Sunday, 19 January 2020

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 61

There are anime franchises that are fondly remembered to this day, there are some that have never really gone away, and there are a few that history has been less kind to.  The Gall Force series ran to a feature film and eight OVAs, not to mention a video game, and yet the last of those entries - an attempted re-imagining that never made it to the West - came out over two decades ago, and it's rare to hear the series get much mention even among vintage anime buffs.

This, of course, is all the more reason to track down what's available and take a good hard look!  Not an easy task these days, it has to be said, since the entire lot is majorly out of print and incredibly hard to come by.  But is doing so worth the effort?  Here's my thoughts on Gall Force: Eternal Story, Gall Force: Destruction, Gall Force: Stardust War, and Rhea Gall Force...

Gall Force: Eternal Story, 1986, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Gall Force: Eternal Story contains a great many things that I  like in my vintage anime: some high-concept, epic science fiction; an almost entirely female cast made up for the most part of competent, capable characters; some pretty-cool-for-the-time designs, including distinctive character work from Kenichi "Gunsmith Cats" Sonoda; an actual plot, with its fair share of ideas and unexpected developments; the odd neat pop song; moments of genuinely ambitious animation, despite a clearly somewhat constrained budget; and, er, rocket swarms.  Look, I'm a sucker for rocket swarms, all right?  You know, that cheap eighties effect where they basically simulate massive ship-to-ship attacks using lots of lines?  For me, nothing screams eighties sci-fi anime more, and I love it utterly.

Inevitably, Gall Force: Eternal Story also contains a few elements I was less enthusiastic for.  There's an awful lot of fan service, for example, to the point where you sort of begin to wonder if that wasn't a factor in having a ship crewed entirely by women.  At first, it's quite unobtrusive, but by the fourth or fifth time in a ninety minute movie, it starts to seem more gratuitous.  And as much as I basically liked the plot, it ends with a twist that I've seen done at least once before, in another vintage anime no less, and for which I have no sympathy at all, for reasons I can't go into without spoilers.  Suffice to say that to get much satisfaction from it, you need to buy into a set of beliefs that I don't personally share.  Though it's a testament (hee, clue!) to the good work done elsewhere that the final turn didn't bother me a great deal.  The plot is rather rambling and perhaps doesn't altogether tie up in the final analysis, but it's also hugely cynical about the notion of gigantic space wars, and wars in general, in a way you hardly ever see in this sort of material.  It's not exactly Gunbuster, but it's certainly up to similar business, and with similarly pleasurable results.

The end result was a nice surprise - or, rather, a nice lack of disappointment, since I'd been quite hopeful for this one.  It's not a masterpiece or anything, the ambling plot and notable borrowing from other franchises see to that.  (Take, for example, the point where the narrative basically stops to play at being Alien for five minutes.)  But slagging off eighties sci-fi anime for being derivative is a lost cause, let's face it, and that Gall Force: Eternal Story manages to feel very much like it's own thing despite those points of unoriginality, along with its other virtues, is enough to make it a definite recommendation.  And I can see why this would spawn a franchise: for a film of its length, there's some respectable world-building, and enough hints at a wider universe that I'm eager to see where things go next.

Gall Force 2: Destruction, 1987, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Really, there's only one way in which the second Gall Force film isn't at least as good or better than the first, but unfortunately it's a big one: it's a whole lot shorter.  I mean, the first Gall Force felt like a movie.  Destruction does not feel like a movie.  And that's disappointing, because if it was a movie, it would be a great one, with some splendid animation and fantastic design work and a cool, eighties-tastic score, along with a startlingly good end theme, and some hefty antiwar themes of the sort it's already evident are going to be a staple of the series.

But it's fifty minutes long, and there's only so much you can do with fifty minutes.  Destruction uses its running time to the max, as so many of these shorter anime films do, and to its great credit, it never feels rushed.  Though it does certainly skimp on the back story: having let a few months pass since I watched Eternal Story, it took me a fair few minutes to regain my footing.  Not that the plot is especially complicated.  The war between the Solnoid and Paranoid races that was introduced in part one has escalated to the point where, a couple of minutes in, neither has a home planet to go back to anymore, and both seem entirely bent on ridding the galaxy of the other at whatever cost, even if the whatever in question is mutual annihilation.  But there are a minority among the Solnoid forces who'd like to leave at least something or someone behind, and it so happens that a few of their number are the ones who rescue Lufy, the crack pilot who was among the few survivors of Eternal Story.  After a (rather awesome!) battle, they decide they trust her enough to let her in on their plan, but Lufy isn't so sure that fighting the war to its ugly end is that bad of an idea.

Actually, that's a fair bit of story, isn't it?  And as I say, it's told well, with no sense of rushing from A to B.  Akiyama does a fine job of introducing his cast while the larger conflict ticks away in the background, so that when the climax kicks into gear, we feel as though we've been hanging out with these characters for a lot longer than we have.  Still, as good as Destruction is - and I must stress, it's very good indeed - it still never quite feels like a proper movie.  And it doesn't help that it's very much a middle part, with an ending that wraps up its own central conflict in fine style but makes no efforts to hide that we'll be seeing the climax of the larger narrative in part three.  Yet I can't bring myself to complain too much.  I'm pretty much in love with the Gall Force universe by this point, with its weird mix of cheerful female protagonists and horribly bleak anti-war themes and wildly cool action sequences.  So if nothing else, Destruction has left me craving more than ever to get my hands on the basically impossible to find third part.  I've a feeling that, if by some miracle I track down a reasonably priced copy, it's going to be pretty damn special.

Gall Force 3: Stardust War, 1988, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

One thing that's remarkable about the Gall Force series is its consistency, and I don't just mean in terms of quality, though that too.  All of its parts feel very much of a piece with each other, which isn't something you can take for granted.  Every one of the core entries was directed by Akiyama, every one used Kenichi Sonoda's character designs, and every other aspect - the high quality of the animation, the excellent scores, the superlative design work elsewhere - has either stayed the same or got a little better with each entry.  And indeed, by the time you get to Stardust War, it's hard not to start thinking of these initial three parts as a single entity.  At the very least, it's impossible to view this as anything besides a sequel to Destruction, which it follows directly on from, a matter of what can at most be days and is possibly mere minutes later.

That means, somewhat surprisingly, that we get to keep the same core cast for another go round, which is no given in a franchise so willing to kill off protagonists as this.  Which isn't to say that the franchise's standards of bleakness have been relaxed in the slightest.  Really, this is about as dark as it gets!  With both sides of the Solnoid / Paranoid war toting weaponry capable of annihilating entire star systems, and neither having a home to return to, the stakes are more than ever to try and ensure that something survives this futile genocide, with the potential added bonus that it would be great if whatever successors are left behind could learn from the idiocy of their forebears.  If Gall Force has always been that conspicuously anti-war anime franchise, this is the point where it goes all in on its message, and at the same time begins to feel altogether like a product of the Cold War era.  Indeed, there's even a mention of that most on the nose of acronyms, Mutual Assured Destruction.

If there's a criticism to be made of Stardust War, aside from the fact that it doesn't stand alone in the slightest, it's that it's awfully talky, and its first half is often talky about facts we either know or have good reason to believe if we've been following along until this point.  That said, it's a mark of the all-round quality that such a hefty focus on exposition really isn't a problem; indeed, it's rather satisfying to have the jumble of plot points we've been presented piecemeal laid out and analysed in such stark terms by characters as eager for answers as we are.  Nevertheless, and while we do get some epic space battling toward the end, I couldn't help missing the terrific, smaller scale action sequences that were a highlight of the previous two entries.  If there was a way to split the difference between Stardust War and Destruction, which leaned too far in the other direction, the result would be a definite classic.

But look, these are niggles, and I've no qualms about calling these first three Gall Force entries one of the highlights of pre twenty-first century anime.  This is mature, intelligent space opera of a sort you simply don't see outside of books, with a strong feminist bent, big ideas, and the technical values to do its material justice.  Indeed, it's fair to say that Gall Force has never looked better: for this entry, the series acquired some astonishing lighting and special effects, and it really does look superb.  Eternal Story was great, Destruction was great, and Stardust War doesn't drop the ball, bringing an epic narrative to a thoroughly satisfying close.

Rhea Gall Force, 1989, dir: Katsuhito Akiyama

Just a line ago I was pointing out what a solid, self-contained narrative the first three Gall Force movies formed, and yet here we are, looking at another sequel, and one to a film that left practically no scope for a follow-up.  Which means we've officially entered the second Gall Force "arc", which would continue a few months later with the three part Earth Chapter, reviewed all the way back in post number four when I really had no idea what I was on about.

None of which altogether tells us what Rhea Gall Force actually is - and that's a question that, even having watched it, I'm still trying to pin down, since it's not often that sequels pick up entire millennia after their original casts have died along with their entire species.  The Solnoid and Paranoid races of the first three films are now ancient history, and would have stayed that way, but for the discovery of a Paranoid ship on the moon at precisely the worst time: with the planet already divided by a global conflict, advanced alien technology has proved to be gasoline poured on an already out of control fire.  The result, by a circuitous chain of events, is that both sides are now fighting in grudging truce against the robot soldiers they created to kill each other with, and which have since gained sentience and decided they really ought to be wiping out their fleshy former masters, because this is a movie containing robots made in the eighties.

That leaves us with something that, on the one hand, has bugger all to do with the events that we've previously witnessed, and on the other is infused with a great deal of Gall Force DNA.  It's there in the slick, detailed animation, and particularly in the superlative mechanical designs; it's there in the strong female protagonists, though it's a shock to the system to have a number of male characters milling about also, albeit one that makes perfect sense given what's come before.  And it's definitely there in the cynicism and lengthy pacifist streak; our hero even gets a showpiece speech about the virtues of cooperation.  War is hell, be it against killer robots or other humans, and there are some particularly bloody and unexpected deaths along the way to underscore that point.

Nonetheless, the result is definitely the least Gall Force-y of Gall Forces.  Or to put it another way, eighties cinema wasn't exactly overloaded with complex anti-war space opera fables, whereas however much you dress up a tale of brave resistance fighters battling the robot foe on a ruined Earth, it's still going to end up feeling a lot like The Terminator.  That leaves Rhea Gall Force as an above-par example of what it is, with impressive visuals and some interesting wrinkles, but with that thing being inherently less exciting than what's gone before - and thus the franchise's first real disappointment.


Yup, Gall Force is great.  I mean, the core trilogy is now high in my list of personal favourites, and even Rhea is well above average.  And it's one heck of shame that this franchise above all others has vanished into the mists of history.  Somebody definitely needs to get working on a blu-ray box set.  Eastern StarAnimeEigo?  Anybody?  In the meantime, those hard-to-find DVDs are a definite highlight of my collection, and for everyone less obsessive, you can find at least a couple of them on shameless piracy giant Youtube.

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

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