Friday, 22 March 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 47

Oh look, we're back to crazy randomness!  And frankly, this post is about as crazily random as any arbitrary gathering of four anime titles could hope to be.  Oh, I guess we have some more-than-familiar sub-genres - cyberpunk, demonic horror, zany fantasy parody, cute robot girls - but even then, the particular variations on those motifs are pretty out there.  So maybe this is a theme post after all, and the theme is, weird variations on well-worn vintage anime tropes.

No, that's rubbish, I just picked stuff off the shelf.  This time around: GundressSaber Marionette RDetatoko Princessand Vampire Princess Miyu...

Gundress, 1999, dir: Katsuyoshi Yatabe

The crucial detail to note about a release that the US DVD proudly proclaims to be "Masamune Shirow's Gundress" is that it isn't Masamune Shirow's anything.  And also that no-one at any point wears a dress made out of guns.  But really, that first point is the important one: what we have here is a cinematic feature by a small studio who lucked into getting Shirow to do their character and mecha designs, and also into letting them hint that this was somehow a prequel to his Appleseed series.  Given that Gundress isn't on a par with anything Shirow wrote, this fact has been frequently used as a stick to beat it with, and understandably so.  However, I confess I found it sort of adorable: despite their apparent belief that they were creating something wildly new and exciting, the writers lift to an astonishing degree from Shirow's CV.  Aside from the blatant Appleseed similarities, there's a ton of Ghost in the Shell, especially in protagonist Alissa, who at one point even gets to ride around on a pet robot that looks awfully like one of the Major's Tachikomas.

This is good news, because Shirow is great, and the recycled plot, in which a group of robotic suit-clad female mercenaries find themselves protecting a somewhat reformed black market smuggler from the shady influences who want him dead, needs all the help it can get.  The fact that you can squint and pretend this might be a lesser Shirow adaptation does it favours it urgently needs.  And mainly that's because Gundress is all sorts of ugly.  I've seen suggestions it was released unfinished, and it certainly looks like that might be the case: outside of M. D. Geist, I haven't seen any professionally produced Japanese animation that was so obviously broken.  My favourite example is a shot where one of the characters is climbing out of a locker and the animators forget to include her in the first couple of frames, so that she pops into existence like the assistant in a magic trick.  if nothing else is quite that inscrutably awful, there are no end of sequences where it appears the inbetweening has gone astray, so that characters jolt across the screen, and others where the perspective or proportions are subtly but horribly wrong.  Truly, the idea that this thing was released into cinemas in such a state is hard to credit.

Yet I come back to my point that, in its better moments - there genuinely are a handful! - you can just about comfort yourself with the lie that you're watching a piece of enthusiastic Shirow fan fiction.  Had this come out in, say, 1990, and had it been a low budget OVA rather than a feature, it would be sort of charming.  It reminded me of one of the better Manga Collection releases, admittedly in part due to AnimeWorks' rubbishy non-anamorphic release, but also because it has a scrappy charm that transcends its grosser faults.  Indeed, I wasn't altogether surprised to find that it's by the same team who made my beloved Landlock.  (Weirdly, Landlock, a budget OVA adaptation of a minor video game, looks approximately a thousand times better.)  Also, the voice acting and score are solid, at least in the original Japanese, so Gundress sounds the piece even when it looks disastrous.  I was inclined to give it a qualified pass for the bulk of its running time, as a likable homage to much better works; sadly, the big action finale, relying as it does almost solely on the weakest link of that dreadful animation, put the kibosh on that.  As such, the kindest thing I have to say is that it's no worse that the actual Appleseed adaptation made a decade earlier, and that's slender praise.

Saber Marionette R, 1995, dir's: Kôji Masunari, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Hidehito Ueda

It's fair to say that everything interesting about Saber Marionette R happens around the edges.  Because the plot, which sees young prince Junior on the run after his brother imprisons his father and sets out to snatch the reins of the kingdom, couldn't be a lot more boilerplate.  But that's okay: there's only three episodes here, somewhat less than an hour and a half if you ignore the credits, and a familiar plot is no great detriment when it's wrapped, as Saber Marionette R's is, amid interesting world building.  Set in the sort-of-futuristic land of Romana (or as the box hilariously insists, Romania) the setting is an intriguing mix of cultural influences and styles, with deeply bonkers locations that somehow still have the vague air of a functional, lived-in universe.

All of this is helped, no doubt, by having the wider Saber Marionette franchise to draw on: R, as I understand it, is something of a retelling, that's possibly also a sequel, to the longer, better known, and greatly more popular Saber Marionette J.  So there are plenty of big ideas ticking away in the background, and the show makes the right call in not explaining them beyond the bare minimum necessary to keep them from becoming distracting.  The same goes for the characters, apparently more or less the same characters as in J: they're simple and one-note, but in a way that feels right for the material.  The highlight is undoubtedly goofy, childlike bodyguard Lime, who manages to stand out even in the world of anime, where goofy, childlike female characters are approximately fifteen a penny.

It's also pretty damn weird.  You could probably write a lengthy essay on its sexual politics, or the rationale behind how the good marionettes resemble children and are made sentient by "girl circuits", while the bad androids are modeled after adult women, called Sexadolls, and dress like strippers at a bondage party.  But as with the world-building, that weirdness is arguably a bonus, adding shade and texture to what would otherwise by awfully straightforward.  Given the unspectacular technical values bringing everything to life, the fact that it's all basically interesting to look at is a handy diversion.

The result is a show with plenty of obvious flaws, but none of them terribly bothersome except for a couple: the print released by AnimeWorks is so dark that it's tricky in places to tell what's going on, and the ending veers into a spot of exposition at a crucial moment that makes no sense without a knowledge of the wider universe.  Neither fact is really that big a deal, and neither got in the way of me enjoying Saber Marionette R while I was watching.  It's unquestionably minor stuff, a spin-off OVA to a largely forgotten series, but rather than being the sort of knocked-off crap you might expect, it's told with energy, heart, and a healthy dose of oddness.

Detatoko Princess, 1997, dir: Akiyuki Shinbo

We meet princess Lapis of Sorcerland as she's blowing a mile-high floating garden out of the sky to save one small bird that might or might not be in danger, and that tells us most of what we need to know about her going in: namely that she basically means well but has all the good sense of a drunk water buffalo.  Oh, and that she has, through her magical eraser, the power to nullify the magic of others, a fact that's kept her safe when by all accounts she should have been dead a thousand times over.  Really, the only missing piece of the Lapis puzzle - and it's there, apparently, in the title, if you happen to read Japanese - is that she loves pudding to an irrational degree, so much so that she can't survive without it for more than three days.

Given that all the characters in Detatoko Princess are as thoroughly silly as Lapis is, that opening scene largely fills us in on what to expect over the next hour and a half, too: it's zany fantasy parody time, in the vein of Slayers and Maze and Dragon Half and oh so many other titles.  In essence, what Detatoko Princess does is to set up any number of absurd elements and then fling them at each other and see what happens: it's not what you could call sophisticated, but enough of those ideas are genuinely funny for the approach to work more often than not, and when it doesn't you can be sure there'll be something else along in a second.  This is pretty common of that branch of anime comedy that took delight in sending up the hackneyed conventions of fantasy, and I guess you love it or hate it.  Me, I really do like this stuff, and Detatoko Princess made me laugh a fair bit, while at the same time being pleasurable company: it's an affectionate parody that refuses to judge its ridiculous characters and their foibles harshly, wherever they fall on the notional scale between hero and villain.  (After all, Lapis is responsible for a good deal more death and destruction than any of her foes!)

I guess ultimately it's also fair to say that Detatoko Princess lacks much to distinguish it.  There's the bizarre obsession with pudding, and an affection for fourth-wall-breaking signs that flash up regularly and are perhaps its weakest joke, I suspect because they relied on wordplay that defied translation.  There's a gloriously dumb and catchy opening theme, a nearly as dumb and catchy closer, and the odd moment of animation that goes above and beyond the call of duty, maybe because director Shinbo seriously knows his stuff.  (His CV wasn't so hot in 1997, but he's since got the superb Puella Magi Madoka Magica under his belt.)  On the other hand, originality isn't everything.  Detatoko Princess takes a half episode to find its feet, and those dumb signs are a waste of space, but it's still a lot of fun: the characters are marvelous, none more so that Lapis herself, the comedy is just the right side of wacky, and it's so deliriously random that there's no predicting where it will go in the next minute, never mind by the end of each episode.  In short, a minor delight, but a delight nonetheless.

Vampire Princess Miyu, 1988, dir: Toshiki Hirano

It's hard to make animation scary, and it's hard to tell a genuinely excellent horror story in under half an hour, and the fact that Vampire Princess Miyu pulls off both four times in a row is very much to its credit.  Oh, perhaps it's more creepy than actually frightening, but that's fine, because it's creepy as as hell, with content, artwork, music, and some of the finest use of sound I've come across in anime combining to really crawl under your skin and stick there.  Miyu might not give you nightmares (though, heck, maybe it will!) but if you're remotely susceptible, there's sure to be the odd image that will lodge in your subconscious.

For me, it's the dolls in the second and finest of its four OVA episodes.  I've never found dolls remotely scary before, but then I never came across any that were - ah, but that way lies spoilers, and you deserve to come to Vampire Princess Miyu with as little foreknowledge as possible.  Suffice to say that our nominal protagonist is psychic investigator Himiko, who one day, while on a particularly weird case, happens across the titular Miyu and her masked servant Larva.  Miyu refuses to make clear whether she's an ally or an enemy, though it's apparent that she's no friend to the demonic Shinma that are taking an unhealthy interest in the human world.  Either way, she certainly has a chuckle that's guaranteed to send shivers up your spine, and she's intriguing enough that Himiko increasingly finds herself shirking her day job in the quest for answers, though it's obvious to us and probably to her that none of those answers are going to lead anywhere good.

Now, eighties and nineties anime is positively dripping with psychic investigators and spooky little girls and battles against invading demonic forces, and it's fair to say that Vampire Princess Miyu is up to nothing terribly new.  But it's even fairer to say that anything can feel fresh when it's done sensationally well.  And for that matter, it's a good deal more wedded to an earlier period of Japanese horror than to anything its contemporaries were playing around at: the film I was most reminded of was the 1968 classic Kuroneko, given the strong focus on mood over gore and on tropes of Japanese folklore over more modern trends.  Yet it doesn't feel dated, and in part that's due to how it finds exciting twists and nuance in ideas that at first glance are well past their prime.  I mean, in a world of about a million scary doll movies, it takes inspired storytelling to discover an original angle - yet Miyu does so with apparent ease.

There are problems, but they're minor.  In general, the show is strongest the furthest away it is from its arc plot, meaning that the first half is better than the second - though the second is still terrific.  And Kenji Kawai's score is fabulous because, come on, it's Kenji Kawai, but it was written in 1988 and that means more use of synthesisers than is strictly necessary or best suited for such material.  But that's all I've got.  Heck, even the cover art and menus on AnimEigo's DVD release are gorgeous.  Though that does bring us to one final problem, that of availability: inexcusably, AnimEigo felt it appropriate to split an OVA of less than two hours over a pair of disks, making it that bit harder and more expensive to find.  Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely worth the effort, but it's also the case that Vampire Princess Miyu is well overdue being picked up for re-release.*


As I was putting this together, it very much felt like a post that could go either way, with a couple of fun but hardly standout titles and then the barely-mediocre Gundress - but boy did Vampire Princess Miyu pull things back from the brink.  Now I feel it's been a great selection, and even Gundress was sort of okay, especially given how toxic its reputation is.  More like this, please!

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

* And having said that, I'm staggered to find that not only are AnimEigo apparently still trading, you can buy Vampire Princess Miyu and other vintage titles from their website at perfectly reasonable prices.  Given the hassle it took me to get a copy here in the UK, that makes me want to punch something a little bit, but if you're in the US then consider yourself lucky.

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