Sunday, 11 November 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 42

So you know that thing where you've spent eight hours working on a blog post and then using the keyboard shortcut to undo a change somehow deletes it, at which point Blogger autosaves and makes damn certain you won't be getting any of those hours of work back.  No?  Then you're lucky, or at least not stupid enough to draft in Blogger.  Point being, if you get a certain sense of deja vu from this post then it's because you're me and you've already written it once.  And if you do and you're not me then you're probably in the matrix or something.  Make the most of it, I'd say!  And take whichever pill it was that let's you keep on keeping on, because the real world is mostly just dodgy CGI and crap raves.

Wait, what were we talking about?  Oh right, nineties anime!  Here then, for a second time, let's take a look at: Photon: The Idiot Adventures, Domain of Murder, Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, and Agent Aika: Naked Missions...

Photon: The Idiot Adventures, 1997, dir: Kôji Masunari

For its first two episodes, Photon is awfully close to being the best version of the sort of thing it is that you could reasonably hope for.  That thing being science-fiction comedy, in which the science-fiction is genuinely ideas-laden and the comedy is genuinely amusing, and most importantly, in which neither sabotages the other.  We're rapidly introduced to quite a barrage of characters: on the desolate Sandy Planet, we have the eponymous Photon, who's both fantastically strong and dumb as bricks, and whom we first meet trying to track down his adopted sister Aun, who's also wildly stupid and currently preoccupied with stalking the latest in what we're led to suppose is a long series of random crushes.  Meanwhile, out in space, a clash between rebel pilot Keyne and the preposterously villainous Sir Papacharino Nanadan causes her ship to crash-land on a world familiar to us if not to her - and we learn enough to suspect that this is all part of a much larger piece of cosmic-level chicanery, as is Papacharino's prospective marriage to the innocent Lashara, daughter of the Galactic Emperor.

That about gets us to the end of the second episode, in a flurry of dumb jokes and cool sci-fi spectacle and adroit action sequences and intriguing world-building.  It's marvelous stuff, really, balancing tones to perfection and wrapping it all in a unique aesthetic and some often fine animation.  By the last minutes, however, Photon's big problem is present in embryonic form, as a series of misunderstandings finds Photon and Keyne married, much to Aun's displeasure; it turns out she's been harboring a crush on the dumb lunk.  And the result is a couple of episodes that lean way too heavily into comedy, and at their lowest points into the worst sorts of comedy anime has to offer.  Episode three's cooking contest between Keyne and Aun, mixed with increasingly absurd attacks from Papacharino, are actually pretty fun, though they do neither of our female protagonists many favours.  But four nosedives into my least favourite of anime scenarios, and not even three episodes of good work can save that crushing nadir of wit that is the hot springs episode.  Probably Photon's is no worse than any other, but it feels like such a dip in quality that it's that bit more painful.

Fortunately the show picks up from there, if never quite to the high level of the opening.  And I confess that on a second viewing the flaws were less galling: that rough patch isn't the catastrophe I took it for.  I remember struggling with the conclusion's switches of tone, too - it gets hellaciously dark in places - but then some of the biggest laughs come from the sheer shock of humour after something particularly bleak has occurred.  The only criticism I really stand by is that Keyne and Aun are disappointingly mistreated as characters.  They're both tough and capable when we meet them, so to see them become damsels to be saved by Photon is a colossal waste.  And the fact that the two are fawning over someone who's effectively a child, and so dim he can't tell real people and inflatable people apart, is disappointing too.  In fact, some of his scenes with the noticeably older Keyne are awfully creepy - though you do wonder if that might have been deliberate.  In a show that features quite astonishing amounts of nudity, both male and female, and much cringe-worthy violence played for laughs, you start to suspect that making the audience uncomfortable was just one more joke.

At any rate, a second viewing left me deciding that I like Photon: The Idiot Adventures a heck of a lot.  Even at its worst, its characters, humour, and imagination keep it on the rails, and at its best those qualities truly shine.  It's easy to imagine a version of Photon that would be among my absolute highlights of nineties anime - heck, you could hack it together from the existing footage, snipping that hot springs crap would do most of the job - but even the one we have is mostly wonderful.  Add to all that the fact that, thanks to Discotek, you can actually find the thing for sane money, and it becomes awfully close to essential.

Domain of Murder, 1992, dir's: Hiroshi Morioka, Iku Suzuki

Say what you like about U.S. Manga Corps, and I certainly have on numerous occasions, but I'll never cease to give them credit for the variety of their releases and the efforts they went to - deliberately or not! - to break down some of the stereotypes in the West around what anime was.  So here, for example, we have a roughly fifty minute episode adapting the ongoing crime Manga Hello Hedgehog, released under the infinitely less awesome title of this particular episode, Domain of Murder.  I'd call it a detective whodunit, but in fact we find out who did it within the first five minutes.  No, the question confronting private investigator Goro (nicknamed Hedgehog, y'see) is more one of whydunit, as a distraught woman recognises the husband who vanished from her life three years ago, after the death of their daughter, on a wanted poster for the murders of a yakuza and a bar hostess.

Actually, thinking about it, even the why of the matter gets resolved in relatively short time, leaving a thorny tangle of moral questions and escalating tragedies, all of which culminate in a well-handled showdown at an amusement park.  Domain of Murder is a cracking little thriller with surprising depth and some serious backbone, told with urgency and economy and still finding the time to keep a handle on its characters.  Hedgehog himself is a refreshing different protagonist for this sort of material, a nice guy who's that bit more tough and perceptive than he lets on.  He feels thoroughly grounded in reality, and that extends right through the material.  The animation, which I remember being critical of the first time through, is certainly stilted in places, but does a persuasive job of capturing the reality of its cast and locations, thanks especially to its detailed backgrounds, of which there are an unusual number.  In short, the budget obviously was far from huge, but it's put to use the right way, in making its drama feel real and plausible.

The result, ultimately, is nothing terribly special in a certain sense; it reminds me of the sort of feature length versions you'd get with shows like Columbo, though with the added benefit that the medium of animation means that, at a couple of crucial points like the big amusement park climax, we get scenes that would have been prohibitively expensive on a TV movie budget.  But there's another sense in which Domain of Murder is a genuine treat: a fine little thriller, told at the ideal length for its material.  It's easy to imagine this plot dragged out to an hour and a half, yet as a short OVA it's precisely right, and I actually found myself appreciating that even more on a second viewing.  Another one for the "If you stumble upon it cheap" pile then, I suppose, yet I'm thoroughly glad I got to see it and I suspect it will stay with me more than a few releases I've been more openly enthusiastic about.

Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, 1994, dir: Masami Ôbari

Let's start with some positives.  Masami Ôbari isn't a director with what anyone could consider a stellar reputation, but Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture seems to be regarded as among his less bad efforts, and that's a fair assessment.  His work here is definitely on the right side of competent, and it helps that he has a bit of a budget to muck about with; not a feature film budget by any meaningful definition, but enough for the odd genuinely impressive sequence, anyway.  And all of this is at the service of a narrative that - shock, horror! - manages to buck the interminable fighting game adaptation trend and tell something approaching an actual story.  There are no island martial arts tournaments to be seen anywhere in Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture, and that's the sort of achievement that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Um, I'm running out of positives.  The thing is, once you get past the giddy excitement of a story that doesn't just rip off Enter the Dragon and consider its job done, you start to realise that it's only because writers Yuji Matsumoto and Takashi Yamada have gone to a different well, full of equally stale water.  And weirdly, it's precisely as video-gamey: a competitive fetch-quest for six bits of magic armour isn't exactly revolutionary, now is it?  Do you think our heroes will manage to stop the villainous Laocorn from collecting them all and so turning into his ultimate super boss mode?  Do you?  Well, they won't, and if you consider that a spoiler then you really don't play video games.  The result is a plot with little to do but spin its wheels for the better part of ninety minutes, bouncing from scene to scene and chucking in the odd scrap and trying hard to develop characters that would need at least half a note more before they could fairly be described as one note.

And, look, Ôbari might have been a competent enough director on his better days, but he was still the worst character designer ever to have lived.  All of the cast look like aliens.  You can tell the men and women apart because the men have impossibly wide eyes and the women have impossibly wide eyes that are also huge.  Oh, and ginormous breasts.  Did I mention that Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture is really sexist?  I mean, by nineties anime standards, that sexist.  Like, the only female fighter is Mai Shiranui, and apparently she learned to be a ninja by correspondence course, because her sole notable ninja ability is to be saved by men.  In fact, in the edition I bought, she's literally being saved by a man on the cover of the box.  At one point she starts doing a sexy dance in a nightclub for no discernible reason.  Her character arc is that she throws herself at one of the male protagonists for ninety minutes, without success.  Her clothes fall off roughly every thirteen minutes.  I know, I timed it.  Because that's how bored I was.

There are people who consider Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture to be the best of these nineties anime fighting game adaptation things.  Those people obviously haven't seen the legitimately excellent Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge and therefore should keep their foolish opinions to themselves.  Heck, I don't know that it's even Ôbari's best stab; personally I had a lot more fun with Battle Arena Toshinden, which for all its flaws was at least enlivened by a spot of genuinely interesting animation.  I wasn't exactly positive about this one the first time through, but on a rewatch it was, frankly, a right old slog.  If you skipped the middle two paragraphs of this review then let's just say that neither "not the worst Masami Ôbari film" nor "not the laziest nineties anime video game adaptation" should be taken as a recommendation.

Agent Aika: Naked Missions, 1997, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

I'm tempted to suggest that Agent Aika does itself no favours, but I suspect that its creators knew exactly what they were up to and that the end result is more or less precisely what they had in mind.  Which is to say that, as much as any rational adult will find its levels of cheap titillation silly and distracting, they're nevertheless the sole reason the thing exists.  And ludicrous as it seems that the plot has to be arrested every seven seconds for a glimpse of panties or down a character's cleavage, there was surely a producer somewhere grumbling about all that plot nonsense getting in the way of his ogling.

And look, lest it appear I'm being prudish, that seven seconds wasn't any sort of exaggeration.  It really is staggering the lengths that Agent Aika puts itself to in service of ensuring that we the viewer be treated to as much underwear and nudity as we can possibly stomach.  This becomes abundantly clear in the first minute, when an expository scene on a tour boat is filmed from some impossible angle that allows us a good view up the announcer's skirt.  Mere seconds later we're being introduced to our two heroines, Aika and Rion, with shots of their crotches and a fakeout wherein we're led to believe that one of them is performing oral sex upon the other, when in fact they're just piloting a submarine in awfully impractical clothing.

Yet like much anime that swears blindly it's just here to let us gawp at under-dressed ladies, Agent Aika insists on distracting itself with some decent storytelling.  For the world that the announcer at the start was introducing us to is an interesting one, wherein much of Japan lies underwater in the wake of a catastrophe and teams of salvagers - Aika and Rion among them - hunt through the ruins for whatever technological wonders can be recovered.  It's not rewriting any rules, but it's a fun concept, and Aika and Rion are fun characters among a fun cast, and really the only thing that isn't fun is the unrelenting faux-sexiness of it all, which is just too damn much.  Even for the presumed target audience, I refuse to accept that there wouldn't come a point when the umpteenth shot of underpants would grow wearisome.

But here we are, three paragraphs in, and I haven't even mentioned that Aika has a bustier that's actually a symbiotic technological life-form, which temporarily strips her so that she can turn into super-Aika and then runs out of steam at the most inopportune moments.  Or that the villain is sleeping with his sister and has a ship that can turn into a space rocket.  Or that the whole thing feels like a James Bond pastiche made by someone whose knowledge of the franchise extended solely to Moonraker.  If that all sounds terribly stupid then it certainly is: Agent Aika isn't good by any possible stretch of the word, and the only thing that could have really edged it in that direction, some properly superlative animation, is nowhere to be found.  Yet it's certainly committed wholeheartedly to being the thing it is.  And I don't know, maybe it's the presence of Project A-Ko helmer Katsuhiko Nishijima at the tiller, but that thing could be a hell of a lot worse if it tried.  Let's put it this way: if something like Agent Aika truly has to exist, I'd rather it be as gleeful and campy and self-indulgent as this is, and as often as it annoyed me, I couldn't bring myself to actually dislike it.

-oOo-

The weird conclusion of this story is that it was kind of nice to have to rewatch four titles I wouldn't necessarily have paid that level of attention to otherwise, and even sort of okay to have to rewrite these reviews.  To the extent that, when I made the same stupid mistake a couple of weeks ago and deleted another basically finished post, I only screamed a little.  The moral?  Nineties anime is great, Blogger is a goddamn travesty, and I've finally got it through my thick skull that I need to back up draft blog posts.

As should be obvious from the reviews, Photon, Domain of Murder, and even Agent Aika really did stand up to being revisited.  And the Fatal Fury movie, which I'd thought was about okay on a first viewing, did not remotely endure for a second.  Then again, out of the four, Photon is probably the only clear-cut recommendation: I liked it the first time but was overly conscious of its flaws, whereas by the end of the second watch I'd concluded that it's actually something of a treasure, albeit a minor one.

Next time, we'll hopefully be back to normal levels of abnormality, since it's going to be a fair old while before I rebuild that second post - which thankfully was mostly made up of stuff I genuinely want to rewatch anyway!  Though one of them was four hours long...



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

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