And now... a word from our sponsors
One of the (many) quirks of the anime industry is the way they handle theatrical upgrades of popular franchises. While series do frequently received brand new big screen sequels, an equally common trend is condensing a full seasons into a feature length recap. The central narrative of the recent twenty-six episode Persona 4: The Animation, for example, was crushed into 90 minutes for theatrical consumption. The aim is to attract a few new fans who may go onto purchase overpriced Blu-Rays, or simply to grab a few extra yen from existing fans. Tiger & Bunny: The Beginning doesn't indulge in quite the most radical of shortenings, but it does rehash the opening episodes of its year-old televisual predecessor. For newbies (guilty as charged) it's a gentle introduction to the world and characters. For fans, the creators have been decent enough to draw some new stuff to ensure it's slightly more than HD deja-vu.
Like approximately 45% of all recent films (a conservative estimate), Tiger & Bunny is a superhero movie. Set in a futuristic city called Sternbild, a small percentage of the population - the 'NEXT' - have evolved and gained superpowers. The best of 'em appear in a televised reality show, where they compete against each other to earn the most hero points and be crowned the uber super aka 'King of Heroes'. Tiger is a kind-hearted, well-intentioned hero approaching middle-age, and apparently past his prime. The status quo is rocked by the arrival of arrogant upstart Barnaby (Bunny) and, through a series of corporate-mandated events, Tiger is forced to team-up with Bunny to become the city's first super odd couple.
Things don't get off to a promising start with a strange opening credit sequence. One of the gimmicks of the franchise is that all the heroes are sponsored by mostly real-life mega-corporations, from Pepsi to Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank. It's not the most original conceit, with advertisement-heavy costumes having appeared on everyone from Mystery to Iron Men. Here, the line between satire and non-ironic product placement is constantly blurred, particularly during the aforementioned credits that pornographically frames the companies' logos to the point where you don't know where the joke ends and the shameless advertising begins. More embarrassing is the inclusion of a shockingly exaggerated homosexual character called Fire Emblem. Japanese filmmakers are rarely noted for their sensitive handling of gay characters - with some exceptions such as Kakera: A Piece of Our Life - but the flamboyant, cross-dressing, bum-pinching stereotype on display here (who has a superpower called Bourgeois Open Flame Broil) is disappointingly regressive. There's typical fan service too, with its scantily-clad female characters, but that's almost a given with Japanese animation.
Other characters, thankfully, are more successfully realised. A comic highlight of the heroes is Origami Cyclone, whose powers of stealth are mostly spent amusingly sneaking into the background of the television coverage. Funnier still is Doc Saito, a wonderfully playful take on the 'tech officer' archetype familiar from countless spy and superhero films. Speaking in nothing more than a hushed whisper - and I mean extremely hushed - his two or three scenes are the absurd, surreal highlights of the film.
Elsewhere, director Keiichi Sato ensures everything chugs along amiably. The interactions between the heroes is mostly enjoyable, both in the action and dialogue scenes. There's no central antagonist to this section of the story, but the three or four major action sequences are lively and engaging. The 'new content' comes in the form of an extended chase against a teleporting, roller-skating menace. It's decent enough, although a tad overstretched and clearly filler material rather than content that meaningfully progresses or enhances the underlying narrative. Still, it's a decent way for the characters to relearn some lessons and reach the satisfying conclusion: while this is clearly the first part of a grander tale, it forms a coherent, self-contained whole too. Anyone won over by the film and intrigued enough to spend more time in Sternbild can seek out the series or wait for next year's second feature.
Tiger & Bunny: The Beginning is guilty of a few serious missteps, and is unlikely to face accusations of originality or insight. But taken on its own relatively limited terms, it's generally entertaining and satisfyingly funny. I'm curious enough about some of the story hints established in the film to seek out the anime or sequel at some point in either the near or more distant future. The superhero comedy is an over-populated genre as of late, and while this is hardly the best the sub-genre has to offer, it's a pleasant enough ninety minutes in spite of its gay panic jokes and barely justified product placement.