Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 45

Personally I thought the eighties were rubbish at the time.  My abiding childhood memory of the decade is waking up in the middle of a thunder storm and thinking nuclear war had kicked off, which I'd argue shouldn't be anyone's abiding childhood memory of any decade ever.  Yet it's hard to be really in love with nineties anime without acknowledging that eighties anime was up to some pretty cool stuff too, what with the nature of linear time and everything, and it's just as hard to truly understand the nineties stuff without getting a handle on what came before.  And yes, I realise this absolutely doesn't get us nearer to an end point for this series.  I mean, what's next, a seventies special?  The sixties?  Was there nineteen-forties anime?

Yup, it's the obsession that keeps on giving, all right, or possibly the hole that has no bottom.  Either way, this time around we'll be looking at: Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the PocketGoShogun: The Time ÉtrangerLily C.A.T, and Arcadia of My Youth...

Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, 1989, dir: Fumihiko Takayama

For anyone wondering why it's taken me more than forty of these posts to get to perhaps the biggest franchise in all of anime, well, it's very simple.  You see, at my school, you were either a Macross kid or a Gundam kid, and woe betide anyone who crossed from one camp to the other.  Every day in the playground, we'd strap ourselves into cardboard recreations of our favourite bipedal war machines and battle with lasers and missiles - or rather, silly string and thrown polystyrene cups.  This would go on until the dinner ladies broke up our frantic interstellar conflicts, at which point we'd retire inside for pancakes and peanut butter.

Actually, that's an obvious lie.  The reason I'm only now dipping a toe into the boundless ocean of Gundam is because there's too damn much of it and I was scared.  However, once I stumbled across a couple of releases that were rumoured to be fairly standalone, I knew the time had come.  And that introductory nonsense wasn't altogether for nothing: War in the Pocket, the six part OVA made to celebrate the show's ten year anniversary, is very much about the notion of kids thinking that giant robots battering each other is just the best damn thing.  One in particular is the show's focus, young Al Izuruha, who by the start of the second episode has befriended a crash-landed pilot named Bernie after a violent clash on his supposedly neutral artificial homeworld.  Al is only too eager to help Bernie and his mercenary mates in their hunt for a secret weapon that the enemy appears to have stashed somewhere nearby, but it's not long before the consequences - and the casualties - begin to stack up.

So it's a coming of age tale then, along with something of an antiwar parable; Al's harsh lesson that dead isn't something you play is the heart of a story that prefers to operate on a small scale and at ground level, emphasising not the coolness of its robots but their appalling size and capacity for inadvertent destruction.  And this is an approach I'm totally behind, as well as an extraordinary surprise from a three decade old OVA from a franchise about giant robots punching each other.  We're awfully close here to exactly what I'd want from a tale like this, enough so that I'm kicking myself for a lifetime of Gundam neglect.  This is gloriously serious stuff told with the resources you'd expect of an anniversary release and with the benefit of some phenomenal talent.  I was frequently reminded of two of my favourite anime, Wings of Honneamise and Orguss 02, and it turns out there's a good reason: War in the Pocket shares the scriptwriter from the former and the director from the latter.

With all of that, it's not perfect.  For a start, it's wildly dreadful science fiction of the sort that cheerfully expects you to believe that people living on a space station as long as a small nation will still use wired phones and drive about in cars.  And while the characters and backgrounds are terrific in and of themselves, the former do have a tendency to appear as though they're floating on the latter.  For that matter, I suppose there are some storytelling mishaps as well: a budding romance between opposing pilots who don't know they're opposing pilots feels like it's stretching for one dramatic irony too many.  And the music is fine, but it doesn't always seem to get that this isn't supposed to be rousing fun.  Yet those are niggles compared with how War in the Pocket contorts the conventions of giant robot anime to tell a deeply personal story about growing up and learning that war is good, above all, for robbing people of the things they love.  That a show like this can exist is a great example of why I adore anime, and since it's even been recently re-released, it's pretty much a must-buy.

GoShogun: The Time Étranger, 1985, dir: Kunihiko Yuyama

One of my passions as a writer is imagining how real, functioning people would behave if they were trapped within the confines of pulp fiction, the sort of stories where traumas are shrugged off effortlessly and scars heal overnight and the general level of psychological insight is as deep as the average puddle.  This is something anime has done a uniquely good job of exploring: we need only look to the seminal Neon Genesis Evangelion, which concludes in no uncertain terms that what would really happen if you told a teenager to pilot a giant robot and save the world is that their poor young mind would snap like a dried-up rubber band.  That's not everyone's cup of tea, I'll admit, but for me it's fascinating: silly stories are fine, but sometimes you need to step back and plug in genuine emotions, to recognise how innately ridiculous and fallacious it all is.

Now, this isn't quite the game The Time Étranger is playing, but it's certainly a big part: revisiting a long-running, thoroughly daft-looking giant robot show* from an infinitely more mature perspective, treating its characters with the gravity normally reserved for bleak European art house movies.  And even that barely gets us halfway, if only because the film is up to a lot, all of it interesting.  Our protagonist is Remy Shimada, one-time pilot of the GoShogun and now, forty years later ... well, we never quite find out where Remy's at now, and the only sure fact we're allowed is that she turned down a medal in recognition of her heroism.  This also happens to be all anyone else remembers about her, more so even than why she was up for a medal in the first place - and if that feels like it might be significant then, yeah, you're getting the idea.  Anyway, Remy is on her way to a reunion with her former buddies when she suffers a car accident, brought on by a severe illness that alone would have been life-threatening.  Both together leave her in a hospital bed with at most a couple of days to live.

Ah, but meanwhile a much younger Remy is in a hotel room in a phantasmagorical Middle Eastern city, and she hasn't been there long before she's informed that she'll be dead in two days, and her death will be indescribably nasty, and there isn't a thing she can do.  Remy, being a former superhero, doesn't take this news lying down, but everyone she meets is quick to point out that, struggle all she might, fate is fate.  And also meanwhile, an even younger Remy is battling to survive on the streets after the death of her prostitute mother, and doesn't even younger Remy look like the creepy kid who's trying to persuade young Remy that her death is just around the corner and she better damn well accept it?

It's a head game, then, basically, and quite literally so in its central section.  It's also a character study of a really terrific character, and on top of that it's a dissection of superhero mythology, asking deeply pertinent questions about where old heroes go once the heroics are done with.  But within all of that, it's fun, and often funny, and brashly exciting, and frequently horrifying, juggling a complex array of tones that frankly I wouldn't have expected in a million years from the future director of Pokémon: The First Movie.  Oh, and it looks stunning; very eighties of course, because it was the eighties, but the animation is consistently superb, with an attention to weight and physicality that only really committed animators tend to get right.

In short, The Time Étranger is masterpiece.  A minor one, I suppose, since there's something innately audience-limiting about a Bergman-esque tale of life, death, and everything in-between that's also a sequel to a big, dumb giant robot show.  Then again, The Time Étranger couldn't have the heft it does without the knowledge that it's a sequel to a big, dumb giant robot show.  Its starting point is an assault on the very notion of sequelling such material.  Anyway, it's brilliant, and if someone had told me it was the long-lost debut of Mamoru Oshii or Satoshi Kon I'd have been infinitely less surprised than I would have been to hear that this is what the guy who made pretty much every Pokémon movie ever could have been doing.  It's extraordinary stuff, it's readily available, and it deserves a place in any anime collection, so for goodness' sake hurry up and grab a copy.

Lily C.A.T, 1987, dir: Hisayuki Toriumi

For the first fifteen minutes or so, it seems like Lily C.A.T is going to be the most blatantly plagiaristic thing you've ever seen.  And this is surprising, because though anime in the eighties and nineties lifted heavily from Western influences - you can't watch a lot from those decades and not realise that The Terminator, the Alien movies, and Blade Runner had a major cultural impact in Japan - nevertheless the tendency is to tweak rather than pillage, often by incorporating recognizably Eastern ingredients to flesh the material out in unexpected ways.  But for a good quarter of an hour, Lily C.A.T has none of that: it's Alien, plain and simple, with the only meaningful changes being that the space parasite in question is picked up in transit and that in this future, everyone dresses like it's 1987 and will be forever.

Lily C.A.T never gets more original, but it does do something interesting in itself: while it doesn't stop cribbing from Alien, it does begin to steal from other places as well, until the range of influences becomes exciting in its own right.  I mean, imagine what Alien would look like if you threw in The Thing, 2001, Joe Haldeman's sci-fi classic The Forever War, the previous year's They Were Eleven, and Midnight Run - which, okay, came out the year after and so couldn't have been an influence, but I can't think of an earlier example for that particular cliché.  The point being, if you fling enough influences together, the result inevitably becomes sort of unique.  And Alien, but with the monster from The Thing and the time dilation mechanics of The Forever War and the "not everyone's who they seem to be!" gimmick from They Were Eleven and no end of scenes pilfered from 2001 and a bit where a cop and a crook have to team up though they hate each other is a whole 'nother thing from just a straight-up Alien rip-off.

Does any of this make Lily C.A.T good?  That's harder to say.  It's nicely animated, with a somewhat realistic style, a nod to sensible spaceship design, and some efficient scenes of horror, much more so that animation tends to achieve.  Toriumi is a dab hand at building atmosphere and tension, and there are a couple of genuine shocks in here, along with some effectively unnerving sequences and a bit of truly shocking gore.  And the mad confluence of influences at least makes it tough to predict: you can see the general shape of what Lily C.A.T will be within the first five minutes, but its refusal to stick to any one mode provides plenty of twists along the way.  Plus it takes itself seriously, which turns out to be beneficial: there's nothing worse than the knowing rip-off that feels a need to nod and wink.

Beyond that, I suppose the most I can say is that I enjoyed it.  There's only so much I can criticise a good, well-animated Alien rip-off that brings a few interesting (if also stolen) ideas to the table.  I've seen it declared a lost classic and a total travesty and the truth is nearer the middle: it's a solid slice of eighties anime that really could have done to hew to its influences less closely.  Hardly indispensable then, but a solid way to pass a little over an hour.**  Oh, but if you're a cat lover - yeah, maybe you'll want to skip this one.

Arcadia of My Youth, 1982, dir: Tomoharu Katsumata

Arcadia of My Youth has a reputation for being both epic and a classic of its era, and it's certainly both of those things.  At a stonking one hundred and thirty minutes, it's certainly not skimping on running time, and it's easy to see why the story has stuck with so many, even nearly four decades after its release: on the one hand, we have something of an origin tale for Leiji Matsumoto's beloved hero Captain Harlock and a number of the Harlock-verse's core elements and relationships.  On the other, there's a huge narrative of a resistance war for Earth against alien invaders, one with plenty of real world parallels.  And in case anyone should miss them, they're hammered home in no uncertain terms by the flashbacks to Harlock's gloriously named ancestor Phantom F. Harlock as a World War Two pilot, which open the movie and remain a thread throughout.

When Arcadia of My Youth was first released in the US, it was under the less poetic title Vengeance of the Space Pirate and with forty minutes, including the opening Phantom F. Harlock prologue, excised.  And though this is a testament to the crappy way anime and anime viewers were treated in those days - the WW2-era material is among the film's best - it also raises certain doubts about how much absolutely needs to be here.  Because the truth is that one hundred and thirty minutes is a heck of a running time for what's an awfully slender story, especially if you do choose to ignore the historical aspects.  Harlock lands on Earth as effectively a prisoner of war, hooks up with the resistance, guided by old flame Maya, and eventually intervenes in the battle for another planet under the aliens' occupation.

In a sense, then, the epic-ness happens mostly on the level of heightened emotions: for better or worse, these are mythic characters caught up in a self-consciously mythic universe.  How you respond to that is entirely personal - I'm slowly warming to Matsumoto's shtick - but the fact remains that there are definite issues on a storytelling level.  At the risk of sounding like the dumbasses who sanctioned Vengeance of the Space Pirate, this material could do to be a little more pacy and action-packed.  There are odd moments of delirious excitement - the first launch of the Arcadia is giddy space opera at its finest - but they're few and far between, and too lumped among all that weighty mythic-ness.  And there are other issues too, foremost that nobody really does a great deal.  That's especially, dispiritingly true of the female characters: at one point, Emeraldas even explains to Maya that everyone would have done much the same had she just minded her own business.

At any rate, there's no faulting the production values.  Actually, as much as I'm warming to Matsumoto's very specific design ethos, the characters look a little horrible in motion, with their overly squashed-up faces; but the backgrounds, and particularly the preposterous spaceships, are utterly marvelous, and worth the price of admission alone.  And while the score is good enough, fine use is made of a handful of pieces by composer Antonín Dvořák that do an exemplary job of elevating the material to that legendary register it's so keen to gain.  Put it all together and you have a film that certainly succeeds in its aims, and strikingly so in its better moments.  It's only a shame it didn't also set out to be a bit more fun, or give its characters a little agency.  As such, Queen Emeraldas remains my favourite bit of Harlockana, but I'm glad I tracked this one down.

-oOo-

God damn it, I'm becoming an eighties anime nerd, aren't I?  With an end to this trawl through anime history actually somewhere in sight, that's the last thing I needed.  Although, let's face it, if that means I have to watch stuff like Gundam: War in the Pocket and The Time Étranger then I could be wasting my life in infinitely worse ways.  The latter, in particular, went straight into not only the upper tier of my anime favourites but my favourite movies full stop.  In fact, given that time and capitalism have ensured that any eighties anime you can buy today is sure to be pretty respectable, there's an argument that says this might actually go better than the nineties stuff.

No!  That way lies madness!  Next time: back to nineties anime!



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



* Though they don't feel the need to mention the fact anywhere on the packaging, Eastern Star's recent DVD release actually also includes the GoShogun film from 1982, which is basically two episodes cobbled together with scraps from here and there and some weirdly hilarious fake in-universe trailers.  It's an amusing watch that does a respectable job of providing the necessary background for The Time Étranger, but mostly what it's good for is underlining how The Time Étranger is not a damn thing like GoShogun.

** Or 91 minutes, if you believe the wholly dishonest packaging. ***

*** And my major takeaway from this post is that whoever's writing the cover material at Eastern Star ought to be out on their ear, because they suck at their job.

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