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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Disney entrusted Hench with finding continuity among Dalis fantastical images.

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.

16-year-old Tohru Honda becomes the housekeeper to a family cursed to live as animals from the Oriental zodiac in Fruits Basket.

16-year-old Tohru Honda becomes the housekeeper to a family cursed to live as animals from the Oriental zodiac in Fruits Basket.

Fruits Basket. V.1, A Great Transformation? V.2, What Becomes of Snow? V.3, Puddles of Memories. V.4, The Clearing Sky.

TV series (26 episodes), 2001. Director: Akitaro Daichi. V.1-2, six episodes/123 minutes; v.3-4, seven episodes/143 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: FUNimation Productions, Ltd.

In one of the informative DVD extras, Director Daichi discusses the problems of crafting an anime adaptation of an extremely popular prize-winning current girls romantic fantasy (by Natsuki Takaya). The TV serialization must have a satisfactory conclusion that does not contradict or conflict with the still ongoing manga story. The Fruits Basket anime got high marks from the mangas fans for succeeding at this.

Tohru Honda, 16, is entering high school under traumatic circumstances. Her widowed mother has just been killed in an accident. Through freakish circumstances, Tohru becomes the live-in housekeeper of young novelist Shigure Sohma and his two teen cousins Yuki and Kyo who are classmates of hers. The Sohmas are a wealthy but reclusive family. Shigure, Yuki and Kyo are the only three who live outside the clans walled estate and associate with the public. Tohru learns that the Sohmas are victims of a bizarre curse when one of them is embraced by someone of the opposite gender, they transform into an animal of the Oriental zodiac. Shigure is a dog and Yuki is a rat.

Kyo is a cat, which is not a member of the zodiac because when it was established by Buddha, the rat tricked the cat into disqualifying itself. As a result, the hot-tempered Kyo is in constant rivalry with Yuki, who accuses Kyo of using an ancient legend to excuse himself of responsibility for his own failings. As the series progresses, Tohru meets other Sohma family members and sees how their animal personas have affected their personalities.

This fantasy element seems like a humorous gloss to catch the attention of anime and manga fans. The underlying plot is the more serious romance melodrama of the innocent heroine who becomes involved with an ancient family with a mysterious secret. Tohru gradually realizes that Kyos explosive temper and Yukis sometimes-haughty manners both hide the insecurity of teens attempting to live like normal people while hiding their embarrassingly freakish abnormalities (among other things, they lose their clothing when they transform). Early episodes are full of humorous accidents in which Tohru must frantically help the boys hide from their classmates until they can return to human form and get dressed, despite the social danger to herself of being found associating with nude boys.

The transformations gradually fade from the story, to be replaced by more normal high school social elements. Tohrus warm, caring personality helps Yuki and Kyo develop self-confidence. This encourages other young members of the Sohma clan to abandon their traditional seclusion, which Tohru feels is a positive step. But it causes her to be regarded as a dangerous rival by the old-fashioned family head, who is used to enforcing his authority with dangerous violence. Most of the episodes are light-hearted enough that the three-episode finale is a grim shocker (but there is a happy ending, to blend back in with Takayas continuing comic-book serial).

Young looking Kei gets to live out a teenage boys fantasy in Please, Teacher!

Young looking Kei gets to live out a teenage boys fantasy in Please, Teacher!

Please, Teacher! V.1, Hot for Teacher. V.2, Meet the In-Laws. V.3, The Honeymoons Over. V.4, Hello Again.

TV series (12 episodes), 2002. Director: Yasunori Ide. V.1, four episodes/100 minutes; V.2-4, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Adolescent boys notoriously want their high school fantasy-comedies more raunchy than the girls do. Please, Teacher! (Onegai Teacher!), a 12-episode TV series (January 10 through March 28, 2002; animated by Daume) is age-rated 16+ for risque innuendo, but it actually blends TV sitcom misunderstandings with a tender true-love romantic plot suitable for mid-teens of both genders.

Kei Kusanagi has just moved in with his doctor uncle in a rural Japanese town, and entered its high school as a freshman. Kei looks like a frail 15. His new schoolmates know his uncle is treating him, but they do not know he is actually 18 and suffering from a rare disorder that has retarded his growth. Since Kei does not want to be treated as a freak, the school administration allows him to pose as a real 15 year old.

Kei accidentally discovers that his schools knockout-gorgeous new teacher, Mizuho Kazami, is actually a rookie agent of the Galaxy Federation observing Earths civilization. Since humans are not supposed to know of the aliens, Mizuho is required to keep Kei under closer observation than a normal homeroom teacher-student relationship. They have to become husband and wife! Keis uncle and the school principal are dismayed by the marriage, but since Kei is 18, its legal. However, since Kei is pretending to be 15, the principal insists that they maintain a regular teacher-student relationship in public for proprietys sake.

The early episodes emphasize the risque humor. Kei is in the dream situation of every male mid-teen whose developing hormones are excited by a really sexy young teacher, but his nerdy personality makes him too embarrassed to take advantage of it. Mizuhos spaceships malfunctioning teleportation device keeps transporting him, her or both into compromising situations. Keis close school pals, two boys and three girls, keep dropping in on either him (to socialize) or her (for help with lessons), forcing one or the other to hide that they are living together now.

As the school year goes by, the episodes become more serious romantic dramas. Kei and Mizuho are both shy young people (she is about 21) trying to work out their own relationships. Keis school pals begin pairing off (with some adolescent fumblings about how far they should go), and the openness of their romances emphasizes Keis and Mizuhos pain of living a lie. Koishi, a sweet girl, is falling in love with Kei. Kei likes her, and does not know how to politely discourage her. Should he? Mizuho now trusts him enough to release him from close watch.

Should they give up their secret marriage so she can concentrate on her galactic observation assignment, while Kei and Koishi can develop a normal romance? Or have Kei and Mizuho come to really love each other? Episodes 8 through 12 turn into a serious romantic soap opera, although the final episode made for the DVD set ends the series with an overload of screwball lewd sci-fi humor as Keis alien nymphomaniac mother-in-law comes to Earth for a visit.

Three women and a man are the adventurous, magical Rune Soldiers.

Three women and a man are the adventurous, magical Rune Soldiers.

Rune Soldier. V.1, Enter the Klutz. V.2, Adventure for Dummies. V.3, A True Champion. V.4, Monsters and Mayhem. V.5, Fists of Folly. V.6, Louie Punch.

TV series (24 episodes), 2001. Director: Yoshitaka Koyama. V.1-6, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Ryo Mizuno is best known to anime and fantasy-role-playing fans as the creator of the mega-popular Record of Lodoss War games and the dramatic novels based upon them, which have been animated as both a TV series and several OAV features. But Mizuno also writes FRP comedy. Rune Soldier (Mahou Senshi Liui or Louie the Magician Warrior) was a 24-episode adaptation (April 3 through September 18, 2001; animated by the J.C. Staff studio) from Mizunos manga serial (drawn by Mamoru Yokota) for Japans Monthly Dragon Magazine and Dragon Jr. Magazine for gamers.

In a blatantly stereotypical sword-&-sorcery world, three women are trying to break into the macho profession of adventuring, monster fighting and treasure seeking: Genie the brawny warrior, Melissa the priestess of Mylee the god of battle and tomboyish Merrill the young thief. They need a magician to complete their group. But none of the scholarly magicians (particularly the women magicians) want to participate in anything as earthy and physical as adventuring.

The best they can find is Louie, a student at the Magicians Guild who is on the verge of flunking out. Louie is the adopted son of the Guild Headmaster and is expected to follow the same career, but he has a college jock personality and would rather be a warrior than a wizard. When facing monsters or villains, Louie gets carried away with battle fever and uses his wand as a club to start brawling, rather than casting a spell from a safe distance.

Despite his flaws, Louie is good-natured, and his irritating tendency to treat the three women as just guys like him is better than the condescension they get from all the other male adventurers. Melissa is horrified to receive a revelation from Mylee that Louie is a destined Hero whom she must serve. The three reluctantly adopt him into their team, more as a servant than an equal until he learns to use common sense and take advantage of his magical training instead of rushing at every adversary from zombies to giant slugs to sea serpents to punch them out.

The episodes are a pleasant blend of action and humor with witty dialogue, which build up the personalities of the main and supporting characters. Melissa becomes desperate to educate Louie into becoming a courtly Hero, while he continues to blunder his way to victories that work but lack dignity. The first 15 episodes are independent, but they surreptitiously add bits of information about the Kingdom of Ohfun. This starts building around episode #16 into a plot by traitors among the nobility and the Magicians Guild to overthrow the King.

Although the plotters find it difficult to take Louie seriously, a revelation that he is a destined Hero cannot be ignored. Louie and his companions suddenly find themselves fighting assassins in the guise of friends in addition to the obvious monsters and villains they are used to. Rune Soldier is good fun for FRP gamers and fans of adventure fantasy.

X is the latest anime offering from the CLAMP team.

X is the latest anime offering from the CLAMP team.

X. V.1-V.8

TV series (24 episodes), 2001-2002. Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri. V.1, four episodes/95 minutes; V.2-8, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

X (the TV series) is the latest and most detailed anime adaptation of the adult manga serial by the four-woman artistic team CLAMP. A blend of sci-fi, mythology and mysticism, X tells of the secret battle between seven Dragons of Heaven who want to preserve the world including humanity, and seven Dragons of Earth who believe that humans are destroying the planet and must be exterminated. These 14 warriors are a mix of ancient priests and seers, scientists and technicians, and youths who do not yet know they are the reincarnations of powerful supernatural warriors.

The story is heavy on moody psychosexual overtones and Oriental and Judeo-Christian themes (yin-yang, the Tarot, the Kabbalah), leading to the apocalyptic Last Battle as predicted by Nostradamus (the 1999 date is now being downplayed since we are past that year).

CLAMPs X manga has been running serially in Asuka magazine for more than a decade. Viz Comics is publishing the U.S. edition. X was first animated in 1993 as a 25-minute music video, X2 (X squared). A theatrical feature followed in 1996, but the story was too complex by then to fit into one movie, so it concentrated upon the Last Battle alone. Reviews agreed that the direction by Taro Rin was spectacular, but it was non-stop bloody action that was incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the manga.

The long-awaited TV series, animated by the Madhouse studio, is a fuller adaptation of the manga. Director Kawajiri explains, in a DVD extra, that it includes all the favorite dramatic scenes, but has otherwise been re-plotted to add some new elements and focus upon the cast in different ways. It began with X: An Omen, a 20-minute direct-to-video teaser released August 25, 2001 (on the first DVD as Episode 0), followed by 24 episodes of X on the WOWOW satellite channel Wednesdays at 6:30 pm, October 3, 2001 through March 27, 2002.

Astronomers and occultists observe a shift in the stars, which the latter realize foretell the imminent battle for the end of the world. Adolescent Shinto temple acolytes are told they are among this generations Dragons of Heaven Seals, and must go to Tokyo to defend humanity against their Dragons of Earth Angel counterparts. Fuma and Kotori Monou, two high schoolers, are delighted to learn that their childhood friend, Kamui Shirou, who left six years ago, is moving back to Tokyo. They are shocked when Kamui turns out to have become bitter and sullen.

Violent supernatural events begin happening around them including a deadly attack upon their father. Kamui is the key Dragon; he can join either the Seals or the Angels. But the battle has already resulted in the death of his mother, and he resents having the burden of destiny thrust upon him.

X is so complex that the first DVD includes a 24-page character guide booklet. There are 18 distinct main characters. Anime character designer Yoshinori Kanemori enhances CLAMPs attractive art style. The Madhouse studio was also working on sequences for the American The Animatrix while X was in production, and its influence can be seen in the replacement of the Angels traditional Oriental shadow demon supernatural assassins by modern Men in Black clones. In fact, Xs basic plot of a secret war for the fate of unsuspecting humanity is close enough to The Matrix that it should be popular with its fans.

Two rookie Tokyo policewomen must fight terrorists in Youre Under Arrest!

Two rookie Tokyo policewomen must fight terrorists in Youre Under Arrest!

Youre Under Arrest!: The Motion Picture.

TV special feature, 1999. Director: Junji Nishimura. 90 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Youre Under Arrest! (Taiho Shichauzo) began as the second most popular manga creation of Kosuke Fujishima (Oh! My Goddess). Brash Natsumi Tsujimoto and demure Miyuki Kobayakawa are two rookie policewomen assigned as an Odd-Couple team at the Traffic Control Department of the Tokyo Metropolitan Polices Bokuto Station. The series gained popularity as a charismatic soap opera about the adventures and romances among the detectives and staff of the Bokuto station, with Natsumi and Miyuki originally to be little more than meter maids in their pet Honda Today police car (a micromini model not imported into the U.S. because it is so tiny) but somehow always ending up in the midst of the action.

YUA was first animated as a four-episode OAV series in 1994, then as a 47-episode TV series in 1996, and most recently as an April 1999 Tuesday-Friday daily TV 20-episode mini-series (six minutes each) plus this 90-minute TV special Taiho Shichauzo: The Movie, broadcast on April 24, 1999, animated by Studio Deen.

Miyuki and Natsumi return to Bokuto Station after a years training among other Tokyo police divisions to broaden their capabilities, just in time for an apparent terrorist assault on the metropolis. Mysterious tips lead the police to hidden caches of automatic weapons; computer hackers sabotage Tokyos automated traffic lights and telephone system, paralyzing the city; bridges are blown up. Bokuto Station is totally mobilized along with all others, but it quickly becomes an unnatural center of the action so much so that Police HQ suspects a tie-in between the terrorists and a Bokuto detective who disappeared two years earlier.

Bokutos popular chief is relieved of his command and the staff falls under suspicion. Miyuki as a computer expert, Natsumi as an anti-terrorist expert and the rest of the cast well-known to YUA fans grumpy but good-hearted Superintendent Arizuka, gruffly fatherly Inspector Tokuno, workaholic Asst Inspector Kinoshita, ditzy female staff supervisor Nikaido and several others must surreptitiously fight their own HQ superiors to clear themselves and find the secret behind the real terrorists.

The mystery is suspensefully and believably developed. An exciting finale was wanted, and while the action is plausibly motivated and well choreographed, it goes over the top into an Assault on Precinct 13-type attack on Bokuto Station followed by a Speed-type pursuit of the escaping villains. You will believe that a mini-police car can operate on land at sea and in the air!

Some fans grumbled about the suddenly extremely noticeable limited animation during this action climax, although professional animators may be more forgiving for what the Studio Deen staff accomplished with a TV animation production budget. YUA fans were not disappointed, and the movie is self-contained enough to be enjoyable to fans of police action TV series not familiar with the previous YUA stories.

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