Thursday, 10 November 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 17

You know, I try and keep these posts short, I do.  I try, and I fail miserably.  I guess I just like writing at absurd length about nineties anime - which probably explains how we've got to part seventeen and I'm already halfway through the next one!

Anyway, this time through we have: A Wind Named Amnesia, Dirty Pair Flash: Random Angels, Slayers: The Motion Picture and Street Fighter Alpha: The Movie.

Boy, that's a lot of colons.

A Wind Named Amnesia, 1993, Kazuo Yamazaki

So much of what I've reviewed here has been so similar to so much else that it's hard to know what to do with a title that feels unique.  It's easy to judge a demons-invade-Tokyo story against the bar of all the other demons-invade-Tokyo stories, just as half the fun of watching a new mecha anime is figuring out how it squares up to all those other mecha animes that clutter the medium, but how to approach something that eschews such easy categorisation?

Though thinking about it, A Wind Named Amnesia does actually open with a mech.  That, though, is less a point of similarity than a clear declaration that what we have here is going to be carving its own niche - for said mech is piloted, in one of the film's early striking images, by a rotting human corpse.  We'll learn soon that the reason for this horror is that an apocalyptic event, the titular wind*, has left humanity devoid of all but the most primitive and instinctual memories; with its pilot effectively defunct and everyone else acting like neanderthals, the building-sized anti-riot machine has concluded that there's one hell of a riot going on.

That mech is taken down, at least temporarily, by our hero Wataru, who not only still has his memories but can even speak.  When, soon after, he meets a mysterious silver-haired woman named Sophia who decides to travel with him, we discover his backstory, in what amounts to the film's first segment.  And here, already, in a film I urgently want to praise, we have a problem that's tough to overlook: A Wind Named Amnesia is the very definition of episodic.  What we get, basically, is three short stories strung together with Wataru and Sophia's narrative and their ongoing battle with the mech, (named Guardian in the sub), and held together more loosely by themes of the link between civilization and memory.  And there's just no ignoring how the film keeps stopping and starting in the most abrupt manner.

Even putting that aside, I'm not convinced it altogether works.  There are plenty of ideas, and some of them land, but others feel half-formed.  The same goes for other aspects: the backgrounds are lovely, the animation is frequently very good, yet Yamazaki has an unfortunate habit of letting the frame rate plummet in certain scenes, and every time it's painfully noticeable, as objects suddenly start jerking around the screen.   There's also a startling bit of racism -  startling at least partly because it's so damn random - and the film has only the most limited ideas of what to do with its female characters, with exposing their breasts for tenuous reasons high among the notions it does have.

A Wind Named Amnesia is certainly flawed, then.  But when it lands, it really does land.  It's big on atmosphere, big on asking difficult questions and proposing troubling answers, and above all else it's a genuine original.  I feel as though I've ended up focusing on the negatives, but the positives were what largely struck me while I was watching: so little in nineties anime, or nineties anything, even tried to be this original or philosophical within the bounds of genre filmmaking.  Plus, it's been recently released - a note on that in the conclusion! - so it's no longer even hard to find.

Dirty Pair Flash: Random Angels, 1995, dir: Tomomi Mochizuki

I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Dirty Pair Flash and found the second to be largely rubbish, so perhaps saying that this third and final part falls somewhere in the middle isn't altogether useful.  Still, it's the truth: there are moments that scale the modest heights of volume one and others that sink to the depths of volume two, and that comes down largely to the fact that for the first time we have a collection of unrelated stories, with not even as tenuous an arc plot as part two delivered to hold things together.

Things get off to a strong start, at least, with an episode that places Kei in the role of unwilling babysitter and all but sidelines Yuri; there's a return to the over the top action of the first volume, the dynamic between Kei and her uncooperative infant charge is good fun, and really the only thing to lets down the proceedings is one of the most downright weird bits of fan service to ever (dis)grace the world of anime - that and the fact that, with Yuri given almost nothing to do, it's hardly fair to consider the story a Dirty Pair adventure at all.

Those two problems don't really go away.  Episode two is probably the next worst offender on the uncomfortable fan service count, with Yuri and Kei at the mercy of a cute, demented fifteen-year-old girl assassin with an arsenal of murderous toys and a costume that leaves little to the imagination.  Then, as if the creators were in actual competition with themselves, part three involves the Pair being forced into a beach volleyball contest, and plays out something like a mix of Dodgeball, the training scenes in Starship Troopers and an animated pinup calendar.  Things get yet wierder with the Yuri-centric part four, in which Yuri has to stand in as substitute for the robotic duplicate of herself that an obsessive, millionaire child stalker has built.  And after that decided low point, a final episode in which the two have to defend the 3WA headquarters against a murderous antagonist in a state of the art robotic suit feels like positively high drama.

It's all very strange indeed, and the English language subtitle of "Random Angels" feels absolutely on the money.  But that oddness and to a lesser extent the randomness largely works to its benefit.  Only the Yuri episode is flat-out bad; the volleyball one and the school-aged assassin one certainly feel like they should be, yet there's an energetic silliness and a knowing irony that keeps them on the right side of fun.  Mochizuki has probably the surest grasp on his material of any of the three directors, he certainly knows how to put an action sequence together, and its that which makes the best parts stand out: there the mix of ingredients that worked so well in the first volume comes together once again.  None of this, of course, adds up to a recommendation, but at least I feel safe in saying that if you liked volume one then this conclusion won't altogether be a waste of your time.

Slayers: The Motion Picture, 1995, Hiroshi Watanabe, Kazuo Yamazaki

I'd heard a lot of good stuff about Slayers: The Motion Picture, and it had been high on my list of things to track down for a while, which made it doubly frustrating when I finally found a copy at a reasonable price and the seller e-mailed to say that the disk was damaged beyond repair.  Screw you, Music Magpie.  Fortunately I have a multi-region DVD player and Australians are lucky enough to get a box set of all five Slayers movies that I managed to track down not too expensively.  Still, it felt like a gamble buying an entire box set of movies when I hadn't seen even one of them.

Slayers, as I understand it based on not much research and watching this first film, follows the adventures of roving sorceress Lina Inverse and probably some other characters too, but here that boils down to a temporary partnership with the notably buxom, morally dubious and slightly insane Naga the Serpent, as the two are dragged into a tale of demons, hot springs, time travel and octopuses.

Lina and Naga make for great protagonists, perhaps cast from a familiar mold - what nineties anime heroines aren't, at least a little? - but brought to life in altogether satisfying ways.  A good deal of care goes into making their faces distinctive and expressive, to the point where there are gags that land solely based on the attention lavished over the twitch of an eyebrow or the slightest of smirks.  And the performances are terrific, as you'd expected from a couple of highly experienced voice actors performing characters they've long since grown familiar with: in particular, the demented, self-amused laugh that Maria Kawamura gives Naga is inherently just funny.

The degree of care put into the animation pays dividends elsewhere as well, and it's certainly above par for what you'd expect from a weekly show, or even a film based on a weekly show.  From top to bottom Slayers: The Motion Picture is consistently good-looking, which is a surefire way to gain points around these parts.  In general, the production values are top notch, at least in the sense of that phrase that accepts that this is still nineties animation bound by a certain level of budgetary constraint.  But those constraints never draw attention to themselves: not a frame or a line delivery or a piece of music feels less than spot on.

Really, all that undermines the Slayers movie is that the plot is kind of a mess.  You'd think that would be a bigger deal than it is, but at its worst all it adds up to is a vague aimlessness, as events occur with some sense of sequence but not necessarily of logical continuity.  Its fun at the level of incident and individual scenes work like gangbusters, but there's the definite sense that the aim here was more to thread ideas together than to massage those ideas into a unified whole.  Regardless, I'm certainly not regretting my purchase.  Rumour has it that the next film is actually better, and even if it isn't, I doubt Lina Inverse is a protagonist I'll grow bored of anytime soon.

Street Fighter Alpha: The Movie, 1999, Shigeyasu Yamauchi

Among Street Fighter fans, it would appear to be the view that 1994's aimless but pretty Street Fighter 2 is a stone cold masterpiece, while its 1999 sequel / prequel is not much good for anything.  I'm tempted to say that this shows how much attention you should pay to fans - and, you know, it kind of does.  There's a clear argument for Alpha being the better movie, if only for having a damn story with actual characters and clear narrative development.  And even putting that aside, there's such a great deal that it gets right that its bad reputation is obviously undeserved.  But you know, I can sort of see where those fans are coming from: as a Street Fighter movie, Alpha is a weird old mess, and it's hard to judge how differently I'd have rated these things if I could care less for the franchise.

But that's ultimately an academic question because the fact is I don't, but I am a colossal anime geek, and if you give me a movie that by turns manages to remind me of Mamoru Oshii and Yoshiaki Kawajiri then there's no sense in expecting me not to love it a little bit.  Now, I can't in good conscience suggest that Street Fighter Alpha is anywhere near as good as you'd expect some mythic collaboration by the directors of Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll to be; really all I'm saying is that when it borrows it borrow from the best, even when doing so is objectively not the sensible choice.  There are haunting passages where not a great deal happens and there are aggressively grotesque sequences presented in eye-searing colour schemes, and while they probably don't actually make the film better, they sure as hell make it more interesting.

The thing is, Street Fighter 2 looked pretty great, but only in so much as any film that had a good deal of money spent on it would: the backgrounds were lavish and the animation was detailed.  I'd be astonished if Street Fighter Alpha cost even half as much, but the level of genuine artistry on display is higher at every turn.  The character designs are vastly improved, with real solidity and weight this time around, the backgrounds are less meticulous but equally as gorgeous and the direction is operating at a wholly different level.  Frankly, I could write a post just on the use of colour here, and how many video game adaptations can you say that about?

But hey, let's not oversell the thing.  The plot is functional and told better than it deserves to be, but we're not looking at Great Expectations here.  Even with that caveat, a lot of the good work starts to dissipate in the final third, when the film remembers that it was supposed to be being a Street Fighter movie; even the animation takes a hit, with characters going off model and a gravely misjudged decision to show the wear and tear of all the fighting by scribbling lines all over their faces, an anime mainstay that doesn't work with these designs at all.  And my pleasure at seeing Chun Li given an actual role in the plot got diluted pretty quickly when I realised that every second shot of her would feature either her butt or her crotch - a bit of idiocy made all the more bizarre by the fact that this film's terrific Chun Li design, all muscle and hard angles, seems to be deliberately emphasizing her skill as a fighter over her femininity.

Ultimately, Street Fighter Alpha feels like a movie made by a director with not an awful lot of commitment to his material but a sure grasp of how to massage a nondescript story into something more interesting, not to mention terrific instincts for an eye-catching image.  That was enough for me to enjoy every minute I spent with it, and it's enough for me to say that it's worth a look, even if - especially if? - you don't have a great deal of nostalgia for age-old video games about punching.


So, I promised in the A Wind Named Amnesia review that I'd elaborate on that movie's recent rerelease, and that was really because I wanted to get a proper plug in for Discotek Media, who - despite having a terrible pun for a name - are absolutely my favourite company at the minute.  They're apparently on a crusade to bring as much nineties and pre-nineties anime back into print as possible, much of it on blu-ray, and for that I love them with a deep and abiding love.  What's more, though they're only releasing in the US, all their disks appear to actually be region 0, which just pushes my affection into the stratosphere.  They already have a phenomenal catalogue and it's growing at a rate of knots.  Discotek, in the eyes of this lowly anime nut, you're the best damn thing.

Unfortunately, I'm poor, and importing DVDs is something I have to do sparingly, especially now that the pound is worth about the same as that currency I made myself with macaroni and poster paints.  So next time around we'll probably be back to dreadful Manga Collection releases and whatever oddities I could scrape up from e-bay.  So it goes!

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

* The Australian and UK title translation, The Wind of Amnesia, makes more sense at the sacrifice of a little poetry.

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