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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including: Trigun, Shamanic Princess, Blue Seed, Silent Service and Maze.

A round 1995, Japanese animation (anime) began pouring into North America, Europe and across the globe in video form. Most of these titles were unknown outside of Japan and never covered by animation journals. Whether a title is highly popular or very obscure, a high-quality theatrical feature or a cheap and unimaginative direct-to-video release, they all look the same on a store shelf. Therefore, Animation World Magazine will regularly review several new releases (including re-releases not previously covered) that have some merit and about which our readers should know.

The first three volumes of the sci-fi Western series Trigun distributed by Pioneer. © Pioneer Entertainment.

Trigun. V.1, The $$60,000,000,000 Man. V.2, Lost Past. V.3, Wolfwood. V.4, Gung-Ho Guns. V.5, Angel Arms. V.6, Project Seeds. V.7, Puppet Master. V.8, High Noon. TV series, 1998. Director: Satoshi Nishimura. V.1 & V.8, 100 mins.; V.2 - V.7, 75 mins. Price & format: video $29.98 subtitled/$24.98 dubbed; DVD $29.98 bilingual. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Trigun is an excellent representation of anime TV series that are plotted as a cohesive story; in this case, 26 weekly episodes (April 2 - September 30, 1998). Trigun began with the look of an action-comedy combining parodies of science-fiction and Western movie stereotypes. A parched desert is populated with scattered small towns, usually centered around a "Wild West" saloon. Hints that this is not Earth are the twin suns in the sky, cowboys riding ostrich-like birds rather than horses and the wreckage of futuristic technology scattered across the landscape. Everyone is frightened of a legendary outlaw, Vash the Stampede, reported to leave whole towns in rubble in his wake. Meryl Strife and Millie Thompson, two young insurance investigators, are ordered to find Vash and stop his destruction. Their search initially doesn't turn up anything but a clownish young drifter (think of the early Jerry Lewis) who continually stumbles into the operations of outlaws and defeats them, apparently through sheer bumbling good luck. As the series evolves from slapstick comedy to serious drama, it is revealed that this buffoon is Vash and that the world is slowly dying due to the failure to terraform an alien planet. Vash has a personal mission that is somehow connected with the long-dead technicians from Earth whose project failed 150 years earlier. He is also carrying on a bizarre secret war with a group of sadistic killers, the Gung-Ho Guns, who dress like Western villains but employ the latest deadly sci-fi technology and have been conducting the destruction and mass murders in Vash's name to discredit him. Most of the episodes could not be shown in any other order without sabotaging the carefully planned shift in atmosphere from light comedy to desperate drama. Yet there is some well-integrated humor throughout to keep the mood from becoming too despairing, and the dialogue is intelligent and gripping, especially the philosophical debates between Vash and gunman-turned-preacher (or is it the other way around?) Nicholas D. Wolfwood, which keeps hinting at secrets in both men's pasts.

The production, by director Satoshi Nishimura (based on a popular comic book serial by Yasuhiro Nightow) at the Madhouse studio, takes advantage of the parodic Western setting to pace limited animation skillfully for lots of dramatic camera angles and slow pans, tense confrontations with no motion but shifting eyes, and then a sudden burst of action either too frantic to clearly show details or shown in a quick-cutting montage of motionless freeze-frames.

[Note: The two dollar signs in V.1 are deliberate. It means "sixty billion double-dollars."]

The complete Shamanic Princess, a striking fantasy which takes place in a Germanic college town. Images courtesy of Manga/Central Park Media. © 1997 Princess Project/Bandai Visual/MOVIC.

Shamanic Princess. Video Titles: V.1, Tiara's Quest. V.2, The Talisman Unleashed. V.3, Guardian World. DVD Title: The Complete Shamanic Princess. OAV series (6 episodes), 1996-1998. Directors: Mitsuru Hongo, (episode 6) Hiroyuki Nishimura. 60 minutes each; DVD 180 minutes. Price & format: video $24.99 subtitled/$19.99 dubbed each; DVD $29.99 bilingual. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

This is a strikingly unusual fantasy. The art style (by Atsuko Ishida, a member of the CLAMP art-group known in America for the Cardcaptor Sakura and Rayearth TV series and the X theatrical feature), the predominantly female teen cast and a heroine with a cute talking animal companion indicate an adventure designed for young girls. The non-linear story (the conclusion is in the fourth of the six episodes), the references to proto-Indo-European shamanism, the intensity of the drama (how do you fight a psychotically cruel god?) and the confusion of having to guess whether any character is really who he or she seems to be ("What is real and what is false? Can't you tell the difference?"), indicate an intellectual challenge for sophists with a predilection towards solipsism. The locale is a picturesque Germanic college town, but the main cast is a group of young -- sorcerers? angels? -- posing as students. Cryptic dialogue gradually reveals that they are from a supernatural guardian world, where they are acolytes of the priestly upper class that worships an unseen deity manifest in the Throne of Yord. One of their group, Kagetsu, has stolen the Throne of Yord and fled to our world with it. Tiara, the protagonist (Kagetsu's former lover), is sent with Japolo, her talking ermine familiar, to find and recover the throne; an assignment which will presumably mean killing Kagetsu. Tiara is taken aback to find that Lena, a former friend, is also on Earth with Leon, her human familiar, claiming that she has been sent on the same assignment. Are Lena and Leon confederates of Kagetsu trying to save him; are they trying to usurp Tiara's mission for their own prestige; or are their elders pitting them against each other? Did Kagetsu have a good reason for stealing the throne? Is the god within the throne a myth, a passive observer or a manipulator of the events? The action increases equally in emotional tension, deadly violence and surrealistic mysticism as the setting shifts back and forth between the quiet Teutonic academic community, the Celtic-Central Asian appearance of the guardian world and the god's domain within the Throne of Yord.

Shamanic Princess' erratic release in Japan (six half-hour videos between June 1996 and June 1998), with an increasing delay between each and a new director for the final one, combined with the enigmatic conclusion and the addition of subsequent flashback scenes (which answer some previous questions but raise new ones) in episodes #5 and #6, left the Japanese public wondering for some time if the series was really over. Tiara's appearance in sedate 19th Century European dress with her face and arms covered with vivid shamanistic tattoos, has inspired several costumes at fan conventions. (Production by Animate Film.)

Blue Seed. V.1, The Nightmare Begins. V.2, Descent Into Terror. V.3, Prelude to Sacrifice. V.4, Nightfall. TV series, 1994-1995. Director: Jun Kamiya. V.1, 7 episodes, 175 minutes; V.2, 7 episodes, 180 minutes; V.3 & V.4, 6 episodes, 150 minutes. Price & format: $29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: A. D. Vision Films.

A common anime formula is an attack against humanity by monsters that are opposed by a small elite squad. The attackers may be space aliens or technobiological mutants or supernatural horrors, and the defense force may be police or scientists or occult ghost-busters. But the protagonists, if not the whole team, will be women. These are modern sci-fi variants of myths dating back to a culture that believed the world to be crowded with hostile spirits which only a cadre of virginal priestesses could keep at bay. This formula gets closest to its roots, literally, in Yuzo Takada's Blue Seed (the American title), a 26-episode TV serial (October 4, 1994 to March 29, 1995) adapted by the popular Takada from his manga novel. Momiji Fujimiya, a 15-year-old student, is just beginning to blossom into womanhood when she is attacked by a giant vegetable dragon, and rescued by a super-boy who seems part plant himself. She learns that she has an older twin sister who was separated from her at birth and that they are the last descendants of the legendary union of the god Susano-o (yes, that's the correct spelling) and human Princess Kushinada whom he rescued from the eight-headed dragon Orochi. The menace is rising again, and her sister who was being raised to combat it has apparently just been killed in the battle. Momiji is drafted into the newly formed Terrestrial Administration Center to combat it. The menace is not taken seriously by the government and the TAC is a dumping ground for science geeks, computer nerds and gung-ho commando wannabes. But they are all good-hearted and a camaraderie develops. The small team discovers origins tying the mythological monsters of all cultures to a long-dormant vegetative intelligence, the Aragami, that is reawakening to challenge humanity for possession of the Earth. Early episodes are light-hearted. Momiji hopes to enjoy exciting adventures with her new friends and still keep up with her schoolwork. But the Aragami grow more deadly, Momiji is horrified to see people killed all around her, and Japan is swept by religious fundamentalism demanding a return to the old gods; a creed that believes the Aragami can be stopped only by the human sacrifice of the reborn Princess Kushinada. This brief synopsis omits several closely-woven important subplots.

The TV serial (by two studios, Production IG and Ashi Production) has the usual shortcomings of animating a detailed, realistic art style on a limited TV budget. What made Blue Seed a success was the intriguing blend of modern technology and ancient mythology, the sympathetic and believable personalities of the cast, and the rich characterization of Momiji, who evolves from a shallow, boy-crazy girl to a young woman willing to accept her karmic destiny. A.D.V.'s separate dubbed and subtitled video releases in 1996 and 1997 (two episodes per volume) are still available, but the new DVD edition offers English, Japanese and Spanish dialogue tracks, English subtitles, many more episodes per volume and several extras.

Silent Service, a military/political thriller centering on the efforts of a daring submarine commander whose mission is worldwide nuclear disarmament. Image courtesy of Manga/Central Park Media. © 1995 Kaiji Kawaguchi/Kodanshao Sunrise.

Silent Service. TV movie, 1996. Director: Ryosuke Takahashi. 100 minutes. Price & format: DVD $29.99 bilingual. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

Kaiji Kawaguchi's Silent Service, a military/political thriller in the vein of Fail Safe or Advise and Consent, set off immediate controversy when its serialization began in 1989. The saga of a daringly pacifistic Japanese submarine commander who seizes control of Japan's first nuclear submarine and uses it to bluff and finesse the world into accepting nuclear disarmament, dramatically humiliating the warmongering American and Russian military establishments along the way, was accused of both overly simplistic pacifism and encouraging a return to Japan's wartime nationalism. A best-seller throughout the early 1990s in bound collections of the comic-book serial, it was not animated until 1995 when the beginning of the story was made into a two-hour TV movie (March 3, 1996).

In "the near future," the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, closely allied since the end of World War II, share technology to build Japan's first nuclear submarine. It is officially a joint project, but the arrogant U.S. sailors act like they consider the "Japs" their servants. Captain Shiro Kaieda, commander of the new Seabat with an all-Japanese crew, disappears during a training exercise with the U.S. 7th Fleet, radioing a message to the world that he and his men are now the world's first maritime mobile independent nation, the Yamato. The outraged American 7th Fleet declares him a pirate and starts firing torpedoes and missiles at him, while the saber-rattling U.S. President declares it an obvious plot of the Japanese government to steal American nuclear submarine technology and threatens an American reoccupation of Japan. What everyone wonders is whether Kaieda has nuclear missiles on his sub...

For a low-budget TV production, the Madhouse studio turned out a well-directed thriller. Hunt for Red October-type scenes of suspenseful underwater hide-and-seek alternate with scenes of political panic in Washington and Tokyo. These conveniently lend themselves to long moments of motionless "silent running" tension and close-ups of talking heads. To work well, really convincing voice acting is a must. The DVD allows viewers to compare the quality of the Japanese and American voice actors; generally they are about equal, though a couple of the American voices snarl and growl too melodramatically. Unfortunately, the "realistic" military scenario, despite excellently detailed uniforms and naval vessels, is about as plausible as that in the later Die Hard movies. The brilliant Kaieda can peacefully immobilize a pursuing American nuclear sub by sneaking behind it and firing a torpedo without a warhead to smash its propeller. Even with automated homing guidance, that is a trick on a par with Robin Hood's ability to split an enemy's arrow in mid-flight with his own. Plus, TV viewers felt cheated when the movie ended with a cliffhanger, as a teaser to buy the direct-to-video sequel (which is not included here, either).

Maze, the series, from Katsumi Hasegawa, screenwriter of The Slayers/The Slayers Next and Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight. © 1997 Satoru Akahori, Eiji Suganuma/Kadokawashoten, JVC, J.C. Staff.

Maze. Video Titles: V.1, Ultimate Rage. V.2, Whirlwind Showdown. V.3, Evil Labyrinth. V.4, Time Traveling Playboy. V.5, Beating Heart. V.6, Shocking Transformation. V.7, Beautiful Stranger. V.8, Final Battle. DVD: No subtitle.

OAV series (2 episodes), 1996; TV series (25 episodes), 1997. Director: Iku Suzuki. Price & format: DVD, 85 minutes, $29.99 bilingual; video $19.99 each, V.1, 100 minutes dubbed or subtitled; V.2 V.8, 75 minutes dubbed only. Distributor: Software Sculptors/Central Park Media.

Everyone is aware that the Japanese animation industry produces much erotic anime. This is not just pornography for the adult market. Japanese cultural standards about nudity and sexual awareness are more open than in the West. This often presents marketing problems. Maze: Mega Burst Space began as a two-video OAV (July and September 1996, produced by J. C. Staff) for teens. It pokes fun at fantasy role-playing-game stereotypes, including their marketing, and adolescent burgeoning sexuality. A "high concept" comparison might be Playboy humor designed for a 13- to 16-year-old market. There is plenty of teen girl full-frontal nudity, and one boy about 6 to 8 years old is nude in several bathing scenes. Maze, the protagonist, is a demure girl who is thrown, like Dorothy into Oz, into a generic fantasy-gaming world where a demonic priesthood has just destroyed the Kingdom of Bartonia. She joins a group of questers escorting young Princess Mill to safety in a neighboring land. The questers include Solude, a young lesbian ninja warrior who makes passes at her. Maze inexplicably gains magic talents in this world; her "phantom light power" is handy to blast the enemy's battle robots, but a curse related to werewolfism turns Maze every night into a lecherous boy who goes girl-hunting. Nothing objectionable is shown, but innuendo makes it clear that he finds girls who do not say, "No" and they go all the way. A climatic "battle" against a dragon becomes a parody of TV quiz shows with the questers challenged to prove their familiarity with the sponsor's games.

Every night the main character, Maze, transforms into a lecherous man who must rescue a princess from a warrior cult. Images courtesy of Manga/Central Park Media. © 1997 Satoru Akahori, Eiji Suganuma/Kadokawashoten, JVC, J.C. Staff.

The Maze OAV was so popular that there were demands to put it on TV. Its high school level erotic humor (for both genders) was too strong for family TV even in Japan, so a 25-episode revision was produced (April 3 to September 25, 1997) that expands the fantasy-adventure action and plays down the erotic humor. But what is acceptable for family TV in Japan will still startle American family TV audiences. The American video release has an advisory of "Suggested 13 and up - parental discretion advised." It comprises a DVD (both English dubbed and Japanese with English subtitles) containing both halves of the erotic OAV as a 60-minute feature plus the first half-hour TV episode, and eight videos (dubbed only) containing the 25 TV episodes. A DVD bilingual release of the whole TV series, available only as a boxed set, will be released in July 2001.

[Note: This release imitates the Japanese release regarding the title. The decorative logo states Maze in English, followed by Mega Burst Space in untranslated Japanese. Therefore, above I haven't listed the full title as Maze: Mega Burst Space, in order to avoid causing confusion.]

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.