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To the uninitiated, the Japanese anime industry and the culture that surrounds it can seem perplexing at times, to say the least. In the west, when a film or TV show is released directly to video or DVD, its usually a sign of inferior quality or very limited market appeal. Or, in other words, it’s too shit to be shown at the cinema. Plus usually we’re talking about the sort of unoriginal, opportunist, unnecessary sequels that Disney were famous for churning out a few years ago. Jungle Book Two, anyone? God help us.

But in Japan, things are different. The market for anime is so strong, and anime fans so loyal and rabid in their spending that direct to video OVA (Original Video Animations) can make enough money to justify high budgets and risk taking concepts. It also frees the studios of other restrictions placed on them by TV broadcasters and film distributors – such as, in the case of Freedom, corporate sponsorship. Co-funded by Nissin Cup Noodles to celebrate their 35th anniversary, the show features explicit product-placement throughout, as well as apparently featuring heavily in real-world marketing for the company’s products in Japan.

So then…a direct to video anime series, sponsored and heavily branded by an instant noodles company. Doesn’t sound great on paper, to be honest. But, like I just said, in Japan things are different, and Freedom has a couple of very good reasons to grab your interest. Firstly, it boasts character and vehicle designs by legendary Akira and Steamboy creator Katsuhiro Otomo, which in itself is enough to get most anime fans all kinds of excited. And, secondly, it’s actually really rather good.

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I can’t get too much into plot details without entering spoilers territory, so I’ll keep things simple. It’s the 23rd century, and Earth has been left inhospitable by a major ecological disaster. The only remnants of the human race are crammed into a single domed city on the far side of the moon, named Eden. The story of the OAV, originally to be told over 6 (although now apparently extended to 7) 25min episodes, focuses on three teenagers; Takeru, Kazuma and Bismark, who spend their free time building and racing futuristic motorbikes in semi-legal races in the pipes beneath Eden. After an accident at a race, Takeru is sent outside to check for leaks as a punishment, he finds something to suggest that the inhabitants of Eden may not be so alone…

And from there I can’t tell you much more, without risking spoiling it for you, but the story is pretty well paced and the characters, whilst never too deep or challenging, seem to develop quite nicely. Visually it is stunning at times, especially during the first episode, which concentrates on introducing the main characters and their activities, and immediately you can see where Otomo’s time and skill has been put to use. Scruffy teenagers and futuristic motorbikes…the influence of Akira is instantly recognisable. If you were feeling cynical you could say his involvement was merely a marketing one – getting his name and designs featured in this corporate sponsored project is quite a scoop, especially as the bikes aren’t hugely integral to the plot as far as I’ve seen – and there would be a certain amount of truth to that. But when it looks as fantastic and stylish as Freedom often does, it’s hard to care. There are some lovely touches, like bike-obsessed Bismark’s Quadrophenia era Mod influenced Parka outfit. And as to the Noodles product placement, it’s blatant, but only about once or twice an episode, and by the third one the writers are having a genuine, knowing laugh with it.

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Like I said at the top, there’s a lot of things that are perplexing about Japanese TV and anime. The one that gets me the most is how strong the demand for quality science fiction television must still be in Japan. While it might not, as yet, quite rank alongside Planetes and Cowboy Bebop in terms of SF storytelling, it’s still light years ahead of the kind of turgid, garish, childish crap like Doctor Who or the numerous dead-from-the-neck-down Star Trek spin-offs we only seem able to produce in the west.

I’ve only seen the first 4 episodes, so it’s still early days yet. If there is one thing that annoys, it’s the bizarre release schedule – one episode on each disc, with each disc being released a few months apart, meaning that although the first one was released in November 2006 we’ll have to wait until early summer 2008 for the conclusion. But it’s certainly a series I’ll be keeping an eye on, and as soon as I’ve seen more I’ll be letting you know what I think.

Read the second part of this review here.