Early Reins (2003)
[Anime Works]
Author: Nicholas Driscoll
May 19, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

I remember digging through piles of used DVDs for sale at movie rental shops. Though such rental stores are today largely displaced by Red Box and streaming services, rental stores used to be a place of considerable hidden treasure. During a time in which my intake of entertainment was at a much higher level compared to today, I took immense pleasure in feverishly scouring shelves and shelves of accumulated crap, and occasionally coming up with a disc or two which inspired me—or maybe just looked obscure and weird and I wanted to review it for Toho Kingdom. It was just through such a process that I came to own Portrait of Hell (1969), and the same sort of crapshoot landed me a copy of Early Reins—which I would never have watched except that it was by Toho, and I thought it would be a lark to review.

Nostalgia for those times beckons me back with a siren call, soothing me with a song about how fun it is to purchase a fortuitously found flick and stick it in the player and pray. Early Reins is a reminder that nostalgia lies. The outcome is usually mediocrity or worse, and Early Reins fulfills that dubious promise. Early Reins is a story of a passé posse, and is largely forgotten because it is the very embodiment of the forgettable, from its tired story, to its dried-up characters, to its bland-blasted soundtrack

But then, it didn't help that I watched the rather dumb dub version.

The story is a familiar one for a Wild West romp, albeit with more estrogen. Margaret is an honorable, brave girl with a dream to become head law-lady for a dusty town someplace off-screen. She, as well as a collection of “colorful” ladies of varying dispositions, are on their way on a chuffing coal-fired train—rendered in somewhat discordant CGI, which was apparently a big deal back in 2003 as the train is lovingly filmed over and over again. Along with the girls, a legendary war hero and his troop of army-types are aboard, guarding a shipment of guns. Before the train can get very far, though, the Heaven's Hill Gang attacks and soon has the war-hero and the soldiers incapacitated. It's up to Margaret and a mysterious one-eyed, red-headed battle babe to save the day, with a little help from the other ladies aboard... but can Margaret actually win against such horrible odds, especially when she has never killed a man before?

Given that Early Reins only lasts a bit over forty minutes, it’s not surprising that the above story is thinner than a city slicker after a week lost in the desert... but there is very little of substance, very little originality in the whole thing, either. While Margaret is ostensibly the main character, we get next to no back story on her, and there are so many girls romping about that nobody gets much development. The bandits, too, are uniformly character-drained cannon-fodder, popping up with a growl just to get popped in the chest, their gouts of blood offering a bit of gory fireworks to the action set pieces. The action can be rather exciting at times, but with no interesting villain and such a flimsy story, much of the oomph is lost. There are some minor twists to the plot, including one I will admit I didn’t see coming—but given the cardboard cowboy characters, I couldn’t give a cow patty.

Not that the dwonky dub does the dudes and dudettes and their thudding repartee any favors. Stephanie Sheh of Bleach and K-On fame performs as Margaret, and manages a bit of energy in the part, but her lines are the dullest of duds, the sort of dialogue that seems to just be tossed salad of lines that should have been just tossed. Worse, everyone speaks in gratingly fake southern accents, which render some scenes close to parody.

Mostly, the film comes across as striving for mediocrity. The art is uneven throughout, with some horses appearing malformed, and even human faces occasionally coming across as lopsided and lazy. The music, too, is a hash of corny clunkers—the kind of snooze tunes one would expect to find in a royalty-free CD collection. Shinya Morimoto composed the soundtrack, and the songs are mostly de-composed Western-flick licks with no kick, all born of MIDI in middling quality. It’s not that they are necessarily terrible, but that they lack snap and crack and rawhide thunder necessary to really energize the film.

Frankly, Early Reins is a bit of a baffler for me. The one-off OAV is not based on any established manga, and the Wild West theme doesn’t seem to be playing off of anything popular at the time of release. The novelty of cowgirl kickbutt, too, is underdeveloped, even if some of the action is effective. For big fans of the genre I can see some appeal, but the film doesn’t so much blaze as blasé a trail through drowsy writing, art, music, and more. Basically, Early Reins doesn’t so much reign as rain on your gunslinger-loving, cow-coaxing parade.