One of the latest entries in the “mon” genre of animated shows has found a new home on the nascent Kabillion cable TV network. After viewing several Mix Master episodes on Video On Demand, I honestly wouldn’t say that the show is the last word in the genre. Nor can I say that it will make people forget Pokemon. But viewers might find a couple flashes of originality that may make it a fairly interesting watch—certainly more than its contemporary, Chaotic.
Mix Master‘s most original aspect comes in its treatment of a typical fantasy plot. You know, the one that has practically become a cliché these days: Young schoolgirl suddenly finds herself swept out of modern day Japan into a strange magical world where somehow she is the prophesied legendary messiah who’s expected to somehow put things right if she wants to return home. Think of Fushigi Yugi, Twelve Kingdoms, Legend of Himiko, Strange Dawn, Inuyasha, and Magic Knights Rayearth. (For that matter, think of The Wizard of Oz.) But Mix Master turns this cliché upside down. Mad scientist Dr. Jove is so obsessed with his beloved creation, the Mix Master game, that he believes its game world of Atreia really exists. And as the mad doctor is trying to prove this, the crown prince of Atreia, the dark elf Prince Brad, is simultaneously striving to conquer everybody everywhere and trying to open up his own dimensional door to Earth with his magic. The result is a big screw-up that mixes up the average little city of Gambridge Town with the game world of Atriea, resulting in “Mix Town,” a place where humans, elves and henches (those are the show’s “mons”—magical creatures that each have an unusual power) find themselves equally discomfited when they are suddenly living side-by-side.
Of course, a little mishap like this wouldn’t deter your would-be world-conquering master villain, so Prince Brad and his gang continue to seek to bring the henches under their evil influence, and particularly concentrate on the unknown “master hench” who will give him the ultimate power he craves. Dr. Jove is disappointed that his proof of Atriea’s existence amounts to nothing more than a plush toy cat that comes through his portal, but to oppose Prince Brad he joins that cat, Pacchi (who seems to be mysteriously more than first meets the eye), and the pixie Poy in recruiting a gang of kids who love the monster-mixing game and have become skilled at using their playing cards. Longtime viewers of anime and U.S. SatAM will recognize all the familiar archetypes: the glamorous tomboy with a hair-trigger temper, the bespectacled nerdy genius, and the dark surly antihero who prefers to work alone and deal with henches in his own way. And of course, the born leader and straight-arrow hero.
This is another place Mix Master parts company with the “mon” and card-playing type shows—and with most cartoons aimed at boys, for that matter. The star of the show is a boy named Ditt, which in the English version usually comes out as a very fitting “Ditz.” He’s best described as the male answer to Tsukino Usagi or the irresponsible Justin Ueki Tylor of the schoolyard set. Oh, Ditt can certainly throw down with the best of them, as the dark elves quickly learn, but he much prefers playing soccer and video games, sleeping in class, and scarfing down an endless supply of junk food (particularly donuts). Generally, Pacchi and Cheeks have to drag him to a battle scene. Otherwise, the black-belt glamour queen Penril will threaten him with personal destruction, or Dr. Jove will try the old Star of the Giants stratagem of recruiting Jin as an arch-rival to spur our hero on to greater effort. (The last one will backfire, though, when Ditt proves all too willing to hand over his responsibilities to that rival.)
So even though Dr. Jove and Poy are convinced that Ditt is the prophesied “Mix Master,” the wise and strong legendary knight who will join with the master hench to save the henches, the other characters understandably have massive doubts. Poy argues that the prophecy says that the Mix Master will be a humble slacker, but Pacchi is more skeptical—he may be a slacker, but he can’t be “a total lazy slob!” Others also wonder, as they watch the klutzy Ditt falling into gym blocks, failing to block a soccer kick, or getting a chalk shot to the forehead for sleeping in class. When Ditt brags about the respect he holds at school as the famous Mix Master, he’s immediately undercut by playground chit chat to the effect that “some henches don’t have brains and they’re still smarter than Ditt!” But none of the other would-be mix masters seem to have any better prospects as the Mix Master. Cheek has more than enough brain, but he seems to struggle at times with coming up with the needed gumption and heart connection with henches. Penril certainly has the fire to battle, but also has a tendency to be starstruck and react in sheer terror to ghosts. And while Jin has no peer in his ability to mix henches in battle, he also makes it clear that he simply does not like henches and only wants to keep them in line.
On the other hand, Prince Brad doesn’t seem to have it much better: He moans that when picking an underling to send into battle he has to choose between “Stupid, Ugly and Clueless.” In Pokemon, Team Rocket lost all stature intimidating villains after they lost to a caterpie in their second appearance. Similarly, it is hard to take the bad guys seriously after the dark elf-minotaur Mino is whipped by a middle-school girl with black-belt skills. Prince Brad himself also does the occasional pratfall: He surprises Gemine in her magic mirror in one episode, only to trip and nearly fall on his face when he walks out of it. Sometimes it seems to be a competition in which the prize goes to the least incompetent side. When the dark elf teen rocker Tinos disguises himself as Poy, he fools nobody and gets trapped with a heavy load of housework besides. But he does manage to steal Ditt’s henches when the lazy kid tries to bamboozle him into doing his homework as well.
Dr. Jove may be the top second banana (his inventions are always exploding), but he’s far from the only one. Ditt’s costumed father goes about town with a group of henches as a walking advertisement, and our heroes suffer under a fanatical gym teacher at the high school and a ditsy TV reporter who breathlessly updates the situation with the henches on her “Wow Wow” show. Jin seems to have a real problem in his relationship with his father, the mayor of the town. (But then, apparently so does everybody else—he gets pelted by trash every time he tries to make a speech.) The episode where “Wow Wow” interviews Ditt and Jin as the town’s great mix masters collapses into comic chaos as the rest of the gang and families try to force their way onto TV as well. And when one episode concludes with the cast demanding that the story immediately end because matters have gotten ridiculously out of hand, you know you’re watching a show that isn’t intended to be taken too seriously.
I’ve seen fewer than a dozen of the series’ thirty-nine episodes, but the storyline does seem to have an arc. There’s one recurring subplot about how humans and henches relate to each other, as our heroes actually start a sports day at school to bring the two sets of people together, and in another episode they worry whether the henches are uncritically absorbing too much bad human culture. Eventually, Cheeks and even Jin has to admit that Ditt, who cares about henches and is able to meet them where they are, may well be the Mix Master.
Ironically, I would say, the show’s most serious weakness lies in its treatment of the henches themselves. Once a hench decides to take on a mix master, it is reduced to card form and never returns unless the mix master uses the card to summon it for battle. In opting for that setup, I believe Mix Master is repeating the mistake of Pokemon, where the “mon” stars have trouble really making their presence felt on the show or engaging in real character interaction because they are locked up in their balls all the time. It is hardly a coincidence that the pokemon who have made the most impression on the show are Pikachu and Meowth, neither of whom will go into pokeballs, or that the mon characters in Digimon, Monster Rancher and Zatch Bell are more vivid precisely because they are constantly interacting with humans and each other. More than that, Mix Master doesn’t seem to have the same punch in its battles as say, Yu-Gi-Oh. While it does show some neat 3-D designs when the mix masters gear up for battle, I imagine that’s not saying anything that couldn’t be said for other shows as well.
As I said before, I don’t see Mix Master as a truly earth-shaking series in the “mon” genre. But it can be a fun little half-hour diversion. If you take it in that spirit, I fancy Ditt would even approve.