Friday, 10 March 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 21

Would you believe me if I said that, here in part 21 of all places, we've arrived at my favourite nineties anime movie of all time?  Well, you shouldn't, but that's only because Princess Mononoke and Ghost in the Shell exist in the world.  Of my new discoveries since I began these posts, well, on those terms, I'm telling the truth.

As an exciting game, you could try and figure out which one it is out of Sakura Wars: The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms OVA, Angel's Egg, Revolutionary Girl Utena and Armageddon.

Hint: it's not Armageddon.

Sakura Wars: The Gorgeous Blooming Cherry Blossoms, 1997, dir: Takaki Ishiyama

It's easy to forget when talking about how rubbish video game adaptations are, and comparing the likes of Assassin's Creed and the Resident Evil movies, that anime has been doing game tie-ins for three decades now, and sometimes even gets it right.  And, frankly, the medium has an enormous advantage: the leap is much narrower from game to animation than from game to live action.  For that reason, there are actually anime game adaptations out there that are well-considered and add to the properties they represent, rather than miring them in leaden plotting and lousy special effects.

Few video game franchises are more beloved than the Sakura Wars series, though you probably wouldn't know that if you're not Japanese; over there, they single-handedly saved Sega's fortunes.  The original game was an unusually plot-heavy and character-driven turn based strategy affair, with a gloriously absurd premise: in an alternate, steampunk-inspired early twentieth century Japan, a multinational group of female mech pilots known as the Imperial Assault Force: Flower Division (who all have suitably flower-based names) operate under the cover of being a musical revue, protecting the people of Tokyo from demonic invasion with heavy armour and cool powers while keeping their spirits up with elaborate musical numbers.

This, of course, is so perfectly suited to nineties anime that not adapting it would have been tantamount to madness.  And lo and behold, there are plenty of ways in which Sakura Wars absolutely works.  Though none of them, it has to be said, relate to the plot, because to all intends and purposes there isn't one.  In fact, the actual degree of plotlessness is startling, and even when things appear that look like plot threads, they generally head nowhere.  In the second episode, for example, a big deal is made of the fact that one of the characters goes AWOL to avenge their father's death.  This is never alluded to again, and by episode four, they're back as though nothing happened.  Or for that matter, there's the climatic battle, where the biggest concern is whether the cast will return from fighting in time for their performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Presumably, all this is tying into the game in ways I can't possibly understand, what with it being unavailable in the West and on an extinct format and everything.  But such issues bothered me less than perhaps they should have.  Sakura Wars is so likable in its goofiness, in its fun, one-note characters and its rambling uneventfulness, that I was happy just to hang out in its company.  It helps that the animation is top notch, as befits a property Sega was hugely invested in; it's notable that, while the mech stuff looks perfectly great, the real standout shots tend to be character moments, and often those revolving around lead Sakura.  Also, the opening theme is one of the best things ever (if maddeningly similar to classic sixties harangue against consensual sex, "Lady Willpower".)  In fact, all the music, which I assume was largely taken from the game, is pretty splendid.

All of which leaves me in a difficult position not uncommon to these articles: I really did enjoy Sakura Wars and I'm looking forward to watching it again - if only for that theme tune!  But I'd be lying if I said that was the same thing as it being objectively good.  Let us say only that, in so much as it works, it works as a hang-out anime, and so long as that's what you're expecting, you'll find it a particularly charming example of the concept.

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, 1999, dir: Kunihiko Ikuhara

I try not to throw around the word masterpiece lightly, and it's certainly not one I've had much cause to haul out in this trawl through the highs and frequent lows of nineties anime: I've watched some great stuff, and a lot of fun stuff, but that's hardly the same thing.  Anyway, I mention this solely so that you know I'm serious when I say that Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie is a goddamn masterpiece.

You might reasonably ask, at this point, why - if it's half as good as I'm suggesting - it's not better known.  And on the face of things, the answer's straightforward: this is one of those films, common in the world of anime, that aim to condense the plot of a lengthy series (39 episodes, in this case) into a feature-length running time, and there are those who claim you can't hope to follow the film without having seen the series.  This is nonsense, though not for the reason you might think: the fact is, you can't hope to follow the film full stop.  At least, not on a first viewing, and probably not on a second either, though things do start to come a little into focus at that point.

All of which is to say, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie is weird as all get out.

But, no, weird is a rubbish word, and certainly doesn't do justice to the pyschosexual fever dream on offer here.  Let's try a different one, then: confrontational.  Within ten minutes, having introduced its gender-defying heroine Utena, its physics-defying academy setting, and a plot that appears to involve students dueling over the sexual favours of the mysterious Rose Bride, who may or may not possess the power to revolutionize the world, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie has thrown so much dizzying, florid imagery and so many disconcerting notions at the screen that it's all but impossible to catch a breath.  On my first watch, I gave up at that ten minute point and determined to come back when I felt less frazzled.  On my second, I pressed on, and was amply rewarded.  On a rewatch, I stumbled again at the precise same point, and realised: the film's first genuinely abrasive scene is like a membrane.  The only way to pass is to surrender to what director Ikuhara is up to here, no matter what.

And, of course, you should.  Because Ikuhara's game is certainly weird, and certainly confrontational, but it's also thrilling and brave.  I could point you to the animation, which is exquisite, and rapturous in its unceasingly imaginative imagery; I could go on about the music, both stunning in its own right and incorporated with rare perfection.  I could mention the climax, which is the absolute definition of love-it-or-hate-it, but, for my money, maybe the most unadulteratedly wonderful twenty minutes the medium has yet to produce.  I could say how what underpins all this surface gloss is a tale that dares to go to places rarely touched upon, in anime or elsewhere, and then handles its difficult themes with both rawness and sensitivity.  I could easily write a post this long on a plot full of layers upon layers, that unfolds like the roses that feature so heavily in Revolutionary Girl Utena's imagery.  I could say all of that, and would, and largely just did, but really ... we're up to part twenty-one of these posts, and this is the first time I've unconditionally called something a masterpiece.  Shouldn't that be enough?

Angel's Egg, 1985, dir: Mamoru Oshii

At the very least, I can promise you've never seen anything like Angel's Egg.  Really, it's hard to believe how such a film ever came into existence: after all, in 1985, Oshii was far from the anime legend he would become, post the Patlabor movies and particularly after Ghost in the Shell.  At the time, he had an OVA called Dallos under his belt and a great deal of TV work, as well as the highly-regarded second Urusei Yatsura spin-off movie.  It's anyone's guess what in that CV inspired someone to trust him with what must surely have been a respectable sum of money to make...

And already we run into problems, because once you get past the basics, describing just what Oshii was allowed to make is no easy task.  It's a film - though at 71 minutes, a short one by non-anime standards.  It's fantastical, and possibly science-fiction, though in a sense that feels like a stretch.  It uses traditional animation techniques to represent images that are broadly realistic in form, if frequently surrealistic in intent.  It has two protagonists: a girl who leads a ritualistic scavenger's existence to protect the large egg she carries, generally within her dress, as though it were her unborn child; and a man who may or may not be a soldier, carries a cruciform object that might be a weapon, and who earns the girl's trust only to - apparently - betray it.

That gets us a little way, but it's also as far as talking about bare bones plot will help.  Other than a few isolated incidents, including bookends featuring a travelling globe full of inanimate figures and, at one point, scenes of fishermen who try unsuccessfully to harpoon the shadows of giant, intangible fish, what I've described above covers the entirety of what narrative Angel's Egg possesses.  All the dialogue together probably adds up to less than five minutes, and the only speech of any length is a retelling of the story of Noah's ark, except in this version the dove doesn't return and the flood never subsides.  Given the frequent images of water, the massive skeleton of a bird we see in a crucial-feeling scene, and the fetal baby birds we meet in another, this is presumably significant.

Look online for an interpretation of Angel's Egg and you'll find a fair few; read five and you'll be stuck with five different theories.  The closest thing to a consensus appears to be that the film involves Oshii working through his difficult break with Christian belief: the egg the girl carries represents her faith, which the man destroys, thrusting her into crisis.  And maybe that's sort of it, though I'm not convinced; it feels awfully on the nose and fails to account for a lot.  At any rate, Angel's Egg is one of those works that leaves you with the impression that maybe one more watch would reveal its deeper mysteries.  With all those water images, and the frequent scenes of very little happening, and the general obtuseness, I found myself reminded often of Tarkovsky's Stalker - and you don't generally go into pre-twentieth century anime expecting to be reminded of Tarkovsky.

What else can one say?  As befits an Oshii work, Angel's Egg looks terrific: I haven't much sympathy with Yoshitaka Amano's character designs, but the animation, backgrounds and sheer imagery are stunning.  And again, this being Oshii, the discordant score is both nerve-jangling and haunting.  But does that make Angel's Egg any good?  This is animation first and foremost as art, and even if you're basically sympathetic to what it's doing, that's no guarantee you'll find yourself on its wavelength or sympathetic to its nebulous goals.  For me, I was frustrated that it seemed to work only on levels of allegory and metaphor; its "actual" plot is basically a series of non-events.  And the copies on YouTube are so rubbish that a lot of the background detail is obscured, which is fatal for something so packed with meaning; to my knowledge, the film was never legally released in English, which is maddening.  I neither wholly loved nor hated Angel's Egg, but I'd certainly like to watch - or rather, perhaps, experience - it again.

Armageddon, 1996, dir: Hyunse Lee

In the spirit of honestly, I should admit that I'd had a bit to drink when I watched Armageddon, and that makes it highly likely that I'm giving it more credit than it deserves: this is, after all, another release from Manga Entertainment's disreputable Collection range, and one that's so universally reviled that it doesn't even appear to warrant a Wikipedia page.  The likelihood of it being anything close to good is, clearly, vanishingly slender.

Let's try for safer ground then: I enjoyed Armageddon a lot more than I was expecting to, and indeed a lot more than I've enjoyed most of the Collection.  It's dumb and impossible to take seriously, but it's also fun, and sort of ambitious: its plot at least flirts with big sci-fi ideas, even if it doesn't wholly know what to do with most of them.  Four billion years ago, an ancient civilization fed up with how big and empty the universe is seeded life on two worlds, and left sentient computers to guard over them.  Cut to the present and one race, manipulated by its guardian artificial intelligence, has come to to the opposite conclusion, that the universe is quite populace enough with just them, thank you very much.  Fortunately Earth's guardian has an - unnecessarily convoluted - trick up its sleeve: a superhuman named the Delta Boy, which involves one unsuspecting Korean teenage boy getting a significant power upgrade.

That's really only about a third of the overall plot: frankly, from thereon my memory gets a bit flaky.  Something about a massive killer robot and a hidden, time-travelling subspecies of humans and spaceships and monster sharks and a giant brain and a gravely silly romantic subplot that seemed terribly important until it wasn't.  It's quite possible that Armageddon errs towards incoherence because Manga were up to their usual tricks - there appears to have once been a longer cut available, and this has all the hallmarks of an OVA re-edited to look like a film - except for one thing: by Collection standards, this one is startlingly respectful.  The dub is genuinely solid, the script is far from being the usual travesty, and the print is really rather nice, with an abundance of rich, bright colours.  Really, Armageddon is quite a good-looking piece of work all round: the animation is solid and frequently showy.  I read somewhere that this was among the first anime movies to be made fully in Korea by Koreans, and it certainly has that air: shots are often rather better than they need to be, and there's even some judicious use of CG, which has aged better than most late-nineties CG that pops up in anime.

Look, I'm not trying to oversell Armageddon: its silly, juvenile fluff.  But there's fluff that's contemptuous and derivative and there's fluff that's made with clear affection and at least tries to offer something out of the ordinary, and if you have a fondness for old anime and a few pints in you, there's much to be said for the latter.  Find a copy cheap, go in with suitably low expectations and maybe spend a day in the pub beforehand and you might just be pleasantly surprised.


Boy, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, huh?  I already want to watch it again.  And, you know, twenty-one posts and a staggering eighty-four films and / or OVAs in, these discoveries are still exciting.  And while Angel Egg doesn't succeed on the same level, I'm awfully glad I got to see it, finally, having been an Oshii fan for so many years.  Meanwhile, I already seem to have committed to tracking down the entire Sakura Wars franchise (in fairness, the movie looks amazing!)

And, you know, then there was Armageddon, which probably I'm going to rewatch sober one of these days and regret the hell out of recommending.  But hey, them's the breaks.

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

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