Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 19

It's funny the tricks the human mind can play on itself.  Somewhere in the weeks before Christmas, I started pining for some really bad nineties anime, having come to the conclusion that I'd been having way too good a run.  This was, of course, madness, as anyone who chooses to consider some of the dross I suffered through in the earlier entries will testify.  Still, the thought stuck, and at around the same time I began thinking that I really should finish off Manga's mostly awful Collection series just because of - you know - being a completionist or whatever.  Again, despite the fact that the handful I had left where things I'd purposefully ignored because they sounded utterly awful.

The moral?  I'm basically an idiot.  And, thanks in large part to my idiocy, this time through we have Psychic Wars, Slayers Great, Golgo 13: Queen Bee and Project A-Ko...

Project A-Ko, 1986, Katsuhiko Nishijima

I understand that Project A-Ko is regarded as something of a classic, as one of the first releases to get serious attention in the West.  And, yeah, I can sort of see that.  Like, you're trying to break a thoroughly Japanese mode of animation into a market that's only ever experienced it in the form of (often heavily bastardized) children's cartoons, so you go for a movie about super-powered schoolgirls that's basically a parody of the wider world of eighties anime?  Sure, that's ... well, it's definitely a choice that someone, somewhere, might make.

Perhaps the point here is not to focus on the plot - in which teenager A-Ko protects her horribly annoying best friend C-Ko from B-Ko, a super-villainous rival for her affections, until aliens invade and make all of their petty squabbles seem suddenly less important - and concentrate instead on the production values and the fact that at the time no one really had the first idea what would or wouldn't sell in American (and, to a lesser degree, European) markets.  And really, though Project A-Ko is undoubtedly a weird choice, it's not a bad one.  Its comic jabs are aimed widely enough to transcend cultural barriers - Transformers gets a laugh-out-loud skewering and you could read the whole thing as a send-up of Superman if you felt so inclined - and, maybe more to the point, the production values are pretty damn great.  There were no end of moments in Project A-Ko that reminded me of why I love hand drawn animation, and a couple that were damn near breathtaking, and the available DVD release capitalizes on those virtues greatly, with an excellent digitally restored print.  Not to mention that the dub is about good enough to justify the lack of subtitles, and fortuitously the film's three songs were originally recorded in English; they're also some of the most marvelous, indescribably eighties J-pop you're ever likely to hear, and highlights of a generally splendid soundtrack.

Project A-Ko, then, is a weird old thing.  Put it up against, say, Akira, which would land a mere two years later, and its classic status is somewhat bewildering.  On the other hand, it's aged pretty damn well, and manages precisely the things you'd hope a bit of comedic sci-fi would do: in fact most of its jokes have suffered hardly at all for the passages of three decades.  At any rate, I enjoyed it plenty and I've no doubt I'll be watching it again.  In the end, perhaps that's the most you can reasonably expect from a thirty year old classic that gained its status largely by having no competition.

Psychic Wars, 1991, dir: Tetsuo Imazawa

Psychic Wars is widely considered to be among the very worst of Manga's reliably lousy Collection range - which is to say, the worst of the worst when it comes to 90's anime - and contrarian that I am, I confess that raised my hopes a little.  After all, I've enjoyed things like Dark Myth and Landlock that are similarly reviled.  But no, this time around, the consensus is bang on the money.  Psychic Wars is dreadful.

What's more, it's dreadful in just about every meaningful way.  And for once, most of those don't have a great deal to do with Manga's shonky treatment of the material.  Oh, don't get me wrong, the dub is abysmal, possibly the worst Manga ever put their penny-scrimping minds to; the leads sound catatonically bored in a way non-actors could never hope to achieve.  And there are the usual idiocies elsewhere, like the typos on the packaging ... I don't think a single one of these releases lacks an obvious typo in its back cover description.  Though admittedly this is the only one I've spotted where they flat-out lie about the running time, rounding up dramatically from fifty-one minutes to sixty.

Frankly, that blatant fibbing is a mercy.  Ten minutes less of Psychic Wars is ten minutes not spent watching a singularly personality-devoid hero stabbing demons that look like orcs imagined and drawn by a twelve year old, or flirting with his similarly charmless girlfriend; it's ten minutes that don't require an unreasonable amount of concentration to unravel a plot that doesn't reward even the slightest portion of that effort, but needs it nonetheless thanks to incoherent editing.  It's ten minutes not spent gaping at weightless character designs floating across generic backgrounds at a teeth-grindingly low frame rate.  Frankly, if you spent those ten minutes staring at a blank TV then they'd be infinitely more rewarded.

At this point, I sort of wish I could come up with some positives, just to feel like I'd written something approaching a balanced review.  But no, there are none.  At its best, as with the inoffensive score, Psychic Wars rises to the giddy heights of wholly generic.  There are a couple of scenes where director Imazawa tries something vaguely visually interesting, but all those achieve is to draw more attention to how limp the film is everywhere else.  It really is awful, and if the Collection range has worse to offer then I'm yet to see it, though the possibility fills me with dread.

Golgo 13: Queen Bee, 1998, dir: Osamu Dezaki

I'm tempted to declare Golgo 13: Queen Bee the nadir of this whole experiment in nineties anime, and the only thing holding me back even slightly is that I sat through Legend of the Overfiend.  But, you know, Overfiend at least picked up in a small way towards its end.  And while I hoped Queen Bee might follow suit, on the back of some late game revelations and character developments that were at least faintly interesting, the material quickly retrenched into an ending every bit as foul-hearted, tiresome and misogynistic as what had come before.  So, if only for uniformity of terribleness, I think maybe this one edges it.

Plot-wise, a fair portion of what you'd need to know is there in the title: Golgo 13 is a master assassin* hired by a corrupt politician to take down Queen Bee, the mercenary and drug dealer who also happens to want said politician dead.  Meanwhile, Queen Bee is busily sleeping with every man she can lay her sweaty hands on - Golgo 13 included - to the point where I'm wracking my brains to think of a male member of the cast whose bones she doesn't jump at some point.  I have a dreadful feeling that the writer viewed this as some sort of affirmative, feminist portrayal; I refuse to say the same for the revelation that Queen Bee has been popping out a veritable army of children.

(This, by the way, has strangely had no effect on her figure, which very much represents how a man who'd never met a woman but who'd read a boatload of porn would represent the female form.  Nor has being pregnant pretty much constantly throughout her adult life - she's stated as 29 and has, like, a dozen kids - inhibited her ability to lead a gang of South American drug-dealing mercenary freedom fighters.**)

I don't know, maybe there are people out there who genuinely believe that the best way to portray a strong female character is to show her incessantly either having sex or killing people, and to give her a busload of children because, hey, having children is a thing women do, right?  Maybe, but I do hope not.  And even then, even then, Queen Bee is not the worst thing about her semi-titular movie.  Heck, compared with Golgo 13 himself, she's downright realistic and nuanced.  And compared to the rest of the cast, the two of them are like something out of Tolstoy.  In fact, if I had to single out a single, simple problem with this horrid mess then there it is: we haven't one character to sympathize with.  Golgo 13 makes for a hateful protagonist, and that more or less leaves us with Queen Bee, but as written she's so weird and broken that it's impossible to find anything she does or says sympathetic.  It's not hard to conceive of a version of this character being interesting, but that would call for vastly less troubling notions of female behaviour than are on display here.

Thus I can imagine no take on this story that wouldn't be at least a little bit awful.  But the presence of Osamu Dezaki at the helm pushes the project from mere ugly mediocrity to a level of terrible that's nearly hypnotic.  Based solely on this and Black Jack, I'm happy to call Dezaki one of the worst directors to work in the medium of Japanese animation, and certainly he's my personal least favourite.  The man is a master of misapplied style, and nearly every decision he makes is clearly, wildly wrong; he has an abiding taste for flamboyant gestures and glaringly apparent effects and always they represent the most egregious mistakes imaginable.  Some of these - the freezing on a pastel-shaded version of a still frame, for example - he was already abusing in Black Jack. Others, like the incessant habit of repeating a few frames of animation three times, often while zooming in, are new additions to his arsenal.  Weirdest, and the only one that even flirts with success, is a variation on those freeze frames, except the character's face suddenly resembles a cadaver- because, you know, death and murder and all that.  It's atrociously heavy-handed, but at least it's interesting.  At any rate, this is the only anime I've watched that gave me motion sickness, such is Dezaki's commitment to wacky stylistic decisions and weird angles over actually telling his rotten little story.

Looking back, I see that, of all these reviews, I've devoted the most time by far to something I absolutely hated.  But then, perhaps that's as it should be.  Golgo 13: Queen Bee is poisonous crap, and if anything I've written here persuades even one person to avoid it then I consider this entire series of posts worthwhile.

Slayers Great, 1997, dir: Hiroshi Watanabe

Let's start with the obvious: Slayers Great, the third Slayers movie, is another step down in terms of production values - a fact given away immediately by the switch to a TV standard 4:3 ratio over the cinematic ratios of the first two entries.  But whereas a touch less in the way of ambition worked wonders for Slayers Return, here it means only that we're firmly in the realms of the cheaper sort of film-length spin-off - the kind that doesn't push beyond existing limits thanks to a previously unimaginable budget but that seems like an episode going on for twice as long as it really can justify.

That's harsh, maybe, but also not unfair.  There's nothing in the plot - which finds Lina and Naga stranded in a village whose economy is devoted to the making of golems and begins building fairly rapidly towards an inevitable showdown between golem versions of our two heroines - that wouldn't have worked just fine in twenty or so minutes.  And the extra forty don't add a tremendous amount, either; like I said, we know pretty quickly where this is leading, and though there are plenty of fun scenes along the way, they're ultimately just bumps on an overly familiar road.  Of course, this being Slayers, the climatic battle, once it arrives, is pretty good fun, and all the funniest moments are clustered in that third act.  It still manages to go on a little too long, but that's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things; what amounts to a giant robot scrap between two of anime's best fantasy heroines is never going to run the risk of growing altogether dull.

Slayers Great represents a definite low point for the movies so far then, on just about every level; I'm not certain that the vocal performances weren't even less enthusiastic this time around, and certainly it's a marked step down in terms of animation and ambition.  Nevertheless, that's not to say I didn't enjoy it.  Certainly I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to find this one on DVD, but nor would I say skip over it if you're working through the collection.  It's not an hour of your life you'll regret, just one that won't prove terribly memorable.


Well, Project A-Ko was fun.  Perhaps rather weak sauce as classics go, but definitely fun.

But then Golgo 13: Queen Bee was horrible beyond reason, and Psychic Wars was utterly worthless as entertainment, and Slayers Great was mostly kind of okay, so I think it's safe to say that this entry wasn't any kind of a win.

Next time, then: less self-flagellation.  Though I do have one more Collection release to get through, and it promises to be every shade of awful, so perhaps not no self-flagellation at all.

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

* Though based on his bizarrely incompetent performance here, I feel no shame in declaring that I'm more of a master assassin that Golgo 13 is.  And I'm a pacifist.

** I'm hedging my bets: the organisation that Queen Bee works for never really makes a lick of sense and if I was supposed to know why they were doing the things they were doing then I obviously wasn't paying half enough attention.

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