Well, at least I warned that this review would be late. For those who haven't seen my twitter, I had double club meetings Tuesday and the mandatory second part ran much longer than I was expecting so believe me, I would have rather been writing this review.
In any case, I first heard about this series at an end of the year wrap-up some of the staffers on ANN wrote and one of them mentioned a series of OVAs he wanted to see brought over which were an interesting mix of fantasy and mecha which they hadn't seen before (to which the forums responded, "um, Escaflowne?"). Initially I just read the manga online (which I didn't even realize had been licensed by CMX at one point) and didn't have the urge to try out the OVAs but eventually I did and watched them at my own pace (hence why this review is so much later than everyone else who has also covered this series). The structure is a bit odd, it's six OVAs (which covers roughly 50 chapters of the manga, almost everything that has been currently published) which were released in theaters first and then put on DVD/BR which I've seen a few other series do lately (Towa no Quon and I think Gundam Unicorn might be doing something similar). I've seen people speculate that we might start seeing fewer tv shows and more OVAs since that's easier on people's budgets and I wouldn't mind that change as much if they had more OVA series like this.
Summary: Set far into the future when Japan is mostly desert and people have gained the magical ability to levitate quartz, a skill they use in almost every aspect of their lives, Rygart is unusual because he can't and lives with his similarly un-gifted brother as outcasts. He is an old friend of the king and his wife however and comes to the capital when they summon him to look at a strange and ancient golem (mech) which might become the key in the war that was just declared against their country.
The Good: Sometimes it bothers me when a series involves a lot of fighting and there either is no collateral damage at all or it never bothers the main characters at all. Break Blade averts this hard with several side and important characters dying and from the start the series seems to show, without beating the viewer over the head with it, that war is not a cool thing. It's hardly a realistic depiction of war but that added bit of realism that many anime lack is a nice thing. Speaking of added realism, finally a mecha story where the characters are actually in their 20s! Several of the characters are even in relationships, happy and non-happy ones, which again is so odd to see in this genre that it's refreshing. Also refreshing is seeing several female characters in both militaries who aren't just the token female character but competent soldiers. Again, this shouldn't be something unusual but it is and it's details like that that help me enjoy a series more.
The Bad: Since the story compresses 50 chapters of the manga into the equivalent of 12 or 13 episodes it's understandable that some stuff had to get cut, especially towards the end, but unfortunately it was all stuff I liked. Several character deaths were altered (and felt much less powerful), one arc involving Rygart's brother was cut which resulted in a bit of an odd ending and in the end the mood was just different from the manga. Both of them start in the same place but the manga has been steadily getting more and more subdued and depressing, many of the characters have been at least a bit broken by this point, but the story here doesn't change from the slightly happier feeling the story started with. In a sense, the characters just don't grow as much here than they did in the manga and having people grow and change is a major point of any story.
The Audio: These OVAs are a bit strange since they have an actual opening sequence that is played every time like a tv series does and it was that opening song that convinced me to try out the OVAs. It's a beautiful song and while it might seem odd to have a ballad as the opening to a mecha series the lyrics really work, singing about fate and destiny which is a theme the series has touched on a few times. I didn't find any of the other music in the series quite as nice but since that song (Fate by KOKIA) is one of my favorites of the year that's understandable.
The Visuals: Break Blade is an interesting collaboration between Production IG (who is one of the bigger anime companies right now with a lot of well produced and good looking shows, Bunny Drop, Eden of the East and the Blood franchise ) and Xebec, a lower tier studio that has done some okay work and some bad work (some of their better titles are Pandora Hearts, Legend of the Legendary Heroes and The Third: The Girl With The Blue Eye). The result of this collaboration is that the work looks much better than a regular Xebec production and rather like a regular Production IG work. All of the fight scenes are very well animated throughout the series and everything else looks consistently good. One small advantage this series has over the manga is that, with everything in color, it's a lot easier to keep the armies/soldiers separate, something I had trouble with in the manga. The mechs and uniforms for both sides are drawn rather distinctly but the cast was simply so large that I couldn't automatically remember who was on which side and giving both sides very different colors really helped in that regard.
In the end, it's hardly a bad OVA series, it certainly looks gorgeous, but by the end it had diverged too much from the manga that I just don't see myself buying this in the future. The manga I would buy except again, it's OOP and I am going to collect all that was released in the US at some point, I don't suppose some other English speaking licensor is putting it out?
And again, apologies that this is up so late, as you guys can tell I'm still getting used to my new schedule and it's just different enough each week to make the transition a bit more difficult. Maybe I'll get the hang of this before I take a break in November, I certainly hope so!