Thursday, 1 December 2016

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 18

Not much to say this time around: it's more of the usual randomness, and a solid batch yet again, with a couple of really splendid releases and two more that kept me amply amused, which is the most I'd ever dare ask from four nineties anime videos selected largely at random.  Now, next time around - hoo boy! - we'll be right back to plumbing the darkest, deepest depths.  So I for one am going to enjoy talking about some genuine quality while I still can.

This time through: Slayers ReturnCyber City Oedo 808Plastic Little: The Adventures of Captain Tita and Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie...

Slayers Return, 1996, Hiroshi Watanabe, Kunihiko Yuyama

Here we are with the second of five Slayers movies and already there's a slight but noticeable step down in terms of ambition: the animation is pared from "cheap film" to "expensive TV episode" and the plot is smaller in scale too, in a fashion that feels like a knowing joke on the nature of less ambitious sequels.  In fact, its best running gag involves something that for want of being bothered to think of the right word I'm going to call de-escalation: a scenario is set up with great gravitas, usually involving some stereotypical fantasy threat, and at the last moment a swift rug pull throws all the established tension out of the window in favour of a cheap laugh.

Not that there's anything wrong with cheap laughs.  Humour only needs to be funny, after all, and the joke lands every time; there's something thoroughly charming about epic fantasy that just won't stay epic.  And its one of the reasons that Slayers Return is, I think, a marginally better film than its predecessor, lower production values and all.  At any rate, the elements that worked well there work just as well here: in particular, Lina Inverse and Naga the Serpent continue to be terrifically fun protagonists driven by terrifically fun vocal performances, and their interplay provides a certain base level of amusement that keeps the film comfortably afloat.  The two are in rather more mercenary form here, and Lina in particular seems to have lost a lot of her scruples, but for entertainment purposes that's definitely for the good: based on all of two films, I'm already coming to think that Slayers is at its best when its at its most irreverent, and Slayers Return gets very irreverent indeed.

Plus, it's not like its been done on the cheap by any means.  The third act, in fact, gets up to some city-scaled destruction that's actually pretty thrilling, while at the same time not losing its grip on the comedy elements, and so manages to have its cake and eat it in a manner that Slayers: The Motion Picture didn't land half so well.  And since I'm making a lot of negative comparisons, I feel the need to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Slayers: The Motion Picture, so any step up is a welcome surprise.  In fact, I'm starting to think that that this Slayers box set was an awfully good investment.  But if you're not willing to go that far then Slayers Return is comparatively easy to track down and a perfectly fine place to jump aboard.

Cyber City Oedo 808, 1990, Yoshiaki Kawajiri

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Yoshiaki Kawajiri really liked Escape From New York.  For in Cyber City Oedo 808 he rips off the few remaining elements that he failed to pillage in his earlier Demon City Shinjuku.  Except that where that classic B-movie only had one criminal forced into service on the side of law and order by the threat of being unceremoniously exploded, Cyber City Oedo 808 has three.  And this time around they're not on a mission but on the job, stuck working down outrageous prison sentences for a period that, it's strongly hinted, may prove to be the entire rest of their lives.

Now, as with Demon City Shinjuku, I don't for one moment begrudge Kawajiri his Carpenter influences, especially given that he does rather more with this particular idea than Carpenter himself did.  Our three protagonists - each the focus of one lengthy episode of a three part OVA - are wholly at the mercy of their sadistic boss, who thinks nothing of setting them literal deadlines at the most inopportune of times, which in turn makes the fact that our charming but dubious "heroes" are basically scumbags a lot easier to swallow.  There are few dramatic mechanisms more effective than a well-used ticking clock, and Kawajiri wisely exploits his borrowed gimmick to keep the tension at boiling point.

In fact, in many ways, Cyber City is top tier Kawajiri, and with Kawajiri being one of the most accomplished directors in the medium at this point, that's no small thing.  Only one flaw holds it back from unadulterated greatness, and it's not remotely his fault - but Cyber City feels awfully familiar.  Now I suspect that this is partly because cyberpunk was never the most versatile of sub-genres, but I think the real issue here is that this OVA would prove to be too damn influential for its own good.  In fact, I suspect that what we have here is the urtext of nineties cyberpunk anime, and for that reason, there's not a story here that you can't guess through to its conclusion if you're relatively familiar with the medium and the era.

The thing is, though, Kawajiri spins those tales better than any of his imitators subsequently would.  And whether or not his material was as fresh as I'm suggesting all the way back in 1990, he still makes it sing.  Few directors in any genre or medium handle action so well, and combined with Kawajiri's mastery of mood, that's enough to provide a fair amount of entertainment.  But what edges this past, say, Demon City, is that the characters work too: they're types of course, but enough goes into padding them out that they're easy to care about.  It's masterful stuff really, the sort of pulp par excellence that its director did so well, and even if imitation has robbed it of an otherwise deserved minor-classic status, I'm still happy to recommend it.

Plastic Little: The Adventures of Captain Tita, 1994, Kinji Yoshimoto

In so much as Plastic Little is remembered at all, it seems to be remembered entirely for a scene about ten minutes into the fifty minute OVA in which our two heroines - Tita, captain of the pet shop hunter ship the Cha-Cha Maru and Elysse, escapee daughter of a murdered scientist - take a bath together for no readily explicable reason.  And in fairness, it's a memorable scene: outside of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, you've probably never seen breasts drawn with such obsessive attention to detail.  I mean, there's fan service and there's putting your plot on hold for five minutes just so you can devote half your budget to the lavish portrayal of bosoms, and this is definitely the latter.

But let's put aside, for a moment, the fact that the Plastic Little keeps getting a bit porny and look over that sentence again.  Captain of a pet shop hunter ship?  Escapee daughter of a murdered scientist?  Doesn't this all seem rather involved for a less-than-an-hour long film that exists at least partly to show off its characters' boobs at the drop of a hat?  And indeed, the other thing that sets Plastic Little apart is the degree of energy that it devotes to building an interesting world full of interesting notions and at least reasonably interesting characters.  It feels like the setup for a series, but none ever materialized - though apparently there was a manga adaptation that fleshed out the plot.  And it certainly does get a bit vague and busy at points, especially near the end, when it's not at all clear just how our heroes are accomplishing the things they are.  Still, given a choice between an overabundance and a scarcity of ideas, I'd never choose the latter.

Really, Plastic Little crams in a lot.  Each member of the Cha-Cha Maru's crew gets a little fleshing out (and, ugh, yes I realise what I just did there) and there are three big actions sequences, there's backstory and world-building and - yes - a lot of breasts.  And not all of the animators' attention was devoted to those last, either; the animation may be nothing extraordinary, but generally it's pleasant to behold.  In short, I enjoyed Plastic Little rather a lot.  After a while, I forgot I was watching an OVA and settled in for a movie, and there was enough going on that I didn't feel short-changed; I was bothered about minor characters who'd probably been on screen for all of three minutes and caught up in a plot that on the face of it was fairly standard good guys versus bad guys stuff, except done well enough that the familiarity didn't much matter.

With all of that said, this is an even more pointless review than most of those here, because Plastic Little is damn near impossible to find these days.  I watched it in a video CD edition, and boy, there's a reason video CD didn't take off as a format.  Plastic Little is really damn hard to find, basically, and that's kind of a shame.  It's no masterpiece, not by any means, but it's charming and fun and deserves better than to be a footnote in history filed under the category of "well-drawn boobs."

Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie, 1996, Takeshi Mori

Sometimes the most you can ask of anything is that it be an excellent version of the sort of thing it is.  So when a four part comic fantasy OVA comes along that manages to be fun and engaging on just about every level, that's worth jumping on wholeheartedly in my opinion.  If aspects push towards out-and-out brilliance then all the better; what good is bemoaning that the plot is hackneyed in its essentials or that the fantastical elements are hardly revolutionizing the genre?  And so it goes with Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie.  To worry unduly over the parts that are boilerplate fantasy would be to miss just how well done the whole is, and how enjoyable the end result.  And really, perhaps even boilerplate is unfair: if the show drifts into kill-the-big-bad territory, it at least layers on enough wrinkles to stay distinctive.

Maybe what matters most, though, is that we get a pair of wonderful protagonists.  Fam and Ihrie are at core a cynic and innocent respectively, but again, there's enough done to complicate those types that they come together as deeply likable characters in their own right.  In fact, for something less than two hours long, Ruin Explorers manages to build quite a marvelous cast, even if none of them end up as heart-grabbing as our two bickering, tomb-robbing, magic-wielding heroines.  Still, on the whole the show develops the sort of fun hangout vibe that normally takes hours to establish, and some excellent design work helps in that regard.  There's perhaps not a huge amount of money on display here, backgrounds are subtly reused and stills are slyly employed, but what needs to work works: the action's vibrant, the mood is spot on, and those characters are distinctive.  Oh, and a nod, too, to the score, which is old-fashioned in odd and lovely ways, sounding like something that went missing in the 1940's and was just re-purposed.

I'm not sure that I've done much to put over why Ruin Explorers: Fam and Ihrie is so great.  But, honestly, I think that's because I'm already too emotionally attached to it; I went in expecting a Slayers rip-off and came out with a new favourite and two characters I wish with all my heart had gone on to more adventures.  For that reason, I don't want to dig too deeply into the plot and spoil, for example, the sizable inconvenience that befalls Ihrie whenever she casts a spell, or who Fam develops an adorable crush on, or why the villain ends up being so much more interesting than a lesser work of fantasy would have made them.  But, hey, you know what?  You don't see much whole-hearted recommendation around these parts, so let's push the envelope: Ruin Explorers is charming, witty fantasy made with artistry and obvious affection, and I urge you to hunt down a copy.


Would that this had been the final post in this series!  When the worst you have to put up with is something as innocuous as Plastic Little and your biggest complaint is that the animators were too preoccupied with drawing topless women, you know you've reached a high point in the business of reviewing nineties anime.

But it's not to be.  There are plenty of things to watch still on the shelf, and though some of those are very special and exciting indeed, they're most emphatically not what I'll be talking about next time.  Oh no!  Because as much as I never imagined it possible, I've found something more sleazy, disreputable, black-hearted and joyless than Legend of the Overfiend, and in the next post I'll be trying to put into words just why it hate it so vociferously.  So there's something to look forward to!

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

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