Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 57

Nineties anime is a lot like peanut butter; you have to take the rough with the smooth.  Wait, no, that's not how peanut butter works, is it?  In fact, it's the exact opposite.  What I mean to say is that, however much smooth excellence you get, there's always going to be a bit of crunchy unpleasantness to mar the experience.  Although, thinking about it, I much prefer crunchy peanut butter to the slimy muck that is smooth peanut butter.  This is an awful simile!  The point I believe I was trying to make is that we have a moderately good selection this time around, but all of it comes with its share of flaws, much as having a slice of toast with mostly crunchy peanut butter and a bit of smooth smeared over one corner would be an ultimately disappointing experience.

No, still a dreadful simile!  This time around: Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, Jewel BEM Hunter Lime, Garzey's Wing, and Hyper Speed GranDoll...

Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, 1990, dir: Hisayuki Toriumi

From the perspective of 2019, it's hard to credit that there was a time when anime was so hard to come by in the West that a film could become known and yet be attributed to completely the wrong production studio.  But such, apparently, was the fate of Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, a production by Studio Pierrot for Nippon TV, adapting the recently published and award-winning novel Inner Palace Harem Story.  Partly due to a fan's subtitling mishap (who knew Hayao wasn't the only Miyazaki?) and partly due to the presence of Katsuya Kondō and his distinctive character designs, many incorrectly ascribed the movie to Studio Ghibli, who at that point had a considerably smaller body of work behind them and an infinitely smaller profile in the US and Europe.

On the one hand, it's an easily understood mix-up.  Like the Clouds, Like the Wind is extraordinarily lovely, far more so than almost any other animation was in 1990 that didn't have Ghibli's name on it.  (Had it been theirs, incidentally, it would have been sandwiched between Kiki's Delivery Service and Only Yesterday.)  Squint hard and it's possible to believe that it was made for television, but many a cinema release from the time doesn't hold up so well.  The backgrounds are lush, Kondō's designs are splendidly expressive, giving even the most insignificant characters a degree of inner life, and the animation is very fine indeed, not to mention integrated with the sort of attention to detail that you'd expect of a studio like Ghibli and almost nobody else.  Of course, in retrospect, 1990 was a pretty damn fine time for anime, and Pierrot were no slackers themselves, though perhaps there's not a lot else on their CV that's up to this level.  But heck, even the soundtrack could easily be mistaken for being by Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki's frequent collaborator.

However, start to look at the story and the mistake seems harder to credit.  Of course, again, there was a good deal less to compare with, but the tale of peasant girl Ginga, who gets entirely the wrong idea about what it means to be a concubine in the court of a young new emperor and promptly sets out to volunteer her services, feels in many ways unlike something Ghibli would touch with a ten-foot pole.  Oh, you've the plucky, resourceful female protagonist who succeeds more through kindness and diligence than any innate talent, that part fits just fine.  But there's a special sort of tonal dissonance in what's ostensibly a kid's movie where the protagonist is a trainee royal concubine; it's not like the film skirts around what that job entails, or how little respect the world of ancient China had for girls like Ginga.  And it's fair to say that both Miyazaki and Takahata would have coped better with the harsh shifts between good-natured fun and political maneuvering, not to mention the screaming ninety-degree turn into sex, violence, and tragedy that is the third act.  I mean, okay, the sex is off screen and the violence is entirely bloodless, but still!  It's a shock.

Mind you, none of this should be taken to suggest that Like the Clouds, Like the Wind isn't worthy of your time, and especially so now that the good folks at Discotek have seen fit to resurrect it on blu-ray.*  The point is simply that it's a little too weird and structurally off and generally imperfect to stand being attributed to the mighty Ghibli.  If we were being seriously harsh, it's fair to say that director Toriumi does a solid but unspectacular job, never quite figuring out how to keep a story that's effectively all over the damn place on the rails.  Yet chaotic as it may be, it's still lovely and appealing and an all in all a marvelous piece of animation craft.  If it doesn't leap the impossibly high bar set by the studio it once got wrongly attributed to, it's good enough to be mentioned in the same breath, and there's not much anywhere in the world of animation that can say that.

Jewel BEM Hunter Lime, 1996, dir: Tetsurô Amino

Honestly, all Jewel BEM Hunter Lime had to do to get a little praise out of me was to be better than that title and that cover art suggest.  I mean, what on earth were they thinking?  Whose idea was it to scrawl "cute and sexy" in sharpie over the artwork?  Would Jewel Hunter Lime on its own not have been an incomprehensible enough title?  (BEM stands for Bug Eyed Monsters, though you have to pay awfully close attention to tease out that fact.)  If AnimeWorks were often slipshod, this release, an unfinished OVA tag-on to a video game lost to the annals of history, represents a new height of passing work off to the office intern and hoping nobody notices.

As such, the fact that Jewel BEM Hunter Lime is for the most part charming, and reasonably amusing, and actually has a rather clever comedy hook to it is both a pleasant and a disproportionate surprise.  Basically, the concept goes like this: in a mystical world parallel to ours, the hapless Lime and her demonic servant Bass inadvertently allow a casket of magical gems to plummet to earth, where they immediately begin turning into monsters and absorbing the negative energies of those around them.  Only, for the purposes of this show, that might mean taking on the embittered form of a candle that's sick of a world where electric lighting reigns, or a purse that doesn't know its purpose but has a vague idea that it's meant to do bad things.  In short, the monsters are goofy and surreal, and Lime and Bass's quest rapidly becomes more to do with teasing out their bewildering logic.

This side of things is just fine, and even a bit inspired in its best moments, and the technical values, while never impressive, are good enough to not get in the way; the weakest aspect on that front is a score that leans too hard into being self-consciously wacky.  Still, if Jewel BEM Hunter Lime was all about Lime and Bass's blundering attempts to catch weird monsters with weirder grudges, I'd happily recommend it.  Unfortunately, rather than focus on its one moderately original idea, the creators seem eager to tap into some of the crapper trends of nineties anime humour.  Boy, have "jokes" where Bass gropes Lime and Lime gets a bit indignant not aged well!  And things come to a head in the last of the three episodes, which manages to double down on all that while adding a hefty dose of transphobia to the brew.  Even if that doesn't bother you, it's still an awfully lackluster finale, indulging in gags that had been done to death half a decade earlier and ignoring most of what succeeded in the first two thirds.  Which is a shame, because an hour and a half on a level of the adorably silly first two episodes would have made it worth looking past AnimeWorks' efforts to make sure no-one would ever want to watch Jewel BEM Hunter Lime.

Garzey's Wing, 1996, dir: Yoshiyuki Tomino

Despite being written by and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, he of much Gundam fame, and despite being a tie-in to the popular series Aura Battler Dunbine, Garzey's Wing is generally regarded by critics with outright contempt.  And heck, there's a perfectly good chance you too will hate it, but let's not rush to conclusions!  Because I think I've devised a little test that should clarify that fact.  Do you a) insist on choosing dubs over subs and b) have any tolerance for the sort of fantasy that throws made-up names at you with machine-gun regularity?  If your answers were yes and no, you will indeed probably consider Garzey's Wing to be among the worst things ever, since it has a spectacularly shambolic dub and the sort of vocabulary you'd end up with if you threw a dozen trashy seventies fantasy novels into a blender for ten minutes.

And here ends the "respecting critical consensus" portion of this review, because, as someone who'd never put up with a bad dub when subtitles were available and who has no real issue with silly fantasy terminology if it's justified, I liked Garzey's Wing just fine.  In fact, I suspect a lot of what I liked was a lot of what's generally despised.  But before we go there, let's glance at the plot: our teenage hero Chris finds his soul sucked from his body, and seconds later he's in the deeply fantastical land of Byston Well, accompanied by a fairy - apologies, a Ferario - and fighting in what appears to be a slave rebellion, aided by giant magical swan wings that sprout from his ankles.  He soon discovers that he's been summoned by the priestess of the Metomeus tribe, as the latest in a series of mythic heroes aided by the power known as Garzey's Wing, to help liberate them and vanquish their oppressors.

Utter fantasy boilerplate then, but the show has a few tricks up its sleeve, and quite the original take on the "hero summoned from another world" template that's become so achingly familiar.  For a start, only Chris's spirit is in Byston Well, the rest of him is functioning perfectly adequately back home, though manifesting the various bruises and injuries his ethereal half suffers.  Indeed, the two can even communicate via the necklace they wear, which means corporeal Chris can offer spirit Chris tips on military strategy, chemistry, and even the construction of guns, all useful information when you're fighting a guerrilla war.  Which is essentially what Garzey's Wing boils down to: a three episode rolling conflict with a hugely disadvantaged force using every trick in the book and a few that aren't to keep themselves free and on the run.

This aspect is great stuff, and Chris makes for a surprisingly terrific hero.  For every scene he's being a chosen one with unearned magical powers, there are ten where he's simply doing his best at whatever the cost and trying to apply twentieth-century ingenuity to the problems of fantasy-land warfare.  The result is bloody, chaotic, desperate-seeming, and also, to my mind, the justification for all of that nonsense terminology: Chris is thrust into this madness without compass or anchor and therefore so are we.  There's precisely one scene that went too far into word salad for my tolerance, but generally it's easy enough to keep track of who's who and what's what if you concentrate.

Look, I don't want to oversell the thing.  Clichéd fantasy is still clichéd fantasy, even when it has the nous to upend a few of those clichés in interesting ways.  And while the animation is perfectly fine, it's never mind-blowing, nor is it aided greatly by Tomino's presence as director.  His experience certainly shows, but this is the work more of a solid but unspectacular storyteller than an established master.  It's simply an ingenious take on a well-worn idea, which sacrifices traditional narrative in favour of a ninety-minute-long fight for survival - and one which, unfortunately, U. S. Manga Corps saw fit to saddle with a dub so catastrophic that it's entered into anime legend.  One of the reasons I insist on loving U. S. Manga Corps, though, even when they don't altogether deserve it?  They always provided a sub too.  And I'd hazard that if, on this occasion, they'd kept it to just that, Garzey's Wing might be remembered with mild fondness.

Hyper Speed GranDoll, 1997, dir: Hideki Tonokatsu

The problem isn't so much that Hyper Speed GranDoll tries to do too many things, but that none of them are even slightly original and it does every one badly.  Anime often flits between genres and lumps together tropes, and it's perfectly possible that a release could cram comedy, space opera, romance, heart-rending tragedy, and robotic suit action into one perfectly successful mix; in fact, I've seen plenty of shows that do.  Heck, even the vigorous lifting of elements from elsewhere needn't be that huge a problem; the biggest point of reference is clearly Project A-Ko, and it's not as if A-Ko was a touchstone of originality in its own right.  No, the only irreparable problem here is that it seems like nobody involved gave enough of a damn to inject a bit of life.

Actually, I say that; there's a vein of humour that works pretty well, and the show's willingness to ditch it within an episode for totally unearned drama is its most frustrating failing.  The setup - a high-school girl finds that she's not the daughter of the mad scientist father and ditzy mother she believes to be her parents, but actually the princess of a galactic dynasty, and now the rebel leader who took down said dynasty is after the invincible armour system sent with her to guard her - is absolutely generic nineties anime.  But mad science can be funny, and that most of what our heroine Hikaru's adoptive dad devotes his inventive energies to is trying to help her run her life while actually making it hellish is a fun notion.  As such, the first ten minutes of the first episode are by far the most entertaining.

Then Hyper Speed GranDoll goes downhill, and more or less keeps going for the next hour and change.  Simply put, no other element is worth a damn.  The science-fiction back story is muddled and largely irrelevant; the fights are outrageously simplistic, and the romance falls flat, perhaps because neither party has an identifiable character trait between them.  Worst, surely, is the plot line that starts in episode two, in which the villain's lover poses as a student at Hikaru's school and they become friends, to the point of a bath scene so gratuitous that it actually undermines the wider story, since the two are clearly way more into each other than they are their respective menfolk.  Anyway, this character, who's name I can't be bothered to look up, is one we're clearly supposed to become invested in, to the point where her inevitable choice of whether to betray Hikaru or her psychotic, mass-murdering lover is a big enough deal to hang the entire climax on.  This, as you may have guessed, doesn't work one teeny bit.

Oh, and the animation is mediocre at best, and the designs are mostly horrible: the GranDoll suit is possibly the least intimidating thing imaginable, for all that it has an attack called "shining breast" that you can probably figure out for yourself - though even that's not half so interesting as it sounds!  And the music, even the end theme, never rises beyond the level of acceptable.  But when you get right down to it, it's the unsupportable shift from wacky lightheartedness to high-stakes violence and misery that the show simply can't survive.  A version of Hyper Speed GranDoll that remembers to be fun for its entire running time would at least be, well, fun.  The one we get, that seems to believe anyone's going to care deeply about it's drab plot or tiresome characters or wholly predictable battle for the fate of the earth is entirely a waste of time.


That was a weird old batch!  Nothing quite turned out to be what I expected, except possibly for Like the Clouds, Like the Wind, and even that was a good deal stranger than I'd anticipated.  I'd assumed Jewel BEM Hunter Lime would be ridiculous tosh, and it came awfully close to being a charming little comedy; I'd had high hopes of Hyper Speed GranDoll, for reasons I've totally forgotten, and it was so mediocre that it made me kind of angry.  And Garzey's Wing, widely considered to be one of the worst anime releases from the decade - well, I surely didn't think that would end up being a keeper.  It just goes to show something, though I'm buggered if I can say what.  Probably that I ought to watch more nineties anime.  Yeah, let's go with that.

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

* Though brownie points lost for the incredibly vanilla blu-ray and the fact that, while the picture looks just fine, the sound appears not to have been remastered and is pretty much a mess.

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