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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Vamsi M. Ayyagari takes a look at what occurred in the 3D industry in Asia and India during 2003.

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.

Edens Bowy offers a lot of fast-paced action, but is short on a story that makes sense.

Edens Bowy offers a lot of fast-paced action, but is short on a story that makes sense.

Edens Bowy. V.1, The Hunt is On. V.2, Hot Pursuit. V.3, Nowhere to Run. V.4, Fallen Angels and Flower Towns. V.5, Edens War. V.6, Edens Fall.

TV series (26 episodes), 1999. Director: Tsukasa Sunaga. V.1-2, five episodes/125 minutes; V.3-5, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

What the heck is going on? cries Yorn, the protagonist, toward the end of this young adult (recommended 12+) adventure serial. Starting in the midst of a dramatic mystery is fine, but the viewer expects small explanations and clues to gradually clarify what is going on. By the next to last DVD, the overall picture is more frustratingly confusing than ever.

Edens Bowy (is the obvious misspelling of boy just to look exotic, or does it have a plot justification?), is a 26-episode TV series (April 6 September 28, 1999; animated by Studio Deen) that looks like an exercise in throwing in as many contrasting elements as possible. It switches without warning from somber drama to action battles to tender romance to slapstick comedy; from realistic character art to super deformed exaggerated cuteness; from a stereotypical heroic fantasy setting (sword-swinging warriors battling demons) to an apparent American teen high school locale with 1950s cars and pop music to 1970s Central European (Budapest? Bucharest?) street scenes; from magic & fantasy to technology & sci-fi.

When a white panther speaks to the questers hunting her, everyone is amazed (The cat she talks!); but when, shortly after, they meet a human who really stands out with cat ears, fur and a tail, nobody acts as though they notice anything unusual. As the oddities keep piling up, the viewer must trust that there will be an eventual explanation for the inconsistencies, although it looks increasingly like just carelessness (as in this Americanization which has different spellings for names in the subtitles and the DVD liner notes: Fennis/Fenice, Yulgaha/Eurgoha, Yanuess/Yanueas, Rumesavia/Romezaviaa).

The setting is not original: an impoverished world with a giant floating continent-island, Eden, drifting across the sky. Practically all peasants and peons dream of earning the privilege of being taken up to this temporal paradise where the elite aristocracy lives. But some prefer a humble but free life on earth. There is a legend that ages ago, when a God became tyrannical, a human with a magic sword appeared to kill him. Since then, a God Hunter is occasionally born with an instinctual compulsion to kill any God (or Goddess) he meets. Eden is dominated by Yulgaha, a police-state theocracy, which is a rival of a mechanical flying city, Yanuess (a comically inept technocracy with robotic citizens). Both monitor the ground for the appearance of any new God Hunter; Yulgaha to kill him before he can kill their God, and Yanuess to capture him and extract his quantum energy (life force) to power a super-weapon.

When Yorn, a peasant boy about 13 years old, is revealed to be a nascent God Hunter, he suddenly becomes the bewildered target of hunters ranging from murderous robotic puppets to two genuinely funny buffoonish secret agents to soldiers in Eastern European uniforms to a rival God Hunter. Yorn is protected by two mysterious saviors; a cynical master swordsman known only as the Old Man (well, to a 13-year-old, anyone in his mid-20s is an old-timer) and Elissis, a sweet young girl that the most naive viewer will recognize as a God(dess) in disguise.

The fast-moving action, exotic locales and costumes, frequent exhibitionistic inconsistencies and young-puppy romantic interest between Yorn and Elissis show that Edens Bowy is clearly designed to hold the attention of young adolescents who may not care (or even notice) if not everything is explained at the conclusion. (Spoiler: almost nothing is.) But it does not offer much for more critical viewers.

Haibane-Renmei proves that an anime mystery can be entertaining and thought provoking at the same time.

Haibane-Renmei proves that an anime mystery can be entertaining and thought provoking at the same time.

Haibane-Renmei. V.1, New Feathers. V.2, Wings of Sorrow. V.3, Free Bird. V.4, Day of Flight.

TV series (13 episodes), 2002. Director: Tomokazu Tomoro. V.1, four episodes/100 minutes, V.2-4, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Haibane-Renmei is a must-see for the discerning animation fan or student. This 13-episode TV series (October 10, 2002 December 12, 2002; animated by the Radix studio) demonstrates that mysteries can be successful in which not everything is neatly explained; in which explanations could even heavy-handedly crush an ethereal charm. The DVD box art showing literally angelic children in an idyllic European rural setting, reinforced by the decorative title logo which includes a translation of the title as une fille qui a des ailes grises (a young girl with gray wings), sets an immediate atmosphere of innocence and peace.

A girl falls slowly from the sky toward a large building reminiscent of an old monastery or college in a bucolic countryside. The inhabitants, from children to older adolescents and all with halos and large wings, prepare to greet the new feather. The girl awakens with total amnesia except for a vague memory that this is nothing like her home, and that people do not normally have wings and halos. The five in the welcoming committee, from barely adolescent Kuu to older adolescent Reki, initiate her into their community; naming her (Rakka), easing the trauma of her growing wings, and introducing her to their small world.

A huge wall encloses a valley maybe 20 or 30 miles across, with farms and a small town reminiscent of early 20th century France. Most inhabitants are normal humans. The winged Haibane, who appear unexpectedly, are treated with mild condescension. They are allowed to live in their own communities in abandoned buildings. They are given castoff clothing to wear and are expected to take menial jobs to justify their upkeep. But it is all done with a friendly patronization, as though the Haibane are considered children rather than a persecuted minority. Nobody, humans or Haibane, knows what is beyond the wall, and everyone calmly accepts the rule that they cannot try to leave.

The initial episodes follow Rakka as she learns the conventions of the Haibane and of her new home. She makes friends; the personalities of her new companions are established. Then Kuu vanishes, and Rakka learns that the life of Haibane lasts for only a few years before they disappear as mysteriously as they arrived. This Day of Flight (also referred to as going over the Wall) is thought to be an evolution into a better life, and most Haibane look forward to it. But Rakka notices that Reki, their older sister, is terrified of this unknown fate. Reki chain-smokes to project a bad girl image so she will not be worthy of moving on. Rakka must develop the maturity to help Reki as well as herself come to terms with the inevitability of life.

Haibane-Renmei seems less religious than a gentle metaphor for facing the necessity of leaving the sheltered life of childhood and accepting the responsibilities of adult life. The concept/art design/screenplay by yoshitoshi ABe (that is the creators preferred Westernized spelling of his name) and music by Kou Ootani are beautiful. The animation seems fuller than in most TV anime productions, though this may be thanks to the leisurely plot that requires little action. This production proves that animation can be intellectual and philosophical as well as dramatic or comedic.

Moral dilemmas  not action  add depth to Orguss 02.

Moral dilemmas not action add depth to Orguss 02.

Orguss 02

OAV series (six episodes), 1993-1995. Director: Fumihiko Takayama. 180 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Orguss (full title: Super Dimension Century Orguss), a 1983-84 35-episode TV series, was one of the most popular giant robot titles of the 80s. Super Dimension Century Orguss 02, six OAV episodes released erratically from Dec. 5, 1993 to April 25, 1995 (animated by Hero/J.C. Staff), is set 200 years later and has little connection with the original until halfway through the series, so it does not require any knowledge of the earlier story.

New nations have arisen since the cataclysmic war of the first Orguss. Rival empires Rivilia and Zafran are building large armies of the practically indestructible Decimator battle robots from the previous war, mined from the ruins of the old civilization. Lean, a 16-year-old Rivilian apprentice mechanic, is helping his boss repair a Decimator for the Army when they are attacked by a Zafran Decimator. The only survivors are Lean and Lt. Manning, whose life Lean saves. In gratitude, Manning sponsors Leans enlistment into Rivilias elite Imperial Guard.

On a sabotage mission into Zafran, the two friends become separated. Manning learns of a super-Destructor the Zafrans have found and are about to launch against Rivilia, while Lean meets a mysterious young girl, Nataruma, who the entire Zafran military is searching for. Lean helps Nataruma escape with him back to Rivilia, where Mannings daring exploit has made him a darling of the military leadership. But this enables Manning to see Rivilias deadly palace intrigues, while Lean has become disillusioned by the haughty cruelty of the aristocratic commanders towards the common soldiers and civilians of both nations.

The dramatic tension in Orguss 02 is built around moral dilemmas rather than action. How blindly should a new recruit follow the orders of his superiors without questioning them? Is it more honorable to keep a pledge of loyalty to a ruler who turns out to be incompetent, or to help replace him with a hopefully better leader? When Lean asks his sweetheart Toria to help hide Nataruma, and Toria (who is already jealous) learns that anyone caught aiding the fugitive faces torture and execution (which endangers her mother as well as herself), to whom should her loyalty go? These questions blend into the backstory of the original Orguss, which emerges to seek a final resolution during the last half of what is effectively a three-hour movie.

Most of the favorable reviews during Orguss 02s 1993-95 release centered around the skillful copy by character designer Toshihiro Kawamoto of the attractive original art style of Haruhiko Mikimoto, and the music (for those who like heavy-metal rock) by Torsten Rasch. Also worthy of note are many small touches that create added depth such as the conflicted personalities (Mannings amoral self-interest vs. his friendship with Lean, Leans emotional relations with two girls who each need his protection, General Kerachis personal ambition vs. his genuine belief that Rivilia needs a better ruler), and giving the Zafrans a complete foreign language (subtitled) rather than exaggerated foreign accents.

Spirit of Wonder harkens back to the stories of Jules Verne.

Spirit of Wonder harkens back to the stories of Jules Verne.

Spirit of Wonder

OAV series (two episodes), 2001. Directors: Takashi Annou, Masaya Fujimori. 97 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment

Confusion! In Japan this is titled Spirit of Wonder 2 because it is a followup to the original Spirit of Wonder (Japan 1992, U.S. 1996). The first was an adaptation of Kenji Tsurutas charmingly nostalgic manga tribute to what he terms the amazing ridiculousness of the old-fashioned sci-fi of Verne, Wells and Hamilton, and the late 19th century/early 20th century popular scientific theories on which they were based. This new OAV, released as two volumes on Jan. 25 and July 25, 2001, was created by the AJIADO studio staff in the style of Tsurutas work.

The manga and 1992 OAV centered upon the trio of Miss China, a feisty young Chinese girl running a restaurant/boarding house in Bristol, England in the 1950s; Dr. Breckinridge, a classic raving mad scientist who is her tenant; and Jim, the MSs handsome young assistant who is the reason Miss China does not throw Dr. Breckenridge out. This 2001 production was designed as two OAV volumes of 45 and 52 minutes, each featuring a 35-minute two-part serial installment, The Scientific Boys Club (directed by Annou), plus a Miss China short story (directed by Fujimori) of 10 and 16 minutes, respectively.

The Scientific Boys Club features new but similar characters, still in Bristol. (The landscapes of southwestern England in winter and English-style music by Hayato Matsuo beautifully capture the atmosphere of the locale.) A frame of scientists at JPL awaiting the landing of the Viking 1 space probe on Mars in 1976 segues to the story of three old men in England (in 1958) who created a Scientific Boys Club 50 years earlier, inspired by the vision of Mars with canals popularized by early 20th century astronomer Percival Lowell. The still-young-at-heart geezers ignore the first realistic observations of Mars of the 1950s and, utilizing the equally discredited theory of space travel by etheric current, finally finish constructing a spacecraft out of a 1910s dirigible with a war-surplus submarine as its airtight gondola.

They set off for Mars, assisted by eager young assistant Jack and his skeptical wife Windy, in a space journey which parallels to some extent Wells The First Men in the Moon. The juxtaposition of 1920s boys-club pop science (which really is how the British Interplanetary Society started) and 1970s more realistic astronomical exploration makes this a parable showing that, scientific reality aside, we are all idealistic dreamers looking to the heavens.

The two more comedic short stories are Shrinking of Miss China and Planet of Miss China. In the former, Miss China is accidentally exposed to Dr. Breckinridges cellular shrinking ray with results that are a clever tribute to both Alice in Wonderland and The Incredible Shrinking Man. In the latter, Dr. Bs reflective space telescope which is intended to project a detailed image of the Martian surface in front of them, seems to instead project the Doctor, Jim and Miss China to a red planet which is not at all as they expect it to look. Spirit of Wonder is a cheerful delight for those who still find enjoyment in the naive but enthusiastic sci-fi of the early 20th century.

Sakura Wars has left no media stone unturned. It started as a videogame and manga, then mushroomed into an OAV series, a TV series, a theatrical feature, novels and live stage reviews.

Sakura Wars has left no media stone unturned. It started as a videogame and manga, then mushroomed into an OAV series, a TV series, a theatrical feature, novels and live stage reviews.

Sakura Wars TV. V.1, Opening Night. V.2, Overture. V.3, Crescendo. V.4, Intermission. V.5, Stage Fright. V.6, Curtain Call.

TV series (25 episodes), 2000. Director: Hideyuki Morioka. V.1, five episodes/125 minutes; v.2-6, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Taisho cherry blossoms amidst a fanciful storm! Sakura Wars (Sakura Taisen) originated as a mega-popular Sega videogame and manga by Ohji Hiroi, which was quickly turned into a four-episode OAV series in 1997. That equally popular anime led to two OAV sequels, this TV series (April 8 September 23, 2000), and a 2001 theatrical feature, plus novels, live stage reviews and lots more videogames. This TV version is advertised as Don't miss the further adventures of the Imperial Flower Combat Troop! But it is a revision and expansion of the story in the original OAV series from four to 25 episodes, rather than a sequel.

The story blends actual Japanese folklore about malign spirits that haunt Tokyo due to cruelties committed in the past (the basis for many Japanese horror novels, movies and other anime such as Doomed Megalopolis), Shinto tenets about teams of temple virgins who combat evil with their spiritual purity (another popular horror-fantasy theme), and an alternate world version of Japanese history of the early 1920s.

Sakura Shinguji is a teenager from rural Sendai whose father was killed in the 1915-18 world war against demons. She is thrilled to be invited to Tokyo in April 1923 to join the new Imperial Flower Combat Troop of young girls with strong psychic powers to defend the capital against new demon attacks. But she discovers that the secret anti-demon team has a cover identity as the Troupe of the new Grand Imperial Theatre, so she must become a polished operatic/music hall actress as well as learning to focus her spiritual energy to operate the experimental mechanical anti-demon battle armor.

This TV version (surprisingly mediocre in animation quality for a Madhouse production) is much more somber than the OAV version. It follows the girls' TV adventure formula of introducing a newly-formed team of talented egotists who each have distinct personalities, focusing upon each of the six girls to establish her personal traits and history, then showing their gradually developing friendship, trust and team spirit -- which may be too slow to combat the menace of the Black Sanctum Council that seeks to destroy Tokyo's ancient spiritual barriers against the demons formed out of centuries of human hatred and corruption.

Sakura Wars is also an intriguing Taisho-era history lesson in a fantasy format. The 1915-18 Kouma War in which Japan becomes a world class military power parallels World War I. The political squabbling to prepare the capital for the next demon attack is the attempt to modernize ancient Tokyo, which in real history was cut short by the great September 1923 earthquake which did destroy the old city.

In episode #12, French girl Iris Chauteaubriand's disappointment at not getting a birthday party shows that birthday parties are a recent Western importation to Japan (traditionally all birthdays were celebrated as part of the New Year festivities). The Imperial Theatre Troupe is the famous Takarazuka all-female production company. The clothing and musical styles are authentic to early 1920s Japan -- although the point is glossed over that the spiritual demons the army was being built up to fight were not supernatural as much as encroaching Western cultural influences.

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).