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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Philippe Moins chronicles the long road taken to get Jacques Ry Girerds Raining Cats and Frogs to the big screen.

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.

Blue Gender presents a bleak drama like other classic anime titles, Akira and Graveyard of Fireflies. © FUNimation Productions.

Blue Gender presents a bleak drama like other classic anime titles, Akira and Graveyard of Fireflies. © FUNimation Productions.

Blue Gender. V.1-8.

TV series (26 episodes), 1999-2000. Director: Abe Masashi. V.1-6, three episodes/62 minutes; v.7-8, four episodes/82 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95/boxed set $119.98. Distributor: FUNimation Productions.

The first five episodes of Blue Gender have given it a reputation for being bleak, depressing, despondent; like the imminent extinction of humanity in the Terminator and Matrix movie series or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. But for viewers who stick it out, the outlook improves to not quite hopeless around episode six.

Yuji Kaido, a teen suffering from a deadly medical condition, is put into cryogenic sleep in 2009 until a cure is developed. He awakens in 2031 as a commando squad is rushing him through the ruined hospital while fighting off giant insect monsters. Yuji, understandably paralyzed by terror and confusion, gradually learns what is going on. The insects (called the Blue) suddenly infested Earth 14 years earlier in such great quantities that most of humanity could not be saved from them. A huge space station, Second Earth, was built and several million people were evacuated to it. Now the High Command of Second Earth is about to attempt the reconquest of our planet. The soldiers of the Far East Region Sleeper Recovery Squad do not know why the High Command wants as many Sleepers as possible rescued from Earth; they are only following orders.

For the first several episodes, Yuji (the only Sleeper successfully recovered in Tokyo) is little more than traumatized deadweight hauled around by the dwindling commando squad. He is horrified by everything: the ruins of civilization, attacks by the dinosaur-like Blue insects, the contempt of the soldiers who consider him a weak coward, and the sullen hatred of the few human survivors in the ruins toward the Second Earth government which has abandoned them to the bugs. The squads Japanese base is overrun by the Blue, forcing the survivors to retreat to Korea. The dying commander orders the last commando, Marlene Angel, to get Yuji to Second Earths main Earth HQ at Russias Baikonur Space Base at all costs.

Blue Gender is a series of three-episode story arcs. The first establishes the desperate situation on Earth. The second sets up the moral dilemma between fighting with ruthless efficiency (cutting any losses and sacrificing the weak) and trying to save as many people as possible. The third gives Yuji and Marlene time alone as they cross Asia; for Yuji to develop some physical strength and temper his idealism with reality, and for Marlene (who has been raised by Second Earths coldly scientific government) to begin to understand that practicality can still have room for morals and artistic values. The fourth presents the adventure of defending the Baikonur base until the last space shuttle can be launched. The last half of the serial moves the adventure to the space station, and substitutes Second Earths arrogant High Command (why do they want Sleepers? what is their real goal?) for the Blue as the new villains.

Blue Gender (26 TV episodes produced by the A.I.C. studio, broadcast October 7, 1999 through March 31, 2000) is unusual for its relentlessly grim plot. But those who like serious sci-fi drama have found it a welcome change from the more common space-opera action-comedy melodramas.

Dark Myth mixes various Asian myths into a contemporary tale. © Manga Entertainment.

Dark Myth mixes various Asian myths into a contemporary tale. © Manga Entertainment.

The Dark Myth

OAV series (two episodes), 1990. Director: Takashi Ano. 110 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95. Distributor: Manga Entertainment.

Many anime dramas, not to mention live-action movies and TV series, have been based upon Japanese ancient history, religion and mythology. The Dark Myth, one of the most concentrated of these, combines Japanese, Chinese and Hindu lore from around the 3rd to 6th centuries A.D. with a modern end-of-the-world menace.

Takeshi Yamato is a teen whose scholar father was murdered 10 years ago. A man claiming to have been his fathers close friend proposes that they investigate the archaeological dig that he had been working on, based on a myth about the king (tribal chief?) of Tateshina in prehistoric Japan who had discovered an enormous underground treasure. Takeuchi, a mysterious old man who possesses historical knowledge unknown to anyone else, joins them.

They are soon being spied upon by the Kikuchi clan, the modern descendants of the Kumaso tribe (who lost their war with the Yamatai tribe some 1,800 years ago as to which would become the nucleus of the unified Japanese kingdom) who believe that the Tateshina treasure is not material wealth, but divine objects that will bestow godlike powers such as immortality and eternal youth. They have been searching for these for centuries so their clan leader can replace the Emperor (who traces his descent from the Yamatais victorious 3rd century Queen Himiko).

The objects are divine, but the god is Susanoo, the Japanese pantheons troublemaker who likes violence and bloodshed. Soon hungry ghost demons are slaughtering the seekers. Connections are made between parallel gods and myths in Shinto, Buddhist and Hindu mythology suggesting that they all have the same origins. The Dark Myth consists of two 50-minute parts (released as OAVs on January 26 and February 23, 1990). In Part 1, the emphasis is on the mysteries of which characters are good or bad guys, which of them will be most successful in double-crossing the others, whether the treasure is archaeological or supernatural (although the DVD cover art and blurb give that away), who the winner of the search will be and what he or she will gain.

It should surprise nobody that Takeshi, the teen protagonist, is the winner, but the details do have complex and probably unexpected (at least to Western audiences not ingrained with Eastern religious beliefs) consequences. In Part 2, the emphasis is on whether Takeshi, now the personification of the soul of the depths of the human heart, will be influenced by Susanoo to use his new divine powers to destroy humanity, or whether others can influence him to save humanity.

This interesting plot is sabotaged by serious flaws. Takeshi, the nominal protagonist, is the least interesting character. He does nothing but react to anyone elses initiatives. The animation (by Asia-Do) is so limited that a few touches of imaginative direction do not save it. The story is overly dependent upon a barrage of historical and mythological names that will be unknown to most Americans; and while the DVD does include an admirably extensive glossary, the viewer cannot be expected to memorize it all before watching the story or to pause every few minutes to check back into the glossary.

The Dark Myth is disappointingly unexciting as a horror drama, but for viewers who want more details about aspects of Japanese prehistoric history and mythology that may have intrigued them in other productions (Blue Seed, Princess Mononoke, Takegami, the live-action Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon), it does an excellent job of putting them into context with each other.

Dirty Pair comes to DVD after being a huge American hit in the 1980s. © A.D.V. Films.

Dirty Pair comes to DVD after being a huge American hit in the 1980s. © A.D.V. Films.

Original Dirty Pair: Project Eden

Theatrical feature, 1987. Director: Kouichi Mashimo. 90 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Dirty Pair was one of the first big success stories of the 1980s anime home video market. This sci-fi comedy-action title was designed by the Sunrise studio as a 26-episode TV series in 1985, but ratings were so dismal that it was cancelled with the last two episodes unfinished. But it was such a hit with adolescent video buyers that #25 and #26 were finished and three anime features were made within the next five years; two released directly to video and this one (titled simply Dirty Pair) released theatrically on March 14, 1987. It appeared on video in America in 1994 as Dirty Pair: Project Eden. There were also sequels in Japan, which is why this new DVD release has Original added to the title.

Dirty Pair began as a series of award-winning space-opera spoof novels by Haruka Takachiho about Kei and Yuri, two busty, ditzy trigger-happy secret agents in bikini uniforms that draw the attention of every post-pubescent male for miles around, in a 2141 A.D. galactic civilization. (Background not in this title rationalizes why their sensible WWWA superiors want to get rid of them but cannot.) In Project Eden, Kei & Yuri are assigned to stop sabotage of vizorium (a mineral essential for space travel fuel) mining and production on the planet Agerna before the planets two nations, one capitalistic and one socialistic (blatant parodies of the U.S. and U.S.S.R.) go to war.

The two discover that the villain is neither nation but a genuine mad scientist, Professor Wattsman, who needs the raw vizorium ore for his experiments to create the next step in evolution: mankinds successor! So far, all that he is getting is a vicious monster like in the movie Alien that feeds on vizorium and its miners. An additional complication is a handsome galactic master thief, Carson D. Carson, who is also trying to break into Wattsmans huge laboratory for a caper he insists is separate from the vizorium affair.

The deliberately chaotic plot keeps the girls unsure whether to arrest the guy or draft him as a temporary ally. Comedically improbable accidents soon reduce the sexy cops to wearing even less than usual, and the hunky crook to his embarrassingly gaudy underpants, as they crawl through air vents and clamber up huge ominous machines which tend to explode if a wrong switch is accidentally thrown; while the comically manic Mad Scientist, with wires plugging himself into a dozen computers, boasts of his genius to Bruno, his long-suffering veddy-proper English butler.

Project Eden is probably the first (and probably only) sci-fi action musical, with several bouncy disco numbers. Dirty Pair was seldom serious, so there is little point in criticizing Project Eden for its sophomorically simplistic plot, which resolves every problem with a spectacular explosion. The mood throughout is Lets party!!! with both cheesecake and beefcake. DP was one of the first anime hits to gain an American following larger than the then-tiny anime cult. The original DP TV series included Star Trek in-group references, leading DP fans among the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew to add Kei & Yuri in-group references in that series; a licensed American original DP comic book begun in 1988 is still mostly in print in trade paperback collections. Although some ingrained 1980s elements look a bit dated today, DP continues to win new adolescent fans.

Saiyuki puts a modern twist on ancient myths. © A.D.V. Films.

Saiyuki puts a modern twist on ancient myths. © A.D.V. Films.

Saiyuki. V.1, The Journey Begins. V.2, Old Friends, New Enemies. V.3, Confronting Their Demons. V.4, Storms. V.5, Sting of the Scorpion. V.6, Demon Rising. V.7, The Gods of War. V.8, Soldiers of Destiny. V.9, Children of Sacrifice. V.10 - V.12, titles to come.

TV series (50 episodes), 2000-2001. Director: Hayato Date. V.1-2, five episodes/125 minutes; v.3-12, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: A.D.V. Films.

Saiyuki, a.k.a. Journey to the West or The Monkey King, is an ancient Oriental legend based upon an actual 7th century A.D. journey by a Chinese monk to India to get Buddhist scriptures. Folk legend over centuries added the demons he had to fight, and the three supernatural bodyguards who protected him. This has been a favorite with Chinese and Japanese live-action and animated filmmakers for more than seven decades. Japans 1960 Saiyuki animated feature (U.S. title: Alakazam the Great) is one version, and the mega-popular Dragon Ball started as a 1980s TV variant before it evolved in a completely different direction.

Gensou Maden Saiyuki, a 50-episode TV series animated by Studio Pierrot and broadcast from April 4, 2000 through March 27, 2001 (based on a novelization by Kazuya Minekura), is a kick-ass version for adolescents in a mood for punk rock music and violent videogames. The locale is a far eastern fantasy world that is ancient Chinese with modern trappings. As the excellent DVD-extra cultural background notes put it, While not everything contained in Saiyuki was drawn from the original legend (for example, the traditional story was notable for its lack of cigarettes, mahjong, ATM cards and firearms), a great deal of the monsters and challenges faced by Sanzo and his disciples are at least loosely connected to the original.

Humans and demons (depicted similarly to pointed-ear elves in modern heroic fantasy) have coexisted peacefully for the past 500 years. But recently the demons have begun turning into homicidal killers. The Elders of the Temple of the Setting Sun (roughly Heavenly bureaucrats) have determined that someone is trying to release the truly evil demon god, Gyumaoh, who was defeated and imprisoned for eternity in India 500 years ago. The aura of evil possessing the demons is the result of the weakening spell; its complete dissolution will result in Hell on Earth. The Elders assign young priest Sanzo Genjo to journey to India with his three companions Son Goku, Sha Gojyo and Cho Hakkai, to find out who is trying to revive Gyumaoh and why, and stop them.

In most versions, Sanzo is a devout pacifistic monk. Here he is a sullen young 20-something who had been raised in a monastery as an orphaned infant, but grew up with a personality unsuited to a monastic life (to put it mildly). But for a danger-filled journey like this, he is an ideal choice. His three companions are either demons or human-demon crossbreeds. These four hellions look and act more like a punk gang cruising for babes and brews.

Fifty episodes is a lot of plot to fill, and the journey imaginatively mixes humorous and dramatic incidents, stand-alone episodes and mini-serials of two or three episodes, new challenges and flashbacks showing how the four met each other and what molded their personalities (and why they have decided to remain loyal to the Elders despite their superficial contempt for boring religious stuff). The juxtaposition of ancient and modern elements is usually amusing, such as updating their magical horse to a magical Jeep.

The enemy is quickly revealed as more complex than had been expected. Assassins vary from comically inept to chillingly clever, and there is a noble adversary who is righteous by nature but loyal to the real villains due to family honor which side will he really fight for at the climax? This Saiyuki modernizes the old legend to blend elements of heroic fantasy RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and combat-action RPGs like Street Fighter, with strong enough characterization and plotting to hold the viewers attention through the deliberately meandering journey.

Sugar could be magical for younger viewers. © Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Sugar could be magical for younger viewers. © Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Sugar: A Little Snow Fairy. V.1, Sweet Mischief. V.2, Friends and Dreams. V.3, The Bear Pianist. V.4, Magical Sparkling Days. V.5, Home Sweet Home. V.6, Sugar Baby Love.

TV series (24 episodes), 2001-2002. Director: Shinichiro Kimura. V.1-5, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Sugar: A Little Snow Fairy... or A Little Snow Fairy: Sugar (Chitcha na Yukitsukai: Sugar), for those who follow the Japanese word order of placing the subtitle before the title. The artistic logo is designed so it may be read either way.

Sugar was a 24 episode TV series animated by the J.C. Staff studio and broadcast by TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) from October 3, 2001 through March 27, 2002 (at 2:20 am, which seems weird for an ultra-cute program for young girls). The age rating is 3+, but the intended audience is probably closer to the 11-year-old protagonist, Saga Bergman. Sagas concert-pianist mother died three years ago, and she lives with her kindly Granny in a small German town. Saga is an aspiring pianist who believes in Planning Ahead, working out timetables for her study, housework and play. Her schedules are thrown into disarray when a tiny juvenile snow fairy insists upon moving in with her while learning to become a full-fledged adult snow fairy.

Soon the German town is infested with little fairies whom only Saga can see. The adults like Ginger the rain fairy and her boyfriend Turmeric the cloud fairy are not so bad because they go about their business making gentle summer showers and pleasant shade. But the young apprentices like Sugar and her best friends Salt the sun fairy and Pepper the wind fairy run wild like undisciplined 7- to 9-year-olds. At best they are well meaning, but innocently destructive, poking into everything in their curiosity to learn what makes the human world run and to find the Twinkle that they need to complete their apprenticeships.

Sagas carefully ordered life is shattered as she must rush about saving her elementary school classmates and neighbors from the consequences of Sugar, Salt and Pepper trying to magically help out. But, as she is forced to think about the answers to all their why? questions, Saga begins to expand her own horizons and realize that life cannot be forced into a preplanned schedule.

Sugar, without the magic, is about an 11-year-old girl trying to act mature while being forced to mind a hyperactive younger sister and her playmates. Sugar is sometimes horribly naughty (she becomes a junkie for German sweet waffles), sometimes just an inconvenience to Sagas social life with her own friends, and sometimes a genuine help and comfort when Saga faces her own entering-adolescence problems. With fairy magic, this anime series is a gently amusing delight for girls.

Sugar: A Little Snow Fairy was a project of Broccoli, the Japanese design studio famous for super-cute girls anime programs (+ merchandising accessories). Each DVD contains shoptalk notes from the writers and art directors on how they handled this assignment from TBS to create a girls anime series with a realistic yet fairy-tale atmosphere. Among the DVD extras are a location shot tour of Rothenburg, Germany, the well-preserved medieval gingerbread town used as the model for Sagas home.

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).