Thursday, 26 September 2019

A Savage Generation Unleashed

It's the 26th of September, and you know what that means?  It means that A Savage Generation, my second book with Flame Tree Press (after The Bad Neighbour) and the novel I've been working on for, I kid you not, approximately a decade, is out today.

I mean, obviously I haven't actually been working on it nonstop for a decade.  It's not War and Peace.  But it was March 2010 when I wrote the first words of what would become, via many drafts and numerous title changes and one total reimagining, A Savage Generation, and that's a level of effort I'm pretty certain I've never put into anything else ever.  Does that make this the best book I've ever written?  Of course not, it doesn't work that way; you don't craft great books by just throwing hours at them!  But it's definitely unique among everything I've done: a bit more complex and ambitious, a bit denser, and a whole lot grimmer.  That last one's probably a coincidence, but then, you can never be sure, can you?

This is perhaps a weird thing to publicly admit, but every time I look at A Savage Generation, I'm surprised by the craftsmanship there.  I don't know that it's better written than my other work, but it's certainly differently written, and it has a distinctive voice that I barely recognise as my own.  But I do think that it contains a lot of my best writing, a consequence of reaching far outside my various comfort zones and getting burned, and then slowly figuring out what was working and what wasn't and chipping out a shape that - again, uniquely among my novels - was almost unrecognisable from what I'd originally set out to create.  It's not a process I'd willingly go through again, because who wants to spend a decade getting a novel right?  But I'm glad I did it just the once, and I learned a lot in the process.

Look, I'll shut up now!  The point is, if you like my fiction, you're going to be intrigued by this one, because it's something altogether different, and also maybe something a bit less filtered.  But if you don't like my fiction (and it's weird that you'd be reading this blog post, but thanks, I guess!) then why not have another try, with a book I can guarantee you is unique among everything I've put out?

Okay, here's the blurb...
Sickness is ravaging America, driving the infected to savagery.
Petty criminal Ben Silensky is determined to get his girlfriend Carlita and son Kyle free of the quarantined city they live in, enough so to risk a foolhardy crime and then to team up with Carlita's equally desperate cop cousin Nando.  Once they're out, Nando is certain they'll find a safe haven in the prison, White Cliff, where his uncle works.  But unbeknown to him, White Cliff has already become a survivalist colony named Funland under the management of entrepreneurial convict Plan John.
In Funland itself, guard Doyle Johnson is shocked when his ex-wife abandons his son Austin into his care.  Fearing the vulnerable position he's been placed in, he recruits the help of Katherine Aaronovich, the prison's doctor.  However, Aaronovich's traumatic past has left her with vulnerabilities of her own, along with a radical theory on the nature of the epidemic that will place all their lives in jeopardy.
As the last vestiges of civilisation crumble, Funland may prove to be the safest or the most dangerous of places, depending on who comes out on top, and what can't be held together will inevitably be torn apart.
A Savage Generation is available from all good stockists of books and book-shaped objects, in e-book, paperback, and hardback formats.  The hardback is flat-out gorgeous, so that's probably the one to go for if you have the cash.  Oh, and there's an audiobook on the way, though it doesn't seem to be available quite yet.  Watch this space!

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 56

A small personal accomplishment of note: I had an opportunity to review a bit of seventies anime here and I resisted.  No siree, I may have ended up reviewing way too much eighties anime in this series that has 'nineties' right there in the title, but that's where I draw the line!  Though now that I think, probably 'anime made between the start and end of the nineties' would have been a more sensible place for that line to go.  Ah well!  Mistakes have been made, let's face it.

All of which is to say that we're back in the eighties, and this time we're looking at Dallos, Crusher Joe: The Movie, Garaga, and Fist of the North Star: The Movie...

Dallos, 1983, dir's: Mamoru Oshii, Hisayuki Toriumi

For years, I thought of Mamoru Oshii as the guy who made the Ghost in the Shell movies, and that was enough to earn him a spot in my personal pantheon.  On the back of those, I kept an eye out for his subsequent work, hard as it often was to find in the West.  His live-action effort Avalon is one of my favourite science-fiction films, and The Sky Crawlers, while hard to love, remains a hell of an achievement.  Then, returning to the Patlabor movies for this series, I was reminded of how astonishing and innovative they were.  And the retrospective dragged me back further, through the bizarre Angel's Egg to Oshii's two stabs at making Urusei Yatsura features, the first a rollicking bit of franchise fare and the second a surreal, distressing explosion of that selfsame notion.  But even those weren't anywhere near to Oshii's debut; he had a ton of TV work behind him, and more relevant to our current purposes, he co-directed Dallos, which so happens to be the first OVA ever released.  What would become a mainstay of the anime landscape was still an innovative idea in 1983: to put out a big budget but not cinema budget release, with a greater degree of artistic freedom than made-for-TV films allowed.

Point being, Mamoru Oshii is a goddamn legend, who'd earned his place as one of anime's great innovators long before he came to fame in the West.  Dallos is fine stuff, and thanks to Discotek, who recently released its four episodes unmangled for the first time, it's possible to see what an achievement it was.  Oshii's tale is ahead of its time in ways big and small: notably serious, with an attention to detail that approaches hard science-fiction, exceedingly brutal, and perhaps most surprisingly, politically conscious in the extreme.  Following an outbreak of rebellion on a lunar colony whose existence has drifted by degrees from necessary hardship to needless exploitation, it insists on asking difficult questions and presenting conflicting interpretations, none of them altogether wrong.  In fact, its core is an argument, one sometimes fought with guns and re-purposed mining mechs but as often with words, and it's telling that the climax is simply protagonist Shun Monomura sitting down with his grandfather, trying to choose between the ideas he's been stranded among for two hours.

If you're at all on Oshii's wavelength - which is to say, if you're happy to have your cool action sequences interspersed with moments of heavy introspection and philosophising - then this is immensely satisfying.  But that's not to say it's up there with his later work.  Partly that's due to technical restrictions he would surpass with the Patlabor and GitS films: Dallos looks good, and there's some terrific design work, but ultimately it's animation from 1983 on a less than stellar budget, and that does frequently show.  For that matter, its age is evident elsewhere, and nowhere more so than in the hit-and-miss score, which in its worst moments actively hurts the material.  And it's fair to say that Dallos doesn't go in much for character development, or have the smoothest of edits.  Nor does it exactly finish, leaving huge questions open for a sequel that would never appear.

But ultimately, I think the issue is that Oshii would subsequently get better at modulating his approach, and it was only with the first Patlabor that he learned to dial his ideas back enough for them not to be slightly exhausting.  At times, Dallos is simply too much, much as Beautiful Dreamer and Angel's Egg would have their moments of feeling like an assault on the intellect rather than entertainment.  Still, when my worst criticism of something is that it assaulted my intellect a little too vigorously, that remains a recommendation!  The frequently negative reviews I've come across suggest Dallos isn't to all tastes, but at the least it's a title you ought to make your own mind up on.

Crusher Joe: The Movie, 1983, dir: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

If you've any familiarity with Japanese hand-drawn animation, you'll have grown familiar with those set piece sequences that exist in part to let the animators show off their stuff: those with cars or spaceships or giant robots moving in complex fashion through three-dimensional space, or even entire landscapes tumbling toward the screen.  The point, of course, is that the more you have in motion, the more work is involved, and the harder it is to portray convincingly, which is why they tend to crop up maybe half a dozen times amid vastly simpler scenes.

Crusher Joe has one of those sequences roughly every two minutes.

Granted, they're not all perfect.  In an odd misfire, the opener, a battle on a raised highway between speeding cars and a truck, is by far the wonkiest.  But so many of them are flat-out extraordinary that it's churlish to quibble.  This is an incredibly show-offy performance from a studio, Sunrise, with talent to spare, and what's being shown off is frequently eye-popping.  And by no means is it there to disguise cost-cutting elsewhere, either.  There are the usual minor problems that seem to plague eighties animation, like characters going off model or being visibly the work of different designers with not-quite-compatible aesthetics, but on the whole it's terrific work, as sly and witty in its slower moments as it's splashy and bombastic in its space battles, gun fights, and dance sequences.*  Couple that with a lavish orchestral score and the result is something that absolutely feels like it was made to wow the heck out of cinema audiences.

Which is great, and you won't find many people more willing to sit and watch gorgeous animation for two and a quarter hours regardless of what it's showing.  But oh if there was a bit more story underneath it all!  It's not substance that's missing, precisely.  Our heroes, a bunch of amoral bounty hunters (rather, crushers) led by the rough-and-ready Joe, are utterly one note, but they're good notes, and the supporting cast are much the same.  More importantly, the universe they inhabit, presumably taken largely intact from creator Haruka Takachiho's light novel series, is a fine background of space opera at its grubbiest and most corrupt.  Since it's tough to avoid Star Wars comparisons with an epic sci-fi movie made in 1983, imagine a universe where everywhere was different shades of Mos Eisley and you're basically there.  So no, the cast are fine, the setting's more than fine, and the problem is simply that there's nowhere near one hundred and thirty five minutes of plot in Crusher Joe's thin tale of a deal gone wrong and the conniving and violent retribution that follows.

I can't possibly bring myself to condemn Crusher Joe: it looks stunning, it's compellingly mean-spirited as space opera goes, on a scene-by-scene basis it's marvelous, and it contains the first appearance of Takachiho's other famous creation, the Dirty Pair, in a cheeky background homage.  But there truly is too much of a good thing, and no more so than with anime, a medium that tends toward the dense and fast-paced.  More than once I found myself checking the clock, only to be stunned by how little running time had passed, when surely there was no way so many action sequences could have been crammed into so few minutes.  The result is a must-watch if this is at all in your wheelhouse, but if its creators had only shown a dash of restraint and limited their ambitions to the story they had to tell - or even better, come up with a story as lavish and intricate as their animation - then we'd certainly be looking at a masterpiece.

Garaga, 1989, dir: Hidemi Kubo

Garaga has more than its share of problems, but the one that especially stood out for me was confusing busywork with plot.  Its tale of a crash-landed interstellar crew and the planet they find themselves stranded on has its share of twists and turns, almost nobody is quite what they seem, villains are revealed to be heroes and vice versa - but Garaga supposes that all this is interesting in and of itself and it simply isn't.  Discovering that a character you've been led to suppose is an average Joe is in fact a member of some galactic army or other doesn't make that character any more fundamentally engaging.  And that's partly because none of the cast are given even so much as one dimension and partly because there's just so much of this stuff: too many people doing too many things in too many places for too many reasons.  We're two thirds of the way through before the real shape of the plot begins to show through, and it's not even a terribly interesting shape: a familiar scenario spruced up with, again, more ingredients than it needs or can really bear.

And here I am being terribly negative, when in truth Garaga was always on the right side of watchable.  In its first third, as our knowledge is restricted largely to that of the stranded crew, it's actually quite charming, doling out its world building and character development in an organic fashion.  The animation is cheap but watchable and never actively bad, the score is energetic and used with restraint, and all in all it has the feel of the kind of movie you might have found yourself stuck in front of as a kid on a Sunday afternoon, not so great that it's going to stay with you but hardly bad enough to warrant turning off.  And it regains ground in its last minutes, too, once all the twisting and turning and people being other than who we were led to believe has mostly worn itself out.

Actually, thinking back, there's even an interesting enough plot struggling to get out from under all the scaffolding, and possibly it would be clearer on a rewatch.  But the truth is, I can't see myself bothering.  Other than more focus and depth, what Garaga really needs is that one ingredient to separate it from the crowd, the odd stunning sequence or genuine glint of originality, and it's simply not there.  Everything is just about fine, the elements that might stand out get lost in the mire, and the result is that rare title I find myself totally unable to recommend.  It's hardly horrible, but "hardly horrible" isn't a reason to seek out rare eighties anime, is it?

Fist of the North Star: The Movie, 1986, dir: Toyoo Ashida

It may surprise anyone who's read a few of these posts to discover that, way back when I was a university student, Fist of the North Star was one of the shows that first got me into anime.  I may have drifted away from the more violent end of the market over the years, but in those days, having never seen anything like it, the TV show's outrageous extremes, wherein a single punch could shatter someone's head to mush and a rapid-fire series of blows could turn them into a veritable shower of bloody meat, were as mind-blowing for me as they were for those poor, dumb fools who regularly crossed paths with its hero Kenshiro.

Two decades on, I can still see the appeal.  At its best, the Fist of the North Star movie occupies a mythic sphere of bizarre and blood-soaked grandeur.  In the opening scenes, Ken is betrayed by a brother martial artist from his school who covets his girlfriend and leaves him for dead - having carved the symbol of the north star into his bare chest using just his fingers - only to be tossed into an apparently bottomless ravine by another bitter rival, only to then have a giant rock sent down after him to make triply sure.  When Ken returns, apparently from the grave, it's in a baffling sequence where he casually punches his way through crumbling skyscrapers while covered from head to toe in stone.  There are literal giants, and apocalyptic wastelands that make those of Mad Max look like a nice place to raise a family.  Entrails are torn out and, yes, there are certainly no shortage of exploding heads along the way.  It's ridiculous, but it's ridiculous in a grand register that at times make it feel like some muddled translation of an ancient myth, Gilgamesh revised for the video nasty generation.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, that's kind of all that truly works.  The characters are non-existent, as is the plot; indeed, by being only one chunk of a bigger story, the narrative refuses to go anywhere in a manner that's especially galling.  The backgrounds are routinely stunning, and it's evident that a great deal of money and labour went into the character animation, but in the hands of Toyoo Ashida - director also of the original Vampire Hunter D - the cumulative effect is less than impressive.  And it's not helped by Eastern Star, who felt the need to pad out an otherwise glorious remaster with a few previously censored scenes that add nothing and look as though they've been ripped from VHS.  There's even a sequence with obviously unfinished backgrounds that are basically pencil sketches, though where the blame lies for that is anyone's guess.  In short, it's a technically impressive film that rarely does much impressing.  Indeed, only one lengthy chase scene through a ruined cityscape sticks in the memory as a superlative bit of animation.

Mind you, if you're of a mind to enjoy what Fist of the North Star is offering, these sorts of criticisms probably won't matter.  There's no end of preposterous manliness and absurd but imaginative carnage, there are a couple of fun and booming heavy rock anthems that are a perfect fit for the material, and as I say, at its best it really does capture a mythic quality that's appealing in its own right.  Were the plot a bit tidier and had the creators found a more satisfying way to wrap things up, I'd still be inclined to give the movie a favourable review, if only as a fascinatingly weird corner of anime history.  But as it is, I found my interest ebbing over the nearly two hour running time, as the plot ground to a halt to busy itself with yet another tangent or side character - and if there's one thing a hyper-violent post-apocalyptic martial arts film can't afford to do, it's bore you.  Sad to say, for all that Fist of the North Star was revolutionary in its time, this movie version is limited in what it has to offer anyone outside of its target audience.

-oOo-

You know, in retrospect, it would have made more sense to wrap up the nineties reviews and then drift back to the eighties, wouldn't it?  Especially as the appeal of the earlier stuff is steadily growing for me: weirdly, eighties anime feels in many ways newer to me than nineties anime, since I saw a much bigger proportion of the latter the first time around.  Anyway, give Dallos and Crusher Joe a look, why don't you?  They're both pretty great, and not so impossible to get a hold of.

Next, back to both the nineties and total randomness!



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


* Yes, there's a dance sequence, and it's downright brilliant.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Requiem For the C21st Gods

Any career has it's share of disappointments, and the fate of my comic book C21st Gods perhaps wasn't the biggest I've had, but it's one that stuck with me - maybe because the project was so beset by disaster and then because it came so close to a measure of success.  To have a book unpublished is one thing; to have a book partially published and doomed to never be finished is quite another.  And somehow, the release of one issue of a three-and-a-bit part miniseries was almost worse than having nothing out at all.

But the very worst of it was, it's not that great an issue.  I mean, if we're honest, it's probably not that great a script full stop; beginning as a five page strip, then expanding into ten pages, then expanding into a graphic novel, it was born out of a few short, sharp shocks of effort that all seemed to occur at particularly rubbish times in my life.  And once the artist it had been written for dropped out, it looked for an age as though it would never see the light of day.  So I was all the more thrilled when eventually the pieces appeared to be coming together: with interesting-seeming independent outfit Rosarium in place as publisher and the talented Anthony Summey taking over on artist duties, it appeared that some good might come of all that work after all.

Yet, for reasons I guess I could dig into but won't, there was only ever this one issue, the weakest part of a book that was, in a weird sense, intended to start somewhat weakly.  The thing is, I'd never meant for C21st Gods to appear in separate segments, and it was never going to comfortably fit that format; issue one was deliberately rife with clich├ęs and the entire concept was built on playing with the reader's established expectations.  Essentially, the book was two parts prologue, one part climax, and the climax was what everything was about.

Nevertheless, while it's certainly not the best thing I've written, there's plenty in C21st Gods that I think genuinely stands up, that last issue would have been pretty damn cool, and I wasn't comfortable with leaving things the way they'd been left.  Therefore, as promised rather a long while back now, I've tidied the entire script a bit and stuck it up on my website.  I realise I've been kind of negative about it, but I swear, it's worth a read - especially if, like me, you're one of those folks who likes to get a glimpse behind the scenes!

There's an index of all the parts here, or you can find each separate issue at the following links:
Issue 1Issue 2Issue 3Epilogue.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 55

No themes or gimmicks this time around, just four titles selected at random from the to-watch shelf, with nothing much in common besides the fact that they're all nineties anime.  Er, except for the two that are from 1989.  Well, one and a half, anyway.  Which reminds me, this is kind of five reviews rather than the usual four, or six if you count the fact that one title is two OVAs on a single disk.  I swear, I don't know why I ever tried to set myself rules here!  It's basically anarchy.

This time around: Spirit Warrior: Revival of Evil & Spirit Warrior: Regent of Darkness, Earthian, Goku Midnight Eye, and Mobile Suit Gundam F91: The Motion Picture...

Spirit Warrior: Revival of Evil / Spirit Warrior: Regent of Darkness, 1994, dir: Rintaro

Here's a first: there really is no sensible option except to review two separate DVD releases as one.  And I suppose we can't altogether blame U.S. Manga Corps for putting out the twin parts of what's self-evidently a single film this way, since that appears to have been how they were released in Japan, but nor is there any getting around the fact that it's seriously cheeky.

Anyway, while they pose an unexpected reviewing problem, there's plenty of familiarity elsewhere.  We've already covered a couple of short films from this supernatural horror series, in the shape of the nondescript Spirit Warrior: Festival of Ogres' Revival and the surprisingly good Spirit Warrior: Castle of Illusion - though it's worth noting that those two belonged to an earlier take on the franchise, preceding this by some five years.  And we've also had plenty of encounters with the big-name director, Rintaro, who was chosen to drag Spirit Warrior back into the limelight.

I'm inclined to say that Rintaro is the best thing Revival of Evil and Regent of Darkness have going for them.  I've noted before that the man is a staggering visual stylist when at his best, and an awful storyteller at his worst, and that he generally manages to hit both extremes in every work he produces, often simultaneously.  But Spirit Warrior is well suited to playing up his strengths and disguising his signal weakness, or at least making it easier to ignore.  The thing is, if you're here for the story then you've had it anyway: its tale of ancient evils manifesting in modern-day Japan is nothing you won't have encountered before if you've watched the least bit of dark fantasy anime.  There are some novel twists, to be sure - robot neo-Nazis is a novel twist, right? - but on the whole it's hardly groundbreaking.  With all of that said, while Rintaro can't wreck what's already broken, he's certainly not the sort to take a messy script in hand.  In particular, the lack of a clear protagonist is a liability, as our supposed hero keeps getting sidelined for long stretches.  It's impressive, really, how Revival of Darkness (as I'm now calling it) manages to shortchange all of its cast.

However, if we accept that the Spirit Warrior franchise was never about to offer up a searingly original narrative or a complex, three-dimensional characters, it's safe to say that having Rintaro on board is a damn good thing.  Given a story that only succeeds on a scene-by-scene basis anyway, the fact that he directs the hell out of every one is a major plus.  There's evidence of budgetary constraints, such as that Rintaro staple of entire scenes occurring more than once, but there's also an extraordinary visual sense at play.  There are some terrific sequences here, along with many a gorgeous, painterly background.  If it's not the loveliest of his works, because X and Metropolis both exist, it's not far off, and frequently that's enough to patch over those narrative weaknesses.

But there's no wrapping this up without going to back to where we started: Revival of Darkness is a single movie chopped inelegantly into two, and presumably planned that way, because watching it in a single take doesn't really help matters: too much of Revival of Evil is exposition and basically all of Regent of Darkness is climax.  While it's absolutely possible to see how they could be re-edited into ninety minutes of brilliance, that's not what actually exists, and though there's lots here that's great and nothing genuinely bad, it probably remains one for Spirit Warrior and / or Rintaro completists only.

Earthian, 1989 / 1996, dir's: Kenichi Ohnuki, Nobuyasu Furukawa, Toshiyasu Kogawa

Sometimes, a little context would go a long way.  I'm sure there's a good reason Earthian consists of two separate OVA series, one of two forty-five minute halves from the end of the eighties and a second of two thirty minute episodes from half a decade later.  Likewise, I'm sure there's a reason the second part of the original series was basically a standalone tale, whereas the second series picks up the plot and certain characters from the first, albeit with a colossal time leap that skips the sort of events you'd think would be basically essential to any telling of this story.  My best guess is that the anime was never meant to be watched in isolation, that more of the original series was intended, and that the second go round was planned to coincide with the manga's wrapping up.  But three decades on, who besides hardened fans of a mostly forgotten comic book can say for sure?

Likewise, you can just about piece together the larger story from what's on offer here.  Our protagonists are two angels, or at any rate beings that look and behave like angels, sent from a planet named Eden to judge whether mankind is safe to keep around.  In a nice touch, one is tasked with totting up our worst failings, whereas the other is assigned to hunting out our better aspects.  It follows that the latter, Kagetsuya, has a tendency of getting overly attached to these beings called Earthians, but that may also have something to do with him being a freak among his own kind.  With black hair and wings, he's basically unique, though we learn in the second episode that certain "fallen" angels acquire those traits in their last days of life.  There's a lot there that seems like it might be important, and probably was in the manga, but for our purposes, the majority gets either cast aside or wrapped up in those missing years, and when we return with the sequel, Kagetsuya and his partner Chihaya are in a relationship, Eden has judged the Earthians unworthy and fought an abortive war with them, and most of the plot revolves around a mad scientist from part one, who's created a synthetic human / angel hybrid that he plans to wipe out humanity with, in revenge for the off-screen death of a minor character he seemed largely indifferent to when last we saw him.

Which takes us back to my original point.  There are intriguing ideas here, and hints of a fascinatingly mythology, but without the manga to refer to, digging them out feels too much like work.  That leaves us with the characters, who start off appealing but soon settle into an irritating rut: Kagetsuya gets obsessed with someone he's met or heard about, Chihaya berates him, Kagetsuya rushes in anyway, only to get kidnapped or beaten up or both, and Chihaya ends up grudgingly saving him with his awesome martial arts skills.  It's a fun dynamic for forty-five minutes, but after more than two hours I felt like I was being forced to hang around with a real bickering couple.

None of this is saved by the technical execution, which is pretty poor for the 1989 material (and worsened by technical issues on the AnimeWorks print) and maybe a little above average by the time we return in 1996; at any rate, there are some stunning backgrounds in the latter portion.  The music is somewhat better, except for one syrupy ballad near the start, but it's not so great that it stands out.  All told, that amounts to a moderately ugly first half with some novel storytelling and a notably prettier second half that manages to botch all of the character and narrative elements that made the beginning watchable, while mentioning in passing events that sound vastly more interesting than what we're shown.  Put them together and you're not left with much besides the sense that the manga was probably a heck of a lot more time-worthy.

Goku Midnight Eye, 1989, dir: Yoshiaki Kawajiri

For a while at the back end of the eighties and the start of the nineties, Yoshiaki Kawajiri could do no wrong.  Few directors were so in tune with the mood of the times, at least as far as it related to a certain kind of anime for a certain kind of audience.  If you wanted violent, action-packed films and OVAs with copious nudity, above par animation, a distinctive aesthetic, and lashings of style, then Kawajiri was your man.  I have no idea how well he was received in Japan (though the fact that he appears to have stayed in high-profile directing work for over a decade is surely indicative of something) but certainly in the West it's hard to point at a more iconic body of work.  Kawajiri defined action horror in Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku, did cyberpunk as well as any of his contemporaries with Cyber City Oedo 808, and followed both up with Ninja Scroll, a movie that for many a fan (though not this one) is the abiding high-point of nineties anime.

Yet with all that, you don't hear much talk of Goku Midnight Eye, the two hour long, two part OVA Kawajiri made between Demon City and Cyber City, and his first stab at the sort of neon-drenched, high concept SF he'd return to the following year.  Many reviewers would have you believe that this is because Goku was a rare career misstep, too goofy and frantic to really be considered among his best work, and that's certainly an argument that can be made.  In any other hands, the tale of ex-cop turned PI Goku Furinji, who survives a near-death encounter only to find himself gifted by a mysterious benefactor with a telescopic staff and an artificial eye that can hack into any computer system, would be a stretch of credibility; with Kawajiri leaning hard into his wildest impulses, it's giddy stuff indeed.  Ever wanted a scene of a dwarf riding a laser-spitting robot pole dancer with motorcycle handlebars strapped to her back?  Then Kawajiri has you covered.

That certainly highlights a couple of the genuine problems with Goku Midnight Eye.  In common with basically everything Kawajiri produced, it's crass, violent, and exploitative in ways that haven't aged at all well, and especially in regards to its female characters, if we're willing to abuse the word that far.  For me, the heightened unreality of the thing pulled me through; nobody, Goku included, behaves in any way like a rational human being or shows the slightest hint of depth.  Then again, that also highlights its principle success, as an object of raw style over substance that flings ideas around with abandon.  Even when the plot is being conventional, as in the second episode, where our hero finds himself tracking the enhanced victim of shady military experiments, the execution, the weird details, and the inordinate stylishness, makes the material feel fresh.  And if this was true of Cyber City too, that show would subsequently be imitated to death in a manner that Goku Midnight Eye never was, meaning that its originality holds up all the better.

The result is the definition of not for all tastes, even insomuch as that's true of all of Kawajiri's oeuvre.  And if you're unlucky enough to get caught up in the mystery of who Goku's benefactor is and why he's willing to hand him a power that could destroy all life on Earth in a heartbeat, then you're definitely out of luck, because the show drops that aspect nearly as quickly as it's raised.  But want some striking, lushly animated, deeply weird cyberpunk with an insane concept and a perfect marriage of Film Noir and eighties kitsch, topped off with a theme tune that couldn't epitomise that marriage any harder if it tried?  Then you might just love the heck out of Goku Midnight Eye.

Mobile Suit Gundam F91: The Motion Picture, 1991, dir: Yoshiyuki Tomino

There are, I'd say, two significant criticisms that can be aimed at Mobile Suit Gundam F91, and both stem from the same source.  Intended to be the beginning of a new saga in the Gundam universe, production difficulties found it downgraded from a planned series to a movie of fractionally less than two hours that crams in an inordinate amount of plot and a sizable cast at a breakneck pace.  And presumably because this was to be something of a soft reboot, that plot and those characters are awfully similar to those of the original Mobile Suit Gundam.  An aristocratic family decide to turn their backs on a complacent, selfish Earth government, beginning by violently capturing an isolated colony, driving a band of plucky civilians to fight at first for survival and then, by degrees, because it's apparent that they're as good at it as the so-called professionals who haven't cut their teeth on the sort of bloody conflict they've seen.  Heck, our heroes even get a White Base of their own, and it truly doesn't need saying that our sullen, youthful protagonist with a host of parental issues ends up in the cockpit of a certain red, white, and blue mecha.

So: it's Mobile Suit Gundam, except in two hours and with feature quality animation, or at least something a heck of a lot closer to that mark than TV animation from over a decade earlier, and told by a director who'd had no end of practice with the franchise by this point.  With all of that, and while there are many who seem to hold it in low regard for these reasons, I'm inclined to call Mobile Suit Gundam F91 my favourite chunk of Gundam so far, at least if we ignore the recent, superb Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin.  It's certainly on a par with War in the Pocket, my previous personal high point, and indeed I liked it for many the same reasons.  The opening assault on Frontier IV, for example, is an extraordinary way to kick things off, showing in no uncertain terms what it would be like to be a civilian caught in a battle of robots as large as buildings; at one point, someone's even killed by a falling shell casing bigger than their head.  It's a chaotic, exhilarating, horrifying sequence that sums up as well as anything I could point at why this is such an enduring franchise.

Inevitably, Tomino has to take his foot off the gas a little after that, but there are plenty of other terrific scenes to come.  Moreover, while you could argue that everyone except the core cast receive short shrift, it's also true that the film does fine work of sketching in details with the bare minimum of beats, cramming entire arcs into a line of dialogue or a gesture.  It's exhausting, it's a ton of work to keep up with, and there are moments when even then it really feels like a bit more footage would not only have been useful but vital.  On the other hand, it does most of what the movie trilogy of the original Mobile Suit Gundam did, and - again, presumably because Tomino had this stuff down by now - does a great deal of it better, while routinely looking and sounding fantastic.

Nonetheless, this clearly isn't going to be for everyone, or even every Gundam fan.  Since it's a standalone story, you might argue that it's a good jumping-on point, but I suspect I'd have struggled even more without a reasonable sense of how the universe functions, because Mobile Suit Gundam F91 hardly makes a single concession in that direction.  Then again, the core narrative is certainly self-contained, as much as it ends with the promise of sequels that would never materialise.  Possibly the answer, then, is that this is one for the established but casual Gundam fan, as I guess I'd have to term myself by now.  Yet that still feels like a disservice, and I'd suggest that if you've a fondness for space opera and / or giant robots, or just want a taste of what's on offer without digging into any of the many series, F91 is seriously worth a look.

-oOo-

Hmm, I feel like I got close to recommending three out of four titles and then shied away a bit at the last second.  Look, if any one of Spirit Warrior, Goku Midnight Eye, or Mobile Suit Gundam F91 sounds like it might float your boat then you should absolutely give them a go, and especially those last two, both of which are pretty much excellent.  It's just that cyberpunk interpretations of Journey to the West and failed attempts to get a new Gundam franchise off the ground are never going to be everyone's bag, you know?

Next time around, if all goes to plan, we'll be heading back to the eighties again, in this blog series that I really ought to have given a less decade-specific name...



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