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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Mark Simon continues his series of 12 excerpts from his new book, Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film.

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.

Eye candy is served up in Cat Soup.

Eye candy is served up in Cat Soup.

Cat Soup

OAV, 2001. Director: Tatsuo Sato. 34 minutes. Price & format: DVD no dialogue $19.99. Distributor: Software Sculptors/Central Park Media

Fine art short films seldom turn up on the commercial anime market. Cat Soup (Nekojiru-so) was an obscure direct-to-video release on Feb. 21, 2001 that went almost unnoticed in Japan. But it won the Best Short Film award at the 6th Annual FantAsia Film Festival in Montreal (July 10-30, 2001; screened July 26), and the Excellence Prize in the Animation Division at the 5th Annual Media Arts Festival of Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs in December 2001. Since its "World Premiere" at the Big Apple Anime Fest 2003 in NYC (Aug. 29-31, 2003), it has become an American anime-fan cult favorite.

Cat Soup is a personal tribute by Tatsuo Sato, the director of many popular anime TV series, to an early 1990s adult manga (Nekojiru-udon) by the pseudonymous artist "Nekojiru." It was obscure but had a devoted following among avant-garde artists and intellectuals until it ended with Nekojiru's suicide. On the DVD's Director's Commentary Track, Sato explains that he has taken a short story from the manga (this story is available in English in Comics Underground Japan, ed. by Kevin Quigley; Blast Books, 1996) and written his own expansion of it.

Since the two main characters are cute cat children (the girl cat Nyatta and her younger brother Nyako), the catchphrase "Hello Kitty on acid!" has become popular with fans. It is closer to a hallucinogenic trip through Orpheus' Underworld or Alice's Wonderland, full of bizarre images, which emphasize morbidity and mutilation although in a dreamlike, non-threatening way. The opening shows Nyatta in a coma with a high fever, while Nyako plays near a large pool and falls in. After he climbs out, he sees Death leading Nyatta's soul away. He runs to rescue her, but in the following tug-of-war her soul is torn in half. The half-soul that Nyako brings home is only enough to restore Nyatta to a lurching, zombie-like state, so the two venture to "the Other Side" to find the rest of her soul.

Sato says that the long time Nyako spends in the pool before climbing out has caused some viewers to wonder whether he actually drowned and that both cats are ghosts. Much of the commentary consists of Sato's recounting different guesses fans have made as to what is "really happening," with his same answer; viewers may interpret it however they want to.

The production crew at the J.C. Staff studio (Sato especially credits animation producer Masaaki Yuasa) have faithfully captured Nekojiru's unique art style, although there are a couple of sequences on the Other Side (especially one where the kittens are invited to dinner by a fetishistic gourmet, which Sato attributes to one of the animators, Tanabe) which show a definite influence of Bill Plympton. Like Plympton's works, or Disney's finally completed production of Dali's Destino, Cat Soup is not intended to have a plot as much as it simply exists as a surrealistic visual treat.

A covert international force protects an average high school girl from a terrorist kidnapping threat in Full Metal Panic.

A covert international force protects an average high school girl from a terrorist kidnapping threat in Full Metal Panic.

Full Metal Panic, V.1 - V.7

TV series (24 episodes), 2002. Director: Koichi Chigira. V.1-3, four episodes/100 minutes, v.4-7, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films

This is an interesting variant on the anime TV series formula of starting off with light humor and gradually becoming more grimly dramatic. The setting is a sci-fi parallel world variant of the present in which the Soviet Union still exists, "giant robot" battle armor (called arm slaves) is common military hardware (to the extent there is a Jane's Arm Slave Recognition Guide handbook), and instead of (or in addition to) the U.N. there is a covert international force named MITHRIL, secretly supported by most nations, which uses superior technology to ruthlessly eliminate terrorist bases, the military materiel of warlike nations and some international criminal activities such as large narcotic cartels.

Kaname "Kana" Chidori is a 16-year-old high school student; a high spirited sports star but otherwise seemingly average. MITHRIL is aware that those who oppose a global police force have joined forces, either led by the Soviet Union or by a secret clique within the Soviet leadership that is using the KGB for its own purposes. This enemy is kidnapping select people around the world for unknown scientific experiments, and MITHRIL learns that Kana is high on their list.

Three MITHRIL sergeants young enough to pass as high school students are assigned to secretly guard her. Sosuke Sagara, who is transferred into her class as an exchange student, has been living in a military environment since he was a child guerrilla fighter in Afghanistan. He can fieldstrip and reassemble an automatic rifle in record time, but he is clueless about how to act like a high school student. His heavy-handed attempts to watch over Kana at all times, including when she is in the girls' gym shower, get him a reputation as a pervert and a demented weapons/mercenary groupie.

The first three episodes are nicely plotted comedy. Sosuke tries to get a clue about how he should behave in high school, and Kana grows increasingly furious at her "stalker." Episodes four through seven are a grim serial in which the enemy kidnaps Kana's entire class (planning to kill everyone else to mask her disappearance), and Sosuke with his teammates must rescue everyone in a bloody commando attack. After this, Kana cannot deny that she has a deadly enemy. But since Sosuke and his companions cannot reveal who assigned them to protect her, and nobody knows yet why the enemy wants her, she is left angry and frustrated.

Instead of slowly evolving from comedy to drama, the series alternates between comedy and drama. In the humorous episodes at the high school, Sosuke slowly learns to fit in and a personal relationship develops between him and Kana. In the dramatic episodes, the enemy makes new attacks to seize Kana, who is forced to witness her maybe-boyfriend as a cold-blooded soldier/killer, and more details about MITHRIL become evident.

Other MITHRIL personal, such as father figure Commander Andrei Kalinin and big-sisterly Capt. Tessa Testarossa, gradually develop into supporting characters. Kana eventually realizes that she is becoming emotionally more closely attached to them than to her schoolmates.

Full Metal Panic (24 episodes, Jan. 8 through June 18, 2002), one of Studio Gonzo's high class blends of 2D and CGI animation, is especially notable for the detailed realism of the military hardware from handguns and commando knives to attack helicopters and nuclear submarines (the sci-fi battle armor blends in convincingly), and the realistically staged (for an anime drama) battle action. Suggested age is 15+ for graphic military violence.

GeneShaft is visually thrilling, but short on original story.

GeneShaft is visually thrilling, but short on original story.

GeneShaft, V.1, Ring. V.2, Halo. V.3, Orbit. V.4, Mobius

TV series (13 episodes), 2001. Director: Kazuki Akane. V.1, four episodes/100 minutes; v.2-4, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Sci-fi adventure TV series tend to emphasize Star Wars-type space opera rather than 2001: A Space Odyssey-type hard science plots. GeneShaft (13 episodes, animated by Satelite [sic.] and Studio Gazelle, broadcast weekly from April 5 to June 28, 2001 on Japan's WOWOW satellite channel) talks the high-tech talk. The mechanical designs and CGI of space stations and spaceships are superb for TV animation, and there are stunning astronomical scenes such as spaceship flybys with Jupiter in the background. The character designs are good, too.

The series is full of references to American and British sci-fi authors and stories, from character names like Asimov and Brunner, to place names like Niven Base to episode titles that are either the names of famous books (Angels and Spaceships, The Ship Who Sang) or parodies of them (The Moon is a Harsh Master; Less Than Human). And the plot owes more than a slight nod to James P. Hogan's The Gentle Giants of Ganymede.

Unfortunately, the action is a retread of familiar anime sci-fi stereotypes. After Earth is almost destroyed by war during the 21st century, a global program is instituted to improve humanity through genetic manipulation. By the 23rd century, warlike tendencies have been eliminated. Since females are less aggressive than males, a female:male ratio of 9:1 has been instituted. Smarter, more talented, but generally emotionless humans now are considered adults at 15 years old. When Earth is attacked by mysterious aliens (only their awesome CGI machines are seen), an experimental spaceship (the Balkis), with a crew of young prodigies who lack any practical experience, is rushed into service to investigate.

This is the setup for yet another series about a spaceship crewed by attractive adolescent girls who, despite their supposed emotional stability, spend most of their time facing off in schoolyard cliquish dominance squabbles (while the few handsome males keep focused on the main mission), plus a few amusing but totally unrealistic comedy-relief preadolescent brats. Cut off from the bland, stultifying society on Earth, such old-fashioned emotions as friendship and love reemerge. Some plausible suspense is provided by the need to debug the Balkis' flawed experimental computer programming in the harsh outer space environment where almost any accidents are fatal.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of melodrama involving bloodthirsty terrorists among the crew, violently psychotic commanders (who practice sadism on their own subordinates) with access to nuclear weapons and power struggles among the ruling elite, which sabotages the basic premise of a bioengineered peaceful society with scientifically selected leaders. Still, for sci-fi fans who loved Macross, Nadesico and Vandread, and want more of the same (or who have not seen those series yet), with even higher quality high-tech CGI graphics, GeneShaft is sure to please.

The best reason to view decade-old K.O. Beast is to see the early work of some prestigious animators.

The best reason to view decade-old K.O. Beast is to see the early work of some prestigious animators.

K.O. Beast, V.1, Password to Treasure! V.2, V-Darn Strikes Back! V.3, The Clash of the Jinns

OAV series (7 episodes), 1992. Director: Hiroshi Negishi. V.1, 3 episodes/90 minutes; v.2-3, two episodes/60 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95. Distributor: The Right Stuf International.

Some anime, popular a decade ago as un-translated bootleg fan videos, does not hold up when seen again today, or when you understand how lame the dialogue really is. But K.O. Seiki Beast Sanjushi (K.O. Century Beast Musketeers) was so obviously little more than madcap juvenile fun that it does not really disappoint -- it's just that those fans are more sophisticated now. This was released in Japan as two OAV series, K.O. etc. in three half-hour volumes (May 7, July 1 & Oct. 1, 1992) and K.O. etc. II in four volumes (May 21, July 21, Sept. 22 & Nov. 21, 1993), produced by AnimateFilm. Today it is best known as the first anime work of many young creators (Takehiko Ito, Rei Nakahara, Hiroshi Negishi, and Satoru Akahori) who have gone on to much better and more prestigious productions.

The story is one of those movie-industry sci-fi plots that blithely mixes technology with sorcery. Some 10,000 years in the future, the Earth has been literally split in half. The northern hemisphere is the home of Beast-Men, humans who live in harmony with nature and can each transform into a friendly were-creature. The southern hemisphere is the home of the self-called "real Humans" who have paved over and industrialized everything and worship science (which does not explain why they are accompanied by comic-relief demonic imps). The south is so polluted that it is no longer habitable, so the Humans have invaded and are conquering the north.

The good guys are a group of barely-adolescent Beast Men (Wan, a tiger-boy; Bud, a bird-boy; Mei-Mer, a fish/girl=mermaid; and Tuttle, a turtle-boy), while their attacking Human adversaries are the slightly older bullies V-Darn and V-Sion, with Akumako their imp companion (the three are very reminiscent of anime's later James, Jesse and Meowth in Pokémon). In the first episode, the Beast Kids are captured, but released by a rebel Human scientist, Dr. Password, who warns them that the north's legendary goddess Gaia is actually a hidden giant computer. If the Humans find it, they can complete the conquest of the Beast-Men with ease. If the Beast-Men find it first, they can defeat the Humans. Dr. Password asks the Beast-Kids to take his cute granddaughter, Yuni Charm, with them to safety as they seek the computer. Yuni becomes a regular member of the Good Guys even though there is obviously something mysteriously more-than-Human about her.

All of the characters' names are painful puns (explained in the Extras), some of which are left in the "Japanese" (Wan's full name is Wan Derbard=the German "wunderbar"); others are replaced with an attempt at an American equivalent (S.P. Icegal is the "Spicegirls" since American viewers would be unfamiliar with the early '90s Japanese girl pop group referred to in the original name-pun). Bird-boy Bud is obviously an American by the volume of "cool" American slang (in a thick Japanese accent) that peppers his dialogue on the Japanese track, not to mention his granddad's stars-&-stripes top hat. It's silly fun. The recommended age is 13+, but that must be because of some mild nudity and risqué innuendos, and a couple of melodramatic tearjerker death scenes. Otherwise K.O. Beast is suitable for the Pokémon set and would make a good introduction to anime for kids who want something more than they can see on TV.

The 10th Anniversary Special Edition of Ninja Scroll shows why it established Yoshiaki Kawajiri as an anime star.

The 10th Anniversary Special Edition of Ninja Scroll shows why it established Yoshiaki Kawajiri as an anime star.

Ninja Scroll --10th Anniversary Special Edition

Theatrical feature, 1993. Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri. 94 minutes. Price & format: DVD quadrilingual (English, French, Japanese, Spanish) $34.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Wicked City was Kawajiri's first feature to become popular in America, but it was his Ninja Scroll (which won the Citizen's Award at the February 1993 Yubari International Fantasy/Adventure Film Festival; theatrical release on June 5, 1993), which brought his own name and that of his Madhouse studio to the attention of the fans. Ever since Ninja Scroll's American video release (June 20, 1995), it has been a favorite with the age 17+ fans for its excellent blend of fast-paced fantasy action, extreme violence and eroticism in an intelligently sophisticated plot -- all Kawajiri hallmarks.

Ninja Scroll (Jubei Ninpucho -- literally Jubei Ninja Wind Chronicle) is in the tradition of 19th century popular novels of the early 17th century, when the Tokugawa Shogunate was just becoming established, noble lords still schemed for power and had private armies of ninja, and ninja masters were believed to have raised the arts of spying to supernatural levels. When all the peasants in a village are discovered dead, local Lord Mochizuki sends his Koga clan ninja retainers to investigate. They are slaughtered (except for the beautiful Kagero) by Tessai, one of the "Eight Devils of Kimon," mystic killers who each have a deadly power -- the huge Tessai can turn his body into invulnerable stone.

Tessai is raping Kagero when they are accidentally interrupted by Jubei Kibagami, a wandering ninja who is considered weird because he only fights for moral causes, not money. Jubei does not rescue Kagero as much as he kills Tessai while fighting to remain alive himself, but the result is that the two are forced to work together to escape the remaining seven Devils, each of whom must be fought in a spectacular set-piece battle. A developing romance is hampered by the fact that Kagero has been forced to test poisons for so long that her body has become fatal to any normal man who embraces her. Dakuan, a ninja working for the Shogunate, reveals that the Devils of Kimon have been hired by the "Shogunate of the Dark," loyalists of the previous regime who hope to return to power.

Dakuan tries to force Jubei to work as his assistant, while Kagero's patron abandons her in fear of being crushed in the conflict between Japan's most powerful warlords. Jubei despises them all (except Kagero) as corrupt, honorless power manipulators, but he has his own reasons to want to kill the leader of the Eight Devils, a personal enemy who can resurrect himself from the dead.

Ninja Scroll was one of the earliest U.S. anime DVD releases (May 19, 1998). This 10th Anniversary Special Edition DVD has been remastered and adds French and Spanish language tracks to the usual Japanese and English. The additional features include a half-hour video interview with director/writer Kawajiri, who says that Ninja Scroll has been more popular with American audiences than with Japanese. A couple of questions about Madhouse's recent production of sequences in The Animatrix make the subtle point that Ninja Scroll is almost certainly one of the anime titles which led to Kawajiri's selection as an Animatrix director/writer by the Wachowski Brothers.

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).