Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 58

Fighting!  It's a thing that happens in nineties anime a heck of a lot.  And also elsewhere, because we're a basically dreadful species that can't get along with each other or anything else, but hey, let's not dwell on the negatives, because that means lots of cool, action packed, martial arts-themed anime, and that means it's yet another excuse for a tenuously themed post.

So let's take a look at Crimson Wolf, Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter, Ayane's High Kick, and Tekken, shall we?

Crimson Wolf, 1994, dir: Shôichi Masuo

Crimson Wolf is trashy pulp.  But to be clear, I don't altogether mean that as a criticism.  After all, there are a few things that trashy pulp can do to make itself stand out from the crowd.  Being legitimately well made is one.  Having a few interesting ideas up its sleeve is another.  But to really capture my attention, the way to go is definitely to be bat-shit insane, and that's a box Crimson Wolf eagerly ticks, if only really in its final third.

Up until that point, the plot is relatively boilerplate nineties anime, though at the quirkier end of that scale.  In the opening scene, a team of archaeologists uncover the buried tomb of Genghis Khan, only to learn a terrible prophesy from the ghostly lips of the great man himself: a cataclysm is coming that will spark a global war, and only the deaths of three chosen ones marked with the scar of an arrow will avert it.  But we're led to wonder if Genghis is altogether on the up and up when we're introduced to the first of our heroes, a young martial arts student named Shin who bears a wolf-shaped scar that seems to fit the description.  Shin doesn't seem particularly hellbent on ushering in any apocalypses, even if he does have a habit of punching people until their heads explode in gouts of blood.

There's a lot of that sort of thing in Crimson Wolf.  But to get the true measure of how much trashy pulpiness there is to go around here, we need to turn to another of our three protagonists, Mizuho.  It's no exaggeration to say that Mizuho spends more time in the nude than with her clothes on, in a manner that soon becomes awfully ridiculous.  If she's not being attacked in the shower then she's lying on a mortuary slab or being thrown naked into an underground prison cell or participating in one of the most gratuitous sex scenes you're ever likely to lay eyes on.  (At least it's consensual; in the grimy underbelly of nineties anime, that's far from a given.)  Only in the climatic third does she get up to much approaching chosen one stuff, by which point Shin has been merrily kicking ass for a good forty minutes or so.

Really, that climax redeems a lot.  It's the point where Crimson Wolf flips from gleefully exploitative, silly fun to serious bonkersness, as we find out who the villain behind all this nonsense is - I guarantee you'll never guess it in a million years, because it's awesomely stupid - and the battle suddenly becomes not a martial arts scrap but an epic showdown between historical archetypes conducted in a metaphysical realm of the imagination.  Or something.  Heck, it's hard to say precisely what's going on, but it sure is nuts, and the animation improves massively for the last ten minutes too, delivering some genuine spectacle.  Obviously that doesn't make what's come before one iota less sleazy or derivative, but if you're in the right mood, it does mean you might be left with a smile on your face.

Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter, 1994, dir: Yûji Asada

In this wander through the darkest corners of nineties anime, I've come across a fair few directors who transparently deserved more career success than they got, but near the top of that list is Yûji Asada, who directed Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter, would four years later make the superb Queen Emeraldas, knocked out an OVA called Early Reins in 2003 that no-one appears to remotely care about, and has apparently spent all of the rest of his time storyboarding Pokémon.  I mean, I get that there are less ignoble fates, but really?  The guy makes two of my favourite OVAs and that's where he ends up?

And here I'm generalising off precisely two short films, but it seems to me that what makes Asada a skilled director is his willingness to dig into his material and find just the right voice to make it stand out.  Because Grappler Baki and Queen Emeraldas have precious little in common other than the fact that they're both excellent versions of the things they are.  In the latter case, that means gorgeous, romantic, rather goofy space opera.  Here it adds up to horribly violent, blackly funny action spectacle told at a breakneck pace, and for that matter with no qualms if the odd neck gets broken along the way.  I confess I watched most of the last quarter through my fingers; yet as much as I'm not really one for gore these days, Asada played me like a fiddle, and not for an instant did I genuinely want to look away.

If I've danced around the story until now, it's because there isn't really one.  Baki, a seventeen-year-old kid with scars from head to toe and a fondness for drinking flat Coca Cola, wins a karate tournament effortlessly.  We then learn that he's also competing in an underground fighting ring - that's literally underground, because why not? - and that he's facing his most fearsome opponent yet, a foe known as the cord-cutter due to his fondness for ripping the nerves out of his opponents' bodies with his damn fingers.  And yeah, I was cringing just typing that sentence, though not half so much as I was during those climatic minutes.  Did I mention how violent Grappler Baki is?  Yet, partly because Baki himself is such a likable presence, sort of a more humble and cheerful Bruce Lee, and partly because Asada has such a sure grasp of tone, and partly because the action is so well conceived and slickly constructed, it's tough to find that violence really off-putting.

The result is a tremendously good use of forty-five minutes, delivering a solid chunk of story that's well fitted to its running time.  It's not exactly what you'd call great art - though a lot of the art is pretty great, and the animators do a fine job of conveying human bodies in motion, which is precisely what you need from a martial arts anime.  But, again like Emeraldas, it's an example of how to get one of these shorter OVAs right, devoting all its energies to doing one thing very well indeed.  Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter might be tough to find these days and all but lost to memory now that the property has had not one but two series adaptations, but like its director, it's worthy of a better fate.

Ayane's High Kick, 1998, dir: Takahiro Okao

Another of those shows that only U.S. Manga Corps would have bothered with, Ayane's High Kick is a two episode OVA with obvious aspirations to either more episodes or a series to call its own.  That neither happened isn't hugely surprising: it's a snip of a thing, really, though in generally appealing ways.  Most obviously, there's a definite good-naturedness to the writing, which follows high school girl Ayane, who we meet trying out for her dream role as a pro wrestler.  In doing so, she catches the eye of washed-up trainer Kunimitsu, whose creepy comments about how great her legs are turn out to be an invitation to learn at his gym.  Only, said gym is a ring that Ayane has to set up herself beneath an underpass, and what she realises way too late is that Kunimitsu is actually training her to be a kickboxer, something she has zero interest in.

Plot-wise, that's mostly all there is, though the second episode ups the ante when the head teachers at her school discover her extra-curricular activities and threaten to throw her out if she doesn't win her first major bout.  (Presumably this is how schools work in Japan.)  Filling out the cast we have Ayane's apparently only friend Kayoko, a boy who I'm not sure even gets a name, a couple of opposing fighters with their own eccentricities, and that's pretty much it.  Like I said, a snip of a thing, though given how busy some of these short OVAs can get, I don't know that that's altogether a criticism.  Indeed, the leisurely pace is a boon, giving us time to get comfortable around the small cast and to invest in Ayane's objectively kind of ridiculous struggles - something that's easily done since she's a fun character, with enough rough edges to feel reasonably real.

The animation is dirt cheap, with stills and repeated footage and other shortcuts aplenty, and could easily have come from a decade earlier, were it not for character designs that positively scream their late nineties-ness.  But for all that, it's not an ugly show, with its strong personality and sense of energy going a long way to compensate.  Which is Ayane's High Kick all round, really: like its determined, none-too-bright heroine, it's a plucky underdog, lacking the budget or ambition for greatness but nevertheless wading in wholeheartedly.  It's sweet, funny, moderately exciting in its fight sequences, and pulls off the crucial trick that any sports story needs to of fooling you that maybe the protagonist might not win.  It's definitely one I'll watch again, and if that series had transpired, I'd probably be hunting that down too.

Tekken, 1998, dir: Kunihisa Sugishima

The first thing you're likely to notice about the Tekken movie - and quite surprising this is, under the circumstances - is that it looks bloody awful.  I mean, it really is spectacularly crappy looking, and in a special way that separates it from the ugliness of mere cheap hand-drawn animation, which generally still retains a certain scrappy charm.  None of that for Tekken, which chooses instead to lean hard into the emergent field of computer-assisted animation, a good five years before the industry would learn how to make best use of it.  The result looks like a series of cut-scenes from an exceedingly bargain-basement video game (which of course the Tekken series itself wasn't) and which can't get even the simplest techniques right, even when they're techniques that anime as a whole nailed decades before.  Digital pans and zooms have none of the fluidity that animators would eventually learn to apply, making them nauseating in their artificial smoothness.  Even things like the movement of eyes looks plain wrong in a way it would be hard to accomplish animating by hand.  And the clunky character designs, which presumably were contrived to work within the limits of the technology, don't help matters, appearing bland at a distance and wildly awful close up.

What's maddening is that probably none of this was actually cheap, and that, with a similar budget applied to traditional techniques, the results would be moderately fun.  I mean, this is Tekken after all, the fighting game series that arguably found the best balance between seriousness and frivolity in a genre that tended to veer in one direction or the other.  Thus we have a plot that balances grim familial conflicts and brutal quests for vengeance with the tender tale of a robot fighting to save a little girl's life and, er, velociraptors with stealth camouflage.  Also, one of the characters gets beaten up by a boxing kangaroo.  What the film never manages to deliver is any decent fighting, which seems like a bizarre miss; indeed, all the action is distinctly bland.  Nevertheless, if you like the franchise, the way familiar elements have been cobbled together feels like the right sort of fan service, providing a central narrative that's solid enough to get a sixty minute film from A to B but stringing enough weird silliness along its path to keep matters enjoyable and interesting.

Indeed, its amusing enough that the animation slowly becomes less of a hindrance, though there isn't a single point where it could definitely be called an asset.  And as further proof that some proper money was spent on this thing, there's a lovely orchestral score that fits the material surprisingly well - so much so that ADV's replacement on the English dub, replete with songs from bands like The Offspring and whoever the hell Soulhat were, feels terribly jarring, especially given how artlessly its been grafted on.  What I watched of the dub was enough to push the movie into the territory of definite badness, whereas the original was a tolerable enough diversion.  I respected its attempts to do right by its source material, even when they were frequently undone by a lack of decent fights and that ghastly animation.  The result is very much fans-only, but if you like the wacky world of Tekken, there are worse ways to waste an hour.


Is this the first post in a while without a single standout recommendation?  I'm afraid it is.  I really did like Grappler Baki, but given the difficulty in tracking down a copy and its brief length and the fact that it's been superseded by not one but two far longer adaptations, it's tough to say honestly that anyone should track it down.  And while Crimson Wolf and Ayane's High Kick had their charms, neither was mind-blowing enough to warrant the effort of acquiring them.  How frustrating, then, that the only title here that's easy to lay hands on is Tekken - because if there's one thing the international anime market was great for back in the day, it was manufacturing huge quantities of crap titles!

But let's not get disheartened, not when our next post (assuming I'd don't change my mind or get distracted) is going to be a deep dive into the beloved mega-franchise that is Dirty Pair...

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

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