Thursday, 19 July 2018

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 38

If these posts could be likened to wandering in a desert with nothing but a belligerent camel for company and nary a landmark in sight, it's reassuring to know that at least it's still possible to stumble over the occasional oasis out here upon the blazing sands.  Which is to say that, perhaps astonishingly given the degree of barrel-scraping we're reduced to these days, I've managed to find a couple of real pleasures this time around - along with a couple of titles that, if a long way from any sensible definition of classic, were a thoroughly acceptable waste of ninety minutes.

That surprising desert watering hole, then, looks a lot like a combination of: Voogie's Angel, Legend of Crystania: The Motion Picture, Magic User's Club! and Battle Skipper...

Voogie's Angel, 1997, dir's: Masami Ōbari, Aoi Takeuchi

What an odd creature Voogie's Angel* is!  A three episode OVA that's obviously telling one chunk of a bigger story, it's wildly all over the place in terms of tone, and really in everything else as well.  A brief prologue promises us a bleak tale of Earth's last defenders fighting a losing battle against the alien Space Emigrants, but that impression is rapidly dispelled when we meet Voogie and her all-female cyborg crew, and the bulk of the first episode is occupied with goofy comedy that conveys not much besides how lightly the four of them take their responsibilities as defenders of the human race.

Then part two comes along, and gets very grim indeed - a late-game character death is particularly ghastly - and by the third part we're well into nightmarishly despondent territory, as we learn the back story behind these characters we've been hanging around with and never really got to know.  It's odd is what it is, and effective only in spurts.  The script is crummy, despite the best efforts of the leads to inject a bit of life, and the characterisation is so not there that I literally didn't know what two of the main characters were meant to be about.  Only Voogie herself and the trigger-happy Rebecca come to much, and some angsty stuff about whether the gang are truly human falls hopelessly flat.

None of this is especially good, but lest I be too harsh towards a title that's actually pretty innocuous, I should add that none of it's ruinous either.  The plot and characters are boilerplate, but it's a fun boilerplate, and the production values are solid enough to keep things ticking along.  There's a peppy opening theme that I can't stop listening to and some derivate but effective incidental music, and on the visual side - well, Masami Ōbari was never a great director, but his work feels more enthusiastic here than elsewhere, and a few sequences, particularly in the second part, are genuinely thrilling.  (He also manages to tone down his usually hideous designs, thank goodness!)  Writer Aoi Takeuchi, who I can find no details about anywhere, takes over for the third episode, and does better work all round, leaving things on a stronger note than the show quite deserves.  He even manages to retrospectively hammer out the character arcs that Ōbari left flapping, and to make some sense of the uneven tone.  As such, I'm probably remembering Voogie's Angel as being a little better than it was.  But what the heck!  It was a fun enough ninety minutes, and there's a decent chance I'll watch it again one of these days, so I'm giving it a pass.

Legend of Crystania: The Motion Picture, 1995, dir: Ryûtarô Nakamura

For me anyway, good, original high fantasy films are a bit of a treat.  I mean, can you list more than a dozen Western fantasy movies with half-decent budgets, which aren't adaptations of door-stop novels, usually by a certain Mr. Tolkien, and which don't suck at least a little bit?  The point being, I consider the huge influence of D&D-inspired fantasy upon the world of nineties anime to be basically a good thing - and then I tend to get my hopes up far too highly for what generally ends up being derivate, by-the-numbers crap.

Legend of Crystania is derivative and by the numbers: it's a spin-off of the popular Record of Lodoss War series, which I've never seen but looks very much like someone writing their role-playing campaign (which, indeed, is precisely what it was.)  Legend of Crystania is also pretty great.  And perhaps that comes down to the difference between a creator slathering their plot in clichés and one who knows the tropes of the genre and wields them with precision, effectively making of them a nifty shorthand to keep his narrative moving at breakneck pace.

At under 80 minutes including credits, the film tears by swiftly enough to give you whiplash, building a dense world and a huge cast with enviable economy.  It helps that the beats are almost all familiar, but it helps more than the voice cast (at least in the original Japanese) do sterling work to pluck out enough notes of originality that such utter stereotypes as the scholarly wizard and the hot-headed young warrior and the grizzled, morally grey veteran actually feel distinctive.  But it helps most that the animation is lovely.  Not expensive, mind you, and the frame rate is distinctly choppy, not to mention a stripped-down art style that's rather a shock at first.  But get used to all that and you'll notice some real craftsmanship.  Generally, cheaper anime tends to stint on character details in favour of a few big, showy sequences, but Legend of Crystania goes almost entirely the other way: the thought that's gone into capturing human motion, and in making those motions expressive and distinctive, and using them to gift the viewer with insights into who these people are, is a joy to behold.  And this, I think, we can put down to director Nakamura, who'd later give us another work that did wonders on a restrictive budget, the bonkers cult classic Serial Experiments Lain.

Also, in fairness, it has to be said that Legend of Crystania isn't half so hackneyed as I've made out.  If many of the ingredients are recognisable, enough aren't, or are presented differently enough to feel fresh.  Crystania itself, an enclosed world of battling gods and warring, shape-shifting tribes, is a particularly fun and novel setting.  And there are legitimately interesting themes too, rotating around knotty questions of responsibility and leadership; in general, this is that rare breed of fantasy that's actually paused to consider what living in its world might be like, regardless of whether you're a lord or a were-tiger or a hired thug or some bloke propping up the bar.

With all of that - and with a rather lovely orchestral score, and some solid action sequences, drawn by people who actually appreciate that swords are pretty damn heavy, and a couple of moments with real emotional heft, including a late-game death that left me thoroughly gutted - I suppose that we're ultimately still talking about a cheesy, mid-budget piece of D&D-pastiching fantasy anime here.  Like I said, personally I happen to like cheesy, mid-budget D&D-pastiching fantasy anime when it's done exceptionally well, as it almost never is.  As such, I really did enjoy the hell out of Legend of Crystania, and I'm at a loss to explain its rather lowly reputation.

Magic User's Club!, 1996, dir: Junichi Sato

I grumble enough about familiar ingredients here, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded of the things you love.  And though my mind went to numerous other works while I was watching the six episodes of Magic User's Club!, it was always in the show's favour.

The initial point of reference was the marvelous Little Witch Academia, and not just for the obvious reasons, though obviously there's a fair bit of overlap here: both have very literal titles, after all!  But actually it was more to do with the character designs, which have a similar certain something that sets them apart from a million other big-eyed, outlandishly dressed designs; it's to do, I think, with some rather more humanly shaped faces than we're used to.  And in both cases, those designs are brought to life with superlative animation, though that's perhaps a bit more impressive in Magic User's Club!'s case, what with the intervening two decades and all.  It's a fine-looking show, and worth a watch for that reason alone.

But lo, there's more.  Because, although there's a definite ongoing plot, Magic User's Club! spends the majority of its time in the sort of light-hearted, slightly raunchy romantic comedy territory that so much anime occupies.  And there too it's not content just to tick the usual boxes.  In that sense, it reminded me of my exemplar for this sort of thing, the mighty Toradora!  Like Toradora!, it finds meaningful depths in characters that appear rote at first glance, then uses that to inject a bit of real emotion and humanity amid the jokes.  There's an extraordinary scene, for example, where the heroine's best friend Nanaka declares her love to the club's vice-president, Ayanojyo, even though she's pretty certain he's gay, that doesn't remotely go the way you'd expect if you were judging by the usual nineties anime standards.  I mean, in part because having a sympathetic, openly gay male character has already kicked most of those standards out the window, but also because it's just really well handled.  And if that's a stand-out moment, it's not an atypical one.

Which would all be well and good, but the last show I was reminded of was the clincher - because this isn't just a cute, goofy rom-com about teenagers getting up to high jinks with magic, it's all of that crammed together with a bit of high-concept sci-fi.  And it does that well too!  That overarching plot I mentioned revolves around the gang clumsily trying to defend the earth from a very unusual alien invasion: a year ago, a single, gigantic craft appeared and eradicated every weapon turned against it, but the massive object - named the Bell - has done little since, to the point where the robot drones it sends out even politely obey traffic signals.  And because those drones get some brilliant and deeply weird designs and animation, my last point of reference was the seminal Neon Genesis Evangelion.

So, yes, Magic User's Club is like some weird hybrid of Little Witch Academia, Toradora, and Neon Genesis Evangelion.  But it's also very much it's own thing, and rife with it's own charms, right from the joyously boppy opening theme to the ending that actually wraps its core drama up to an extent I wasn't remotely expecting.  It's immensely fun, its missteps are few - really, not much more than some crummy CG that was probably pretty fine in 1996 - and I liked it enough that I'd decided to order the subsequent series before the last episode was done with.  Highly recommended.

Battle Skipper, 1995, dir: Takashi Watanabe

So imagine the scenario: you've been assigned to create a three-episode OVA to promote a new toy.  And not just any new toy, but a startlingly crummy one, so crappy in every aspect that there's not a cat in hell's chance of it proving a success.  Heck, the toy company have even produced a few anime snippets of their own for the adverts, which are just about the worst thing ever.  Do you a) accept the poisoned chalice you've been handed and make some generic piece of garbage that hopefully will vanish immediately and without trace, or do you b) jump on the opportunity to produce something thoroughly silly and nonsensical, that throws a bunch of bonkers, incompatible ideas in a blender, ignores any groundwork already laid by that dreadful trailer, and sidelines those stupid toys as much as possible?

In fairness, there's probably no right answer here, since Battle Skipper appears to be fairly widely despised, despite opting firmly for option b) and despite being an immense amount of fun as a result.  And it's possible, I suppose, that writer Hidemi Kamata and director Takashi Watanabe were earnestly trying to craft a product that producers Tomy would be happy with, but it really does seem more likely that they were having a bit of a laugh at their expense, and at mecha and magic girl shows while they were at it.  I mean, just look at Saori's impossible hair, while is like Sailor Moon's dialed up to eleven, or observe how little screen time the stupifyingly ugly titular robot vehicle thingies get.  For that matter, consider a plot in which rival clubs at a posh catholic girls' school either plot feminist world domination or battle crime, in a manner that the show barely even tries to make sense of.

To accuse this frivolous nonsense of being derivative is, I think, to miss the point: it is, but it knows it is, and refuses to take that or anything else too seriously.  The result is utterly daft and bubbly, even when things are happening that might theoretically be a bit serious.  And I suppose it helps that I like the clichés it's indulging; I like canned magic girl transformation sequences and high-school students who can figure out who to pilot advanced military hardware in a matter of minutes and silly robots that combine into even sillier robots and gravity-defying hair styles.  This is the raw stuff of nineties anime, and if Battle Skipper wants to have jokey fun with it then who am I to argue?  Wrap all that up with some solid production values, and add in some surprisingly decent DVD extras from the usually hopeless U. S. Manga Corps and you're left with - well, a daft bit of fluff that kept me entirely happy for an hour and a half.  It's not good in any of the traditional senses of the word, but it's a new favourite nevertheless, and perhaps more so because of than in spite of its flaws.


Hold up, was that really a nineties anime post where I basically recommended everything?  All right, I hedged my bets heavily on Voogie's Angel - and rightly so! - but still, there's an awful lot of positivism in this post, such as we haven't seen around these parts in a good long while.  What can I say?  I stumbled over some excellent stuff.  The Legend of Crystania movie and Magic User's Club! both immediately shot into my favourites, and so did Battle Skipper, sort of, despite probably being not altogether deserving.

Well, I have no idea of where we go from here.  If only because I've got, like, eight of these posts on the go right now at various stages of completion.

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

* And why exactly is it Voogie's Angel, not Voogie's Angels, eh?  If you're going to rip off a title, surely you might as well go all the way and at least make sense.

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