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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.

© 2000, 2002 AKITARO DAICHI·MADHOUSE / BANDAI VISUAL. All rights reserved.

© 2000, 2002 AKITARO DAICHI·MADHOUSE / BANDAI VISUAL. All rights reserved.

Carried by the Wind: Tsukikage Ran. V.1, A Tale of Two Travelers. V.2, Shocking Secrets! V.3, Big Trouble in Little Nippon. V.4, Way of the Samurai.

TV series (13 episodes), 2000. Director/Script: Akitaro Daichi. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes, V.2-V.4, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Tsukikage Ran is basically a follow-up to director/writer Daichi's 1999 comedic drama Jubei-chan, the Ninja Girl, in the same length (13 episodes) and from the same studio (Madhouse). But where Jubei-chan was a semi-historical fantasy about a modern high school whose students and teachers are possessed by the spirits of 17th century samurai and ninja and forced to fulfill an ancient feud, Ran (broadcast January 26 - April 19, 2000) features laid-back, whimsical "realistic" historical action; specifically pastiches of traditional samurai movies. The closest American parallels are the TV Western comedies The Wild, Wild West and Maverick; the one a fantasy tossing anachronistic sci-fi secret agent gimmicks into the 19th century setting, the other a series of light Western adventures which parodied the popular movies and TV series of the genre.

Ran takes place during Japan's Edo period (1600-1868), the setting of almost a century's worth of Jidaigeki (what the West calls "samurai drama") movies and TV series. The protagonists are the stereotypical taciturn wandering samurai and his buffoonish comedy-relief companion -- except that these happen to be women. Ran is soft-voiced but not soft-spoken, with the standoffish egocentric "stay out of my way and I won't bother you" attitude; except that whenever she sees an injustice, she is inevitably drawn into supporting the weak victim. Her loudmouthed, unwanted tagalong companion is the self-styled "Lady Meow of the Iron Cat Fist," a teenaged martial artist. It is hard to tell whether Meow is actually good, or whether she can get the first blows in because her opponents are so stunned at seeing a female martial artist.

The pastiche of mid-20th century samurai movies is carried out in detail, with a pseudo-Edo period theme song and credits handwritten in old-fashioned vertical characters. Ran (Orchid) lives by a "fate will provide" philosophy, letting herself be "carried by the wind" down whichever road looks most interesting. Each village or castle town they come to provides an adventure that is one of the standard plots: the village being torn apart in a turf war between two rival gangs; protecting an abandoned baby who turns out to be a lord's heir that a rival wants to get rid of; the greedy magistrate who is taxing the people for a massive public works project while keeping most of the money for himself. Ran and Meow meet in the first episode; otherwise there is no continuity. Each episode is self-contained. Many of the supporting cast in each episode are drawn very similarly, like the stock actors who appeared in the samurai movies. It will help if the viewer has seen actual samurai movies, at least the classics like Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai, but Ran is easily enjoyable without any familiarity. Each DVD contains extensive "liner notes" succinctly explaining the historical and cultural background of each episode. Ran is an animated equivalent of the American TV Westerns of the 1960s and '70s, and can serve as a pleasant superficial primer to Japanese history of the Tokugawa Shogunate period.

© 1999 XEBEC * VICTOR ENTERTAINMENT / SOTSU AGENCY * TV TOKYO.

© 1999 XEBEC * VICTOR ENTERTAINMENT / SOTSU AGENCY * TV TOKYO.

Dai-Guard: Terrestrial Defense Corp. V.1, Hostile Takeover. V.2, To Serve and Defend But Not to Spend. V.3, Checks and Balances of Terror. V.4, Red Tape and Proud Hearts. V.5, In the Red. V.6, The Bottom Line.

TV series (26 episodes), 1999-2000. Director: Seiji Mizushima. 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.

Earth is attacked by dimensional monsters and must be defended by fighters in a "giant robot" battle suit so large it takes three pilots to operate it -- but the real menace is not the monsters but interservice rivalry and corporate politics. In 2018 monsters called "heterodynes" destroy much of Japan. The Army builds a giant battle suit to combat them, but the heterodynes suddenly disappear. By 12 years later they are almost forgotten. The Army has sold Dai-Guard to 21st Century Security Corporation, which uses it for publicity. Suddenly the heterodynes reappear, and 21st Century's Public Relations Division's three pilots have to master its military capabilities quickly. Agaki, an anime fan, is thrilled to become a giant robot pilot for real; Izumi, whose father was killed in the first heterodyne attack, wants revenge; Aoyama, who never expected to have to fight, wants to transfer out as soon as the company can find a replacement.

The three soon realize that the safety of the Japanese people is more important than their personal motives. But they must go into action in defiance of executive orders against exposing the company to damage liability and the expense of operating a giant robot. Management loves the favorable publicity that Dai-Guard brings, and dare not publicly repudiate Akagi's TV statement that public safety is more important than profits, so it allows the trio to go into action; but dangerously undercuts Dai-Guard's effectiveness with budget cuts. Some managers would like to get Dai-Guard transferred from Public Relations to a new division that would be their own fiefdom. The Army wants Dai-Guard back, considering it a matter of honor that the military rather than civilians defeat the alien menace. When the company will not sell Dai-Guard, the Army tries such means as governmental confiscation and building a rival battle suit from the original blueprints. The Army does manage to get Commander Shirota assigned to Public Relations as a technical advisor. While Shirota appears at first as a Trojan Horse martinet, he is gradually revealed as trying to instill some much-needed military professionalism in Public Relations' "conglomeration of amateurs."

Dai-Guard is a rousingly exciting boys' adventure focusing on the human aspects that are usually ignored in TV cartoons about heroes in giant robots fighting monsters. It's not just sci-fi battle action, but the hours of filling out debriefing reports afterwards; the worrying about the effectiveness of parts made by the lowest-bidding contractor; the suspicion that the superiors sending you into action are more concerned with their military glory than your safety or the safety of civilians in the battle zone. The smooth animation by the XEBEC studio, originally broadcast from October 5, 1999 through March 28, 2000 on the TV Tokyo channel, features complex mechanical designs which imply that the Dai-Guard action figure must have been in the $75 to $100 range.

© GAINAX / KGI co-produced in N. America by Synch-Point, a division of Anime Gamers USA, Inc. and Production I.G LLC.

© GAINAX / KGI co-produced in N. America by Synch-Point, a division of Anime Gamers USA, Inc. and Production I.G LLC.

FLCL. V.1-V.3.

OAV series (6 episodes), 2000. Director: Kazuya Tsurumaki. V.1-V.3, 2 episodes/60 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: Synch-Point/Anime Gamers USA.

FLCL is pronounced "fooly cooly." "What does it mean?" asks Naota's father accusingly in the first episode. "How should I know?" is Naota's blushing reply. This is a burning question throughout the series, which anime fans have joined in debating. The answer seems like analyzing what a Rorschach Test blot "really" means. (Like Mel Brooks in The Critic, the general assumption is that it means something very raunchy.) FLCL, six half-hour episodes released direct-to-video bimonthly between April 26, 2000 and February 21, 2001, is a co-production of Production I.G and Gainax, the studios that made Ghost in the Shell, Blood: The Last Vampire (I.G) and Evangelion (Gainax), with the addition of scripter Yoji Enokido, best known as one of the lead writers for Revolutionary Girl Utena. These are all titles famous for their "what the hell is going on?!" complexity and abstract "it means whatever you want it to mean" ending. So anime fans in Japan knew that they were getting into a head trip when they started FLCL, and they loved it. Now it's America's turn. Oh, one episode contains a pastiche of South Park. That should tell you something, too.

There is plenty of crazy humor, from surrealistic to gross-out, laid over a plot frame that is melancholy and somber. Naota Nandaba, a shy 12-year-old sixth grader, has to put up with Mamimi Samejima, a 17-year-old who was his older brother's girlfriend before he left Japan. Mamimi is clearly retarded. She has dropped out of high school because of being bullied for her backwardness, and hangs around Naota because she got used to him as a "little brother." She feels comfortable with him because of his physical age. At the same time she is emotionally confused by her adolescence, trying to act grown-up by smoking and beginning to grope Naota because it feels good. Naota is highly embarrassed but feels a responsibility to his brother to try to keep Mamimi out of trouble. Into their life rides Haruko, a manic girl on a Vespa scooter who immediately clobbers Naota with an electric guitar. She claims to be a Galaxy Patrol officer space alien, and enough weird things begin happening to make her claim plausible. Naota starts to grow horns, and a giant robot with a TV-monitor head pops out of his own head. It is hard for the "what does it mean?" analysts to avoid interpreting this as a metaphor for the onset of Naoto's adolescence; a time when a person's body begins to change in grotesque and embarrassing ways. And this is just part of the first episode.

The two half-hour episodes are repeated on the DVD with a complete director's cut version. Tsurumaki explains the anime and manga ingroup references in the series, and such tricks as how he assigned scenes to different key animators so that their individual styles would make the animation subtly different without changing the art design. This is besides plenty of scenes with deliberate art design changes. At one point the animation stops and the scene is related by flash-forward focusing upon a series of cartoon-art panels; this scene is also published as a 12-page mini-comic book within a 24-page booklet that comes with the DVD. FLCL means highly imaginative weirdness that is meant to be confusing in a cool way.

© 2002 Image Entertainment.

© 2002 Image Entertainment.

Hyper Police. V.1 - V. 6.

TV series (25 episodes), 1997. General Director: Takahiro Omori. V.1-V.5, 4 episodes/100 minutes; V.6, 5 episodes/125 minutes. Price & format: VHS English $14.98/DVD bilingual $19.99. Distributor: Image Entertainment.

Hyper Police was little noticed when it first appeared on Japanese TV (April 3 -- September 25, 1997) because of its 1:15 a.m. time-slot, but it has since won a following on video due to its high quality. It is a bizarre but appealing combination of exotic fantasy and a buddy-cop TV series. While this mixture as one-shot parody can be traced back to Stan Freberg's 1953 "St. George and the Dragonet" spoof of Dragnet, an ongoing series built around supernatural cops (werewolves make good police because, unless they're shot with silver bullets, they heal almost instantly) is very rare.

Few of the plots are procedural mysteries. Instead the series is a soap opera about the fortunes of a private police company in a semi-destroyed futuristic Tokyo inhabited by a mixture of humans, demons, funny animals, monsters, gods, and you name it. The background is never fully explained, partly because the TV series is an adaptation of a manga serial by MEE (Minoru Tachikawa) that started in 1993 and is still going, but apparently there was some cataclysm 22 years earlier that reestablished magic on Earth. Cryptic one-liners like, "Ever since the Earth's axis shifted, there's no difference between summer and winter anymore," are dropped into the dialogue every so often. There is obvious racial (species?) prejudice between the pure humans and the others, and a lot of crossbreeding. ("Cat monster" teen protagonist Natsuki Sasahara's father was human; her mother was 2/3rds cat.) Crime has become so severe that the law now permits private police companies to supplement the government police. These operate on a pay-as-you-go system; the one that Natsuki works for specializes in capturing criminals for government rewards, which makes it a cross between a police force and a bounty-hunter corporation. It is a very marginal business; at one point it goes bankrupt and the staff have to get separate jobs until it can refinance and open up again. (There is a hilarious sequence of Natsuki as a waitress at a pastiche of a well-known American fast-food restaurant chain.) The mixture of magic and routine police procedure is generally clever (what are the legal aspects of using enchanted silver dum-dum bullets?). Many of the supernatural references are based on Oriental mythology (Sakura, Natsuki's partner, is a nine-tailed fox with only eight tails, trying to earn her ninth). The post-midnight time-slot permitted some risqué humor (another main character, the werewolf Batanen, usually has a porno magazine in his desk), although nothing stronger than in American TV animation like Beavis and Butt-head.

Hyper Police has many plusses, including smooth animation by Studio Pierrot, attractive character designs by popular anime artist Keiji Goto, catchy music by Kenji Kawaii, clever dialogue by Sukehiro Tomita & Shigeru Yanagawa, and great Japanese voice acting, especially the voices for naive Natsuki and sultry Sakura. But it really succeeds because of the warm personal relationships among its charismatic cast: hyper-eager newbie Natsuki, cynical Sakura, big-brotherly Batanen, harried chief Mudagami, sympathetic young Mr. & Mrs. Tachibana who run the coffee shop next door, and others. There is action, humor, pathos and social commentary. Two complaints: (1) there is a phony buildup to what looks like a new Earth-shattering climax in the last couple of episodes which wimps out. The overall plot features "slice of life" action (despite the fantasy setting), and like most realistic fiction the story finally ends without any real resolution; just the implication that life will go on as it has been. (2) Image's release does not bother to translate the credits, and the DVD has no extras at all.

© Yoshinobu Akita - Yuuya Kusaka / KADOKAWA SHOTEN - TBS.

© Yoshinobu Akita - Yuuya Kusaka / KADOKAWA SHOTEN - TBS.

Orphen. V.1, Spell of the Dragon. V.2, Super-Natural Powers. V.3, Ruins & Relics. V.4, Mystere. V.5, The Soul Stealers. V.6, The Third Talisman.

TV series (24 episodes), 1998-1999. Executive Director: Hiroshi Watanabe. V.1-V.3, 3 episodes/75 minutes; V.4-V.6, 5 episodes/125 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Role playing game-type heroic fantasy has been popular in Japan since the 1980s. Majutsushi Orphen (literally Wizard Orphen, but "Englished" in the Japanese titles as Sorcerous Stabber Orphen) began as a series of humorous serialized novels by Yoshinobu Akita in the gamers' magazines Monthly Dragon Magazine and Monthly Dragon Junior.

The TV serial (24 episodes, Fridays from October 3, 1998 through March 27, 1999) reportedly surprised the novels' fans who expected the anime to be equally slapstick. It does begin that way, but this turns out to be in the tradition of many anime serials, which start light-heartedly but gradually evolve into suspenseful dramas. The continent of Kielsalhima is a stereotypical fantasy world of Medieval European castles, dragons and wizards, with humorous anachronisms designed to appeal to modern teens such as snack shops that serve ice cream parfaits instead of taverns with alcohol. Orphen is a handsome boy about 18 who has been loafing around a quiet village for the past year. He claims to be a former student of the Tower of Fangs wizards' academy, but he lacked ambition and dropped out. Two younger adolescents, Majic and Cleao, are the viewer's P.O.V. surrogates. They discover that Orphen has actually been watching a house whose owner unknowingly has a magic sword. Orphen expects a fearsome dragon to show up to steal it. When the dragon does appear, Orphen tries to capture it magically rather than kill it. He is interrupted by two former comrades from the Tower of Fangs who do try to kill it, and the dragon escapes in the confusion. Orphen begins a quest to find the dragon, with Majic and Cleao as tagalongs. It is not until episode #7 that they begin to learn Orphen's past. He was raised by the wizards from childhood. He idolized an older student, Azalie, as his "big sister" mentor. Five years earlier, Azalie tried to master the power of the sword but it turned her into the dragon. The wizards decide that she has become a menace and must be killed, but Orphen is sure that he can restore her if he can just capture and hold her for long enough. He hotheadily rebels and leaves the Tower to find Azalie on his own before the wizard trying to kill Azalie can do so. What at first seemed to Majic and Cleao like a fun-filled vacation tour across scenic Kielsalhima turns grim. The wizard assigned to destroy Azalie, Childman, was Orphen's best friend. It is not clear whether Childman is callous or realistic; has Azalie become a mindless monster that must be killed for humanity's good? Must Azalie be killed to save Orphen, who left the Tower before his magic training was completed and may not be skillful enough to defeat her? Is Childman secretly trying to save Azalie without openly defying the senior wizards as Orphen did? A complication is Flameheart, Childman's rival among the younger wizards who intends that neither Childman nor Orphen shall return alive. The animation by J.C. Staff is stiff, due to an art design too detailed to animate smoothly on a TV budget, but the story is compelling enough to hold the audience -- indeed, the silly humorous sequences become an annoying distraction.

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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