Sunday, 19 August 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 39

Well, this one's a right old hotchpotch!  My nineties anime viewing has been distinctly unruly lately, as I finally got sick of how much room this stuff was occupying on my "to watch" shelf and started plugging away in earnest.  I'm also writing these posts in an incredibly disorderly fashion, which makes them confusing to come back to; I suspect this particular batch were reviewed over the course of about two months.  On the plus side, there's no hint of a theme this time around!  Well, except for the fact that two of the titles are about ninjas.

Extra prize points* for guessing what those two ninja titles are out of: City Hunter: Secret ServiceWrath of the Ninja: The Yotoden Movie, The Cockpit and The Dagger of Kamui...

City Hunter: Secret Service, 1996, dir: Kenji Kodama

I'm not quite lazy enough to suggest that if you want to know my thoughts on City Hunter: Secret Service, it would save us both time if you simply went back and read my review of City Hunter: .357 Magnum and assumed they were in every meaningful way identical.  Yet by not doing so, I leave myself at an impasse, because I've nothing to add: everything that was wrong there is wrong here, and in more or less the same ways and even the same places, because the two films are structurally largely identical, down as far as the construction of certain scenes and the majority of the humour.  City Hunter: Secret Service feels more like a remake then a fresh project, and a remake of a story that barely warranted telling the first time.

And that feels harsh to say, because City Hunter: Secret Service is fine, in a certain way.  View it as what it is, a TV special, and lump it into the same category as all those other TV specials that littered the entertainment landscape in those days, and it probably does more or less what you'd expect, bringing familiar characters back for another lap in the most formulaic way possible.  So maybe the problem is just that I don't much like the formula.  With the best will in the world, Ryô Saeba, letch, stalker, underwear thief, and manipulator of vulnerable women, has not aged well as a protagonist, and the fact that he inevitably gets punished in "comic" fashion by his long-suffering assistant doesn't make the laughs come any more readily.  This kind of stuff can be amusing - see Urusei Yatsura at its best - but it can also be awfully painful, and Secret Service spends far too much of its time at that end of the spectrum.

This one, at least, gets a solid action sequence midway through, one with a dash of imagination and a modicum of ambition.  Elsewhere, the animation is resolutely so-so, with the briefest splashes of flair, but a ghastly colour scheme makes the film look much worse than it is: there's one hotel corridor in particular that's actively unpleasant to look at, and which gets shown a lot.  Kodama directs with little elegance, and I'm at a loss to say why he was let loose on so many of these things, let alone the proper City Hunter motion picture that would follow a year later.

Ultimately, and depending on how bothered you are by the protagonist's atrocious behaviour, Secret Service is a title that trundles along in largely tolerable fashion: one suspects that the reason it's so formulaic is that by this point the creators felt they'd discovered a formula that worked, and there's a kernel of truth to that.  I can honestly say that I was never bored, or even that incensed.  Generally when I was close to the point of wishing Ryô would just sod off and die, he'd suffer some appropriately violent retribution, or flip into cool action guy mode, or just occasionally show a little actual decency.  But ultimately, that amounts only to saying that City Hunter: Secret Service is fitfully amusing, with bearable stretches in between, so I'm sure as hell not recommending it.**

Wrath of the Ninja: The Yotoden Movie, 1989, dir's: Toshiyuki Sakurai, Osamu Yamasaki

I'm no expert on Japanese history by any means, but I've watched enough anime that I feel I have a fair grasp of the facts surrounding Oda Nobunaga, the sixteenth century feudal lord regarded as one of the crucial figures in the unification of Japan.  The essential details seem undebatable: he was colossally evil, he had a correspondingly evil mustache, he had an army of monsters and freaky, super-powered generals, and he was (or very much wanted to be) a demon.  It's only on the trivia that things get murkier: was he defeated by ninjas, samurai, or a combination of the two?  Did he drink out of a human skull?  How much maniacal cackling did he really get up to?

At any rate, Wrath of the Ninja is content to stick to the absolute historical certainties: as such, it follows a trio of ninja, all of whom possess magical weapons they're not quite sure what to do with, as they struggle against Nobunaga's sneakiness and lack of fair play and then, ever so slowly and with no end of setbacks, begin to maneuverer into a position where a final strike might be only mostly suicidal.

At this point, it's perhaps useful to mention that Wrath of the Ninja is a cut-down version of a three part OVA, which in turn was an adaptation of a fantasy novel that I assume, with no evidence whatsoever, to be the originator of all this "Nobunaga was a demon with an army of monsters" hokum.  The crucial point for our purposes is that what we have here is a chunk of a bigger story, spliced together without a great deal of grace and with animation more appropriate to TV than film.  As such, first impressions are far from brilliant: it's easy enough to tell what's going on, but certain fairly significant points and characters are dealt with hastily or barely at all.  Around what I take for the end of the first episode, for example, there's a supposedly major death that has zero impact because we've barely had time to learn the name of the character in question, let alone care about them, and I spent literally half the film wondering whether the other characters realised that the protagonist was female or not, since it had the air of a badly kept secret.

But Wrath of the Ninja gets better, and then gets a lot better, until by the end it's become very good indeed.  To some extent that's to do with the scale of a story that achieves a certain gravitas simply by letting us watch the characters we're growing acquainted with be ground down by defeat after defeat and horror after horror.  To some extent it's because those horrors are actually rather creepy and imaginative, and never more so than with Nobunaga's seven generals, who offer up a series of weird and exciting boss fights.  And to some extent it's because the storytelling focuses in as it goes along, and so begins to feel less like a mercilessly chopped OVA and more like an actual movie.  Put it all together and the result is rather satisfying.  In many ways, Wrath of the Ninja does Ninja Scroll well before Ninja Scroll did, and while the resolutely not-great animation holds it back, not helped by the usual murky U.S. Manga Corps print, it's nevertheless a better-than-average entry into its genre.  Very much in the "one to track down if you like this sort of thing" basket, then, but a title better suited to the higher end of that list than the lower.

The Cockpit, 1994, dir's: Takashi Imanishi, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Ryôsuke Takahashi

Anyone who's been reading from the start may remember lots of noble talk about finding lost classics, and how quickly that degenerated into merely hunting for stuff that was at least genuinely good - and since then, of course, standards have slipped all the way to "Look, you could do worse than watch Voogie's Angel, all right?"  Which is to say that grand aspirations don't hold up for long in the face of just how cheap, derivative, and silly a great deal of nineties anime truly was.  And also that I vastly overrated Voogie's Angel.

Yet here we are, post number thirty-nine, and The Cockpit is a masterpiece if ever I saw one.  It's great art made with great artistry, telling stories of a sort that have rarely been told in a manner and a medium that makes them all the more unique.  No wonder it was a catastrophic flop when it was released in the US, eh?  And that it's now all but impossible to find?  It's almost as though a movie consisting of three vignettes about how World World Two wasn't actually a whole lot of fun for everyone on the losing side doesn't fit terribly well in the narrative we've built around that most horrific of conflicts.  What do you mean, a German pilot might have second thoughts about escorting an appalling new test weapon in the last days of the war?  What do you mean, Japanese troops might feel uncomfortable with the notion of escorting a young kamikaze pilot to his final, one-way flight?  What do you mean, the enemy were people?

But let's back up and dig a little further into what The Cockpit is.  When he wasn't writing deeply romantic space operas featuring the likes of Captain Harlock and Queen Emeraldas, Leiji Matsumoto was crafting a World War Two series called Battlefield, and the movie in hand was a bid to turn that series into an anthology film of the type that pops up occasionally in the world of anime: three directors tell three stories with three different animation teams and no real connection between them.  Of those directors, Yoshiaki (Ninja Scroll) Kawajiri is certainly the biggest name today, though one of the remarkable aspects of The Cockpit is how consistently superb it is.  Kawajiri's piece - that one about the German pilot - is the opener, Slipstream, and feels most familiar from what I've seen of Matsumoto's work: in fact, the characters are very familiar looking indeed.  At any rate, it's fine work, and sets such a high bar that it's astonishing how effortlessly Sonic Boom Squadron - the kamikazi pilot section - vaults over it.  A desperately sad little tale of a great many people sacrificing themselves so that one man can throw away his life in a war that's already lost, its greatest triumphs are perhaps that it manages to transcend being mere misery porn and that it finds an ending that's both honest and transcendent.  Which leaves Knight of the Iron Dragon in a tough position, and if it subsequently feels like the weakest section then that's no criticism.  That it ups the humanity and focuses even harder on a tiny microcosm of the war is absolutely the right note to end on, and brilliant work remains brilliant work even when it's not quite as brilliant as what came before.

While everyone seems to basically agree that it's a classic, I've seen various criticisms thrown at The Cockpit: that it's patriotic, that it doesn't address the horrors the Axis powers committed, and that the cartoony character designs that begin to pop up in part two and take over almost entirely in three are at odds with the seriousness of the material.  The first two are plain idiotic; if there's one message it's impossible to ignore here, it's that war is an act of madness committed by people who'd be better off devoting their energies to absolutely anything else, and if the notion of a Japanese film not presenting the Japanese solely as villains offends you then, sorry, but you're a racist.  The last one is trickier, though probably only if you're unwilling to meet the film on its own terms: those rubber-faced characters serve particular purposes, their presence is clearly a creative decision, and much can be gleaned from which characters are drawn realistically and which aren't.  For my part, all I can complain about is that The Cockpit has all but vanished from the Earth: I consider myself lucky indeed to have landed a cheap DVD copy (also including the risible Digital Devil!) but even then, there's no escaping the fact that the print doesn't do the material a shred of justice.  In a saner world, this thing would be available on blu-ray by this time.  And maybe someone would actually buy it, instead of sulking over the shocking revelation that war sucks whichever side you're on.

The Dagger of Kamui, 1985, dir: Rintaro

Say what you like about director Rintaro, he's consistent in both his virtues and his vices.  Want an overly long film full of imaginative, gorgeously animated scenes that never quite coheres into a logical, satisfying whole?  Then Rintaro is absolutely your man.  It's true of his best work - probably X and Metropolis, based on what I've seen - and it's true of his more middling efforts.  Of which, sad to say, The Dagger of Kamui is certainly one.

But goodness knows, it's not for a lack of trying!  The Dagger of Kamui is epic in every sense of the word, a work of outrageous ambition that tells a whopping narrative spanning years, continents, and a considerable cast of characters, all brought to life with animation that must have looked mighty fine in 1985 and looks pretty decent today, though I sorely regret picking up the muddy, too-soft AnimEigo release over the newer Eastern Star edition.***  But either way, the problems certainly don't lie in the appearance of the thing, which is a perfect example of what for me counts as Rintaro's greatest talent, to craft each and every scene with the same high levels of energy and visual flair.  It's a little exhausting, to be sure, but there are so many ideas here, and so many sequences that are thrilling purely on the level of how the language of animation is manipulated to evoke mood or heighten action.  The Dagger of Kamui is not a film that you could ever get bored looking at, not if you have any enthusiasm at all for animation or design.

Which is a good thing, because the plot is hellaciously easy to get bored by, or at the very least to get befuddled and annoyed by.  Our hero is young Jirô, who's accused of murdering his adoptive mother and sister in the opening sequence (a crime, of course, really committed by evil ninjas, because this is an anime about historical Japan!) only to soon after be manipulated into offing his actual father, at the behest of evil priest Tenkai.  In fact, Jirô will be manipulated a great deal by Tenkai over the next couple of hours, as it becomes apparent that what the villain is after is a treasure that Jirô's father was seeking and which he believes Jirô is thus best suited to chase after.

Now, to explain why that makes no sense would take a blog post in itself, but suffice to say that there was never a moment where I was persuaded either by Tenkai's baffling, generations-spanning scheme or by Jirô's willingness to go along with it.  There's literally no reason, other then perhaps idle curiosity, for him to do so; it's not even as if he wants the treasure for himself.  And the rest of the cast have motivations just as woolly, making for an extremely long story in which people mostly do things because the plot needs them to be doing that thing at that moment.

And this is a shame.  Partly because it was absolutely fixable - give Jirô one single reason to go treasure hunting and you've already solved half the script's issues - and partly because it's surrounded by something so basically interesting.  The superstructure of The Dagger of Kamui, which eventually opens out into historical drama on a grand scale, is fairly splendid stuff, and Jirô's globe-trotting trip is thrilling if for no other reason than that it steps outside of Japan's borders in a way that very little historical anime ever does.  Want to see a ninja go up against a gunfighter in a dusty Wild West town?  Then you've come to the right place.  And this being Rintaro, Kamui is laden with such scenes, that work perfectly in and of themselves.  It's the connective tissue he's terrible at, and rarely more so than here.  As such, The Dagger of Kamui is both impossible to dismiss and hard to unreservedly recommend: another worthwhile, flawed, visually thrilling work from a director who seemingly did his best to corner that particularly market.


So a random old mess, certainly, but at least we got a new classic out of it.  Sadly, you're unlikely indeed to ever see The Cockpit in a remotely legal fashion, and I'm unlikely to ever see it in a print that doesn't look like it was left in a swamp for a week, so maybe that's not altogether a reason to break out the party poppers.  Especially since, that aside, we're left with Wrath of the Ninja as a high point, and ... well, it is, I guess?  Editing up my review certainly made me want to watch it again.

Next time I think maybe we're going to be getting the "oddities" post I've been cobbling together for goodness knows how long.  And yes, that's oddities that are odder than the baseline oddness of nineties anime, and that's surely a reason to be excited.  Or scared.  Wait, no, definitely that second one.

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

* Needless to say, the prize will be more damn nineties anime reviews.

** Also, I've watched two of these things now, and City Hunter still hasn't caught a single city.  If that's not false advertising then I don't know what is.

*** On the plus side, the enclosed liner notes are fantastic, and who else but AnimEigo ever felt the need to provide a print-out of translated song lyrics?

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