Ground-Breaking Above Average Fantasy Effort From Yoshiyuki Tomino
In 1983, after wrapping up "Xabungle," a Western With !GIANT ROBOTS! Yoshiyuki Tomino decided to make a Fantasy Epic ...with !GIANT ROBOTS! Well, he didn't exactly decide. The story goes that Tomino wanted to do a robot-less fantasy show based on some novels he had written but Sunrise pressured him into adding mecha for marketing purposes. So he did, and wow are they different - courtesy of Macross mecha designer Kazutaka Miyatake.
The Story: Japanese motocross racer Sho Zama disappears one night and falls (along with his motorcycle) into the parallel world of Byston Well, where he is recruited (more like drafted) to fight for local warlord Drake Luft. Seems that Sho possesses great "Aura Power" which enables him to fight in a giant insectoid robot called an Aura Battler. There is opposition to Luft's imperialist ambitions, however and Sho is recruited to the rebel side after an encounter with Marvel Frozen, another Aura Battler pilot from "Upper Earth." Now they must fight Drake Luft and his ever growing power - not only to keep Byston Well free, but potentially Upper Earth as well.
Kudos to Tomino for making this one different. This is the first medieval fantasy giant robot show, predating "Escaflowne" by more than a decade. The overall plot is not that original (Person from Our World falls into Fantasy World and must fight Evil Overlord) but it is epic, if a little repetitious. This is my main beef with the show, actually, especially near the end. An example of how repetitious "Dunbine" can be: there is a princess character (every fantasy show's gotta have one) named Elmelie who is constantly rescued only to be captured by the villains again. After about the 7th time I started to keep score of the game of "Elmelie Ball" being played on my screen - seriously, the girl changes hands more times than the Ark of the Covenant from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The characters are a mixed bag. My favorite is Cham Huau, Sho's fairy companion and mascot for the show (she's in all of the commercial bumpers). Bold, spirited (sometimes *too* much so), loving and loyal but sometimes inconsiderate and selfish, and last but not least so gosh-darn *cute* Cham is the most lovable and well-rounded character on the show. Her creator obviously loved her; Tomino basically copied her for his character of Lilith in his next TV series, the sci-fi epic "Heavy Metal L-Gaim." Other characters range from good, like the brave and noble Queen Celia Lapana to average (Sho and Marvel are only so-so as far as leads go) to dull and not all that likable. An example of the latter is rebel leader Neal Given, who comes off as a drip and a jerk most of the time. Also, some characters display the typical Tomino Stupid Character Syndrome (TSCS) and do something completely stupid and (usually) whiny right out of the blue - Keen Kiss I'm looking at you! On the Bad Guy side of things, the villains are never portrayed as being 100% Pure Unadulterated Nazi Evil, but aren't really fleshed out that much either, at least compared to Tomino's other shows - there is no Char Aznable here. The art and animation are standard for 1983, and while that may scare off those used to modern anime it was alright for me. The requisite giant robot battles are adequate - exciting and well done most of the time but not on par with Tomino's best (Zeta Gundam, Char's Counterattack). The music in this show is phenomenal though - the background score is appropriately epic and the opening and ending songs by MIO are awesome.
"Dunbine" was released on Region 1 DVD a few years ago but is now-out-of-print. Good luck hunting it down: some sellers want hundreds of dollars for *the last few volumes alone*. The ADV discs include a sub-par English dub (Sho sounds like he is about 20 years older than he is, and Neal is done by Vic Mignogna trying to do - a... Scottish... accent?). I would stick to the Japanese.
Conclusion: I recommend this show to anyone who is a fan of Yoshiyuki Tomino or giant robots in a fantasy setting - fans of Escaflowne can see where the genre got its start. I can't unconditionally qualify it as a classic though; flaws with both plotting and characterization make this in the end a merely above-average effort.