Sunday, 6 January 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 44

I swear that, averaged out, this stuff is getting better.  And really, so far in, that's not what you'd expect.  But when was the last post when everything was rubbish, or even mediocre?  Could it be that I've finally exhausted the dross?  Or is the - far more terrifying! - truth that, forty-some posts in, I'm still only scratching the surface, and there are no end of swells and lulls to come?  One thing's for sure, that was a heck of a bad mixed metaphor!  And you know what, I'm not going to turn my nose up at a post where everything's more good than not, so I'll stop doing that right now.

This time around: Ellcia, Super Atragon, Robot Carnival, and Master of Mosquiton...

Ellcia, 1993, dir: Noriyasu Kogawa

If there's one format I particularly love in anime that's practically unique to the medium, it's the OVA miniseries: three or four hours is such a great length to dig into an involved, complex story, yet you can watch it in an evening, without the commitment that even a half season of a regular show requires.  And this is all the truer given that anime plotting tends toward the breakneck, cramming in back story and characterisation with fierce economy.  It's fair to say that many of my favourite finds fall into this category, and for that and other reasons I was hopeful for Ellcia.

With all of that setup, I feel like I should be saying it turned out to be a disappointment, and I suppose that is where I was heading.  Yet maybe the point is more that my hopes were too high, because it's a long way from bad.  It certainly starts from an intriguing enough place.  Aided greatly by the discovery of advanced technology from an ancient age, the kingdom of Megaronia has done a merry old job of crushing its neighbours, so when the king's scholarly advisor notes that the holy book of one of the suppressed local nations has a) started spontaneously bleeding and b) talks specifically about a prophesy of Megaronia's destruction by some sort of ancient, divine ship, the king's daughter Crystel jumps to a rash conclusion: if all that's needed to lay hands on this awesome magical vessel is angering their neighbours' gods, why not do so and then pinch it for themselves?  Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, teenage pirate queen Eira is leading her plucky band of buccaneers in a half-hearted continuation of the war that killed most of their parents.  What's the betting her path's going to cross with Crystel's and that maybe she has her own connection to this mysterious ship?

Okay, so spelling it out, it does sound a bit hackneyed, though with interesting quirks: fantasy kingdoms mining the technological relics of their ancestors are at least a little out of the ordinary, as are piratical female heroes, and as plot MacGuffin relics go, giant futuristic ships make a change from magic swords (though, sure, Ellcia has one of those too.)  On the whole, however, it's elements that work rather than the whole: Crystel and Eira are solid leads, neither especially eager to slot into easy villain / hero roles, there's a grittiness to the material that keeps it from getting too trivial, and the action is lively and exciting.  Best of all, the animation is more than respectable, bolstered by distinctive design work, both of characters and of bizarre, ancient technologies.  Though on that front, one decision didn't sit well with me: Ellcia is the most singularly orange show I've seen.  I remember praising Madara for how obsessively purple its palette was, but purple is a great colour, and orange?  Not so much.  I guess it's nice to see such a conscious artistic choice being made, but man ... orange.

Really, though, Ellcia's main shortcoming is that, with a plot rife with divine prophecies and chosen ones and fetch quests and all the other clichés of epic fantasy, it doesn't do more to set itself apart.  There are fun twists and turns along the way, and yet the more it goes on, the more predictable it gets, leaving the last episode with little to do expect unravel events we effectively already know.  The result is a pleasant enough diversion if you've any affection for this sort of thing, but not exactly a standout, much as I kept hoping it might be.

Super Atragon, 1996, dir's: Kazuyoshi Katayama, Mitsuo Fukuda

To get your head around what Super Atragon is up to, it's important to grasp that it's basically being a sixties Japanese sci-fi movie a good deal more than it's being a nineties Japanese anime movie.  And this absolutely makes sense if you're familiar with its pedigree: the last time the novels it's based on were adapted, the result was the live-action Atragon, brought to the screen by Godzilla director and absolute sodding legend Ishirō Honda.*

It's really quite startling how closely Super Atragon sticks to that template in its first half, before drifting away into somewhat more familiar anime territory in its second (those parts being the two OVA episodes of which it consists, incidentally.)  For much of its running time, it's at once tremendously wacky and deathly serious, mingling outrageous science-fiction action with the sort of leaden character drama that plagued damn near every kaiju movie ever.  And unsurprisingly, the plot, which finds a Japanese supersubmarine powered by an inexplicable found energy source returning from the watery grave it was consigned to near the end of the Second World War to battle invaders from the centre of the Earth, is about as much a product of times past as anything could be.

The obvious question becomes, then: do you like sixties Japanese SF movies?  Because I sure do.  And in many ways, Super Atragon keeps up with the best of them: the sole aspect that feels like an aspect of its true time is the technological designs, which are superb, and contribute to some thrilling, imaginative sequences that would have exploded even the grandest live action budget.  By the same measure, its bombastic score, while not quite on a par with the work of Godzilla composer Akira Ifukube it's clearly emulating**, is a splendid homage that does everything it needs to.  And the film's flaws are no worse than the average better Godzilla movie: its plot wouldn't stand up to much in the way of analysis and the characters really aren't terribly interesting, alone or apart, hero Go Arisaka being particularly dull and redundant.

Oh, and it's noticeably anti-American, which might be a problem if you're American, I suppose.  And the animation, while great in places, isn't what you'd call consistent - though in fairness, the odd wonky shot is all that keeps it from the lower end of cinema quality.  But that feels a lot like nitpicking in the face of something so fundamentally enjoyable and full of neat ideas and thrilling action.  I suppose we can't pretend Super Atragon is a classic, since it's effectively a somewhat flawed pastiche of (at the time) thirty-year-old cinematic conventions.  But it's all sorts of fun for what it is, and a grand bit of mad science fiction of the sort that I, for one, totally adore.

Robot Carnival, 1987, dir's: Atsuko Fukushima, Hiroyuki Kitakubo, Hiroyuki Kitazume, Kôji Morimoto, Takashi Nakamura, Yasuomi Umetsu, Manabu Ôhashi, Hidetoshi Ômori, Katsuhiro Ôtomo

Having enthusiastically bought Robot Carnival many a moon ago based on its strong reputation, I then let it sit on my shelf because I knew I'd be reviewing it here and anthology films are a sod to review.  Do you treat each short separately?  Do you look for overarching patterns or struggle for vague generalisations?  And it's all the harder because you can just about guarantee that one or two segments won't be up to scratch, dragging down the better material.

I needn't have worried.  What surprised me most about Robot Carnival was that, despite the relative individual merits of the parts, it's remarkably solid as a movie in and of itself.  The theme helps, I suppose, though it's hardly adhered to religiously; there are a couple of episodes that would work just fine with the robots swapped out.  No, what ties it together first and foremost is the technical quality, which is outstanding.  View the film as an animation showcase and you can't be disappointed, because this is state of the art stuff for the late eighties, in many ways the last great bastion of hand-drawn animation, before computers changed things forever.  Animated on ones - that is, at the full twenty-four frames per second - it's as superlative as anything you're likely to come across, be it Disney, Ghibli, or anyone else.  Which is to say, truly gorgeous animation conducted with vast amounts of energy and glee in even its quieter moments.  And it's that air of excitement at the possibilities of the medium, outside the usual restraints of narrative, budget, or common sense, that's the strongest unifying element.  But to that you can add the score by Hayao Miyazaki's go-to guy Jo Hisaishi: having a single composer across all eight shorts is a wise choice, and picking one of the geniuses of the industry an even wiser one.

I'm still ducking talking about the content, and part of the reason is that it doesn't feel terribly useful to do so.  There are clear standouts, of course: Yasuomi "Kite" Umetsu's Presence, the most narrative-heavy piece, is a splendid bit of melancholy, and at the other end of the spectrum,  Hiroyuki Kitakubo's Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner's Invasion is gloriously daft.  Of the rest, Kitazume's feather-light Starlight Angel and the most conventional piece, Ōmori's five-minute retelling of Casshan: Robot Hunter, Deprive, are probably the weakest solely on their own merits.  But what edges Robot Carnival from good to masterpiece is that for once the shorts are perfectly ordered and work to complement each other, while nothing outstays its welcome.  For example, stick the most obviously artsy piece, Ōhashi's tale of mechanical life, the universe, and everything Cloud into another film and it might fall flat; in its context here, it's exactly the right change of pace at exactly the right time.

So, yes, you heard right: I'm calling Robot Carnival a masterpiece.  If we're being brutally honest, the caveat there is probably whether you have any love at all for animation as an art form, because it's on that level the film shines, with narrative coming a distant second.  But this is my blog and I adore hand-drawn animation about as much as I adore anything, and ninety minutes of some of anime's greats going nuts with too much money was never going to get anything less than a recommendation.  That the result is genuinely wonderful in its own right just makes it all the sweeter.

Master of Mosquiton, 1996, dir: Yûsuke Yamamoto

Anime tends to be good at filtering traditional Western genre fare and coming up with something entirely distinct-feeling, and Master of Mosquiton is a fine example of that.  Its core is a very European, Hammer-like work of vampire mythology, and the nineteen-twenties setting is certainly of a piece with that.  Yet the actual end product is altogether its own thing, while at the same time staying faithful enough to its source material not to feel like out-and-out pastiche or mockery.  Though it gets awfully close to both at times, in ways that are invariably more fun than not.

The titular master of unfortunate quarter-vampire Mosquiton is seventeen year old Inaho, who opens the first of the show's six episodes by dropping a little of her blood into his coffin and thereby binding the two of them together, with him - and by default his own superpowered underlings - as her servant.  But Mosquiton is only a means to an end for the single-minded, petulant, and self-absorbed Inaho, as much as she seems genuinely fond of her immortal factotum.  For Inaho wants to live forever too, and not as a vampire, which is kind of icky, but exactly as she is now.  She's convinced she can accomplish just that if she can only track down a mystical knickknack called the O-part, and wouldn't you know it but a pyramid's appeared in the middle of London that seems awfully like it might contain said relic.

From there, things get busier and a good deal sillier.  By the standards of these comedy-horror OVAs, of which there seem to have been no end, Master of Mosquiton actually has a fair bit of plot.  And an unexpectedly sound plot, too, one that leans more heavily into Lovecraft that Stoker, while chucking in a few real-life historical figures for good measure: Hubble is hilarious and Schrödinger's cameo downright priceless.  Unfortunately, it also has a fair bit of non-plot, most of which gets bunched toward the end, in an interlude that has Mosquiton's frequently naked vampire ex-wife turn up and Inaho get predictably jealous, resulting in precisely the short of shenanigans that this style of comedy likes to get bogged down in.  Heck, there's even a cooking contest, just like that bit in Photon where the story got put on hold for a spot of light misogyny!  Fortunately, Master of Mosquiton is quicker to pick itself back up, and also manages to wring a few genuine laughs out of such hackneyed material.  In general, it's actually pretty funny, and also surprisingly unnerving; the points where Mosquiton goes blood-crazy and turns into an evil version of himself with boggling crimson eyes have a real air of menace that the surrounding comedy doesn't dispel.  For that matter, there are even some solid emotional beats too, especially near the end.

All of this is wrapped up in animation that doesn't let the material down but never elevates it either.  The design work is fun and the historical locations actually feel as if some research went into them, but it's obvious the budget was far from huge.  The suitably jazzy score is rather better, even if it doesn't stick in the memory.  The result is a show that flirts with greatness but is mostly content to do its thing really well: it has a solid story, some genuine laughs, creepy villains and a creepier hero, and if you can tolerate the somewhat annoying Inaho, a likable cast with a nice, lived-in dynamic.  On the whole, in fact, I'd say it's probably my favourite of these comedy-horror OVAs, and were the production values a little higher or the cooking contest interlude a little shorter, I'd really be raving about it.  Nevertheless, it's an appealing title that deserves more than the utter obscurity it appears to dwell in.

-oOo-

After all those recent themed posts, it's been a pleasure to have a selection where the only unifying element is "random crap off my to-watch shelf."  And it's even nicer to have four titles together that, regardless of whether they were altogether great, I really did enjoy.  If my low points going forward were the likes of Ellcia or Master of Mosquiton then this blog series would be a joyous place!  Heck, I already want to rewatch both of them.  And Super Atragon I already have watched again, and liked just as much, while Robot Carnival immediately became a new favourite.  I seriously don't have any complaints this time around!  Mind you, with a staggering ten of these posts currently on the go, I have no idea if I'll be saying the same next time around...



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



* It's quite fun if you can track a copy a down, but definitely no Godzilla.

** Because nothing is, or will be, ever.

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