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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Who could have predicted this? I just read that Oscar winners live longer. In our case, the Oscar gave our life an instant boost, and a perpetual publicity handle. We managed five nominations, and have been living in the glow ever since. But was Bill Snyder able to melt that golden statuette down into real dollars?

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.

anime01_Kikaider1DVD.jpganime02_Kikaider01DVD.jpgAndroid Kikaider: The Animation and its sequel Kikaider-01: The Animation borrow from Pinocchio.

Android Kikaider: The Animation. V.1, Lonely Soul. V.2, Conflicting Hearts. V.3, Unveiled Past. V.4, Silent Journey.

TV series (13 episodes), 2000-2001. Director: Tensai Okamura. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.2-4, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Kikaider 01: The Animation. V.1, Another Journey.

OAV series (4 episodes), 2001-2002. Director: Keitaro Motonaga. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

This Kikaider is a tribute to master cartoonist Shotaro Ishinomori. He began as a young assistant to Osamu Tezuka in the 1950s. When Tezuka was dubbed The God of Manga, Ishinomori became The King of Manga. He created many of the most popular sci-fi manga and TV anime series of the 1960s, and then in the 1970s specialized in TVs live-action monster of the week equivalent which led to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers genre.

Ishinomori helped with Tezukas early Astro Boy stories. Jinzo Ningen Kikaider (most frequently translated as Artificial Man Kikaider) was Ishinomoris own rewriting of Pinocchio into modern sci-fi terms as a robot (kikai is the Japanese word for a machine) who wants to become a human. The live-action TV series ran for 43 episodes from July 8, 1972 to May 5, 1973, and was followed immediately by a Kikaider-01 sequel, 46 episodes, May 12, 1973 to March 30, 1974.

Ishinomori died in 1998, and there was a brief vogue in modernizing his most popular titles. Jinzo Ningen Kikaider: The Animation was a 13-episode anime TV series from October 16, 2000 to January 8, 2001, animated by the Radix and Studio OX studios. Kikaider-01: The Animation was a 4-episode OAV series by Studio OX alone, released between November 2001 and March 2002.

Kikaider is an uneven mixture of serious melodrama and the anime recreation of actors in rubber suits laying waste to miniature-set cities. Mitsuko and Masaru are the teen daughter and young son of Dr. Komyoji, an obsessed robotics scientist. Mitsuko resentfully compares their situation to Pinocchio: Geppetto made Pinocchio because he was childless, but you have two children, father why do you ignore us for those machines? When the lab is destroyed and robots in the form of giant insects and animals start terrorizing the city, she fears that her father was a mad scientist. It turns out that Komyoji was taking funding from Professor Gill, who he realized too late was using his robots to build a crime empire. To atone for it, Komyoji invented a conscience circuit but was only able to install it in his most advanced robot before Gill killed him. Kikaider, disguised as Jiro, an adolescent rock guitarist, undergoes all the angst of a robot wanting to be a real human; while Mitsuko, seeing that her father made him in the image of her murdered older brother, is torn between revulsion and guilt since she realizes that Kikaider, the innocent victim of all this, is trying to be as moral and helpful as he can. Anguish torment some subtle imagination, as in the Gemini conscience circuit (pronounced the same as Jiminy as in Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchios conscience in the Disney version) interrupted by all those pro forma robot-hero-vs.-giant-monster battles. Forget the Kikaider-01 sequel; both the animation and story quality drop off sharply. But Android Kikaider: The Animation is an intriguing attempt to put some depth and imagination into a formula that does not have room for it.

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Initial D. Battle 1, Akinas Downhill Specialist. Battle 2, Challenge: Red Suns. Battle 3, Challenge: Night Kids. Battle 4, Myogis Downhill Technician. Battle 5, Duct Tape Death Match. Battle 6, The Terror of Mt. Usui. V.7-14, further titles to be determined.TV & OAV series (41 episodes), 1998-2001. Director: Shin Misawa. V.1-13, 3 episodes/150 minutes; v.14, 2 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.99. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

Initial D will leave you feeling that the whole world revolves around teen street racers like in the 2001 movie The Fast and the Furious. Gunma Province is the mountainous region overlooking the Kanto (Tokyo-Yokohama) basin; an area of small tourist resort towns. There is little for teens living there to do but race their cars along the twisty roads. Tak is an 18-year-old student working part-time at a gas station at the foot of Mt. Akina, along with his high school buddy Itsuki and 21-year-old Koichiro, the leader of the Akina Speed Stars gang. Itsuki is obsessed with joining the Speed Stars, while Tak doesnt see why racing is such a big deal. What Tak has never considered worth mentioning is that he has been using his dads car for the last five years to make early-morning deliveries to the hotels atop Mt. Akina, and racing home to get some sleep before school; so to him driving is nothing special. But when rival teams from nearby mountain towns the Akagi Red Suns, the Myogi Night Kids begin dissing the Speed Stars, Tak reluctantly allows his pals to talk him into helping save their reputation.

Initial D is a street racers wet dream. Taks father and his gas-station boss were street racers in their teens, and they push him into joining the Speed Stars so they can relive their lost youth through him. The series goes through the sports formula escalation of easy rivals to tough rivals in specialized racing cars; honorable opponents to those who cheat to win; local opponents to racers coming from afar to challenge the Downhill Specialist who never loses; gangsters who try to fix races; temptations to turn pro. Tak wins at first because he has had five years experience driving his fathers car along Mt. Akinas roads, but how will he fare on a rival clubs roads? There are growing-up subplots: Tak belatedly discovers girls, and has to consider what to do when he graduates from high school.

Initial D began in 1996 as a serialized manga (by Shuichi Shigeno) with realistic (plain or ugly) people and beautifully-drawn automobiles. The animation (production credited to Prime Direction, OB Planning and Pastel) consists of similarly ugly character design for the 2D animated people and shiny CGI animation for the automobiles. The disparity between the 2D and 3D animation is deliberately jarring, and the cars in the racing scenes look less real than like realistic but idealized CGI video-game autos (are you surprised that there are Initial D video and collectable card games?).

This American Initial D release appeared as a 26-episode Japanese TV series broadcast April 18 to November 28, 1998; the 13-episode Initial D: Second Stage sequel, October 14, 1999 to January 6, 2000; and a two-episode Initial D: Extra Stage OAV series, released February 21, 2001. (It does not include the 2001 Initial D: Third Stage The Movie anime theatrical feature.) The DVDs consist of three episodes doubled; both a classic version as originally shown in Japan, and a tricked out version with new American rock & rap music, Americanized names (Itsugi is Iggy; Koichiro is Cole; Natsuki is Natalie), and enhancement of the dramatic CGI racing scenes.

Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss and Tim Burton come together in King of Bandit Jing.

Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss and Tim Burton come together in King of Bandit Jing.

King of Bandit Jing. V.1-4.

TV series (13 episodes), 2002. Director: Hiroshi Watanabe. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.2-4, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

The popularity of most anime titles depends upon an interesting story and charismatic characters. Jings allure is based upon its surrealistic art design and humor. The original manga, Oh Dorobo Jing, by Yuichi Kumakura has appeared since 1995. This anime TV version by Studio Deen was broadcast as 13 weekly episodes from May 15 through August 14, 2002.

The publicity and many reviews compare Jing to Lewis Carrolls Wonderland, but it seems more like a collision between the Dr. Seuss movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and Tim Burtons The Nightmare Before Christmas, with juvenile role-reversed versions of Don Juan and Leporello wandering through the bizarre fantasy world of cities each based upon paintings, music, medieval masked balls, clockwork and other obsessive attributes of culture. Jing is a notorious Bandit King who can steal anything, although he only goes after treasures owned by greedy robber barons or aristocrats who stole them in the first place. The corrupt local politicians and nobility quake in fear at his name and surround their palaces with armed guards, but nobody ever connects the sinister legend with the wholesome-looking 12- to 14-year-old boy who strolls into town with his sidekick, the funny-animal crow Kir. (The publicity says albatross, but Kir is the most crow-looking albatross you ever saw.) Jing is so handsome that the local teen girls all fall for him, but he politely brushes them off; it is Kir who goes after them with comically exaggerated romantic passion. It is quickly obvious that Jings obsession is to prove himself the worlds best thief, and to dispense Robin Hood-type justice; he usually gives away the treasures to their rightful owners or to the needy at the end of each adventure. Kir, who is a typical Renaissance-literature sardonic loyal manservant, gets all the best lines; and the writing is very witty.

Locales and characters are often part of the burlesque surrealism, such as violinists who use their moustaches as their strings, artists who use their daughters body as their canvas, and a musical city where the sidewalks are giant piano keyboards (which even juvenile viewers should realize would actually create discord rather than harmony). Most of the supporting characters have liquor-based names: Mayor Cognac, King Cointreau, the greedy art-collector Drambuie and his henchman Rum, the nine-tailed demon-fox Sherry, three characters named Angostura, Lemon and Stir, and girls with names like Fino and Vermouth. You get the impression that the animation staff had lots of fun working in visual references to surrealistic artists like Dali in both the settings and the costume design. The individual episodes are all variations of the same formula, but Jing is clearly not supposed to be about plot or character development. If you like fine-art humor with a general atmosphere of Italian comic opera, give Jing a try.

Samurai Deeper Kyo combines Japanese history and mythology.

Samurai Deeper Kyo combines Japanese history and mythology.

Samurai Deeper Kyo. V.1, The Demon Awakens. V.2, Curse of the Tokugawa. V.3, Sea of Trees. V.4, Nobunagas Ambition. V.5, Fire and Ice. V.6, A Shift in Time.

TV series (26 episodes), 2002. Director: Junji Nishimura. V.1-2, 5 episodes/125 minutes; v.3-6, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: Anime Works/Media Blasters.

Japans century-long Era of Warring States ended with the Battle of Sekigahara in October 1600, leading to the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan until 1868. By 1604 the Shogunate was only newly established. Many powerful lords who had pledged loyalty to Ieyasu, the first Shogun, plotted to betray him and either attempt to become Shogun themselves, or to destroy the new central government and return to the chaos of the civil wars to retain their local power. The true history is documented, but to the peasants and commoners of the period, it was all a time of confusion overlaid with superstition. Legends arose of lords ninja assassins with supernatural killing powers; of samurai with magic swords; of scheming lords selling their souls to foreign devils for aid (accepting firearms from Portuguese and Spanish traders before the new Shogunate outlawed all Western influences). Samurai Deeper Kyo blends both the history and the mythology into a dramatic fantasy adventure full of the insecurity of the period.

Yuya Shiina is a young woman orphaned in the wars, trying to survive as a bounty hunter both to earn a living and to search for the man with a cross-shaped scar who murdered her brother. She is bringing in Kyoshiro, a comically inept minor deadbeat when a snake demon attacks Kyoshiro. He transforms into Demon Eyes Kyo, slayer of a thousand men to defend himself. The fiery-eyed Kyo has been trapped inside the body of Kyoshiro, who had been a heroic samurai, since the Battle of Sekigahara. Kyo sets out on a quest to retrieve his own body, followed by Yuya who has no idea what is going on but hopes to collect the huge bounty on the notorious Kyo. She also feels he may lead her to the cross-scarred murderer.

Yuya (and the viewer) are soon led into a world of intrigue and death. They are joined by many companions such as Lord Yukimura, a cheerfully joking effeminate killer who can pass as a woman; Benitora, an extroverted clown who turns out to be the son of Shogun Ieyasu who has rejected his fathers scheming politics; various samurai and ninja in the service of one lord or another; and numerous demonic self-proclaimed gods who hope to control humanity by murdering and posing as the lords and generals. Not only are there good guys fighting bad guys, but there is murderous jockeying for power within each faction. Who is loyal and who is a traitor? Who is honorable and who is an opportunist? Who is human and who is a disguised monster? It is not until episode 10 that the underlying plot tying together the individual episodes begins to become clear, and the true personalities and motives of the characters surrounding Yuya are revealed.

Samurai Deeper Kyo, based upon a manga by Akimine Kamijyo, was a 26-episode TV serial animated by Studio Deen, broadcast July 1 through December 23, 2002. The American DVDs contain extensive liner notes brochures describing the actual historical events and real personages which appear in their legendary forms in the drama, such as the mystic master ninja Hanzou Hattori (1541-1596; a loyal spymaster/assassin for Ieyasu Tokugawa although he actually died before Tokugawas creation of the Shogunate).

Looking for intelligent cinematic science-fiction? Heat Guy J is a good choice.

Looking for intelligent cinematic science-fiction? Heat Guy J is a good choice.

Heat Guy J. V.1, Super Android. V.2, Vampire’s Ambition. V.3, Sins of the City. V.4, Hidden Fangs. V.5, Haunted Past. V.6, Urban Corruption. V.7, Revolution. Special Supplemental DVD.

TV series (26 episodes), 2002-2003. Director: Kazuki Akane. V.1-5, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.6-7, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Blade Runner meets The Godfather! Judoh is a futuristic New York-like mega-city blending soaring new technology and relics of the past. The City Safety Management Agency’s underfunded three-person Special Unit, consisting of investigator Daisuke Aurora, secretary Kyoko Milchan, and Daisuke’s hulking “Heat Guy J” android assistant, are supposed to correlate data showing signs of possible future crimes so the regular police can be on the alert for them. But Daisuke is a daredevil who investigates to the point of sticking his nose right into the danger.

The first episode opens with the funeral of Lorenzo “Vampire” Leonelli, and the succession as Don of the Leonelli crime family of his 19-year-old son Clare. He is a Caligula-like megalomaniac who plans to take over all Judoh’s other organized crime gangs, despite the misgivings of his own men. This becomes one of a couple of continuing story threads throughout the series (25 episodes broadcast from October 2, 2002 through March 25, 2003; the final episode was a OAV release), scattered among many stand-alone dramas. After Daisuke and J thwart a couple of the Leonelli mob’s schemes, it turns personal between Daisuke and Vampire jr. Another running story involves “Boma the Werewolf”, an illegal immigrant from a foreign country where criminals are branded by superscientific transformation of their heads into animal heads. Boma is a “noble villain”; physically a werewolf but was he ever really a criminal? What are his motives, and how will his relationship with Daisuke evolve? Among these serials are a hunt for a serial bomber, Daisuke’s attempt to dissuade a bitter young man from a self-destructive act of revenge, and similar individual human-interest tales.

The character design by Nobuteru Yuuki is attractive, the characters act believably, and the dramas are cleverly written. But as with Blade Runner, the real star is the futuristic city and robotic/A.I. technology. From street scenes that mix 22nd or 23rd century buildings with “ancient” 20th century landmarks, to intriguing CGI vehicles, Judoh is worth studying for the backgrounds and settings alone. The political and social situation are gradually revealed. Intelligent androids are illegal in Judoh; J is a special exception because of his use in police work. In one episode Leonelli tries to get rid of J by using political pull to have the exception revoked. The animation by the Satelite studio uses impressive CGI animation heavily, smoothly blended with the cartoon animation; just as the stories smoothly blend crafty plotting with action climaxes. Heat Guy J is a winner for fans of intelligent cinematic science-fiction. Note: The series is released individually and in two boxed sets of four DVDs each, and the Special Supplemental DVD is only available with the first boxed set.

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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