Sunday, 28 June 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 4

Are we really up to part 4?  That's a whole lot of nineties anime watched!  And truth be told, exhaustion is beginning to set in just a little, as it becomes increasingly apparent that a lot of nineties anime was far from being entirely original, and even more of it was far from being being terribly good.

Does that mean I'm close to giving up?  Oh hell no!  Where there's nineties anime to be found, there I shall be, making snarky comments whilst desperately trying to remain optimistic that there are still a few hidden gems out there waiting to be unearthed.  And this week sees a movie I'd never remotely heard of get damn close to classic status, so there's certainly still hope yet.

Here, then, for your delectation, we have X, Spriggan, New Gall Force and Zeoraima...

X, 1996, dir: Rintaro

It's difficult to know what to say about X.  It's certainly a cut above much of what I've been watching lately, and - if you can put aside the fact that the only edition apparently available is a typically half-arsed transfer from Manga Video, that looks distinctly washed out and for some reason decides to sit the image in the centre three quarters of the screen - then it's a frequently lovely-looking bit of work, full to brimming with striking images.  Mind you, that's about what you'd expect from director Rintaro, whose next film would be the more-or-less classic adaptation of Osama Tesuka's Metropolis.  X is also based on a book by famous Manga house Clamp, who seemed to be everywhere at this point in time, and their input is great if you like huge eyes and pointy chins.  But even if you find the Clamp look rather horrible - I do - it at least guarantees a level of imagination and consistency in the character designs.  (Also gloriously well-animated hair.  What was it with Clamp and hair?)

So.  It looks nice and it's well directed - though not so much so as you'd expect from the man who would imminently make Metropolis, and there's a definite sense, corroborated by the interview among the special features, that Rintaro wasn't one hundred percent happy with the project.  Still, a half-hearted Rintaro is still a well above average director, and there's no denying that X has character and visual imagination to spare.  By all the usual yardsticks, in fact, it's undeniably good work.

Only, it's no fun.  No, that's not even the half of it ... X is a truly miserable watch.  I'd go so far as to use the word nihilistic, and not even in an interesting way.  X basically presents to us a load of people who we're told in advance are going to die, and then we watch them die, with nary a hint of dramatic tension anywhere.  None of them have been built up into anything you could honestly describe as characters and so there's not much reason to care, but since that's all that's going on and none of this death and carnage does much to further the plot - really the death and carnage is the plot - it all gets numbing very quickly.  It's maddening really, because there's enough going on in X that I'd have liked to have enjoyed it; as it is, I found it just actively soul-sucking.

Spriggan, 1998, dir: Hirotsugu Kawasaki

More than any animated film I've seen, Spriggan gives the impression of having had an infinite budget to draw on.  Its animation is lavish to the point of ridiculousness; scenes that could be simple and straightforward without much loss of effect end up being marvelously sophisticated showcases of the animator's art.  I'm not, mind you, moaning about any of this - it's dazzling, frankly - but it does puzzle me a little.  You would think, if nothing else, that a film with this sort of obvious budget would be a little better known.  And, what's stranger, I'm not entirely certain that Spriggan is a better film for it.

Or ... no, of course it is.  But that animation is such a distinctive flavour that it makes it awfully hard to concentrate on anything else, and the fact that it's by far the movie's strongest element doesn't help that.  To put it another way, it would be great if the same over-attention had gone into the plot and script.  Not that they're bad, by any means, just that they would need to be astonishing to keep pace, and they're not that.  Like a great deal of feature-length Manga adaptations, Spriggan simply doesn't manage to successfully cram in everything it deems worthy of inclusion, or show much evidence of picking and choosing, and what we end up with is a movie that begins aping a spy thriller, shifts into Indiana Jones territory with an added dose of nineties action movie, and then drifts abruptly into bizarrely theological science-fiction with a subplot about child soldiers that it doesn't seem even faintly interested in reconciling with those other elements.  All of which is  par for the course with anime and not really a criticism, but there's no pretending that this somewhat unfocused tale is up to the wondrous, dizzying standards of that animation.

Still, when you're criticizing a film because it's plot is too laden with zany ideas to keep up with its exquisite animation, it's hard to claim that that's anything but a recommendation.  Spriggan is pretty great, all told, and the only thing it fails to be is wholly satisfying in retrospect; while it's actually playing it front of you, it's thrilling stuff.

New Gall Force, 1989, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

First up, good luck finding New Gall Force on IMDB or anywhere else; what happened here is that Manga Video took the middle chunk of an OAV series, released it out of context and retitled it, and as such, what we actually have here is Gall Force: Earth Chapter, a title that gives a much clearer sense that this is in no way a stand-alone story.

Only, it sort of is.  I put that fact down more to luck than judgement on Manga's part, and certainly there are elements that don't make a damn bit of sense ... though even then, as is often the way with these things, you don't really appreciate how much sense they're not making until you discover that there's a whole load of prologue you're missing.

At any rate, that grumble aside, I enjoyed Gall Force: Earth Chapter rather a lot.  I'd go so far as to say that it's the best of the Manga Collection series that I've yet seen, though given the levels of quality that statement involves, it's a bit like picking out a favourite infectious disease.  At any rate, I didn't enjoy it half so much as Landlock, but we've already established that my fondness for that movie has no basis in anything much, and objectively I'm ready to admit that Gall Force is better.

To that I'd add that if James Cameron had, instead of making Terminator 2, decided to knock out a low-budget anime series that vigorously cannibalised all of his earlier work, then it would have looked a lot like this.  And that, it turns out, is a good thing: ripping off your themes, characters, designs, tough female protagonists and every other damn thing from a skilled director at the height of their powers, who in turn had ripped off most of those things from your chosen genre in the first place, is actually an eminently sensible thing for a late eighties anime to do.

Though it doesn't quite explain why one of the crack military team is a small child in a crash helmet who doesn't appear to have the faintest clue that there's a war going on.  Maybe Newt was really badly dubbed in Japan or something?

Zeoraima - Project Hades / Project Hades 2, 1988, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

Oh look, and already we have another OVA that Manga video decided to arbitrarily rename for its DVD release!  Those guys sure must have had a lot of time of their hands; that or they wanted to give the impression that one four part OVA was in fact two feature length films, which is exactly the sort of deliberately misleading nonsense they seem to have delighted in in those days.  In this instance it's particularly absurd because there's no possible way you could mistake the two halves for feature films, not even if you were squinting and had a very loose sense of what beginnings, middles and endings entailed.

Anyway, Zeoraima starts off from a hackneyed position indeed: teenage male hero finds himself recruited to pilot giant robot that responds to no one but him against a load of other mechs, piloted by a bunch of evvvvvvil folks who generally insist on attacking him one at a time, because otherwise it would be a short story indeed.  However it does quickly go off on a far more interesting - though, it has to be said, entirely bonkers - tangent, and for that it surely deserves credit.  It's actually quite a clever story by the end, though it's easy to imagine a great many ways in which that story could have been better told than it is here.  If nothing else, giant robot battles where the giant robots did something besides stand taking it in turns to shoot at each other would have been a tremendously good start.

Added to that is the fact that Zeoraima is just subversive and angsty enough to be faintly reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series that a mere seven years later would irreparably explode this sort of thing for all time.  As such, the comparison does Zeoraima no favours at all, except in so much as to say that it has a little bit more psychological complexity to it than many of these things.  At any rate, it's a great insight into just what Hideaki Anno was deconstructing so ferociously with Evangelion, and surely that counts for something.  Whether it counts as a recommendation ... well, no it doesn't.  Still, Zeoraima gets a narrow pass for keeping me amused - and frequently baffled! - through the course of its running time.


So not a particularly great batch this time round, all told, with Spriggan the only thing I'd flat-out recommend.  (And I really would, it's a  deal of fun and easy to find cheap second hand.)  New Gall Force gets a hesitant thumbs up if you're basically open to this whole late eighties and nineties anime thing; I can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute of watching it, even if it wasn't necessarily for very sensible reasons.  At any rate, I now feel that more sci-fi action movies would benefit from the addition of small, oblivious children in crash helmets.

Next time around: at least one actual, undeniable, stone-cold anime classic.  You've been warned!

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

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