Friday, 28 September 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 41

I keep swearing off these themed posts, only to get sucked in, as I realise that nineties anime is inimically suited to this approach.  After all, why spend so much time grumbling about how similar certain titles are when I can make the same point by just bunching them together?  And let's face it, if there's one thing we keep stumbling over here, it's those really short releases that look a bit embarrassed when lumped in with proper films and OVAs.

So, unified by the fact that not one of them runs to more than an hour, we have: Queen Emeraldas, Samurai: Hunt For the Sword, Black Lion, and Maze...

Queen Emeraldas, 1998, dir: Yûji Asada

Above all else, the word I'd pick to describe Queen Emeraldas is romantic.  And not in the lovey-dovey sense, though I suppose it is that a bit, but in the sense of dashing adventures full of sword fights and chivalry, along with lashings of outrageous idealism and preposterous bravery.  All of this, as I understand it, is very much in keeping with the works of Leiji Matsumoto, a creator I've only encountered with his science-fiction hat on once up until now, via the - rather disappointing, it has to be said! - classic Galaxy Express 999.

But Queen Emeraldas didn't disappoint one bit, despite being heavily set up by distributor ADV to do so.  I've been frustrated at many an OVA that was never allowed to finish, but this is that bit worse, in that there are a concluding two parts that the company decided not to pick up, meaning that what they sold as Queen Emeraldas is but half of the real thing.  In any other corner of the industry that would probably have been regarded as somewhat criminal, and it should be agonisingly frustrating, so it's a good job that the two parts we did get wrap up in such satisfying fashion.  Other than the clear implication that our heroes will go on to further adventures, there really are no obvious threads left hanging - and thank goodness for that.

None of which explains what exactly Queen Emeraldas is, so let's backtrack to that opening paragraph: what we have here is space opera of a particular lavish, rather silly, and, yes, romantic sort, in which women with hair down to their ankles fly around in giant blimps with sailing ships hanging from their undersides and angry young men hitchhike on gigantic galactic vessels in search of adventure.  And those two - Emeraldas herself (the Queen Emeraldas is her wildly impractical ship) and young Hiroshi, whose fate becomes entwined with hers - happen to be our protagonists.  Hiroshi is fine, as young male leads with massive chips on their shoulders go; he has lessons to learn about not being a jerk to everyone around him, but he learns them fast enough to not be too annoying.  Emeraldas, however, who drifts in and out of his plot, usually to do something outstandingly cool, is a delight in every second she spends on-screen: a creation of utter style, from her design to her ridiculous laser cutlass to her Bond-esque theme tune, which adorably points out that "My name comes from a green jewel / But the path I travel is red / The red of burning blood."

All of this is presented with some terrific animation, in which unusually heavy line weights give one of the more convincing impressions of Manga in motion that I've come across, ginned up with some intelligently used (and, in fairness, occasionally terrible) CG.  Director Asada has a whopping sense of style that seems to have been exploited nowhere else in his career; he managed to land on precisely the right tone for this material, and to keep it from straying into the silliness that always hovers around the edges.  I mean, blimps in space!  Honestly, it is silly - of course it is! - but it's also delightful and thrilling and satisfying.  And while it's a heck of a shame ADV decided to screw international audiences over the way they did, we can still be glad for the two episodes we have.

Samurai: Hunt For the Sword, 1999, dir: Masahiro Sekino

The question I keep coming back to with Samurai: Hunt For the Sword is, what is it?  I mean, I know what it is: a two episode OVA in which, at some point in history that I didn't bother to make precise note of, young hero Shinjuro finds himself both stuck with running his dad's sword-fighting school and embroiled in some murky business surrounding the quest to steal a magical sword and so ultimately topple the shogunate.  More than that, it's easy to identify the elements on display here: likable teen protagonists, some bubbly comedy that largely revolves around the relative sizes of breasts, a couple of surprisingly deft action sequences that are at least in the ballpark of what actual sword fights of the time might have been like, and a bright, appealing art style that's weathered surprisingly well.

So really, when there's nothing at all shocking or puzzling or significantly out of place here, I guess that it's more the why of Samurai: Hunt For the Sword that's throwing me.  Why this story, told in less than an hour?  Why, given that limitation, go to so much effort to introduce so large a cast, devoting meaningful time to characters that serve no function whatsoever when, midway through the second episode, the conflict that's been bubbling along in the background finally shifts to centre stage?  Why end in a manner that wraps absolutely everything up and yet feels more like the beginning of some other story?  I mean, what actually was the goal here?

Ultimately, I suppose that what I'm asking for is the bigger picture, which the internet - strangely silent on an inconsequential anime OVA from nearly two decades ago - fails to provide.  I suspect a clue might lie in the show's alternate title of Kaitouranma, but...

Well, this is awkward.  Two and a bit paragraphs into this review and I've answered my own question!  It's not Kaitouranma, it's Kaitou Ranma, as in Kaitou Ranma Miyabi, a game for the original PlayStation long forgotten to history.  And really, that does solve the whole damn puzzle: the sense of a prologue that's also an intact story, the obsession with introducing characters that serve no discernible purpose, the striking but unmemorable designs, the way that most of the female characters talk about nothing but their breasts.  Wait, perhaps not that last one.

Anyway, I'm glad we got that figured out!  Unfortunately, it still leaves Samurai: Hunt For the Sword as nothing more than a mildly pleasing diversion that manages to be a teeny bit boring despite its brief running time.  Oh well.  I imagine the game was quite fun.

Black Lion, 1992, dir: Takashi Watanabe

Poor Oda Nobunaga!  It's one thing to get constant flack for being evil and having a sinister mustache, but you'd at least expect to be acknowledged for being a bit of a talented military strategist, what with that whole "unifying Japan" business.  But no, not if anime is to be believed; cleverness had not a thing to do with it.  Clearly Nobunaga just had an unfair advantage, whether it be demon hordes or magical powers or, in the case of the short OVA Black Lion, hugely advanced technology stolen from the future.

Now, while I feel like Nobunaga probably deserves more credit than he tends to get, I admit that I'm down with that notion.  And there's something fairly compelling about the opening scenes, in which a bunch of ninja find themselves ludicrously outclassed by minigun-toting samurai, among other high-tech horrors.  It's a preposterous setup, but it's fun - and woe on Black Lion for squandering that fun as badly as it does.  All the really interesting material gets bundled away in the first third, presumably to be developed in further episodes that would never come to pass, and for the most part what we get is a remake of The Terminator in 16th century Japan, as all the ninjas who aren't dead go up against Nobunaga's seemingly immortal ninja-killer Ginnai Doma.

And still I'd not complain about forty-five minutes of historical ninja versus cyborg action, except that it just isn't terribly good.  The animation is resolutely half-arsed, the protagonist is a brat, the direction is lifeless, and the story amounts to scene after scene of "ninjas think they've killed Ginnai Doma and then realise to their cost that they haven't."  There's some truly unpleasant gore, but the lazy art can't sell it, so that all it evokes is the odd "Ew!"  And that's a shame, because a touch of genuine horror would do much to lift the material.  I'm reminded here of the similar Ninja Resurrection, which, while far from great, at least managed to mine some impact from comparable material.

The result is frustrating more than it's anything else.  There's a far better version of this, so close that at times you feel like you could reach out and grab it, and that Watanabe so reliably dodges it is disappointing; while far from a top tier director, he was provably capable of better work.*  Black Lion isn't terrible, and I certainly wasn't bored by it, because you can only go so badly wrong with a premise like this one.  Ginnai Doma is a solid baddie, the action scenes are interesting on paper, even if they could have been done a good deal better than they are, and it's not like it looks terrible or anything.  But honestly, how you make something so resolutely mediocre from that concept is beyond me!  Shame on you, Black Lion, not to mention a definite thumbs down.

Maze, 1996, dir: Iku Suzuki

If you're going to steal, steal from the best.  And if that fails then steal from everyone, because you're bound to get something good, right?  Or so the creators of Maze appear to have decided: if ever a show was a compendium of just about every property that was being remotely successful in its vicinity, it's this one.  If you've wondered what Slayers would have been like with the gender-swapping of Ranma 1/2 and the lecherous protagonist of Urusei Yatsura (but also the tough but sweet-natured female protagonist of oh so many other shows) and also some mecha action and a fair bit of bloodshed because why not? then here's your answer.

If Maze pushes any boundary at all, it's in the level of raunchiness - which, okay, mostly just means lots of bare breasts, but there's a generally high level of gags that are in some way to do with sex, too.  Which I suppose isn't surprising when your female lead transforms into a perverted male character by night, though curiously this is something the show bothers with nary at all.  And thank goodness for that, because the gender-swapping thing really isn't funny, but the rest of Maze is.  Whether it's being crude or silly or merely surreal, there are some really good gags tucked away.  So it's a shame that the show is so bent on self-sabotage: the requirement to see every female character topless at least once grinds the action to a halt, and the couple of occasions when we meet male Maze are plain painful.  Actually, Maze-the-character's entire plot is pretty unsatisfactory, and it's what goes on elsewhere that provides all the laughs and drama.  The creators make the wise call to start heavily in media res, dumping back story via an adorable intro (complete with puppet show) narrated by the show's other main character, Princess Mill, and so we get a nice, self-contained dungeon crawl of a tale with a big old boss fight at the end, which is just right for a couple of OVA episodes.

The thing is, Maze gets a lot wrong, but when it's not doing, it's a heck of a lot of fun.  A couple of gags are genuinely brilliant, and even when it's not operating at that level - excepting male Maze, anyway - it's entirely daft and pleasurable.  It's the sort of thing I could happily have watched a lot more of, and I was grateful that Central Park Media chucked in the first episode of the series (though having it before the OVA set midway through the story would have made a damn sight more sense.)  I guess that makes for another vague recommendation, of the "If you like this sort of thing and you happen to see it cheap" variety?  Unless you have a scholarly interest towards the subject of where anime was at in the latter half of the nineties, that is, in which case its achievement of maximum possible derivativeness makes it pretty much indispensable.


I guess the fact that it's woefully hard to justify recommending these obscure, super-short releases means that the fact that I seriously do recommend hunting for Queen Emeraldas mean a little bit more than it otherwise might?  It's certainly turned me on to Leiji Matsumoto in a way that Galaxy Express 9999 didn't manage to do.  As for the rest, I think it's safe to say that Maze is the only title that might cling onto a spot in my DVD collection; looking back, Black Lion and Samurai: Hunt For the Sword weren't much cop at all, and I sincerely apologize if I gave the impression otherwise.  I mean, I don't think I did, but I can't be bothered to go back and check.

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

* Even if that better work was only Battle Skipper.

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