Sunday, 9 December 2018

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 43

I suppose it was inevitable that, the more I try to swear off themed posts, the more I end up coming up with ideas for them - and the sillier those themes get.  This time was largely accidental, I swear, as I got three quarters of the way through and realised that everything I'd reviewed had one notable feature in common.

Anyway, there's probably no talking my way out of this one.  So here for your delectation, as demanded by nobody ever, is the Drowning in Nineties Anime Sexploitation Special.  Yes!  We have gratuitous fan service!  We have lecherous detectives!  We have actual hentai!  And more!  All in Agent Aika: Final Battle, City Hunter: The Motion Picture, Rei Rei, and Kite...

Agent Aika: Final Battle, 1998, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

The most damning criticism I have of Agent Aika: Final Battle - which coincidentally may be the most damning criticism I've had of anything ever - is that it makes the first volume, Agent Aika: Naked Missions, seem a good deal better than it was.  And this is frustrating because in a number of significant ways it does precisely what I'd have wanted from a sequel to that most notorious of fan-service-heavy shows: it tones down the panty-flashing and partial nudity, ups the animation quality considerably, and shifts the emphasis marginally more in the direction of narrative and character.

Which would be wonderful, except the narrative isn't very good and the characters feel wrong in small but noticeable ways and the one new addition is appalling, a teenage boy who communicates solely through the soft toy he carries everywhere, though no-one feels the need to comment on the fact, much less wonder where the hell he came from.  And the story, though appealingly meta on the face of things, just flat-out doesn't work: bringing back the army of sexy girl minions from the first volume as antagonists in their own right speaks to a misunderstanding of one of the better jokes from Naked Missions, which was that they were pretty much just doing their jobs and couldn't have cared less about world-threatening plots.  It feels awfully desperate as a sequel hook, and the show never invests in it very deeply, or seems to know what it wants to be.  In fact, it's startling how much of the original setup gets dumped: the setting now basically appears to be the present day, our heroes are salvagers in name only, and most damningly, Aika doesn't even have her sentient liquid metal underwear!  I mean, what's Agent Aika without sentient liquid metal underwear?  When that signature garment reappears in the last of the three episodes, along with most of the cast of the first volume, it seems more like a frantic Hail Mary pass than a legitimate return to form.

If we're being absolutely honest, it turns out that watering down Agent Aika was not the way to go.  In retrospect, its absurdity and crassness were an integral part of what campy charms it had.  There may not be that much competition for the title of best soft porn Moonraker remake but, by damn, Naked Missions certainly earned it.  Final Battle is still silly, but forcedly so, trying to wring laughs from a plot that doesn't earn them and scenarios that bend the characters too far out of shape.  And I find myself forced into the awkward position of realising that, terrible as it was, I kind of enjoyed the first volume and feel a touch sad that this was all the sequel it got.  Clearly I need to go away and meditate under a waterfall or something, or maybe sit through a Studio Ghibli marathon to remind myself of what a noble and dignified medium anime can be.  In the meantime, my ever-so-slight fondness for Agent Aika remains untarnished, and this isn't the Agent Aika I know.

City Hunter: The Motion Picture, 1997, dir: Kenji Kodama

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that City Hunter: The Motion Picture is in no way "the motion picture" at all, and that this is merely another in a long line of titling con jobs, this one an attempt by ADV to disguise that what they were shilling was another of those TV specials that I've been quite critical of around these parts, one with the actual title of Goodbye My Sweetheart.  And the second important thing you need to know is that you can safely ignore the first thing.  Shockingly, to all intents and purposes, this really might as well be the City Hunter movie, in a manner that sets it totally apart from its shabby predecessors.  This is precisely what I'd have wanted from a film-length entry to the franchise, if we ignore the fact that until now what I wanted was that it would crawl into a hole and die.

Point being: The Motion Picture is a huge step up in every meaningful way from the likes of .357 Magnum.  It certainly looks a damn sight better, with realistic designs that evoke more what a studio of serious intentions like Production I.G. would do with this material than the show's traditional aesthetic, and some genuinely nice character work, both of which combine to make the abstracted drifts into comedy that bit more effective.  The animation, while not quite up to cinema standards, is exceptionally solid, especially during the action-packed finale, where that extra quality really pays dividends.  The music brings plenty of style to the table, adding to the overall sense that this was intended to be a good deal more prestigious than those knocked-out TV movies.  Coming a year after the mediocre Secret Service, the difference is startling, as is the degree to which Kodama upped his directorial game.

But, even more astonishingly, it's the narrative that really impresses.  It struck me while watching that these nineties anime mega-franchises were very much complex machines prone to backfiring at the smallest slip.  Relying as they do on a series of interlocking gimmicks, they really need every part to be just so to function at their best, at least unless they go down the Beautiful Dreamer route and chuck out the rules entirely.  City Hunter: The Motion Picture opts for the first option, deploying its bag of genre tricks with meticulous precision.  Ryo's characteristic lechery is kept in check enough that he never seems like a total jerk; the humour is deployed sparingly and knowingly; the action scenes are staged with attention to detail rather than being lumped in for the sake of it.  And all of that's at the service of a genuinely good thriller plot.  The worst you can say is that it massively rips off Speed, released three years earlier, and yet "Speed but on a train and with the cast of City Hunter" turns out to be no bad thing at all.  In short, this was good enough to turn me around on a show I basically hated.  City Hunter fan or no, it definitely warrants a look, as that rarest of beasts that is the franchise movie per excellence.

Rei Rei, 1993, dir: Yoshiko Yamamoto

So look, I know I said a while back that I definitely wasn't going to start reviewing hentai here.  And I meant it, I did.  But then I saw a release from Kiseki Films, the short-lived and deeply weird and tacky distributor behind some of my very favourite - and also most hated! - releases, and I couldn't resist.  Er, plus it was cheap.  But this is it, I promise!  I probably won't even review the other release on the disk, the imaginatively named Gigolo*, since it looks mind-bogglingly awful.  This here is the beginning and end of this blog's dalliance with anime pornography, there's no doubt about it.

Except that if it's all as good as Rei Rei then ... I dunno, maybe I shouldn't be making promises I'm not willing to keep?  These two episodes were a ton of fun, and made me laugh more than plenty of anime that set out to do merely that.  For that matter, the animation was a good bit better than I was expecting, with a notable lack of shortcuts and some subtle attention to character detail.  And look, I really don't want to get bogged down in this aspect too much, but the sex stuff was perfectly fine too.  No more explicit that the average episode of Game of Thrones, not remotely nasty or exploitative, and commendably varied for what amounts to a handful of scenes over less than an hour: I counted girl on boy, girl on girl, boy on boy, boy on goddess, girl on goddess, boy on weird troll guy, and goddess on tentacle-monster action, in so much as I was counting at all.  Because yes, in a no doubt unfair reinforcement of my prejudices, there were tentacles.  But it's actually a fun scene, and Kaguya certainly didn't seem to be complaining, so I guess we're okay.

And, of right, I haven't even covered the plot!  Kaguya, you see, is the goddess of love, and in order to keep the Moon orbiting the Earth or some nonsense, she interferes in the affairs of unfulfilled mortals with the aid of her assistant Pipi.  In the first episode, she strives to help a teenage boy win the girl of his dreams and extricate her from a relationship with a murderous female doctor - I was dreading the sort of gay panic that's the punchline to way too much nineties anime, but Rei Rei goes in a much different and vastly more entertaining direction.  Part two, in which another nerdy boy is failing to seal the deal with his longterm girlfriend, is equally silly and weird: as with the first one, the premise goes into far odder places than you might expect.  (Put it this way, that's where the tentacles show up.)  Kaguya is a rather wonderful protagonist, clearly interfering in mortal affairs for the fun of it despite her philosophical ramblings about lunar physics and moral responsibility.  Another review I came across refers to her as a less inhibited Urd from Oh! My Goddess, and that's pretty much spot on.  I could cheerfully have watched more of her adventures, I've no regrets about the three pounds I splashed out on them, and if you should happen to see the DVD for approximately the same price, you could certainly do worse.

Kite, 1998, dir: Yasuomi Umetsu

I wasn't expecting to enjoy Kite, a title I'd purposefully skipped over in the past and then forgotten existed and finally decided to check out from the spirit of completeness that's dragging these posts ever closer to the half century mark.  In so much as it's remembered today, it's as the title that featured gross sex scenes with an underage girl (and in the least cut and largely banned version, also an extremely underage girl) or else as the title that was heavily censored for its initial US release.  Dig deeper and the waters get muddier, in that there are those who claim Umetsu was leaned on to include the explicit sex scenes to get funding, meaning that the five minute shorter version is actually more faithful to his original vision.  But even with them excised, there are plenty who'll find Umetsu's tale of a teenage girl forced to mete out vigilante justice by a crooked, pedophile cop and his even viler partner less than savoury.

Those people are quite right: Kite's a nasty piece of work.  Its subject matter is gravely unpleasant, it has no likable characters, or even characters who aren't one shade or another of monster, and that some of them are very evidently man-made monsters makes the whole work that bit more depressing, as does a general mood of cynicism and cruelty that carries through all the way until the bitter end.  Add in some staggeringly gory action scenes, which get much bloody mileage from the notion of time-delayed explosive bullets, and what little sexual content that remains - quite enough, by the way, to convey the necessary narrative points - and the result is forty-five minutes of difficult watching.

I'm tempted to go down the shallowest route and say that what saves Kite, or at least shifts it from being vile misery-porn to legitimate entertainment, is Umetsu's extraordinary sense of style, coupled with smooth, detailed animation that's as near as damn it to feature film quality as you're likely to see in an OVA, not to mention a jazzy score that sounds like it's wandered in from a Jean-Pierre Melville flick.  And there's some truth to that, if you the right sort of viewer: Umetsu's undeniable talents make a piece that could be merely nasty into one that balances its thrills and more low-key elements expertly.  Beyond a generally high level of ingeniousness - the central set piece is a minor masterpiece of action choreography - Umetsu gets excellent mileage from protagonist Sawa's vulnerability, pitting her against men who physically dwarf her and so rely on their size and weight, unable to see her as other than a victim.  Schoolgirl assassins are ten a penny in anime, of course, but Kite is up there with the excellent Gunslinger Girl for capitalizing on that asymmetry and using it to actually say something meaningful.

Indeed, what elevates those action sequences saves the rest of the material too: we're not allowed to forget at any point that Sawa remains a child, both physically and mentally.  As much as she has an adult's world-weary cynicism and as much as she's forced frequently into adult situations of one shade or another, we're allowed glimpses of another aspect: not innocence so much as incompleteness, as though her experiences have left hollows that won't ever be filled.  It's a grim notion, as most of Kite is grim, but it at least avoids the sin that would have made the material unwatchable, which is treating abuse lightly or naively.  At its core, it's a study of that Stockholm Syndrome-esque phenomenon that turns victims into the sort of not-quite-victims that are awfully hard to fit on any kind of straightforward moral spectrum.  With that in mind, it's safe to say that Kite is absolutely not for everyone, even in its cut version.  But those stunning action scenes, the terrific animation, and a degree of complexity that elevates it from being mere exploitation are enough to make me hesitantly recommend it.  At any rate, it's certainly one that's going to stay with me.


Perhaps the most disturbing thing here is that not only did I decide to put together a sexploitation special, I gave nearly everything a glowing review, even Rei Rei, which I think it's safe to assume no-one has ever given a glowing review to before now.  Worse yet, my major complaint about the second volume of Agent Aika was that it wasn't as good as the first volume of Agent Aika, one of the most notoriously disreputable bits of nineties anime there ever has been.

Obviously this blog series is in need of major course correction, I probably could do with a quiet lie down in a darkened room, and I'll have to come up with something appropriately serious and clean-minded for next time.  Maybe that Gundam special I'm working on.  There's no sex in Gundam, right?  Giant robot sex totally doesn't count.

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

* It really, really was.

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