Dancougar vol. 1

Dancougar vol. 1
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

Alien invasion is a common scenario in anime, but rather than using the accepted US convention of infecting the alien’s computer systems with a virus (thereby saving the world with a Powerbook), Japanese animation creators tend to favor the approach of entrusting the earth’s safety to a great big shiny robot. This is especially favored if the robot can easily be manufactured as a toy in several sizes and varieties. Dancougar is no exception to this rule– in fact, it’s not just about a big robot, it’s about four vehicles that transform into animal robots, and also combine into one big robot. We’ve seen this convention used in Voltron, so it’s hardly surprising to see it again.

What sets Dancougar apart are its memorably-stereotypical characters and grittier-than-usual feel. The earth is swiftly invaded by the Zorbados Muge Empire, a typically evil organization, but in the process we’re treated to plenty of scenes of unflinchingly brutal mechanized combat. Soon, earth’s defense forces lose control of much of the planet, and the aliens set up a base of operations near the Great Lakes. With the help of Shapiro Keats, a traitor to earth’s forces, they start sniffing out the remaining military installations and ammo dumps.

Fortunately, there’s a last-resort plan, being undertaken by the hilariously-named Cyber-Beast Force. The plan involves getting together earth’s best remaining pilots to use a new, experimental weapons system. The first such pilot is Shinobu Fujiawara. He’s a typical 70-80s anime hero– burning, fiery temper, and rude as hell. In other words, he’s a socially maladroit dickhead, just like the 10 year old boys he’s meant to appeal to. Despite this, he’s cooperative towards his bosses, Ross Igor and Dr. Hazuki, who give him a really cool plane to test out.

The plane has some interesting properties– not only is a surprisingly formidable weapon against the alien forces, when Shinobu gets really mad (which isn’t hard to do), the plane’s capabilities increase. There are also many more secrets to the machine– hell, there are a visible pair of robot hands on the bottom, so you know it probably transforms into something else. Anyway, Shinobu is soon joined by Sara Yuuki, his old classmate at the Space Academy in Austrailia. He’s distressed by her appearance, partially because she’s mean enough to stand up to his advances, and partially because she’s the ex-girlfriend of Shapiro Keats. But she proves to be a capable pilot of her Land Cougar, a powerful tank. She’s a bit more capable with her machine than Shinobu, in fact, and freely transforms her tank into a crazy mechanized cougar. (Shinobu’s reaction is great– he’s like, “Holy crap! Did you see that freaking tank turn into a cougar?!”)

Over the next few episodes, the Cyber-Beast Force is filled out by Masato Shikibu, the playful, amiable pilot of the Land Liger, and Ryo Shiba, the aloof older pilot of the Land Mammoth. This force is all that stands in the way of Emperor Muge’s forces, and they go into action readily enough. In true giant robot fashion, our bad guy Muge has a whole league of sub-gruesomes, which obviously must be toppled by our heroes one by one, as the series progresses. The first mark is General Death Gaia, which is possible the most awesome bad guy name since Machine Robo‘s Devil Satan Six.

DancougarDancougarDancougarThere’s not a whole hell of a lot to explain beyond that. If you know the super robot formula and like it, this series will hit all of your buttons– there’s amusing interplay between the Dancougar pilots, and the bad guys are over-the-top and fun to laugh at. While a bit grittier and more complex than fare like Voltron, Dancougar is still kiddie fare, so don’t expect incredible intellectual or philosophical themes– it’s all about kicking the bad guy’s ass, and kicking it some more.

The production of the show is nice– it’s fairly high-budget mid-80s TV animation, which means some cool action scenes, a bright color pallette, and awful music (especially that opening theme. Euuuughhh.). Character design, by Indori-Goya, is nice and streamlined, and mechanical design is particularly cool– it’s handled by Hisashi Hirai and Masami Obari, two artists who are better known for their character designs. This makes for nice, “natural”-looking mech movement, which works well with Dancougar‘s animal theme.

DancougarDancougarIn the end, what we’ve got with Dancougar is an enjoyably dumb mecha action show. What also makes the series appealing is its low price– it may only be available on subbed VHS, and the retail price may be $19.95 per volume, but a lot of outlets are offering it for less– the Right Stuf currently (as of 11/01) has it for $8.00 per volume. 8 volumes of the 39-episode series for a total cost of $64.00– well shit, who needs fansubs when you’ve got deals like that? Unfortunately, Dancougar is slowly going out of print, and Software Scuptors hasn’t announced any plans to reissue the show on DVD. As a video release, Dancougar was only an experiment, but it’s certainly worth taking in for the super robot junkie in you. Don’t pine for your lost Voltron episodes– get this instead.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  Software Sculptors
hits: 1583

Dallos

Dallos
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

Dallos is a piece of animation that is worthy of consideration for purely historical reasons. Sure, it’s flashy and interesting-looking. Yeah, it’s directed by Mamoru Oshii, who would later give us opuses (opii?) like Patlabor 2 and Ghost in the Shell. Dallos is most interesting, however, because it’s the first OVA ever produced. OVAs (original video animation– direct to video releases for those of you still sorting out this whole anime thing) experienced a huge boom in the late eighties and early nineties, but the whole concept started right here. Wouldn’t you know it, Best Film & Video got their hands on a pre-dubbed, far less coherent edited version of Dallos (originally made of up four thirty-minute episodes) and released it on video.

Oshii is a great director, and he had a fantastic staff on hand for Dallos. Things get off to a promising start; in the Lunar city of Monopolis, the cops release a bunch of cybernetically-enhanced dogs to track and capture the leader of a group of dissidents– a fellow named Doug McCoy. Doug, who look sort of like the title character from Urashiman only with a Van Dyke, manages to lose the fuzz– but we do get to see Dallos‘s cold, calculating mask of authority, Alex Riger, go kung-fu on a bunch of other fugitives. The thing is, the dogs are loose all over the city, and they’re just bound to cause problems for Monopolis’s native residents– particularly for a young man named Shun, a miner’s son who gets his kicks by blowing off his lovestruck neighbor, Rachel, and repairing old mining equipment.

Here’s the thing: The moon is rich in ores that Earth could really, really use. What to do? Easy, just colonize the moon and set up a slum on the dark side of the moon for the miners! The miners don’t live in absolute poverty, but they have few freedoms, and their work is difficult and dangerous. Naturally, these circumstances have bred a certain amount of resentment, which is why characters like McCoy are lurking everywhere. As for Shun, When he’s cornered by a violent police dog, he simply uses a piece of mining gear to kill the thing. Oops! He’s committed a felony, possibly a serious one. For the privelege of getting attacked by a creepy half-robot Doberman, Shun gets to spend some time in jail before being sprung by McCoy, who’s trying to incite the entire local population to reject their Terran masters.

I could spend a few more paragraphs declaiming about Dallos‘s plot, but fortunately I don’t need to. The story is a remarkably brazen ripoff of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, right down to some of the wacky characters being exact copies of Heinlein’s entertaining cast. The only one missing is the all-knowing computer, but that’s okay– he’s replaced by Dallos itself, a gigantic, mysterious Lunar artifact that the locals seem to regard as some sort of deity. Dallos looks kind of like the Martian ‘face’ that periodically makes the cover of the Weekly World News. All of this is totally lost on Riger, Monopolis’s sherriff, who simply wants to clean up the subversive elements and run a nice, orderly town. He loses some of his chilly objectivity when his fiancee, Melinda, is kidnapped; he’s dead set on getting his lady back, and isn’t afraid to kill anyone who might be helping hold her hostage. Of course, among the hostage-takers is Shun, who’s naturally divided about the whole Lunarians vs. Terrans issue.

That sequence of events– Shun’s getting roped into the rebellion, Alex having his girlfriend swiped, Rachel dealing with her own jealousy, and McCoy’s adamant militarism and refusal to take Shun seriously– all come together to form Dallos‘s narrative, which isn’t that bad– like I said, it’s just a gigantic ripoff of of a Heinlein story. Dallos also borrows a few other Heinleinian elements– the super-smart, enhanced dogs smell an awful lot like Starship Troopers‘ neodogs to me– but I can’t say I blame them for lifting some stuff. Neodogs are cool.

DallosDallosDallosPresentation, courtesy of the bargain-basement Best Film & Video outfit (they’re now defunct, I’m told), is about as lousy as can be expected. I don’t fault them for presenting the “movie” edit as opposed to each separate episode, as the materials probably weren’t made available to them to begin with. The transfer, in terms of both video and audio, is surprisingly good and clean– for a film of Dallos‘ age, and taking the drawbacks of VHS into consideration, it couldn’t have looked much better. Of course, the dub is dreadful, featuring the usual cast of four British Hong Kong residents (three guys and one girl), mixed so low that the music and sound effects frequently drown out their dialogue. If you can suffer these defects– and chances are, if you’re used to Best Film & Video fare, you can– you should be OK watching Dallos.

DallosDallosOf course, since Oshii is directing, Dallos‘ animation is really impressive at times. There’s some really cool mecha designs and animation sequences for the viewer patient enough to sit through Dallos‘ tangled narrative. Also thanks to Oshii’s influence, no doubt, Dallos is completely gun-crazy. This is a movie that’s full of cool robots, flashing cannon muzzles, and flying bullet shells– it’s stuff that really would’ve looked like gold to me in the 80s, when Dallos was released and I only had terrible Saturday-morning kiddie cartoons based on video games to watch. Another thing about Dallos is its terrible, awful cover art. I kept looking at the video cover and imagining this:

DallosBurn, baby; burn. Finally, there’s one thing that really drags Dallos down, and that’s its utter lack of denoument. Oshii and his staff present the viewer with a number of cool characters and story ideas, but never make an effort to tie them together. Dallos, the one puzzle piece essential to the story, is pretty much forgotten about after about two thirds of the movie is up. Much is made of the fact that the alien artifact might be sentient, and when it inevitably goes haywire, it seems to be protecting the Moon colonists that are loyal to it– but the whole story arc is quickly abandoned. Instead, the ending is about Shun and his dying grandfather making a significant trip to the Moon’s near side, where Shun vows that he’s going to do something about Earth’s arrogant treatment of the Lunar colonists. The viewer is treated to some powerful visuals as a result of this, but Dallos‘ story suffers badly. There are worthy things in Dallos, but you can’t very well have a good story without some sort of closure.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  Best Film & Video
hits: 1898

Don’t Leave Me Alone Daisy

Don’t Leave Me Alone Daisy
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You know, I may be American, but I think I have a lot in common with the Japanese. We both love exotic junk food, comics, video games featuring loveable, god-like cute animals and plumbers, and really awful pop music. However, there are some things that are common and accepted in Japan that just frost my cupcakes– for example, the overt fetishizing of little girls, the incredible, almost cartoony sexism of many aspects of the society in general– and that leads to Don’t Leave Me Alone Daisy– the complete nutcases that such a society might conceivably breed.

One of these nutcases is Reijiro Techno, a classic genius nerd-with-glasses who spends most of his time in a high-tech bomb shelter because his grandfather is paranoid about the usual armageddon crap. However, he’s distracted from tinkering with his implausibly-powerful inventions by the sight of a girl, wandering into the yard above his shelter to retrieve a ball. He’s enthralled by this girl. He must find out everything about her. He must possess her.

It doesn’t take him long to find out that she’s a classmate of his, one Hitomi Matsuzawa. His first attempts at socializing are only vaguely unsettling– he tracks her every movement, memorizes every aspect of her appearance, and mentally rehearses how he’ll introduce himself to her (with the help of a simulation, of course). But when he finally works up the balls to talk to her, it gets scary. He’s very presumptuous, you see, and decides that this new girl of his shall be named “Daisy”. (Not very creative of him– “Hitomi” means “Daisy” in Japanese.) He lures her into an empty building to patiently explain this to her, while waving an obviously-fraudulent bill of ownership in her face. Then he writes his name on her shirt. When she objects, he claims that he only wants to protect her, and then attempts to pickle her. What the hell..?!

This is only the beginning of a chain of events in which Techno attempts, in his own horrifyingly-inept fashion, to court Hitomi. One thing that Don’t Leave Me Alone Daisy has going for it is its’ supporting cast. Hitomi herself is cute and charming in a generic way, but it’s the rest of the cast who amuse me– Techno’s best “friend” is X Yamakawa, a would-be rebel with a bad haircut and ugly clothes who secretly yearns to have friends and belong. Amusingly, Techno regards X as a threat to his pursuit of Hitomi, and finds all kinds of ways to keep X distracted, some of them rather violent. There’s also Ms. Rarako, the token blonde, buxom teacher, who makes Tenchi Muyo‘s Mihoshi seem like Stephen Hawking in comparison– her dialogue is usually virtually drowned out by the roaring sound of air rushing out of her head.

Finally, thankfully, there’s Noe Anii, an older high school girl who deftly deflects Techno’s more dangerous attempts to win Hitomi’s attention. “She doesn’t belong to you,” she chidingly tells the puzzled Techno. Anii is probably the only sensible character in the show, because she seems mainly interested in withholding Techno’s gadgets and forcing him to deal with Hitomi conventionally. And there’s also Techno’s pet intercontinental ballistic missile, but if I try to recount that, I’ll likely go into seizures.

Don't Leave Me Alone DaisyDon't Leave Me Alone DaisyDon't Leave Me Alone DaisyAnimation, music, character design– they’re all pretty conventional for a TV series. Daisy was originally shoujo manga (girls’ comics) created by Noriko Nagano, which is kind of puzzling. I can’t imagine any female in her right mind creating such a whimsical story about a complete maniac relentlessly pursuing a girl who may or may not be interested, but is generally too terrified to be making any rational decisions. I do like Hitomi’s voice, which is provided by Kisa Iinuma (who is, as far as I can tell, new to this voice-acting thing), and I do like the opening theme, a gritty faux-punk affair complete with a chorus that goes “Fangirl! Fangirl! Fangirl!”

Don't Leave Me Alone DaisyDon't Leave Me Alone DaisyDaisy‘s story (told in 12 episodes) isn’t bad, but Techno is such an incredibly offensive character that he completely ruins any appeal that any other characters and situations might have. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing even remotely sweet or endearing about his naivete– he’s just fucking creepy. I don’t find his “Remember, you’re Daisy, and if you don’t acknowledge that fact, the robot teacher will fry you with laser beams! Ha ha ha!” approach to dating even remotely appealing, and I think that Hitomi is an incredibly strong, forebearing character for not murdering him outright. There are some funny and sweet moments in Daisy, but the central element of the plot– Techno’s frighteningly unorthodox pursuit of Hitomi– just makes my skin crawl.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  Bandai Entertainment
hits: 1762

Cybernetics Guardian

Cybernetics Guardian
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

Judging from his pattern of interviews and media appearances, and how his products have been treated and released, writer and mecha designer Koichi Ohata has always struck me as being the designer that John O’Donnell of Central Park Media must keep in a box under his desk just for the hell of it. Ohata is the principal mind behind U.S. Manga’s rotten but financially successful MD Geist, the rather enjoyable Genocyber, and this OVA release from 1989– Cybernetics Guardian, or CyGuard for short.

So, this Ohata guy, he must have drawn a really, really cool picture of one of his bio-mecha monsters, and taken it to the Soshin Pictures dudes, and they went, “Dude! Let’s make an OVA so we can animate this way cool monster!” That’s all I can think about that could possibly explain the barely-comprehensible goofiness of CyGuard. Ohata and screenwriter Mutsumi Sanjo cobble together a plot involving a religious cult, a vindictive scientist, and a suit of bio-mechanical armor that can only be used if the wearer is really mad. It’s somewhat entertaining, but not really for the right reasons.

Anyway, CyGuard is about John Stalker, a promising young scientist living in the city of Cyber-Wood (huh huh!), testing out a cyber-suit made with Astenite, a metal discovered in the far-flung future year of 1995, which is capable of absorbing and channeling psychic energy. This doesn’t seem to mean much– the only thing that John’s suit does is extend menacing black tendrils of psychic energy, and then it blows up, because John’s boss, Adler (who looks almost exactly like Benimaru from the King of Fighters games), doesn’t like him.

But the explosion doesn’t kill John– in fact, he’s completely unharmed. However, the event does attract the attention of a cult of helmeted goons who worship a god called Doldo, and congregate in front of a huge, mutant skeleton (no doubt it’s L. Ron Hubbard) to chant and praise a god whose name is only one letter away from “Dildo”. Anyway, the cult goons think that John is actually the reincarnation of a god of destruction called Saldo, and hustle him off to their little Freemason lodge, or whatever the hell it is.

But John doesn’t take this well, and somehow makes the ambulance he’s been kidnapped in explode. Pursuing him is his would-be girlfriend, Leyla, as well as the stalwart and almost totally personality-free Officer Gordon, and of course, Adler, who just wants to finish killing him. In the meantime, the cultists talk to him, and he somehow turns into a huge, grotesque monster, which I guess is the “Cybernetics Guardian” referenced in the title– we never actually hear it during the show.

This is a funny, funny show. The pacing moves along at about 500 miles per hour, characters fade in and out with no real motivation, there’s tons of random violence, and the incredibly shitty rock n’ roll score (by the awesome Trash Gang! Why aren’t they incredibly popular because of this OVA?) is constantly fading in and out, with no real regard for what’s happening onscreen. Other wonderful things we learn during the course of the story is that John grew up in the slum on the outskirts of Cyber-Wood, called Cancer, and that he was implanted with Seeds of Hate when he was a kid. (How’d they do that? Did they just feed him pop rocks?) Further, the story tells us, Astenite is actually a metal that attracts evil, which is why John can only get pumped up when he’s mad, like Bill Bixby. There’s even a suit of armor that Adler uses, called the Genocyber (unfortunately, it looks nothing like the Genocyber from the OVA of the same name).

Cybernetics GuardianCybernetics GuardianCybernetics GuardianVisually, Cybernetics Guardian is ugly and ridiculous. The characters are stupid-looking, the animation is poor, and the music is laughable. Ohata’s mechanical design is compelling as usual, but it’s wasted here, as is the talents of Hiromi Tsuru (Ukyou in Ranma 1/2) as Leyla. The entire thing is a wonderfully fascinating little train wreck.

Cybernetics GuardianCybernetics GuardianThe funniest part, however, is the fact that CyGuard kinda-sorta ends on a cliffhanger. Oh sure, Mr. Ohata, I’m sure that this will be a very, very popular show about the evil metal that attracts evil and turns good men into robot monsters with hair! And then they fight with even uglier robots! And there’s not even any gunfights or car chases or gratuitous nudity, yes, I’m sure people will love it, Mr. Ohata! Yes!

Of course, I thought the same thing about MD Geist


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  U.S. Manga Corps.
hits: 1806

Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super Galaxy

Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super Galaxy
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

Back in the mid-60s, a young artist named Shotaro Ishimori had a great idea– manga and anime about individual heroes was popular (particularly if the heroes were robots, as in Astroboy and 8 Man), so why not make a new series about a whole team of robot-powered superheroes? With that, Ishimori created Cyborg 009, a series about an unstoppable team of heroic cyborgs in their struggle against the evil Black Ghost organization, which they all had defected from. As for the cast, robotics professor Isaac Gilmore presided over a set of well-intentioned but goofy racial stereotypes– Cyborg 001 is a Russian toddler with incredible telekinetic powers (Ivan Whiskey), 002 is an ex-NYC gang member with the power of flight (Jet Linkage), 003 is a would-be French dancer with extrasensory powers (Francoise Arnou), 004 is an East German escapee who’s basically a living weapon/bomb (Heinrich Alberto), 005 is a stoic American Indian with Herculean strength (Geronimo Junior), 006 is a poverty-stricken Chinese worker who breathes fire (Chang Ko), 007 is a failed British actor who can shape-change (Great Britain), 008 is an escaped slave from Kenya with improved movement and fighting skills when underwater (Puma), and the show’s real hero, Cyborg 009, is a former accident-prone F1 racer with enhanced speed and agility (Joe Shimamura).

Ignore this goofiness for a moment, if you will, and concentrate on the story– years after the Cyborg team (amusingly referred to here as the Galaxy Leigon, even though their adventures never really took them to outer space) vanquished Black Ghost (in the original TV series) and thwarted Neo Black Ghost (in the more popular 2nd TV series, which this movie takes most of its cues from), the retired Dr. Gilmore putters around his old Robotics and Observation institute, taking care of Ivan and occasionally giving a bit of advice to Dr. Cosmo, his heir apparent, who’s studying a theory which states that there’s a spacebound object in the exact center of the cosmos which is the source of all life and energy– a ‘vortex’.

Dr. Gilmore’s peaceful routine is shattered by an urgent warning from Ivan, who senses that a terrible invader called Zoa is approaching earth. Before he can react to all of this, a UFO crashes in the ocean near the Institute. Almost reflexively, Dr. Gilmore summons his ‘children’, the rest of the cyborgs, out of retirement. Once assembled, they’re met with an alien being when they go to investigate the downed spacecraft– a child called Saba, who claims that the aforementioned Zoa had ravaged his world and killed most of his people, in a search for a way to tap the power of the ‘vortex’ that Dr. Cosmo had been studying. The kid begs for help, asserting that the cyborg team are the only force on earth powerful and versatile enough to take on Zoa directly. If the team stands by, Zoa and his armies will eventually reach earth, and it would all be over.

Well, shit. The team immediately volunteers to go in search of Zoa on Saba’s spaceship, and thus is marked the beginning of a heroic interstellar space journey, punctuated by fierce battles, dramatic moments, and a whole lot of Not Much Happening.

Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super Galaxy would have benefited tremendously from a more zealous editor– it clocks in at a heavyweight two hours and ten minutes. As a result, the film is so stuffed with filler scenes that it plods along at a pace that makes Ishtar seem like The Fast and the Furious. In fact, an entire segment of the movie, featuring Joe’s rescue of and near-infatuation with an alien princess, could have easily been excised from the film with no real problems. It’s unfortunate that the movie is so sluggish– character designs, based on the 1979 TV series, are fantastic, the ship designs are curvy and sweeping and reminiscent of good 70s sci-fi illustrations, and the general atmosphere of the film is epic and engrossing.

Another serious problem with the film is the fact that, once in space, the cyborgs are really out of their element– the best part of reading the original manga stories and watching the TV animation is seeing the ways in which the cyborgs combined their individual strengths to overcome powerful enemies. We see precious little of that here– most of the action involves Star Wars-esque dogfights in space, and some of the cyborgs, like 006, hardly even see any action at all. The movie has its moments, but overall, it feels like it was an attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze, what with the alien princess in distress and the frequent space battles.

Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super GalaxyCyborg 009: Legend of the Super GalaxyCyborg 009: Legend of the Super GalaxyIn terms of production, the movie isn’t bad. Unfortunately, the only version readily available is the Best Video dubbed VHS version. The dub is actually OK– the cast of actors is adequate, though they sound a bit bored at times. There’s some static in the sound mix, however, and the film is presented in pan’ n scan rather than its original widescreen aspect ratio. The music is typical late-70s pop-orchestral fare, complete with bad love theme in English (“Light of Love” by Michelle Hart).

Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super GalaxyCyborg 009: Legend of the Super GalaxyCyborg 009: Legend of the Super Galaxy isn’t awful, but it’s dull and not really representative of just how good the Cyborg 009 TV series is. The film can actually be enjoyed more if you’re familiar with the cast of characters (puzzlingly shuffled a bit in the English version– 007 is portrayed as Irish for some reason, and 003, Francoise, is called Frances), which might be a possibility in the near future, as a brand new Cyborg 009 TV series is currently (as of fall 2001) airing in Japan. But without that context, Cyborg 009: Legend of the Super Galaxy isn’t much more than a pleasant, somewhat engaging cure for insomnia.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  Best Film & Video
hits: 2702

Legend of Crystania OVAs

Legend of Crystania OVAs
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This one was hard for me to get into– there’s an already existing Crystania movie, which I never got to see. I didn’t think this would be a big problem, because I’m a big Record of Lodoss War fan, and figured I’d be able to fill in the blanks where necessary– after all, Lodoss‘s author, Ryo Mizuno, wrote Crystania as a sequel of sorts. Of course, it doesn’t quite work that way.

Crystania is a sequel to Lodoss Wars in the same fashion that U.S. Marshalls was a sequel to The Fugitive– recurring characters, though not really the MAIN characters, and a tricked-out rehash of the story of the original, with the point of view shifted to that of the “bad guys” or other supporting characters, in this case Pirotess, the dark elf. She and her lover Ashram had fled Lodoss after their defeat at the hands of Parn and his allies, and had apparently found refuge in a land called Crystania– a land fenced off from the rest of the world by its’ protective custodians, a group of powerful beast-gods. Barbas, the king of these gods, was apparently thrown into dormancy at some point, and in any case Ashram seems to be dead at the beginning of this story. (See? Confusing.)

There are many forces at work– Pirotess is absolutely convinced that Ashram is somehow still alive and is the key to solving Crystania’s problems, and is working to summon him. A swordsman named Redon, an outsider to Crystania like Pirotess, is in a mission to free his priestess patron, Aderishia, from the Cave of the Sealed, where Barbas is also imprisoned. But as he reaches the cave, the seals somehow start breaking– and all hell will break loose if Barbas is freed.

Crystania OVACrystania OVACrystania OVAAs far as I’m concerned, Crystania is fairly decent but not outstanding high fantasy. It obviously has a very ambitious story, but its characters lack the charm of the Lodoss characters– Redon is a better fighter than Lodoss’ Parn was, but he lacks charisma, and his band of allies and enemies is just too large to keep track of. The dub is done very nicely– I actually watched the first of these tapes subtitled and the second dubbed, and didn’t mind the transition at all.

Crystania OVACrystania OVAThere’s still one more volume of Crystania‘s story to be told, and if it can effectively wrap up the entire story well, then I’d say Crystania‘s a reasonably good addition to Lodoss in your fantasy library. While a little unfocused, the animation and character design and music are all quite good, and it’s much better than most swords and sorcery anime on the market.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  ADV Films
hits: 1243

Dragoon

Dragoon
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

Things start off with a young would-be swordsman named Sedon, practicing in the woods. He spies a group of unfamiliar soldiers looking for something, but keeps himself concealed. Then, he comes across a naked girl, lying unconscious in the snow. Wisely realizing that you don’t come across that sort of thing every day (and figuring that the soldiers were probably looking to kidnap her), he bundles her up and carries her back to his cabin.

She wakes up as if from a nightmare, and is thoroughly disconcerted, not to mention still thoroughly naked. Completely flustered, Sedon asks “Where are your clothes?”

And thus the tone is set for Dragoon, a 3-part fantasy adventure that I’d never heard of before actually receiving it from ADV. I figured it would be a standard, stupid Lodoss ripoff (or worse, based on a video game). But fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.

The girl turns out to be May, a fugitive from the big evil empire next door. She’s suffering from amnesia, so she doesn’t know why they’re pursuing her– she’s simply terrified. She and Sedon click right away, and quickly become inseparable. Back at Sedon’s house, his father, Raymond, is disturbed by the news of the empire making an incursion into his homeland. Decades ago, you see, this same empire made a bid for conquest, and was turned aside almost single-handedly by Raymond and his forces, despite having a vast technological advantage. But now Raymond and his fellow heroes are old and gray, and Raymond himself is barely well enough to leave bed for very long. However, he is a master swordsman, and has successfully trained his son to mastery– so he tells the kid and the girl to go see the Queen, maybe she’ll know what to do.

After a completely unnecessary bathing scene which culminates with Sedon’s little sister, Millie, deciding to tag along, the group set off for the palace township. The queen is all too happy to lend her advisors to the good guys, but the whole thing turns into an ambush led by Bashua, still the empire’s most fearsome warrior despite his advanced age. Fortunately, the good guys are helped by a good-natured prince named Lane, and manage to make their escape to the coast.

They subsequently get robbed and then aided by a sorceress with a headband, flaming red hair, and a penchant for money. Her name’s Lin–, er, Lilith, and she’s a sworn enemy of the empire. But what’s the importance of May, anyway? What strange powers does Lilith possess? Is Sedon a match for Bashua, whom his father defeated (and half-blinded) decades ago? And for god’s sake, why does May keep losing her shirt?!

As I said earlier, Dragoon turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s well-paced, and the party of characters are interesting and varied. It certainly reminded me of a lot of things, among them Record of Lodoss War, the Lunar video games, and Panzer Dragoon. The plot seems to rotate around the empire needing May as the secret ingredient to help them get access to some unspeakably powerful dormant technology, which just reminds me of Laputa. Unfortunately, not too much of the backstory is given away.

DragoonDragoonDragoonThe character designs are absolutely lovely, particularly May’s. While May herself is a little one-dimensional, the rest of the cast is interesting, particularly Sedon. I like seeing a young, impulsive swordsman who’s actually skilled enough to back up his impulsiveness– Sedon tends to carve through small armies effortlessly once he has his father’s sword, and he easily holds his own against Bashua. And finally, because I just know this is a selling point among some of you folks, there’s lots of nudity. Sure, it really only adds up to about 2 minutes of footage, but May manages to lose her shirt (or all of her clothes) at least twice per episode, and there are three on the tape. It’s amazing, May’s breasts just seem to expand to fill the screen. Frankly, I was a bit surprised that this wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the box. The dub, by ADV’s Monster Island outfit, was very passable, but nothing to write home about. I didn’t get to see the sub. It kinda bummed me out, because Mariko Kouda (Miki in Marmalade Boy) voices May in the original, which would’ve been nice to see.

DragoonDragoonThe only strike against Dragoon is a huge one, though– it looks like it’s yet another series that Never Got Finished, joining such greats as Dragon Half and Mighty Space Miners. If there’s a sequel out there, I’d love to see it and I heartily recommend this first volume for fantasy enthusiasts, but if there isn’t… well, you’ll enjoy watching, but you’ll be left with nothing but questions. I enjoyed Dragoon quite a bit, but the probable lack of closure just left me cold.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  ADV Films
hits: 1317

Fushigi Yuugi vols. 1-3

Fushigi Yuugi vols. 1-3
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

This series has become such a staple of anime fandom that I don’t even know what I could say about it without covering the same ground that a thousand other fans have covered. But, considering its relatively recent wide commercial release, I feel like I should explain it, for those who still haven’t seen it.

Miaka Yuuki is a typical fifteen-year-old female anime protagonist– she’s a little ditzy, fairly intelligent but going mental over exams, and exhibits a boundless passion for food. Oh, right, and she’s cute as a button, but that really goes without saying. Anyhow, our story begins as she and her best friend, Yui (who, at this point, comes off as frank and canny) visit the library to drop off some of Yui’s books. Of course, Yui going off to return books to the clerk is all the opportunity Miaka needs to get herself in trouble, in this case by wandering into the Documents Research Room. There, she discovers a book called “The Universe of the Four Gods”, written in ancient Chinese script. Yui, the brainiac of the duo, chases her in and begins deciphering the book. Unfortunately for the pair, the book is actually the beginning of an incantation, and they suddenly vanish. …never to be heard from again.

But seriously, they end up in a world which bears some strange resemblance to ancient China itself. Of course, being incredibly conspicuous in their school uniforms, they’re immediately attacked by bandits, who are just as immediately run off by a mysterious, black-haired brawler… a gentleman named Tamahome, who quickly asks them if they have any money to pay him for protection. And then, Yui just disappears.

And so begins the predictable, but ultimately incredibly entertaining story of a dumb Japanese high-schooler forced into the role of priestess and savior. Details about this are revealed when she meets the local emperor, Hotohori– apparently, a legend foretells of a girl from another world, who will “summon the Seven Warriors of Suzaku”, the local god, and bring peace and unity to the land… along with getting anything she wishes for. Of course, this is too good for Miaka to pass up.

The above summary sounds like the opening to a great fantasy-adventure, but Mysterious Play is much more than just that. There’s high adventure, but there’s also ample slapstick comedy, enhanced by the highly-colorful cast of characters– each Suzaku warrior is powerful and boasts a particular prowess, ranging from great strength to superior healing techniques to high intelligence. But the warriors also have great comic tics– Tamahome’s endless moneygrubbing, Hotohori’s boundless vanity, ex-bandit Tasuki’s foul mouth and fouler temper, and Miaka’s vacuum-cleaner approach to food all color this series brightly with humor. Even more involving is the growing attraction between Miaka and Tamahome, and Hotohori’s attraction for Miaka, and strongwoman(?) Nuriko’s attraction for Hotohori, and… well, let’s say there’s a liberal amount of romance to this series, as well.

Fushigi YuugiFushigi YuugiFushigi Yuugi
Animation for this series is handled quite well, for a TV series. The character designs are markedly different from creator Yu Watase’s originals, but are still attractive and distinctive. I hold the original dialogue, with Kae Araki’s hilariously loopy Miaka, Hikaru Midorikawa’s sulking, smoldering Tamahome, and Tomokazu Seki’s frenetic portrayal of the monk, Chichiri, in high esteem. But despite my attachment to the original, I also like the dub– the actress portraying Miaka is a bit too shrill, and I just don’t really like Tasuki, but every other voice is brilliant, particularly the portrayals of Nuriko and Hotohori. (Unfortunately, since the dub is Los Angeles non-union work, I can’t attribute any of these performances to anyone. Hmph!)

Fushigi YuugiFushigi YuugiMysterious Play succeeds, because it actually turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts– it’s a highly intoxicating mix of action, romance, and comedy. It’s one of those few series out there that really is for everybody– for romantics, for fans of comedy, action junkies, you name it. The only crowd that Mysterious Play doesn’t cater to is hentai, and that’s fine with me.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  Pioneer Animation
hits: 2400

Dragon Slayer

Dragon Slayer
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

You just can’t escape the curse of being based on a video game. Granted, anime based on video games has managed to have somewhat mixed results (while Sin and Panzer Dragoon were rat turds, Virtua Fighter and Fatal Fury were surprisingly entertaining), but it’s generally a big red flag when the show you’re watching came from a video game. I’ve found that this is doubly true when it comes to anime based on console RPGs– there’s Panzer Dragoon, there’s the Final Fantasy anime (which I gave embarrassingly high points to, back in 1997), there’s Fire Emblem… in fact, the only really excellent console RPG-based anime I can think of is Arc the Lad.

Dragon Slayer, basd on a series of RPGs for the revered (but unloved in the west) PC Engine, can’t escape this stigma. It’s a one-shot OVA that manages to have an oddly appealing sense of humor, but it’s so explosively incoherent that the viewer won’t care about or even remember the light tone. Fara is a stereotypical magical kingdom (complete with stereotypical RPG-style map scene at the outset) beset by dark forces. Good King Aswel was slain by Ackdam, a reliably evil demon king who seems to want to rule as the despot of Fara because that would fulfill his role as the Evil Bad Guy of the show.

Naturally, he’s opposed by the king’s only son, the heir to the throne, a smartassed young swordsman named Sirius. We’re not given any clues as to how he was raised outside of the castle, other then that he has a royal steward, Rias. He casually decides to take his kingdom back one day, and is quickly joined by the stereotypical console RPG party– the hotheaded sorceress, Sonya, Galan the strongman, Riunin the secondary fighter, and Ro the vengeful warlock. Aside from Sonya, who’s given a little face time because she’s the would-be love interest, these characters are cardboard cut-outs, utterly devoid of any personality or presence.

To be fair, Dragon Slayer‘s action scenes are quite kinetic and exciting. They’re well-directed, but executed with a spareness of animation that does the show no favors. Also, while the show’s fast pace benefits the action scenes, it makes the plot virtually impossible to follow, as secondary good guys and bad guys get whacked roughly as soon as they’re introduced. The characters go screaming headlong into every fight, battling with crazed, focused, Fist of the North Star-esque sadism. (This meshes well with the character design, provided by Getter Robo co-creator Ken Ishikawa.)

If there’s one good thing about Dragon Slayer, however, it’s the English adaptation. Jack Fletcher turns in his usual quality job here– everyone sounds good and committed in this incoherent mess of an OVA, from Matt “Tenchi” Miller’s Sirius to Kate “Washu” Vogt’s Sonya, to Michael Reynolds’ reliably gravelly-voiced retainer, Rias. The whole thing is written by Ardwright Chamberlain, TV’s Kosh, which never fails to amuse me.

Dragon SlayerDragon SlayerDragon SlayerBut the engaging voices can’t save this jumbled pile of video game cliches. Everything is stilted in Dragon Slayer, which frequently left me wishing that the characters would just cut to the chase, proclaiming to each other, “You must join our fighting party! You have many hit points! With our rings of strength and Weapon of Importance, we’ll win! Now, let’s go to the Abandoned Temple of Getting the Power-Up and Winning the Game!” In the end, Sirius kills the bad guy (of course he kills the bad guy!) with one hit, leaving me wondering why he didn’t just save everyone the time and do it earlier. The show ends with a monologue from the prince, which is essentially “For now, the bad guy is gone. So we won! YAY ROLL CREDITS!”

Dragon SlayerDragon SlayerThis whole thing is just the product of Nihon Falcom, the makers of the game. (They also made the excellent Ys RPGs and animation, but that doesn’t excuse this dreck.) The story is by Falcom, the music is by Falcom… and I can only assume that the director, Noriyoshi Nakamura, is a Falcom guy, because I can’t for the life of me find any other anime project that he’s ever been involved with. Dragon Slayer isn’t awful, but it’s so lame and pedestrian and jumbled that it’s not really worth the trouble.


Added:  Friday, October 10, 2003

Related Link:  Urban Vision
hits: 1750

Galaxy Express 999

Galaxy Express 999
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

Galaxy Express 999 is a Japanese cultural touchstone, a film so widely and enduringly popular that I saw signs of it everywhere when I was in Japan a couple of years back, almost 20 years after the film’s release: UFO catcher toys, ads, even the background music of a “reality” TV show used the film’s theme song at one point. GE999 was the highest grossing Japanese film of 1980, and Leiji Matsumoto actually received recognition and a financial contribution from the government for enriching Japan’s culture with the story.

So, obviously, this stuff is heavy. Actually, if you’re in America, you might have seen GE999 at some point– either in the form of a hilariously bad, hacked up Roger Corman-commissioned dub simply titled Galaxy Express, or in the form of a broadcast on Sci-Fi Channel a couple of years ago. It didn’t benefit much from the network broadcast– more than a half-hour was sliced out, and the dated character designs looked… well, dated compared to more contemporary fare like Fatal Fury: the Movie. Still, GE999 is a good anime film, and more importantly, an important anime film. Let me explain.

The story seems simple enough at first: young Tetsuro Hoshino is a scrappy orphan on Earth, having lost his mother to a hunting expedition of Count Mecha, part of earth’s ruling class of bored, amoral machine people. His greatest dream is to have his consciousness transferred to a machine body himself, so he can destroy Count Mecha and live forever. He’s nowhere near realizing this dream when he meets Maetel, a blonde, willowy woman in black who bears a striking resemblance to his mother. She hands Tetsuro a first-class ticket on the coveted Galaxy Express 999, a luxurious spacebound passenger train that passes through many civilized words before reaching its termination point, planet Andromeda, where Tetsuro can acquire a machine body for free. Maetel’s only condition is that he accompany her for the entirety of the journey, no matter what. Puzzled by this seemingly simple request, Tetsuro readily agrees.

What happens over the course of the rest of the film is a carefully constructed metaphor of a child’s faltering journey into young adulthood. Tetsuro, through interactions with both friends and foes, learns that revenge can be an empty and useless feeling, that it’s important to make the most of life, and most importantly, Tetsuro learns of the terrible decay of the soul that having a machine body brings– for without the drive to achieve meaningful things within a limited lifespan, machine people always end up apathetic and miserable.

Galaxy Express 999Galaxy Express 999Galaxy Express 999The production is the biggest turnoff of GE999; granted, it was a big-budget theatrical release in its day, but today’s stupid fickle fans seem to be rather skittish towards anything that isn’t less than five years old. The film’s age is reflected in the style of animation and character design, which is still excellent, and in Nozomi Aoki’s musical score, which is awfully disco, even for its time. I have to say, however, that the ending theme, by Japanese-American act Godeigo, is strangely catchy. The dub surprised me– I tend to dislike Ocean’s dubbing work, but they do a fine job here. Particularly of note is Kathleen Barr’s effectively melancholy portrayal of Maetel, and Scott McNeil’s winning performance as Matsumoto’s ubiquitous Captain Harlock– his tense, methodical reading of the character is my favorite ever recorded in English (which is saying something– Harlock has been dubbed into English, at my estimate, by no less than 7 actors in various productions).

Galaxy Express 999Galaxy Express 999For all of the above reasons and more, Galaxy Express 999 is an important film; no doubt it was a blueprint for an entire generation of Japanese kids who watched the original TV series and saw the film in its first run. At its best, the move parallels Huckleberry Finn– while Huck and Jim journeyed down the Mississippi river, Tetsuro and Maetel take a similar, yet different journey across the Sea of Stars. For the interested viewer, it’s a very, very worthwhile journey.


Added:  Saturday, October 11, 2003

Related Link:  Viz Video
hits: 1932