Made for the Japanese market by animation studio Madhouse Inc., the four 12-episode “Marvel Anime” series were supervised by top-flight comic book writer Warren Ellis, with input from the creative directors of Marvel Comics, which means that in just about every way—save one—these cartoons series are as true to their source material as any animated Marvel adaptation has ever been. They’re comparable to Warner Animation’s direct-to-video versions of classic DC storylines, in that they’re mature, polished, and fan-friendly, aimed at people who already love these characters and comics more than at channel-flipping youngsters. The big difference is that they’re also aimed at a Japanese audience, and have a look and style that diverges, at times wildly, from the original comics. Sometimes the Marvel side and the anime side integrate well; sometimes the project seems more like an exercise in synergy than in storytelling.
Earlier this year, Marvel released DVD sets for the X-Men and Iron Man anime series—the former of which is fairly dreary, while the latter, with its giant robot fights, is fleetingly fun. Now Marvel is completing the collection with sets for Blade and Wolverine, which have been the best of the Madhouse productions. The Blade series follows the half-human/half-vampire monster-hunter to Southeast Asia, where he stands off against the villain who killed his mother and a cadre of vampires known as Existence. It’s a decidedly more adult show than the rest of the Marvel animes; blood flows freely, and the level of sexual innuendo and (mild) profanity is higher, which at times makes Blade feel like it’s pretending to be tougher than it actually is. But the Blade action sequences are genuinely thrilling, with lots of kinetic swordplay and imaginatively terrifying demons. (Madhouse’s character designers draw heavily on the Japanese tradition for freaky beasts.) Blade delivers almost exactly what it promises, with the biggest stumbling block being that it’s longer than it needs to be, and that whenever the characters aren’t trying to eviscerate each other, the show drags.
Wolverine also suffers from some pacing issues, as it creeps along through a story about the quick-healing, claw-wielding mutant journeying through the Japanese underworld to rescue the mob boss’ daughter, who also happens to be the love of his life. Longtime X-fans should recognize this plot as being adapted from one of the all-time best Wolverine stories: the 1982 Chris Claremont-written/Frank Miller-penciled miniseries. The anime Wolverine pads out the story, sometimes with gratuitous, uninspired fight scenes between the hero and the yakuza, and sometimes with crazily grand-scale battles between various criminal factions in an ancient, booby-trapped section of the city. Once again, the 12-episode structure seems arbitrary, dragging out the action rather than letting it find its proper length (which would probably be about eight episodes). On the other hand, 20 years ago, superhero fans would have dropped their jaws at series this mature and fundamentally badass. That today these cartoons are so easy to nitpick is a sign of how good both animation and superhero adaptations have become.
Key features: Brief promotional featurettes on both; both also contain the original Japanese audio and the very good English dub made for these shows’ G4 runs.