Sunday, 29 March 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 1

There are those who'll tell you that anime has never been the same since the nineties ended.  I'd point those people to the likes of - just off the top of my head, mind - works like Summer Wars, Wolf Children, Ergo Proxy, Fractale, King of Thorn and From the New World.  Judging solely on the basis of my recent watching, it seems to me like we've never had it so good when it comes to gorgeous, intelligent, adult-orientated Eastern animation.

Yet, for reasons I can't explain* I've found myself drawn lately to broaden my knowledge of nineties anime, which, while it may not be the epitome of the form, is undeniably an interesting era in its development; the decade in which it really began to make inroads into the west, with classics like Perfect Blue, Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell, and perhaps too the decade that defined many of the tropes it would keep returning to.

Or maybe not!  I argue here from a position of self-avowed ignorance, after all.  I've seen the  classics, and a few random oddities, but until recently that was it.  So I guess this has partly been about filling the gaps in my knowledge; but also, let's face it, partly about chilling out with a load of insane Japanese cartoons about giant robots, dodgy tentacle-monsters and ninjas...

Ninja Scroll, 1993, dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Speaking of which: Ninja Scroll is apparently regarded as something of a classic of its era, and it's not so hard to see why.  It has a distinctive look, slick animation, particularly fun action sequences, some terrific character designs - its rogues gallery of weird villains are a constant source of pleasure - and an overall vibe of gothic grotesqueness that's strangely satisfying.

That said, those are about the only things it truly nails. I've seen a few reviews that praise its plot, while baffles me, since there really isn't much of one: there's an evil scheme that needs uncovering before the final showdown, and it's developed in a somewhat non-linear fashion that someone somewhere might conceivably find confusing, but swerving a little on the way from A to B does not make you Tolstoy.  On top of that, there are aspects of Ninja Scroll that date it for the worst possible reasons.  In particular, it puts its female protagonist through a deal of unpleasantness - including a graphic sexual assault - that the film then makes use of in all the wrong ways, wasting an intriguing character in the process.

Still, there's not a great deal of point getting into anime if you're not willing to enjoy a movie that's basically a string of kinetic, gloriously animated, imaginative fight sequences.  And there's no denying that I did enjoy Ninja Scroll for the things it got right, which was plenty; it's just that at the same time a few conspicuous flaws made it tough to love.

Detonator Orgun, 1991, dir: Masami Ôbari

I was looking forward to Detonator OrgunMostly because I'm a sucker for giant robots punching each other and because it was called Detonator Orgun, a title that positively oozes nineties animeness.  I know what a detonator is, I sort of know what an Orgun is (although I surely wouldn't spell it that way) but put those two words together and I don't have a clue what it might mean, which is exactly the sort of nonsensical ambiguity I expect from my nineties anime titles.   

Detonator Orgun did not much live up to its promise.  Much of this can be laid at the door of its hero, Tomoru, who's an unbearable dick even by the standards of nineties male anime heroes - which I'm coming to think are not exactly high.  I mean, look at him; I bet his favourite movie is Top Gun.  Who's he waving at?  What's with that hairstyle?  Dick.

However, as we'll see in a minute, anime movies don't live and die by how much you want to punch their heroes in the face.  Sadly, Tomoru and his blue jeans and leather jacket combo aren't exactly unrepresentative of what's happening elsewhere in Detonator Orgun.  The supporting cast are uniformly lifeless, and in particular it treats its female characters like crap, which by this point I was beginning to suspect was a definite thing with nineties anime.  The animation is resolutely average, though it does come to life in the battle sequences.  However even there, there are but three major tussles and the second is a reprise of the first, which makes it feel positively action-light when you've just watched something like Ninja Scroll.  Likewise, it has the seeds of an interesting plot, the explanation of where its villains have come from being particularly gonzo, but since that only really comes into play in the third act it adds up to too little too late.

It's a shame, because there's definitely a better film struggling to get out here.  If the main character was less of a douche-sack, if the rest of the cast were given more to do, if half an hour of nothing much happening were shaved off, then it would be ... well, above average, at least.  As it is, it's tough to recommend for anything besides its robot on robot action.**

Landlock, 1995, dir: Yasuhiro Matsumura

I came into this anime binge with no conscious agenda, and it was only when I watched Landlock that I began to realise just what I was after.  For there are few things more satisfying for a film geek than unearthing a minor treasure that everyone else seems to have forgotten or  overlooked entirely.  Landlock, then, was my first real success story: no-one much seems to give a damn about it, but for me it was like a cut-price Nausicaa, its imaginative fantasy shenanigans given a touch of class by some early Masamune Shirow character designs.

Following its plot of gods warring - much of which occurs entirely off-screen - relies on paying close attention to one brief splurge of back-mythology and then doing a deal of mental putting together of pieces to figure out just how that relates to the events of the film.  I found that brazenness charming; most other reviews seem to consider it irritating, or to have assumed the movie makes no sense.  And possibly it doesn't, but I'm looking forward to watching it again with the hindsight of knowing the ending.

Other than that, perhaps Landlock's greatest weaknesses are an underdeveloped (though teasingly interesting) villain and perhaps the dullest hero and heroine of any anime film ever.  But that sounds worse than it is, because the show gets entirely stolen within a few scenes by its supporting cast: the head bad guy's daughter, Agahali, who quickly cottons on to the fact that she might not be on the side of the angels, is particularly brilliant; but her henchman, Volk, who has such an enormous crush on her that he turns traitor at the drop of a hat comes close.  It has a heroic entomologist, for crying out loud!  What do people want?

So while it's possible and even likely that Landlock is terrible, you know what?  I'm recommending it anyway.

Macross Plus, 1994, dir's: Shôji Kawamori, Shinichirô Watanabe

 Another well-reputed movie, in this case one that's set within the universe of the equally reputable Robotech series, which I've had no experience at all with.  Macross Plus comes in two forms, one episodic and the other movie length, and I've only watched the first so far; I can see it working better all cut together, but as it was, it left me a little cold.  The conceit of fighter planes that turn into robots - often mid-fight - is tremendously fun, and makes for some thrilling, absurdly fast-paced battle sequences.  But that most of those fights revolve around a love triangle in which none of the participants are particularly likable does take the edge off, as does the fact that both the men involved are supposed to be professional test pilots and yet spend all their time trying to kill each other in a years-old grudge.  (Where I come from, we tend to fire our professional test pilots for blowing each other up over their shared girlfriend.)

Speaking of which, by this point it will come as a surprise to no one that the female characters don't get treated with a great deal of respect.  It's a particular shame here, though, because the B-plot - which follows the female lead and the galaxy's first AI pop star - spends much of its time threatening to go to far more interesting places than the A-plot, before they finally join up and Macross Plus decides to opt for the most obvious route instead.  Still, there's plenty to entertain on the way, and if the conclusion isn't exactly groundbreaking, it's a fair amount of fun nonetheless; frankly the technical values here are good enough on their own to keep the thing watchable.  That goes double for the music, which is consistently superb; it's no wonder that, high-speed transforming dogfights aside, the moments that stick in memory are the outstanding concert sequences.

Also, Bryan Cranston does one of the voices on the dub, which surely warrants a couple of bonus points.


Right, that'll do for the moment - mainly because that's about everything I've watched so far.  Despite some distinctly mixed success, the nineties anime bug hasn't unbitten me yet, so hopefully I'll get around to a part 2 in the not too distant future.  Could there be more Landlocks hiding out there?  I can but hope!

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

* Well, I do know one reason: you can pick them up second hand for pennies.

** Wait, that sounds wrong.

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