it does make her somewhat less sympathetic as a protagonist. Many of the side characters actually seem somewhat interesting and generally have more depth, so that does tend to offset the weak leads. Admittedly the leads begin to get a little more interesting as the show goes on, but anyone looking for stunning character development should look elsewhere.
Action scenes in general are decent but nothing spectacular. The animation in Betterman isn't exactly top notch, and you get more than a few reused shots and speed lines. I have a feeling this wasn't exactly a high budget show.
The mecha in this show are pretty clunky and the writers choose the world's goofiest technique to try and be dramatic with them. You see, the mecha are piloted by two people, but only one has primary control. To switch control, one person has to yell, "YOU HAVE CONTROL" and the other person yells "NOW I HAVE CONTROL." I might be getting the exact phrase off, but you get the general idea. I mean did the guys at the company ever just think of having a little switch to flip? I know it was supposed to be all dramatic but it just came off goofy to me.
I STILL HAVE CONTROL OF THIS REVIEW.
Okay, so I just spent several paragraphs ripping this show apart, I must hate it and think it is worthless, right? Actually, I wanted to emphasize some of the negative points to register my surprise at the fact that I do enjoy this show on a number of levels and want to see it to the end.
One aspect that this show has going for it, is genuine mystery. Despite the fact that they seem to technobabble explain away everything else, the full nature of what is going on, the nature of Betterman (some of his relationship to the events is immediately obvious once you get a good look at him though) and what is behind Algernon are only slowly revealed. While, as I noted, some plot points I felt were unnecessarily obscured, they still do a good job, in general, of deepening the mystery while still having the characters make some progress in their investigations. Having yet to reach the end of the series, I'm curious as if they can or will explain how everything ties together. That is assuming they even can.
Another aspect of this show that I found rather effective was Betterman's atmosphere. It is genuinely creepy and suspenseful. While the art and animation is only average, the active stylistic choices used during the art design process have helped heighten the general tension and unease felt during many scenes. From the muted colors to the interesting choice to have many side characters (particularly many of the adults) be 'faceless', it gives the whole experience a certain nightmarish quality. Also the way the characters are threatened changes each episode. Although there is a certain common thread linking the dangers they face, the direct enemy they face is often different in nature which I found interesting. They (and the viewer) simply don't know to expect next.
This show also has one of the better uses of a psychic character I've seen in a while in the form of the frail Sakura. While they offer some lengthy technobabble about her ability to explain her it, she is basically able to sense some general things without really seeing the future, read minds or anything of that sort. In a world full of strange creatures like the Betterman and bizarre murders, you can imagine what being a general range psychic/empath would probably be like. She spends a lot of time pitiful and terrified. I found the use of Sakura a good way to help heighten the general tension of the show.
The music isn't anything spectacular though it does tend to help generally keep with the show's mood. The opening theme is a very serene quiet tune that seemingly belies the nature of the show, while the ending theme is the opposite with its somewhat hurried and harsh male vocals. I will give that end theme credit though, never in my life (heck, not even in the Utena dueling songs) have I ever heard a song that mentioned telomeres as a lyric.
This show could have been much better (no pun intended) than it was. Half of the elements in it could have been stripped out without really ruining it. They should instead have focused more on the central mystery and horror aspect instead of adding superfluous elements like clunky mecha or even the Betterman fights. I'll say this as well. Despite all the cliches, this is one series that you can't really say is all that predictable in terms of where it is going with its plot.
In spite of its many flaws, as a horror/mystery it seems to be keeping me engaged. Subtract a star if you like your anime remotely straightforward or hate technobabble, add a star if you have a particularly liking for suspense and mystery. — Jeremy A Beard
Recommended Audience: This show is not particularly bloody, but a number of people die (mostly off screen). Almost every episode involves some threat to someone's life, along with some mecha and Betterman monster form fights. People with an aversion to small crawling critters might be a bit unusually unnerved at certain episodes, but generally this show is fine for teens and above.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD
Review Status: Partial (18/26)
Betterman © 1999 Bandai / Sunrise
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