Thursday, 17 May 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 35

Let's take a break from those themed review posts, which were a silly idea anyway, and go back to the usual randomness, huh?  And this one seems all the more random from my point of view in that I'm hopelessly far ahead on these things and I barely remember watching this stuff, let alone reviewing it.  Did I really have nice things to say about M. D. Geist II?  Was I really bowled over by a fighting game adaptation?  Now that I think, I'm not convinced I wrote this at all.

Well ... whoever did, here to do with as you please are their questionable opinions on Samurai X: The Motion Picture, Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge, M. D. Geist II: Death Force and Darkside Blues...

Samurai X: The Motion Picture, 1997, dir: Hatsuki Tsuji

I've encountered the Rurouni Kenshin franchise in a weird old order: firstly with the excellent Trust and Betrayal OVAs, which serve as a prequel to the main series, then with the wildly fun trilogy of live-action films released only recently, then with the terrific Reflection OVA, an epilogue, and now with this, the anime motion picture - also known under the fussier but more useful title of Rurouni Kenshin: Requiem for the Ishin Patriots.  Yet I still haven't seen the main series.  Given that the show ran to about ninety episodes and the films have a combined running time of maybe six hours, I suspect I've missed out on some of the finer details.

All of which is to say that I was a bit at sea with Samurai X: The Motion Picture, which I'd imagined to be along the lines of the OVAs - that is, more of a self-contained, stylized, mature take on the material - and turned out to be entirely a sidequal to the core series.  Unlike the stunningly gorgeous OVAs, this looks very much like a mid-budget TV show, with character designs and voice acting that are a huge step down.  Nor does it help that the plot takes a damn age to get going, especially if you're unfamiliar with the background details of the show and particularly with its supporting cast.  Even knowing different versions of these characters, I often found myself struggling to feel much involvement in their fates.

But it's bad practice to criticise something for not being what you expected, and on its own merits, Samurai X: The Motion Picture is - well, fine for the most part, and pretty good in its last third, once events finally grind into motion.  Despite the impression the opening scenes give, it actually tells quite a self-contained tale, as Kenshin and his friends find themselves mixed up with a samurai named Takimi Shigure, who's spent the years since the end of the war against the Tokugawa Shogunate bitterly nursing his grievances, and is now ready to settle old scores, with a fresh revolution to wipe out the failures of the old one.  Of course, he and Kenshin have personal history too - a fact revealed to we the viewer almost immediately, but which neither of them realise for a good long while - and inevitably the two are going to come to blows sooner or later.

As a spin-off movie for a well-respected TV show, this is pretty great stuff, and exemplary in a lot of ways.  It's not absolutely necessary, but it certainly adds depth to both the characters and the narrative, while essentially doing its own thing in a way that even someone new to the property could just about follow.  What it isn't is anything like on a par with the OVAs - which, to be fair, set a high bar indeed.  So while Trust, Betrayal and Reflection are indispensable if you're serious about anime, the movie is more along the lines of a solid ninety minutes of entertainment, which you'll probably find a bit exhausting unless you've experienced some other iteration of the Rurouni Kenshin universe.  Which feels a bit harsh to say, given that what's on display here would probably warrant a recommendation were it not book-ended by excellence, but so it goes.

Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge, 1997, dir's: Masashi Ikeda, Satoshi Ikeda

You remember that Dark Universe nonsense that Universal were so determined to get off the ground, an attempt to revamp all of their famous monsters that was foiled by a clear contempt for basically everything that made the originals great?  Well, pretend that hadn't been utterly misconceived from the ground up and you'd have something a bit like Night Warriors: Darkstalkers' Revenge.  Er, if the great Universal horror movies of yore had involved all of the monsters fighting each other with ludicrous special moves, anyway.

Because, yes, it's another fighting game adaptation.  But I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Night Warriors is probably the best of the bunch.  Though animation-wise it's perhaps not quite on a par with Street Fighter 2: The Animated Movie, it comes damn close, and for a three hour OVA that's saying something.  Meanwhile, on every other count it wins hands down.  For a start, the characters are infinitely more interesting.  Which I suppose is faint praise, so I should say instead that there are actual interesting characters here, ones that stretch beyond 'ethnic stereotype with particular move set.'  My favourites were probably the vengeful demon-hunting Chinese wizard sisters, one of whom is a hopping vampire, but there's probably enough information in that sentence alone to give you a sense of the lengths Night Warriors is going to.  And because it breaks its running time down into a series of sizable vignettes that sideline characters for long periods or even entire episodes, there's none of the frantic chopping and changing and making sure everyone gets to fight everyone else that normally comes with these things.  It has actual stories to tell, a fascinating setting to tell them in, and space to tell them well.

The flip side, I suppose, is that the overall tale is weaker than its components.  But it's still a fair bit more fun than you'd expect, especially since the plot to pretty much every other damn fighting game adaptation is "evil corporation creates international tournament to steal fighters' skills."  Night Warriors sticks two fingers up to all that and asks if you wouldn't rather hear about an alien sun god teaming up with sentient robots programmed to manipulate Earth's evolutionary history?  And while I can conceive of someone who might answer that question in the negative, I can't imagine they'd have stuck with these posts all the way through to number thirty-five.

The result is, of course, furiously silly, and perhaps sillier for how seriously it sometimes takes itself.  But I'll be damned if I'll grumble about over-ambition from a nineties anime fighting game adaptation.  So what if the makers wanted to dress up their ridiculous premise with a few meaningful ideas that probably don't belong anywhere near it?  Really, the worst that can be said of Night Warriors is that it leaves you craving to play games from a franchise that vanished an entire two console generations ago, because somehow people thought that Street Fighter and Tekken were more fun that making a zombie with extendable ribs battle a giant mummy.  Such is the fallen world we live in, but at least we're left with three bonkers hours of monsters philosophizing and punching each other, so it could certainly be worse.

M. D. Geist II: Death Force, 1996, dir: Kôichi Ôhata

If I recall correctly, my response to the original M. D. Geist was along the lines of us, "it's terrible, but not interesting enough to be a true nadir of the medium," which is about as harsh a critique as I have in me.  So you can see why I didn't exactly rush to watch the sequel.

In fact, here we are, twelve posts and over a year later!  And you know what?  It really wasn't that bad.  In fact, up until the midway point, I was suspecting that it might even be kind of adequate.  After all, ten years had gone by in the world of anime between the two titles, everyone had surely learned a bit about their craft in the meantime, and there was money to be spent, from none other than U.S. Manga Corps, the company that were so wedded to the original that they made its protagonist their "company spokes mecha."*

So yes, those first few minutes are almost kind of fun.  There are some entirely solid sequences, even; and somehow the nastiness and the gore, which have been cranked up to eleven this time, have a certain tacky charm that was largely absent the last time around.  It's not good, exactly, but nor is it shockingly bad in the way M. D. Geist was more or less from its opening moments.  The setup is even a little bit interesting, as we discover that there's a single haven of humanity holding out against the killer-robot threat of the titular death force - but one that's run by our "hero" Geist's predecessor in the Most Dangerous Soldier program, who may not be the out-and-out nutter that Geist is but doesn't exactly come across as sane and rational either.

Yet there are warning signs, both of weird cost-cutting measures and of weirder creative decisions: the first is an expository scene in which we never see anyone's mouths, because actually animating mouths when people are talking costs money, don't you know?  It's one of those details you can't help but notice, and having noticed, find inexpressibly cheap and awful.  Then we get near the halfway point, which feels so much like the end of a first episode that I wonder if that wasn't once the intention, and things really go off the rails.  An entire new plot starts up, which seems to contradict the previous one in a couple of essentials.  And the more time goes by, the more apparent it becomes that Ôhata simply can't tell this story worth a damn.  Crucial plot points are skipped over or delivered retrospectively for no apparent reason, and it's all very confusing in a way that feels deliberate, but to no discernible purpose.  I mean, it's not like the narrative is anything but idiotically straightforward!  How hard is it to tell an idiotically straightforward plot in a straightforward manner?

If you're M. D. Geist II: Death Force then the answer, apparently, is "impossibly hard."  But, I don't know, that fact just didn't bother me half as much as it should have.  In fact, I had quite a bit of fun with this sequel: it's so hilariously, self-consciously mean-spirited and nihilistic, and so in love with its impossibly horrible protagonist, that it's hard not to be caught up in its preposterousness.  And there's a certain eagerness that I found charming, as though everyone involved was daring each other to see how over the top they could go.  Like, "Hey, what if Geist used some guy's body for a shield and then shoved his gun through the resulting mess of bullet holes and shot everyone while guts showered everywhere!"  Which, writing it like that, admittedly sounds quite obnoxious.  And, yes, M. D. Geist II: Death Force is absolutely that.  So maybe all it comes down to is that the animation was a great deal better this time around, at least when it wasn't cost-cutting still frames.  Am I really that shallow?  I think I am.  And since it's not like I'm actually recommending that you waste your time with this rubbish, and I intend to sell my copy and forget about the experience as soon as I possibly can, I guess there's no real harm done.

Darkside Blues, 1994, dir: Yoriyasu Kogawa

We've seen quite a lot of author Hideyuki Kikuchi around these parts - or rather, adaptations of his works - and reactions have been somewhat mixed, but on the whole I'm happy to call myself a fan: Demon City, Wicked City and Vampire Hunter D (or at least Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) are all titles I've enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent.  But while Darkside Blues has much in common with all of those - up to and including its blend of supernatural fantasy with science-fiction elements, its menagerie of monstrous enemies, and its general air of weirdness - it also feels quite distinctive.  What research I've done suggests a passion project, as does the sheer level of detail that's gone into the world-building and the cast of characters, which is intimidating for a movie that clocks in at under an hour and a half.

Even summing up the plots proves a challenge, though on its simplest level it boils down to the sort of 'plucky rebels versus evil corporation' story that was everywhere in anime at this point.  Strip away those supernatural elements and I suppose that's all you get; but then strip them away and you'd lose half of what there is here, and nearly all of what makes the film special.  For a start, there's the character of Darkside himself, who in the opening minutes rides out of some sort of space-time fissure in the middle of the city that acts as home for most of the narrative, and proceeds to make his presence felt in ways that suggest he has the power to be doing a great deal more than hanging around the sidelines being cryptic.

Speaking of being cryptic, there's an awful lot of that going on, and whether you love Darkside Blues - as I did - or consider it a load of nonsense will probably come down to how much slack you decide to cut the baffling pronouncements that Kikuchi gifts his characters.  I strongly suggest that you go along with him, because there are some thrilling notions here, including the idea that the entire setting may be some sort of psychic sinkhole created by an unbalance in our own "real" universe.  Or there's the hostel that automatically takes everyone to the room where they need to be, or Darkside himself, whose profession and motivation are equally nebulous.

Even if you decide that too much deliberate oddness isn't a good thing, there's still a lot to be enjoyed.  The animation is very good, but the design work and artwork style are absolutely splendid.  There's some excellent action for what's on the face of things a fairly cerebral affair, and the score is pretty much marvelous - indeed, the title track is, against all reasonable expectations, a truly fine blues number.  Really, the only significant complaint I have is that there was obviously intended to be more. The ending is a proper ending, in the sense that it wraps up what we've come to think of as the central narrative thread, but every one of the big questions is left hanging.  Which takes us back to that passion project thing; it's obvious Kikuchi was deeply invested in his characters and setting and wasn't ready to shut the door on the world of Darkside Blues by tying everything up with a neat bow.   And honestly, I can't criticise.  Those leftover questions are fun to guess at, and I don't know that I need them answering.  Unless you're the kind of person who has to have every last strand of a story tied off, or unless you've actively hated any of those other Kikuchi adaptations, I'm happy to give this one a serious recommendation.  It's a bit special, all told, and not too far off the absolute top tier of nineties anime moviemaking.


Okay, I clearly did write those, because no one else would waffle on for five paragraphs about M. D. Geist II.  And it's funny going back to these posts with the benefit of hindsight; I really didn't remember being that enthusiastic about the Samurai X movie, whereas Night Warriors and Darkside Blues I'm already itching to watch again.  The latter you can even track down for a reasonable price, so I guess that counts as a serious recommendation.

As for next time, who knows?  I have so many of these posts on the go now that it's anyone's guess!  A Gall Force special, maybe?  That 'anime that isn't anime' post I've been slaving over?  More random crap?

Yeah, it'll probably be that last one.

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

* Or rather spokesmecha, surely, if you really have to make up such a dumbass neologism.  But no, that's how U. S. Manga Corps want it, and it makes me grit my teeth a little each time I see it.

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