New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including Black Magic M-66, Night on the Galactic Railroad, Battle of the Planets, Yamamoto Yohko, Starship Girl and Saint Tail.

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.

Black Magic M-66. © Manga Entertainment.

Black Magic M-66

OAV, 1987. Directors: Masamune Shirow, Hiroyuki Kitakubo. 48 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Black Magic was artist/writer Masamune Shirow's first manga novel, originally self-published while he was a 22 year-old college student in 1983. Shirow began professionally creating cartoon-art science fiction novels two years later, in parallel with starting what was to be his real career (under his actual name: Masanori Ota) as a high school teacher. The former drew him into a brief association with a group of young animators setting up companies to take advantage of the new direct-to-video market's need for cheap productions. (Namely, two animation studios, Animate Film and A.I.C., coordinated through the Movic production company. All three have prospered as the OAV market has grown.) They picked a dramatic chapter from Shirow's Black Magic as one of their first projects. Shirow himself wrote the script from his story, drew the storyboards, and co-directed with Hiroyuki Kitakubo, who did story layout and character design from Shirow's art. This was Shirow's only direct foray into animation; his teaching career occupied him full-time for a while, then in the 1990s he concentrated on his artistic sci-fi novels. The best-known of these, Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, have also been animated but Shirow was not involved in the production.

Black Magic M-66 was released as an early OAV short feature (48 minutes) on June 28, 1987. One suspects that the animators and their backer/distributor (Bandai Visual) chose that particular chapter because of its close resemblance to The Terminator (1984), although almost all of Shirow's works branch off from Philip K. Dick's and A. E. van Vogt's sci-fi explorations of expanded intelligence in both humans and artificial brains.

A military helicopter carrying two "anti-personnel android" (human-looking assassin robot) prototypes toward a Top Secret test site crashes just outside a Bladerunner-esque futuristic city. The M-66s have not yet been programmed; their memories are still loaded with their developer's test-image -- his teen granddaughter Ferris's photo. The androids activate and set out to kill their target, decimating the Special Forces commandos sent to retrieve them. Sybel, a headline-seeking journalist, is drawn to the action, but she ends up with the hysterical Ferris fleeing ahead of the remaining M-66 slashing and blasting its way toward them through the city and the remaining commandos trying to protect them.

This was one of the first productions of Anime Film and A.I.C. The animation is crude, but the direction is solid and suspenseful and the action is well choreographed. (Shirow has acknowledged studying the direction of Hayao Miyazaki's films very closely.) It shows the early promise, which has matured in the later works of all concerned. Black Magic M-66 has been popular with American anime fans almost from its original Japanese release, first as a bootleg-copied import, then as one of the first licensed American anime videos in December 1991, and now on DVD.

Night on the Galactic Railroad. © 1985 Asahi Group, Herald Group, TAC.

Night on the Galactic Railroad.

Theatrical feature, 1985. Director: Gisaburo Sugii. 108 minutes. Price & format: DVD $29.99 bilingual. Distributor: Central Park Media.

This art film, released in July 1985, was the first major animated adaptation of the literary classics of Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of Japan's best-known 20th century authors. Superficially a children's fantasy, this allegorical phantasmagoria of the unity of the earth, the heavens, life and death is for all ages. Giovanni is a young schoolboy who is ostracized by most of his classmates when he must stop playing with them to work at odd jobs to support his ailing mother. Only his best friend Campanella remains loyal. On the night of the Milky Way Festival, when the townsfolk sail lanterns down the river, Giovanni goes to a hilltop to look at the stars. An ethereal train stops so he can board, and he is delighted to find that Campanella is also a passenger. The first part of the journey is clearly a dream, with sights influenced (as in the MGM Wizard of Oz movie) by Giovanni's daytime memories of his school teacher's lessons and other elements; a stop at the Pliocene Coast dominated by gigantic antediluvian fossils, and stations based upon the constellations. Gradually, and obviously after a new influx of wet passengers turn out to be people who had just drowned as the Titanic sunk, Giovanni and the audience realize that the train is really taking newly-dead souls to Heaven. He has a rare round-trip ticket, but what is Campanella doing on the train?

Sugii's telling of this story, beautifully animated by Group TAC, blends the original story (which was itself a blend of reality and fantasy) with well-known elements from Miyazawa's other works. Giovanni's hometown is what was then-exotic (to the Japanese) Italy, but with Japanese cultural elements such as the annual festival of floating candles down a river to honor the souls of the dead. There is no hint that the characters are anything other than human, but some of Miyazawa's other stories feature anthropomorphized cats so Sugii presents the cast here as funny animal cats. Street signs and such are in Esperanto rather than Italian, reflecting Miyazawa's passion for that artificial language. All captions and credits are in both Japanese and Esperanto. (Unfortunately, the English translation misses some references, identifying the prehistoric ancestor of the bull as "vos" instead of "bos," and apparently not realizing that some names such as swan and scorpion refer to the constellations rather than the mundane creatures.)

Battle of the Planets.All Rights Reserved. © 2001 Rhino Home Video.

Giovanni and Campanella are both introspective boys who watch in quiet awe, so there are long passages without dialogue. Fortunately, the music (Haruomi Hosono) and sound mix (Atumi Tasiro) superbly carry the movie for adult viewers. However, watching Night on the Galactic Railroad is similar to spending an afternoon at an art museum in that children are apt to become restless.

Battle of the Planets. V.1 - V.4.

TV series, 1972-1974. Japan, Chief Director: Hisayuki Toriumi; America, Executive Producer & Writer: Jameson Brewer. 60 minutes each. Price & Format: DVD $19.95 bilingual. Distributor: Rhino Home Video.

Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was a landmark anime TV series in many respects. It was one of the most popular anime TV series of the 1970s, running for 105 episodes from October 1, 1972 to September 29, 1974 and spinning off two sequels, Gatchaman II (52 episodes, October 1, 1978 to September 23, 1979) and Gatchaman-F (for Fighter) (48 episodes, October 7, 1979 to August 31, 1980). It was the last major title developed by Tatsuo Yoshida, creator of Tatsunoko Production Co., before his death. It was one of the few anime series in the style of American costumed superhero comic books to win any popularity in Japan.

In October 1978 as Battle of the Planets, it became the first Japanese TV cartoon series in over ten years to break into American TV. Producer Sandy Frank's team (notably Jameson Brewer and Alan Dinehart) drastically edited and rewrote it to turn it into a Star Wars clone. The Japanese plot has the Gatchaman heroes traveling all around Earth to defend our world from the Galactor space invaders. The American version opts for an interstellar setting, claiming that each episode takes place on a different planet (which just happens to look like Earth). Even for the more permissive syndicated TV market, Gatchaman was so violent by American standards that the 105 episodes were cut to 85, and those were edited so much that new American footage by Gallerie International Films, Inc. had to be created (spaceships flying to other planets, and comedy scenes with a new C-3PO-like robot) to bring the episodes back up to 25 minutes. Even so, Battle of the Planets was so dramatic by American TV cartoon standards that it won a large juvenile following. American anime fandom had just started, and early anime fans won many recruits by pointing out that BotP was actually anime, and by showing bootleg videos of the uncut Japanese episodes. In 1986, as a result of legal entanglements, the American license reverted to Tatsunoko which resold it to Turner Program Services, which created yet another American TV version. G-Force, supervised by Fred Ladd, was a more faithful adaptation of the original Gatchaman, but it sold mostly to foreign markets and was seen by few Americans.

Rhino's DVD editions are designed for anime fans. Vol. 1 contains Battle of the Planets, episodes 1 and 2, plus the same two episodes of the original uncut Gatchaman series in Japanese with English subtitles, plus episode 1 again in the G-Force version with English, Spanish, and Brazilian-Portuguese dialogue tracks. All episodes include the full credits in English. The differences between the three versions is striking! Vol. 2 presents episodes 3 and 4, plus G-Force episode 2. Vols. 3 and 4 are scheduled for a January 2002 release; more will follow if sales justify their production.

For the past twenty years, fans have had to settle for imports of the Japanese untranslated Gatchaman on video and twenty-year-old home-video recordings of Battle of the Planets. Now at least the first episodes of both American and Japanese versions, plus some of the G-Force episodes, are available in a format suitable for serious animation collectors. For those who want only the Battle of the Planets versions as cool space-adventure TV cartoons for the 8 to 12 set, they are available as two-episode, 60 minute VHS videos for $9.95 each.

pattenanime04.gifYamamoto Yohko, Starship Girl's DVD cover. © Taku Shouji-Takashi Akaishizawa-Yamamoto Yoko Seisakuiinkai/ Kadokawashoten.

Yamamoto Yohko, Starship Girl: The Perfect Collection.

OAV series (6 episodes), 1996-1997. Director: Akiyuki Shinbo. 180 minutes. Price & format: DVD $39.95 bilingual. Distributor: The Right Stuf International.

Also available in a video edition:

Yamamoto Yohko, Starship Girl. V.1, The Starship Girl. V.2, Echoes from the Past. V.3, All's Fair in Love and War.

2 episodes/60 minutes each. Price & format: video $19.98 dubbed only.

When anime gets silly, it gets really silly! This is a parody of video games and the high schoolers who become obsessed gamers. It lampoons The Last Starfighter most obviously, but goes on to skewer sports, horror and romance games as well. The main cast consists of rival teen girl fighter aces; wish-fulfillment role models for the girl market, cute eye-candy for the boys, and slapstick comedy for both.

A galactic civilization of the 2990s is divided between two interstellar superpowers, Terra and Ness. To avoid devastating warfare, all "tactical economic negotiation" disputes are settled by symbolic battles between teams of four starfighters. Only teenagers have reflexes fast enough to become top fighters. Terra, which has been regularly losing, decides to utilize time-travel to recruit a team from the Golden Years of the space-battle video-gaming past, a thousand years earlier. The four are reckless daredevil Yokho Yamamoto and her high-school buddies, Madoka, Momiji and Ayano. They quickly reverse Terra's losing streak and start humiliating Ness' Red Snappers team; arrogant Rouge and her sisters Lubrum, Erutron and Lote.

Just in case any viewer might mistake the exaggerated melodrama of the first episode for serious action (hardly likely, since Yohko needs to drop ¥100 into her "real starfighter" to take off), the second episode is an over-the-top burlesque of sports video games. Yohko and her teammates are celebrating their victory at Funky Bubble Hot Spring, an outer-space parody of a traditional Japanese vacation spa. They run into their Red Snappers rivals, and an instant grudge match develops. The action quickly escalates from ping-pong ("I pray to the ping-pong ball to destroy evil with this racket!") to space billiards (using their starfighters as cuesticks to carom planetoids off each other).

The original Let's Go! Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko OAV series, produced by J.C. Staff, consisted of three half-hour videos released between March and June 1996. It proved popular enough that three more were released as Yamamoto Yohko II between August and December 1997, produced jointly by J.C. Staff and Tee Up studios. These introduce Sylvie Dread, a spoiled-brat former champion starfighter who tries to pit the Terra and Ness teams against each other and ends up uniting them against her. The episode "Nightmare of Legends" opens with the girls crashlanding on a planet dominated by a haunted castle. "This is just like a horror adventure game," one points out, to Yohko's dismay since her expertise is only in the space battle games. (For no apparent reason, the three mad monks setting the deathtraps in the castle are named Balzac, Pushkin and Swift.) The final episode, "Cinderella of the Cherry Blossom Moonlight," puts the tomboyish Yohko into a romantic video game scenario where she seems hopelessly out of place. Crazy teen comedy with some witty repartee, in a pleasing design style by Kashiro Akaishi & Kazuto Nakazawa, and smoothly enough directed that you have to look closely to realize how limited the animation is.

Saint Tail. © Megumi Tachikawa/Kodansha - TMS. All Rights Reserved. Produced by TMS Entertainment, Ltd. Under License to Mixx Entertainment, Inc.

Saint Tail. V.1, Thief of Hearts. V.2, It's Show Time! V.3, Spring Love! V.4, Moonlight. V.5, Girl of Justice. V.6, Integrity. V.7-11, titles to come. TV series, 1995-1996. Chief Director: Osamu Nabeshima. V.1, 3 episodes/75 minutes; V.2-11, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD $29.99 bilingual; video $19.99 dubbed. Distributor: TOKYOPOP Anime.

Kaito Saint Tail (Saint Tail, the Mysterious Thief) was a 43-episode TV series; October 12, 1995 to September 12, 1996. It is a particularly bizarre variant in the "magical little girls" genre. These all (Sailor Moon and dozens of others) feature girls who gain temporary magic powers, usually from a benevolent fairy or space alien. This one is set in a Japanese Roman Catholic parochial school, and it is God Himself who turns young Meimi into the magically uncatchable ponytailed thief (in a costume based upon a Las Vegas magician's stage-assistant).

The students in Class 2-A at St. Paulia Catholic School include Meimi Haneoka, daughter of a stage magician; her best friend Seira Mimori, a novitiate nun; and (Daiki) Asuka, Jr., the son of one of the city's police detectives. The city has been plagued in the last few weeks by Saint Tail, a cat-burglar who the police are desperate to catch even though it always turns out her victims are criminals and she gives the loot to the innocents from whom it was stolen in the first place. The secret is that when parishioners confide their troubles to Sister Seira while asking her to pray to God to help them (do 14-year-old nuns-in-training hear Confessions?), Seira then prays to God for the answers (where a stolen necklace is hidden; how to help a girl avoid a marriage that her social-climbing parents are forcing her into). Seira gives the information to Meimi, who chants the magic prayer ("Forgive me, Lord, for the tricks up my sleeves"), which sets off the stock-footage magical transformation that turns her into Saint Tail, with the ninja-like power to leap from rooftop to rooftop (in high heels?) and steal the most closely-guarded treasures. The police's constant failure to catch her has embarrassed Detective Asuka, and his son vows to personally succeed where Dad has failed. Since Meimi and Junior are already rivals in class, she taunts him with notices of where she will strike next, confident that she will be able to guess his traps and avoid them. The audience is of course aware that this "Girls -- ugh!" "Boys -- who needs 'em?" attitude is the beginning of a first romance.

The classmates are all described as 14 years old, but (as with Cardcaptors) look and act more like 10 or 11. That is more likely the target age of the audience; preadolescent girls just old enough for fantasy romantic adventures about young lovers. Meimi's burglary gimmicks are supposedly based upon her father's stage tricks, but like such plot devices as a schoolboy who can order uniformed police about because his father is a detective, this does not really pretend to be anything other than juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasy. The character art style based upon the Saint Tail comic book by Megumi Tachikawa (also being published in America by TOKYOPOP) is attractive. It is probably not a coincidence that the animation is by TMS Entertainment, the same studio that has produced the mega-popular Lupin III animated TV and movie adult series about a good-guy master thief.

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

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