Around the world random terrorist attacks are being committed by so-called "Algernon": seemingly normal people suffering sudden psychotic breaks that endow them with uncanny technical skills. One such attack occurs at a Japanese theme park where bespectacled high school geek Keita Aono (voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi) is unexpectedly rescued by a giant Neuronoid mech suit piloted by his long-lost childhood friend and hopeless crush Hinoki Sai (Kyoki Hikami). Keita discovers he like sexy Hinoki is one of the rare "Dual Kind" able to interface with the prototype Neuronoids and eventually joins her working for secret monster-fighting organization Akamatsu Industries. In the midst of their efforts to unravel the mystery behind the Algernon the team are aided by the mysterious Betterman Lamia (Takehito Koyasu) who dresses like a rock star and sports the same rainbow hair as Hinoki. He also has the handy ability to transform himself into a towering mutant kaiju able to take on assorted monstrous threats, even as the Akamatsu team ponder what exactly he is after.
Sunrise is the go-to anime studio for kick ass sci-fi and specifically mecha action. From Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) to Cowboy Bebop (1998), they made all your favourites. In the Nineties Sunrise were in the midst of mega-wave of giant robot anime aimed largely, though not exclusively, at young boys known collectively as the 'Yusha' or Brave series. Of which the most celebrated entry remains GaoGaiGar (1997). Darker and horror-themed, Betterman had the misfortune to not only arrive in the wake of that exuberant and hugely popular anime but also the game-changing phenomenon that was Studio Gainax's Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). The show that rewrote the rules of what a giant robot anime could be. As such on initial release Betterman was indifferently received by critics (in their indispensable genre bible 'The Anime Encyclopaedia' co-writers Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements basically dismiss it as a slick spray paint of stale clichés) and today enjoys only the smallest of cult fandoms.
After a relatively strong opener the plot grows increasingly obtuse and impenetrable. Yoshitomo Yometani, a reliable mecha anime auteur who made GaoGaiGar and the charmingly off-the-wall Brigadoon (2000) along with a handful of Doraemon feature films, and his team of animators seem less interested in clarifying story points than nerdily detailing the high-tech hardware of their strange sci-fi world. Early episodes bombard the viewer with techno babble, arcane monster lore and assorted esoteric references. It does not help that the viewer is often left wondering just who among the cast is our chief protagonist? While Hinoki ultimately emerges the most engaging and fleshed out character, Keita lands the most screen-time but it is the frustratingly enigmatic title character and his surrounding mystery that drives the narrative. He also serves as a sort of kaiju ex machina, handily bailing our teen heroes out of their next monster-related jam. Nevertheless the anime arguably does a better job detailing the blossoming friendship between Keita and Hinoki than the mystery of Betterman. While Takahiro Kimura's angular chara designs remain an acquired taste the characters themselves are engaging. Keita is an interestingly atypical mecha anime hero who transitions from cowardly and inept to growing a backbone while Hinoki, with her spumoni-coloured hair and racy stripper's version of a schoolgirl uniform, should have become a more iconic anime girl than proved the case.
Switching cavalierly from goofy comedy to moments of near David Lynchian surrealism, Betterman transcends its narrative shortcomings with imagery that is nightmarish and jarringly psychosexual. The flopping girl corpse that pursues Keita in episode one is especially memorable. Later episodes throw in reanimated crash test dummies, a blowtorch wielding serial killer and killer security robots straight out of Chopping Mall (1986). It is amazing what they got away with in a show made ostensible for kids. The action sequences are imaginative and eye-catching. Early episodes showcase animation with a dynamic fluidity, but sadly the quality dwindles for the rest of its run.