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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie, NieA_7, Hand Maid May and Boogiepop Phantom.

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.

© 1999-2001 Mamoru Oshii / BANDAI VISUAL  Production I.G. English adaptation by Bandai Entertainment and Viz Communications. All rights reserved.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.

Theatrical feature, 2000. Director: Hiroyuki Okiura. 102 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98/Special Edition DVD bilingual 162 minutes with extras $59.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment and Viz Communications.

Jin-Roh was released in Japan on June 3, 2000, but it had been winning awards in international film festivals in Europe since February 1999. It was originally to be directed by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell); but he turned it over to his protege, Hiroyuki Okiura. The details, which provide an informative glimpse at how the Production I.G. studio's creative team works, are presented in the Special Edition in an hour-long second DVD of interviews, theatrical trailers and other extras. The Special Edition also includes a music C.D. of Hajime Mizoguchi's lovely though melancholy symphonic score, and an illustrated booklet.

Jin-Roh is a suspenseful but bleak political thriller, so realistically staged that everyone's first question is, "Why didn't they just film it as a live-action movie?" It is technically science fiction, set in an alternate-history postwar Japan. As the Occupation ended, there was some Communist agitation. Oshii's story exaggerates this into a major terrorist underground, the Sect, too serious for the regular police. In this fictional Japan, the government creates a separate Capital Police organization, with a paramilitary Special Unit to meet the terrorist squads with deadly force.

As the economy improves in the mid-1950s, the Sect's popular support dwindles. They frenetically step up their attacks to continue looking strong. The Capital Police are in a quandary; if they do not stop the Sect they will look incompetent, while if they do crush the Sect they will put themselves out of work. Some within the regular police want to disband the parallel force anyway. There is a rumored loyalist group in the Capital Police, the Wolf Brigade, willing to oppose their bureaucratic rivals with the same deadly tactics that they use on the terrorists.

Kazuki Fuse is a new member of the Capital Police's Special Unit. During a confrontation with the Sect in Tokyo's sewers, he hesitates to kill a teen "Red Riding Hood" terrorist, allowing her to set off a suicide bomb. Emotionally shaken, he visits the dead girl's crypt and meets her older sister, Kei. As a fragile romance grows between them, the viewer sees that several factions are planning to use the lovers for their own purposes. There are also hints that the lovers themselves may not be innocent. Is Kei really a terrorist trying to infiltrate the CP? Is Fuse callously using her to get information on the Sect? Is Kei innocent but being used by the Sect? Is the romance that develops real despite what their original motives may have been? Are the regular police planning to use the romance to discredit the CP? The plot keeps twisting and the audience is offered a new possibility every few minutes, but each development seems to offer less hope that Fuse and Kei will escape the fate of tragic lovers.

"Jin roh" actually means "wolf men," and that translation better describes the extremists' own self-image as savage wolves who do not hesitate to kill to protect their own pack, the Capital Police. But they also have no compassion for weaklings among themselves. Is Fuse weak for having different values? Are "different values" a rationalization for genuine weakness? Or is the answer different altogether? While it seems unarguable that Jin-Roh could have been made just as well as a live-action feature, Okiura's direction is so skillful and the "acting" of the cartoon cast is so convincing that you rapidly forget that you are not watching a live-action feature.

© 1997 Be-Papas. SAITO CHIHO/SHOGAKUKAN.SHOKAKU TV-TOKYO. © 1999-2000 Shojo Kakumei UTENA Seisaku Iinkai.

Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Movie.

Theatrical feature, 1999. Director: Kunihiko Ikuhara. 87 minutes. Price & format: VHS English language $19.99; DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: Software Sculptors/Central Park Media.

Many anime theatrical features based upon popular TV series offer impressive visuals, but stories that are hard to follow by viewers who are not familiar with the TV series and characters. Shojo Kakumei Utena (translated in the Japanese series into French as La Fillette Revolutionnaire Utena) carries this to extremes. The TV series itself (39 half-hour episodes, April 2 to December 24, 1997) was so surrealistic that American fans compared it to Patrick McGoohan's cult favorite The Prisoner, in presenting an imaginative and suspenseful drama around a protagonist imprisoned in a bizarre, luxurious but unexplained community. Utena Tenjou is just entering the Ohtori Academy, apparently an exclusive city-sized high school of soaring towers smothered in rose gardens. Most of the girls dress in frilly schoolgirl uniforms, while the Student Council (male and female) wear 18th century military officers' uniforms styled upon the courtiers at Louis XVI's Versailles. Admission to the Student Council is by membership in the Academy's Fencing Club. The best duelist wins the symbolic title of fiance to the Rose Bride, the sister (Anthy) of the Academy's unseen young Headmaster Akio Himemiya. The arrogant boys on the Council abuse Anthy. The tomboyish Utena duels for the title, at first just to free Anthy from abuse, but as the story progresses their friendship takes on lesbian overtones. Utena is always overflowing with cryptic dialogue amidst imagery of roses, the Versailles court, Tarot cards (notably the chariot evolving into the modern sports cars fancied by the effete "Prince" Akio), impossibly attenuated towers stretching to Heaven, Indonesian shadow puppetry, and more; overlaid with portentous hints about the need to revolutionize the world. The Student Council's goal, endlessly repeated (in French), is: "If it cannot break out of its shell, the chick will die without ever being born. We are the chick, the World is our egg. If we do not crack the World's shell, we will die without truly being born. Smash the World's shell...For the Revolution of the World!" The movie (Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence of Utena is the actual Japanese title, animated by J.C. Staff, released August 14, 1999) condenses this into an abstract semi-religious allegory, with the Academy as a womb that needs the pampered students to break out or eventually die stillborn. Even critics who complain that the story is incomprehensible agree that Ikuhara's direction and the graphics (character designs by Shinya Hasegawa, based upon the original comic book art of Chiho Saito) are so stunning that this should not be missed. The swooping angular panoramas around the rose-emblemed ethereal campus sometimes looks like a robotic multiplane camera running berserk, but they are always impressive. The character interaction remains gripping even if you are never sure just who the characters are. Utena is an excellent example of anime's "any given scene would look beautiful as a framed still picture" allure. (Just don't ask about the Carwash of the Gods...)

The next two reviews are of separate TV series, but both were aimed at adolescents and were broadcast on Wednesdays at 6:30 pm on Japan's WOWOW-TV satellite channel. NieA_7, 13 episodes from April 26 through July 19, 2000, was followed immediately by Hand Maid May, 10 episodes from July 26 through September 27, 2000. The two show different ways that anime humor is being targeted for today's age 13-and-up TV viewers.

© yoshitoshi Abe/NieA Project.

NieA_7. V.1, Poor Girl Blues. V.2, Funky Water Blues. V.3, Sayonara Blues. V.4, Under Seven Blues.

TV series (13 episodes), 2000. Director/writer: Takuya Sato. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; V.2 - V.4, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

"Ny-ee-ah under seven," as it is pronounced, is a combination of soap opera, sci-fi, and frenetic humor. The setting is so ethnically Japanese that the DVD extras include "footnotes" to explain unique cultural terms and traits. One is the frequent use of the word "hetare," meaning "lame humor." The note points out that "hetare" is a good description for NieA_7 since the dialogue is full of bad jokes, deliberately obscure references (even more so to Americans), and adolescent off-color humor.

The date is twenty years after a flying saucer has crashed in Japan, stranding its crew who look human except for Spocklike pointed ears and Teletubby antennas. They settle into human society as lower-class laborers. The setting is Enohana, a small town so far into the countryside that it has changed little since the end of the 20th century. Mayuko Chigasaki is a poor high school graduate attending a cram school to raise her grades enough to enter college. She is a tenant at the local old-fashioned community bathhouse, which desperately needs more customers to stay in business. She also has to put up with NieA, an alien girl who is a squatter in her closet. The tomboyish "no antenna" NieA has the personality of a spoiled cat; lazing in the sun and always asking when the next meal will be ready. Mayuko's attempts to make NieA "pay her way" by performing some chores, or trying to adapt some of the alien technology to the bathhouse's use, results in much Odd Couple humor.

The plot threads centering upon Mayuko emphasize realistic small-town life. Mayuko is concerned with earning enough to pay her college tuition, yet aware that she has no real goals once she does finish college. She and the other tenants of the bathhouse are a small family, with their own lives plus their shared effort to keep the outdated public facility open. The characters are appealing enough to hold viewer interest even when performing such actions as washing dishes. (Sato's clever directing keeps unexciting everyday activities from becoming boring.) The plot threads that spin off NieA emphasize the crazy humor. She builds miniature flying saucers out of junk and crashes through the bathhouse roof. A fellow alien becomes the manager of the local "11-7" store; he adopts the appearance of a turbaned East Indian because it is expected that convenience store managers be Hindi immigrants. Other aliens are parodies of other cultural stereotypes, including the overweight pimply anime fanboy. There is some overlap; one of Mayuko's Japanese friends wears his hair in Rastafarian dreadlocks. NieA's lazy ways make her a pariah even among the other aliens; will she ever improve herself? So the "odd couple" is not just Mayuko and NieA, but the juxtaposition of slow-paced rural Japanese society (drawn and animated realistically) and the clownishly bizarre alien society (grotesquely drawn and animated, allowing the Triangle Staff studio to use lots of limited animation). Two very different soap operas, deliberately clashing in every respect, intermixed during "a Summer at the Enohana Bathhouse."

© 2000 Wonder Farm/TNK/Pioneer LDC/PEA.

Hand Maid May. V.1, Maid to Order. V.2, Product Recall. V.3, Memory Failure.

TV series (10 episodes), 2000 + 1 video episode. Director: Shinichiro Kimura. V.1 & V.3, 4 episodes/100 minutes; V.2, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: VHS English language $24.98; DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

The rather avant-garde NieA_7 was followed by a return to the anime "safe formula" for adolescent humor of the '90s: a relentlessly cheerful fantasy with an attractive cartoon art style and chipper bubblegum pop songs, about a handsome but introverted teen boy who is suddenly smothered in cute not-quite-human girls.

Kazuya Saotome is a college student majoring in computer technology and robotics. His rival is Kotaro Nanbara, a comedy-relief rich-kid rotter who is jealous of Kazuya's academic success. Kotaro slips Kazuya a disk containing a super-virus intended to wipe out his class project. Instead the virus connects Kazuya's computer to a Cyberdyne computer superstore, and he accidentally orders a "hand maid," a Barbie-doll sized and lookalike (but bustier) robotic housemaid. May is slightly damaged during delivery, and Kazuya's tinkering to restart her without instructions results in her developing an independent personality. Kazuya is happy to turn his apartment housework over to May, who evolves from mothering him to developing romantic feelings after watching a TV soap opera (rather, a hilariously over-the-top parody of one). Nanbara wants to steal May so he can claim credit for inventing her. But Cyberdyne's bill for May is $1,450,000, and when Kazuya cannot pay, Cyberdyne starts sending collection agents -- all human-sized attractive robot girls -- to repossess her. (It is obvious to the audience far sooner than to the characters that Cyberdyne is in the future and that Nanbara's virus somehow makes time travel possible.) Kazuya's modifications to May's programming prevent this, so all the girls move into his apartment building to keep May and he under embarrassingly close scrutiny. Halfway through the series May gains a full-sized human body, which gives her the hope that her romantic passion for Kazuya may be realized. This doubles the level of the romance-comic-book comedic misunderstandings and double-entendres.

There is some mild human-rights moralizing about intelligence and memory being more important in establishing humanity than whether a person is flesh or circuitry. There are some mild crises every couple of episodes to keep the one-dimensional plot from completely stagnating. There is also some mildly sexist humor; May's breasts are almost as bouncy as her personality, and as a 1/6 scale doll she has a computer cord that plugs into an unmentionable part of her anatomy. One of the attractive human-sized cyberdolls has an I.Q. of 50,000, so she should make an ideal office secretary. But Hand Maid May is so happy and upbeat (even Nanbara is reformed by May's radiant wholesomeness) that it is hard to take offense. This TV production by the TNK studio was numbered episode 1/10, 2/10, and so on, but an extra episode 11/10 was added as a sales hook for the video release.

Boogiepop Phantom. Evolution 01 - 04.

TV series (12 episodes), 2000. Director: Takashi Watanabe. V.1 V.4, 3 episodes/85 minutes. Price & format: VHS English language $19.98; DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: The Right Stuf International.

Another adolescent TV series, but far removed from humor, is Boogiepop Phantom. This 12 episode surrealistic horror mystery, "produced by Project Boogiepop" through the Madhouse studio, was so grim, gory and intellectually challenging that it ran, on TV Tokyo from January 6 through March 23, 2000, in a 1:45 am slot.

A blinding shaft of light shoots into the sky from a large city one night, and an electrical power surge blacks out the city. A month later, numerous students at local high schools and colleges have disappeared. Others are showing personality changes. A joking urban legend attributes this to "Boogiepop," a modernization of the personification of Death as the Grim Reaper.

© Kouhei Kadono/Mediaworks. Project Boogiepop. English version produced by Right Stuf International.

The first few episodes each seem to focus upon a different adolescent, all with markedly low self-esteem. "That was when I still hated myself," says Moto in episode #1. She had a crush on one of the boys who disappeared, but she never dared tell him because of her aversion to physical contact. She constantly washes her hands. Jonouchi in #2 considers himself a "sin-eater," who can see guilt and suffering in others and considers it his duty to "remove their pain." But as the series progresses, there are increasing references to things beginning five years earlier, long before the flash of light, when a never-caught serial killer terrorized the city. Brief, inconsequential scenes in one episode become the focus of later episodes. Eventually some complete scenes are repeated, unchanged but with whole new meanings based upon revelations in the intervening episodes. By #5 it is evident that the episodes are not nearly as self-contained as it originally seemed.

Each episode is presented through a mosaic of vignettes; scenes so distinct that they are individually numbered and dated, jumping about chronologically: "The present," "Five years ago," "The present," "Seven years ago." Boogiepop is glimpsed, so briefly at first that he/she(?) may be a protagonist's hallucination. "It" eventually seems to be real, and is not alone; a similar creature, Manticore, may be the actual cause of the disappearances and deaths. Are Boogiepop and Manticore causing madness, or are they drawn to those who are already seriously disturbed? Are they supernatural monsters? Dimensional aliens? Or is the whole scenario someone's twisted imagination?

This atmospheric urban horror thriller (based upon the continuing Boogiepop series of young adult sci-fi novels by Kouhei Kadono; at least eleven since February 1998) is skillfully directed to be bleak and depressing at all times. Colors are muted, with shades of brown and rusty reds predominating. There are many overhead shots, making the characters look small and vulnerable. Almost everything is seen through the eyes of that episode's protagonist; the viewer must guess at what is real and what may be a hallucination. Although everything comes to lock together, each episode focuses upon a different character and showcases a different neurosis or physical disease: a brother who sadistically beats his younger sister; an obsessive computer nerd who can only relate to girls who look like the exaggerated fantasy females on the Internet; a brain-damaged amnesiac with no memory. Boogiepop Phantom may not be "enjoyable" but it is intellectually demanding and artistically impressive.

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