The camera pans over a beautifully rendered yet ultimately motionless background, a melancholy Yuki Kajiura tune plays in the background…what else could it be other than a Bee Train anime? Famous (or perhaps infamous) for their distinctive “minimal motion” style, Bee Train’s output may be small, but they have stuck around for almost a decade- and now they have the dubious honour of being the first studio to be highlighted in my planned series of studio review articles. So, without further ado, let’s skip ahead and examine Bee Train’s successes…and its accompanying failures.
Before you flame me, these hits and misses are partly based on what the series was supposed to achieve; for example, Medabots was clearly meant to be a kids’ show rather than a piece of high art- but for what it was, it wasn’t bad.
Even the series I would consider as successful examples of Bee Train’s work are not universally beloved; in fact, more often than not, I see them labelled as ‘painfully slow’ or even ‘tedious crap’. I’ll admit that all three of these series are slow burners that really are something of an acquired taste, but I honestly believe that all of them have worth.
Seconds later, this poor grunty walks into the wall.
I have to admit, when I watched the first volume of .hack//SIGN, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I had assumed that a series set inside an MMORPG would contain some degree of action, so discovering that The World was more of a beautifully rendered chat room was a bit of an unwelcome surprise. Nonetheless, I remained determined to persevere with it (not least because of Yuki Kajiura’s wonderful score, which remains one of my favourite anime OSTs to this day), and by the series’ halfway point, I was duly rewarded with a slowly unfolding mystery that sucked me in and made me want to know exactly what the answers to the questions were going to be. Admittedly, the ending proved that this part of the story was really about Subaru and Tsukasa, but it was still a worthy introduction to the .hack games.
Memorable moments: Standing at the red Chaos Gate; Balmung’s arrival; the death of the little grunty; Crim charging in on a grunty; Tsubasa realising that his memories were deteriorating.
Based on a reverse harem dating game, Meine Liebe TV took away the girls and made all the guys HARD GAY for each other. Set in a fictional European country in the 1930s, Meine Liebe combined the allure of the past with what was effectively a male version of MariMite. A short yet surprisingly addictive series that brought us one of the five Pillar bishies in the form of the delectable Ludwig-sama.
Memorable moments: Ludwig outmanoeuvring Beruze; Camus fainting at the sight of women; Orphe explaining how he used to get into mischief with Ed.
The first truly original Bee Train production, Noir was unique in being a 26 episode series that only had four regular cast members, with pretty much everyone else getting killed off in short order. Another slowly unfolding story, Noir tells the story of a pair of assassins who take on the codename Noir, only to uncover the dark history behind the moniker they have chosen. First time around, I love every episode, but I have to admit that on rewatch, the standalone episodes in the first half of the series didn’t seem as entertaining, although the main storyline was as compelling as ever. It’s not quite good enough to be an all time favourite, but it’s the sort of series that appears in the top ten lists of people who have only watched a limited number of series. It also benefits from a top quality soundtrack from Yuki Kajiura, which also happened to be my first experience of her work.
Memorable moments: Kirika admitting she can kill people and not feel sad; Kirika wandering around town to the strains of ‘Salva Nos II’; the early assassination scenes; Chloe in the colosseum.
.hack//Legend Of the Twilight
Some might argue that LOT was the dose of light-heartedness that .hack franchise needed, and whilst it was certainly something a little different, it also suffered for that. The bright colours and action elements were most welcome, but the story could never hope to be anything more than light entertainment, and, inevitable as it perhaps was, it was a shame to see the manga story altered. The music was also the weakest link in the .hack chain; whilst the simplistic electronic sounds worked well in the context of the series, the soundtrack is somewhat underwhelming on its own (I only have the CD because it came with the artbox).
Memorable moments: the baby grunty; the very first scene of a generic actually battling a monster.
Arc the Lad
He was weak in the later game levels, but I have a soft spot for Pandit.
One of Bee Train’s earliest series, Arc the Lad hails from the studio’s initial video game adaptation era, back in the days when they still knew how to do action. As with most RPG adaptations, Arc the Lad doesn’t have the most sophisticated of stories, but it scores a few points for its darker themes, such as the often stomach-turning transformations of humans into monstrous chimeras. Although it’s not something I’d particularly recommend (I only watched it because it happened to be on TV), I do feel a pang of fondness for the series since it kick started my love-hate relationship with the games.
Memorable moments: the moment we see the Holy Mother.
Yes, I might as well admit, I have watched Medabots, and while I can’t say it is either particularly good, well animated, or anything like Bee Train’s usual style, if you treat it as a parody of the average shounen series, it is actually quite amusing (for the first season, anyway, it does take itself a bit too seriously in the second). Once again, it’s not something I’d particularly recommend, but it was fun at the time.
Memorable moments: for sheer cheesiness, the English OP.
Meine Liebe Wieder
As I’ve already said several times before, Meine Liebe Wieder simply couldn’t live up to the first season; after promising that it would have some kind of a plot, it turned out to be a disappointing rehash of season one, with more HARD GAY and a whole new bevy of uninteresting characters.
Memorable moments: The return of Gandalf Barty.
Tsubasa Chronicle Season One
Back when I was watching it, I would certainly have classed Tsubasa as a hit, but in retrospect, I can’t help wondering if it was really all that good. Certainly the story didn’t really take off until the Outo arc, although for this season, the series was very faithful to the manga, so Bee Train cannot really be faulted for the content. Even the action scenes were supplemented by another excellent score from none other than Yuki Kajiura, which certainly helped me to disregard any lack of actual movement.
Memorable moments: Syaoran fighting in Outo.
As interesting as it was to have a look at the non-game side of the .hack universe, in all honesty, Liminality was not that marvellous. Not only was the animation disappointingly simplistic, but for all the interesting titbits of information it gave, the story didn’t really go anywhere, leaving the viewer with an “and then what?” feeling once it was all over. It works well enough as part of a greater whole, but is fairly lifeless on its own.
There is probably nothing more I can say about Roots that I haven’t said already, and so I can only reiterate the feelings of disappointment it brought me. More so than even SIGN, Roots was a hideously slow chat room, this time filled with a huge cast of dislikeable characters, most of whom needed to be arrested by the fashion police on sight. Unlike SIGN, which was actually building up to something, Roots eventually revealed that it had no plot whatsoever; even Ali Project’s turn at the music was disappointingly weak. This series was also the first indication that Bee Train could no longer be bothered with action scenes, instead preferring to cut away to uninteresting rocks whilst the actual fighting occurred off screen.
Even though I went through a brief obsession phase with Avenger, the beauty of hindsight has enabled me to see that, in fact, it wasn’t really all that marvellous. The sort of series that takes its entire run just to explain its basic premise, Avenger kept me watching not only through a need to understand just what exactly was going on, but because of its superior character designs and catchy soundtrack (a shame that Ali Project has never equalled their work on this series). I must still count it as a miss, however, since the storytelling was sub par, with an awful ending that left the viewer to find their own answers to the questions raised in the series.
Ah, Madlax, what insane impulse convinced me to ever spend good money on you? The spriritual successor Noir, Madlax takes everything that made its predecessor good, and turns it on its head in order to produce something far inferior. Yes, the leads may be less cool and emotionless than those of Noir, but in its place, Madlax has a bloated and insipid cast, not to mention a story that is mired in pointlessly complex and mostly ridiculous supernatural elements. The character designs and music are good, but the story is far too awful to ever consider it anything more than a miss.
Tsubasa Chronicle Season Two
Season two of Tsubasa marked an unfortunate new direction for the series- one that contained more than its fair share of filler. By this point, not only were Bee Train making a hash of the manga based stories, but they were also coming up with their own ideas, all of which showed a singular lack of imagination (bus world, anyone?). Admittedly, the end of season arc sounds reasonably interesting, and the rumoured lack of third season is a relief, but it’s hard to stick with a series that has three insert songs per episode.
Although the sample size is perhaps a little too small to make any extensive conclusions, so far Bee Train seems to be a studio that has been hampered by their limited style. There is no doubt that they know how to pick composers and character designers, but when it comes to telling a story or including some much needed action scenes, the production staff quickly find themselves out of their depth. Perhaps they can prove themselves worthy in the upcoming Murder Princess OVA and El Cazador de Bruja series, but based on their track record, it seems best to keep expectations muted.