Friday, 11 December 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 7

Ha!  I bet you thought I'd given up on these, right?  Yet here we are at part 7!  I'd say this had got silly, but clearly we're well past that point.  I distantly remember pledging to only review things that were actually some good this time around, but of course it hasn't entirely worked out like that - though this is probably as close as we're ever likely to get.

Without further ado, then, this time around we have: Macross Plus the Movie, Armitage III: Poly Matrix, Bio Hunter and Gunbuster.

Macross Plus (Movie Edition), 1995, dir: Shôji Kawamori

If there was ever a testament to the power of editing then Macross Plus: the Movie is it.  For those who haven't been following along with these articles, this is the film version of an OVA series that I was underwhelmed by all the way back in part 1.  It was visually striking and hugely promising in places, but in the end it disappointed badly, especially given its considerable reputation - and I was hardly overeager to revisit it.

Then I did and it blew me away.  It's no exaggeration to say that the film cut addresses every issue I had with the OVA, in a way that I found almost impossible to believe even while I was watching it.  I mean, just to put that statement in context - whilst heroine Myung is rarely much shy of a victim in the OVA and at her lowest points little more than a trophy for the two equally unbearable male leads to fight irresponsibly over, here it's hard to walk away with any reading where she isn't at least the co-protagonist.  It's impossible to exaggerate how much this rebalances the story, breathing life into scenes that once fell flat and giving the material the spine it originally lacked.  Somehow pushing Myung to centre stage even makes the men tolerable, in that we're viewing them at least partly from her more sympathetic perspective.

It goes much deeper than that, though; it's staggering, really, how boldly Macross Plus has been overhauled.  Certainly things get sacrificed along the way, but to my memory there was nothing lost that doesn't amount to an improvement - and what was great, such as Yôko Kanno's lush score, remains great.  The only possible shortcoming is that some rather stunning action sequences from early on wind up cut, but even then, the one that really stuck with me gets partially edited into the climax - and I'd gladly swap mindless action early on for sequences with real punch later.  As such, Macross Plus: the Movie falls into that relatively tiny category of works that I'd recommend even if you couldn't care a damn about nineties anime; it's a fine science fiction film in its own right.

Armitage III: Polymatrix, 1997, dir: Takuya Sato

It's hard to shake the impression that Blade Runner was even more impactful in Asia than it was in America and Europe; sure, most every American sci-fi film of the following two decades would appropriate its aesthetic, but there's a rather wonderful Korean film that's practically a direct sequel, and for our current purposes there are no end of anime that picked up its themes and ran hard with them.

Needless to say, Armitage III is one of those.  A brief but relevant aside: this isn't the third Armitage movie (though it is another compacted version of an OVA, and more on that in a minute) but a film titled Armitage the Third, and if that isn't sufficiently confusing, consider that its sequel is titled Armitage: Dual Matrix*.  This makes Armitage III the only movie I can think of where logic would dictate that its sequel is in fact its prequel, and damn but that makes me love weird anime titling conventions a little more than I already did.

Anyway, we were talking about how Armitage III owes one hell of a debt to Blade Runner - but coming back to that point, it occurs to me that it's not that big a deal.  You could certainly take Armitage III as a retread of that ridiculously seminal movie, but with the genders swapped and a buddy-cop dynamic thrown in - human cop pairs up with secretly-robot cop - and you absolutely wouldn't be wrong, yet the end result would still be a tremendously solid film: not a masterpiece, maybe not worthy of its influences, but a perfectly fine slice of nineties anime.

Now I say that with one caveat: the only version of Armitage III that's readily available is a US feature film adaptation, with Kiefer Sutherland as the male lead, Ross Syllabus (a depressing bit of whitewashing, but otherwise pretty good news) and Elizabeth Berkley as Armitage (less awful than you'd think.)  This means that approximately half the plot has vanished into the ether, and damn it shows.  Another half hour, a bit more time for the story and relationships to cook, and we might really be looking at a classic.  Then again, that can't entirely take away from what we get: solid, distinctive animation, bold design, an unusually fine dub and - lest I forget - a marvelous electronic soundtrack by a composer, Hiroyuki Namba, who would go on to do not much of anything.  At any rate, while it's maddening that the OVA version is so hard to find, I'm still happy to give this one a definite thumbs up.

Bio Hunter, 1995, dir: Yuzo Sato

Describing something as of its time is a largely futile statement to make when you're talking about nineties anime, but nevertheless, boy but is Bio Hunter of its time.  The involvement of Ninja Scroll's Yoshiaki Kawajiri is a good indication of what to expect: Bio Hunter is transgressive in all the ways that so much of the anime to make it over to the west around this time was, which is to say, lots of nudity, lots of bared breasts, lots of gore and bloodshed and general weirdness, but none of it feeling half as troubling as it probably should.  I mean, Bio Hunter opens with a sex scene that climaxes with a woman's breast morphing into a demon and chomping her partner's hand off, and even that doesn't raise much more than a faintly amused, "Ewwww."

Basically, Bio Hunter is defused at once by its goofiness and its seriousness, sometimes even at the same time.  It is, for example, quite tricky to take that aforementioned scene at all seriously, or to find it particularly horrifying, let alone titillating.**  On the other hand, there's a great deal of cod-science squeezed awkwardly in, the art style is more realistic than is typical of most anime, the backgrounds are lavish and whenever violent and / or bloody things aren't occurring, the pace is strangely languid.

Viewed through the lens of decades, Bio Hunter is obnoxious in its attitude towards women - its female protagonist is quite spectacularly useless - and in its twee desire to shock.  But it's certainly no worse than, say, American horror from the period, and at least it's made with some genuine artistry.  In the end, you probably have a fair idea whether or not you like this kind of thing, and there are plenty worse examples out there.  Bio Hunter is at once overly silly and overly serious, and its sixty minute running time leaves it feeling like a series pilot, as for all I know it was meant to be; but it's cheap to pick up and its high points warrant at least a sit-through if you find yourself curious.

Gunbuster, 1988, dir: Hideaki Anno

And here I go, breaking every rule I've set myself by reviewing an OVA from 1988 that's all but impossible to buy now.  But 1988 is awfully close to 1990, you can watch Gunbuster on legal piracy site Youtube if you don't find their shameless abuse of intellectual property objectionable, and they're my own stupid rules and I'll break them if I like.

The thing is, Gunbuster is a classic - now a largely lost classic - and, again, I promised myself I'd talk about some really good anime this time around.  To put that in context, here's Gunbuster's pedigree: it's what studio Gainax did to follow up from their staggeringly fine debut Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and what Gainax's brightest star Hideaki Anno made to warm up before making the studio's most famous release, Neon Genesis Evangelion, frequently considered the greatest anime series ever created.

Which, if you have only a passing interest in nineties anime, may be so much word salad.  The short version: Gunbuster is the product of immensely talented people near the peak of their powers, and it's pretty much an insult to the medium of animation that it's all but impossible to track down a legitimate copy these days.  All of that said, history is full of lost classics that don't hold up, and anime suffers more than most mediums, so bound is it to technology and so restricted by budgets.

Gunbuster is of its time, without a doubt.  It has colossal space ships.  It has giant robots fighting in space with batons, and even bigger giant robots that combine into an even bigger robot.  It has a great deal of gratuitous partial nudity.  But then, within those brackets, it remains something pretty extraordinary.  From a light-hearted beginning it only grows in scope and ambition, and it says a great deal that though the money largely ran out by episode six and Gainax couldn't afford to colour it - or to animate a key sequence - it still packs one hell of a punch.  Also, it's based loosely on The Forever War, and that old rule about "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" has rarely been more true.  Put all that together, and although perhaps the result isn't indispensable - it veers closer to familiar territory than Honneamise before it or Evangelion after - it's something really damn special.

Also also, its sequel Diebuster, made a whole decade and a half later, may be my favourite OVA of all time.  And if you don't eat your 1988 anime greens then you don't get to enjoy your 2004 anime pudding.


Well, that could have gone worse.  Two stone cold classics, one of them even fairly easy to lay your hands on, a really likable cyberpunk movie and a weird little horror short that certainly warrants a watch if you like horror and weirdness.  And given my recent watching, the next batch are turning out fairly solidly as well.  Though, with a considerable amount of actual writing stuff going on, it may be a fair while until I get to talk about them...

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

* It is, however, a rather disappointing and obvious sequel that fails to entirely capitalize on its pedigree, let alone its brilliantly silly naming convention.  Also, Juliette Lewis actually manages to be a worse Armitage than Elizabeth Berkley, which is just plain weird.

** There's an awful pun there, and I think I just inadvertently made it.

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