New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including Astro Boy, Devil Hunter Yohko: The Complete Collection, I'm Gonna Be An Angel, Love Hina and Macross Plus Movie Edition.

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.

Astro Boy. © 1980 Tezuka Productions. © 2001 Manga Entertainment, Inc.

Astro Boy. © 1980 Tezuka Productions. © 2001 Manga Entertainment, Inc.

Astro Boy. V.1 V.9.

TV series (52 episodes), 1980-1981. Director: Noboru Ishiguro. V.1 - V.3, 5 episodes/125 minutes; V.4 - V.9, 6 episodes/150 minutes. Price & format: video dubbed $19.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Two Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom; Mighty Atom) animated TV series were produced in Japan. The first, 193 episodes in black-&-white from 1963 to 1966 by Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Production Co., was Japan's first TV animation. This is the series that introduced Astro Boy to America. The second, in color by Tezuka's newer Tezuka Production Co., was only 52 episodes from October 1, 1980 to December 23, 1981. This has never been seen in the U.S., although it was released in Australia several years ago. The new series repeated some of the more popular episodes from the first series, mixed with some brand-new stories. Tezuka went on record in 1980 as being very pleased to have the opportunity to update his most popular character to modern, full-color animation standards, and to replace his early simplistic character with a more thoughtful and richer personality.

The black-&-white version was and still is immensely popular in Japan. The color version got a polite reception and was soon forgotten. The little-boy robot has been called Japan's equivalent of Mickey Mouse, and the comparison seems apt here. The original Disney cartoons of the late 1920s and 1930s were black-&-white and crudely produced, but the lively Mickey was loved by the public and became a major star. The final cartoons produced during the 1960s were in color with much higher-quality animation, but Mickey had become a bland corporate image and lost most of his appeal. The new Astro Boy is too much of a politically correct goody-goody character, sniveling, "Why do we have to fight? Why can't we be friends?" in the midst of battling villains.

Anime collectors should know that Manga's video version is edited to be "child friendly." The first two episodes have been edited into a single half-hour episode (resulting in the series being labeled as only 51 episodes), to remove the tear-jerking hospital deathbed scene of Astro Boy's inventor's son; a helicopter crashing into a building with obvious fatalities, and similar "dark" elements. Plans for a DVD version for anime collectors, which would be uncut, have been put on hold for contractual reasons until after the release of Columbia/Sony's CGI Astro Boy theatrical feature, which is not scheduled until sometime in 2004.

Devil Hunter Yohko: The Complete Collection. V.1 V.2.

OAV series (6 episodes), 1991-1995. Directors: Katsuhisa Yamada (1), Hisashi Abe (2, 3), Hatou Itsuki (4), Junichi Sakata (5), Akiyuki Shinbo (6). V.1, 3 episodes/105 minutes, V.2, 3 episodes/120 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

pattenanime04.jpgpattenanime05.jpgDevil Hunter Yohko. © 1990 NCS * Toho Co., Ltd. Devil Hunter Yohko. © 1992, 1993 TOHO / MADHOUSE.

The basic plot similarities between Devil Hunter Yohko (Mamono Hunter Yohko) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are striking, but Yohko (animated by Madhouse) was released direct to video on February 8, 1991 in Japan (there was a simultaneous video game, both funded by Toho Films); and Buffy not until July 31, 1992 in the U.S. Yohko 2, 3, 5 and 6 were released roughly a year apart from 1992 through 1995. The fourth release was a half-hour music video titled Yohko Super Music Clip in Japan and Yohko 4-Ever in the U.S., and the Japanese title of Yohko 6 was Yohko2 (squared) because it pits her against her demonic evil twin.

Yoko Mano is almost 16 and eager to encourage a high school boyfriend (and not hesitant about going all the way with him) when she is attacked by demons and rescued by her grandmother Madoka. Grandma reveals that the women of the Mano family are a secret line of protectors of humanity against devils, gaining their powers as supernatural warriors on their sixteenth birthday -- but only if they are still virgins. Yohko's hot-blooded mother could not wait that long, so Grandma is determined to make sure that Yohko remains qualified to become the 108th generation of the Mano devil hunters. But the devils are out to eliminate her before she reaches her birthday, either by killing her or encouraging her seduction by enhancing the allure of her boyfriend.

The first Yokho presented a then-rare blend of horror, risqué humor (A.D.V.'s age recommendation is 17+), and supernatural action-adventure for older adolescents, primarily female with its strong romance sub-plot and a dynamic, attractive heroine who has to save the handsome but weak males. Numbers 2 and 3 were tamer, more like Sailor Moon TV episodes with Yohko accompanied on her adventures by her two best friends, Chigako her self-appointed "manager" and Azusa who wants to become a devil hunter too. The fourth was a music video compilation of the songs from the first three, with a minimal amount of new animation. Numbers 5 and 6 returned to the more mature drama with sadistic devils of the original story.

The first Yohko was also the first release of anime specialty company A.D. Vision on December 15, 1992. The others followed in both subtitled and dubbed videos between then and 1998. A.D.V. is now releasing them in a two DVD 10th Anniversary set. The first DVD contains the original Yohko in two versions. As A.D.V.'s founders explain in a historical commentary extra, they learned that the Japanese release had been edited at the last minute to make it shorter and more dramatic. That version became their first release, subtitled, but they then produced the complete version (never seen in Japan) for their dubbed edition in January 1996. This DVD has both; it is literally "The Complete Collection."

[The original release dates and lengths are: Devil Hunter Yohko, February 8, 1991 (46 minutes); Devil Hunter Yohko 2, December 22, 1992 (30 minutes); Devil Hunter Yohko 3, April 1, 1993 (30 minutes); Devil Hunter Yohko Super Music Clip, December 21, 1993 (30 minutes); Devil Hunter Yohko 5, July 1, 1994 (45 minutes); and Devil Hunter Yohko Squared, July 1, 1995 (45 minutes).]

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I'm Gonna Be An Angel. DVD ed.: V.1, Earth Angel. V.2, Send Me An Angel. V.3, Baby Come Back. V.4, Oh For A Muse. V.5, The Changeover. V.6, (to be determined). VHS ed.: V.1, Earth Angel. V.2, Invisible Girl.

TV series (26 episodes), 1999. Director: Hiroshi Nishikiori. DVD ed.: V.1 - V.2, 5 episodes/125 minutes; V.3 - V.6, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: bilingual, $29.95. VHS ed.: V.1 - V.2, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: dubbed or subtitled, $19.95. (The VHS edition may be discontinued.) Distributor: Synch-Point/Anime Gamers USA, Inc.

It is difficult to tell for what market this cute but jaw-droppingly bizarre children's TV series (rather like Cardcaptors as directed by David Lynch) is aimed. It is basically a mixture of the adolescent embarrassing fantasy girlfriends (Urusei Yatsura, Tenchi Muyo!) and humorous monster neighbors (The Addams Family, The Munsters) formulas. Yuusuke Kamoshita is a shy 8th-grade boy with a crush on Natsumi Suzuhara. A dimensional portal to our world opens from the Monster World and the first one through is Noelle, a blue-eyed blonde with a halo about 14 years old. She sees Yuusuke, immediately falls in love and proclaims him to be her husband. She gets her Papa to transform Yuusuke's house into a magical mansion for her whole family to move into. Papa is modeled after Frankenstein's Monster; Mama is a normal housewife; big brother Gabriel is a vampire; big sister Sara is invisible; Granny is an old witch; and there are others. The house is not a typical creepy mansion, however, but bright pastel plastic full of soft toys. Embarrassment point #1: what adolescent boy wants to live in a house that looks like Barney's or the Teletubbies' home? Embarrassment point #2: Noelle has the giggly exuberance and innocence of a four- to five-year-old. This can be endearing, but not when she drapes herself over him in school, or he has to keep her from running around nude like a three-year-old escaping her bath. But Noelle is the target of Dispel, the decadent supernatural villain who seeks to corrupt her innocence. Yuusuke may be totally exasperated by Noelle and her wacky family, but he recognizes their innate goodness and cannot refrain from joining them in their fight against Dispel and his agents such as sexy cat-girl Miruru, even if this means letting Natsumi drift away from him.

I'm Gonna Be An Angel (Tenshi ni Narumon!) was a prime-time 26-episode weekly children's series on TV Tokyo (April 7 through September 29, 1999), smoothly animated by Studio Pierrot, with bouncy music by Yoshikazu Sou and a bright, soft, child-friendly art design by Hiromi Kato that is like stepping into a Toys 'R' Us store. But much of the humor is too infantile for the average teen or adult anime enthusiast, while some elements such as adolescent Noelle's total incomprehension about modesty or Yuusuke's junior high pals trying to peek into the girls' dressing room in the gym make this an unlikely purchase for young American children. Most American anime releases have a somewhat simplified translation; this is so complete that the DVD Vol. 1's extras include eight pages(!) of translation notes explaining Japanese ethnic/cultural references, including juvenile nonsense and naughty slang.

pattenanime07.jpgLove Hina. © Ken Akamatsu / Kodansha / Love-Hina Onsen Kumiai / TV Tokyo.

Love Hina. V.l, Moving In... V.2, Go West! V.3, Secret Lives. V.4, Love Hurts. V.5, Summer By The Sea. V.6, And The Winner Is...

TV series (24 episodes), 2000. Director: Yoshiaki Iwasaki. V.1 V.6, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Love Hina, based upon a popular manga by Ken Akamatsu, is one of the most recent good examples of the teen romantic comedy for the older end of the adolescent range. Keitaro (Kei) Urashima, age 20, has been looking forward to entering prestigious Tokyo University ever since he was five and made a childhood pact with the girl next door. But he has just failed the entrance exam for the third time, and his parents are pressing him to give up foolish dreams and find a job. His grandmother is retiring from being manager of a small all-girls student dorm at the nearby Hinata Hot Springs resort town; that job would make him self-supporting and give him time to study. The five girls are not thrilled about having a male manager, but Kei is clearly so shy and nerdy that they can easily boss him around. The girls are all romantic comedy stereotypes: Naru Narusegawa, also trying to get into Tokyo U, furious at herself for being distracted from cramming by her developing adolescence; Mitsune (Kitsune) Konno, the get-rich-quick schemer; Motoko Aoyama, the haughty aristocrat; Shinobu Maehara, shy and with zero self-esteem who needs a kindly big brother; and Kaolla Su, would-be mechanical genius who invents wondrously goofy contraptions out of old toys. Early episodes have at least one gag scene each of Kei accidentally walking in on one of the girls in the nude and getting pummeled by all five as a pervert. (Both Kei and Naru are extremely near-sighted and constantly losing their glasses.) As the series progresses, a shaky romance blossoms between Kei and Naru, and new characters are introduced to play off that: Mutsumi Otohime, another aspiring college student who may be Kei's childhood girl-next-door; Seta Noriyasu, a handsome young Tokyo U professor and former tutor of Naru's and Kitsune's when they were in high school, on whom Naru had a crush. Each episode mixes exaggeratedly slapstick comedic situations with thoughtful moments in which Kei and each of the girls must consider that, while getting into college is an admirable ambition, it is not the final goal in life and should not become such an obsession that it blinds one to other possibilities.

There are many romantic comedies. Love Hina (24 weekly episodes on Tokyo TV, April 19 to September 27, 2000; produced by TV Tokyo with animation mainly from the Xebec studio) stands out due to attractive character designs by Makoto Uno, a great opening theme song by Ritsuko Okazaki (sung by pop sensation Megumi Hayashibara) and good music by Koichi Korenaga, plus the level of "theatrical feature style" direction with lively pacing and witty dialogue which is so rare in American TV animation. Love Hina was so popular that the TV series was followed up by a Christmas 2000 TV special movie, Silent Eve; another special in 2001; and a three-video OAV series, Love Hina Again, in January to March 2002.

pattenanime11.jpgMacross Plus Movie Edition. © 2002 Manga Entertainment, Inc.

Macross Plus Movie Edition.

Theatrical feature, 1995. Director: Shoji Kawamori. 115 minutes. Price & format: DVD subtitled $29.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

The 1982-1983 Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross TV series was one of the most popular "giant robot" sci-fi dramatic serials in anime, and only slightly less so in America as the opening third of the Robotech TV series. The public wanted more, which it finally got (not counting the disappointing Macross II) in the excellent Macross Plus. This was originally produced (with animation coordinated by the Triangle Staff studio) as four 40-minute OAVs released between August 25, 1994 and June 25, 1995. This theatrical feature, released September 30, 1995, condensed the story to 115 minutes but added several lengthy new scenes in mostly dazzling CGI. Even the fans who are unhappy about the extensive missing footage agree that the new scenes are spectacular, and that the feature is intelligently edited to result in a tight, coherent story.

Macross Plus stands so well on its own that the connection with the earlier Macross is quite superficial. The newly-settled colony planet of Eden looks strikingly like central California with futuristic architecture. Isamu Dyson and Guld Bowman are two Air Force test pilots at New Edwards AFB, bitter rivals despite being lifelong acquaintances. Their personalities could have been taken from Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus; Isamu is a brilliant flyer but irresponsibly reckless, while Guld has a fanatical but humorless obsession with perfection and despises Isamu for wasting his talent. They are assigned to test two prototype jet fighters with experimental man-machine interfaces that enable their pilots to control the aircraft with their brain waves. The action begins when Myung Fang Lone returns to Eden after seven years on Earth. Dialogue quickly establishes that the three were best friends in high school, where Myung was on the verge of a popular singing career; but some traumatic event happened around their graduation, which turned the boys into enemies and caused Myung to leave home. She is back as part of a technological entertainment project to create a holographic virtual-reality popular singing star, Sharon Apple, using the same brain interfaces that the pilots use. Parallel subplots develop interlocked stories of Isamu's and Guld's increasingly suicidal aerial gymnastics trying to outdo each other; the two men's rivalry over Myung as they renew their relationships with her; the secret of Myung's decision to give up her own singing career to serve as the "brain" behind Sharon Apple; and the sci-fi menace that develops as the increased computer memory put into Sharon Apple gives "her" a self-aware, independent personality with all Myung's emotional problems and no moral restraints.

Macross Plus helped establish Shoji Kawamori's reputation as one of anime's best and most imaginative directors, especially with sci-fi settings featuring realistic futuristic technological hardware and, especially here, a cast of clearly distinct racial traits including Caucasians, Asians and African-Americans (plus some token Zentraedi aliens from the original Macross series). It also helped establish Yoko Kanno's reputation as one of anime's most popular composers, especially of rock and jazz themes (performed by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). The two reinforce each other here to create truly awesome holographic pop-rock concerts. Macross Plus #1 was one of Manga Entertainment's first video releases in February 1995, and the complete four OAVs have been available on a two-DVD set since September 1999. The movie version now completes the set.

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

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