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.


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.

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