Friday, 29 May 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 3

As we enter part 3 of this interminable series (it's perfectly possible that I'll keep going for as long as I can keep finding nineties anime, and there's still a fair bit on the to-watch shelf), the lows actually seem to be getting lower; but that's okay, because the highs are getting correspondingly higher, to the point where I've stumbled across a couple of things I'd never even remotely heard of before all this began and which are genuinely great.  I mean, really, objectively great; not like Landlock great, and definitely not like Virus Buster Serge great.  [Checks previous article to confirm he didn't really try and convince anyone Virus Buster Serge was any kind of good.  Breathes sigh of relief.]

Okay, onwards and upwards!  This week: Vampire Hunter D, Dangaoih, Orguss 02 and Roujin Z...

Vampire Hunter D, 1985, dir: Toyoo Ashida

All right, I should probably stop claiming that these articles are about nineties anime.  Vampire Hunter D hails from all the way back in 1985, and if it has one absolutely terminal problem, it's that: low-budget animated pictures from thirty years ago do not look great, or even much more than adequate today.  (To put that time period in perspective, Disney released The Black Cauldron in the same year, with The Little Mermaid, the beginning of the Disney Renaissance and what we tend to think of as modern animation still a good four years away.)

Anyway, I'm assuming here that Vampire Hunter D was low-budget, but since my knowledge of eighties anime is even more scant than my knowledge of nineties anime, perhaps it was absolutely cutting edge at the time.  It hardly matters now, since it still looks horrible: dark colours, dull backgrounds - or frequently no backgrounds at all - and stilted animation.  What salvages it, somewhat, is the design work, the inherent appeal of which often manages to bypass the actual production, and the sheer goddamn weirdness of so much of what it's representing.  Vampire Hunter D takes place in a distant future that mixes high technology and Gothic grotesqueness, and there are points where it plays that concept for all it's worth; in those moments, the movie almost seems recommendable.

There is, however, one flaw with that logic, and that's the fact that sequel / follow-up Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust would be released fifteen years later.  Bloodlust contains everything that's good in Vampire Hunter D, has few to none of its failings, and is a tremendously good bit of gory action sci-fi that I'd recommend without hesitation.  If Bloodlust didn't exist, Vampire Hunter D might skirt by on its limited charms; since it does, it's hard to think of any reason to go back.

Dangaoih, 1987, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

Not so long ago I was debating the virtues of the company Manga Video with a friend.  He had a soft spot for them on the grounds that when he was getting into anime into the late eighties and early nineties they were about the only ones importing it; I countered that if it hadn't been them it would surely have been someone else, and that whoever that someone might have been, they couldn't possibly have done a crappier job.

I wish I'd seen Dangaoih at that point.  If I had, I'd have sat him through it and won the discussion hands down.

Dangaoih surely has to be - at least, I hope it has to be - the single shonkiest thing Manga ever stooped to.  Not so much the animation itself, which is at least watchable, and bursts into life during its action sequences.  No, the reason the western release of Dangaoih simply has no reason to exist is that Manga saw fit to release only parts two and three of a three part OVA, with the first episode crammed into a brief prologue that roughly conveys the effect of having a third of a movie conveyed to you by a hyperactive, imaginative, but not especially bright child.  This, needless to say, does it no favours at all.

But as if that weren't enough, Dangaoih also suffers from, hands down, the worst dub I've yet to encounter.  I mean, it's bad in all the usual ways a dub can be bad, but then on top of that there's the copious swearing, presumably added to earn a 15 certificate for a film that wouldn't otherwise have come close to warranting it.  It's jarring, not so much because it's witless and gratuitous - though it's absolutely both - but because it's clearly not what the characters are saying.  It doesn't synch up, or make much sense in context, or fit even slightly with the general tone.  Nor does it stretch to the levels of being comically bad, which you'd think should have been a given with material like this.

To be honest, though, as despicable a treatment as Manga gave Dangaoih, it could have been dubbed by the finest vocal cast ever assembled and presented in the most polished release imaginable, and it would still be a merely functional bit of nonsense.  As such, it becomes the first film in this blog post series that I'm going to wholeheartedly not recommend.  If you see Dangaoih for pennies in a budget bin, don't be tempted by that shiny giant robot or those - um - sexy, bodysuit-clad ladies!  Just walk on by!

Orguss 02, 1993, dir's: Fumihiko Takayama, Takahiro Okao, Hiroshi Tamada

I said in part one that a principal aim of this binge-watch was the hope, partly inspired I think by rediscovering the magnificent Wings of Honneamise, of finding some little-known classics that had previously passed me by.  There have been a couple of near misses, but it was beginning to seem a hopeless dream until I came across Orguss 02.

I'm genuinely surprised that Orguss 02 isn't better known, because it's very good indeed, and very reminiscent of work from the same era that's now unanimously acknowledged as classic.  With its tale of an early industrial society drifting towards war, it reminded me principally of Honneamise itself,  but also of Miyazaki's early feature-length efforts Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa; enough so that it's easy to imagine all three as conspicuous influences.  Yet it doesn't feel derivative, and though there are familiar elements - giant mecha, teen heroes, robots - Orguss 02 doesn't seem greatly concerned with any of them.  Certainly, I'm struggling to think of any other anime that calls itself after a mech that then fails to appear for fully half the series and is only mentioned by name for the first time within minutes of the end.

In short, Orguss 02's main interests clearly lie elsewhere.  It's mostly about war, a subject it treats with a lack of sympathy that more than warrants that Miyazaki comparison.  It's also hugely cynical about politics; it presents the leaders of its two rival nations with such outright contempt that in places it plays like Games of Thrones-lite - and just like Games of Thrones, their conniving is thoroughly compelling and ends badly for all involved, up to and including any innocents caught in the vicinity.  Yet, though it views human nature bluntly, it's not a depressing show; there's a lightness of touch here that much anime that deals in dark and serious themes often lacks.  Perhaps the drift, late on, into wacky high-concept sci-fi will disgruntle some - if there's one thing that isn't in Orguss 02's favour, it's that it's a semi-sequel to an earlier show that it largely forgets about until the end - but it doesn't come at the expense of the good work done before, and like every element on display here, it works just fine on its own merits.  In short, if you're interested in somewhat older anime and have exhausted the usual candidates, I can't recommend this enough.

Roujin Z, 1991, dir: Hiroyuki Kitakubo

Having had my expectations lowered by a month of noticeably failing to dig up any lost classics, it was clearly too much to expect that I'd stumble upon not one but two.  Yet here we are, and here Roujin Z is, and I'm a happy bunny indeed.

In this case, the fact that the film appears to be barely known is that bit odder given the extraordinary array of talent behind the scenes. Its director, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, was key animator on Akira, and that unassailable masterpiece also provided Roujin Z with its scriptwriter, in the shape of the legendary Katsuhiro Ôtomo; but as if having the main talent behind Akira wasn't enough, we also get early work for one of the ten - maybe five? - greatest anime directors of all time, Satoshi Kon, who acts as art designer here.

On top of all that combined brilliance, Roujin Z has an irresistible premise: an elderly man is assigned to a revolutionary mechanical hospital bed that's supposed to fulfill all of his requirements, social, physical and mental.  But a combination of technical error, its occupant's stubbornness, the interference of the old man's former nurse and the fact that the bed is built on a foundation of experimental military technology (because of course it is!) leads to the bed gaining a life and agenda of its own, one that only grows more outlandish when it becomes possessed by its patient's dead wife.

If that also sounds like a distinctly anime-like set up, it's worth pointing out that Roujin Z's wider social message is very much overlaid by an affectionate assault on the tropes of its medium; that the bed, codenamed Project Z, ends up battling its military equivalent (codenamed Alpha, of course) should come as no surprise.  Yet if Roujin Z has a failing, it's this; the earlier satire of a culture that wants nothing to do with its aging population and the increasingly over the top parody of the second half don't exactly mesh.  Still, both are great fun, both contain some really exciting moments of animation - there's a glorious physicality to the action that you only seem to get in hand-drawn animation, and then only rarely - and if the end result falls somewhat short of the best work by all involved, it's still quite clearly a passion project made with vast enthusiasm by tremendously talented people.


So, a fifty-fifty success rate, or maybe even fifty-five percent, since Vampire Hunter D was just about worth watching.  And while I'll never get the minutes of my life that I wasted on Dangaoih back, at least it's set the bar so low that it's hard to see anything else limboing under it.  Can the next batch possibly beat this one?  Almost certainly not, but it won't stop me hoping!

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

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