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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Anime expert Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including Brigadoon, Devil Lady, Gate Keepers and Gate Keepers 21, Read or Die, Voices of a Distant Star and he takes a second look at Cowboy Bebop.

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.

Normal 13-year-old Marin is saved by giant robot Melan Blue in Brigadoon. ©SUNRISE  WOWOW This product is manufactured and distributed by TOKYOPOP® under the license by Sunrise, Inc.© TOKYOPOP. All rights reserved.

Normal 13-year-old Marin is saved by giant robot Melan Blue in Brigadoon. ©SUNRISE WOWOW This product is manufactured and distributed by TOKYOPOP® under the license by Sunrise, Inc.© TOKYOPOP. All rights reserved.

Brigadoon. V.1, Marin & Melan Blue. V.2, Friends & Enemies. V.3, The Celestial World. V.4, Hope Amid Chaos. V.5, The Strongest Monomakia. V.6, The Day of Pasca.

TV series (26 episodes), 2000-2001. Director: Yoshitomo Yonetani. V.1-2, five episodes/125 minutes; v.3-6, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

Brigadoon was a 26-episode TV series (July 21, 2000 through February 9, 2001) from the Sunrise studio, with very soft, cute art design by Takahiro Kimura. Its attempt to blend extremes of silly humor and grim drama into a mix suitable for young girls is another revelation of the differences between what is considered suitable programming for children and young adolescents in Japan and America.

Marin Asagi is a lively 13-year-old girl just entering junior high school. She is a foundling, abandoned as an infant at a cheap tenement building, who has been raised to consider the humorously eccentric but caring apartment tenants as her family (including the neighborhood drunk whom Marin must drag home when he passes out in the alley). She has a happier life with them than with her schoolmates, most of whom scorn her as "poor trash."

Marin's life crumbles when a "mirage" of another world fills the skies everywhere on Earth, and robots in the form of huge childhood toys zoom to Tokyo to attack her. Marin is saved by a giant robot resembling a toy soldier, Melan Blue, who claims he is a "Monomakia" assigned to protect her (but refuses to explain what is going on). Marin's attempts to continue her normal life are frustrated as the battles between Melan Blue and other Monomakias destroy much of her neighborhood and kill neighbors. In episode 10, Marin's feisty but frail adoptive grandmother, who has been giving her moral support, dies of stress, and Marin is too crushed by guilt to enjoy the cute giant-turtle toy vehicle she gets as her personal car.

Eventually no less than the president of the U.S. comes to Japan to plead with Marin and Melan Blue to go up to Brigadoon in an Apollo spacecraft to stop the attacks upon Earth. On Brigadoon, Marin gets involved in deadly politics between Melan Blue and the other Monomakia "gun swordsmen," which leaves her nude and bleeding from many wounds, while the Brigadoon government assembly (fuzzy "monsters" obviously designed for plush toy appeal) turns out to be irresponsible squabblers who throw cream pies at each other.

There is enough seriousness in Brigadoon that it cannot be dismissed as just slapstick comedy. Children who are bullied at school may dream of revenge; Brigadoon hints at the somber reality if those fantasies were carried out. Children of 12 or 13 are reaching the age where they can expect to start losing elderly relations. Holding Marin responsible for the destruction caused by the Monomakias is a situation faced by many adolescents blamed for irresponsible actions of their companions, whether they participate or not.

Brigadoon is rated 13+, although some of the humor and situations may be considered too risqué or violent by conservative American parents. Plot setups that seem obvious (Marin's unknown parentage must mean she is a princess from Brigadoon; right?) develop unexpected and imaginative twists. The title is part of a running barrage of in-group pop-culture references (Brigadoon has nothing to do with Lerner & Loewe's famous musical, although its pseudo-Celtic theme song and a reference to the planet approaching Earth "every 100 years" leaves no doubt that the Japanese creators are familiar with it; there are also "tributes" to Star Wars and Miyazaki's Laputa: The Castle in the Sky) which are a gloss over of an original plot.

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Jun meets a new monster in each episode of The Devil Lady © Go Nagai / Dynamic Planning MBS UNIVERSAL MUSIC TMS-K All rights reserved. Released by A.D.Vision, Inc. under license. From the comic books by Go Nagai (Administered by DYNAMIC PLANNING INC. in Japan and D/WORLD INC. outside Japan).

The Devil Lady. V.1, The Awakening. V.2, The Becoming. V.3, The Strengthening. V.4, The Gathering. V.5, The Purging. V.6, The Victorious.

TV series (26 episodes), 1998-1999. Director: Toshio Hirano. V.1 & v.6, five episodes/125 minutes. 2-5, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

In 1972, Go Nagai's manga Devilman was adapted as a limits-pushing TV anime serial that blended superheroics with supernatural horror, similar to America's midnight-MTV animated series Spawn more than 20 years later. Devilman became a classic, inspiring numerous authorized variations and imitations. The Devil Lady (Devilman Lady in Japan, a.k.a. Go Nagai's The Devil Lady in the U.S.) is one of the former; a 26-episode TV series for older adolescents and adults (rated 17+), October 10, 1998 through December 29, 1999, animated by TMS Entertainment Ltd. This revision by Nagai himself, adapted for TV by Chiaki Konaka, reverses genders to make the dominant characters women, and changes the horror rationale from supernatural to biological sci-fi.

Jun Fudoh is a young fashion model who has recently begun experiencing flashes of unexplainable foreboding. When a domineering woman, Lan Asuka, orders Jun to follow her one night, Jun feels compelled to obey. Asuka takes her to a warehouse guarded by soldiers, where a chained man metamorphoses into a demonic-looking monster. Jun does also, and the two fight until the male is killed.

Asuka explains to the traumatized Jun that evolutionary forces have begun transforming people carrying a "Beast gene" into super-powerful but feral monsters, and that a secret international scientific and military Human Alliance (HA) has been formed to identify humans with this gene and eliminate them before they can transform and slaughter innocent humans. Jun was one of these latent monsters, but Asuka is confident that she can control Jun and use her as a "hound" against the Beast monsters.

On an episode-by-episode basis, Devil Lady is a "monster of the week" series pitting Jun against a new horrific monster each time. As the background plot evolves, Jun gradually rises above the humiliation of becoming a devilish giant who has trouble controlling her lusts, and starts asking questions. If Jun can be trusted, why does the HA order her to automatically kill all other latent Beasts without seeing if any of them can also refrain from turning feral? When a sadistically demonic child, Satoru, tries to create a Demon Beast army to replace humanity, to what extent are his followers vicious predators that deserve to be slaughtered, and to what extent are they just defending themselves against the HA's pogrom?

Asuka's own HA aide-de-camp, Maeda, suspects that Asuka is using Jun for an agenda of her own. Maeda's efforts to help Jun escape Asuka's psychological dominance and learn the truth about the "evolution" excuse for the transformations, while Jun protects him physically, take on a reverse-Beauty and the Beast romantic aspect. Among the many Beasts, the females are definitely the most powerful and deadly; and a couple of the subplots are overtly lesbian. The so-so animation quality is compensated for by clever direction that makes maximum use of ominous atmospherics; notably camera angles which imply potential victims are being spied upon from above or below, lengthy slow pans of motionless "empty" halls and rooms, and creepy mood music by Toshiyuki Watanabe whose thunderous theme for Jun is reminiscent of Orff's Carmina Burana. The Devil Lady should be popular with horror-fantasy fans of series novels about "good" vampires and werewolves who use their curse to help protect humanity.

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Gate Keepers. V.1, Open the Gate! V.2, New Fighters! V.3, Infiltration! V.4, The New Threat! V.5, To the Rescue! V.6, Discovery! V.7, The Shadow! V.8, For Tomorrow!

TV series (24 episodes), 2000. Director: Koichi Chigira. V.1-8, three episodes/80 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Gate Keepers 21. V.1, Invader Hunters. V.2, The Final Gate.

OAV series (six episodes), 2002. Writer/Director: Hiroshi Yamaguchi. V.1-2, three episodes/85 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

After the new Studio Gonzo stunned anime fans with the spectacular CGI in its first production, the 1998 four-episode OVA serial Blue Submarine No. 6, fans wondered whether Gonzo could keep up the quality for a longer TV production? Yes. Gate Keepers was a 24-episode serial co-production by Gonzo and Digimation for the WOWOW satellite TV channel, broadcast weekly April 3 to September 18, 2000. It blended attractive 2D character designs by popular artist Keiji Goto (who was the TV series' animation director, as well as drawing the manga adaptation) and "super scientific" art (mechanical designs and CGI direction) by Masahiro Maeda (who was soon tapped by the Wachowski Brothers as a sequence director for The Animatrix-based on his CGI work for Gonzo). Gate Keepers did not have as much computer graphics as Blue Submarine No. 6 had, but its CGI was more smoothly integrated with the 2D animation.

Gate Keepers is another Japanese variant of the teen mutant superhero team formula. The setting is 1969 in a parallel Earth being secretly invaded by aliens. The Invaders are taking control of Japan's booming economy by replacing industry leaders with ruthless mechanical doubles. Shun Ukiya is the leader of a team of adolescent "Gate Keepers" with psychic powers recruited by AEGIS (Alien Extermination Global Intercept System) to fight the Invaders.

The series starts off light with much humor and camaraderie (Shun is constantly embarrassing female teammate Ruriko by calling her by her childhood nickname of "Runny Nose;" as any viewer could predict, a romance gradually develops), and grows more dramatic as the Invaders become more deadly, striking at the Gate Keepers' own families and friends as well as the general public. The Invaders are able to tap into human emotions and use the economic ambition pervading Japan to turn real people into selfish, greedy sadists (a late 1990s commentary on the high-flying economy which crashed so disastrously in the 1980s?); eventually subverting a member of the Gate Keepers themselves.

Gate Keepers was so popular that the TV series was followed up quickly with a video game, Gate Keepers 1985, and by a six-episode direct-to-video sequel, Gate Keepers 21, released between April and December 2002; each featuring a new wave of Invaders being met by a new generation of Gate Keepers. Gate Keepers 21 (for the 21st century) has more CGI and higher production values than the TV series, but a darker story. Miu Manazuru is a timid innocent high school student recruited for the Gate Keepers by her classmate, Ayane Isuzu, who is much more cynical and emotionally burnt-out than the average adolescent. The new leader of AEGIS opposing the Invaders appears to be the top villain that the original Gate Keepers fought in 1969. Miu serves as the point-of-view character for new viewers unfamiliar with the TV series as she learns the history of what has gone before, and discovers the reasons for the changes between 1969, 1985 and 2001.

Read or Die is in the James Bond tradition. © 2001-2002 STUDIO ORPHEE/Aniplex Inc.

Read or Die is in the James Bond tradition. © 2001-2002 STUDIO ORPHEE/Aniplex Inc.

R.O.D. (Read Or Die).

OAV series (three episodes), 2001. Director: Kouji Masunari. 90 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Read or Die is a fast-paced, visually exciting direct-to-video three-episode serial (released May 23 and July 18, 2001 and February 2002) that works excellently as a 90-minute feature. Full of exotic backgrounds, high-quality 2D/3D animation by Studio Deen (it reportedly was the highest-budgeted 90-minute OAV production to that time), spectacular action sequences in the James Bond tradition, attractive character designs, famous names and the best pseudo-James Bond movie score you ever heard (by Taku Iwasaki), R.O.D. has won top praise from almost every reviewer plus such awards as Best OVA at Anime Expo 2002. A TV series is about to debut in Japan.

It makes almost no sense, but it sure does look cool!

R.O.D. is a highly tongue-in-cheek pastiche of action-based fantasy/sci-fi big-budget live-action (but heavily CGI) movies; everything from The Terminator to The Matrix to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. It seems that the British Library has an international division of super-powered secret agents to well, never mind why the British Library would need secret agents with super-powers. One of these is Yomiko Readman, a cute heavy-spectacled high-school substitute teacher (this makes no sense unless you have read Hideyuki Kurata's R.O.D. seven novels or comic books four volumes, art by Shutaro Yamada which are not yet available in English; this Kurata-scripted anime adventure begins with no background information) who has an orgasm when she finds a rare book. Her code name is "The Paper," because her super-power is that she can magically manipulate paper to, for example, turn a wastebasket full of scrap paper into a jet-propelled paper airplane.

Some villain has been gathering the DNA of famous historical persons and cloning copies of them infused with superpowers, but brainwashed into becoming villains. Yomiko and the British Library get involved when a super-villain copy of Jean-Henri Fabre riding a giant grasshopper tries to steal Ludwig van Beethoven's personal copy of Die "Unsterbliche Liebe," to resurrect Beethoven into an evil composer of a "Suicide Symphony" so powerful that all who hear it must kill themselves.

Yomiko, teamed up with Library super-agent "Miss Deep" (a leather-clad sexpot with bigger breasts than Lara Croft) and studly American commando Drake Anderson (depressed at being the "weak sister" of the trio because he does not have superpowers), must trail the prestigious villains (including 18th century Japanese inventor Gennai Hiraga and 19th century German aeronaut Otto Lilienthal who destroy the Library of Congress) across the world. Eventually they race to stop Beethoven and 14th century Zen Buddhist monk Ikkyu from destroying the world in a high-tech climax ripped off from the Bond Moonraker movie.

Read or Die is a get-out-the-popcorn-turn-off-your-brain-and-have-fun comic-book thriller. Yumiko is awfully sweet and convincingly spunky when she needs to be; Miss Deep (who turns out to be another famous historical character in disguise) is a martial artist who jiggles all over the screen as she fights; and just don't worry about where a villain would find DNA of people who died a 1,000+ years ago (maybe that secret government vault where the Lost Ark was stored at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie!).

Voices of a Distant Star is a virtual one-man show from Makoto Shinkai. © 2002 Makoto Shinkai / CoMix Wave Inc. All rights reserved.

Voices of a Distant Star is a virtual one-man show from Makoto Shinkai. © 2002 Makoto Shinkai / CoMix Wave Inc. All rights reserved.

Voices of a Distant Star.

OAV, 2002. Creator: Makoto Shinkai. 25 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Anime releases are practically all commercial projects. Voices of a Distant Star (Hoshi no Koe) is a rare exception; an amateur fine art film that was written, animated and edited entirely by Makoto Shinkai. It combines both cel animation and computer graphics done on a Power Macintosh 7600/120 computer. Without the background notes describing this, it would be indistinguishable in quality from any finished professional anime work.

Shinkai, born in 1973, was hired in the '90s as art director for a computer gaming design company. The experience he got with the company's software led him to create his own animated films. His first, the black-and-white short, She and Her Cat, won the Japan Annual Animation Contest in 2000. He quit his job to spend seven months working at home on Voices of a Distant Star, with himself and his fiancée performing the voices. A manga/anime publisher, MangaZoo, financed a new soundtrack with professional voices, sound effects and music.

The 25-minute short film premiered at the Future Film Festival in Bologna, Italy, January 16-20, 2002, and in Japan at the Tokyo International Anime Fair 21, February 15-17, where Shinkai won an award for Most Valuable Newcomer. MangaZoo's 10,000-copy DVD release on April 19, 2002 (including an 80-page "making of" booklet with all the storyboard art) sold out within a week. A.D.V. licensed the American rights and premiered the film at the Anime Expo 2002 convention last July in Long Beach, California, with Shinkai as a guest speaker.

Voices of a Distant Star is a languid, tragic romance amidst a high-tech setting. Mikako Nagamine and Noboru Terao are mid-teen sweethearts. It is 2047; aliens have attacked the Solar System and the U.N. builds a faster-than-light spaceship to strike back. Mikako is selected for the crew because of her superior reflexes. She and Noboru promise to stay in frequent touch, but as the spaceship travels ever further from Earth, it takes increasingly long for their electronic messages to reach each other. Noboru must mark on a calendar how many months it will take for him to get Mikako's next call.

As the U.N. spaceship reaches the star Sirius, Mikako becomes despondent knowing that it will take more than eight years at the speed of light for Noboru to get her latest call. Will he wait that long for her? Is it fair for her to expect him to spend his life waiting for her calls? There are a few brief scenes of fast-paced sci-fi battle action, but mostly the film concentrates upon Mikako's and Noboru's thoughts; their reminiscences of their brief time together, and her memories of Japan's pastoral countryside in summer and winter.

The visuals of Mikako and Noboru calling each other across interstellar space on their cell phones rather than via higher-tech communication equipment is improbable, but the physics of the limitations of light-speed communication is still valid and this romantic conceit emphasizes the emotional bond between them.

This featurette is 25-minutes. A.D.V.'s DVD does not include the Japanese 80-page booklet, but it does have an additional 75-minutes of video extras: the complete original version of Voices with Shinkai and his fiancée performing the voices; Shinkai's She and Her Cat in three versions ("digest," three-minutes, and a full five-minutes); a video interview with Shinkai; the original production animatic for Voices; and four separate trailers for the Japanese video release. This may be overkill, but Voices and She and Her Cat alone are worth the price.

The DVD release of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie will give audiences a chance to see the movie. © 2001 Sunrise Bones Bandai Visual. All rights reserved.

The DVD release of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie will give audiences a chance to see the movie. © 2001 Sunrise Bones Bandai Visual. All rights reserved.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie.

Theatrical feature, 2001. Director: Shinichiro Watanabe. 116 minutes. Price & format: DVD trilingual (Japanese, English, French) $26.95. Distributor: Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

This is not a review but an addendum to my review of this movie in the March AWM, at the time of its theatrical release. You probably did not see it in the theaters, since according to the statistics posted on the Box Office Mojo Website, it never played on more than 29 screens nationwide during its 12-week run between April 4 and June 22, 2003. Its grosses were only $987,252. This is a big disappointment, as any of the many American fans of Cowboy Bebop can tell you. (Fans of Spirited Away have been similarly disappointed with the poor public response to Disney's theatrical re-release of that movie following its winning the Oscar in the Best Animated Feature Film category.)

Fortunately, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is now available on DVD. In addition to the 116-minute feature (dubbed in English, or in Japanese with English or French subtitles), the special features include six "behind-the-scenes featurettes" of six- to eight-minutes each featuring Japanese director Shinichiro Watanabe, character designer and animation director Toshihiro Kawamoto, composer Yoko Kanno, both the Japanese and American voice actors for the main cast, plus others such as American ADR director Mary E. McGlin. Two of these featurettes are on the general making of the movie and on the international appeal of the whole series. The other four focus upon each of the main cast of Spike, Faye, Jet and Ed.

Other features include "storyboard comparisons" of four key scenes of about four-minutes each (a split-screen comparison of the storyboard sketches and the finished animation); plus such now-standard anime DVD bonuses as "music videos" of the opening and closing credits background footage with their theme songs, but without the overlaid credits, and "art galleries" of 40 character sketches, 39 sketches of the aircraft, 20 of the futuristic automobiles and so forth. The total is more than an hour of bonus materials.

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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