The Excellence of Dominion: Tank Police
Dominion: Tank Police. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Other people loved it, but now hate it. Presumably, there are also some people who hated it, but now love it. For an anime that's almost 20 years old, this is probably to be expected. But what do I, as a relative newcomer to the series, think of it? Read on to find out.
Firstly, I'll make one thing clear. Dominion: Tank Police (and the also-reviewed New Dominion Tank Police) are two OVA's produced in the late-eighties and early-nineties, based around Masamune Shirow's original manga. Due to the age and mixed reception, there isn't a massive amount of information on the 'net about the (numerous) differences between versions (manga vs. Japanese OVA vs. English releases). So rather than try and explain how everything fits together I'll just be sticking with the cold, hard facts - the contents of the three DVDs sat infront of me.
For those unfamiliar with the series, you might be wondering what it's all about. My initial expectations for what the series would be like still largely hold true - Dominion: Tank Police isn't a serious series. It's a fun action comedy, revolving around an 'elite' police squad who use tanks to chase down criminals in a crime-ridden, pollution-filled, near-future city. And like many classic police comedies (for example the Polce Academy series, which is namechecked on the back of the DVD case), the tank police aren't exactly the most careful drivers. But instead of smashing their squad cars into food stalls or carefully-stacked piles of empty boxes, they're smashing their tanks into cars and buildings, generally resulting in more chaos and destruction than the supposedly dangerous criminals which they are chasing.
That is essentially the show in a nutshell, and what I was initially expecting - but as we all know, expectations don't always hold true. More on that later.
As mentioned above, I'll be trying to limit myself to what I know about the series, namely what's on the 3 DVD's infront of me. These DVDs are the region 2 releases of Dominion: Tank Police (one DVD with Acts I and II; another with III and IV), and the region 2 release of New Dominion Tank Police (a single DVD with all 6 acts). Each act is roughly half an hour in length. This does leave me wondering why the four acts of Dominion weren't released on just one DVD, but I suspect this is just a throwback to the VHS releases.
The Dominion DVDs are almost entirely bare-bones, featuring just the English dub and some simple chapter select menus. The New Dominion release is considerably better - with English and Japanese dubs (including a 5.1 English mix), character biographies, and snazzier menus (even if it is just some cheap CGI).
Since the Dominion release was limited to an English dub, the English dub is the one I stuck with while watching New Dominion. As such, my review is mostly based around that.
Dominion: Tank Police
What is it that makes Dominion: Tank Police so good? The short answer is, well, almost everything. There are very few points with which I can find to fault it. Nevertheless, I shall go into further detail:
Before we even get to the show, there's the Toshiba ident at the start. Alas, I fear I am becoming an ident fanboy, as this ident seems to have a certain charm about it that I like. Maybe it's the joyful "Da-a!" that accompanies it. Or maybe it's the fact that it's taken straight from an ageing video copy, rather than a clean and crisp CGI rendition. Something that gives you the impression that, in order to have survived this long, the show must have been worth keeping. Right?
Then directly following that is the Dominion title - however I think I may be a fan of this just because I now know what's coming next - one hour of excellence (per disc). My initial reaction was, I think, "Hmm, this is a bit odd. Is the rest going to be like this?". So perhaps this doesn't really count as a plus-point at all.
But what does count as a plus point is what directly follows - the prologue to Act I. A simple conversation (or rather argument) between the mayoress and the chief of police - the mayoress is angry at the chief for the Tank Police causing so much destruction yet doing little to combat crime; she doesn't like how this reflects on her and her administration, and the chances of her getting re-elected. The chief of police, on the other hand, is only interested in keeping the inhabitants of Newport safe from the multitude of criminals infesting the city. This culminates in his proclamation that "This is war! And my tank police unit the front line!". Although the speech itself is very important for setting the scene (and contains a couple of good jokes to boot), what gets me excited even more is what's going on on-screen at the time. A series of layered pop-art cutouts scroll across the screen, fading in and out of focus, depicting law enforcement and weapons of war throughout the ages - from the early US marshalls in the wild west to the first tanks, police squad cars, and finally fading out to reveal the impressive arsenal of the Tank Police. It's a simple effect to create, but one that's done incredibly well and works perfectly for setting the scene.
And then... we get the intro credits. Being the English dub, the intro has been re-recorded with a new music track and song, full of 80's style and bombast, making it an instant classic ("Tank Police! Feel the power that we got. Tank Police! We'll give it our best shot". Repeat.) In many ways, Dominion: Tank Police is both a series which you can laugh with and laugh at, and this is clearly one of the areas to laugh at - while your inner child gets giddy with excitement at the thought of the incompetent Tank Police laying waste to the city they are meant to protect. Also of note is that although Acts I and III have the English intro, Acts II and IV have the Japanese intro - and although I've got no idea of the meaning of the lyrics, it feels like it shares the same fun, over-the-top style as the English version (and many other 80's anime). The only fault I have with the intro credits at the start is the shot of the Earth near the end - I was half-expecting to see it explode comedy-style, since the preceeding shots contained a sequence of increasingly larger explosions. But no, it just sits there, making it seem rather pointless and irrelevant. However if you look closer you'll see its true meaning - the entire northern hemisphere is covered in the bacterial smog cloud that is plaguing the planet. It took me a couple of watchings to spot this, so presumably I'm not alone in missing its significance first-time round.
Following the intro, we get our first real look at Newport City, 2010 - a dark metropolis entrenched by thick smog, where people must wear gas masks outside if they want to stay alive. The architecture of the city has a very distinctive style, helping to give the series its flair and character - the buildings are globular, organic shapes, looking more like fungal growths than concrete and steel constructions. This appears to be intentional on the part of the designers, and there is one scene in this opening sequence where the city is seen from above, with the glow of headlights running through the streets as if the cars were blood running through veins. Overall this sequence of shots gives a good sense of the scale of the city, from the street level where most of the people live, to the windswept tops of the tallest sky-scrapers.
Changing tack before this article degenerates into a scene-by-scene deconstruction, the next thing on my "big list of good", right next to the set design, is the tech design. The tanks in Dominion have a very unique design - they run on large spherical wheels instead of tracks. This helps to give them a slightly organic look, similar to that of the city itself. In particular, Lieutenant Britain's tank, a great hulking beast, even has mandible-like legs at the front, which it uses to help pull itself forward. His tank reminds me greatly of the (even larger) woodlouse-like Ohmu creatures from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
The next thing on the list are the characters - from a land before characterisation, the members of the Tank Police squad are taken straight from the big book of cliché. There's the aforementioned Chief of Police, whose main purpose is to fill out damage claims and shout at Lieutenant Britain every time he receives some more; there's Lieutentant Britain, the macho & maverick Tank Police commander (lifetime subscriber to How to Kill magazine, and smoker of that brand of cigarette that doesn't fall out of your mouth no matter how wide you open it); there's also Mohican (a fairly generic officer, save for his mohican hair cut), the chaplain (easily identifiably by the moustache, cross round his neck, and the "heeds", "thys", "thous", and "brothers" which adorn every sentence he speaks), science geek Specs (easily identifiable by the glasses and the science technobabble that spews forth whenever he opens his mouth), new recruit Al (who is easily identifiable by being the youngest of the group, and somewhat unsure about the Tank Police's quiestionable interrogation techniques), and new-new recruit Leona (equally young, but the only female member of the squad). Leona is essentially the main character for the series; she is a transfer from the motorcycle division (which results in obvious scale and spatial awareness problems when first attempting to drive a tank), and causes quite a stir among the others as they try to come to terms with having a female in the squad. She soon fits right into place however, following the "love your tank like your brother" doctrine, taking part in the squad's questionable interrogation practices, and in general stopping at nothing in the attempt to apprehend criminals.
Although the reliance on clichéd characters doesn't really hurt the series, and it does mean they can skip a lot of characterisation time, it does harm it in one respect - would such an oddball group of characters actually really be members of the Tank Police? Why isn't Specs a scientist? Why isn't the chaplain a preacher? Why isn't Britain in the army? But I digress - this is a minor concern, and one of little importance. What does grate me however are Leona's wild mood swings - sometimes seemingly random in nature, within just the first few minutes of her screen time she goes from being annoyed at having a grenade lodged in her eye, to being formal as she reports for duty, to being excited and in awe of the sight of the tanks, to being annoyed with Al for (inadvertantly) throwing the grenade at her, to being apologetic as she realises she fancies him, to laughing like a loon at the prisoner who just spat a live grenade (minus pin) out of his mouth. While everyone else does the sensible thing and runs for cover. Another example is her outburst at the mayor at the end of Act II, where, while the other members of the tank police are rightfully feeling ashamed for causing massive damage while letting the criminals get away again, Leona snaps and pulls her gun on the mayor, threatening her with it and giving a speech about how this is a war on crime which the police are still massively overwhelmed by. And then, after discharging a round into the mountain of damage claims next to the mayor, she's immediately back to her usual chirpy self. Out of them all, Leona is the only real character with that fault, and for some it may be an inconsequential thing, but for me it just means that she's a bit hard to get a hold of (especially since all the other characters are so easy to read). There's also another problem with the scene with the mayor - that she seems to jump from being stood next to the table to sitting ontop of it, with her legs astride the bullet hole - and that three windows in the room smash as the shot is fired (allowing the damage claims to float out into the city) - but that's probably something a pedant like me would only notice.
The other characters worth mentioning are obviously the criminals - the main ones being the mercantile Buaku, and his two android catgirl henchmen (henchwomen?) Anna and Uni Puma. For the first two acts they are operating under the command of their employer, attempting to break into a hospital to steal research samples. Although this is good in itself (mainly for the comedy moments which they instigate), it's in Acts III and IV where they really begin to shine. With their employer dead, they are now free agents, and in the words of Buaku:
Buaku: There's a time in every android's career when he'll do a job for reasons apart from money. One is to accomplish the greatest aspect of his program, a second is because he owes a debt.
Buaku: There's another reason neither of you two would understand, so I won't waste my breath. Quit your complaining and keep paddling! I need time to think!
What's at the core of Acts III and IV isn't really a comedy at all; instead it surpasses my expectations entirely, by providing a deep, engaging and thought-provoking drama as Buaku's mysterious past is introduced and he makes a journey of self discovery in an effort to retrieve his "birth certificate" - and to keep it out of the hands of the dangerous Red Commandos who have been hired to protect it. And then at the end, there's a mind-blowing twist, as Buaku poses a question that asks whether what he thinks was his past was ever really his past at all. Whereas Acts I and II left me simply wanting more sillyness with the Tank Police, Acts III and IV left me with a much stronger feeling - the want of more Buaku, and more exploration of his past (and future). Sadly, New Dominion doesn't continue this story, as it picks up from a point in the manga after which Buaku's story has come to an end, leaving the somewhat lost-looking Anna and Uni Puma to be the only recurring criminals from the first series. Of course, the lack of Buaku in New Dominion does make me want to explore reading the manga instead - but I still feel that they've missed out on a lot by not exploring his story more in the anime (especially since there are allegedly so many differences between the anime and manga - would Buaku's story in the manga be the same as the one purported to in the anime, or would I be left feeling that they were two completely different people?)
Other points of excellence in Dominion include the music and the outro credits. Although they are shrunk to half-size to accomodate the English credits, the Japanese credits are an entertaining slice of surrealism, as a snow globe transforms into Anna and Uni Puma swimming naked underwater, before transforming back to a snow globe, and then into a planet (presumably the Earth), with the sun visible in the background; before both transform into a snow globe and lightbulb, revealing a room (apparently a prison cell, with a "wanted" poster for Britain in the background), into which Buaka enters and performs a dance number dressed in a classic 20's gangster-style pinstripe suit (Although I'm not entirely sure if 20's gangsters did dance numbers).
The other (obvious) bits of excellence are the abundant comedy moments - both the laugh-with and laugh-at - but with the exception of the following:
- There's a scene in Act II where, in traditional madcap cops-and-robbers chase style, one cop car (i.e. tank) mounts the front of another stationary cop car (tank), sending it flying through the air. And although the tanks in Dominion do have rather smooth fronts, they also have great big cannons sticking out the front, which kind of reduces the credability of such a scene (although if you look closely you can see the turret of the stationary tank getting knocked off by the impact of the other tank). The flying tank comes to rest in the roof of a building - inside which a couple were happily engaging in sex. This leaves the woman stradling the cannon of the tank, while the hapless male remarks "Oh God, how can I match that?" I kid you not.
- And in a similar case of a random un-funny one-liner, there's a scene where Buaku and a hostage escape from the sewers. This is preceeded by a jet of water shooting out of a manhole, sending a car flying into the air, to which a passer-by remarkes "Some new kind of carwash?" I kid you not.
- Another comedy moment which just didn't work for me was the cliché scooby-doo style "running through the same hallway of corridors in lots of different directions" scene. This time it was just Leona's tank driving through a series of alleyways while giving chase to (unseen) criminals, but it still has the same effect on me: Nill points.
- There's also a rather slapstick gun battle in the auction house in Act III, which just didn't really work for me.
- And there's also a scene where Britain almost quits the tank police in disgust, accompanied by spontaneous placards held by the other police officers, basically telling him to get lost. This seems rather tongue-in-cheek and out of character, as although Britain is arrogant and wreckless they do all seem to like him.
Luckily, all the other comedy moments more than make up for these minor stumbles, from the plot-intrinsic puns, to the "ultimate deterrent", to the reactions all the Tank Police members have to the above, and the way that the chief of police always blames Britain for everything... even when he can't possibly have had anything to do with it. Be warned, however, that the ultimate deterrent is spoilered incredibly heavily by the preview for Act II (which is at the end of Act I). This easily ruins the biggest joke of the episode!
What other bits are there that I don't like? Well, they're relatively minor, but:
- The wobbly-eye syndrome, used to show Al's affection for Leona - I'm never a fan of that.
- The editing is a bit rough in places - there are a couple of places where it suddenly cuts to action shots and action music. And in other places, due to the increased runtime of the English dialogue, there are a couple of transitions where the screen stays black for a second or two while the to-be-shown character begins speaking his lines.
- Also on the direction/editing front, the destruction of the auction house by the tank police during Act III seems somewhat rushed - one second they are charging, the next the building is shown collapsing, and the next they are shown wandering into the wreckage to rescue the stranded Al and Leona (who they presumably weren't worried about getting crushed by the falling building). There are also a couple of bits of minor clunky dialogue and suspicious voice acting - but nothing that really gets on my nerves.
- The DVD transfer seemed a bit rough for DVD 2 - but this could easily have been because the source tape had degraded more than it had for Acts I and II. There's one bit of audio distortion that could have easily been fixed, but I guess their budget didn't stretch that far. Similarly, there was also a minor audio sync problem in one scene, where the grunting voice-over for when Anna and Uni jump to the floor while chasing a red commando is out of sync - yet the grunt of the commando himself was fine. The first DVD, however, seemed to be entirely free of problems.
- One thing that did confuse me a bit was the introduction of a random philosophising computer in the auction house in Act III. It's only there for a few seconds, and possibly contains some more interesting information in the Japanese version (the computer screen shows text; this has been supplanted with a voice over for the English version), but for the English dub it seems rather odd and pointless. It's presumably trying to hark back to some of the philosophy in the manga. But failing miserably due to the lack of relevance and lack of insight in the message.
- The plot for Acts I and II is also a bit tricky to follow - I'm still not entirely sure why Buaku's employer was interested in the samples Buaku was hired to obtain. The reasoning behind this is even deliberately muddled, by the Tank Police's confusion over the fact that the hospital staff say that they only treat "healthy" people. Presumably this is something that is better explained in the manga.
- The 'fun quiz' interrogation at the start of Act III may smack a bit of fan-service - seeing Leona dressed in a bunnygirl outfit - until you realise that yes, this is the kind of crazy thing that would be on Japanese TV anyway. Except probably without the live grenades.
Initially I was going to also say that I didn't like the character animation style, but I've now warmed up to it. And suffice to say, although the animation throughout the production is competent, it obviously doesn't live up to the quality of bigger-budget productions like Akira.
That's about it, really. Although I seem to have found a rather long list of bad points, it's worth remembering that, for me at least, each good point can probably counter at least 10 bad points enjoyment-wise. It really is a good series.
New Dominion Tank Police
Just to recap, at the end of Dominion: Tank Police I was left wanting two things: More madcap comedy with the tank police, and more Buaku. Unfortunately, New Dominion Tank Police fails to deliver on both counts. Instead you get given something completely different, and it's taken me a second viewing to come to appreciate and value it for what it really is.
Produced several years after the original series, and by a different animation team, there are many differences between the two series - in terms of the overall style, the animation, the characters, and the plotlines. Instead of being a madcap comedy or gripping drama, it instead evolves into a right of passage for the Tank Police, as they must prove to the city that they are worth keeping, by first protecting the entire city from an oversized truck packed with explosives, to protecting the mayor herself when the corporation behind the truck put their whole effort into having her eliminated. At the end of it all, if it's hit you in the right spot, it will leave you with a good feeling inside, as it has a real feel-good ending as the criminal masterminds behind it all get their comeuppance.
On to the specifics, then - obviously the first thing you'll notice when starting to watch the series is the new intro sequence. This is significant for several reasons:
- First of all, it's new.
- It highlights the higher production quality of the new series, as the animation is clearly more detailed and of better quality. However like most anime, the character animations can sometimes leave something to be desired.
- It has a rock soundtrack. Rock music is generally used throughout the programme itself. This is indicitative of the early/mid-90's time period the series was made in, much like the music of the original series reflected on its production period.
- However, if you're watching the English dub, you'll notice that there are no lyrics. This, in my opinion, is a major oversight - it may seem like something simple on the surface, but in reality the opening credits can tell you a lot about a programme and how you should perceive it. What we're given instead are a series of sound bites spoken by characters whenever they appear onscreen, attempting to put sense into the almost random sequence of shots which form the introduction. This is an incredibly bad thing, as the sequence isn't designed to be part of a story at all. If you listen to it with the Japanese lyrics (even if you don't have the subtitles up so you can't understand it), it's clear that it isn't part of a story; it's just a series of action sequences to help build the emotion of the viewer, in unison with the music and lyrics. But if you remove the lyrics and insert soundbites, then you'll likely come to the same conclusion that I did - that Leona and Britain are for some reason trying to kill each other in a gun battle, and that large swathes of the story have been cut out as it jumps from place to place. I even got left with the feeling that some of the shots (Anna and Uni Puma hanging from a disintegrating biplane, Leona's tank being partially crushed by a hydraulic press) were going to feature as part of the story of the series, when in actuality they don't. And if I listen to it with the lyrics on, I don't get the feeling that they're significant to the story at all; they're just there to build the emotion in the viewer.
OK, rant over.
- The other bits to note in the intro are the different colour schemes - firstly the tanks are all navy blue and grey, with black treads/wheels, unlike green with grey treads (for Leona's tank) and blue with white wheels (for the majority of the other tanks in the first series). Leona's hair has also changed from red to black/dark brown, and her eyes from blue to brown.
- Newport City also has a more 'concrete terminte mound' feel to it, compared to the shine of the dark blue and purple organic blobs of the first series (although the buildings are still roughly in the same shape)
- And finally, the series naturally has a new logo - even though it does now look like something created in 5 minutes using MS Word's WordArt. But I suppose it does fit in with the style of the time, and the logo and music combined put me in mind of Micro Machines 2, which is never a bad thing.
Once you get into the meat of the episodes you'll see that there are several other stylistic differences. New Dominion relies much more heavily upon the classic anime/manga technique of face faults to indicate emotion, something I'm not particularly a fan of, mainly because I'm often left wondering what the emotion they're trying to show actually is meant to be. The series also relies upon various "comedy" sound effects, such as using a lion's roar when the chief is shouting at the tank police - although if I'm not mistaken this is toned down somewhat in the later episodes. I'm also left wondering what possible style Specs' (now referred to as Four Eyes) glasses are being drawn in, as they now feature spirals drawn on the lenses. Also, although they are mostly the same voice actors for the English dub, the voices have changed quite significantly - for example Anna and Uni Puma now have a much stronger southern USA accent, whereas before it was fairly weak. Al now sometimes has a slightly goofy voice. And in terms of the characer's personalities, it seems that Leona is now stuck in constant shout mode (which can be annoying at times), while Britain has mellowed out somewhat and no longer has outbursts of rage. Swearing also seems to be a bit more common - or maybe people are just overracting to things a bit - or maybe it's just in my imagination. I'm not quite sure. It's certainly something that irked me a bit, though.
One thing that New Dominion is missing is charismatic bad guys, like Buaku. Instead we just get the shady members of the Dai Nippon Giken corporation, who are rather plain to behold. This does give the show a darker tone, somewhat closer to Ghost in the Shell - in fact, the mobile weapons that Dai Nippon deploy against the Tank Police are small, nimble crab-like creatures, much like the numerous multiped tanks seen in Ghost in the Shell. And although there are plenty of humourous moments, there's not that much that I would actually class as comedy - the only real laugh-out-loud moment I can remember is during Act 3 while Leona is attempting to stop the oversized truck. This is a mere pittance compared to the puns, one-liners, and visual humour employed in the first series.
So without the jokes, what do we have? Not that much for the first two episodes, really. With Leona being almost constantly angry and shouty it can be a bit disconcerting to watch, but if you stick with it to Act 3 then things will really start to pick up, not only due to the inclusion of the truck chase scenes, but also due to the grander scale of events that are unfolding and the increased number of action scenes. Whereas with the first two episodes it felt like something was missing, with the last four it feels like the package is working, and the show is worthy of the rock sound track that accompanies it.
Since I've mentioned the truck so many times - and it's probably my favourite episode - I might as well go into more detail about it. This thing is huge; two lanes of traffic wide, it easily dwarfs other road vehicles, including the tank police's tanks. But it's oversized in a humourous way, which is really highlighted when you see how small Leona is as she attempts to climb aboard the speeding hulk. Something just feels right about that moment as she makes her way along the length of the truck, with the soft rock music playing in the background. It brings fun, suspense, and comedy to the episode.
Unfortunately, the series still suffers from a few editing problems - in Act 1 there's a sudden cut from the tank police splitting up in order to give chase to Dai Nippon's mobile weapon, to Leona meeting two of the tanks that have just been immobilised by it - two tanks that she left just seconds earlier. A few episodes also contain flashbacks, which are unceremoniously started and stopped, making you wonder a bit whether what you're watching is meant to be a flashback or not. Ironically, on the other hand, there seems to be a bit of over-explanation of some of the plot points, essentially repeating the same facts twice just to make sure the audience members who are lighter on the brain cells have got the message. Something that seems to be totally unneccesary, because it's never really anything that's hard to understand. The audio in act 4 is also slightly dodgy, and although the inclusion of the 5.1 surround mix is welcome, you can tell that it's just a modification of the original stereo mix, as in some instances (the only instances in which I actually tried listening to it) you can plainly hear the audio panning from speaker to speaker as people start and stop speaking. And in similar audio news, the mourners at the start of Act 1 make a really pathetic sobbing noise in the English dub. I'm also not really a fan of some of the more electronic/synth music used during some of the action scenes, as I feel it makes the series feel like a cheap and tacky kids cartoon (or at the least, it makes it feel like something that it isn't).
Although New Dominion Tank Police lacks the immediate charm of the Dominion: Tank Police, it's still not without its merits and can easily be enjoyed once you know what to expect from it. Trying to say which is better out of the two series is somewhat pointless, as they are both very different animals; I'll just leave you to watch them yourself and make up your own minds.
It's difficult to praise the show without going into intricate detail, as to go to the detail level required would involve ruining the plots and/or jokes. So you'll just have to take my word on the fact that both series are excellent in their own ways, no matter how many bad points I've dragged up in this dual review.