Courtesy of a screening at Scotland Loves Anime, followed by a fistful of further screenings around the UK, we've already had an opportunity to gush about this opening gambit in a three-film adaptation of Tow Ubukata's fantastic Mardock Scramble novels - and gush we did. With that in mind, I make no apologies for heaping further praise onto The First Compression as it lands in the UK on physical form, with Kaze UK providing the goods via Manga Entertainment on both DVD and Blu-Ray.
The First Compression wastes no time in introducing us to the world of Mardock city - a shining, bright future dystopia which welcomes the growth in riches of the wealthy whilst happily trampling upon the despairing hands of the poor and needy. There is, however, at least some legal assistance available to the victims of Mardock's more abhorrent crimes - a programme called "Scramble 09", which allows for the use of normally forbidden technologies to save the lives of those who would otherwise die at the hands at their assailants.
It's into this situation that our protagonist within Mardock Scramble, Rune Balot, is thrust. After a lifetime of destitution, abuse and prostitution, it seems as if Rune has been saved by a wealthy man named Shell who takes an interest in her - little does she know that she's simply the latest in a string of gruesome victims to satisfy Shell's whims, accelerate his business dealings and help him cope with the trauma caused by the use of now-banned technology upon his brain.
Of course, by the time Balot realises the danger she's in its too late, and as Shell and his henchman Boiled leave her to die it's up to a rather unlikely pair of detectives to save her from her fate, rescuing her badly damaged power and imbuing it with new powers. Upon awakening, Balot has an impressive new ability - the potential to manipulate electronics and electricity with a simple thought. It's a powerful tool, and one which Balot will need to learn to use to her fullest as Shell instructs Boiled to finish the job as a criminal case opens up against him.
So begins the opening chapter of this movie trilogy which nary puts a foot wrong during its 70 minute, Director's Cut running time - from its early introductions and flashbacks to Balot's childhood through to its major action set piece which closes the movie, hardly a second of the film's running time is wasted; every scene is charged with some kind of emotion, importance or just plain jaw-dropping brilliance. There's a feeling which oozes from The First Compression that brings to mind anime movies of yesteryear - I daren't compare it to Ghost in the Shell (as that wouldn't be fair on any film) but its insistence upon tackling its subject matter head-on without hesitation, sex, brutal violence and all, creates an edgy vibe to its aesthetic that (assuming you aren't allergic to such things) "just works". All of the more graphic content on show is here for a reason, or at least meshes tightly into the film's plot, ensuring that none of that content feels exploitative or unnecessary.
During my review of the film's theatrical screening in the UK, one aspect which particularly stuck out for me was Megumi Hayashibara's acting turn as Rune Balot - perhaps the most powerful and impressive piece of voice acting I've seen, and a definite stand-out facet of a film already gifted with a great score and good performance all-round. Compared to this, it's perhaps understandable that the film's English dub doesn't quite manage to live up to those lofty heights, but it tries hard to do so and is nonetheless a job well done, so watching the film in English shouldn't dampen your viewing experience at all as the entire voice cast put in a good shift.
Visually, our Blu-Ray review copy of the movie looks great to boot - video quality is decidedly grainy as per the film's Japanese release, but in this case it arguable adds to rather than detracts from the viewing experience to back-up our aforementioned impression of the movie's edgy, old-school vibe. With both the theatrical and director's cut releases on the disc, you also have a couple of options regarding which version of the film to watch - unfortunately, the director's cut release is subtitle-only for English speakers, although in our opinion you'd still be crazy not to make the most of that extended version unless you're strictly intent on watching anime without subtitles. Main feature aside, extras are a little sparse for English speakers, especially when the French menu offers up a French-subtitled interview with Mardock Scramble's creator, Tow Ubukata.
In a nutshell then, Mardock Scramble: The First Compression is purely and simply a brilliant movie, and one of 2012's must-buy anime releases without a doubt. If you're churlish about bloody violence and sexual content then it might not be for you, but the film otherwise offers something for everyone - bursts of slick action, great characters, a considered and fruitful sprinkling of humour, and an emotional journey which underpins the entire endeavour and is compelling in its own right. It's exactly the kind of film which drew many of us into anime in the first place - we'd call it a breath of fresh air, but come the end of this first instalment you'll likely be left breathless instead.
There's only a single down side to watching a movie this good - the long, frustrating wait for the second film so that The First Compression's oh-so cruel cliff-hanger can be resolved. If you're anything like us, you'll be counting the minutes until film number two, The Second Combustion, is released.
Theatrical edition: Japanese and English audio, French, English, Italian and Dutch subtitles.
Director's cut edition: Japanese and French audio, English, Italian and Dutch subtitles.
Extras on the disc consist of TV spots, a trailer and promotional videos. The French disc menu also contains an interview with Tow Ubukata, which is French subtitled only.
A gripping story led by a terrific protagonist, this first instalment in The Mardock Scramble trilogy is an utter, unabashed triumph at everything which it sets out to do.