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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten went again to Anime Expo 2004 and reports back that anime convention had fallen behind the professional standards of the previous ones and there was a serious effort to stop pirating.

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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is a classic that all anime fans need to see. © ADV Films.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is a classic that all anime fans need to see. © ADV Films.

Neon Genesis Evangelion. Director's Cut: Resurrection.

OAV (six episodes), 1996-2003. Director: Hideaki Anno. 150 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

Neon Genesis Evangelion. Director's Cut: Genesis Reborn.

OAV (six episodes), 1996-2003. Director: Hideaki Anno. 150 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

Shinseki Evangelion (literally New Century Evangelion but officially "Englished" by the creator as Neon Genesis Evangelion) was a 1995-96 26-episode TV series with an impact similar to that of the British live-action series The Prisoner. It was an excitingly innovative and imaginative sci-fi drama, but it became more surrealistically mystical as it progressed. The final episodes were so chaotically inconclusive and un-animated (it was rumored that the actual episodes were rejected by censors, forcing the Gainax Ltd. studio to create substitutes at the last minute without any more production money) that they were "replaced" in 1997 by two theatrical features, Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (available on DVD from Manga Entertainment). These did answer most questions but left a few still open.

Neon Genesis Evangelion. Director's Cut: Resurrection and Genesis Reborn feature yet another version of the concluding story arc, along with the original presentation. Episodes #21-23 and #24-26 can be compared as they were shown on TV and first released on video, and in "a revised and re-edited special edition produced under the careful supervision of the original creators to include amazing new footage and revelations." These two versions also differ from the earlier U.S. video release, which was slightly more "Americanized."

Evangelion begins like a typical "giant robot" sci-fi drama, with the Earth under attack by hostile monsters, and being defended by heroic adolescents in huge mechanical battle armor. But there is a more bleak atmosphere of desperation and hopelessness. There are hints that the horrific "Angels" are either actual creations of God (in which case there is no hope of staving off Armageddon), or are out-of-control scientific experiments by the very international agency that is supposed to be protecting humanity.

Shinji Ikari, the lead teen EVA pilot, is a self-professed "gutless, hypocritical, wimpy coward." Instead of developing courage as the story progresses, he becomes increasingly depressed and withdrawn. Practically all the characters wallow in their own insecurity and fear of failure, but the final episodes focus upon Shinji to the point of feeling like a voyeuristic eavesdropping upon a merciless psychiatric self-analysis. Evangelion is indeed intelligent and serious sci fi, but it is emotionally cold and exhausting.

The new director's cut versions of each of these last six episodes do contain intriguing differences and some complete new scenes. But the conclusion is still so solipsistic that it can be interpreted however the viewer wants it. Is Earth destroyed? Is Earth saved, but at the cost of Shinji's sanity? Was the whole story just the imagination of a mentally-disturbed adolescent? Episode #26 is still such a flash-forward through still images as to look like the production ran out of money, although creator Anno says that the limited animation was a deliberate artistic decision; and it is so well directed that the drama is still intense.

Evangelion is highly recommended, but in what version? Buy the first six DVDs of the 8-DVD "Perfect Collection" and replace the final two with these director's cut versions? You will probably want the two theatrical features as well.

Despite being a TV series, Kino no Tabi  The Beautiful World has the aspirations of art house cinema. © ADV Films.

Despite being a TV series, Kino no Tabi The Beautiful World has the aspirations of art house cinema. © ADV Films.

Kino's Journey. V.1, Idle Adventurer. V.2, Emerging Lanes. V.3, Warning - Curves Ahead. V.4, Not Without Reservations.

TV series (13 episodes), 2003. Director: Ryutaro Nakamura. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.2-4, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

Although Kino no Tabi The Beautiful World (Kino's World The Beautiful World) was a TV series (13 episodes, April 8 through July 8, 2003; animation by A.C.G.T.), it has the feel of one of the compilations of art films like Robot Carnival intended for viewing together or separately at international film festivals.

Based upon several novels (actually collections of short stories) by Keiichi Sigsawa, the rambling journey of barely-adolescent Kino and the talking motorbike Hermes takes them through a surrealistically metaphysical world of individual city-states, each a personification of a personal or political state of mind carried to a psychotic extreme. There is the land where people cannot stand to be close to each other for fear of hurting one another. There is the city on the verge of civil war over how to interpret a set of Nostradamus-like prophecies. "A Tale of Feeding Off Others" is a parable of responsibility: are human lives worth more than rabbits'? As an abstract rule? What about a case-by-case basis?

Kino and Hermes make a point of staying in each "country" for only three days, although some are almost impossible to escape alive. The two are often the protagonists, but sometimes only background observers. Some episodes have flashbacks and tales within tales like the Arabian Nights, although these tales are more reminiscent of Kafka than of Richard Burton. The tiny city-countries are reminiscent of Renaissance Italy or the Holy Roman Empire, although the landscapes, architecture and costuming cut a swath through Northern Europe and Central Asia. The locales of various episodes are identifiably based upon Western Germany, Russia or Siberia, mostly during the first half of the 20th century. Kino's Journey is worth watching for the attractive art design alone.

Because of the deliberately surrealistic aspects of this world, the viewer is distracted from the nature of Kino and Hermes themselves. Are they characters with backgrounds and a goal, or are they only point-of-view surrogates for the viewer? Personal details are revealed from time to time (their origin story is in episode #4), but the viewer is deliberately kept guessing how much is "true" and how much may be only Kino's imagination. (For example, is Hermes really an intelligent talking motorbike since several countries have advanced robotic technology or just an "imaginary playmate" of the child-adult Kino?)

Kino's Journey is a fairy-tale-like counterpart to director Nakamura's acclaimed Serial Experiments Lain, which was a high-tech sci-fi exploration of the same questionings of the nature of reality.

Mao-chan may look like its for kids only, but it has a lot of qualities for adults as well. © Geneon/Pioneer Ent.

Mao-chan may look like its for kids only, but it has a lot of qualities for adults as well. © Geneon/Pioneer Ent.

Mao-chan. V.1, I Will Protect the Peace of Japan! V.2, Go! Unified Defense Force. V.3, Song of Defense. V.4, Let's Defend Happiness.

TV series (26 episodes), 2002. Director: Yoshiaki Iwasaki. V.1-2, seven episodes/88 minutes; v.3-4, six episodes/77 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: Geneon/Pioneer Entertainment.

Ground Defense Force Mao-chan (Rikujo Boueitai Mao-chan; 26 episodes, broadcast July 4 through December 25, 2002) is superficially an all-ages comedy, notable for its unusually short episodes of just 11 minutes each, and for background music consisting of almost entirely a tinkly piano solo. It seems aimed at young girls and those who like parodies of sci-fi military anime about defending Earth from space invaders. It is by Director Yoshiaki Iwasaki, concept creator Ken Akamatsu, and the Xebec (2D) and Production I.G (CGI) animation studios, the creators of the mega-popular Love Hina anime series; and it is filled with in-group references to that series for its fans.

Japan is being invaded by aliens! But these aliens are so adorably cute, looking like plush-toy bunnies, kitties and the pocket monsters of juvenile videogames that the military cannot battle them without looking like bullies. Ground Defense Force Chief of Staff Rikushiro Onigawara, a doting grandfather, appoints his 8-year-old granddaughter Mao as a special soldier to combat them fighting cute with cute. Her weapon is a 1:1-scale (full-size) plastic model of a World War II German Tiger tank with the latest Artificial Intelligence computer brain. It follows her around like a puppy and likes its gun-turret rubbed.

Mao-chan becomes a media sensation, which makes the chiefs of staff of the Air and Sea Defense Forces so jealous that they draft their own granddaughters into their services. Misora Tsukishima gets a robot-intelligent VTOL jet fighter as her pet/weapon, and Sylvia Maruyama has a personal submarine. Mao, Misora and Sylvia are transferred to the same elementary school's 2nd grade for greater efficiency, with long-suffering GDF Colonel Kagome Mishima assigned to double as their homeroom teacher. While the three chiefs of staff squabble over whose granddaughter is the cutest, and each tries to maneuver his granddaughter into command of the team, the three girls become best friends and vow to unite to defend Japan together.

Unfortunately, they are little girls despite all their sci-fi weapons technology. They tend to burst into tears when they trip and scrape their knees, or lose control of their energy rays and cause more damage to the sites they are defending than the aliens do. It is not until episode #10 that the Moon-based aliens' goal becomes clear; they are out to steal all Japan's cultural artifacts, from ancient shrines to Tokyo Tower and the bullet trains. Will the girls ever get their act together enough to stop them?

One of the technical jokes is the deliberate contrast between the cute cartoon animation of the little girls and the sharp-edged CGI of their weaponry. Mao-chan's Tiger tank, Mee-kun, becomes a character in its own right due to skillful body-language animation of its gun-turret.

Practically everything about Mao-chan (including its merchandising) makes it look designed for little children, but there is plenty of humor for adults; notably the barbs aimed at interservice rivalry, nepotism and media manipulation of the public. In fact, Mao-chan was broadcast in Japan at 2:35 a.m. Director Iwasaki reveals in an interview on one of the DVD extras that its actual early-morning audience was older adults; those who could identify with the three chiefs of staff who were determined to push their granddaughters into the limelight.

Fans looking for a space opera comedy wont go wrong with Tenchi Muyo! GXP. © FUNimation Prods.

Fans looking for a space opera comedy wont go wrong with Tenchi Muyo! GXP. © FUNimation Prods.

Tenchi Muyo! GXP. V.1, Out of This World. V.2, Academy Life. V.3, Captain Seina Yamada. V.4, New Illusions. V.5, The Living Ship. V.6, Seiryo Strikes Back! V.7, The Great Daluma. V.8, Past, Present and Future.

TV series (26 episodes), 2002. Director: Shinichi Watanabe. V.1, 5 episodes/125 minutes; v.2-8, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: FUNimation Productions.

Tenchi Muyo! (1992) was the 1990s' mega-popular variant on the formula of mildly-erotic sci-fi comedy about adolescent Earth guys vs. lots of exotic space babes. Tenchi Masaki, a handsome but shy apparently-average mid-teen with a secret he does not know about, finds that he and his home are magnets for beautiful, extroverted female humanoid aliens: a space pirate, a galactic princess, a mad scientist who wants him as a subject for her sex experiments, and numerous others. Tenchi Muyo!, like Gundam or Star Trek, seems to never stop spinning off new TV series. Tenchi Muyo! GXP (for Galaxy Police Transporter) was the 10th anniversary edition: 26 episodes, from April 3 to September 25, 2002, produced by A.I.C. (Anime International Co.).

GXP is a nicely imaginative variant rather than a direct sequel. It features a new cast, with references to the offstage original characters that implies it is set a few years later. Fifteen-year-old Seina Yamada, a neighbor of Tenchi's family, is a well-meaning kid but a jinx who brings bad luck to everyone around him. A rookie space pilot visiting Tenchi's home thinks that Seina is one of the humans who is aware of the galactic civilization, and recruits him for the Galaxy Police Academy. (Seina thinks the futuristic application form is a brochure for a new sci-fi theme park.)

The transport vessel carrying Seina to Galaxy Police HQ is attacked by an incredible number of space pirates, who blunder into the midst of a GP armada at the last minute. Humans from primitive Earth are not normally allowed into the Galaxy Police, but its officials feel that Seina's inadvertent talent for attracting trouble, if scientifically controlled, can be used to lure space pirates into traps, for advance troubleshooting to avoid space disasters, and in other beneficial ways. Seina, who is starry-eyed over the opportunity to join a "Star Fleet," confirms his willingness to enter the Academy.

So instead of another TV series about aliens visiting Earth, GXP places a naive but enthusiastic human teen in a Space Cadet interstellar setting. Just as Seina is an obvious variant on Tenchi, most of the original cast is replaced by close counterparts, although there are more non-human aliens including "cabbits" (cat-rabbits) like Ryo-Oh-Ki, the living spaceship. Despite the mostly macho atmosphere of the Galaxy Police and their space pirate counterparts, practically every third or fourth episode adds another attractive, slightly older "big sister" superior officer, instructor, reformed space pirate, visiting dignitary or other BABE who wants to personally teach him all about this galactic society.

Seina is in more danger from the fallout of the girls fighting over him than from the space pirates. GXP never fails to astound in its variety of erotic innuendos that manage to keep within a 13+ age rating. Also, of course, the GP's plans to deliberately manipulate Seina's bad luck never work out as intended. Tenchi Muyo! GXP is enjoyable space opera comedy.

Urusei Yatsura launched the entire genre of sci-fi/fantasy high school comedies during the 1980s. © U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

Urusei Yatsura launched the entire genre of sci-fi/fantasy high school comedies during the 1980s. © U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

Urusei Yatsura Movie 2: Beautiful Dreamer.

Theatrical feature, 1984. Director: Mamoru Oshii. 97 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media.

Urusei Yatsura, a slang pun inadequately translated as Those Obnoxious Aliens, was one of the mega-hits of the 1980s; the title that launched the entire genre of sci-fi/fantasy high school comedy. Lum, the cute daughter of space aliens invading Earth, becomes a transfer student at a Tokyo high school and life takes a sharp left turn for the whole neighborhood. Despite the trappings of interstellar sci fi, Lum and her space friends were openly the characters of Japanese mythology and folk tales plunked into modern Japanese pop culture. Based upon the manga by Rumiko Takahashi, the anime began as a TV series in 1981 which ran for more than five years and 200 episodes, spinning off theatrical features and direct-to-video sub-series into the 1990s.

Urusei Yatsura was largely responsible for launching the Studio Pierrot animation studio and the careers of several now-famous anime directors and designers. In America, its success with anime fandom was demonstrated by fan-produced translation booklets of the Urusei Yatsura manga years before the licensed American edition, the imitative comic book Ninja High School (1986) and the role-playing game Teenagers From Outer Space (1987).

Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer, the second theatrical feature, was released on February 11, 1984. Reaction was controversial. Most fans agreed that it was the highest-quality anime production yet, but the plot was much more abstract and surreal, played for serious drama rather than the usual adolescent humor. Tomobiki High School is preparing for its annual student festival. Each class is staying at school late into the night working on its festival project. Gradually the class of Lum, Ataru and their friends realize that they are repeating the same "last night before the festival" preparations over and over. Attempts to escape from the school grow more fantastically bizarre.

Many fans still cite as one of the most memorable scenes in all anime, the one in which the students fly away from the school in a commandeered Harrier jet fighter, which rises higher and higher into the sky until the students see that Tokyo really does rest upon the back of a giant turtle swimming through interstellar space as in ancient Oriental myth. The students gradually realize that they are all living within the dreamworld of one of them. But which of them? And why?

It is ironic that, in 1984, Beautiful Dreamer was considered visually spectacular but too seriously philosophical. It was one of the first features written and directed by Mamoru Oshii. Today it is best-known for that fact; as the forerunner of his increasingly somber and intellectual sci-fi explorations of the nature of reality in Ghost in the Shell and the just-released Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Beautiful Dreamer was to an extent Oshii's attempt to surprise Urusei Yatsura's fans with an original plot that did not just rehash the TV formula. As a result, it remains an excellent movie but not a good representative sample of the series. And, as with many movie spin-offs of popular TV series, it is assumed that the audience is already familiar with the characters. This new DVD release includes a commentary track by Oshii.

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).