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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Running to and fro, Ed, Edd n Eddy failed to impress Terrence Briggs.

Around 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 merit and about which our readers should know.

© 2001 Filmlink International/Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee. © Urban Vision Entertainment. All rights reserved.

© 2001 Filmlink International/Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee. © Urban Vision Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Theatrical feature, 2001. Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri. 105 minutes. Price & format: English, video $19.95/DVD $29.95 (extras include a 20-minute "Making of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust"). Distributor: Urban Vision Entertainment.

This second Vampire Hunter D movie is actually a Japanese-American co-production. The first was released in Japan in 1985 and in America in 1992. In 1997 Urban Vision Entertainment, a Los Angeles company founded by Mataichiro Yamamoto, was negotiating for the American video license to it. Yamamoto learned that the Madhouse animation studio wanted to make a sequel. He put together a deal whereby Urban Vision helped finance the animation production in Japan, and supervised the audio production in Northern California. The sound was recorded at Skywalker Sound in Emeryville and the music was composed and conducted by Marco D'Ambrosio at his Marcoco Studios in Novato, which also handled the audio post-production. The Japanese script was recorded only in English; the movie's release in Japan (April 17, 2001) was in English with Japanese subtitles. The release in America (Urban Vision's first theatrical distribution) was on September 21, 2001, although it had already been seen at international film festivals and anime conventions since August 2000.

By the mid-1990s Hideyuki Kikuchi's Vampire Hunter D novels were very popular, and there was demand for a new movie in better animation. The Madhouse studio made sure it met this demand. D: Bloodlust features gorgeously elaborate settings and bright CGI effects. Scenes of slow-paced suspense and tension alternate with dynamic fast-moving battle action. The setting is 12,090 A.D., long after nuclear and biochemical war destroyed the old civilization and a new agricultural society has developed. The vampires are explained as mutant-spawned monsters that have deliberately modeled themselves upon the supernatural beasts of legends. The action moves swiftly across a landscape that changes from lush forests to deserts littered with the ruins of the old civilization. However, not much action takes place in ruins. There is lots of blood but these vampires prefer clean and brightly-lit palaces.

The scenario is loosely adapted by Kawajiri from Kikuchi's third novel in the series, Demon Deathchase (a more apt title). The handsome vampire, Meier Link, kidnaps beautiful Charlotte Elbourne and flees with her in his lavishly rococo coach. Elbourne's father offers $20,000,000 for her return to D, the lone vampire hunter who is half-vampire himself, and to the Markus Brothers, a team of ruthless mercenaries. They do not want to split the reward, so they try to kill D during the chase. The movie starts at a gallop and seldom slows down. D soon realizes that Charlotte was not kidnapped; she loves Meier and is eloping with him. But is his love for her genuine or is he using her for his own plans? Even if he does love her, can he protect her from the other vampires and monsters of his world? Drama -- romance -- taut direction by Kawajiri -- beautiful art design by Yutaka Minowa, based upon the novels' character illustrations by renowned fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano. The fans who waited fifteen years for this second movie were not disappointed.

Sherlock Hound. Case File I - VI.

TV series (26 episodes), 1981, 1984-85. Directors: Hayao Miyazaki, Kyosuke Mikuriya. V.l & V.2, 5 episodes/125 minutes, V.3 V.6, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

© RAI/TMS. All rights reserved. Under license to Pioneer Entertainment (USA), Inc. Produced by TMS Entertainment, Ltd.

© RAI/TMS. All rights reserved. Under license to Pioneer Entertainment (USA), Inc. Produced by TMS Entertainment, Ltd.

Sherlock Hound is famous among anime fans as the last TV animation that popular director Hayao Miyazaki worked on before devoting himself entirely to theatrical production. This children's TV cartoon series, loosely based on the Sherlock Holmes stories with all the characters as anthropomorphized dogs, was commissioned by RAI-TV in Italy from the Tokyo Movie Shinsha studio. Miyazaki designed the characters and series outline and began directing in April 1981, but the project was interrupted after six episodes by a dispute with the Conan Doyle estate. By the time it was resolved in 1984, Miyazaki had left TMS and the remaining 20 episodes were directed by Kyosuke Mikuriya. Meitantei Holmes (Great Detective Holmes) was shown in Japan from November 6, 1984 through May 20, 1985. An English dub got a Celebrity Home Entertainment "Just for Kids" video release about a decade ago. Now Pioneer is releasing a bilingual DVD version with informative production notes.

Although Sherlock Hound is primarily a funny animal TV cartoon for children, it is genuinely for "all ages." Holmes and Watson are both intelligent and likeable, and Watson is less a comedic foil than in some of the live-action movie and TV versions. Holmes is gentler and more polite than Conan Doyle's often arrogant egotist; more like an adult version of Miyazaki's wholesome boy heroes such as Pazu in Laputa: The Castle in the Sky. The villains in almost every episode are arrogant Professor Moriarty and his two bumbling henchmen Todd and Smiley. It is difficult to watch them without thinking of Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) in the 1978 Superman movie.

Miyazaki only directed four episodes and parts of two others, but the whole series shows his "personal touch." Many of the episodes embody elements that Miyazaki fans will recognize from his earlier or later movies. Prof. Moriarty invents an airplane that looks like a mechanical pterodactyl; Miyazaki's films are well-known for their impressive flying machines. Miyazaki favors quietly strong female characters; in two episodes Mrs. Hudson, their landlady at Baker Street, upstages Holmes and Watson. And Miyazaki has acknowledged that, while working on the series, he became such a close friend of RAI representative Marco Pagot (who created the concept of a funny animal "Holmes" TV cartoon) that he used Pagot's name, slightly modified as Pagotti, for the hero of his 1992 animated feature Porco Rosso. Anime fans will get a little bit more out of Sherlock Hound, but it is fun for the whole family.

Crest of the Stars. V.1, To the Stars. V.2, The Politics of War. V.3, Wayward Soldiers. V.4, Into the Unknown.

TV series (13 episodes), 1999. Director: Yasuchika Nagaoka. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; V.2 V.4, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

© Hiroyuki Morioka/Hayakawa Publishing, Inc. © SUNRISE. All rights reserved.

© Hiroyuki Morioka/Hayakawa Publishing, Inc. © SUNRISE. All rights reserved.

This interstellar sci-fi TV serial, animated by the Sunrise studio, is an adaptation of a popular novel by Hiroyuki Morioka; the first of three (so far). Judging from English-language reviews (the novels have not been published in English), most of the praise is going toward the in-depth background that Morioka has created for his Abh galactic empire. Both the animation and the DVD emphasize this, with many signs and captions (including the DVD menu) in the Abh alphabet. The DVD extras include a brief history of the Abh empire, a genealogy of its royal dynasty, the technology of its spaceships' faster-than-light drive, etc.

Without these, and without an American familiarity with the novel, Crest of the Stars seems like a pleasant but unexceptional Young Adult space opera. In the distant future the galaxy has been settled by humanity. There were originally many independent stellar nations, but these are being absorbed into five superpowers. The Hyde System republic has just been forcibly annexed by the Abh Empire, a race of genetically improved humans (they live over 200 years) with an elf-like appearance. The Abh agree, in exchange for a peaceful surrender, to leave Hyde's President Lin as a figurehead royal governor. His teen son, Jinto, is made a minor noble and summoned to the Abh capital to learn their ways of government. Jinto, an intellectual youth, can see both merits and flaws in both Abh and normal humans. The Abh are patronizing but content to control space travel and allow the planets they rule almost complete autonomy. The humans lose their freedom, but the only power they actually surrender is the ability to wage interstellar war against each other. Abh's annexation of Hyde occurs just as the other four major human space governments decide to band together and declare war on the "inhuman monsters." The war starts with a sneak attack on the Star Forces cruiser carrying Jinto to Abh's capital. Jinto, as a civilian, is evacuated in a shuttle with Lafiel, a Princess of the Abh in training as a military cadet. The 13 episodes (January 3 through March 28, 1999) tell the adventures of Jinto and Lafiel as they try to reach the distant Abh capital in a tiny spaceship with war on all sides of them, and theoretically friendly or neutral worlds trying to capture and use them as political pawns.

It is difficult to avoid seeing this as a sci-fi replay of World War II, with the Abh as a possibly haughty but basically well-meaning blend of the Germans and Japanese; a Master Race benevolently governing a Co-Prosperity Empire. Although the translation for the American market is Mankind Empire Abh, an English-language sign in the animation art reads Mankind Reich Abh. Their joint enemies (United Mankind, the Republic of Greater Alcont, the People's Sovereign Union of Planets, etc.) show parallels to one or another of the Allies. How many of today's mostly young anime buyers are likely to catch the references? The story ends extremely abruptly. It resumed in a sequel, Battle Flag of the Stars, which began on TV almost exactly a year later (April 13, 2000) and will doubtlessly also get an American video release soon.

The Adventures of Mini-Goddess. V.1, The Gan-chan Files. V.2, The Belldandy Files. V.3, The Urd Files. V.4, The Skuld Files.

TV series (48 episodes), 1998-99. Director: Yasuhiro Matsumura. V.1 V.4, 12 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

© 1998 Kosuke Fujishima/Kodansha/PONY CANYON. All rights reserved.

© 1998 Kosuke Fujishima/Kodansha/PONY CANYON. All rights reserved.

Although there are numerous exceptions, anime usually comes in two lengths; half-hour (TV episodes) or feature length (over an hour). Productions in the old American animated theatrical short format of six to eight minutes are almost unheard of. Here is one.

This spinoff of Kosuke Fujishima's popular Aa! Megami-sama (Oh My Goddess!) comic book series and its 1993-94 OAV adaptation began as tossed-off four-panel parodies by Fujishima himself, showing how his three young goddesses kill time at home while their college student ward Keiichi is at his classes. They shrink themselves to "super deformed" miniatures and draft the hapless rats in the building as their playmates. One rat, Gan-chan, became their "special friend," as Warner Bros.' Animaniacs would have put it. These single-page slapstick "Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses" eventually became popular enough to be animated themselves (by the OLM studio), as part of the WOWOW satellite channel's weekly (Mondays at 7:00 pm) half-hour Anime Complex show. 48 8-minute episodes were shown from April 6, 1998 through March 29, 1999.

Since the characters were super-small, the program title was exaggeratedly long. It was "Englished" by the Japanese themselves as The Adventures of Mini-Goddess in the Handy 'Petite' Size! American anime fans insisted on retaining "Mini-Goddess" (rather than "Mini-Goddesses") as a correct translation, and Pioneer has followed suit in this commercial release.

Viewers do not have to be familiar with the Oh My Goddess! basic plot to quickly pick up the personalities of brassy, bossy Urd, tomboyish tinkerer Skuld, housewifely Belldandy, and their sarcastic, long-suffering rat companion Gan-chan. The character interplay and their witty dialogue are constants in a wide range of scenarios. Many episodes are variants on the theme of Urd getting bored and deciding to "help" Gan-chan get a girlfriend, go on a diet, or run for leadership of his rat community. Many more are movie and TV parodies, from Japanese classics like Godzilla (naturally it is Gan-chan who becomes the monster) to more recent American thrillers like Die Hard, Cliffhanger and The X-Files. But there are occasional surprise change of pace episodes, such as a dialogue-less quiet mood piece in which Urd simply goes strolling on a rainy day, observing the beauties of nature. The animation staff clearly had fun working in the style of American short humorous cartoons, and also used the 8-minute format for some art film projects.

Those Who Hunt Elves. V.1, Ready Set Strip! V.2, Elf Stripping for Fun and Profit.

TV series (12 episodes), 1996. Director: Kazuyoshi Katayama. V.l V.2, 6 episodes/150 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D. Vision Films.

© Yu Yagami/Media Works-Amuse-Sotsu Agency.

© Yu Yagami/Media Works-Amuse-Sotsu Agency.

Was anyone nervous about turning Yu Yagami's fantasy-comedy manga Elf o Karu Monotachi (Those Who Hunt Elves) into an animated (the Group TAC studio) TV series? It was limited to twelve episodes, broadcast October 4 through December 20, 1996. It was popular enough that the conclusion was made as Those Who Hunt Elves II, appearing a year later (October 2 through December 24, 1997). This DVD release (and A.D.V. Films' earlier video release in 1999) is of the first series only.

"Adolescent TV anime" implies zany and mildly raunchy humor. This series drops the viewer right into the midst of it. There's this Tolkienesque fantasy world, see, inhabited by Medieval European humans and pointy-eared elf sages, and piratical fish (huh?). And there are these three strangers from our world who just want to go home to Tokyo: a muscular martial-arts champion (sure), an Oscar-winning Japanese actress (hmmm) and a teen schoolgirl with her own AK-47 automatic rifle and T-74 tank (wait a minute...). And the tank is haunted by the ghost of a little kitten (you really don't want a T-74 tank trying to cuddle up in your lap playfully). The only way to get back to our Earth is by a powerful magic spell which, inconveniently, has been divided into five parts, each of which is written on the skin of a beautiful elf maid. So to assemble the complete spell, our band of gonzo adventurers must travel from town to town, tearing off the clothes of all the elf girls they meet to find the five who have the spell components upon them.

Can such a sexist plot be made tasteful? Surprisingly, yes. At least, the raunch factor is downplayed in favor of humorous dialogue and an emphasis on character interplay. Two of the three, the actress Airi Komiyama and schoolgirl Ritsuko Inou, are women themselves who are embarrassed by what they have to do to return to our Earth. Junpei Ryuzouji, the muscle-headed fighter, delivers a few stereotypical "Oh, boy! Babes!" lines, but he acts more like he has not discovered girls yet. His schtick is food; he spends most of his time searching taverns and restaurants for Earth-style beef curry. A fourth member of their party is Mistress Celcia, the elves' high priestess, who is accompanying them in the hope of finding the spell fragments and getting rid of these louts as quickly as possible. An unforeseen complication of the mixed-up magic turns Celcia into a funny-animal dog, and you can imagine the double entendres about the female dog in their midst. Much of the humor depends upon cultural incongruity (a Roman Catholic elf? Medieval fast-food restaurants?) and situations which give the stripping of elfmaids a socially redeeming justification. (Elf warrior maid Milliea donned a suit of enchanted armor to fight a monster. She won, but the armor will not come off her. After three years, she really wants to get out of it and take a bath!) The nudity is limited to quick flashes of bare breasts; quite mild for adolescent anime. Will this sell well enough that A.D.V. Films will release the sequel? To quote one of the episode teasers, "Please watch us again next week, or I'll hate your guts!"

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