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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Danny Fingeroth looks at what gets lost in translation from the comicbook page to the big and small screens.

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.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex continues the challenging sci-fi storyline that started with the feature film. © Bandai Ent. and Manga Ent.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex continues the challenging sci-fi storyline that started with the feature film. © Bandai Ent. and Manga Ent.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. V.01 - 07.

TV series (26 episodes), 2002-2003. Director: Kenji Kamiyama. V.1-5, four episodes/110 minutes; v.6-7, three episodes/85 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment/Manga Entertainment.

The CGI-intensive Ghost in the Shell (Kokaku Kidotai) feature (Japan 1995; U.S. 1996), along with Akira, was largely responsible for setting anime's theatrical reputation during the 1990s as top-quality cinematic sci-fi for the art-theater market, with enough action for the general public. The manga established author/artist Masamune Shirow as a specialist in intellectual cyberpunk sci-fi; the movie made the reputations of studio Production I.G and director Mamoru Oshii. Seven years later, Production I.G produced a double-barreled follow-up. The TV series, Kokaku Kidotai: Stand Alone Complex, ran from 2002 through 2003. The theatrical sequel feature, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, was released in 2004. Now the TV series is coming to the U.S., on 7 DVDs scheduled bi-monthly from July 2004 through July 2005, and on The Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim starting November 6.

S.A.C. was produced for the unusual animation market of pay-per-view TV. The 26 episodes ran on Japan's SkyPerfecTV satellite channel with two new episodes on the first of each month from October 1, 2002 through October 1, 2003. Ratings were so good that a 52-episode sequel started production before it ended. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - 2nd Gig debuted on SkyPerfecTV on January 1, 2004 and is still running. It is expected that The Cartoon Network's broadcast will segue smoothly into 2nd Gig.

Both movies are written/directed by Oshii. The TV series is by Kenji Kamiyama, who explains in a DVD interview that it was decided to keep the movie and TV storylines as "parallel world" versions. The TV adventures are more of a sci-fi police/detective TV series. It focuses upon 2030 A.D.'s Public Security Section 9 of the nationalized police force, in charge of national security and cybercrime. The movie(s) concentrates almost completely on just cyborg, super-detective Motoko Kusanagi and her partner Batou, and the intellectual questions of whether a person (the mind, the soul, the ghost) can remain intact if transferred from their physical body into the Internet, and whether advanced Artificial Intelligences can achieve self-awareness and personalities.

The TV series explores individual crimes, and humanizes Section 9 by focusing upon a larger cast of detectives and their social interactions. The "stand alone complex" is young Detective Togusa, who is the least cybernetically enhanced. He "stands alone" in comparison to his teammates who casually plug themselves into the global electronic Internet for mind-to-mind communication and to gain instant information.

Each adventure is a smooth blend of action and a clever crime involving futuristic computer/cybernetic technology. For example, Section 9's detectives suspect that a foreign government has implanted the mind of one of its agents into the body of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for espionage, but they have to prove it. The opening credit animation is superb CGI work; the rest of the episode is inferior but still better than most TV animation. The score is by top anime composer Yohko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop). Stand Alone Complex shows what TV animation should be.

Kiddy Grade starts out light, but gets grimly dark very soon. © FUNimation.

Kiddy Grade starts out light, but gets grimly dark very soon. © FUNimation.

Kiddy Grade. V.1, The Peacekeepers. V.2, Pieces of the Past. V.3, Lies Beneath. V.4, The Present Future. V.5, The Freedom of Truth. V.6, Mirror Image. V.7, Lurking Shadows. V.8, Emerging Anew.

TV series (24 episodes), 2002-2003. Director: Keiji Goto. V.1-8, three episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: FUNimation Productions.

Kiddy Grade (24 episodes by Studio Gonzo, broadcast weekly from October 9, 2002 through March 19, 2003) is one of those futuristic sci-fi serials in which the plot starts light and humorous and grows increasingly complex and grim. In "Star Century 0328" the whole galaxy is united in a Global Union of planets dominated by interstellar capitalistic groups. One of the GU's major bureaucracies is the Galactic Organization of Trade and Tariffs (G.O.T.T.), ostensibly an economic coordinator. One of G.O.T.T.'s agencies is the E.S. Force of secret agents to combat crime, defined as anything that endangers the galactic peace and economy. Its two-agent teams of troubleshooters appear to be adolescents or children with psionic powers and enough futuristic weaponry to be super-heroes. They are authorized to kill dangerous criminals if necessary, but preferably to capture them for mind-wiping so they can be reeducated as useful citizens.

The girls Eclair (age 16) and Lumiere (10) are one of the E.S.'s newest teams. Eclair is the dynamic, brash member who dashes into firefights with galactic Mafia gangs or smugglers, while demure Lumiere's specialty is super-computer hacking to uncover white-collar crime within planetary governments and interstellar cartels. The first half-dozen or so episodes look like power fantasies for young adolescent viewers. But Eclair's and Lumiere's assignments start to uncover corruption within the GU's uniformed interstellar police force, and the upper class "Nouvlesse" who dominate galactic society. There are increasingly open hints that Eclair herself has been mind-wiped. She begins to have such traumatic flashbacks to her unknown previous life that her value as an E.S. agent becomes suspect. Then the team is sent to a planet where striking laborers (little better than slaves) are stopping production until working conditions are improved.

When the two balk at their orders to "remove the criminals" (assassinate the strike leaders), they are outlawed themselves. The action grows increasingly dramatic while the story grows confusingly complex. When other E.S. "beautiful children" teams introduced in previous episodes (Alv and Dverger, Caesario and Viola, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Dextera and Sinistera) are ordered to capture or kill them, which will obey orders and which will help them escape? What is the secret of Eclair's and Lumiere's pasts? What Machiavellian plotting and counter-plotting is going on within G.O.T.T.'s executive offices? Where are all the clones of Eclair and Lumiere coming from?

Kiddy Grade has become a fan favorite for its beautifully elegant futuristic costumes and architecture/interior decoration alone, and the exotic galactic civilization full of planets, characters, and robotic weaponry with names from Greek and Scandinavian mythology (Clio, Deucalion), elementary French (Mercredi, La Muse) and German (Donnerschlag, Wirbelwind) and Lewis Carroll (Cheshire Cat, Dodo). Some of the translation seems erratic; "Nouvlesse" may be a combination of "nouveau" and "noblesse" (the new nobility) rather than just a misspelling, but one major character's name alternates between Armblast and Armbrust in English, while on the Japanese audio track it is clearly "Armbruster."

The Ninja Scroll series is a revisionist take on the cult fav feature. © Urban Vision.

The Ninja Scroll series is a revisionist take on the cult fav feature. © Urban Vision.

Ninja Scroll: The Series. V.1, Dragon Stone. V.2, Dangerous Path. V.3, Deliverance.

TV series (13 episodes), 2003. Director: Tatsuo Sato. V.1-2, four episodes/90 minutes; v.3, five episodes/117 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $24.95; VHS dubbed $19.95. Distributor: Urban Vision Entertainment.

Ninja Scroll (Jubei Ninpucho), the 1993 movie, has been one of the most critically praised anime theatrical features and an international film festival favorite. It and Wicked City are largely responsible by themselves for making the reputations of the Madhouse studio and writer-director Yoshiaki Kawajiri. For its 10th anniversary, Madhouse created this TV version.

Ninja Scroll: The Series (Jubei Ninpucho: Ryuhogyoku-hen; literally Chronicle of Jubei, the Wind Ninja: Chapter of the Dragon Jewel Treasure), a 13-episode TV serial from April 14 through July 14, 2003, was actually directed by Tatsuo Sato, but it sticks so closely to the original story and character designs by Kawajiri that it looks like a pure Kawajiri production.

A lengthy DVD-extra interview with Sato about his decisions on how to present the production (for example, he decided to model Jubei after the "wind" element, like a Spaghetti-Western loner hero who drifts into the story and then drifts out again at the end; he decided to design the story as a cross between traditional historical ninja drama and modern TV "monster of the week" sci-fi series) sound creative until you consider that he was actually locked into copying these from the movie 10 years earlier. One intriguing revelation is that the TV series' actual writer, Toshiki Inoue, has also been a writer for the famous Masked Rider live-action series; one of those that established the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers genre.

Ninja Scroll: The Series is not a sequel to the movie as much as a revision of it. The basic plot is the same: in the early 1600s a deadly feud over possession of a mysterious treasure is being fought between two ninja clans, each of whose members are divided between "normal" ninja (masked, black-clad assassins) and super-ninja who look like comic-book super-villains, each of whom has a grotesque monstrous appearance and "unstoppable" killing specialty. Jubei Kibagami, the only ninja in Japan who fights for honor more than for money, becomes inadvertently involved. He ends up protecting a beautiful girl; a ninja by birth whose heart is not in all the killing. A major supporting character is Dakuan, apparently an elderly Buddhist monk but actually a spy-assassin for the recently established Tokugawa Shogunate. The revelation at the climax is that the villains want the treasure to finance an overthrow of the Tokugawas and restore an earlier dynasty.

There are enough differences to make the TV series fresh for those who have seen the movie. It is a more "gentle" version. Shigure, the "ninja princess," has been raised to be naively innocent of her clan's deadly profession. Dakuan remains loyal to the Shogun, but there is no implication that he plans to kill Jubei and Shigure for Knowing Too Much after they are no longer useful. Which older Japanese dynasty the villains want to restore is different, and the climactic battle is much closer to an Indiana Jones finale. There are new supporting characters, notably the comedy-relief young thief Tsubute. Each of the monster super-ninja are all-new and spectacularly unique. You can't see just one version of Ninja Scroll; you have to see them both.

Prétear weaves the Russian version of Snow White, with seven princes instead of dwarves, onto the screen. © ADV Films.

Prétear weaves the Russian version of Snow White, with seven princes instead of dwarves, onto the screen. © ADV Films.

Prétear. V.1-4.

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

The subtitle of this 13-episode TV series, Prétear: The New Legend of Snow White (Shin Shirayukihime Densetsu: Prétear; broadcast April 4 through June 27, 2001; animated by Hal Film Maker Co., Ltd.) makes one of its inspirations obvious, although it is the Russian variant of the legend with seven handsome princes rather than dwarves; and there is a bit of Cinderella in it, too. But mostly this is another "magical little girls" TV series for young adolescents, like Sailor Moon.

Sixteen-year-old Himeno Awayuki is the daughter of a widower who has just married one of the richest businesswomen in Japan, a widow with two daughters of her own. Himeno has moved with her comedy-relief Dad into stepmom's palatial mansion, and transferred into her stepsisters' snooty private high school. Only one of her new sisters is really nasty, but the other is still devoted to her deceased father and resents her mother's "betrayal" by remarrying. Her new classmates ostracize her because they consider her father a fortune-hunter, and her as "common" because she loves raising flowers and getting dirty gardening (including spreading fertilizer) instead of leaving it all to the mansion's grounds staff.

Enter seven supernaturally handsome boys who inform her that they are the Seven Knights of Leafe, the guardians of the life-force in all living things. Each has an individual fairy-tale princely costume and power: Hayate is Wind, Sasame is Sound, Kei is Light, Go is Fire and so on. They protect the world from Fenris, the Princess of Disaster who would suck out the life-force and leave the world a desolate wasteland. But they need a Prétear, a pure maiden who loves all life and has the psychic energy to restore life to the people, animals and plants that Fenris has drained. Their worldwide search has led them to Himeno as the destined next Prétear. When Fenris and her Demon Larva monsters attack, one of the Knights (a different one depending upon the nature of the monster they must fight) must spiritually enter Himeno's womb to enable her to produce life-energy to combat it.

This is such a blatant metaphor that Himeno almost dies of embarrassment on the spot, and must be the reason for Prétear's 15+ age rating since the series seems otherwise suitable for younger girls. Himeno gets a different beautiful gown/super heroine costume and magic weapon (Wind Sword, Sonic Arrow, Fire Axe, Water Flail, etc.) depending upon which boy-spirit has merged with her. She initially wants nothing to do with it, but since all life on Earth is at stake and the Princess of Disaster will target her and her family as her special enemies in any case she has no choice.

Naturally there are romantic complications between Himeno and the apparently arrogant leader of the Knights, Hayate. When it is revealed that the Princess of Darkness is actually the former Prétear who was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force (well, that's what it amounts to), Himeno has self-doubts that her own moral strength will be sufficient to withstand the same emotional stresses and hormonal snares. Prétear is a pleasant frilly romantic fantasy for adolescent girls facing their own first confrontations with mature temptations.

The Twelve Kingdoms brings Chinese legend to the small screen in this popular series. © Media Blasters.

The Twelve Kingdoms brings Chinese legend to the small screen in this popular series. © Media Blasters.

The Twelve Kingdoms. V.1, Shoku. V.2, Empress. V.3, Coup. V.4, Reunion. V.5, Forgotten. V.6, Oppression. V.7, Reflection. V.8, Alliance. V.9, Atonement. V.10, title to come.TV series (45 episodes), 2001-2002. Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi. V.1-2 & 8-10, five episodes/125 minutes; v.3-7, four episodes/100 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.95. Distributor: Anime Works/Media Blasters.

Chinese literature of 1,000 years ago tends to ramble endlessly by modern standards and mix history with mythology. Juni [12] Kokuki no Sekai, The World of the Twelve Kingdoms, is a popular Japanese modern fantasy novel or series of novels in this style by Fuyumi Ono. The twelve kingdoms of Kei, Kou, En, Sai, Han and others are fictional but analogous to those of feudal China before its union in one kingdom about 2,000 years ago. Kings, lords and powerful mandarins (bureaucrats) are involved in endless intrigue and warfare, aided or opposed by gods, demons and holy animals. (The common people just suffer as they are trampled in the action.) The story is rich in names of ancient Chinese weapons and mythological creatures so obscure they are not in most modern dictionaries. The novels (and DVDs) include extensive vocabulary notes, which have made The Twelve Kingdoms a favorite with fantasy role-playing gamers.

In Book One, "Shadow of the Moon, the Sea of Shadow" (episodes 1 through 14), Japanese high school student Youko Nakajima is confronted by a stranger, Keiki (later revealed as a kirin [sort of an Oriental unicorn] in human form), who claims she is destined to affect fate in Kou; and that Kou's enemies have sent youma (supernatural beasts) to kill her in our world before she can be brought to the Twelve Kingdoms. Keiki transports Youko there to save her, along with two classmates.

At first Youko does nothing but scream in terror, leading her companion Yuka Sugimoto, who loves fantasy novels, to believe that she is really the one destined for heroic greatness in this world. As Youko struggles to understand her destiny, and decide whether to fight it or embrace it, Yuka becomes increasingly obsessed with usurping Youko's role. The large supporting cast includes both humans and "half-beast" people like Rakushin, the friendly "mouse" (dormouse) man. Book Two, "Sea of Wind, the Shore of the Maze" (episodes 15 through 22), and Book Three, "A Great Distance in the Wind, the Sky at Dawn" (episodes 23 through 45), introduce new characters whose fates are intertwined with those of Youko and others in the first adventure.

The Twelve Kingdoms was animated by Studio Pierrot for NHK (the Japanese equivalent of the BBC) as an educational drama for its accurate popularization of the style of classic Chinese literature. Forty-five episodes were broadcast from April 9, 2002 through March 11, 2003. Nobody is talking about why it stopped there, but the series was first announced as 60+ episodes. Ono has stopped writing the novels, too, although those published go well beyond Book Three. At least the anime series ends with the conclusion of Book Three, and the structure of presenting many adventures within the Twelve Kingdoms is such that there never was an overall story to bring to an end.

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).