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Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion Anime DVD Review

20 min read

MardockScramble2SF-MDS002_zps15cbd872A wholly unremarkable second act in a trilogy that needed a boost after a largely unimpressive opening act.

What They Say:
Rescued by Doctor Easter from a deadly assault on their headquarters by Dimsdale Boiled, Rune Balot finds temporary shelter in “Paradise,” a high-tech laboratory where the Scramble 09 protocol originated. While the severely injured Oeufcoque regenerates in a healing vat, Rune struggles to find the answers within herself that will let her equally injured psyche find some measure of peace. But as the search for clues to the location of Shell’s hidden memories continues, Boiled finds them again, and Rune and the Doctor decide it’s time to carry the war to the enemy.

The Review:

*Note- The Director’s cut version of the film was used as the basis for this review.

This release includes a 5.1 mix for both the English and Japanese language tracks, and for the purpose of this review the Japanese track was used and it is a serviceable one if somewhat uneven at times. For the most part the majority of the dialogue and effects come from the center speaker in a 5.1 set up unless the track is going specifically for a bit of directionality with a particular effect or to help back up how the characters on the screen are positioned but it does so rather infrequently. In some respects this is a bit of a loss as the back and side speakers fall way down in volume during non action scenes and so they don’t contributes as much as one might hope to the atmosphere of the feature which hampers the ability to really feel immersed in presentation as a whole and it often feels smaller than it should as a result. Other than that the track is rather decent as the mix is done well enough so that dialogue isn’t lost to music or effects, while at the same time the music and effects don’t disappear to make this easier for the track which works but I lament how much more this track could have supported the images and helped boost up the title in terms of presentation.

Originally appearing in Japanese theaters in September of 2011, Mardock Scramble the Second Combustion is presented here in 1.78:1 ratio and it is also given an anamorphic widescreen encode. The film has the look of one that lives up to its theatrical nature in terms of potential budget and design for a large screen, though some elements have moments where the images on the screen seem a bit hard to tell if they are due to a creative decision or possibly an encode issue to try to determine the exact cause of some decidedly different visual moments. Some of these moments include portions of the film which switch between bold colors, including a shift in palette from one edge of the screen to the other in many scenes which adds an ethereal kind of air in many places, almost like the show could be playing out on the edge of a soap bubble. Either because of the standard set by the first film or just a choice by the creators the colors here often feel more vivid than I remember from the first part and the decision helps in many scenes, particularly when selling ethereal like world of Paradise or the glitz of the casino in the second half of the feature.

When watching the film it is impossible to escape the grain used in its creation and it really works here to also add a surreal touch to the first half and its philosophy but which didn’t feel like it quite made its presence as felt in the second half which helps make that world feel even more standout than it might have been if the whole film was presented around that location. The encode itself has a few issues that pop up in that there is a fair amount of noise and even dot crawl that can distract at times from the image on the screen while there is also some problems with banding of colors that make some of the images feel less smooth than was almost certainly intended. Additionally a touch of ghosting can appear from time to time and on two occasions I noticed an instant where what almost appeared to be a celluloid pinch shot across the screen.

One final note is there were a couple of instances where the subtitles and presentation created an odd effect around the subtitles that I hadn’t noticed that when I watched the feature on a plasma screen so I suspect like some other anime watched this has something to do either with my 4K TV or some communication between it and my PS3.

The DVD comes packaged in a case that is sure to draw the eyes as Sentai has chosen to use a rather rare type of case which is a standard DVD type but which is a rather unique blue grey color that I haven’t seen on the market since ADV’s release of the Zone of the Enders television series outside of the first movie in this series release and this slightly different approach adds a very nice touch as it complements the cover sleeve well. The case also has a different sort of make up around the hub as it uses a suspended type mechanism and the DVD sits in a pocket with a raised edge that runs along almost its entirety, except for a depression at the top to allow for easier access to an edge of the DVD while removing the disc.

The front of the sleeve uses an image of Rune Balot in a hospital gown that has ties on the side to show off a pretty copious amount of skin as she stands in about knee deep water with the fantasy like backdrop of the facility known as Paradise making up the rest of the image’s background. The spine goes in a different direction as it has an image of Rune in the dress she wears in the casino during the second half of this feature placed at the bottom of the cover while the series title and features subtitle are written above that image and set against a white backdrop. The back of the sleeve features an image of Rune in an almost full length shot of her casino dress in an image that is done from the perspective of being between a profile and frontal shot. On the left side is the copy, below which six stills from the feature are present, a listing of the included material and extras with the films copyright and technical information taking up the bottom ¼ or so of the cover.

The DVD itself uses an image of Rune Balot in her casino dress standing in front of a staircase with a very classic look to the interior of the building she is in with columns and long, tied in the middle curtains helping to frame the background image while also doing a great job of establishing her prominence as the perspective has this in such a way that these items almost frame her. With Rune being in the center of the disc a bit of the image is lost due to the hub being placed over her midsection but it overall works rather well, even with the feature’s title getting placed in a banner that runs across the whole disc and over Rune’s upper thighs.

The Main Menu uses the same image of Rune that is found on the back of the DVD cover though it changes things up by putting her against a backdrop that features some of the of the more modern buildings with elevated roads that are shown in the film also being present which helps creates a bit of an other-worldly picture and establishes the film as one not set in the present day. Additionally the background uses a mix of green colors at the bottom right surrounding a black space that the title occupies and the menu selections are placed into this space. The menu itself consists of the various options listed in a white font inside a bordered box that is somewhat translucent allowing for a bit of the images it is placed over to be seen and the currently highlighted option is indicated by a lime-green little block that stands to the left of the options.

The language screen uses a close up (and slightly retouched it appears) of the image from the disc label while below that the English option is located on the left and the Japanese with subtitles option is on the right. The highlighted option has a green box below it that has the word “Activated” present in white while changing the language provides a green prompt at the top of the respective box to turns red when selected while the Main Menu option has green bars on either side of it. The Scene Select screen uses a green bar in the center that has numbers that are present under it for the chapter stops, while this whole display is present under the image of a building tinted blue and above a green background at the bottom of the screen. The Special Features screen continues the color scheme for the background as well as the box look for the options placed over a larger image that was used for the DVD case cover. The menus themselves are prompt in reacting to changes in selection and the chosen selections are implemented with a minimum of delay.

This release contains no extras other than an “Also Available” selection of trailers.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The second act in the story launches with a bit of a soft open that gives the credits a chance to be shown and also establish that Rune wants to live before launching full speed into the middle of the scene the previous feature left as a cliff hanger that had established Rune battling desperately against Boiled for her life. This basic drive however is creating a horrible secondary effect as Rune is suffering horribly on an emotional level at the same time as every bullet that Rune fires is causing Oeufcoque (in gun mode) to explode copious amounts of blood with each discharge and yet Rune has to continue to pull the trigger in order to live, though the bullets merely seem to slow boiled down rather than look like they may actually stop him. Fortunately for the both of them Dr. Easter has managed to gain use of a vehicle to rescue them from the gun fight as Boiled continues to pursue them demanding why Oeufcoque continues to aid this girl while the odd mouse based creation abandoned the mercenary when the pair found themselves in a similar situation of Boiled using Oeufcoque in a state that lead to similar damage to Oeufcoque in the past. Luckily Rune retains consciousness long enough to force Boiled out the door leaving him with only a statement from Dr. Easter about Boiled having left Oeufcoque to answer the gunman’s queries while Rune and Oeufcoque are whisked off to a sanctuary.

As Rune lies in an unconscious state her subconscious continues to process and, much like when it agreed to the 09 process to continue to live before, it now is spinning recent events while again affirming a desire to continue to live but it has also added that Oeufcoque has become a precious friend in the short amount of time they have had together. Rune’s awakening however is not really easy as she finds herself in a strange environment with an equally unfamiliar youth standing near her, and the thin and not overly modest gown she is wearing doesn’t help things either. The youth manages to bridge the gap between the pair by demonstrating that he also isn’t an average human as he doesn’t communicate with his voice either as he introduces himself to her as Tweedledee.

Rune somewhat shrewdly uses the youth’s attempt to bridge the distance between the two to her advantage in order to see her two companions as she feels she has a lot to say to Oeufcoque in the way of apology for her actions while fighting against Boiled and his hired minions. As Rune and Tweedledee talk both before and after her getting a chance to see her companions Rune discovers that this odd enclosure she finds herself in is dubbed Paradise and that much like the place from the Judeo/Christian Creation story it houses among other things knowledge and that the knowledge from here has changed the world, though for the better or worse is probably a matter of interpretation. For Rune this place is almost completely like her new birth place as the technology that lead to the 09 program that saved her life originated there but the October Corporation also traces back to Paradise as well which makes it responsible in a fashion for her needing a rebirth in the first place through the actions of Shell who is one of its rising members.

After talking with Tweedledee, his partner Tweedledim (who happens to be a very intelligent dolphin) as well as the facility’s main administrator (and the only one among the original three administrators of the facility who stayed to care for Paradise while the other each of the other two founded the programs now at war with each other and which are represented in a very real way in Rune’s life) named Faceman (as he is only a disembodied head seemingly in a birdcage), Rune comes to perhaps the first decision she has ever made for herself that wasn’t made in terms of getting just her own basic needs met-she decides that she wishes to help the two who helped her be reborn in their quest to bring down Shell. This decision is one fraught with peril however as Shell is poised to marry the current titular director of the October Corporation and in so doing he will obtain immunity from prosecution in the odd legal system that this film resides in and so time is not on their side but the very pursuit of information may lead Rune to become a marked woman.

Though perhaps that last bit isn’t that important overall as she already is marked for elimination by Shell’s hired investigator/mercenary Boiled and just because the previous attempt to intimidate Rune into silence and then attempt to silence her in a much more final way failed doesn’t mean this contractor has washed his hands of the case as Shell still wants this girl he barely remembers removed from a position where she could possibly foil his plans for good. While this isn’t exactly something Boiled is against he does seem to have a problem with his employer as Boiled suspects that though Shell no longer retains his memories in his head that there is a chance the information may still exist and become a problem if found but his attempts to discern where those memories may be and thus possibly protect his client directly from being found is met with an utter stonewall from his employer.

Left with no real choice, Boiled leaves to again face Rune and Oeufcoque in person inside Paradise- a place he knows well as he also is a product of their experimenting and it was his time there that gave him his amazing powers as well as first set him up with Oeufcoque. In order to maximize his chances for success Boiled sends in the lone survivor of the last attempt to take out Rune through the back door but even with his new upgrades this fetishist freak finds that he may be well out of his league leaving Boiled to have to carry out the mission solo. At the same time his backup plan fails Boiled discovers that he lacks an ability to make a hard sell on Faceman to prevent Rune from using Paradise’s immense data connections to discover the secret as to where Shell has hidden his memories. While Boiled is locked in a battle of wills that he won’t win Rune manages to find the information she needs as to where Shell’s memories reside…though getting them is going to take a whole new set of skills as Shell is literally playing a game of luck with the memories as they have been hidden on million dollar chips at a casino October Corporation runs and the only way to obtain them is through an amazing amount of luck or spectacular skill at stacking a deck where every move is under surveillance. With some of Rune’s amazing skills having been shut down by the casino’s security measures will the group find they are too little, too late to get the information to stop Shell?

Having hit the second act I had hopes that Mardock Scramble would take what was established in its solid if somewhat banal opening act and really start to bring in some powerful things or at least help build up a reason for the series to rise above the rather average status I found it to be after the set up. Which is to say I acknowledge that perhaps I had set expectations too high which is where some of my disappointment with the material may comes from and I need to own that, but even when I take that into account I don’t think the failure of this feature to really do much to build on the first is my fault as much as it is the film’s own fault. As I was watching it I got the impression that the story was trying to aim for either something epic in nature and/or borrowing from other popular materials to create a connection that helped the story resonate with its audience almost by latching on to feelings they already had for some other story with similar themes while not having a clear idea where it wanted to go to creates its own unique message.

That the story starts playing with a kind of surface quasi-religious philosophy isn’t exactly off putting on its own as no shortage of series since at least Evangelion have really tried to mix in different religious beliefs to try to make the material seem deeper than it is (at least to those who have a bit of familiarity with the philosophy or teachings being used) but like so many others, Mardock Scramble does nothing with these themes as if the idea of playing around with Rune being a type of Eve and the facility being Paradise is enough by itself to be interesting without much need to develop or really dig into this idea being presented. Now this may be a failing of the switch in medium as many times the written word has a chance to present ideas and develop them in such a way as to provide context and meaning in a way that is natural whereas to do so in film one would be left with a very clunky exposition piece but it doesn’t forgive that material in a different form for coming across as something incredibly shallow.

This isn’t the first time I thought that perhaps I need to seek out the novel series in order to get a feel for what might exist but isn’t present on screen but while getting people to go to the original material is probably a side benefit to the film series it kind of undercut how well the features stand on their own to have to say that one needs to read the book (books in the original Japanese release) first to get what is the deeper meaning to a scene. Perhaps that is what annoys me most- there are places where ideas are presented and then are seemingly not followed up on at all in the narrative leaving these pieces that might have added something to make the series unique feel more like cheap window dressing thrown around a set to try to get the audience to believe or to read in on their own something the feature’s creative team either lacks the skill to state or doesn’t really believe or understand enough to fully flesh out.

One of the elements that stuck out to me on my second viewing as a missed opportunity to be something for example is a place where the dolphin Tweedledim talks about the homosexual relationship he has with Tweedledee and how ‘Dim does what needs to be done for ‘Dee to which Rune asks if they full understand this statement. The response to this is that the pair simply kind of share a look with each other that is undefined (possibly because of the size they are present in on the screen) leading to what feels like an odd pause to me before transitioning to Rune asking a new question about something different. This is probably a moment when the novel might have defined the look but it isn’t just this moment that feels off but the lack of weight in the delivery of the line itself as it has already been established that the last few years of Rune’s life have been spent with her trading her body for a means to live or in order to feel that she is loved or has a place to belong which should add weight to her exploration in those words rather than simply kind of being delivered in the way it was which didn’t seem to carry that subtext and is almost just there for the audience to laugh or literally contemplate young man/dolphin sex acts. Perhaps the feature’s creators didn’t want to really dive into the topic and stall the pace any but like other moments that appear –including Boiled and Faceman’s somewhat deep conversation- it feels like a decision was made to prioritize style over substance and that when the materials attempts to get philosophically deep clashed with showing off something visually that might wow the larger audience in an easier to process way the decision to move on with eye candy was made.

The story really goes off the rails to me though about half way into this feature as a large part of the first film felt inspired by Ghost in the Shell in tone and action with the start of the second borrowing either more from the features’ from the same franchise and their philosophical bent (or possibly Evangelion with the religion mixed with somewhat fantastical facility design) but the switch to the casino setting just kind of throws everything off as it leaves both action and the philosophy presented behind and the film tries to create some tension with gambling, but without focusing much on any particular game. I honestly don’t understand the switch made and can only hope that the scenes in the casino made more sense in the novel as here it comes off more as a chance to really show off color and designs but it seems little advancement in the actual plot gets made besides a token interaction with Rune and a roulette dealer that just feels bizarre when really broken down as it purportedly takes place over quite a period of time and yet no one else at the table ever seems engaged in the conversation the two are having. I wonder if maybe in the novel this conversation is supposed to be unspoken but here it just feels unnatural and the amount it adds versus the time consumed just doesn’t feel like it is proportional to the narrative which just kind of goes into a kind of coasting through most of this stretch.

On the other hand the casino setting is used to put Rune in an attractive outfit for close to half an hour and not having her spend any of that time running around naked which isn’t the worst thing either as the frequency of her being naked felt pandering in the first film and not terribly far off from that in the second despite the philosophical and religious subtext the film is clearly striving for in order to justify her lack of clothing in a long section of the film. Though the idea of “The protagonist stays clothed” being a highlight kind of speaks in its own right to how little there is in this second half to cling on to.

One other note is that I am not sure in retrospect that the film series getting veteran voice actress Megumi Hayashibara to do the voice of lead Rune Balot in the original Japanese was a particularly great move considering the ground the films cover. Given the veteran actress’ rather sizable following in Japan (and abroad) due to her portfolio of work I can certainly see why hiring her would have been a major sign the production team was going all out but in this second film her presence often more reminded me of things she was in that I liked more- namely Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop- in the places where this film tread some similar ground, either philosophically or by means of environment. Perhaps this is a case where English dub listeners might have an advantage as the actress for Rune is Hilary Haag who was in neither of the other two series dub cast (though given she also has an extensive resume perhaps there are places where her doing the voice remind fans of a different series’ themes which I am missing by watching the films in Japanese). I don’t know that having picked Megumi Hayashibara was the worst choice for the Japanese production committee, I just think that by not delving into some of the potential character stuff raised and staying more surface level I had far too much time to compare certain things that appear in the film to series I frankly think did a much better job creating an atmosphere and having interesting characters inhabit them.

Over all the film has moments where it feels like it might be about to explore something deeper about characters and ideals but then it somehow always seems to slide away from some of the aspects raised and go an easier path leaving the second entry in the film series feeling underdeveloped in terms of plot. This leaves the feature relying too heavily on the admittedly gorgeous visuals to carry the final product and as a result it creates a feature with tons of potential that gets left on the table as the production team settles for a feature full of eye candy that will likely be forgotten in the years to come as the next stunningly visual marvel comes out and leaves Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion with little that will make it a long term memorable animated presentation once its defining strength gets passed.

In Summary:
The second film in the Mardock Scramble trilogy is kind of a disappointment in that it never really manages to do much for deepening the overall story and adding to what the first film presented. While it is every bit as gorgeous in visuals as the first film- and at times breathtakingly beautiful- there is a lot of style on display while the substance often gets treated almost like a necessary and reluctantly presented evil in order to try to give a reason for events to take place. Add in three separate and distinct pacing’s to the feature- the continuation of the action cliffhanger, the philosophical time in the facility known as Paradise and finally the trip to the casino- I can’t help but feel that doing this adaptation as a film trilogy wasn’t the best way to accomplish handling these transitions and that perhaps had this material been presented in a either a TV episode or 30 minute OVA format. Having gone one of those routes it might have been easier from the material to have separate and distinct themes and tones to explore and run at rather than creating a amalgamation that feels like it is at war at times with one of these other themes. The first film felt like a stylish but lacking in substance feature that was heavily influenced by Ghost in the Shell and the second merely adds in a dose of at least Cowboy Bebop (or other gambling film source) and possibly a dose of Evangelion with its religious overtones to the mix without really doing anything to increase the substance to style ratio of the first film. It really feels like a film that is very pretty and one can certainly do much worse in finding a way to spend their time, but unfortunately for this film and its attempts to get more eyes watching it, finding better ways to spend one’s time isn’t going to be difficult at all for most people in the current anime market either.

Japanese Language, English Language, English Subtitles

Content Grade: C
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: N/A

Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: January 1st, 2013
MSRP: $29.98
Running Time: 61 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Samsung 50″ Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.

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