New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Dr. Toon gives the prize catch of all animated features, Finding Nemo, a bit of a tongue-in-gill tribute.

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.

Infinite Ryvius portrayal of teens has earned it the moniker of The Lord of the Flies in a spaceship.

Infinite Ryvius portrayal of teens has earned it the moniker of The Lord of the Flies in a spaceship.

Infinite Ryvius. V.1, Lost in Space. V.2, Vital Guarder. V.3, Tension. V.4, Change of Command. V.5, Retribution. V.6, Absolution.

TV series (26 episodes), 1999-2000. Director: Goro Taniguchi. V.1-2, 5 episodes/125 minutes; v.3-6, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

The Sunrise studio pioneered the dramatic sci-fi serial about several teens (untrained military cadets and civilian refugees) aboard a spaceship during wartime who are forced to take over to save themselves when all the adult crew are killed (the original 1979-80 Mobile Suit Gundam; the 1983 Vifam). Infinite Ryvius (Mugen no Ryvius; 26 TV episodes, October 6, 1999 to March 29, 2000) is Sunrises most complex version of this plot, yet in several important aspects one of the most flawed.

In 2137 A.D., a tremendous solar flare throws a dense plasma called Geduld throughout the Solar System, creating seas of plasma between the planets. This exotic sci-fi technobabble is a setup for spaceship battle action similar to World War II naval warfare. In 2225, several hundred adolescents are studying at the Liebe Delta Astronaut Training Center, a huge space station orbiting Earth near the surface of a Geduld sea. Mysterious commando saboteurs kill the satellite's adult staff and program it to sink into the Geduld until it is crushed by the plasma pressure. The teen trainees manage to keep the Liebe Delta afloat long enough to discover a secret prototype super-ship, the Ryvius, hidden within its core, and the several hundred survivors escape in it. The trainee astronaut computer programmer/pilots hope to return to Earth, but new attacks by the saboteurs force them to flee towards Mars. The refugees set up housekeeping in the huge Ryvius, trusting the amateur bridge crew to get them to Mars safely. In each episode, the bridge team discovers new secrets about the Ryvius and its military capabilities (it is obviously a warship, but whose?), which help save it from new attacks. Then a punk gang among the teens mutinies and takes over the bridge. Next the enemy strikes again just as the Ryvius is approaching Mars, and as a result of space battle damage to Mars, the Ryvius is mistakenly accused by the government (or is it a deliberate frameup?) of being the aggressor. The increasingly desperate teens are forced to flee towards Jupiter or Saturn, while new cliques, each distrustful of the competence of whomever is commanding the bridge this week, plot to take over to save us all.

There is a dramatic unexpected development every two or three episodes (except that the viewer soon comes to recognize when it is time for a new development). Despite six to ten main continuing characters, there are so many new characters among the 487 refugees who briefly rise to prominence that it becomes increasingly hard to tell everyone apart. The portrayal of the 16-year-olds (or younger) as frightened and undisciplined rather than all working together is imaginative for anime, although it has gotten Infinite Ryvius branded by almost every reviewer as The Lord of the Flies in a spaceship. Some aspects aiming for a teen audience are ludicrous, such as using hip-hop and rap as mood music for a tense battle sequence. One dramatic development is the revelation that there are at least two rival groups fighting to destroy the Ryvius, and keeping the increasingly complex mysterious enemy a secret becomes irritatingly manipulative by around episode #10. Despite these flaws, Infinite Ryvius is well plotted and relentlessly dramatic compared to most anime sci-fi series (though what little humor there is, its overly silly, such as futuristic character names like Ran Luckmolde and Good Turtleland III), and it displays some serious state-of-the-art space technology such as orbital rail cannons.

Japanese traditional ethnicity clashes with Western values in Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. ©GAINAX/ABENOBASHIPROJECT.

Japanese traditional ethnicity clashes with Western values in Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. ©GAINAX/ABENOBASHIPROJECT.

Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi. V.1, Sasshi, I Dont Think Were In Osaka Anymore! V.2, Its A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Alternate World! V.3, Impractical Magic. V.4, Theres No Place Like Home.

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

Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (Abenobashi Maho Shotengai) is a 13-episode TV (April 4 - June 29, 2002; a co-production by the Gainax and Madhouse studios) kids-go-into-magical-worlds fantasy that is a fascinating clash between Japanese traditional ethnicity and Western modern influences. The Abenobashi Shopping Arcade is a decrepit small, neighborhood shopping-district in Osaka. The shops have been family-run for three generations, with kids, parents and grandparents living behind or above the stores. Arumi and Sasshi, two 12-year-olds who have grown up as neighbors, are despondent that the arcade is being torn down. When it was built 50 years earlier, it had been designed in cooperation with a Shinto shrine with statues of the four Heavenly protectors: a turtle at the northern end, a tiger at the east, a bird at the south and a dragon at the west. These have come to be thought of as merely decorative, and as the last of them is demolished, the arcade is whisked into a series of fantasy-world-of-the-week episodes.

Each is a parody of an entertainment genre: a European Medieval marketplace (sword-&-sorcery movies and role-playing games) where Arumi and Sasshi must defeat an Evil Demon Lord to escape; a futuristic space-station mall (a combination of more sci-fi movie/TV references than you would think could be packed into one episode) where the kids must defeat an Evil Space Lord to escape; and so on. But just when you think that Abenobashi is no more than a collection of zany stand-alone parodies (kung-fu movies, 1920s Chicago-gangster movies, Pokémon-esque cute dinosaur/monster TV series), a hidden overall plot emerges -- and a very somber one (Episode 7 goes for poignancy rather than humor), tied to ancient mystic beliefs. Any scene, whether Sasshi and Arumi are trapped in a parody-world of Japanese magical little girls, grim military-action movies or American slasher-horror movies, contain clues related to certain mystical rites that were common at the 10th-century Japanese royal court that can help them escape, making the kids wish they had paid more attention in history classes.

It gets wilder! Abenobashi implies that Japan must be where American humor was in the 1920s to 50s regarding ethnic stereotypes that would be extremely politically incorrect today. The Osaka locale is emphasized in a manner similar to Americas stereotypes of illiterate Ozark hillbillies. The 12-year-old protagonists indicate the probable age-level of this TV series in Japan, but it is age-rated 17+ for America due to the kids foul-mouthed dialogue and excessive toilet and sexual humor. The American anime producer did the best it could to match the Osaka dialect by taking advantage of its own location in Houston to substitute an exaggerated Texan/redneck accent in the English dub, and adding DVD extras and booklets with lots of in-group explanatory footnotes for viewers who do not mind extending the half-hour episodes by an extra 15 minutes or more by stopping to read them all. There is also in-group technical humor for animators; look for all the different animation-style mixes and shifts, sometimes within the same scene. Ah sweah, its liak too f***ing weird even foah anime, man!

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Slayers Great is silly, while Slayers Gorgeous is great.

Slayers Great. Theatrical feature, 1997. Director: Hiroshi Watanabe. 60 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.Slayers Gorgeous. Theatrical feature, 1998. Director: Masahiro Aizawa. 60 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.Slayers Excellent. OAV series (3 episodes), 1998-1999. Directors: Tadashi Abiru and Kouji Aso. 90 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Slayers, one of the earliest and funniest sword-&-sorcery comedies, seems as deathless as the supernatural menaces that young-teen mercenary sorceress Lina constantly battles. Slayers began as a series of serialized novels and manga written by Hajime Kanzaka (art by Rui Araizumi) for the Japanese fantasy role-playing magazine Dragon starting in 1989. The first Slayers anime TV series in 1995 was a smash success, leading to TV sequels Slayers Next in 1996 and Slayers Try in 1997. By the time those ended there had already been Slayers theatrical features and OAVs, which have continued sporadically. The new Slayers releases have become rather like the Star Trek theatrical features; enjoyed by the devoted fans and more-or-less standing alone but really requiring familiarity with the series to appreciate them fully.

These three titles were financed by the publisher of Dragon magazine, with (mediocre) animation production by the J.C. Staff studio. Slayers Great and Slayers Gorgeous were one-hour summer theatrical features released on August 2, 1997 and August 1, 1998, while Slayers Excellent was a series of three half-hour OAVs appearing October 25 and December 15, 1998, and March 25, 1999. All feature the pair of wandering sorceresses-for-hire Lina Inverse and Naga the Snake. The tomboyish Lina, barely into adolescence, isnt really interested in boys (yet) but she is getting awfully tired of people saying, Youre Lina Inverse? I hadnt realized you were such a flat-chested little girl! Naga, in her late teens, is all raw talent but no brain. She flaunts her trademark Evil Sorceress Laugh and more mature body (boobs to the horizon) and tries to project herself as the leader of the team, while actually just leaching off Linas better planning.

Slayers Gorgeous is definitely the best of these three. Lina and Naga come to a small kingdom about to fall into civil war between its monarch and his spoiled princess daughter. Since both have the power to command fire-breathing dragons, this could get nasty. It is actually a comical family feud, which Lina tries to defuse (despite Nagas help making things worse), but the plot turns unexpectedly grim at the half-hour mark when a new, serious villain reveals himself. Slayers Great is unabashedly silly. Lina and Naga are passing through a city known for its manufacture of magical giant golems. The feuding rival golem-makers each decide to make a super-golem modeled upon Lina and Naga and have them slug it out. The golems are ha-ha parodies of anime fans homemade action figures. The three stories in Slayers Excellent tell how Lina and Naga first met; how Lina must save the world from Nagas plan to start an Evil Sorceress school and teach her irritating Fiendish Laugh to the masses; and how the two get involved in a battle between two sorceress fashion designers(?!). Slayers Gorgeous is recommended both on its own and as a sample for viewers wondering whether to invest in one of the 26-episode Slayers TV series; while Great and Excellent are only for those who are already die-hard Slayers fans.

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Somedays Dreamers. V.1, Magical Dreamer. V.2, Power of Love. V.3, Precious Feelings.

TV series (12 episodes), 2003. Director: Masami Shimoda. V.1-3, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto (literally, Things Precious to a Mage) is a melancholy tribute to adolescent trepidation about entering adulthood. It is very reminiscent of Miyazakis classic Kikis Delivery Service, but is aimed for mid-teen girls rather than 13-year-olds, and is a TV series (12 episodes, January 9 to March 26, 2003; animation by View Works and the J.C. Staff studios) rather than a theatrical feature.

17-year-old Yume Kikuchi has come from rural northern Iwate Prefecture to the Tokyo metropolis to enter a summer apprenticeship to become a mage. (Although the dialogue uses the vocabulary of magic and witchcraft, the Special Powers shown are more like sci-fi extrasensory abilities.) She is assigned to the tutelage of Masami Oyamada, who she is shocked to discover is not a woman but a polite, handsome man who is the manager of a popular salsa bar. He seems to be homosexual, which Yume dubiously assumes makes him a safe guardian for a girl, but she gradually realizes that he is suffering from a mysterious tragedy years earlier.

Oyamada helps Yume register at the governments Bureau of Mage Labor, which is about as mundane as applying for your first drivers license. Somedays Dreamers could easily serve as a training guide for high-school graduates looking for their first jobs. There are brief allusions to the history of the relationship of mages to normal humanity, but basically there are reams of bureaucratic regulations to keep mages from abusing their talents. Mages are strictly forbidden to use their Powers for personal benefit, or for any purpose that has not been government-approved. As a trainee, Yume is assigned to a low-level division that grants official wish-fulfillment -- magically cleaning up graffiti, helping to find missing persons, temporarily restoring an old womans decrepit house to its new-built splendor for a nostalgic anniversary. Yume is thrilled to be able to help people, but she wishes that she could perform more exciting magic. And what is she expected to do if she sees a deadly traffic accident about to happen and does not have time to get approval to prevent it?

That does happen, but not as often as unexpected traumas. Yume discovers that granting wishes is not an easy cure for lifes problems. Cleaning up graffiti does not stop the vandals from striking again. Using magic to temporarily improve something may only increase the wishers bitterness when the magic wears off. It seems that for every person grateful for her help, there are two who berate her when she cannot solve their dissatisfactions. Yumes situation is often similar to that of a young nurse who becomes too emotionally attached to her terminally-ill patients. She also witnesses what happens to a fellow mage trainee who is too arrogant and hot-tempered to control her powers. Yume slowly makes new friends as she advances toward her certification as a licensed mage, and as she privately determines to use her power to heal her teachers hidden torment. Too many people, she realizes, want to use magic as an easy fix to make permanent some pleasant moment from their past. The important thing is to move ahead into the future. Warning: several episodes are bittersweet tearjerkers.

Robin, a witch, is assigned by an international agency to terminate her criminal brethren in Witch Hunter Robin.

Robin, a witch, is assigned by an international agency to terminate her criminal brethren in Witch Hunter Robin.

Witch Hunter Robin. V.1, Arrival. V.2, Belief. V.3, Inquisition. V.4, Fugitive. V.5, Determination. V.6, Vengeance.

TV series (26 episodes), 2002. Director: Shukou Murase. V.1-2, 5 episodes/125 minutes; v.3-6, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Witch Hunter Robin is like a darkened mirror image of Somedays Dreamers. It is also set in a world with a minority of witches who are actually humans with paranormal powers. But instead of using their talents for beneficial purposes, most witches are either controlled by their powers (think Stephen Kings Carrie) or megalomaniacally consider themselves superior and entitled to dominate normal humans. As a result, an international agency, the STN, exists to locate and terminate witches as soon as they are identified -- with the rare exceptions of those who are recruited into the STN as Hunters to use their powers against their brethren.

Robin Sena is a 15-year-old girl born in Japan but raised at an Italian convent. When she began to exhibit a witch talent (pyromancy; the power to start fires by mental force), she was trained to become a Hunter. She is now returning to Japan as a STN trainee, a replacement for a Hunter who was mysteriously murdered. The first few stand-alone episodes show Robin on individual assignments with her new teammates against criminal witches, gradually establishing the locale and cast: the STN-Js office; fatherly, but businesslike head Administrator Zaizen; officious office manager Kosaka; handsome, but cold, head field agent Hunter Amon; friendlier agent Miho Karasuma; impetuous rookie Haruto Sakaki; the office computer whiz kid Michael Lee; talented, but lazy, Yurika Dojima; and others.

Robin slowly begins to pick up clues that the STN-J office is not trusted by the rest of the STN. Unlike the others, which terminate witches as soon as their powers develop and become known, the STN-J tries to capture and imprison them. Robin is already having doubts about a policy, which kills or even imprisons all witches automatically -- if they are able to hide their powers and do not misuse them, why not leave them alone? Further clues hint that the STN-J may not be saving witches for benevolent reasons but for an ulterior purpose; and that Robin herself is under special surveillance by the STN-Js executives. When the STN-J office itself is almost destroyed in a commando attack against Robin, the series turns into a cliffhanging serial. As Robin wonders who, if anyone, she can trust, her teammates must make their own decisions as to which will stand with her as friends, which will follow orders to turn on her if necessary, and which just want to run away from the danger -- if they are allowed to.

Witch Hunter Robin (26 TV episodes, July 2 to December 24, 2002, animated by the Sunrise studio) combines elements of The X-Men (psionic mutants, often emotionally unstable young adults), The X-Files (investigating unusual crimes to see if witchcraft is involved), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (attractive teenager must hunt psychics who abuse their powers). It features unusually stylish costume and set designs, intelligent dialogue and complex characters with personalities that develop and mature with the changing situations. It is no wonder that it has won so many fans that The Sci Fi Channel has just licensed a remake as an American live-action TV series.

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).

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