Sunday, 10 July 2016

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 12

So here we are, and here's more nineties anime, caught as ever on the cusp of the ridiculous and the sublime - though perhaps with rather too much of the former and not a great deal of the latter this time around.  And I say this as someone who sat through the Legend of the Overfiend sequel so that maybe no one else would ever have to.

But it's not all doom and gloom and horrifying tentacle monsters!  This time around: Burn Up WUrotsukidôji II: Legend of the Demon WombAll Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku and Tokyo Revelation.

Burn Up W, 1996, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

Burn up W is a four part OVA intended, so far as I can tell, as an introduction to the Burn up Excess series that would soon follow.  It certainly plays out in a decidedly prologue-like fashion, ending with its characters at what feels like the jumping off point for a main act.  That's fine and all, and not really a problem - but there are problems, and they're not small ones.  I'd actually had some hopes for this, not based on much beside the box art and description it has to be said, but I'd be wasting my time entirely with this nineties anime thing if I didn't have a certain soft spot for violent comedy action shows with huge-eyed female protagonists.

Burn up W plays on that affection, and hard.  It's nothing short of brazen in its efforts to show off its protagonists being violent and at the same time scantily clad; we meet one character via a lingering shot of her prone, sweating body as she grumbles about how she's not allowed to fire the sniper rifle she's holding, which gives as fair an impression of what's going on here as anything could.  Though in fairness, you almost have to respect the degree of setup the show goes through to have one of the characters bungee jump naked out of a helicopter.

And anyway, that's still not the problem, unless you really want it to be.  In fact, for the first two episodes, there isn't much of a problem at all.  Part one, featuring a bizarre hostage situation, is pretty good; part two, where the show starts aggressively parodying other shows, is really fun, and one dig at Neon Genesis Evangelion (a giant purple mech that "takes 29 minutes and 30 seconds to confirm a target") had me in stitches.  Which, yes, says more about me than Burn up W, but still.

Anyway, then it falls apart.  Burn up W takes a tonal shift for its second half that nothing in the first half could hope to support.  Suddenly things get awfully dark and violent, whilst at the same time still being essentially a goofy, fan service-heavy pastiche of Bubblegum Crisis, and the bottom falls out of the whole business with an almost audible whoosh.  It's a terrible decision, and the most generous interpretation is that it's a parody of the similarly terrible decisions that other nineties anime shows made, which is a fun idea but I suspect giving too much credit.  Whatever the case, the end result is tough to be positive about.  Burn up W will always have a fond place in my heart for arbitrarily sending up Evangelion, but it takes a little more than that to get a recommendation round here.  (Though, let's face it, only a little.)

Urotsukidôji II: Legend of the Demon Womb, 1993, dir: Hideki Takayama

Here's the great thing about watching Legend of the Demon Womb: now that I've done it, I don't have to keep seeing the damn thing on my shelf.  And, since that doesn't help anyone but me much, here's another positive: Urotsukidôji II is not half so abominable and repellent as Urotsukidôji, the film better known to western audiences as Legend of the Overfiend, and the movie that introduced the wider world to the peculiar sub-genre of Japanese erotica that is tentacle rape pornography.

That is about as far as we're likely to get with listing positives, for "less abominable and repellent than Legend of the Overfiend" should in no way be construed as a recommendation.  Though, it has to be said, it feels like one while you're watching Legend of the Demon Womb, and it's hard not to mistake that sense of relief for vague and intermittent enjoyment.  I'll go further ... Demon Womb is an all-round better film than its progenitor, with a more tolerable protagonist, considerably more imagination, less of an emphasis on sexualised violence and considerably more solid animation.

Which still shouldn't be construed as a recommendation.  For Demon Womb remains horrible and rapey and frequently tiresome, with a middle act that mostly sits around spinning its ugly wheels to minimal effect.  But, unlike Overfiend, a movie that managed to be at once vilely unpleasant and at the same time basically dull, it's rarely flat-out terrible.  It even starts rather intriguingly, at least if you consider an occult Nazi experiment to summon Norse gods via the medium of a rape carousel intriguing.  And, as with Overfiend, the third act is by far the best, with that selfsame Nazi rape carousel popping back up, (it looks disturbingly like a birthday cake), veritable tides of blood, absurd violence and an emphasis on the one character who isn't made intolerable by the staggeringly poor US dub.

But, you know - still not a recommendation.  I'm trying to be as light hearted as I can here, because that's a big part of what these posts are about, but any review in which you type the word "rape" four times (now five) is, with the tiniest handful of exceptions, going to be for a product that's better off left to rot in the grubbier corners of history.  The thing is, you don't need to watch an Urotsukidôji movie, ever; I promise you, there's no hole in your life that will ever filled by what these things have to offer.  However, if you should absolutely feel the need then, all things being equal, Legend of the Demon Womb is without a doubt the one to go for.

All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, 1992, dir: Yoshio Ishida

So last time around I said that I'd have to choose between watching Urotsukidôji II and All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, but I realised quickly that the two weren't mutually exclusive - and indeed that after the former I might find myself really, really in need of the latter.  And so it proved.

Now, I'd be lying if I said that I bought All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku for any other reason than the title.  All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku!  What does that even mean?  Well, it turns out that, like many an anime title that sounded hopelessly bonkers at first glance, this is just literalism gone faintly wrong.  For this is indeed a show about a cat girl named Nuku Nuku, and she is indeed pretty versatile and, er, cultural.  Nineties anime: it does what it says on the tin, even when what is says on the tin makes no damn sense.

Anyway, Nuku Nuku is the brainchild of eccentric genius roboticist Kyusaku Natsume, who we meet at a particularly hectic point in his life: he's at once breaking up with his billionaire businesswoman wife Akiko, stealing the prototype robot he built for her and kidnapping their son Ryunosuke.  And when a kitten that Ryunosuke has tried to save becomes a casualty of the ensuing conflict, Kyusaku hits on the obvious solution.  At least if you consider transferring the cat's consciousness into an untested, military grade robot obvious - which, if you're a lightly comic anime OVA from the front end of the nineties, you surely do.

This leaves us in a broadly similar place to last month's Twin Signal, though with a higher budget that delivers some above average animation, especially in the frequent scenes of city-spanning destruction.  But oddly, what elevates All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is not the general insanity but the slight degree of seriousness underpinning it.  There's no arc plot to speak of, but what we do get is a running custody battle - frequently fought with live ammunition - between Kyusaku and Akiko, both of whom are fond parents but deeply flawed individuals and both of whom are loved equally by Ryunosuke, who makes no bones about the fact that he'd just like to see his folks back together.  The sweet-natured Nuku Nuku, for that matter, feels much the same way, even going so far as to refer to Akiko as mama-san.  And it soon becomes apparent that, despite their utter incompatibility, Kyusaku and Akiko still have a degree of fondness for each other.

If that doesn't sound like particularly rich material for comedy then that's probably because it isn't, and it takes a certain delicate balance to get right, one that All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku by turns gets close to, nails perfectly and forgets about altogether.  It's a wildly inconsistent show, surely by design, but the one episode where everything comes together is worth the effort of watching alone.  It centers on the show's strongest character, the marvelous Akiko, whose conflict between fond mum and gleeful super-villain comes to a head when she's blackmailed by Kyusaku into playing the role of traditional Japanese housewife, with the reward being that she gets to live with her son.  It's a surprisingly perceptive examination of what it means to combine being a successful woman and a mother in modern Japan, and it ends in a battle between a tank-driving Akiko and a robotic cat girl, because of course it does.

Ultimately, the very best thing about All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is that title; it's a reliably fun show, but not quite consistent enough to count as a must-watch.  But if you have a fondness for daft nineties anime humour then this is definitely towards the upper end, and well worth a look.

Tokyo Revelation, 1994, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

Given that it combines two of my absolutely least favourite things in nineties anime - Manga's invariably half-arsed Collection series of budget releases and plots involving invading demons - Tokyo Revelation was something of a pleasant surprise.  Though to some extent it ticks all the relevant boxes that make both of those things so obnoxious, it has a few notable virtues that soften the blow somewhat.  So on the one hand we have Manga's typically low standards, and the obligatory nudity and gore, not to mention plenty of swearing on the dub to push up the certificate.  But on the other, that dub actually isn't all that bad, and the whole thing isn't half as grubby as an Urotsukidôji movie, or even something like Wicked City.  That's the crucial difference, I think; Tokyo Revelation manages to circumvent both the utter sleaziness of some similar titles and the desperate cheapness of much of the Collection line-up, and in so doing ends up being unexpectedly likable.

Let's not go mad here, though, we're still talking about something pretty trashy.  Again, though, the specific nature of that trashiness is at least more fun that nasty.  In particular, this reminded me of that whole weird hysteria around Dungeons and Dragons turning kids into satanists: bad guy Akito turns to devil-worship after being bullied as a child, and even does his demon summoning with computers, just in case "bullied kid who becomes a satanist" wasn't enough nerd panic.  Oh, and he's gay, a fact that Tokyo Revelation handles ... well, not terribly.  And really, the fact that that detail's in there at all speaks to why this is something rather decent.  Even though none of the characters get a great deal of development amid the 55 minute running time, there's at least the sense that they're people with hopes, dreams and past lives, and that counts for a lot.  It's broad strokes stuff, of course, but at least it's there, and when you're hammering through a busy plot at the rate that Tokyo Revelation does, making time for a few decent character beats counts for at least something.

The biggest positive here, though, is the quality of animation, which is surprisingly impressive for 1994, and downright startling for a Collection release.  It's not revolutionary, of course, but it's certainly good, and - along with some pleasing character designs and detailed backgrounds - the result is definitely attractive.  Again, this makes a big difference, and speaks to why Tokyo Revelation is worth at least a glance: it might be familiar, but it does its thing better than most.  I can't quite stretch that out to an actual recommendation; still, you can pick it up for nothing these days and there are surely worse ways to waste an hour.


As we edge closer to oblivion as a species and as we start to tot up just what we've done with our time on the planet, I'd like to think that All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is something we can all be proud of - if only because the name makes me chuckle ever time I type it.  On the other hand, if there's any kind of afterlife or cosmic judge, we're probably going to have to answer for the Urotsukidôji franchise sooner or later.  Which, with Tokyo Revelation and Burn Up W already beginning to fade from memory, I suppose leaves this post fairly balanced, karma-wise.

Still, all things being equal, I hope I get to watch some better stuff for the next one!

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

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