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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Bill Desowitz talks to Blue Skys Chris Wedge about his second feature, Robots.

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 school student Juna is tapped to save the universe as the spiritual warrior Arjuna. © 2001-2002 ARJUNA PROJECT·Sotsu Agency·TV Tokyo. All rights reserved.

High school student Juna is tapped to save the universe as the spiritual warrior Arjuna. © 2001-2002 ARJUNA PROJECT·Sotsu Agency·TV Tokyo. All rights reserved.

Arjuna. V.1, Rebirth. V.2, Journey. V.3, Conflicts. V.4, Understanding.

TV series (13 episodes), 2001. Director: Shoji Kawamori. V.1, 3 episodes/75 minutes; v.2, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.3, 4 episodes/110 minutes; v.4, 2 episodes/70 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Arjuna is an unusually provocative and message-heavy series from concept-creator and director Kawamori, a fan-favorite for his development of exciting, yet thought-provoking works like Macross Plus and The Vision of Escaflowne. Arjuna is a strongly pro-environmental sci-fi/fantasy based upon Hindu/Buddhist themes of the oneness of all life on earth, and that the earth itself has a planetary consciousness/soul.

Juna Ariyoshi and Tokio Oshima are two high-school students, more than friends but too young to know whether they are really lovers or not. A highway accident leaves Juna suspended between life and death, where she is recruited "to save the Earth" by Chris Hawken, a physically crippled, but mentally powerful telepath working for a secret global organization devoted to staving off planetary ecological collapse. Juna has the latent psychic power to become Arjuna, a spiritual warrior with the ability to fight off the Raaja, fearsome ectoplasmic monsters that are spontaneously generating in ever-growing numbers. Frustratingly, Chris refuses to instruct Juna on how she is to do this, saying that she must figure it out on her own.

Arjuna's battles against the Raaja are the standard slowly escalating sci-fi menace of many anime TV series (although a higher-quality CGI/2D mix than most); what is different is the nature of the menace. It is soon obvious to the viewer (if not Juna) that the Raaja are huge enlargements of microscopic intestinal bacteria and cancer cells being generated by the earth itself at sites of particularly gross pollution. Kawamori does not blame only the convenient targets of greedy giant industries, but all of us for our wasteful modern lifestyles. Juna's classmates' favorite hangout spot is a U.S.-style fast-food chain blatantly named "Merikan Burger," where the kids order burgers so huge that they only eat half and toss the rest in the trash (while millions are starving in Africa).

Juna and her video-game junkie boyfriend become the two sides of a Greek chorus; Tokio symbolizes the conspicuous consumption of industrialized society, unable to understand why Juna has become such a puritan, unable to eat food stuffed with "safe" chemical additives, while Juna is unable to get through to him that his casual wastefuness (multiplied by the whole population of urban civilization) is causing the Raaja that are now blighting all crops, contaminating all water, causing meltdowns in nuclear power plants, and building up to the destruction of the Van Allen radiation belt and a polar shift, which will destroy most life on earth.

Kawamori's skillful direction, attractive character art by Takahiro Kishida, haunting music by Yoko Kanno and high-quality (for a TV series) animation by the Satelight studio, hold more for viewers than might otherwise be expected given the heavy-handed Save The Planet message. Earth Girl Arjuna (the Japanese title) was 12 half-hour episodes broadcast from January 9 through March 27, 2001. This DVD adds additional footage to some of them plus an entire extra episode to enhance the didacticism. Arjuna was somewhat notorious for having almost no merchandising, since practically any of the usual toys and knickknacks would be ludicrously at odds with the constant message against buying unnecessary consumer goods.

The Guyver on DVD is of historic interest to anime fans. © Takaya Production/Tokama; Shoten/Bandai/Movic/Kamakura Super Station.

The Guyver on DVD is of historic interest to anime fans. © Takaya Production/Tokama; Shoten/Bandai/Movic/Kamakura Super Station.

The Guyver: Bio-Boosted Armor. V.1 & V. 2.

OAV series (12 episodes), 1989-1992. Directors: Koichi Ishiguro; Masahiro Otani & Naoto Hashimoto. V.1-2, 6 episodes/180 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

The Guyver was very influential in the late 1980s and early '90s, but is of historic interest today. An adaptation of a popular 1980s sci-fi manga by Yoshiki Takaya, it was one of anime's earliest OAV productions, first as a 1986 55-minute featurette, then as this 12-episode serial. The first six half-hour episodes were released monthly between September 1989 and February 1990, produced by the Anime Film studio, and directed by Ishiguro. The story was continued for another six episodes in The Guyver, Act II,, released between October 1991 and August 1992, produced under the name of Takaya Productions, and shows a dramatic drop in the already poor animation quality, directed by Otani & Hashimoto. The story still ends on a cliffhanger; Takaya's manga carried it much further.

These 12 episodes were among the first anime dubbed videos in the U.S. & Britain, and were the introduction for the English-speaking general public to Japan's stereotyped dramatic sci-fi plot of the tragic hero who is transformed into a superpowered but hideous monster. This made The Guyver very popular with superhero fans despite the poor animation quality; to the extent of leading to two American-Australian live-action Guyver movies in 1991 and 1994.

High school students Sho Fukamachi and Tetsuro Segawa are strolling in a forest when a nearby explosion showers them with debris including a container. When Sho picks up the container, a strange form flows from it transforming him into an inhuman machine-like being. Three men appear looking for the "Guyver bio-booster." They transform into huge animal-like beasts to take it from Sho, and to kill the two students as inconvenient witnesses. The bio-booster turns the frightened Sho into an automatic super-warrior, enabling him to defeat the "Zoanoid" monsters.

The boys soon learn that the villain is the Chronos Corporation, a ruthless international company. Chronos' scientists have discovered ancient laboratories of alien "Creators" who had experimented with turning Earth animals into biological super-weapons. Chronos is now using this technology to create a hidden army of Zoanoid agents who will, when there are enough of them, turn into monsters and conquer the world. The Guyver units are the pinnacle of the Creators' technology; there are only three of them. Sho has acquired one by accident, and Chronos wants it back.

There is some slight plot advance in the 12 episodes, but they are basically very repetitive. Chronos sends new Zoanoid agents to threaten Tetsuro and his sister Mizuki (Sho's girlfriend) or to attack Sho's school to lure him out. Despite everyone warning him, "No! It's a trap!", Sho shouts, "I have to save everybody!" and races out for another long, bloody slugfest with the monsters. The Guyver was hot stuff at the time, but there is much better anime available today. One nice touch: the videos were originally produced for British release (despite the American dubbing), and the final episode was heavily edited to remove mild nudity. This DVD release not only provides both English and Japanese sound tracks for the first 11 episodes, it presents both versions of episode 12 in their entirety; making this the version of The Guyver to have if you do want this dated classic.

Mahoromatic seems like a frothy sex comedy, but turns out to be a dark sci-fi drama. © NAKAYAMA * DITAMA/WANIBOOKS * MAHOROBA PROJECT

Mahoromatic seems like a frothy sex comedy, but turns out to be a dark sci-fi drama. © NAKAYAMA * DITAMA/WANIBOOKS * MAHOROBA PROJECT

Mahoromatic: Automatic Maiden. V.1, Combat Maiden. V.2, Haunting Past. V.3, A Warrior's Fate.

TV series (12 episodes), 2001. Director: Hiroyuki Yamaga. V.1-3, 4 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

At first glance, Mahoromatic is just another of the "super French maid" risque sci-fi comedies for hormonally-excited adolescent boys (age-rated 16+). At second glance, it seems more like a parody for adolescent girls of the silly girly mags that their male counterparts are suddenly going crazy over. At third glance, it seems one of those productions where the animation staff (the Gainax and Shaft studios) challenge themselves to keep surprising the audience. What starts off as a zany sex comedy turns into a grim sci-fi battle drama with wholesome family values and a Romeo and Juliet tearjerker romance.

There is a secret war on Earth (hidden from the public by the Authorities) between humans and invading aliens. Both sides use combat androids disguised as ordinary humans, although they only last 10 years. Earth's top android warrior, Mahoro, has the appearance of a young girl (officially 19 because of all the full-frontal nudity, though she looks and acts more like 13 or 14). After almost nine years, her superiors allow her to retire to live her last year in peace. Since she has no idea what to do, she requests assignment as a housemaid (in traditional French maid uniform) to the young son of her former commander, because she feels responsible for not preventing his death in battle.

Suguru Misato is an eighth grade student (presumably 14 years old) who has lived alone in his family's large house since both parents died. After four years of juvenile bachelor housekeeping, he really needs a maid! Mahoro starts out pleased at being able to be useful, teaching him cleanliness and stifling his growing interest in porno magazines. But the more she observes the male-female socialization between him and his classmates (trying to understand such things as "why are boys so obsessed with big boobies?"), the more human she becomes herself. Moments range from the poetic as Mahoro learns to appreciate the beauty of sunsets and flowers (and Suguru learns by watching her), to the erotically comedic as Mahoro jealously protects Suguru from his exhibitionistically nymphomaniac schoolteacher.

Mahoro and Suguru become increasingly close, although they cannot decide themselves whether their warm and tender feeling is love between equals or a mother/older sister and child/younger brother relationship. The plot abruptly switches to stark drama when Ryuga, the aliens' top combat android, tracks Mahoro down to force a fight to prove which is the better warrior. Mahoro cannot let the alien win, but a fight with super-battle weaponry would kill every human in the vicinity. Suguru is willing to sacrifice himself to protect Mahoro, but she knows that she has less than a year of life in any case.

Mahoromatic was a 12-episode TV series (October 5 to December 28, 2001) for the junior high age group in Japan, based upon a popular manga, which carried the story much further. The final episode reaches a satisfactory semi-conclusion but leaves lots of room for a sequel.

Neo Ranga packs a lot into each 15-minute episode. © Shou Aikawa/Pony Canyon/ Studio Pierrot/Marubeni

Neo Ranga packs a lot into each 15-minute episode. © Shou Aikawa/Pony Canyon/ Studio Pierrot/Marubeni

Neo Ranga. V.1, A God is Risen. V.2, Lost in the Spectacle. V.3, The Right of Kings. V.4, A Nation Apart. V.5, Ghosts of Days Gone By. V.6.

To be determined TV series (48 episodes), 1998-1999. Director: Jun Kamiya. V.1-6, 8 episodes/120 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Nankai Kio Neoranga (Strange World of the South Seas: Neoranga) is somewhat of a curiosity among recent TV anime serials. The episodes are only 15 minutes each. Neo Ranga (animation by Studio Pierrot) was not an independent program, but was part of satellite channel WOWOW's Anime Complex program, with the first half (1st season) broadcast from April 6 through September 28, 1998 and the second season during the same dates in 1999.

The 15-minute format works quite well. It keeps each episode's story compact and succinct, within a convoluted plot about three sisters inheriting a mysterious giant robot. Their lives become chaotic as they are swept up in conspiracies to gain control of Ranga. Friendships shift as their neighbors squabble over whether Ranga is an asset (a big tourist attraction which will increase local trade) or a menace (so big it can't help smashing houses by accident; and what if it deliberately runs amok?).

The three Shimabara sisters (Minami, 24; Ushio, 15 and Yuuhi, 12) live in the Tokyo residential district of West Musashino. Their parents died about 10 years ago, and their older brother disappeared soon after. A young boy with tribal facial tattoos appears, claiming to be their nephew Joel from the small, independent, equatorial island kingdom of Barou. He tells them that their brother settled there and married their princess, becoming co-ruler. Both recently died. Joel is too young to become ruler, so Barou's elders have chosen his sisters as their new king and high priest, which includes control of their god Ranga. The sisters are not about to leave Tokyo for some primitive island. They are shocked when Ranga, in the form of an ancient giant robot, strides out of the sea, blithely smashing through buildings and overpasses, and settles in their neighborhood.

Minami, who has been raising her sisters as a harried single parent, wants to turn Ranga to their financial advantage (while denying liability for the damage it causes). Idealistic Ushio wants to use Ranga to help their neighbors in West Musashino, while egotistical Yuuhi wants to become a queen. Army Engineering Commander Takesue sees Ranga as a convenient "threat" to test his new weaponry against. But top-level orders come to secretly capture Ranga while pretending to destroy it. Then conflicting orders imply a struggle between secret political cabals within the government. Violence supposedly caused by anti-Ranga terrorists turns out to be a plot to frighten away the Shimabaras' neighbors and buy their property cheaply.

Ushio is distraught that her simplistic ideas of using Ranga to "fight for justice" is stymied by the invisibility of corrupt politicians, one of whom may be the father of one of her best friends. She denies that Ranga is a menace even though she is guiltily aware that she has no idea of its origins and powers (but apparently at least one of the secret cabals trying to seize Ranga does), and that Ranga sometimes acts when not controlled by her or her sisters.

A.D.V. Films will follow the Japanese precedent of holding a hiatus (although not for a whole year) before releasing the second half of the series. Neo Ranga is worth the wait.

The life of Alexander the Great is the subject of Reign. © 1999 Alexander Committee. TOKYOPOP Inc. and TOKYOPOP U.K. are registered trademarks of TOKYOPOP K.K. All rights reserved.

The life of Alexander the Great is the subject of Reign. © 1999 Alexander Committee. TOKYOPOP Inc. and TOKYOPOP U.K. are registered trademarks of TOKYOPOP K.K. All rights reserved.

Reign: The Conqueror. V.1, Ascension. V.2, Obsession. V.3, Domination. V.4, Destruction.

TV series (13 episodes), 1999. Director: Yoshinori Kanemori. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.2-4, 3 episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: TOKYOPOP.

This strange but visually exciting sci-fi adaptation of the life of Alexander the Great began in 1996 as a Japanese-Korean co-production with American input for the international market, according to the creator interviews among the DVD extras. Production was coordinated through the Madhouse studio in Tokyo although the "integral parts of the animation" were done in Seoul. They invited Korean-American animator Peter Chung as their character designer because of the look of his Aeon Flux for MTV. Their goal was "originality," "the last thing you would expect Alexander the Great to look like," with costuming and architecture that look like they could exist but like nothing that ever did exist. The production was 13 TV episodes carrying Alexander's career to his farthest expansion east into India; the first four episodes, to the assassination of his father Philip II, were also condensed into a theatrical feature.

Shown at international film festivals starting in 1998 as Alexander or Alexander Senki (Record of Alexander's Military Exploits), the TV series was finally aired on Japan's WOWOW satellite TV channel from September 14 through December 1999; the theatrical feature was released in October 2000. In the U.S. the Cartoon Network premiered it as Reign: The Conquerer on its late-night Adult Swim block from February 10 to March 3, 2003.

Reign takes too many liberties to be used as a Cliff's Notes condensation of Alexander's actual reign. For example, Alexander did not kill Darius III of Persia in personal combat at the Battle of Arbela during a full lunar eclipse. The eclipse was on Sept. 30, 331 B.C. as Alexander's army crossed the Tigris to confront the Persian army. The battle was the next day; Darius escaped and was not killed until almost a year later (by his own courtiers to "spare him the humiliation of being captured by Alexander").

Some of the dramatization is clearly as fantastic as the sci-fi trappings of aerial death robots and fire-breathing elephants, such as the conversations between Aristotle and Diogenes as their "Platonic ideas" (spirits) hover in the sky above Alexander's advance into Persia, and the attacks by the Disciples of Pythagoras as a ninjalike assassin cult seeking to kill Alexander to prevent him from destroying the world. But history does record that both Alexander and Darius rejected their generals' advice of sneak attacks and insisted on "honorable" head-on battles; that Alexander's mother was a princess of Epirus who was also high priestess of a mystic religion there, and was scorned by the Macedonian nobility as a barbarian pagan witch; that Philip II was murdered during a great celebration to promote his leadership over the Greek states; and other dramatically colorful details.

The producers tried to avoid an "anime" look, although to most Americans any animation that is mature (Reign is rated 16+ for nudity and violence) and does not look "Disney" is considered "anime." This DVD release is the "Original Director's Cut Unedited and presented as it was envisioned;" some of the half-hour TV episodes are closer to 40 minutes.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainment's 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).