New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Anime expert Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including Ceres, Celestial Legend, Hamtaro, Pilot Candidate, Real Bout High School and Soul Hunter.

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.

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Ceres, Celestial Legend, Volumes 1-8. Cover illustration from Anime Art Gallery: The Art of Ceres, Celestial Legend. © Yuu Watase/Shogakukan  Bandai Visual  Studio Pierrot.

Ceres, Celestial Legend, Volumes 1-8. Cover illustration from Anime Art Gallery: The Art of Ceres, Celestial Legend. © Yuu Watase/Shogakukan Bandai Visual Studio Pierrot.

Ceres, Celestial Legend. V.1, Destiny. V.2, Past Unfound. V.3, C-Genome. V.4, Resolve. V.5, The Progenitor. V.6, Double. V.7, Requiem. V.8, Denouement.

TV series (24 episodes), 2000. Director: Hajime Kamegaki. 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Viz Video.

Aya Mikage is an extroverted high-schooler. She and her twin brother Aki are brought to their rich grandfather's estate for their 16th birthday party. Aya is shocked when he announces that Aki is to become the new head of their clan, but she must be killed. An unexpected powerful blast levels the mansion and Aya is whisked to safety by a mysterious but handsome stranger.

This teen romantic action fantasy gets off to a rousing start as the stunned Aya discovers that everything she thought she knew about herself and her normal life is false. She is the direct descendent of Ceres, a heavenly angel who came to Earth in the distant past and married a mortal, and is now expected to reincarnate in Aya's body. Or maybe Ceres was an extraterrestrial stranded on Earth who keeps her psyche alive through alien technology. What Aya (and the audience) think they know changes from episode to episode as new legends and theories of truths behind legends are investigated. In any case, there are rival ruthless factions who are determined to possess her for her mighty supernatural or superscientific powers.

The 24-episode series (an adaptation of a popular tragic romance manga novel by Yuu Watase, animated by Studio Pierrot, broadcast April 20 - September 28, 2000) spans Aya's transformation from a carefree tomboy to a frightened young woman. The confusing-enough changes of adolescence are compounded by the fears of losing her body and mind to the emerging powerful personality of Ceres. There is the horror of isolation from family and friends, as those who hope to control Ceres murder anyone they think might aid Aya. Above all, there is romance: romantic humor as she and one teen savior, Yuhi, who try to keep their relationship on a chaste hero and rescued damsel-in-distress level, start to develop embarrassing adolescent hormonal stirrings toward each other; romantic horror as Aya's beloved brother Aki is possessed by the personality of Ceres' ancient lover and starts to attack her incestuously; romantic mystery as Toya, the handsome agent of one of her enemies, announces that he has had a change of heart and he will save her from them instead (can she believe him?). Not all of the unexpected plot twists or explanations of mythology as ancestral memories of space aliens are convincing (one of the ruthless enemies turns out to have an unselfish motive; still, a noble goal does not excuse his murderous means), but the serious attempt to keep the viewer intellectually guessing is an admirable one. By the halfway point the romance has become serious. Both Yuhi and Toya recognize that the other truly loves Aya, and each believes that the other is the better man to protect her, so the viewer is kept wondering which of them will be first to sacrifice himself unselfishly so Aya can live happily with the other.

Hamtaro. Photo credit: Cartoon Network.

Hamtaro. Photo credit: Cartoon Network.

Hamtaro. V.1, Hamtaro and the Ham-Hams. V.2, Ham-Hams Head Seaward. V.3, A Surprise Party! V.4, A Ham-Ham Christmas! (more to come) TV series. Japanese premiere: TV Tokyo, July 7, 2000; most recent episode #118, October 4, 2002. U.S. premiere: The Cartoon Network, June 3, 2002. Series director: Osamu Nabeshima. 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: Dubbed video $12.98, DVD $14.98. Distributor: Viz Video.

Ever since the success of Pokémon, the American TV industry has been looking for "the next Pokémon" from Japan. Those who are concerned about the confrontational violence inherent in TV cartoons derived from video games (Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Monster Rancher, etc.) have been hoping for a next Pokémon that is kinder, cuter and cuddlier. It looks like they have found it in Hamtaro.

Hamtaro is the kinder, gentler kin to Pokémon. Photo credit: Cartoon Network.

Hamtaro is the kinder, gentler kin to Pokémon. Photo credit: Cartoon Network.

Totoko Hamtaro (usually translated as Hamtaro's Tales, although "totoko" -- one of numerous onomatopoeic words in the Ham-Ham language -- is closer to "scampering" or "trotalong") began in 1997 as illustrated children's stories by Ms. Ritsuko Kawai in Little School Second-Grader magazine published by Shogakukan, the educational/entertainment conglomerate also responsible for Pokémon. It became popular enough there that Shogakukan gave Hamtaro star treatment with picture books, pop-up books, origami books and hamster care books. The anime TV series, produced by Shogakukan Music & Digital Entertainment (with animation production by TMS Entertainment), premiered in July 2000. It quickly became the top-rated children's show on TV Tokyo and replaced Pokémon as the #1 licensed character in Japan. The first theatrical feature, Trotalong Hamtaro: The Great HamHamland Adventure, was released on December 15, 2001; it was in the box-office top ten for six weeks and grossed $18,623,382. The second theatrical feature, Trotalong Hamtaro: Princess HamHamHamja's Dreams! (the promo pictures show an "Arabian Nights" setting) is scheduled for December 14, 2002. The first 52 TV episodes have been shown in the U.S. on The Cartoon Network starting in June. Shogakukan's U.S. subsidiaries, Viz Communications and ShoPro USA, are set to start releasing translations of Ms. Kawai's books and videos of the TV episodes beginning in October.

Hamtaro is a golden hamster, the pet of 10-year-old Laura (Ryoko). In the premiere episode Laura and her parents move to a new home, and she enters the 5th grade. It turns out that all her new classmates have pet hamsters, too. Hamtaro, bored at home alone, gets out of his cage and sneaks out of the house to explore his new neighborhood. He finds that all the other hamsters come out to play while their human friends are at school, too. Hamtaro, a natural leader, proposes they build a clubhouse under a big tree. The Ham-Ham Gang is not quite as numerous as Pokémon's 151 "gotta catch 'em all" menagerie, but there are close to two dozen hamsters (Oxnard, Pashmina, Boss, Bijou, Howdy, Jingle, Snoozer, etc.), each of whom has a distinct fur pattern and personality. Some stories feature the Ham-Hams interacting among themselves while their human friends are at school; others involve Hamtaro helping out Laura without her knowledge ("The Search for Dad's Glasses!").

Pilot Candidate, Volumes 1-4. © Yukiru Sugisaki·WANI BOOKS/Bandai Visual·TCFG Committee. English adaptation © Bandai Visual. All rights reserved.

Pilot Candidate, Volumes 1-4. © Yukiru Sugisaki·WANI BOOKS/Bandai Visual·TCFG Committee. English adaptation © Bandai Visual. All rights reserved.

Pilot Candidate. V.1, The Academy. V.2, Training. V.3, Working Together. V.4, The Test.

TV series (12 episodes), 2000. Director: Mitsuru Hongo. 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

When this debuted on Japanese TV as The Candidate for Goddess (12 episodes cutely numbered 0 through 11, January 11 through March 27, 2000), it was heralded for its unusually high-quality CGI sequences in the traditional cel-animation TV anime medium, as well as being an anime version of the popular sci-fi manga serial by Yukiru Sugisaki. The CGI work is of almost theatrical quality, and is emphasized in DVD extras with CGI supervisor Shinji Takagi talking about the challenges of working with CGI for a low-budget TV production. This was a co-production of the Production I.G. and Xebec animation studios; presumably the former did the CGI and the latter did the cel work.

Unfortunately, stunning CGI visuals and some imaginative clothing designs are about all that Pilot Candidate has to offer. The 4088 A.D. "space cadet" plot follows Rei "Zero" Enna as he and other mid-teens from various artificial space colonies come together at an interstellar training academy to learn to pilot giant battle robots against living space monsters, which threaten humanity's "holy" last habitable planet. Zero and his dorm-mates become pals (except for the one ruthless kid determined to outscore everybody else); they learn to get along with their tough-but-fatherly instructor; they come to idolize the actual robot pilots who are barely older than they are, and are traumatized when one is killed in battle; they discover that training is tougher than they imagined but they sweat it out; they face the tensions of their first real missions; and so on.

Screenshot from Pilot Candidate. © Yukiru Sugisaki·WANI BOOKS/Bandai Visual·TCFG Committee. English adaptation © Bandai Visual. All rights reserved.

Screenshot from Pilot Candidate. © Yukiru Sugisaki·WANI BOOKS/Bandai Visual·TCFG Committee. English adaptation © Bandai Visual. All rights reserved.

But beyond the cliches, the story is so incoherent as to imply that a lot of background from the original manga story has been left out. Why are all the giant battle robots built in the form of stylized Greco-Roman goddesses like the Statue of Liberty and the Clio Awards statuette; and why can there be no more than five of them? Why can only boys pilot the Goddesses (except that the ace Goddess pilot is a woman; a commented-upon but unexplained exception), while their "repairers" (mechanics) must be girls? Why are the fearsome CGI space monsters called "Victims," and why are humans barred from living on the last planet under their control? The planet is named Zion but it looks exactly like Earth; is this unimaginative art design or is it supposed to signify that Zion is Earth renamed? After his first couple of weeks at the academy, Zero comments offhandedly that he is being kept so busy that he has forgotten what his mother and friends back home look like; it soon becomes clear that he really has forgotten everything about his past. This attention-getting clue that there is something mysterious about him is not followed up. Considering that the final episode ends frustratingly on a cliffhanger, these and other undeveloped plot threads suggest that Pilot Candidate was intended for a much longer series but was aborted early. Bad ratings, or was the budget used up by the CGI work sooner than expected? There are also incongruities that cannot be excused by an unfinished story, such as the far-future culture with strange names such as Hiead Gner and Rioroute Vilgyna, exotic architectural and clothing designs, and references to improved medicine and genetic engineering for better bodies; but the brainy nerds still wear thick glasses and people light their filter-tip cigarettes with Bics. And dig the funky American 1950s beauty-pageant style opening theme music!

patten1617_realBout.jpgspacer.gifspacer.gifpatten1819_realBout.jpgspacer.gifReal Bout High School, Volumes 1-4. © REIJI SAIGA * ESORA INOUE/K-FIGHT COMMITTEE * EKIDS STATION. All copyright in this English language version other than copyright owned by the original copyright-holders is copyrighted: © 2002 Mixx Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved. TOKYOPOP® is a registered trademark of Mixx Entertainment, Inc.

Real Bout High School. V.1, Enter the Samurai Girl. V.2, Netherworld Battle. V.3, Strange Journeys. V.4, The Final Battle.

TV series (13 episodes), 2001. Director: Shinichi Toukairin. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes, V.2-4, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

Adolescence is an emotionally confusing period, and Real Bout High School summarizes the feeling nicely in this frothy mishmash of humor, drama, historical tradition, first-romance angst, sports action, battles against demons, parody of kiddie TV you're now too old for, and adult political-suspense thrillers, in just 13 episodes. Daimon High School is a private academy with an emphasis on confrontation. All disputes are settled by "K-Fights," ranging from formal duels in a sports ring to ninja battles that careen across the campus, refereed by Principal Todo in sports-commentator style. Sixteen-year-old Ryoko Mitsurugi is Daimon's current K-Fight champion, a tomboy who is beginning to develop romantic feelings toward her kendo (traditional wooden swords) coach Tatsuya Shishikura whom she had previously viewed as a big brother. Rivals are two previous K-Fight champs; senior Azumi Kiribayashi, a haughty traditional samurai girl who also has designs upon handsome Tatsuya; and Shizuma Kasanagi, a vulgar punk delinquent who is an expert at street-fighting martial arts. Ryoko gets a part-time job promoting a local seafood restaurant as "Magical Waitress Oyster Lulu," a parody of all the Power Rangers-type kiddie TV superhero programs. Then a magic pendant draws Ryoko temporarily into the fantasy world of Solvania where she must fight real demons. The first couple of times Ryoko thinks she is dreaming, but the magic soon draws Azumi and Shizuma with her into Solvania where the three must learn to work as a team. Next the monsters start to materialize in Toyko, threatening Ryoko's schoolmates and friends in battles alternating between grim and comical (when Ryoko has to fight them in her embarrassing Oyster Lulu costume). It keeps getting worse: some ruthless organization (a Mafia-type gang? a government agency?) wants to seize Ryoko's dimension-shifting power (which she can't control herself), so she must now also fight ominous Men In Black assailants. But simultaneously her team of friends and defenders grows, including some unlikely allies. Episodes are themed, and the viewer never knows what to expect next -- fast-paced action drama, slapstick comedy, tender romance, comical romance (Tatsuya barely survives judging Ryoko's and Azumi's K-Fight cooking contest), grim horror (with the Japanese dialogue amusingly studded with some Occidental horror names like "Lord Alhazred" and demon-sword "Schwartzkaiser"), conspiracy-theory suspense, Summer beach-party silliness and more. (Samurai Girl) Real Bout High School was a 13-episode TV serial (July 30 - November 24, 2001) produced by Studio Gonzo, based on the manga by Reiji Saiga (story) and Sora Inoue (art) serialized in Dragon, one of Japan's leading role-playing gaming magazines; but with new character designs by popular anime stylist Keiji Gotoh (Nadesico and Gatekeepers, among others).

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Soul Hunter. V.1, Taikoubou's Mission. V.2, All the Queen's Men. V.3, The Spoils of War. V.4, Game of Kings. V.5, City of Fire. V.6, The One That Got Away.

TV series (26 episodes), 1999. Director: Junji Nishimura. V.1 & V. 6, 5 episodes/125 minutes; V.2-V.5, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

The Yin dynasty ruled China from about 1800 to 1100 B.C. It fell when the last Yin emperor became such a dissolute tyrant that the people rallied behind one of his nobles who became the first Chou emperor. Soul Hunter is a 26 episode adaptation (July 3 - December 25, 1999) of a popular manga by Ryu Fujisaki that tells this story emphasizing all the fantasy that Chinese folk tales added to it before written history, throwing in modern anachronisms for humor. Emperor Zhou was not naturally dissolute; he was enchanted by the demoness Dakki, who took the form of a beautiful concubine (portrayed as a 20th century airheaded party girl with a vicious streak). The leaders of those who rise against the Yin are not just rebelling nobles and peasant Robin Hoods; they are given magical weapons by the divine Immortals. At least half the series is spent watching all the heroes screaming, "My magic weapon is more powerful than yours!" and battling among themselves for supremacy while Dakki cutely but sadistically tortures the people with her demonic monster pets. Fans of superhero comic books will love all the macho combats using flying boots, water battleaxes, enclosing bubbles, death dust, homing missiles of stone, and the like, many of which have modern military targeting devices. There are also several Heavenly comic-relief talking animals, although this title (rated 12+) is too bloody for young children. The nominal protagonist is Taikoubou, a cocky but naive adolescent Immortal, who is assigned to "seal away the souls" (kill) of Dakki and her 365 demonic minions who are plaguing the humans; but there are so many main characters and so many supporting characters that each DVD's extras include a "relationship tree" to list the cast and their connection to each other. There are also lengthy extras of "historical background" giving enough background on Chinese history to set the scene, and "translator notes," which gives similar background on Taoist mythology to explain the overlaid belief of the difference between the Immortal World and the Human World. (Some Immortals give humans magic weapons to fight for justice. Others give humans magic weapons just to watch them fight, manipulating humans like pawns in a fantasy role-playing game. The Immortals get into fights among themselves over their own morality. Should they interfere with humans even from noble motives, or let the humans control their own lives?) The translator notes also build up an imposing list of archaic Chinese words for demons, gods, divine implements and magical actions, until by episode 15 or so the characters are talking about using their Kongenji or Kaitenju Paopei to houshin their adversaries and it sounds normal.

The animation by Studio Deen is barely adequate, and the convoluted plot with alliances shifting from episode to episode plus the crowded cast make the story hard to follow. But the situation is fast-paced and dramatic enough that viewers will want to watch the next episode to find out what happens next. Soul Hunter may also interest some viewers enough in ancient Chinese history and Chinese mythology to make them want to learn the real stuff.

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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