Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Erik's Favorite Things: eX-Driver

I am not a car person.  I have only the most basic understanding of how a car even works (key goes in hole, pedals and stick determines if car goes or not), and watching car movies like The Fast and The Furious, Days of Thunder, or most other car-centric movies bores me to tears.

There are exceptions, of course.  I loved Duel, but that was more psychological terror than "car" movie.  Bullitt has one of the best car chases in history.  And yen here's one of my all-time favorite animated series to come from Japan, a series that I honestly can't even explain why I like so much, because where Moribito broke every single stereotype it could find, this series embraces a ton of them.

But anyway, here's my adoring, gushy love letter to eX-Driver.  Watch the opening theme then click to read more.

Remember everything I said I loved about Moribito?  About how it avoided so many classic tropes about anime?

This series is the opposite of it.  There are so many things about it that, anywhere else, would drive me insane, that's it's amazing I can find the patience to really enjoy it.  Here's a checklist:

1)  Teenagers are the only ones skilled enough to do something involving saving lives?  Check.

2)  One character constantly falls in love with people until she realizes they're the wrong age/gender/whatever?  Check.

3) A bad guy who used to be a good guy and has a complete change of heart when he just watches the good guys do what he was previously doing?  Check.

4)  A beach episode?  ...well, sort-of.  They never quite get there, but most of the cast gets to show off a swimsuit at some point.

5)  A ridiculously hot woman who sweeps in for an episode, frustrates everybody (sexually or otherwise), and then is only barely seen again later?

CHECK.  ...I mean, um, check.
Someone gets seriously injured, but the only physical sign is a small trickle of blood on the side of their head?  Wardrobes that rarely ever change?  Constantly missing/never seen parents of children?

Check.  Check.  Check.

So why the heck do I watch it and love it so?

Well, a big part of it is one name: Kosuke Fujishima

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

In an unknown date in the future, people no longer drive cars anywhere.  Instead, an automated system run by a massive AI controls all of the cars apparently around the world, since- well, I'm getting ahead of myself again.

No technology is perfect, and sometimes an AI car goes "rogue" and is out of control.  It might just never stop, or go in circles, or not remember which way is "the road" and veer in a random direction.  At that point, it's the job of the eX-Drivers (or eX-D) to stop them, typically by taking out their sensor system so the car doesn't know if it's about to crash or not and engaging the emergency brakes.  Where almost every other car in the city is electric, the eX-Drivers have a special license allowing them to drive gas-powered vehicles.

The three young drivers who handle these rogue cars are Lisa Sakakino, Lorna Endo, and Soichi Sugano.  We don't know their exact ages here, but we do know that they're all in high school (though Soichi got to skip at least one grade).

Pictured: our last, best hope against dying in car accidents.
In the six episodes of the series, the three of them struggle with such common teenage problems like "a documentary crew wants to film us" and "a rival gang wants to kill us."  There's the classic "we have to take a huge test in school, but the car the tests are in is out of do we stop it now and do our jobs, or do we wait for a while so the test is cancelled?"

You know, problems we all went through.

Lisa, the hot head (take a guess who she is, those of you who didn't watch the opening), has a constant rivalry going with Soichi, feeling she's the superior driver and doesn't want to believe some kid can beat her.  Lorna, the soft-hearted one, constantly plays mediator between the other two's arguments.

The series doesn't really have enough of a chance to get any of the major ideas it wants to explore off the ground.  It doesn't go into much detail about how the AI systems work, about how the world advanced to this state or what the rest of the world is like.  There's a moment of crisis for the young drivers during a slow period, and they ponder what they'd do if they had to get "real jobs" and couldn't drive any more.  There's early blossoming romances between characters that don't have any real chance to be anything more than "slight innuendo" and a glance at each other from the corner of the eye.

I mean, sure, you can do a lot in six episodes, but this series just...doesn't.

But part of what I like so much is what I alluded to before, the works of Kosuke Fujishima.  He's the creator and character designer of such famous series as Ah! My Goddess and one of my other personal favorite series, You're Under Arrest!  It's because of that love of the latter series that I gave this one a try, and while I forgive a lot for a great designer or director, a series can't ride on that alone.

Honestly, I'm not really sure why I enjoy this so much.  I think it helps that it doesn't expect me to be a car expert to enjoy it.  This series was the first time I ever heard of "drifting," and one of the few that acknowledges (something the Mythbusters later proved) that it "doesn't really improve performance."  Regardless of what a certain car-based action movie series wanted me to think.  The cars themselves are constantly being worked on, but you're never left going "wait, what does that part do?  Wait, how does that work?"  You know it's a complex machine (and the show's art loves spending time examining the cars themselves), and you are able to simply appreciate the complexity without needing to plan on explaining it to someone else later.

The animation level of the cars is also something to make note of, since the director proclaims in the bonus materials that the cars are all "hand drawn."  I'm willing to suspect they were rotoscoped based on the amount of detail involved in the cars, but still, to do that instead of the really dodgy CG being done at the time is a thumbs-up in my book.

Pictured: Hand Cramp City

The driving is handled extremely well (which is good, since that's a major part of the series), and the characters are pretty fun, if a bit two-dimensional.  The plots are silly, but again, I'm not really expecting it to be amazing.  The thing that fascinates me is that while it does embrace all of these classic stereotypes in anime series, there are enough little details to keep me engaged.  Little touches, like watching the feather earring on Lisa move as she moves, or how one of the women at a control console has a constantly expanding collection of stuffed toys.  Watching the mechanic pine for an opportunity to get his hands on the motorcycle the "sexy woman" drives in episode four, and the way they managed to slip a LOT of innuendo past the censors in that same episode.

I hear people say all the time that sometimes something can just be "mindless fun," but I've never bought it.  Something can be simple, and enjoyable, but it doesn't have to be mindless.  Watching these kids drive around cars, I'm constantly thinking about the world they're in, how they fit into it, and how they do what they do.  It's fun, and it did the impossible in making me enjoy a series about cars.

It's a guilty pleasure, but I don't care.

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