Thursday, 23 March 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 22

By part twenty-two and my eighty-fifth to eighty-eighth reviews here, it's fair to say that I'm starting to see a few trends.  It's easy to glorify pre-twentieth century anime and to remember only the high points, but the truth is that the bulk of this stuff was commercialized and derivative.  I suppose in part, then, the appeal becomes the fact that even the least releases have a degree of charm that you couldn't hope to find in, say, similarly cash-grabby low budget American movies of the period.  It's one of the definite virtues of hand drawn animation; a degree of energy and genuine artistry always seems to sneak through the cracks.

All of which is a long-winded way of admitting that it's a bit of a crap selection this time around, and even the relative high points are both sequels to arguably better works.  So let's not expect too much from Sakura Wars: The Radiant Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms, The E.Y.E.S of Mars, Legend of Lemnear and Project A-Ko: Love and Rockets...

Sakura Wars: The Radiant Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms, 1999, dir: Susumu Kudo

It's safe to say that if you were a devotee of the games they were based on, these Sakura Wars OVAs would be about the best thing ever.  They're clearly made with a great deal of affection, and this time around, there's a particular effort made to give each character time in the limelight: in fact, the first four episodes are character-centric vignettes and the last two, which shift to nominal protagonist Sakura herself, are the only ones with much in the way of continuity.

For the non-fan, on the face of things, that makes this a less appealing prospect: certainly it's hard to see what pleasure anyone who came to this second OVA with no foreknowledge would derive.  It makes zero attempt to reintroduce its cast or its concept, or to do most any of the things you'd expect a show about women piloting clunky robot armour to battle demons while posing as musical theatre actresses would do.

No, I tell a lie: there's a fair bit of the musical theatre side of things on offer.  However, we see more of the adorable, steam-powered mechs that the characters supposedly pilot in the opening credits sequence than we do in the entirety of the six episodes combined.  This may sound like I'm exaggerating, but I'm not: at no point do our heroines armour up.  And this is truly baffling; I spent three full hours waiting for a battle sequence that never arrived.  In fact, the whole thing is pretty action-light; as with the first OVA, but even more so, the onus is very much on comedy and drama.

What we have, then, is a show made for fans who want to hang out more with these very likable characters - and that's actually okay.  None of the episodes are actively bad, and at least half are pretty damn good for what they are.  Elsewhere, the changes in animation are a fascinating example of what the passage of two years did for anime at the end of the twentieth century, for better and worse: it's slick and there's some well-used CG, but the colours incline towards the garish and the characters have a tendency to wander off model, particularly in the somewhat cheaper-looking middle episodes.  At least the music continues to be great, and my love for the Sakura Wars theme is undying.

Having said little that's terribly positive, I should probably conclude by pointing out that I really like the Sakura Wars franchise.  Two decades on, these almost entirely female-led franchises still feel a little revolutionary in the West, in a way that's really depressing if you think about it too much - and this second OVA doubles down on that thematically, as Sakura wonders whether she mightn't prefer a normal life to hanging about with her kooky girlfriends and battling to defend Tokyo, and comes to the only sensible conclusion.  To that I'd add that about the only way to buy this OVA is in the box set that includes the first one, making for a combined five hours of Sakura Wars goodness.  That's five imperfect hours, for sure, but there are good reasons this franchise picked up such a devoted following: it's pleasant and funny and charming, and that combination is rarer than it should be.

The E.Y.E.S of Mars, 1993, Iku Suzuki

For some reason (and in retrospect, I have no idea why) I was quite hopeful for The E.Y.E.S of Mars.  In fact, it's probably indicative of the mindset behind this entire series of posts that I noted the fact that it's never been considered worthy of a DVD release and the only version you can find is a rip of the dubbed US VHS version and took that to mean "lost classic" rather than "sensibly buried rubbish."

Needless to say, I was wrong as wrong can be.  Yet E.Y.E.S of Mars begins - well, at least not terribly.  There are some vaguely exciting scenes of a space battle (which will seem less exciting when we watch them all over again later), and then we cut to a boy being chased through sewers by a man who appears to be a futuristic cop riding a giant eight-ball.  Somehow, the boy finds himself in a vast, presumably underground forest, before we cut to what appears to be an entirely unrelated narrative about a girl, Eve, whose education at a school for psychic children is being disrupted by the fact that she keeps having horrifying nightmares of conflagration and death.  At this point, the elements are at least interesting enough that you can fool yourself into ignoring the fact that nothing terribly interesting is being done with them.

Eventually, those two plot lines will converge, though not before we've had time to get thoroughly bored of the lifeless Eve and have largely forgotten about the boy, who we discover is called Dew, because presumably Adam was deemed too on the nose.  But really, would that dull characters with dull designs were the biggest problem here; would, even, that the largely mediocre animation or the muddled, lethargic storytelling were the worst of E.Y.E.S of Mars's sins.  It certainly seems those are the more prominent issues for about the first two thirds or so - and, up until then, it's watchable, if not what you could honestly call engaging.

Then the whole mess flies off the rails, and just keeps on going.  This should be quite spectacular, and, if I threw out a few ingredients, might certainly sound like it would be: Incoherent environmental messages!  Interplanetary soul travel!  Atlanteans!  Explosions!  Really, it takes quite the steady hand upon the tiller to keep such a hotchpotch from ever rising to the level of entertainingly silly.  For this alone, I commend Suzuki, who I'm glad to discover is still working today; somehow I feel like he deserved a lengthy career for participating in this nonsense.*

Anyway, as so often happens here, I'm wasting everyone's time, including my own: like I noted at the start, E.Y.E.S of Mars is basically unavailable now.  You can find it on Youtube and elsewhere if you really want to.  But you don't.  It takes a heck of a lot to muck up a pitch like (SPOILER ALERT!) "Psychic children on Mars escape environmental devastation by transmigrating their souls to Earth and kickstarting human evolution", but this film manages it, and then some.

Legend of Lemnear, 1989, dir: Kinji Yoshimoto

While I quite enjoyed Plastic Little, I'd hesitate to consider "from the creator and director of Plastic Little" to be a recommendation.  Yet here with are with Legend of Lemnear, a similarly short OVA release that sees those two talents combining for the first time.  And since the worlds of both manga writing and anime directing frequently involve finding grooves and sticking to them, we shouldn't be surprised to note a few similarities.  If you should happen to remember my review of Plastic Little, or know anything about it, you can probably guess at least one of them.

Yup, Legend of Lemnear features a whole lot of lovingly drawn breasts.

Whereas Plastic Little largely confined that to one scene, however, Legend of Lemnear devotes nearly an entire first act to the subject.  And since it, somehow, only has two acts, that's quite a big chunk of a forty-five minute running time.  In those twenty minutes or so, our nubile heroine Lemnear tracks down one of the folks responsible for murdering her family, only to fall into their clutches, at which point she receives a big chunk of plot exposition, her already scanty clothes fall off and a fair few people get stabbed.

Stabbing is the other thing that Legend of Lemnear is preoccupied with: there's a whole lot of blood spattered about, and the entire second act - that's to say, most of the film - consists of one long action sequence, which mostly involves Lemnear and some guy we briefly met in the opening scene battling the big bad.  At this point, the animation, which has been good enough before now, ratchets up a significant notch: it's clear that, semi-nudity aside, this is where the creators' attention and the bulk of the budget was focused.  And in fairness, it's a damn good action scene, all told, though one that suffers from the fact that we have no reason to care who wins and little understanding of the conflict.

If I had to compare Legend of Lemnear with anything, it would be 1981 animation "classic" Heavy Metal, and in particular the Taarna section, which by coincidence was the only part I didn't altogether hate.  Legend is better that Heavy Metal (most things are) but it has that same unblinking infatuation with sword and sorcery tropes, the same juvenile fixations with bloody violence and women's partially unclothed bodies, and even a similar-feeling soundtrack that fits the material not terribly well.  If you like those things (and I can't honestly claim to not like them, when they're delivered with a measure of artistry) then Legend of Lemnear is worth wasting forty-five minutes on.  And the same goes if you've a fondness for hand drawn animation; the half-the-film-long climax is rather stunning in places.  But to say anything nicer than that would definitely have required a middle act and some actual damn plot, and that we do not have.

Project A-Ko 2: Love & Robots, 1987-1989, dir: Yuji Moriyama

Some things don't need sequels, and some things really don't need sequels, and only now that I've watched the three sequels that were gathered up by Animazing under the subtitle of Love and Rockets do I realise that Project A-Ko was one of them.  I certainly enjoyed it, but I didn't get to the end thinking "Gee, I wonder where these characters and this intricate, fantastical milieu will go from here?"  If only because the characters were deliberately one note gags, and the universe a nonsensical pastiche of anime tropes.

Sadly, it would appear that the creators of Project A-Ko: Love & Robots were just itching to figure out what came next - and, in fairness to them, few sequels are this committed to picking up inconsequential plot threads and seeing just how far they can be taken.  The alien invaders from the first film, for example, are now actual characters, with hopes and dreams and at least the semblance of personalities.  And, hey, did you wonder how B-Ko managed to make all those amazing sci-fi gadgets?  Well, y'see, her father actually runs a weapons manufacturing company, and seems to be basically exploiting his daughter's psychosis for R&D purposes.  Oh, and if you were curious about the school teacher with the incongruously green hair, she gets an episode devoted to her too.

The thing is, Project A-Ko worked for precisely the opposite of the reason that all of this relies on.  Its core concept was simple and silly: A-Ko and C-Ko are friends, B-Ko loves C-Ko and is jealous of A-Ko, therefore they fight a lot, and then aliens invade because why not?  And the real joke at the heart of all that is that C-Ko is so dreadful that she makes you want to claw your face off, so of course it's absurd that anyone should be fighting over her, rather than, say, shoving her into a well.

Of course, the other reason that Project A-Ko worked was because it looked pretty splendid, and it doesn't help matters that none of the three episodes gathered here are on a par; Wikipedia swears blind that they were all theatrical releases, but they look much more like OVAs.  Parts one and three remain solid, despite clear signs of skimping: reused animation, lingering static shots, that sort of thing.  Part two, however, is downright ropy, which is perhaps appropriate given that its subject matter is the most misconceived: do we really need to see A-Ko and B-Ko battling over a guy?  At least he has the hots for C-Ko rather than either of them, which feels right for this twisted universe.

And, having said nothing nice about Project A-Ko: Love & Robots, I have to admit that it's really not that bad.  Unnecessary, yes, and misconceived, but that's not the same thing; other than the somewhat cheaper-looking animation, this is probably about the best anyone could have asked for.  I just wasn't in the mood for the first two parts, and found them more shrill than amusing.  But by the time number three rolled around, I was feeling more congenial; these articles would never have got anywhere near twenty-two entries if I didn't have a soft spot for goofy anime humour, and there's no end of that on offer here.  Hardly indispensable then, and not worth bothering with unless you've seen and enjoyed the original, but probably just about worth wasting time and money on if you have.


That turned out a bit more negative than I intended.  And I even liked Sakura Wars.  Heck, I guess I liked Project A-Ko: Love and Rockets, too, though that apparently didn't translate into having anything nice to say.

And who knows what next time will offer?  I have some stuff on the shelf that promises to be amazing, yet for some reason I keep not watching it.  And I have M.D. Geist, which is so universally despised that I find myself itching to see what all the fuss is about.  Let's hope my better instincts win out for once - he types, knowing they probably won't.

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

* Oddly, just before this, Suzuki directed the second Ranma 1/2 movie, which, despite its own fair share of faults, I had quite positive feelings about.

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