Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 64

These eighties posts are getting distressingly regular, aren't they?  The truth is that, as far as my tastes go, there's a sweet spot that stretches from somewhere in the mid eighties to somewhere in the mid nineties: that window in which the industry perfected its craft and set aside some of the wonkier traditions of the seventies, through the massive explosion of anime in both Japan and the West, to the point at which the mainstream application of computers temporarily buggered things up, while everyone figured out how to make use of their potential in ways that didn't look horribly cheap.

And enough with the excuses, because we have a couple of real gems this time, along with a pair of titles that are at least well worth a look, in the shape of Toward the Terra, Birth: A War of Two Worlds, Area 88, and Devilman: The Birth...

Toward the Terra, 1980, dir: Hideo Onchi

When I say that Toward the Terra is old-fashioned sci-fi, I mean more than the fact that it's nearly forty years old - though, unless you watch a lot of pre-twentieth century anime, that's certainly going to be what jumps out at you most, because it belongs overwhelmingly to another era in a manner that work from even eight or nine years later wouldn't.  But even if you could strip away those simplified, androgynous character designs and the slight but ever-present stiltedness in the animation, this would still feel like it belonged to a different age: one in which a two hour science-fiction film could get away with being more about ideas and principles than plot or characters, let alone feel the need to busy itself with messy action sequences when we could be watching scene after scene of people talking.

Now, personally I love me some old-school, ideas-driven science fiction, and Toward the Terra is awfully close to that.  In fact, back in 1980, I imagine it was precisely that, and it's no-one's fault that four decades have made most of those ideas more familiar than they once were.  Then again, given how much it draws upon Brave New World, a novel that was already half a century old, I guess it wasn't precisely cutting edge even when it came out.  At any rate, as our tale kicks off, it's the far-flung future and mankind, having wrecked Earth beyond habitation, has been forced to take extreme measures: the remainder of humanity lives on distant worlds, with their existence managed down to the last detail by omnipotent supercomputers.  Or so it would seem, but for the existence of the Mu, a despised branch of physically weak yet psychic humans who are thriving in exile despite all attempts to stamp them out.  So it is that, rather than have his memories wiped when he hits fourteen, like all the other good little test-tube-bred humans, Jomy Marcus Shin finds himself whisked away to become the Mu's new leader, inheriting the responsibilities - and the consciousness - of the role's previous incumbent.  Jomy has some radical ideas, like growing food in fields and growing people inside other people, and while he's content to experiment with them in peace, he's not going to get the chance when his very existence threatens the status quo.

So like I said, I love me a bit of ideas-driven sci-fi, but it does help if those ideas have been thought through.  As much as Jomy is our protagonist and as much as we're encouraged to sympathise with the Mu, based on all the information we're given, they're objectively in the wrong.  Since it's there in the title, it's not a huge spoiler to reveal that, as the plot develops, their main goal basically becomes "Let's go back to Earth and live precisely the way people used to, only hopefully it'll work out better this time."  We're never led to believe that the ordered society of the non-Mu humans wasn't a necessary measure, or that the threat of environmental destruction was exaggerated, and not once does Jomy engage with those questions, though the film kind of does, in a fitful, half-hearted fashion.  Basically, Jomy is right because the narrative wants him to be right, and because nature is good and science is bad, even when that science is trying to save nature, or some damn thing.

The end result is a film I wanted badly to like, but only enjoyed in brief spurts.  Even putting aside the fact that Jomy's plan doesn't extend far beyond "Let's try doing that thing that went terribly the last time!" he's not a terribly appealing protagonist; the sort-of villain, Keith Anyan, is a lot more fun to be around, and also the audience surrogate when it comes to actually asking a few vital questions.  But even he can't keep the proceedings from feeling dry and academic, which would be fine if they were a touch smarter and more original, or even if we had some really eye-popping visuals to hold the attention.  Toward the Terra is quality work, there's no doubt about that, and the passage of forty years has been pretty kind to it; but there's not quite enough here to warrant hunting it out for anyone who doesn't find the notion of early eighties anime exciting in and of itself.

Birth: A War of Two Worlds, 1984, dir: Shin'ya Sadamitsu

Do you love animation?  Are you fascinated by watching intricate shots of characters and objects spiralling through three-dimensional spaces, with the camera swirling and zooming and swooping in giddy circles?  Are you obsessive enough in your love of animation that you don't really mind if everything else - plot, characterisation, even design work - is a bit on the simplistic side?  Then it's fair to say you'll get something out of Birth.

I do love animation a whole lot, enough that I'll turn a blind eye to some fairly substantial failings, and I certainly did like it - though even then I had to take a break halfway through, because you can like something and still find it damn exhausting.  Birth is almost too animated, and it was a revelation to realise that, economics aside, perhaps a part of why most anime includes the occasional still frame or pan of an inanimate scene is to give the viewer's eyes and brain a rest.  Everything in Birth moves, all the time: even things like conversations, which would normally be exploited for a bit of discreet corner-cutting, are in perpetual motion.  But then, the film has little time for conversations, or for anything that isn't action: its plot boils down to "there are people and there are robots and they're fighting" and, without a word of a lie, a good three quarters of what's on offer falls into that category, be it an elaborate bike chase through a mountainous desert or a game of hide and seek with a giant mechanical horror in the ruins of a decimated city.

Mind you, it occurs to me that I'm making it sound violent, and it's not really that, because another crucial point is how decidedly goofy Birth is.  Sometimes that's in ways traditional to anime, such as a running joke about an elderly couple that seems to exist purely so that the viewer can get increasingly puzzled by when, if ever, it might tie into the main plot.  But more often it's the goofiness of, say, a Road Runner cartoon, which makes perfect sense for a movie as obsessed with physical movement for its own sake as this one is.  Oh, and there's a rather demented, rather marvellous early Joe Hisaishi score, notable for how much more experimental it is than his more familiar work for Studio Ghibli and how much fun he's obviously having.  Yet again, it's goofy and playful, those being the two words that sum up Birth by far the best.

I don't know if anyone could possibly call the film an uncompromised success, not when it's so focused on a handful of elements at the expense of all else.  And it's not even like it's trying to do those elements well in a traditional sense: the animation is delirious and joyful, but none of it's exceptionally good by the usual metrics, and the trade-off for so much movement is that most of the running time takes place in the same barren desert and the characters look like something from a kids' cartoon.  And like I said, the plot is so simple as to be basically nonexistent, and the glimpses of a wider universe that we get don't add up to much - certainly not to a satisfying ending, though at least it concludes in a way that feels true to its wacky vision.  There were moments when I adored Birth, a few where I watched in baffled amusement, and, yes, the odd one where I wished it would settle down and let me catch my breath.  And with all that said, it's frequently astonishing and not quite like anything else in the world of anime, which means that, though it's nigh impossible to track down these days*, if you're a true lover of animation, you owe it to yourself to try.

Area 88, 1985, dir: Hisayuki Toriumi

One of the great tragedies in anime is the mission drift of the straight-to-video OVA format, arguably a victim of its own success.  Many a great title would be released that way over the years, but by the nineties they'd often be indistinguishable from costlier TV shows both in their animation quality and their subject matter.  Not so a show like Area 88, which simply couldn't function as anything other than what it is, not only because it clearly cost a fortune but because its subject matter is so resolutely downbeat and harrowing that it basically demands an adult viewer.

Let's cover the second of those points first: Area 88 is the tale of Shin Kazama, a promising civilian pilot who finds himself tricked by his supposedly closest friend Satoru Kanzaki into signing a contract that allows him to be shanghaied into the foreign legion air force of the civil-war-torn nation of Arslan - a thinly veiled Iran - where he's informed that he has three options if he ever intends to return home: carry out three years of military service, buy his contract out for the sum of $1.5 million, or desert and risk the consequences.  Reasoning that the middle option poses the best balance of risk and reward, Shin sets to earning the gigantic ransom fee; but in the meantime, Kanzaki is not only courting Shin's fiance Ryoko, he's manoeuvring to take over the airline company she's heir to, and all the while Shin is learning that not only is earning $1.5 million a slow process but that killing is something he has a gift, and perhaps even a taste, for.

So not exactly a barrel of laughs then, and it's to Area 88's considerable credit that it stays on the right side of watchable without mitigating the overall grimness.  It helps immensely that the animation is barnstorming stuff: on the one hand because it's hard not to be entranced by the sheer complexity and level of detail and on the other because watching a fighter plane or a human body being shredded by machine gun fire is that bit more affecting when every impact has been drawn meticulously.  Meticulous, in fact, is the word that sums up most of what's on offer, and it's present from the very opening, a battle between Shin's fighter jet and a pack of tanks that doesn't seem to care that both planes and tanks are bloody difficult objects to draw when they're moving in three dimensions.  It's the sort of sequence you'd expect to be an eye-grabbing one off, but Area 88 will be just as show-offy time and time again across the course of its three and a bit hours.  Indeed, the two best sequences, a massive dogfight and a night approach through a tight canyon, are both crammed into the last segment.

One more thing that's remarkable about the show: you'd think that compiling the manga's vast source material into three episodes (or two in the theatrical cut that lumps the first two parts together) would be doomed to failure, and for a while it seems that might be the case.  The opening half, though never less than great, is noticeably episodic.  However, by the end, it's remarkable just how much director Toriumi and writer Akiyoshi Sakai have managed to carve a coherent arc out of such a wealth of material, and the last hour in particularly is extraordinarily satisfying, emotive stuff.  In general, its flaws are trivial indeed - some overly juvenile character designs that date the material and a score that leans too heavily into gee-whiz excitement and doomed romance - but its virtues place it firmly in the top tier of OVAs, and of anime in general.  Area 88 is stunning, bruising, adult storytelling, and very much a must see.

Devilman: The Birth, 1987, dir: Umanosuke Iida

Devilman: The Birth opens on beautifully painted vistas, accompanied by a lilting orchestral score.  The scene drifts over primordial jungle to a vast lake, above which angelic-looking humanoid creatures are playing.  Then, before we've remotely had time to get to grips with what's happening, a grotesque worm monster with eyes on sprouting tendrils has snatched one of them from the air and wolfed them down; other monsters do likewise, until one of the angel-creatures decides they've had enough, at which point they fire a beam from their hands that effectively nukes the site from orbit, presumably by the logic that it's the only way to be sure.

It's a genuinely stunning sequence, aesthetically so because it really is lovely, even when its being incredibly grotesque, to the point where I couldn't stop being reminded of Disney's Fantasia even as blood was spattering and monsters were being reduced to their constituent atoms.  But its stunning on a storytelling level as well, ambushing the viewer not once but twice, first with the drastic shift into horror - there's a fantastic moment where the score clings onto the mood from the earlier sequence, as though it hasn't quite caught up with what's happening - and then again with the revelation that the creatures we'd taken to be victims were every bit as deadly as the ones attacking them and more so.  And last but not least, it's a stunningly audacious opening, because it really doesn't have a lot to do with the specific tale that Devilman: The Birth is telling.

That tale is much more familiar than the bravura opening minutes might suggest, especially if you've watched much horror anime from the period, revolving around teen hero Akira Fudou's discovery that the only way to combat an ancient race of demonic beings is to combine with one and bend their powers to his will.  But the actual storytelling still has tricks up its sleeve, and as brilliantly as it begins, there's better to come; another, similar sequence around the midway point uses the groundwork set up by that prologue to go to even weirder, grosser heights.  And there's plenty of weird grossness elsewhere.  I wouldn't always count that as a virtue, but Devilman: The Birth has two major advantages: first, enough imagination for the horror to feel genuinely freakish and transgressive, and second some truly excellent animation.  I mentioned Fantasia before, and while we're not quite at that level, this would certainly rival many a mid-tier Disney movie.  So imagine a Disney film that includes a scene of a demon car trying to devour its passengers and you'll probably be thinking along the right lines, and also have a fairly good idea of whether this is for you.

-oOo-

It may just be my bad memory, but this feels like one of the strongest sets of titles I've talked about in quite some time.  Area 88 is a classic that I can't recommend highly enough; Devilman: The Birth is too if you're into your gross-out horror or enough of an animation fan to bask in its terrific craftsmanship.  And while Birth: A War of Two Worlds is perhaps no work of art or masterpiece of coherent storytelling, it's a treat in its right, doing thrilling things with the medium that are more than enough to justify its existence.  That just leaves the solid but unspectacular Toward the Terra, and any post where the weakest entry is solid but unspectacular counts as a definite win.



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


* You can find it on Youtube, under one of its alternate titles of World of the Talisman, but only in Russian so far as I could tell.  Fortunately, if ever there was a title where not knowing what anyone's saying is unlikely to spoil your enjoyment much, it's Birth.

Friday, 6 March 2020

You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Watch This...

I spend way too much time talking about my own projects here on the blog, and definitely way too much time talking about vintage anime, so it's nice to have a topic that's neither of those things.  Okay, it is a little bit about me, but we'll come back to that.  In the meantime, take a minute to watch the following short trailer.  Don't worry, I'll wait.


That was a bit more than a minute, wasn't it?  But hey, it's fine, it's not like I've anything better to be doing.  Anyway, great trailer, right?  Awesome concept, right?  You want to watch more, right?  Well, you can, right now, for free, because the entire show, in eleven mini-episodes, is available at this link.  But hey, this time maybe wait until I've finished the post, huh?

Right.  Good.  So, that's You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Work Here but It Helps..., and it's the brainchild of my oldest and dearest friend Lawrence Axe, and an endeavour more years in the making than either of us would entirely care to think about: Lawrence because it's always frustrating when you have a fantastic idea that refuses to quite get to the point where you can show it to other people and me because I've been radiating around this project ever since the beginning.

Indeed, for a while I was doing more than that: there's a version of a feature film-length script in existence that I had a hand in, and for a while it looked as though that would be the form that saw the light of day.  I love that script with all my heart, but in hindsight, it's right that the version that eventually made it to screens was principally Lawrence's creation: he co-directed the web series that its become along with fellow filmmaker Robbie Gibbon, wrote the bulk of the script, did the editing, and was responsible for a whole bunch of other behind-the-scenes stuff too.  And the upshot of that is that its current incarnation is about as unfiltered as any version got; people like me tended to get itchy about his mixing up of heroes and villains and comic book characters with cartoon characters, and to not realise that doing that is just plain funny.  I mean, it is; watch the show!  It's the perfect combination of affection and disrespect, and if its off-kilter skewering of our childhood nostalgia was a neat idea when Lawrence first had it, it's a downright perfect one now, when we're being fed all the childhood nostalgia we can stomach on a minutely basis.

And let me stress again, it really is funny.  The show, I mean, not the endless parade of nostalgia.  The funniest bits in the trailer are by no means the funniest bits full stop, I know for a fact that Lawrence picked them largely at random, and could get away with doing so because every minute is crammed to the rafters with great gags and generally amusing weirdness.  There were some lines in the treatment I worked on that still crack me up to remember, and obviously it would have been nice for both of us to go to Hollywood and drink margaritas with George Clooney and whatever it is Hollywood people do, but, again, these glorious bite-sized chunks of silliness are the ideal form for You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Work Here but It Helps..., in all its wry dementedness.

And here I am talking it up when you could just as easily be watching it yourself.  Go on, now's your chance!  Unlike, say, Avengers: Infinity War, you can binge watch all of You Don't Have to be a Superhero to Work Here but It Helps... in a long lunch break, which of course makes it much better.  And to save you wasting precious seconds by scrolling all the way back up to the top, here's that link again...