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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Animator Patrick Smith takes us on his personal journey through the Ottawa Animation Festival.

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.

See space girls gone wild in Galaxy Angel.

See space girls gone wild in Galaxy Angel.

Galaxy Angel V.1, Whats Cooking? V.2, Angels a la Carte. V.3, Stranded Without Dessert. V.4, Save Room for More.

TV series (26 episodes), 2001. Directors: Morio Asaka, Yoshimitsu Ohashi. V.1 & 2, seven episodes/105 minutes; v.3 & 4, six episodes/90 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

This goofy sci-fi comedy features a troop of five space-going girls in the Imperial Guard of the Transvaal Empire, a galactic monarchy of 128 planets. Theres a Hawaiian beach resort planet, a casino planet, a Wild West planet, a Disneylandish fun park called Cockadoodledoowopadoo... you get the idea. The mostly-teen girls are trigger-happy Forte Stollen, superstitious Ranpha Franboise, cute lop-eared bunny girl Mint Blancmange (the only one with brains), devoutly religious (but to what?) Vanilla H, and giggly Milfeulle Sakuraba who spends most of her time making sweet desserts. The episodes have titles like Roast Beef of Lost Technology and Vanilla Flavored Asteroid Trash Stir-Fry. The troops official assignment is to search the galaxy for the Lost Technology, but arrogant high-ranking bureaucrats keep using them for personal chores from walking their dogs to catching a military tank with Artificial Intelligence so advanced that it goes AWOL. Its very silly, but in the best possible way.

Galaxy Angel was developed by Broccoli, the Japanese design studio that specializes in carrying the anime ultra-cute style to ridiculous extremes. It started as a videogame and a manga novel with an actual serious plot about the girls having to rescue the Empires sole surviving prince after a coup detat. One of the DVD extras is a series of Now I Get It mini-briefings originally shown before each TV episode which explain the galactic historical and political background and hint at the serious drama to come, and which have practically nothing to do with the zany stand-alone comedies that follow.

The writers were apparently given free rein to make the episodes as funny as possible, mostly through lively action, witty dialogue and the character interplay of the main cast: bossy Forte, impatient Ranpha, exasperated Mint, clueless Milfeulle, enigmatic Vanilla, and snobbish Normand who is an AI chip from a smart missile installed in a Barney-like plush toy. Normand makes one wonder whether Galaxy Angels writers were familiar with John Carpenters sci-fi movie Dark Star, which also has an intellectually philosophical missile; and several episodes contain aspects similar enough to other anime and American sci-fi TV episodes, movies and novels (but in original ways) to imply, here is how we would use this plot element.

Galaxy Angel is about as frothy and tasteful as the gourmet desserts that Milfeulle is always whipping up. The TV episodes are short, only about 10 minutes without the Now I Get It lectures which have been stripped and repackaged together as DVD extras, leaving the viewer with a betcha cant watch just one appetite for the next one. The 15-minute TV series, animated by Madhouse, ran on Japans Animax satellite channel from April 8 to Sept. 29, 2001. It was popular enough to quickly generate two sequels, which ran from February through March 2002 and from October 2002 through March 2003. The first DVD of Galaxy Angel Z (v.1, Back for Seconds) will be released by Bandai on Dec. 14, 2004.

Gravitation: Will shonen-ai anime capture a wide audience?

Gravitation: Will shonen-ai anime capture a wide audience?

Gravitation V.1, Fateful First Encounter. V.2, Stars on the Rise. V.3, One Million Copies!? V.4, Secrets of a Troubled Past.

TV series (13 episodes), 2000-01. Director: Bob Shirohata. V.1, 2 & 4, three episodes/75 minutes; v.3, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: The Right Stuf International.

Shuichi Shindo and Hiroshi Nakano, two recent high-school grads, decide to start a rock duo, Bad Luck. Shuichi, the lead singer and lyricist, cant think of anything to write. Hiro, the guitarist, jokingly suggests he find someone to fall in love with to get inspiration.

Shuichi does. But its not with a girl.

Shonen-ai (pretty-boy love = male homosexual romance) manga has been popular in Japan for some time, especially by female authors for women readers. Gravitation, based on the manga series by Maki Murakami, is not the first to be adapted for anime, but it is the first to be aimed for a broad audience. A two-episode OAV version in 1999 was popular enough that this 13-episode version was produced (by Studio Deen) for broadcast from Oct. 4, 2000 through January 10, 2001 over the WOWOW satellite pay-TV channel.

This American DVD release is age-rated 13+.

While Shuichi was in high school he idolized the #1 rock band, Nittle Grasper, and wanted to start his own band just like them. Nittle Grasper broke up but its keyboardist, Touma Seguchi, started the N-G record company, which has become Japans top producer of teen music CDs and developer of new rock bands. Seguchi agrees to give Bad Luck a try as the opening act at a pop concert of ASK, the band that N-G is currently promoting. Seguchi is brainstorming their opening number in a park when the wind blows his sheet of scribbled lyrics into the face of a handsome man walking past. The latter reads the lyrics, sneers that they are juvenile drivel showing zero talent, and leaves.

Seguchi furious demands to know what right the man has to criticize him and learns he is Eiri Yuki, currently the most popular writer of womens romance novels. A confrontation stirs emotions in the two that neither expect. Shuichi is the first to realize that he is in love with Eiri, while Eiri tries to deny his feelings and discourage Shuichi.

Gravitation mixes comedy (including exaggeratedly cute super-deformed animated sequences) and the glamor of the pretty-boy pop-rock music industry with serious gay romantic melodrama. Seguchi wants to expand Bad Luck to a trio by adding Suguru Fujisaki, a mid-teen prodigy keyboardist; how will he fit in with Shuichi and Hiro? How will Hiro react to his best friend becoming gay? Ryuichi Sakuma, the former lead singer in Nittle Grasper, is amused by Shuichis hero worship of him and guest-sings a number at Bad Lucks first appearance, making it outshine ASKs featured performance. Shuichi figures out how to get Bad Luck favorable publicity on a TV variety program. This arouses the jealousy of ASKs lead singer, Taki Aizawa, who learns of Shuichis gay romance with Eiri and threatens to out the two, ruining both their careers, if Shuichi does not disband Bad Luck.

Shuichis and Eiris romance has its own problems. Eiris parents and older sister are trying to push him into a traditional arranged marriage (to a girl he does not love, but who genuinely loves him and whose feelings he does not want to hurt). Eiri also has a Dark Secret in his past.

Murakamis original Gravitation manga is being published by TOKYOPOP for the unexpectedly large American adolescent female readership for romance manga. Will there be an American market for shonen-ai manga and anime, too?

16-year-old Sora runs away to be a circus performer in Kaleido Star.

16-year-old Sora runs away to be a circus performer in Kaleido Star.

Kaleido Star V.1, Welcome to the Kaleido Stage! V.2, All Things Great and Small. V.3, Great Expectations. V.4, Fall From Grace. V.5, Masquerade. V.6, Reach for the Brass Ring!

TV series (51 episodes), 2003-04. Director: Junichi Sato. Vol.1 & 4, five episodes/125 minutes; vols.2, 3, 5 & 6, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

This young-teen soap opera (age-rated 12+) adapts the adolescent sports-romance formula to a modern circus setting. Kaleido Stage is an acrobatic troupe mixing the styles of the Cirque du Soleil and Las Vegas spectaculars, in which the players perform costumed balletic theater choreographed for trapeze and high-wire staging. Sora Naegino, a 16-year-old Japanese girl who has always idolized Kaleido Stage, comes to a glamorized pastiche of Sarasota, Florida (Circus Capital of the World) to join it. Her luggage is stolen by a snatch-&-run thief, and her fantastically exaggerated pursuit of him through the city (which unfortunately gives a misleading initial impression that this will be a slapstick magical little girl series) just happens to be seen by Kaleido Stages owner Kalos. She arrives just too late for the annual auditions, but Kalos takes a chance and hires her anyway.

Episode #2 introduces the melodrama, although there is a continued attempt to also cater to the magical little girl market by giving Sora an elfin Tarot-reading guardian angel, Fool, the Spirit of the Stage, who only she can see. Soras hyper-enthusiastic joy at being accepted is quickly dampened by the rest of the troupe. Most laugh at her naïveté for not realizing that natural athletic talent is useless without years of specialized acrobatic training. Kaleido Stages workaholic main star, Layla Hamilton, wants her fired as a frivolous dilettante. Sora throws herself into training and, episode by episode, gradually makes friends (fellow performers Anna and Mia, and shy but handsome Ken, Kalos teen stage manager) or at least earns grudging respect for her hard work and learning from her mistakes.

Each episode provides Sora an important lesson in perseverance, using initiative, conquering fears, teamwork rather than grandstanding, learning to get along with those who refuse your friendship, and seeing the real people beneath hyped theatrical stardom. Somehow she also finds time to help others with their personal problems such as reuniting estranged daughters and fathers or dealing with stage romances. Then, just when Sora has won her first starring role, an unscrupulous enemy of Kaleido Stage employs legal maneuvers to take it away from Kalos and replace the troupe with his own performers. Everyone is traumatized, but even though Sora realizes she is completely out of her depth, she refuses to give up!

This is actually just the first-season story arc (26 episodes) of the 51-episode TV series (April 3, 2003 through March 27, 2004), which is all that A.D.V. Films has announced so far. Kaleido Star is the first traditional girls anime series by Gonzo Digimation, best known for specializing in sci-fi action-adventure anime with lots of CGI. This series looks like Gonzo is expanding into attractive but clearly less-expensive 2D animation (although the closing credits are top-heavy with work done by Korean subcontracting studio G&G Entertainment), with the CGI mostly limited to adding sparkle to the acrobatic spectacles. Show-biz backstage melodrama has been a popular theme in womens romances for a long time, but (unless I missed something) this is its first anime presentation imported to America.

Lady Death: American anime?

Lady Death: American anime?

Lady Death: The Motion Picture

OAV, 2004. Director: Andrew Orjuela. 80 minutes. Price & format: DVD English $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

A.D.V. Films has been a major American importer and producer of English-translated anime since 1992. Now A.D.V. has released (October 5) its own direct-to-video animated feature, Lady Death: The Motion Picture, produced by Sunmin Image Pictures Co. Ltd. in Korea. This is not A.D.V.s first production; that was the October 2000 SIN: The Movie, based on an American battle-action video game and animated in Japan. That ended up on the Anime shelves, and that is where you will likely find Lady Death, too. American anime? You decide.

Lady Death is based on the American comic book by writer Brian Pulido and artist Steven Hughes, published by Chaos! Comics since January 1994. A poster girl of the Bad Girl school of sexy but deadly comic book superheroines like Vampirella, Lady Deaths origin story is summarized in this movie. 15th-century Sweden is racked by religious wars masterminded by Duke Matthias, who creates so much misery by sadistically torturing sinners that people begin to curse God. That is his goal, for Matthias is actually Lucifer himself. As part of his disguise he married a pious noblewoman and they have an innocent daughter, Hope, who is unaware of her fathers real nature. When the Lord of Lies identity is revealed, the peasants burn Hope at the stake assuming that she is also demonic. Arriving in Hell where she has powers almost as great as Lucifers own since she is his daughter, she becomes the pallidly, pulchritudinous Lady Death who vows to overthrow him.

The rest of the movie is Medieval-type warfare with Lady Deaths and Lucifers armies of skeletons and rotting zombies surging back and forth across the fire-&-brimstone landscape. Lady Death and her General Cremator defeat Lucifers Archduke Asmodeus; then, to cut the story short, Lady Death slays Lucifer himself. This leaves her as the new Mistress of Hell, but facing constant battle against Lucifers other Generals such as Belial and Beelzebub.

Lady Death, produced and directed by A.D.V.s special projects coordinator Andy Orjuela with animation directed by Sunmins Young Hwan Sang and Hea Young Yoo, is age-rated 17+. It feels like MTVs animated version of Todd McFarlanes Spawn or a naughtily blasphemous pastiche of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Would the real Lucifer lose control so easily over Hells tortured souls who defect en masse to a rebel army? Would he need a sinister spy to find out what is going on in Hell outside his castle? Would a Valkyrie general fight in only a black-leather bikini-thong costume, switching to a black filmy negligee in her camp tent on the march?

The Korean-produced animation quality is very reminiscent of such `80s American TV cartoons as such He-Man, G.I. Joe and Transformers (according to a Making of DVD extra, Sunmin worked on the `90s Disneys Gargoyles). The voice actors project convincing emotion, yet undercut their performances by enunciating each word with artificial precision. Lady Death may be a hit with the American comic books fans (the theologically revisionist version of Hell is Pulidos and Hughes fault), but this yucky yet passionless horror action-fantasy is no match for the quality level of, say, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

Megazone 23, Part I was an anime landmark, Part II, a moneymaker but Part III is a let down.

Megazone 23, Part I was an anime landmark, Part II, a moneymaker but Part III is a let down.

Megazone 23, Part 1

OAV, 1985. Director: Norobu Ishiguro. 85 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Megazone 23, Part 2

OAV, 1986. Director: Ichirou Itano. 85 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Megazone 23, Part 3

OAV, 1989. Directors: Shinji Aramaki and Kenichi Yatagai. 102 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Shogo Yahagi is an adolescent biker cruising for girls and hangin out with the guys. A test-driver pal is showing him a prototype revolutionary new motorcycle when Men In Black show up and kill the pal for Knowing Too Much. Shogo escapes on the cycle, which he soon learns can transform into a giant robot battle armor. It is also a mobile terminal to a super-computer which reveals that Shogos world is completely false. He is not in mid-1980s Tokyo but in a simulacrum in space, Megazone 23, 500 years later. The Earth was destroyed by warfare and pollution, and the Megazones were a last-ditch scientific effort to save humanity until the planet could be made habitable again.

That time has almost come, but a power-hungry faction among the government leaders who know the truth are trying to gain control of the Bahamut super-computer for their own benefit. This could endanger the programming that is maintaining the safe illusion of peaceful 1980s Japan. Worse, the invincible automated weaponry from the planet-destroying wars has finally broken through Megazone 23s cloaking and is coming to annihilate everyone.

Megazone 23, Part I is an anime landmark which is still well-worth watching. It was the first direct-to-video anime to become a big hit. Produced by the Artland and Artmic animation studios, it was released to video on March 5, 1985 and theatrically on March 23. It had popular music (one of the main characters, Eve Tokimaturi, is an idol singer who is discovered to be an A.I. created by Bahamut) and attractive character design by Haruhiko Mikimoto, the designer of the then mega-popular Macross characters.

It took advantage of the OAV markets freedom from TV censorship to include adult themes. Shogo and his girlfriend Yui are clearly sleeping together, and she sees nothing wrong with sleeping with producers to break into show business. It is full of genuine consumer products for startling verisimitude: cans of Coca-Cola and Heineken beer, packs of Camel and Lucky Strike cigarettes, Suzuki cycles and a Hard Rock Cafe.

Part I ends on a cliffhanger. Apparently it was not really expected to be a hit because when Megazone 23, Part II: Please Tell Me the Secret appeared a year later (theatrical release April 26, 1986; OAV release May 30; animation credited to A.I.C. as well as Artland and Artmic), the character designs were totally changed (now by Yasuomi Umetsu) and the story was much weaker, implying a new production crew. The original plot is brought to a conclusion, but it is almost buried under a subplot in which Shogo leads a punk rock biker gang, Trash, to overthrow the military, which has taken over Japan in a coup imitative of the militarys seizure of power in the 1930s. This is nicely directed but is about as convincing as would be a movie in which the Hells Angels take on and wipe out the entire U.S. Marine Corps.

There was no reason for Megazone 23, Part III except that Parts I and II made money. It was released as a two-part OAV serial of 50 minutes each; The Awakening of Eve (Sept. 28, 1989) and Day of Liberation (Dec. 22, 1989). It is set 1,000+ years later. The super-computer has returned humanity to Earth, but kept it imprisoned in a luxurious super-city, Eden, to protect the fragile ecological balance of the restored Earth. A rebel faction wants to overthrow the computer and escape Eden, while the scientific establishment that maintains the computer has evolved into a religion that demands the people worship it. Eiji Takanaka, the new teen computer-hacker protagonist who learns the truth and meets Eve, is such an imitation Shogo Yahagi that he complains about it. Part III is not bad but is definitely a ho-hum letdown after Part I. Do see Part I.

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).