Monday, 18 December 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 29

I now have enough nineties anime on the shelf for at least half a dozen more posts, so expect these to get a bit more regular again once we hit next year; my plan for the Christmas break is basically to watch and review a whole ton of this stuff.  I mean, that and to clean the house from top to bottom.  And probably a bit of family time, I guess; that's a thing people do at Christmas, right?  But I'm definitely grabbing the opportunity to watch some of the longer releases that have been waiting for absolutely months now.

Anyway, that's the future - and Christmas has defeated the best laid plans of better mice and men than me before now.  So for the meantime, let's get to the latest batch: we have Iria: Zeiram, Silent Service, Spirit Warrior: Festival of the Ogre's Revival and Mask of Zeguy...

Iria: Zeiram, 1993, dir's: Tetsurô Amino, Yoshimi Katsumata, Naoyoshi Kusaka, Naohito Takahashi

One of the pleasures of nineties anime that's hard to reproduce elsewhere is the science-fiction and fantasy miniseries, something that's largely fallen out of favour within anime itself and that has never seriously been a thing in the West.  A six-episode OVA can dig deeper into a story than a feature-length running time, without requiring the commitment of a full-length series; you can cover a great deal of mileage in six half hour episodes, as a show like Gunbuster attests.

And so it goes with Iria: Zeiram - to some extent anyway.  A little digging reveals the series to be a prequel to an earlier live action movie, somewhat confusingly called Zeiram, which would also get a live action sequel a year after this OVA came out.  Anyway, the anime tells the back-story of bounty hunter Iria, as a suspicious job dealt by a shady corporation leads to a confrontation with a seemingly unkillable alien that develops a whole host of unpleasant abilities in their subsequent, increasingly destructive encounters.

If that sounds a bit light as plots go, Iria: Zeiram compensates at least somewhat by providing plenty of shading around the edges.  Iria herself is thoroughly engaging, and an absolute bad-ass to boot, with a cool sci-fi gadget for seemingly every occasion.  And the world she inhabits is an enticingly weird mix of medieval Asian culture and retrofuturism that's pleasantly distinct from most of what was around at the time.  The supporting cast are tolerable company, with the highlight being grumpy, self-serving opposing bounty hunter Fujikuro and the lowest points usually involving a pair of street-urchin kids who are at least a lot less irritating than they might be.  And the animation quality is very good indeed, backed up by mostly solid design work and a terrific orchestral score.

For all that, I can't quite rave about Iria: Zeiram.  While it basically looks damn good, it also has an unfortunate tendency to resemble a Saturday morning kids cartoon, or at least a kid's cartoon from the early nineties.  After much consideration, I decided that this was mostly to do with some iffy vehicle designs and an overly peppy colour palette; on the latter front, when the animators tone it down a bit, the show really does look fantastic.  But the bigger problem comes down to what I said at the start: six episodes is room for a fair bit of story, and there isn't enough here.  There are some ins and outs, some subplots, and an agreeable amount of world-building, but basically the plot boils down to "Iria fights Zeiram", and once you realise that - and that certain crucial information is never going to be revealed because this is, after all, just a prologue - then everything surrounding the central conflict starts to resemble padding, albeit entirely pleasant padding.  At four episodes Iria: Zeiram would have been very good indeed; at six it falls more into the category of an engaging diversion with excellent production values.  That's still a win, but it's also a bit disappointing given how much there is to like here, and given what a terrific lead Iria herself makes for.

Silent Service, 1995, dir: Ryôsuke Takahashi

I've often joked fondly about the fact that nineties anime, at least nineties anime that made it as far as the shores of America and Britain, was not the most varied of art forms: watch any quantity of the stuff and you'll quickly notice that you're seeing an awful late of mecha, girls in skimpy outfits, tentacles, and Blade Runner pastiches.  Still, as par for the course as that may be, it's always a thrill to come across something spectacularly different.  Which brings us to Silent Service, a three-part OVA (neatly repackaged for its US release by Central Park Media as a single feature) that's certainly the only animated, politically-charged thriller about submarine warfare I ever recall seeing.

Say what you like about Central Park Media, who seem to have the most toxic reputation by far of all the companies that helped bring early anime releases to the West, but they certainly were willing to stray from the overly-beaten path on occasions.  Silent Service has none of the traditional genre elements - heck, the submarines don't even transform into giant robots! - and its tone is startlingly adult, with barely a whisper of comedy to lighten its tone.  It's also hugely cynical, and most of that cynicism is angled at Japanese-US relations, which must have been quite startling for the American viewers that CPM were presenting it to.  I mean, a story in which a war-mongering ginger-haired US president pushes the world to the brink of annihilation because an East-Asian country wants to become a nuclear power?  What could be more shockingly implausible?

But, cheap sarcasm aside, I don't want to say too much about the plot, because it's really good, a hugely satisfying sequence of scenes that play out like little puzzle boxes, in which the vital detail is usually figuring out what bit of cleverness sort-of-protagonist and sort-of-antagonist Captain Shiro Kaieda is up to, as his borrowing of a cutting-edge nuclear submarine secretly co-developed by the Japanese and US militaries sends both nations into a panic of fear and paranoia.  It really is thrilling stuff, and while the animation is never better than it needs to be to keep the story moving, it's at least that good: as an exercise in working a moderate budget to best effect, it's impressive.  And though it's a seemingly minor detail, the distinctive character designs are a huge help in keeping track of a large cast.  Most importantly, Takahashi's direction is topnotch, and his ability to ratchet up the tension is enviable.  Submarine warfare can be very exciting or very dull to watch, and Takahashi's firm grasp on his material ensures that it's always the former.  But even the dialogue scenes crackle with energy, thanks as well to a strong cast, in which Masane Tsukayama's performance as Kaieda particularly stands out.  In theory, we should distrust and probably dislike the character, but Tsukayama plays him with such calm confidence that we want to be on his side even when common sense suggests that maybe he's not on ours.

Really, I've little bad to say about Silent Service.  And there's plenty more to admire: the instrumental score is worthy of any top-drawer blockbuster and is far classier than anything you'd expect from an OVA, and whatever was done to cut the three episodes together into one was so seamless that I'd never have guessed this hadn't been a feature all along.  I can see that the ending might be divisive, though personally I liked it quite a bit; heck, I guess the whole thing could be divisive, and the other reviews I've seen seem nervous of the material, as though it's terribly controversial to suggest that the US isn't always particularly brilliant at being the world's policeman.  If that's the kind of thing that might upset you then stay clear, I guess.  If not, and particularly if you're hunting a nineties anime release that's entirely out of the ordinary, then Silent Service is a small treasure and well worth hunting down.

Spirit Warrior: Festival of the Ogre's Revival, 1988, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

The first thing that struck me about Festival of the Ogre's Revival was the truly lovely pen and ink backgrounds; gently abstract, richly atmospheric and thick with splotches of shadow, they were the perfect setting for a tale of supernatural skullduggery.  Unfortunately, the second thing I noticed was that nothing else looked remotely as good - and so the point, I suppose, is one of not judging by first impressions.  With character designs that are merely okay and animation that's mostly functional (and in one scene quite hilariously dreadful) the end product averages out at "a lot like all of those other late-eighties and early-nineties anime about invading demons."

Which is, unfortunately, the best that can be said for the release as a whole.  Part of a series of five films, each with a different director, Festival of the Ogre's Revival is apparently not regarded as a strong point of the series.  I can certainly imagine a good Spirit Warrior film based on the evidence of this one: apprentice mystic Kujaku is a serviceable protagonist, and the universe is appealingly weird, at least so long as you're down with the notion of weaponised Buddhism.  At any rate, I think that's what was going on; the film assumes a certain familiarity with its concepts that, even after watching a ton of similar titles, I can't really claim to have.*  And my real-world knowledge wasn't a great deal of help either, since none of the Buddhists I've met could throw magic fireballs at each other or summon demons.  Or if they could, they kept pretty quiet about it.

Kujaku certainly doesn't keep quiet about his abilities, and neither do his enemies; the result is a title that devotes an awful lot of time to action sequences that aren't terribly thrilling.  The plot is grounded in some fun notions and history, but it's all fairly cursory, with a twist that I saw coming a mile off, and it felt as though the entire second half was devoted to the battle against the big bad.  While I wouldn't complain about that in theory, the animation isn't up to the standard needed to make thirty minutes of people throwing magical attacks at each other exciting.  For a release that does solid work building mood in its quieter moments, that surely wasn't the way to go.  As a supernatural thriller, Festival of the Ogre's Revival might have been successful; as Buddhist Street Fighter it fares less well.

The result is a film (indeed a very short film, and one that feels shorter for not having much in the way of plot) that's perfectly serviceable and diverting to watch, but almost impossible to recommend.  A few gorgeous backgrounds are great and all, but however low we may sometimes set the bar around these parts, they're not enough to warrant a suggestion that you track down a title that's all but impossible to find.  Personally I'll stay on the lookout for other Spirit Warrior releases - there was plenty here that could have worked a great deal better given more room and more capable handling - but this particularly one will be going straight on the "to sell" pile.

Mask of Zeguy, 1993, dir: Shigenori Kageyama

In the opening scene of Mask of Zeguy, a samurai - real historical figure Hijikata Toshizō, who for our present purposes has travelled through time to second-world-war-era Japan - battles werewolf cyborgs, before flying off on a giant seaplane piloted by famous eighteenth century polymath physician, artist and inventor Hiraga Gennai.  Their course takes them through a floating aircraft graveyard and then, thanks to the fat black-and-white cat they're using as a compass, into a giant doorway in the sky.  This all happens in roughly the first five minutes.  And things get weirder from there.

On the face of it, what we have here is a fairly typical chosen-one second world fantasy sort of affair, with teenage heroine Miki being spirited away - if you will! - to a parallel world in which she's the reincarnation of a priestess and the only one who can unite the magical doodads and defeat the evil queen Himiko.  (Presumably this is the same Himiko who was queen of Yamataikoku in ancient Japan, though no-one ever feels the need to clarify the point.)  In practice, the 75 minute film - really two OVA episodes with a fair chunk of repeating footage, and so closer to an hour sans credits - is such a delightfully odd mess that it feels reductive to lump it in wholly with the many, many such similar stories.  Alice in Wonderland, for instance, didn't include motorbike-riding robot monsters, nor a character called Da Vinci who carries with him a puppet that emulates his every motion, nor a scene in which the living generator that powers the heroes' flying transport has babies.

Surely needless to say, I was entranced by this madness; I could never bring myself to be particularly negative about anything that vomits out absurd ideas and impossible characters at such an energetic rate.  But I'd be lying if I claimed Mask of Zeguy has many more cards up its sleeve.  The animation is adequate, and this is practically the first show I've seen with some legitimately crappy backgrounds; there's a sense of enthusiastic efforts being made on an inadequate budget, and the result is likable even when it's a bit embarrassing, but to say more than that would be too kind.  Cheap and cheerful might, on the whole, be the most generous praise one can legitimately offer.

So did I enjoy Mask of Zeguy?  Obviously I enjoyed it plenty.  Did it have its flaws?  Heck yes.  And would I recommend it?  In honesty, I suppose I can't, beyond saying that it's the sort of thing that if you happened to stumble across it on the telly and bothered to watch it, you'd go away with a giddy sense of pleasure and mild bafflement.  Only, we live in an age where no one really stumbles across things on TV anymore, and if they did, it certainly wouldn't be an obscure nineties anime show.  Which is a shame, because, while a long way from the sort of lost treasure I'm always pretending these posts are a hunt for, Mask of Zeguy is really a good deal of what I love: silly, energetic fun with more imagination than sense, made by people who obviously cared about the story there were telling even when they didn't have the space or budget needed to do it justice.


I feel like this was a good batch, despite a certain amount of evidence to the contrary.  I also feel like I've dipped into some very strange waters by this point, and maybe that's the true reason for my disproportionate enthusiasm.  Asides, just possibly, from Iria: Zeiram, there's nothing here that anyone much cares about anymore.  And yet Silent Service was brilliant, Mask of Zeguy was dopey but fun, and even Spirit Warrior had its moments.

Certainly my heroes of the moment are Central Park Media, who seem to have made a habit of cheerfully releasing just about anything and everything, and thus are a wholesome antithesis to the likes of Manga, who helped to leave an entire generation with the opinion that all anime was either cyberpunk or tentacle porn**.  Granted, if everyone had been watching Central Park Media releases instead, they'd probably just have concluded that anime was cheaply made, random crap, but you can't have everything, right?  At least not all the time and in the same place.

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

* In particular, it reminded me a great deal of The Dark Myth - reviewed way back in July 2015 - which has some of the same faults, but compensates for them by being absolutely insane and intermittently brilliant.  But it's tough to be positive about any film that makes you want to watch The Dark Myth for fifty-five minutes!

** And only now, as I bother to do a bit of research, do I discover that Central Park Media were the original licensees of  Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend.  I guess if I had any journalistic integrity I'd rewrite that whole paragraph...

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Ursvaal Exchange Begins

It's out!  The second of the Black River Chronicles, The Ursvaal Exchange, is available to buy in print and e-book as of the end of last week.  If you enjoyed Level One, I genuinely think you'll love this one; it builds in so many fun ways on the groundwork Mike and I laid there, and develops the gang and the world they inhabit in some directions that I for one find really interesting.  And if you're new to the series, I'm confident that this second book stands well on its own - though it would probably make more sense to just grab them both and begin from the beginning!

I've talked so much about this novel by now that I think, right here, I'll back off to touch on an aspect I've never officially addressed.  Eagle-eyed readers might notice that there's one name rather than two on the cover this time, and that it's mine.  This is because my co-creator and publisher, Mike Wills, decided that his input into the series doesn't warrant taking a full author co-credit.  And while there's perhaps no easy answer as to what does or doesn't constitute co-authoring a novel, I didn't want to let that pass without taking an opportunity to point out how, regardless of what names go where, this series has been Mike's baby from the beginning.  In truth, the initial concept was all his, and there are countless moments and details that were either direct suggestions or that spun out of me musing on his suggestions and off-hand comments.  (Just as an example, Hule's entire arc this time around comes from a detail that I felt bad about not being able to work into Level One!)

The point being, though I'm now listed as the sole author of these books and will be going forward, in my heart The Black River Chronicles will always be Mike's playground: one he built the foundations of and then, effectively, paid me to run around in.  Writing professionally isn't always the easiest of jobs, despite what you may have heard, but there's such a thing as a dream writing gig, and for me, this is it; I'm utterly in love with this world and this concept and these characters, and it's a joy to be spinning these tales.  Had Mike never pondered where fighters, wizards, rogues and rangers learn the basic skills to do the things they do, I'd never have met Hule, Arein, Tia and Durren; had he never left me trying to figure out how the four of them could go on multiple quests in one novel without spending half the book wandering the countryside, there would be no Pootle.

And I have big, big plans for Pootle!  But perhaps I'd do better not to spoiler the third book - because, yes, there's going to be a third book, which I'm plotting out now and will be starting early in the new year.  Which, come to think of it, is also pretty major news, right?

In the meantime, there's The Ursvaal Exchange - which you can buy is print and e-book in the US here and in the UK here.  And for those who haven't seen the blurb yet, here's a little insight into what our second chronicle is about:
Student ranger Durren Flintrand had thought he was settling in at the Black River Academy for Swordcraft and Spellcraft. But when rebellious rogue Tia Locke uncovers a horrifying secret in the dungeons beneath the school, Durren quickly realises that the challenges he's faced so far were scant preparation for what lies ahead.  Along with magic-averse wizard Arein and blunt but good-hearted fighter Hule, he and Tia find themselves on Black River's first student exchange program: they're being sent to the Shadow Mountain Academy in the dank and dismal land of Ursvaal, and they're going whether they like it or not. 
At Shadow Mountain, things are done differently. No longer is Durren a ranger but a bard, despite his lacking the slightest notion of what being a bard involves. And not only that but Tia is acting even more strangely than usual, Hule is taking being a paladin awfully seriously, and Arein has a new party member with ideas very different to her own to contend with, in the shape of irascible cleric Cailliper Ancrux - who wants nothing less than to be involved with Shadow Mountain's unpopular newcomers. 
The four Black River students will have to relearn everything they thought they knew; but the threats surrounding them aren't about to wait. Can they hope to survive an uprising of the dead, the winged horror that haunts this desolate land, and an ancient plot risen from the blackest depths of Ursvaal's history? And even if the somehow should, can Durren possibly overcome his tone deafness and learn to play the lute?