Friday, 11 March 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 9

More nineties anime?  It must be a slow news week!  This time around we'll be looking at Patlabor 2Madox-01Zaion: I Wish You Were Here and Psycho Diver:

Patlabor 2, 1993, Mamoru Oshii

If the first Patlabor movie was the work of a director discovering what was to become his signature style, the second is that of an extraordinary talent who's worked out in the intervening four years just precisely what sorts of movies he wants to make and how he wants them to be made.  Both are unmistakably works from the same artist, but Patlabor 2 is just ... I guess the word is purer.  Which is not the same as saying better - I would argue that if we take the Patlabors and 1995's Ghost in the Shell to be Oshii's masterpieces then Patlabor 2 is marginally the weakest of the three.  Then again, that still leaves it as an extraordinary work that you should track down right this moment if you haven't seen it, so I'm hardly criticizing.

Where the first Patlabor was largely a police procedural that just happened to sometimes bother itself with giant robots, this second is absolutely a political thriller, and concerns itself with giant robots even less, such that for long stretches it barely feels like a Patlabor movie at all.  That fact is only heightened by the fact that Oshii largely sidelines most of the regular cast of Special Vehicle Unit 2 to cameos and focuses instead on their two superior officers - who were admittedly always the best characters, but that doesn't stop it feeling a little cheeky.  In general, this has the vibe of a franchise movie where the director had already moved on from the franchise, which is somewhat hard to deal with as a Patlabor fan but basically a delight as an Oshii fan, since what he'd moved onto being, for ever so brief a period, was one of the greatest creative presences the medium has ever seen.

The thing is, Patlabor 2 is slow, meditative, relatively low on action, but what it loses by such traditional measures of anime it more than makes up for by being thrillingly original and unique: a work of obvious artistry which at the same time functions as a precisely constructed sci-fi thriller, ticking away like gorgeously constructed clockwork.  I prefer the first Patlabor because it's the more rounded of the two, I prefer Ghost in the Shell because it was my first encounter with Oshii and with smart anime in general.  But neither fact detracts from what excellent workmanship this represents.  Patlabor 2 was revolutionary when it was released, a challenge to the strictures of its medium and its genre that also functions as a bold, unconventional sci-fi thriller, and also manages to be a masterpiece of the animator's craft.  If Manga would have the decency to rerelease it in a less crummy edition, it would stand effortlessly against anything released in the last decade.

Madox-01, 1987, Shinji Aramaki

Another release from Manga Video's old and much maligned (by me, if no one else) budget range The Collection, my expectations for Madox-01 were muted, to say the least.  As such, I suppose it's high praise to say that I quite enjoyed it.

Its basic concept is utterly silly: a prototype robotic suit, the Madox-01 of the title, falls into the hands of a teenager, who promptly decides to use it to meet his girlfriend, despite the suit's designer and test pilot and a deranged military officer's best efforts to get in his way and recover or destroy the Madox.  You'd expect this to be played for broad comedy, so it's rather puzzling when instead it's presented mostly straight, with only a few stray gags acknowledging how basically wacky the whole endeavor is.  On the one hand, this keeps things moving briskly, the slim story never bogging down to think too much about its premise; on the other, it feels like a wasted opportunity, as the one thing that makes Madox-01 distinctive gets largely left by the wayside.

Still, it's enough to give the show a little character, and the animation is generally impressive, especially for the late eighties.  The mech design is sufficiently distinctive and the final battle is really pretty good.  At forty five or so minutes it feels precisely as long as it needs to without wearing out its welcome.  Even the dub isn't catastrophic in comparison with some of Manga's efforts from the time, though as usual there's hardly anyone who doesn't either overact or underact.  And this is some seriously faint praise, isn't?  I'm trying to be positive, I really am, but it's just not working.

Zaion: I Wish You Were Here, 2001, dir: Seiji Mizushima

Never one to worry about breaking my own rules, here's a four episode series from 2001, which I'm going to talk about anyway because I thought it was nineties anime when I bought it and because, hey, why not?

Plus, Zaion is a frustrating show, and I want to vent.  There are so many indications that this could, and should, have been something special - it was produced by Gonzo, who were practically churning out good anime at this point - and the fact that the end result is rather bland and kind of a mess is deeply unsatisfactory.

It doesn't help that Zaion found generally reliable distributor ADV in particularly mercenary mood; those four episodes are split, unconscionably, over two DVD releases.  However, to justify the decision ADV included some unusually lavish extras - the enclosed booklets are particularly lovely - that give away far more details about how things went wrong behind the scenes than they were probably meant to.  The impression they give is of a lot of at least moderately talented people pulling in no clear direction, led by a director working at odds to his own writer.  So the fact that the result was a schizophrenic mix of undercooked love story and half-baked sci-fi action, the former undone by lifeless characters and the latter by dubious animation, truly horrid CGI and bland designs, comes as little surprise.

Yet Zaion isn't awful.  It just spends too much time being merely functional, and, like I said, frustrating.  And at least one person was clear on what they wanted for the project, even if it was a fundamentally insane decision: ever-brilliant composer Kenji Kawai goes to great pains in the extras to explain how badly he wanted to write a prog rock score, and if it gels not at all with anything else that's happening here, it's at least great fun in its own right.  All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, while I quite enjoyed the experience of Zaion, I'd feel awfully bad about recommending it to anyone else.

Psycho Diver, 1995, dir: Mamoru Kanbe

Here's a question for you: you're making a film called Psycho Diver, about a world where skilled individuals use technology to enter the subconscious minds of others, acting as a particularly hands-on brand of therapist.  Do you a) play the concept for all its worth, indulging in the sort of trippy dreamscapes only animation could possibly allow or b) do your absolute best to ignore the concept in favour of an overstuffed plot full of entirely mundane fistfights and car chases?

If you voted b) then a slow hand-clap for you, because you were probably one of the production team behind Psycho Diver, a fifty minute OVA that does everything it can to avoid embracing the one element that might possibly make it something special.  What we get instead is a forcedly noir, needlessly violent show about a voice over-happy tough guy hired to sort out the incipient craziness of a pop star who can no longer sing.  (There are two of her songs on the soundtrack and they're both indescribably awful, which begs the question of why anyone would care.)

Psycho Diver is humourless and weirdly dense with plot and characters, but the one thing it isn't is interested in exploring its core concept, which could be all but jettisoned with barely the slightest effect on the plot.  In fact things would actually make more sense if the protagonist was simply a psychiatrist, and goodness knows we need more shows about gritty, hardboiled psychiatrists!  As failings go, it's flat out annoying, because the brief scenes that do play on the whole psycho diving notion are the most visually interesting, and director Mamoru Kanbe - who would go on to make the notorious Elfen Lied - was certainly capable of doing more with the notion than this.  Psycho Diver isn't actually bad as such; for what it is, it's fairly diverting for its short running time.  But by promising something genuinely interesting that it hasn't the faintest interest in delivering, the movie falls flatter than it needs to.

Ultimately, then, the best thing about Psycho Diver is that you don't have any reason to watch it, not when Satoshi Kon's magnificent Paprika exists and does all the things this should have done, a hundred times better than Psycho Diver ever would have.


Wow, that was another awful month, wasn't it?  I sure can pick 'em!  The strange thing is, practically everything on my to-watch shelf looks great, so I'm not sure what's going wrong here.  Then again, Zaion looked great, so perhaps it's time I accepted that looks can be deceiving when it comes to nineties (or even early two thousands) anime.  Still, I have faith!  There must be another classic or two out there I haven't found yet.  There must be!

I mean ... there must be, right?

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

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