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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases inbluding: Outlaw Star, Cardcaptors, Cardcaptor Sakura, The Vision of Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop and Generator Gawl.

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 some merit and about which our readers should know.

Outlaw Star was direbted by Mitsuru Hongo. © Bandai Entertainment.

Outlaw Star.

TV series, 1998. Director: Mitsuru Hongo. V.1 - V.13, video, 2 episodes/50 minutes each. $24.98 subtitled/$19.98 dubbed. V.1 - V.3, DVD (bilingual), V.1 & V.2, 9 episodes/225 minutes each; V.3, 8 episodes/200 minutes. $44.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

TV animation has been trying for over twenty years to come up with a good counterpart to the original Star Wars. The 26-episode Outlaw Star, developed by director Mitsuru Hongo and writers Hajime Yadate, Takehito Ito and Katsuhiro Chiba, based on Ito's 1994-95 comic book, arguably comes closest in spirit, including the Lucas-authorized 1985 Droids and The Ewoks. The setting is our distant future in which the whole galaxy has been colonized, although the dominant culture is Chinese with "science" that includes Tao mysticism and feng shui. Gene Starwind and Jim Hawking are two orphaned buddies running a cheap repair service on a frontier planet. Gene, 20, is the cocky brawn of the team, while Jim, a precocious 11-year-old genius (a combination of Treasure Island's Jim Hawkins and scientist Stephen Hawking), is the brains. They get caught up in the outlaw Hilda's search for a fabled galactic treasure. An "outlaw" is anyone strong and free enough to live outside the authority of either the officious Stellar Police or the rapacious space crime guilds. Gene, Jim and Melfina (an android girl) have just been taken by Hilda to a hidden experimental spaceship which includes clues to the treasure, when she is killed before she can explain any more. The inexperienced trio find themselves on the run in the Outlaw Star from Hilda's old enemies including both the law and the pirates, as they take on interplanetary salvage jobs, enter a spaceship race, and generally just survive long enough to acquire new companions (including an obligatory furry alien pal, the cat-girl Aisha) to augment their crew, while they gradually decipher the clues that will lead to the treasure of the Galactic Leyline. The plot allows for padding in the middle, which is well used to flesh out personalities and allow some character growth while exploring exotic planets. The dialogue is constantly witty and there is plenty of excellently-directed suspenseful action, whether escaping from a space pirate ambush or a giant sun's gravity well. The story includes frequent surprises (nobody expected Hilda to die so early, if at all) and the jazz-themed mood music by Kou Ohtani is tres cool (I am listening to the soundtrack CD as I write this review). If you haven't already guessed, well, Outlaw Star is one of my favorites in over twenty years of watching anime. The series was shown on Japanese TV from January 8 - June 26, 1998, and has just been added to The Cartoon Network's Toonami block starting this January 15th. What took them so long? (Production by Sunrise.)

Outlaw Star is TV animation's answer to Star Wars. © Bandai Entertainment.

[While the DVD collections are untitled (merely called DVD Collection 1, 2 and 3), the 13 video titles are as follows: V.1, Outlaw Star. V.2, Into Burning Space. V.3, Beast Girl, Ready to Pounce. V.4, Creeping Evil. V.5, A Journey of Adventure...Huh? V.6, Adrift in Subspace. V.7, Advance Guard from an Alien World. V.8, The Seven Emerge. V.9, Between Life and Machine. V.10, Law and Lawlessness. V.11, The Dragon's Tombstone. V.12, Hot Springs Planet Tenrei. V.13, Labyrinth of Despair.]

Cardcaptors is the U.S. version of Cardcaptor Sakura. © Pioneer Entertainment.

Cardcaptors. V.1, Tests of Courage. V.2, Power Match. V.3, Misdirections. V.4, New Lessons.

(More to come.) (The edited American version.)TV series, 1998-2000. Supervising Director: Morio Asaka. 60 minutes. Price & format: $14.98 dubbed VHS/$24.98 dubbed DVD. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Cardcaptor Sakura is clearly designed for young girls. When it was acquired for American TV to ride the Pokemon bandwagon, the decision was made to re-edit it to appeal to both boys and girls. It was renamed Cardcaptors, and it began with what was episode #8 in Japan, "Sakura's Rival," introducing Li. Other changes include Americanizing many names (Sakura is Sakura Avalon; Tomoyo is Madison Taylor), and turning Li's sister into a jealous girlfriend. Only 17 Cardcaptors episodes were re-produced for the first season (shown on KidsWB! from June 17 to December 2, 2000; now in reruns), in a completely different order. The two versions are so different that it was not possible to combine them in the same video release with just different English and Japanese audio tracks. Instead Pioneer and Nelvana have agreed on two separate DVD releases. Cardcaptor Sakura, uncut with four episodes per video, is available only in Japanese with English subtitles. Cardcaptors is only in the English dub, three episodes per video.

Watch Cardcaptor Sakura is see how Cardcaptors was edited for the U.S. TV market. © Pioneer Entertainment.

Cardcaptor Sakura. V.1, The Clow. V.2, Everlasting Memories. V.3, Friends Forever. V.4, Sakura, Fight!

(Later volumes to come.) (The unedited Japanese version.)TV series, 1998-2000. Supervising Director: Morio Asaka. 100 minutes. Price & format: $24.98 subtitled VHS/$29.98 subtitled DVD. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

This DVD release is bannered as "The Original Japanese Uncut Version." That is an important distinction. Pioneer is also releasing "The American Cut Version" (produced by Nelvana for KidsWB!) which is titled Cardcaptors. The two are quite different.

Cardcaptor Sakura is the latest big hit in the Japanese "magical little girl" genre that began with Sally the Little Witch in 1966. (Sailor Moon is a well-known 1990s example.) This is also another winner from the mega-popular CLAMP team of 4 woman cartoonists who have created several of the most popular comic book series of the 1990s, which have been turned into even more popular anime series; Rayearth and X, to name two. The Cardcaptor Sakura comic-book serial by CLAMP began in a girls' monthly magazine in June 1996. It became a 70-episode weekly anime TV series from April 7, 1998 through March 21, 2000; there were also two theatrical features in the summer of 1999 and 2000.

Sakura Kinomoto is a 10-year-old fourth-grader whose father is a college archaeology professor. She opens an ancient book in his study, which is a case for a mystic set of Clow Cards (a Tarot-like deck), which come to life and escape. The deck's supernatural guardian, Kero-chan (a winged lion cub, very obviously designed for plush-toy potential), who had been asleep on the job, gives Sakura a magic baton so she can recapture the cards, each the personification of a different elemental (Wind, Rain, Fire, Wood, Shadow, etc.) before they use their arcane powers to cause havoc in the world. At first the only person who knows Sakura's secret is her best friend, Tomoyo Daidouji, a rich girl with the hobby of designing clothes. Tomoyo insists on referring to Sakura in super-hero terms ("upholder of justice") and creating a new "battle costume" dress for each of her adventures (while Kero-chan provides fashion-show commentary for the audience). Tomoyo also tags along to videotape the adventures on her camcorder. The lighthearted plot gradually grows dramatic as Sakura starts encountering more powerful and darkly ominous cards; and a new cardcaptor, the boy Li Shao Lang from Hong Kong, tries to push her aside and take over the "man's job." As the series progresses, the background of the special cards and Clow, their wizard creator, becomes important as Sakura and Li learn to work together.

Twenty years ago, most magical little girls anime TV series let the six-to-twelve set fantasize themselves with the power to try out grown-up roles instantly: a nurse in one episode, or a businesswoman, a TV news anchorwoman, etc. A decade ago the fashion was to transform them into teen pop singing idols with a horde of handsome boy admirers. Sakura goes for the late 90s trends: Tarot cards and the trappings of New Age mysticism, an unlimited wardrobe and your personal paparazzi. (Animation production by Madhouse.)

Appealing to older teen girls, The Vision of Escaflowne is a TV series direbted by Kazuki Akane. © Bandai Entertainment.

The Vision of Escaflowne. V.1, Dragons and Destiny. V.2, Betrayal and Trust. V.3, Angels and Demons. V.4, Past and Present. V.5, Paradise and Pain. V.6, Fate and Fortune. V.7, Light and Shadow. V.8, Forever and Ever.

TV series, 1996. Director: Kazuki Akane. V.1 & V.2, 4 episodes/100 minutes each. V.3 V.8, 3 episodes/75 minutes each. Price & format: $19.98 dubbed VHS/$29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Escaflowne, plotted and story-edited by Shoji Kawamori with character design by Nobuteru Yuuki, has some similarities with Cardcaptor Sakura; both are primarily for girls, use Tarot cards for a motif and were edited for American kids' TV. Otherwise they are very different. Escaflowne is a fantasy-drama-romance for older girls. Hitomi Kanzaki, a high school girl who tells her friends' fortunes with Tarot cards, is caught up in a dimensional portal and brought to Gaea, a world combining elements of high fantasy, Medieval warfare and technological sci-fi. It is the eve of warfare between the conquering Zaibach Empire and several smaller kingdoms trying to remain free. Hitomi initially just wants to return to Japan, her family and friends. But ties are gradually formed with the new people she meets, human and otherwise, notably young King Van of Fanelia (wearer of the holy Escaflowne battle armor), handsome knight Allen of Asturia and the cat-girl Merle. Hitomi's skills with Tarot divination give her an important role in the resistance, and a reason for Hitomi's mystic affinity to the world is provided. The political history, warfare and ecology of Gaea are given sufficient depth to appeal to male viewers. By the time an opportunity comes to return to Earth, Hitomi must decide which world is her true home. The Vision of Escaflowne was a smash success with teens in 26 episodes on Japanese TV (April 2 -- September 24, 1996), with music by fan-favorite anime composer Yoko Kanno. It was one of the first anime titles released when Bandai entered the American anime video market in September 1998. Continued popularity in Japan resulted in a June 2000 theatrical feature, Escaflowne: A Girl in Gaea, which Bandai intends for an American theatrical release this summer. With all this popularity, Escaflowne was picked up for the Fox Kids network, debuting on August 19, 2000. But it was so heavily edited (not surprisingly, since one of the main villains, Dilandau, is arguably the most psychotically sadistic killer in any anime) that those familiar with the original series complained that the result was hopelessly confusing. Ratings were poor, and Fox dropped it after only nine episodes. The uncut Escaflowne has been available in America on video for two years now, but the current DVD release has special features such as music videos and cast interviews. (Animation production by Sunrise.)

Direbted by Shinibhiro Watanabe, Cowboy Bebop is one of the most imaginative anime TV series. © Bandai Entertainment.

Cowboy Bebop.

TV series/OAV, 1998. Director: Shinichiro Watanabe. V.1 - V.13, video, 2 episodes/50 minutes each. $24.98 subtitled/$19.98 dubbed. V.1 - V.6, DVD (bilingual), V.1 & V.2, 5 episodes/125 minutes each; V.3 - V.6, 4 episodes/100 minutes each. $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Cowboy Bebop is arguably the most imaginative anime creation of the past decade. First, it is designed for adults and older teens. Its characters drink and get hangovers; they smoke, lighting up cigarettes under No Smoking signs. Second, it is an improbably successful blend of every TV genre from interplanetary sci-fi to Westerns to cop and private eye dramas, including spoofs of both popular movies like Alien and news events like the Unibomber in America. Third, it is one of the best mixes of traditional animation and CGI outside of theatrical quality animation. Fourth, its jazz score by Yoko Kanno has won awards and made it a top-selling sound track CD in Japan. (Episodes have music-themed titles like "Asteroid Blues," "Stray Dog Strut," "Waltz for Venus," "Heavy Metal Queen" and "Ganymede Elegy.") Fifth, its mood shifts leave viewers guessing whether the next episode will be drama, comedy, suspense, romance, fast-paced action or an intellectual puzzle. When Cowboy Bebop first appeared in primetime from April 13 to June 26, 1998, only 13 of the 26 episodes were considered suitable for TV broadcast due to such adult themes as drug addiction; the others had to be bought as direct-to-video releases. (The whole series was later broadcast in an adult 1:00 am timeslot from October 23, 1998 through April 23, 1999.) Set in 2071 A.D. after space travel leads to the colonization of the Solar System, Spike Spiegel and Jet Black are two bounty hunters bringing freelance justice to the sprawling frontier society that has grown up among the bubble-domed cities on asteroids and satellites from Venus to Saturn. Despite their genuine good-buddy relationship, each clearly has a past that he is keeping extremely private. They pick up an unlikely assortment of hangers-on (a sultry femme fatale, a juvenile computer hacker of dubious gender and sanity, a Welsh corgi who may be smarter than they are) that becomes a surprisingly charismatic and endearing regular cast. There are in-group jokes (don't miss the "next episode" previews after the closing credits, which may be straight or may give a new meaning to the episode just seen), visual references (an unidentified car in one episode is a Tucker Torpedo, for those who can recognize it), and cryptic plot elements (why is Earth in ruins and being bombarded by meteorites?) that are only slowly clarified, as are the casts personal secrets. A theatrical feature is in production for a summer 2001 release in Japan. (Animation production by Sunrise.)

[The six DVD volumes are titled only 1st Session through 6th Session, but they contain the thirteen individual video titles of: V.1, Asteroid Blues. V.2, Honky Tonk Women. V.3, Ballad of Fallen Angels. V.4, Heavy Metal Queen. V.5, Jamming With Edward. V.6, Toys in the Attic. V.7, Jupiter Jazz. V.8, My Funny Valentine. V.9, Mushroom Samba. V.10, Wild Horses. V.11, Boogie Woogie Feng-Shui. V.12, Brain Scratch. V.13, The Real Folk Blues.]

Generator Gawl is an unlikely teen comedy TV series directed by Seiji Mizushima. © A. D. Vision Films.

Generator Gawl. V.1, Human Heart, Metal Soul. V.2, Future Memory. V.3, Secrets and Lies. V.4, Out of Time.

TV series, 1998. Director: Seiji Mizushima. 3 episodes/75 minutes each. $19.98 dubbed VHS/$29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: A. D. Vision Films.

This is a good example of how the anime industry can turn any thing into a teen comedy; in this case, The Terminator plot crossed with the insectile/arachnoid monsters from the John Carpenter version of The Thing. The first episode introduces three mysterious teen boys, Koji, Ryo and Gawl, who materialize in a university town in the near future (2007) while battling what looks like a giant mechanical bug. Gawl "generates" into a similar beetle/scorpion creature to defeat it. Cryptic dialogue establishes that they have come from a future in which humanity is oppressed by these tyrannical Generators, to find and stop the scientist who is about to discover the cytogenetic secret that will enable humans to transform into these super-powerful monsters. They get themselves enrolled into the university as students to search for the elusive Prof. Nekasa. Their search is comically hindered by Masami, an impulsive fellow student (and the daughter of their landlady) who gets a crush on handsome but aloof team leader Koji, but mistakes the spying Gawl for a pervert trying to ogle the girls. They are also dramatically hindered by enemy Generators; obviously the ruling tyranny in the future has its own agents at the university to make sure the Prof.'s research is not interrupted. The formula for the first half-dozen episodes is that Gawl and Masami humorously bedevil each other, partly deliberately by Gawl to distract her from Koji so he can conduct his spying; then another of the enemy's Generators attacks in giant bug form, and Gawl must battle it without any of the other students noticing. Ryo is crippled with guilt for having turned Gawl into a Generator, even though he agreed to it for their own defense. Gawl's carefree foolhardiness is partly a mask for his own despair at no longer being entirely human. Some plot depth, notably revealing who the villains really are and giving them a bit of motivation to make them more than just generic "bad guys," is saved for the unexpectedly serious climax. This is fortunately not too long in coming, since Generator Gawl was only a 12-episode TV serial (October 6 to December 23, 1998). Production studio Tatsunoko (Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets/G Force) pioneered the sci-fi sub-genre of teens who are reluctantly or involuntarily transformed into superhuman monsters to protect mankind with Casshan: Robot Hunter in 1973, and is still milking it today (although the most popular example in America remains Takaya Productions/MOVIC's 1987 Bio-Booster Guyver).

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