Saturday, 23 November 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 59

We've stumbled across the Dirty Pair here before, many moons ago, in their remodeled Dirty Pair Flash guise, but now that I'm drifting increasingly away from reviewing nineties anime in my series entitled 'Drowning in Nineties Anime', there really isn't a reason not to go back to the wellspring, is there?

For the uninitiated, Kei and Yuri - known as either the Lovely Angels or the Dirty Pair depending on who's doing the naming - are operatives of a galaxy-wide corporate mercenary force called the 3WA, and they're great at their jobs in that they always get them done but tremendously awful in the sense that they tend to destroy everything within reach in the process.  Fortunately for them, less so for the galaxy, their missions are assigned by a computer that values success and doesn't factor in collateral damage, which means plenty of adventures and even more explosions.

Got that?  Okay!  Then let's have a look at Dirty Pair: Project Eden, Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy and the original Dirty Pair OVA Series...

Dirty Pair: Project Eden, 1987, dir: Kôichi Mashimo

I get the impression that the vast majority of anime fans, certainly outside of Japan, aren't terribly invested in animation per se, and this has never struck me more than with Dirty Pair: Project Eden, a work that precisely no-one seems to be praising for how goddamn amazing it looks.  I don't have many criteria to judge by at this point, but I'm willing to bet that, as a Dirty Pair movie, it has some hefty failings, and I assume that if I was deeply invested in the affairs of willfully destructive space cops Kei and Yuri, I might have felt short changed.  But as a piece of animation - or not even that, as a visual spectacle that seeks to wow your eyeballs with motion and shapes and colour - on that level, Project Eden is a wonder.

And it's not like the storytelling is rubbish, it's just clearly not where anyone's best efforts were directed.  While the plot is surprisingly solid, it's delivered with a lack of interest that's almost a joke in itself, reducing a tale of mad science and ancient aliens to snippets that can be tossed off in bursts of exposition, usually by the delightfully insane villain Dr. Wattsman.  But as Dirty Pair projects go, this one doesn't seem terribly invested in our two lovely angels.  Kei is saddled with going all puppyish over a new character, master thief Carson D. Carson, who also steals too much of the movie, and Yuri hasn't even that much of a character arc; I'd struggle to tell you a single trait she possesses that isn't "looking hot in underwear-armour."  That said, you might argue that what's going on here is a purist approach to presenting beloved characters at movie length: what need for arcs and development when you can offer up your protagonists in their simplest form, quipping and exploding things with abandon?

But none of that's really the point.  For me, Dirty Pair: Project Eden was mostly a sensual experience to be basked in, one every bit as enthusiastic about the benefits of hand-drawn animation as I am.  I dare say it's the most pop-arty anime movie I've seen, indulging in a palette of neon shades and blaring primary colours and garish flamingo pink that would be excruciating in less skilled hands.  It's kitsch, but it's phenomenal kitsch, bursting with pop music and energy and a sense of its own ridiculousness, and I'd forgive all manner of plot transgressions for that.  There's an argument to be made for saying that this is the franchise movie par excellence, on a level with Yurusei Yatsura classic Beautiful Dreamer or Miyazaki's take on Lupin in The Castle of Cagliostro; perhaps it's appeal isn't as wide or as obvious, but it's not far off their greatness, and my Dirty Pair marathon is off to an awfully good start.

Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, 1985, dir: Masaharu Okuwaki

It's best to have a handle on what Affair of Nolandia is going in: not a movie, regardless of the claims sometimes made on its behalf and the fact that Nozomi include it in their recent "Dirty Pair Features" bundle, but an OVA just shy of an hour that appears to have marked the conclusion of the original run of TV episodes.  This is important for a number of reasons, but most of them boil down to having realistic expectations after the pleasures of Project EdenAffair of Nolandia looks pretty cheap by comparison, and very much like exactly what it is.  The animation is that of a solid mid-eighties anime show, with some noticeable wobbles, such as characters spending more time off model than on, and the odd flashy sequence that suffers from Okuwaki's being so eager to show off his flashy sequences that he keeps reusing them.

So a slightly above-par, hour-long TV special then.  And that knowledge is also helpful in parsing the plot, which at times feels like an attempt to show off as much of its heroines as possible, in both senses.  Therefore we get to see Kei and Yuri banter and lark about and punch and shoot things and cause quite epic amounts of destruction, but we also get to see them stripped naked and attacked by tentacle monsters, for not much reason whatsoever.  Which, for me, feels out of keeping with what Dirty Pair is about, though I'm sure there were viewers in 1985 who'd have disagreed.

That incongruity is stressed more than it might otherwise be by the fact that the plot breaks awkwardly into two halves.  The first, in which Kei and Yuri hunt for a psychic girl in a bizarre alien jungle while hallucinating massively, is goddamn strange and doesn't seem to know what tone it's after.  It gets notably more fun at roughly the moment when our lovely angels take charge of the situation, and that follows through into the second half, which doubles down on the action and is a lot more eager to remind us of how awesome these characters are.  Yuri, in particular, gets to shine in an absurdly lengthy chase sequence, though Kei's reenactment of The Terminator is impressive in its own right.  Those last twenty minutes are plenty of fun, though perhaps not much more so than I'd imagine an average episode of the show to be.

All of which is to say that Affair of Nolandia was probably doomed to disappoint after the joy that was Project Eden, but nevertheless manages to be moderately disappointing in its own right.  The first half is baffling but surprising, the second is predictable but full of Dirty Pair goodness, and all of it's wrapped in a production that does little to distinguish itself, helmed by a director whose main imprint on his material is not realising that reusing lengthy sequences tends to call attention to itself.*  Affair of Nolandia is in no way worth going out of your way for, but half of it's a respectable Dirty Pair outing, and since you're only likely to get it via the above-mentioned collection, I guess it would be daft not to watch it.

Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy, 1990, dir: Toshifumi Takizawa

Here we are at the end of the original Dirty Pair run with another OVA, though one that's a very different beast to Affair of Nolandia: no extended episode this, with lowly TV-style production values to match.  Flight 005 Conspiracy is more ambitious, and quick to distance itself from the look of what's come before, both with softer, more rounded character designs that signal the shift out of the eighties and considerably more lavish animation, along with some genuinely gorgeous backgrounds; there's a level of attention in the world building that I wouldn't have expected from what I've always considered to be a light and breezy sci-fi franchise.  In short, while we're a way from the pop-art grandeur of the movie, Flight 005 Conspiracy feels thoroughly prestigious.

That's not all that sets it apart.  I don't know if anyone was aware that this would mark a temporary conclusion to the Dirty Pair franchise, but there's a level of seriousness here that wasn't present in the two earlier releases.  The plot is a mix of thriller and, as the title suggests, conspiracy drama, of a sort that would function perfectly well with all the science-fiction elements removed.  Indeed, it might even function better; in particular, its habit of forgetting that planets and countries aren't the same thing proves annoying.  At any rate, dropping the lovely angels into that Cold War-esque milieu places demands on them that they're not altogether suited to.  The first half, particularly, requires a great deal of wandering around and interrogating witnesses and investigating crime scenes, which the script tries to enliven with humour that only really amounts to one joke.  In fact, this is far and away the least funny Dirty Pair experience I've encountered, and along with the heavier storyline and a surprising level of bloodshed, that makes for a weird tone.  Thankfully, the trademark action scenes fare better, even if, again, they don't constitute that substantial a proportion of the running time.

The result is an oddity, and not a wholly successful one.  Its not that an unusually serious Dirty Pair story is a bad thing, but the plot is more convoluted than clever and can't earn its more dramatic moments: a couple of deaths that are meant to be significant lack weight because we've no attachment to either character.  On the other hand, failing to be great isn't the same as failing to be good, and compared with the unevenness of Affair of NolandiaFlight 005 Conspiracy is certainly consistent in its goodness.  Even if the narrative doesn't add up to the sum of its aspirations, it's engaging in the moment, and the production values are a major boon.  The result is something I enjoyed at the time and found myself being more critical of in retrospect, and so I guess slots somewhere between the movie and the first OVA: the former is vastly better as a work of art but kind of sucks as a Dirty Pair story, the latter's a bit of a mess but manages in its better moments to nail the spirit of the franchise, and Flight 005 Conspiracy finds itself sitting awkwardly between the two.

Dirty Pair OVA, 1987, dir: Katsuyoshi Yatabe

Were the movie not such a thing of loveliness, I'd have no qualms about rating the ten episode OVA series that ran between 1987 and 1988 as the height of Dirty Pair as I've encountered it so far.  It comes down, I think, to balance: it has a bit of the pop-art joyfulness of the movie, but combined with a greater focus on and faithfulness to the characters of Kei and Yuri, and probably my favourite take on their ever-changing designs.  The production values aren't quite up there, of course, but they beat out either of the OVA films, and since the episodes vary wildly in plot and tone, there's not much obvious reuse of assets.  Which is perhaps the important point here: these are ten separate, self-contained stories, each done and dusted in twenty-five packed minutes.

It's unfortunate that they peak with the second episode, a delirious slab of mayhem that sees the girls inadvertently thwarting numerous gangs of Halloween-costumed villains while fighting an adorable murderbot.  But that's not to say there aren't great moments elsewhere, or that anything's a significant letdown.  For me, the brightest spots were clumped in the first of ADV's two disks, but that wouldn't be an issue if you were to buy the more recent Nozomi release that collects the lot.  At any rate, there's far more good that bad, and the best episodes feel excitingly random, as though someone were picking scenarios and plot twists out of a hat.  It works because Kei and Yuri are such fun, and such fully formed characters, that there's pleasure in watching them wisecrack and blast and grumble their way through whatever situation they're thrust into.

That's the sum of it, really: there's a lot to like in the world of Dirty Pair, with its lavish approach to old-school SF and its habit of solving every problem, no matter how complicated, with big explosions, but ultimately it's the lovely angels that make it.  Kei and Yuri are terrific characters when done right, and if there's one thing the OVA series nails, it's that.  I suppose you might argue that, without them, you'd be left with a collection of moderately engaging sci-fi short stories, but that's to miss the point.  Even when the setup feels stale or the supporting cast aren't too engaging, these shows work, thriving off the silliness and wanton aggression and wit of their two protagonists.  Therefore, as much as I'll always prize the movie more, if you want an entry point into what made Dirty Pair beloved and aren't ready to commit to the series, this is the place to start.

-oOo-

Needless to say, I now consider myself a Dirty Pair fan, and I totally get why the franchise was so huge for a while: at its best, it's garish, action-packed, big-ideas science fiction with two immensely entertaining lead characters, and at its worst, it's pretty much the same thing except done not quite so well.  Heck, I've become enough of a fan that I replaced my copies of Dirty Pair Flash and rewatched the whole show - only to find that my original reviews were spot on!  Hey ho.



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


* Also, the fact that Okuwaki started his career on a series called Hello!  Spank may or may not explain a lot, but at least brought a smile to my face.

5 comments:

  1. I'm a fan of the Dirty Pair as well. 🙂 Eden Project is full on gonzo and the soundtrack is excellent! The 'Bond' style opening sequence is still one of my favourites.
    Do you think that the main problem with Nolandia was budget? Not being able to produce a piece as worthy as it should have been?
    I do like the other's too but I am a fan of the TV series as well. But Eden Project is still my favourite.

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    1. I suspect the main problem with Nolandia is that they chopped two leftover TV episode scripts into one OVA special, though I'm just guessing! But yes, a lack of budget probably didn't help, that and a director who's not terribly good at hiding his lack of budget.

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    2. Interesting thought about the two unfinished episodes. 🤔 I think that has a lot of merit. But either way, it's not the best way to finish something off.

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  2. Nolandia wasn't the conclusion to the tv series, the two unaired episodes I believe you're thinking of were later sold as a separate ova, With Love From the Lovely Angels.(The modern DVDs package them with the rest of the TV series as episodes 25 and 26) From my understanding, Nolandia was intended to appease fans of the original light novels the anime was based on who might be annoyed at the anime for being too different from the novels.(TBF, the anime really is quite different from the novels. ) As such, they went with a tone and character designs closer to the novels, and used Kei and Yuri's psychic powers that were prominent in the novels and that the anime ignored. Dirty Pair continuity is pretty screwed up, with at least 11 separate continuities existing(Light novels, tv series, ova series, nolandia, eden, 005, flash, flash novels(japan only, and not in continuity with the flash series), american comics, and two separate japanese only radio drama series)

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    1. Ah, that's good to know ... and teaches me for guessing instead of just doing some proper research!

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