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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including: Jubei-chan, th e Ninja Girl, Tenamonya Voyagers, Phantom Quest Corp. Perfect Collection, Gasaraki and Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure.

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.

Jubei-chan, the Ninja Girl: Secret of the Lovely Eyepatch. V.1, A Legend Reborn. V.2, Basic Ninja Training. V.3, Heart of Steel. V.4, Final Showdown!

TV series, 1999. Director/Script: Akitaroh Daichi. V.1, 4 episodes, 100 minutes. V.2 - V.4, 3 episodes each, 75 minutes each. Price & format: $19.98 each dubbed video; $29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Jubei-chan, the Ninja Girl, is about an eighth grade girl who becomes the new incarnation of Jubei Yagyu, the greatest swordsman in all of Japan. © Bandai Entertainment.

Jubei Yagyu (1606-1650) was a skilled samurai and personal swordmaster to the Shogun's court whose successes over his rivals were rumored to be due as much to assassination and political intrigue as to unbeatable swordsmanship. In this wacky 13-episode fantasy series (April 6 - June 28, 1999 on Japanese TV), the dying Jubei (who was one-eyed) entrusts his "lovely eyepatch" with the mystic powers of his Yagyu-Shinkage school of dueling to a young faithful retainer, Koinosuke, to give to his destined successor. Koinosuke searches Japan for over 300 years, and is dumbfounded when the heir turns out to be Jiyu Nanohana (nicknamed Jubei), a bubbly young teen who has just moved with her father to a small town and entered high school. Jiyu is only interested in modern young girl stuff and tries to refuse the eyepatch. But the town was the center of the Ryujoji-Shinkage school, one of Jubei's suppressed rivals. The supernatural confirmation of Jiyu as Jubei's heir draws the Ryujoji spirits to seek their revenge. Jiyu is challenged to duels to the death by possessed schoolteachers (the screen switches from standard TV-cartoon format to letterboxed to simulate a dramatic battle in a theatrical samurai feature). Shiro Ryujoji, a handsome senior who is his clan's modern heir, finds himself torn between love for Jiyu and a compulsion to duel Jubei. The series begins as pure zany slapstick humor, but slowly evolves toward a serious message about living for the present and future without obsessing on past wrongs. A single scene may mix attractively designed main characters, goofily drawn comedy-relief characters (a deadly ninja wears Mouse Ears over his traditional black costume), and scrawled characters with dialogue like, "Oh, Hell! We're drawn so badly that you know we're gonna get wiped out almost immediately." A middle episode is an unexpected completely serious three-hanky tearjerker. The bizarre blend permits many imaginative new ways to take advantage of limited animation. But Jubei-chan will leave most non-Japanese viewers completely confused over the distinction between samurai and ninja. Animation production by Madhouse.

Sci-fi comedy mixed in with giant robot action equals the Tenamonya Voyagers. © Bandai Entertainment.

Tenamonya Voyagers.

OAV series (4 episodes), 1999. Director: Akiyuki Shinobu. 100 minutes. Price & format: $29.98 DVD (the first American anime DVD-only release). Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

This is a good example of the pros and cons of Original Anime Video series. "Rated 13 Up;" in this case an adolescent space comedy. In the distant future the whole galaxy is settled by mankind. Ayako Hanabishi, a naive new teacher, and Wakana Nanamiya, a student on an athletic scholarship, are two young women stranded on the planet Meldonia when their school closes. They just want to get home to Earth, a backwater planet on the other side of the galaxy. They meet Paraila, another student wanting to get to Earth, who suggests they pool their resources and travel together. But she is really Space Trash Paraila, a boss of an interstellar crime syndicate who is on the run after her takeover coup failed. Both the mob's assassins and Tatsue Yokoyama, the trigger-happy head of the Organized Crime Unit of the Space Federation Police, are after her. Paraila's attempt to blend in with the demure schoolteacher and her ward immediately fails. The group quickly turns into a humorously squabbling Odd Trio hopping from planet to planet ahead of their adversaries, trying to reach Earth by getting a spaceship, legally or otherwise. Their schemes (such as entering a battle contest on a gambling world) usually get the girls into extremely scanty costumes, with Tetsue hot on their heels with giant robots, rayguns and similar heavy artillery. For girls, Tenamonya Voyagers offers a dynamic female cast with which to identify. For boys, it offers more T&A than will be found in TV or theatrical productions, plus plenty of Star Wars-style space battles (all bloodless). BUT (spoiler) there is no resolution. The final episode ends on a cliffhanger with the girls still far from Earth. No reason is given, but you can bet these four direct-to-video episodes failed to sell and the rest of the planned series was cancelled -- like too many other unresolved anime "movies" released in America from failed OAV series because their licenses were cheap. Too bad, because these four episodes are high-spirited and really funny (a beautifully-designed sleek futuristic train has the sound effects of an old steam locomotive); worth the price despite the lack of a conclusion. An additional bonus is the opening credits music by Hiroshi Miyagawa (best-known in America for his music for the 1970s Star Blazers); a peppy ragtime march that would have fit a 1930s naval review. Animation production by Studio Pierrot.

Ayaka Kisaragi heads Phantom Quest Corporation, a company that specializes in dealing with supernatural disturbances. © Pioneer.

Phantom Quest Corp. Perfect Collection.

OAV series (4 episodes), 1994. Series development: Mami Watanabe. Directors: Koichi Chigira (#1), Morio Asaka (#2, #4), Takuji Endo (#3). 120 minutes. Price & format: $14.98 DVD. Distributor: Pioneer.

This humorous supernatural thriller, roughly a cross between Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, demonstrates the allure of mixing familiar Western popular mythological elements with their exotic counterparts from the East. Ayaka Kisaragi comes from an ancient family of demon-fighting Shinto priests. Because her personality is too flamboyant to fit a religious vocation, she has set up a commercial ghost-busting business,Phantom Quest Corporation, aided by a few regular outside consultants such as Madame Suimei, a European-style fortune-teller, and Rokkon, an Oriental exorcist (lots of Buddhist, Taoist and Shinto chants and slapping demons in the face with printed prayers). She is also helped by friendly police detective Karino who lets her know when some mysterious crime involves the paranormal. In the first of four half-hour episodes, a series of nighttime slayings of beautiful virgins is clearly the work of a vampire. Ayaka discovers a hidden fight between two vampires, a "good" one who is able to control his addiction to blood, and Dracula himself who was brought to Tokyo when a collector of international art treasures bought his coffin in Transylvania. Ayaka and the good vampire team up to rid Japan of the deadly predator. The other three "Incident Files" similarly keep the audience guessing whether the supernatural element will be beneficent, malign or both. Ayaka is irresponsible when not on a case, and there are running gags at the end of each episode about the scramble between Mamoru, her young secretary who needs their client's payment to pay their bills, and Ayaka, who wants to go on a shopping binge or an all-night drunken karaoke spree. (The opening credits theme song, a nice bit of cocktail-lounge blues by Junichi Kanezaki, is repeated on the DVD as a music video without the overlaid credits.) The stories are slight but quick-paced with witty dialogue, and much of their appeal is due to the interplay of the main casts' likeable personalities. The main complaint is that there is no plot progress among the four episodes, which could be watched in almost any order, and no real conclusion. Animation production by Madhouse.

Sunrise Studios' Gasaraki was written by Takahashi and Hajime Yatate, with a screenplay by Toru Nozaki. © AD Vision Films.

Gasaraki. V.1, The Summoning. V.2, The Circle Opens... V.3, Betrayal.

TV series, 1998-1999. Chief Director: Ryosuke Takahashi. V.1, 4 episodes, 100 minutes. V.2 - V.8, 3 episodes each, 75 minutes. Price & format: $19.98 each dubbed video; $29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: A. D. Vision Films.

The Sunrise Studio gained a reputation for dramatic "giant robot" science-fiction anime starting with its Mobile Suit Gundam series in 1979. Takahashi, one of Sunrise's top directors in this genre (Dougram, Votoms, Gundam 0083), has returned with Gasaraki, a 25-episode TV serial (October 4, 1998 - March 28, 1999), that is unusual in its very near-future setting. The story opens with an extremely realistic military test of a Tactical Armor (TA) battle suit. As plot elements slowly fall into place, we realize that the test is being performed by the Japanese Self Defense Force on an experimental prototype developed by Gowa Digital Systems, a Japanese-owned powerful multi-national corporation. Meanwhile an international situation modeled upon Operation Desert Storm (complete with "SNN" newscasts) is developing between the U.S.-dominated United Nations and "Belgistan" (Iraq). The Gowa family sees this as an opportunity to field-test the TA suits. They pull strings to have the JSSDF unit testing their suits included with the multi-national force sent into Belgistan, officially as observers since the Japanese Constitution forbids the Self Defense Force to engage in warfare, but with secret orders to station in a combat zone. But the U.N. forces are almost wiped out by hitherto-unknown similar TA suits operated by a clandestine international organization that has been supporting the Belgistan government. This is barely the beginning of the plot, which involves the maneuvering of the Gowa family and their mysterious Symbol rivals to control the international weapons market, Gowa's attempt to subvert the Japanese government, and the internal machinations among both Gowa and the Symbol group. And this is before the story gets overtly "science-fictional!" There is a hero, Yushiro, the "good" member of the Gowa family, but he spends most of the first seven episodes in a daze; understandable, since he was apparently killed nine years earlier... The main problem with Gasaraki (unless you consider complex plots a problem) is that the characters and military hardware are in a very realistic art design, which makes the limited TV animation painfully obvious. Still, this Sunrise program (written by Takahashi and Hajime Yatate, with screenplay by Toru Nozaki) will be a winner with fans of realistic high-tech science-fiction and military action.

Kazuki is plagued by visions of giant, destructive robots that no one else can see. © Pioneer.

Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure. V.1, Visions. V.2, Student Housing. V.3, Artifacts. V.4, One Vision.

TV series, 1999. Director: Katsutoshi Akiyama. V.1 & V.4, 4 episodes, 100 minutes. V.2 & V.3, 3 episodes, 75 minutes. Price & format: $24.98 each dubbed or subtitled video; $29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

"From the Creators of Tenchi Muyo!" the blurb screams. And it shows. A.I.C. and Pioneer launched two of Japan's major anime hits of the 1990s, Tenchi Muyo! and El-Hazard, the Magnificent World, both being teen sci-fi comedies about a shy high school Earth boy chased by a bevy of cute otherworldly gals. (Tenchi Muyo! is currently popular on The Cartoon Network's Toonami lineup.) Dual! rehashes that formula, adding a parody of the ultra-serious Evangelion (another '90s anime fan favorite, with giant robots), in a scenario of alternate universes. Kazuki Yotsuga is a fan of giant robots (like most teens), but he actually sees visions of them overlapping the real world. Prof. Sanada, a mad scientist, believes that a parallel Earth exists alongside ours. Kazuki is transported there, where he finds that the other world's versions of Sanada and his academic rival, Prof. Rara, are commanders of opposing armies. Sanada is the head of the Earth Defense Command, fighting for freedom, while Rara is trying to conquer the world. Again using the Japanese myth of the mystic power of virgins, the super-scientific technology of the combat battle suits (giant robots) is such that only the brainwaves of strong-willed young women can control them. The ace pilots of the two armies are the teen daughters of Sanada and Rara, both named Mitsuki. (The plot gets as much mileage out of parallels as possible.) But the robots inexplicably respond to Kazuki. Sanada and U.N. Inspector Yamano (stereotype of a stern schoolteacher) draft Kazuki as a new pilot. He is delighted to be able to fly a real giant robot; is less delighted when he is ordered to do so in drag to keep his gender a top secret; and is terrified when several of those strong-willed young women pilots develop a personal interest in him. Some of the middle episodes get a bit heavy into the comedic romantic complications, but the plot keeps twisting and turning in clever ways. Dual!'s story is credited to Masaki Kajishima, who was the character designer of Tenchi Muyo!, and bashful teen hero Kazuki is a double of both Tenchi Muyo!'s Tenchi and El-Hazard's Makoto. But where the ultra-popular Tenchi ran on interminably, Dual! is complete in 13 TV episodes (April 8 - July 1, 1999 in Japan) and one direct-to-video epilogue, all contained in these four volumes. Anime International Company's production is mostly smooth cartoon animation with nice CGI highlights.

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