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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Will Ryan sits down with Janet Waldo, the voice behind many classic cartoon ladies.

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.

The Big O. Volumes 1 - 4. © Sunrise Inc.

The Big O. Volumes 1 - 4. TV series, 1999 - 2000. Director: Kazuyoshi Katayama. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes. V.2 - 4, 3 episodes/75 minutes each. Price & format: bilingual DVD $24.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

The Big O, 13 TV episodes, appeared on Japan's WOWOW cable channel from October 13, 1999 to January 19, 2000. It began in America on The Cartoon Network's Toonami bloc on April 5, 2001. Fans instantly noted its resemblance to both America's recent Batman Beyond and Japan's 1992-'95 OAV series Giant Robo. Director Katayama was the animation director on Giant Robo; and Sunrise, The Big O's production studio, has been a subcontractor for Warner Bros.' Batman: The Animated Series and other Batman/Superman TV cartoons.

The Fleischer/Famous Studio's old Superman theatrical cartoons might also be acknowledged. The Big O actually fits into Japanese cartoonists' recent love affair with "retro chic" or "steampunk" style science-fiction, with a 1930s look of giant circuit breakers, slamming pistons, vacuum tubes and noisily sparking electric arcs. Other popular examples during the past decade have been Steam Detectives, Kishin Corps and Giant Robo itself. The Big O may be set a hundred years in the future, with Asimovian androids almost indistinguishable from humans (with an R. for "robot" in front of their names), but it is a visual feast for connoisseurs of Art Deco, double-breasted suits, and the type of swank night clubs seen in 1930s movies, complete with a cocktail-lounge blues score. The plot of humanity rediscovering itself after being struck with total amnesia also goes back to the 1930s; the 1934 sci-fi novel Rebirth, by Thomas Calvert McClary.

The real star of The Big O is not its main hero, Roger Smith, but its setting. Paradigm City is a glass-domed city, which for the past forty years has been struggling out of the darkness of its inhabitants complete memory loss. Each episode is both an individual adventure and part of a serial, which gradually reveals what really happened to the city's inhabitants. There are clues that the truth is more bizarre than anyone suspects. The architecture and clothing styles are 1930s but there are both giant humanoid vehicles (the "giant robots") and intelligent androids. It is mentioned in episode 1 that nobody uses the city's old subway system any more, but it is not revealed until episode 4 that people cannot go into the subways; they have been psychologically conditioned with an unreasonable fear of going underground.

Roger Smith (the twin of Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, complete with mansion, loyal butler Norman and the Big O giant mechanical man replacing the Batmobile) is a public Negotiator. In episode 1, he is hired as the go-between in a kidnapping to deliver the ransom and get a rich industrialist's daughter back. There are doublecrosses on both sides, and the rescued Dorothy turns out to be a robot good enough to pass for human. She was presumably built by her industrialist "father," who had regained part of his pre-amnesia memory; but Roger knows that the technology level was never high enough to build intelligent robots. With the industrialist murdered, R. Dorothy attaches herself to Roger for lack of anywhere else to go. Roger's effort to learn where R. Dorothy really came from leads him to look increasingly like a 1930s private eye, with Dorothy as his sardonic secretary. Not surprisingly, Dorothy's secret leads to the greater mystery of Paradigm City's lost past.

Urusei Yatsura. © 1981 Kitty Films.

Urusei Yatsura. TV Series, #1. TV series, 1981-1986. Directors: Mamoru Oshii, Kyoji Harada, Tamiko Kojima. 4 episodes/100 minutes each. Price & format: subtitled; video $24.95, DVD $24.95. Distributor: AnimEigo.

The importance of Urusei Yatsura to anime in general or to the development of its fandom in America, cannot be overestimated. UY began as a comic book by a neophyte cartoonist. Today Rumiko Takahashi is one of the wealthiest women in the world, and her 1978-87 UY comics are internationally available in hundreds of printings. (Takahashi moved on to create other comic-book serials which also became anime mega-hits, notably Maison Ikkoku and Ranma 1/2.) UY's anime version ran as a TV series from October 14, 1981 through March 19, 1986 (197 episodes), and spun off six theatrical features (1983 - 1991), plus eleven direct-to-video releases (1986 - 1991). Many of Japan's current top anime directors and character designers got their start on UY. It was a learning experience for a brand-new animation studio, Studio Pierrot, and it shows, but few productions ever made it more clear how much fun everyone was having. (The goofiest-looking characters in any crowd scene are usually the animators' self-caricatures.) In America, the mostly teenaged fans just discovering anime felt that the mildly raunchy campus humor of UY was tailored especially for them. The comedy soap-opera follows Japanese high-school students after Earth is invaded by friendly aliens, whose tiger-stripe bikini'ed Princess Lum enters Tomobiki High as an exchange student and likes it so much that her alien teen friends decide it is "cool" to join her in Tokyo. Teachers, parents and other adults freak out, but the human and alien boys and girls get along fine. The human teens find all kinds of ways to misuse the space people's sci-fi technology, such as when wannabe-loverboy Ataru Moroboshi uses a galactic photocopy machine to duplicate himself so he can chase numerous girls at the same time. Many of UY's aliens were very thinly disguised parodies of Japanese gods and goddesses, demons, fairy-tale heroes, historical personages and current popular notables; or of the friendly but overwhelming Western culture with its technological innovations. Just as Japanese teens loved seeing themselves portrayed as an in-crowd who are the first to discover the cool aliens, the American fans reveled in being the first to learn and tell their friends about the Japanese cultural origins behind the jokes. (The title, Urusei Yatsura, is a slang pun weakly translated as Those Obnoxious Aliens; any 1980s fan would gladly spend five minutes explaining all the levels of the wordplay.) UY was one of the earliest titles to be illegally subtitled as evolving computer technology made amateur subtitling practical, and one of the first to be licensed commercially by the new American anime specialty companies. AnimEigo has been slowly releasing UY since 1992, at four subtitled episodes per video with extensive notes explaining the cultural background to each joke and identifying the caricatures of Japanese politicians or sports stars. It was up to video volume 25 (episodes #97-#100) by 2000 when the DVD market took off. UY is now starting a new edition on DVD, beginning February 27, 2001 and released at bimonthly intervals. AnimEigo's plan is to keep the 25 videos in print until they are all also on DVD, then continue in DVD format alone.

Iria: Zeiram the Animation. © 1994 Crowd, Bandai Visual, Mitsubishi Corporation, Banpresto.

Iria: Zeiram the Animation.

OAV series, 1994. Director: Tetsurou Amino. 162 minutes. Price & format: bilingual DVD $34.99. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

In the U.S., popular movies like Star Wars generate TV cartoon spinoffs. Ditto in Japan, though the spinoffs are more likely to be direct-to-video releases.

Zeiram was a 1991 live-action sci-fi hit (by writer-director Keita Amemiya) similar to Alien, showing the climax of a long-running hunt-to-the-death between Zeiram, an invulnerable space monster, and the galactic bounty hunter Iria, played by Sigourney Weaver-esque Yuko Moriyama. Fans wanted to know more about the back-story alluded to during the movie: how did Iria and Zeiram become such implacable adversaries; what were some of their previous battles; how did Iria become such a hardened bounty hunter; how did Iria gain her computer hologram partner, Bob?

Iria: Zeiram the Animation was an Original Animation Video series (six monthly half-hour releases between June and November 1994) that answered these questions. Iria is a teenager who hero-worships her older brother Gren and his human boss, Bob -- two interstellar security guards/bounty hunters. They are hired to rescue a corporate executive held hostage on a terrorist-hijacked cargo spaceship. But the menace is actually an unkillable monster being illegally shipped for study as a potential super-weapon. Gren disappears, either killed or captured by Zeiram, while Bob is doublecrossed by their employer who wants no witnesses. The mortally wounded Bob transfers his mind to a computer just before dying. Iria, carrying him as a mini-computer mentor, sets out to destroy both Zeiram and the ruthless Tedan Tippedai Corporation, and to rescue Gren if it is not too late.

The 1991 movie was set in a "warp zone" arena, which, despite suspenseful direction, was clearly little more than a simplistic sound stage. Animation (by Ashi Production Co.) allowed this 1994 prequel to present limitless galactic starfields, numerous exotic locales on the planets Myce and Taowajan (futuristic cityscapes are imaginatively extrapolated from traditional Indonesian architectural styles), a limitless horde of Zeiramoid creatures and acrobatics beyond the range of most live actors. The character designs are very colorful, although the elaborate costumes look rather warm for such a tropical setting. Iria's transition from a talented but naive imitation of her brother into a skilled professional hunter is handled nicely, wisely stopping short of making her the cold killer of the theatrical feature. The DVD presentation of Iria as a feature suffers slightly from the original need to divide it into six neat sub-adventures within the overall story; and since this is the beginning of the Zeiram saga (there is also a 1994 live-action Zeiram 2, again written & directed by Keita Amemiya and starring Yuko Moriyama), the conclusion is naturally open-ended. But Iria: Zeiram the Animation stands well on its own. It should fully satisfy moviegoers looking for action-packed cinematic space sagas. (The U.S. Manga Corps 1996 video releases of Iria in three videotape volumes, two episodes per volume, are still available at $19.95 each dubbed or $29.95 each subtitled.)

Key, the Metal Idol. V.1, Awakening. V.2, Dreaming. V.3, Singing.

OAV series, 1994-1997. Director & author: Hiroaki Sato. V.1, 7 half-hour episodes, 210 minutes. V.2, 6 half-hour episodes, 180 minutes. V.3, 2 90-minute features, 180 minutes. Price & format: bilingual DVD $29.98. Distributor: Viz Video through Pioneer Entertainment.

Key, the Metal Idol. V.1, Awakening. V.2, Dreaming. V.3, Singing. © 1997 Hirokai Sato/Pony Canyon, Fuji TV, FCC, Studio Pierrot.

Key, an instant hit as an OAV serial (15 episodes, the last two feature-length, released between December 1994 and June 1997 in Japan), has been compared with titles as disparate as Pinocchio and Astro Boy, Peter Pan, Edward Scissorhands and A Star is Born. Dr. Murao Mima, a reclusive expert in robotics, is funded by industrial magnate Jinsaku Ajo who is secretly developing robotic super-soldiers. Mima tests his research by building a robot granddaughter, Tokiko (Key), realistic enough to pass as human. (Ajo does not care as long as he gets the research for his own goals.) The gamin-like Key has a glassy stare and monotone voice, but she is accepted by the community as just a weird girl with delusions of being a robot due to her grandfather's work. Mima gradually comes to love Key enough to want to transform her into a real girl. She is 17 when he dies. His dying message to her is that she will also die soon when her current artificial body breaks down. Her only hope is to complete her transformation by herself, by gaining the love of human friends. But she will need lots of friends; at least 30,000! Key's only hope of winning so many friends seems to be through becoming a hit idol singer; a new pop star. She is coached by her only human friend, Sakura Kuriyagawa, a high school classmate whose part-time job at a video store has brought her into contact with Shuichi Tataki, president of a fan club for current idol super-star Miho Utsuse. Unknown to the three, Key is being protected secretly by Tomoyo Wakagi, her grandfather's loyal assistant who knows how the scientist really died, from industrialist Ajo who seeks to capture her, both because her body may contain Mima's last research, and because he fears her blundering around Tokyo will call attention to the existence of robots. Key's venture into the world of media stardom under the tutelage of Sakura and Shuichi introduces them all to the sleazier side of the entertainment industry: talent scouts looking for fodder for porno films, the bleak hell of cattle-call interviews, and prima-donna directors who treat hopeful teen talent as disposable raw material for their productions.

This summary does not mention some well-integrated major subplots. Writer-director Sato keeps the story twisting in new directions, deflecting skepticism over improbable plot elements by anticipating questions. "Key, how can you be a real robot? Robots can't sweat! Even if it was true, how would getting 30,000 fans turn you into a real girl?" The desperation of Ajo and Wakagi to control Key, and the early revelation that the genuine pop idol Utsuse has been replaced by a robot duplicate in Ajo's control, lends enough plausibility to keep the suspense at a high level. The haunting mood music by Tamiya Terashima also helps immeasurably, as does an excellent cast of voice actors in the Japanese dub. The story seems to lead toward a smooth conclusion by the end of the 13th half-hour episode. Then Wakagi says, "We still have some ways to go," and the feature-length 14th episode introduces new elements that drastically change the meaning of everything that has gone before! The animation by Studio Pierrot is obviously limited, but Sato's direction is so skillful that you hardly notice.

Ruin Explorers: Quest for the Ultimate Power!

OAV series, 1995-96. Director/Screenplay: Takeshi Mori. 4 episodes/120 minutes. Price & format: bilingual DVD $29.98. Distributor: A. D. Vision Films.

Ruin Explorers: Quest for the Ultimate Power! © 1995 Kunihiko Tanaka, Nippon Columbia, Movic.

Ruin Explorers is a lightweight comedy/adventure very obviously inspired by Dungeons & Dragons; an animated adaptation (four half-hour episodes, released 6/25/95, 8/25/95, 11/25/95 and 2/25/96) of a comic-book serial by Kunihiko Tanaka in a Japanese gaming magazine. It demonstrates the Original Animation Video market's ability to take advantage of a pleasant story that is not strong enough to be made into a TV cartoon series or theatrical feature, but does quite well in the direct-to-video market for a niche audience (in this case, role-playing gaming fans). Also, this is a complete story, unlike some anime "movies" that end in mid-story because they are really releases of OAV serials that sold so poorly they were never finished.

In the story, a stereotypical fantasy world has so many ruins of past civilizations that a whole industry has grown up of "ruin explorers" who plunder them for lost treasures. Fam and Ihrie, two mid-teen girls, are getting into it earlier than most. Ihrie, human, is determined to prove that they are just as good as the more experienced explorers who mock them. Fam, her elf friend, is her hesitant follower. Both have magic powers, but due to a spell earlier cast on Ihrie, she cannot use her magic without turning into a mouse. Ihrie must urge Fam to use her Wiccan powers, which she does so hesitantly that it is usually too little, too late. Ihrie's exasperation with Fam finally blows up into a spat at just the wrong time. A search for a magic talisman pits them against rivals, the arrogant Rasha (sorceress) and Migel (swordsman), plus a conniving merchant, Galuff, who sold a map to the treasure to both teams in the hope that they will set off all the traps and kill each other off, leaving the treasure for him. New players enter in episode 2, and the story veers into a new and more serious direction. The five are forced to become reluctant allies in support of handsome Prince Lyle who needs the talisman to stop the mad enchanter Rugudorull from destroying all life on Earth.

Ruin Explorers is also an example of the Japanese penchant for throwing references to American pop culture into their productions. These may indicate the introduction of those images into Japan. When the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise moved into Japan in the mid-1980s, American anime fans wondered why there were suddenly so many brief sightings of Col. Sanders in anime productions. This anime adaptation of Ruin Explorers (animated by Animate Films studio) has a new character not in Tanaka's comic book; merchant Galuff's pet dog, Gil, who is a dead ringer for Hanna-Barbera's snickering Muttley. Why? Who knows? Gil contributes nothing to the plot, but his appearance is undeniably amusing, not least because of how he clashes so much with the character design of the others. (Presumably this is part of the joke.)

A.D. Vision Films previously released Ruin Explorers on two videos of two episodes apiece in June and September 1998, in both dubbed and subtitled versions. Due to the anime market's new demand for bilingual DVD releases (both English-dubbed and in Japanese with English subtitles), A.D. Vision is now remaindering those two video versions. Video releases of anime in subtitled form alone have become virtually extinct over the past year.

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