Friday, August 16, 2013

cowCase Reviews: Towa no Quon

Towa no Quon is a series of six 45-minute animated films which aired in 2011.

People with suddenly awakening superhuman powers? Check. A shadowy organization, run by a circular table of cryptic old men, that hunts these newly awakened superhumans? Check. A small alliance of superhumans hiding in plain sight, fighting against persecution by rescuing the awakened ones before they're caught, lead by an experienced veteran (named Quon) with a colorful past? Check, check, check. To be blunt, there's hardly an ounce of originality in the entire series of Towa no Quon films. It whips out numerous ideas from past tales of heroes and villains, and doesn't even have the decency to arrange them in a unique manner. It's worth noting that an abundance of cliches should never be thought of as an automatic death sentence—sometimes a strong delivery is enough to breathe life into unoriginal concepts and make them into something remarkable, or at least into something entertaining to watch. 

Not so in this case. The pacing is ill-conceived, with three entire films dedicated to episodic situations which ultimately serve no purpose but to establish the setting and the characters in an extremely roundabout way. Much of what happens is of shockingly little consequence, and there's a real lack of suspense and momentum, and, for that matter, a real lack of anything that would make the viewer want to watch the next movie. The idea of the superhumans themselves is poorly thought out and ends up being explained away in a manner that both raises more questions than it answers and calls the structural integrity of the story and its setting into question. The films sometimes can't even cover the easiest of bases, the things that should be the simplest in the world to explain—just what exactly are Quon's superpowers, anyway? He's immortal, and at various points in time he appears to be capable of jumping thirty feet in the air, manipulating metal and water just by touching them, and projecting a blade and shield made out of solid light. Not much rhyme or reason to infer from that, and none is ever explicitly offered up. Lazy writing, plain and simple. Oh, and if you're wondering exactly who the people running the secret hunting organization are or what motivates them, you're in good company, because that little tidbit is never explained. Towa no Quon's story does have a few tricks up its sleeve, and a couple of nice surprises (mostly in the final two movies) help take the edge off some of the disappointment, but by and large it's unremarkable and just a little sloppy.

Quon as a main character is probably the biggest letdown of the entire experience. He's one thousand years old, which means one thousand years to be affected by the tragic death of his brother, one thousand years spent helping the superhumans hide and live peaceful lives. He could have been complicated—bitter, wise, enigmatic, arrogant, worldly, or any number of things. After all, entire civilizations rose and fell with him watching from the sidelines, and he's burdened with the knowledge that he has outlived all of his past friends and will outlive all of his future friends. Doesn't take much imagination to see awesome potential in that concept. But instead, this is Quon: a simpering, simplistic imbecile with all of the onscreen presence of a rock, who mutters something corny like “because I must save everyone” in response to just about any question he's asked. The few attempts made to flesh him out and turn him into something more than that are lackluster. I really can't even fashion a creative way to rip on him, or a creative way to describe him, because he does not have a personality to speak of. He's actually at his most charismatic when he's in superhuman form, fighting a losing battle. The look of silent, dogged resolve on his face is preferable to his incessant smile and his trite shonen-inspired platitudes. He cannot carry a dramatic moment, and he cannot carry these films.

Sadly, the supporting roles all suffer from similar symptoms, and with few exceptions, most of them act like miniature Quons, either full of baseless optimism or quaking in fear—whatever is required of them by the plot. They have, again, little individual voice, or anything that differentiates them from each other, and most of what I begrudgingly call their “character arcs” consist of little more than a hint at a tragic backstory. Some of them are fun to watch, good for a moment's laugh, but that's about as far as it goes. Towa no Quon also has a strange habit of placing huge weight on side characters who have barely been introduced, and in one scene, Quon gives what I assumed was supposed to be a tearful and heartfelt speech to a child who had not yet received forty-five seconds of screentime. The films do strike an interesting note with two secondary villains, both cybernetically enhanced soldiers who fight against the superhumans—the cyborgs are treated poorly by their superhuman-hating superiors, and this causes them to question whether or not they're human anymore themselves, and how much different they are from the emerging superhumans that they're being sent to kill. That's probably the smartest bit of character drama that Towa no Quon manages to pull off, and it's one small drop of good in a pretty big bucket of mediocrity.

Purely in terms of art and animation, Studio Bones has a good reputation, and that, at least, is largely upheld by Towa no Quon. Visually, these movies end up about where you'd expect them to, looking better than the average television series but a few steps short of feature-film level. The backgrounds—dark, expansive cityscapes and forest-covered mountainsides, to name the most prominent—are sharply detailed and sometimes quite striking. The color palette is varied, with an appreciable use of light artificial greens, blues, and purples that play well against some of the darker, earthier tones. With few exceptions, the animation is spot-on and the scenes of action are deftly choreographed. The design work is rather unambitious, and I'm sad to say there's nothing particularly distinctive or fresh about the way the characters look, either in human form or as superhumans/robots, but throughout all of the movies the quality of the art is at least maintained with a good degree of consistency. 

The music is orchestral, and it practically screams “I am a big, important, epic score.” Not in a good way; it's all very one-note, the same deep, thrumming strings, menacingly advancing drum beats, and ominously droning wordless vocals over, and over, and over again. The score does come equipped with just enough variety to match the moments of lightheartedness and atmospheric tension, but even the latter are sometimes accompanied by those seemingly ceaseless drums and vocals. Almost every song sounds fit to herald an apocalypse, and that can help build the mood where it's appropriate, but the returns diminish as time wears on. It's still a competent soundtrack on some levels, but it's typical for this type of production, and it rehashes its heavier elements to the point of being just a little bit obnoxious and largely forgettable.

And, yes, “largely forgettable” is an apt description for Towa no Quon as a whole. There's nothing pushing this series of films into the realm of being truly bad, and at times they can be entertaining. But they represent a tired take on tired concepts, and, overall, an exceedingly bloodless endeavor. The presentation is certainly up to snuff, but the world of Towa no Quon itself and the people within it both feel like the products of cold and hasty construction, empty of thought or effort, devoid of any real heart or voice. These movies are a portrait of what it means to be uninspired.

Score: 5/10; mediocre.

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