Sunday, 30 August 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 6

Here we are at part 6, and I find myself increasingly running out of interesting things to say about nineties anime!  Which isn't the same as suggesting that my enthusiasm is waning - though perhaps it was, thinking about it, until a recent bolt from the blue reminded me of just how great some of the stuff being made at this point could be.  But that's material for the next part, (in which, excitingly I'm considering only including things that are actually some good!), so let's pretend I didn't say anything.

Mind-blowing classics aside for the moment then, that leaves us with a rather questionable bunch of misfits: Adventures With Iczer 3, Black Jack, Ghost Sweeper Mikami and Dragon Half...

Adventures With Iczer 3, 1990, dir: Toshihiro Hirano

I'm starting to think that it would be easier just to review these low-end Manga Video releases with tick boxes.  A misleadingly changed title to disguise something that's actually a sequel?  Check.  A story that makes no damn sense unless you've seen the original that Manga are trying to trick you into not knowing existed?  Check.  A plot that involves overcoming a different villain every episode?  Check.  A dub so catastrophically lazy that character names aren't even pronounced consistently?  Oh yes, big check to that.

What we have here, then, is the six episode OVA more commonly known as Iczer Reborn, a sequel to 1985's Fight!  Iczer One.  This is a significant fact, but not so much so that you can't follow along on the back of a couple of minutes's research.  Alternatively, ignoring the wider background entirely is a perfectly valid option and not one likely to affect your enjoyment all that much; it leaves the tale rather lacking in backstory and motivation, but since it mostly revolves around one-dimensional characters punching each other that's not a catastrophic loss.

I realise I'm not exactly selling Adventures With Iczer 3 here, and I'm not particularly trying to.  However it's perhaps not so bad as I'm making out either.  It's brisk and proficient, much like a lot of mid-budget animation from the period, and it has one thing going for it that, say, Casshan doesn't, which is that its protagonist is thoroughly charming.  Iczer 3 is, as far as I could judge, the sister (or perhaps clone) of the Iczer from the first series.  When the original is incapacitated in an opening battle with arch-baddie Neos Gold, the only one who can counter Neos Gold's plan - which pretty much begins and ends with conquering the Earth - is Iczer 3.  The significant flaw here being that Iczer three, superhuman powers aside, is basically a small child.

In theory this should only serve to make the whole thing unbearably irritating.  In practice, Iczer 3 the character adds a level of fun that really elevates the material.  I mean, just look at that cover; where everyone else is scowling, Iczer 3, there in the bottom left, actually looks happy.  Approaching the plot with the giddy excitement of a little kid turns what might be a slog into something unexpectedly engaging.  There were points where I found myself actually concerned for poor, small Iczer, who rarely seemed to know why she was fighting and kept trying to befriend her enemies; there's something unavoidably touching in watching an excitable kid getting beaten up on when they clearly just want to have fun.  It's not enough, mind you, to turn Adventures With Iczer 3 into any sort of a classic, but - combined with some intermittently fun design work and the generally solid animation - it does at least keep it on the right side of entertaining.

Black Jack, 1996, dir: Osamu Dezaki

You don't get a great deal of anime with hotshot surgeons as protagonists, nor do you get many that function primarily as medical thrillers, so if there's one thing Black Jack has going for it, it's that you've probably never seen anything quite like it.  And novelty certainly works in its favour, especially given how much nineties anime tends to pick over a relatively small handful of themes and tropes.  Throughout its first act, in fact, Black Jack has a pleasant air of mystery and it's not at all clear where it might be going.  We know that something is producing people with superhuman abilities, that these superhumans are becoming inexplicably ill, and it's not long before the titular mysterious freelance surgeon gets drawn into events, with the strong implication that there's far more going on than is obviously apparent.

However as the plot staggers onwards - and stagger it does, at a pace that feels increasingly leaden - it becomes apparent that, however interesting some of the ideas Black Jack is kicking about might be, they're leading to fairly familiar places, and by the time the ending rolls around it's hard to remember how novel the whole thing felt only an hour before.  I wanted to be enthusiastic about Black Jack, because it's certainly different, it appears to have a good reputation and full length anime features from this period are relatively hard to track down, but in practice it turns out to be kind of a mess.  Director Osamu Dezaki has a grab-bag of tricks that he seems to trot out entirely at random, and for each occasion that freezing the frame as a Manga-like panel or cutting to thermal vision (yes, really) actually benefits the film there are a dozen where it's purely distracting.  In general, he seems determined to made the worst decision in any given moment, and to be striving for some kind of future-noir aesthetic that would be a good fit for the material if only Dezaki had a better sense of what he was trying to achieve and would pack it in with the stylistic ticks.  Nothing he does can stop Black Jack being a good-looking movie, for the animation quality is well above par for its time, but he's more than capable of rendering a flawed plot not only less intelligible but rather dull and wearisome to boot.

Ghost Sweeper Mikami, 1994, dir: Atsutoshi Umezawa

Ghost Sweeper Mikami is the spin-off movie of a series by the same name, though "movie" is perhaps giving a grand impression that it can't entirely support; the running time comes to about an hour.  It follows - yes, a ghost sweeper (for which read exorcist) named - you guessed it! - Mikami, and her team of disparate weirdos, none of whom are introduced here in even the slightest way besides some brief bios on the DVD, but all of whom have few enough character traits each that they're easy to get a handle on.

It's moderately fun, it doesn't outstay its welcome and there are occasional elements that really land, but on the whole it's hard to pick out much about Ghost Sweeper Mikami that's particularly compelling.  I suspect that this suffered some for the fact that I recently saw Geobreeders, which has a not dissimilar concept, not dissimilar characters and a not dissimilar sense of humour, but is beyond question and in every way better.  Where that suffered from having an incomprehensible plot, Mikami has the opposite problem of not much plot at all, and I'd always rather the former than the latter.  Plus, while there's the occasional fun twist in its tale of Mikami and her gang facing off against an ancient big bad, the narrative offers little you won't have seen before.  Really its nothing besides a frame to hang jokes off, but on that note the film defeats itself by taking its non-story a little too seriously and devoting too much energy to it, when it would surely have been better to admit how paper-thin and silly it all is and go for flat out self-mockery.

For which, see...

Dragon Half, 1993, dir: Shin'ya Sadamitsu

Somehow, this nineties anime obsession of mine has managed to avoid much comedy, and I don't know if that was deliberate or accidental, but boy did I pay for it with Dragon Half.  I mean, if its plot - which follows the unfortunate teenage offspring of a dragon and a dragon-slayer whose relationship went south in major fashion and ended in somewhat violent marriage, and whose only dream in life is to attend a concert by her favourite pop-star, who also happens to be a dragon-slayer - had any possible hope for serious treatment then it certainly isn't the direction that the creators decided to take it in.

But let's face it, that's an insane concept right there, and Dragon Half couldn't take it less seriously if it tried.  And I mean that literally, because it's an important point: imagine the absolute silliest iteration of "half human, half dragon teenager is in love with pop star dragon-slayer" and I promise you, Dragon Half will be a whole ton more absurd.

This, as far as I'm concerned, is entirely in its favour.

What isn't is that the creators only managed to produce two episodes of an already unambitious four part OVA, which means that its decidedly short and the ending is no ending at all.  Not that I imagine for a moment that the actual ending would have been less ridiculous, but at least it might have offered some sort of closure.  I mean, fifty minutes with Mink, our titular dragon half, is enough to make you fall in love with her a little bit and kind of want things to work out for her, however unlikely that seems given the insanity of the world she lives in and the sheer number of people who decide they want to kill her over the course of a mere two episodes.

In short, this is a tricky one to sign off on.  On the one hand, there are people out there who will (and do) absolutely love it, and while I wouldn't go that far myself, I certainly enjoyed it a great deal.  On the other hand, if your sense of humour doesn't stretch to a certain level of wackiness then I can see this being absolutely tortuous.  That's typified by the animation itself, which I did adore.  It's not unusual in anime for characters to be substituted with less detailed, childlike versions of themselves for the purposes of comedy; however Dragon Half takes this hyper-deformation to a level beyond anything I've seen, with at least four different designs for its protagonist, ranging from the fairly realistic to the impossibly cute and silly, and it switches between them apparently for no other reason than that it can.  Perhaps it shouldn't have been, but frequently that alone was enough to get me laughing.

Oh, and I'd be remiss not to point out that the closing theme - credited to Ludwig van Beethoven, but he surely can't be blamed for the lyrics - is the most blissfully ridiculous thing you're ever likely to encounter.  And actually let's just admit here that I lied, I did love Dragon Half quite a bit, and you should probably just track down a copy right now.


It  occurs to me now that this was a rather rubbish selection.  The only thing I'd wholeheartedly recommend is Dragon Half, and even that's going to fall flat for anyone who doesn't enjoy profoundly silly humour.  Both Ghost Sweeper Mikami and Adventures With Iczer 3 land firmly in the "if you like nineties anime and see them cheap then you could do worse" category, which is about as half-hearted as a recommendation can get.  (Really, I'm not sure I'd even go that far with Ghost Sweeper Mikami.)  Whereas Black Jack I hated a little bit, but perhaps unfairly so, judging by the strong reviews it seems to get.

Ah well.  I'll definitely do better next time, if only because there's going to be one film in there that I unhesitatingly adored...

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

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