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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

While many of us believe drawing is knowledge based, Jean Detheux explores how venturing beyond this "given" opens up an entire new realm of paradoxes, dilemmas and ultimately success.

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.

Excel Saga. V.1, The WEIRDNESS Has Begun. V.2, Missions Improbable. V.3, When Excels Strike (Out). V.4 & V.5, titles to come.

TV series (25 episodes), 1999-2000. Chief director: Shinichi Watanabe. V.1-5, 5 episodes/125 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

Excel Saga (Quack Experimental Anime, Excel Saga if you add the subtitle, which comes before the main title in Japanese and plays havoc with alphabetization in English) has been a hit in a fannish subtitled bootleg video version among American anime fandom almost since its 25-episode TV run in Japan (October 7, 1999 to March 31, 2000) ended. The first pressing of ADV's licensed American DVD volume 1 was one of the hottest sellers at the 15,000+ attendee Anime Expo 2002 convention in July of this year.

pattenanime01.jpg © 1999 Koshi Rikdo / Shonen Gahosha * Victor Entertainment. English language and subtitled versions © Victor Entertainment. pattenanime02.jpg Tohru Fujisawa * KODANSHA * FUJI TV * SME Visual Works * ST. PIERROT. English language version © 2002 Mixx Entertainment, Inc. TOKYOPOP is a registered trademark of Mixx Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Anime has produced some wildly bizarre adolescent comedies in the past. The goal of Excel Saga was to top them all. It has barely more plot than Monty Python's Flying Circus, and an adolescent raunch level about equal to Beavis and Butt-head or Ren & Stimpy. (ADV's age advisory is 17+.) The deliberately surrealistic plot provided many opportunities for equally crazy limited animation (by the J.C. Staff studio), such as a crowd scene in which only the main characters are fully drawn; all the background characters passing by are crude paper dolls.

There are some vaguely interlocking subplots. Excel, a hyperactive blonde so irritatingly airheaded that she is killed three times in the first ten minutes of the first episode, has just graduated from high school and gotten her first job. She is a secret agent for ACROSS, a two-person totalitarian organization dedicated to forcibly improving the world. Her first assignment is to rid the world of all comic book artists, beginning with assassinating her own creator, cartoonist Koshi Rikdo (who appears in a barely-human self-caricature singing, "Manga artists are the scum of society, failures of life..."). Earth is invaded by disgustingly cute Martians (so cute they make everyone puke) who parody Pokemon-type plush toys. An immigrant laborer, Pedro, is trying to get home to his wife before Gomez seduces her. The unpaid Excel, who is usually starving, captures a cute little dog, Menchi, to dine on. Menchi is the only character who has any apparent intelligence, and her desperate attempts to escape Excel have made her a favorite. (Menchi barks the program's closing credits song, a blues lament asking to not be eaten.) An ultra-cool action hero, NABESHIN (director WataNABE SHINichi's exaggeratedly egotistical self-caricature, drawn like Cowboy Bebop's Spike Spiegel wearing Lupin III's distinctive suit) races around the world and into outer space saving the world. These and other regulars constantly run into each other and foul up whatever each is trying to accomplish in that episode. Each episode is also a parody of a movie/TV genre (sci-fi spectacle; jungle commando warfare bloody action; TV dating game silliness; political corruption social-commentary drama; family intelligent-pet adventures) with "guest appearance" caricatures of anime icons like Leiji Matsumoto's Maetel. Like South Park, Excel Saga is a guilty pleasure that you can't resist!

GTO. V.1, Great Teacher Onizuka. V.2, The Bully. V.3, Outcasts. V.4, The Test. V.5, Betrayal. V.6-V.9, titles to come.

TV series (43 episodes), 1999-2000. Executive (series) director: Noriyuki Abe. V.1, 4 episodes (episode l is 50 minutes)/125 minutes, V.2-V.9, 5 episodes/125 minutes. Price & format: video dubbed $19.98; DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

GTO, a.k.a. Great Teacher Onizuka, is one of those lucky pop-culture works to become an instant media sensation. It began as an "outrageous" comedy/romance manga for older adolescents and adults by Tohru Fujisawa in 1997, serialized in Kodansha's Weekly Shonen Magazine. The next summer it became a weekly 12-episode live-action late-night one-hour dramatic serial on Fuji TV (July 7 - September 22, 1998), starring heartthrob Takashi Sorimachi as the charismatic young teacher who wins over his class of teen delinquents. The final episode got a rating of 35.7%, which TOKYOPOP's publicity says "was the most watched TV program ever in Japan." A two-hour TV movie followed in August, 1999, and a theatrical movie in January, 2000. (Fujisawa's GTO comic-book serial has just concluded. It is collected into 25 paperback volumes in Japan, which are being published in America by TOKYOPOP.)

Meanwhile, Fuji TV was rushing a TV animated series into production for Summer 1999, co-produced by Studio Pierrot and SME Visual Works. It premiered as a one-hour TV movie on June 30, 1999, then continued for 42 more half-hour episodes until September 30, 2000. It did not receive the ratings of the live-action version, which had been gentled into a more believable soap opera (dedicated teacher Onizuka charms his troubled students by being such a Nice Guy), but it pleased the manga's fans by being more faithful to the exaggerated and raunchy action (ex-biker Onizuka charms his delinquent students by being a Badder Ass than any of them).

Ekichi Onizuka, a 22 year-old college dropout, realizes that being a biker is a dead-end proposition and he needs a real job. Becoming a school teacher with lots of hot teen chicks in his class sounds cool. But without accreditation, the only position he can get is in a private school, in a class so viciously unruly that no other teacher will take it. Onizuka shocks the uptight other teachers by treating the students as his pals instead of constantly belittling them. He learns the secrets of their emotional problems and works behind the scenes to correct them. But his unorthodox methods, ranging from taking the guys to girlie shows to beating the crap out of bullies (all wish-fulfillment fantasies for both students and teachers), keep him constantly on the verge of being fired by the PTA and similar constipated do-gooder groups.

Cartoonist Fujisawa has an ugly, warts-and-all art style, featuring lots of close-ups of exaggeratedly grimacing faces with bursting blood vessels. The animation dwells on these, and on making a virtue of such limited effects as vehicles that drive by without their wheels moving. An aspect of the exaggerated teen delinquency which Onizuka must overcome (making GTO rated for 16+) is that he is supposed to be teaching a junior high class. But they are drawn as 17 and 18 year-olds, and are into heavy smoking, S&M fetishism, pornography and other vices. A shy girl embarrassed by her F-cup breasts, which her classmates make fun of, is supposed to be a 14 year-old. Fujisawa/Onizuka's comedic parodies acknowledge real adolescent problems and fears that are usually not mentioned in public, showing that they are no longer laughable when someone is being emotionally or physically hurt.

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Project A-ko.

Theatrical feature, 1986. Director: Katsuhiko Nishijima. 86 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

"This anime classic is now remastered!" The American anime industry is now old enough that early releases are being re-released. Project A-ko (the screen actually shows the title as Project "A"ko) is a genuine classic; one of the early productions actually intended for the new home video market but given a limited theatrical release first, on June 21, 1986. Director/co-author Nishijima and character designer/animation director Yuji Moriyama had been turning out humorous sci-fi soft-core pornography for the home video market. Reportedly they realized that Project A-ko (inspired by the Jackie Chan martial-arts comedy Project A) had the potential to be more than that, and persuaded their bosses to turn it into a general release movie. It put them and animation studio A.P.P.P. Co., Ltd. into the ranks of serious animation producers, and launched a mini-franchise of five direct to video sequels and a comic book. The six anime titles were among Central Park Media's first American releases, with Project A-ko coming out as a subtitled laser disc on July 5, 1991 and video on January 22, 1992, and a dubbed video on January 6, 1993. Image Entertainment released it on DVD on July 6, 1999, but without all the extras on CPM's newly remastered August 13, 2002 release. CPM also has a Project A-ko DVD Collection of all six anime titles for $89.99.

Project A-ko starts with a prologue implying a serious sci-fi drama, then switches to one of anime's first wacky teen comedies. A meteor strikes the Earth, destroying a Japanese city. The opportunity is taken to rebuild it as a perfectly planned community. 16 years later, Graviton City is a lovely futuristic metropolis. Teenagers A-ko and C-ko, best friends, are transferring to a new all-girls' high school. B-ko, the rich, snobbish leader of the school's elite clique, decides that she will win C-ko's friendship for herself. This contest of schoolgirl rivalry is escalated to ridiculous heights because A-ko is an American-style super-heroine, while B-ko uses Daddy's wealth to build herself the ultimate battle-action giant robot. Part of the joke is that the audience cannot understand why either would want the whiny, empty-headed C-ko. Meanwhile, it turns out that the earlier meteor was actually an alien spaceship. The aliens come looking for it and start to conquer Graviton City. (This is a parody of Macross; just one of a fast-paced barrage of anime parodies -- Captain Harlock, Harmageddon, Fist of the North Star, etc. -- that have fans blind with laughter by this point.) The aliens' battle mecha and the Home Defense Force's armor are blindsided by A-ko's and B-ko's super-catfight. Beautiful Graviton City is progressively demolished as the free-for-all spreads throughout the city, each false climax being topped by a greater, to the chipper, bubblegum background score by American pop songwriters Richie Zito and Joey Carbone. If you have not seen Project A-ko yet, do not miss this release.

© MCMXCVIII Hiroshi Takashige-Ryoji Minagawa/ Shogakukan-Bandai Visual - TBS- Toho. English language version © 2001 Toho International.

© MCMXCVIII Hiroshi Takashige-Ryoji Minagawa/ Shogakukan-Bandai Visual - TBS- Toho. English language version © 2001 Toho International.

Spriggan.

Theatrical feature, 1998. General supervisor: Katsuhiro Otomo; Director: Hirotsugi Kawasaki. 90 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

Although the visually impressive Spriggan theatrical feature (with animation by Studio 4ºC; released September 5, 1998) is based upon a manga by Hiroshi Takashige & Ryoji Minagawa (being published in America under the title Striker by Viz Communications), it looks and feels like a work by its general supervisor Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator/director of the classic Akira. Major elements, notably the ruthless experimentation upon children to create mutant superman under the government's control, and the mutants being led by an adult mind in a blue-skinned child's body, are right out of Akira. So is the character art style and the direction, although the credits list others as director and character designer.

If Sprigga n comes across as an "Akira Lite," that is the fault of its plot which is "comic bookish" in the worst sense of that term. The simplistic sci-fi premise is that Earth was originally the home of a mighty civilization which destroyed itself through super-scientific warfare. Legends such as the sinking of Atlantis are the only remnant of this. A United Nations-like organization, ARCAM, has been suppressing any archaeological finds of this dangerous super-technology. ARCAM accomplishes this through a worldwide net of secret agents, The Spriggan, whose most accomplished operative is 17-year-old Ominae Yu who leads a cover life as an ordinary Japanese high school student. ARCAM's rival is the U.S. Pentagon, whose generals want to gain the lost technology to establish American world supremacy. The Pentagon has created the "U.S. Machine Corps," a secret army of cyborg commando saboteurs (their training graduation assignment is to be sent to slaughter an entire village in some minor country) to wipe out ARCAM's scientific research teams and steal the caches of super-technology. There is no discernable difference between these "six million dollar man" enhanced sadistic killers and Marvel Comics' mutant super-villains. They even have comic-bookish costumes and names like Fat Man and Little Boy (which were the actual U.S. code names for the two nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945).

In the Spriggan manga sequence used for this movie, ARCAM finds that the real Noah's Ark buried atop Mount Ararat in Turkey is a spaceship filled with weather control technology. This is established in about the first five minutes of the movie. The rest is a non-stop battle-action film fest, switching at breakneck speed from military commando firefights to individual secret agent combat duels to sci-fi hero vs. planet-destroying-super-technology-running-amok suspense. The quality of the direction and animation is top-notch. Animation students will appreciate Spriggan, as will anyone who enjoys action movies with stars like Arnold or Sly or Bruce blasting their way through hordes of cannon-fodder, without worrying about plot holes.

© AIC/Pioneer LDC, Inc. © Pioneer Entertainment (USA)

© AIC/Pioneer LDC, Inc. © Pioneer Entertainment (USA)

Armitage: Dual-Matrix.

Animated feature, 2002. Director: Katsuhito Akiyama. 90 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual feature only $19.98/"Special Edition" DVD including Assembling Armitage "making of" featurette, 16-page booklet & other extras $29.98/"Special Edition" plus limited edition collectable action figure, lunchbox, other bonus extras $69.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Hiroyuki Ochi, the director/author/character designer of the 1994 Armitage III direct-to-video short serial, stated that he was a fan of Philip K. Dick's sci-fi and this was his tribute to it. Most fans agreed that it was an excellent futuristic thriller, with obvious overtones of such movies as Blade Runner and Total Recall based on Dick's novels but with enough originality to stand on its own. Ross Syllabus, a Chicago policeman in 2179 A.D., is reassigned to human-colonized Mars to help fight murders and vandalism associated with both a movement for independence from Earth, and anti-robot prejudice caused by crude mechanical laborers taking jobs away from humans. When it is discovered that there is an unsuspected improved android that is indistinguishable from people, and that Ross' new cop partner Naomi Armitage is one of these Class III's, the two must team up to learn who is infiltrating these androids into human leadership positions and why; and Armitage must prove that she has free will and is a person rather than someone's programmed puppet. Armitage III was of high enough story and production quality that it was edited into a theatrical feature, Armitage III: Poly-Matrix, which was released in America in August 1997 with Kiefer Sutherland and Elizabeth Berkley voicing the principal roles. It was a film-festival favorite for a couple of years.

Armitage: Dual-Matrix was finished in time to be shown last October 31st at the 2001 Tokyo Fantastic Film Festival, but it was not released until June 25, 2002, when its "World Premiere" on the American pay-per-view CinemaNow.com TV channel coincided with its DVD release. Dual-Matrix matches the high quality of Poly-Matrix. The only problem is that the story follows it so closely that it is Part 2 of a two-part serial. Viewers need to see Poly-Matrix first to know who such supporting characters as the ghostly Julian are.

Six years after the events in Poly-Matrix, Ross and Armitage are living on Mars under assumed names, and have a daughter, Yoko. (How Class III androids are able to have children by humans is a key plot element of the first movie.) News reports of anti-human violence on Earth by Martian-manufactured Seconds (the cruder, obvious robots) threaten to revive anti-robot prejudice and demands for greater Earth governmental control over the Martian colony. A crude linkage between electronic minds leads Armitage to believe that Earth's robots are the victims rather than the instigators of violence. She and Ross suspect that some power clique is using the robots as scapegoats in a plot to control public opinion. Most of the movie is excellently-choreographed high-tech urban commando action by Armitage and Ross against the would-be secret controller of Earth's military/industrial complex, with six-year-old Yoko as a hostage who must be rescued from the villain's lair. Fans of Armitage III: Poly-Matrix will not be disappointed.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainment's The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).

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