Monday, 6 July 2020

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 70

More randomosity!  And if it seems like these posts are coming ever thicker and faster, it's because a) I have a bit of time on my hands, having cleared the boards of contracted work in the exhausting blur that was the first five months of the year and b) because I have a silly number of them ready at the draft stage and I'm trying to get caught up.  So, with that in mind, let's crack on and have a gander at Gundam-W: Endless WaltzSilent Möbius The Motion Picture 2Lupin the 3rd: The Hemingway Papers, and Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie...

Gundam-W: Endless Waltz, 1998, dir: Yasunao Aoki

Is it fair to review the feature film adaptation of a three-part OVA that was in itself the conclusion to a forty-nine episode TV series?  Perhaps not.  Yet Endless Waltz seems to have been made with at least the possibility in mind that someone would watch it without prior experience of Gundam Wing, and that's good enough for me.

Though it has to be said that, in the first third, the flashbacks that are there to introduce a modicum of background for characters the more experienced viewer has been hanging around with for some twenty hours were the most confusing element, and I'm not certain it wouldn't have been easier to keep up if writer Katsuyuki Sumisawa had thrown me in completely at the deep end.  But no, Endless Waltz chooses to function much like a proper, self-contained movie, with a narrator to drop in vital snippets of backstory and those occasional flashbacks and characters who have a habit of discussing their mutual history or making declamatory statements about recent events.  And with all that, it's still an uphill climb, though more because the cast is large for a ninety-minute film and less because the plot is especially complicated, since it isn't.  It is, in fact, very much in line with that of Char's Counterattack, the film that concluded the original Gundam saga, only with five pilots instead of one.  In the aftermath of a major conflict, a year's fragile peace is disrupted by yet another bid to take over the Earth from yet another orbiting colony, with the added wrinkle that everyone was so eager for peace to stick this time that they're unprepared for another round of hostilities, having gone as far as firing their best weapons into the sun.

It soon turns out that a degree of familiarity is actually in Endless Waltz's favour, as is the relatively straightforward narrative.  And after a wobbly first third of catching up with its many characters and shuffling them into place, things pick up considerably and keep picking up, resulting in a climax amply good enough to atone for the rocky beginning.  It's to the film's credit that it finds meaningful and varied threads for everyone and then does a solid job of navigating between them, so that a slender plot feels meatier that it is.  And for what was originally an OVA, the film's a polished bit of a work, with all-round slick animation and some splendid action, let down only by the brief intrusion of dated CG.

For all that, and perhaps because I lacked a history with the series, and despite suitably Gundam-esque themes of how exactly you go about hanging onto peace in a way that doesn't lead to more conflict down the road, I found Endless Waltz a touch lightweight in comparison with my favourite entries.  Maybe it comes down to the sheer number of characters who are teenage boys; for the first time, I felt I very much wasn't the target audience.  And as cool as the climatic twenty minutes are, there's something a bit silly about the themed Gundam suits with their outlandish weapons and accessories that seems out of place in a series often regarded as the quintessence of 'real robot' shows.  As such, while I enjoyed my time with it and would happily recommend that anyone with enough familiarity to get past that uneven first third give it a shot, I'd place this somewhat below my favourite entries.

Silent Möbius The Motion Picture 2, 1992, dir: Yasunori Ide

I've since decided I was slightly harsh on the first Silent Möbius movie, which has nothing really wrong with it besides the fact that there's only so much you can accomplish in an hour, and does a whole lot right in the time it has.  And the same could be said of this second film, which followed a year later and picks up about as directly as is possible from its events.  Or one thread of them, anyway: that first film focused on Katsumi Liqueur of the futuristic anti-demon police force AMP, shifting between a present-day crisis to a flashback that in turn informed those current events, and it's that younger, less kick-ass Katsumi we're back with this time around.

If there's a problem, that's it right there: the character Katsumi will become is a damn sight more interesting than the one she was, and this second film saddles us entirely with the former, meaning that at no point does she kick butt with a talking sword.  By the same measure, there's not a great deal of dramatic tension to be found in the question of whether Katsumi will turn her back on AMP, who are now actively trying to recruit her, and obviously we know she's not about to die.  On the other hand, it's not an inherently bad idea to use her personal history - which a bit of digging on Wikipedia reveals to be chock full of vital Silent Möbius plot stuff - as a way into a wider narrative, and Katsumi's wishywashiness as a protagonist is mitigated by the other AMP members, who are uniformly more appealing.  Thanks to them, we get a couple of exciting bursts of action and a climax that mostly makes up for the steady pace of what's gone before.

Nevertheless, an hour of Katsumi largely being sad and indecisive would be tough going were it not for how downright pretty everything is.  I'm not wholly sold on the character designs, but they're distinctive and slickly animated.  The backgrounds, however, are on a whole different level.  The colour palette is frequently gorgeous, but more than that, there's a technique at play that's so striking it's tricky even to describe, with certain settings reduced to an almost impressionistic level of detail without going so far that we doubt they're real places.  Dreamlike is the word, I suppose, though even that doesn't get to the bottom of it.  At any rate, they're a terrific visualisation of Katsumi's emotional space and particularly her sense of distance from the world around her.

Those backgrounds are the best thing the second Silent Möbius picture has going for it, but it's fair to say that its flaws are, for the most part, circumstantial.  There was obviously meant to be at least one more of these movies, this even ends on a "To be continued..." card, and as the middle act of a story, the second entry would work considerably better than it does as a standalone.  As such, I can't bring myself to be too harsh about it.  There's no reason to seek it out on its own, but if the whole "cyberpunk with demons" setting appeals to you then the two films together are an appealing stab at that concept, and a window into a world so intriguingly presented that you'll likely wish, as I do, that another film or two had been forthcoming.*

Lupin the 3rd: The Hemingway Papers, 1990, dir: Osamu Dezaki

Who would have thought it would be director Osamu Dezaki that got me over my lack of enthusiasm for the Lupin the Third franchise, and Lupin who got me over my issues with Dezaki?  Yet here we are, and here's the second of the director's Lupin TV movies that I've seen, and I like it nearly as much as The Pursuit of Harimao's Treasure, which I liked rather a lot.  Dezaki would polish his approach to these things in the intervening six years, but nevertheless, this, his second stab at the series, is a fine bit of work.  There's no getting around it, the director is an excellent fit, and his stylistic tics - which can be so irritating when he's making, for example, horror - are well suited to the off-the-cuff lunacy that's the world of Monkey Punch's ungentlemanly super-thief.

A big part of what's impressive here is how the film finds ways to keep an entry in so long-running a series feeling fresh.  For most of the first two thirds, we have Lupin operating alone and the rest of the supporting cast off on their own subplots.  Inevitably these bring them all together eventually, but nevertheless, it's a satisfying change of pace, and Lupin - a character I generally only find bearable in short bursts - actually benefits from being the centre of attention.  The plot is in some ways so much boilerplate: there's a treasure that points the way to another much bigger treasure and various interested parties are on its trail.  But again, there are enough twists on the formula to keep things fresh.  Most noticeably, the film confines itself almost entirely to a single setting, an island nation caught in a war between two batches of treasure hunters, paving the way for plenty of Yojimbo / A Fist Full of Dollars style shenanigans as Lupin's regular allies Goemon and Jigen find themselves in the employ of the opposing factions.

Where The Pursuit of Harimao's Treasure was exemplified by a couple of huge action set pieces, The Hemingway Papers occupies itself more with incidents, but generally they're fun and there are still standout scenes.  The best is what would normally be the big, show-stopping heist, but here is a jokey slice of cool in the Ocean's 11 mould, as Lupin and Fujiko team up to make the complicated and deadly look preposterously easy.  Nothing else is quite that delightful, but on the other hand, there are more than enough enjoyable moments spread over the ninety-minute run time to keep the pace from dipping, and enough that are really ingenious to make it feel somewhat special.  Like the animation, little in the plot rises above the level of good TV movie territory, yet it's a good TV movie based in a well-established franchise that can be terrific entertainment in the right hands, and - again, who'd have thought it? - Dezaki's hands are definitely that.  It's probably not extraordinary enough to convert the uninitiated, but if you're a Lupin fan, it's certainly one to keep an eye out for.

Sonic the Hedgehog: The Movie, 1996, dir: Kazunori Ikegami

It's probably reasonable to say that, assuming you have any preconceptions at all and assuming you know in advance that what distributor ADV called a movie was actually a two-part OVA cobbled together into a single, hour-long entity, the Sonic the Hedgehog animated film is about what you'd expect it to be.  That's to say, there's a flimsy plot involving doctor Robotnik creating an evil robot duplicate of Sonic while also scheming to destroy the world and marry the president's daughter Sara (where he expects to go on their honeymoon is anyone's guess), there are a couple of boss fights, there are sequences that directly ape the video games, and the whole endeavour is stitched together with a spot of comic relief.  Whereas at no point is there the faintest sense of anyone trying to reinvent the wheel, or even of attempting to exceed the limits of their brief in more than the smallest of ways.

So the soundtrack is a bit better than it needs to be, and while the animation is resolutely cheap and TV-esque, some thought has gone into the backgrounds and world-building, making for the odd scene that legitimately feels as though somebody made an effort to imagine how the world of the games might function if it was expanded into three dimensions.  And there's a welcome quirkiness that makes the comedy more charming that irritating; in particular, the relationship between Robotnik and his unknowing wife-to-be is good for a few laughs.  Then again, a lot of what ought to work doesn't fare so well.  Sonic isn't very fun to be around and doesn't actually accomplish much; the film does a dreadful job of explaining why we should care about him or consider him to be so important that he'd be at the president's beck and call and villains would make robot duplicates of him.  And the action is quite duff, limited by the budget animation and, again, by the fact that Sonic can't do a lot except run around.

Which is probably a good point at which to admit that I've never really got Sonic, either the character or the games franchise, and so obviously I'm in no way the target audience here.  I guess that, if I was, I'd have liked this well enough.  As I said above, it does precisely what you'd expect, and does it all reasonably well, though without any real flare.  And I suppose that, given how badly wrong video game adaptations can go, that's not quite such faint praise as it sounds.  At the least, you get the sense that those involved had a degree of affection and respect for the franchise.  But to honest, if you're anything except a hardened fan, it's tough to say that this one's worth the trouble of seeking out.

-oOo-

Coming back to this, I was surprised to realise what a very average selection it is, and also that I was one entry away from a themed post on middling movies in series that were capable of better.  Endless Waltz and The Hemingway Papers are a good-but-not-great Gundam movie and a good-but-not-great Lupin movie, and the second Silent Möbius film suffers from not being quite as strong as the first Silent Möbius movie.  Which only leaves Sonic the Hedgehog, and while I pulled my punches in the actual review because I know a lot of people really like Sonic, it did basically suck!



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


* There would be a TV show six years later, and I keep meaning to track it down, but animation-wise, TV anime from 1998 was a long way from feature film animation from 1992, and it looks awfully ugly and cheap by comparison.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

The Cover to End All Covers?

I may have mentioned on occasions how in love I am with the cover for my recently released ninth novel To End All Wars.  And really, why wouldn't I be?  Not only is it stunningly painted, it does precisely what a good cover ought to: it gives you all the necessary information to know whether the book inside might be for you.  We have our protagonist, Lieutenant Rafael Forrester, looking thoroughly fed up to be in no man's land amid the battlegrounds of the western front in World War One.  And we have ... something ... plummeting toward the ravaged earth behind him.  Look closely; it's definitely no shell, not with that eerie glow and those scintillating lights and that angle of descent that suggests it's come from awfully high up.  In fact, it's a safe bet that, whatever's happening, whatever Forrester's going to have to confront across the course of the novel, it's not altogether of this world.  But then again, you might notice that, though we can see it, Forrester isn't paying the slightest attention - and that's important too.  If a mysterious glowing light falls in no man's land and there's nobody there to watch, does it make a sound?  Does it exist at all?  Or could it the product of one exhausted soldier's severely damaged mind?

Forrester, the war, that strange light, and the ambiguity of an event to which the only partial witness is a man with good reason to doubt his sanity - that's what To End All Wars is about, in a nutshell, and it's right there in that fantastic cover.  Indeed, the only thing that could have improved it is a quote from one of the finest genre authors currently working, pointing out how thoughtful and atmospheric the book is, and - wait, could that text at the bottom be a blurb from multi-award-winning superstar and all round nice guy Adrian Tchaikovsky?  It could!  Huge thanks to Adrian for reading through To End All Wars at short notice, and for appreciating its virtues, and for summing them up in a way that hopefully with encourage a lot of people who might otherwise have skipped on by it to give my novel a chance.

But none of this is what I'm posting about, except indirectly.  What I'm posting about is to share the news that my lovely cover has made it past the first round in All Author's cover of the month competition, and it would be marvellous if it got a bit further in the rankings.  Or, you know, won, and I got some kind of thrilling prize, like a lifetime supply of peanut butter, or a yacht, or a yacht full of peanut butter.  No, wait, maybe not that one.  At any rate, if you agree with me that To End All Wars has a pretty damn awesome cover, you can throw a vote its way at the link here.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 69

No themes, no gimmicks, and nothing much to discuss by way of an introduction this time around: we're back on the titles picked at random off the shelf.  Though actually it occurs to me now that, if I'd wanted a theme, three out of four of these are instalments in significant series or franchises, and who knows?  Maybe that was what I was going for and forgot!

Whatever the case, the end result looks a lot like Megazone 23: Part 3, Devil Hunter Yohko, Lupin the Third: The Pursuit of Harimao's Treasure, and Gall Force: New Era...

Megazone 23: Part 3, 1989, dir's: Shinji Aramaki, Ken'ichi Yatagai

Given that the ending of Megazone 23: Part 2 not only didn't require a second sequel but, you'd have thought, made the prospect practically inconceivable, it's safe to say the one we got is something of a wonder.  Really, managing not to be completely superfluous or retrospectively damage what had come before would have counted as an achievement, so that it not only finds a way to pick up a story that seemed unpickupable but adds nuance and thematic layers is remarkable.  Arguably, that's not quite the same as saying it's a "good" sequel - for many, the ideal sequel to the first two parts would be one that didn't exist - and nor is it the same as saying it's a successful standalone film (or rather, two-part OVA) given that it's probably incoherent without a detailed memory of the earlier instalments.  Nevertheless, if we had to have a follow-up, it's hard to imagine how it could have worked out much better.

To dig into the plot without spoiling the first two is perhaps impossible, so look away now if you're reading the review for a second sequel having not seen the preceding entries!  Much time has passed since the events of the second movie and our protagonist this time is Eiji Takanaka.  Along with his friendship group of hackers and gamers, Eiji lives in the deeply cyberpunk city of Eden, balanced to the nth degree by its controlling computer systems so that sooner or later humanity will be worthy to step outside its walls and into the rejuvenating Earth outside.  Except, that promise has been on the cards for so long that it's starting to seem dubious, and as we learn early on, the increasing suicide rate implies that Eden's social engineering isn't working as well as might be hoped.  But Eiji doesn't care about any of that: his success as a star player of the popular game "Hard On" (no, I didn't make that up) has landed him a prestigious role with E=X Corp, the city's caretakers, and one of the perks of the job is a certain transforming motorcycle / robot that's awfully familiar if you've seen parts one and two.

The way this echoes those previous entries without precisely aping them is one of part 3's biggest virtues, and that constant ringing of changes makes the film feel both fresh and like a commentary on the wider narrative.  Eiji makes very different choices to his predecessor Shogo and generally is much less of a youthful hothead; moreover, Eden is a very different culture to that of Megazone 23.  In a sense, this makes the increasing reliance on what's come before in the second episode a source of mild frustration, yet it's done as well as you could hope, expanding the material, raising interesting questions, and justifying its existence by implying that what we thought we knew wasn't as cut and dried as it appeared.

All of this is enjoyable stuff, and it's difficult to see why Megazone 23: Part 3 isn't more highly regarded, but for one thing: it's clear that the money ran out.  The animation is frequently terrific and often solid but lacking - there's a noticeable absence of shading in many sequences - and then, in a handful of scenes, is reduced to being literally a slideshow.  It's a shame, because at its best it exceeds either of the previous parts, both of which were decidedly inconsistent too.  At least the score is as wonderful as ever, with appropriately futuristic instrumental pieces combining with ear-wormy J-pop in a way only late-eighties anime could pull off so perfectly.  And given that those unfinished scenes add up to no more than a few seconds in total, they're hardly ruinous, especially given how much goes right elsewhere.  Megazone 23: Part 3 is that rare third sequel that doesn't drop the ball, capping off a genuinely special series in style to such an extent that it left me wanting to rewatch the entire trilogy.

Devil Hunter Yohko, 1990-1995, dir's: Katsuhisa Yamada, Hisashi Abe, Jun'ichi Sakata, Akiyuki Shinbo

In 1992, a start-up video publishing company named A. D. Vision brought out their debut release on VHS to an unsuspecting US market, a huge gamble at a time when anime was largely unknown in the West or else viewed as the reserve of children, having travelled via the distorted medium of shows like Robotech.  What they needed was a flagship title: as co-founder Matt Greenfield put it, something that "...was really very unique, that people were going to say 'Whoa! What was that?'"  And against the concerns of Japanese producer Toho, what they settled on was the recently released OVA Devil Hunter Yohko; indeed, only the lack of a better offer closed the deal.  Yet despite Toho's doubts, history was on the side of the company that came to be known as ADV Films, who would go on to be one of the biggest players in the Western anime market.

All of which background knowledge makes the first episode of Devil Hunter Yohko a weird old watch, for basically two reasons.  The first is that there's not much to it from the perspective of 2019: it's an origin story with pleasant characters, mediocre animation, and a moderately catchy opening theme, but nothing that screams "peg on which to hang the fortunes of an entire company."  And a lot of that has to do with our second reason, in that, to the modern eye, Greenfield's "very unique" title is precisely not that.  See if you've heard this concept before anywhere ... a teenage school girl discovers she's the latest in an ancient line of young women tasked with battling demons that are intent on making an almighty mess of the world, but she'd rather spend her days chasing boys and hanging out with her friends.  Ring any bells?  Then you're probably one of the seventy trillion people who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Or heck, maybe you've just seen one of the many anime titles that would subsequently cover similar territory to Devil Hunter Yohko.

But Yohko beat even the Buffy movie to the punch by a good two years, and if anime was mining similar ground, it probably wasn't in quite such bloody and brazen fashion.  So yes, it's probably the case that in 1990 Devil Hunter Yohko was sufficiently unusual and exciting, no matter that its first episode was tacky and exploitative and cheap-looking.  Indeed, if we were being cynical, that tacky exploitativeness might even have been viewed as an asset, since if there's one thing it's safe to say American media didn't have a glut of at the start of the nineties, it was mainstream releases featuring naked teenage girls.

You know the funny thing, though?  After that rocky opening, Devil Hunter Yohko would turn into something genuinely good.  Not great, though it flirts with greatness - the fifth of its six episodes (if we count the fourth that's a bunch of music videos) is kind of splendid, and really does beat Buffy to a lot of its best ideas.  At any rate, the proceedings seriously improve as they go along, the production standards go up, better directors take a shot at the material, the supporting cast broadens in interesting ways - in particular, Yohko's ex-devil-hunter grandma is a marvellous character - and the result actually does end up being the sort of title you might cautiously gamble a start-up business on.  Everything Devil Hunter Yohko did would go on to be done as well as or better elsewhere, and even if that weren't the case, it wouldn't be any sort of classic.  But a fun release with a bunch of neat ideas that happens to be one of the cornerstones of anime history?  That's fine, too.

Lupin the Third: The Pursuit of Harimao's Treasure, 1995, dir: Osamu Dezaki

What was I thinking, buying a film in one of my least favourite franchises and from one of my least favourite directors?  Well, I saw a cheap copy, you see, and anyway, I've been steadily warming up to the adventures of womanising, rubber-limbed daredevil thief Lupin the Third, even though the last of these made-for-TV releases I picked up was pretty damn lousy.  Series debut The Mystery of Mamo, for example, is actually rather great.  Nevertheless, it seemed there was a fair chance this one would be going straight on the resell pile.

So colour me surprised: it's a lot of fun.  Lupin himself is at his least irritating and his supporting rogues gallery are on fine form, especially the arch-thief's long-suffering nemesis Inspector Zenigata, arguably the real hero of the show and here mostly concerned with trying to eat his dinner as non-stop madness unfolds around him.  But mostly what works is a plot that's insanely busy even by Lupin standards, but also crammed with genuinely engaging elements.  Frankly, any story that sees the gang hunting the treasure of a Japanese pilot from World War 2 while crossing swords with Britain's greatest superspy and cross-dressing neo-Nazis is bound to hold the attention.  Yet for a franchise that often leans toward being exhausting and overstuffed - a flaw even the great Hayao Miyazaki failed to entirely avoid - it's impressive that the movie mostly manages to shuffle around its many moving parts in a clear and orderly fashion, bouncing from set-piece to set-piece without drifting into pure chaos while also maintaining a consistently madcap pace.

Ought we to thank Dezaki for this?  The director is certainly on well above par form, and the material seems to have brought out a playfulness that I've noticed nowhere else in his output.  Of course, all his usual stylistic tics are here: the heavy use of really obvious filters, cuts to painted still images, that thing where he repeats the same brief burst of action three times in a row for no obvious reason.  But they're fairly innocuous, and on the whole, Dezaki does - dare I say it? - a pretty good job.  Indeed, aside from the odd moments where his quirks really do get the better of him, it's a solid-looking movie, and vastly superior to The Secret of Twilight Gemini, released a year later.

I should at least be able to complain that the only release available in the UK was dub only, but the dub is actually hard to fault, with the central cast giving strong performances that feel faithful to the spirit of the characters and the rest steering clear of outright hackwork.  Indeed, with nothing I can pin down as a genuine flaw, I'm half inclined to say that The Pursuit of Harimao's Treasure is my favourite of the (admittedly not many) Lupin movies I've seen.  The Mystery of Mamo and The Castle of Cagliostro are both objectively better, but they're also both that bit too long, whereas Harimao's Treasure clocks in at a neat ninety minutes and so avoids overstaying its welcome.  Then again, I say this as someone with a low tolerance for the show's protagonist and zany comedy in general, so what do I know?  Nevertheless, if "the Lupin film for those who find Lupin films kind of annoying" is a recommendation, then consider this recommended.

Gall Force: New Era, 1991, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

All credit to Gall Force: New Era, it takes a commendable stab at wrapping up not only the two OVAs that it directly sequels, Rhea Gall Force and Gall Force: Earth Chapter, but also the original trilogy comprising Eternal Story, Destruction, and Stardust War.  Indeed, it's Eternal Story that it feels closest to in terms of narrative and tone, especially once we get into the second of its two episodes.  Bringing to a meaningful close an epic that's spanned five previous titles spread over two series is no mean feat, and even attempting it is ambitious.

Unfortunately, this is the last nice thing I'll have to say about Gall Force: New Era, and even then, frankly, it would have done better not to try.  Despite the presence of director Akiyama and writer Hideki Kakinuma, both of whom stuck with this franchise from beginning to end, this has the feel of fans attempting to tie up a whole bunch of loose - and not so loose - threads, without necessarily understanding why any of them matter.  Thus we have the return of the crew of the Starleaf from the original trilogy, who we've already been led to suspect are reincarnating their way through the ages, but in a tale that leaves them as unrecognisable ciphers with almost nothing to do.  For most of ninety minutes they're literally just passengers, and one of the most dramatic scenes finds them bickering among themselves for no good reason.  If this was meant to hark back to the first film that made this cast so memorable, it's a bizarre way of going about it.

Then again, no-one does much of anything in Gall Force: New Era.  The first of its episodes largely consists of establishing its setting - of an Earth recolonised and edging toward stability after the events of Earth Chapter and a subsequent clash with a post-human species tackily named Yumans - and then in disrupting that setting as a fresh conflict wipes away all that off-screen progress in a matter of hours.  The second episode, the one that wants to remind us of Eternal Story, backs itself into a corner whereby we pretty much know how things will turn out, simply because, if they don't, a major character's motivations will remain in the dark and the plot will be one big hole - though even once we learn what's been going on, that only introduces more questions.  I can't go into those without massive spoilers, but it very much feels as though Akiyama and Kakinuma have forgotten the essential rules of their own universe in their enthusiasm for wrapping everything up on a suitably nostalgic note.

You know what would have made me nostalgic for the first Gall Force trilogy?  Great production values.  Neither Rhea nor Earth Chapter equalled the technical virtues of their predecessors, and New Era takes an even more dramatic leap in the wrong direction.  It looks cheap, and even the technical designs are frequently lousy, while Sonada's character designs don't benefit at all from the budget animation.  Heck, even the music is merely fine!  Take away the fine animation, the earcatching soundtrack, and the distinctive female cast given actual agency in a plot with enough original ideas to differentiate itself from the mass of similar titles, and it turns out there really isn't much to Gall Force at all.  I've never wanted the critical consensus to be wrong on a title more than with this one, but the best that can be said for Gall Force: New Era is that it's a reminder of how wonderful the original trilogy was in all the wrong ways.  No wonder the series sputtered out after this.

-oOo-

Some good stuff there: The Pursuit of Harimao's Treasure remains maybe my favourite non-Miyazaki directed Lupin film, Megazone 23 Part 3 is better than it has any right to be, and Devil Hunter Yohko recovers from a shaky start to be a bit of a delight.  But, for me anyway, its nearly all outweighed by the bitter pill that is Gall Force: New Era, though I went in knowing that its reputation was less than stellar and though the second phase of Gall Force was never on a par with its first.  But what a mediocre finish to a series that began so fantastically!  Ah well, to love nineties anime is to love disappointment, as the saying I just made up goes.



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

Monday, 29 June 2020

Short Fiction News June 2020

Due mostly to reasons of being crazy busy, I've been pretty lax with getting news out about my short story appearances, and only now do I realise that it's been more than six months since I last posted on the subject, which is all the worse because I actually have a ton of stuff to discuss, and a lot of it really deserved to be properly promoted at the time.  Sorry, publisher folks!

Most exciting for me, because I hardly ever get the time to write and / or edit up new fiction, I've sold a couple of brand new stories.  One of those has already been out, in the first issue of the magazine Hybrid Fiction way back in February.  As the name suggests, Hybrid's gig is fiction that mashes multiple genres together, and my piece was definitely that.  Originally written on spec for an anthology of steampunk ghost stories, the editors of which I guess didn't consider it steampunky or ghosty enough, Ghost Drive ran off with that brief to some mad places, imagining an alt-historical Victorian England waging war against its former colonies and dangerously obsessed with the Matter of Britain.  There's spiritualism and dog-fighting and airships and, in retrospect, this one was probably never going to find a home except in a market that was specifically on the look-out for demented mashups, so no doubt things worked out for the best.

My other new sale is something else entirely, though I suppose it's still not exactly a story that slots neatly into a single genre.  I mean, it's going to be appearing in the fantastic Nightmare - the first market I tried, making for one of the easiest, most satisfying sales I've ever had! - so you'd assume that it's basically horror.  And sure, that's true, but in common with a lot of my horror fiction, it's much more about people and the messes they get involved in inside their own heads than it is about blood and guts.  Not Us is my take on the Invasion of the Body Snatchers template, and I dare say it's rather different from the usual approach.  Beyond that, I'd better keep schtum, because I suspect this one works better if you come at it without too much foreknowledge.  Er, not that it's out yet anyway!  More news as I have it and all that.

The rest is all reprints, but there's been a fair few of them and they're in some exciting places, so I'm not grumbling.  Top of the list has to go to Casualty of Peace - my sort-of-First-World-War sort-of-ghost story - appearing in the March issue of The Dark, in part because it was a rare occasion of being approached for a story and in part because the one I picked is high on my list of personal favourites.  Between this, its original appearance in the sixth Horror Library anthology, and popping up in Flame Tree's Lost Souls collection, I'm really pleased that it's done so well for itself - plus, this time around, it's available to read for free, so go take a look at the link above.

Elsewhere, UK zine The Future Looms has released its first-ever best of, and it contains not one but two of my stories, which happens to be the precise number of stories I've had appear in The Future LoomsGlamorous Corpses finds reality TV taken to horrifying extremes, then mixes in a hefty dose of cyberpunk noir because why not?  And Life, Without Possibility envisages a future society that's effectively cured death and asks, what do they do with those who don't belong and who want nothing less than to live forever?  Indeed, much like life itself, they're both nasty, bleak and short - but, you know, in a good way!  Anyway, I haven't seen a copy of the collection outside of the proofs, but I've been impressed by the 'zine itself, so if you're into cyperpunk, I'm willing to bet it's worth a look.

Next up, we have my one and only crime short story in the one and only crime anthology I've appeared in - well, okay, mystery anthology, strictly speaking, what with it being called The Black Beacon Book of Mystery and everything!  And Step Light - originally picked up through some mad fluke by the excellent and venerable Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, who still send me a Christmas card to this day - is definitely a mystery, but of a rather convoluted sort.  It's actually more of a why-dunnit, and the misdeed that was misdone isn't clear until right near the end, at which point the whole shebang transforms into something else altogether.  I've only had the opportunity to glance through my contributor copy, but I was impressed by what I saw.  You can find Black Beacon Books here, and there's a brief interview here that I took part in as part of the promotion.

The next one was a real blast from the past: nearly the first magazine I was published in was The Willows, a compendium of classic-style weird tales of the sort I wrote quite a lot of in the early days (enough, anyway, to produce an entire collection out of them!)  I had three stories appear there, The Gate in the JungleThe Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma, and what ended up being titled The God Under the Church, and The Burning Room would have appeared there too had they not closed.  Anyway, out of the blue last year I got an e-mail from editor Ben Thomas asking if I wouldn't mind my three tales appearing in a reprint anthology of all the issues.  I wouldn't have been thrilled at the thought of early work being put out as was, but fortunately all of them had been rejigged in the time since, and Ben was happy to take the more recent versions.  My contributor copy got temporarily mislaid in the postal system, but that made it all the more of a treat when it eventually arrived, because it's awfully impressive.  The presentation is lovely and the thing is absolutely massive; you could bench press the paperback, so I daren't imagine what the hardback weighs!  You can grab either (or both) here, and if classic weird fiction is your bag, the collection's certainly a worthy investment.

And to finish on a high note, I've made it into NewCon Press's Best of British Science Fiction for the second year running!  Last year was cool and all, but that story, Cat and Mouse, as much as I was fond of it and glad to see it reprinted, was an older piece and submitted primarily because it happened to be the one science fiction story I'd had out.  This time around, I got to go with a piece I legitimately think is one of the better science fiction stories I've produced and just maybe deserves to be in the sort of fabulous company these collections provide.  Parasite Art originally appeared in Interzone, and that makes sense because it's a very Interzone-y sort of story.  My good friend and beta reader Tom Rice's response to it was "You were really channelling Phillip K Dick that day!" which is either the nicest praise or the least scathing criticism I've ever had.  It's a piece about art, and creativity, and gatekeepers, and possibly me trying to work out all of my many issues with those subjects ... but, you know, it also has a bunch of weird aliens in it, because sci-fi.  The book's out in mid-July and available for pre-order, and as ever with the NewCon anthologies I've been a part of, the line-up's one I'm thrilled to be associated with.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 68

Despite my abiding love of anime, and especially of anime made before the arbitrary cut-off date of the year 2000, I've avoided the Dragon Ball franchise like the plague.  So you can imagine my horror when I discovered that there were no end of Dragon Ball movies, and if I'm going to review every film and OVA ever released in the West throughout the nineties - yes, this somehow seems to have become my goal! - then I'd have to get to this anime Goliath sooner or later.  However, it wasn't a completist spirit that gave me the final nudge, it was the discovery that Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z were different things.  The shocking character designs were primarily what had put me off the latter, but the former looked a good deal more appealing.  If I was going to get to the Dragon Ball-verse sooner or later, this seemed the perfect jumping-on point.

And so it is that we find ourselves looking at Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies, Dragon Ball: Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle, Dragon Ball: Mystical Adventure, and Dragon Ball: The Path to Power...

Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies, 1986, dir: Daisuke Nishio

I don't know what I was expecting from this first Dragon Ball movie, but it's fair to say that it surprised me at every turn.  Certainly, I had no idea it would be such giddy fun, or so lovingly made, or so self-contained: if this were all the Dragon Ball there was or ever would be, it would still be a satisfying piece of work, and who'd dare to anticipate that from the opening cinematic salvo of such a ludicrously bloated franchise?  But it's true, Curse of the Blood Rubies delivers a wholly fulfilling quest narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, engaging characters, a sense of scope and scale, and a bucket load of charm, and it does all that in the space of about fifty minutes.

That story is ... well, I was going to say the tale of Goku, the spiky-haired, staff-wielding little chap who gets centre stage on the cover, but actually, he's fairly peripheral to the goings-on, more a common element than a protagonist.  It's mostly happenstance and the fact that he's in possession of one of the titular dragon balls that finds him dragged into a quest to topple the somewhat evil king Gurumes, who wants all seven of said balls so that he can get a mythical dragon to grant him his one wish, and has been turning the world upside-down in pursuit of that goal.  I say "somewhat evil" because Gurumes is a pitiful figure, driven purely by having lost his pleasure in food and the need for some new delight to satiate him, and there's never a point where foiling him feels like anyone's prime focus, let alone Goku's.  Really, he's just a kid who has some awesome kung-fu skills and doesn't appreciate having his dragon ball stolen, as you wouldn't.

Oh, and he's also Monkey, as in the figure from Chinese mythology Monkey, which is yet another thing that took me by surprise.  I assume this to be an important fact in the wider Dragon Ball universe, but for the purposes of this film, it's simply there: Goku has a tail and an extendable staff and by the end has acquired a cloud to ride about on, and that's that.  But then, this isn't the sort of movie that pauses to let you soak its ideas in, or to ask sensible questions, or, goodness knows, to try and fathom a universe that seems to be a melange of medieval fantasy and high-tech futurism, with monsters and turtle-men and shapeshifters thrown in, in case it all wasn't weird enough.

In truth, it's very weird indeed, and very silly, and it wouldn't have taken a lot for it to have gone off the rails into a mess of randomness and dumb comedy.  It's to the credit of director Nishio that he keeps that from happening, and indeed that he treats the material with a measure of respect and seriousness in all the right places.  For all its weird silliness, Nishio ensures that what we get feels like a proper movie rather than a bit of franchise fluff; the example that stuck with me is the brief sequence that apes a Soviet propaganda film for no discernible reason, except I guess to give us something visually interesting to appreciate.  Actually, Curse of the Blood Rubies has a tendency to look terrific, with some delightfully squashy character animation and backgrounds that do a lot to sell the notion that this is a bizarre variation on the Monkey legend, by incorporating gorgeous imitations of Chinese painted landscapes.  Throw in a solid score with an appealingly anthemic theme tune and there really isn't a lot to pick holes in here.  Short action-comedy titles are something anime tends to be particularly good at, and this is up there with any I've seen.

Dragon Ball: Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle, 1987, dir: Daisuke Nishio

At first glance, Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle seems like a marked step down from the first Dragon Ball movie.  The animation has already slipped to "impressive for TV" standards and the plot is so resolutely trivial that it can't bring itself to mention those dragon balls that the first film - and the naming traditions of the entire series! - led us to believe were such a big deal.  No, this time around, the stakes are no greater than Goku competing with another martial arts student to win the tutelage of turtle-shelled sensai Master Roshi.  Granted, the task he sets them is to rescue a princess from a castle full of monsters, and that might certainly look like stakes if you squinted, but given that the film makes no pretence of caring, it's hard to see why we should.

For all that I may not have made this sound like a good thing, it's honestly kind of amazing how much of a good thing it is.  It turns out that immediately reducing this franchise to a series of absurdist gags and barely linked set pieces was the right direction to choose.  I'd be pushed to summarise the series of events that Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle jumbles together in what we might kindly describe as a plot, but it's sure as hell never boring, and there's something exciting about the sheer nonsensical nature of it all.  To give a single example: at one point, Goku turns into a giant werewolf, apparently because he's hungry, and chases the rest of the cast - everyone being back from the first movie, for no reason other than that they are.  Anyway, Goku turns into a werewolf and chases everybody, though we've never been led to believe that turning into a werewolf was a thing Goku could or would do.  Then someone decides that chopping off his tail should settle him down, and it does, and Goku returns to normal, discovers he no longer has a tail, and pretty much shrugs and gets on with things.  After which, the incident is never referred to again.

Is this canonical?  Is the TV series this eccentric?  I have no clue, but I do know that it's fun and I like it.  And as with Curse of the Blood Rubies, director Nishio is a fine hand to have on the tiller.  I complimented him last time for bringing a degree of gravitas to the proceedings, but he doesn't try that here, and it's for the best; these proceedings couldn't stand it.  Instead, he dives headfirst into the madness, while retaining enough of a keen visual sense to get away from the whole affair feeling like an extended television episode.  Indeed, it's so busy that the relatively short running time seems significantly more substantial than it is.  Which is fortunate, I suppose, because it's hard to imagine anything much less substantial than Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle having the temerity to call itself a movie.  But, you know, we can be fussy about these things, or we can admit that forty-five minutes of funny, engaging stuff happening held together with a fair degree of craftsmanship is a perfectly acceptable way to waste your time.

Dragon Ball: Mystical Adventure, 1988, dir: Kazuhisa Takenouchi

That the third Dragon Ball movie is marginally closer to what I was expecting from this franchise only serves to emphasise the extent to which I had no idea what I was getting into.  The story this time around concerns a fighting tournament that's really a devious ploy to get all of the wish-fulfilling dragon balls together in one place, and if you'd asked me to guess what this series was all about, I imagine that's the sort of summary I'd have thrown together.  I mean, there's fighting, right?  And ... uh, dragon balls?

But yet again, I wildly underestimated the amount of silliness I was in for.  I described that setup as a story above, but it's fairer to call it a jumping-off point, or a nucleus around which lots of loosely connected events play out and an increasingly large cast blunder about their various agendas.  And if I was going to criticise, I'd say that, especially in the first third, that does make for something rather wearing and unfocused.  Daisuke Nishio's entries were random, sure, but they managed not to feel as though they were.  Takenouchi doesn't have that same directorial command, and Mystical Adventure definitely has the failing common to many a similar anime from the period of slipping into "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" storytelling.  Oh, and while I'm grumbling, this is the first of these films that feels more as if it was made for TV than a cinema release.  I don't know if that was actually the case, but it looks cheap, frankly, or at any rate like a respectably well-made TV film.

All of which might suggest my love affair with the franchise is slipping.  But actually, that's the opposite of my reaction to Mystical Adventure.  Because if this is what a cheap, aimless Dragon Ball movie looks like then, hey, count me in for the long haul!  Even if it doesn't gel the way Nishio's entries did, on a scene-by-scene basis it's a delight, a raucous circus that never runs out of energy for a moment.  And with its extreme busyness, it's impossible to believe that everything's crammed into a paltry forty-five minutes; for a third time running, we get the impression of a feature-length film even if we don't get the feature length.  Moreover - and this is yet another thing I wasn't expecting - Mystical Adventure actually follows on in meaningful ways from Curse of the Blood Rubies and Sleeping Princess in Devil's Castle, so that, while it's tough to imagine that all of these events are taking place in a coherent universe (or even an incoherent universe!) there's at least the sense that they matter enough to be referred back to.  Thus, while it's comfortably the weakest of the three films so far, there's certainly no justification for skipping an entry that's still a delight on its own merits.

Dragon Ball: The Path to Power, 1996, dir: Shigeyasu Yamauchi

As a rule, it's rarely good news when eight years go by between entries of an anime franchise, especially when were talking in terms of that franchise being resurrected in the mid-to-late nineties, a period in which the instinct seems frequently to have been to plumb the archives for anything that could withstand a gritty reboot, preferably with a comparatively lower budget.  Dragon Ball falls into neither category: its entire goofy appeal rests on how resolutely ungritty it is, and such lightweight material would suffer if you tried to do it on the cheap; even the minor shortcomings of the third film stood out noticeably in that regard.

It's reassuring, then, that The Path to Power feels, at first glance, as though not a day has passed between entries.  What we have here is a retelling of the same tale told in Curse of the Blood Rubies a decade before, and judging by the first few scenes, all that's changed is that this time around we get a version that's more serious about being a full-blown cinematic release.  The characters are the same, the designs are the same, but the animation is a marked advance - a stunning, ingenious opening shot leaves us in no doubt of that - and the running time has swelled by an entire half hour.

Which is nice and all, but it does raise an obvious question.  If you can tell a story perfectly well in fifty minutes, what do you do with that same story given eighty?  Initially, it seems the answer the creators came up with was that you let the material breathe, make it a touch less madcap, and let the characters interact more without the pressure to race on to the next event.  And while Curse of the Blood Rubies' pace was part of its charm, nobody would argue that it was other than a result of cramming the material into whatever space the animation budget would allow, so surely that means a more methodical take with a higher budget and more of a genuinely cinematic feel can only be an improvement?

That's certainly how it seems things will work out for the first half hour or so.  But doubts do start to creep in, and to cut to the chase, there are a couple of reasons I can't quite value The Path to Power as highly as I do Curse of the Blood Rubies.  Both, I think, boil down to the passage of those eight years, and the nature of anime in the mid-nineties, and the course the Dragon Ball franchise itself had taken.  At any rate, once we get past the half-hour mark, the bulk of what makes The Path to Power longer is its copious fight sequences.  They are, to be sure, often extremely good fight sequences - there's a single-take shot that seems to go on for all of about a minute that's the unquestionable animation high point of the entire venture - but they still take up a disproportionate amount of time, especially once we get into the climatic third.  And that demand for so much action feeds directly into the second problem: the villains have become awfully generic.  Goku needs plenty of mooks to beat up, so that's what we get.  Be they in human or robot form, all of them feel as though they've wandered in from a more traditional narrative devoid of the zany world-building that made the earlier entries such a treat.

None of this, obviously, means The Path to Power is bad.  You could make a persuasive case that all it does is make it different, and it's clear there are those who like those differences fine; I get the sense that this is widely regarded as a series high point.  All I can say is, each to their own.  Want a Dragon Ball film with extra action and more of a solidly budgeted movie feel but less imaginative bad guys?  Then this is absolutely for you.  In love with the unpredictable high jinx that characterised the first three entries?  Then you'll still like this, because it's a thoroughly solid, well-made film, it's simply the case that you probably won't prefer it to what's come before.

-oOo-

And there we have it: I'm a Dragon Ball convert.  Oh, not to the extent that I'll be seeking out the series any time soon, but I'm sure these four films will get fondly re-watched one of these days, and I'm feeling marginally more positive about the now-inevitable trawl through Dragon Ball Z's thirteen (shudder!) feature films.  Though with everything else I have to get through, don't be expecting to hear about those any time soon...



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

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The Rule of Three: A Guest Post by Jacey Bedford

As humans we look for patterns. Three is the smallest number of elements that can form a pattern. Superstition suggests that three is the magic number, or that both bad things and good things come in threes (depending on who you ask). Storytellers, orators and writers employ the rule of three. If you want something to stick in your reader/listener/audience's mind, use the rule of three.
  • Friends, Romans, countrymen…
  • Blood, sweat and tears
  • Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • Faith, hope and charity
Is it any wonder that stories rely on threes. We have Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Wise Men, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Three Musketeers, The Book of Three, Three Men and a Baby, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. It's no coincidence that when you rub the magic lamp, wishes come in threes, or that Macbeth encounters witches in threes, as indeed do Terry Pratchett's readers when they meet Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat.

Plays have three acts. Stories have beginnings middles and ends… and trilogies have three times beginnings middles and ends – firstly in each book, and then an overarching beginning middle and end for the whole trilogy.

Confession: I have committed trilogy – twice! And both times by accident.

Once upon a time, as a very novice writer, I set out to write a trilogy. I found myself an agent (I think it was beginner's luck) and she shopped around my Book One. In the meantime I continued to write Book Two. Unfortunately Book One didn't sell, though I still have the we-nearly-bought-this letter from HarperCollins. At that point I realised I'd spent two years writing a second book which would never sell if the first one didn't. Rookie mistake. Bummer.

So after that I determined to write standalones that had potential for follow up books.

Skip forward a number of years, and a couple of agents, I'd submitted Winterwood to DAW's slushpile after an introduction from a writer friend. In July 2013 I got the email I'd been waiting for all my life. Sheila Gilbert said, "I want to buy your book." And just like that all my birthdays and Christmasses came at once. And then she uttered those miraculous words, "What else have you got?" 


By that time I had seven completed novels sitting on my hard drive. Sheila bought Empire of Dust and Winterwood, the two that were destined to become the first books in the Psi-Tech Trilogy and the Rowankind Trilogy. And on a one page synopsis I'd hastily cobbled together, she ordered a sequel to Empire – as yet unnamed. (That one became Crossways.) Sure I'd thought about the possibility of writing sequels, and I had ideas, but I hadn't committed anything to paper – it was all mush and fluff in my head.


I'm a neither a complete pantser nor a meticulous plotter. I fall somewhere between the two. I start out with a solid beginning, and I have a good idea of how I want the story to finish, but in between my vague plot often simply says 'stuff happens'. Anyhow, as my relationship with DAW developed I ended up with a further two book deal - for the third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, and the second Rowankind book, Silverwolf - and then a single deal for the final book in the Rowankind trilogy – this time simply titled, Rowankind. In each case I knew – even before contracts were signed – that I was going to get the opportunity to finish the whole trilogy, so I was able to shape the beginning, middle and end novels accordingly.

Cara and Ben are my main characters in the Psi-Tech books. She's a highly skilled telepath, on the run because she knows too much. He's a company man through and through until he has to choose between serving the company or saving a bunch of settlers. Expect megacorporations, dirty dealing, space battles and void dragons.

In Winterwood, my main character is Rossalinde (Ross) Tremayne, a cross-dressing privateer captain and unregistered witch, with a crew of barely reformed pirates, and the jealous ghost of her late husband. When she pays a deathbed visit to her estranged mother she ends up with a quest she doesn't want, a half brother she didn't know she had, and an implacable enemy who will stop at nothing to prevent her from completing the quest. Enter Corwen. He's handsome, sexy, and capable, and Ross really doesn't like him; neither does Will's ghost.

I've enjoyed spending time with my characters in both the fantasy and the science fiction trilogies, and I haven't completely ruled out continuing some of the stories, or maybe revisiting some of the secondary characters. 

I suppose after writing two trilogies, that I should embark on a third, but I've broken the pattern. The next book, which I've just signed the contract for, is going to be a standalone called The Amber Crown, set in an analogue of the Baltic States in the mid 1600s. It's not going to turn into a trilogy, but it does have three main viewpoint characters who tell the story between them.

Yes, it's all about threes.

-oOo-

Jacey Bedford is a British writer of science fiction and historical fantasy. Her Psi-Tech and Rowankind trilogies are published by DAW in the USA. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, and have been translated into Estonian, Galician, Catalan and Polish. In another life she was a singer with vocal harmony trio, Artisan, and once sang live on BBC Radio4 accompanied by the Doctor (Who?) playing spoons.

Or via her writing website: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk, which includes a link to her mailing list.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 67

There aren't many self-imposed rules I haven't broken in these posts, but one I was doing pretty well on was not reviewing anything that could categorically be described as a series, because once I stray into reviewing series, there really will be no end to this insanity.  And I was convinced that none of what we have here fell into that category, until well after I'd committed to discussing them.  I was certain Nightwalker was a pair of OVAs stitched together and that Metal Fighter Miku was a direct-to-video release - and it seems I was wrong on both fronts.  There goes another rule!

Here, then, is what was intended to be a look at four longer OVAs and now, well, isn't that.  So let's chuck that last sacred cow out the window and see what we make of Nightwalker: The Midnight DetectiveLegend of the Dragon KingsMetal Fighter Miku, and Key the Metal Idol...

Nightwalker: The Midnight Detective, 1998, dir: Yutaka Kagawa, Kiyotoshi Sasano

If you were given the task of summing up a noirish detective show where the detective happens to be a vampire in nineties Tokyo, you couldn't do a better job than the credits sequence of Nightwalker: The Midnight Detective, and particularly it's terrific intro theme, Gessekai by the prolific Buck-Tick, which manages to find the perfect balance between PI sleaze and gothic romanticism.  It's a heck of an opening, and it's almost unfortunate for Nightwalker, because nothing else it does across the course of its twelve episodes will be nearly so good or nail that tone with such precision.

No, I tell a lie, the incidental music throughout is equally fine.  But that's your lot.  Which isn't to say it's a bad show, merely that it makes the mistake of promising more than it can deliver.  For a start, it's a resolutely under-budgeted affair, and that shows nowhere more than in the animation, which is generally middling and frequently not even that - though only the penultimate episode sinks to being flat-out cheap.  The designs are of their time, that time being one with an aesthetic I've never found appealing, and, protagonist Shido aside, none are especially memorable.  In general, there's the sense of a show that's never finding its feet, or even knowing what its feet ought to look like, and that's nowhere truer than when a swapping of directors after episode four jarringly pushes everything onto a different track.

Fortunately, it's a positive change.  Until then, Nightwalker had been leaning too hard into the Anne Rice clichés for my tastes, albeit with a veneer of more characteristically Japanese clichés to make the proceedings that bit weirder.  The basic setup sees pretty, lilac-haired vampire Shido as a sort of detective, though he never does much detecting and gets most of his cases from his government contact Yayoi, who's also generously serving as his personal blood bank.  By the beginning of the first episode, they've been joined by teenager Riho, who lost her family to the murderous Nightbreeds (presumably not TM Clive Barker) that Shido and Yayoi hunt, and now acts as Shido's office helper, without having a clue of what he is or how he spends his evenings.

The first four episodes get terribly tangled up in all this, along with an overarching plot regarding Shido's sire Cain and the threat of some major catastrophe called the Golden Dawn that's set to involve Shido intimately, and it's all very familiar, and probably was nearly as much so back in 1998, so that it's a relief when, with the fifth episode, all of that gets jettisoned in favour of a series of monster-of-the-week episodes.  What ruined many a show is the salvation of Nightwalker, because they range from good to great, with most toward the upper end.  As well, the creators start to make better use of the characters and to recognise that Shido's mysterious past isn't that interesting - such that the proceedings end on a distinctly high note, one that wraps up in a surprisingly satisfying manner.  For a series that got off on such a shaky footing, that's a heck of an accomplishment, and enough to make me recommend it if a slightly novel take on the supernatural detective genre sounds like your thing.

Legend of the Dragon Kings, 1991 - 1993, dir's: Osamu Desaki, Hisayuki Toriumi, Kyosuke Mikuriya, Norio Kashima

I'm not going to pretend Legend of the Dragon Kings is a good anime.  It is, in fact, in many ways, quite a spectacularly terrible one.  And this is bizarre, given that it somehow managed to get all the way through a run of twelve forty-five minute episodes, when so many great shows got canned after one or two.  Yet Legend of the Dragon Kings starts going wrong from its first minute, and within a couple of episodes has gone really wrong, and will subsequently drift into full on train-wreck territory on more than one occasion.  And somehow, each time, like a punch-drunk boxer, it staggers onward, wiping blood from its eyes and grunting incoherently and generally being so embarrassing that you wonder if it might not have been better staying down.

It's easy to point at the animation, which begins at about okay, slips quickly, and is full-on risible for much of the show's middle.  It's flat and cheap and it's almost incomprehensible that it was made by Kitty Films, a proper studio with respectable work in their catalogue: there are shots, plenty of them, where the impression is of people learning this animation business from scratch and not much caring that somebody might notice.  Then again, given how ghastly the designs and the washy yet garish palette are, you can see how it must have been hard to justify going the extra mile.  And that extends equally to the direction, which, despite the presence of some provably talented folks, rarely rises beyond half-hearted.

And even if it didn't look ugly, and even if there were firmer hands on the tiller, there'd still be problems.  There's something deeply odd about the story of the four Ryudo brothers, a bunch of wealthy orphans who find themselves persecuted by everyone from former war criminals to a secret cabal of American tycoons over a secret so secret that at first even they don't know it: that they're dragons hiding in human form involved in a millennia-spanning conflict.  You can absolutely see how that would go, right?  The brothers slowly discover their powers and remember their destiny, all the while fending off attacks from their various opponents ... and that's sort of what happens.  But mostly what we get is the brothers going to extraordinary lengths to ignore what's occurring and get on with their lives, even after its apparent that they're goddamn super-powered dragons caught up in vast global conspiracies.

And at this point, I guess I have to stop playing games and admit that I sort of loved Legend of the Dragon Kings, and for precisely this reason.  Its setup is cliched, but the execution is anything but, and I refuse to believe that was entirely accidental.  There's simply too much cynicism and dark humour and weirdness floating around in Akinori Endô's script.  I don't know if he was deliberately subverting the genre or just indulging himself, but the result is hypnotic, like a joke that keeps putting off its punchline.  Surely the Ryudo brothers are going to begin taking this stuff seriously?  Surely they'll use their astonishing powers to, like, help someone or something?  No, they're heading home for breakfast, or spending an entire episode blithely trundling around in a tank, or showing off their bicycle stunt skills to the policemen that are trying to kill them for being domestic terrorists.  It helps that they're paired off against some frequently ghastly villains, and that Endô sneaks in fascinating stuff about history and politics around the edges of his narrative, but it's still bonkers.

So, to be clear, I'm not saying Legend of the Dragon Kings is good, because in a bunch of ways it absolutely isn't.  But did it keep me entertained for the whole of its considerable running time?  Oh heck yes it did.  It's quite the disaster and you'd be unwise to take it too seriously, though if you really wanted to, there are enough interesting notions and twists on well-worn concepts that the option is there.  But more than anything, it's fun, almost despite itself, and surprisingly different from what it appears to be at the outset, even if the surprise is often that nothing remotely sensible happens.  The result is like a badly made roller-coaster: you're never sure why you got on or what's around the next corner, and that shaking and rattling is awfully disconcerting, but all the same, it's hard not to be entertained if you're in the appropriate mood.

Metal Fighter Miku, 1994, dir: Akiyuki Shinbo

Visiting the debut works of genius creators hoping to find a spark of that selfsame genius is always a dicey business, and so it proves with Akiyuki Shinbo, who among a frequently impressive CV would go on to mastermind Puella Magi Madoka Magica, one of the finest anime shows of the twenty-first century.  But from the off, it's apparent that Shinbo's first work as director, the thirteen episode sports sci-fi comedy Metal Fighter Miku ain't no Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Moreover, some of its problems are deeply embedded.  The concept seems a fine place to start: in a future 2061 that's functionally the same as the (then) present, the most popular sport in Japan is Neo Pro-Wrestling, which is the same as normal wrestling except in powered armour and with no obvious rules.  Neo Pro-Wrestling doesn't make a shred of sense, and the show deals with this alternately by digging deep into the minutiae of it, trying to tease out some semblance of logic, and throwing its hands in the air with a huff of despair.  Perhaps an even bigger deal, our hero Miku - or rather, Pretty Miku, if we're going by Neo Pro-Wrestling handles - isn't a very interesting protagonist.  There's no reason why, of the four members of her team, that she should take the spotlight, and this is also something the show seems vaguely aware of.  In fact, the more complex cast members are all on the sidelines, though they steadily come into focus as the episodes go by: main antagonist Sapphire is particularly engaging, and her arc a good deal more fulfilling.

Of course, anime being anime, a silly premise and a somewhat boring protagonist are hardly the end of the world.  Unfortunately, a lack of production values is just as major an issue.  Outside of an intro that features some genuinely terrific animation, Metal Fighter Miku languishes somewhere between quite cheap and very cheap, and there's a spell past the halfway point where things go right to hell; you never appreciate details like shading until they're suddenly not there.  Even the fights, which you might expect to be a highlight in a show about futuristic wrestling, don't get much of a visual boost.  At least things pick up toward the climax, and there are catchy opening and end themes to keep things ticking along, but you can tell the budget wasn't there for an entire thirteen episodes.

So is Metal Fighter Miku basically garbage?  No, it isn't.  At its worst, it's pleasant to be around, with an appealing cast and enough of a sense of its own absurdity to keep it likeable.  Personally, I found myself watching it as a shallow treat before I went to bed after a tough day, and in that role of anime comfort food, it fit perfectly.  And while Shinbo didn't exactly hit the ground running, there are flashes of brilliance if you look for them, along with a healthy dose of style and surrealism.  I have no idea, for example, why a camel named Juliet suddenly became a significant character, or why the hell anyone thought a bout in a ring five hundred feet above the ground was a good idea, but those elements give the show a much-needed jolt that pushes it toward a goofy, messy kind of pleasure.  While there are undoubtedly better brands of pleasure to be had from more deserving works, it's sufficient to make Metal Fighter Miku a fun waste of time for what it is.

Key the Metal Idol, 1994 - 1997, dir's: Hiroaki Satō, Shigeru Ueda

If there's one sub-genre of anime I prize over any other, it's those experimental titles that we've hardly encountered here, largely because the really genre-busting stuff needs a few episodes to play with.  This is certainly true of Key the Metal Idol, which demands quite a bit of your time, and even manages to do that in unorthodox fashion: the show consists of thirteen regular-length episodes followed by two ninety-minute features.  But then, that's Key all over: it's clear from the beginning that writer / director Satō has a specific story to tell and that he'll get there no matter the cost.  And in fairness, when you have such an awesomely weird premise as this, you'd better try and do it justice.  Essentially, it's there in the title: Key is a robot who wants to be human, and a message from her murdered creator informs her that the only way to succeed in that goal is to find herself thirty thousand followers: thirty thousand people who believe in her with the whole of their hearts.  So what better route to mass adulation, if you happen to be a teenage Japanese girl, or a robot who very much resembles one, than to become a music idol?

Or that might not be the story at all.  It's no spoiler to say that Key is quick to make us wonder if its protagonist isn't just a messed-up girl whose grandfather sent her off on a horrifying wild goose chase.  Then there's the dodgy corporation hovering around the edges, who definitely do have robots at their disposal, though their patently evil director Jinsaku Ajo is less bothered about manufacturing murder-bots than he is with harassing Key for reasons unknown and fostering the career of existing idol Miho, who rapidly becomes the focus of Key's own adulation.  And that's not even touching on the religious cult that want Key to be their messiah - she does seem to have the requisite supernatural powers - or Key's small circle of friends, who mostly want the best for her but don't always know what that entails.

There are obvious ways this setup could go, and the opportunity for satirising a music industry that demands almost inhuman levels of commitment is right there on the surface.  I wouldn't suggest that Key doesn't do that, but it's to the show's credit that it never feels as if it's taking the obvious route even when it skirts obvious conclusions.  Indeed, having reached the end and had some time to mull over the experience, I'd say that's Key's most distinctive feature: it's absolutely it's own thing, even when that thing is somewhat difficult or off-putting.  Actually, it feels more than happy to embrace its awkwardness, which stretches down to the level of music, character design, and animation.

If I was being harsh, I'd suggest that I'm not sure all of this adds up to the sum of its parts or is delivered in the best possible way.  Above all, it's hard not to notice how the first of the two films grinds to a halt while it makes clear everything that's previously been ambiguous, most of which the astute viewer will have figured out for themselves anyway; I actually liked the approach, and goodness knows there's no shortage of anime that's happy to obfuscate crucial plot details, but it remains a peculiar choice.  And while Satō has quite the eye for distinctive compositions, he opts for a colour palette so muted that, in the original Pioneer release, it's sometimes hard to recognise how nice the animation frequently is.

However, to return to my earlier point, if there's one thing that's absolutely true of Key the Metal Idol, it's that it's resolutely its own creature, and every aspect, even those that don't altogether work, plays into that.  There isn't enough plot to justify such an expansive running time, yet the show exploits that space well to build its dreamy, inhuman atmosphere, and the same goes for the animation that takes more concentration than should really be necessary to appreciate, and particularly for the marvellous but discomforting score: so much of Key feels subtly off, yet that offness is vital to its personality.  And just as impressively, once you get into its unusual rhythm, the show manages to be fun in ways you don't necessarily expect from this kind of self-consciously cultish narrative.  Key the Metal Idol is a flawed, difficult tale about a flawed, difficult character, but if you're interested in the sort of anime that's willing to challenge rather than pander, you owe it to yourself to track it down.

-oOo-

It possibly didn't come over here, but I pretty much loved all four of these shows.  Well, maybe not Nightwalker, though I enjoyed it a fair bit once it got past its rocky start; but the other three, I really did dig.  And possibly this is yet another reason I ought to be steering clear of series, I'm clearly even less discerning than I am with regular vintage anime!  Though Key the Metal Idol truly is a classic, and one that deserves to be more widely seen, so at the very least I feel good about recommending that.

Next up: actually, I've no idea!  But we'll find out soon, I'm determined to start clearing the enormous backlog of these posts I've accumulated while my proper work's relatively quiet...



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