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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Nancy Cartwright writes about preparing for an audition and how to stay professional despite it all.

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.

Gravion is a giant robot classic from the 1970s.

Gravion is a giant robot classic from the 1970s.

Gravion. V.1, Divine Steel. V.2, Knights of Gravity. V.3, Upgrade.

TV series (13 episodes), 2002. Director: Masami Obari. V.1, five episodes/125 minutes; v.2-3, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Modern anime is fine, but sometimes one gets a craving for the old classics. For an anime fan, the classics are the 1970s giant-robot TV series, Super Heavyweight God Gravion (Chojushin Gravion), 13 episodes by Gonzo Digimation broadcast on Fuji TV from Oct. 8 through Dec. 16, 2002, blends nostalgia for the old-time fans with current animation technology plus plot conventions for todays viewers who dont like anything old.

Gravion is a 100-foot-tall robot warrior who fights invading space monsters with a big sword, while a pulse-pounding rock vocalist belts out lyrics like, Crush them! With your arms of steel, Soldier of Soldier! (I had to check the credits to make sure it is not actually by Shunsuke Kikuchi, who penned most of the best `70s giant-robot theme songs.) Gravion looks like a giant metallic heroic Roman warrior formed when five individual fighter planes combine in mid-air during blazing battles. (It also looks like a huge action figure with so many transforming parts that it must be priced in three figures at Japanese toyshops.) But where the actual first giant-robot TV series were in jerky cel animation on threes or fours with angular character designs, Gravion is in smooth CGI with modern, lush character design (and lush is certainly the word for the busty girls!).

Where the `70s TV series would have featured heroic teen jock pilots who looked like they were star players on their high school football team when not fighting monsters, Gravions 17-year-old pilots are one brave but comically-confused jock (the main protagonist), a definitely effeminate boy (the team commander), and three jiggly cheerleaders in frilly French-maid uniforms. Instead of the robot having been invented and the team assembled by the worlds greatest scientist (or team of scientists) in a futuristic super-laboratory, Gravion is the pet project of the worlds most mysterious billionaire, a Howard Hughes/William Randolph Hearst figure, from his flamboyant exaggeration of a French chateau.

In the mid-21st century, Earth has been at peace for so long that it has gotten soft. Mysterious billionaire Klein Sandman is aware that an invasion fleet of the Zeravire aliens from the 0th degree of the Milky Way Galaxy is heading toward Earth, so he finances his own superscientific defense team to protect humanity. The Fellows of the Gran Knights consist of one giant robot, the Gran Kaiser, and four Gran Diva support fighter aircraft; the G-Attacker, G-Shadow, G-Striker and G-Driller. Together they can combine into a single humongous robot, Gravion!

But only people with an extremely rare G-Factor enzyme in their bodies can pilot these craft. Sandman intended for the four G-Diva pilots to be all female, but when Akaya Shigure mysteriously disappears during a training session, the only substitute with G-Factor is her kid brother Eiji. When he storms into Sandmans castle to demand to know why his sister has disappeared, he finds himself drafted to take her place.

Eiji and his fellow teens are humanitys only defense since the Earth Federation Alliances military is defeated in every battle. But Earths combined military bureaucracies are jealous at being shoved into the background; especially since Sandman will not even answer the World Presidents questions of where he got the technology to fight the Zeravire and even knew they were coming (nobody else on Earth did). Those sound like good questions to Eiji and the other Knights, too, and since they are barracked in Sandmans castle they are in a position to snoop around for the answers...

None of the actual 1970s giant-robot TV anime series are currently licensed for American distribution. If anyone wants a sample of one of them, GRAVION is an excellent facsimile; and compact at only 13 episodes instead of 40 or more.

Magical Play is a unique pastiche of both videogames in general, and the Magical Girls TV anime genre.

Magical Play is a unique pastiche of both videogames in general, and the Magical Girls TV anime genre.

Magical Play: The Complete Collection.

2D series (24 episodes) + 3D OAV, 2001. Director: Hiroki Hayashi. 150 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Ent.

Anime series based upon videogames are common. Magical Play is a unique pastiche of both videogames in general, and the Magical Girls TV anime genre.

In Magical Girl World, all girls train for the chance, when they are 12 years old, to enter the Magical Invitational Tournament. The winner is sent to Earth to become an international idol, the center of admiration, the pride of ones homeland, the star of the show biz world!, as starry-eyed Padudu imagines it. Padudu becomes her hometowns contestant and, wearing the sentient fish Uokichi (impossible to describe; you have to see it!), skips along towards the Magical Castle where Queen Purilun holds the tournaments. Unfortunately for Padudus naïveté, the tournaments are not the friendly auditions among similarly idealistic contestants that she imagines.

Magical Play, by the A.I.C. studio, comes in two DVD discs. Disc 1 contains the TV series: Maho-Yugi: Tobidasu!! Hanamaru Daibouken, 24 five-minute 2D episodes (120 minutes) originally posted on the Maho-Yugi Website (maho-yugi.lycos.co.jp/) beginning October 19, 2001. Disc 2 contains the 3D videogame half-hour featurette. The 3D featurette was released directly to video on Dec. 29, 2001. The 24 short episodes were collected into four half-hour DVDs of six episodes each and released monthly from February through May 2002, then broadcast during July on the Kids Station (TV).

The five-minute episodes look like cel animation with frequent 3D scenes in the jerky cheap CGI animation typical of videogames. For animation industry insiders, Magical Play is worth getting for the single episode Battle in the Third Dimension, in which a 2D girl and a 3D girl face off in magical battle. The 2D girl is so flat she is invisible in profile, while the 3D girl is prone to pixel breakup and similar 3D handicaps. The 24 mostly-comedic episodes also present a slightly more coherent storyline and character depth. The Maho Yugi 3D short is fully digital animation and recasts the main characters in a typical videogame deathly-grim confrontation.

The five-minute episodes carry two parallel stories forward. Padudu picks up two juvenile companions as fantastically costumed as she is, though with living-bunny and kitty themes; the hot-headed Pipin Lacippe, and the superficially demure but back-stabbing Myumyu Pisterica. The three travel together from one contest to another, each crazier than the last such as the challenge of the four great disasters: Earthquake, Thunder, Fire, and the last and worst of all, STEREOTYPICAL MIDDLE-AGED JAPANESE MEN FROM THE `70S! (you have to see it!). The short episodes range from flowery, sugary fluff a la My Little Pony to gory action full of raunchy gay jokes that look like a collision between Happy Tree Friends and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The second storyline follows Nonononn, the Witch of Destruction, a former Magical Girl contestant now in her early 20s who is wanted for mass murder and is pursued by comically inept Policewomen Mustard and Ketchup. The action is humorous but the situation is tragic; Nonononn has actually been framed by Good Queen Purilun who was her best friend and fellow contestant, and who wants to get rid of her as a potential rival. Nonononn bitterly warns Padudu to withdraw from the contest before she is betrayed by one of her friend or is forced to kill a friend in self-defense; but Padudu will not believe it.

None of the storylines are concluded. The value of Magical Play is in its individual slapstick fantasy situations, and its parodies of videogames and the quality of 3D/CGI animation endemic in them. Do not be misled by the typical Magical Little Girl TV-series early episodes into letting young children watch this, since later episodes wander into South Park territory.

Miami Guns takes the trigger-happy sexy female crimefighters stereotype to the extreme.

Miami Guns takes the trigger-happy sexy female crimefighters stereotype to the extreme.

Miami Guns. Vols. 1-4

TV series (13 episodes), 2000. Director: Yoshitaka Koyama. V.1, four episodes/100 minutes, v.2-4, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: AN Ent.

If you cant be original, take a stereotype and push the envelope. Miami Guns is a zany action-comedy featuring trigger-happy sexy female crimefighters in the style of the Dirty Pair, Burn-Up Excess and Debutante Detective Corps. But it was a Sunday 1:45 a.m. program (Feb. 5 to May 13, 2000; animated by the Group TAC studio) on Osakas MBS TV network; and as certain other anime series have been recently educating us, Osaka has a reputation for being raunchier than the rest of Japan. Miami Guns is age-rated 17+, mainly for the antics of Yao Sakurakouji, its lovelier, bustier, more exhibitionistically foul-mouthed and psychotic teenaged policewoman. When asked in episode #1 if she knows the social purpose of a police force, she answers, Sure! For car chases, gun fights and blowing up buildings! There is also adult-level (or at least sophomoric) gay and ethnic humor.

Miami Guns is a parody of -- well, what isnt it a parody of? Every American police/detective TV series, for starters. The international opinion that all Americans from the cradle upward own guns. (Every anime series includes character profiles of its main cast listing their birthdays, blood types and favorite hobbies; Miami Guns includes its casts favorite guns such as Yaos Mauser M712 and Lus 9 mm SIG P230SL.) Lots of other Japanese and American TV series and movies are parodied in cheerful disregard of actual Miamian geography. Episode #4, a parody of the anime car-racing series Initial D and Speed Racer, is set on the dangerous mountain roads just outside Miami. Episode #5, a parody of spaghetti Westerns, is set in the desolate Western deserts just outside Miami.

Rewards for criminals are priced in Miami dollars separate from U.S. money. Julio Peacemaker, a suave bounty hunter, has a pet baby alligator that looks more like a miniature Godzilla and lusts after womens panties. There are parodies of slasher movies, TV wrestling, Japanese monster movies and specific anime classics like Akira and Princess Mononoke, often in the same episode. There are caricatures of real and cartoon stars from Bruce Willis to Hanna-Barberas Muttley (and equivalent Japanese stars unknown in America who are identified in the DVDs extensive liner notes).

Yao Sakurakouji, a bored and totally spoiled megaheiress, decides to join the Miami police to take the lead in those exciting car chases and gunfights. If there arent any, she will create them. Her daddy is the richest and most powerful man in Miami, so the police cant refuse her. Chief Amano assigns his daughter Lu, the most efficient detective on the force, to be Yaos partner and try to keep her under control. Lu is as calm as Yao is excitable; as deductive as Yao is prone to jump to conclusions; as devoted to following rules as Yao is to breaking them (starting with her personalized sexy police costume); and as uninterested in publicity as Yao is a glory-hound. Despite being such an exaggerated Odd Couple, they come to grudgingly respect each others talents.

Miami Guns begins as a series of stand-alone episodes, with different villains (bank robbers, crooked gamblers, terrorists, ninja, etc.) in each. Then in episode #11 they all reappear to gang up on Yao. The final three episodes are a serial, marginally more serious than what comes before. Miami Guns may not have any socially redeeming values, but it is definitely a guilty pleasure: fast-paced, funny, and full of blowing things up!

When it comes to exaggerated-macho sports dramas, Shootfighter Tekken: Tough is one of the top examples.

When it comes to exaggerated-macho sports dramas, Shootfighter Tekken: Tough is one of the top examples.

Shootfighter Tekken. Rounds 1-3.

OAV series (three episodes), 2002. Director: Yukio Nishimoto. V.1-3, 45 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

I feel alive when Im fighting! Shootfighter Tekken: Tough (Koko Tekken-Den Tough; literally High School Exciting Story: Tough) was a popular 42-volume manga series by Tetsuya Saruwatari beginning in 1993; this three-episode OAV series by the A.I.C. studio was released on Jan. 31, March 28 and April 26, 2002. It is one of the leading candidates for exaggerated-macho sports dramas. No; beyond sports; villainous World Pro Wrestling champion Iron Kiba resigns in protest because the wussy rules wont let him fight to the death in the ring!

High-schooler Keiichi Keybo Miyazawa is the protagonist. He is the proud son of Oton Miyazawa, master of the Nanshin Shadow Style, the unspoken martial art because its bouts to the death cannot be held in public. Oton treats martial arts as a religion, to be used only for justice and honor. Keybo respects his dads righteousness, but he sees fighting more as a thrill, a way to prove that a man is A Man -- but only in a spirit of macho brotherhood; fair fights with everyone still friends afterwards.

Iron Kibo represents those who fight for glory, greed and raw bloodlust. A Pro Wrestler fights with his left arm, if his right is broken! If both arms are broken, we fight with our legs. Pro Wrestlers are that kind of race. Winning is all-important. We have to win, no matter what! No matter how... He is determined to prove that Pro Wrestling is the ultimate martial art -- but for greed, not honor. Kiba has used his championship to become a wealthy TV and advertising celebrity. He feels that Pro Wrestling would become even more popular, and make him richer, if he could incorporate the secrets of the Nanshin Shadow Style into it.

Kiba tries to force Oton Miyazawa into a no-holds-barred fight for the Nanshin Shadow Style secret. Oton refuses to lower himself, but Keybo is too proud to turn down a challenge despite his fathers disapproval. Kiyomasa Samon, a hulking yet cunningly deadly fighter has been challenging Kiba for the Pro Wrestling championship, so Kiba agrees only on the condition that Samon defeat Keybo first. Samon looks invincible, but Keybo goes to Onihei, the old fighter who taught Samon, to learn his tricks. (The private fight that Kiba organizes for them is on the deck of an aircraft carrier that he rents for their arena, as an example of how powerful the World Pro Wrestling Federation is.)

Kiba had promised to give up trying to get the Nanshin Shadow secrets if his man lost, but he lied. His second tool is Shingo Aoi, a sadistic Goetsu-style jujitsu master who lures Keybo into accepting a fight to the death by beating Keybos pal and friendly rival Yo Man-Eater Takaishi. In Round 3, Kiba finally gets Oton to commit to a public match. But when Oton is hospitalized, Keybo must take his fathers place against his deadliest opponent.

Shootfighter Tekken has slightly more plot than a videogame (it is not related to the Tekken videogame which had its own anime adaptation a couple of years earlier), but it is about as mindless. It is age-rated 16+ for extreme graphic violence (floods of gore and flying teeth), but is otherwise so little-boy infantile that when Keybo shows slight signs of sexual arousal at Man-Eaters kid sister, you feel that someone oughta warn him, Eww, GIRLS! Whadda wanna mess around with GIRLS for?

Wolfs Rains attraction is in its somber, apparently hopeless quest by four despairing youths.

Wolfs Rains attraction is in its somber, apparently hopeless quest by four despairing youths.

Wolfs Rain. V.1, Leader of the Pack. V.2, Blood and Flowers. V.3, Loss. V.4, Recollections. V.5, War for the Soul. V.6, Paradise and Poison. V.7, title to come.

TV series (26 episodes), 2003. Director: Tensai Okamura. V.1-2, five episodes/125 minutes, v.3-7, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Ent.

They say when the world is coming to an end, Paradise will appear somewhere on Earth. But only wolves will know where to find it.

But wolves have been extinct for the past 200 years.

Maybe.

Hundreds or thousands of years in the future when Earth is over-polluted, natural resources are almost all gone and the last technology is breaking down, the few remaining wolves have disguised themselves as people and moved into the decaying cities to survive amidst the humans. In one city (unnamed but all signs and labels are in Russian/Cyrillic), the lone wolf Kiba comes, attracted by the scent of lunar flowers, which the legends say are a clue to Paradise.

He meets three more wolves: Tsume, the cynically embittered leader of a human street gang; Hige, a wise-guy punk; and Toboe, a naïve adolescent. Tsume and Hige dont believe in the legend, but they know where the flower scent is coming from: the citys huge prison-laboratory where experiments are being performed on Cheza, an enigmatic, beautifully inhuman Flower Maiden. Other major characters introduced in the first two episodes are Quent Yaiden, a small-town official fanatically obsessed with killing all supposedly-extinct wolves; Cher Degré, the chief scientist examining Cheza, who does not believe in wolves at first; Hubb Lebowski, a leading detective and Chers ex-husband; and Lord Darcia, one of the decadent Nobles who still possess technology which gives them almost god-like powers.

Tsume and Hige consider themselves too sophisticated to believe in fairy tales, but they are tired of living alone in hiding, and they are aware that the city is dying around them; so they allow themselves to be convinced by the angrily messianic Kiba to join his quest for Paradise. (Toboe is just pathetically eager to join any other wolves.) Their quest takes them out of the city into what looks like it may have been a strip-mined landscape centuries ago but has been reclaimed by nature: an untamed northern forest (Siberia in summer?) dotted with small communities of humans living in ancient ruins.

Actually, as producer Masahiko Minami points out in a DVD extra, Wolfs Rain is a fantasy. They are careful to never say it is set in the future, or even on Earth at all. Although he does not name comparisons, it is poetically literary science fiction similar to Ray Bradburys early stories or Jack Vances Dying Earth fantasies. No attempt is made to explain how wolves have gained the ability to convince humans that they are also human, or how they can leap from streets to the tops of buildings like superheroes.

Wolfs Rain s attraction is in its somber, apparently hopeless quest by four despairing youths; its beautiful character design (Toshihiro Kawamoto); its excellent music (Yohko Kanno); and a story that, as Director Okamura says on the DVD extra, will change completely in the span of an episode. Friends become enemies; enemies become reluctant allies and sometimes friends. There are a couple of one-dimensional villains, but most of the antagonists are tragic adversaries doing what they believe is right. The premise may be fantastic, but the characters act intelligently and the story never lets your attention wander. Wolfs Rain, 26 episodes created by Studio BONES and broadcast from January 7 to July 29, 2003 on the Fuji TV network, was a major anime hit in Japan; and on The Cartoon Network here with four additional episodes from April 24 to October 17, 2004.

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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