Sunday, 8 December 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 60

It feels like it's been a while since we had a good batch of totally random titles, or even a bad batch of totally random titles, so I for one am excited for this post, which is as odd and unrelated a collection as we've seen here.  Seriously, good luck finding any sort of theme or pattern between The Tokyo Project, Bastard!!, Megazone 23 Part 1, and Tenamonya Voyagers...

The Tokyo Project, 1988, dir: Osamu Yamasaki

You get so used to the restrictions on the sorts of anime that were released in the West that when something like The Tokyo Project comes along, it's plain weird.  I suppose you might classify it as sci-fi, but it's sci-fi of a very practical, modern-day sort, in which the absolutely most futuristic thing is an experimental robot that can barely walk straight.  (This would be a huge spoiler if the box art wasn't so eager to show it off.)  Anyway, that's really just the climax, and by that point The Tokyo Project has already dabbled at being a mystery thriller and then an action movie, as a dying man delivers a floppy disk with sensitive information into the hands of a group of young people who just happen to be precisely the sorts to risk life and limb in trying to fulfill his last request, instead of going to the cops the way anyone else would.  It helps that the three, apparently by pure coincidence, happen to be the entire membership of a detective agency, and helps more that they have access to military grade hardware, martial arts skills, hacking expertise, and even the ability to shoot with unerring aim in a country that doesn't exactly make getting hold of firearms easy.  All of which is to say that, despite a veneer of realism in the designs and settings, The Tokyo Project has some hugely silly ideas about what is and isn't plausible.

The result, as I said, is a strange beast.  But given some middling animation and a gruesomely dated soundtrack, that's more in its favour than not; at least its oddness makes it charming.  Indeed, thinking about it a couple of days later, it's not like the plot even makes a bit of sense.  In retrospect, I haven't a clue what the villains' motives were or what they imagined they'd accomplish at any given stage.  So I suppose its to the creators' credit that they kept things hectic enough that I didn't notice at the time.  Indeed, that style of ridiculous but energetic storytelling, plastering over narrative cracks with gunfights and explosions and helicopter gunships chasing motorbikes, definitely feels familiar, just not in the way that so much vintage anime feels familiar.  What we're looking at is akin to what American TV was up to at the time - there's a definite whiff of Airwolf and The A-Team - given a marginally longer running time and the sort of effects budget those shows couldn't dream of.  And while that's not exactly a reason to track The Tokyo Project down, it means that if you do, and have a certain fondness for dumb eighties action, there's a pleasant distraction to be had here.

Bastard!!, 1992, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Let us say this much for Bastard!! ... from that title on downwards, it doesn't waste time on subtlety.  And this is precisely as it should be for the anime adaptation of a Manga that creator Kazushi Hagiwara came up with so he could indulge his twin passions of Dungeons and Dragons and heavy metal music in one and the same place.

This, by the way, leads us neatly into my favourite thing about the show, which is that Hagiwara merrily threw in the names of famous heavy metal bands as spells and places, and US publisher Pioneer, nervous of law suits, decided the solution was to convert the Japanese pronunciations phonetically back into English, with predictably wacky results.  Thus our story centres around the city of Meta-Rikana, which definitely has nothing at all to do with Metallica, where, facing a powerful alliance of evil wizards, the city's rulers decide that the best way to defend themselves is with an even more evil wizard of their own.  Fortunately, they have one to hand, in the shape of Dark Schneider, who they've been keeping sealed up in the body of a young lad named Rushe ever since his supposed death fifteen years ago.  The most obvious flaw in this plan consisting of nothing besides obvious flaws is that - as the title suggests! - Dark Schneider is a proper bastard, with zero interest in defending anyone or anything.  Or so it initially appears: in fact, his coexistence with Rushe's personality and Rushe's love for his childhood friend Tia are just about enough to stop him killing everyone in sight.

Most of this we learn in the first episode, and there's not much more to the plot than that.  The remaining five parts concern themselves with Dark Schneider going up against former friends and foes on his way to the big boss, the terrifyingly named Abigail.  And normally this might be a bad thing, especially given how much the proceedings feel channeled through the mindset of a teenage boy, or at best a twenty-something Manga writer with an abiding love of metal and cheesy fantasy: you'll be unsurprised to learn that most of the female characters' clothes fall off at some point, and though Dark Schneider is an irrepressible scumbag, he's also totally cool, ladies adore him and men want to be him, and even being repeatedly killed can't do more than slow him down.  The result is like all of Moorcock's trashiest books mashed into one, and it takes a lot to keep something that over the top on the right track.

Thankfully, Bastard!! is up to the task.  It helps that the script doesn't take itself or its reprehensible hero too seriously, but it helps more than there's plenty of talent behind the proceedings.  Director Akiyama, mastermind of the Gall Force series, largely finds the right balance of tones, and, after a somewhat wonky start, the animation goes from good to generally great, with an unusual emphasis on detailed closeups of faces, some enjoyable design work, and the sorts of intricate backdrops that would honour any pulpy nineties paperback.  Basically, Bastard!! looks much the way you'd hope a show born from an enthusiasm for D&D and heavy metal would look, and behaves the same way, and there's something awfully charming about that if you're in the right mindset.

Megazone 23 Part 1, 1985, dir: Noboru Ishiguro

If you've heard of Megazone 23 at all these days, it's almost certainly due to its similarities to one or another of a pair of American films that would approach a similar plot hook in distinctly similar ways a few years after its release, which makes it tricky to talk about this 85 minute OVA in its own right.  On the other hand, mentioning either of those films by name is lousy reviewing practice, because unless you've been living under a rock for two decades, it will certainly spoil a crucial twist in Megazone 23.  Perhaps worse, it will set up false expectations, given how that twist would go on to be served a good deal better than it was here, where it's merely a neat idea that hasn't had quite enough thought put into it to make it altogether plausible.

So let's focus on why that is and keep the spoilers to a minimum, because there's a good reason aspects of Megazone 23 feel half-baked.  I described it as an 85 minute OVA, but that's not what it was intended to be: indeed, it was relatively late into its lifespan that what had been planned and animated as a TV series had to be re-edited to a fraction of its running time.  And this is useful knowledge going in, because the narrative certainly has the feel of a much bigger story being flung around at breakneck pace.  That's typical of vintage anime, of course, but here there's the definite sense that vital pieces are missing: one minute our protagonist Shogo is inadvertently acquiring a mysterious motorbike that seems too advanced for the nineteen-eighties Japan in which he lives, the next he's on the run from shadowy agents and the police and discovering that said bike has a neat tendency of turning into a robot, and the next everyone seems to have largely forgotten that Shogo trashed a bunch of stuff and killed a load of people.

The result is thoroughly scatter-brained, picking up ideas and plot points and characters and bouncing them around and then ambling onto whatever it feels like pursuing next.  And if this makes it kind of dumb and intermittently annoying, it also accounts for a lot of its appeal, especially when some of those ideas and plot points are legitimately great.  (The characters?  Maybe not so much.)  The same goes for the animation, the failings of which make a lot more sense when you know that much of this footage was created for TV.  The designs are a random hodgepodge, faces rarely stay on model, and even things like line thickness aren't consistent, but then occasionally an absolutely stunning sequence will show up, and the general standard is surprisingly high.

If all that sounds like a mess, then it absolutely is, and it's easy to imagine a better Megazone 23, one that had been conceived from the ground up to run at feature length and doled out its finer elements accordingly, that dropped some of the more arbitrary diversions and concentrated on the notions that would make it something of a minor classic, and that didn't have an ending that felt like the creative team had run out of material and called it a day.  Nonetheless, that doesn't detract from what's left, which at its worst has energy to spare and quickly recovers from its mistakes and at its best presents some genuinely exciting concepts, buoyed by eighties-tastic J-pop and solid visuals and a certain indefinable something that makes it that bit more special than many of its contemporaries.  It's hard to believe that would been enough to find it a place in anime lore were in not for that twist we can't talk about, and that was subsequently done better elsewhere - learn where here*, if you really want to - but that doesn't mean Megazone 23 isn't a treat in its own right.

Tenamonya Voyagers, 1999, dir: Akiyuki Shinbo

Poor Tenamonya Voyagers, a mere two decades old and already as good as forgotten, not to mention largely impossible to get hold of.  And for this we may as well blame Bandai Entertainment, if for no other reason than that they released it in one the most badly produced DVDs I've yet come across.  I'm not technical enough to know quite what went wrong, but the disk languished on my shelf for many a month after I had a glance at it and could barely tell what was going on.  And when I eventually rose to the challenge, it took an hour of mucking with my TV's settings to get a picture I could live with.  In particular, reaching the point where the awesome space battles stopped looking as though they were happening in a washed-out sea of grey took quite some doing.

It was worth the hassle: Tenamonya Voyagers is one gorgeous show.  And perhaps the reason it fared so badly comes down in large part to its visual boldness, favouring lurid blocks of colour and sharp contrasts and deep pools of black.  It looks nice in stills and even better in motion; this is seriously slick work, laden with detail and energy.

Moreover, once you can tell what's going on, there's a lot else to like too.  We're firmly in the realm of comedy sci-fi here, a subgenre nineties anime was frequently great at, and Tenamonya Voyagers has itself a killer setup.  At some distant point in the future, struggling would-be teacher Ayako accepts a job on a distant planet, only to find that the school in question has closed down while she was in transit.  Fortunately, she runs into student Wakana, who's in the same boat, having come there for a sports scholarship; less fortunately, they soon find themselves teaming up with a young woman named Paraila, who crash-lands her mech into the school and who, like them, is eager to head for Earth.  The bad news is that Paraila is a boss from one of the galaxy's three big gangs of space criminals, and her interest in Earth is that a legal loophole means her crimes will be erased if she can get there.  With a violent police officer on her trail and the entire universe apparently conspiring against them, the odds aren't exactly in their favour.

Indeed, it's not really a spoiler to say that the gang don't ever make it to Earth.  Tenamonya Voyagers was never finished, a fact that's dismissed in the most perfectly off-hand manner by the narrator; it's a great gag, and in a sideways fashion, points to why the show works so well.  Simply put, it's not about the destination, it's about the journey, and the pleasures of having fun characters bouncing off each other in absurd situations.  And these characters really are fun, not to mention distinct enough to make their combination interesting to watch in itself.  My personal favourite was Ayako, with her general befuddlement and habit of composing haiku at the slightest provocation, but Paraila - also known as Space Trash Paraila - is perhaps the lasting standout.  She feels very much as if she's wandered in from Tenchi Muyo!, a series that Tenamonya Voyagers generally resembles, and of the core cast, she gets most development, such that it's a little sad to see her arc toward some degree of moral correction left dangling.

Really, though, Tenamonya Voyagers does a great job of turning potential failings into virtues.  Aside from the lack of a conclusion and the effort required to sort out Bandai's dodgy presentation, the only other point of contention I can come up with is that it gets kind of exploitative in parts.  I mean, the fourth and final episode, "women in hell" - which already sounds like a soft porn movie set in a women's prison - sees the entire cast near as damn it to naked for its entire running time, and isn't shy about the fact: normally the nudity in nineties anime is fairly innocent, but not so much here, given the extra artistry put into its portrayal.  Then again, the show turns its lechery into a superb running gag that I won't go and spoil, and that's Tenamonya Voyagers all over, really: it's too funny and too well made not to enjoy.  Part of me wishes it had wrapped up as its creators presumably intended, but it's a testament to how good what we get is that the idea of Ayako, Wakana, and Paraila still being out there somewhere, tearing up the universe, is almost as satisfying in its own right.


Heck, that went well!  All right, so we didn't get any flat-out, definitive classics for the ages, but I feel like both Bastard!! and Megazone 23 aren't far off.  Mind you, I've got the benefit of hindsight with that latter one, having seen its two sequels by the time I write this conclusion.  Anyway, three out of four positive reviews is always good going, and I've seen plenty worse anime than The Tokyo Project.

Next time, it's back to the themed posts, but this time it's one I'm majorly enthusiastic about!  In fact, it's probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that we're about to get to my favourite vintage anime franchise of all time...

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

* It was The Matrix and Dark City, okay?  Though it's worth noting that writers like Philip K. Dick had been chucking around much the same concept for a couple of decades by the point that Megazone 23 got to it.

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