Monday, 12 June 2017

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 25

For once I'll keep this opening brief!  The thing is, I had this whole other introduction finished, a rather defeatist musing upon how, despite my best intentions, I'd yet again managed to review stuff that was at best merely very good.  But what do you know?  That was before I watched - and wholeheartedly loved! - Venus Wars, and on average the final result is maybe the strongest set we've had yet.

With that in mind, let's just get on with discussing Battle AngelUrusei Yatsura Movie 3: Remember My Love, The Heroic Legend of Arslan and (of course) Venus Wars.

Battle Angel, 1993, Hiroshi Fukutomi

On the face of things, the two part, sixty minute OVA known in various places as Battle Angel, Battle Angel Alita and Gunnm (my personal favourite being the title card's Hyper Future Vision Gunnm) isn't up to anything especially remarkable for the time it was created.  Really, in the mid nineties, you couldn't have thrown a brick in the anime world without hitting a darkly futuristic story of cyborg humans living high-tech but low value lives amid decaying cityscapes.  And, oh, the lead cyborg is cute and female?  The antagonists look like they've wandered in from Fist of the North Star?  At first glance, it's hard to see why the title is as remembered as it is, let alone why this would warrant Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron teaming up to release a megabudget live action movie next year.

The truth is, it does and it doesn't.  Battle Angel falls into a category we've encountered a few times in these reviews: it does familiar things a great deal better than almost anyone else was even attempting.  A big part of that is that it really commits to its elements, no matter that they're less than entirely fresh.  Its hellhole of a city, surviving off the scraps of a possibly Utopian and certainly technologically superior second city anchored in the sky above, has the vibe of a real and lived-in place.  It takes the subject of cyborgization somewhat seriously, and cements it deep into the plot.  Its characters, especially titular battle angel Gally, are developed with care and feel unexpectedly substantial as a result, especially taking into account the brief running time.  Even the violence is fussed over in a way that makes it legitimately shocking rather than callow or silly.  Battle Angel takes itself seriously, then strives to justify that self-seriousness.

It helps, inevitably, that the technical values are terrific, bolstered in great part by detailed, distinctive character designs and the aforementioned efforts at world-building; the brief bursts of action are particularly lovely, and the attention to detail with which Gally's ass-kicking is accomplished probably has a fair bit to do with her legacy.  As with, say, Bubblegum Crisis, the coolness factor goes an awfully long way here.  Fukutomi's direction, too, is good enough to make me sad that he hasn't done much since; he has a real grasp of tone and of how to tell a story clearly and economically.  And though the music is more of a mixed bag, a piece reminiscent of Akira's iconic soundtrack is the perfect companion to the show's by turns winsome and horrific nature.

With all of that said, Battle Angel is tough to get hold of these days, and I personally paid rather more for it than was sensible.  Honestly, I'm not sure it's that good; it's too much within the mold of what anime was at the time to be classed as any kind of masterpiece.  Nevertheless, it's a brief and memorable pleasure, made with real style and care, and I liked it enough to already be feeling vague dread at what the Hollywood take will end up looking like.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 3: Remember My Love, 1985, dir: Kazuo Yamazaki

Perhaps it's a stretch to assume that Kazuo Yamazaki considered himself in competition with Mamoru Oshii.  Nevertheless, it's easy to imagine a bit of a rivalry there; between them the two directed the vast bulk of Urusei Yatsura's staggering number of episodes, and Yamazaki found himself with the unenviable task of following up on Oshii's second feature Beautiful Dreamer, which - whatever the contemporary reaction might have been - was unquestionably something out of the ordinary.

A glance at Yamazaki's CV tells us that he's no Oshii, but also that he was no mere drudge.  He would go on to make Five Star Stories, A Wind Named Amnesia and the first Slayers movie, all of which I've raved about to a greater of lesser degree here.  And sure enough, Remember My Love is no step down into hackwork, not at all: I'd go so far as to say that it's even a clear improvement from Only You, Oshii's first stab at Urusei Yatsura moviemaking.  Nor does it quite turn its back on the crazy levels of ambition shown by Beautiful Dreamer; no mere franchise movie this, content to deliver familiar beats at a longer length and with some polished animation.

In fact, one might argue that Remember My Love is a step closer to the platonic ideal of what a Urusei Yatsura movie should be.  It stays relatively true to what I understand the spirit of the show to have been and manages to find things for a great many of the vast cast to do, while also interrogating its source material in surprisingly deep fashion, as a misguided curse threatens to separate alien princess Lum from her lecherous "darling" Ataru for good.  It dares to ask the sorts of questions every fan must have at least considered - like, are these two actually good for each other?  And are they really meant to be together?  Or even, isn't this just a show about two destructive people perpetually screwing each other's lives up?

This has one other side effect: much like Oshii's movies, Remember My Love isn't exactly funny.  There are scattered laughs, and moments of genuine hilarity, but there are also stretches without even the shadow of a joke.  Really, the plot is the draw; that and the production values, which are also in no way a step down.  Yamazaki certainly isn't as daring a director as his predecessor, but there are some terrific sequences, and a lengthy chase around the midpoint is show-offy in all the best ways.  The score, too, is another strong effort, with some screwy carnival melodies and a couple of likable pop songs.

Really, Remember My Love makes three for three on impressive Urusei Yatsura movies.  It's not indispensable in the way that Beautiful Dreamer is, but that's a silly bar to set, right?  It's still fun, imaginative and in places astoundingly weird, and it's still far bolder than the average TV adaptation, in anime or otherwise.  It's well worth a look, basically, and bodes well for the rest of what so far has been a shockingly reliable movie series.

The Heroic Legend of Arslan, 1991 - 1995, dir's: Mamoru Hamatsu, Mihiro Yamaguchi

Trying to say anything useful about The Heroic Legend of Arslan presents a whole raft of issues, even more so that trying to make sense of the average nineties anime release two decades on from its release.  What you get (at least if you acquire the most available and complete DVD release from Central Park Media) is two hour-long movie episodes directed by Mamoru Hamatsu, followed by two half hour OVA's directed by Mihiro Yamaguchi and made by a different studio, followed by another two OVA episodes, made years later and subtitled Age of Heroes for no discernible reason, once again directed by Hamatsu - oh, and with a different dub, featuring a new cast who sound nothing like the originals.  Also, the pronunciation of many of the characters' names changes midway.  And the narrator announces a major character dead only for them to later return.  Confused yet?

The wildly varying budget certainly doesn't help matters, nor does the shift in directors; Hamatsu's work is slick and often stylish in a way Yamaguchi barely tries to match, and this is even more prominent with Age of Heroes, where Hamatsu compensates for a lack of actual animation budget by doubling down on sheer eye-popping imagery.  In a way, the strangest thing is that, despite all the behind the scenes changes, the story simply keeps picking up where it left off; it's like the only people not aware of the chaos were the creators themselves.  As for that story, my thoughts kept going to Game of Thrones, if Game of Thrones had a prettier cast and slightly less bloodshed and was loosely based on sixth century Persian history rather than the War of the Roses.  Scuppered by his father's belligerent and headstrong nature, not to mention his utter lack of military strategy, the boy prince Arslan finds himself on the run with his kingdom in enemy hands and, at least initially, only a handful of friends to defend him.  But, as the story develops, events move from the small scale of Arslan's early struggles for survival to a grand narrative of battles, strategy and politicking that rapidly drew in more characters and countries than I could readily keep track of.

The result is all over the place, as I've noted often enough already, but certainly more good than bad; really, it's never bad, just a bit lackluster around the middle.  However, if the only issues were the inconsistent animation and direction and dubbing then I'd still cheerfully recommend The Heroic Legend of Arslan.  In fact I do, I guess, but more hesitantly, for here's the thing: what we have here is an adaptation of a series of light novels that's been on the go for thirty whole years and still isn't finished and this version doesn't wrap up even slightly.  There's no closure.  Not one meaningful subplot even ties up, and in fact the last episode sends the story off in a whole new direction.  And damn but it's frustrating.  Four hours is a long time to spend getting absorbed in something that just stops dead.

And still, The Heroic Legend of Arslan is worthy of your time.  Its somewhat fantasized historical setting, which takes in locales rarely seen in anime or elsewhere, its focus on grand, nation-spanning drama over traditional swords and sorcery, its likable and diverse cast, its lush soundtrack and frequently lovely imagery all make it worth giving up those four hours for - or at the least, worth watching the two opening movies.  And if it weren't for the pain of that non-ending I suspect I'd be being very positive indeed.

Venus Wars, 1989, dir:  Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

First things first: Venus Wars looks extraordinary.  I mean, my mind kept going back to Akira, and while it's admittedly not that good - what in pre-twentieth century anime that wasn't made by Studio Ghibli is? - it at least belongs in the same conversation.  This, by the way, is helped no end by a remastered print from the ever-wonderful Discotek, which is crystal clear and pops with colour and in no way resembles a print of a film from nearly three decades ago.  Seriously, Discotek deserve medals for their work here, and it breaks my heart a little that there's no UK blu-ray release.

This is the sort of animation that refuses to let you forget for an instant that it's the time-intensive, hugely costly product of dozens of skilled artists.  No expense is spared in showing scene after scene of almost unnecessarily complex things happening: in particular, Makoto Kobayashi's mechanical designs are marvelous organic oddities that must have been an absolute horror to animate.  Yet they're constantly in motion, glorious single-wheeled motorbikes battling against tanks that look like they were grown rather than built, all amid billowing dust and teeth-rattling explosions.  Venus Wars, on the whole, has splendid action scenes: varied, ingenious and never superfluous to the plot, every one's a pleasure to behold.

It's not just eye candy, though.  If we're being honest, that's probably the level the film succeeds most on; that and the score by notable genius Joe Hisaishi, back from before he became that guy who does the music for every Miyazaki movie.  But while its story of civil war on a crudely terraformed Venus is hardly revolutionary, the way its told is satisfyingly novel.  Our leads are Susan Somers, a visiting journalist from Earth, and Hiro, a biker with a sizable (though thankfully not Tetsuo-sized!) chip on his shoulder, and together they bring a skewed perspective to what might easily have been just another sci-fi war story.  Both quickly find themselves disgusted with either side of the conflict, and even as they get increasingly forced to take a stance, they remain sufficiently on the outside to remind us that wars are crappy things inevitably fought for all the wrong reasons.

Which isn't to suggest Venus Wars is any kind of pacifist tract, or even that it's terribly sophisticated in its ideas: when push comes to shove, it's too devoted to its delirious action sequences to be much of either.  But its narrative is mature and engaging, and even that's a heck of a thing for a sci-fi anime movie from the tail end of the eighties.  Really, its imperfections are minor and relatively easy to forgive.  Music-wise, cutting short the eighties-tastic Shakunetsu no Circuit in favour of the rather boring Asu e no Kaze over the closing credits is a weird old misstep.  The character designs had a tendency to deform into a cartoonishness that wasn't wholly to my tastes, maybe the closest the film comes to cost cutting.  And it's attitude towards women isn't fantastic, though for the time and the genre it actually kind of is; we get three major female characters and two of them have significant agency and development.  Sadly the same can't be said for the one gay character who appears briefly, only to camp it up horribly and die about a minute later, without having acquired even the shadow of a personality trait.

But that's all the bitching I'm willing to muster against Yasuhiko, whose debut this was, working from the source material of his own manga.  As a first movie, Venus Wars is a rare achievement, and though anyone who's made it this far into these reviews probably won't be terribly surprised that it flopped and Yasuhiko never got to direct again, still, it's a pretty devastating fact to discover.  Venus Wars has shot straight into my list of all-times favourites, and I'm already itching to watch it again; I doubt I'll be disappointed.

-oOo-

Really, when The Heroic Legend of Arslan is your weakest entry, and its biggest flaw is that it leaves you wanting more, you know you've reviewed some seriously good nineties anime.  There's certainly nothing here I wouldn't recommend at least a little, and Battle Angel and Venus Wars both fall into the category of things I'd urge most anyone to track down.  In fact, Remember My Love kind of does, too; I'm getting to the point of thinking that these Urusei Yatsura movies are something pretty special.

And we all know what this means, right?  The next entry is going to be terrible.  Like, M. D. Geist 2 terrible.  It's destiny, man, and you can't escape destiny.



[Other posts in this series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23, Part 24, Part 26Part 27Part 28]

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