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New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Fred Patten reviews the latest anime releases including: Harlock Saga, Angel Links, Assemble Insert, Hermes: Winds of Love and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water.

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 and about which our readers should know.

Harlock Saga. © 1999 Leiji Matsumoto-Shinchosa/ Bandai Visual / 81 Produce.

Harlock Saga. © 1999 Leiji Matsumoto-Shinchosa/ Bandai Visual / 81 Produce.

Harlock Saga.

OAV series, 1999. Director: Yoshio Takeuchi. 180 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: U.S. Manga Corps/Central Park Media. (This is a combination of the earlier video edition in two volumes; Harlock Saga, v.1, Clash of the Space Pirates and v.2, Wrath of the Gods. Dubbed only, 90 minutes and $19.99 each.)

One of the seminal influences in anime was cartoonist Leiji Matsumoto, who virtually created the interstellar sci-fi action/adventure genre in the 1970s. Space Battleship Yamato (1974) spun off numerous TV and theatrical sequels, which overlapped several other Matsumoto deep-space creations, notably Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. Captain Harlock, starring a charismatic "good guy" space pirate who is actually fighting to save Earth from a corrupt planetary government and tyrannical space invaders, originally appeared as a 42-episode TV serial from March 14, 1978 through February 13, 1979. This was followed by several TV and theatrical sequels in the 1980s (plus guest appearances of Harlock in the Galaxy Express 999 series), tapering off to a few direct-to-video titles during the 1990s. Bootleg Harlock videos were a major influence in the early days of American anime fandom.

Harlock Saga, a six-episode OAV series released bimonthly from January through November 1999, sounded in its full Japanese title like an attempt at serious culture: Harlock Saga: Der Ring des Nibelungen - Das Rheingold. Yes, a transformation of Wagner's Ring Cycle into an interstellar saga for the fate of the universe. This sort of thing has worked well with sci-fi novels (there have been numerous reworkings of The Odyssey or The Argonautica as a heroic space explorer's discovery of exotic new planets), but a visual production like Harlock Saga suffers badly. If the 81 Produce production group (the animation studios credited are Studio March and Sono Sun Planning) thought that basing the story on operas would justify limiting the animation to only three or four characters in any scene, they were wrong. A mighty space dreadnought with a crew of just three or four, or planets with populations of less than a half-dozen each, are simply not convincing. Audiences of operas can accept characters who die while singing melodramatically when their parts are finished. In a "serious" adventure drama, having each planet self-destruct in a spectacular cataclysm just as the hero and his crew blast off for the next world is less convincing, and quickly becomes monotonous as well. The music is rich (performed by the Moscow International Symphonic Orchestra), and is mostly re-scored from Wagner's original to work effectively with each scene (the "Ride of the Valkyries" does not need any re-scoring to make great music for the space battles), but it sounds unoriginal. Finally, Harlock Saga is one of those productions designed for an audience that is already familiar with the cast and background story. American viewers will be more familiar with the supporting characters from the Teutonic operas than with such strangers as Harlock (standing in for Siegfreid, roughly speaking), Tochiro, Emeraldas, Meeme & Daiba who have the major roles here.

Space Pirate Alberich, leader of the Nibelung people from the planet Nibelheim [sic.], steals the gold from the planet Rhein because its unique molecular structure makes it the most powerful weapon in the universe. Alberich plans to use it to overthrow Wotan, leader of the Immortals of the planet Valhalla who is having an invincible space fortress built for him by Fasolt & Fafnir, two giant engineers from the planet Risenheim. Harlock and his loyal crew realize that the conflict between Alberich's Nibelung space armada and Wotan's Death Star is likely to result in the destruction of all humanity. Their duty is to steal the gold back from Alberich and return it to Rhein. Lots of minimally-animated Sturm und Drang result.

The four volumes of Angel Links. © Morning Star o Sunrise.

The four volumes of Angel Links. © Morning Star o Sunrise.

Angel Links. V.1, Avenging Angel. V.2, Fallen Angel. V.3, Broken Angel. V.4, Eternal Angel.

TV series, 1999. Director: Yoshikazu Yamaguchi. DVD (bilingual), v.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; v.2 - v.4, 3 episodes/75 minutes each. Price & format: DVD (bilingual), $29.98 each. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

If you liked Outlaw Star, will you like Angel Links: The Stellar Angels? Bandai (sponsor) and the Sunrise animation studio followed up the former (their popular 1998 TV 26-episode space opera adventure serial) with the latter, a prime-time (Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m.) 13-episode series from April 7 through June 30, 1999. Angel Links is "set in the universe of Outlaw Star." It is not a sequel but it shares the same colorful background (postulating a space colonization led by China rather than the West) and costume and architectural designs. Some of the minor characters from Outlaw Star appear briefly in walk-on roles.

There is one big difference. Outlaw Star is a typical boy's adventure serial. Angel Links takes the same elements and turns them into a girl's romance adventure, with (hopefully) enough elements to also hold an adolescent male audience. In America, boys don't mind a Wonder Woman-type protagonist as long as she is easy on the eyes but acts like a typical male action-hero. A space adventure with a woman's romance plot -- that hasn't really been tried in America yet.

Angel Links begins like a preadolescent girl's wish-fulfillment fantasy of teenhood. Li Meifon is 16 years old; beautiful, wealthy and with a figure to make Lara Croft look flat-chested. She is commander of Angel Links, an anti-pirate security force that provides protection to space merchant ships; in other words, she has a socially acceptable reason to spend all her time patrolling her Oracion star system in her super-dreadnaught battlecruiser, blasting bad guys. She was handed this when her fabulously wealthy business-mogul grandfather died and set up Angel Links in his will for Meifon to command. She picks a crew weighted toward athletic, independent young women like herself, commanded by her brisk Tactical Officer Valeria Vertone. The only males in her inner circle are Duuz, a reptilian Dragonite warrior (the obligatory colorful alien sidekick), and Kosei Hida, a young man written into her grandfather's will as her guardian. (Meifon uses him as her major-domo.) In the first episode, Meifon saves the life of Leon Lau, a handsome young patron of an orphanage, thereby both proving her mettle and acquiring a potential ideal boyfriend.

The emphasis of the first few episodes is on Meifon's inexperience and Kosei's efforts to make her take her leadership responsibilities more seriously. The plot turns darker as hints emerge that Meifon's grandfather had guilty motives in setting up Angel Links, and that Leon Lau is not really the benevolent philanthropist that he poses as. The audience's point-of-view gradually swings from Meifon to Kosei, who becomes aware that Meifon has her own secrets linked to a grave that mysteriously appeared next to her grandfather's, with her name and next year's date on it. Meifon becomes simultaneously an action-adventure heroine and a damsel needing to be rescued by her true friends among her crew. Much of Angel Links is straight-faced exaggerated romantic melodrama (notably Episode #5's replay of Romeo and Juliet as a tragic romance between a space pirate's daughter and a handsome space patrolman) aimed primarily at adolescent women, but there are enough space battles and futuristic secret agent-type skullduggery to appeal to teen boys as well.

Assemble Insert. © 2001 Masami Yuuki/Tohokushinsha Film Corporation.

Assemble Insert. © 2001 Masami Yuuki/Tohokushinsha Film Corporation.

Assemble Insert.

OAV series, 1989-1990. Director: Ayumi Chibuki. 60 minutes. Price & format: DVD $24.95 bilingual; video $19.98 dubbed. Distributor: The Right Stuf International.

1989 was a good year for cartoonist Masami Yuuki. Two of his popular comic book series about powered armor suits ("giant robots") used to commit crime in Tokyo were adapted for direct to video animated series. One, Patlabor, a drama (but with lots of human-interest humor), became a major hit. The other, Assemble Insert, was a screwball comedy. It only lasted for two half-hour OAVs (released in December 1989 and February 1990, animated by Studio Coa -- or maybe Koa or Core; as long as you pronounce it "ko-a," they're happy), but it was never intended as more than a light diversion.

Tokyo is in the throes of a crime wave. Demon Seed, a diabolical gang dressed in business suits with Ku Klux Klan headdresses, under the leadership of Dr. Demon ("I am a very traditional mad scientist!"), is robbing banks and smashing up police cars with their mighty powered armor suits. They are opposed by the Counter-Demon Seed Special Operations Agents, a squad whose Chief Hattori is glumly aware that he has been given the oddballs and losers from throughout the Japanese police force. He decides that what they need is a superhero, so he stages a Hollywood-type talent contest to pick one. They end up with 15-year-old Maron Namikaze, a shy high school student whose mother pushed her into it. Since Special Operations is so poorly funded that they cannot even afford air conditioning in their sweltering office, Hattori decides to develop Maron simultaneously as a superhero (with an invulnerable costume developed by Dr. Shimokobe, an obsessed comic-book fan) and as a teen pop singing star. Maron's first encounter with Demon Seed is so devastating to them that they disappear into hiding. With no crime left to fight, Special Operations concentrates on turning Maron into an Idol Singer. This displeases Dr. Shimokobe, who wants to see lots of classic battles between superheroes and supervillains; so he invents even better giant robots and gives them to Demon Seed so they can return to crime. (Shimokobe dumps the robot suits at their Addams Family-esque haunted house headquarters while wearing a Santa Claus suit. "But it's Summer...") Well, you get the idea.

Assemble Insert was a hit at American anime fan meetings in the early 1990s as a hilarious bootleg video. Screenings were usually interrupted every couple of minutes so fans in the know could explain the in-group jokes to the rest of the audience. It is reasonable that the American commercial video release does not keep stopping to explain these jokes, but here is where the DVD could have really taken advantage of its "extras" capabilities to annotate the story. Alas, this American release does not even translate the title song lyrics (which include Maron's apology for forgetting her lines). Enough of the humor will be understood by anime fans to keep them laughing, notably the visual references to Gigantor, Atragon and other Japanese sci-fi hits, the lampoon of show-biz pressure to create and merchandise new teen Idol Singer sensations, and comparisons of Yuuki's character designs here with those in his Patlabor. But without an explanation, who will know that chain-smoking Chief Hattori is a caricature of the editor of the comic book that published Assemble Insert, and his buffoonish cops are caricatures of Yuuki himself and his cartoonist pals (including now-famous anime director Shoji Kawamori)? Or that the two girls who appear in a brief live-action parody of a really low-budget TV commercial are the real voice actresses of Maron and her Idol Singer rival? Licensed anime releases are supposed to replace old bootleg fan videos, but this release of Assemble Insert may create a market for the notes from the early '90s fannish translations.

Hermes: Winds of Love. © 2001 Vanguard Cinema. All Rights Reserved.

Hermes: Winds of Love. © 2001 Vanguard Cinema. All Rights Reserved.

Hermes: Winds of Love.

Theatrical feature, 1997. Director: Tetzuo Imazawa. 117 minutes. Format: Japanese with English subtitles. Price & distributor: VHS $29.95, Vanguard Cinema. DVD $24.99, Image Entertainment.

Movies based on ancient tales of the gods like Disney's Hercules are usually considered as mythology, distinct from such as DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt, which is based on a living religion's true history. Hermes is superficially like any other movie version of a Greek heroic legend, but it was commissioned by the Institute for Research in Human Happiness (Kofuku no Kagaku), a modern Japanese evangelical church which considers itself the direct successor through reincarnation to the events in Greek mythology. The result is a grand spectacle like DeMille's The Ten Commandments; good entertainment whether you are a believer or not.

The IRH put up a $14 million budget for a high-quality feature from Toei Animation, directed by Tetzuo Imazawa (Transformers and Digimon Adventures) and blending cartoon and CGI imagery. The ancient world is shown as improbably clean and pretty, but the costuming and architecture are true to what is known about Greek and Cretan styles. Released in April 1997, Hermes became Japan's highest-grossing animated theatrical feature; until the release of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke three months later.

The story is basically that of Theseus and the Minotaur. In 2300 B.C., the individual kingdoms of the Eastern Mediterranean have been reduced to vassalage by despotic King Minos of Crete. In Sitia, an island-kingdom too tiny for Minos to bother with, a prince is born who is destined to lead the Greek people to freedom. Twenty-six years after this prologue, Prince Hermes begins his career as a hero by rescuing beautiful Princess Aphrodite of Delos, who has grown up as a hostage of King Kaipeia of Lindos. Minos has wanted Aphrodite as a sacrifice to the Minotaur, so Hermes' rash act forces Sitia into a confrontation with mighty Crete. Hermes realizes his only chance is to rally Crete's conquered kingdoms into revolt. Theseus, son of the King of Athens, becomes Hermes' loyal aide-de-camp. It is while General Hermes is leading the army of rebellion against Minos and his warriors that Theseus enters the Labyrinth beneath Minos' palace, and the famous slaying of the Minotaur takes place.

These two dramatic adventures occupy the first hour of the movie. Hermes is now king of Crete by conquest, and concerned with restructuring the kingdom for the benefit of the people. Ophealis, the God of Creation, appears and enlightens him with the teaching of the gods. This includes a tour of Heaven, full of ethereal beauty with enough fantasy such as soaring winged horses and mermaids to entertain children in the audience, while adults are given generic advice to "Do good," and "Be kind to others," if you want to live there in your afterlife. Drama reappears when the dead Minos in Hell, who has fought his way up to become a major demon, leads an attack of the damned against Heaven. Hermes must once again battle his old enemy who is now a huge bull-monster. The movie ends with Hermes' return to his earthly life, ready to become a wise philosopher-king of ancient Greece. If you liked Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans, you should enjoy Hermes: Winds of Love.

Image's DVD release does not offer an English-language dub, but its extras include a short completely-animated outtake scene that fans will want, plus two theatrical trailers.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. © 1989 NHK / SOGO VISION / TOHO.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. © 1989 NHK / SOGO VISION / TOHO.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. V.1, The Adventure Begins. V.2, The Dark Kingdom. V.3, Aboard the Nautilus. V.4, Battleground. V.5, Nemo's Fortress. V.6, The Deep Blue Sea. V.7, Nadia's Island. V.8, The Secret Cave. V.9, Nadia in Love. V.10, The Prophecy Fulfilled.

TV series, 1990 - 1991. Director: Hideaki Anno. v.1 v.9, 4 episodes/100 minutes. v.10, 3 episodes/75 minutes. Price & format: $19.98 dubbed video; $29.98 bilingual DVD. Distributor: A.D. Vision Films.

Long before Disney ever thought of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Japan's feisty new Studio Gainax was approached by Toho Studios in the late 1980s to produce a juvenile TV series conceived of but abandoned by Hayao Miyazaki a decade earlier, basically combining Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Miyazaki evolved his own ideas into his 1986 Laputa: The Castle in the Sky.) Gainax (co-animating with the Group Tac studio) turned the outline into a dramatic thriller in which the trip around the world was replaced with a quest for Atlantis. Two orphaned 14-year-olds meet at the 1889 Paris Exposition; Jean, a French amateur inventor and techno-nerd, and Nadia, a circus acrobat of unknown racial heritage with a "blue water" crystal pendant necklace. Jean rescues Nadia from three semi-comical thieves after the crystal and a chase starts, which leads them to the Nautilus and Captain Nemo, and to a much deadlier enemy who knows the secret of Nadia and her crystal and needs both to seize the power of lost Atlantis for world conquest.

Nadia became a prime-time (Fridays, 7:30 p.m.) 39-episode TV series (April 13, 1990 - March 29, 1991) for NHK, Japan's equivalent of the BBC; followed by a theatrical feature sequel, Nadia: The Secret of Fuzzy. It topped Japanese anime fan polls while it was running and for several years after. Many of the production staff (notably director Anno, character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and composer Shiro Sagisu) went on to anime-industry stardom, especially on Gainax's 1995 TV series Evangelion. As with many anime serials, a large and charismatic supporting cast was built up, including Captain Nemo and his brisk blonde first mate, Electra. (Nadia was a pioneer in presenting attractive women in efficient leadership roles rather than as just assistants to a male hero or as eye-candy heroines.) Also typical was the light-hearted beginning that turns unexpectedly grim. People die. Nadia and Jean are both traumatized by their discoveries; Nadia of her heritage as the Princess of Atlantis and what happened to her family, and Jean because his idealized scientific progress can threaten the world with destruction. The two pals are further shaken by their feelings toward each other as pre-adolescence turns into adolescence.

Nadia was also a hit with the burgeoning English-language anime fandom, getting cover-feature articles in all the American and British anime magazines of the early 1990s. American fans saw it mostly through bootleg videos of the Japanese episodes, but there were two American licensed releases of just the first eight episodes dubbed, individually as Nadia between March 1992 and August 1993, and in two four-episode sets as The Secret of Blue Water in January 1996. A.D.V.'s new version, starting in June 2001 on a six-weekly release schedule, is a brand-new dubbing. As is becoming standard with most American anime releases, the DVD edition includes both English dubbing and the original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, plus such extras as the openings and closings without text as music videos.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.