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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Anime expert Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including Chrono Crusade, Get Backers, Knight Hunters: Eternity, Rave Master and Time Bokan.

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.

High-quality animation, action and suspense are highlights of Chrono Crusade, but its techno babble and Catholic doctrine/Celtic spiritualism mishmash confuse the viewer.

Chrono Crusade. V.1, A Plague of Demons. V.2, Holy War. V.3, The World, the Flesh and the Devil. V.4, The Devil to Pay. V.5, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. V.6, Devils Advocate. V.7, Hellfire.

TV series (24 episodes), 2003-2004. Director: Koh Yuh. V.1-3, four episodes/100 minutes; V.4-7, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Gonzo Digimation produces some of the best demonic anime TV series. Chrono Crusade, based on the manga by Daisuke Moriyama, ran for 24 episodes from November 25, 2003 through June 10, 2004. It has more humor and is lighter in mood (at least in early episodes) than Gonzos notorious Hellsing; an adolescent (age-rated 15+) thriller more than a horror shocker.

The setting is a fantasy version of Prohibition-era America where Black Magic works. The DVD extras include history lessons to give viewers a crash course on 1920s America; New Yorks brand-new skyscrapers and Model T Fords, Grand Central Station and railroads rather than cars as the means of cross-country transportation, Prohibition and organized crime, Colt .45 revolvers and Thompson submachine guns. It is fascinating to see American history as summarized by Japanese animators using Japanese terminology (they refer to the Golden Twenties rather than the Roaring Twenties).

Real history is not separated from fake history. America between the end of World War I and the Great Depression was a period of prosperity. Easy wealth plus public disapproval of Prohibition led to giddy hedonism, which included thrill-seeking devil worship. Amateur Satanists were invariably sloppy with their summoning spells, and powerful demons got loose to wreak havoc. To counter this, the American churches formed the Order of Magdalene, a sort of pan-Christian Interpol to exorcise demons wherever they appeared. Visually, the Order of Magdalene is about 98% Roman Catholic, with uniforms based upon the Catholic Churchs most elaborate vestments plus additional frills. Commando squads of priests and nuns armed with guns loaded with silver bullets or hollow bullets filled with chrism (holy oil) race to sites under demonic assault.

Rosette Christopher is a 16-year-old Magdalene novitiate who is exceptionally trigger-happy and excitable. She always destroys the demons she is assigned to exorcise, but usually with considerable property damage. Her assistant, Chrono, looks like a meek, friendly 12-year-old boy but is admittedly a demon himself. Sister Kate, the superior at Magdalenes New York office, considers Rosette and Chrono totally inappropriate to be members of the Order, but is not allowed to expel them. The reason why, and how Rosette has come to control such a powerful devil as Chrono, are blatant mysteries to hook viewers from the first episode.

In episode #3 the third main character appears Asmaria Hendric, a child Apostle with Heavenly powers of healing. Demons want to kidnap her to milk her of Gods powers, so Rosette is assigned to escort her safely to the Orders convent for protection. The bonding that develops leads to Asmarias becoming a permanent partner of Rosette and Chrono in the really serious adventure that runs from episode #5 to the end of the series.

Gonzos TV animation is always high quality. On an episode-by-episode basis, the first 3/4 of Chrono Crusade is action-packed and suspenseful. The scenario is original and imaginative, although the more technobabble that is added about the seven Virtues and the nine classes of Angels and lines of Astral Force, the more ridiculous it becomes. It is obvious that Gonzos writers have just superficially mashed Catholic doctrine and Celtic spiritualism together, with many huh!? developments such as the discovery of the tomb of Mary Magdalene in Michigan.

Viewers can reasonably expect character development and an exciting conclusion. Unfortunately, they dont get it. Some questions are answered, but not all. Rosette remains carelessly impetuous, and devolves from a feisty fighter to a damsel who needs rescuing. The first two DVDs are recommended as high-quality and mostly stand-alone episodes. But do not get too involved in the story, and decide for yourself how much further to go into the series with this warning.

In this action/fantasy reminiscent of The X-Men and Speed, Get Backers features two wise-guy punk kids who go up against corporate criminals and Yakuza gangs.

Get Backers. V.1, G & B On the Case. V.2, Find the Fine Arts. V.3, Into the Limitless Fortess. V.4, Battles With the Past. V.5, Virtual Apocalypse. V.6, Back in Business. V.7, Venus, Interrupted. V.8, Memories, Mementos, and Monkeys. V.9, Return to the Limitless Fortress. V.10, Get Back to the Fortune.

TV series (49 episodes), 2002-2003. Directors: Kazuhiro Furuhashi & Keitarou Motonaga. V.1-9, five episodes/125 minutes; V.10, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Ban Midou and Ginji Amano are a couple of Tokyo street youths who have teamed up to create the Get Backers Recovery Service. If it was taken, well get it back. They find lost objects or, since this is dramatic anime, they more often re-steal stolen items to return them to their rightful owners. Their home is Bans shabby Volkswagen Beetle, and their office is the Honky Tonk Café, except for when Paul, the manager, wont let them in until they pay their overdue tab.

Two wise-guy punk kids against corporate criminals and Yakuza gangs sounds dramatic enough, but Get Backers is a superhero action fantasy in the genre of The X-Men and the Keanu Reeves movie Speed, the one where a passenger-filled bus must get up enough speed to leap over a break in a freeway overpass. Ginji can generate electricity like an electric eel to paralyze or fry his adversaries. Ban has both a super-strong grip and a hypnotic stare that can make his opponents believe whatever he wants them to for one minute.

That should make them invulnerable, except that their main opponents have extraordinary powers, too. Get Backers introduces Ban and Ginji against such normal adversaries as a crooked cop and Yakuza gangsters. Episodes #3 to #5 are a story arc in which the recovery team is hired to retrieve a stolen item being sent to Tokyo via a transportation team that is just as super and far more ruthless; Kuroudo Doctor Jackal Akabane who can produce knives from within his body, Himiko Lady Poison Kudou whose name says it all, and Gouzou Mr. No Brakes Maguruma, their unstoppable driver. The Get Backers have never failed to recover whatever they are hired to get back, while their opponents have never failed to deliver whatever they are hired to transport. The irresistible force meets the invulnerable object, with a subplot establishing that Ban and Himiko know each other from their mysterious past.

In episodes #6 through #8, the Get Backers are hired to help a blind violinist retrieve her stolen Stradivarius from a villain who has gotten Threadmaster Kazuki and Shido the Beastmaster to protect it. Both are former friends of Ginji when he was the leader of the deadliest street gang in Tokyo. Again, the action is heavily laden with cryptic hints like the Last Children as to where and how all these youths got their powers.

Get Backers was a 49-episode TV series by Studio Deen broadcast from October 5, 2002 through September 20, 2003. Its strong points are reminiscent of Lupin the 3rd: likeable protagonists and engaging character interaction, a good mix of humor and drama, action that builds suspense through short multi-episode story arcs, witty dialogue and a very good jazz score by Taku Iwasaki. There is some character development; one adventures enemies may be the next adventures allies and vice versa. But some aspects are overly melodramatic.

Ban and Ginji are just a couple of guys with superpowers who use them when necessary, while the others have made themselves into flamboyant super-villains. There is too much emphasis on the mystery of the continuing characters pasts. The questions about how they first met and how they got their powers are dragged out for so long that viewers will feel jerked around by the later episodes, and not all the questions are answered by the series end. If you like superhero comic books for older adolescents and young adults, and action movies like Speed and Die Hard, you will enjoy Get Backers.

How the TV series Knight Hunters: Eternity got produced might be more interesting than the show itself.

Knight Hunters: Eternity. V.1, New Blood. V.2, Troubled Souls. V.3, Lost Memories.

TV series (13 episodes), 2002-2003. Director: Hitoyuki Matsui. V.1, five episodes/125 minutes; V.2-3, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: AnimeWorks/Media Blasters.

The background story to this TV series is more fascinating than the unfortunately mediocre production. The Japanese title is in German, Weiss Kreuz: Glühen (White Cross: Glowing); 13 episodes produced by Animate Film and broadcast weekly from November 28, 2002 to February 20, 2003. It is a sequel to Weiss Kreuz, which was broadcast as 25 episodes from April 9 to September 30, 1998.

It started with four young-adult Japanese anime voice actors Takehito Koyasu, Tomokazu Seki, Shinichiro Miki, and Hiro Yuuki. Koyasu persuaded the four to form a rock band, Weiss, in the late `90s, which was moderately popular. He also created the scenario for a dramatic series in the Charlies Angels genre (closer to Bubblegum Crisis as an anime precedent), in which four handsome young men who operate a flower shop near a college by day (and spend more time fighting off romantic advances by coeds than selling flowers), are by night the deadly Weiss Kreuz, a team of vigilante assassins who are sent out by a mysterious leader, code-named Persia, to eliminate drug lords, terrorists, corrupt politicians and other criminals whom the law cannot touch. Koyasu arranged with a cartoonist to turn this into a manga series, and successfully pitched it as a 1998 TV anime series. The Animate Film studio developed the TV story, with the Weiss quartet writing and performing the opening and closing theme songs and voice acting the main characters.

A few years later, after a temporary breakup and a legal dispute with the manga artist, which resulted in new character designs, Weiss and Animate Film reunited to produce this 13-episode sequel. (Both are available on DVD in the U.S. from Media Blasters.)

Weiss Kreuz/Knight Hunters is designed to appeal to adolescents; to girls for the handsome but angst-crushed heroes (each suffered a personal tragedy such as parents murdered, which is why they were open to recruitment as vigilantes by Persia) who wear Christian crosses as fashion designs; and to boys for the power fantasy of being deadly crime fighters. The 1998 25-episode series is one of those that begin with apparently stand-alone stories, which are gradually tied together into a story-arc for the climax.

Knight Hunters: Eternity is a single serial from the beginning, but an extremely convoluted one. It is also a sequel that makes familiarity with the original series desirable. One of the original Weiss assassins has become the new Persia, and there have been other team replacements. The new Weiss are sent to investigate an elite university, several of whose graduates have become political terrorists. They discover brainwashing, suspicious suicides, deadly factionalism between students and teachers, an attempt to clone a master race, psychic powers and more. Each episode seemingly throws the story into a new direction. Red-herring master villains are killed off and replaced every few episodes. There is a 100% mortality rate among sympathetic supporting characters, which ratchets up the angst level among the Weiss team for being unable to save them. There are even fatalities among Weiss.

Persia constantly agonizes about having to send his friends into suicide missions. The drama is reminiscent of early Alexandre Dumas with flamboyantly masked assassins, mysterious midnight funerals, hidden chambers (futuristic laboratories rather than ancient dungeons), and formal challenges to deadly duels. The attempt to maintain a coherent plot breaks down amidst the increasing melodrama and wild plot surprises, despite a desperate attempt at the climax to draw it all together. One surprisingly original twist is that the story really ends with episode 12; #13, set several months later, is a melancholy mood piece showing how each of the surviving Weiss members has been emotionally affected by their traumatic adventure. This series is meant for an audience that appreciates over-the-top melodrama and tragedy more than a plausible story, and does not mind mediocre animation.

Fans of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! will probably respond favorably to Rave Master.

Rave Master. V.1, The Quest Begins. V.2, Release the Beasts. V.3, The Sound of Thunder. V.4, Mountains & Madmen. V.5.

TV series (51 episodes), 2001-2002. Director: Takashi Watanabe. V.1-3, four episodes/92 minutes; V.4 & 5, six episodes/138 minutes; V.6, five episodes/115 minutes; future volumes undetermined. Price & format: DVD English $14.99. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

Is your kid a big fan of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!? Then you may want to recommend Rave Master to him. (Actually, he probably already knows about it since it has been on the Cartoon Network since June 2004, and has just been renewed.)

Rave Master (the Japanese title is just Rave) followed the usual path of being created as a juvenile fantasy comedy/adventure manga (by Hiro Mashima in 1999), which was quickly followed by an anime TV series and lots of videogames. With the growing American acceptance of Japanese juvenile mild adventures in humorously bizarre worlds, Rave Master has built up a solid audience (though nowhere near the Pokémon level).

Fifty years ago, this fantasy world was locked into a war between Good (the Rave) and Evil (the Shadow), both personified by gemstones of magic power. Both stones were shattered, and their shards scattered throughout the world. Today, greedy villains have formed the Shadow Guard to find the still-powerful fragments so they can rule the world. Shiba, the original Rave Master knight, has also been searching the world to destroy the Shadow Stones and reunite the Rave Stones; but he is now an old man. As Rave Master begins, Shiba meets young Haru Glory who becomes the new Rave Master, destined to carry on the quest.

The manga is age-rated 7+, while the anime DVDs are all ages. The intended anime audience looks closer to 10-14. The two lead questers, the boy Haru and mysterious amnesiac girl Elie, are supposedly 16 years old, but look and act closer to 12 or 13. There is a seriously dramatic background (the Shadow Guards commanders are sadists who slaughter women and children for fun), but it is usually hidden by the comedic foreground action (the Shadow Guards clownish singing and dancing cannon-fodder troops are buffoons easily outwitted by Haru and Elie). The fantasy world is based upon grotesque pop music imagery, with a continent and cities with names like Song, Hip Hop City and Punk Street, where all the background characters in crowd scenes have shaved skulls or outrageously roach-moussed hair, tattoos and lots of body piercings.

Where PokÉmon, Digimon and Monster Rancher have cute fantastic animals, Rave Master has abstract creatures referred to by the human characters as, My God; what is that thing!? Haru and Elie argue over whether their pet-companion, Plue, is a dog or a large insect; it looks like a miniature snowman with a carrot nose. Nakajima, a talking large flower or sunburst (he wont say which) embedded into one wall of Harus home, looks suspiciously like the Argentinean national symbol. Constant encounters with such humorous characters keep the mood light as Haru and Elie face their potentially deadly encounters with the homicidal Shadow Guard leaders.

There are other elements which make it impossible to take the adventure seriously, such as Harus exaggeratedly huge Decaforce Sword that should be too heavy for a human to lift, much less swing in battle.

Rave Master was a 51-episode TV series animated by Studio Deen, which ran from October 13, 2001 through September 28. Presumably the producers counted on the fantasy setting and the fact that kids are uncritical to get away with poor animation, and human character design that fluctuates between cartoony and out-of-proportion realistic.

The DVDs are advertised as, As seen on Cartoon Network, and that is exactly what they mean. Unlike the DVDs of some other which present both the original Japanese and the American versions, Rave Master presents only the English-dubbed version as edited for American TV, without any extras.

This Time Bokan release includes material designed for an audience already familiar with the TV series of the same name. Its an atypical sample of the series that is still unreleased in America.

Time Bokan.

OAV series (2 episodes), 1993-1994. Director: Akira Shigino. 60 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

Warning! This is not really the famous Time Bokan that anime fans have heard of. Dont be fooled by an imitation, even if it is from the same studio.

Time Bokan was both an individual anime TV series and the first of seven popular series running for eight years. It was a juvenile slapstick comedy modeled upon Hanna-Barberas 1968-70 The Wacky Races. The original Time Bokan (1975-76) was followed by Yattaman, Zendaman, Otasukeman, Yattadetoman, Ippatsuman and Itadakeman, for a total of 408 episodes.

The title always included a groaner pun. BOKAN is the traditional Japanese comicbook sound effect for an explosion, so Time Bokan can be read as Time Bomb; a bilingual pun suitable for a sci-fi comedy about time travel. Each series featured two boy-and-girl adolescents and a comedy-relief robot assistant (an imitation R2-D2) as a superhero team, with a ridiculous giant-robot vehicle resembling a huge childs toy. Their opponents were a gang of three bumbling villains; a femme-fatale leader, a lean brain who invented weapons that always backfired, and a hulking goon. The setup involved time travel. The villains were constantly going into the past for some nefarious purpose, and the kid heroes had to stop them.

Since the kids had to appear heroic, the villains got to act more comically and with funnier dialogue, like a dishonest version of the Three Stooges. They were always the most popular.

The plots never made sense; they were just an excuse for a barrage of jokes. However, one of Time Bokans virtues was that the humor included satire for adults. One situation had the three villains set up a phony moving company to steal the goods of people who hired them. Their moving van was prominently lettered in English: DOROBO MOVERS. Dorobo is the Japanese word for thief. Their victims were snobs so impressed by a moving company with an English-lettered name that they did not bother to translate dorobo back into Japanese to find out what it meant. The satire was aimed at those Japanese who use English words for prestige value in commercial applications such as product names, without bothering to use or spell them correctly. As a result, Time Bokan had many adult viewers as well as a huge juvenile audience.

Time Bokan lasted for eight years, until the formula was milked dry, and then it was retired in 1983. Ten years later, which also corresponded with the 30th anniversary of Tatsunoko Production Co., it was revived for two half-hour direct-to-video episodes, Time Bokan Royal Revival, released on November 26, 1993 and January 1, 1994. It is these two episodes that are now being released together as a one-hour feature.

In the first half-hour, The Ticky-Ticky Waga-Waga Boko-Boko Machine Crazy Race, all seven villain gangs from the different series race in their funny giant robots to prove which trio is the greatest (meaning not which is fastest but which can out cheat the others). This is really a blatant Wacky Races copy. In the second, the winners (Doronjo, Boyakey and Donzler, the Dorombo Gang from Yattaman) start their own animation studio, figuring to cash in on anime by making movies so bad the public will pay to get out of the theater. Then they terrorize the Tatsunoko Kingdom with a new giant robot, Sailor Mun Mun, a parody of Sailor Moon. They are opposed by all of Tatsunokos 1970s dramatic anime superheroes making comically out-of-character guest appearances.

This is a very bad introduction to Time Bokan. The two episodes were designed for an audience already familiar with the TV series. Moreover, they parody Time Bokan rather than presenting two additional episodes. So they are an atypical sample, full of in-group references that, since Time Bokan is still unreleased in America, most viewers will not understand. Unless you are desperate for a Time Bokan sample, you can skip this one.

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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