Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 37

This time around, a couple of nice surprises meet with a couple of sizable disappointments - and certainly the release I got most joy from was the one I'd have least expected even to like if you'd asked me beforehand.  Possibly there's a moral here about prejudging catastrophically odd fantasy hentai that literally uses the bombing of Hiroshima as a trivial plot point?

Or maybe the moral is that I have dreadful taste and a really warped sense of humour.  At any rate!  This time through, we've got: RG Veda, City Hunter: .357 Magnum, Urusei Yatsura: Inaba the Dreammaker, and Adventure Duo...

RG Veda, 1992, dir's: Hiroyuki Ebata, Takamasa Ikegami

Let's be fair: it can't be easy deciding what, or how much, of a longstanding Manga series to adapt into an OVA of limited running time.  After all, unlike most of their Western counterparts, Manga can tell a single story for years and even decades, and are frequently adapted midway through their runs.  Yup, difficult decisions to be made indeed, and I'm sure the pressure was considerable when it came to RG Veda, the debut of acclaimed studio Clamp, who we've seen around these parts often already and come to be rather fond of.

Nevertheless, the choices made here were still awfully dumb.  And I don't know, maybe there was supposed to be more to come, but that doesn't excuse beginning so deep into a narrative, with so little introduction to characters that mostly start and end as tepid cyphers.  Nor does it excuse the fact that, with two forty-five minute episodes to work with, the decision was made to open with a side story and only engage with the main plot after the midway mark.  Although, since the first episode is marginally more interesting, and the plot episode goes nowhere - indeed, makes quite a show of going nowhere, until its closing minutes and a revelation that might have been a big deal were it not also the end - it's easy to suppose that ignoring the grand good-versus-evil narrative would have been the wiser call.

After all, it's not like it's a very interesting good-versus-evil narrative!  It's not like it isn't something we've seen a thousand times before, within anime and without, and it's certainly not like it's a patch on the sort of complex, twisted tales that Clamp would go on to produce.  Despite a name lifted from the Sanskrit Vedas, this is stale stuff, and only the occasional notion or scene - a magical attack swan, a swarm of demonic butterflies - hints at later imaginative accomplishments.  Nor is the material up to anything very exciting on the level of animation; neither director brings much character, the animation is stilted and constantly off in small but obvious ways, and - astonishingly for a Clamp adaptation - the character designs are mostly on the bland side.  Heck, even the music never rises beyond pleasant.  Taken altogether, RG Veda is a heck of a disappointment: a thuddingly standard fantasy title with just enough spice to occasionally remind you of how much better it could be.

City Hunter: .357 Magnum, 1989, dir: Kenji Kodama

City Hunter is another one of those megafranchises that were so prevalent in anime in the early nineties, so perhaps it's odd that my only encounter with it so far has been the bizarrely-Jackie-Chan-starring live action movie, which must have made very little impression, since I can't recall a thing about it.  But I discovered recently that there was an animated movie, too, and while I failed to track down a reasonably priced copy of that, I did stumble across a couple of cheapy straight-to-DVD releases, of which .357 Magnum is the earliest.

So what was this City Hunter lark that inspired not only countless episodes, but multiple TV movies and a Jackie Chan film of all things?  Well, based on what I've seen - eighty minutes worth of .357 Magnum, plus a random episode provided as a DVD extra, in a pleasing touch for what's normally such a mercenary corner of the industry - I'd say that it's a lot like any number of other eighties detective shows, with one important twist.  Our hero, Ryo Saeba, is a total letch.

Imagine The Equalizer, if Robert McCall was replaced by Urusei Yatsura's Ataru Moroboshi and you'll be most of the way there.  What differentiates Ryo Saeba from other anime creeps is that, when he's not being a sex pest toward distressed female clients, he's actually really damn competent.  And this allows City Hunter to take a fair stab at having its cake and eating it.  There's plenty of goofy comedy, as Ryo behaves like an utter pervert and is repeatedly, violently punished for it by his assistant Kaori (who secretly has a thing for him, presumably because she hates life and herself.)  There's also tons of action, which is played pretty much straight, including an over-the-top finale worthy of any dumb action movie you can care to name.

Unfortunately, neither element is particularly engaging here.  Even if this particular brand of comedy hadn't dated hideously, there aren't a great many laughs to be had, and the thriller plot, which starts out threatening to be convoluted before ending up very simple indeed, is more diverting than exciting.  As for the production values, they're resolutely in keeping with the TV series itself, which looked fine for a long-running eighties show but was nowhere near what you'd expect from a theatrical release.  The result is mildly diverting, and amusing in places, but certainly not a great introduction to the franchise or any real insight into why it lasted for so long.

Urusei Yatsura: Inaba the Dreammaker, 1987, dir: Satoshi Dezaki

Speak of the devil!  Or in this case, of Ataru Moroboshi, appearing in the second of Urusei Yatsura's two OVAs that are long enough to warrant the effort of reviewing.  The first turned out to be a clip show, and a pretty incoherent one at that, but fortunately that's not the case with Inaba the Dreammaker.  In fact, with a running time barely shy of an hour, it's up there with plenty of anime that passes itself off as feature length.  And sure enough, while it's not quite on a par with any of the six movies, this one proves itself a more than worthy addition to the franchise.

The plot largely revolves around side character Shinobu, who seems destined to a life of spinsterhood due to her tendency toward punching any men who approach her into orbit.  However, an encounter with a strange young fellow in a rabbit costume who announces himself as Inaba proves fateful: Lum happens to notice that his trip through the sky ends with his disappearing into some sort of portal, and since he's left a suspicious key behind, what is there to do but investigate?  Soon it transpires that Inaba is one of a bunch of inter-dimensional caretakers who are responsible for all possible futures (the rest of them appear to be actual giant rabbits, which begs questions the show never seems remotely interested in answering) and the result is that Shinobu, Lum, and Moroboshi witness a vision of what might lie in store for them, before deciding they'd rather make some changes, much to the consternation of those leporine supervisors.  All the while, Inaba is developing a colossal crush on Shinobu, while the fact that not a single future finds them married to each other begs obvious questions about Lum and Moroboshi's hideous train wreck of a relationship.

That's a weird, busy old plot, right?  And it's certainly nice to see that Dark City wasn't the only American movie to lift from Urusei Yatsura*; yeah, I'm looking at you, Donnie Darko.  This being Urusei Yatsura, it largely devolves into a lot of running (or flying) about and goofy comedy, but that's fine as it turns out: some of these OVAs went too far in that direction, but Inaba the Dreammaker gets the ratio right, perhaps because it has a bit of heft behind its silliness.  Inaba and Shinobu play off each other nicely, and we get some surprisingly meaningful insights into the show's central relationship, indeed more so that many of the films managed.  And while we're obviously looking at a TV show budget, it's one the creators knew how to make look respectable by this point.  The same goes for the music, which is mostly reused pieces, but enjoyable ones.  I'd go so far as to say that Inaba the Dreammaker is about as good as you could hope for something of this ilk: an amusing, charming, ingenious bit of fantasy that finds a significant story to tell in a universe that could easily feel tapped out this late in the game.  It's probably not good enough to warrant tracking down on its own, given how rare it is, but it's inclusion makes the frequently great collection of all eleven OVAs something of a must buy.

Adventure Duo: Yôjû Sensen, 1993, dir: Hideki Takayama

Adventure Duo (or Adventure Kids as it was disturbingly known in the US) is goddamn bewildering.  And that's not solely because it's a blend of horror, fantasy, science-fiction, and hentai, though goodness knows that's certainly a factor.  And before we go further, I have to state categorically that I'm not going to start reviewing hentai here on the blog, either from the nineties or otherwise, because that's something I have no desire to get into.  But I have a certain weakness for Kiseki Films, you see, whose incredibly hard-to-find releases have a tacky charm I seem unable to resist.  Well, except for their most famous release, Legend of the Overfiend, I can resist that just fine - and wouldn't you know it, Adventure Duo proudly declares itself to be from the creators of that selfsame "classic".  Which makes it all the more bizarre that I thought it would be a good idea to sit myself through this madness.

Oh but I'm glad I did!  Like I said, Adventure Duo is bewildering, but in the fashion that only truly, wildly misconceived attempts at entertainment can be.  As much as I despise the concept in general, it really is so bad that it's good, or at any rate so bad that it never ceases to amaze and fascinate.  The hero has somehow managed to make his home computer interface with a world war two supercomputer, you say?  One possessed by the brain mush of a murdered scientist?  Who's brought his murderer back as a zombie monster for some reason?  But now they're all in hell, only it's a tacky fantasyland hell with sex-starved elves and shape-changing trolls?  And, wait, where's she inserting that magic key?  Oh, it's okay, they're just time traveling to Hiroshima minutes before the release of the atomic bomb, and - hold on, Adventure Duo, are you certain this is appropriate subject matter for a not-very-sexy bit of genrefied soft porn?

Yes, Adventure Duo is sure, or at any rate doesn't care.  You get the impression that no-one at any stage in the creative process hesitated for even an instant to ask those sorts of questions, or for that matter worried themselves about silly things like plot coherence or continuity or telling the same story over all three of the show's thirty minute episodes.  And the result is delirious, in a largely entertaining fashion.  There are traces of the sort of unpleasantness that made Overfiend so hard to stomach, and even with its extraordinary goofiness, there's a degree of sexualised violence that can be off-putting.  But it's at least not vicious, and it at least recognises that women are people, with actual thoughts and emotions, which already puts it head and shoulders above Overfiend in the watchability stakes.  More, it understands that sex isn't something merely done to women, and if we should never have to hold that up as a progressive viewpoint, nevertheless it kind of is by the standards of far too much nineties anime.

And here I am, talking as though anyone should actually go out and hunt this thing down, which obviously you shouldn't, because it's gibbering and terrible and at best only moderately well made, despite the box claiming against all evidence that Gainax were the production studio and despite a surprisingly solid print from the fairly disreputable Kiseki.  All I'm really saying is that, if you do have a desperate craving for a bit of fantastical nineties hentai anime, one that's not out-and-out horrid like the dingier corners of that very dingy subgenre, and you want to have an exceedingly good laugh while you're at it, Adventure Duo is the release for you.


I guess that if anyone was paying attention, I'd probably never live down the fact that I gave Adventure Duo a sort-of-positive review, so let's all keep quiet about that, eh?  And also bear in mind that finding something hysterically weird isn't the same as recommending it!  Which I suppose means that it's one of those posts where I don't recommend anything at all, though Inaba the Dreammaker is awfully fun if you're into that whole Urusei Yatsura business.

Next time - absolutely no hentai!  I promise!

Well, probably not, anyway.

Okay, there might be.

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

* Watch the second Urusei Yatsura movie, Beautiful Dreamer, and tell me I'm wrong!

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