Saturday, 10 February 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 31

I'm so far ahead with these posts now that I'm in the rather weird situation of having to write up the summaries weeks after having written the reviews; heck, I say weeks, but I don't even remember when I watched this stuff!  I guess Christmas, since I found the time to get through Sol Bianca: The Legacy, which had been on my shelf forever, and there's only one time of the year when you're guaranteed three whole hours in a row to sit down and watch anime.  Man, wouldn't it be great if it was Christmas all the time?  I mean not all the rubbish stuff, like the crap songs and the weird food and the indiscriminate tree murder.  No, just the bit where you get to hang out for a week watching all the anime that you otherwise can't make time for.

So in the spirit of Christmas, possibly, unless I've just got my dates mixed up, let's dig into some not-remotely-seasonal nineties anime.  This time around: Gestalt, MadaraUrusei Yatsura: Ryoko's September Tea Party and Sol Bianca: The Legacy...

Gestalt, 1997, Osamu Yamasaki

It seems to me that there was always something a little sleazy and exploitative about the way that anime was released outside of Japan prior to the twentieth century - and I'm not talking about the likes of Legend of the Overfiend here.  I'm referring more to the rough-and-readiness that companies like MVM, US Manga Corp and ADV brought to the scene: though evidently there was at least some earnest desire to introduce good-quality anime to the US and Europe, that was never to say that anyone would ignore the possibility of a quick buck, even when it wasn't strictly deserved.

And so we get to Gestalt - or rather, the first two episodes of Gestalt, since that's all that was ever released.  I am assuming that MVM knew this when they committed to releasing the title on DVD, and I'm further assuming that the decision to not mention the fact that this was two episodes of a canceled miniseries (or series, for all I know) was not an accidental one.

It's useful to know this going in, because it certainly does sugar the pill if you don't expect any answers, or even for our intrepid heroes to do more than talk about the country in question, which dashing young priest Oliver is seeking when he gets sidetracked into rescuing sexy and initially mute sorceress Ohiri, who may well come from the land of Gestalt and certainly knows a great deal more than she's letting on.  What any of that is we're unlikely to ever know - I've no idea if the Manga got a release outside of Japan - and what we get instead is a bit of an introduction and what amounts to a side quest.  And this, on the whole, is probably a good thing.  I mean, the many questions raised are tantalizing, but this isn't like Sol Bianca, where the prospect of never discovering how things will work out is legitimately painful.  Gestalt is silly and fluffy and not terribly concerned with its own plot; it would much rather spend time parodying other anime and JRPGs, with gags such as the way Ohiri's initial voicelessness manifests in her talking in rectangular dialogue boxes that look exactly like something out of Final Fantasy.  Really, that's about the level we're operating at here, and if the idea makes you smile then you're probably on Gestalt's wavelength.

I certainly was, on the whole.  The animation is resolutely mid-budget TV quality, but the characters are charming, the action sequences are fun, the spell effects are pretty cool, and by the end I was left vaguely sad that there'd never be any more episodes, but not so much so that I felt I'd wasted an hour of my life.  I paid about £2.50 for Gestalt, and I'd say that was precisely right: it kept me amused, Oliver and Ohiri were likable company, and there's every possibility I'll want to watch it again one of these days.  For an utterly dispensable, unfinished, comic fantasy OVA that MVM dropped out for wholly mercenary reasons, I'm willing to call that a win.

Madara, 1991, dir: Yûji Moriyama

Beyond a certain point, it's the little things that count.  I mean, if you were to try and persuade me that Madara was hackneyed crap then I'd have a hard time fighting its corner.  There's a chosen-one hero, there's an evil lord, there's a village full of kindly folks who all get slaughtered early on enough to kick the plot into motion; there's a fair maiden who turns out to have powers of her own, and eventually the hero's brother turns up.  Would you be astonished to hear that he holds a grudge against Madara and blames him for the death of their mother?  I suspect you wouldn't.  No, it's easy to see how someone might take a cursory look at this and determine that it was a damn sight like every other nineties fantasy movie, anime or no.

But let's focus in on a few details, shall we?  Because for all the ways that Madara feels achingly familiar, there are a couple more where it's surprising as all get out.  Madara's chosen-one power?  Why, that would involve shooting rockets out of his shoulders and firing off his own hands like little punchy missiles.  And heroine Kirin's special ability?  Well, she can control two giant mecha.  Oh, and at one point, Noah's arc turns up.  It's kind of a spaceship.  Piloted by a guy with monkeys.  And none of this is explained at all.  Like an awful lot of Madara, it just sort of happens, and you're expected to rock along with it.  Probably this has a fair bit to do with the disadvantages of adapting the manga into two hour long OVA episodes, but the result in the moment is a certain fever-dream quality, along with a gleeful sense that just about anything might happen next.

This is helped no end by a sparse but superb soundtrack - the punky end song is marvelous - and by the visuals, which, though not extraordinary in terms of budget, are exemplary on the level of ambition and design.  Again, it comes down to the little things, those details of character and small touches that are frequently the difference between mediocre and really good animation.  But there's also some exciting design work going on - the monsters are enticingly weird - and, what really sets Madara apart, an ambition in the colour scheme that's especially rare.  The show overwhelmingly favours reds, blues, and some of the most gorgeous shades of purple you're every likely to see, and a surprisingly excellent print makes the colours pop.  Madara has moments of genuine beauty, and that's not something you have any right to expect from a cheesy nineties fantasy OVA about a guy who rocket-punches monsters.

I suspect the crucial difference here can be traced to Yûji Moriyama, who has immediately entered the pantheon of my nineties anime heroes.  Moriyama wouldn't have such an amazing career as a director (though he was behind my beloved Geobreeders) but, taken as a whole, his CV is astonishing.  Project A-Ko, Wings of Honneamise, Evangelion, Gunbuster, Robot Carnival, Macross Plus, and, for the coup de grâce, All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku!  Seriously, if you ever need to win a nineties anime game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Moriyama is your man.

As is probably obvious by now, I had great fun with Madara; really, it ticked all of my nineties anime boxes.  None of that quite adds up to it being any sort of classic, because that would require a great deal more originality than we get.  But then, sometimes a classic isn't what you're after.  I had a joyous two hours reveling in Madara's craziness, its refusal to explain the basics of its wacky universe, and its endless shades of purple, each more gorgeous than the last.  In fact, while I'd recommend Madara to anyone who wants a couple of hours of bonkers but undemanding fantasy, if you're a fan of purple then it really is an indispensable release.


Urusei Yatsura: Ryoko's September Tea Party, 1985, dir's: Keiji Hayakawa, Junji Nishimura, Mamoru Oshii, Tsugio Ozawa, Iku Suzuki, Osamu Uemura, Kazuo Yamazaki, Naoyuki Yoshinaga

Did I enjoy the Urusei Yatsura movies enough to watch the eleven OVAs that were also released?  Er, it seems that I did; or at least I managed to find a reasonably-priced copy of the box set and couldn't resist, which amounts to the same.  At any rate, only two of them were even close to feature length, so we're all spared the bother of me trying to find interesting things to say about nearly a dozen more Urusei Yatsura releases.

Except that I don't really have anything interesting to say about Ryoko's September Tea Party either.  The thing is, it's a clip show is what it is, though I didn't know that going in: apparently there's about fifteen minutes of new footage here, though it feels like less.  The arc plot, if you're feeling generous about using words like "arc" and "plot", finds Ryoko - a character I'm not confident I've run into in the movies - suffering from such ennui with her life of crushing wealth and inactivity that she orders the army of ninjas who apparently look after her to organize a tea party and invite a select few of the inhabitants of Tomobiki, including Lum and her obnoxious darling Moroboshi.  Ryoko then precedes to tell them stories about how she first came to town, which presumably they all already know, and then interrogates her guests for anecdotes about their own bizarre lives.  The result is eight or so sequences plucked apparently at random from what I assume to be the first season of the show, since this was the first of the OVA releases.  Some of them are pretty funny; others don't stand alone at all.  All of them rely on a knowledge of the characters that would utterly defy the casual viewer.

At least the production values are solid: the new footage is especially good, but the scenes from the show are hardly shoddy.  And there are two or three presumably new tunes, too, if you're the kind of person who hunts down vanishingly rare anime releases from three decades ago to hear a bit of J-pop you've never run across before.  Um ... I'm reaching here, aren't I?  The truth is, while Ryoko's September Tea Party started pretty well, by the end I was eager for it to be over.  All its best material is clustered in the first half, and after that it's a bit like - well, like watching a load of people you barely know hanging out at a party to which you weren't invited.  So definitely one for the fans, I'd say, in so much as that means anything thirty years after the event.

Sol Bianca: The Legacy, 1999, dir: Hiroyuki Ochi

Perhaps the most curious thing about Sol Bianca: The Legacy is that it exists at all.  The original, two part OVA that this rather longer entry is a sort-of sequel to and sort-of reinterpretation of underperformed sufficiently that it was never finished, despite being all sorts of fantastic.  So did its reputation grow in the intervening eight years?  Did Japanese audiences realise they'd dropped the ball in dismissing one of the most gorgeous, unusual, and engaging slices of anime ever and begin to clamor for more?  Or at least for some closure, since Sol Bianca did a frustrating business of raising questions that would never be answered?

Perhaps!  I guess stranger things have happened in the world of anime.  But at least on the latter count, The Legacy was sure to be a disappointment: it's not much of a one for question-answering, and its universe and themes are sufficiently different-seeming that they're hard to square with Sol Bianca in any meaningful fashion.  Nor does it quite look the part: eight years was a long time in nineties animation, such a long time that the seemingly short gap between the two releases was enough to usher in a computer-assisted approach that, while probably nigh-on cutting edge for the time, stood no hope of being as pretty as the truly lovely original.  The style reminds me more of American animation, or specifically of what certain video games were getting up to in aping that style.  It's terrifically smooth and the characters look great in close ups, the CG is surprisingly well integrated and certainly warrants its inclusion, but there are enough shots that appear flat-out wrong that its hard to be consistently impressed.

To some extent, that's Sol Bianca: The Legacy all over.  It's never bad and occasionally really good, certainly on a par with most of what was around at the time.  If the cast feel a touch watered down - their response on finding a young stowaway this time is not, for example, to start looking for the nearest airlock - it's still great to see a show where most of the characters are adult women who act at least somewhat in a manner that real adult women might act.  Meanwhile, the arc plot takes a couple of episodes too long to find its feet, but when it does, it's actually pretty novel and exciting, hinting at a wider universe in satisfying ways and tying off enough loose ends to not aggravate.

But it's not Sol Bianca.  In fact, more than anything, it feels like a piece of really solid Sol Bianca fan fiction made by people who obviously have a ton of affection for what's come before, even if they don't altogether get what made it work.  Yet at the same time, the results are good enough to leave you wondering what might have been; how might these characters and this setting have developed given another OVA or even a full series?  In that sense, Sol Bianca: The Legacy doesn't so much as fill the hole left by the original as dig another, somewhat smaller hole nearby.  It's a worthwhile addition to one of the great anime franchises to never remotely reach its full potential, but not quite a worthy one.  Nevertheless, there remains a smart, original show here, one with a fine cast brought to life with solid production values, and the excellent music alone makes it worth a punt.  By all means give Sol Bianca: The Legacy a go if you ever get the chance, there's a lot to like and a fair bit to love.  Just know that, despite what its title may think, it's not quite the legacy that the marvelous Sol Bianca truly deserved.

-oOo-

Again, what with the whole time lag thing, my memory is a little blurry here, and you know what's weird?  The thing that I remember with most fondness is Gestalt.  It can't possibly have been half as good as I remember, and yet I really want to know what would have happened.  Meanwhile, the disappointment of Sol Bianca: the Legacy has decreased with time, to the point where I'd already quite like to give it another go.  Which leaves Madara as the only thing my opinion has stayed exactly the same on, even if all I can remember is how damned purple it was.  Oh, and there was that Yurusei Yatsura OVA, wasn't there?  Man, I hope that buying the entire Yurusei Yatsura OVA collection was a better investment than it seems to be on the available evidence!

Next time around?  Who can possibly remember?  But it's a safe bet that some of it will be utterly terrible and at least one thing will be kind of great!



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

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