Birdy the Mighty: Decode 01 and 02
by Beepner


Them Japanese animes, they're so crazy! After decades of aliens and robots and time travel and magical girls and guys who turn into girls and girls who turn into girls with bigger boobs, you'd think that everything under the sun would have been rendered in brightly colored, bug-eyed, badly lip-synched form at some point or another. And, well, yeah. Everything under the sun kind of already has been put into an anime. But that doesn't stop studios from dusting off old franchises or concepts and re-re-revisiting the kind of bizarre shit that even Japanese audiences regarded as "quaint" back when people in North America were just realizing that there was more to "Japanimation" than Speed Racer and Ninja Scroll, or those brown paper-wrapped VHS tapes in the back of the rental store. And hey, remaking shit is their perrogative. Hollywood doesn't exist in a bubble when it comes to rehashes and reboots, and in fact, this practice has been in full force in the anime world since forever. The entire Gundam franchise is propped up by spinoffs, sequels, reboots, reimaginings, and re-... sin model sales (good save, Beepner!). Bleach is essentially a ripoff of Yu Yu Hakusho with updated character designs and more boobs, and it's gone on for 90 goddamned seasons.

So even a concept from a more obscure set of source material, that of a normal school kid who gets inadvertedly killed by a sexy space cop and ends up sharing a body with her, can be given a fresh coat of digitally-enhanced paint and some more up-to-date time period cues. Birdy the Mighty: Decode is a reimagining of an 80's manga series that was adapted into an OVA in the 90's. Decode follows superpowered intergalactic police officer Birdy Cephon Altera and her newfound body co-tenant, Tsutomu Senkawa for two seasons in their exploits to protect earth from hostile alien involvement, allow Tsutomu to experience something resembling a normal life, and maintain Birdy's moonlight job as a pin-up idol and pop star.

Yeah, of course she's also an idol. Haven't you ever seen these girly cartoons before?

A show that doubles up on its gimmicks like this has warning signs of being a stupid waste of time, but the main attraction of Birdy is that it's a solid action show with an interesting conceit for buddy-cop/squabbling roommate character drama. And that Birdy is next to nude when she leaps into action. Can't forget that. The early episodes are appealing enough to quickly get the viewer invested in the series, so that getting past the silliness of the initial slap-dash character introductions and dual pop-idol/champion of justice identity is about as much of a hurdle there is as to whether you'll like it or not.

We first join Birdy in pursuit of a couple of intergalactic criminals, who have stolen some as-of-yet unidentified macguffin known as the Ryunka, and seem to be in the process of violating a number of resisting an officer statutes. After they give Birdy the slip, she follows them to Earth in order to try and track them down. What we're given is a Men in Black scenario in which Earth harbors numerous alien refugees disguised as ordinary humans, docile and hostile alike. We're introduced to Birdy's undercover persona, as well as means to pay the rent, Shion Arita, an airheaded pin-up model. She is accompanied by her floating robot squid partner Tuto, who fulfills the role of Birdy's manager in the guise of gay Spock.

Meanwhile, Tsutomu Senkawa is your everyday Japanese anime wimp who finds himself living alone for an ill-defined span of time when his parents depart for a business trip, and are promptly never heard from again. Business trip my ass, they clearly hate the little prick and are blowing his college fund on a whirlwind tour of... blow. When Tsutomu and his shrill harpy of a classmate Hayamiya explore an abandoned building one night, the two run afoul of Birdy's quarry and their shady operation. Birdy shows up to wreck their little extraterrestrial bio-meth lab and nearly makes an arrest, but one of the perps uses Tsutomu as a human shield, causing Birdy to punch an Evangelion DVD boxed set-sized hole in him. After a series of what he assumes were weird dreams (is there any other kind?) Tsutomu quickly learns that he is in fact dead, and that Birdy has taken his consciousness into her body while his own is being repaired by the galactic Federation.

While they are sharing a body, Birdy and Tsutomu can swap outward forms while the other is conscious of everything going on, usually represented by an inset box with an orange tint on a gradient background, or more rarely, in reflective surfaces. The outward form has to communicate with the other by speaking aloud, which leads to numerous gags where passers-by and friends think Tsutomu is insane. There are a couple of rules with the conceit that the show plays fast and loose with, such as injuries that Birdy sustains showing up on Tsutomu, or one instance where Tsutomu's form borrows Birdy's super strength and agility. There are a couple of things that still bug me though. Such as, can Tsutomu only see whatever Birdy sees when she's using the body, or does he have some ill-defined omnidirectional sensory perception? Why is Tsutomu always nude whenever we're given one of Birdy's trademark cheesecake bath sequences? When Birdy accuses Tsutomu of trying to "sneak a peek" while she's in the tub, does this imply that his perception isn't tied down to what Birdy sees and hears? Am I reading too far into the show's T&A?

After the initial setup is established, we see how Tsutomu tries to maintain a normal school life, all the while getting dragged into Birdy's investigations and battles with rogue aliens and killer robots. We soon learn from galactic civilization's delegation of furries and giant space bugs that the Ryunka, that thing those aliens were running away with in the first episode, is an organic weapon capable of annihilating entire planets, and that the Supreme Pontiffs (or SPAAAAAAAAAACE POOOOOOOOOPES as I call them) are watching Birdy's every move in her investigation. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Ryunka has already found a human host in the body of the girl Tsutomu likes, Nakasugi, and its destructive properties have already begun to manifest with her strange behavior.

The principal villains of Birdy are backstage manipulators and shadowy observors. The base thugs and emotionless combat marionettes whom Birdy battles in a number of the show's action sequences get about as little introduction and sendoff as one would expect, while much more screentime is allocated to the string-pullers. Rogue Federation officer Capella is responsible for implanting the Ryunka within Nakasugi. Capella observes Nakasugi's developments and interferes with Birdy's activities on a few occasions, but for the most part stays in the background and acts as an advisor to Satyajit Shyamalan, billionaire media tycoon and nihilistic planetary Darwinist who wishes to prematurely bring the Ryunka to its full potential. Also making an appearance are the mysterious Christella Revi, and her henchman, Georg Gomez. Revi is the main villain in the 90's OVA, and seems to be there as a throwback, not really having any direct impact on the plot.

The developments that set up the major players in the story and establish the overall plot unfold at a satisfying pace. There are some shock and awe moments that are meant to disorient the viewer early on, that are usually explained away later on by Birdy's giant bug commander Megius in Basil Exposition fashion. There are some one-off story arcs where Birdy has to tackle some problem that isn't directly related to the search for the Ryunka, such as taking down some terrorists bombers or a rogue marionette on the loose, and these episodes mainly serve as an excuse to flesh out the universe beyond Earth a bit more and throw in some gratuitous action sequences. The majority of the show takes place on Earth, and the character drama dealing with Tsutomu's daily life is closely tied to the larger overall plot.

Tsutomu and Birdy's relationship begins as one of necessity, although it quickly develops into the buddy-cop routine as a result of the circumstances threatening Earth. The typical dynamic of the straight-laced one and the goofball in these kinds of situations is a little flipped here. Birdy is serious when it comes to her job, but she's selfish and overbearing towards Tsutomu. She's not so much airheaded as she is ignorant of Earth customs, and writes a lot of Tsutomu's behavior off as "Earthling's raging hormones." This is ironic considering her day job as a dumb bimbo pin-up model, but after the first couple of episodes, the Shion Arita persona is hardly seen again for the remainder of season one.

Tsutomu is hardly a goofball either, but his job in this partnership is to ask what the hell is going on, complain about his school life, and generally freak out. Still, he's a likeable guy, and his presence grounds Birdy as a relatable character and not just an invincible space cop, while grounding the viewer with a normal person's perspective on all this crazy alien shit unfolding before his eyes. Tsutomu occassionally gets to offer some insight or observations to keep him from just seeming like a nagging voice in Birdy's head, but his main contributions are usually relegated to yelling at her when she's pushing herself too hard in battle ("I sense death! No, you can't win!" Sorry, wrong thing).

The way Tsutomu and Birdy play off each other in a roommate sitcom fashion, while not the most original or hilarious dynamic, is pretty entertaining to watch amidst all the show's doomsday overtones. Birdy will selfishly use the body (she's some kind of bath addict, apparently) with little regard for Tsutomu's needs, and due to her superhuman metabolism, threatens to eat him out of house and home. She's quick to remind him that he's a houseguest in her body, and pulls the "I'm saving your planet, dude" card on more than one occasion. Tsutomu usually reacts with wimpy indignation to Birdy's dominant personality, and has a "why me" attitude towards the whole situation. Still, there are moments when Birdy displays genuine remorse for inadvertedly causing Tsutomu's death, and Tsutomu reflects on the seriousness of Birdy's mission from time to time, after having been treated to a vision of what the Ryunka can do from a first-person perspective.

As the plot escalates, with the Ryunka's awakening within Nakasugi and Birdy's mounting suspicions of the girl, the show takes a bit of a darker tone. Birdy doesn't share her suspicions with Tsutomu, and their relationship becomes strained when it becomes apparent that Birdy may have to kill Nakasugi in order to save Earth. While not the most original or underutilized theme, the conflict of killing one to save many is competantly handled, with some callback to an earlier episode in which Birdy's old mentor refuses to stop a terrorist bombing because doing so would have compromised a larger investigation. The scale of the destruction that the show displays when the Ryunka begins to evolve doesn't pull any punches either, heightening the gravity of its threat beyond the lighthearted with just a hint of ominous portent tone that was present early in the season. My only real complaint with the climax is that Shyamalan, for all the development and screentime that he is afforded, turns out to be kind of a shallow villain. He gets the kind of comeuppance that you'd expect for a megalomaniac who plays with a god-like power, while the rest of the shadowy villains retreat to their shadowy shadows in a shadowy manner.

Overall, season one of Birdy comes to a satisfying conclusion. It manages to raise the stakes and give the viewer a real sense of danger despite being a bit of a cliched alien invasion disaster movie scenario, and deftly ties it into the character drama. Despite some telegraphing, the resolution is poignant, and we're given a nice little character moment between Tsutomu and Birdy as the climax comes to an end. Everything is wrapped up nicely after maintaining consistent quality throughout, that the season can really stand alone.

Birdy's visual component is colorful and well-animated, on par with most modern anime in this kind of full TV series format. The character designs for everyone who isn't a space cop or a furry are pretty stock, but they're usually varied enough to keep any two characters from running together. Being largely an action show, the framerate in the action sequences is consistently high, and shot composition is such that it's never hard to tell what's going on, a complaint that I have with other recent anime that seem to want to emulate the Jason Bourne movie/Gladiator/Batman Begins aesthete of action sequence direction (i.e. Casshern Sins). Since Birdy herself is a super strong, super agile powerhouse, much of the action is highly kinetic, but it's handled with the proper gravity and impact, and usually not without collateral damage. It's much more satisfying to watch than the usual ninjas zipping around and pulling off Maximum Spider with no regards for physics. There are a couple of instances that bear mentioning where 3D CG is used to animate spaceships and the like, but they never really feel too jarring.

Birdy's soundtrack is competant, although not really a standout. There's a main "hero" theme that gets reused pretty copiously, featuring horns and strings that usually plays during an action sequence. There's also a little piano motif that comes out a few times in particular when something sad relating to Nakasugi is going on. The first OP is a pop rock number set against an intro animation that makes the show look overly cheery (and is full of bloom lighting effects for some reason), and the first ED is a catchy pop rock/rap tune with gratuitous Engrish. A lot of the main score is reused in season 2, while the OP and ED are more dance techno oriented than their predecessors. The season 2 OP shares a characteristic that I like to call "Gundam SEED OP Christmas Music Syndrome."

Oh yeah, about season two. Heheheh. Whoo boy. What? No, it's nothing. Season one's great, go watch it. I mean, I'm assuming you already have since you're reading this spoiler-filled review, or you weren't planning on watching it anyway.

Pheeeeeew. Okay. I'll talk about season 2 now.

As well as season one came together and tied everything up, while leaving just enough potential for a continuation, it would stand to reason that season two would have to shift focus a little bit in order to keep things fresh. Season one's character drama was very Tsutomu-centric, so predictably, season two focuses mainly on Birdy. So far, this seems like a solid choice. After all, it gives us the potential to learn more about Birdy's past, her relationship with the Federation, why she carries the nickname "Berserker Killer Birdy", as well as focus on her personal life.

The stakes of the plot aren't quite as serious this time. A group of convicts on a space transport orchestrate a breakout and take refuge on Earth. They were members of a rogue black-op to acquire the Ryunka and test its potential on Earth, after which it somehow got into the hands of the space criminals working for Shyamalan in season one. Anyway, all but one of the convicts are space furries, and have to wear memesis chips to disguise themselves as humans, but the chips will also disintegrate their bodies should their vitals stop, in order to destroy any evidence of their existence. Stupidly enough, this process doesn't destroy the chips themselves, and anyone with knowledge of the chips could find one and use it to discover the identity of its former user. The gang decides to lay low until they can figure out their next move, that is until an unknown party starts killing them off.

Meanwhile, Birdy and Tsutomu are still sharing a body, and Tsutomu is still trying to manage a normal school life. Birdy is still taking gigs as Shion Arita, which was easily the least interesting aspect of the first season. She even says in the first episode, "I've been feeling so much more comfortable as Shion lately!" setting up the persona's appearance in nearly every episode for the remainder of the season. Meanwhile, Tsutomu's friends are still hanging around, with the exception of Nakasugi, who moved away to live with relatives in Kobe after losing her memory during the Ryunka incident.

The ill-explained destruction of Tokyo is still a palpable presence, leaving numerous refugees living in camps on the outskirts of the quarantined ruined areas. Hayamiya organizes a journalism club to tell the refugees' story and coerces the rest of their circle of friends to join. After taking a trip to the refugee camp to report on life there, these characters don't have much to do outside of putting a presentation together for some school festival. Meanwhile, Birdy chances to run into her childhood friend Nataru, an Altan living on Earth and working as a nurse. Nataru becomes Birdy's love interest for the season, and she spends a lot of time in public as Shion Arita hanging around with him.

After focusing so much on Tsutomu's love life in season one, the poor guy gets no action in season two. Every now and then he becomes all moody at the mention of Nakasugi's name, but I'm cool with the writers giving Birdy a chance to shine instead. Unfortunately, Nataru just isn't that interesting as a love interest, and he's afforded much more screen time than the equally boring Nakasugi. "Nataru's a good guy, I like him," says Tsutomu, as if he's trying to convince himself and the audience that we're supposed to get invested in this character.

There's also a running subplot regarding Shoko, a young girl and little sister of Nataru's friend who died in the destruction of Tokyo. Shoko is being treated for leg injuries at the hospital where Nataru works, and she harbors a crush on Nataru and is jealous of the time he spends with Shion Arita. There's a whole episode dedicated to her running away while Birdy and Nataru try to track her down. It's especially goofy when she runs into a crowded mall and creates a diversion by alerting a bunch of horny fanboys to where Shion Arita is, which is stupid since no one else seems to notice her when she's hanging out with Nataru in nearly every other goddamned episode. Eventually, Tsutomu convinces Birdy to let him try to approach Shoko, and he manages to talk her down successfully. She was probably impressed by his Marty McFly vest.

On the topic of recurring gags, a lot more screen time is afforded Birdy's booking agent Irma, who was only seen a few times in season one. She's a member of an underground Altan network that helps refugees on Earth stay hidden and find work, and constantly nags Birdy that she won't be able to pay her way without working more Shion Arita gigs, nor will Irma give her any info on her cases. Minor season one villain Capella returns as Irma's long-suffering assistant and maid, who had nowhere else to go after being fingered (note to self, find a synonym for this) as one of those who were behind the Ryunka incident. Then there are these two random guys who had a couple of unfortunate run-ins with Birdy in season one, when she destroyed their cars in a minor gag. Now, they show up constantly, and you know every time they appear, they're going to suffer some collateral damage due to Birdy. I guess the writers felt the need to lay on the stupid comic relief so thick since the majority of the season is so bleak and depressing. As a result, the tone is a bit inconsistent.

It's revealed pretty early on that Nataru is the one killing off the escaped convicts. He and Shoko's brother were present at one of the areas destroyed by the Ryunka, and Nataru was the only one to survive due to his latent powers. During these segments, Nataru goes Super Saiyan and rambles on about punishment and murders his victims in graphically brutal fashion. The contrast of his niceguy persona and brutal revenge killings make it hard to sympathize with this character. It's implied that his powers and the physical pain that their use causes make him unable to control his actions, but most of the time he comes off as less of a tragic anti-hero and more of an insane douche.

Meanwhile, the convicts assume that Birdy is the one killing them off, and orchestrate a trap to take her out. After she sustains head trauma in battle, Tsutomu wakes up the next day, stuck in Birdy's form, with Birdy's consciousness MIA. This part gives us some scenes where Tsutomu has to try and fulfill Shion Arita's modeling gigs, which I'll admit was pretty amusing to watch. It's good that they did something fresh with the shared body dynamic again, since Tsutomu is shoved into the background for the majority of the season. However, in order to bring Birdy back, Tsutomu must dive into her memories and locate her consciousness before it becomes lost forever. For two episodes, we're given scenes of Birdy's no pants-wearing childhood (seriously, I know she's supposed to be poor, but she has a hoverboard yet for some reason no goddamned pants) and backstory with her Federation training. We also see how Birdy met Nataru and get a few scenes of how they grew up together, which does a much better overall job of making Nataru a relatable character than anything he does in the present day.

Aside from my complaints with the narrative, there are a few glaring problems with Birdy the Mighty: Decode 02:

1. The animation. While the overall design aesthetic hasn't changed, a good portion of the action sequences display a bizarre shift in style. Instead of the consistent quality present in season one, most of them become a lot less detailed and more "loosely" drawn, almost resembling a rotoscoped style. While the framerate is high and the motion is fluid, the characters often become ill-defined blobs, regardless of the zoom level. Not all of the action sequences are like this, but enough of them are to get on my nerves. Usually it occurs when we're watching Nataru go on a rampage. If it's a stylistic as opposed to a budgetary choice, it's a bizarre one. At one point when Birdy is fighting Nataru, the image literally devolves into a mess of pixels. If I wanted to see ugly and confusing action scenes with boring character drama, I'd watch Noein.

2. Gore. Whenever Nataru goes RIP AND TEAR on one of the convicts, we're left little to the imagination in the body/limb-separation department. Granted, it's poorly detailed Jell-O gore thanks to my above mentioned point, but it's really out of step with the superhero show tone of season one. It's most disturbing when he dismembers the two aliens disguised as cute little children that dress like Ice Climbers. True, in reality they're space frogs, but this reeks of a cheap shock tactic that makes the show seem like it's trying too hard to come off as EDGEE AND MACHURE.

3. Furries look stupid when they talk. Whenever furry characters talked in season one, their mouth animation was typical anime lip-flapping, about as consistent with the amount of syllables spoken in the voiceover as you'd expect from the medium. Here, it's less than half that. I don't know why this change was made, or if I'm supposed to buy that the furries are communicating with growls through some kind of universal translator, but it's hard to take Birdy's old mentor dinosaur guy seriously during a pivotal crisis when his lip-synch looks worse than a shitty carnival fortune-telling machine animatronic.

4. Tsutomu just doesn't have much to do. I touched on this above, but I can't stress enough how much of a detriment this is. Most of the time, Birdy is a lot more angsty than usual and shuts Tsutomu out of the equation. Their interplay was my favorite aspect of the first season, so to see it swept under the rug here makes it hard for me to get excited about Birdy's pining for her murderer boyfriend. Also, there are huge stretches of screentime where Tsutomu says nothing. In a couple of long sequences when Birdy is hanging out with Nataru or trying to end his murder spree, I found myself wondering, "What is Tsutomu doing? Is he fucking asleep?" The arc where he dives into Birdy's memories was a nice touch, but even after its resolution, he kind of fades into the background again, and his civilian life segements are relegated to helping his stupid friends with their presentation.

After such a strong first season, Decode: 02 is a disappointment. I give them credit for focusing more on Birdy, but the character drama just isn't as interesting and the main plot isn't as exciting, even without my bullet point complaints. I'm all for Birdy having a love interest, but nothing gets resolved with Nataru's plot thread and it comes at the expense of Birdy and Tsutomu's interaction, which is the element that I really cared about. And I didn't even mention the useless OVA stuck on the DVD that bridges the two seasons, where we see everyone being a dick to Nakasugi in her new town, then watch Birdy fight a marionette for some reason and sing at a concert.

Whether there are plans to continue the series, or adapt any ongoing stories from the reboot of the manga, I hope they can improve over the wheel-spinning of season 2. Still, after having watched the 90's Birdy OVA, I think Decode is a pretty good update, and hopefully the franchise's future installments can live up to the bar set by season one.

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