Friday, 17 November 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 28

If there's one thing that sucks about doing these posts, it's that sometimes I really want to just chill out and watch some nineties anime, and I can't because I know I won't have a chance to review it while I can still remember what it was about.  That's been especially true lately, with my blogging time alarmingly scarce in the face of actual, proper work and real, meaningful news.  And that also means that the to-watch shelf is beginning to groan under a quite remarkable collection of hard-to-find releases that I've been grabbing whenever a cheap copy happens to surface.  If I'm long past searching for hidden gold, I suspect there's at least a bit of hidden bronze and maybe even a little hidden silver sitting there waiting.

Anyway, that's all the moaning I'll do about having exciting things happening that clog up my blog space!  Nineties anime, you'll always be my first love, but I'm afraid you don't pay the bills - and indeed, you routinely add to them!  But at least I managed to find time for Lupin the Third: The Secret of Twilight Gemini, A.LI.CEUrusei Yatsura Movie 5: The Final Chapter and Knights of Ramune...

Lupin the Third: The Secret of Twilight Gemini, 1996, dir: Gisaburō Sugii

You might argue that the unkindest thing you can do to a franchise is to let a certified genius loose on it; what better way to make every effort before or after sink into mediocrity?  And while 1979's The Castle of Cagliostro isn't a high-water mark in the career of master director Hayao Miyazaki, it's still a damn fun film, and better work than just about anyone else could have produced with the same material.

I mention this only because I couldn't stop thinking it as I watched The Secret of Twilight Gemini.

At this point I should probably admit that I don't even like Lupin the Third; I find the character kind of annoying, and what I've seen of the franchise away from Miyazaki's seminal effort to be obnoxious and excruciatingly sexist.  And so it goes with The Secret of Twilight Gemini, which I bought imagining it to be another theatrical release, only to discover that it was a mere TV special that someone decided deserved a Western DVD release.

It didn't.  It's predictable, disposable, often tiresome nonsense, with not much of a story and some intermittently horrid animation.  And it really is startlingly misogynistic, especially in regards to recurring series character Fujiko Mine, who spends all of about eight frames fully clothed.  This is the sort of thing where, had it come on the television when you were a kid, you'd have been vaguely amused for an hour and a half, except for how your fragile young mind would probably have been blown by the appearance of so many crudely-drawn bare breasts.  But now, more than two decades later, if you're not for some reason devoted to the misadventures of debonair cretin thief Lupin, I struggle to imagine any reason to revisit such a lackluster effort.

All right, the music's quite nice in places.  The film makes solid use of its Moroccan setting, as do the occasionally lovely backgrounds; there's the sense that the budget stretched to a bit of a research trip, or at least a copy of the relevant Rough Guide.  Though the flip side of this being set in North Africa is that the whole business comes off as depressingly racist; there turns out to be a plot reason for the female lead being white and blond despite supposedly being from an ancient Moroccan tribe, but that doesn't change how much she sticks out among all the obnoxious Arab stereotypes the film throws up elsewhere.  But, oh right, this was the paragraph where I was trying to be positive, right?  Well, the dub is shockingly decent, to the point where I almost stopped wishing for subtitles instead.  And, yeah, some nice music and pretty backgrounds.  That's about all I've got.

A.LI.CE, 1999, dir: Kenichi Maejima

If I'm being honest, there's a good chance that this one actually came out in 2000 and is thus not nineties anime by anyone's definition.  But the IMDB lists it as having been released in 1999, and anyway, I refuse to have watched it specifically to review here and then to find out all that effort was for nothing.  Because, yes, watching a CGI movie from 1999 (or even 2000) can be a heck of a chore.  This is, after all, a year (or two) before what I'd argue to be the first Pixar film that you can still enjoy today without cringing a little at the animation, Monster's Inc.  And this was an era, you may remember, when the technology was advancing at a rate of knots, so that a gap of a year or two is nothing to be sniffed at.

With all of that said, A.LI.CE still looks like crap.  And I suspect it more or less looked like crap when it came out.  After all, Final Fantasy IX was released in 2000, and the CG cut-scenes there are head and shoulders above every moment of Maejima's movie.  There are odd shots that haven't aged too badly, but you could count then on both hands and probably keep a couple of fingers free.  It doesn't help that the characters suffer worst.  While they're hardly the dead-eyed abominations that some later Western movies would produce - yes, The Polar Express, I'm looking at you, now get back in that uncanny valley! - they certainly don't look a damn thing like human beings.

Anyway, this is where I hoped I'd be saying that, despite resembling something the dog threw up after eating too much plastic and shiny things, A.LI.CE is redeemed by its story.  But nope, it's not.  It's maybe even a little bit dragged down by its story, since the narrative only really functions at all when it's focusing upon its characters - who are at least not offensive to spend time around, assuming you close your eyes.  But the one thing that won't distract anyone from somewhat horrid computer-generated animation is a derivative, overly tangled tale that ties itself into at least one knot too many because someone saw Planet of the Apes and reasoned that the only way to travel into the future is accidentally via space shuttle.

Yet I don't altogether resent the time I spent with A.LI.CE.  I certainly don't recommend it, hell no, but it at least fit well with the whole cultural archeology aspect of these posts.  There's something fascinating about watching a film from less than two decades ago that feels so irretrievably lost to the dustbin of time.  Even crappy hand-drawn animation has its moments of charm, but CG films from before the point when CG became an adequate tool for the making of films are considerably less watchable than, say for example, silent cinema from a century ago.  With traditional animation, A.LI.CE would have been mere silly fun, maybe even quite likable silly fun - and it sort of even is, in places - but it's hard not to get distracted by the sheer goddamn ugliness on display.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 5: The Final Chapter, 1988, dir: Satoshi Dezaki

We know, of course, that the fifth Urusei Yatsura movie would not in any way be the final chapter, because I've already reviewed the sixth film, Always My Darling.  Nevertheless, in all the ways that mean anything, this right here is the end of the Urusei Yatsura anime, based as it is on the final story arc of the Manga.

And what an ending!  I'd already decided by this point that I had no regrets about splashing out on these six DVDs, but that they conclude on such a near-perfect note is the icing on an already very icy cake.  For a start, The Final Chapter looks splendid, with a return to a standard of cinematic-quality animation we haven't seen since way back in Beautiful Dreamer - and frankly, four years is no small time in the development of anime as an art form, so if you wanted to try and convince me that this is the best-looking entry in the series, I certainly wouldn't fight you.

Plotwise, The Final Chapter isn't exactly ambitious: indeed, the elements are entirely familiar to someone who has, like me, only a cursory knowledge of the franchise.  So there's yet another invading suitor, yet another excuse to split up alien princess Lum and her sleazy human darling Moroboshi, and yet another take on the game of tag that sparked all of this madness in the first place.  But really, would we want anything but the familiar at this point?  A tale as weird and experimental as the aforementioned Beautiful Dreamer would be hugely inappropriate, and it's not as though there aren't original ingredients in the mix: for me, the mushroom-based technology and the pig chariot were particular highlights, but, this being Urusei Yatsura, there's no shortage of odd ideas scattered about.

Really, the worst you could say is that events get a bit exhausting in places - by the midpoint, I was certain I'd watched an entire film's worth of plot - but the movie levels out for a surprisingly emotional and, dare I say it, even rather insightful finale, which treats Lum and Moroboshi's relationship with just the right degree of seriousness while not trying to disguise that they are essentially dreadful people who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near each other.  Oh, and did I mention that it's funny?  I mean, not consistently laugh-out-loud funny, but I was chuckling at regular intervals, and often because that gorgeous animation allows for plenty of subtle (or not so subtle) sight gags.

Of course, you'd have to be a bit mad to introduce yourself to the Urusei Yatsura megafranchise with a film called The Final Chapter, and so I'm probably preaching to the converted here; indeed, to converts who had their epiphany nearly three whole decades ago.  So all I'll say is that, if you're cherry-picking your way through the movies, this one's essential, along with - if we're being harsh - Beautiful Dreamer and Remember My Love.  If we weren't being harsh, I'd chuck Only You in there as well, and add that it's quite staggering that there isn't a bad movie among the six.  So really, the thing to do is just to go out and track down the lot, and discover why there remains such an insane amount of love out there for this whole Urusei Yatsura business.

Knights of Ramune, 1997, dir: Yoshinori Sayanna

I confess, I was expecting Knights of Ramune to be terrible and ... well, to a degree it was, I suppose, if I'm being objective.  I mean, it's another title that's grown mildly notorious for showing more animated skin than is reasonable or necessary, and there's no getting past the amount of gratuitous fan service on display.  And again I'm reminded of how much I hate that term, because I'm a fan and there's nothing about the weirdly-proportioned characters in Knights of Ramune that's remotely titillating, however many times they strip off for the most tenuous of reasons!  I'd have felt a great deal more serviced if the creators had just binned that entire aspect of the show and focused on everything else, because everything else is - well, kind of good, actually.

I mean, not great.  But the tale of holy virgins Cacao and Parfait, who finds themselves tasked to find a prophesied saviour of the galaxy only to discover that said saviour is a warmongering scumbag who gets his kicks from molesting his female crew members, is actually quite involving and original.  Cacao and Parfait are charming protagonists, Parfait particularly, who's a likable goof of the sort that nineties anime did so well, and it's nice to see a three hour OVA that actually has three hours of story to tell, instead of busying itself with fluff.  There are meaningful twists and turns along the way, and if some of them rely a bit heavily on a knowledge of a preceding series that I suspect was never released outside of Japan, nevertheless it's engaging stuff.

By about the third episode, the nudity largely fades into the background and loses any trace of naughtiness, which I suspect isn't what the creators intended.  Or maybe it was; there's the constant impression of a team trying to rise above the low bar they've been set.  The performances, direction, design, and everything else really, prove a great deal better than could be expected of a three hour show selling itself on the prospect of jiggling, anatomically improbable breasts.  In fact, the sci-fi elements are sort of terrific, and there's a fine little mech show struggling to fight its way out beneath the surface.  There's a brilliantly catchy opening theme too, and the animation is of that reliably good variety that never gets the appreciation it deserves; it's not a visually stunning show, but it's a visually engaging one, sure enough.

Yet it's hard to recommend.  It's not just all the fan service, because after all there must presumably be people out there who find that appealing, and it's pretty innocuous at the end of the day.  But there's also all the sexualised violence that the villainous Ramunes dishes out, which the show can never decide how it wants to present, or how much it wants to condemn.  Again, there are signs that someone somewhere would have liked to treat the material more seriously, and there's actually an interesting subplot going on with Ramunes and his devoted, oppressed harem - but that doesn't change how creepy and unpleasant things gets in the moment.

Despite its manifest flaws, I enjoyed Knights of Ramune quite a bit, but I really have no idea if anyone else would.  Certainly the tiny handful of reviews I've managed to dig up would suggest not.  Though the one that criticizes it for trying to meld Slayers and Gundam gets pretty close to nailing what I enjoyed, with the difference that where that reviewer felt the show failed utterly, I couldn't help but be drawn to it's baffling meld of high-concept, mech-driven SF and daft, light-hearted comedy.  And maybe it's only the dubious benefit of hindsight that makes the smashing together of nineties anime clichés seem appealing, but what the heck; this blog series is about nothing if it's not about the dubious benefits of hindsight!


Not a great batch, all told, but I'm not bitter.  Urusei Yatsura was a fine finale to an excellent series of movies and Knights of Ramune was a burst of silly fun at a point when I really needed some silly fun.  Sometimes that's enough, right?

As noted above, there really is a heck of a lot of stuff waiting for me to review, so I haven't a clue what comes next, or whether it'll be any good.  But for the first time in a considerable number of posts, I feel hopeful!

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

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