Monday, 13 February 2017

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 20

As we reach the big twenty, let's all pause for a moment's silence, to think with reverence upon all the joy that nineties anime has given to the world: the giant robots, the normal-sized robots, the pervy tentacle demons, the super-powered cat girls, the pocket monsters and the endless Blade Runner rip-offs.  Let's bow our heads to appreciate Manga's early efforts in bringing some of the best - and much of the absolutely worst - anime to the West, and to consider the many others who've nobly endeavored to spread the word: MVM, ADV, US Manga Corp, Maiden Japan, Animazing, AnimEigo, Eastern Star, Kiseki Films...

Okay, that's enough of that.  There's anime to be rambled about, and it's a particularly good batch this time around, especially about the self-inflicted misery of the last entry.  For this special anniversary post, we have: Doomed Megalopolis, Slayers Gorgeous, Bubblegum Crisis and Five Star Stories...

Doomed Megalopolis, 1991, Kasuhiko Katayama

Wikipedia suggests that Doomed Megalopolis was greenlit on the back of the success of the - on the face of it, somewhat similar - Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend.  Given the production times involved in anime, and in particular in creating something as mammoth as the four part, nearly three hour Doomed Megalopolis, this strikes me as unlikely.  Nevertheless, it's perfectly possible that I'm just deluding myself, given how much I loathe Urotsukidoji.

For Doomed Megalopolis, which is very much in the same "demonic forces assault Tokyo" vein, is nevertheless a more appealing proposition right across the board.  That's not to say there are no similarities, and the presence of sexual violence as a plot point is the one I'd most wish we could have avoided - but, even there, Megalopolis is operating on a different level.  My biggest complaint with Urotsukidoji was that it had no notion that women were feeling, suffering beings, or that rape was a traumatic event; Doomed Megalopolis builds a considerable portion of its plot around those facts.

I don't offer this as a defense as such - what use, really, is there in me trying to defend a twenty-five year old work of Japanese horror animation? - but merely to illustrate that it's up to an altogether different game than its trashier, nastier counterparts.  It has an actual plot, based around the first third of the mammoth bestseller Teito Monogatari, a supernatural epic spanning a fictionalized history of Tokyo in the twentieth century; it has real characters behaving in at least vaguely believable fashion.  But most importantly, I think, it has goals beyond mere shock value: though certainly bloody and unpleasant, it's also in places unsettling, surreal, and, at its finest, genuinely disturbing.  It functions, in other words, as real horror - and to a greater extent even, as real dark fantasy - rather than as a compendium of bared breasts and blood for adolescent boys to coo over.

Though I can't quite reconcile the information on IMDB and Wikipedia (and am more frustrated than ever that I could only find the dubbed edition rather than the later special edition with actual extras) I suspect that the driving force behind all this unusual quality was Rintaro, of Metropolis and Galaxy Express 999 fame, who appears to have been something between director and producer on the project.  But whoever was responsible, the direction is lavish and eye-catching, and the animation, where it counts, is on a par with almost anything from the period.

Doomed Megalopolis, in short, deserved to be a classic of its day, rather more so than many a similar release.  It's bold, sophisticated stuff told by people who actually care about the story their telling, a lavish fantasy epic that even now feels surprisingly fresh, while at the same time never quite managing to hide how influential it's been.  It's far from easy to track down, but that's not to say you shouldn't try; while what it does isn't exactly my favourite thing, when it's done this well I find it awfully hard to complain.

Slayers Gorgeous, 1998, Hiroshi Watanabe

Ah, here we are at the point where the Slayers franchise officially ran out of sensible subtitles.  But any suspicions that we've slid even further down the cash-in pole since the merely okay Slayers Great are quickly put to rest.  For a start we're back in a cinematic aspect ratio (1.85:1, if my eyes don't deceive me) which immediately makes things feel more like a proper film and less like a TV episode that doesn't know when to stop.   And, even without that, the opening scene of Slayers Gorgeous is pretty damn great, in all the ways the rest of the film will go on to be pretty damn great: it gets the balance of comedy and action that's the foundation of the franchise as close to spot on as you could hope.  Right from the start, there are some strong gags, but it's the telling that really shines.

I've said before, but the basis for much, if not all, Slayers humour seems to involve taking a character or situation extremely seriously for just long enough to sucker you in and then revealing their essential ridiculousness at the last possible moment.  And this is something that Slayers Gorgeous does very well indeed, in a plot that sees our two roving sorceresses drawn into a conflict between a king and his daughter, which just happens to also involve a fair number of dragons.  Even on the basis of only three preceding films, the individual elements are wholly familiar - especially when Lena and Naga end up on opposing sides - but, unlike Slayers Great, that never becomes a problem, perhaps because the characters themselves are so keen to draw attention to the fact.

Elsewhere, the technical values are probably a step up from Great, though this is as variable as these movies have been: the general level is just fine, there are a couple of absolutely splendid action sequences towards the end, but there are also some noticeable bits of budget-skimping and animation recycling.  Both Lina and Naga have had some slight but noticeable redesigns, which after consideration I decided I preferred.  And, on reflection, I feel the same way about the third act climax, which comes out of nowhere and seems terribly serious for a while until it suddenly doesn't: if it's disconcerting in the moment, it's certainly in the Slayers spirit.  On which note, I'll say that I only have one more of these to go and it's a half hour spin-off from the Slayers TRY series, released in 2001, which means that from my point of view this is kind of the last of these Slayers movies.  I'm going to miss these things...

Bubblegum Crisis, 1987 - 1991, dir's: Katsuhito Akiyama, Yasunori Ide, Ken'ichi Yatagai, Hiroki Hayashi, Masami Ōbari, Fumihiko Takayama, Hiroaki Gōda

If there's one truism about nineties anime, it's that seminal isn't the same thing as good, so it's always a relief to come across a seminal show that's actually entertaining in its own right.  Such is Bubblegum Crisis, an eight part OVA series so significant in the development of the medium that a friend saw fit to import me the box set from the US just to plug one of the last big gaps in my knowledge.

And yes, I certainly see how Bubblegum Crisis was a crucial missing piece: I called Cyber City Oedo 808 the urtext for nineties sci-fi anime, but now I think maybe that title belongs right here, with a show that could not possibly be more of its time if it tried.  In theory, this should make it terrible: the pilfering is beyond blatant, to the point where spotting the references to Blade Runner would make for a compelling, if fatal, drinking game.  In practice, though, it's kind of amazing, like having all your fondest sci-fi memories from the back end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties blasted back at you, dialed up to eleven.  I mean, there's a point in the first episode where one of our heroes, the Knight Sabers - read, all-girl Power Rangers - rides her cool motorbike off a shattered freeway and it turns into a suit of powered armour, even though she's already wearing powered armour because that's the whole point of the show.  That's the first moment where you can either throw your hands up in disbelief or just admit that, yeah, that was pretty cool - but it certainly won't be the last.

You know what?  The latter reaction is definitely the right one.  Because Bubblegum Crisis is immense fun once you tune into its wavelength.  It may also be the perfect meeting place between Eastern and Western cyberpunk.  The episode where it just flat-out remakes Blade Runner and the result ends up being not much at all like Blade Runner is surely the perfect example.  And to that you can add some top notch production values.  The animation idles at good, but the action sequences are really splendid, never more so than when the Knight Sabers are on screen.  The character designs, from Gunsmith Cats creator Kenichi Sonada, haven't aged too well, but those suits are things of beauty when you see them in motion, and the show never lets you forget just how neat they look.  Also, the music is pretty splendid, at least if you have any sympathy at all for the wonder that is late-eighties Japanese hair rock.

If there's one obvious failing, it's that the show feels unfinished: these eight episodes tie together hardly at all, most being either standalone or two-parters, but there's a definite sense of a wider arc with no culmination.  Some of that would be provided in the Bubblegum Crash OVA and more in the follow-up series, Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, but for our present purposes that's not terribly helpful.  However, nor is it as big a problem as it might be: this is one of those universes that's perfectly pleasurable to drop into without expecting some grand resolution.  And in fact, that's really what makes Bubblegum Crisis, even in an age when it feels terrifically dated and even a little campy: it's such a thing unto itself, and that thing is so fun and likable and cool that's it's hard not to be sucked in.

Five Star Stories, 1989, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

As a thought experiment, try to imagine a cut of David Lynch's adaptation of Dune that ran to sixty-six minutes, but retained precisely all of its plot.  Is your head aching?  Then congratulations, you've accurately simulated the experience of watching Five Star Stories, a film that contains more material in its brief voice-over introduction and epilogue than in its running time and still manages to cram in a ton of narrative, or at least of world-building and mythologizing that fulfill largely the same function, while at the same time never gaining a great deal of forward momentum.

But there we have all the criticizing I'm willing to give, for Five Star Stories is terrifically strange, and I do like me some terrifically strange nineties anime, even when that strangeness keeps it from being entirely successful.  And, by damn, what Five Star Stories does well it does terrifically well: its universe, part sci-fi on a huge scale and part European middle ages, is a deeply involved place, and its plot absolutely reflects that.  In its barest terms, we have something like this: giant robots called (sic) Mortar headds require suspiciously female-looking androids called Fatimas to function, but the creator of the Fatimas has slipped a fresh ingredient into his latest batch, with the result that the robot about to be presented to the galaxy in a weird kind-of auction has emotions and an agenda all of her own.  Meanwhile, our hero, the epicene Sopp, is dithering about on the sidelines, and it's fairly obvious that, whatever his motives are, they don't line up with those of the local tyrant, the villainous, gluttonous Lord Juba.

It doesn't take much research to release that the central problem here is that what we have is an adaptation of only the first volume of a much longer Manga, a phenomenon so common in anime from this period that it seems barely worth commenting on.  But, as much as it's frustrating, it's also kind of endearing: there's a real sense of being plonked in the middle of a huge, mythic story, and at the end the fact that the resolution basically adds up to "and then things really started happening" is okay, in the same way that it's okay to dip into classical mythology and not find out where every character would end up.  In fact, that's probably as good a comparison as there could be, and one Five Star Stories courts openly: after all, the three Fatimas are named after the three fates.

All of this makes emotional sense in the context of medieval Europe and a degree of sci-fi sense in the context of a convoluted, planets-spanning empire, but the two line up in some puzzling ways.  The result feels like nothing else I've come across, though again, Dune isn't an inappropriate comparison.  For that matter, while its plot may not altogether land - every moment of conflict could be easily avoided if Sopp acted even a little differently - it accomplishes more on the way down that many a less ambitious work has dared dream of.  This is grand space opera stuff, concentrated to almost comical extremes and yet somehow taking the time to let its story play out organically.  How the hell any of that works I have no idea, yet it sort of does, and even when it doesn't it's pretty thrilling.

Meanwhile, everything looks marvelous, with odd moments that I'd count among the finest I've ever encountered in hand drawn animation.  I'm never going to be a fan of Nobuteru Yûki's pointy-chinned character designs, but at least they're well suited to a universe where practically everyone is effete or waifish or both, and anyway the mecha designs are so exemplary that I can't bring myself to care too much.  The score, too, is particularly grand and lovely.  I haven't been able to establish whether Five Star Stories was a theatrical release, but it would certainly have warranted one.

And finally, having devoted a great many words to it, I must admit that I've been largely wasting your time, because good luck finding Five Star Stories anywhere.  I bought it in a Korean edition, which is great - as they tend to be - and wasn't particularly expensive.  But I'm coming to suspect that I'm more committed to this nineties anime thing than most people!  Still, if you should ever stumble over a cheap copy then it's well worth a look: a work of bold quirks that feels distinctive not just by the standards of its time and medium.


Just yesterday I was explaining to a friend how I've nearly exhausted this whole nineties anime thing, having bought just about everything from the period that was released in the UK and much that wasn't.  Then today I found a website streaming a ton of out of print releases, many of which I've never so much as heard of.  And the to-watch shelf is still heaving, and by the time I get through all that, most likely I'll have stumbled over something else.  Oh, and there's still the post reviewing the true classics of nineties anime that I've been planning practically since I began.

All of which is to say, don't expect this series to end any time soon.  It looks increasingly likely that the day I stop reviewing nineties anime is the day they pry the keyboard from my cold, dead fingers...

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

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