New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Taylor Jessen reviews five short films: Lemmings by Craig Van Dyke, Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher by Alexander Woo, Rock the World by Sukwon Shin, Ryan by Chris Landreth and Flashbacks from My Past: Starry Night by Irra Verbitsky. Includes QuickTime movie clips!

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.

Aura Battler Dunbine is a true classic, spurring early anime fans to watch undubbed and unsubtitled bootleg versions. © ADV Films.

Aura Battler Dunbine is a true classic, spurring early anime fans to watch undubbed and unsubtitled bootleg versions. © ADV Films.

Aura Battler Dunbine. V.1, Tales of Byston Well. V.2, Heroes of Byston Well. V.3, The Kings of Byston Well. V.4, Escape from Byston Well. V.5, Return to Byston Well. V.6, Battlers of Byston Well. V.7, Mysteries of Byston Well. V.8, Invaders from Byston Well. V.9-12, titles to come.

TV series (49 episodes), 1983-1984. Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino. V.1, five episodes/125 minutes; v.2-12, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

Most TV anime available in America so far is of recent series of the last decade. Dunbine is one of the few genuinely classic series of previous years, which early anime fans of the 1980s watched avidly even without understanding the untranslated bootleg videos. (Summaries of varying degrees of accuracy circulated among fan clubs.) The animation quality is creaky by todays standards, but the intelligent plot and the direction particularly the characters body language and the Japanese voice actors tense dialogue keep it a gripping drama.

Seisenshi (Spirit or Psychic Warrior) Dunbine (49 weekly episodes, February 5, 1983 through January 21, 1984) was the creation of Sunrise studios writer-director Yoshiyuki Tomino and character designer Tomonori Kogawa, with first-rate background music by Katsuhiro Tsubono. Tomino, fresh from creating the high-tech futuristic Mobile Suit Gundam giant-robot series, did not want to repeat himself so he crafted a world as different as possible that mixes Celtic mythology, Northern European knights-in-armor imagery, modern technology (computer microchips and nuclear weapons), and the then-trendy pseudoscientific theories of Kirlian psychic auras. Since they had to add giant robots to keep the toy-manufacturer sponsors happy, Tomino and mecha designer Kazutaka Miyatake came up with brand-new designs inspired by beetles and similar insects to retain a Medieval organic imagery.

Show Zama is a modern Japanese teen who is abruptly teleported to the world of Byston Well, a land where humans live in feudal baronies amidst the Mi Ferario, faerie-folk ranging from tiny winged pixies to mermaid-like silkies. The most powerful of the Mi Ferario have the ability to transfer humans back and forth between the Upper Earth (our dimension) and Byston Well. Humans from Upper Earth have psychic auras which natives of Byston Well lack, which can be used in combination with Upper Earth technology to power machinery. Drake Luft, a power-hungry baron, has enslaved Mi Ferario to bring Upper Earth technicians to him, and bribed them to build Aura Battlers (mobile battle armor; the Dunbine is the top-of-the-line model) to conquer neighboring lands. Now he needs Upper Earth men with powerful auras to pilot his fighters. Show is one of the first of his magically press-ganged draftees.

Show and the other young men from all around Upper Earth are at first bewildered, and tempted by Lufts promises of glory for helping his barony defend itself from evil neighbors, and of wealth and future estates for themselves. Show gradually learns that Luft himself is the would-be world conqueror. Some previous Upper Earth conscripts have already defected to other Byston Well kingdoms and are helping them build their own Aura Battlers for defense. There are factions within each side plotting against each other; Show must determine which have genuinely noble goals and which are actually motivated by greed. As in many anime serials, Show at first only wants to return to Japan and his family. By the time this becomes possible (episode #16), Show has become so integrated into his Byston Well life that he cannot decide which world is his true home now. Dunbine is still one of the best TV anime series ever made.

Comic Party takes a stab at the comic book convention craze. © The Right Stuf International.

Comic Party takes a stab at the comic book convention craze. © The Right Stuf International.

Comic Party. V.1, A New World. V.2, We Need Money! V.3, The Big Time. V.4, The Final Page.

TV series (13 episodes), 2001. Director: Norihiko Sudo. V.1, four episodes/100 minutes; v.2-4, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: The Right Stuf International. [Note: the listed running times are V.1, 115 minutes; v.2, 107 minutes; v.3, 109 minutes; and v.4, 132 minutes; but that is if you watch all of the extras including Japanese voice-actor interviews and a special eight-minute mini-episode added for DVD sales.]

American anime and comics fan conventions are considered huge if attendance tops 20,000. Japans comic markets or comikets may get 500,000 attendees on a two-day weekend. These are not so much markets to buy new & used professional comic books as where adolescent fans sell their self-published amateur comics (doujinshi, best translated as fanzines), and parade costumed as their favorite comics and anime characters.

Comic Party (13 episodes broadcast from April 2 to June 24, 2001, produced by the O.L.M. [Oriental Light and Magic] studio) is a gently humorous tutorial on how to participate. Kazuki Sendou is an easygoing 18-year-old high school senior with some art talent. Taishi Kuhonbutsu is a hyperactive classmate who decides to take over the social world of doujinshi. He drafts Kazuki as his partner because of Kazukis drawing skills. At first Kazuki is dubious, but at his first con he gets swept up by the enthusiasm of teens buying and selling their own homemade comic books, and realizes, I can do this!

His first fanzine is crude but gets him compliments for originality and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, he decides to apply market research in producing his second issue, cramming in every popular theme of the moment. The result is well drawn, but without memorable characters or story; it has no soul and nobody likes it. Discouraged, Kazuki vows to give up producing doujinshi, but gradually realizes that the true purpose of being a fan artist as it should be throughout life is to enjoy yourself and expand your creative horizons, not just to grind out a commercial product.

Mizuki, Kazukis girlfriend, initially hates comics fans because some are spectacularly socially inept (and never bathe!), but finally understands that fandom can be just as rewarding as sports or karaoke singing if that is where your true interest lies; you should not base your social life on just what is trendy. Yuu and Eimi, two rival fanzine publishers, exemplify the difference between producing fanzines to meet others who share your literary and art tastes (to find new friends), and to win by selling more copies than anyone else. Reiko is a cosplayer (costume player); she cannot write or draw so she attends comikets costumed as her favorite anime characters.

The expertise she gets at costume designing and sewing leads her to consider fashion designing as a career. Kazukis experience in producing fanzines (including budgeting his time between studying and his hobby, and needing a part-time job to pay for art supplies and his printing bills) is also applicable in planning for college and a profession.

Comic Party contains so many manga and anime in-group references such as caricatures of popular characters and actual Tokyo manga-specialty shops that each DVD comes with a thick booklet to explain them all. The basic point, that fandom can be a lot of fun (but dont get carried away!), is so self-evident that it needs no explanation.

Figure 17 has many differences from your typical wish fulfillment fantasy. © Anime Works/Media Blasters.

Figure 17 has many differences from your typical wish fulfillment fantasy. © Anime Works/Media Blasters.

Figure 17. V.1, Soul Mirror. V.2, Winged Hearts. V.3, Valiant Duet. V.4, Little Secret. V.5, Forever Close. V.6, Memories Remain.

TV series (13 episodes), 2001-2002. Director: Naohito Takahashi. V.1, three episodes/140 minutes; v.2-6, two episodes/94 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: Anime Works/Media Blasters.

Tsubasa Shiina, an extremely shy 10-year-old, feels lost and friendless when she moves with her father from Tokyo to live on a farm/bakery in rural Hokkaido. She is the only witness when a spaceship carrying six dangerous Maguar space monsters crashes nearby. The ships automatic defense encases both Tsubasa and its space policeman pilot, DD, in protective suits of intelligent metal to fight one of the Maguar. When the immediate danger is over, Tsubasas suit does not retract as programmed but turns into an android twin with her memories, but a personality as extroverted as she is withdrawn. DD uses galactic technology to make everyone believe that the android, Hikaru, is Tsubasas twin sister while they remain in the vicinity to hunt down the remaining Maguar, which can destroy all life on Earth if not exterminated before they multiply and spread.

With Hikaru as a popular, dynamic role model, Tsubasa begins to gain self-confidence and become part of the normal social life of Moeno Elementary Schools 4th grade. Each episode is divided roughly in half, first showing Tsubasa, Hikaru and their friends and classmates at juvenile activities (a school sports match, a class play, going hiking and fishing), then showing DD and Figure 17 (the twins merged into a metallic Amazonian warrior) finding and fighting another of the Maguar.

This sounds like many stereotyped juvenile wish-fulfillment superhero anime series, but Figure 17: Tsubasa & Hikaru has some striking differences. Most sci-fi anime series featuring elementary-school protagonists fighting space monsters are light action-adventure comedies (Figure 17 for ages 7+). But the level of intelligent dialogue and serious drama, plus the fact that this was broadcast at 10:00 p.m., seem more appropriate for an audience of middle and high school age who would presumably be too mature for the elementary school subplot. Figure 17 was not the usual weekly half-hour TV series, but a monthly one-hour (47 minutes of actual running time) program (May 27, 2001 to June 27, 2002).

The animation by the O.L.M. (Oriental Light & Magic) studio is so well directed that it seems to have twice as much motion than a close study actually shows. Attractive art design and lovely tourist-poster backgrounds of Japans unspoiled northernmost island (enough to make you want to plan your next vacation in Hokkaido) also distract from the lack of motion. A plot that evolves rather than repeating itself with minor variations every episode helps make up for some of the slowest pacing possible without getting boring.

The elementary school subplot is not all carefree fun & games. Tsubasa is just beginning to emerge from her shell and develop some self-confidence when one of her first classroom friends, a popular but sickly boy, unexpectedly dies, shocking all the children and especially traumatizing her; tragedy is a part of life aside from the melodramatics of space opera. Figure 17 is an intriguing series worth a more intellectual consideration than its surface plot implies.

Last Exile is a showcase of the best of what modern TV anime has to offer. © Geneon/Pioneer Ent.

Last Exile is a showcase of the best of what modern TV anime has to offer. © Geneon/Pioneer Ent.

Last Exile. V.1, First Move. V.2, Positional Play. V.3, Discovered Attack. V.4, Breakthrough. V.5, Grand Stream. V.6, Queen Delphine. V.7, Sealed Move.

TV series (26 episodes), 2003. Director: Kouichi Chigira. V.1-5, four episodes/100 minutes; v.6-7, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

A couple of anime studios are contending for the title of most cutting-edge/technically advanced in Japan. Gonzo Digimation is one of these, and Last Exile (26 episodes, broadcast April 8 through Sept. 30, 2003) was designed to be its 10th anniversary showpiece. It features top-quality direction by Kouichi Chigira, top-quality character designs by Range Murata, top-quality music... well, just go down the whole credits list. The Gonzo studio in general is credited with the story.

The concept and look are definitely inspired by Miyazakis Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, but the plot is wholly original. A fantasy world with a 19th century German and Russian appearance is divided into the two powerful empires of Anatoray and Disith, which have been locked for centuries in ritualized warfare refereed by a stately Guild (roughly a cross between the Catholic Church and the League of Nations). Battles take place between fleets of giant Jules-Vernean aerial battleships commanded by the nobility.

The commoners occupy a role similar to that in the real 19th century except that there is also a guild of couriers that make speedy deliveries in two-man aerial vanships. A wild card is the enigmatic Captain Nemo-like Alex Row with his unbeatable battleship, the Silvana (also comparable to the pirate airship and crew in The Castle in the Sky, though more dramatic), manned by a rowdy but skilled international crew personally loyal to him.

Claus Valca and Lavie Head are two young teens who inherited Claus fathers vanship and position in the Vanship Union of couriers. They accept a risky assignment to deliver a message to the commander of the Anatoray fleet on his flagship on the eve of an aerial battle. Anatoray is winning when the Disith fleet begins a new attack in a manner flouting the pre-agreed conventions of chivalry, apparently with the connivance of the Guild.

Claus and Lavie are asked by a dying vanship courier to complete his mission for him, which brings them under attack by a completely unknown type of high-tech fighter craft (Anatorays, Disiths, the Guilds, or that of an unsuspected new power?). This forces them into an unwanted sanctuary aboard the Silvana where they become inadvertent recruits into Alex Rows mysterious intrusion into this worlds politics.

Last Exile starts out with an intelligent plot, which introduces surprises and adds new characters in almost every episode. The characters are sympathetic and the dialogue is witty. The world with its complex steampunk look of 19th century sci-fi illustrations is fascinating. Most animated theatrical features are not this good, in either animation or story quality.

The World of Narue doesnt transcends its young teen fantasy romantic comedy genre. English version © 2004 Tomohiro Marukawa, Kadokawa Shoten/The World of Narue Committee. All rights reserved.

The World of Narue doesnt transcends its young teen fantasy romantic comedy genre. English version © 2004 Tomohiro Marukawa, Kadokawa Shoten/The World of Narue Committee. All rights reserved.

The World of Narue. V.1 - 4.

TV series (12 episodes), 2003. Director: Toyoo Ashida. V.1-4, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $79.99 complete boxed set. Distributor: Central Park Media/U.S. Manga Corps.

Any anime about 14-year-old students that includes the boys line, She was a little strange, and an alien ... but I finally have a girlfriend! is for desperately shy guys who are willing to settle for desperately shy girls rather than trying to win one of the campus beauty queens. The World of Narue (Narue no Sekai, 12 episodes broadcast April 5 - June 28, 2003; animated by Studio Live) is a sweet but uninspired addition to the genre of young teen fantasy romantic comedies.

Narue Nanase, a timid transfer student to the local middle schools 8th grade, naively says she is from the Galaxy Federation. The other students think she is just desperate for attention. But classmate & neighbor Kazuto Iizuka discovers that she is genuine when she saves him from a monstrous Space Ninja terrorist by clobbering it with her PE-issue baseball bat. It turns out that Narue is the daughter of a spaceman assigned to live disguised among humans while studying Earths society. The two lonely teens get talking and, before he knows it, Kazuto invites Narue to go to the movies with him.

Episode #2: Their nervous first date. Should he take her to a sci-fi horror movie, or would that make her think he is stereotyping her instead of thinking of her as an individual? Kazuto helps Narue disguise her alien origins and make friends among their classmates, while Kazutos pal Masaki (who fancies himself a budding Great Lover) offers dubious advice on How To Impress A Girl. Sci-fi elements are overlaid onto the genres standard elements: Narues bratty kid sister is actually twice as old as she is, but is physically only 12 (and emotionally a spoiled 10-year-old) due to a time warp differential.

The Artificial Intelligence controlling one of the GF spaceships decides to desert and go native in the artificial body of a young woman; when she falls in love with a real human, Narue and Kazuto must decide whether to encourage the romance (True Love conquers all differences) or persuade her that it will never work out. Narue is not familiar with anime, so Kazuto and his pals introduce her to the world of fan conventions and cosplaying (see the Comic Party review). The Space Ninja terrorists attack from time to time, and there is a constant danger that Narues father will be recalled from Earth and she will have to leave Earth forever with him.

But the basic plots of this 12-episode series are the standard scenarios of teen-comedy anime such as the Summer beach outing, the visit to the hot springs, avoiding being embarrassed (in this case, having Narues alien origin carelessly exposed) by the bratty kid sister, the traditional Summer festival with kimonos and fireworks, her first attack of jealousy when he is apparently being seduced by another girl, and cramming for finals despite interruptions. If you are not familiar with the formula, The World of Narue is a pleasantly humorous example of it.

In an unusual marketing strategy, the entire 12 episodes are released only as a $79.99 4-DVD boxed-set collection. There is also a $7.99 test drive DVD of the first episode alone with a $10 rebate coupon which purchasers who decide they want the full series can use. So you can buy episode #1 of #12 alone; after that, its all or nothing.

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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