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.

-oOo-

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.

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