Friday, 8 May 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 2

A month on and my inexplicable obsession with tracking down and watching nineties anime shows no signs of abating, even as the hope of discovering rare gems amidst the brightly coloured dross looks increasingly desperate.  Still, it's proving an educational experience, and also a deal of fun, because say what you like about nineties anime but even during its worst excesses it's rarely less than entertaining.

This week, the animated self-flagellation continues with Bubblegum Crash!, Virus Buster Serge, Amon Saga and Rayearth...

Bubblegum Crash!, 1991, dir's: Hiroyuki Fukushima, Hiroshi Ishiodori

This came as a pleasant surprise after watching things like Ninja Scroll, in that it had mostly female protagonists and it didn't feel the need to treat them entirely like crap.  But in retrospect, that perhaps gained it bonus points it didn't fully deserve, since none of those cast members were developed much beyond 'this one's a pop star, this one's a stock-trader' and - maybe more importantly - they were still fighting in mech suits with built-in high heels.  Still, it wasn't awful, and as I get deeper into this self-dug hole, the more I appreciate just how good 'not awful' can be. The characters are likable, the action sequences energetic, and each of the three episodes is noticeably better than the last, until it all wraps up in satisfying fashion - though one that relies a little too heavily on familiarity with the series, Bubblegum Crisis, that Bubblegum Crash was a spin-off from.

At any rate, of everything I've watched so far, Bubblegum Crash felt somehow most typically nineties-anime, and it's also my favourite example of the titling convention of flinging unrelated words together and expecting them to make sense, so that's something, I guess.

Virus Buster Serge, 1997, dir. Masami Ôbari

I can't quite rationalize my affection for Virus Buster Serge.  Objectively I know it's barely a jot better than, say, Bubblegum Crash or Detonator Orgun, the latter of which it even has the misfortune of sharing a director with, the apparently somewhat infamous Masami Ôbari.  And it's not exactly difficult to list its faults, which include a plot that starts at barely comprehensible and then proceeds to be as obtuse as it can, and some of the most eye-watering character design you're ever likely to witness - yes, her eyes are really that big! - which gives the entire twelve episode series the vibe of some twisted alternate-universe YMCA video.

Still, I enjoyed it, and there's no question but that it gets a few things more or less right.  In fact, it begins extraordinarily well, with a creepy introductory dialogue between disembodied voices that sets up the back story and a credits sequence with one hell of a good tune attached.  Sadly, from there on in, things get more hit and miss: you have those ghastly characters, but the mecha and monster design is rather nice; a genuinely intriguing plot suffers from being delivered in nuggets of cryptic dialogue that pop up about once in every two episodes; the animation quality is hopelessly inconsistent, with terrible sections around the middle and a noticeable upswing towards the end.

Taking all of that into account, I suspect that much of my unreasonable fondness for Virus Buster Serge has to do with the fact that it feels, in a few specific ways, like a demo reel for one of my all-time favourite series, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - and however many qualifications I might heap upon that statement, it remains a compliment.  There's a vast gap between the edgy cyberpunk masterpiece that Virus Buster Serge wants to be and the camp, cryptic oddity that it is, but for ambition alone it remains an intriguing failure.

Amon Saga, 1986*, dir: Shunji Ôga

Another film that get's bonus points for being not awful, your tolerance for Amon Saga will likely depend on how passionate you are about hackneyed, eighties-style fantasy plots.  For Amon Saga has barely a dash of originality about it anywhere, with the possible exception of the fact that the main bad guy travels around on the back of a gigantic turtle - a notion that would soon afterwards be ripped off, to slightly better effect, by arcade game Golden Axe.  (Though the chronology makes such a thing impossible, Amon Saga feels exactly as though it was written while playing Golden Axe, which is probably an excellent measure of much you'll get out of it.)

The frustrating thing is that it all starts quite promisingly, with a first act in which our titular hero works to get close to his nemesis by joining his army via a brutal gladiatorial initiation test.   If the individuals elements are hackneyed and the animation rarely strays above functional, it at least feels like a fresh way into an old story, and one that promises some fun moral greyness; just how much evil henchmanery will Amon have to get up to before he seals the deal?  Which makes it all the more disappointing when Amon Saga hurries to drop that whole undercover hero aspect in favour of  more traditional Sword and Sorcery nonsense.

Still, it's all quite watchable.  And when the lackluster sword fights give way to a bit of magical dueling towards the end, things pick up so dramatically that you have to wonder why the animators made the film they did, given that they were clearly more invested in animating wizards doing trippy things to the insides of each others' heads.  All in all then, no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but not an unpleasant way to pass an hour and a half either, so long as you're basically sympathetic towards the cliches of eighties fantasy.

Rayearth, 1997, dir's: Toshihiro Hirano, Keitarô Motonaga

Let's end on a film that could - with a little squinting and wishful thinking - be described as genuinely good: the OVA** of the series Magic Knight Rayearth.  It is, at any rate, a huge technical step up from a lot of what I've been watching lately, and a clear high point in Manga Video's Collection series, which appears to have been a dumping ground for absolutely anything they could license at a knock-down price.  Rayearth looks not unlike modern anime, its animation is never less than adequate and often very good indeed, and while it never strays far from a great many anime cliches, the particular ways in which it combines them are at points genuinely thrilling.

Still, it remains hard to get all the way past that sense of familiarity.  In fact, with a plot that finds three schoolgirls trying to defend Tokyo with the aid of a magic cherry tree fairy and element-themed spirit animals that turn into giant, upgradeable mecha-beasts, Rayearth plays out like Digimon with an awful lot more blood and nudity.  (I honestly don't know if that's a recommendation or a warning.)  Plot-wise, a dense back story makes up for the fact that there's not much in the way of actual present story - the girls take turns worrying over not having powers, then get their powers, then get into scraps using their powers - and yet somehow it plays out quite satisfyingly.  The third act revelations, when they come, perhaps don't warrant all the mystery that's come before, but sometimes it's fun to be kept guessing, and at least it all about adds up in retrospect.

So, a qualified thumbs up then, especially taking into account that, like everything here, you can pick up Rayearth for pennies.  If you enjoy anime, there are worse ways to pass a couple of hours, and if you don't then ... um ... well done for reading this far, I guess.


Looking back over this, it would appear that I enjoyed just about everything I've watched, whilst at the same time not considering much of it to be particularly good.  Clearly my standards are dropping at a rate of knots!  And given the sound of some of the things I've purchased for round three, that can surely only be a good thing...

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

* Okay, so this one's a slight cheat, but it was released in the UK in the nineties, I think probably.

** Original Video Animation, or straight-to-DVD feature, as I discovered when I finally got round to Googling it after twenty years of watching anime.


  1. My main take away from this is to be glad I didn't get into manga until recently. I love Akira and really enjoyed Ghost in the Shell, but a lot of this stuff sounds less than inspiring.

  2. This was not, it has to be said, a particularly brilliant selection. But it was still a lot of fun! Oh, and if you're relatively new to anime, the top ten I did a while back might be of interest:, (To which I'd definitely add the recently re-released Wings of Honneamise, which would probably nudge into my all-time sci-fi top ten as well. Oh, and Wolf Children, which is perhaps the most perfect film I've seen this year. And probably a ton of other stuff too!)

  3. Thanks for the recommendations - I'll see if anything on those lists is on Netflix, as that's my entire source of viewing at the moment. Sadly the closest they have to Wolf Children appears to be 'Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman', and if I wanted to listen to shrill whining noises I'd go listen to [insert pet hate here, I'm all burned out after the election].