Sunday, 23 October 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 16

I would be lying if I said that I wasn't writing these posts, and by extension watching these swathes of nineties anime, for fun.  But there have been a few points when that fun came awfully close to drying up.  However big a film fan you are, it's hard to feel entirely joyful about watching things that are flat-out terrible.  So it's with some relief that I say that the baseline really does seem to be rising.  More and more it feels like I'm hunting down lost - well, classics is a strong word, so let's go instead with treasures.  Rather tatty and tarnished treasures, oftentimes, but that's fine by me.

And that's exactly what I have this time around.  In today's job lot of animated nineties weirdness: Pet Shop of Horrors, AD Police, Demon City Shinjuku and Riding Bean...

Pet Shop of Horrors, 1999, Toshio Hirata

In the Chinatown of an American city that looks not much like any American city on Earth there's a pet shop, run by the mysterious Count D, that caters to a most specialist clientele: the bereft, the mad and the desperate.  Meanwhile, a cop named Leon has grown suspicious of the shop and its proprietor, having decided that it's a front for just about every criminal endeavour you care to name.  He's at least half right; D is indeed linked to a great deal of unpleasantness, but only because he keeps selling his customers unusual animals that he somehow convinces them are people or mythical creatures, while insisting they agree to contract terms that, if you've ever seen a horror movie ever and in particular if you've ever seen Gremlins, you know damn well are going to get broken in no time at all.

Gremlins ... there's a point of reference that's certainly tough to forget.  But the show, an OVA of four twenty-five minute episodes, feels just as close in tone to the horror anthology movies of yesteryear.  Each part has the air of a twisted morality tale, in which D's latest luckless buyers wind up getting precisely what they deserve or truly desire, though never quite both.  What makes these more interesting than they might be is their utter weirdness, and the same is true for all of Pet Shop of Horrors, really.  As one example, the scenes between D and Leon go absolutely nowhere, being part of a longer plot from the Manga, and basic storytelling common sense would dictate that they'd have been better off discarded.  However, they generally end up being the highlight of each episode, as Leon tries to strong-arm D and D responds by being deliriously camp and insisting they have tea and cake together.  Also, he seems to have a flying type Pokemon, which Leon never finds strange enough to comment on.  It's all rather goofy, but goofy in a likable fashion which softens four stories that, in theory, are pretty horrid.

I don't know whether I'm making this sound good or bad, and probably that's because I'm not altogether sure myself.  I only watched Pet Shop of Horrors last night and already it's like trying to remember a strange dream.  One thing I can say with certainty is that I wouldn't have had such doubts if only the animation had been less iffy: for 1999 it looks, frankly, a bit rubbish.  It's not so much the production values, which are just about okay, as the direction.  For example, there's a shot that Hirata absolutely adores, where movement is simulated by sliding one inanimate cell over another.  It looks as crappy as it sounds, and once you notice it you can't stop.  Nor does it help that the scenes within the pet shop are so dark that it's barely possible to tell what's happening, which was surely intended to be creepy but only serves to give you eyestrain.

In the end, Pet Shop of Horrors is probably the sort of thing that you'll know by now if you'll enjoy or not.  If you appreciate old-school anthology horror that's creepy and campy and weird, though not especially scary, and you're not put off by the odd bit of crummy animation, then it's certainly worth shelling out on.

AD Police, 1990, dir's: Takamasa Ikegami, Hidehito Ueda, Akira Nishimori

I didn't have particularly high hopes for AD Police, a three part OVA spin-off of the long-running series Bubblegum Crash designed to explore the darker, grittier corners of that universe - which, lets face it, in the world of nineties anime translates directly to "more blood and bare breasts."

AD Police has a lot of blood and a lot of bare breasts.  I would, in fact, struggle to list half a dozen characters from the entire three episodes combined that weren't either cops or prostitutes.  (There's a sexy lady scientist, but for the purposes of the plot, she might as well be a prostitute.)  In this sense, the show is a grab bag of the period's worst excesses dialed up to eleven, and was thus exactly what I was expecting when I decided I probably wouldn't get much from it.  And the three stories, all of which deal with the ongoing conflict between the titular AD Police and advanced androids known as voomers, are familiar territory as well, at least on the surface: you can hardly throw a stone at nineties anime without hitting something that wants very badly to be Blade Runner.

And yet, those stories aren't bad.  I'd go even further and say that AD Police toys with some intriguing, borderline original ideas.  What it most definitely does is approach two age-old cliches from a fresh enough angle to make them interesting again.  On the one hand, there's the notion, heavily explored in the first episode, that humanoid robots are bound to pick up human failings, to the detriment of both them and us.  On the other, there's the theme of human cyborgisation steadily erasing humanity, which is the focus of episode three.  Those two ideas are beyond ancient, but the way that AD Police sets them up as mirrors of each other is actually rather compelling.  And it's no coincidence that the best episode is the middle one, which combines the two to good effect.

It's not great sci-fi, but it is good sci-fi, and it sticks in the mind.  So too does the rather baffling soundtrack from Filipino pop rock singer Lou Bonnevie, which on the surface is wildly out of keeping with the material, but somehow ends up feeling indispensable to its sleazy, despairing universe.  And the animation is solid, if inconsistent; there are sequences of real beauty and imagination alongside some utter hackwork, with most of the show existing somewhere between those extremes.  All told, though, I liked AD Police quite a lot, and the fact that it manages to separate itself from the mire of similar titles is an achievement in itself.  If you've exhausted the genuine classics, there are certainly worse places to go next.

Demon City Shinjuku, 1988, dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Yoshiaki Kawajiri movies are definitely becoming something of a guilty pleasure.

This is the third I've reviewed, after Ninja Scroll and Wicked City, and if it's not objectively the best of the three, it's certainly the one most attuned to my tastes.  For a start, in a move that feels distinctively progressive for Kawajiri's style, there isn't a single rape scene, and the attitude towards the female characters is ... what? ... not awful, I guess.  But not awful is a big jump from either Ninja Scroll or Wicked City, two movies I felt distinctively uncomfortable liking.  Demon City Shinjuku has a wholly useless female lead and a demon snake woman, but that's merely enough to put us in the usual wheelhouse of late eighties to early nineties anime sexism.

At any rate, I confess that there were lengthy periods when I was watching Demon City Shinjuku and too rapt to worry about such things.  Is it kind of plotless?  Sure it is, unless you consider "young hero must defeat evil demon baddie" as plot.  Is it a rip-off of Escape From New York, with all of the aimlessness that involves?  Strangely, it is, though I honestly don't feel like I can take away points for imitating an above par John Carpenter movie.  Is it as imaginative and thoroughly weird as Kawajiri's other works?  Maybe not altogether, but that still places it well ahead of the curve on both fronts, and its monsters and mise en scène remain a pleasure to behold.  But the most important question, the one that makes all the others a little irrelevant: is it gorgeous?  And yes, in many places it's quite shockingly gorgeous, so for that reason I just can't bring myself to begrudge its failings.  I watched Demon City Shinjuku in an imported Korean DVD edition that appears to have taken its print from the Manga edition, and there were points where I'd have sworn I was watching a blu-ray.  It's one of the most singularly lovely anime films I've seen, and I was staggered to discover it was originally an OVA; I'd have sworn we were looking at cinema level animation here.

I honestly wish I could skip the negatives and just flat out recommend this one.  I mean, come on, the director of Ninja Scroll, remaking Escape From New York but set in Shinjuku and with demons?  That's just not a film I can find it in myself to be savage about.  But the plot certainly is rubbish, and the characters are quite rubbish too, and I honestly can't decide if the dub - which definitely came from Manga - was decent or awful, but it's undoubtedly distinctive.  And if you've read more than a couple of these posts then you won't need me to tell you that that means plenty of crowbarred in swearing, not to mention some wacky regional accents this time through.

But ... it's so damn pretty!  It struck me when I picked this one up that Kawajiri is very much a pulpier Clive Barker, and coupled with his eye for deranged beauty, that really does make his work rather special at times.  It's a damn shame there's no sub available, really, I think I'd go all out and recommend Demon City Shinjuku if there was.  Still, wacky accents and all, I would rate it among the top tier of anime horror from the period, and if you're another of those weirdos who watches animation for the actual animation then you should certainly feast your eyes on this.

Riding Bean, 1989, dir: Yasuo Hasegawa

If there's one thing I always seem to criticize these shorter OVAs for, it's that you can't tell a satisfying, feature length story in the space of an hour or less.  So let's begin by taking our hats off to Riding Bean for the fact that, in forty minutes plus credits, it conveys a big, satisfying, somewhat original tale with proper character development, multiple action scenes, a clear three act structure and a thoroughly satisfying denouement.  That's not an easy thing to do, but Riding Bean makes it look so, and it's no small achievement.

Riding Bean is the series that Kenichi Sonoda created before he made Gunsmith Cats, the OVA of which I raved about not so long ago, and from which Gunsmith Cats was a spin-off.  That show's lead, Rally Vincent, plays a significant role here as the partner of our protagonist, roguish, apparently indestructible, bizarrely named professional driver Bean Bandit.  The setup sees Bean, and by extension Rally, being made the fall guys by a gang of crooks led by - and there's no way to sugarcoat this, so let's just be out with it - an evil lesbian pedophile named Semmerling.

Now, you would think that showing an abusive relationship between an older woman and an underage girl, one who's established early on as basing a large part of her self worth on her ability to be sexually pleasing to others, would be problematic as all hell, and - well, it isn't not.   Certainly the scene in which we gain this information is hugely uncomfortable, and at odds with the show's generally frivolous and even cartoonish mode.  But it's handled, if not precisely what you could call tastefully, then at least honestly, and it's certainly not there as window dressing.  On balance, I think that the creators make some difficult material work without descending to either exploitation or homophobia; others surely won't agree, which is why I'm mentioning this front and centre.

That room-sized elephant aside, however, I really have no reservations.  Riding Bean is a hell of a lot of fun.  Heck, I even - do I dare say it? - really liked the dub; in particular, J. Patrick Lawlor really does own the part of Bean with his lazy, southern-tinged, always just slightly threatening line readings.  The animation is as good as it needs to be, which given the amount of car chases and stunts on offer, actually amounts to pretty damn good.  And this being Sonoda, the sleazy seventies American crime movie vibe is nailed down perfectly, which if you're like me and consider the sleazy seventies American crime movie one of the highlights of world cinema is no small thing.  As always with these shorter OVAs, it's hard to make a blanket recommendation, and that's all the more true for Riding Bean because there's no doubt but that its content is going to put some people off.  But this one's pretty special, and if you can pick up a copy cheap then it's definitely worth a look.


This probably wasn't the best entry yet, but I suspect it was among the most consistent: nothing genuinely bad, and nothing even really average, in retrospect; even Pet Shop of Horrors skirted being rather good.  And the other three are solid recommendations that deserve to be better known than they are.  In particular, I'm glad that Yoshiaki Kawajiri's back catalogue is being reissued, the man was consistently knocking out some pretty extraordinary work.

Which makes it all the more exciting that I still have A Wind Named Amnesia, which he wrote, and Cyber City Oedo 808, which he directed, to be watched.  And many other goodies besides!  All told, these are exciting times to be drowning in nineties anime...

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

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