Friday, 29 July 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 13

What's this?  Another good outing?  With nothing I outright hated, a couple of things I really enjoyed, and one sorta, kinda borderline classic?  Nineties anime ... truly you're the gift that just keeps on giving!  This time through, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross II: Lovers Again, Dirty Pair Flash: Angels in Trouble, Red Hawk: Weapon of Death, and Memories, which gets bonus points for not having a colon in its title.

Super Dimensional Fortress Macross II: Lovers Again, 1992, dir: Ken'ichi Yatagai

Macross II, first proper sequel to epic sci-fi series Super Dimension Fortress Macross - which came to the West as part of the weirdly bastardised Robotech saga - is not much loved among Macross fans: missing the show's original creator, this six part OVA follow-up is widely considered as merely a rehash with better animation, covering the same basic plot beats and themes with a broadly similar group of characters.  But let's for the moment assume you haven't seen Robotech (I haven't) and flip that on its head: what we have here is a neat encapsulation of one of the best-loved anime series of the eighties, with a fresh coat of well-above-par nineties OVA production values.

With all of that said, Macross II takes a fair while to get good.  The first two or three episodes take their time in setting up the conflict and characters, though even then they have their moments: who knew that Macross predicted Futurama's splendid Monument Beach gag by some seven years?  Still, it's only towards the end, when events get serious and epic and even rather apocalyptic that the show finds its feet.  And even at its best, it remains thoroughly silly: in particular, characters are constantly doing irrational things to keep the plot on course, and it's one of those stories that could end in five minutes if the villain only didn't hold back the vast bulk of their forces until our heroes finally have the resources to counter them.

Still, those are acceptable forms of silliness when one is in the habit of dealing with nineties anime, and didn't bother me unduly, especially once the pace began to gather momentum.  A more serious criticism might be that, when you strip it right down, there's not a great deal here besides a run-of-the-mill alien invasion plot dressed up with plentiful amounts of giant robots.  Unlike with, say, Gunbuster, there's nothing that makes Macross II really special, besides the quirks that are apparently common to the Macross franchise: an involved back story and a strange emphasis on music that justifies unusual amounts of J-pop.  And for that matter, this really isn't on a par with Macross Plus, which would see the return of series creator Shōji Kawamori.  So, no classic then, but if you're new to the Macross franchise, enjoy epic scale sci-fi, and want a way to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon, Macross II might be just what you need.

Dirty Pair Flash: Angels in Trouble, 1994, dir: Tsukasa Sunaga

That title's going out of its way to sound dodgy, isn't it?  There's good reason to suspect that this might have been a deliberate move on ADV's part - we're very much in the time period, after all, when anime was still selling in the West entirely on the notion that it was either ultraviolent or pornographic - but it doesn't do a great deal to reflect what DPF:AiT actually is.  What we have here is a reboot of the long-running Dirty Pair franchise, reimagining the adult protagonists of the original works as troublesome teenagers with mild delinquent tendencies, not too much in the way of common sense, and a habit for hair-trigger violence.  Kei and Yuri are freelance future Trouble Consultants with the World Welfare and Works Agency - but as we meet them, neither their careers nor their partnership look like lasting very long, for Yuri is more interested in skiving off and dating and Kei is a gun nut with attitude issues.  And if that sounds like a setup for half the buddy cop stories ever told then congratulations!  You have the number of Dirty Pair Flash.

I'm not complaining, mind you.  There's much to be said for a formula well done, and if Dirty Pair Flash has nary a beat anywhere that hasn't been seen before, it at least hits them all with style.  At worst that means a drab corporate villain of the kind that nineties anime seemed to delight in and a silent-but-beautiful female assassin straight out of who knows how many similar stories, but at best - which is more often - it means episodes that are all too eager to devolve into hectic action sequences at the slightest excuse.  The first episode's is probably the best, a fine bit of farce that starts small and snowballs merrily, but a later shootout in a spaceport where absolutely everyone turns out to be a potential assassin gets all of the best visual gags.

At any rate, I consider myself a convert, having already picked up the other two DPF volumes; the six episodes here are a ton of fun, and perhaps even more than the sum of their parts.  Though its characters might be thin in theory, Dirty Pair Flash treats them seriously, and I was shocked to realise that by the end I was as absorbed just as much by how Yuri and Kei would learn to work together and grow up enough to save the galaxy as I was by the dippy action scenes; again, there's much to be said for stock characters in stock situations when everything's constructed with enough clear affection to draw you in.  This is nigh-on classic nineties anime, and while classic in this case should be taken more as perfectly typical than great, the show actually straddles the line between the two pretty fairly.

Red Hawk: Weapon of Death, 1995, dir: Sang Il Sim

There are probably only two really salient facts that you need to decide whether Red Hawk: Weapon of Death is likely to interest you at all: it's a martial arts anime from 1995 and it's only available as part of Manga's budget Collection range, with all of the horrid, subtitle-free cheapness that implies.

On the first of those counts, Red Hawk is neither very good nor very bad.  Its protagonist, the titular, Zorro-like masked vigilante, its main baddie and his weird henchmen, the brother versus brother dynamic that becomes a big deal towards the end, even the supporting cast are all resolutely standard fare, but that's not quite to say they're not entertaining.  Granted, some of the basic plot points fail to work at all, and there's no real suggestion that the filmmakers were invested in them.  It's obvious, for example, that main character Jan Chang is the masked vigilante Red Hawk, and yet the movie obfuscates the fact to no real purpose, dragging the reveal out for a little lame comedy but not much else.  It's obvious, too, almost from the beginning, that Jan Chang will be fighting his brother, and even the whys and wherefores are readily predictable.  In fact, once the opening scenes are out of the way, the film couldn't travel in much more of a straight line - though even then while fudging its character's motivations for no clear reason.  As with so many of these plots, there's really no reason that Red Hawk couldn't have got to the third act climax years before, and the sole explanation for why these events are happening now seems to be - well, that they are.

This probably sounds awful, but at worst it's functional, and the general breeziness keeps it afloat, along with some well above average animation; in particular, the animators are careful to get the motion of human bodies right, which when you're making an animated martial arts movie is a wise decision indeed.  The look of Red Hawk advantages it immensely, and brings a degree of excitement to fights that are too ready to descend into special-move swapping - though a couple of exceptions, especially towards the end, stand out through a greater degree of ingenuity.

At this point, then, Red Hawk falls firmly into the camp of "recommended, if you like this sort of thing" - I'd say that I enjoyed it more that the previous year's Street Fighter 2 The Animated Movie, for example, which it resembles in a number of suspiciously specific ways.  However, there remains the fact that what we have is a Manga Collection release, and few things are so guaranteed to turn watchable nonsense into subpar tosh.  We have the usual playing in a small box in the middle of the screen incompetence, the usual barely functional dub, and of course the usual clumsily inserted swearing that clearly isn't what the characters are saying (though that last does produce a genuinely hilarious moment near the end.)  Were it not for that general Collection-ness, I'd recommend Red Hawk on the strength of the animation alone, which really does make the whole thing more watchable than it has any right to be.  But it's hard to concentrate on good animation when it's been reduced to a box in the middle of your screen, or when you're trying to shut out mediocre American voice actors shouting lines that obviously have little relation to anything the characters were ever intended to be saying.  A thumbs down, then, but with my ire directed much more at Manga than poor Red Hawk itself.

Memories, 1995, dir's: Kôji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura, Katsuhiro Ôtomo

It's safe to say that you're unlikely to have seen another film quite like Memories, and even those movies that inhabit a similar space - which is to say, collections of animation shorts presenting themselves as feature films - are rare and far between.  Yet here we and are and here's Memories: a hugely expensive, lavish collection of three all but entirely unrelated stories, with the only combining thread being that they're all based on works by writer / director Katsuhiro Otomo.

But therein lies the rationale: for Katsuhiro Otomo was the creator of Akira, and Akira was a goldmine, both within and outside Japan, in the latter case proving the driving force towards the acceptance and awareness of anime in the West.  And even some years later (Memories was released in 1995, seven years after Akira) it's safe to assume that Otomo remained a name to conjure with.

I have no idea how successful Memories would prove to be, though now that I come to research it I discover that Otomo has made a total of four of these anthology movies over the course of his career, the latest being Short Peace in 2013, so perhaps the answer is "not so badly."  But it's precisely as easy to say why it might have done well as why it might have flopped horridly: it contains one near masterpiece, and one short that isn't much good at all.

To start with the positive: Magnetic Rose is fine enough that it makes Memories worth seeing all on its own, and fortunately it's also the longest piece at a (just slightly bloated) 45 minutes.  It follows the crew of a spaceship who, on answering a distress call to investigate a dilapidated wreck, find themselves in spaces and situations that couldn't possibly be occurring.  The results are a bit like a less overtly horror telling of Event Horizon, (which it preceded by two years), except with more opera, deeply lovely animation, and a script by a certain Satoshi Kon, who soon after would go on to direct Perfect Blue and begin proving himself one of the greatest writer / directors of all time.  Without Kon's work, Magnetic Rose would still be pretty damn good; with him it becomes a tangled, hypnotic study of the ways in which the past infects and poisons the present.

Then Magnetic Rose ends and Stink Bomb starts and - well, I won't say Memories breaks down altogether, but it comes damned close.  Stink Bomb, the story of a sad-sack, dim-witted salaryman named Nobuo who inadvertently turns himself into a living biological weapon is, at its finest, a good example of a solid mid-nineties anime story.  But at it's worst, it's damned aggravating.  The thing is, Stink Bomb is striving for satire, but its plot only keeps stumbling along because everyone involved behaves in the most idiotic way possible, and particularly Nobuo, whose rampant stupidity costs a great many lives.  So lousy satire then, but there are times when Stink Bomb finds its groove - like Magnetic Rose, it relies heavily on its music - and in those moments, as I say, it's a perfectly solid example of what anime at this point was just fine at doing, only with the utterly splendid level of animation that drives the whole project.

Last up, and by far the most interesting section, comes Cannon Fodder, directed by Otomo himself.  Cannon Fodder is the near-plotless tale of a city that exists only to war against an unseen, probably nonexistent enemy - and as a mood piece designed to develop one idea to the fullest extent possible, it's pretty great.  Not to mention as a technical exercise: it's the only one of the three parts that moves substantially away from realism, with its characters looking very much like soldiers who've just blundered back from the Somme, but more to the point it's shot in one extraordinary take, using what must in 1995 have been cutting-edge CG work.  It's thrilling while you're watching it, but kind of airy and easy to forget afterwards, the lack of a narrative feeling like more of a problem in retrospect.

Still, it's not a bad ending to a film that somehow manages to be both totally flawed and totally indispensable.  If you have any interest at all in animation then you need to see Memories, because some of the finest work ever produced in the field is to be seen here.  And if you like anime or even only science fiction then Magnetic Rose is a must watch.  If the entire film were up to the same standard then Memories would probably be the pinnacle of nineties anime; as it is, it's a minor classic at most.  It's fascinating, sort of a mess, often dazzling, and I really wish I loved it more than I do, but still I'd recommend it unreservedly.


Getting to the end of this, I find myself wanting to watch some more Dirty Pair Flash, which is just fine because there are two more volumes to get through.  And in retrospect, this was a fun batch, all told; if every low point was only as low as Red Hawk and every high point as high as Memories then I'd be a happy compulsive watcher of nineties anime!

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

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