Saturday, 17 September 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 15

It's reassuring to know that there are still classics out there to be turned up.  In fact, this latest round sees a couple of the highest highlights yet - even if one of them does shoot itself in the foot at the last minute.  Still, months after the point where I'd begun to worry I'd exhausted every financially realistic avenue, it's conceivable that the best actually lies ahead for these posts: be it by hovering around E-bay or tracking down Korean releases with English language options or just stumbling over widely available releases I'd somehow missed, I'm still keeping the to-watch shelf stocked with exciting treats.

This time through we have: Ranma 1/2: Nihao My Concubine, Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, Sol Bianca and Silent Möbius...

Ranma 1/2: Nihao My Concubine, 1992, dir: Iku Suzuki

The criticism most often thrown at the second Ranma movie is that it has exactly the same plot as the first Ranma movie, and this is entirely fair.  You could perhaps justify the fact by appealing to the rules of sequel escalation: where the first film's villain only kidnapped female lead Akane to be his bride, the second film's villain has off with pretty much all of the female characters, so as to give himself a broader selection of fiances.  But really, you have to wonder what the makers were thinking; is this truly the only direction in which you can take a show in which the protagonist switches sex when they get wet and half of the characters turn into animals?  Was there no other plot line for a feature length Ranma 1/2 episode than "female characters get kidnapped for purposes of forced marriage, male characters win them back"?

You might argue that this is offset by the fact that Ranma spends a far larger proportion of the running time of this one in female form.  But that doesn't altogether help, given that female Ranma passes most of that time in the skimpiest clothes imaginable, or in one scene - inevitably involving the pervy old midget that hogged so much of the first film's running time - not even that.  But honestly, trying to parse the sexual politics of Ranma 1/2 would be a whole essay in itself, and not one I feel myself especially equipped for.  The only point that significantly bothered me on that front was that, contentious case of Ranma aside, only the male characters got to get involved with the fighting.  Explaining to the audience how kickass your women are and then not actually letting them kick any ass has always seemed to me a failing that anime tends to sidestep by comparison with Western media, but not so here.

And again I'm trying to analyse the gender politics of a cartoon from twenty-five years ago in which a boy turns into a girl when he gets wet, which isn't going to get us anywhere.  Nor does it really tell a great deal about whether Nihao My Concubine is any good.  And yes, it is; I'd certainly say I enjoyed it as much as the first film, and I think I preferred Iku Suzuki's direction over that of original director Shûji Iuchi.  There's perhaps a touch more sophistication to the animation, and some noticeably lovely backgrounds: the villain's floating island base, for example, has more than a dash of Miyazaki's Laputa about it.  Nihao My Concubine is also a little more low-key than Big Trouble in Nekonron, China, and that turns out to be a good thing, because it's also less frantic and exhausting.  Arguably the fact that it's only an hour long compared to the first film's seventy-five minutes helps there too.  And with all of that said, I find myself falling back on exactly the same conclusion as last time.  If you're down for what Ranma 1/2 is about then there are plenty of worse ways to waste an hour, but it's hard to see this making fresh converts.

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, 1999, dir: Kazuhiro Furuhashi

Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, the OVA prologue to the well-respected series Rurouni Kenshin, has a reputation for being something of a classic.  And so it turned out to be - for all except its last ten or so minutes.  It's a real shame, then, that those last ten minutes are so frustrating as to nearly ruin everything that comes before.

But let's address the positives first: Samurai X is genuinely adult storytelling of the kind that's all too rare in anime, or outside of anime for that matter.  It tells a sparse and brutal tale about a child who chooses to become a killer, based upon somewhat shaky perceptions and an inflexible moral code, and is then ruthlessly encouraged to do precisely that by adults who may or may not share his desire for a better world - but certainly see the boy, Kenshin, first and foremost as a weapon.  Much anime trades in violence, but Samurai X takes violence as its theme, and then examines that theme unflinchingly; it's profoundly unapologetic about showing the effects that swords have on human bodies, but also about showing the consequences that killing takes on human lives.

Watching Samurai X, it occurred to me that most anime, and even much good anime, rarely gives the impression of having been directed with any sort of an agenda; in that sense, traditional animation is certainly more restrictive than film.  Yet Samurai X is full of clear directorial decisions, and most of them are terrifically good.  There's the way, for example, that Furuhashi uses moments of stillness and images of nature to make the brief bursts of violence seem aberrant rather than exciting.  But this is technically pristine work on all fronts, and it develops in a rewarding direction, as the boy assassin Kenshin encounters a mysterious woman named Tomoe and learns that just maybe there's more to life - even as Tomoe develops into an increasingly fascinating and complex character in her own right.

Then we get to the end, and discover what all this character building and moral greyness and gut-wrenching violence has been for, and - well, let's say, charitably, that it's less than it could have been.  I don't want to spoil that ending, but even a few hints will give it away to the attentive reader, so if that's you and you don't want to know then look away now.  Suffice to note that Samurai X is a prequel and that Tomoe isn't a character who appears in the series, and moreover that the ultimate aim here is to turn the damaged boy Kenshin into the show's presumably more sane and heroic version of the character, and you can probably fill in the blanks.  Or, to go a step further, I could add that there are many lousy ways to make use of a strong female character and Samurai X opts for the one that I personally find least tolerable.  Though, frankly, even that's only half the misstep: it's staggering how all of the show's carefully built ambiguity has leaked out by the time the climax is over.  For an hour and fifty minutes I'd assumed that Samurai X shared my concerns about the use of mentally unbalanced children as assassins.  By the time the credits rolled around I was less sure.

Ah, well.  I can't honestly not recommend Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, so much of it is beyond brilliant.  If you have the slightest interest in nineties anime, it's certainly a must see.  And I'm fully aware that the majority of viewers won't be half so bothered by that ending as I was; judging by other reviews, most like it just fine.  All I can say is that for me it turned what would have been a genre-transcending masterpiece into a painful near miss.

Sol Bianca, 1990, dir's: Katsuhito Akiyama, Hiroki Hayashi

If you ever needed proof that we're living in a broken parallel of the real universe then Sol Bianca is it.

In the real universe, every anime fan has heard of Sol Bianca, and it's familiar outside the fandom every bit as much as works like Akira and Ghost in the Shell.  Commentators routinely point out how it helped to inspire western shows like Farscape and Firefly, with its charming but immoral protagonists and its perfect mix of comedy, action and drama.  The show is held up as an exemplar for its diverse, mostly female cast, its imaginative manipulation of space opera tropes and of course for its marvelous animation, which in the remastered blu-ray edition looks like it might have been made yesterday.

But that isn't our universe.  In our universe, Sol Bianca got cancelled after two episodes, having failed to prove popular enough to justify the remaining parts that would have wrapped up its story, despite having won best OVA at the 1993 Anime Expo.  And the only way you're likely to see it is on a hard to find DVD edition that looks like someone transferred it from VHS.  While drunk.

But hey, we have two episodes of Sol Bianca, and those two episodes are entirely great, so I guess we can only make do.  The first, a thrilling fifty minutes that throws the piratical crew of the titular space ship into the middle of an interplanetary war, is perhaps the better of the two; the second is more interesting on its own terms, but spends a larger degree of its running time setting up the arc plot that will never be finished, which grows increasingly painful the more the intriguing questions pile up.  Either way, though, it's terrific fun, and I can't stress just how lovely it looks at points.  In particular, I don't think I've seen better hand drawn character animation anywhere: the crew of the Bianca blink and tilt their heads and generally behave exactly like human beings do, even though the extra hours of work that it must have taken to achieve that level of realism beggars imagining.

If it's not clear by now, I urge you to track down Sol Bianca; it's exactly the sort of lost treasure I started these posts hunting for.  There's no doubt in my mind that if it had been finished it would be considered one of the masterpieces of eastern animation, but even one incomplete half of Sol Bianca is wittier, more exciting and more elegantly drawn and designed than the vast majority of what I've talked about here.  It's great anime and great sci-fi, and shame on those contemporary audiences who didn't appreciate the treat they'd been handed.

Silent Möbius, 1991, dir's: Kazuo Tomizawa

I've always thought it an odd trend in anime that lengthy series - in this case, twelve whole volumes - were so often adapted into OVAs of a length that couldn't possibly hope to do them justice.  But it occurred to me after watching Silent Möbius that perhaps that's no more strange than a comic book movie that crams decades of continuity into a couple of hours.  The question, then, is not whether the notion is basically sound but whether it's done well - and the problem that it so frequently isn't.

Silent Möbius, which is fifty minutes long plus credits, does it pretty well.  There's only so much you can cram into fifty minutes, even when your basic setup - futuristic Tokyo, invading demons, hot supernatural police ladies - are rote enough to not need a great deal of introducing.  Silent Möbius's rather clever solution is to focus on one significant incident and then to use that as a jumping off point for a lengthy flashback exploring the background of a single character, which in turn folds back into the modern day crisis.  The result is a story that satisfies on its own terms - though at the same time fails to feel terribly unique.

Which isn't by any means to say that Silent Möbius is bad.  The design work is appealing - certainly more so than that in the TV adaptation that would eventually follow - and the backgrounds are lovely, taking on much of the heavy lifting of portraying a weird, off-kilter cyberfuture that feels wholly impractical and yet delightfully complete.  And the story succeeds perfectly well on its own terms, with a few standout scenes, some genuinely memorable imagery and enough intrigue and character development to give the sense of a feature length in what amounts to half the running time.

It's good then - better than most of these demons-invade-Tokyo things, in large part because of the sense of a fuller, more thought-out world that we're only seeing the edges of.  But that's not to say that it can overcome its inherent limitations, or that it's outstanding in its craftsmanship or ambition.  Silent Mobius is an engaging, attractive, rather too short slice of Cthulhupunk, and that's no bad thing to be, but it's also all you get.


Considering how good everything was this time through, it's strange to look back over this post with a vague sense of heartbreak.  But oh how wonderful Samurai X should have been, and oh how extraordinary Sol Bianca would have been if it had only been finished.  Flawed masterpieces are great and all, but unflawed masterpieces tend to be even better.

Still, you have to take your wins where you can get them when you're compulsively reviewing all the nineties anime you can get your hands on, I suppose!

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

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