Friday, 10 May 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 49

Wow, we're getting awfully close to the big fifty, huh?  Which is actually kind of a problem, because I have something vaguely ambitious in mind for the half century mark and I've done nothing towards it, but I do have a ton of these posts ready to go.  Don't be surprised if the next one is 49.1!  In the meantime, we're back with a round-up of some of those shorter titles that were a mainstay of the nineties anime landscape - including one, you'll be glad to hear, that's regularly cited as the worst to be released in that entire decade!

But which will it be from among Cybernetics Guardian, Kimera, Spectral Force, and Assemble Insert?

Cybernetics Guardian, 1989, dir: Kôichi Ôhata

In many ways, Cybernetics Guardian is the quintessence of anime from its era, that being the tail end of the eighties.  At any rate, it feels like a perfect grab bag of many of the trends from the time, at least those in the types of anime geared predominantly toward an audience of teenage boys.  It has cultists.  It has demons.  It had giant robots.  It has, in fact, a giant robot that's also a demon summoned by cultists fighting another giant robot.  Honestly, it's kind of great.

Given that Cybernetics Guardian is the sophomore effort of director Kôichi Ôhata, and given that Ôhata's debut was the risible M. D. Geist, this is sort of surprising.  Arguably the main variable is one of budget: there's some splendid animation here, and a noted realism to the character designs that's quite striking.  This being Ôhata, there are still occasional shots of almost incomprehensible shoddiness - at one point, I'd swear he inserts a piece of unfinished concept art as a background - and yet for the most part the impression is that, given the resources to do his vision justice, he's actually a capable helmer.

Mind you, that vision is definitely a ridiculous one.  Even ignoring the bonkers premise by which a robot ends up somehow becoming the avatar of some malevolent god - I mean, I think that's what happened - there's a whole bunch of dumb jargon to drive up the silliness levels.  That the main location is a slum named Cancer in a city called Cyberwood tells you much of what you need to know.  And once again, there's little room for nuance or even basic storytelling in Ôhata's approach; given the preposterous but energetic rock / metal soundtrack by adorably named band Trash Gang, and given the frantic pace at which Cybernetics Guardian tears through its short running time, the experience really is a lot like watching a cool but incoherent music video.  In its best moments, it's slightly delirious, and by the end it feels like the sort of dream you might have if you watched twenty hours of Manga Video releases back to back.

If Cybernetics Guardian had been made on the cheap, I'll likely have held it in just as much contempt as I do M. D. Geist.  But it wasn't, it looks generally terrific, and that alone is enough to get it serious bonus points.  Although, let's be honest, as much as I might mock the tattier, more teenage-boy-oriented end of the vintage anime market, I'd be lying if I said I didn't hold a certain affection for it.  Within a very limited sense of the word, Cybernetics Guardian is definitely kind of awesome.  I mean, come on!  Cyberpunk demon samurai robot monsters!  As such, while it may not be any sort of lost classic, or arguably even good, it's definitely worth the effort of tracking down on Youtube.

Kimera, 1997, dir: Kazuyoshi Yokota

I'm going to be kind and assume that Kimera wasn't a direct lift from Tobe Hooper's 1985 movie Lifeforce, if only because I can't find a date anywhere for the Manga the forty-five minute OVA drew from.  However, that said movie exists does it no favours at all.  It's not as though the world can't stand two vampires-are-really-space-aliens movies, that's a concept with its share of scope.  But when one has the advantage of a feature run time and some solid effects - and to be frank, of Mathilda May walking around in the buff - and the other is a fairly low-budget piece of thoroughly middling animation less than half as long, it does make you think, "But why aren't I watching Lifeforce?"

I suppose that's terrible reviewing practice, but they are awfully similar, even down to the excess of nudity.  If Kimera has a twist, it's that the titular sexy lady space vampire is actually an hermaphrodite, sort of, but given how much the script muddies that concept and then refuses to take it anywhere, you start to suspect the animators just had an inexplicable aversion to drawing breasts, as much as that goes against all previous experiences of nineties anime.  That aside, the first half really doesn't do a great deal with its notions, and it's only small grace notes that give it a touch of character.  I liked that the three vampiric figures are styled after different takes on vampire lore, there's some goofy humour that's out of place but still made me chuckle, and credit is due for the fact that the protagonist is a heroic travelling breakfast cereal salesman.  I mean, I've no clue how that would even work - do shops not exist in this universe? - but it's certainly different.

Once Kimera gets the fundamentals of its setup out of the way, it does gain a bit more energy.  In general, I'd say it gets steadily better as it goes along, and the last third is actually quite fun.  There's a touch of outrageous gore, if that's your thing, and the concept heads off in some unexpectedly weird directions.  Oh, and there's a truly splendid score, credited to someone or something called Sensation that apparently worked on nothing else ever.  Mixing electronica, trance, and what I took to be cello compositions, one a contorted nod to Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King if my ears didn't deceive, it's eccentric and excellent stuff, so much so that I'd assumed it was by top composer Kenji Kawai in one of his "I'm too good for this material so I'm just going to do what the hell I like" moods.

You've probably guessed by now that I'm not recommending Kimera.  It's fine for what it is, but what it is is a story that's been done better elsewhere, and even if that weren't the case, one unsuited to so short a running time.  As much as I enjoyed the attempts to develop an interesting mythology, it does mean there's not much room left for anything else, and the thoroughly mediocre animation doesn't help any.  Points for trying, and extra bonus points for such a fine score, but it's no great shakes that this one's been consigned to being an obscure footnote as that other space vampire movie.

Spectral Force, 1998, dir: Yoshiteru Sato

I swear I don't make a habit of spending money on things I expect to be lousy.  But there was something about Spectral Force that drew me.  Partly it was the trailer, which was kind of mind-blowing in its lack of promise, and partly it was the sheer sense of horror that came off the reviews I read, and partly it was the cover, which was terrible and oddly charming at the same time.  Now, having watched it, I think the last of those gave me the fairest idea of what to expect.  Is it dreadful?  Oh absolutely, and in a great many ways.  But is it worthy of actual hatred?  I'm inclined to say not.

Spectral Force is a video game series that's made little impact in the West, to the point where there isn't even enough information on Wikipedia for me to tell you how many of the things there are.  But Spectral Force the anime is, I assume, based on the first game, and logic would suggest it was meant to be a sort of prologue.  The land of Neverland - no, really - exists in a state of uneasy truce between humans and demons, with the latter providing a sort of benevolent dictatorship that they, at least, consider better than the chaos that would result from just letting all the various human tribes figure things out between themselves.  And while there are a whole bunch of characters, our protagonist is half-demon princess Hiro, her on the cover there, who by the end of the first episode has found herself with more responsibility than she wants or can deal with and an outraged loathing for those accursed humans.  Even though some of her best friends happen to be human.

That's only a fraction of what amounts to a heck of a lot of story for a two episode OVA.  But even to get that far you have to see past the animation, and that's not easy.  Spectral Force is so heinously ugly that it could win ugly contests.  The problem that hits you first, and then keeps on hitting for the next fifty minutes, is the use of pre-rendered CG backgrounds and monsters that even in 1998 would have looked hellishly rough.  But the character animation isn't that much better: it was clearly done on computers too, back in the days when you could really tell, and there are jagged, pixely lines all over the place, not to mention the occasional shot that simply doesn't function.  Early on, two characters are introduced apparently walking on the spot, and it's so screamingly awful that it's unbelievable anyone could have okayed it.  And for this I'm inclined to blame director Sato, who does nothing anywhere that could categorically be described as right and a lot that even a first-timer should have known to avoid.

Yet underneath it all, you can kind of see the shape of something better.  The story isn't exactly what anyone would call coherent, but it dabbles in interesting ideas, and while there are too many characters to keep track of, a handful stand out enough that you vaguely care about what they're up to by the end.  Hiro, in particular, deserves a longer, vastly better looking show around her, and the fact that she has something like an arc is really all that keeps the thing together.  Though saying that, the music is perfectly fine and the Japanese voice cast give more than the material really deserves, so at least Spectral Force sounds better than it looks.  The result is certainly not good - in fact, let's be frank, it's pretty damn bad - and yet I can't say I wasn't momentarily caught up in it.

Assemble Insert, 1989, dir: Ami Tomobuki

Arguably, to be effective, comedy has to accomplish two things.  First, obviously, it needs to be funny, and Assemble Insert manages that with aplomb, keeping up a steady and varied series of gags, from out and out parody of everything from sentai shows to energy drink adverts to jokes that rely on nothing more than a facial expression or a musical sting.  But funny will only get you so far.  Someone falling over can be funny given the right context, but ninety minutes of people falling over is more likely to leave you drowning in existential angst.  So the second necessary element is that there's strong enough characters and sufficient plot to give a reason to care about what's going on, without ending up with such a convoluted narrative that there's no room left for humour.

And here, Assemble Insert goes from good to great.  Its hook is appealingly stupid: faced with an onslaught of crimes from robot suit-wearing crooks operating under the nom de crime of Demon Seed, the government task force of out of their depth slackers decide that the best solution is to hold a talent contest to find someone with both the skills to combat the threat and the charm and talent to divert public attention from the destruction that occurs every time the criminals make a move.  The result is as disastrous as you might expect until the appearance of final contestant Maron Namikaze, a 13 year old girl with outrageous strength and a passable singing voice.  But faced with the responsibility of not only defeating Demon Seed but managing Maron's burgeoning idol career, the task force finds its priorities getting increasingly tangled.

A ludicrous setup then, but one with enough meat on its bones to make you care in the brief spells when it's not just being out and out funny.  Maron is adorable, the varied government agents all have their own quirks (based, apparently, by creator Masami Yuki on the personalities of folks he worked with on his hit series Patlabor) and the result is somehow both preposterous and relatable.  Indeed, Assemble Insert's biggest achievement is staying on just the right side of absurdity, opting for the most part to be droll rather than wacky.  And all of this is wrapped up with some appropriately tacky J-pop tunes and animation that, while on the cheaper side of things, has such a terrific aesthetic that it barely matters: the character designs are so simplified that half the cast are missing noses and somehow it succeeds terrifically well.  Put that all together and you get a nigh-on perfect hour of silly anime comedy that's one of the nicest surprises this years-long marathon through the world of vintage anime has yet to turn up.

-oOo-

I kind of love these shorter OVAs, which is a good job, since I end up watching enough of them.  But objectively, in terms of spending actual, hard-earned money, they're a bit of a gamble.  So I feel that this batch was something of a success, despite the fact that two titles weren't altogether very good.  In retrospect, Kimera was probably the lowest point, by virtue of being a bit meh, or as meh as a film about androgynous space vampires could realistically hope to be.  Objectively Spectral Force was far, far worse, but benefited greatly from my going in with rock bottom expectations and ended up as something I might even watch again before it gets sold on.  (Assuming anyone else wants a copy!)  Cybernetics Guardian, meanwhile, I've already rewatched, and it really is good fun, of a truly ludicrous sort, while Assemble Insert has gone straight onto my (admittedly really long by now) favourites list.

Next up?  It's either the big fifty or I figure out a way to fudge the numbers!



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

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