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...



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

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