Mikura Suzuki is a perky live wire with pink hair, a fondness for skintight body suits and a talent for beating up gangsters several times her size. Harada Tomohisa is a spiky-haired punk who makes and sells androids to absolutely anyone who has the money. Kenichi Kurokawa (aka. Pops, Baldy, etc.) is an ex-cop who employs Mikura and Harada in his Danger Service Agency, taking all kinds of dubious jobs. And they're the good guys.
Mezzo Forte was a two-part OVA from Yasuomi Umetsu, a director of considerable talent. It plays like the pilot for a TV series and indeed Yasuomi has said that he'd intended it as such. Unfortunately he made it for Green Bunny, a studio that makes porn titles like Sex Demon Queen and Teacher's Pet, and so the show's mainstream appeal was arguably dented a tad by the inclusion of explicit hardcore sex scenes. However these were never part of Yasuomi's vision for Mezzo Forte and these days the OVA exists in three forms: a "general release" cut, the adults-only version and an International Version that was released in Japan on 23 July 2004, with twenty minutes of extra footage but again no sex.
In due course Yasuomi did make a TV sequel to Mezzo Forte. It's called simply Mezzo and similarly it ends with some cheeky foreshadowing for an as-yet unproduced movie. Hey, I'd buy it. Yasuomi clearly likes these characters and I must admit that I do too.
In any other series our heroes might be the bad guys, but here they're practically teddy bears. It's a lowlife world of gangsters, prostitution and beating people to death with baseball bats more or less because you feel like it. We see lots of blood and gruesomely imaginative ways of shedding it. Gunshots blow holes in their victims. A brief torture scene with a knife and a fingernail had me squirming. This show pulls no punches in its portrayal of psychotic villains who desperately need killing. You're watching for them as much as for the heroes. They're truly vile... which is great! There's a ferocity on display which might have made the show uncomfortable if it wasn't also extremely funny.
This is the best Tarantino clone I've ever seen, which surprisingly isn't damning with faint praise. For once it's not just aping the surface stuff (criminal violence), but it also nails the unstoppable energy and jet-black humour that characterises Tarantino's best work. It even dabbles in his non-linear storytelling, although a clearer example of that is two back-to-back episodes in the TV series which recount the same day's events from different points of view. Hell, at times I'd say it surpasses Tarantino. Anime can do things beyond the abilities of actors in front of a camera, so some of these action scenes have a flamboyant theatricality all their very own.
In that context, I even don't mind the contractually-obligated porn scenes (one per episode). Quentin Tarantino loves going too far. He loves sleazy exploitation films and cutting off a policeman's ear. It's not as if Yasuomi's splicing porn into The Wizard of Oz, folks. This is a show whose heroes sell naked robot women to pimps. Admittedly the OVA's sex scenes tap into the creepy misogynism to be found in Japanese hardcore porn, especially the rape in the second one, but both also have a twist which keeps them from wrecking the show. Episode one's sex scene is so "out of nowhere" that it's practically a comedy skit. It just charges in out of left field, suddenly goes for the hardcore, takes a turn for the seriously fucked up and then proves to be a dream sequence.
That aside, Mezzo Forte does amazing things with the restrictive format of a two-episode OVA. The plot is ingenious, while the DSA are interesting and distinctive in how they go about their business. They're fun characters. It won't change the world, but it's impressive work.
That's the OVA series. The TV series picks up the baton and runs with it. Of course its problem is the same one faced by the Read or Die people... how do you follow up a dazzling action-based OVA on a TV series budget? There's only one answer. You don't. Mezzo's first and last episodes are relatively expensive, with smooth animation and intricate action scenes, but it doesn't take long for the intervening episodes to turn this franchise in a new direction. They're cheaper. It's still the same characters in the same world, but it's a little less action-oriented. Instead the DSA's cases become more thoughtful, with equal emphasis given to all the characters instead of concentrating on the explosive blunt instrument that is Mikura.
The world is still a major selling point for me, though. It feels visceral and real, with bullets that shoot bloody holes in people. It's not stylish and rarefied like Noir or Gunslinger Girl, but cheerfully brutal and down-to-earth... sometimes even sordid. Oddly however the show's also happy to give us ghosts, aliens and the curse of the mummy's tomb, not to mention a tech level of virtual reality, artificial intelligence and apparently human androids. At one point I was even wondering about Mikura. She has precognition and nearly superhuman combat abilities. She may not be Superman, but she could probably slow down Spider-Man. What is she? The TV series never took this anywhere, but maybe Yasuomi's holding it back for the movie.
This doesn't matter, though. This remains a scary world, with assassinations and an attempted gang rape but also violent black comedy. People accidentally get shot. It also helps that this is only a 13-episode series. 26 episodes would have given a stronger impression of script immunity for the regulars, which would have damaged the ambiance. Mezzo is brief. You know our heroes won't be around for long, so there's no reason why they couldn't die. With a hitman getting ever-closer to Kurokawa, it eventually becomes obvious that even if everyone lives, some things will change. Having said that though, a couple of significant fates are less clear after the final episode than you'd think at first... I think we're meant to assume that they're dead, but they could return. In at least one case that wouldn't surprise me at all.
There are things I'm not wild about. Mezzo introduces a shy schoolgirl called Asami, whose voice actress (Miyu Matsuki) plays it too one-note. Every line is exactly the same high-pitched whisper. She's not acting, but just speaking. Admittedly the character's meant to be an almost terminally shy wallflower, but that's no excuse.
I'm also not keen on the fanservice in the opening credits. That may sound weird given my tolerance of the hardcore sex, but it's true. Mezzo's opening credits made me more uncomfortable than Mezzo Forte's porn. There's also a VR episode, which I was ready to hate simply because it's VR, though in the end that turned out to be an odd one.
Those aren't crippling problems, though. This series has received ho-hum reviews and even its R1 licensees, ADV Films, don't seem to think very highly of it. They released it on three discs, whereas other 13-episode shows are often spread across four. It's a question of how much money the licencees think they can squeeze out of a show. Nevertheless I really liked Mezzo. Admittedly it's mostly random "adventures of the week" without much connecting story arc, but I admired its wholehearted savagery and realism. The main characters are always likeable too. They're not gritty and angst-ridden, but fun to watch. Mikura is a perky schoolgirl badass, while Kurokawa's dialogue is rich in untranslatable puns and wordplay. There are also some episodes I adore, such as the back-to-back two-parter or the one about Harada's ex-girlfriend.
This franchise surprised me. I bought it on a whim, amused by the idea of a TV series spun off from a porn title, but I ended up really enjoying it. Make sure you don't miss the original OVA, although you might want to be careful about which version you buy. Normally I hate edited releases, but Mezzo Forte was obviously designed so that the sex scenes could be deleted without affecting the story Yasuomi wanted to tell. Here's hoping he gets to make that movie!