Thursday, 18 January 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 30

You know that thing where you're going for a walk, and then you realise you're in a swamp, and you think 'Ah, okay, this is interesting.  Oh look, a butterfly!  And is that an alligator?'  And you keep going, because swamps are pretty cool, right?  But after a while you decide to stop, and when you look back the way you came, all you can see is swamp.  And when you look to left and right, you grasp too late that there's nothing but swamp in any direction.

You know that feeling, right?  No?  Then maybe this wasn't the awesome metaphor I thought it was.  Look, the swamp was meant to be nineties anime, and the you was meant to be me, and the point was that there's a never-ending amount of nineties anime and that the title for these posts was really well chosen, though I didn't know that at the time.

Anyway, who cares about any of that when there's nineties anime to review?  This time: Geobreeders 2: Breakthrough, Battle Arena Toshinden, Ys: Legacy (Book One) and Big Wars...

Geobreeders 2: Breakthrough, 2000, dir's: Kiyoshi Fukumoto, Shin Misawa

And here I am, ignoring my own rules yet again and reviewing a release that is absolutely, definitely from the year 2000, which - as the calendar geeks among you may be aware - isn't in any way a part of the nineties.  But for once I have a solid excuse, in that Geobreeders: Breakthrough is the sequel to the original Geobreeders OVA, which did come out in the nineties, and not only is it a sequel but the two releases make a damn sight more sense when watched back to back.

Plus, Geobreeders is maybe my favourite Manga ever.  So there's that.

Taken at first impressions, Breakthrough is something of a step down from the original show, which I rewatched in preparation and was surprised to discover looked really rather fantastic; Breakthrough, by contrast, while not by any means shabby, shows more evidence of a tight budget, errs towards cartoonier takes on the character designs, and has a definite feel to it that screams of twenty-first century anime before twenty-first century anime really found its feet - though it has to be said that what CG appears is incorporated nicely and justifies its existence.  At least, except for the explosion in the opening credits, which is so dismal that you sort of wonder if it was meant as a joke.

Once things bed in, however, Breakthrough feels very much like coming home after the original OVA; it's startling, in fact, how little concession it makes to the potential viewer who might be joining the series fresh.  The story this time runs to four episodes rather than three, and is appropriately more convoluted, in a manner that also feels like a joke: there are at least four significant plot threads, which only meet towards the very end, and two of them depend on the fact that our heroes, the ladies and gentleman of phantom-cat-hunting agency Kagura Security, insist of being in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.  The result leans more heavily towards comedy, which is no bad thing when so many of the jokes land as well as they do.  Strangest, surely, is the demented closing song, apparently a reference to a fifties Japanese comedian or something, but what possible relevance that has to anything is anybody's guess.

Now, I can't be objective when it comes to Geobreeders, the book that many a year ago began my interest in Manga.  But the flip side of that is that I was braced for disappointment, especially when my first reaction to the new designs was visceral dislike.  So it should count for at least something when I say that Geobreeders: Breakthrough completely won me over by its end.  And I don't think it's just me; this is an excellent adaptation of a great comic book, delivered with confidence in its concepts and characters, replete with terrific action sequences and genuinely amusing gags.  It might not make a whole lot of sense if you're unfamiliar with the franchise, but then, I am and it didn't make an awful lot of sense anyway; according to the extras, the anime is actually a sequel to the Manga, which to the best of my knowledge never concluded outside of Japan.  But who cares about all that?  Geobreeders was, and is, brilliant fun, and both adaptations do a fine job of capturing its essence.

Battle Arena Toshinden, 1996, dir: Masami Ôbari

It's a testament to just how much of an animation nerd that I am, I think, that I quite enjoyed Battle Arena Toshinden, when to all intents and purposes it's something very ordinary indeed.  And heck, let's not start off by pretending that we're even looking at some hidden masterpiece of the animator's art here: no, it's just that there were some nice, weighty lines in the character designs and a pleasing, scratchy sort of elasticity in the way that bodies move during the action sequences, which brought to mind the similar approach of somewhat more recent shows like Noein and Birdy the Mighty.

There the similarity ends; really, they're not even particularly good action sequences, and largely devolve to what I'm coming to consider as special-move tennis - though, given that it's rare for anyone to get off more than the odd fireball or swirly hurricane thingy, perhaps special-move conkers would be a better analogy.  And this is surely not a good thing in an anime that adapts a fighting game, and exists almost solely to show off a series of duels fought for the most tenuous of reasons, strung together by a plot so flimsy that I'd guessed precisely what the final confrontation would involve before the ten-minute mark of a fifty-minute show.

And though these reviews have been getting longer and longer, I find myself short of anything much else to say.  I did rather enjoy Battle Arena Toshinden, but more, I think, because I was tired and it was undemanding in every conceivable way than because it was in any meaningful fashion good.  As anime based on fighting video games go, I'd rate it between Street Fighter 2, which I fully acknowledge that I dislike irrationally, and Street Fighter Alpha, which I clearly overrate, and for very much the same reasons.  But as we draw closer to dredging the absolute bottom of the barrel, that hierarchy is likely to change, because I suddenly seem to be coming across quite a lot of these things: it turns out that every fighting game worth its salt, and a few worth no salt at all, got their moment in the anime spotlight.  Probably I'll come to consider Battle Arena Toshinden with the same degree of mild contempt that others apparently do; right now, I found it pleasant and straightforward and just interesting enough in its artistry to not be utter fluff.

Ys: Legacy (Book One), 1989, dir: Jun Kamiya

Regular readers, if such unfortunate souls exist, will know that I always try and find something to be positive about in these reviews, even when it takes a fair bit of digging; the reason being, I guess, that I basically love this stuff and want to view it in its best light.  But my god, I'm struggling to think of a nice word to say about Ys.  And this is all the more galling because I was really hopeful for it, and because there's a whole 'nother volume to wade through.

I don't expect many surprises in those remaining three episodes, because Ys is about as boilerplate as boilerplate fantasy could hope to be.  This shouldn't really be surprising, as it's based on (I believe) the first in a long-running video game series of JRPGs.  But there's being based on something, and there's slavishly imitating it even when what it's doing is ill-suited to the medium of imitation, and Ys falls further towards the latter than just about anything I've seen.  It's almost charming - almost! - the extent to which this feels like a reproduction of every damn JRPG ever: at the midway point that I've reached, boring protagonist Adol Christen is exactly halfway through collecting the six relics he's been sent on fetch quests for, and which are needed in combination to rid the utterly generic land of Esteria from its plague of randomly spawning monsters and its big bad, whose rather boss-like minions Adol has been routinely dispatching in clunky climatic action sequences.

Like I said ... almost charming.  And there are moments, as when Adol is wandering in a perfectly horizontal line around a town viewed from that precise nearly-overheard view that we've seen in countless Japanese video games, where it really is rather cute.  But they are few and far between, and that this tiresome nonsense stretched to seven whole episodes when so many great shows barely lasted for one is a slap in the face of the highest order.  Perhaps the reason is that it cost sod-all to make?  It certainly looks cheap as hell, without ever quite descending into the sort of awfulness that would at least make poking holes in the animation amusing.

I can't say I hated Ys; it's nowhere near interesting enough to hate.  But by the halfway mark of this first volume I was starting to nod off, and it took tremendous effort to stay awake until the end.  There's just nothing here; no stand-out characters, no sparks of imagination, no stand-out tunes (bar a decent closing track on the latter two episodes), no surprises, not even the occasional enticingly weird monster design.  And for nineties anime, that's about as unforgivable as you can get.  Heck, I even managed to praise M. D. Geist for the occasional neat mecha design!  In short, we're looking at basically the two biggest crimes possible for nineties anime in my book, at least if we're staying away from tentacle-porn: Ys looks rubbish and has a total dearth of ideas or even of entertaining strangeness.  Frankly, that's unforgivable!

Big Wars, 1993, dir's: Issei Kume, Toshifumi Takizawa

Big Wars has a proper story.  I know that, as a fan of nineties anime devoted enough to review the stuff for however the hell long it's been now, I shouldn't be surprised by that, but I was.  It has a proper, grown-up, considered, and moderately original story, one I genuinely got caught up in and was eager to see pan out - and for that I commend it wholeheartedly.

That story in brief: On a terraformed Mars, humanity is under assault from a race that term themselves the Gods.  Mankind is just about holding its own on a military level; what they're struggling with is the fact that the Gods can brainwash anyone to their cause given enough of an opportunity, leaving even the highest echelons of the defence effort riddled with potential spies and terrorists - and, perhaps as dangerously, making it almost impossible to know who to trust.  As Captain Akuh finds himself preparing for a suicide mission to take on the so-far indomitable enemy warship known as "Hell", his path crosses with an old flame who works deep in military intelligence, and who's behaving awfully strangely.

If that doesn't sound quite as original as I proposed above, that's maybe because the Battlestar Galactica reboot mined such very similar territory.  But Big Wars got their first, and had at least as intelligent a stab at the material, without strangling itself in unresolvable plot threads or disappearing up its own colon the way that BSG ultimately would.  It wisely leaves its background hazy and its theology hazier still.  There's some muted discussion of whether the Gods really are, in fact, gods, and if they are what that would mean; but Big Wars never makes much effort to resolve the question.  Nevertheless, it's a pleasant ambiguity to have ticking along in the background, and the design of the Gods and their technology - particularly of Hell itself - is grandiose enough that it's not wholly unfeasible as the work of some malevolent progenitor race.

Other good stuff: the film is about the right length for its material at seventy or so minutes; though there is a quite startling amount of useful backstory crammed into an opening crawl that only speedreaders will be able to follow, so maybe a bit of a prologue wouldn't have hurt any.  The instrumental score is intriguing in the moment, though unlikely to stick in the memory.  The direction is competent and the animation is above adequate.  There's definitely a decent-looking movie in here.

But.  But.  The only legal way you're getting your hands on Big Wars that I know of is via U. S. Manga Corps's DVD release, and as much I'm becoming something of an apologist for the distributor, there's no getting past the fact that this is an extraordinarily crappy release.  The picture was grainy, the colours were murky, and the contrast was so off that no amount of tweaking would make it a comfortable watch.  My guess would be that it's a VHS rip; that's how bad it is.  And I suppose you have to expect such things from a DVD released all the way back in 1996, when this was a terribly new and exciting technology, but that doesn't make the results one jot easier on the eyes.

What we're left with is a conundrum: a film that's far superior to most anime of the period at a narrative level, and which would be acceptably mediocre on a visual level were it not for a particularly crappy DVD release.  If you like sci-fi and vintage anime then it's absolutely worth a look, but it's a heck of a shame that there isn't a print available that does the movie justice.


Truth be told, I now have a sizable backlog of these posts; it was that or hold off from watching things until a) I could review them and b) I'd have little enough actual news to warrant rattling on about anime instead.  However, that was getting ridiculous, since I tend to snap up any cheap DVDs I can find, and there's only so much shelf space to go around.

The point being, I know exactly what's going to be in the next post, and indeed the one after.  And I could even tell you.  But I won't!  Because where's the fun in that?

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

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