Sunday, 22 May 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 10

Double figures?  That's ridiculous!  I'm pretty sure that when I started these articles I didn't expect to still be at them - what is it, a year?  A decade? - later.  Still, there's nineties anime left on the to-watch shelf, quite a lot of it in fact, and a crazy, self-imposed mission is a crazy, self-imposed mission.

Plus, this time around, we have some really good stuff.

Yeah, you read that right!  For perhaps the first time ever in this series, nothing I've watched was completely rubbish.  In fact, at the risk of going out on a limb, I'm going to say that this is the first of these articles where I'd at least hesitantly recommend all four entries.  Given how basically disastrous this whole nineties anime experiment has been, consider my mind a little bit blown at this point.

Anyway.  This time around, we have, You're Under Arrest: The Movie, Oh My Goddess!, Wicked City and Shadow Skill...

You're Under Arrest: The Movie, 1999, dir: Junji Nishimura

You're Under Arrest was quite the franchise for a while, with an OVA, multiple series and this feature-length film - and all of that despite the lack of anything obvious to separate it from the crowd.  Not to criticize, because anime is pretty great at taking uninspiring elements and finding something new and fun to do with them, but a buddy-cop police show with two female cops is - well, pretty radical for its time, now that I think.  Okay, forget I spoke.

The You're Under Arrest movie is, however, an odd beast indeed.  It's so remarkably close in tone and plot to the second Patlabor movie that it's hard to imagine the fact being a coincidence, especially given that the film is noted for being much darker than other incarnations of the franchise.  And as much as I feel I should be criticizing on that front, I really can't.  I mean, I struggle to think of any less offensive crime than ripping off a great Mamoru Oshii movie.  Plus, it works.  You're Under Arrest may in fact be parodying Patlabor 2, though I suspect that's giving it more credit than it  deserves, but whatever the case, an Oshii-esque political thriller plot married to the somewhat goofy action and characters of YUA makes for a weirdly charming arrangement.

Admittedly, it takes half the film for those two disparate ingredients to really mesh.  The first half is full of slow character and plot build, and rather dour, which must have been quite the shake-up for those expecting something more light-hearted.  It also assumes a degree of familiarity with the characters, though never so much as to be confusing.  At any rate, it's only once the groundwork's been laid that You're Under Arrest really comes to life as the curious hybrid it seems intent on being.

Perhaps none of this sounds terribly positive, but I enjoyed the You're Under Arrest movie rather a lot.  It's a solid thriller with appealing characters and a distinctive plot; it's looks good too, with the small exception of a tendency to cut to static frames that suggests the budget was getting tight by the end.  If it's not a classic in any shape or form, it's certainly a film that I look forward to watching again, and by the standards of these articles, that's a definite win.

Oh My Goddess!, 1993, dir: Hiroaki Gôda

Another franchise with considerable legs on it, Oh My Goddess! (sometimes, Ah My Goddess!) has since become a series that lasted for a full two seasons and produced a movie - which is excellent, and was the reason I tracked down this OVA from way back in 1993, with high hopes that it would be more of the same.  Which was naive, in retrospect, because an OVA from 1993 is very much not the same thing as a movie from 2000 with really good production values, animation standards having come on a great deal in those seven years.  But in most other respects, Oh My Goddess! managed not to disappoint.

Whatever incarnation you get, the basic facts are these: good-hearted teenager Keiichi inadvertently finds himself contacting the Goddess Help Line - literally a divine intervention help desk - and in the resulting confusion uses the one wish he's granted by the adorable goddess Belldandy to ask that she stay with him forever.  That's a setup with the scope to be unpleasant on any number of levels, and perhaps the charm of Oh My Goddess! is that it sidesteps most of those so effortlessly.  Though it has to be said, the OVA does so rather less neatly than the film, which begins once Keiichi and Belldandy's romance is firmly established: the second of the five episodes here has Keiichi descending into the lecherous teenager mode that populates so much anime, and is by far the weakest for it.

After that, though, things pick up considerably.  Oh My Goddess! is laden with charm, thanks both to its two main characters and the fact that they clearly do adore each other and belong together, a fun supporting cast that includes Belldandy's two troublesome goddess sisters, and a concept that's just basically mad, in a fashion that only anime seems able to pull off.  The way, for example, that religion runs like a mismanaged IT support department in the Oh My Goddess! universe never ceases to be strange and fun.

With all of that said, I suppose there's nothing mind-blowingly spectacular about this three hour OVA; the first two episodes are pleasant but functional, the animation barely rises much above decent, and it takes a fair old while for the plot to kick in in any meaningful way.  Still, Oh My Goddess! earned its place in the anime pantheon for a reason - it's immensely likable, basically - and there are worse places to start with the universe than here at the beginning.

Wicked City, 1987, dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

If I'd known I'd end up watching so many movies about invading tentacle-demons, or that so many of those movies would rely heavily on sexual violence, I'm pretty sure I'd never have started this whole nineties anime thing in the first place.  Wicked City arrived in what must have been some sort of golden year for this sort of thing, in that the first part of the Legend of the Overfiend OVA was released then too.  And Wicked City follows a noticeably similar groove, though one that's immediately more interesting.  We learn quickly that there's been uncomfortable peace between the human and demon worlds for centuries and that it's about to be cemented by a major treaty; but for that to succeed, a human member of an organisation named "The Black Guard" will need to partner with his sexy, female demon opposite to protect a visiting dignitary from what amount to demonic terrorists.

Writing it up like that, Wicked City sounds pretty great - and, damn it, it sort of is.  Though certainly not because of that aforementioned sexual violence, which is unpleasant for precisely the same reasons that I found Legend of the Overfiend so downright nasty: there's simply no sense of understanding that rape is a traumatic, life-deforming event.  There's no dancing around the fact, it's gravely problematic and trivialising, and it's sure to make the film unwatchable for many.

There's really no way to defend a film having said something like that.  As such, I feel a bit icky admitting that, its least pleasant aspects aside, I found myself enjoying Wicked City quite a bit.  For a start, it frequently looks terrific, particularly for a film made at the back end of the eighties; there's a great amount of visual flair on display and a use of light and darkness that beats out many an objectively better film.  The plot, too, is unusually engaging: it takes a couple of unexpected beats, and there's a decent twist towards the end.  And, this being a Yoshiaki Kawajiri movie - he of Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust fame - you're guaranteed some truly imaginative enemies, along with a generally high level of weirdness.  Wicked City is, in fact, full of images and moments that feel genuinely strange and transgressive nearly two decades later.  It's an exploitation movie, there's no question of that, but within those boundaries it's a pretty damn good example of what it is.

Shadow Skill, 1995, Hiroshi Negishi

Shadow Skill is another puzzling release from Manga, though for the opposite of the usual reasons.  What we have here is Shadow Skill the Movie (actually a three part OVA, if my OVA-spotting skills haven't failed me) and something described, off-handedly, as an epilogue - which is barely mentioned on the back of the edition I have, despite being a good fifty minutes long, crucial to the story and by far the high point of the whole endeavor.

Not that Shadow Skill is lacking for high points.  On the surface, we're looking at a fairly standard fantasy release here, with a heavy emphasis on martial arts action, but it's all done well: the writing is a cut above the usual, the character designs are weird but distinctive, the music's appealing and the animation is above par for the time, getting significantly better over the running time.

However, none of that's really what sets Shadow Skill apart, though it certainly doesn't hurt.  No, what makes this special, first and foremost, is the characterization.  Our sort-of-heroes are the splendidly named Elle Ragu and her adopted little brother / martial arts student Gau, and both of them are set out, quickly and persuasively, in a few broad strokes.  Gau is pretty much your standard anime male protagonist, though an unusually likable example of that demographic.  But Elle is a real standout, a complex female lead of the kind that so much of what I've watched has been frustratingly short of.  (Noticeably, she's also one of the very few female fighters anywhere in anime who isn't preposterously waifish.  Elle looks like she could kick your ass.)  Their relationship, though, is what really elevates the material.  Shadow Skill nods towards an epic arc plot that never really coalesces, but what it's really about is the dynamic between these two likable characters, and on that level the film and epilogue together make for a satisfying whole.

There's plenty of other exceptional stuff happening, though.  The minor characters and all of the relationships have a lived-in feel that pays dividends, especially when the plot requires friends to abruptly become enemies.  The second episode (er, middle act) contains one of my favourite sequences anywhere in anime, a hugely convoluted action sequence that makes no sense at all and is all the more fun for it.  The explanation for the shadow skill school of martial arts, revealed in the epilogue, is such a poignant detail that it almost demands a rewatch of the whole show.

So ... yeah, I really like Shadow Skill, okay?  It doesn't reinvent the nineties anime wheel and to modern eyes it's hokey in a way that, say, Ghost in the Shell isn't.  But delve under the surface and there's an awful lot to love.  I've watched it twice now and I'm sure I'll come back to it again.  And that's not because I have an anime-crush on Elle Ragu, because ... um ... that would be weird.


Honestly, I could stop this series right here and now.  I went looking for a holy grail, and now here it is, sitting on my mantelpiece next to the tacky holiday ornaments and the photos of cats.  Not only did I find one really good bit of nineties anime that I'd never heard of before I started on this pointless crusade, I found four, and all in the same month.  This is like setting out to buy a loaf of bread and realising you've climbed Everest by mistake.

But, like I said at the start, there's still nineties anime on the shelf, and I may possibly have just ordered a load more, and good god, this really is never going to end, is it?   So onwards I go, in the sure knowledge that this post was definitely the high point of the whole endeavour and that, whatever happens, it's all downhill from here.  Wish me luck...

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

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