Friday, 17 September 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 108

Not so long ago, I was surprised at how I was still able to fill a post with entries from major franchises, even with over four hundred reviews behind us, and that's truer than ever here, with the added caveat that, for these particular major franchises, it's definitely not going to happen again.  Here we say our final farewell to some of the giants of vintage anime, with the last entries that fall within my strict-except-when-I-break-it no TV shows rule for four of anime's leviathans.  We've got the last of the many Lupin the Third films from the nineties, the second and last OVA spin-off from Tenchi Muyo!, and the last of Patlabor, along with, at time of writing, the last of the available City Hunter specials.  Granted, there's a chance the one movie to never receive an English-language release, The Death of Vicious Criminal Saeba Ryo, will yet see the light of day, since Discotek claimed the rights to all things City Hunter a couple of years back - but hey, that's the future!

So as of right now, let's say our goodbyes courtesy of City Hunter: Million Dollar Conspiracy, Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, Patlabor OVA Series 2: The New Files, and Lupin the Third: Farewell to Nostradamus...

City Hunter: Million Dollar Conspiracy, 1990, dir: Kenji Kodama

City Hunter: Million Dollar Conspiracy is, I would say, the best-animated slice of City Hunter I've come across, including the OVA released in the US as The Motion Picture and the TV show itself, which was surprisingly lavish and easily beats out some of the lesser offshoots.  From what I've seen of the most recent (and actually cinema-ready) movie, that probably tops it, but let's not get into comparing anime from two decades into the twenty-first century with anime from a decade before the end of the twentieth, eh?  Though even if we did, Million Dollar Conspiracy would still look pretty fine, so it's not as though the comparison's a wholly unfavourable one.  And since I'm a sucker for great animation, the odds were always high that I'd be on side with it.

On the other hand, I've been known to severely dislike City Hunter on occasions, and though I'm coming to wonder if I might have been a touch harsh in the past, nevertheless, there's no denying that I'm not entirely on its wavelength.  So it gladdens me to say that Million Dollar Conspiracy does nothing to squander the goodwill it gains from looking really damn good.  The story is fairly boilerplate stuff - Ryô is hired by a beautiful woman for the princely sum of a million dollars to protect her from the mob, but he's much more interested in getting into her pants, and it's transparently obvious that there's more going on than she's admitting - but it's boilerplate done well, or at least as well as a somewhat restrictive formula allows.  Ryô's lechery stays on the right side of funny rather than tipping over into "but seriously, this guy needs to be in prison" territory as the series is wont to at its worst, the plot's just twisty enough to keep the pace up for forty-five minutes, and perhaps most to the point, there's lots of strong action, buoyed by the high production values and culminating in a climax that gets good mileage out of a fun gimmick for its main antagonist.

None of this, needless to say, reinvents any wheels, and if Million Dollar Conspiracy is a great City Hunter film, that arguably only makes it a good film overall.  That would be more of a problem had ADV not seen fit to pair it with the similarly short and equally good Bay City Wars, which we covered back in post number hundred and six.   Add to that the bonus of an excellent episode from the show and this was, at the time, a rather terrific release.  Now that it's harder to get hold of, obviously that's not quite as true, but if you're into City Hunter, this is certainly a must-have, and if you're looking to give the franchise a try, I reckon it's an even more sensible place to start that City Hunter: The Motion Picture, for all that that's a touch better than either of the two films taken separately.

Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, 1995 - 1997, dir's: Kazuyuki Hirokawa, Takeshi Aoki, Yasuhito Kikuchi

First of all, let us note that this isn't the same Magical Girl Pretty Sammy who appeared in the Tenchi Muyo!  Mihoshi Special and nor, as far as I could tell, the one who'd go on to appear in the TV show Sasami: Magical Girls Club, though the other TV show in which she appeared, Magical Project S, does seem to be a sequel, despite mostly running consecutively with this OVA.  Man, vintage anime franchises could be alarmingly complicated!  After all, this is already an alternate universe reimagining of a character first encountered in a comedy spin-off of the original Tenchi Muyo! OVA series, though according to Wikipedia, the whole notion was born in yet another side story outside of the world of animation, in one of those voice dramas that were such a big part of the culture at the time in Japan and barely made the slightest dent upon the Western anime scene.

In a sense, none of this baggage matters in terms of whether you're likely to enjoy Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, and in a sense it may well matter a great deal.  Which is to say, the show doesn't really have much to do with Tenchi Muyo!, despite dragging all of its core cast over and repurposing them around a tale that now centres on the ten-year-old Sasami and her adventures as a pawn in a high-stakes game of magical kingdom sibling rivalry.  For the entirety of the first episode, this struck me as a substantial missed opportunity, in that a magical girl story happening off in the fringes of the Tenchi-verse is on the face of it a more appealing proposition than one that just has characters broadly similar to those characters who have to be laboriously set up over the course of forty minutes.  Frankly, that first episode, which feels as though it ought to be hitting the ground running and instead wades laboriously through a sea of less-than-thrilling setup, isn't a strong start.

Inevitably, the show picks up once that's out the way, with a pair of episodes that are free to do their own thing.  And while the things they opt to do with that freedom aren't mind-blowing, they're enough to provide a measure of fun.  This is truest by some way of episode two, by far the silliest of the three and the one that most feels as though it's having a laugh with the whole magical girl concept instead of parodying it by more or less just being it.  Pretty Sammy squares off against a villain who's essentially Bill Gates, the main MacGuffin is a karaoke CD, and for the most part, we get the sort of random silliness you'd expect of something where the concept involved taking a minor character from a well-known franchise and making them a magical girl for the hell of it.  Whereas the third episode, while still entertaining, starts to take this whole business too seriously and generally assumes we're invested in these characters simply because we've been hanging around them for an hour and a half, which seems a lot to ask when most of them are just the cast of Tenchi Muyo! stripped to their core traits.

So it's not great, that much is probably obvious.  The animation is below the standards set by basically everything in the Tenchi-verse up to this point, with a frequent habit of looking cheap and slightly slapdash, the music is amusing but nowhere near enough so to be a selling point, and what occurs to me now as it didn't when I was watching, this more than anything feels like a pilot for Magical Project S, for all that Magical Project S came out at the same time as two of these episodes.  Since I haven't seen Magical Project S, I've no idea if that potentially makes it a worthwhile time investment, but coming at it solely from the direction of someone who's fond of Tenchi Muyo!, I can't say this particularly obscure offshoot - now the least available of all the Western releases - is worth the effort of hunting down.  It's a pleasant and very gentle pastiche of magical girl shows that frequently forgets the pastiche part, and there are more than a few of those out there that aren't so astoundingly hard to find.

Patlabor OVA Series 2: The New Files, 1990 - 1992, dir's: Kazunori Ito, Michiko Yokote, Hibari Arisu, Mamoru Oshii, Naoyuki Yoshinaga, Yutaka Izubuchi

Given that Patlabor would be high on my top-ten list of favourite anime franchises, it's taken me a bewilderingly long time to get to this second OVA series, for reasons that probably boil down to worrying that it couldn't possibly be as good as the first OVA series or the movies, so why not quit while I was ahead?  Well, the joke's on me, or past me anyway; The New Files is most definitely up to the standard of The Early Days, and if it doesn't quite reach the unassailable bar that is the movies, that's only because it's attempting such radically different things that the comparison is meaningless.

Mind you, none of this is apparent from the first four episodes, which are a direct continuation of an arc from the TV series and the closest I've ever seen Patlabor come to the sort of genre fare it superficially resembles and so determinedly tends to avoid being.  Heck, there are actual giant robot fights, ones that go one for more than a minute or two, and what's most bizarre to the viewer who's used to Patlabor stories that merrily sideline action for just about anything else they can lay their hands on, they're fairly involved, exciting giant robot fights.  So while those opening episodes aren't what any self-respecting fan would come to the show for, it's not like they're bad or anything; in fact, they're a perfectly solid take on some thoroughly generic material, as an evil arms manufacturing company of the sort you could barely step outdoors without running into back in the days of nineties anime demonstrates their latest weapon of war by setting it against the forces of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Special Vehicle Section and their "patrol labour" mobile suits.

An uninspired start, then, but hardly a ruinous one.  Heck, it's even a nice palette cleanser to be reminded of what Patlabor generally isn't before you get into some of the very best of what Patlabor is.  But then, what truly sets the franchise apart from pretty much all its contemporaries and just about anything similar is its versatility, and I don't know that that's ever had a better work out than here.  While it's fair to say the bulk of the episodes fall somewhere amid the loose category of slice-of-life drama and most contain at least some measure of comedy, beyond that it's anyone's guess what you'll get once the opening credits have rolled.  It might be an Ultraman spoof or a Dungeons and Dragons pastiche.  It might be melancholy, romantic, or surreal, it might be serious or hilarious, and in the case of a couple of the finest episodes, it might superficially not contain much of anything.  Patlabor can mine depths of empathy over the mild misery of a tooth ache, can turn a petty dispute among the Special Vehicle Section's support staff into an hilarious all-out war, and perhaps most to the point, is as capable of generating fine human drama from its wonderful, always surprisingly layered cast as any anime show you might care to name.

If there are grounds for complaint, barring that not-so-wonderful opening quartet, they're all quite tiny, and none relate to the production values, which are top notch and comfortably ahead of most of what was happening back in the early nineties: not up to the films, for sure, but better than the already respectable first OVA series.  I do have a niggling sense that the balance leans slightly too far toward humour and that it would have been nice to have something similar to and on a par with the superlative two-part "The SV2's Longest Day" from The Early Days.  But that feels petty to say, because the humour is largely terrific and it's reasonable to suppose that the TV series these episodes were spinning off from did its share of those sorts of serious tales, whereas the delightful randomness here could only really be fitted into OVAs.  Maybe a broader range of stories would have pushed The New Files that bit closer to perfection, and maybe they'd have upset its delicate balance, but whatever the case, this is tremendous stuff.  Granted, it's probably not the place to start with Patlabor, relying as it does on a degree of familiarity, but once you've got your foot in the door, it's absolutely not to be missed.

Lupin the Third: Farewell to Nostradamus, 1995, dir's: Shun'ya Itô, Takeshi Shirato

If you were to claim Farewell to Nostradamus was the best Lupin the Third film, I wouldn't agree with you - given that Miyazaki's Castle of Cagliostro exists, that debate is essentially null and void - but nor would I argue terribly hard.  It gets an awful lot right and nothing conspicuously wrong, but more than that, there's just so much of it.  And with Lupin being one of those rare franchises where busyness is generally a virtue, Farewell to Nostradamus's extremely busy plot does it plenty of favours.  It's a cavalcade of stuff flung at you for the better part of a hundred minutes, and since most of the stuff is at least good and much of it is great, it's hard not to be entertained and downright impossible to be bored.  For sure, there are a handful of Lupin entries that aspire to be more than mere entertainment, but for the most part, that's what the franchise aims for and frequently does so well, and perhaps nowhere else does it succeed quite so reliably as here.

However, what keeps it away from the top spot for me is how all that being always good and often great comes at the expense of doing anything truly radical.  The plot is the biggest victim: in being a superb mechanism for the delivery of delightful action moments and zippy comedy, it fails to produce much in the way of interesting ideas or to capitalise on the ones it has.  One of its more promising elements is the McGuffin of the week, a previously-thought-missing book of Nostradamus's prophecies which billionaire presidential wannabe Douglas has, sect leader Rhisley claims to have, and Fujiko Mine is chasing, meaning that soon Lupin and his other allies are after it too.  A book of prophecies is a novel prize for Lupin to be seeking, so it's disappointing that the film barely cares about its contents, except to make some easy jabs at those who beguile others with made-up secrets and the suckers who fall for their schtick.  Better deployed is the ludicrous city-sized skyscraper Douglas operates out of, containing the real book of prophecies in its impregnable-but-obviously-not-really vault on the top floor: it's a prime location for some crazy Lupin goodness, and thankfully the movie doesn't squander that one.

Amid the basic treasure-hunt setup, there are no end of familiar elements: a kidnapping subplot, an island prison escape, a cult with ulterior motives, numerous helicopter chases, an entire second McGuffin, and even a jot of amnesia for Fujiko.  To be fair, they pass by at such a rate that there's never a point where the film feels especially familiar, but there's also not a point where any of this feels fresh, though some of the finer bursts of action inside Douglas's preposterous skyscraper come the closest, including a particularly awesome climax.  With that in mind, and given that this is one of the rare handful of actual cinematic releases rather than one of the myriad TV movies, it should come as no surprise that the animation is reliably impressive.  But Farewell to Nostradamus is also kind of clumsy in odd moments, with some overly evident labour-saving, and the designs for the core cast are as archetypal as can be: pleasingly so, it has to be said, with a slight ramping up of their cartoonishness that fits nicely with the light-hearted tone, and yet they do nothing to stick in the memory.

This is all nit-picking, true, and its the sort of nit-picking that only a film of so high a calibre could leave itself open to, but still, there's something ever-so-slightly frustrating about a Lupin the Third film which flirts so hard with greatness.  I'm not the first to note that what makes Castle of Cagliostro a flawed Lupin movie is what pushes it toward true masterpiece status: it bends the formula and its characters far enough that they come close to breaking and in so doing gets to go places the franchise generally can't.  Farewell to Nostradamus is absolutely not that, and indeed it couldn't push the envelope much less than it does, but damn does it make marvellous use of that envelope.  So if it's not the best of the series, it's probably the one I'd point a potential convert to*, in the confidence that they'd be guaranteed a ton of fun and come away with a deep love of all things Lupin the Third.

-oOo-

Well, that was an unexpectedly traumatic set of goodbyes!  Three out of four of our titles here are comfortably amid the highest echelons of their respective franchises, and if Magical Girl Pretty Sammy is the lowest point of the Tenchi Muyo! OVAs, it's still perfectly fine and a reminder of how high that particular bar is.  And okay so hopefully we'll get to that last City Hunter entry one of these days, and on the Lupin front there's still The Fuma Conspiracy from the eighties to look at should I ever manage to find a cheap copy, but still, this feels like kind of a momentous post.  All things must inevitably end one day, and Drowning in Nineties Anime is no exception!

But thankfully we're a ways off that point yet.  Next up ... er, I don't know yet, except that *sniff* it definitely won't involve City Hunter, Patlabor, Lupin the Third, or Tenchi Muyo.

  

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* Or I would if it wasn't all but impossible to find these days, with even Funimation's crappy non-anamorphic print proving tough to pick up at sane prices.  

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 107

Back we go once more to the eighties, though actually, there was a point when I was hoping to make this some kind of themed special based around insane high school-set anime, having covered a couple of titles that shared some clear common ground; but that didn't work out because it's not like I have much choice in what's left to review these days, so we've just got to work with what we've got.  Which for today's purposes means ArionBattle Royal High School, Ultimate Teacher, and Unico in the Island of Magic...

Arion, 1986, dir: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

Here we have a precedent: a title that, though coming out a quarter of a century ago in its native Japan and more recently in both France and Italy, has never seen a release with English subtitles.  Or rather, not until now, since, thanks to Discotek, Arion has finally made its English-language debut with a rather lavish blu-ray edition.  Which is all well and good, but the fact that Arion has taken twenty-five years to make it into English is insane.  I mean, Spectral Force could get a release but not this?  Someone somewhere took a look at Psychic Wars and decided it just had to be thrust before the English-speaking public, but not one publisher until now felt that maybe jumping on the rights for the second feature by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the director behind Crusher Joe: The Movie and Venus Wars (not to mention, more recently, the superlative Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin) might be a wise move?

You know what?  I'm halfway to thinking Arion was worth that absurd twenty-five year wait, because it's an excellent film.  As for quite how excellent, I'm not sure I'm ready to make definitive statements on that front quite yet, because it's far from faultless, and those faults make an early showing that sucks a little of the wind from its sails.  The animation is often splendid, but also a touch clunky and inconsistent at points, and more so outside of the many action sequences than within them.  And while it's always nice to have a score by Ghibli favourite Joe Hisaishi, it's fair to say that this finds the man at a point when he was merely a fine composer of anime music and not one of our greatest living musical artists, so there are catchy and inventive pieces but nothing that quite qualifies as ear-searing genius.  And then there's the plot, which...

No, actually, the plot definitely warrants a paragraph to itself, because it's where Arion threatens to let itself down and ultimately triumphs most dramatically, though there are bound to be those who are put off by its extreme busyness and habit of jumping gracelessly from point to point.  That does make it somewhat hard to love, in truth, but there's a lot of plot to be worked through, even with a two-hour running time, and I don't know that I can see how it could have been handled with much more delicacy.  Yet for the first half hour or so, it certainly seems like Yasuhiko and his writing partner, Akiko Tanaka, are taking the path of most resistance through a perfectly straightforward narrative, in which young Arion finds himself conned by his conniving uncle Hades into involving himself in the divine war currently threatening to make a right old mess of the world, with Zeus on the one side and his brother Poseidon, who also happens to be Arion's father, on the other.

Because, yes, we're in the realms of Greek mythology here, a point I probably ought to have mentioned earlier, though this is Greek mythology played so fastly and loosely that at first it seems like not knowing the source material might actually be a bonus.  For my money, Arion redeems itself on that score and then some, to a degree I wasn't remotely prepared for, finding its own tale to tell in the stuff of Greek legend and shifting from a feverish mythological greatest hits into something truly powerful and worthwhile.  I won't dig into that too deeply, because it bears discovering for yourself, but I will say that if you're a fan of the Dark Souls games, as I am, you'll come away from Arion with a definite sense of familiarity; I've never seen the connection made, but I find it hard to believe this wasn't one of Hidetaka Miyazaki's many sources for his own gloriously elaborate feat of world-building.  And even putting that aside, there are a fair number of enjoyable twists and turns along the way, some relatively predictable, some straight out of leftfield, but enough when gathered together that, by the midpoint, the story has become more an asset than a liability.  Couple that with the aforementioned mostly fine and other marvellous animation and the aforementioned score by a genius in the making, and add in the sheer pleasurableness of seeing the greatly undervalued Yasuhiko going to town on some of the finest narrative material ever conjured by human minds, and you have a film that, now that it's at last available, ought to be seen by as many people as possible.

Battle Royal High School, 1987, dir: Ichirô Itano

I'm not going to try and convince you that Battle Royal High School is the best vintage anime I've seen, but it may well be the most vintage anime I've ever seen.  It's astonishing how much it feels like a distillation of almost everything that was happening in the scene toward the end of the eighties, and which would keep on happening for a good few years more.  We've got demon invasions, we've got grotesque monsters, we've got plenty of pretty brutal fighting, but we've also got high school drama, a dash of comedy, a love triangle, some thoroughly gratuitous nudity, sci-fi elements in the shape of a character who apparently lives on a satellite and transforms into a robot ... considering that it barely runs for an hour, it's bewildering how much Battle Royal High School tries to cram in, and more so that, despite every part feeling highly familiar, the sum of those parts has a curious freshness to it, more so that many a similar title.

I'll try and sum up the plot, but I don't know how far that will get us, partly because, being a distillation of a much longer and more involved manga, there's an awful lot of plot to wade through, and partly because none of it matters a great deal except to get everyone lined up for - well, a battle royal.  In a high school.  As for the reason there's a high school involved at all, that would be our main protagonist in a film consisting of almost nothing besides protagonists, Riki Hyoudo, who as we meet him is wrapping up thrashing the last members of his school karate club while wearing what the script claims to be a leopard mask but which looks awfully like the head of an actual leopard - the sort of bizarre and disorientating detail, incidentally, that Battle Royal High School is rather excellent at throwing in to keep you off balance.  Soon we learn that part of the reason Riki's such a badass is that he's the Earthly alter-ego of the demon lord Byoudo, who wants to use him as a vessel through which to conquer our world.  But one of Byoudo's court, the fairy master Kain (and as much as this feels like a subtitling error, they are the master of a bunch of fairies) has other ideas, and they're not the only one: in the mix are also a demon hunter and the aforementioned satellite-dwelling space cop, neither of whom are very impressed with all this dimension-invading malarkey.

That's a lot of ingredients, and I still haven't listed all the significant characters - let me remind you that this thing doesn't make it all the way to an hour! - and yet none of them are of much consequence, nor is the fact that the plot, if we want to be generous and call it that, is pretty much illegible if you're fool enough to start thinking about it even slightly.  Nor is it terribly important that much of the animation is a touch ramshackle or that the character designs feel consistently off in a way that's interesting but maybe not what you could call successful.  And who cares that, barring the punky end track "Medusa", the soundtrack is wholly forgettable?  Battle Royal High School isn't about any of that; really, the clue's right there in the title.  We're here for the action, and the action is great, be it some exceedingly gross body horror or the many, many fights that are crammed into that relatively brief running time.  In any other anime, that might be a problem, but given that the ratio of crazy violence to basically anything else is something like 70 / 30, here it's tough to care.

It's not even as though I'm exactly a fan of this stuff, though it certainly helps that all the best animation work has been saved to ensure that the action's as thrilling and freaky and impactful as it can be, and I'm never not going to give bonus points for some really committed animation.  Still, on the whole, I've never been as into the branch of vintage anime that's remembered mostly for its shock value as some.  Battle Royal High School unquestionably has most of the relevant flaws, from its incomprehensible but derivative plotting to its crappy attitude toward its female characters; but pilfering from nearly every corner of the contemporary anime scene, boiling the results down to their essence, and pouring every last drop into so tight a running time makes for something unexpectedly special and exciting.  Battle Royal High School is incredibly rare these days and seems to have been largely forgotten, and I'd argue that that's downright criminal, because almost none of its peers nailed what it's up to half so well.

Ultimate Teacher, 1988, dir: Toyoo Ashida

Of the smattering of releases that never made it past VHS or laserdisc*, there are few that anyone much seems to care about, but Ultimate Teacher is a title that will sometimes crop up when people mention their hard-to-find favourites, and it's not difficult to see why: whatever its relative flaws and merits, there's not much else out there like it.  Not much, I say, rather than nothing, because actually I've seen a few things that are fairly similar, and if you're a fan of a certain brand of Japanese humour - one that's probably exemplified, or at least explored in most depth, by the series Excel Saga - then it's a safe bet that Ultimate Teacher won't come as much of a surprise to you.

For anyone else, though, its particular brand of comedy, blending jokes from all across the spectrum from extreme crassness to social satire but generally landing somewhere amid a sort of boisterous, tasteless surreality, might come as quite the shock.  Certainly I can imagine that not a lot of Western viewers would have expected a spectacle like Ultimate Teacher all the way back in 1988, when we were all less inured to seeing this sort of raunchy, bloody, profoundly silly weirdness in animated form.  To sum up a plot that doesn't need much summing up, the huge and flamboyantly dressed Ganbachi arrives one day at Teioh High School, insisting he be taken on as a teacher and that he'll turn the place around, and the head is only too happy to take him up on the offer despite his obviously strange behaviour, since Teioh needs all the turning around it can get.  In short order, we discover that Ganbachi is every bit as strange as he seems and that his eccentricities clearly have something to do with the brief prologue in which someone or something escaped from a mysterious underground laboratory.  But Teioh's new teacher is also in for a surprise, when he discovers that the beautiful girl he met on the way there is actually the school's top delinquent Hinanko and is more than capable of standing up to him.  Actually, I've somehow made that sound like quite a bit of plot, but on the screen it really isn't, the more so since the above takes up maybe five minutes and the remaining fifty is just Ganbachi and Hinanko working out their differences in various silly and violent ways, which get even sillier and more violent once we discover Ganbachi's bizarre secret and meet the scientist responsible for it.

I suspect greatness was never within Ultimate Teacher's grasp.  There isn't enough in the concept for it to be more than sporadically funny, and there definitely wasn't the budget to make it look at all special.  But when it comes to the UK release, anyway, what keeps it from being consistently good, a goal otherwise well within in its reach, is Manga's dubbing.  In fairness, that's not for a lack of effort and definitely not for a lack of committed vocal performances: unlike so many of their dubs, it's obvious everyone was giving their best efforts, and Marc Smith, in particular, brings no end of gusto to the part of Ganbachi.  Yet that turns out to be a lot of the problem, in that it doesn't take much to push this particular brand of humour into being loud and obnoxious.  That's a tendency encouraged by the writer responsible for the translation; to pick on one stand-out example, they clearly thought having characters say "pussy panties" over and over is funny, and fair enough, I imagine it will be to some people, but for me it almost immediately got annoying, especially because it sucked the life out of what was evidently a joke with a bit more nuance and cultural specificity.  Manga would go much deeper down the rabbit hole of convincing themselves that chucking swear words and sexual references into a script somehow made it automatically comedic and / or edgy, but that's not to say it does Ultimate Teacher any favours.

Nevertheless, there's no denying that it's earned its small niche in history.  For all the problems with the script and to some extent with the voice acting, Ultimate Teacher does manage to be pretty funny, and once the full scope of its concept is revealed around the fifteen minute mark, the goings-on reach some admirably bonkers and screwed-up heights.  It's not altogether incomprehensible that Manga didn't try and get this one out on DVD, but it's definitely curious, especially given some of the risible nonsense they packed out their Collection range with; in its own right, Ultimate Teacher may not be any sort of classic, but I'd take it over the likes of Vampire Wars** any day of the week.

Unico in the Island of Magic, 1983, dir: Moribi Murano

Yes, it's time for another wacky exploit of Unico the good-hearted magical unicorn, who, if you read my review of The Fantastic Adventures of Unico, you may remember was so hated by the gods that they sentenced him to death, a fate he narrowly avoided due to the dubious kindness of the West Wind, who let him off with just a life of perpetual solitude.  And so it is with the opening scene of Unico in the Island of Magic, in which the West Wind, having dragged Unico away from the friends he made in the first film, has whisked him to another remote part of the world and wiped his memories, presumably just in case being able to recall that he'd once experienced some emotion other than crushing loneliness might mitigate his suffering ever so slightly.

Fortunately for Unico, that kindly fiend the West Wind has misjudged this time around and plonks the young unicorn down in a place that's absolutely teeming with people, not to mention talking animals and monsters and all sorts of other oddness, and it's not long before he's found himself roped into a fresh adventure - though admittedly it takes him a while to get past the traumas he receives in the opening minutes and start to trust again, because, my lord, has there ever been a grimmer children's entertainment franchise than this one?  Anyway, Unico hooks up with a girl named Cherry, who manages to rapidly overcome his PTSD, and just possibly all would be well for our pink-haired chum, except that Cherry's runaway brother is an apprentice wizard in service of the fiendish Kukuruku, and Kukuruku is determined to turn all living things into inanimate dolls, including not only Cherry's parents but all the local townsfolk as well, which means the world is seriously in need of the services of a brave unicorn with baffling, arbitrary magical powers.

That gets us to somewhere near the mid point of a movie that manages to be at once busy and ambling in the way that maybe only kids' fantasy films can be, and it's certainly a plot that improves as it goes along: for the first thirty minutes, it seems as though elements are being thrown in more or less at random, and it's only well past the halfway mark that a definite shape begins to become apparent.  It's fair to say that tight, clear storytelling is absolutely not a virtue of Unico in the Island of Magic, and that might be a problem, except that - like so many of its peers from this heyday of Japanese animated children's film-making - the movie looks absolutely ravishing.  When barely a minute goes by without something hugely visually exciting to feast your eyes on, it's hard to care about a plot that's pinging about like a pinball or getting bogged down in nothing much for fairly long stretches, because whatever's happening, it's at the very least a joy to look at.  The pinnacle of this is the titular island of magic, which is such a feast of mad design and dementedly ambitious animation that, were everything else in the film an utter mess, it would still justify giving up ninety minutes of your time.

Thankfully, that's by no means the case.  Unico in the Island of Magic has its flaws to be sure, and the one that bothered me particularly was Unico himself, or rather the annoying conceit of having his memory wiped, which leaves him less a protagonist and more a whiny blank slate for a sizeable percentage of the film.  But if we're given bland heroes - Cherry is nondescript enough to make a mind-wiped Unico seem interesting - the return is absolutely terrific villains, both in Cherry's conflicted brother and in his wicked master, whose eventual backstory is both bizarre and hugely satisfying in how it's been set up via lots of neat visual cues.  While you're watching it, Unico in the Island of Magic feels like a fever dream brought on by listening to too much prog rock in a particularly weird disco, yet by the end it has a reasonably clear and legible shape and even some rather nice themes that it has the decency to lay out gently rather than hurling at the viewer.  So while its strangeness and darkness and messiness all might seem off-putting to anyone not watching primarily for the superlative animation, I'd argue that there's still a splendid kids' film here if you're willing to tune into its wavelength.

-oOo-

Coming back to this, I'm bewildered about how harsh I was on a really marvellous batch of titles.  For those who don't check the star ratings, which for some odd reason I only put on the index pages, know that everything here is worth a look and Arion and The Fantastic Adventures of Unico come highly recommended, regardless of how much I may have grumbled about them: they're flawed, to be sure, perhaps even quite majorly so, but their virtues greatly outweigh any problems along the way.  Which is also true of Battle Royal High School, though that one's definitely going to appeal to a more niche audience, plus good luck with finding a copy - it's on Youtube, as most everything is these days, but only in its ghastly dubbed version that I could find.  The only actual weak link here, then, is Ultimate Teacher and even that remains pretty good fun.

Next, it's back to what passes for normality around these parts, which means a bunch of randomly flung together titles from the decade I'm actually meant to be writing about...



[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* The internet swears blind that a DVD version exists, but I can find no actual trace of it anywhere.

** Funnily enough, I recently reappraised Vampire Wars via the US release that came with the original language version so frustratingly absent from all Manga's Collection releases, and that alone pushes it up into the realms of half decency, so clearly the moral here is that Manga's crappy dubs could ruin most anything.

Friday, 3 September 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 106

 Despite me claiming not so long ago that all the famous titles of nineties anime were behind us, we've quite the star-studded selection this time around, with a full spread of OVAs and spin-offs from franchises that range from the gigantic - welcome back, Tenchi Muyô! - to the well-respected among fans of older anime, as with Giant Robo.  But if there's one lesson we've learned the hard way over the last hundred and some posts, it's that stalwart anime mega-series were quite as capable of producing awful tat as random titles that barely anyone's heard of.  So who knows what highs and lows await us with Tenchi Muyô!: Mihoshi Special: Galaxy Police Mihoshi's Space Adventure, City Hunter: Bay City Wars, Fushigi Yûgi: Memories, and the Giant Robo: Ginrei Special...?

Tenchi Muyô!: Mihoshi Special: Galaxy Police Mihoshi's Space Adventure, 1994, dir: Kazuhiro Ozawa

I've seen reviewers dismissing the Tenchi Muyô! OVA episode Galaxy Police Mihoshi's Space Adventure as a bit of inconsequential fluff, and to that I can only express bafflement, because to my mind it's high-concept metanarrative chicanery on a par with the likes of Mulholland Drive.  Follow along with me here: the half-hour special begins with hapless space cop Mihoshi being called out on what a useless idler she is, only to defend herself with a story of one of her greatest adventures.  However, barely has she begun but she's incorporating members of the Tenchi Muyô! gang into her tale, and though she insists she's just using their names for the sake of convenience, that's clearly not the case, since they all basically correspond to their "real-life" counterparts and since this show introduces Sasami's magical girl alter ego Pretty Sammy, who'd go on to have multiple series of her own.  So is this really some long-lost event that everyone else has forgotten?  Is everything taking place in some dark corner of Mihoshi's fractured psyche?  But it gets weirder, because the story we hear Mihoshi telling, which, remember, is supposed to be a demonstration of her great space cop skills, doesn't at all match up with the one we see play out, in which Mihoshi is, if anything, even more bumbling and dim-witted than normally.  And then there are a couple of closing twists that muddy the waters even further, including a sequel hook that can't possibly be occurring within Mihoshi's version of events, since it goes against her own understanding of what happened.

Of course, confusing doesn't necessarily equate to good, and there's a sense in which this is a fairly lousy representation of what the Tenchi Muyô! franchise is about, in that all the smart sci-fi stuff I was so impressed by back when I marathoned the OVAs and films is entirely absent.  And I suppose this is what people are referring to when they write off Galaxy Police Mihoshi's Space Adventure as trivial, except that there were episodes there that also didn't much bother with that side of things and focused instead on the comedy, and Mihoshi's special is funnier than any of them.  The narrative high jinx are the bulk of the joke, along with the uses to which Mihoshi puts the various cast members and, as usual for the character, her enormous idiocy in the face of just about any imaginable scenario, but amid all that there are some tremendous gags, which, when it comes to a comedy spin-off from a long-running show, seems like all you can reasonably ask for.

However, Tenchi Muyô! being Tenchi Muyô!, we also get top-notch production values, comfortably on a par with the main series, and fun tunes for the opening and end credits - the former a montage of Mihoshi bumbling her way through a fairy-tale version of the Tenchi-verse, in yet another bit of story-within-story and the latter effectively a trailer for Magical Girl Pretty Sammy*.  Which reminds me!  This review is toward the more pointless end of the spectrum since you can't actually buy Galaxy Police Mihoshi's Space Adventure on its own; in the UK it came packaged with the rest of the OVAs and in the US it was released together with Pretty Sammy.  That makes whether to buy it an incredibly easy decision if you're in the UK, since it's a nice bonus to an already excellent collection, but I guess for the US it comes down to whether Magical Girl Pretty Sammy is worth hunting out in an exceedingly hard-to-find release.  So I'd better get that one reviewed sooner rather than later, huh?

City Hunter: Bay City Wars, 1990, dir: Kenji Kodama

Despite unexpectedly liking the title that was released in the West as City Hunter: The Movie, I've generally been pretty down on the City Hunter franchise, and though I haven't revisited either of the two TV specials I covered in the early days of these reviews, Secret Service and .357 Magnum, I doubt I was unduly harsh on them.**  But Bay City Wars has something neither of them had: a running time of just under forty-five minutes.  And while conventional wisdom says that half the running time is in no way a merit, here it most definitely helps.  Keeping things fast and tight does wonders for the City Hunter formula, which, after all, spent over a hundred TV episodes figuring out how to charge through comedic crime adventures in well under half an hour.

Perhaps ironically, I more than once found myself thinking "Man, I wish they'd used this story for one of those feature-length specials", but I'm fairly sure in retrospect that the increase in length would have undone most of its virtues, because the basic setup is nothing special.  It is, in fact, a blatant Die Hard rip-off, down to some fairly minor details, though it also has the good sense not to rip off Die Hard to the extent of keeping its events locked into one location, which means the otherwise fairly generic action gets to benefit from being set in places like a theme park and a car showroom that allow for some visually engaging sequences.  Nevertheless, the concept is Die Hard to a tee, with terrorists taking over the newly built Bay City hotel to get at the supercomputer in its basement, while Kaori and Reika are trapped at a party taking place inside and Ryo and Umibōzu are closing in on the building for their own reasons.

Those reasons are pretty damn dumb, it has to be said, and Ryo's motives in particular consist of chasing after food and chasing after a woman in that order, reducing him to even more of a ridiculous cartoon parody of a human being than he is generally.  And I mentioned that the entire narrative revolves around a hotel with a supercomputer in its basement, didn't I?  One that can interface with every other computer in the world, for reasons that boil down to "so the plot can happen"?  Fortunately, the short running time once again does Bay City Wars a world of favours, since it's hard to get hung up on how nothing makes a lick of sense when you're being whisked to the next gag or gunfight without a moment to catch your breath.

Also, and whether or not we can put this down to the shortened running time or not is debatable, but the production values are decidedly impressive, especially compared with the longer specials.  The action is genuinely exciting, the explosions are suitably explodey, and even the quieter moments get a boost from how solid the animation is and how engaged director Kodama seems to be with the material this time around.  Tatsumi Yano's score is an equal highlight, with a nice main theme that picks up on the fact that the terrorists are South American and runs with it, albeit arguably to completely the wrong part of South America.  But no one comes to City Hunter expecting cultural sensitivity, right?  And for the viewer who foolishly did, at least Ryo's lechery is less of a plot driver than in other entries.  Really, accepting that I'm no great fan of the franchise, this isn't far off being a perfect outing in my book: barring some risible plotting, it never sets a foot far wrong, and there's definitely never a boring moment.  Plus, ADV had the decency to package it together with another shorter special, Million Dollar Conspiracy, and assuming that doesn't completely suck - watch this space! - this one seems like a sure-fire win for both existing fans and anyone looking to dip a toe into the murky City Hunter waters.

Fushigi Yûgi OVA 1, 1996, dir: Hajime Kamegaki

Of course it's not entirely fair to review the OVA spinoffs of long-running TV shows in isolation, but rarely does it turn out to be much of a problem, since OVAs on the whole tend to be side stories, reboots, and the like.  So it's actually quite a shock to come across something like this OVA of the fifty-two episode series Fushigi Yûgi, which cuts the uninitiated viewer no slack whatsoever.  Character introductions?  Plot recap?  Even making clear what's happened since the end of the series?  These are not things the first Fushigi Yûgi OVA - which IMDB calls Fushigi Yûgi: Memories, so let's go with that - has any interest in concerning itself with.

Which makes reviewing it a tricky business, since I freely admit I haven't a clue what was going on for most of the running time; even summing up what bits of the narrative I did cobble together would probably be beyond me.  And since it's not like I didn't do my due diligence, reading up on the show beforehand, I'm not convinced the fault lies entirely with me and my inability to follow a story.  Indeed, I suspect the issue has much to do with the fact that three episodes was entirely the wrong length for the tale being told here, all the more so given that, by the end, the only real purpose it seems to have served is to chuck out the status quo set up by the original ending and lay the groundwork for the twice-as-long second OVA that would soon follow.  With the knowledge of hindsight, it seems to me that the same point could have been reached in five minutes of exposition - there are literally only two scenes that contribute directly - or else with an episode more to let the events presented here feel like they matter in their own right.

And here I am, trying hard to avoid getting into the specifics of a plot I'm barely halfway to getting straight in my head, but since I don't want to be down on Fushigi Yûgi: Memories entirely for that reason, I'm going to need to engage with it a little bit.  As I understand it, the basic setup for Fushigi Yûgi the series was that friends Miaka and Yui got sucked into a magic book and to the book's version of ancient China, where, among other events, Miaka fell in love with the warrior Tamahome.  Knowing that much is sufficient to make rough sense of episode 1, in which Tamahome rather than Miaka gets drawn back into the book and its world, but is no use for episode 2, which focus almost exclusively on the trials awaiting him there.  And that's a shame, because of the three, it's this middle episode that gets up to something that's exciting even for the Fushigi Yûgi novice.  Basically, Tamahome is told he's not Tamahome at all but his enemy Nakago possessing Tamahome's body - or possibly the other way round - but whatever the fine details, it's enough for some novel conflict, as Tamahome at first dismisses the absurd-seeming possibility and then becomes increasingly doubtful of himself as the evidence accrues.

Sadly, this goes nowhere satisfying, and the third episode is the one that suffers most from the show's undue compression, barrelling through acres of plot and numerous character introductions and reintroductions and the establishing of a major new enemy and all manner of other bits and pieces, only for things to be wrapped up in a manner that feels less like an attempt to tell a new story than to lay the groundwork for one yet to come.  Obviously, that might be different for established fans, who'd no doubt get more from some of the revelations and conflicts on offer here; it's certainly not a safe or inconsequential tale, so points for that.  Still, those fans aside, there's almost nothing on offer barring a couple of standout pieces of music and the better moments of that middle episode.  The animation is resolutely mid-nineties TV fare, the designs are bland, and the story feels at once rushed and overly expository, which is quite the feat.  Then again, given the lack of pandering to newcomers, up to and including some comedy shorts at the end of each part that expect you not only to know the entire cast but apparently who their voice actors are too, it's transparently the case that this was made for ardent devotees of the TV show.  And though I'd imagine even they would have preferred a less cluttered, jolting story, really, who am I to say?

Giant Robo: Ginrei Special, 1994 - 1995, dir: Yasuhiro Imagawa

I've come to view Giant Robo as more of a disappointment than it remotely deserves, purely because it was merely very good and not impossibly excellent as I'd hoped it might be based on its considerable reputation.  So well done to the Giant Robo: Ginrei Special for being an actual, unquestionable disappointment in no uncertain terms.  I'd imagined, perhaps naively, that by devoting three whole episodes to the OVA's sexy superspy female lead, they might delve a bit deeper into a character left frustratingly underexplored and underutilised in Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Rather than, you know, just spending an hour and a quarter leering at her butt.

Okay, I'm being slightly unfair, though you wouldn't guess that from the first episode, which does a great deal of leering indeed.  It immediately lost points for starting with one of those introductory shower scenes that nineties anime was so fond of - because how else would you introduce a female character, eh? - and then won a few of them back by cutting to one of the male bad guys being gratuitously naked too, then lost all of that headway and then some with a sliver of a plot that clearly existed just to get Ginrei's clothes off yet again.  Which all else aside is plain bad writing; if that's your goal, why not save everyone some trouble and just have twenty minutes of shower scene?  Anyway, the first episode is largely terrible, especially given that I haven't even mentioned how much it recycles footage from The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It manages to stay watchable by keeping its tongue close to its cheek, but it's far from a promising opening, and its only other virtue is that it's the shortest of the three.

The second is much weirder and still fairly creepy, but at least, in its better moments, is weird and creepy in mildly amusing ways.  The story sees young Daisaku, pilot of Giant Robo, defecting to the evil Big Fire, except now their initials stand for Blue Flower, and stealing a backup robot that was modelled on Ginrei as he goes, meaning that - hoo boy! - we can have an upskirt gag with a giant robot.  Actually, thinking back, the first half is pretty much full-on dreadful, and things only really pick up in the second half, when Ginrei gets to pilot the Ginrei-bot and we get a bit of moderately well-animated giant robot fighting to brighten the proceedings.  (I forgot to mention that the original animation in episode one was conspicuously lousy, probably because I didn't want to talk about episode one more than I had to.)  There's also a subplot, if we may stretch that word well beyond its usual limits, in which our heroes and villains get drunk together, and thus allow for some gags, one or two of which get quite near to being funny.

Last up, the third and longest episode takes a stab at providing something akin to what I'd originally hoped for, and if the main conclusion to be drawn is that the reason the production team were so shy of attempting a proper Ginrei tale is that they hadn't a clue how to go about one, still, it makes for a nice break.  We only see our titular character naked once in the entire thirty minutes, how's that for progress!  But then we have a narrative that practically trips over itself in its efforts not to be about Ginrei or to give her anything meaningful to do, and focuses instead on people and events we've no reason to be invested in, and ... well, the animation's much improved, so there's that.  Honestly, though, how can you devote three episodes to a character with such promise and come away with a mess like this?  How, even back in 1995, did anyone think the animation equivalent of a pinup calendar was the way to go with this project?  (Oh hey, I forgot the DVD extra that more or less is a pinup calendar.)  I've seen plenty worse anime, what with two of the episodes being somewhere around decent and the production values being generally okay, but I'd struggle to point to another that threw away so much potential with such wilful determination.  So well done for that if nothing else, Giant Robo: Ginrei Special.

-oOo-

The disappointments definitely stuck with me more than the high points this time around, probably because I'd already watched Mihoshi's Space Adventure when I worked through the rest of Tenchi Muyô! and so it didn't exactly feel like a find this time around, and because I'm not so in love with City Hunter that I'd consider a great City Hunter movie a great movie per se.  Whereas the Ginrei Special truly could and should have been something special and I had fairly high hopes for Fushigi Yûgi: Memories, given that the series sounds quite interesting.  Fingers crossed that the second OVA manages to be a little more accessible and a touch clearer in its storytelling, because I'm not sure I could have managed three incomprehensible hours.  But that's a way away, because I've got behind on these posts again and there's catching up to be done...


[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]


* Except that it's not, but more on that when we actually cover Magical Girl Pretty Sammy!

** I've actually revisited Secret Service since I wrote this and, nope, I wasn't being harsh at all.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 105

While I still sometimes surprise myself by coming across a major release I've somehow failed to review here, it's safe to say that in general we're drifting into more and more obscure waters, with the vast majority of the well-known titles that came out of the decade far behind us.  This time around, though, we have a name I reckon most anime fans will at least be aware of: even if it's somewhat overshadowed by the fact that creators Hideaki Anno and studio Gainax would go on to make arguably the most famous nineties anime show of all, the seminal Neon Genesis Evangelion, there's a lot of love out there for their first run at the world of TV, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.  So what could possibly go wrong with a movie spin-off, eh?

Quite a lot, as it turns out!  Brace yourself, reader, for a look at Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water: The Movie, along with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature: The Harp of Burma & Season of the SunStrange Love, and Sukeban Deka...


The movie of the long-running and highly popular series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water simply has no reason to be as bad as it is.  Even if we accept that it reached a certain point in its production with irresolvable flaws baked in - an inadequate budget, a replacement director with minimal experience and no discernible talent for imagery or storytelling, and an uninspired plot that couldn't hope to stretch to a feature-length running time - still none of them explains how tossed-off the final product feels, as though it were created out of genuine anger at the fanbase for giving enough of a damn about the property that anyone might think making a film follow-up was a good idea.  Mere indifference or mercenary crassness couldn't hope to produce anything this all-round lousy.

A lot of that undoubtedly does come down to the tortured production that saw original director and series maestro Hideaki Anno being obliged to walk away from the project, along with the at-that-point deeply in debt studio Gainax, leaving the movie to be finished any which way it could be so long as it somehow made it into theatres.  Yet, with all that, there are still some simply terrible decisions made along the way, and they start in one of the opening scenes, in which our hero Nadia, now working as a reporter in London, is provoked by an image of the Eiffel Tower into a series of flashbacks to the show that will go on to fill more than a third of the film's eighty-five minutes.  Which is obviously a heinous and dreadful way to kick off a movie adaptation, but, like, they're not even good flashbacks.  If you're going to chuck in thirty minutes of reused footage, surely you'd go for footage that sets the scene for the story you're about to tell?  Or failing that, for sequences that are reasonably connected?  But no, Nadia the Movie would rather throw fifteen hours of television into a blender and see what pops out.

Cut that intro and you immediately end up with a superior work, firstly because it's embarrassing to show off how much better animation done for TV is than the animation you're expecting people to pay to watch on a cinema screen and secondly because it serves no purpose except to pad the running time and ensure that the viewer is thoroughly checked out by the time the actual movie rolls around.  It's not as though sixty-minute anime films weren't a thing in 1991, and my guess is that the plodding intro is there solely to make the pretence that Anno and Gainax were more involved than they were.

Whatever the case, things pick up once we at last get started, in that sixty minutes of ghastly animation following a so-so plot is better than thirty minutes of randomly flung together scenes.  Though the tale it's out to tell is hokum, and though the telling is largely incompetent, from there onward the whole business generally manages to hover around a level of harmless mediocrity.  The animation is truly dire - that pretty much all the shots that struck me as actively competent appear in ADV's one minute trailer tells you all you need to know on that front - but it's not the sort of direness you can get worked up over; it's more dispiriting than hateful.  As for that plot, it's a slice of nonsense about an evil new baddy trying to kick off a world war for reasons, and it's hampered by how the main new character is called Fuzzy and Fuzzy gets bafflingly transliterated as Fudgy, a name it's tough not to chuckle at, but there are definite flashes of the old-fashioned adventure yarn charm I assume to be the series' main selling point.  So I guess that if you loved the TV show and were filled with a craving for more so powerful that you didn't care in the least how good it was, you could conceivably just fast-forward through the flashback stuff and get yourself a little pleasure out of this.  I mean, you could do that, but you shouldn't.

Animated Classics of Japanese Literature: The Harp of Burma & Season of the Sun, 1986, dir: Noboru Ishiguro

I've looked at two of these Animated Classics of Japanese Literature releases so far, and in both cases got hung up on the somewhat subpar quality of the animation, then had to row back when I realised it wasn't half so much of a problem as it might initially appear to be; so forgive me if this time around I get caught up on precisely that same detail.  The thing is, The Harp of Burma, which occupies two of the three episodes on offer here, is the first Animated Classic that is inarguably hampered by bad animation, to the point where it's impossible to ignore.  It's the singing that breaks it, singing being something that is never going to look remotely right if you can't sort out your lip synching, and since there's a heck of a lot of singing in The Harp of Burma - what with music being one of its central themes and all - that's definitely an issue.  Add in parrots drawn by people who presumably had only had parrots, or indeed birds in general, described to them at third hand, and which are also major plot points, and a monkey that doesn't serve much narrative function but looks inordinately awful, and you end up with a title where the roughness of the visuals is actively getting in the way of its storytelling.

Was this a conscious choice?  I've noticed with previous entries that books written for or about children seem to have been stuck with a markedly simpler style, with mixed results.  The Harp of Burma is apparently a kids' book, though given the extent to which Japan's military defeat in the Second World War, prison camps, and the decay of human bodies are all crucial to the tale it tells, I'm inclined to think it's more of a kids' book in the Japanese sense than in the Western sense; it's hard to see this ever ending up as a Disney movie, put it that way.  Anyway, if that look was a choice, it was one taken too far into the realms of active shoddiness, and it's not the only questionable decision, either.  Screenwriter Kenji Yoshida opts to present the plot, which concerns the fate of one Private Mizushima, who gets separated from his unit in the days following Japan's surrender, in somewhat the fashion of a mystery, with the bulk of the narrative devoted to watching his fellow soldiers wonder what the hell happened to him, until the truth is revealed in the closing minutes.  As I understand it, this isn't how the book functions, and while I get why Yoshida went down that route, faced with the difficulties of cramming a novel into under fifty minutes, it does lead to a saggy middle act, with all the best material heavily backloaded.

Still, The Harp of Burma has its compensations, and the foremost of those is its musical score, which, in keeping with the material, is fairly spectacular: there's a scene, in particular, that would die on its arse if the music wasn't up to the task and relies on performances in three different languages and two distinct dialects of English, something anime has a grand tradition of getting catastrophically wrong, yet here is presented flawlessly.  And it's not as though dodgy design work and stiff animation and slightly questionable storytelling choices have it in them to sabotage a literary classic: it's easy to imagine a better adaptation, especially given that the great Kon Ichikawa filmed the book not once but twice*, but that doesn't rob the material of its impact, it merely sucks some of the air from out of it.

Regardless, Season of the Sun, though confined to the one episode, is better on just about every level, and this despite sharing the same director, a surprise given how improved the animation is this time around.  It's by no means a fun watch, and based on how one-sidedly its tale of sex, obsession, and possibly of love in post-war Japan is presented, you could reasonably accuse it of some pretty deep-seated misogyny.  On the other hand, you could equally argue that we never get much sense of what's going on inside the male protagonist's head either, especially when he seems largely oblivious to whatever's motivating his frequently cruel actions.  Anyway, while tough to experience, the material packs quite the punch, and even better, is an excellent fit to accompany The Harp of Burma, albeit a rather depressing one, as we see what would become of the relative optimism and readiness to explore new possibilities for Japan expressed there.  That combination strengthens both parts, and while this was arguably the weakest entry of the series I've looked at so far, it still merits a watch if you're among the presumably tiny number of people who'd find something like this interesting.

Strange Love, 1997, dir: Daiji Suzuki

I can think of no way to describe the two-episode OVA Strange Love that doesn't make it sound absolutely terrible.  And perhaps I shouldn't be trying, since a brief glance at some reviews confirms that there are lots of people who think it's exactly that, and also because, as with a lot of nineties anime that tried to wring laughs out of the borderline pornographic, it's a hell of a thing to wrap your head around from a Western perspective a couple of decades into the twenty-first century.  But in brief: the first of two episodes follows young college professor Sushiaki, who falls head over heels in lust with the - here I quote U.S. Manga Corp's box description! - "busty and beautiful coed" Yoshida, only to discover that she eats guys like him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as she invites herself over to his apartment only to play mercilessly on his desire to sleep with her.  And once that's all worked itself out, we have episode two, where we find ourselves abruptly shunted over to Yoshida's perspective, as she in turn falls for a newly arrived female student, much to the chagrin of her obnoxious rock star boyfriend, who decides to punish her by seducing the innocent she has her eye on.

Like many an anime sex comedy, this doesn't really function as pornography, since the sex isn't sexy and the very nature of the plot pushes it more toward being awkward and uncomfortable, but mainly because the art style is such that anything that might be at all arousing becomes mildly disturbing instead.  Yoshida looks like an exceedingly top-heavy alien, the menfolk are worse, and for some reason everyone has bewilderingly ugly-looking ears.  So the question becomes whether it's strong enough as a comedy to balance that out, and the answer is ... well, no, not really, but more so than you might expect, and perhaps a bit more than that if you don't mind laughing at scenes that are often excruciating.

Now, maybe I've just set my bar so low for this sort of thing that almost anything could hop over, but for me, Strange Love was both funnier than I'd have imagined from the first few minutes and - the much bigger surprise - a good deal more effective as a drama and character study.  I wonder, even, whether it benefits from the shift in standards that makes something like this so dubious to a modern sensibility; it would be mad to accuse it of feminism, since it couldn't be operating much more from a position of male gaze if it tried, yet the narrative fights that every step of the way.  There's something genuinely fascinating about how we meet Yoshida through the eyes of a man who can't see beyond her body and is so blind to her personality that he spends most of his time conjuring up absurd fantasies of how he'd like their relationship to be, only to flip to her own perspective and see what Sushiaki saw - essentially, that she's all too happy to manipulate men for her own ends - through an altogether different lens.  Yoshida's an enormously long way from what we here in 2021 mean when we use the phrase "strong woman", yet she's definitely strong, more so than a creep like Sushiaki can begin to grasp.  That comes into sharp focus when Sushiaki, having been extensively teased and mocked, suggests he could just take what he wants by force, only to have Yoshida point out to him that she's a black belt in karate and he's welcome to try.  I can't speak for the filmmakers' intentions, but there as elsewhere, I got the impression that they were basically on Yoshida's side and wanted the viewer to be too, for all that it would be easy to present her as some kind of hideous nightmare ripped from the male id.

There are other virtues as well, and a lot of them cluster in the second episode, and the rather sweet fashion in which Yoshida comes to terms with the fact that she's just maybe extremely attracted to another woman and then in how she tries to tentatively communicate that while also pretending that no obviously she's not cracking onto her newfound friend and actually everyone in Tokyo holds hands don't you know?  And here toward the bottom of the review, I find myself wondering if I'm just giving Strange Love credit for threatening to be something deeply unpleasant and then rowing back, and probably there's an element of that; the setup for both episodes is so potentially creepy that any deviation from that worst-case scenario is bound to be a nice surprise.  Nevertheless, I do think there's a little more to it than that, and that Strange Love deserves a dash of credit for finding some genuine humanity and a sizeable dollop of humour in a setup that seems like it has scant room for either.

Sukeban Deka, 1991, dir: Takeshi Hirota

Imagine, say, The French Connection, but with Gene Hackman's hardboiled cop replaced with a high-school girl and ... wait, no, that's an insane premise, isn't it?  Nevertheless, that's what Sukeban Deka - literally "Delinquent Girl Detective" - has to offer, and presumably it didn't seem quite so insane to Japanese audiences, given that there's an unholy amount of this stuff out there, including a TV series and multiple feature films.  And of course this anime, though only two episodes totalling some hundred minutes or so were produced.  Which is a shame because, in its best moments, which are most of them, it's pretty damn great.

We are, mind you, talking a very specific kind of greatness that definitely won't be to everyone's tastes.  This is pure pulp of a most exploitational kind, and although director Hirota brings a ton of flair to the proceedings, along with a fine grasp of how to put together exciting action on a budget, it's fair to say that its virtues aren't often technical ones.  But if you're at all down with the concept of a gritty seventies cop drama supplanted into the environs of a modern-day (well, modern-day thirty year ago) Japanese high school, with cliques replacing gangs and the rich, beautiful, popular girls taking on the roles of gang bosses, and of course our yoyo-wielding hero Saki Asamiya in place of Gene Hackman or Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, then Sukeban Deka dives into that grimy well with ferocious energy and commitment.

Aside from some exceedingly light humour care of a boy named Sanpei who falls puppyishly in love with Saki, it's surprising how seriously Sukeban Deka takes its obviously ridiculous setup, and surprising, too, that taking it seriously actually makes things more fun and not less.  This also means there's a real lack of punch-pulling; the inciting incident for the police deciding that blackmailing a sixteen-year-old girl into becoming an undercover cop is the murder of a school bus full of students, and events don't lighten up much from there.  Again, how much you see that as a virtue is bound to vary, but for me, the treatment of one particular character pushed so deeply into the realms of nastiness that it went from gritty to outright unpleasant.  I'm wary of spoilers, so I'll say only that the fact of having a female protagonist doesn't make misusing another female character in awful, hackneyed ways any more appealing.  It's all the more of a shame because Saki herself is genuinely marvellous, with voice actor Kazue Ikura managing to conjure a convincing arc from rage-filled bad girl to tentative agent of justice and letting a more humane side sneak in bit by bit.  And though, again, the animation isn't especially impressive, Hirota sensibly devotes due resources to making our hero look iconic at every opportunity, enough so that even her weaponised yoyo somehow ends up seeming more cool that silly.

In retrospect, as much as I enjoyed it, it's clear to see how Sukeban Deka might have worked better.  The first half, which focuses more on Saki while letting the plot mount up steadily in the background, is more out-and-out fun than the second half that actually has to do something with all those plot threads, and the big action climax is of a sort that could have wandered in from any number of contemporary anime titles, though it's done better than most.  This is undoubtedly tacky nonsense based on a premise that crumbles into absurdity if you think about it for more than a second, but surely we're better off with tacky nonsense that's made with energy, passion, and commitment, aren't we?  And if that also gives us the sight of a pink-haired, yo-yo wielding delinquent girl beating up on armies of thugs, I don't see that anyone has a right to complain.

-oOo-

While there might not be anything here that deserves to be called buried treasure, Sukeban Deka was kind of a delight, the more so because it came so completely out of leftfield; I'd never even seen a trailer for it until about a month ago, and why ADV would have failed to trumpet one of their better and more interesting releases is beyond me.  By the same measure, that makes it tough to find these days, which is a heck of a shame, especially given that it's not exactly the sort of title that's likely to receive a rescue.  Which is probably true of everything here, come to think of it - I believe the Nadia movie was even left out of the recent-ish DVD reissue - though I continue to hold out misguided hope for a blu-ray box set of the entirety of Animated Classics of Japanese Literature.  Hey, a vintage anime nerd can dream!



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* Having now seen the first of Ichikawa's adaptations, I feel I owe the anime version, and particularly screenwriter Yoshida, an apology.  While the film is unquestionably superior on the whole, I'd say the anime version actually does a better job of adapting material that arguably isn't terribly well suited to being adapted.

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 104

This is an entirely typical batch of reviews by our regular standards, but for me it was a particularly exciting one in that I've been curious to see the 1994 OVA series Genocyber for a long, long while now, partly because it's one of the few truly notorious titles from the time that I'm yet to cover but more so because it's also generally regarded to be pretty damn good, which can't be said for a lot of its ultra-violent kin.  Well, thanks to Eastern Star and their recent rescue of the title, I at last got my chance to discover what all the fuss was about, so let's have a long-awaited gander at Genocyber, along with Suikoden: Demon Century, Go Nagai World, and If I See You in My Dreams...

Genocyber, 1994, dir: Koichi Ohata

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Genocyber from a reviewing standpoint, even taking into account the fact that there's an awful lot about it that's puzzling, is that, though it's absolutely definitely a single OVA working its way through what's basically all one plot, it nevertheless manages to tell three largely separate stories that are each very much their own thing.  I don't know that you could watch any of them in isolation - though the first is at least pretty self-contained - but at the same time, the second and third chunks go off on such wild tangents that, even in the world of vintage anime where wild tangents were common enough to be practically the norm, I'd be pushed to think of a title that goes quite so far.

The result is that it's tough to make definite statements about what Genocyber is and what it does that might give you a clear sense of whether you'd want to devote two and a half hours of your life to it.  I might say, for example, that it's one of the most outrageously gory films I've come across within or outside of anime, and that's absolutely true of the first three episodes, which feel more extreme and legitimately nasty than anything I can think of in a medium and during an era when nastiness was very much often seen as a goal to be worked toward.  But then, the last two episodes, which make up the third self-contained arc, are relatively bloodless.  By the same measure, if I were to describe the show as near-future cyperpunk horror, those last two episodes ruin that, too, by shifting the action to a post-apocalyptic diesel-punk city that feels totally distinct from what's come before.  Heck, even the middle arc, though it's still up to basically the same stuff as the lengthy opening episode, comes at that material from a very different angle, stuffing its plot into a single location and going for a somewhat altered, though equally limit-pushing, brand of gore.  In short, Genocyber is surprisingly experimental in its narrative for what on the surface could easily be mistaken for mere exploitation.

Then again, that oughtn't to be a surprise when we consider that the guy at the helm was Koichi Ohata, known mostly these days not as the excellent mecha and character designer he was but as the director of the risible M. D. Geist and its sequel and the arguably kind of brilliant Cybernetics Guardian.  Based purely on the latter, I've quite a bit of time for Ohata, and there's no getting around how he uses what could easily be an exercise in gore for the sake of gore to push the envelope in surprisingly inventive ways.  Aside from the bizarre narrative shifts, the most noticeable is animation that throws in live-action footage and stills, some unexpectedly decent CGI, stop-motion, physical models, and various other gimmicks to create something thoroughly strange and abrasive.  As shocking as the violence often is - and I can't overstress how gross the title is on a routine basis - Genocyber's impact comes as much from the sense of visual shifting sands, since you're never certain what Ohata will throw into the mix next.

Part of me wants to be critical; after all, it's kind of ridiculous that one OVA series should be up to such inconsistent stuff that it's easy to imagine a viewer who might love the first part and hate the third or vice versa.  And if we wanted to be sniffy, it's not like all this is happening in service of a particularly exciting or original story.  The sense is that the appeal of the unfinished manga Genocyber was expanded from was less that it was a work of genius begging to be retold in a new medium and more than it offered plenty of room for all the weird gimcrackery Ohata brought to the project.  Yet, say what you like about Genocyber the anime, it certainly knows how to keep you on your toes, and it's never boring ... horrifying, often hard to follow, and overall slightly mystifying, but not boring.  Ultimately, its experimentation makes it difficult to love, in that you can all but guarantee that whatever aspects you're enjoying won't last, yet I can't but admire anything so ferociously odd and confrontational that it still feels dangerous almost three decades later.

Suikoden: Demon Century, 1993, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

Normally it's either brutally obvious why a title never made it to DVD or else a searing injustice with no conceivable rhyme or reason.  When it comes to Suikoden: Demon Century, however, it's tough to have strong feelings either way.  It's not bad, as such, as far as forty-five minute OVA films go; had it appeared in Manga's budget Collection range, for instance, it would have been comfortably around the middle of the bunch.  On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing original here, such that it's actually quite hard to talk about.  A bunch of disparate heroes who also happen to be reincarnations of figures from out of history band together in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo to take on a big bad, you say?  I'm pretty sure I've heard that one before, and indeed watched more shows exploring each of those individual elements than I care to remember.

If Suikoden: Demon Century stands out in any way, both for good and bad, it's by merit of the inclusion among its core cast of trans female character Miyuki Mamiya, which is nice to see from a progressive point of view but, in the American dub at any rate, handled with all the insensitivity you'd expect and a bit more besides.  I'm singling out the dub because the animation and design work presents Miyuki more sympathetically, to the extent that it very much feels as though Tiffany Grant, in charge of the adaptation, went out of her way to pile on the homophobic quips.  Not that nineties anime wasn't capable of its own homophobia, heaven knows, but it definitely feels as though there's a somewhat three-dimensional character bursting to get out here that's being constantly stymied by the script's flailing attempts at humour and Aaron Krohn's lisping performance - because, yeah, of course they cast a male actor in the part.  (In fairness, so did the Japanese original, which means I'm likely giving that more credit than is due.)

It's frustrating to see an opportunity to bring a bit of diversity to an otherwise largely cliched cast being blown in such a fashion, but let's face it, Suikoden: Demon Century doesn't fare any worse on that score than an awful lot of other anime (and of course non-anime) from the time, and perhaps it only gnawed at me so much because there wasn't a ton of other stuff to divert my attention.  The animation is resolutely fine and buoyed by some energetic action sequences, which are a definite plus when action's about all that's on offer but don't fill up enough of the running time to actually become a selling point.  Director Negishi would have a solid but unspectacular career, and that feels appropriate given that this is solid but unspectacular work, though in fairness its hard to imagine how any amount of visual style could have distracted from how fundamentally hackneyed the narrative is.

If all this weak praise seems to clash with my opening comments, all I can say is that the nineties generated more than their share of crushingly average OVA short films, and Suikoden: Demon Century is competent and lively and engaging enough, if not to stand out, then at least not to get altogether lost in the crowd.  It's mildly surprising that it never got as far as a DVD release when many a worse title did - it seems to have come awfully close, to the point that ADV even advertised a planned DVD version - but then again, I can't imagine anyone regarding its absence as a crushing loss to the world of animated entertainment.

Go Nagai World, 1991, dir: Umanosuke Iida

I don't know that Go Nagai World needed to be half so good as it is.  And that's a strange observation, I realise, but hear me out ... what we have here is a comedy spin-off of the works of arch provocateur manga creator Go Nagai, in which the bulk of the joke is that his characters are cutesy, chibi-fied versions of themselves that are thrust together into one shared reality, there to play off each other in appropriately silly ways.  As I've often noted, comedy mostly just needs to be funny, which means that it doesn't have to be well plotted or sophisticatedly animated to succeed, and indeed I could point you to plenty of genuinely great anime comedies that are neither of those things and get by entirely on the strength of the laughs they provide.

Go Nagai World is funny, although it's not uproariously funny and a lot of the humour is tied into the concept, so that if you're not a fan of the properties involved - primarily Devilman and Mazinger Z, with a hefty chunk of Violence Jack toward the end - and also not the kind of person who's likely to be amused by characters from a series you like being small and ridiculous, you're unlikely to find this hilarious.  Still, there's enough else going on beyond the central concept that it's a perfectly good bit of comedy, and if that was all there was here, I'm sure I'd have given it a modestly positive review.

Yet not only is that not the extent of Go Nagai World's ambitions, it barely even seems to be where the majority of its attention is pointed.  That it has an actual plot is a surprise, and that said plot gets fairly involved and incredibly meta before it's done is downright baffling; for something so overtly dumb, it gets up to some awfully sophisticated narrative high jinx.  But that's nothing compared with the animation, which is gorgeous in a way I barely know what to do with.  That's most noticeable in some stunning background art, which ties into how well the narrative works, since those detailed, imaginative images give life to the various locations, however outlandish they often are.  But the character work is pretty fine too: since all the cast (barring the odd "real world" sequence) are simple chibi versions of themselves, there's no real need for shading, which leaves room for animation that's much smoother than you'd expect of an OVA from 1991.  Put that all together and add in how well the super-deformed character designs have dated, and take into account a top-tier print from Discotek, and you have something that's aged spectacularly well.  And on top of that, we have a score by the wonderful Kenji Kawai, which largely ignores the comedy side of things and focuses on being an excellent score of the sort Kawai knocked out on an alarmingly regular basis.  Really, the technical values are hard to fault.

In short (pun not intended, but hey, now that it's out there!) I return you to my opening point: Go Nagai World goes far beyond the call of duty into the realms of what could only be considered labour of love territory, and that's especially weird given that it's certainly not driven by blind affection for Mr. Nagai.  In fact, part of what makes it so exciting in the late game is the harsh eye it turns upon the act of creativity and the open and honest way in which it addresses how these sorts of works come to exist.  A nagging part of me wonders if this was truly the way to go with such a property - I can't deny I'd have liked to see more Nagai characters included outside of their cameos in the opening and closing credits, and it could definitely be a good bit funnier - but by the same measure, it's always exciting to come across something made with so much obvious passion and enthusiasm.  All that really holds this back from classic status, then, is how niche it is: here in the West, where Nagai isn't such a household name even among anime devotees, it's hardly an obvious recommendation for the average viewer.  So I guess all I can fairly say is that if you fancy it at all and have even a glancing knowledge of Devilman and Mazinger Z, you absolutely ought to give Go Nagai World a look.

If I See You in My Dreams, 1998, dir: Hiroshi Watanabe

For a three episode OVA romcom that nobody much remembers these days, If I See You in My Dreams offers its share of surprises.  And the main one for me was how far it leans into the rom half of that equation.  Its slender tale introduces us to hapless salaryman Misou, who's somehow made it into his twenties without so much as snatching a first kiss, and is assured by a fortune teller that his lack of luck with the ladies is set to continue until his dying days.  However, that begins to seem fractionally less of a sure thing when a chance encounter and a small act of kindness leaves him pining for the beautiful - but equally perennially single - Nagisa.  Of course, the path of true love never did run straight, plus it's not altogether clear how interested Nagisa is in him, especially as Misou's blunders in his efforts to get closer to her begin to mount up, and with other people chasing after both of them, how much of a chance do they really have?

What I didn't see coming was how seriously If I See You in My Dreams treats its material and indeed the matter of young love in general.  Neither Misou nor Nagisa are anything like perfect; Misou's crippling shyness doesn't need much encouragement to slide into creepiness, and though Nagisa is more of a catch on the face of it, she's awfully quick to jump to the wrong conclusion and then catastrophically overreact.  It's not hard to see how this pair reached their twenties without a single date between them, yet they're appealing enough that it also makes sense that they're both attracting the romantic attention from others that leads to most of the show's mishaps.  In fact, by the third episode, I wasn't sure whether I ought to be rooting for them or not; rather than their suitors being obvious jerks as they'd probably be in a Western romcom, here they might actually be better matches, and that adds a significant wrinkle to what might otherwise be an overly simple drama.

What that leaves us is a romantic comedy that makes very little effort to be funny, and, if we're to be critical, is absolutely at its worst whenever it heads in that direction.  The supposedly humorous situations can't possibly have seemed fresh back in 1998, and even if they had, they'd still be more cringeworthy than amusing.  However, their repercussions play out with startling seriousness, and there's something genuinely disconcerting in seeing this sort of material strapped into the framework of an actual romance with actual adults and somewhat realistic emotions.  Which leads us to another surprise, which is that director Watanabe, who spent most of the nineties churning out Slayers movies, brings so much artistry and restraint to the project.  I liked those Slayers movies just fine, but nothing in them led me to suspect he was the sort of director who'd ever favour introspective character moments over laughs.  However, what Watanabe pushes for here time and again is a plaintive, melancholy atmosphere that's well-suited to his protagonists and their predicament, and with less than ninety minutes of running time to play with, it's remarkable how much he's willing to take his foot off the pedal to let a quiet moment sink in.  Add to that some rather more complex animation than you'd expect for a title of this ilk and a lovely, emotive score and perhaps the biggest surprise with If I See You in My Dreams is how often it manages to tap in to genuine emotions.

For all its merits, that still leaves If I See You in My Dreams as very much a minor-feeling title, the sort of thing that probably made almost no splash at the time and has since been done better and bigger; it doesn't exactly feel rushed at three episodes, yet that running time does leave it seeming somewhat insubstantial, where another episode or two might have really let the creators dig deep into the central relationship.  Nevertheless, that doesn't detract from what a nice little OVA it is or how much it accomplishes with the time it has, nor how thoroughly it won me over in the brief time I spent with it.

-oOo-

A good, solid batch, that was: only Suikoden: Demon Century let the side down, and let's face it, that one's pretty much vanished from the world anyway, its loss never to be mourned.  But Genocyber rewarded my years of patient waiting and comes highly recommended for anyone with the stomach to handle its violent excesses, and Go Nagai World is one of the nicest surprises these reviews have turned up in a long while, taking a concept with much potential for naffness and instead offering up a real gem.  Which only leaves If I See You in My Dreams, a nice surprise on a smaller scale but still a title with much more to offer than I'd have hoped.  Good times!



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