Friday, 31 July 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 5

One thing I've realised in the last couple of weeks is that this blog series might conceivably never end.  Every time I think I've exhausted all of the nineties anime still available, I'll stumble over a new vein.  Once you start digging, its surprising what you can turn up; the more I go on, the more it becomes possible to imagine a future where I basically never stop discovering new stuff to watch.

On the other hand, it's even easier to imagine a future where I stop finding good new stuff to watch.  But I'm steadily coming to accept that, though a great deal of nineties anime has been forgotten for perfectly sensible reasons, that's not necessarily a reason to view it without a degree of interest and fondness.  If nothing else, it's thrilling to watch any art form develop at such a pace; asides perhaps from traditional film-making in its first decades, it's hard to think of any medium that's evolved so utterly or broadened its scope so widely in a mere handful of years.

Anyway, enough self-justification; there's nineties anime to be watched!  This week: Patlabor, Casshan: Robot Hunter, Geobreeders and The Dark Myth...

Patlabor: The Movie, 1989, dir: Mamoru Oshii

I should confess to a bit of a cheat on this one - and not for the usual reason, either, though this is indeed another late-eighties picture that I'm lumping into the wrong decade.  No, this time it's something far more insidious than that: I'm reviewing a movie I've seen before, and which is by one of my absolutely favourite directors, Mamoru Oshii of Ghost in the Shell fame.

Patlabor would be interesting work, in fact, if for no other reason than that you can practically see a masterly talent taking form over its hundred minute running time.  I don't know what Oshii's pre-Patlabor career was like, but it's difficult to imagine that anything in it was such a perfect marriage for his characteristic style and concerns as this.  As such, Patlabor is on its surface a giant robot movie, but one that once you delve even a little bit deeper turns out to be something considerably more interesting.  It spends a good deal of its running time posing as a rather sedate police procedural, before the last half hour transforms into a masterclass of an action movie conclusion, which constantly ramps its threat in imaginative, ever more exciting ways.  It does both of those things exceptionally well, but it's perhaps the first two thirds that bear most of Oshii's stamp.  There is, for example, a lovely, meditative sequence of the two police detectives going about their business, which does great work of visually emphasizing in light-handed fashion one of the film's core themes: that there'll always be places and people left behind by technological progress, and that the faster and more uncontrolled the progress, the deeper and more permanent the damage.

For a movie with doubts about the unchecked advance of technology, however, Patlabor had no qualms about being at the cutting edge of its field; given that it's now more than 25 years old, it stands up astonishingly well.  Few anime directors are as infatuated with detail as Oshii, and that tendency was already fully on display here; only the colour palette and facial designs really date it at all.  It benefits, too, from a typically marvelous score from Oshii's regular collaborator, Kenji Kawai.  And, impressively for its time, it's an early demonstration of Oshii's leaning towards highly capable female protagonists.  That epic finale, for example, neatly flips its gender cliches: while the men are holed up in the control room doing tech stuff and getting stressed, it's the women out there doing the actual giant robot fighting.

In short, Patlabor is a genuine classic, and a genuine milestone.  It's not, perhaps, as definitive or redefining as Ghost in the Shell would prove to be, but nonetheless Oshii's achievement here is tough to fault.

Casshan: Robot Hunter, 1993, dir: Hiroyuki Fukushima

Casshan, (or Casshern, depending on who you ask and when), has had a great many outings over the course of some fifty years, including a live-action film - which I remember as being entertaining, if not necessarily good - and a more recent short series with the cheery title of Casshern Sins.  But the one we're looking at is, to my knowledge, the character's second incarnation, which was a four part OVA revival of the seventies original.

Now I get the impression from my limited research that this re-imagining was intended to be rather more adult than that seventies take.  However, if you're sharp-eyed, a look at the poster will tell you exactly what passed for adult in the minds of the producers.  Yeah, it's that staple of nineties anime, stripping your heroine half naked for no damn reason other than the very cheapest titillation!  And boy does it stick out in Casshan, which otherwise is just about the goofiest thing you've seen.  Seriously, that needless flash of awkwardly animated bosoms aside, Casshan is not very adult at all - and frankly all the better for it.

It's hard indeed, for example, to dislike a series where the hero has for a sidekick a fire-breathing robot dog called Friender.  The presence of Friender alone introduces a giddy, kid-making-stuff-up-on-the-fly aspect that extends all the way through Casshan's most entertaining moments.  As such, it's worst when it's concentrating on its dour plot or its flaccid romance, and in the English dub at least, whenever Casshan is talking, since Steve Bulen inflicts on our teenage protagonist a voice that makes him sound like a forty year old ham actor in an amateur production of King Lear.  And since those elements take up quite a portion of the running time, it frequently threatens to not be too much fun; but then another absurd robot design shows up, or Casshan punches something, or Friender does anything at all, and suddenly it's entertaining again.

Does that qualify as a recommendation?  Probably not.  But you could do worse for a couple of hours of silly nostalgia-watching, and there are enough copies floating about that you can pick it up second hand for next to nothing.

Geobreeders, 1998, dir: Yûji Moriyama

Once again I have to admit to a degree of bias, in that Geobreeders was the first Manga I ever read, and as such has a soft spot in my heart that made me both giddily excited to discover that this anime adaptation was available and all but unable to consider it with any kind of objectivity.  It's also another slight cheat of my own rules for these articles, in that I've tried to focus on works that are fairly readily available, whereas Geobreeders is tough to find cheaply, (though it's worth pointing out that the DVD advertised as Region 1 is actually all region-compatible.)

With that baggage out in the open, what do we have here?  Well, Geobreeders follows the adventures of Kagura Total Security, an almost entirely female organisation devoted (in so much as they get paid for it) to the eradication of phantom cats, which are basically were-cats with the ability to infect and manipulate technology and some kind of secret, most likely evil, agenda.  And if a lot of stuff gets exploded in ludicrous fashion in the meantime, Kagura are absolutely okay with that.

Geobreeders the film, however, explains very little of this indeed - which could be a failing or a strength, depending on how you choose to consider it.  It opens with the false start of some comedy credits that won't make a damn bit of sense to anyone not already familiar with the property, then throws at us an in media res opening sequence that makes only a little more sense, then dashes straight on to its first big action set-piece, still with only the most tangential attempts made to fill us in on background, characters or anything much else.

All of this I love, and makes Geobreeders what it is, which is to say, hugely fun and absurdly fast-paced.  This is true of a lot of anime, but I've never seen it be truer than here.  Geobreeders really has no interest in anything that slows its forward momentum, it doesn't give half a damn about its own plot, and what's rarer, that carefree attitude is coupled with a director who actually seems genuinely in tune with his material.  It's fun and stupid and I can't help but adore it.  That said, a little research reveals that this first OVA is set quite far into the manga, and I can only imagine how little sense this would make if you hadn't at least a passing knowledge of the books; too, it should be noted that there's a fair bit of gratuitous female semi-nudity, for anyone who finds that bothersome.  Which I generally tend to, thinking about it, but I can't find it in my heart to climb on that high horse against a series where pretty much the entire cast are female, and all of them are, (whatever their comedic failings and tendency to needlessly blow things up), basically excellent at what they do.

The Dark Myth, 1990, dir's: Takashi Annô, Tomomi Mochizuki

Where do you even begin with a film like The Dark Myth?  Certainly not with the plot, for there's barely anything here that justifies the term; what we have instead is a series of conversations, mostly about either history or theology, crammed into a loose narrative framework that mostly serves to switch up the location every so often.  There are a number of characters but barely any characterisation, since no one does much besides spout exposition, (most of which is made incomprehensible by the fact that it consists of little besides names of Japanese historical figures, places and Asian deities), and there's only one, brief scene that comes close to deserving the word action.  There's also not much in the way of dramatic tension: things that we're told will happen happen, then more things happen, then it stops.

And here's the thing: I loved every confusing, expository, audience-defying moment.  Frankly, had there been no plot at all I could probably still have enjoyed it, for the animation is above average and well directed, a mix of more than usually realistic character designs with some frequently lovely painted backdrops, often of Japanese scenery.  Most importantly, there's some real imagination on display - the high point surely a sequence in which protagonist Takeshi walks in a daze and his state is represented by whiting out everything but him, which is hard to describe but remarkably effective in practice.  But really, there's a great deal to catch the eye here, and as much to catch the mind; even when it's not entirely clear what's going on, Dark Myth is frequently striking.  And to top it all off, we have another score by Kenji Kawai, the closing theme of which is one of my favourite pieces of anime music in quite a while.

None of this makes what's going on any less confusing, but it certainly does make it go down a lot easier.  And in fairness, once you get into the rhythm of what Dark Myth is doing - and assuming you don't find those first few, incomprehensible minutes an insurmountable hurdle - it's easy to be on side with.  The barrages of names, the theological conundrums, aren't terribly important so long as you manage to keep track of the broad strokes; whenever something actually significant happens, the film is quite happy to signpost it, and you sense that it isn't so much being deliberately obtuse as trying to fit a great deal in, or perhaps simply suffering in translation.

Which is rather a crucial point - for of everything that Manga Video chose to cock up with their shockingly unambitious DVD releases, Dark Myth suffers worse than most.  A few expository extras, maybe some historical notes, would have made all the difference, and the option to watch in the original Japanese - not offered here, as with all of Manga's budget releases - is surely nothing short of essential.  For that matter, if the transfer wasn't so brutally ugly, I suspect we might be looking at a film hailed for its above average visuals instead of one utterly ignored by everyone.

At any rate, I'm not certain where this leaves us.  I can't possibly not recommend something so utterly interesting and ideas-laden, but there's no getting around the fact that we're looking at a limited audience indeed.  I literally can't find one review with anything nice to say about The Dark Myth!  Then again, I'd read some of those reviews before I watched it, so perhaps the trick is to go in forewarned; which means that, if you've read this far and don't think it sounds utterly terrible then just maybe you'll get as much out of it as I did.


Are these posts getting longer?  They are, aren't they?  I mean, fair enough, I had a lot to say about Patlabor, but did I really need four paragraphs on Casshan: Robot Hunter of all things?  On the other hand, it would appear that this is the first time I've been at least tentatively positive about everything.  Clearly the series is heading in the right direction; or else whatever was left of my critical faculties has finally dissolved under the weight of too much nineties anime.  Which, come to think of it, is much more likely.  And probably for the best!  Because as I noted at the start, there's barely an end in sight...

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

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