Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 54

If there's one thing that firmly differentiates nineties anime from Western films and TV of the period, it's the willingness to put female characters front and centre, often to the point where they make up basically the entire cast.  Sometimes - heck, often! - that can be for reasons that are closer to exploitation than feminism, yet there's a great deal of stuff that occupies a weird middle ground that, sure, crowbars in more shots of underwear than can reasonably be justified, but also manages to present an interesting, complex female cast, or else a protagonist who's every bit as capable and more as the men around her.

And yes, this is me flailing for a themed post topic, but hey.  Here we have four titles that focus on female protagonists and largely female casts, and yet take very different approaches, in the shape of: Carcaptor Sakura: The Movie, Idol ProjectKekko Kamen, and Cleopatra D.C....

Carcaptor Sakura: The Movie, 1999, dir: Morio Asaka

Above all else, the first Carcaptor Sakura feature is an extraordinarily pleasant film.  It portrays pleasant characters having pleasant adventures in pleasant locations, via soft and appealing designs and a warm palette and mostly fun and gentle music.  Even when it gets dark and creepy - as it does quite frequently, and more so than the TV series, from what I've read - it feels as though the shift in tone is less to persuade you that something bad might happen to a favourite character, as there's never the slightest suspicion that it genuinely will, but more to offer contrast.  Indeed, the moments that have most potential to be scary are played in a quite different register, a sort of wistfulness that makes perfect sense by the time the plot has reached its end.

Mind you, I use the word "plot" advisedly.  It's hard to imagine a more wafer-thin story supporting eighty minutes of film.  The conflict doesn't get started in any meaningful way until past the halfway point, and is incredibly minor in scope, threatening Sakura and her friends in a rather indirect fashion but never anyone else: at one point, a few random people are rained on, and that's the closest to a city-shaking crisis we get.  Indeed, the movie is much more interested in plucking up its cast and dropping them into a new setting - in this case, Hong Kong - and generally watching them hang out amid that change of scenery.  It's possible that the larger narrative is plugging a few gaps in Cardcaptors law that I'm oblivious to, but if it is, I doubt they're answers anyone was desperately seeking.  It's all incredibly low key and inconsequential, in a way that seems altogether deliberate.

As such, this isn't a criticism, or not really.  The plot was certainly too airy for me, but I fully acknowledge that I'm not the intended audience here: I'm not familiar with the series or the manga, and perhaps more importantly, I'm not a young Japanese girl.  And even with all of that said, I had no trouble following along, or figuring out relationships and crucial details, and no trouble staying engaged either.  It helps that Carcaptor Sakura: The Movie looks terrific, with a generally high level of animation worthy of a cinematic release, some deft direction from Asaka, and frequent moments of real loveliness and artistry; there's a sense of affection for the material that marks this out as no mere knocked-off franchise film.  It's not exactly thrilling and the story won't stay with you past the opening credits, but for what it is, a magical girl adventure that prizes niceness, decency, and inclusivity over all else, it's very good indeed, and it's easy to see why Eastern Star recently chose to save it on blu-ray when many a similar title from the time is lost to obscurity.

Idol Project, 1995, dir's: Keitarô Motonaga, Yasuchika Nagaoka, Yutaka Sato

When I say that Idol Project is hilarious, what I mean, of course, is that I found it hilarious, because nothing's more subjective than humour.  And I think that's truer than ever here, since while I laughed out loud a good many times - indeed, as much as I have at any anime comedy - I can readily imagine someone else barely cracking a smile.  Because Idol Project is also phenomenally stupid, and absolutely expects you to be as devoted to the most absurd aspects of Japanese popular culture as it is.

To set the scene a little: Mimu Emilton wants nothing more than to be a pop idol, like her hero Yuri, an idol so idol-tastic that she ended up becoming president of the world, only to immediately abdicate and set up six other idols as effectively the rulers of the planet, despite the fact that none of them seem to be remotely competent human beings.  Mimu's convinced that if she can just compete in a yearly talent contest, then she can join their ranks, but it seems the universe has different ideas, as both she and the six Excellent Idols get kidnapped by aliens for the purposes of -

Look, there's no point going any further with this, is there?  I mean, that right there is barely the first episode, and things only get more preposterous going forward.  And then more preposterous, and more, until somehow the fate of the galaxy is at stake, though for the most incomprehensible reasons.  I mean, the starting point here is a world run by pop idols!  And it's not even as if they're any good at that; a fair percentage of the jokes involve the characters shouting out at inopportune times the one-word motivational catchphrases that represent their single trait personalities.  Which, I have to stress, is funnier than it has any right to be if you happen to be on the show's wavelength, as I clearly can't guarantee anyone else might be.

What else is there to say?  Well, there's a ton of fan service, which would normally put me off in a big way but here feels like part of the joke, especially since it's mostly confined to the single episode where the idols have to try and desperately reinvent their careers by any means possible on an alien planet.  And needless to say, it's about as sexy as watching particularly unsexy paint dry, given those colossally eyed character designs, which again I'd normally hate and here are perfect in their absurdity.  Meanwhile, the animation is mid-budget OVA stuff, but made with enough passion that you can tell the creators were committed to this madness.  And the music, unsurprisingly for a show about idols, is some of the giddiest bubblegum pop you could hope for, yet with enough of a weird edge to make it funny rather than merely twee.

Actually, I think I've inadvertently summed up Idol Project perfectly, because that's its absolute core: delivering the campiest, most saccharine pastiche of anime and Japanese pop culture, with just enough of a knowing wink to let us in on the joke.  And with that bit of summing up done, I'd better just mention the most bizarre fact about the show, which is that someone thought it would be a bright idea to reuse its barcode on hardcore hentai DVD La Blue Girl, and as such I now own two copies of La Blue Girl that I really don't want.  On the other hand, it feels somehow entirely appropriate that, when you order Idol Project, there's a two in three chance of ending up with tentacle porn...

Kekko Kamen, 1991, dir's: Nobuhiro Kondô, Shunichi Tokunaga, Kinji Yoshimoto

If there's one thing Kekko Kamen could urgently do with, it's some jokes.  I think the creators thought they were there, but there's a big difference between a broadly amusing set of circumstances and a gag of the sort that might make you laugh out loud.  Kekko Kamen is often broadly amusing - and let's be clear, if the humour here is anything, it's broad - but truly funny?  Not so much.

Still, if you're willing to look past how purposefully crass it all is, the sheer ridiculousness of Kekko Kamen's setup is hard not to smirk at.  Sparta Academy has some unconventional attitudes to teaching and a perverse approach to punishing students who don't shape up, to the extent that they even have a member of the faculty devoted to nothing but said punishment: in the first episode, it's a Nazi-themed S&M fanatic named Gestapoko, which should tell you about eighty percent of what you ought to expect here.  Anyway, our villains are particularly obsessed with first year student Mayumi Takahashi, and what better way to express their displeasure at her poor grades than to strap her to a giant swastika and cut her clothes off with throwing knives?  Fortunately for Mayumi, Sparta Academy has just acquired a new hero, and if she's not necessarily the one it needs, she's certainly what it deserves: Kekko Kamen fights in boots, gloves, a mask with goggles and giant rabbit ears, and nothing else.  As she cheerfully proclaims, nobody knows her face but the whole world knows her body, and she's not above suffocating her foes with her crotch if that's what the cause of love and justice demands.

Though, in one of those elements that resembles a joke without altogether becoming one, it's hard not to notice that, for all her birthday suit-clad heroics, Kekko Kamen only ever really seems to rescue Mayumi, and then only ever after she's been stripped down to her pants.  You wonder if she's altogether thought this heroing business through.  Nonetheless, our masked avenger is one of the most outright fun aspects of the four episodes, possessed of a beguiling innocence and lack of common sense which suggests that, yes, she did sit down and conclude that fighting crime in the buff is definitely the way to go.  Which is all to the best given that the rest of the cast aren't half so engaging; the main villains, in particular, are visually intriguing but have one personality trait between them, if lecherousness counts as a personality trait.  Indeed, it's only in the fourth and final part that Kekko Kamen gets to test her skills against a worthy foe, a fallen samurai with a penchant for snapping indecent Polaroids and, er, making umbrellas.

The animation is distinctly mediocre and some of the designs are flat-out horrible - there's something terribly wrong about Mayumi's eyes - though you probably won't be surprised to hear that a degree of loving attention goes into getting all those naked female bodies right.  Weirdly, things improve markedly with the third episode, otherwise the least interesting due to a shift of focus onto Mayumi's infatuation with a beautiful transfer student, and then get worse again for the climax, which is in all other ways by far the best, thanks to being the first to spend time setting up a few real gags.  At least the ludicrous theme tune is a pleasure, an energetic ode to its heroine's righteousness with some immensely dopey lyrics.  But I dunno, add all of that up and the results still feel like awfully little for something trying so hard to be shocking.  Ultimately, I guess that's the problem: cartoon nudity and crass gags are fine if that's your bag, but for me, the only thing that could turn those elements into genuine entertainment is some actual humour.  As such, while Kekko Kamen is a tolerable distraction, it's easy to imagine a version that's greatly more enjoyable than what we get.

Cleopatra D.C., 1989, dir: Naoyuki Yoshinaga

It would be tough to write a review of Cleopatra D.C. that didn't degenerate into a list of all the ways in which it's a bit odd, and given that these reviews are a hobby and not a job, I guess there's no reason I should try!  Though even then, there's the temptation to just say "Pretty much everything" and leave it there.  The thing is, even the basic setup is strange.  Our hero, she of the unlikely name Cleopatra Corns, is the leader of the Corns Group, which basically seems to own half the world, but only uses its corporate powers for good.  This leaves young Cleo with trillions of dollars at her disposal and an excess of time on her hands, both of which she spends getting into adventures that mostly seem to revolve around a combination of damsels in distress and the shenanigans of another mega-corporation that devotes its resources solely to the dirtiest sorts of profit.  So right there we already have a protagonist who's basically a gender-swapped Batman without the angst and flying rodent fetish.

Cleo also couldn't be much higher up in the one percent if she tried, and that would make her awfully hard to empathise with if she wasn't such a fun presence, bouncing from crisis to crisis with the giddy abandon of a sixteen year old who has all the money in the world.  Her idea of problem solving, at one time or another, might involve guns, jet packs, ICBMs, parachuting from a fighter plane so that she can shoot at a space rocket with a missile launcher, or just plain buying up an entire firm.  And this in turn leads to some exceedingly strange plots, which seem to be almost but not quite a pastiche of American action cinema - not quite because the show is ultimately too in love with that sort of preposterous excess to wish it any real harm.  Indeed, it feels very much like what would happen if someone got the wildly wrong-headed idea that Roger Moore-era James Bond was a great template to emulate.  And like so much of pre-twentieth century anime, you're sometimes left wondering who the audience is meant to be.  Cleo is just enough like a real sixteen-year-old girl, hanging out with her ever-expanding band of female friends, to suggest that the answer is other teenage girls, but then there are sufficiently gratuitous shots of her naked butt to imply that, no, it was teenage boys after all, and presumably they're the ones who might be expected to get most out of its Moonraker-esque dementedness.

Add to that the character designs, which are relatively normal for the period when it comes to the men and very weird indeed when it comes to the women: Cleo and co look as if someone tried to funnel a contemporary anime aesthetic through the medium of Betty Boop, and thus become the only characters in all of anime to not only have eyes bigger than their mouths but to have eyelashes as big as their eyes.  And while the animation is fair to middling, it's not the fair to middling of 1989; had I been guessing, I'd have pegged it at maybe a half decade later.  Meanwhile, the jazzy score is a nice fit for the material, but just unusual enough to fit into Cleopatra D.C.'s generally off-kilter landscape.  Heck, the show can't even get its episode structure right: the first two are standard length and the third clocks in at fifty minutes, so why not just split it in two?  But Cleopatra D.C., like its titular protagonist, refuses to do anything in conventional fashion.  Whether that makes the end result worthy of your time is, I suppose, another question.  It's certainly fun, pleasant enough to look at, and full of energy and ideas - though it has to be said that the longest episode is the one that feels most conventional.  Even then, though, if you're looking for something different, it's certainly an intriguing curio.


Dumb themes aside, there was kind of a serious purpose here: I definitely find it interesting that anime from three decades ago was happy to put female protagonists front and centre when there are still large portions of the US film and TV industry that consider the idea a bit of a gamble.  But in honestly, I'm not sure this particular selection tells us a huge deal, though at least we touched on some of the major bases.  And whatever else, I enjoyed the lot: even the basically rubbish Kekko Kamen was fun in its own weird way!

Next up: no stupid themes, hopefully.

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

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