New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including: Martian Successor Nadesico, Pet Shop of Horrors, Moldiver, Black Jack and Amon Saga.

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 and about which our readers should know.

Martian Successor Nadesico. Volumes 1 - 6. © XEBEC / Project NADESICO * TV TOKYO

Martian Successor Nadesico. Volumes 1 - 6. © XEBEC / Project NADESICO * TV TOKYO

Martian Successor Nadesico. V.1, Chronicle 1. V.2, Mission to Mars. V.3, Danger Zones. V.4, Paradigm Shifts. V.5, Secrets & Lies. V.6, End Game.

TV series, 1996 -- 1997. Director: Tatsuo Sato. V.1 -- 4, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.5 -- 6, 5 episodes/125 minutes. Price & format: DVD $29.98 bilingual. Distributor: A.D. Vision Films.

As a 26-episode weekly serial on TV Tokyo from October 1, 1996 through March 25, 1997 (produced by Xebec and Studio Tron), Nadesico was so popular that it won a major 1998 Japanese fan survey as, "The best anime show of all time." It also spun off a 1998 theatrical feature sequel, Nadesico the Movie: The Prince of Darkness (not included in this video release). Nadesico combines comedy, suspense, giant robots, an interplanetary sci-fi plot that mixes both simplistic and complex elements, and above all a human interest drama with likeable characters. In 2195 A.D. humanity has settled the Moon and Mars. Suddenly a mysterious space armada destroys the Martian colony and begins to attack the Moon and Earth. The United Earth Forces space fleet is consistently defeated, so one of Earth's largest corporations, Nergal Heavy Industries, builds a private battleship, the Nadesico, using its own technological innovations. Nergal selects a crew based on special talents rather than willingness to conform to military discipline. The government, highly displeased, plots to get control of the Nadesico and add it to the space navy. Most of the crew is young and introverted, each obsessed with his or her special interest. Part of the serial's appeal is how the main cast -- Akito Tenkawa, Yurika Misumaru, Ruri Hoshino, Megumi Reinard, Ryoko Subaru and others -- evolve in their emotions and relationships from a collection of loners into a community. There are many surprises; for example, Gai Daigouji, who shows all the signs in the first two episodes of becoming a major character, is unexpectedly killed in episode #3. When Nergal's top management and the UEF come to an accommodation that seems to put the Nadesico under the command that it was created to avoid, the young crew must decide whether their superiors know best or whether they have a higher duty to humanity to follow their original mission. One of Nadesico's most popular elements is its inclusion of Gekigangar, a fictional giant robot TV cartoon series that is the favorite of many of the Nadesico's crew. Gekigangar starts out as merely a broad parody of giant robot anime TV stereotypes (Go Nagai's Getter Robo in particular), and of anime fandom itself. As the Nadesico crew becomes increasingly disillusioned by the arrogant incompetence and self-interest among their superiors, some adopt Gekigangar as their new role model. Even though the crew knows that it is really only a TV program designed to sell toys to children, are the virtues of truth and honor espoused by its fictional incorruptible heroes better as ideals, than the cover-ups and cynical platitudes they see from the real government? Or is such an attitude an immature avoidance of reality? (The fragments of fictional Gekigangar episodes shown in Nadesico became so popular that a real Gekigangar series was made in 1997.) This is just one subplot woven amidst the main action as the Nadesico battles the "Jovian Lizard" menace from the Asteroid Belt to Earth itself. (However, to make such emotional soul-searching convincing requires really good voice acting. A.D. Vision's English dub unfortunately does not measure up.)

A.D. Vision's DVD release is recommended for offering four (or five) episodes in both English and Japanese with English subtitles, plus some good bonus extras. A video release is also available in dubbed ($19.98) or subtitled ($29.95) editions; 2 episodes/60 minutes each. V.1, Invasion! V.2, Desperate Journey. V.3, Turnabout Attacker. V.4, Deadly Encounters. V.5, The Mind of the Machine. V.6, Between Heaven & Hell. V.7, Contact! V.8, Memories. V.9, Heavenly Bodies. V.10, Friend or Foe? V.11, Code of Honor. V.12, Full Circle.

Pet Shop of Horrors. © Mari Akino/Polygram/TBS/Madhouse.

Pet Shop of Horrors. © Mari Akino/Polygram/TBS/Madhouse.

Pet Shop of Horrors. Special Edition.

TV series, 1999. Director: Toshio Hirata. Four episodes; 95 mins. Price & format: DVD $29.95 bilingual. Distributor: Urban Vision Entertainment.

Horror fantasy anthologies, usually hosted by a comically creepy Master of Ceremonies, are an American comic-book tradition going back to the famous EC comics of the 1950s with their later TV/movie spinoff Tales from the Crypt. In Japan the Pet Shop of Horrors 1990s romantic fantasy manga by Matsuri "Mari" Akino ran to forty short stories with a more coherent storyline. The anime version returned to the American model, picking just four tales from early in the series and presenting them without any continuity development. Considering the popularity of Akino's manga and the prestige of the creative team at the Madhouse production studio (including theatrical directors Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Rintaro), everyone was puzzled when this was limited to a four-episode midnight half-hour TV series, shown weekly on Tokyo Broadcasting System during March 1999.

In the Chinatown of a large American city is a tiny but luxurious pet shop managed by a aesthetically effeminate young man called Count D. He sells only the rarest exotic animals and insists that they must be cared for exactly according to instructions specified in a contract. Obviously each purchaser will disregard these instructions and meet a supernaturally gruesome fate. What makes each story interesting are the details, tailored to the slowly revealed character flaw of the story's protagonist: arrogance, uncritical devotion, carelessness, egotism. Usually the victims foolishly assume that the instructions are not important, though in one a despairing man deliberately disregards the instructions as a romantic way to commit suicide. Series continuity is provided by Count D, who sells the fantasy animal at the beginning of each episode, and by rookie plainclothes police detective Leon, who is sure that the grotesque fatalities plaguing the city are somehow attributable to the Count since all the victims were customers of his shop, although he cannot prove a connection.

The four cautionary parables chosen for the anime series, "Daughter," "Delicious," "Despair" and "Dual" (all forty of Akino's stories have titles beginning with D), are deliberately staged to be generic horror mini-movies. They leave unanswered such questions as whether "Count D" stands for Dracula; whether the handsomely languorous Count is homosexual; how close does the relationship between the Count and Leon get; and which large American city is the locale. (In the manga Leon is a Los Angeles police detective, but Akino's depiction is such a vague Oriental fantasy-vision of big-city America that it makes better sense to leave it unidentified as the anime version has.) Akino's Pet Shop of Horrors manga was published in ten volumes in Japan from 1995 to 1998 but has not been translated into English yet.

Moldiver. © AIC, Pioneer LDC, Inc.

Moldiver. © AIC, Pioneer LDC, Inc.

Moldiver.

OAV series, 1993. Director: Hiroyuki Kitazume. 6 half-hour episodes; 180 minutes. Price & format: DVD $19.98 bilingual. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Gundam has been one of the hottest anime titles in Japan for over twenty years. The attractive character designs by Hiroyuki Kitazume are one reason for its popularity. Gundam is not his sole work however. Moldiver is more of a personal tour de force for Kitazume, since he directed it and created the story concept, as well as designed its characters. Moldiver, produced by the A.I.C. studio as a six episode OAV series, released in Japan between February and October 1993, was also one of Japanese company Pioneer's first U.S. releases from May through October 1994. Its success as a popular sci-fi comedy led to Pioneer's rapid expansion to become one of America's major anime distributors today.

Moldiver is a giddy teen comedy, partly satire on American costumed heroes and partly Japanese destruction-derby slapstick mayhem. Tokyo in 2045 is a shiny utopia, thanks to miracles in computer technology developed by famous Professor Hiroshi Amagi -- until the city is suddenly hit by a crime wave masterminded by mad scientist/supervillain Dr. Machingal and his team of android "Superdolls" built to resemble famous 20th century actresses (Brooke, Vivien, Jennifer, Elizabeth, etc.). Just as suddenly, an American-style costumed superhero appears to oppose them: Captain Tokyo! Their battles (and Captain Tokyo's dynamic posing for cameras) make for great TV news coverage. The fact that each confrontation leaves several blocks in rubble is glossed over.

Mirai Ozora, a 17-year-old airhead who loves to tease her geeky techno-nerd older brother Hiroshi, discovers while snooping through his room that he is Captain Tokyo! His discovery of molecular rearrangement controlled by brain waves (there is a "scientific explanation" full of amusing technobabble) is so simple to control that Mirai reprograms it to offer a second setting for herself as Moldiver, a superheroine in a stylish frilly skirt to catch the eye of hunky dreamboat Kaoru Misaki, Hiroshi's best friend. Much comedy results as the siblings squabble over which of them will get to use the Mol-unit. Each accidentally becomes the other's hero. The "fighting for justice" evolves into a series of catfights between Mirai and one or more of the robotic movie star lookalikes. Plus, Mirai and/or Hiroshi constantly end up embarrassingly nude when the Mol-unit's timer unexpectedly shuts off.

Much of the humor is actually infantile. Hiroshi, an idealistic researcher who wants to improve mankind through technological advance, cannot think of anything better to do with his discovery than model himself after comic-book heroes. Dr. Machingal is revealed at the outset to be Prof. Amagi, in his second childhood, smarting at hints that it is past time to retire, and out to prove with his Superdolls and spectacular thefts that he can still out-think anyone else. Then Hiroshi's and Mirai's little brother Nozomu finds the Mol-unit and wants to turn himself into a super-character stronger than anybody else -- and he doesn't care how many fatalities he leaves among innocent bystanders while showing off. Most of the characters, determined to prove how smart or adult they are, end up looking like omnipotent four-year-olds throwing temper tantrums.

Pioneer's 1994 six individual videos are still available, $19.98 each dubbed or $24.98 subtitled; although since the new DVD release offers all six both dubbed and subtitled, plus DVD bonuses, for the price of a single dubbed video episode, they will probably disappear in a blowout sale soon.

Black Jack. © Tezuka Production Co. Ltd./Shochiku Co.,Ltd 1996.

Black Jack. © Tezuka Production Co. Ltd./Shochiku Co.,Ltd 1996.

Black Jack.

Theatrical feature, 1996. Director: Osamu Dezaki. 90 minutes. Price & format: video $19.95 dubbed, $24.95 subtitled; DVD $29.95 bilingual. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is best-known in America for his juvenile animation Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Tezuka had completed his medical studies and gotten his surgeon's license before deciding upon a cartoonist's career in the early 1950s. From 1973 to 1978 he used his medical expertise to create the adult cartoon melodrama Black Jack, about a mysterious "outlaw surgeon," the equivalent of a Western's drifting cowboy hero, who uses his scalpel to achieve moral justice beyond the medical profession's regulations. Tezuka's comic-book series was popular enough to spin off four Black Jack live-action theatrical features and nine OAVs from 1977 to 1995 before this animated theatrical feature's release in November 1996.

This biological suspense drama in the vein of Outbreak is a new story, carefully crafted to be faithful to Tezuka's plots and produced by his Tezuka Productions. Osamu Dezaki, the veteran theatrical anime director who also supervised the Black Jack OAVs, storyboarded this feature and co-wrote the screenplay as well as directed it. Dezaki's characteristic soft-pastel "beautiful" look -- upper-class people, elegant clothing, rich homes and offices, lush landscapes, neon-lit urban nightscapes -- makes the horrific ravages of the "Moira syndrome" especially graphic. The realistic operating-room close-ups (there is a medical supervisor credit) are not for the squeamish.

Set in the then-future, an international sensation is caused at the 2000 Olympics when numerous new records are set by teen athletes from around the world. During the next couple of years so many young geniuses appear in sports, art and literature that many believe a new advance in human evolution is beginning; "Super-Humans for the 21st Century!" But suddenly they begin dying, their internal organs rotting inside their bodies. A top medical research center in New York controlled by beautiful but proud Dr. Jo Carol Brane starts a crash project to cure the mystery disease before it becomes an epidemic. When they are stymied, she uses unethical pressure to force the reclusive Black Jack to join their team. Being a genius, it does not take long for him to discover a human origin behind both the disease and the super-human talents. Black Jack must battle corporate greed and professional arrogance as well as the new virus to forestall a deadly plague.

Black Jack has the disadvantage for Americans of assuming that the audience will be familiar with the background of Tezuka's series. There is no explanation of why Black Jack is so hideously scarred, why he and the medical profession are at odds, or why he lives as a recluse except for a hyperactive young child as his housekeeper and medical assistant. If American viewers will not mind leaving these questions unanswered, the movie otherwise is a winning showpiece of both Tezuka's adult storytelling style and Dezaki's directorial style.

Amon Saga. © 1986 Baku Yumemakura/Ten Production/Tokumashoten Publishing Co., Ltd./T&M.

Amon Saga. © 1986 Baku Yumemakura/Ten Production/Tokumashoten Publishing Co., Ltd./T&M.

Amon Saga.

OAV movie, 1986. Director: Shunji Oga. 68 minutes. Price & format: video $19.95 dubbed; DVD $24.95 bilingual. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

One of the most prestigious artists associated with anime is Yoshitaka Amano. He began as a 15-year-old character designer for Japanese TV cartoons in the early 1970s. Today he is a fantasy artist of international repute far beyond anime. Among his recent American projects are the art design for 1001 Nights, a 1999 fine-art film commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the full-color art plates for Neil Gaiman's 1999 de luxe fantasy novel Sandman: The Dream Hunters. Most previous Amano anime works like Vampire Hunter D are available in America, but Amon Saga, a July 1986 video feature, has not been; although those who have seen the Japanese release have said that it was a big disappointment.

Amon Saga is now available and the rumor is confirmed. Amano had wanted to try his hand at drawing an adventure comic book, and teamed up with writer Baku Yumemakura to produce this manga novel in the 1980s. This is an animated movie adaptation of that novel. Amano receives screen credits as co-author and character design supervisor, though the actual character designers are Shingo Araki and Michi Himeno working from Amano's manga art designs.

Amano's original art on the video cover is about the only thing Amon Saga has going for it. The adventure is a pedestrian chain of sword-and-sorcery cliches. The fantasy world of Granmall is being brutally conquered by evil Emperor Valhiss (who bears a strong resemblance to Jack Kirby's master supervillain, Darkseid) through his sadistic henchmen, warlord Denon and wizard Mabo. Amon, a handsome lone warrior, joins a group of bravos being recruited into Valhiss' army. Amon wants revenge against the three tyrants for killing his mother during their conquest of his homeland. Amon forms a friendship among several of his fellow recruits (a brawny giant, a thief, an archer -- all the stereotypical roles for a fantasy quest). The heroic band hack and slash their way through an hour's worth of monsters and sorcerous deathtraps to get to the villains, not incidentally rescuing Valhiss' beauteous prisoner, Princess Lichia, on the way. Amano's exquisitely detailed art (based upon roughly 10th century A.D. Central Asian and Hindi architecture and costuming) has had to be so simplified for this very limited animation production that little remains besides the outlines. Animation production credit is given to Cente Studio, though judging by the names of so many other studios in the credits, Cente's role must have been in the basic planning and the editing together of individual scenes farmed out to small animation studios all around Tokyo.

9- to 14-year-old boys may enjoy the nonstop action of a battle every five minutes against sea monsters, wolfmen, giant spiders, dragons, demonic sorcerers and lots of Romanesque swordsmen. Amon Saga is otherwise worthwhile only to completists of Amano's art. It is not a valid sample of his talent.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.

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