Monday, 15 May 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 24

I swear, the plan was to fill this post with works of unadulterated genius to make up for some of the nonsense I've been posting about in recent weeks.  I really did try, and I'm still not sure what went wrong.  But we have two utter classics - that being one more than I was expecting beforehand - and that's not too bad, right?  And I haven't given up on my ambition of getting another post out where everything is genuinely good; if I can just keep resisting the siren lure of M. D. Geist 2 then maybe we can manage that for next time.  Then again, there's the slender possibility of a Urusei Yatsura movie special, since an unfortunate E-bay-related accident left me with the entire series on Region 1 DVD...

But what's the use in worrying about the future?  Especially when we have quite enough vintage anime to worry about right now?  This time: Shamanic Princess, Digital Devil, Virgin Fleet and Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer.

Shamanic Princess, 1996, dir's: Mitsuru Hongo, Hiroyuki Nishimura

Perhaps it's the conditioning of Disney movies, but I didn't expect great things from a series with princess right there in the title, let alone when said princess is called Tiara.  The cover didn't help; nor did the association with the all-female Manga artists' collective known as Clamp, whose work I'd at some point decided I'm not a fan of.  Maybe it's because I've come to hold them responsible - not unfairly, I don't think - for that whole 'giant eyes, pointy chin' look that everyone who doesn't know anything about anime thinks is just how anime characters look.  Really, I'm not sure why I picked up Shamanic Princess at all, with so much weighing against it.

Damn but I'm glad I did.  Shamanic Princess is a stunner, and just the kind of buried treasure I'm always in search of.  Who's even heard of the show these days?  Yet it gets so much right that its flaws are trivial to the point of being barely flaws at all.  Other than a somewhat languid pace, the only one of significant note is that it tells its tale in an odd fashion indeed.  For the first episode, in fact, this seems like rather a huge hurdle: characters are introduced, and some of them evidently have a history, though they're careful not to clue us in on what that history might involve, and we learn that Tiara - who's considerably more of an ill-tempered hard-ass than her name might lead us to suppose - is hunting something called the Throne of Yord, though she seems more interested in bickering with the talking ferret who serves as her familiar.

It never bothered me much that I had little idea what was going on, though I've seen other reviews that found the early obtuseness borderline intolerable.  Maybe it was just my writer brain noting how cleverly exposition was being doled out; by the end of the first episode I was comfortable that all would eventually become clear.  And in that I was both right and wrong: in an even stranger storytelling twist, the main plot wraps up after the fourth of six episodes, and the last two serve as a prologue that's really sort-of an epilogue.  Now, I've puzzled over whether it would have mattered if episodes five and six had followed chronological order and been episodes one and two, and whether there's any good reason they weren't.  My conclusions were that a) there would have been advantages and disadvantages either way and b) I don't much care.  Shake it however you like, it's a great story that Shamanic Princess tells, a deliciously weird dark fantasy set in a world that feels more complex than the slivers we see and is peopled by standout characters, not least Tiara herself, who's charmingly bitchy and headstrong and only grows more interesting the more we learn about her.

Add to that the fact that the show looks fantastic.  Had you told me it came out ten years after it did then I'd have believed you, and even by 2006 standards, Shamanic Princess would represent more than solid work.  The animation is reliably fluid and unusually without flaws; the backgrounds, mostly bucolic countryside scenes and a lovingly rendered Mitteleuropean town, are lovely; the character designs, particularly Tiara herself, are among the best I've seen.  And the score, by Yoshikazu Suo, is downright splendid too, a constantly surprising mix of medieval instrumentation, J-pop and electronica that, again, feels a good decade ahead of its time.

Really, I can't think of a reason not to recommend this one.  It's an unexpected treat, with some genuinely interesting ideas up its sleeve and superlative production values.  Sure, you might be a bit confused for the first hour and sure the plot never exactly rockets along, but all Shamanic Princess asks from you is a little patience, and it has a whole lot to offer in return.

Digital Devil, 1987, dir: Mizuho Nishikubo

Were I lazier than I am, I could more or less get away with inserting my review of Tokyo Revelation here and calling it a day.  I had to check a few times, in fact, to make certain I wasn't about to watch the same thing over again, especially since nothing about Tokyo Revelation really called for a re-watch.  Based on the blurb, the concepts were all but identical, and could there really be two different OVAs about a high-school kid summoning a demon with his computer?

Of course there could, this is the endlessly derivative world of budget pre-twentieth century anime we're talking about here!  But in fairness, there's actually a good reason for the similarities.  Both titles turn out to be part of the same franchise, which - if my two minutes of research haven't failed me - began as a series of novels before moving into video games and then films.  (The Persona series, brought to life in some so-far disappointing movies over the last couple of years, is apparently another outcropping.)

With all of that said, Digital Devil really isn't as good as Tokyo Revelation, which was only okay in the first place.  But, plot aside, the similarities remain: some more than solid animation and direction manages to elevate material that would otherwise be awfully silly and tacky.  This time our protagonist is one Akemi Nakajima, who reacts to being bullied and misused by manipulating his school's computer mainframe into summoning the demon Loki - which Kiseki Films subtitle, with a remarkable lack of cultural sensitivity, as Rocky, because that's about how the name sounds with a Japanese accent.  Come for the demon-summoning, stay for the casual racism!  Though since Loki looks like a generic (and purple) demon rather than a Norse trickster-god, I suppose it's not like the makers are exactly going out of their way to achieve cultural harmony either.  Anyway, Loki / Rocky goes on a rampage with pink gloop that comes out of his hands and makes people explode and there's a heroine, Yumiko, who's actually a reincarnated goddess or something and needs to be reincarnated yet again, but Akemi keeps having nightmares about her turning into an old-woman-monster and attacking him and then they end up in a fantasy world somehow and they're only saved by Akemi's cyborg dog and holy crap but Digital Devil is all sorts of random.  Remember, all this is taking place across the span of forty-five minutes!

Then again, that randomness is definitely what saves Digital Devil from utter mediocrity: it's rather fun, really, trying to keep up and gasping at each new preposterous wonder it pulls out of its hat.  Oh, now the demon is robbing a bank via their computer screens?  But this scene will never be referred to again?  That's just fine, Digital Devil, I gave up trying to make sense of you a good ten minutes ago anyway.  Of course, one more slender saving grace is that you're only ever likely to come across the show because it was released on a disk with the supposedly much superior The Cockpit, which was why I bought it in the first place.  Viewed as a bonus for purchasing a much better film, I suppose you can't altogether complain.

Virgin Fleet, 1991, dir: Masahiro Hosoda

You probably don't need the cover blurb to tell you that Virgin Fleet is from one of the creators of the Sakura Wars franchise: the fact that it's set in early twentieth century Japan, with an almost entirely female cast of rather one-note characters who defend their homeland using a combination of innate magical ability and technical savvy is something of a giveaway.  Really, the only major differences are the swapping out of adorable steampunk mechs for seaplanes and the fact that the magic this time around is - um - virginity.

Yes, you read that right!  The plot revolves around virgin energy, which does largely what you'd expect it to - assuming your expectations involved women gaining nebulous superpowers through the virtues of not having any sex, anyway.  Yet, mad as the whole notion seems, you quickly realize that Sakura Wars was coming from a not dissimilar place - see the kerfuffle over the notion of Sakura's potential marriage that ends the second OVA - and then that Virgin Wars is just making explicit an obvious subtext in much female protagonist-led anime.  Here the subtext is text, and says "Women are a whole lot better off without men getting in the way" - or at least, without men who aren't willing to treat them as equals.  Given that the men in question are all pretty awful, it's a moral that's tough to pick holes in.

That the result doesn't play as overtly feminist is a bit weird in retrospect - perhaps it's simply that too much time gets devoted to the obnoxious male characters and their viewpoints - but nevertheless it's a level upon with Virgin Fleet functions quite well.  At any rate, the question of whether protagonist Shiokaze is willing to chuck in her burgeoning career as a defender of Japan to get hitched provides what narrative spine there is.  And it's desperately needed: with a nebulous back story and vague villains, and with a cast of too many characters for the slender ninety minute run-time, this feels very much like the setup for a series that never arrived.  (Though there was apparently a videogame sequel on the original PlayStation.)

Perhaps the attempt at franchise-building would have been more successful had the animation been a bit less rubbish; it's really rather cheap-looking and jerky, with only the likable character designs and to a lesser extent the cool planes going far to redeem it.  The result exists somewhere between a pleasant waste of time and merely tolerable, depending on where the wildly varying tone happens to land in any particular scene.  I really wanted to like Virgin Fleet - because, come on, virginity-fueled superpowers and seaplanes! - but a great deal of unnecessary shonkiness made the effort harder than it needed to be.  Also, at no point do the titular virgins have anything even approaching a fleet, and if there's one thing I'll draw the line at it's misleading titles.  For shame!

Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer, 1984, Mamoru Oshii

You don't need to know much about the Urusei Yatsura franchise, the career of director Mamoru Oshii or indeed anime in general to notice the difference in ambition between the first and second Urusei Yatsura movies.  Only You was as unusually well directed and tolerably well animated franchise movie with just enough plot to feel like something more than an extended episode.  Beautiful Dreamer is...

Well, it's a proper Oshii movie, for a start.  Though it begins in what I take to be a fairly routine place for the franchise, with the characters preparing for a school festival by butting heads and preparing, of all things, a Nazi-themed bar, complete with tank, it soon because apparent that something's very wrong indeed.  (I mean, beyond the fact that someone thinks a Nazi-themed bar is a good idea for a school festival.)  What follows moves by turns through surrealism, mild horror, fantasy and the sort of goofy comedy you might expect, though with a definitive emphasis towards the first three.  There are scenes that are genuinely unsettling and images that will send a shiver down your spine; what there is especially, and for perhaps the first time, is the mastery of tone that would so come to define Oshii's work.  Music, sound and imagery combine in specific, unique ways to create a mood, of disassociation or unease or sometimes just of place.  And all of that, crucially, plays into the film's narrative and themes, which essentially boil down to two equally weighty questions: if you could live in an illusion that was in every way better than reality then would you, and why do people always feel the need to screw up nice things?

To say this is heavy stuff for - and I can't stress this enough! - a light-hearted comedy sci-fi anime from 1984 is a hopeless understatement.  I'd be pushed to think of any other TV adaptation that remained basically faithful to its core property while at the same time bending it to such radical ends.  And while we've had a fair number of these "is reality real" stories in the three and a bit decades since, they weren't half so common back when Beautiful Dreamer premiered; were anime a little better known in the West, it would be easy to find the wellspring of a great many concepts here.  There are scenes, for example, that would recur in near-identical form four years later in the marvelous Dark City, and the gap is just long enough to imagine a direct line of influence.

Add to that the fact that the animation is hugely ambitious - again, an incalculable leap from Only You, but really, up there with anything the eighties produced - and it's no surprise the film has earned itself an enduring reputation.  So it pains me to say that, while I liked it a great deal, I didn't quite love Beautiful Dreamer.  Even as I was fascinated and entertained, I was also a little exhausted; without going into detail, the movie resets its status quo at least three times, each time pushing off in a new direction, and that's a lot to take in on a first viewing.  My thoughts kept turning to Angel's Egg, which would be Oshii's next feature and which felt similarly bludgeoning in places.  One suspects that Oshii wasn't in a terribly happy place when he made these two films; though Beautiful Dreamer is legitimately funny in places, its essence is challenging and bleak.  It's in many ways an existentialist horror movie - again, like Angel's Egg - and that's something of a tough prospect.

Nevertheless, I look forward to watching it again.  I think maybe the love will come in time, and I can't stress how much you should try and see Beautiful Dreamer if you haven't already: it's a bold, beautiful work that uses a silly comedy franchise to get inside your head and kick around the furniture, and I can think of few more worthy accomplishments than that.


It feels good, at any rate, to be making a couple of genuine and unqualified recommendations: unless you actively hate animation, Shamanic Princess is worth a look, and if you have even the faintest interest in anime then you should be on the lookout for Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, which really is a remarkable highpoint for the medium, even if that's not quite the same thing as being a flawless masterpiece.

Next time: Flawless masterpieces!  Or the wretched horror that is no doubt M. D. Geist 2!  Or lots more Urusei Yatsura movies!

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

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