Thursday, 8 August 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 53

I guess lumping shorter titles together is a thing I'm doing now, possibly because there are just so many of them in the world of vintage anime that doing so makes sense.  At any rate, this time we have the treat of four titles that were actually meant to be short, rather than cancelled after an episode or two, which is a definite plus.  Indeed, three out of the four are actual movies, and I do kind of love the peculiar beast that is the vintage anime movie of less than an hour in length, the best examples of which tend to be miniature masterpieces of concise storytelling.

But is that what we're looking at this time around?  Woo, perhaps!  There are certainly a couple of major highlights to be found amid Spring and Chaos, Psychic Force, The Weathering Continent, and Judge...

Spring and Chaos, 1996, dir: Shôji Kawamori

Would that there were more films in the world like Spring and Chaos!  Biopics of famous people are ten a penny, but often as not the goal is more to diminish than to understand, by presenting a greatest hits of the person they're lauding or by showing the rocky path to their most noteworthy accomplishment or by dumbing down their struggles to a point where they can be spoon fed to the viewer over the course of a couple of hours.  But Spring and Chaos, in its attempts at offering an hour-long window into the life of poet and author Kenji Miyazawa (probably best known in the West for Night on the Galactic Railroad) refuses any of that.  It isn't the story of Miyazawa's career in any meaningful sense, nor a beginner's guide to his achievements, and it certainly doesn't end on a triumphant note, since Miyazawa died young and unrecognised.  And because it's told through animation - indeed, through some frequently gorgeous and risk-taking animation - it certainly doesn't confine itself to any prosaic reality, let alone to what may or may not really have happened.

Talking about what Spring and Chaos actually does do is more difficult.  Its goals are numerous and contradictory, a celebration of the joy of creating but also a glimpse at its frustrations and even horrors.  Writer / director Kawamori doesn't shy from the fact that Miyazawa was severely depressive, and perhaps mentally ill in wider ways; his hallucinations are presented as precisely that, and there's no suggestion that his creativity was a pleasant or even a healthy process.  For every moment of rapture, there's another where he stalls agonisingly close to the idea he's seeking, or simply sees visions of corpses crawling out of the earth and trying to suck him down.  Miyazawa is neither understood nor rewarded by his peers; in fact, the response to his art is an endless series of punishments and failures, mitigated in part, perhaps, by his moments of sheer pleasure, but never altogether.  Whether he's wrangling with his loan shark father or trying to comfort his ailing sister or playing at school teacher or throwing himself into becoming a peasant farmer, he fails, and fails, and fails again.

Yet the result is as uplifting as it isn't.  If there's a positive message here, it's that Miyazawa was true to himself, and while that lack of compromise was certainly bad for him, it left us with a legacy of great work that couldn't have come about otherwise.  It helps, maybe, that all the characters are drawn as animals, mostly cats, adding a certain whimsy to moments that might otherwise be just too sour.  More so, the very artistry of Spring and Chaos is uplifting, even when what it's depicting is heartbreaking.  In fact, Kawamori's wisest choice in an exceedingly well written and directed film is to let the medium itself do the heavy lifting of comprehending Miyazawa's poetry: essentially, what we have is one art form celebrating another.  Or rather, two art forms, since the use of music and the score itself are equally superlative.

Contrarily, you might argue that the biggest mistake Kawamori makes is leaning heavily into CG animation way back in 1996, when even relatively good CG was destined to stand out.  However, as he notes in an interview on the otherwise sparse special edition disk, that was at least a conscious choice, and it's notable that all the obvious computer animation is confined to dream sequences and such, where its heightened unreality is a thematic fit.  Frankly, it still ages the material in a manner that the lovely hand-drawn animation doesn't, yet it also allows for some astonishing images that might have been impossible to accomplish otherwise: the opening, in which a train pulls away from a station, only for the world to split beneath it, revealing a disturbing array of subterranean gears, is one striking example.

The upshot is a film that defies easy summary.  Were it not for that dated CG, and perhaps if it were a dash longer than an hour, it would be easy to call it a masterpiece.  Yet its apparent flaws are definitely part of what makes it so satisfying.  It's easy to imagine a cleaner, tidier, and even more beautiful Spring and Chaos, but harder to conceive of one so brave and fascinating in its choices.  It's not perfect, but it's certainly special, and deserves to be much more widely known than it is.

Psychic Force, 1998, dir: Tomio Yamauchi

The truth is, I've nothing much to say about Psychic Force, try as I might: it really isn't very good, and it isn't very interesting either.  In fact, my main observation was that it was released by obscure distributor Image Entertainment, who were also responsible for the incredibly shonky edition of Babel II I bought.  Come to think of it, Psychic Force has a lot in common with Babel II, though the comparisons do it few favours.  The latter was basically a mess, but at least had a couple of interesting ideas and a certain goofy charm; strip that away, cram the results into two OVA episodes with perhaps a tenth of the animation budget, and this would be what you had left.  Though while Babel II was the sparsest DVD release I've ever seen, Psychic Force goes almost too far in the other direction, with a host of special features on a release that doesn't remotely deserve the attention.

Psychic Force is based on an arcade beat-em-up, which is rarely a good sign, but assuming there's a right way and a wrong way to go about adapting a game that involves nothing except characters hitting each other, this is a certainly a fine example of what not to do.  For a start, there's very little fighting, and what there is isn't remotely exciting.  Instead, we concentrate on the two main characters, which might have worked if there was a bit more to them, and if the focus had been even tighter: attempts to introduce the rest of the game's cast in brief snatches are merely confusing and annoying.  And even the central arc expects us to believe that a friendship so powerful that our hero Burn Griffiths would devote years of his life to tracking down our sort-of-antagonist Keith Evans could be formed in the space of approximately five minutes.  I swear I'm not making this up: Burn and Keith meet, hang out for a couple of scenes, Keith gets captured by the shadowy government agents who are chasing him, and then Burn spends literally years trying to track his vanished "friend" down.  Seriously, Burn, this is why on-line dating exists.*

Also, Burn is a really distracting name to give someone.  Especially when multiple scenes involve fire, and people being set on fire, and other people shouting "Burn" in a wholly inappropriate fashion.

I'd try to say something positive - heck, I said positive things about the similarly named Spectral Force, and everybody in the world hates that one! - but there's just nothing whatsoever to Psychic Force. The animation is rubbish, with a dire reliance on still frames; such crucial events as the fall of civilisation and the enslavement of mankind are portrayed that way, which is so bewildering that I'm not even sure that's what was meant to be happening.  The opening and closing themes are hilariously tacky celebrations of friendship and the power of love respectively, both quite awful.  And above all else, it's impossible to get past the fact that you're watching an adaptation of a fighting game that can't get round to having its characters fight until the last five minutes or so.  You had one job, Psychic Force, one job that countless other titles have managed before you, and you couldn't even get that right!

The Weathering Continent, 1992, dir: Kôichi Mashimo

I've often thought that anime in the nineties seems to have been engaged with the traditions of Western fantasy writing in ways that film and TV in the West never were, and nowhere is that truer than with the 1992 short film The Weathering Continent, which - though based on a lengthy series of Japanese light novels - could as easily be an adaptation of some lost story by Fritz Leiber or Robert E. Howard.  That latter particularly: the setting of a land made inhospitable by natural disaster and then intolerable by human desperation and cruelty feels of a piece with Howard's Hyperborea, just as the particular brand of weary, supernaturally tinged fantasy on offer would sit comfortably amid his work.

If that were the case, however, Howard's version would certainly be a lot less moody and meditative.  Certainly in its opening minutes, those are the words that sum up The Weathering Continent most aptly.  Another is desolate; its scenes of three travelers wandering amid the desert, and through ruins of awesome ancientness and magnitude, could as easily be a spiritual successor to Shelley's Ozymandias.  Once our heroes find themselves trapped in a lost and haunted necropolis with a party of bandits for company, the pace inevitably picks up, but at no point does it become what you'd call action-packed.  Director Mashimo foregrounds mood above all else, even when theoretically exciting things are going on.  And if you happen to have a fondness for that particular brand of fantasy writing, this is all enough to make The Weathering Continent a bit of a joy, even before you get to its intelligent script, its haunting score, or the fact that it looks flat-out gorgeous: the backgrounds in particular could any one of them pass as a stunning book cover.  In fact, if you want to imagine the aesthetic, "seventies fantasy paperback book covers come to life" is as good a starting point as any.

If we were hunting for imperfections, the character designs aren't altogether to my tastes, there's some noticeable (though plot-appropriate) reuse of sequences, and on occasions the music veers into nineties goofiness and spoils the tone it's been doing such a good job of helping to maintain.  Also, of course, if you like your fantasy anything but slow and moody, this isn't the title for you.  And it's not as though The Weathering Continent is easy to find these days!  Likely even at the time it was an obscure title that AnimeWorks felt little inclination to push, though the packaging is the nicest I've seen from them, and what I listened to of the dub was a respectable effort.  Still, if it sounds as if it might appeal, it's absolutely worth keeping an eye out for, despite its relatively brief length.  Even at just under an hour, it tells a complete and satisfying story, one with such commitment to tone and world-building that it really does feel like a glimpse of a much larger narrative.

Judge, 1991, dir: Hiroshi Negishi

I'll say this for Judge, it's certainly weird.  And weirdness is precisely right for the sort of thing it is, that being supernatural dark fantasy heavily tinged with horror.  It seems to me that fantasy and horror are both predictable far too often, and sadly that's nowhere truer than in the world of cheap nineties anime, which is definitely what this fifty-minute OVA falls into; watch enough of it and you start to see the same elements appearing time and again.  On the face of things, Judge isn't so very different, and indeed I was expecting a pretty familiar experience.  But I was sure proved wrong!

Our protagonist Ohma is a normal salaryman, or at least relatively normal - even his partner Nanase finds him kind of odd.  Still, by day he's not one to stand out from the crowd, and certainly not one to stick his head above the parapet when dodgy dealings start surfacing at the firm where he works.  However, once he clocks off, it's an altogether different case, for then Ohma becomes the Judge of Darkness, supernatural legal aid to those poor, frustrated souls who find themselves trapped by a lack of justice in the mortal realm.

That setup might still go down a conventional route, with the Judge taking bloody vengeance on behalf of the wronged, and at first it seems like it will.  But it's not long before matters veer off in a much stranger and more fun direction, which I really don't want to spoil given how much I enjoyed coming at it blind.  Suffice to say that Judge's cosmology is less straightforward than it initially appears, and Ohma isn't the only supernatural legal agent out there.  Though while it's the unpredictable twists and turns of the main storyline that feel most unusual, they're not the only element that's unexpectedly fresh: Ohma and Nanase's relationship is appealingly mature and real-feeling, and the focus on corporate subterfuge is a nice change of pace in itself.

This is all to the good, because Judge doesn't have a lot else going for it.  It certainly looks less than great.  Director Negishi would subsequently get some respectable work under his belt, and he shows a degree of flare here, but that's not enough to disguise some decidedly cheap animation, or designs that veer between bland and bizarre in ways that don't altogether benefit the material.  Visually it's rather a shabby little thing, and it's easy to see why it has no reputation these days: on the surface it's awfully close to a lot of other cheap OVA releases from the time.  Nevertheless, I got a fair bit out of Judge, to the point where I found overlooking it's flaws quite easy.  Or all but one, anyway; the ending is incredibly anticlimactic, depending on a deus ex machina introduced all of about a second before it brings the plot to a close.  It's an odd choice from a movie full of odd choices, but at least it didn't kill my enjoyment of what had gone before.


It's a good post that I get a couple of new favourites out of, right?  Spring and Chaos really is a miniature classic, and deserves to be picked up by someone for a blu-ray release, unlikely as that prospect is; and while The Weathering Continent isn't quite as marvelous, it's not far off.  And hey, Judge was good for a laugh, which is fine by me.  Of course, Psychic Force stank to high heaven, but you can't have everything!

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

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