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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Rick DeMott talks with Tom Kenny to discover there’s a truly animated soul behind the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants.

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.

Chobits © Pioneer Entertainment.

Chobits © Pioneer Entertainment.

Chobits. V.1, Persocom. V.2, The Empty City. V.3, Darkness Descends. V.4, Love Defined. V.5, Disappearance. V.6, My Only Person. V.7, Chat Room.

TV series (26 + 1 episodes), 2002. Director: Morio Asaka. V.1-6, four episodes/100 minutes; v.7, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Chobits has been the most popular title in the anime magical girls genre, robotic maid subgenre since its appearance on Japanese TV slightly over a year ago (26 weekly episodes, April 2 - September 25, 2002, animated by the Madhouse studio). These are usually played for adolescent slapstick comedy. Chobits, based upon the manga by the CLAMP team of four female cartoonists best known for girls manga (Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth), has enough mildly bawdy humor to rate a 16+ age advisory, but it is a surprisingly tender romance aimed more toward adolescent boys with introverted personalities especially those obsessed with computers and electronic technology.

Hideki Motosuwa is a 19-year-old from rural Hokkaido who has come to Tokyo to study at a prep school. All the stereotypes about naive farmboys in the big city apply to him. Hideki faces culture shock over how heavily computerized Tokyo is, with everyone relying on Internet communication and e-mails. Chobits major sci-fi premise is that personal computers (the Japanese slang is persocoms) have not developed as boxes that sit on desks, but as mobile humanoid robots that accompany their users. The most popular models are designed as girls, with the only obvious giveaway being their I/O ports designed as weird but cute rabbity lop-ears.

Hideki is despondent over not being able to afford a PC like everyone else, when he scrounges one discarded in an alley dumpster. His computer-literate classmate and new friend, Shinbo, tells him that this PC (which they name Chi because that is all she can say at first) is not a commercial model; it must be an experimental PC that some amateur inventor tinkered together. It only gradually becomes evident just how unique and impossible Chi is. There is an urban legend about a new kind of PC called chobits, which look like ordinary PCs but are intelligent and have independent personalities. Could Chi be a chobit?

Hideki makes friends, finds a part-time job, does guy stuff like ogling porno magazines, crams for tests and meets girls. Three girls in particular: Chitose Hibiya, the young-widow manager of his apartment building; Takako Shimizu, his young prep school teacher; and Yumi Ohmura, the high-school student daughter of the family-run restaurant/bar where he works. All are old enough to be possible romantic interests. Amidst these activities he programs Chi for everyday use, which involves many amusing situations (since Chi is physically a 16-year-old girl, Hideki must buy lingerie for her) and contradictory advice from his friends.

But as Chi develops a puppy-love crush on Hideki, it becomes a serious matter. There are horror stories about computer geeks who became too attached to their PCs instead of real girls. Hideki is a healthy male, with three women who are seriously interested in him. Chi is merely a cute machine except that she has an increasingly sophisticated personality and can be emotionally hurt by rejection. What if she is a chobit? What if she is not less than human, but equal to or more than human?

Chobits is rather like the Paddington Bear stories for shy teen boys, with examples such as how to look for a part-time job and how to act on your first date rather than how to help Mommy go shopping. It is also a gently humorous guide for the computer-clueless like Hideki into the world of PC technobabble: OS, I/O ports, BBSs, RAM, freeware and so on.

JoJos Bizarre Adventure © Super Techno Arts.

JoJos Bizarre Adventure © Super Techno Arts.

JoJos Bizarre Adventure. V.1 - V.6

OAV series (13 episodes), 2000-2001 & 1993-1994. Directors: Hideki Futamura and Noboru Furuse; Hiroyuki Kitakubo. V.1, three episodes/90 minutes; V.2-6, two episodes/60 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual V.1 $29.99, v.2-6 $24.99. Distributor: Super Techno Arts.

This cross between Dracula and videogames like Street Fighter has been known by reputation for over a decade. An American video release has been promised and postponed since before there were DVDs. Now it is finally coming.

JoJos Bizarre Adventure (JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken) has been a super-popular manga serial by Hirohiko Araki in Shonen Jump magazine since 1987. There are 80 reprint volumes of about 200 pages each to date. French and Italian editions have given it a good international reputation, and it has spawned bloody video games. It is a multi-generational saga about a secret war between Dio, an evil vampire and an international team of macho vampire hunters led by members of the Joestar family, all of whom have names beginning with Jo (the British Jonathan, his son Joseph, a half-Japanese grandson Jotaro) and the nickname JoJo.

It was first animated by the A.P.P.P. studio as a six half-hour OAV serial, directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo, released in November and December 1993 and July, August, October and November 1994. That was a dramatization of the mangas then-current action, well into the story. A second, seven-volume OAV series, directed by Futamura and Furuse and released between May 2000 and November 2001, was based upon an earlier sequence telling how the team of heroes fighting Dio first met. This American DVD release from the producer (Super Techno Arts is the American subsidiary of A.P.P.P.) combines both OAV series, placing the latter episodes first so Americans will see the adventure in coherent order.

The beginning of the story, not yet animated, is summarized in a DVD extra. In the 1880s, two British youths were affected by an ancient supernatural talisman. The evil Dio Brando became an immortal vampire and began to create a criminal kingdom; Jack the Ripper was one of his first puppets. The good Jonathan finally defeated Dio at sea where both were lost. The anime begins in the present, where a brawny half-Japanese teen, Jotaro Kujo, has begun to develop frightening evil spirit powers a destructive ethereal double.

His still physically powerful British grandfather, Joseph, reveals the family history. The Joestars were psychically linked to Dio; the awakening of these psychic doubles (Joseph also has one) must mean that Dio has finally escaped the sunken ship where he was trapped for a century. Their psychic ghosts are a manifestation of their life forces, which they can control to become superheroes. The Joestars must stop Dio from rebuilding his criminal empire. Dio uses his own powers to turn skilled athletes into zombie super-assassins to kill the Joestars.

The second series (now opening) episodes are variations on Joseph and Jotaro tracking Dio around the world, using their psychic super-doubles (Hermit Purple and Star Platinum) to battle super-killers with names like Hierophant Green and Silver Chariot, breaking Dios control of his pawns minds and adding the grateful fighters who still have superpowers to their team. The first series, now the conclusion, shows the Joestar team hammering their way through Dios new gang of willingly evil killers to his lair in Cairo.

The animation is limited, but nicely directed to project powerful emotional tensions by camera angles, body language and subtle movement like slowly raised eyebrows and faint smirks. The plot is not complex, but the deadly traps and battle tricks that the adversaries use against each other show more imagination than in most martial-arts-driven action fests.

Kai Doh Maru © Manga Entertainment.

Kai Doh Maru © Manga Entertainment.

Kai Doh Maru.

OAV (45 minutes), 2001. Director: Kanji Wakabayashi. 75 minutes, including 30-minute production report. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Kai Doh Maru (a direct-to-video release on December 19, 2001) was reportedly a project to enable the staffs of the affiliated Production I.G, I.G Plus and SME Visual Works studios to get acquainted with new computer graphics technology. Set in the political intrigue of Japans Heian era, [...] this fully digital animation tour de force features elaborately drawn 3D backgrounds, showcasing a unique colorization scheme reminiscent of Japanese artwork from the period.

Kai Doh Maru is specifically set in 894 A.D. Judging by this production, Heian-era artwork must have been extremely stylized and delicately colored. The emphasis is on muted pastels (light turquoises, beiges, pale grays and pinks) often slightly blurred as if being viewed through a gauze veil or a heavy mist. There are some nice action scenes (and dramatic splashes of scarlet blood), but much of the plot involves political intrigue at the royal court where nobles move slowly in stately, dignified poses.

The art is lovely, and some of the CG effects (particularly slow pans through a heavily wooded forest) are effective, but only for the viewer who is willing to practically stop-frame the motion to study its subtlety. A blurb says, From the creators of Blood: The Last Vampire, but any viewers expecting a dynamic, suspenseful horror fantasy like that featurette will be severely disappointed.

The story may make sense to the average Japanese who is knowledgeable about late 9th century history, but there is little background information; and what there is confuses more than it explains. (The character called Masakado cannot, of course, be the Masakado because he had been dead for a century by then. This raises the question of whether this Masakado is a descendant, an imposter posing as his descendant or reincarnation, or since this tale is a fantasy a genuine reincarnation. Fine; but who was Masakado?) The protagonist is a young noblewoman named Kintoki who escapes assassination by her uncle in a family coup, and is taken to the royal court by her supporters who call her the Kai Doh Maru. The term is never translated.

Since Kintoki is the only heir to her faction of the nobility, she is raised as a boy. After five years in the capital, she is 17 and has attached herself to four handsome knights of the royal guard; a situation roughly equivalent to DArtagnan joining the Three Musketeers. Although she considers herself just one of the boys, and the personal protégé of Lord Raiko, their leader, it is obvious to the four that her feminine emotions are emerging even if she does not realize it yet; and they (especially Lord Raiko) are not sure how to handle this. Then the knights get swept up into the deadly intrigue threatening to destroy the capital city. Kai Doh Maru ends on a cliffhanger roughly equivalent to watching Col. Custer and the 7th Cavalry riding toward Little Big Horn.

There is a half-hour making of extra, which is almost insultingly fatuous. It boils down to little more than, Well, we decided to make Kai Doh Maru, so we began production and we worked on it until it was finished, and We have found that skilled animators can make a better film than unskilled animators.

Kai Doh Maru can be recommended to serious students of traditional Japanese art, design art and CGI technique; and to those familiar with Japanese history or who are willing to do a little research to find out who the Minamoto and Fujiwara clans and their supporters and enemies were. It is much too slowly paced and cryptic to satisfy as light entertainment.

Noir © A.D.V. Films.

Noir © A.D.V. Films.

Noir. V.1, Shades of Darkness. V.2, The Hit List. V.3, The Firing Chamber. V.4, Death Warrant. V.5, Terminal Velocity. V.6, Cloaks & Daggers. V.7, The End of the Matter.

TV series (26 episodes), 2001. Director: Kouichi Mashimo. V.1, five episodes/125 minutes; v.2, 4 & 6, four episodes/100 minutes; v.3, 5 & 7, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Noir, one of the most controversial anime series of the last two years (26 TV episodes, April 6 through September 28, 2001, produced by the new Bee Train animation studio, recommended for ages 15+ in America), is full of contradictions: a hard-boiled intellectual action series with beautiful style but minimal action and intriguing but basically unsympathetic characters. Two young Paris-based female assassins search for their past in a moody, slow-paced yet violence-filled quest that is invariably compared to the movies La Femme Nikita and The Professional.

Kirika Yumura, a Japanese high school girl recently moved to Paris, approaches Mirelle Bouquet, a blonde beauty barely into her twenties. Kirika is an apparently mind-wiped amnesiac who knows only that her history is a fake cover story, that she is a well-trained killer, and that she should contact Mirelle who is also a top-notch professional assassin. Also, she has Mirelle's father's pocket watch which Mirelle has not seen since her parents were murdered fifteen years earlier. Mirelle is torn between wanting to kill Kirika to keep her own secret, and adopting her as a partner to help find out what sinister force from their pasts is trying to manipulate both of them.

Noir has so many secrets within secrets that it is difficult to summarize without spoiling anything. The first 10 episodes are comparatively light, self-contained adventures of Mirelle and Kiriko (code-named Noir) filling murder contracts around the world, demonstrating their prowess in getting through impenetrable deathtraps, with mere hints of their mysterious adversary. With #10, the presence of their enemy becomes too ominous to ignore and Noir turns into a serial. Mirelles own past is slowly revealed, showing how such a cute young girl could become a skilled assassin; and both gradually discover the existence of a hidden international crime organization that was ancient before the Mafia ever existed.

Common complaints are that the plot is overly enigmatic, the atmosphere of impending tragedy is too depressing and none of the characters are really sympathetic. You can feel sorry for Mirelle and Kiriko once you know their histories, but Mirelle works too hard at being brassy and never developing emotional attachments, while the sad-faced gamin Kiriko is so withdrawn she does little (outside the action scenes) except stand around silently.

Common accolades are that the plot is clever (you feel that all 26 episodes were closely worked out from the beginning), all the weapons look realistic and the artistic settings of urban Paris and the Corsican countryside (the most frequent locales) are beautiful. The hauntingly addictive music by Yuki Kajiura has been so popular that the two sound track CD albums are a constant sell-out at anime import stores. There are unusually informative comments from the production staff published in booklet form in these DVDs. Even the anime fans who feel that Noir does not entirely succeed agree that it is ambitious, imaginative and challenging, especially for a TV anime series.

Risky Safety: Omishi Magical Theater. V.1 - V.3.

TV series (24 episodes), 1999-2000. Director: Koji Masunari. V.1-3, eight episodes/80 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: AN Entertainment.

The cute Omishi Mahou Gekijou Risky * Safety (an adaptation of cartoonist Rei Omishis childrens manga, animated by the A.P.P.P. studio) was part of satellite channel WOWOWs Anime Complex II TV program, weekly from October 5, 1999 through April 4, 2000. This enabled WOWOW to experiment with shorter-than-usual formats within the half-hour timeslot; Risky Safety is only 10 minutes per episode.

Risky Safety is intended for preadolescents, but it is so ethnically Japanese that it may be more suitable for students of Japanese culture than for American children (especially with its excellent but extensive translation and cultural notes). Moe Katsuragi is a young girl (upper elementary school or lower middle school) in the throes of a puppy-love crisis. Her emotional trauma attracts two tiny apprentice spirits, impish Risky who encourages her to commit suicide so he can take her soul to hell, and angelic Safety who frantically tries to improve Moes morale. However, both share the same body and have to fight over which one has control of it. Both are so comically incompetent that Moe is soon giggling out of her depression.

Risky Safety: Omishi Magical Theater. © AN Entertainment.

Risky Safety: Omishi Magical Theater. © AN Entertainment.

As the series progresses, Moe is tempted to help them win their promotions. But she cant really let Risky tempt her school friends into killing themselves, and none are in such dire straits that Safety can win her halo by helping them. Besides, how can Moe help both Risky and Safety?

An average American adaptation of Risky Safety would turn the two sprites into a standard devil and angel. AN Entertainments translation retains Riskys Japanese identification as a shinigami, literally a death spirit who leads souls of the newly dead to the Underworld. The traditional Japanese idea of hell is closer to that of Greek and Roman mythology; not a place you would want to visit, but without the atmosphere of evil, terror, torture and pain associated with the Christian idea of hell. Risky performs a needed service, so there is no moral problem with Moe wanting to help him. A subplot is that Moe is confused by the aspects of foreign culture she studies in school (misidentifying French words as English; to her everything is either Japanese or non-Japanese), and she is equally confused over differences between Christian, Buddhist and traditional ideas about the afterlife.

Risky Safety is the first release of the new AN Entertainment company. Vol. 1 includes a booklet of cultural notes covering details that most other companies would ignore, such as the differences between the honorifics: -san, -sama, -kun and -chan. Tokyo Tower, which is frequently seen in anime panoramas of Tokyo without any explanation, is described: The worlds largest self-supporting iron structure, standing 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. Its also one of Tokyos most identifiable landmarks. Tokyo Tower is a relay tower for nine TV stations and five FM radio stations, and is a favorite tourist attraction for both Japanese natives and foreign tourists. The original broadcast date for each episode is also given. Such thoughtfulness will gain AN Entertainment much good karma from serious students of anime and of Japanese culture.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainments 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).