Thursday, 14 February 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 46

I've got behind on these posts again!  Honestly, I've so many of them on the go, and so much stuff to watch on the shelf, and the only real lesson I've taken away from all this is that you should never start collecting anything ever, even if it's awesome and provides you with deep and abiding joy and makes the world a better place and goddammit now I want to watch more nineties anime.  This is madness!  Send help!

This time: Eight Clouds Rising, Babel II, Please Save My Earth, and My Dear Marie...

Eight Clouds Rising, 1997, dir: Tomomi Mochizuki

My latest weird nineties anime obsession - should that be weird nineties anime sub-obsession? - is tracking down titles from Media Blasters subdivision Anime Works, out of all the major distributors of the time surely the one with least quality control or sense of shame.  And yes, that's really saying something: but if a title was released that was unfinished, or a tie-in web series, or the prologue to a video game not released outside of Japan, or just plain awful, there are good odds it would come out under their label.  Yet on the flip side, much like U. S. Manga Corps, their frequently weird choices also threw up plenty of minor gems that might never have made it to the West in more discriminating hands.

Case in point, Eight Clouds Rising, a Manga adaptation that leaves most of the story untold and instead serves as a two-episode prologue, establishing characters, conflict, and setting.  Which would suck were it not for the fact that they're very good characters navigating a well-developed conflict, and if the setting of a village in rural Japan is hardly one we've never seen before, it's at least brought to life with some distinctive artwork.  Really, that's Eight Clouds Rising all over: familiar in almost every detail and distinguished by being a little better than most similar titles and a little smarter and more adult in its approach.  That extends from the character designs to the interpersonal drama to the convoluted historical back story.  It felt to me a lot like an updating of Dark Myth, which I've a ton of time for even if no one else has, and also a Japanese take on The Wicker Man if the villagers were basically in the right.

Given the rather steady, meticulous approach, there isn't much space left in less than an hour for set pieces or lavish moments, but what we do get is striking.  The bloody familial ritual that opens the second episode is a grueling bit of horror made effective largely because we've had extra time to get to know the characters.  A clash in a nighttime forest immediately after works for largely the same reasons.  It's actually nice to see this kind of story told in a relatively intimate fashion: coming to it after the dreary apocalyptic drama of the X TV series, I have to admit that was a relief.  Yet the result remains something that probably only Anime Works would have bothered with: pleasant for what it is but too short to be the treat that another hour or two operating at the same level might have resulted in.  Like so much of their catalogue, it's the sort of title you might have picked up at a rental store and enjoyed despite its running time, but with copies tough to track down now, it's inevitably bound for total obscurity - and that's kind of a shame.

Babel II, 1992, dir: Yoshihisa Matsumoto

Normally I'm loathe to buy dub-only releases.  I'd always rather hear the original voice actors, and honestly it seems to me that there's something kind of wrong about wanting to enjoy the culture of another country without the language.  But mostly it's because I usually find American dubs pretty cheesy.  So I was all set to splash out on Discotek's recent blu-ray re-release of Babel II, until I read some less than positive reviews and watched the less than overwhelming trailer.  Plus, I tend to go for the original releases where I can, to add that bit of extra authenticity to my nineties anime experience or somesuch nonsense.  Point being, when a thoroughly ancient-looking "perfect"* collection appeared for not much money, I decided to bend my rules.

I needn't have worried.  Yes, the dub is cheesy, but so is the material; at worst I was grating a bit of Parmesan onto an already laden four cheese pizza.  Babel II is so goofy and of its time that it almost feels like parody at points: when our psychic hero's three guardians arrived and they were a giant robot, a black panther, and a dragon, I couldn't keep from chuckling.  What could sum up the fantasies of a teenage boy in the nineties better than that?  In fact, you can largely predict the plot by guessing what said teenage boy would want to happen next.  The only exception is the initial setup, which threatens to be something smarter: nearly inducted by a cult of super-powered individuals, young Koichi realises their leader's sinister intentions, only to discover in short order that he's the successor to the biblical Babel, who was really a space alien you see, and built his namesake tower as an antenna to reach out to his own kind, only to have it torn down by dumb earthlings.

I mean, okay, that's a ridiculous premise, but at least it's novel, and the first episode lays it out intriguingly, keying us in to the bigger picture only as Koichi himself discovers it.  So it's shocking that by the end of the second, the Babel stuff has vanished, never to return, and what replaces it is lots of punching and shouting and psychic attack volleyball, held together by nothing much beside one of anime's most tepid romance subplots.  Really, it's staggering how much Babel II squanders its better elements, even at the cost of narrative logic: Koichi routinely forgets he has basically unlimited superpowers and insists on fighting alone against overwhelming odds when he has a dragon, giant robot, and shadow-panther presumably just cooling their heels somewhere off camera.

At least it looks pretty good.  There's enthusiastic use of colour and the budget was obviously none too stingy.  However, even there, director Matsumoto leans too heavily into the sorts of animation shortcuts that were already old hat by 1992, so that many a solid shot has the life sucked out of it by being followed by a needlessly crummy one.  All told, Babel II is a title that just can't stop shooting itself in the foot.  And the worst of it is, there's a fun show crying to get out here; a cheesy, stupid, nineties-teenager-endorsed one to be sure, but still fun.  I was, after all, a teenager in the nineties, and a part of my soul responded with glee to the cool musical sting that played when the title came up each episode, not to mention those preposterous companions.  At half it's length, Babel II would have offered some solid entertainment, but with only a couple of good ideas that it mostly ignores, there's nowhere near enough here to fill two hours.

Please Save My Earth, 1993, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

The first thing you notice about Please Save My Earth is that it's gorgeous.  And that should come as no real surprise: not only was this an adaptation of a monumentally popular manga, it was created by Production I.G., around the same time that studio were producing such visually extraordinary work as Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell.  More than anything, no-one animates the human form better than I.G. do, and that's a huge boon for material more concerned with its characters than almost anything else, and which troubles itself with action only in brief spurts.  Though when it comes, it's a reminder that there's something else Production I.G. were in the top tier of: a clash between psychics toward the end is perhaps my favourite example of that overdone trope, genuinely capturing the sense of people with extraordinary powers trying to tear each other apart with their minds.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  What we have here is a six episode OVA with an appealingly grabby concept: a group of teens come to discover from their shared dreams of other lives that they are in fact the reincarnations of a bunch of alien scientists who until recently were monitoring the Earth from a base on the moon, until they were struck down by a tragedy that's only revealed in doled out snippets.  You might expect that mystery to be the focus, but rather the cast - including seven-year-old Rin, who's up to his second reincarnation - take centre stage.  In particular, the show concerns itself with the questions their predicament raises.  Confronted with a past life as real as your present one, do you let it own you?  Do you reject it?  Do you have the choice?  And young Rin, for reasons as close to a narrative spine as really exists, has more trouble letting go than anyone, due to the discovery that his neighbour was once the tragic love of his life.

There's a lot going on there, and it's fair to say that Please Save My Earth doesn't do an especially splendid job of juggling it.  Plot lines bob to the surface, characters take precedence for a while and then vanish, we never get quite enough flashbacks to the moon to fully appreciate the significance of events in the present, and what seems like the crux of the story ends up forgotten in favour of a final episode that doesn't wrap up much at all.  On the flip side, that last episode is a terrific character study full of exciting, difficult ideas, and really that's the show from top to bottom: as messy as any attempt to cherry-pick a narrative from a much-loved, twenty-two volume manga could hope to be and yet frequently excellent on a scene by scene basis.  I guess that's the influence of those terrific production values as much as anything, along with a haunting score from the great Hajime Mizoguchi and a closing track by the incomparable Yôko Kanno.  But as much so it's down to a script that's unafraid to wrestle with the concepts it raises, and manages to make them meaningful on a level beyond the somewhat batty sci-fi notion.

With all of that said, it's unfortunate that Please Save My Earth isn't easier to get hold of.  It was released by Viz, who from what I've picked up so far were exceptionally reliable on quality and exceptionally sucky at getting their products out into the world.  Hopefully they, or someone else, will eventually rescue their back catalogue, because this is the sort of anime that shouldn't be languishing in obscurity.  Its imperfections are numerous and mostly down to the fact that it was clearly intended as a companion piece rather than an alternative to the manga, but it's still smart, gorgeous, intriguing stuff, made by talented people at the peak of their considerable powers.

My Dear Marie, 1996, dir: Tomomi Mochizuki

Anime is unique in its ability to balance creepiness with cuteness in ways that really shouldn't work, and no release I've seen pulls off that unlikely balance better than My Dear Marie.  Within cringe-worthy seconds we're introduced to technological genius and socially inept nerd Hiroshi Karigari on the advent of his greatest triumph.  Not content with joining the college tennis club so that he can stalk Marie, the girl he's infatuated with, he's now built a robot double of her, exact in every detail except hair colour.  Only, things don't go quite to plan: to his surprise, if not ours, robot Marie wakes up on her own and it rapidly becomes apparent that she's not going to be content loitering around the house being letched over.  After she reveals her existence to Hiroshi's classmates, who insist on posing awkward questions about who this person who looks just like their Marie is, he's forced to pretend that the pink-haired, android version is his sister, a role she seems mostly content with.

That, mind you, is just the first ten minutes, and things soon get a good deal more complicated.  At first that's in the sort of ways you'd expect: the remainder of the first episode finds robot Marie trying to fix up human Marie with Hiroshi, while secretly wondering if she mightn't just keep him for herself.  But episode two goes off on a wild tangent, in which tough girl Hibiki falls instantly in love with Hiroshi and then blackmails him into dating her.  And by episode three we have robot Marie getting retrofitted with a subconscious and interrogating the nature of her existence through the surrealism of dreams, because where else would you take a three episode show about a guy building his perfect girlfriend than a mediation on sentience that explicitly references Philip K. Dick?

This works for a number of reasons, and the solid animation, with some unusually sketchy and very appealing character designs, is definitely among them, as is Hisaaki Hogari's playful score.  But honestly, all the nice animation and music couldn't have saved My Dear Marie had it decided to play up its seedier aspects.  Thank goodness it isn't that: it's infinitely sweeter, a good deal cleverer, and shockingly willing to indulge its better impulses.  Foremost of those is taking its cast seriously, even when reducing them to stereotypes might be funnier.  My Dear Marie really isn't that funny as comedies go, but there are grace notes that are more satisfying.  In that last episode, for example (one of my favourite episodes of anything in quite a while, by the way) there's a running gag in which robot Marie insists on waking up an unimpressed Hiroshi to narrate her weird dreams, until he finally snaps and points out in detail why other people's dreams are boring.  It's not laugh-out-loud hilarious, but Marie's glee at sharing the Freudian details of her mental landscape and Hiroshi disgruntled mix of geekish pride and awkwardness raise the sort of fond smile only familiarity can bring.

Honestly, maybe I'm giving credit where it's not entirely due.  Maybe My Dear Marie isn't problematicising gender roles and messing with preconceptions and prodding at the nature of existence half as much as I decided.  Maybe its repeated insistence on sexualising robot Marie one minute and reminding us of her inhumanity the next is purely coincidental.  Heck, maybe that third episode isn't the recursive Zen parable I took it for.  I suppose that if you stripped all of that away, you'd merely have an odd, charming, three episode OVA with unusually developed characters and not much of an ending.  But assuming for the moment that I'm right, the result is one of those rare shows that does something else only anime seems capable of: taking the dumbest, most hackneyed concepts and dredging fascinating treasures from their depths.


Given that it's ages since I watched these, I don't have anything very useful to say in conclusion.  I feel a bit bad for selling my copy of Eight Clouds Rising, but realistically was I ever going to watch it again?  Probably not.  Whereas I feel really good about selling my copy of Babel II.  Of the keepers, it's definitely My Dear Marie that's stuck with me, in part because the autotext on my phone seems obsessed with it.  And on the whole, I kind of feel this wasn't a great selection, probably because Please Save My Earth has refused to linger in my memory even slightly.

Ah well!  I'm sure the next lot will make everything okay!  Where there's nineties anime, there's hope.

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

* Given the lack of language options, extras, or anything else beside the thoughtful inclusion of chapter stops, I doubt the word perfect has ever been abused more thoroughly.

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