Thursday, 17 June 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 101

It's fair to say that not everything has gone to plan with this review series, which is one reason why we're up to a hundred and one goddamn posts and counting.  But it's also fair to say that nothing has gone quite so horribly wrong as with this post.  And it's all the fault of Dragon Ball Z!  Because, you see, the one unbreakable rule around these parts is that posts consist of four reviews apiece, and there are fifteen Dragon Ball Z films if you count the two OVA movies, and fifteen isn't divisible by four, meaning that the obvious options would be to either wrap up my trawl through Dragon Ball Z with a three film post or to skip the last entry and the TV specials.

It's an insoluble problem of the sort I'm sure has ended weaker blog series, and probably even taken down an empire or two, but here's the thing: I suspect the solution I've come up with might be even worse.  Still, I've committed to it now, so follow my logic ... Dragon Ball was created by Akira Toriyama, and prior to that, Toriyama was the man behind the super-successful-but-not-Dragon-Ball-successful series Dr. Slump, and there have been precisely five Dr. Slump films released outside Japan and - oh yeah, you've got it! - five plus fifteen is twenty, and twenty is divisible by four.

Which is a long way of saying, welcome both to the end of our intermittent Dragon Ball Z marathon and also the start of our Dr. Slump marathon, and I sincerely hope that nothing like this ever happens again.  But since it has, let's make the best of it and take a look at Dragon Ball Z: Wrath of the DragonDragon Ball Z: Bardock the Father of GokuDragon Ball Z: The History of Trunks and Dr Slump: Hello! Wonder Land...

Dragon Ball Z: Wrath of the Dragon, 1995, dir: Mitsuo Hashimoto

First up, I was very much hoping that this would be the Dragon Ball Z film in which long-suffering deus ex machina Shenron the wish-granting dragon would finally snap and vent its pent-up rage on our heroes for abusing its powers so many, many times, so there's a point immediately lost for the misleading title.  (Honestly, I've no idea where it comes from, except that there's a final attack that's kind of dragon-y.)  Second up, I know I've ragged on these Dragon Ball films plenty for having basically the same plot enough times that it's become faintly obscene, so hats off to Wrath of the Dragon for shaking things up, in so much as any degree of shaking is possible for this franchise.  Which is to say that everything still ends with an enormous fight, but the enemy this time around is a bit different and the road by which we arrive at that confrontation feels distinct from anything we've had before.

In a nutshell, the gang come across an enormously dodgy-seeming old man who convinces them that if they can just open the mysterious music box he gives them, a mystical hero with appear.  Since they like heroes and presumably have nothing better to do - and are all too dim to realise how tremendously off this all is - they enlist the help of poor Shenron, whose number they presumably have on speed-dial by this point, and who takes this latest demand on its time with the usual dignity.  And somewhat surprisingly, once they crack the magic box, it does contain a hero, albeit one who isn't the least bit happy about being rescued, for reasons that will occupy most of the movie's middle section.

Here's the problem with all that: there are no stakes.  I mean, there's some vague mumbling about a universe-ending cataclysm, and very many people die in the inevitable scrap that takes up the last quarter hour - though, even there, hilariously, the point's made that good old Shenron will have them back to life in no time at all, because clearly godlike wish-granting dragons have nothing better to do except sort out your damn messes, Goku.  But introducing a new protagonist, setting out their conflicts and backstory, and doing all the required worldbuilding for any of that to work is a lot to ask of a film of less than an hour, and while Wrath of the Dragon does a fairly good job all told, nothing can keep this from feeling terribly inconsequential.  The nature of the crisis is both totally self-inflicted and largely unrelated to any of the series regulars, and more than ever, there's no meaningful effort made to convince us that our by this point preposterously swollen cast are likely to lose, let alone die.

All of which means that Wrath of the Dragon can't help but give the impression of being a side story that exists solely because Toei weren't about to let a whole six months go by without punting out another Dragon Ball movie.  And that's unfortunate because, by most other metrics, this one's a commendable effort.  Hashimoto wasn't a top-tier director by any means, but he does well enough at keeping the gears turning, and the animation is actually quite impressive: one shot in particular, an audacious fish-eyed first-person sequence, legitimately wowed me in a way Dragon Ball Z has rarely managed.  So it's not like there's no reason to watch Wrath of the Dragon, and it even probably just about makes it into the upper tier of the series' many entries; I just can't imagine I'll still be thinking about it even slightly once I've finished writing this review.

Dragon Ball Z: Bardock the Father of Goku, 1990, dir: Mitsuo Hashimoto, Daisuke Nishio

Dragon Ball Z: Bardock the Father of Goku has two sizable narrative problems that it has no clue how to get around or perhaps doesn't even realise are problems.  Which is a shame, because neither of them are insurmountable, it would just have taken some actual effort to, you know, surmount.  And in fairness, it may be that in 1990 one of those issues might not have been quite so glaring as it is now, but anyway, let's stop dancing around it ... the fact is that a story about a largely unlikeable character with no real personality to redeem him, and one to which we already know the ending, or at any rate what the ending definitely won't involve, is a tough old sell.

So this first Dragon Ball Z TV special is a prologue doing precisely what its title suggests, in that it introduces us to Bardock, Goku's dad.  Since we know Goku was found on Earth as a baby, there's no reason to expect a heart-warming tale of parental bonding, and sure enough, the two are never so much as in the same room together, which you might expect to be problem three, except that one thing the makers do manage to get right is sketching in something of a relationship for the pair, so credit to them for that, even if the way they've pulled it off involves an exceedingly dubious contrivance that's necessary to get the plot moving in any sort of direction at all.  Essentially, we begin with Bardock and his fellow Sayans working in service to the evil despot Freeza, and Bardock has no problem with this until an alien curses him with the ability to see the future, or at any rate very specific parts of the future that relate to the awful fate awaiting him and his fellow Sayans.  Oh, and also random clips from the original Dragon Ball, since ... yeah, actually, I'm already thinking that calling what we have here a character relationship was too much of a stretch.  But it's enough to get Bardock to acknowledge the son he's never previously wanted anything to do with, and that's narrowly sufficient to make this function as some sort of meaningful prequel.

Going back to my original point, there are undoubtedly ways the film could get around how little grounds we have to root for Bardock, a man who'd surely have merrily kept on doing evil at the service of an intergalactic villain all the way to retirement age if the circumstances had allowed, but Bardock the Father of Goku deftly avoids almost all of them.  It's only when Freeza's lieutenant convinces him that the Sayans are as much a threat as they are a useful tool that Bardock begins to think about rebelling, and his motives are never remotely noble.  And while his drift toward something like the side of good isn't without a certain charm, it comes too late and too easily, and has nowhere to go except major problem number two, in that we can suppose with stone-cold certainty that the ending isn't going to involve Bardock executing his nemesis and saving the Sayan race from oblivion.

Given a narrative that spends its time dashing toward a brick wall and somehow still makes a mess of getting there, Bardock the Father of Goku could be worse than it is.  If you've seen enough Dragon Ball Z to appreciate the broad significance of all this, it's kind of engaging to see these major historical events play out, and the animation is functional enough, with a bit of neat action right at the end where it most counts, and I dare say the sort of fans who come to these with their critical faculties turned way down would be far more excited to get to know Bardock than I was.  Still, unless you fall into that category, I can't think of a single reason why you'd bother with this when there are so many better entries in this bloated franchise to pick from.

Dragon Ball Z: The History of Trunks, 1993, dir's: Yoshihiro Ueda, Daisuke Nishio

When it comes to The History of Trunks - and surely I can't be the only one who thinks that sounds like the title of a seedy documentary about swimming underwear? - it helps to have a proper idea of what you're in for.  And I say this as someone who went in without the faintest clue; oh, I knew it was a TV special rather than a cinematic release, so my expectations were suitably muted, but I'm nowhere near up enough on Dragon Ball Z canon to appreciate that it was filling in a thus-far unscreened bit of background, in the shape of an alternate timeline adventure that the TV series made clear had to exist without giving any actual details of.  Since it was stated that the character of Trunks had travelled back in time from an alternate future to heal Goku from an otherwise fatal condition, that necessarily meant that, if he hadn't, there'd have been a future in which Goku wasn't saved and things would have turned out very differently.  And so they did, as we'll discover, in the shape of practically everyone in the Dragon Ball Z-verse biting the dust at the laser-spewing hands of evil synthetic human pair Android 17 and Android 18, leaving only Gohan and Trunks to pick up the slack.

A setup that wipes most of the major players off the board before we've caught our breath is an exciting change of pace for a series that tends to be so risk-averse.  The problem is, screenwriter  Hiroshi Toda doesn't seem to have thought this through half as much as he needed to, and more than once he gets tangled up in some inordinately stupid storytelling trying to keep his ducks in a row for Trunk's inevitable trip back through time.  In one standout dumb moment, Gohan keeps Trunks out of a fight by the reasoning that he's three years away from being ready, though it's obvious Trunks is going to fight anyway, just on his own and with no hope of winning.  Indeed, the whole business of navigating from young Trunks to less-young Trunks makes an almighty mess of any narrative logic, obliging leaps of years in which we're told characters have been fighting, training, or combinations of the two in ways that are almost impossible to reconcile with what we're actually seeing.  Generally, the second you question any part of the plot, it crumbles.  Why, for example, are people just going about their lives as normal with an existential threat on the loose?  Why, with half the Earth's population dead, are theme parks still a thing?  Sure, the villains are unbeatable, but people could at least try and hide from them instead of acting like everything's normal until the minute they turn up and decimate the entire city.

That, however, does get us to the one unassailable virtue The History of Trunks has to offer: its baddies are pretty marvellous.  Or rather, its baddies are run of the mill by Dragon Ball Z standards as far as their designs and powers go, but their gleeful evilness and lack of any motivation besides a casually homicidal sense of fun is never not entertaining.  They're basically two normal teenagers if normal teenagers had the power to kill anyone who irritated them even mildly, and that ends up being much more entertaining as a concept than it probably has any right to be.  It even more or less makes up for the fact that Trunks himself isn't a remotely interesting protagonist, and for once, the one-sidedness of the various fights is a virtue, in that Android 17 and Android 18 are so hilariously bad-ass.

Those fights look pretty solid, too, as does most of a TV special that, visually, is barely below the level of the Dragon Ball Z films of the time - not the highest of bars to clear, it has to be said, but that this doesn't just look like television-quality animation is a pleasant surprise.  Sad to say, though, that's about the only way in which The History of Trunks manages to exceed expectations or give a pretence of being more than it is.  Get past the novelty of the setup and you find yourself with a tale that's broken in a bunch of crucial ways, the most significant being that it's forty-five minutes of setting up a conflict that won't be resolved and doesn't matter except to clear up questions it's hard to imagine anyone asking.

Dr. Slump: Hello! Wonder Land, 1981, dir: Minoru Okazaki

Dr. Slump: Hello! Wonder Land is - and I intend this, mind you, as a compliment - inordinately stupid.  I mean, this is the sort of stupid you can't just chance your way into; this is some transcendental stupidity we're looking at right here.  And unless you find silly humour an absolute turn off, that's enough to get it to some very, very funny places.  Actually, given that I normally hate silly humour myself, maybe even that isn't much of an argument against.

What helps, I think, is that, prevalent though it is, the stupidity isn't all that's on offer.  Hello! Wonder Land also has some actual ideas, and many of those ideas are fairly inspired.  Take, for instance, the opening scene, in which a thinly veiled Superman knock-off argues with a thinly veiled Tarzan knock-off over who's the star of the film, before they both discover that in fact neither of them are and that instead we'll be spending the next half hour following Arale-Chan, pint-sized, super-strong, incredibly dim robotic assistant to the titular Dr. Slump, a sleazy inventor genius who's main goal here is to magically roofie the woman he has his heart set on.  (Don't worry, he doesn't remotely succeed, and the precise manner of his failure is one of the best gags in the film.)

The universe in which this madness unfolds is so endlessly weird and inventive that, not for the first time, I find myself desperately sad that Akira Toriyama would end up being the Dragon Ball Z guy when he could have been knocking out divine lunacy like this.  My favourite feature is the sentient technology that Slump cooks up, which somehow manages to do Cronenbergian technological body horror two years before Videodrome was even a thing and then, even more astonishingly, wrings laughs out of something so visually alarming that it makes your eyes want to crawl into the back of your skull.  Actually, aside from the stupidity, this embracing of the strange and wrong is perhaps the main other source of humour in Hello! Wonder Land, and if anything that's even harder to get right.

None of this, it has to be said, is particularly technically accomplished.  The animation is serviceable and often delightful, without doing a single thing that would make you dream this was a feature film; IMDB classes it as just another episode of the TV show, and while I'm inclined to believe Wikipedia and Discotek over them, you can easily see how someone would make the mistake.  As far as the nuts and bolts go, the one aspect that truly shines is the vocal performances, which very much have the feel of actors who've inhabited these roles for so long that they've learned to pull off gags with razor-sharp precision, even when that gag is only spouting nonsense at high speed.  I don't know exactly what I'd make of this if I'd watched it in isolation, but as the first entry in a five film marathon, it's an utter joy, and my only worry going forward is whether such ridiculous daftness can stretch to a longer running time without becoming completely exhausting.

-oOo-

If I ended up liking Dragon Ball Z a fair bit more than I ever imagined I would, and if I'll always be thankful to the nineties entries for leading me to the utterly brilliant 2013 feature Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods, still, I'd be lying if I claimed I wasn't relieved to see the back of the franchise.  Consider me a convert of sorts, but one who's looking forward to a good, long break from anything Goku-related.  On the other hand, if Hello! Wonder Land is anything to go by, our much shorter Dr Slump marathon is going to be an absolute joy...



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

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 100

Post number one hundred!  For ages, I never imagined I'd reach this landmark, because that would mean four hundred reviews and approximately a quinzillion hours of anime-watching.  But once I'd accepted that the big one hundred post would happen, I knew I'd need to come up with something suitably momentous, given that whatever I went for ought to sum up this crazy years-long endeavour and the whole landscape of a decade's worth of anime, from magical girls to fantasy pastiches to cyberpunk to gross-out horror to giant robots to tentacle porn to every possible combination of the above.  Was that even possible?

Well, after much wracking of whatever brains I have left after watching most of the anime films and OVAs released in the West between 1990 and 2000, I reckon I've cracked it.  And so, with great pleasure and no small amount of pride, I bring you ... the Drowning in Nineties Anime classic-anime-children's-films-based-on-major-works-of-Western-culture-all-of-which-happen-to-include-a-few-songs-and-to-have-been-released-by-Eastern-Star-and-none-of-which-are-from-the-nineties special!

Ha, yeah, that other stuff was a lie!  Actually, my original plan was to review some nineties Studio Ghibli films, but as much as I love those, a big part of this blog has been trying to make the point that Ghibli aren't the be-all-and-end-all of anime, and also I'm not sure there's much I can add to that conversation.  And since the only self-imposed rule I'm yet to break here is that I haven't gone back as far as the seventies, I figured I'd jump on the opportunity to go somewhere totally different for this anniversary post.  Which, to be specific, means taking a look at Swan LakeAnimal Treasure IslandNutcracker Fantasy, and A Journey Through Fairyland...

Swan Lake, 1981, dir: Kimio Yabuki

Given how extraordinary it is that they're putting out stuff like this at all, you can hardly blame Eastern Star for the lack of extras on their disks, but sometimes it would be awfully nice to have a spot of background information that would explain, for example, just what series of decisions led to longstanding anime studio Toei deciding to adapt a century-old Russian ballet.  A little digging offers some insight, in that this was part of their ongoing "World Masterpiece Fairy Tales" series, but why a ballet of all things, and why this particular ballet?  I'm not knocking Tchaikovsky here, and since I've never seen a performance of Swan Lake, I don't have much knowledge to work off, but a scan of the plot on Wikipedia suggests that there's not a ton of material there out of which to craft a feature film, even one of a slender seventy-five minutes.

Then again, it's possible that was precisely the point, because the anime Swan Lake is an utter delight, and a big part of the reason is that it doesn't feel as though anyone involved considered themselves terribly beholden to their material.  I'm not suggesting it's a bad adaptation, by any means; I can't find anything to say that the Tchaikovsky version includes a pair of comedy-relief talking squirrels, but apart from that, it seems to hew quite closely to what scant plot the ballet has to offer.  But with so many gaps big and small to be filled in that narrative, there's ample room for diversions and asides to put some meat onto the bones of a skeletal story.  The villainous Rothbart, for example, whose machinations and obsessive love of the heroine Odette are the main driver of everything that happens, is a tremendously appealing creation, silly and menacing in equal measure and an all-round wonderful piece of animation - no surprise since he's effectively the reincarnation of Lucifer from Yabuki's equally captivating 1969 classic The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots, even down to having the same voice actor.

As for the visuals in general, that cover art up there should give you a fair idea of what to expect.  Swan Lake is transparently drawing on the classic Disney aesthetic, which was quite different to what Disney were actually putting out by 1981, more Sleeping Beauty than The Fox and the Hound.  And Toei being Toei, we could go a step further and say it's that classic Disney aesthetic but on a much reduced budget, which would no doubt be true but would give a very wrong impression of how lovely Swan Lake is.  Sure, the character designs are simple, but they're just right in their simplicity, tapping into a certain vibe that positively screams "fairy tale".  And if that's true of the characters, it's ten times truer of the lushly painted backdrops, which nail that look about as well as Disney ever did anywhere.  The forest of thorns young Prince Siegfried has to ride through at one point is just the creepiest, spikiest forest of thorns you could hope for, while Rothbart's castle is as cartoonishly grim as you can imagine.  As has been proved on many an occasion, the heightened sense of style that's part of the bedrock of anime turns out to be a terrific fit for Western fairy tales, and I don't know that that's ever been truer than here.

On top of that, of course, the film has a heck of a score, unless you absolutely hate Tchaikovsky I guess.  The film, admittedly, doesn't foreground the music half as much as you might expect or even treat it with a great deal of respect: more than once, pieces are cut off abruptly, and there are frequent scenes where dialogue gets pushed to the front of the sound mix.  But again, that just brings us back round to the fact that this feels less like an attempt to make the definitive adaptation of the ballet and more like an attempt to be a really terrific little anime fairy-tale adaptation that just happens to have a lot of excellent music along the way.  And given what a basically perfect job it does on that front, I can't imagine Tchaikovsky would be too bitterly offended.

Animal Treasure Island, 1971, dir: Hiroshi Ikeda

A slight odd-one-out in this list - and how I'm kicking myself that I've already covered Gauche the Cellist, because that would have been a perfect fit! - Animal Treasure Island is nevertheless a worthwhile inclusion to make the point that Japanese kids movies prior to the advent of the nineties weren't all sombre, artsy affairs devoted as much to raising cultural awareness as to providing entertainment.  Animal Treasure Island doesn't give a good goddamn about your cultural awareness, and even seems as though it might be quite happy if you come away less cultured than when you arrived, so long as you've had fun in the process.  It's hard to imagine a film more invested in providing enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment, without having any qualms about being substantial or educational, but also without straying into being flat-out dumb in the manner of so many kids' films before and since.

Still, Animal Treasure Island doesn't half butcher its source material - that being Robert Louis Stevenson's seminal pirate adventure novel Treasure Island - and since I have quite a lot of love for the book, it follows that I've always found the film hard to feel the same affection for.  Simply put, I don't know that the writing team (among them a certain Hayao Miyazaki, in one of his earliest breaks) had to mutilate the novel so heftily as they did.  There are some bizarre decisions along the way, and though you can rationalise them to a greater or lesser degree independently, put them together and you're left with something that strays so far as to barely justify that title.  I'm not talking about the fact that all but a couple of the cast have been replaced by animals, either, which is only odd if you think about it too hard; rather, there's the addition of Jim's mouse companion Gran, there's the insertion of a random toddler named Baboo whose safety Jim seems wholly unconcerned for, and most jarringly, there's the introduction of a major new character in the shape of Captain Flint's granddaughter Kathy.

Kathy looks enough like a Miyazaki design that it's easy to suppose her inclusion was an early example of the feminist bent that would become such a major element of his filmmaking, but she's written without any of the later nuance; moreover,  her presence means scuppering the character of Long John Silver, and I doubt anyone familiar with the book would contest that the relationship between Silver and Jim is the heart of Treasure Island.  Even if that weren't the case, Kathy's plotline requires the film to abruptly have a modicum of stakes, which fits awkwardly when until then everything has felt utterly inconsequential.  Honestly, the more I think about it, I like very little about Kathy, who plays like the sort of shallow "strong female character" type that litters many a modern Hollywood movie; she's tough in a one-note fashion that's much less interesting than Jim's plucky bravado, and still manages to end up as something of a damsel in distress.

This would all matter more if Animal Treasure Island was properly interested in being a work of drama as opposed to a wacky, anything-goes sugar-rush of an animated movie.  It's a modest film aimed squarely at children, and that stretches all the way to the animation, which - despite also having Miyazaki as key animator - is resolutely simple.  Never bad simple, there's not a moment when it doesn't look like the work of skilled animators, but largely the brief seems to have been to go all in on simulating a picture book given life and not get too caught up in showing off anyone's hard-learned craft.  This changes somewhat in the last third, with a satisfyingly dramatic storm and a boisterous action climax, but in general, what marks the visuals out is their exceedingly bold colour scheme - the pea-green sea takes some getting used to! - and their commitment to simplicity and charm.

Taken on its own terms, then, when Animal Treasure Island works, it really does work, and that actually happens quite a lot, for all that I've not been shy about picking on its weaknesses.  The songs are a joy and, in a film that consists more of loosely strung together set pieces than narrative, the majority of sequences are a success, with lots of warmth and energy and their fair share of genuine laughs.  So no classic, then, by any means, but nevertheless a mostly enjoyable children's film made with sufficient quality to not waste the time of adults, and given how much rarer that is than it ought to be, I'm still happy to give Animal Treasure Island a thumbs up.

Nutcracker Fantasy, 1979, dir: Takeo Nakamura

Most of the time, the business of reviewing essentially boils down to the question of whether a particular work is accomplishing whatever it apparently set out to do.  If something sets itself up as a comedy, then you mostly just have to establish whether it's funny.  If it's evidently aiming to be an action movie, is it exciting?  That sort of thing.  But then you run into a film like Nutcracker Fantasy and realise the limitations of that approach.  Because I can barely guess at what the makers of Nutcracker Fantasy thought they were about.  That's not to say it's bad.  It does many things very well indeed.  But not many of those things are what you'd expect an animated children's film from the tail end of the seventies to be even thinking about attempting.

Which is to say, Nutcracker Fantasy spends a truly surprising amount of its running time being a pretty successful surrealist horror movie, and while it's unlikely director Takeo Nakamura had been influenced by David Lynch's gonzo masterpiece of a debut from two years earlier, I frequently found myself wondering if his primary motivation wasn't "What if we could make something a lot like Eraserhead, but, you know, for kids."  Children's films often stray, deliberately or otherwise, into being scary, and Japanese children's films from this period often seem quite content to throw in a bit of undiluted nightmare fuel, but I don't know that I've ever seen anything that purported to be a children's film that was so unmitigatedly weird and unsettling and driven by the purest dream logic over narrative as this.  To put that in context, we're talking about a plot that reboots itself at least five times over the course of ninety minutes, and that's when it's being anything like a recognisable plot at all and not just throwing out scenes at random.  The first example that really struck me was when, a few minutes into a stop-motion animated film, we're suddenly presented with live-action footage of a ballet dancer, which, sure, makes a measure of sense for what's loosely an adaptation of  Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, only it doesn't make much sense in relation to anything we've seen prior to then.

But I just got around to mentioning the animation, didn't I?  And we definitely need to talk about the animation at some length, because Nutcracker Fantasy happens to be the first anime film I've come across made primarily using stop motion.  On the one hand, this is absolutely the right choice for the material, in that a plot in which most of the characters are toys, dolls, or animals benefits greatly from the handicraft tactility and the frankly gorgeous dollhouse-esque sets that the makers put together with what was clearly a massive amount of effort, passion, and skill.  On the other, dolls are creepy at the best of times, and jerky stop-motion animation is creepy too, and when you have a film that contains material that would be pretty damn creepy whatever the approach, that's enough to frequently push it over into "What the actual hell?" territory.  Going back to that question of intent, I can definitely see that we're supposed to be scared of the screeching, two-headed rat lady that's the main antagonist, and also of the villainous child-snatching ragman who stalks the edges of the film.  But are we meant to be scared of Clara, our cute child protagonist?  Because reader, I confess, in a film where I found just about everything unnerving, Clara's jolting movements and dead-eyed stare were no exception.

My suspicion is that Clara wasn't meant to be quite so freaky as she is, and also that the story wasn't meant to be such a jolting sequence of absurdist non-sequiturs, and that the goal here genuinely was to make something fun and appealing for a younger audience, the sort who like dolls and ballet and princesses and tacky songs and silly comedy.  Conversely, there's so much sinister weirdness in Nutcracker Fantasy that it seems unfair to suggest that the bulk of it was accidental; if nothing else, no film that isn't interested in chucking some horror into the mix could contain this many Dutch angles.  And if there's one consistent feature throughout, it's a willingness to embrace any idea and run with it, no matter whether it scuppers the pacing or is liable to leave the viewer floundering.  So all in all, I wouldn't feel right in suggesting Nutcracker Fantasy is a failure, if only since nothing this hypnotically strange and meticulously crafted can deserve that word, but as a children's film that actual children might watch, the sort that don't want to be left in a state of existential terror, it's a bewildering boondoggle of the first order.

A Journey Through Fairyland, 1985, dir: Masami Hata

A Journey Through Fairyland may be the single loveliest-looking animated film I've ever seen.  That's not quite to say it's the most well animated, though it's also not to say it isn't; it would certainly deserve a spot on any top ten, and given the sorts of budgetary restraints normally placed on anime, that's quite a statement.  Certainly the animation is phenomenally meticulous, and there are shots here of striking ingenuity and complexity, and in general the sheer ambition and willingness to explore the possibilities of the medium is up there with practically anything else you're likely to encounter, especially prior to the advent of computer-assisted animation.  Still, all of that's not quite what I was getting at with that opening statement; rather, it's what I can best describe as a picture-postcard quality, as though the entire film were composed of those painted images you get on the better class of greeting cards, though even that makes A Journey Through Fairyland sound rather tacky and twee and, given its subject matter, that's something it actually manages to steer fairly well clear of.  At any rate, the backgrounds are invariably gorgeous, and, unusually for anime, the character work is practically on a par: sure, the designs are simple, but what's done with them is often astonishingly lavish.  I heaped similar praise on director Hata's earlier movie Sea Prince and the Fire Child, but with a few caveats; here, Hata has ironed out every last kink, and the results are glorious.

Being a film that's heavily about music, it's fair to say the score is pretty fantastic, too, at least if you have any sympathy at all for classical music.  Here, by the way, I'm cheating ever so slightly when it comes to our theme, in that there are a couple of Japanese composers in the mix; still, the vast majority are the big European names, practically all of whom get a look-in.  Actually, this is as good a time as any to dig into what A Journey Through Fairyland is, and the short answer is that it feels very much like what would happen if a bunch of enormously talented Japanese animators watched Disney's Fantasia and thought, "Sure, we can beat that."  If there's a crucial difference, it's that A Journey Through Fairyland has a persistent narrative of sorts, but it's one that often gives way to abstract sequences devoted to not much more than the joy of lushly animated objects moving in an appropriate fashion to some timeless piece of music, and so the end result still has the air of a Fantasia-esque anthology as much as it does that of a more traditionally story-driven film.

This is worth highlighting, because the story, and its two central characters, are without a doubt the weakest aspect.  In a nutshell, Michael is a promising student at a music academy who's recently grown too distracted by his hobby of tending the local greenhouse to avoid screwing up in class, and his teacher has finally had enough, to the point of kicking him out of the orchestra and potentially the school.  Fortunately for Michael, he's earned the devotion (not to mention the fairly blatant lust) of a flower fairy named Florence, and Florence decides the best thing for everyone would be if she transported him to her home, the magical land of flowers, for - um, a date, I guess?  It's not altogether clear, and it actually turns out to be a spectacularly ill-judged move, since the land of flowers is a pretty damn dangerous place, presumably because no Japanese children's film from the eighties can keep from including at least a dash of raw nightmare fuel.  Anyway, neither Michael nor Florence are remotely interesting on any level, even down to having the blandest designs of any of the characters, and while Michael's trials in our world are easy enough to sympathise with, he does almost nothing throughout the middle of the film except be carried along by events.

Luckily for us the viewer, this doesn't matter much.  I mean, if you cared nothing about stunning animation and were filled with a profound hatred for classical music, then probably it would matter, and if that's true, A Journey Through Fairyland is absolutely one hundred percent not the film for you.  However, I'm not that devoted to classical music in general, and I still found myself enjoying the pieces here, in large part because the animators have done a terrific job of highlighting what makes them so enduring rather than simply slapping vaguely sympathetic imagery upon them.  On that front, I'd argue it's actually a better film than Fantasia, though Fantasia edges it out on variety; having set itself the plot it has, A Journey Through Fairyland is then bound to include an awful lot of fairies and flowers, and fairies dancing with flowers, and the like, and it's fair to say that repetition creeps in before the end, though the aforementioned bursts of horror definitely shake things up.  At any rate, if you have an interest in animation or just fancy a beautiful-to-look-at children's movie, I'd urge you to put any reservations you have on hold and give this one a go.  It's not without flaws, but they largely pale in the face of its extraordinary loveliness and breadth of craft.

-oOo-

I still can't quite believe I made it this far!  What started out as a simple sideline to pad out a blog ostensibly about my writing career has exploded out of all proportion, as the brief changed from reviewing the relatively small number of titles that had been released in the UK during the nineties to reviewing practically everything that was released in the nineties, including stuff that never made it to DVD or even, occasionally, into English.  Frankly, it's all got a bit out of hand!  And as much as I keep thinking I'm bound to run out of stuff to review soon, I'm not sure the end's actually that near.

Certainly, I have quite a bit waiting to be got through.  Next up, it'll be back to business as usual, more or less, in the shape of the wrapping up of our Dragon Ball Z-athon.  And I suppose I'd better start thinking about what the heck I'm going to do for post number a hundred and fifty, hadn't I?



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

Monday, 31 May 2021

Short Story News - May 2021

Apparently, it's been almost a year since I last did a short fiction round-up, which I guess isn't that surprising since I haven't had a lot to tell, but there have been a few snippets of good news along the way, and I reckon they've piled up enough by now that they warrant a quick post, especially since I've had three stories out in recent months that I didn't do I great deal to draw anyone's attention to.

The first of those saw my return to excellent horror 'zine The Dark, with a story by the title of A Cold Yesterday in Late July.  Like seemingly most of the horror I've been writing in recent years, this is another introspective one, and seems all the more so in the light of the last year.  A Cold Yesterday is about isolation, about falling between the cracks, about depression somewhat, about the inescapability of the past, and about the slivers that aging cuts from us - but actually, given that that stuff is all pretty universal, what makes it feel so personal is that it's about hiking and I drew a lot of the vibe from my own adventures ambling around the countryside.  Funnily enough for something so bleak, I had quite a bit of fun writing it, mainly because it's amusing to make up names for out-of-the-way villages and the sort of odd rural landmarks you only tend to stumble across when you get far off the beaten track.  Even more strange, it's been well-received from what I've seen, with a particularly nice and detailed review here.  Oh, and if you should want to read (or listen to) the story itself, here's a link for that.
A much more cheerful tale all round is Love in the Age Of..., which appeared in The Fox Spirit Book of Love, out last month.  I'm yet to see a contributor copy, so I can't comment on the collection as a whole, but if my story's at all representative, it's going to be a weird old beast.  Love in the Age Of... was a heck of a tough sell that probably would never have got picked up for any book but this, in that it pulls the sort of stunt that makes it all but impossible to win over slush readers, who, let's face it, can't always be relied on to get past the first page.  And that makes things tricky if your first page is unicorn porn.  Look, you'll be glad to hear that I didn't actually go sending out unicorn porn (unless you're anything like the friend who felt the need to point out how disappointed she was with me for making promises I didn't keep) but I can see how a feint in that direction might have put some folks off.  Not Chloë Yates, though, and much credit to her for that!  Indeed, this ended up as one of those rare cases of landing a story with an editor who seemed to properly get it, and the edits were an unusually pleasant process.

Next, and also a very strange tale, because I guess that's what I write these days, we have M.A.T.E.R Knows Best, which - well, I'm not going to try and convince you it's not a James Bond pastiche, because it certainly is, but that's not really what it's about.  What it's about is my finding James Bond films for the most part pretty screwed up in a lot of ways, but especially Skyfall, a film so staggeringly misogynistic that I'm at a loss as to how some people missed it (or, bewilderingly, ignored all the evidence to the contrary and declared the film to be a step in the right direction ... you do you, The Guardian!)  I only came across this essay today, having realised I was too lazy to try and make its arguments myself, but I agree with pretty much every word and it's a great summing up of what I was trying to get at with M.A.T.E.R Knows Best.  But that all sounds kind of heavy, so I probably ought to mention that it's actually quite a fun, blackly comic story, except maybe for when it gets a bit more serious at the end.  Anyway, it was another piece I'd given up much hope of selling due to its extreme nicheness, so hats off to Distant Shore Publishing for seeing that as a virtue instead of a flaw.  Plus, it's another one you can read for the princely sum of bugger all, at the link here.

And while that's everything I've had out lately, I've made another couple of sales that are well worth a mention.  On the surface, Fall to Rise is a relatively straightforward, action-heavy story of the sort I don't generally write, but from my perspective it was actually an experiment in crafting a narrative bound almost entirely to a single location and with some very weird physical rules.  Like everything here, it's eccentric enough that it didn't expect it to be an easy sell, so I was extra-happy when it went to my 'zine of choice, Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  And that was doubly true for An Exchange of Values, Conducted in Good Faith, a story I wrote specifically with a market in mind, something so risky that I wouldn't normally take the chance.  Then it ended up being far longer than intended, drifting into novelette territory, and I really thought I'd shot myself in the foot - except that said market happened to up their word limit enough that it slipped through and, thank goodness, they liked it enough to say yes.  Since the ink's not yet dry on that one, I'd better not say who it was yet, so I'll settle for noting that with the year not yet half done, it's already proving to be one of the best I've had for short story sales, which is awfully appreciated given what a train wreck 2020 was on that (and every other!) front.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 99

It's fitting that, here on the cusp of the big one hundred post, we should go all in on the randomness, and this is definitely among the oddest selections we've had yet, if only for how I've somehow ended up with gross-out body horror placed next to a charming kids' movie about a friendly whale.  Aside from our first entry, finishing off the Lupin the Third marathon I've apparently been crawling my way through since way back in post 28 and November of 2017, there's nothing here that could remotely be considered famous or well-regarded.  And part of the reason for the obscurity is that, of the four titles here, one of them only ever came out on VHS and another seems to have had about the most limited DVD release imaginable, so you could definitely argue that there's a bit of barrel-scraping going on.

But no, let's try and be optimistic!  Surely there's got to be something worth a damn in among Lupin the Third: The Columbus Files, Kama Sutra, Apocalypse Zero, and Fly Peek: Peek the Baby Whale...?

Lupin the Third: The Columbus Files, 1999, dir: Setsuo Takase, Shin'ichi Watanabe

It's a lot of pressure to be the last of your kind of the millennium, so perhaps we shouldn't be unduly harsh toward The Columbus Files for being so mediocre as it is.  There's even an argument to be made that by the numbers was the way to go here, capping off a decade of TV specials that often hit considerable heights and sometimes pushed gently at the Lupin envelope but generally were content to turn up and get the job done.  And since that's mostly true of The Columbus Files, I'm again left to wonder how much my lack of enthusiasm for it was down to the fact that it was both the last Lupin TV special of the nineties and the last one I'll be covering in these reviews.

The immediate answer to that question is that, sure, there are many ways in which The Columbus Files is fine but not outstanding.  The artwork and animation are the one that stands out most: it's pleasing that the film doesn't try to veer too modern, but it just ends up looking very clean and crisp and thus a touch bland in the way anime from 1999 had a tendency to do.  There's nothing conspicuously wrong, and that's far from a given with Lupin specials, but two nights on and I struggle to think of a single scene or image that really wowed me.  Which is equally true of the narrative, at least in its broadest sense of a series of incidents: The Columbus Files rattles along from set piece to set piece, chucking in the odd comic interlude and pause for exposition, and it's all perfectly entertaining while you're watching, if somewhat overfamiliar if you've seen as many of these as I have.

Stripped down to its nuts and bolts, however, the plot is the one element that goes really, conspicuously wrong, and in rather a frustrating fashion, too.  The Columbus Files chooses for its focus Lupin's on-and-off lover and perpetual rival in the art of thievery Fujiko Mine, and specifically concentrates on their relationship and the matter of what actual feelings might or might not lie beneath all of Lupin's clowning and Fujiko's femme fatale games-playing.  This is a good angle for a Lupin film to cover, one of my favourite things about the series is that these relationships have plenty of potential depth for the creators willing to dive into them, and there's definitely gold to be mined here.  Unfortunately, The Columbus Files chooses to go about its self-imposed task by giving Fujiko amnesia, which is awfully cheesy, but might still get us somewhere interesting, except that Fujiko Mine with amnesia is pretty much not Fujiko Mine at all.  The version of the character we get instead is scarcely more than a plot device, a blank slate for Lupin to interact with and a victim to be protected and rescued; put all that against the regular Fujiko, a wily, back-stabbing, outrageously sexy master thief who's always two steps ahead of anyone in the room and ... well, you see the problem.*

The makers address this by introducing a second female protagonist, Rosaria, but that doesn't help because she isn't very interesting either and suffers from being tied into the main story in ways that do her no favours.  Come to think of it, The Columbus Files has one of the series' least interesting or thought-through McGuffins and dives so deeply into supervillain-of-the-week territory that it frequently ceases to feel like a Lupin-esque treasure hunt at all.  And here we are at the end of the review, and I've almost convinced myself that calling this one mediocre at the start was too kind.  But that's not true, I don't think; for the most part, I enjoyed it fine while I was watching, and though I wasn't blind to the narrative problems, the minute-by-minute high jinks were engaging enough to keep me from dwelling too hard.  Still, in a world where there are a staggering number of Lupin TV specials to choose from, it's fair to say that this one's more toward the bottom of the pile than the top.

Kama Sutra, 1991, dir's: Chihata Miyazaki, Masayuki Ozeki

It's almost impressive, really, how bad Kama Sutra manages to be at everything it attempts.  And for a forty minute OVA, it attempts quite a bit: at one point or another, it's an historical drama, a goofy comedy, an action movie, and an erotic thriller, at the very least.  To do none of those things with more than the barest modicum of competence, well, you don't just luck your way into a film-making mess like that.

Normally at this point I'd take a stab at a bit of a story summary, but among the things Kama Sutra is inordinately lousy at is communicating its plot, so the most I can do is offer up the bare bones.  We open in ancient India, and some bad guys are attacking some presumably non-bad guys, and there's a princess whose bodyguard gets killed, and then we cut to the present, at which point archaeologists have found the princess, who's been asleep all this time and has now woken up, which possibly has something to do with a magic sex cup - I definitely remember the magic sex cup being important - and then the main hero has sex with the archaeology professor's assistant, then his girlfriend turns up, then the bad guys arrive again and for some reason the main bad guy isn't dead either, and maybe there was a car chase?  I'm pretty sure there was a car chase.  And then more stuff happened and, look, I really wasn't concentrating by that point.  I mentioned the plot revolves around a magic sex cup, right?

Anyway, none of this is done even the slightest bit well, and also none of it fits together in any practical or productive way.  The action is devoid of thrills, the comedy is wacky and wholly lacking in actual jokes, the historical elements and the portrayal of India in general are as crass as you'd expect, and the erotica ... well, I'm torn between thinking that deserves a paragraph all of its own and wanting to skim over it as lightly as possible.  Given that the animation is as bad as anything I've ever seen in anime, there was never any hope of it succeeding, but the extent to which Kama Sutra screws up - if you'll pardon the pun - what you'd assume to be it's raison d'être is genuinely special.  There's only really one substantial sex scene, and not only does it take place in some bizarre sex pyramid that feels like something out of the movie Cube (and if you're half as prone to claustrophobia as I am is even more terrifying), it's hilariously unadventurous.  If most Go Nagai titles feel like the work of an excitable, slightly psychotic twelve-year-old boy who's just discovered his dad's hidden magazine collection, Kama Sutra takes that to a whole new level, and its notions of sex are absolutely those that said twelve-year-old would hold.  I mean, this is a supposedly erotic title that considers the woman being on top to be outlandish enough to be worthy of note!

There's a small part of me that wonders if Kama Sutra edges its way into so-bad-it's-good territory; I suspect parts of it will stick in my memory when scenes from merely mediocre anime have long since faded, and there's a fair chance that the nightmare sex pyramid will haunt me until my dying days.  But is that a reason to watch it?  No, it's most certainly not.  However, it is on Youtube, and while normally I'd get a bit sniffy about that socially acceptable piracy site, in this instance, I feel like the only person you'd really be stealing from if you spent ten minutes chuckling over the weirder and more absurd scenes in Kama Sutra is yourself.  So if all this talk of sex pyramids and magic sex cups has roused your curiosity, I guess that's an option - but just know that I take no responsibility!

Apocalypse Zero, 1996, dir: Toshiki Hirano

Apocalypse Zero has been sitting on the to-watch shelf for a very long time now, after I bought it out of a vague sense of duty and curiosity - could anything really be as nasty as this famously vile title was rumoured to be? - and then commenced to avoid it at every turn because I'm just not that much of a gore-hound and so much of the anime that's remembered solely for how horrible and boundary-pushing it was has turned out to be a depressing chore.  So colour me surprised: I didn't hate Apocalypse Zero.  Heck, I even quite enjoyed it.  I even got to the end and found myself wishing there was more; the plan was for an entire eight more episodes to finish off the tale begun in the two here, and while I perhaps couldn't have stomached that many, a couple more wouldn't have hurt.

Quite possibly this means I'm not a healthy or well-balanced human being, because there's no getting around it, Apocalypse Zero is phenomenally repellent.  Barely five minutes have gone by before we're watching an obese, mostly naked monster-woman sucking the face clean off someone's skull, and there's worse to come from there, all of it running along much the same lines: if you're at all uncomfortable with sexuality played up for maximum grotesqueness or weaponised genitalia or shots of body parts that really ought to be on the inside very much ending up where they shouldn't be, then Apocalypse Zero is going to push your buttons with maniacal determination.  And that, I think, is what ultimately made me warm to it; anyone can animate exploding bodies or deformed monstrosities, but to put this much effort and imagination into your unpleasantness?  On those terms, Apocalypse Zero is flat-out ingenious, to the point where it not only shocked me but surprised me, jaded film nerd that I am.

Now, I realise I've got this far without making any attempt to explain what the show is actually about, and while I could, I'm not convinced it would do anybody much good.  There's nothing original here except the levels of gore and general offensiveness, and on the whole, that's possibly for the best.  Because the gore's a lot to process in and of itself, and also clearly where everyone's creative attentions were focused, and likely a searingly original plot would only have got in the way.  Apocalypse Zero robs openly from things like Fist of the North Star and Violence Jack with its post-apocalyptic setting and from the likes of The Guyver with its sinister organic super-suits that look nearly as screwed-up and threatening as the villains, and it even dallies with a bit of high-school drama, à la more shows than I could name.  But in so much as it cares about any of this, it's on a level somewhere around pastiche, except without any of the overt humour that implies.  Apocalypse Zero takes itself entirely seriously, even when things are happening that surely we can't be expected not to find ridiculous, and after a while I came to suspect that was the joke: push the clichés of violent anime far beyond their breaking point, then push a bit further, and dare the audience to either switch off or to laugh.

Like I said, I'm probably a dreadful person, because I did laugh more than once, and frequently it was that gleeful sort of laugh you get from watching creators go to places you never expected them to go to, because there are levels of depravity that most of us - and even the creators of nineties anime video nasties - tend to back away from.  Then again, it may simply be that I'm a sucker for well-made animation, no matter what awfulness it's showing, and I'd have given Apocalypse Zero a pass on those grounds alone: compared with many of its peers that went for shocks over content, it's actually rather skilfully and thoughtfully put together.  Or just possibly there was a part of me that's been missing the kind of gonzo horror that, for example, a young Peter Jackson used to make in his Bad Taste and Braindead days.  Whatever the case, if you like your horror gross and deliriously weird, and you reckon you've seen everything, maybe you could do worse than tracking down Apocalypse Zero and discovering how wrong you can be.

Fly Peek: Peek the Baby Whale, 1991, dir: Kôji Morimoto

In so much as there are reasons to be talking about Fly Peek: Peek the Baby Whale, they mostly boil down to factors not directly relating to the film itself.  Historically it's greatest importance is surely that, a couple of years later, Hollywood would - arguably! - file the serial numbers off the story and release it under the title of Free Willy, a film that would go on to be bewilderingly successful and spawn an even more bewildering number of sequels.  I mean, I guess there's no proving it, or else we'd surely have heard about the lawsuit, but the two movies are exceedingly similar, down to some very specific details that are hard to rack up to parallel evolution.  And then, on a less contentious note, we have the fact that this is the sole feature-length work of director and producer Kôji Morimoto, who's had quite a fascinating career over the years, as both the co-founder of Studio 4°C and the man who's surely contributed to more anthology movies than anyone alive: Robot Carnival, Genius Party, The Animatrix, Short Peace, if you can name an anime anthology, he's probably in there.

None of this should be taken to suggest that Fly Peek - or whatever we choose to call a film that distributor Kiseki would only ever release on VHS and under an unholy splodge of a title - isn't worth discussing in its own right.  Actually, it's very much good enough to make Morimoto's lack of a return to directing features quite saddening.  If I say that it has the feel of a minor Studio Ghibli work from around the same time, that's also not meant as a criticism.  It's very much a kids' movie, though with enough depth and edge to reward any adults who happen to be in the room, and though its character designs are simple and rather old-fashioned for the start of the nineties, the animation is detailed and the backgrounds are lavish, and also actively Ghibli-esque in places: the city that the back half of the film takes place in feels like a semi-remembered fever dream of a European coastal town more than an actual, physical space in ways that work to the considerable benefit of the material.

There are, it has to be said, some narrative problems along the way.  The extent to which the film breaks into two clean halves is frustrating, even if it's not particularly damaging when all's told.  In the first half, we follow brothers Kai and Moito, who find a way to deal with the grief surrounding their drowned father** by caring for a stranded albino baby whale that they name Peek.  This all gets wrapped up when a nasty bit of bullying toward the two brothers leads to the rest of the village learning their secret, which in short order means that Peek becomes the property of a nearby sea circus and its unscrupulous owner, who sees the infant whale as a potential attraction and has no qualms about keeping it imprisoned for the rest of its life.  Once Kai learns of the obvious deception he's fallen for, he heads off to set things right, at which point the film basically reboots itself and forgets about Moito, to the extent that he never appears in a scene beyond that point.  Along with that, there's a noticeably different tone and the introduction of an all-new major character in the shape of the sea circus owner's daughter Maila, and while both halves are up to good stuff on their own terms, it's by and large very different stuff, especially since the back end is a good deal more action heavy.

We know it's possible to navigate this sort of narrative with more grace and coherency because ... well, I'm only going off the synopsis here, having never seen it, but I get the sense that Free Willy managed to iron out the weirder glitches and streamline those two chunks of plot into one.  On the other hand, there's something quite charming about the way Fly Peek is so willing to buck storytelling common sense and just keep the focus where it needs to be, no matter if that means ditching what we'd been led to believe was a crucial character.  And even with that odd flaw, and its strange character designs, and a theme that feels somewhat overfamiliar here in 2021, there's a lot else that's charming, enough to make the film's almost total vanishment from the world seem as sad as its director's vanishment from the realm of feature-length movie making.  Fortunately, it's made its way onto Youtube in a surprisingly nice (if annoyingly cropped) print, so if you've burned your way through all of Ghibli and fancy a sweet, ever-so-slightly dark, lovingly made anime kids film, this one's definitely worthy of your time.

-oOo-

Despite what I suggested above, I feel like I can't really go recommending Apocalypse Zero to other human beings, what with how completely depraved and wrong it is almost from start to finish, so ... er, let's just pretend I never said that, all right?  Which leaves us with just Fly Peek, not quite a lost treasure but certainly a film that deserved a far better reception than it got in the West and is long overdue a DVD or Blu-ray release.  Or alternatively, if you just want to laugh at something startlingly awful, there's always Kama Sutra!

And with that, there's nowhere left to go but across the Rubicon and into post number 100.  This is the big one, folks!



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


* In the interests of fairness, I will say that the point at which Fujiko finally gets her memories back is one of the character's most hilariously bad-ass highlights, so that's something.

** A drowned father, incidentally, that the dialogue seems to uncritically suggest was a whaler, making for a film that's apparently much more comfortable with the killing and eating of whales than the idea of keeping them in captivity.

Friday, 30 April 2021

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 98

We're in the ballpark of having a proper unifying theme for our four entries this time around, which is always a surprise.  Granted, its a theme that covers quite a bit of anime from the time, but all of these titles were attempts to pick up a beloved franchise years or even decades after its heyday and to take it in a bold new direction.  This is something anime can be unusually good at, and for me that has a lot to do with a willingness to go against the apparent grain of what made a property popular or successful and try to find an excitingly different angle, meaning that, while the results aren't necessarily always great, they at least tend to interesting.

Do these four manage to pull that off, though, or do they just end up as crass imitations?  Let's dig into Gatchaman, New Hurricane Polymar, Tekkaman Blade II, and New Kimagure Orange Road: Summer's Beginning...

Gatchaman, 1994, dir: Akihiko Nishiyama

Resurrecting a classic property years later is a tightrope walk.  Alter too much and you risk losing the original appeal; alter too little and you've made a rehash rather than a reboot.  Go too dark, go too funny, go too campy, change the characters, don't change the characters ... there are no end of ways to get it wrong, and because you're dealing with something that was once - and you're presumably hoping, still is - much-loved, the ire you'll receive when you screw up, or even just go a little bit awry, is liable to be far harsher than if you'd messed up on a fresh idea.

Gatchaman - that is, the 1994 reimagining of the seventies TV series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which reached the West in mangled form under the title Battle of the Planets - absolutely nails it.  And though the reasons it does so are many and varied, I'd argue that the primary source of its success is an absolute, unshakeable conviction that Gatchaman, and more specifically the superhero team that goes by that name, is the coolest thing ever.  Practically from its opening moments, Gatchaman grabs you by the throat and screams, "Look at them!  They're science ninjas, damn it!  Ninjas!  With science stuff!  And they're dressed like birds!  How cool is that?!"  Which, if you'd asked me two days ago, I'd have replied, "I guess maybe mildly cool?" but now that I've seen the Gatchaman OVA would have to admit is so cool that everything else henceforward is going to seem just a bit less cool for the fact that this exists.

Because, in director Nishiyama's hands, these kids really are awesome.  One of the major changes, perhaps inevitably, is an upping of the violence levels, and while that's generally an obvious and tacky route to take a reboot down, here it means that the Gatchaman team get to really ninja it up, taking out endless goons in ludicrously slick fashion.  Plus, though there's no actual sex and nary a sniff of romance, the sex appeal has been dialled up to eleven: unsurprisingly, that means token girl member Jun looking hot and getting stuck with a flash of nudity, but actually it's team leader Ken who gets sexualised the most.  (Indeed, Jun is treated with more dignity than this type of show normally allows, being both a genuinely useful team member and as deft at kicking ass as anyone.)  More generally, though, the attention to detail in ensuring that everything relating to the team - every pose, every gesture, every neat vehicle transformation and dramatic cape flap - is as hypnotically stylish as can be suggests a passion for this material that went far beyond the usual cash-grubbing.

The same is true for the animation, which, taking into account the fact that this is an OVA of two and a bit hours, is awfully close to "no expenses spared" territory.  Obviously, some expenses were spared, and that even includes a spot of reused animation, but since that consists of the sort of sequences you'd expect to be reused - the one I first spotted was Joe's plane docking with the team's supersonic jet God Phoenix - it's almost more a virtue than a flaw.  The same goes for the score, which is often very cheesy indeed, down to an absurd hair-rock anthem for the closing credits, and yet feels like a perfect fit for a title that manages to have its cake and eat it by simultaneously going down the seemingly incompatible superhero routes of dark brooding and gleeful retro camp and somehow landing them both.

Arguably, the only point where that categorically doesn't work is the plot, or at any rate the parts of the plot that relate to its villain's motives, which are the most incompressible, self-contradictory nonsense you could hope for.  Yet even there, it's hard to grumble; probably that (and other issues, for that matter) would stand out more to someone who'd never encountered Gatchaman before in either its Japanese or US iterations, but with the TV-footage-recycling movie and dim childhood memories of the show behind me, nonsensical villain motives felt very much par for the course.  I suppose in a sense that's giving Gatchaman bonus points for being Gatchaman, but so be it: if there's one lesson I've learned lately, it's that Gatchaman is the coolest thing imaginable and deserves all the bonus points it can get.*

New Hurricane Polymar, 1996, dir: Akiyuki Shinbo

On the face of it, New Hurricane Polymar is something we've seen plenty of around these parts, and indeed something we were looking at just a paragraph ago, a gritty reboot of a much older series that attempts to drag its source material into the present without losing too much of what was appealing in the first place.  Though within anime and Japanese culture in general, we could go further than that, since shows about youthful heroes battling crime with the aid of super-suits of one sort or another are part of the bread and butter of the nation's media.  And - again, on the face of it - there really isn't a lot to differentiate New Hurricane Polymar.  Teenager Takeshi Yoroi finds himself the recipient of a curious red helmet in the mail, sent by a schoolfriend he hasn't seen in ages, a genius scientist who we already know and he quickly discovers has been murdered by a vicious terrorist organisation hellbent on hastening the human race's extinction from climate disaster.  Fortunately, or maybe not so fortunately, Takeshi is the sole employee of hapless detective Joe Kuruma, who's just competent enough to track the terrorists but not at all competent enough to do anything about their shenanigans, at least not without the aid of a besuited hero by the name of Hurricane Polymar.

One obvious element that sets this apart from similar titles is the talent at the helm.  Here we have another work from someone we've seen a lot of in these reviews, director Akiyuki Shinbo, who'd only really come to widespread fame on the back of the superb Puella Magi Madoka Magica, but who'd been quietly banging out work that ranged from respectable to great for nearly two decades by that point.  Back in 1996, Shinbo was the better kind of hack, in that I don't imagine this was a passion project and there's not a great deal of directorial presence, but at the same time, everything is delivered with an unobtrusive sense of style that suggests a creator with talent and ideas to spare.  However, if you're up on your anime, it's not Shinbo who leaves the most noticeable mark but character designer Yasuomi Umetsu, who a couple of years on from this would make his own directorial feature debut with the notorious Kite, where he'd blatantly rip off one of his own designs to such an extent that it's really damn noticeable.  I mean, I had to keep doing double takes to be sure that Takeshi and Joe's landlady wasn't actually teen assassin Sawa and about to kill everyone in the room.**  Honestly, it's a little distracting, but hey, at least we get some unusually imaginative character designs, so there's that.

Neither Shinbo nor Umetsu's presence, however, is what ultimately makes New Hurricane Polymar feel different from its many counterparts.  What does the trick is more a matter of tone, and how the show opts to push hard into being about comedy as much as it's about action.  And even that isn't really it, since anime is frequently willing to throw daft comedy antics into something that, judging by the bloody violence and gratuitous nudity, might not be the most obvious fit.  But New Hurricane Polymar takes that to a whole 'nother level in a way I can't say I've seen before: it feels, essentially, like two different shows smushed together.  The action stuff is very much what you'd expect of the genre and is taken completely seriously; I'd go so far as to say that there isn't a hint of humour at any point when Takeshi's suited up.  Whereas outside of those scenes, the comedy balance is way higher than you'd expect, to the extent that we get regular insights from Joe Kuruma's dog and there's a running joke about how his office is dangerously uninhabitable that runs so hard that it starts to overtake the A plot.

It's all very weird, and while it's maddening that only two half-hour episodes of New Hurricane Polymar were ever made, I can kind of see why this might not have found its market.  Were the action scenes not so deadly serious, and indeed so well done, I'd be inclined to suggest that it feels like the work of people who simply didn't want to make the product they'd been handed and decided to sabotage it from within.  But that's not at all the vibe: the stuff with Hurricane Polymar is plenty good in its own right, it just keeps on taking a back seat to the comic side of things, which has the benefit of feeling that bit fresher.  Slam them together and you definitely have an odd mix that never quite gels, but at the same time one that's surprising and entertaining in a way a synopsis would barely hint at.  If New Hurricane Polymar had been finished - and hey, it's only missing one episode! - I'd be pushing it enthusiastically, but even at only an hour, it's still a bit special.

Tekkaman Blade II, 1994, dir: Hideki Tonokatsu

Just what is it you come to a sci-fi show about people in cool suits fighting aliens for?  Is it the people in cool suits fighting aliens?  Or is it more the rambling character drama?  Do you really like to watch your heroes bickering about nothing much?  And then making up?  And then bickering some more?  Do you want them to obsess incessantly over who has a crush on who, and would absolutely everyone have a crush on somebody else - somebody who's guaranteed not to like them in return - as though they're really in high school and not defending the Earth from imminent annihilation?  Well, if all of that's the case, then boy are you going to love Tekkaman Blade II.

An OVA follow-up to a lengthy series that sounds as though it didn't need much following up, Tekkaman Blade II is effectively Tekkaman The Next Generation, which would be a reasonable enough approach to take if it weren't for the fact that the new character it fixes its attentions on is Yumi Francois, a young mechanic who's recruited to the team for absolutely no imaginable reason.  Granted, the "apparently incompetent new recruit turns out to be the one team member who can save the world" trope is about as old as sci-fi anime itself, but it pretty much has to go one of two ways: either they have some hitherto-unknown power that makes them especially capable or they're so uniquely personable that they become the heart and soul that nobody realised the team was missing.  So that Yumi Francois starts out as an annoying cretin and ends up as an annoying cretin and only accomplishes anything whatsoever because she's inadvertently given access to a devastating superweapon that she just barely figures out how to control is ... well, it's a fresh take, I'll give Tekkaman Blade II that much.

Fortunate for those fans of teenaged soap opera, then, that the show is much more interested in Yumi's love life - though even there, it's even more interested in showing her and any other female characters naked at every opportunity.  And somewhere amid the lingering shots of bare breasts and bums and the endless scenes of Yumi pining over the hilariously nicknamed D-Boy, there's that aforementioned sci-fi show about people in cool suits fighting aliens, which for the first three episodes feels so pushed into the background that you wonder why they bothered.  When an actual plot of sorts starts up after the midway point, it's quite the shock, but an improvement nonetheless, since those back three episodes contain the seeds of an interesting story.  Unfortunately, it's one that relies heavily on knowledge of the original series that the OVA has shown zero interest in sharing, and even at its best, the delivery's decidedly clunky.  Most noticeably, it seems the writers heard about foreshadowing once but didn't get how it was supposed to work; a crucial character relationship is dropped in three episodes before it will matter by having one of the female pilots take a phone call from her father - while topless, of course! - and another pilot's tragic backstory is hinted at by having him randomly quoting the bible, again a good hour before the reasons why will become apparent.  It's so clumsy that it's kind of endearing.

The only element of Tekkaman Blade II that's unequivocally a success is the animation, which is thoroughly decent all the way through, if never eye-popping.  And the bulk of the design work is relatively appealing, too, though when things go wrong they go really wrong.  In particular, I struggle to think of an instance where that hideous trope of making the female characters' suits look super-girly so we don't for an instant forget they're girls has felt more stupid and inappropriate; Yumi's suit looks as though someone had a last-minute panic and decided to stick giant cherry blossom petals all over it.  Like Yumi herself, it's a bizarre attempt to bring something kitschy and cutesy to a show that otherwise seems determined to be quite grim and serious, and as with most everything about Tekkaman Blade II, it leaves you with the distinct sense that the creators had no idea what they were trying to accomplish.

New Kimagure Orange Road: Summer's Beginning, 1996, dir: Kunihiko Yuyama

It's hard to know just what we're meant to make of Summer's Beginning.  It came relatively close on the heels of the Kimagure Orange Road TV series and the prior film that brought it to an ostensible close, with a gap of a mere eight years, and certainly positions itself more as a continuation than any sort of spin-off or reboot.  And yet it does insist on calling itself New Kimagure Orange Road and in general on having the feel of a revamp even when it picks up so directly from I Want to Return to That Day that it repeats a handful of crucial scenes by way of a recap.

Then again, you can see the makers might have felt that a bit of ambiguity was in their favour.  Continuing a plot that was functionally complete while also insisting on taking things in a new direction has the unfortunate effect of making Summer's Beginning feel distinctly like fan fiction, and it has to jump through quite a string of hoops even to get itself started.  This second movie picks up three years after the first left off - with Kyosuke and Madoka finally a couple and Hikaru heartbroken but already bouncing back via a burgeoning career as a dancer in musicals - and thus far, their lives have continued to follow roughly the same tangents.  Kyosuke and Madoka are still together, though his job as a photojournalist has kept them separate for a while, and Hikaru has been Stateside with her work.  However, that all gets shaken up when the present-day Kyosuke and the Kyosuke of three years earlier both have near-fatal accidents, leaving younger Kyosuke in the body of his older self and older Kyosuke stuck in some sort of limbo.

This is a breathtakingly contrived way of getting Summer's Beginning to the point it apparently needs to be at, which is to tempt Kyosuke with the what-might-have-been of seeing a more grown-up Hikaru, one who's come out the other side of the pain of their breakup as a stronger, tougher, more likeable person, but also isn't so past it that she doesn't have a yearning for the guy who dumped her all those years ago.  And as riddled with problems as that setup is, it's not devoid of appeal.  Like I said, this has the feel of something fans eager for more might cook up, yet it also seems like the work of people who genuinely cared about these characters and knew their history and hidden depths and wanted to do them justice.  On that level, it's often a success: as much as I loved I Want to Return to That Day, I wouldn't class myself as a Kimagure Orange Road devotee, yet there was many a moment that I got a kick out of.  The best of those, for me, revolved around Madoka and Hikaru, and if there was a loose thread left hanging, it was that their friendship seemed irreparably broken, so I appreciated the less cavalier approach Summer's Beginning took to the matter of their relationship.

Not everything succeeds so well.  My biggest bugbear was how obsessed Summer's Beginning was with the prospect of Kyosuke and Madoka first sleeping together, to the extent that it becomes a crucial ongoing plot point; it's handled tolerably enough, in fairness, but it definitely undermines the maturity shown elsewhere and veers terribly close to being the wrong sort of fan service.  And there are some technical issues along the way, too, in the shape of a slight but noticeable lack of polish in places where the film would greatly have benefited from it.  For example, a crucial scene in which Hikaru gets to show off her dancing falls flat because, if the animation is to be believed, she isn't really all that good.  On the other hand, the film does an excellent job of updating the classic character designs and of using its visuals to convey the crucial shift into adulthood that's so essential to its themes.

There isn't really a good reason for New Kimagure Orange Road: Summer's Beginning to exist, following on as it does from an ending that was to all intents perfect and setting itself the task of answering questions that didn't need asking.  However, perhaps as much through luck as judgement, it hits on some genuinely emotive topics - the idea that this version of Hikaru that Kyosuke is so enticed by only exists because their breakup forced her to grow up and find her inner strength is quite fascinating - and there are plenty of individual scenes that land with real force.  The problem is that Summer's Beginning has to wrap itself in such knots to get to that material, and all the body-swapping and time-jumping stuff is much less interesting than the simple character beats that, after all, are what Kimagure Orange Road was fundamentally about.  Still, there's pleasure to be had here, even if its not consistent, making for an addition to the franchise that just about earns its seat at the table.

-oOo-

Despite what I said in the introduction, there's only one real triumph here, though what a triumph it is!  The Gatchaman OVA is a masterclass in how to get a revamp right, so much so that it's hardly fair to weigh anything else against it.  On the other hand, Tekkaman Blade II is the only major failure, and I don't know whether that has much to do with it being a reboot, though it would surely have been better if it had settled on either telling its own story or developing what had come before rather than uneasily shuttling between the two.  As for the rest, New Hurricane Polymar is perhaps the most interesting title in terms of how it goes about reimaging its source material, whereas New Kimagure Orange Road is the most strange and baffling, and probably deserves credit for being as good as it is when it's so inherent misconceived.

And with that, we're exceedingly close to the big one hundred post, which I'm mostly through writing ... I'd have got there a lot quicker if I didn't keep getting dizzy from all the excitement!  In the meantime, however, we've one more batch of random nonsense to look forward to, so expect that in the not-too-distant future...



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* If there were two, the other one would be that when I grow up I want to be a science ninja.

** Though what I was really reminded of, and what New Hurricane Polymar is reminiscent of in quite a number of ways, is Umetsu's much-underrated 2004 TV series Mezzo DSA.