Monday, 19 March 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 33

It's about time for a themed post!  I mean, a theme beyond "dodgy, old-school anime, with occasionally a bit of really good old-school anime."  So this time around, in a blog series titled "Drowning in nineties anime," I'm going to be focusing on - er - eighties anime.

Look, no-one ever said that themes have to make sense.

So here, for your eighties-tastic delectation, we have: The HumanoidOdin: Photon Space Sailer StarlightHarmagedon and They Were Eleven....

The Humanoid, 1986, dir: Shin'ichi Masaki

My original intention with these posts was to only review releases that were relatively available in the UK, since that seemed a sensible way to limit the scope of what could easily turn into a rabbit hole with no bottom.  Needless to say, here on review number a hundred and twenty eight, it's a decision I've failed spectacularly to stick to.  So I'm pleased to announce that The Humanoid can be bought very cheaply indeed.  There even seem to be brand new copies kicking about for next to nothing.

Here ends the good news.  Because there's a reason everyone is trying urgently to ditch their stock of this thing, and that reason is that it sucks.  And, look, I don't say that lightly; it's not like I've set a precedent for high standards here.  So when I say that The Humanoid is dreadful in that specific way where you can't figure out why anyone involved would have thought for an instant that it was worth creating, and judging by the available evidence none of them did, you know I mean it.  No sneaky flairs of animation genius here, no flashes of directorial imagination, no redemptively brilliant theme tune, oh no.  This is the work of people doing their absolute best to provide the minimum of artistry possible while still keeping their jobs.

Then again, I suppose it would be more tragic if anyone had lavished their best efforts on The Humanoid.  And while I sort of feel like I should explain the plot here, I really don't know that I can; or maybe the problem is simply that if I were to try and wrap up all the narrative threads and characters into a cohesive paragraph, I'd give the impression of something a lot more sophisticated than the forty-five minutes of drudgery on offer.  Basically: there are some humans cohabiting with some aliens who look like humans, and one of the aliens is trying to start up a crashed spaceship, for reasons that don't entirely make sense, and since doing so will likely blow up the planet and kill everyone (see what I mean?) the humans are forced to intervene, with the aid of android Antoinette, who's learned some lessons about nature and love along the line and so is willing to put herself in grave danger on the behalf of these squishy meat-sacks.

Even in 1986, I refuse to believe that a single ingredient there was fresh, and the fact that Antoinette's design is evidently ripped off silent masterpiece Metropolis is good evidence on that count.  Honestly, I can't imagine a version of The Humanoid that would be particularly good; even the most lavish animation couldn't make its ginned-up crisis or its tale of yet another robot discovering the virtues of human emotion into something wildly inspired.  For that matter, I suppose it's just about possible to conceive of a worse version than the one we got: one where the last five minutes weren't sort of okay, relatively speaking, or that didn't have the sense to stop while it was behind.  And the fact that one of the main characters has no character traits other than a truly devoted obsession with coffee is worth a smile, I guess.  But if we're honest, not so much so that I don't want the forty-five minutes of my life that I spent watching this sloppily made, derivative crap back.

Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, 1985, dir: Takeshi Shirato, Toshio Masuda

From the opening scene of Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, I was convinced that I'd be on its wavelength: when an animated movie clocking in at well over two hours feels that the best way to introduce itself is with a lengthy prologue summarising the history of nautical exploration, you can at least suppose that ambition isn't lacking.  And here's a thing about nautical exploration: it takes place on the sea, and there's no environment in animation more difficult or costly to depict well.  Odin's hugely unnecessary prologue does very well indeed.  Not only is it showing off, it's showing off with some of the finest craftsmanship the medium had to offer in the far-gone year of 1985.

To put that (and indeed this whole post) in perspective: in 1985, Disney would put out the decidedly pre-Renaissance The Black Cauldron, and Studio Ghibli, who'd be founded that very February, were still a year off releasing Laputa, the film that would not so much set the bar for subsequent Japanese animation as kick it into the stratosphere.  Which is to say that, if Odin wasn't quite cutting edge for its time, it was damn near, if only because the edge wasn't half so sharp as it would soon become.  At any rate, though the character designs have dated, and certain motions, particularly those of people, are frequently stiff, its for the most part an impressive piece of work, with many a scene that genuinely dazzles.  Rare is the shot that looks like it was picked because it would be the cheapest solution; indeed, more frequent are those that are vastly more complex than they need to be.

Which is all to say that production values aren't at issue here.  The soundtrack is a thing of wondrousness too, at least if your tastes extend to baffling Japanese soft metal and prog rock; and really, if they don't then what's wrong with you?  Odin feels in every way like the work of people with resources, talent, and enthusiasm to spare.  How else would you explain that insane running time?  You don't make an anime film that's two hours and twenty minutes long if you're hedging your bets.  And you certainly don't let scenes run on with such giddy abandon, even when all that's happening is, for example, the crew of your implausible space galleon prepping for their first test flight.  There aren't many true cinematic epics in anime, not when every second of film is so damn expensive, but this is one of them.

Therefore it's all the more baffling that Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight is built on such flimsy foundations.  The story is trivial and rambling, the characters are ridiculous and inconsistent, and scene-to-scene continuity and internal logic are negligible; until way past the halfway point, it's difficult to even guess at where the movie imagines it's going.  Moreover, it gets less interesting the more the narrative comes into focus: early scenes that are effectively just flashy world-building have more pull than later massive battles, because the stakes aren't there.  Oh, and it doesn't end, because the creators were so confident of success that they planned to spread their derivative tale over two sequels that would never materialise.

There's probably a lesson to be had there.

Odin is basically the Star Trek: The Motion Picture of pre-twentieth century anime, with all that entails.  Wildly overlong, too invested in a story that isn't really that interesting, and slow as all hell, it's nevertheless undeniably fantastic in its finest moments, some of which are also its slowest and least consequential.  With that in mind, I can only imagine what the savagely cut version that was initially released in the US must have been like; I watched enough to know that the nautical opening was vanished in its entirety, and a version of Odin that focused on narrative rather than flashy, extravagant nonsense is truly a depressing notion.  In its full cut, it's a colossal mess, but a mess that's weirdly absorbing in the way that only ambitious misfires can be.  So if you plan to seek it out - and you should, I think - that's definitely the version to go for.

Harmagedon, 1983, dir: Rintaro

Harmagedon has a reputation for two things: firstly, for being a major landmark in the career of director Rintaro and a hugely significant chunk of anime history that would give Katsuhiro Otomo his first break in anime, and so lead directly to Akira and the revolutionising of how the medium was perceived both within and without Japan - and secondly, for being totally rubbish.

The first point is difficult to argue, especially given how many of Harmagedon's themes would reappear in Otomo's own masterwork in greatly more polished form.  And the simple fact that anyone would spend significant amounts of money on an anime film in excess of two hours aimed at at an adult audience was no small thing back in 1983; had the movie failed, we'd no doubt be looking today at a very different anime landscape.

As for the second: well, Harmagedon certainly isn't perfect, that's for sure.  Adapted from the first three volumes of a series of novels, it tells a snip of a story at exorbitant length.  An ancient evil that's destroyed endless galaxies is heading towards Earth, and a handful of psychics from across the globe must awaken their latent abilities to confront the threat with - um, the power of love, or something.  There are seven of them, I think, but it's hard to keep track because the film only really cares about a couple: Princess Luna of Transylvania (which the film, in all seriousness, seems to think is an independent country) and Japanese teen Azuma, who as we meet him is in the process of failing to make his school's baseball team and about to be dumped by his girlfriend for being overly fixated on his sister.  I kid you not.

They're both awful characters - Azuma more so than Luna, but it's harder to take her seriously, since she's the princess of a goddamn nonexistent country - and yet there's infinitely worse to come.  Around the midway point, for example, we'll meet the somewhat legendary Sonny Lynx, who's the only black character and therefore a roller-skating gangbanger dressed in a manner that I don't even have the words to describe, because presumably neither Otomo or Rintaro had ever met any actual black people in their entire lives.  But really, to pick on one ethnic cliché is to ignore how the film trades in nothing else.  There's the Native American character, the Indian character, the Chinese character, and they are uniformly the exact stereotypes you'd expect if you were asked to imagine the most deeply tacky of stereotypes.

All of this rather scuppers Harmagedon on the macro level, it's true, and these are far from the only storytelling problems.  Rintaro makes the baffling decision, for example, to open by presenting identical information to us in two different ways, even using some of the same footage.  I'm now confirmed in my opinion of him as a director, which is that he's capable of greatness on a scene-by-scene basis but largely hopeless at telling a movie-length story.  However, the flip side of that, and the thing that the detractors appear to ignore, is that individual sequences are flat-out excellent.  Rintaro may not be able to make his hackneyed tale of one-dimensional characters into anything much, but he surely does have visual imagination to spare.

It helps that the animation is mostly spectacular.  And here I really have to differ with some of the film's fervent critics; hate on Harmagedon all you like, but to deny that it looks fantastic is to be deliberately obtuse regarding the state of early eighties animation.  Is it dated?  Of course, it was made six years after bloody Star Wars!  Heck, even Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind wasn't a thing in 1983.  But by the standards of the early eighties, and indeed by the standards of the following couple of decades, the attention and level of detail here is exemplary.  Rintaro makes the point in a brief interview snippet included on U.S. Manga Corp's twentieth anniversary DVD release that realistic backgrounds based on real places were an innovation at the time, and knowing that going in is a handy reminder of how impressive those backgrounds are.  However, the character animation is fluid and lifelike too, and the more fantastical elements - like Azuma psychically defending himself with the aid of an entire construction yard, or a giant fireball tearing its way steadily through New York - are quite stunning.

And, I dunno, maybe it's solely because it's frequently very pretty, but I feel like we ought to cut Harmagedon a bit of slack.  It wants to be an epic story of universal love overcoming cosmic darkness, even when it keeps accidentally being casually racist and immensely stupid; it exudes ambition all over the place, and sometimes, if you're willing to exercise a little selective memory, that results in scenes that are pretty damn splendid and images that are pretty damn mind-blowing.  Dramatically its hard to see the film as anything other than a failure, however much you allow for it being over three decades old.  But as a landmark of early anime, it's at least work a look.  Lower your expectations accordingly and you may even find that there's pleasure to be had.

They Were Eleven, 1986, dir's: Satoshi Dezaki, Tsuneo Tominaga

They Were Eleven has one heck of a high concept.  In the far-flung future, a group of space cadets, whittled down from a vast number of applicants to be among the final candidates, face their last test aboard an abandoned interstellar vessel with a decaying orbit that stands to send it dangerously near to the local sun.  They have to survive for the fifty-three days of a single planetary orbit, which means that, though they've never met before, they need to cooperate and learn to trust each other.

There's only one problem: when they arrived there were ten of them and now there are eleven.

I mean, that setup isn't entirely original, sure, but it's awfully strong nevertheless; if it sounds a bit like The Thing in space then it really isn't in practice, and anyway, the Manga the movie was based on predates the Carpenter remake by over half a decade.  They Were Eleven is much more about introducing us to its characters (six of them anyway, the rest get little more than names and a personality trait or two) and then chucking them into increasingly high-pressure situations that are exactly what nobody needs when they're all feeling severely paranoid anyway.

You'd need to go a hell of a way to live up to a concept that potentially great, and They Were Eleven doesn't quite get there; its ending is somewhat weak and too easy in its ultimate resolution.  But there's a lot of good work on the way, aided by a script that does an excellent job of staying one step ahead of the viewer.  A couple of times I thought I'd spotted a plot hole or was worrying over some detail that felt under-explained, and both times the writers were quick to cover their bases.  On top of that, the movie is satisfyingly determined to be a proper piece of science-fiction: there are plenty of intriguing notions bubbling away, and a real sense of a broader universe that we're only seeing snippets of.  There's only so much that can be done in an hour and a half, but at no point does They Were Eleven feel underdeveloped or quick to fall back on tropes.

Perhaps in one aspect, for modern audiences anyway, it might have been better being less ambitious: rather surprisingly for 1986, and indeed for anime, one of the characters is intersex, a fact that becomes increasingly significant as things go on.  I imagine the handling of that particular hot potato was relatively sensitive by mid-eighties standards; viewed through modern eyes, it's more problematic.  My own feeling, much as with Harmagedon, was to appreciate the good intentions while trying not to cringe too much when they went astray.  And the same went for the animation, which is more than solid work for the most part but is dated badly by its character designs.  Dan Oikawa's electronic score has aged relatively well, at least, and its bips and bleeps like the ideal accompaniment for the material.

Often I feel like an apologist for older anime when it comes to plot, an area in which originality rarely seems to have been prized.  By the same measure, if you strip away the bonus points for luscious animation or great music or the sort of high-quality design work that makes so much vintage anime endure, there's little that stands up entirely as a film.  But there's a genuinely good, original, well-told story here, and if if it's possible to imagine an even better version of that story, that's hardly a damning criticism of the one we get.  They Were Eleven has dated in the more than three decades since it was released, because of course it has, but it's still a genuinely novel science-fiction movie, and those are rare enough as to be worth hunting for.

-oOo-

Reading back over this one, I feel like I've spent a lot of energy being negative about things that I pretty much loved.  I mean, not The Humanoid, obviously, that was a train wreck, and of the sort where one train was carrying toxic waste and the other was full of nuns and orphans.  Please don't every watch The Humanoid, I have it on good evidence that every time you do, a kitten explodes somewhere.

But Harmagedon and Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, as much as I'd feel bad to wholly recommend them to other human beings, I really did enjoy.  They feel like time capsules of an age before anyone had decided what anime could or couldn't do and be, and there's something awfully thrilling about that.  No-one told Rintaro or Takeshi Shirato or Toshio Masuda that you couldn't blow huge bundles of cash on making gorgeous-but-derivative animated genre movies for adults.  And if the results were failed experiments by any number of metrics, they're still awfully special viewed through the lens of the subsequent three decades.

Oh, and They Were Eleven is just genuinely good.




[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31, Part 32Part 34, Part 35, Part 36Part 37Part 38Part 39]

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