New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases Ah! My Goddess: The Movie, Plastic Little, Princess Nine, Psychic Force and The SoulTaker.

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.

pattenanime01.jpg © Kosuke Fujishima/Kodansha. © 2000 "AH! MY GODDESS" PARTNERSHIP. Presented by Kodansha in association with "AH! MY GODDESS" PARTNERSHIP.The original work's copyright reserved by Kosuke Fujishima. MM copyright reserved by Kodansha and "AH! MY GODDESS" PARTNERSHIP.

Ah! My Goddess: The Movie.

Theatrical feature, 2000. Director: Hiroaki Gohda. 106 minutes. Price & format: video dubbed $24.98/DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

The comic book and previous anime video serial of Kosuke Fujishima's Aa! Megami-sama have been published in America as Oh My Goddess!. The theatrical feature (released July 22, 2000; produced by A.I.C.) was licensed to a different company, whose translators chose the more literal Ah! My Goddess. This gives anime collectors the headache of whether to shelve the video series and the movie separately, or if together, whether under "A" or "O."

The many fans of Oh My Goddess! had expected the popular 1993 OAV series to be followed up with a theatrical sequel well before 2000. This lovely movie looks like seven years' work went into it, and the fans have been delighted. But, as usual with movies based upon popular TV (and, in Japan, OAV) series, audiences who are not already familiar with the plot will feel they entered in the middle of the story.

This romantic fantasy is roughly similar to the American Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie. Fujishima's comic book stories are usually more comedic, while the animated versions (not counting the spinoff Adventures of the Mini-Goddess) aim for romantic melodrama. Shy nice-guy college freshman Keiichi Morisato gains a "guardian angel" in young goddess Belldandy from a Heaven depicted as a technological updating of Norse mythology (Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, is a computer program). Belldandy's lively older and younger sisters, Urd and Skuld, move in to chaperone the pair, and to provide most of the comedic action while the demure teens carry on a gentle romance.

The movie, set three years later, threatens both a personal and a literal end of the world. It seems Belldandy had received her early training in miracle-working from Celestin, a handsome older angel who later became arrogant and had to be imprisoned for defying God. Celestin has now escaped and is determined to outdo God by creating a better human race. First he has to destroy the current world. He wants his best pupil, Belldandy, to assist him, and he will not let her refuse. Keiichi, with the help of Urd and Skuld, must stop Celestin and rescue Belldandy. Keiichi is now in his late teens, and while his relationship with Belldandy is still chaste, his feelings toward her are clearly more mature than those of the embarrassed mid-teen in the earlier animated story.

A.I.C.'s animation is excellent. Celestin's sabotage of the Asgardian supercomputer that controls the world combines the spectacle of both supernatural and sci-fi disaster epics. The music is delightful, and anime fans who are into costuming will want to take notes on the dress styles of the Gods. But the plot is still more for fans of human-interest romance than of fantasy action-adventure or comedy; and romance aficionados will appreciate it more if they have seen the 1993 Oh My Goddess! series to better know the main cast.

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Plastic Little.

OAV, 1994. Director: Kinji Yoshimoto. 50 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: A.D. Vision Films.

Plastic Little was one of the first and most notorious of the "for teens with raging hormones" direct-to-video productions of the mid-'90s. Released in Japan on March 21, 1994 (produced by Animate Film, in cooperation with Studio Pierrot), it was quickly snapped up by A.D.V. for a U.S. release (July 1995) in the days when under-an-hour dubbed anime videos retailed in the $35 range. It was labeled "Mature Audiences" then; now it is merely 15+.

Plastic Little is a Star Wars-type space opera with the most buxom teen girls you ever saw as action heroes. "Heroes" is the right word. 17-year-old Captain Tita Koshigaya and 16-year-old Elysse Mordish lead the "assault on the Death Star" action while Tita's male spaceship crew rely upon her for inspiration and orders. The plot is shallow but skillfully directed to blend humor and suspense into nonstop action. Tita is captain (inheriting from her deceased father) of the Cha Cha Maru, a "pet shop hunter," specializing in capturing dangerous native animals for zoos, on the human-settled planet Yietta. Stopping for repairs and some R&R at the luxurious capital, Tita rescues a girl (Elysse) fleeing from obvious villains. Elysse is the daughter of a scientist who has just been murdered by Guizel, commander of Yietta's military who plans to overthrow the Galactic Federation civil government and turn the planet into his personal kingdom. Elysse holds the secret of her father's improved antigravity device for Yietta's floating cities. Guizel orders his Storm Troopers to kill the Cha Cha Maru crew and sieze Elysse. Tita realizes their only hope is an immediate surprise assault on Guizel's stronghold before he can get the full force of his troops into motion. The action is well choreographed, and backed up by a lush dramatic score of theatrical quality by Tamio Terashima.

Actually, everything about Plastic Little is "lush," thanks especially to character designer and animation director Satoshi Urushibara, one of Japan's most popular cheesecake pinup artists. Yietta's capital city (by director Yoshimoto) looks modeled upon European Rivera travel posters. The ship's women's bath is a futuristic sybaritic delight. All the men are handsome, and the girls -- well, so many anime fan clubs held "jiggle contests" to count the bouncing boob shots that A.D.V.'s new DVD includes as one of its Extras a "Jiggle Counter." This production did not spare any expense in animating the sensuous movement of smooth, round pink skin, especially in the nude bathing and dressing scenes. Adolescent males can ogle Tita and Elysse, while the girls' beauty plus their fortitude and common sense in the action scenes (no airheads here) make them attractive role models for adolescent women. Plastic Little's success became a go-ahead for numerous OAV productions such as Agent Aika and Burn Up W starring beautiful busty women with a strong command presence, featured in action scenes often emphasizing panty shots.

pattenanime03.jpg © Kensei Date / Phoenix / NEP21.

Princess Nine. V.1, First Inning! V.2, Double Header! V.3, Triple Play! V.4, Strike Zone! V.5, Bases Loaded! V.6, Grand Slam!

TV series (26 episodes), 1998. Director: Tomomi Mochizuki. V.1 & V.6, 5 episodes/125 minutes; V.2-5, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: A.D. Vision Films.

The anime subject genre least represented in America is the teen school sports drama. Princess Nine was a 26 episode TV serial, broadcast from April 8 to October 14, 1998, which combined girls' sports with adolescent romantic melodrama.

15-year-old Ryo Hayakawa is a tomboy about to graduate from junior high school. Her father, a pro baseball pitcher, died ten years ago. Ryo is an ace pitcher on the local amateur team, but she plans to leave school to help her poor mother run an old-fashioned neighborhood diner. But Mrs. Himuro, the feminist Chairman of the Board of Trustees at elite Kisaragi Girls' High School, wants to start a girls' baseball team to prove that women can compete in the traditional male "hard" sports. She has a scholarship sent to Ryo, who enters Kisaragi to find herself out of her league socially. The idea of competing in mens' sports is ridiculed by pompous Principal Mita, who supports the school's girls' tennis team which is dominated by Himuro's proud daughter Izumi. Ryo accepts the challenge to help cynical Coach Kido create a girls' team good enough to win its way to the National High School Baseball Championship at famous Koshien Stadium. This involves finding eight more girls with latent sports talent; helping them to bond emotionally into a team of loyal friends; and overcoming condescending male dismissal by the established baseball sports world. Additional melodramatic subplots include Izumi's discovery that her mother may have loved Ryo's father rather than her own father in their youth; Izumi's emotional struggle over whether to sabotage the baseball team or join it and dominate it; Ryo's romantic involvement with two rival handsome and supportive boys, Seishiro and Hiroki; and the revelation that Ryo's father may have been involved in a scandal before his death.

The limited animation by Phoenix Entertainment is uninspired at first glance. However, the viewer quickly becomes engrossed in the story and the characters instead of consciously thinking about the cinematography; thus the animation accomplishes its purpose effectively. The DVD has some surprisingly helpful Extras such as a history of baseball in Japan, and a social history of neighborhood udon bars like Ryo's mother's including recipes and a glossary of the Japanese food names heard in the drama. Princess Nine is excellent as a sample of a type of animation rare in America, and for adolescents interested in modern Japanese school and sports sociology.

Psychic Force.

OAV (2 episodes), 1998. Director: Fujio Yamauchi. 64 minutes. Price & format: video dubbed $19.98; DVD bilingual $24.99. Distributor: Image Entertainment.

Psychic Force is a popular Japanese video arcade game. This is a "movie" compilation of two half-hour OAVs, animated by the Triangle Staff studio, released on February 25 and May 25, 1998. The video is just a bad movie, but the extras on the DVD turn it into a fascinating case study of anime dramatizations of video games.

pattenanime04.jpg © Image Entertainment.

The story is like Marvel Comics' X-Men concept stripped of any depth and exaggerated into absurdity. In 2007, children and teens all over the world start developing immense mental powers. Since normal humans hate and fear mutants, I mean psychics, all adults start killing everyone under voting age, except for those powerful enough to defend themselves. By 2010 all cities look like Berlin in April 1945, reduced to battlefields between ruthless commando squads of human soldiers and teen psychics with cool super-character costumes and improbable hair styles. Back in 2007, 14-year-old Burn Griffith befriended a gentle psychic visionary, Keith Evans, and helped him escape from government Men In Black killers. Burn, now 17 years old and developing his own "flame on!" powers, searches for Keith who hoped to create a peaceful refuge for psychic youths. Instead Burn finds Keith as the messianic leader of a nascent totalitarian psychic nation. Keith is actually a naive figurehead manipulated by his sinister secretary, Richard Wong. Burn must fight his way through Wong's murderous psychic henchmen with names like Booladon to reach Keith, who has been misled into believing that it is Burn who is the evil villain who must be destroyed.

Aside from Burn, Keith, Wong and a token girl named Sonia (her power controls sonic waves), there are fleeting glimpses of others whose presence is pointless except that they are major characters in the arcade game so they had to make at least a token appearance. This is clarified in the DVD extras, which total almost as much running time as the movie itself. A 4-minute "promotional video" is really a nice music video of the theme song, "Friends." The real explanations are in the "Special Interviews" with the voice actors of Burn, Keith and Wong, and a long video documentary of the "Psychic Junky Fair Three" in Tokyo on April 5, 1998, where 700 fans gathered to meet the actors and character designer/director Kenichi Onuki. The commentary identifies some of the other game characters briefly seen but not identified. The actors talk about the different personality interpretations they had to portray in this direct to video drama, which differed from those for the same characters in the radio or CD dramatizations. Apparently some star Keith and Burn as young pals at the beginning of adolescence (the phrase "guy friendship" is used often), while others feature them as older teens interacting more with the female psychics like Sonia and Wendy. Psychic Force is an interesting example of trying to create personalities for video game cyphers. Too bad the plot is shallow and implausible even by comic book superhero standards.

The SoulTaker. V.1, The Monster Within. V.2, Flickering Faith. V.3, Blood Betrayal. V.4, The Truth.

TV series (13 episodes), 2001. Series director: Akiyuki Shinbo. V.1-3, 3 episodes/75 minutes; V.4, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Here is a stylish anime series in which the plot is not nearly as gripping as the imaginative animation. The SoulTaker was a late-night (Pioneer's age guide is 16+) 13-episode sci-fi/horror thriller broadcast from April 4 through July 4, 2001, produced by Tatsunoko Pro. "You've come a long way since Speed Racer, Tatsunoko!" 17-year-old Kyosuke Date, who believes himself to be a normal youth, is unexpectedly murdered by his dying mother "to save him." He revives when a giggly teenage girl digs up and opens his coffin. Kyosuke is still recovering from this trauma when she is kidnapped, and he is attacked by a psychotic supervillain in an operating-room gown who materializes out of thin air screaming that he is a doctor and he must cut Kyosuke open. Kyosuke horrifiedly finds himself mutating into a devilish monster to defend himself. The audience and the bewildered Kyosuke do not even begin to understand what is going on until the end of episode 2.

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What holds the audience's attention is the abstract direction by Shinbo (directors of the individual episodes are also credited, as well as character designer Akio Watanabe) and art direction by Junichi Higashi. (There are also credits for Chief Animation Director, Visual Director, Color Director and Director of Photography.) The first scene is of the stained-glass windows in a ruined church, and stained-glass-like backgrounds appear in many later scenes although the styles range from Medieval religious subjects to 1930s abstractionism to 1960s flower-power art. Battle scenes are in stark flat poster colors dominated by sharply contrasting masses of red, blue, black, olive and purple; usually of figures in two colors slamming into each other against a background of a third color. Arms and legs shoot out gigantically toward the camera from distant background figures in a grotesque parody of perspective. A cute pastel anime girl who clashes horribly artistically will appear with an armload of sharp objects intended for sadistic purposes. It is no coincidence that action figures of The SoulTaker are being manufactured in America by McFarlane Toys, the company of Todd McFarlane, creator of the literally devilish Spawn comic book and HBO-midnight animation series. Although the story is quite different (except for coverups by The Authorities, but what drama series these days doesn't use that plot device?), The SoulTaker has an atmosphere very like Spawn's degenerate cynicism.

Aside from the art, the deliberately murky story holds the viewer by cryptic but intelligent dialogue (and Japanese voice acting that makes the characters sound clever), and a sci-fi plot in a Terminator/Matrix-like destroyed future world that at least promises some unusual developments.

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

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