Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 52

It's nuts how long I've been an anime fan without really engaging with the Gundam franchise, one of the absolute cornerstones of the industry for four whole decades.  The reason, of course, was that there's so much of it: I haven't bothered to check, but I reckon there must be at least seventy zillion different Gundam OVA's, films, and episodes.  It seemed like the kind of thing you need a relevant encyclopedia to even go near, and until recently, most of the early stuff was out of print anyway, and all in all it never seemed quite worth the effort of trying to take that leap.

All of that changed when I heard that the movie Char's Counterattack was reasonably standalone, and then soon after discovered a box set of the movies adapted from the original show.  Here at last was a way in that didn't involve devoting a year of my life!  And so, having had my resistance softened by the terrific OVA miniseries War in the Pocket, I decided I was ready to take the plunge.

The results?  Well, that would be reviews of Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 1Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 2: Soldiers of SorrowMobile Suit Gundam Movie 3: Encounters in Space, and Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack...

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 1, 1981, dir: Ryôji Fujiwara, Yoshiyuki Tomino

First let's get the negatives out of the way.  The opening Mobile Suit Gundam movie was released in 1981, composed of footage recut from the TV show, and there's no getting around that fact.  It's tough not to start thinking you're watching an ancient Saturday afternoon cartoon, and the designs absolutely don't help, dating the material unmistakably.  (The one exception, funnily enough, is the Gundam suit itself, which has aged moderately well.)  At any rate, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is material you need to meet halfway if you're going to stand a chance of enjoying it.  And that extends, maybe even more so, to aspects of the world-building: in so many ways, Gundam is lousy science-fiction, with a universe that hasn't been thought through in ways both big and small.  It's hard not to be pulled out of the moment when, in a future so distant that most of Earth's population live in orbiting colonies, someone's car won't start and you realise that cars work exactly the same way they do now - despite the fact that there are spaceships and giant robots and the sheer idiocy of burning fossil fuels in a sealed environment.  Although, thinking about it, maybe I ought to be ranting about the use of machine guns in a vacuum?  Really, if you're after dumb science, Gundam spoils you for choice.

And now I'll stop being pissy about the lack of future-proofing in a nearly four decade old animated film that, given how the series it drew from had already bombed, probably wasn't expected by anyone to turn into a franchise that would still be going strong in the year 2019.  Because, you know what?  The first Mobile Suit Gundam movie is pretty damn great, and perhaps more shockingly, pretty damn resonant even today.  With not much idea of what to expect going in, I certainly wasn't prepared for a story of civilians forced into combat in a desperate war motivated by political greed and blatant propaganda, or talk of child soldiering, or for a film that takes its narrative backbone from the emotional disintegration of its protagonist, as a chance encounter finds him forced to kill and kill and kill again to preserve the lives of everyone he knows.  Amuro Ray isn't quite Shinji Ikari in the screwed up lead character stakes, but it's easy to see that here's the spring Neon Genesis Evangelion would eventually drain to its deepest depths.

In short, war in Mobile Suit Gundam is something pretty sodding awful, which destroys everyone and everything it touches, and the prevailing mood, even in the plentiful action sequences, is one of sweaty desperation and encroaching despair.  If that doesn't sound like much fun, well, there's just enough of a goofy giant robot cartoon ticking away under the surface to keep it away from utter misery, and sometimes rather too much.  Nonetheless, it's startling how much the serious stuff insists on rising to the surface, and how readily you can put aside the dated aesthetic and get sucked into the meaty tale of warfare and realpolitik beneath.  In 1981, for the right sort of viewer, it's no wonder this was mind-blowing stuff, and try as they might, the intervening decades can't altogether erase that impact.  It may look dated and frequently act dated, but Gundam's resonance is the sort that doesn't fade easily.

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 2: Soldiers of Sorrow, 1981, dir's: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Yoshiyuki Tomino

I suppose I should have realised it was too good to last!  Not that the second Mobile Suit Gundam movie is terrible; its greatest flaw is merely that it feels like exactly what it is, a bunch of episodes hacked together without much grace or coherency.  Given the rather ambling nature of long-running anime shows, a solid narrative arc was probably too much to hope for this time around.  And let's face it, the first movie was really only held together by Amuro Ray's increasing emotional damage, and to a lesser extent by his nemesis Char Aznable's machinations.

Even that much structure feels like a lot compared with what Soldiers of Sorrow has to offer.  In fairness, I suppose that subtitle does sum things up: the crew of the White Base struggle onward, ground down by unceasing battles and a top brass that clearly don't care about them, except perhaps as lab rats in an experiment, since there's a growing theory floating around that they may all be Newtypes, a next step in human evolution brought on by adapting to existence in space.  But basically what we get is a whole lot of interchangeable fights, a little background plotting, and a series of character-centric short stories that, stripped to their bones, largely fall flat.  The first movie really didn't feel compressed, but this one does, almost permanently.  By way of an example, twice characters are assigned to solitary confinement, only to be let out immediately as it becomes apparent that, with a crew of about ten people, sticking anyone in the brig is inevitably going to be a washout.  You can see how these events would be impactful spread over two or three episodes, but crammed into two or three minutes, they just seem slightly absurd.

Moreover, with Char largely sidelined for the first half, we're even denied an interesting antagonist for the gang to butt heads with, and I honestly didn't appreciate how much fun Char was until he returned in the latter stretch.  His presence makes the last hour an improvement, though not quite enough of one to get around the various other problems.  And with the animation and music very much business as usual, that doesn't leave a great deal to hang onto.  Soldiers of Sorrow is acceptable enough, but two and a quarter hours of acceptable is cumulatively quite a slog.  Ultimately, that leaves the second Gundam movie being roughly what you'd expect if you were being cynical about the whole venture: a necessary slice of connective tissue between an excellent opening and a climax that will hopefully make this slower middle section worthwhile.

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 3: Encounters in Space, 1982, dir's: Yoshiyuki Tomino, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

If I'd known the third Gundam movie was as good as it is, I wouldn't have left such a gap after the second before watching it.  And truth by told, even for the first hour of a film that clocks in at well over two, I had my doubts.  A lot of the general fuzziness that afflicted the middle entry was still present, and interminable giant robot fights in space are considerably less interesting even than interminable giant robot fights on land.  Couple that with the fact that it's awfully hard to keep track of the cast, places, and overall conflicts in something that's condensing a vast swath of television, and the result is a start that takes a little too long to settle into its rhythm.

However, what makes Encounters in Space succeed, first and foremost, is the way it steadily narrows its focus.  For all the time it devotes to being space opera on a gigantic scale, it's the personal dramas that are its strongest elements, and they're firmly front and centre by the finish.  In fact, seeing arcs wrap up that seemed like so much time-wasting in part two goes a long way to redeeming that weakest portion of the trilogy.  As such, the entire back end is pretty damn great, and even then it backloads its best material, leading to an action climax that's head and shoulders above anything we've seen so far.

Here it helps that Encounters in Space has a major ace in its hole: the animation this time around is significantly improved.  Oh, not all of it; it's clear that the core is still recycled TV show footage, though even that seems to have received more of a polish.  However, this time there's a good deal of new material too, and it's both significantly better and deployed where it can contribute the most.  Frankly, it makes a heck of a difference, erasing that sense of watching a bunch of badly edited episodes one after another and ramping up to a conclusion that's as visually exciting as it is a satisfying culmination of some very lengthy plot threads.  Seeing the fates of the crew of the good ship White Base wrapped up after spending some seven hours in their company, and watching that happen through the medium of some frequently terrific animation, is both exciting and surprisingly emotive stuff.

Which, I suppose, is the point: given that this is a compilation of a single series, perhaps the best way to approach it is as a single movie in three parts.  From that perspective, it's strikingly successful, a true larger-than-life epic of science fiction that makes up for in scope what it lacks in common sense, and remembers just often enough to keep its appealing characters front and centre.  Here at the end, it's more than possible to see why this was the genesis for something that's still going strong even now.  So while if you come to the Gundam movie trilogy for anything, it'll probably be historical curiosity, be assured that what you'll leave with is a flawed, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding experience.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, 1988, dir: Yoshiyuki Tomino

As much as I've listed these reviews in order of film chronology, the truth is, I didn't watch them that way.  Char's Counterattack was actually my second brush with the franchise, after the splendid War in the Pocket.  And given that this was the first original theatrical Gundam release and the culmination of the show's first three arcs, adding up to some one hundred and forty or so episodes, you'd think it would be far from the best watch for someone with almost no experience.  But some random guy on the internet assured me otherwise, I saw a cheap copy, and I thought what the hell?  Worst case scenario, I'd have a couple of hours of incomprehensible giant robot on giant robot action on my hands.*

Fortunately, I didn't find Char's Counterattack incomprehensible, or even particularly confusing, though there were points when it was terribly busy and a fair bit I suspect amounted to shoehorning in characters for the sake of giving them something to do.  But the core is straightforward enough: Char Aznable, having grown angry with the folks of Earth and their disregard for those portions of the human race who've chosen to make their home among the stars, has decided that the best way to teach them a lesson is to drop a couple of asteroids on them, simulating a nuclear winter and nudging them toward abandoning the mother planet once and for all.  Unsurprisingly, not everyone is thrilled with this plan, including Char's long-term adversary Amuro Ray, who also happens to pilot a certain robot suit that was familiar to even a series newbie like me.  Meanwhile, around those two conflicts float a number of subplots, the most prominent of which features teenagers Hathaway and Quess, respectively the son of a prominent military officer and the daughter of the Earth Federation prime minister.

And there, if I may be disparaging about a beloved slice of pop culture, is where the problems begin.  It's noteworthy that the Wikipedia article omits the Hathaway / Quess material entirely, and more so that this has zero impact on its ability to accurately summarise the plot: it contributes nothing, it goes nowhere, and Quess in particular is a screamingly awful character, whose motivations never extend far beyond "I must do the opposite of what people tell me to do, unless those people happen to be genocidal maniacs."  Oh, and everyone immediately falls in lust with her, and she's a natural genius pilot at thirteen, because of course she is.  If Hathaway's a little better, it's only because he barely registers, and because he's the only one of Quess's suitors who's remotely age-appropriate.

There are clearly people out there who love this movie, and I certainly wouldn't question their right to do so.  But I do wonder how the hell they managed to get past Quess, who's like a leaden weight strapped to the neck of Char's Counterattack, dragging it into the depths of mediocrity.  Yet even then, Quess is only a symptom of bigger problems, though ones that are harder to pin down.  I could generally see what the film was supposed to be doing at any given moment, and how series veteran Yoshiyuki Tomino felt he was accomplishing that on a scene by scene basis, but there's a difference between seeing how something should be working and something actually working, and it was rare that Char's Counterattack quite managed the latter.  It doesn't so much juggle plots and characters as fling them in the air and stand there, smirking as they bounce off its head.

Damn, I'm being awfully harsh, and it truly isn't that bad.  Actually, I think I'm being so harsh because it isn't bad, when it really ought to be brilliant.  Like I said, all the pieces are there, and in broadly the right places: Char's master plan is a perfectly adequate arc plot, with his conflict with Ray and the other subplots ticking away in its midst, and it's all very epic and exciting and space opera-y.  Plus the animation is pretty fine, all told - it seems petty to point out that it gets choppy during the action sequences when it's clear it would have taken the budget of a mid-sized country to accomplish such grandiose space battles in any other fashion back in 1988.  And I liked the design work - nothing does cool robot suits like Gundam! - and I'll forgive the universe's flaws as science fiction a lot for the notion of inflatable dummy spaceships.  Char's Counterattack is three quarters of the way to being a glorious late-eighties slice of anime SF; but for me, the apparently random editing, the time-wasting with pointless material, and Quess, queen of the screeching chosen-one teenage heroines, chucked a spanner in the works I could never quite get past.


So am I now a Gundam fan?  I am.  Will I be tracking down the rest?  Probably not, much as I'd like to ... not unless I become a millionaire overnight, anyway, but I certainly feel like I get the appeal.  And while I may not have raved about everything here, I absolutely recommend the experience; these early entries all have their flaws, but they've also endured surprisingly well.

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

* For the record, I did rewatch Char's Counterattack with the intention of amending my review from the perspective of someone who at least now had a knowledge of the first movie trilogy behind them.  However, to my surprise, other than recognising the odd side character I hadn't before, it really made no difference to my viewing experience.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

How To Make a Black River Cover (Part 1)

I've said half-jokingly that working with artists is my favourite part of being an author, and though obviously I enjoy all that writing stuff too - at least on the good days! - it's not a million miles from the truth;  I never quite get used to the privilege of having someone incredibly talented produce something totally amazing on my behalf.  And while I'm sure not everyone is as emotionally involved in my book covers as I am, still, I reckon there are a few people out there who are curious about how this stuff works, right?  So I thought it might be interesting, with the permission of our terrific Black River cover artist Kim Van Deun, to reveal a little of how these stunning images come to be.  Unfortunately, that's inevitably going to mean a few SPOILERS, so be warned, and maybe don't read this until you've read Eye of the Observer - yet another excuse to grab a copy if you haven't already!

Of course, by the time we got to this third book, I'd already worked with Kim twice before.  I didn't have so much input on the cover of Level One, my co-creator and editor Michael Wills handled that one, but I got to see the work in progress, and so I had an idea of Kim's process by the time we got to The Ursvaal Exchange.  There, Mike and I swapped roles altogether, and I even had strict instructions to surprise him with the finished image, which is a lovely position of trust to be placed in as a writer, but would have been kind of intimidating if I hadn't known I could rely on Kim to deliver!

With that behind us, I had no worries when Mike said much the same about Eye of the Observer; the process had been a pleasure and I felt I knew how to play to Kim's considerable strengths.  However, I wasn't quite so certain about what ought to grace the front of this one as I'd been with the last.  There's a definite balance, especially once you're midway into a series: on the one hand, you want to give enough information to a prospective reader that they'll have a fair idea of why they should pick up your book, but on the other, you don't want reveal anything that might ruin crucial plot points.  This was straightforward enough with Level One, in that we were really just trying to convey the core concept, and The Ursvaal Exchange had a relatively early scene that was an ideal fit.  This time around, the balancing act wasn't so straightforward, and the scene I had in mind occurred relatively late on.

Being the sort of person who tends to think out loud, I'd said all this in my initial pitch to Kim.  There was a lot I was definite on: the underground setting that's basically the whole second half of the book, the ruins, the nod to the Dwarven city and the idea of subtly hinting at what it's hiding.  But the question we started out grappling with was, do we explicitly show Pootle or don't we?  Both approaches had their advantages and disadvantages.  However, initially I found myself leaning toward keeping an air of mystery - and the result was the image up there at the top.  Even at the thumbnail stage, there was a lot that I liked; this is still perhaps my favourite take on Arein, with a perfect balance of yearning and trepidation in the way she's reaching toward Pootle, and the rest of the party look great too.  But it was immediately apparent that, from the back, it was awfully hard to tell what Pootle was.  Are they looking at a big rock?  A beach ball?  The moon?  Hiding a giant eyeball's one distinguishing feature might not be the best way to go!

That discussion left us with four thumbnail sketches, one of them the image here and the remainder variations on these two.  In the alternative designs, there was no ambiguity: Pootle was front and centre.  The result was more immediately striking, but it brought its own share of issues, the most obvious of which being that Arein, effectively our protagonist for this third book, had her back to us.  (You'll probably have noticed that, for obvious reasons, covers don't generally show characters with their backs to the reader!)  And since I couldn't choose between the two, I did what I always do: pester friends, family, and anyone else who'd listen for their opinions.  The result was an ever-so-slight preference toward the second design, one that basically came down to the fact that there was something very cool about Pootle looming there dead centre with that glowing light behind it.  So, after much discussion, we had a direction, and now the real hard work could begin - well, for Kim, at least!

To be continued...

Monday, 1 July 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 51

This is the second post that I accidentally deleted through Blogger's stupid, buggy awfulness, which means it's also the second time I've written the following reviews, and therefore the second time I've watched the respective titles - with the exception of one I couldn't bear to sit through again.  You'll know it when you see it!  Mercifully, the three titles I did return to were all personal favourites, to a greater or lesser degree, so you could argue that Google did me a favour by leaving crippling bugs in their software because they're too cheap to support it.  Ha!  No, you couldn't really.

This time around, assuming I manage to get the post out there without it exploding or something: Alien Defender Geo-Armor: Kishin CorpsLegend of Crystania: The Chaos Ring, Jungle De Ikou, and Violence Jack...

Alien Defender Geo-Armor: Kishin Corps, 1993, dir's: Takaaki Ishiyama, Kazunori Mizuno

As I've often noted, it can be awfully puzzling why one release is fondly remembered whereas another vanishes into the mists of history.  Alien Defender Geo-Armor: Kishin Corps is today's case in point: an epic four hour OVA, it has enough of what makes other vintage shows popular to suggest it should have fared equally well, along with plenty to make it stand out from the pack.  Which is to say, it's at heart a giant robot show, but one distinctive enough that only the most cynical of viewers could dismiss it on those grounds.

Not that the giant robot stuff isn't great, because it is: the mecha in question are wonderfully weighty, physical-seeming objects, and there's an appealing emphasis on the fact that their operation requires immense amounts of labour and expertise delivered by a whole team of people, the polar opposite of the clichéd "all it takes is one teenager and fifteen seconds of training" approach.  Admittedly, there is a teenage protagonist, and he does eventually get a robot (rather, kishin) of his own, but that happens surprisingly late in the day and in the meantime we have a cast made up mostly of adults, again to the show's considerable benefit.  Moreover, this is inextricably tied up with what really sets Kishin Corps aside from the competition, namely its setting: the story opens in 1941, but a rather different 1941 to ours, given that not only do the Allies have the Nazis to contend with, there's also a spot of alien invasion going on - and with Hitler's predisposition toward all things supernatural, how long can it be until the earthly and unearthly invaders team up?

The first episode is close to perfect, introducing characters and setting up narrative threads with economy without skimping on the little details that allow us to get sucked into this alternate history, while at the same time delivering multiple standout action sequences; Kishin Corps, in general, does tremendous action sequences, nearly every one ingenious and imaginative, but the opening bicycle-versus-automobile chase through crowded city streets is possibly the high point.  And everything's brought to life with some frequently lovely animation and a distinctive aesthetic that's nostalgic and cartoony in precisely the right way for a show that plays so fast and loose with history.  Actually, fast and loose is probably too kind; Kishin Corps more sets fire to the history books and runs around in their ashes, laughing giddily.  For example, one of the people in that chase?  Maria Braun, (nonexistent) sister of a certain Eva Braun, who'll pop up later as a genius scientist in no way married to one Adolf Hitler.

There's plenty more to like.  Kaoru Wada's score riffs gleefully on John Williams in a manner that's a nice fit for the Indiana Jones-esque settings, and many of the cast members are engaging, more so than in most shorter anime titles I can think of.  None of them are terribly complex, but they're appealing takes on familiar types, and it's an extra bonus that the villains are as interesting to be around as the heroes.  And while the history is lousy, the feel of history is spot on, if that makes sense.  Aside from protagonist Taishi's dumb spiky hair, not much disrupts the impression that this is all taking place in a time very different to our own.

Yet mentioning Taishi is to admit that Kishin Corps does fall short in some ways, even if you're happy to buy into its eccentricities.  After that phenomenal start, it steadily loses steam, slowly at first but noticeably in the second half, in large part because it begins to push the rather boring Taishi to the forefront, leading to a finale that feels flat compared with what's come before.  Heck, even the animation sags a little.  And though it comes out of the gates feeling excitingly original, that's largely a veneer for what amounts to a straightforward tale of good guys versus bad guys all centering around an alien MacGuffin.  Nevertheless, at its lowest points Alien Defender Geo-Armor: Kishin Corps is on a par with most of what's out there, and at its best it's borderline classic territory.  Having watched it twice, I'd definitely call it a personal favourite, minor flaws, bonkers history, and all.

Legend of Crystania: The Chaos Ring, 1996, dir: Ryûtarô Nakamura

The first time I watched OVA sequel The Chaos Ring, I did so with a considerable gap between that and the first film, simply titled Legend of Crystania.  This proved a mistake, because as much as that movie felt complete in its own right, this follow-up has very different ideas: if The Chaos Ring is to be believed, what we've seen up to this point was mere preamble.  Arguably this is a bit annoying, given what a wonderful little gem of an eighty minute film Legend of Crystania is and how self-contained it managed to be even when drawing heavily on the wider narrative of the Record of Lodoss War series from which it sprang.  Nevertheless, there's the definite advantage that if you liked the movie, you'll be pushed not to like the OVA, given the extent to which it's a direct continuation.  Indeed, with the same director and apparently the same animation staff in place, and even with the same composers and the film's end theme doubling as the opener here, it's hard to imagine how that wouldn't be the case.

So it's all the more bizarre that, as a sequel, The Chaos Ring is ever so slightly a mess.  Compared with the movie's tight, compulsive plotting, it's a sprawling beast, occupying itself with a huge laundry list of characters and places and narrative threads that only really cohere in the third of its three parts.  To go for an obvious analogy, it's what The Lord of the Rings is to The Hobbit, a follow-up of wildly greater scope and ambition but without a tenth of the restraint.  Though, thinking about it, an author like Salvatore or Gemmell would be a better point of comparison for the movie, whereas here we're more in the realm of weird fantasy authors like Vance, Zelazny, and Moorcock.  Which is to say that somewhere between its two parts, the Crystania saga has essentially switched subgenres.

This shift is sort of a problem, but also sort of not.  On reflection, I definitely prefer the tightness of the film for the most part, yet it's not like there's anything actively bad in The Chaos Ring.  Its many moving parts may not cohere terribly well, but they're all good parts, and plenty of them are great.  Moreover, the ratio improves as it goes along and begins to make some sense, and the last forty-five minutes are pretty damn splendid.  There Nakamura gets to exercise his tremendous visual sense as a director, the consistently strong animation digs into some really wild corners, and the mode of weird epic fantasy truly takes hold.  So the worst that can be said is that it requires a bit more work than its predecessor.  Regardless, and having watched both halves twice now, I can't recommend the Legend of Crystania saga highly enough; it's some of my favourite fantasy film-making, in anime or elsewhere.  Just make sure to see both releases together if you can, while appreciating that each is very much its own thing.

Jungle De Ikou, 1997, dir: Yûji Moriyama

As I began rewatching the three episode comedy OVA Jungle De Ikou, and as director Moriyama bent over backwards to cram as many shots of his ten-year-old protagonist Nasumi's pants as he possibly could into the opening minutes, I felt a vague sense of horror.  Had I really written a positive review of this the last time through?  Had I actually enjoyed it?

I had, and I did again; it gets better very quickly indeed.  Once Nasumi is gifted a pilfered Papua New Guinean relic by her shifty archaeologist father, and has a vision of the god Ahem, thus learning of the threat of his destructive counterpart Ongo, and is taught that she can draw on Ahem's power through the medium of sexy dancing and so turn into the buxom flower spirit Mii, and then meets Ongo himself, only to find that he's about a foot tall ... wait, summarising this plot isn't helping, is it?  And look, those are the sensible parts!  Really, logic-wise, it's all downhill from there.  Let us be absolutely clear, this is some very silly comedy we have here.

But the thing is, while Jungle De Ikou may be immensely silly, it's not stupid.  It has themes.  It has subtexts.  It has an involved and rather well thought through cosmology.  And though it finds the notions of large breasts and old men with giant pointy codpieces hilarious, it's even more amused by the concept that people somehow manage not to find those things hilarious.  In the show's world, human bodies are one more thing to laugh at, as is the idea that throughout our history we've concocted the wildest of tales simply to avoid dealing with that awkward truth.  Jungle De Ikou has it's share of iffy fan service, but at the same time it's actually about sex, from its inbuilt mythology of fertility and the replenishing cycles of nature to the very fact that its protagonist is a girl on the cusp of womanhood.  In the second episode the show openly acknowledges that Nasumi has just started menstruating, something so weirdly taboo that I've seen it mentioned nowhere in film or TV that wasn't Carrie, yet handled here in this absurd comedy with an impossibly light touch.  And is it any coincidence that Nasumi transforms, via the most preposterous erotic dance ever devised, into not a magical girl but a magical woman?

Of course, being about something doesn't necessarily turn dippy comedy into fine art, or even into good dippy comedy.  So it helps that Jungle De Ikou is genuinely a lot of fun, with charming characters, a wealth of imagination, a handful of really good gags, and perhaps most importantly, a constant sense of its own ridiculousness that's smile-raising in itself.  As one example, Nasumi's mortified expression every time she undertakes her summoning dance is awfully hard not to grin at.  Okay, so outside of the big action climax it looks a bit cheap, but the designs are fun and the score is marvelous; the goofy theme tune has become a permanent fixture on my MP3 player.  As such, I guess I've no choice but to recommend this one all over again: it's the sort of comedy I generally find to be a huge turn-off, but handled with glee, invention, and just the right amount of basic sweetness, it works awfully well here.

Violence Jack, 1986 - 1990, dir's: Ichirô Itano, Osamu Kamijô

Violence Jack marks a momentous personal landmark: it's the last of the notorious video nasty titles from the first big influx of anime, those releases that gained a reputation for themselves based on extreme violence, nudity, sexual unpleasantness often involving tentacles, or combinations of the three.  And not only am I glad to say that I'm done with this mostly dreadful muck, I can add the fact that Violence Jack is one hundred percent tentacle-free.  Which is the last nice thing I'll be saying about it.

So it's the future and civilisation has ended, due to an earthquake or maybe a comet, depending on which episode you believe.  Humanity lives in isolated enclaves and the strong prey mercilessly on the weak.  But that all gets shaken up when, in one such miserable community, the dominant group happen to stumble on a giant entombed in the walls of the underground prison they've been living in for goodness knows how long.  Despite the fact that the stranger calls himself Violence Jack - after the jackknife he carries and, er, his fondness for violence - they're convinced he can be the one to save them from the neighbouring tribe of murderers and rapists they're sharing their dank hole with.  They're soon proved gravely wrong.  Nobody gets saved in Violence Jack, because if they did, how could we be treated to scene after scene of gore and sexual assault and wearying, testosterone-fueled cynicism?

So in effect, it's Mad Max, if Mad Max was coming from a relentlessly nihilistic place that laughed at even the notion of empathy or redemption or anything that isn't bad people being awful to marginally less bad people.*  Yet with all that, for the first half of the first episode, I was wondering what all the fuss was about.  Sure there was blood being shed, but it was all rather tame, and really the worst that could be said was that Violence Jack looked dreadful and was thoroughly boring in its trotting out of genre clichés that weren't fresh even back in the late eighties, when these three OVAs were released.  However, by the time the villain started cannibalizing his dead lover's corpse, I was willing to admit that I'd done the show a disservice: Violence Jack genuinely was coming from a pretty vile place.

With all of that said, I admit that what I saw was the heavily cut version that Manga Video released back in the day.  And by 'heavily' I mean sliced to ribbons, though it's hard to say that it effects the plot much, since everything that was excised was just more rape, violence, and general horribleness, and there's so damn much of that anyway, with none of it being terribly plot-essential.  Really, it's only the third part, which loses nearly half its running time, that suffers, and even then it's hard to say that it would make a lot of sense with an extra twenty-five minutes of wanton ugliness.  If I truly wanted to find out, I suppose I could watch the uncut Eastern Star re-release, which for baffling reasons known only to them is a thing that exists.  I could, but I won't, and the reason why has nothing to do with the gore: try as it might, a cheap eighties OVA can only be so shocking, especially when it's as cut-rate as this one.  No, the reason is that Violence Jack is flat-out crap on every level, and all it really accomplishes is to be wearying.  It's exploitation for the sake of exploitation, without any ingenuity or artistry to give it a spark of life, and I hated every last minute.


Well, that was a sour note to end on, isn't it?  But personally what I'm taking away here is what a pleasure it was to return to three titles as splendid as Alien Defender Geo-Armor: Kishin CorpsLegend of Crystania: The Chaos Ring, and Jungle De Ikou, even if that meant reviewing them all over again.  I guess if Blogger really had to destroy hours of work, then this was one of the best posts it could have gone for.

Though just to clear, Google, I'd still have rather you'd just fixed that damn bug.

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

* In fairness, Violence Jack creator Go Nagai got there first, but his version is infinitely worse, so I don't think George Miller need have any sleepless nights over the fact.