Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 32

I'm still writing these posts in rather retrospective and haphazard fashion, and coming back to this one, it certainly does seem like a random selection.  And all the more so because the next couple have themes of sorts.  Yes, themes!  That's the sort of mad ambition you don't normally see around these parts.  But there's none of that here, unless you consider "totally unrelated nineties anime" a theme in itself.  And even then, Ys buggers that up royally, what with being from the eighties and all.

Oh well!  Best to embrace the chaos, I suppose.  At least it's a solid batch, which feels like something that's been rather rare of late, and at least we have a couple of proper standouts.  As a fun game, you might as well try and guess what they are from among: 3X3 Eyes: Legend of the Divine DemonPhantom Quest CorpYs: Legacy (Book Two) and Elf Princess Rane...

3X3 Eyes: Legend of the Divine Demon, 1995, dir: Kiyoko Sayama

It's funny that I ended the review of the first 3X3 Eyes OVA by saying how much I was looking forward to part two and that it's only now, many months later, that I've got around to watching it.  Blame the running time for that: three forty-five minute episodes in a row requires a chunk of time that I don't often have, and it would be a shame to split up what's effectively one long movie.  Though in the case of Legend of the Divine Demon, it's a touch more complicated than that, given that the first episode stands on its own as a relatively self-contained story, in which we're dumped unceremoniously into a mystery that won't really get answered until the very end.  Why is Pai, the last of the mystical race known as the Sanjiyan Unkara, living a mundane life as a Japanese schoolgirl, cared for by two elderly grandparents?  And why doesn't she recognise Yakumo, the human she previously turned into her immortal servant, when he finally tracks her down after what we learn to be an absence of four whole years?

It's an intriguing setup, and that first episode is kind of a belter, all told.  But it's really only a warm-up for the main feature, in which the pair join the hunt for an artifact that acts as a gateway to Pai's otherworldly home, all the while trying to restore her lost memories.  It's great as a sequel to the original OVA, solid as a standalone story, and excellent as a chunk of a wider narrative, even if this would be all there'd ever be; we get enough answers and sufficient resolution not to feel shortchanged, and there's a definite (and pretty epic) story being told here, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Looking back at my review of the first OVA, these are very much the same virtues I was talking about there, and that goes for the rest as well, though the animation is a bit more impressive this time.  I grumbled a little that the 3X3 Eyes OVA had no really stand-out moments, but that isn't the case this time around, and there are, in particular, some terrific action sequences.  Another new virtue is that Yakumo has somewhat come into his own as a protagonist, especially given that he's picked up some kick-ass martial arts skills to compliment his inability to die, and though Pai is still a bit dull, at least there's a solid plot reason for that.  In fact, it's one that gets resolved in quite a heart-tugging fashion, which I certainly wasn't expecting from a mid-nineties horror anime.

In short, this is really good stuff.  And since you're only likely to pick it up in the Pioneer box set that contains both releases, it really is worth the effort of tracking down: 3X3 Eyes, in all of its incarnations, rises head and shoulders over similar titles, with its fantastic central conceit, its enticing mythology, and its knack for generating proper shocks by taking the time to invest in its characters and narrative first.

Phantom Quest Corp, 1994, dir's: Morio Asaka, Kôichi Chigira, Takuji Endo, Junichi Sakata

If you should happen to have seen the Ghost Sweeper Mikami OVA then I can keep this one awfully simple: Phantom Quest Corp is that, except rather better on all fronts.  Want a comedy action show about a young, ghost-fighting redhead with a taste for short dresses, a weakness for money, and a posse of kooky sidekicks?  Then Ayaka Kisaragi is your girl.  Coincidence?  Plagiarism?  Who knows, or - twenty-some years after the event - much cares?  Personally I'm willing to pin this on one of those weird cases of parallel inspiration that sometimes comes along, and leads two comic book teams to simultaneously tell tales of humanoid swamp creatures or two animation studios to conclude at roughly the same time that films about anthropomorphised bugs are just the best damn thing.  If only because, otherwise, Phantom Quest Corp would be the most obvious of rip-offs and surely no-one could imagine they'd get away with it.  For that matter, it's not as though horror anime wasn't already screaming to be pastiched in such a fashion by this point in time; it's no great leap to assume that two separate creators watched one too many self-serious tale of moody male exorcists battling evil spirits with a predilection for the fairer sex and concluded that the whole business needed flipping on its head.

And that was a very long diversion to stave off admitting that there's not a huge amount to say about Phantom Quest Corp.  The animation is strong, and excellent in the action scenes; the character designs are pleasing, and the characters themselves, while shallow as a bunch of particularly shallow puddles, are entirely acceptable to spend time around.  Really only Kisaragi gets anything by way of development, and then not much.  By the fourth episode, we know more or less what we knew by the end of the first: that she likes to drink too much and has a penchant (though no discernible talent) for karaoke, that she's awful at keeping her business in the black, and that she's very good indeed at kicking the crap out of vampires and demons with her magic extending lipstick.

Okay, so that's not a character trait.  But I'd have been remiss in not mentioning the magic extending lipstick.

Point being, if there's one thing seriously missing here, it's depth; that and some sniff of an ongoing plot that would stop Phantom Quest Corp feeling as if you'd just watched four episodes at random from a fairly aimless series.  Then again, at least all four episodes deliver fun and moderately novel stories, and at least the animation quality never dips.  These things don't make Phantom Quest Corp the least bit special, or even worth the effort of hunting down; but they do make it worth a couple of hours of your time if you should happen to stumble across a cheap copy.

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

There was no reason to imagine that the last three episodes of Ys: Legacy would magically become meaningfully better than the first four, and sure enough, every failing I noted there is present and correct for the action-packed climax: stiff acting, clunky animation, uninspired music, bland designs, and a plot that could not be any more the plot of a hugely generic nineties JRPG if it tried - which in fairness, it does in fact seem to be devoting a great deal of energy to.  Perhaps the most exciting innovation here from a narrative point of view is that the villain's kidnapping of a significant character means that two of agonisingly dull hero Adol Christen's fetch quests get rolled into one, saving us yet another episode of him going somewhere and fighting some monster and grabbing another MacGuffin.  Though it's worth noting that if said character had been less of a jerk and hadn't withheld crucial information, the same result could have been accomplished in a fraction of the time, and they probably wouldn't have been kidnapped.  Because, yes, that's the sort of story we're dealing with here.

And yet Ys does end in marginally better fashion than it began.  The locations and monsters feel a little more fresh, the pacing picks up somewhat, and there's even a glimmer of something like originality, as we begin to suspect that the reason the villain Dark Fact refuses to just kill his damn nemesis and be done with it is something more than the usual villainous overconfidence.

Oh, right, did I mention last time that the villain is called Dark Fact?  I guess that's another small thing in Ys's favour.

If we were really to reach, I'd add - and I strongly suspect I'm giving too much credit here, or that my brain was overthinking madly due to lack of meaningful stimulation - that by the end I felt Ys was saying some moderately interesting things about religion, as we're left wondering why any creator would build obvious flaws into their universe, let alone why they'd be surprised when said obvious flaws lead to everything turning out terribly.  Even if Ys chances upon its themes rather than seeking them out or even earning them, they're themes nonetheless, and that's something.  Oh, and I really love the closing track on the later episodes; it's nineties Japanese hair rock par excellence, and it almost makes me want to hang onto the DVDs.  But, you know, I probably won't, because one good song (that I can just listen to on Youtube here) and a bit of inadvertent theological deconstruction aside, Ys was basically dreadful.

Elf Princess Rane, 1995, dir: Akitarô Daichi

If you ever want to sell me on a sixty minute, two episode OVA that never got so much as completed, comparing it to Dragon Half, as one reviewer did, is an excellent place to start.  And as it turns out, it's not the unfairest of comparisons either; while Elf Princess Rane is parodying a wholly different set of tropes in an entirely different fashion, there's definitely a spirit of high-energy lunacy and anything-goes physical comedy that binds the two at least a little.

For something so patently absurd, Elf Princess Rane is surprisingly sophisticated in its storytelling.  We basically have three interconnected plot strands: there's our kinda-hero Go Takarada, a teenager who fancies himself as a treasure hunter but doesn't have the first clue what he's doing; there's Rane, the titular elf princess, who Go finds when she comes to Earth in search of some sort of mystical treasure, and who is in turn being tracked by another elf, Leen, at least on the rare occasions when she remembers to bother; and lastly there's floppy-haired nominal villain Takuma Zenshuuin, who's in love with Mari Yumenokata, who's in love with Go, but is also the architect of a nefarious plan to turn the entire city into an amusement park, against the best efforts of the fire department and their top employee, who's one of Go's numerous identical sisters.  (Another one, incidentally, works for Zenshuuin.)

You know, I'm not sure how I figured that to be three plot strands!  Perhaps the point is more that there are essentially three major protagonists / antagonists with their own significant plots, none of which are especially privileged.  And the way they intertwine without derailing each other is really rather clever, while also being the heart of Elf Princess Rane's humour: in its crudest form, Go will do something, which Rain will misinterpret (because the two of them can't communicate) and which will inadvertently factor into Zenshuuin's plans - but crucially, none of them are ever disillusioned that they're the centre of the story.  And I have to stress that I'm grossly oversimplifying here: quite a number of the cast also get significant narrative threads.  For something both so short and so busy, it's quite the little triumph of elaborate storytelling.

Of course, ingenious storytelling isn't necessarily what one goes to a two episode comedy OVA for, so let's be thankful that Rane is also damn funny in places.  There are gags that fall flat, at least in part because the material is borderline untranslatable; the most irritating is Zenshuuin's habit of talking nonsense, which Anime Works represent with reversed subtitles that necessitate pausing the DVD (unless you're much better than me at reading backwards quickly) and which are mostly just plugs for their other releases.  But you can always opt for the splendid dub instead, most of the jokes land, and perhaps more than that, there's a baseline of silly good-naturedness that's amusing in itself.  Elf Princess Rane is the sort of release that's funny almost by osmosis; just hanging out with these absurd characters and watching them bounce off each other is a pleasure.

I'm running the risk of making this sound like some sort of masterpiece, and in all fairness, it's not that; I didn't even love it in the way that I do Dragon Half.  But it is a heck of a lot of fun, and its flaws are largely inconspicuous.  The animation and music are considerably better than they need to be, for example, and show a proper degree of affection; even the fact that there's no real ending is sort of okay, since the show just turns it into another gag.  There's a surprising degree of unnecessary nudity, which certainly might bother some people; there's the aforementioned subtitling joke, which gets real old real fast.  But that's it; Elf Princess Rane is a rare pleasure, and I dearly wish there was a bit more of it.


Looking back, that was actually a really solid batch.  I mean, Ys was kind of awful, but it's wasn't awful awful.  And just possibly it suffered for the fact that I was knackered during most of January and kept nodding off while watching things, which normally I'm pretty good at not doing.  Actually, just between you and me, down here in the conclusion that surely no-one ever reads, I actually drowsed off a bit in 3X3 Eyes: Legend of the Divine Demon, too.  But I'm ninety-nine percent certain that was my fault more than its.

Next time around, I think, we're likely to have the "nineties anime that isn't from the nineties" special, because this blog series is nothing if not confusing and inconsistent.

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

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