Friday, May 17, 2019

Anime On the Big Screen: “Code Geass: Lelouch of the Re;surrection”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Thursday 16 May 2019
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 112 minutes
Production Date: 2019
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

Between the last time I reported on the last anime film I saw in the cinema and now, there literally has been no anime in cinemas at all. Half Symbolic haven’t announced any more anime films after distributing the two recent Science Saru films and Madman has only really hinted at a number of forthcoming films but given no firm release dates. I was rather pessimistic of the future of anime in cinemas due to dwindling audiences, especially with the very poor attendance of the “Love Live! Sunshine!!” screening, but was really surprised when around 50 people showed up at this screening. Unfortunately Dendy is still scheduling anime films to be shown only once per day, now at the slightly later time of 7pm. For me this is a somewhat more convenient time to go into the city, but I still had to fight traffic on Commonwealth Avenue as I managed to get caught up the evening traffic heading home to Belconnen.

The other problem I have is everything shuts around 6pm or earlier. I still managed to get some food in the mall just before they closed and then wandered off to the supermarket to get dessert. I still had plenty of time to kill, so I just sat in the food court until 10 minutes before the film started. I sat next to this really chatty bloke whom I thought would never shut up. I think the increased audience just goes to show anime fans will turn out for the right films. I must say though that Madman’s advertising outside social media was virtually zip. No posters in the cinema as per usual and oddly the film is not even mentioned in the “In Cinemas” section on Madman's website. With that out of the way I guess it’s time to discuss the film. Please note I am going to reveal some minor spoilers in the next few paragraphs (though nothing that you possibly hadn't figured out already by watching the trailer).

Set one year after the events of the final episode in second series of “Code Geass”, we are reunited with the  Black Knights, most of whom are visiting a Zero themed café run by some of the ex-members. Generally it seems the world is at peace since Suzaku, dressed as Zero, apparently assassinated Emperor Lelouch. Nunnally, now the Empress of Britannia, has traveled with her personal bodyguard, Zero (still Suzaku in disguise), on a goodwill mission at a UN refugee camp near the nation state of Zilkhistan. A large group of enemy Knightmares appears on the horizon and eventually surround Nunnally’s security detail and abducts her and Zero.

C.C. is also wandering through the region, travelling with an unidentified male, both of them searching far and wide for something. C.C. arrives in a village and pays for a room in an inn. It is revealed that the man travelling with her is none other than Lelouch himself. However he is but a shell of his former self. Lelouch seems to be non-verbal, only takes directions from C.C. as he can’t do anything himself and has infrequent panic attacks when frightened. During the night, a team of Zilkhstani forces enters the village. Fearing that they have been tracked down, C.C. attempts to hide Lelouch and prepares to take them on. Much to her surprise she discovers that the Zilkhstani forces are actually hunting down Kallen, Lloyd and Sayoko who have infiltrated the country as Zilkhistan is the prime suspect in Nunnally's kidnapping. Shocked at the revelation that Lelouch is still alive, C.C. explains to the group that she has resurrected Lelouch against his will. However in doing so his memories are trapped amongst the collective unconscious within C's World.

As the group attempts to leave the village, they are confronted by Zilkhistan operative Swaile Qujappat and his assassins. A Geass user himself, Qujappat uses it on Sayoko who now believes her allies are her enemy. C.C. and her comrades eventually gain the upper hand, neutralise the situation and Qujappat along with his assassins retreat. It order to return Lelouch to normal, C.C. needs to enter C's World via a thought temple located in the basement of a desert prison. The group enthusiastically agree to help C.C, in order to resurrect Lelouch so he can once again lead the Black Knights. Traveling across the harsh desert country, first disguised as a food delivery truck then as a prisoner transport van, the small group manage to infiltrate the prison. They quickly subdue the guards, C.C. decides to free the prisoners and the group set about gaining access to the basement levels in order to enter the thought temple.

But C.C.’s decision to free what she believes were political prisoners was an ill-fated one as most are actual mercenaries for the Zilkhistan government. They begin to track down the group and engage in combat with them. In the midst of all of this, Suzuku is found. He was being tortured for information in the bowels of the prison. While he has been rescued and many of the mercenaries have now been killed or are out of action, the group find themselves trapped inside the prison as Zilkhistan forces gather outside with heavy machinery. C.C. enters the portal to enter the collective unconscious but is have enormous difficulty trying to reunite Lelouch’s memories with his body. She eventually exits the portal, seemingly having failed.

Back in late 2016, on the date of the 10th anniversary of the original broadcast of the first episode of “Code Geass”, Sunrise hinted at the fact they were going to resurrect the franchise. Their plan later became clear with the release of a trilogy of compilation films in 2017 and 2018, which included a fair chunk of new animation, some of which changed the motivations and fates of some characters completely. This brand new film was later announced along with the revelation that pretty much all of the staff who worked on the original series, including director Goro Taniguchi, would be working on it. Though considered to be a spoiler, it was been made pretty clear in the film’s promotional material and on Sunrise’s social media accounts that Lelouch would be making an appearance. In fact C.C. explicitly says in the film’s trailer that she has resurrected him (hence the film’s title).

Of course this just begs the question; how? Taking the final episode of the second series at face value, Lelouch's resurrection just seems absurd. I wrote nine years ago that there was no way in hell they could resurrect this series. I was dead wrong. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. “Code Geass” is an over the top, sometimes absurdly melodramatic franchise where just about anything could happen, no matter how fanciful. To be utterly honest, I still don’t quite exactly understand how Lelouch survived. I admit that I haven’t seen the series for a couple of years and quite honestly should have watched it in its entirety before seeing this film. However the film’s plot can be quite confusing and requiring an encyclopaedic knowledge of how C's World works at some stages.

The audience is also bombarded with a huge cast. The staff seem hell bent on giving every character previously seen in the two TV series some screen time regardless of the fact if the character in question is actually integral to plot or not. I do find this type of screenwriting particularly annoying. Why do we need to see these people? It’s as if the creators think that if the audience don’t see thier favourite characters (no matter how insignificant they are in the franchise) they’ll feel short changed. It’s utterly pointless and impedes the story that is being told. Its fan service at its worst in my opinion. Adding to the issues this film has is the new animation found in the compilation film trilogy which, as I said before, does change the fates and motivations of some characters. The problem here is that if you haven’t seen those films (and many western fans don’t watch or like those type of films at all), you’d be utterly confused as to why characters who were dead or who received radically different fates in the series appear in this film.

There are also a number of new characters who are quickly introduced and are integral to the story, but generally don’t have much meat to them. The key one to the plot is the queen of Zilkhstani, Shamna, who is also a priestess and a user of Geass. Though she and her power plays a central role in the movie’s climax, I did find her usage of Geass in the story to be rather tiresome and a little bit predictable. Lelouch’s ability to bypass and defeated her Geass was also rather unbelievable and predictable. The second major new character is Shalio, the very young king of Zilkhstani. He is even more short changed than Shamna in terms of development. Honestly I can’t really tell you anything about him except his appearance. There is little personality in his character except for the fact he is vaguely portrayed as someone who is “evil”. Taking away the numerous appearances of superfluous characters, the main plot, while somewhat unnecessary detailed and complex regarding the C's World, is pretty damn interesting and intriguing. The other element I liked was the action. The battle sequences with the Knightmares are really well done with all of the mecha looking as if it was hand drawn, not CG. The hand to hand combat scenes, especially those involving Sayoko were exceptionally well choreographed, if a little absurd. Most of the CG was good, but a couple of shots with helicopters looked a little shoddy.

In conclusion, I sort of couldn’t get into this movie as much as I would have liked to. I mean, I am fully aware the franchise as a whole is absurdly over the top, but I think at times it was all a bit too silly. Yes the core plot was pretty good, but the cameos of literally dozens of characters who really had little to do with the story bogged everything down. The action was pretty damn good, but in the end, the story basically comes full circle before the end credits begin. I sort of wondered what the point of it all was. This film does feel underwhelming. Some fans have made the point that the original TV series ending was perfect, so why bother with this film? A post credits sequence predictably hints at further sequels, confirmed recently by the series’ producer Kojiro Taniguchi, who says there is a decade long plan for the franchise. That news honestly fills me with dread. On balance, I can only give this film 6.5 out of 10.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Documentaries on Japanese Pop Culture: “Tokyo Idols”

Publisher: KimStim (USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Length: 92 minutes
Production Date: 2017
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

I was planning to do a new series on documentaries on Japanese pop culture, but realised I don’t quite have enough examples to make it ongoing. Instead of making it a regular feature, I have decided to cover them as I find them. First up is Kyoko Miyake’s recent doco on idol culture;

The bulk of this documentary, seemingly shot between 2014 and 2016, follows the then 19 year old Rio Hiiragi as she tries shooting towards her dream career of being a singer. In order to reach this goal, she has entered the world of independent, underground idols. Though she is quick to point out that she never wanted to be an idol, this part of her career is just to get her to her goal. Rio originally began her idol career as a member of an idol group in a themed café when she was 16. While she does have a manager of sorts, Rio is mostly a one woman show. She runs her own online shop selling various goods and CDs, has meet and greets after shows and does daily live streams to her fans. Over a relatively short period she has gained a small but very dedicated following.

We are then introduced to 43 year old Koji. Formerly a salary man, he discovered Rio and instantly became a fan. Fed up with the mediocrity of the salary man life, coupled with his fiancée leaving him and realising his life hadn’t turned out like he thought it would, astonishingly he quits his job and decides to help out promoting Rio via her passionate fan club the Rio Brothers. Koji is most certainly not your typical idol fan. He has spent most of his savings on idol related merchandise and went to 700 idol shows in a year. However as you’ll soon discover the only type of idol fan Miyake interviews is Koji’s type. As the film progresses, Rio’s career starts to gain traction; she does exceptionally well at an independent idol contest, lands a record deal with small label, a big time idol producer writes and produces a song for her, she has her first solo show, and goes on small nationwide promotional tour.

Miyake continues her odd focus on middle aged males in idol fandom, interviewing a guy who calls himself Mitacchi. In his late 50’s or older, Mitacchi discovered his idol obsession via a flyer handed to him by a waitress at his local pachinko parlour. The flyer was for a local idol themed café centred on indie underground idol group P.IDL. Going to the café, Mitacchi gets a crush on Yuka who is probably in her early 20’s. Amazingly Mitacchi dumps his girlfriend and begins to obsess on Yuka. He is constantly creating various bits of P.IDL and Yuka themed merchandise, some of which he gives her at the café. He later admits spending ¥200,000 a month on idol merchandise. The documentary shows him living in an old rundown apartment complex.

Two other young idols in small independent / underground idol acts are also briefly profiled. First is 14 year old Amu who is part of a group called Harajuku Story. Though bubbly and energetic, due to the large number of group members and the small stages they perform on, management practically forces her and other members to win the support of her fans who vote in a limited number of girls to perform. Again the focus here is on the fans. Miyake asks her if she feels weird that her fans are the same age as her father. Confused, Amu replies that her fans are of all ages, which bears out in the footage which does indeed show many of Harajuku Story’s fandom in their early 20’s or a little older. The final idol interviewed is 10 year old Yuzu who performs as part of the child group Amore Carina. Yet again Miyake implies to Yuzu’s mother that the fandom is made up of lecherous middle aged men, but she is just happy that her daughter enjoys what she is doing and is pleased she has gained some independence at such a young age (in regards to her traveling alone on public transport to get to shows).

In between these segments, Miyake interviews several people (I’m not going to call them experts on idols or pop culture, because they aren’t) in regards to idol culture. We are treated to some rather bizarre takes. Newspaper columnist Akio Nakamori attempts to make comparisons with modern day Japan to the depressed state of the United Kingdom's economy of the 1970’s, drawing links between the emergence of punk in the UK and the increased popularity of idol culture in Japan. While to a large degree hard core fans of idol culture are railing against society, this is a bit of a stretch. Another writer suggests the handshake events, popularised by idol group AKB48, are inherently sexual and that until recently handshaking was seen as sexual in Japan and oddly handshaking events inhabit a “legal grey zone” (I’m going to suggest that both statements are utter rubbish). One commentator flippantly suggests that idols should be banned because he has anecdotally heard collage aged men say they would rather follow idols instead of getting a girlfriend.

Unsurprisingly feminist author Minori Kitahara despises idol culture and suggests that “instead of connecting with women in their everyday life, the men choose girls they can dominate. Girls who are guaranteed not to challenge or hurt them. This society will stop at nothing to protect male fantasies and provide comfort for men”. I find this remark to quite off the mark in regards to most of the men interviewed for this film. But this is the preconceived notion Miyake pushes right from the beginning of the film. The doco starts with various pieces of footage of idol acts, mostly established ones that are on major labels. Over this footage is AKB48’s “Seijun Philosophy”, a slightly obscure B-side to their 2013 single “Heart Ereki”, with the lyrics “I want to protect my purity/Until I take off my school uniform”. Miyake's obsession with middle aged male fandom dominates much of the film. While in reality there is a sizable amount of fans who do fit this demographic, she constantly ignores the on camera presence of younger men in their early 20’s (who seem to make up the bulk of the audience) and surprisingly female fans, particularly the ones in Rio’s fanbase.

In a lot of ways I really despise these sorts of documentaries. In cases like this, the point is not to educate the audience, it’s to insert the filmmaker’s ideology or biases into the subject. I think it’s even worse when you’re dealing with a subject most westerners are completely unfamiliar with (despite the recent interest in the west of idol acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal). Watching this documentary alone would lead people to believe that the idol phenomenon is a relatively recent one and is entirely comprised of female only groups and soloists with an entirely male fanbase. I completely understand that there is only a limited time within the documentary format to explore the long history of idol culture, but the film outright ignores it’s origins in the 1970’s with groups like The Candies and Pink Lady becoming superstars and the formation of modern idol fandom culture in the 1980's. Male idols marketed at an adoring female fanbase such as Johnny & Associates acts like Arashi, V6, SMAP and Hey! Say! JUMP, most of whom exploded in popularity in the mid 1990’s, are also conspicuously absent, considering how they dominate the media landscape. Miyake also ignores the burgeoning alt-idol scene which includes anti-idol acts like BiS (Brand-new idol Society), crossdresser Ladybeard’s death metal inspired Ladybaby and Deadlift Lolita groups and anonymous shoegaze inspired group ・・・・・・・・・ (pronounced “Dots”).

In promotional interviews for her film, Miyake feigns ignorance to idol culture as a whole, which seems really implausible considering how ingrained idols are in the Japanese media landscape and have been so since the 1970’s. While Miyake was born in Japan in 1976, she left to live and study in England around 2002. Now I know the popularity of idols waned in the 1990’s (but did explode in popularity again in the mid 1990’s with male idol groups such as SMAP), but there is no way in the world Miyake could have not known about them. One of the biggest groups in the 1980’s was Onyanko Club, whom would later inspire their producer and lyricist, Yasushi Akimoto, to create the infamous AKB48 in the mid 2000’s. AKB48 is ripe for criticism in this type of documentary, not just for the scandals surrounding them and the poor treatment of the women in the group, but also for the way fans are exploited in terms of acquiring tokens for handshake events and the like. However apart from the song at the opening of the film (which isn’t attributed to the group) the only criticism we see of the group is in terms of the Senbatsu Election process where fans select the group’s top eighty members for that year (the 45th Senbatsu Election in 2015 is depicted in the doco).

Miyake also tars everyone in the film with the same brush; Rio is lumped in with the other idol groups, P.IDL, Harajuku Story and Amore Carina which is absurd because Rio is a free agent while those other groups are run by mostly male management and the girls in those groups are paid employees. The fans also receive the same treatment; all are male, all don’t want girlfriends, all are fanatical about young women or girls. There’s little to no nuance, no real questioning why these men have poured all their free time and money into these groups. There’s also little time or effort to explain why these fans might reject Japanese society, especially salary man culture. Instead Miyake paints the fans as strange and possibly even paedophilic. In one telling subtitle translation, a fan of Amore Carina states that he likes the group because “Their selling point is that they’re not fully developed”, implying that he likes prepubescent girls over women. However in Japanese he actually says “kansei sarete inai”, most likely meaning the girls in the group are not as polished or as developed as professional performers. In fact this is one of the key reasons why fans like amateur groups, but obviously it did not fit Miyake’s preconceived ideas on idol fandom.

As I said before, these documentaries about subcultures, especially foreign subcultures, aren’t created to educate the public about them. They generally don’t exist to empathise with those who are involved in them or to explain their motives. They exist to suggest these subcultures are odd or even flat out immoral or repulsive. And because the general public and even western based fans of these subcultures in general aren’t all that familiar with daily Japanese life or pop culture in general, viewers of these types of documentaries can come to conclusion that Japanese society is odd and impenetrable for westerners. This is of course utter nonsense. Miyake doesn’t even take the time to explain why she has filmed some of the material. For example we see several shots passing by Akihabara Sixteen, a live venue for independent and underground idol acts where Rio performs. However this is never explained in the film.

Instead it’s lumped in with other random shots of Akihabara streets and other unconnected shots of Tokyo streetscapes. I also believe much of Rio’s story is presented out of sequence on purpose for dramatic effect. For example the film ends with Rio recording a single with a famous producer; however I believe this took place well before her 21st birthday concert. Much like Vice’s “Schoolgirls for Sale in Japan”, this doco takes a pop culture oddity from Japan (in that case idol group Kamen Joshi and their fans) and presents it as sinister and commonplace. Sure “Tokyo Idols” is hardly as sensationalistic nor does it cover the sex industry, but in many ways it feels similar. Much of the controversy and issues surrounding AKB48 are downplayed or ignored in favour of criticism of lower rung idol groups and their fans. It’s odd because you’d think Miyake would want to celebrate Rio’s independence and success against the odds. Idol culture deserves to be criticised and explored in much more nuanced and thorough detail. “Tokyo Idols” fails to do that on every level.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Anime On the Big Screen: “Love Live! Sunshine!! The School Idol Movie: Over the Rainbow”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Thursday 21 March 2019
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with some Italian dialogue and English subtitles
Length: 100 minutes
Production Date: 2019
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

So far 2019 has been a pretty good year for anime in cinemas. Not only have several films been released by Madman, a new film distributor, Half Symbolic, distributed the two recent Science Saru films, “Lu Over the Wall” and “The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl”, to cinemas in a limited screening format. But while there may be more anime in cinemas, there seems to be a lot less patrons. Looking back though my previous reviews of theatrical anime films, there used to be around 20 to 30 people attending these films around two or three years ago. Last year it averaged 15 people per film. Today’s screening had seven people.

The lack of patrons is also reflected in the amount of screenings Dendy has for this film; one per day at the rather inconvenient time of 6:30pm. Last year Dendy scheduled anime films twice a day and in years prior three to four times a day. This trend does not bode well for theatrical anime in this town. It was an absolute pain trying to get into the city and get a parking spot. The weather was rather warm for late March, heading towards the late 20’s. It was meant to rain Thursday but held off and must have only poured down briefly when I was in the screening. I decided to get dinner before the screening (Nandos, which I rarely have) and later had difficulty getting out of the Canberra Centre as sections were blocked off sometime before I got out of the screening, but not at places which would be logical, so you’d find yourself blocked from the exit you were going to, then have to backtrack a couple hundred meters to go back to an alternate exit! Anyway, let’s talk about the film;

Taking place soon after the final episode of the TV series (see here for a rundown of the series if you’re not familiar with the franchise), the second year students, Mari Ohara, Dia Kurosawa and Kanan Matsuura, set off on a post-graduation trip. The remaining six members of Aqours (pronounced Aqua) have decided to continue on as a group. As Uranohoshi Girls' High School has been formerly closed, they decide to take a trip out to see the new school they'll be attending next term, which is on the other side of the city. When they finally reach their destination, they are horrified to discover it is a mothballed and very run down primary school. They go to a restaurant to eat away their sorrows when they discover You Watanabe has left them and is outside talking to a boy her age. Believing that You has a boyfriend, the five of them follow her. But it is soon revealed that the “boy” is actually her female cousin, Tsuki Watanabe, who has come to visit her.

Tsuki is from the high school that the remaining six members of Aqours will attend. She explains that the students from Uranohoshi Girls' High School are being forced to spend their remaining school life at the old primary school that was shut down several years ago. Both the board of their new school and the parents believe that because their school has several clubs which compete and win at a national level, the clubs from Uranohoshi Girls' High School would feel out of place. However Aqours have just won Love Live!, and the girls are determined to show the new school that they can compete like the other school clubs. But their performance at their new school doesn’t go well and the board and the parents association won’t budge on letting the Uranohoshi Girls' High School students study on the main campus grounds.

Despite this set back, the remaining six members of continue their training as part of being in the School Idol club. While training on the beach, they receive a visit from Saint Snow. Discussing their performance with them, Saint Snow asks them to perform to see where they went wrong. Sarah of Saint Snow says that because of the loss of the other three members, they seem to have forgotten who they are as a group. Her sister, the other half of Saint Snow, Leah, is quite angry at Aqours, tells them that Love Live! isn't a game and runs off. Sarah later explains that due to Saint Snow disbanding after their devastating loss at Love Live!, Leah has been trying to create a new idol group, however the new group isn’t working very well as a unit, mainly because Leah expects a very high standard from her fellow members. Suddenly a helicopter flies in quickly from the ocean and Mari Ohara’s mother hops out.

Mrs Ohara asks the remaining members of Aqours to search for Mari, Dia and Kanan who are apparently missing. She tells them she will offer a reward if they are found and flies them off Italy where the trio were last seen. The girls arrive in Venice where Tsuki offers her services as a guide as she lived there during her childhood. While Ruby is terrified at the Venetian masks and other paraphernalia on display in shop windows, the others easily manage to find the missing girls who are atop the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. There they have a joyful and somewhat tearful reunion, especially Ruby who is overjoyed to see her sister Dia again. For some reason there are posters all around Venice claiming Mari, Dia and Kanan are missing. Mari realises Aqours have been tricked by her mother into finding her. She quickly slips the girls a card which has a clue as to where they are living in Italy, as she along with Dia and Kanan make their escape.

Aqours follow the clues to Florence which eventually leads them to the mansion that the trio are staying at. Despite Mari taking extra steps to avoid her mother by staying at her friend’s family mansion instead her own family’s, her mother eventually tracks her down. Mrs Ohara is frustrated with Mari’s rebellious streak and thinks her time as a school idol was waste of time. She plans to punish Mari (trying not to give away spoilers here!), but Aqours makes a deal with her; if they can show that being a school idol can touch people’s hearts, she has to leave Mari alone. Aqours embark on creating a new performance on the Spanish Steps in Rome in order to win Mrs Ohara over.

This is the second “Love Live!” film in the franchise. Much like the first film, it follows a similar formula; the initial opening scenes concentrate on childhood versions of several characters. We are then transported to the present where the group has “broken up”, a couple of musical sequences follow, then the cast are sent to a foreign country for an adventure, return to complete some sort of task with several more musical numbers, then a grand finale with a huge musical number to send the characters off. However the story of “Love Live! Sunshine!!” is no clone of its predecessor. Sure, in the series there are nine girls who are archetypes of the original nine girls in in µ's, but unlike that group they aren’t overnight success stories. They miserably fail Love Live! the first time around. Their school is shut down despite their best efforts. And unlike µ's and A-RISE's really friendly rivalry in the original series and movie, Aqours' rival, Saint Snow, is initially their nemesis.

I think as a result, “Love Live! Sunshine!!” feels more realistic than its predecessor, or at least more believable. Sure a lot of it is rather silly, especially the plot involving Mari’s mother and whole Italian trip. The idea that Aqours members, Riko Sakurauchi and Chika Takami, could write and produce dozens of great pop tunes for the group seems somewhat implausible. As do the fantastically choreographed set pieces, though they seem more plausible than the almost high fantasy ones that appear in the original series and movie of this franchise. There’s also the cruelness of their new school practically quarantining the students from Uranohoshi Girls' High School away in some run down primary school as if they were diseased or something. And because Aqours actually won Love Live!, a highly popular school idol contest, it seems really implausible that their new school would be unaware of this and wouldn’t open their arms to them and the group in order to be seen in a positive light from the community and to bring in potential students.

But putting aside those niggling problems I have with the film and series overall, while this film uses the original movie as template, it does add a fair wack of originally, and most importantly fun. As I said previously, this film feels far more realistic and far less forced than the original. For example in “Love Live! The School Idol Movie”, the plot for µ's going to New York was pretty thin and didn’t really make a lot of sense. Here the reasons why the girls have to go to Italy are silly, but a heck of a lot more plausible. The reason behind Aqours preforming at the end of the film is also clear; they want to show the new school board and parents, they are worthy of becoming part of their school community. However that plot line at times does get lost amongst some other plot threads. One of those being the best part of the film in my opinion; the focus on Leah and Saint Snow. Early parts of the film show Leah trying to grapple with everything the wake of Saint Snow’s dissolution which is underpinned by her regret of performing badly at the Love Live! finals. This is resolved in fantastic sequence where Leah is able to get a “do over” in terms of Saint Snow’s final performance. For me it’s easily the highlight of the movie.

However the other five performances from Aqours members during the film aren’t bad either. Sure, they may not have the over the top gloss µ's performances did in the original film, but the musical sequences are really fun and engaging. Except for two of those performances, all are “real performances” in the context of the film (i.e. a planned performance for an audience on a stage). There isn’t a great deal of out of the blue song and dance musical type numbers which were common in the first movie. Like that film there is a total of seven songs performed. However one of those is not a choreographed performance but set to a montage of the girls preparing a stage for the opening of their new school. The seventh song is the previously mentioned Saint Snow performance. As per the rest of the franchise, as you'd expect, there isn’t much character development in this film. The cast reprise their character traits and catchphrases, mostly for comedic purposes. Yoshiko Tsushima’s alternate Yohane personality unsurprisingly does get a lot screen time, but not to the detriment of the other girl’s.

New characters such as You’s cousin Tsuki Watanabe and Mari’s mother are given slightly modified versions of their blood relations. I suppose this is to be expected in this franchise. Generally the selling point of this show (besides the music and dance numbers) are the characters, their personalities and wringing as many comedic moments as you can out of those characters. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. As I said previously, the song and dance routines aren’t as flashy at the first film, but they are pretty good none the less. I still have issues with the CG versions of the girls in these sequences, but they have improved greatly since the original TV series. However some of the crowd CG sequences, especially those in an early sequence outside the train station, surprisingly look bad. But overall the animation is pretty damn good. Like the first film, “Love Live! Sunshine!! The School Idol Movie: Over the Rainbow” is a fantastic love letter to fans of the franchise. I would also argue it also gives Aqours a far better send off than µ's got in their film. Finally just to note, there is a post credits sequence, but it appears after the copyright notice and Eirin mark, which is highly unusual for a Japanese film. 7 out of 10.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Taking an Unscheduled Break

Unfortunately I will be taking a little bit of a forced break from this blog for a little while. My PC is on the way out (think the hard drive is just about to give up the ghost. Had this PC for 9 years, which is a decent run), so I'll be getting a new one. However no one in my local area does custom PCs (I refuse to go to Harvey Norman for an overpriced one), so I'm going to have to order one online. Been meaning to do this for a long time now, but the impending death of my current PC has finally forced my hand. As a result I won't be doing any more posts for a little while. Hope to be back within a month. It's bit of a shame as I have been on a roll for a little while and have been able to make a post almost every week for a while now.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Obscurities in the Western Connection Catalogue: “Dancougar”

Release Date: 24 April 1995
Format: PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Runtime: 77 mins
Catalogue Number: WEST038
Japanese Title: Chouju Kishin Dancouga: God Bless Dancouga (God Bless Dancougar)
Japanese Production Date: 1987

This is the eighth part in a series of nine articles on the somewhat obscure 1990’s UK based video distributor Western Connection and the anime titles they released in English, titles that no one else bothered to re-release anywhere else. For a run down on what I thought made the company so special, see here.  Continuing on with their 1995 releases, a very productive year for the company, we come to one of the odder tapes they released; the feature length OVA “God Bless Dancougar”, a concluding chapter to the 38 part “Dancouga” TV series which had not been released in English at that point in time. I previously reviewed the 2017 Discotek DVD release of the TV series here. Besides being an odd choice for UK release, what makes this release one of the strangest releases from the company is the baffling state of the video master that licensor Toho gave Western Connection.

Taking place a year or so after the final climatic battle seen in the “Requiem for Victims” OVA, the Earth now seems to be at peace. All members of the Cyber Beast Force (CBF) are still with the military, mostly training new recruits, but some of them have second jobs; Sara is a model and Shinobu performs in a band. Shinobu invites everyone on the team including Professor Hazukito and Laura to one of his live shows. Due to a curfew placed on the city’s residents, everyone is soon forced to disperse, which is lucky for Sara and Shinobu as they still have some unresolved sexual tension from the TV series that needs to be resolved. Both of them have a fight after he says he was kidding when he said that he loved her. They both storm off, but Shinobu soon meets an older woman named Reki Shikishima who invites him to her underground bar. The bar is essentially illegal due to the government imposed night time curfew.

The next day Sara goes to see an old friend of hers from the Space Officer Academy that she hasn't seen before the war. Sayuri was rather timid when Sara first met her, but now she has a doctorate in computer engineering and seems very confident. Sara almost doesn't recognise her at first. The following day the CBF are scrambled as a giant monster, possibly something left over from the Muge Empire invasion, attacks the city. The team are having trouble trying to defeat the monster, and even Professor Hazukito is unable to provide them with any information or tactics to deal with the creature they're fighting. During combat Sayuri contacts Sara and gives her all the data she has on the mysterious creature. Unfortunately a tragedy is about to occur. The fighting closes in Masato's family villa and it is destroyed, instantly killing his father. The monster then self-destructs destroying the city as a result.

The military are furious and detain the CBF for a quick court martial, the result of which has them sent to military prison with hard labour. Inside the prison, Shinobu meets an inmate who asks him if he wants to be part of a break out. Shinobu egarly agrees and uses a compact laser cutter to break out of his cell that night. He then heads for the rendezvous point the inmate told him about. There he is surprised to find Masato and Ryo, but Sara isn't with them. The inmare tells the other CBF teammates that she has been rescued by Sayuri. He leads them to an abandoned subway beneath a building where they meet the Black Knights. They were the team of fighters formed by Alan, the man known as “The Black Knight” who piloted the black beast warrior machine and helped out the CBF from time to time in the TV series. Although their leader is now gone and they are no longer fighting an alien enemy, they still operate as a guerrilla squad, fighting the government. Before they can explain their actions, the guards from the prison find them and fire upon them. The Black Knights team tell them to escape and to go to the bar where Shinobu first met Reki.

When the three CBF team members arrive, Reki tells them that she was the Black Knight’s girlfriend, and that she has carried on his legacy. Professor Hazukito is also there and tells them that he is involved in this too. He explains that Sayuri is planning to control the world by the use of a super computer and the government has become tyrannical. Somehow Sayuri has managed to create a computer that lives off data and this computer has created a new dimension that might cause the world to vanish into dimensional space if it isn't stopped. Not only that, Sayuri has kidnapped Sara. The CBF members set off to defeat Sayuri and rescue Sara, but unbeknown to them Emperor Muge is alive and well, and it is he who is behind this plan.

This OVA is quite a decent follow up to the TV series and somewhat lacklustre “Requiem for Victims” OVA. While I felt the story was a bit weak when compared to the storylines of the TV series, the animation more than makes up for that. For the most part it's really fluid and the designs benefit a great deal from the extra attention paid to them. In particular the transformation and battle sequences are much more realistic and exciting here than they were in the TV series. The Dancougar transformation scene benefits the most here and you can clearly see how all four beasts fit together. The sequence is lovingly animated and detailed. Confusingly after the climactic battle in this OVA, a short pop video like sequence with the CBF playing instruments as a band and singing a song is inserted just before we see the conclusion of the story. Not sure what the idea was behind that. It just comes off as odd or perhaps a rather cynical attempt to advertise the soundtrack.

Unfortunately the mind boggles at the reasoning behind this release from Western Connection. This tape was released over a year before the “Dancougar” TV series began being released in the US on VHS by Software Sculptors. “Dancougar” never played on TV in the UK either, so why in hell would they pick it for UK distribution? While you could probably understand the OVA to degree without watching the TV series, it’s far more beneficial to do so. UK viewers must have been utterly confused as to who these people were and what they were doing. The wedding sequence at the end of the film must have bamboozled them completely. I can just see hundreds of UK viewers saying “where the hell did this girl come from?”. I bet some viewers must have concluded that all of her scenes prior to the wedding sequence had been deleted from the video.

But that’s not the weirdest aspect to this release. Toho have given western Connection a very odd master of this OVA indeed. Apart from the title sequence being edited with stock footage to remove the “God Bless Dancouga” title card (maybe Toho thought western viewers would be offended by the title?), you can frequently see the edges of where the paint stops near the top and bottom of the animation cels. The first thing I noticed while watching this OVA was I could sometimes see through the cels to the backgrounds at the top and bottom of the screen. As the film progressed, legs and heads disappeared as they got closer to the top and bottom of the screen, explosions stopped at the top and bottom of the screen as well, people became floating torsos and occasionally in close-ups of character’s heads, they suddenly had bald spots then miraculously grew their hair back within milliseconds (click on images to enlarge);


So what in hell was going on? It would seem this OVA was shot in a “open matte” aspect, possibly for dual TV/theatrical distribution. This was a very common practice in the 1980’s for theatrical anime. What used to happen with anime films in this era was that they were shot in an “open matte” format (i.e. 4:3 ratio, same as a normal TV screen), then matted into theatrical ratio for theatrical distribution (i.e. the top and bottom of picture blacked out so it was the same as the theatrical ratio, “vista” size, 16:9 ratio). This way when it was later shown on TV or for video distribution, there was no need for an expensive pan and scan conversion since it was originally filmed in a 4:3 TV sized format. What doesn't make sense however is why the camera operators have filmed “God Bless Dancouga” in a way so you could see where the tops and bottoms of cels had ended (the painters and animators only paint and draw what needs to be shown in a shot or frame, nothing more. Characters don't usually take up a whole cel from top to bottom).

The end result in a 4:3 format is pretty distracting at times and I don't understand at all why they've done it. It's just done in a completely half-arsed manner. There's no way in hell this is suitable for a 4:3 ratio TV broadcast. It seems so damn unprofessional. I just don't know what to make of it. I've never seen anything like it before I saw this tape. Oddly the OVA was never given a theatrical release as far as I can tell. The Japanese laserdisc and VHS versions of the OVA are “faux widescreen”, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, covering the “unfinished bits” in the original open matte print. One wonders why the film wasn’t shot in widescreen format to begin with. Perhaps the idea was to give it a theatrical look and this was decided on very late into production. I guess we’ll never know. The master given to Western Connection is pretty scratchy and the sound is quite muffled and somewhat tinny too. Somehow I get the feeling Toho just gave them the crappiest master they could find.

Western Connection's production is also up to their usual crappy standards. The subtitle timing is a little off as per usual but more spot on than some of their other titles. Surprisingly some of the translation isn’t great. Some of the lines don’t make a lot of sense. As for the VHS slick, instead doing the usual and taking the synopsis from a Anime UK/Anime FX review, they've actually written one themselves. However it misspells or makes up character names (who the hell are Shino, Rat and Masa?) and borders on the edge on being incomprehensible. In fact it's complete dribble and barely makes sense. Bizarrely two of the three pictures on the back of the cover of the tape aren't even from this OVA. One is a shot seems to be from the concluding “Dancouga” OVA series “White Hot Final Chapter” (which hasn't been released commercially in English anywhere in the world yet and most likely it will never be). The other picture isn’t even from the “Dancouga” franchise at all. It’s from “Ai City”, another Toho movie that Western Connection released as “Love City”.

This is another bizarre release that has seemingly been dumped into the UK market for no apparent reason (other than the fact it was part of a package deal Western Connection struck with Toho). Unless you had seen the TV series, you'd end up scratching you head many times during the show wondering what the hell is going on. A lot of stuff from the TV series is referenced during the OVA. This is not a standalone OVA by any means. The original reason I got this tape was I that had watched the US VHS release of the TV series and wanted to see what happens next. Of course by the time the TV series had been released in the US (in 1996), Western Connection had disappeared off the face of the Earth and this tape wasn't being sold in the UK anymore. While this this nonsense was quite frustrating for fans, it was fairly common practice at the time. Licensing an OVA or film is far less risky than a long TV series, even if viewers really need to see the TV series first if they are to make heads or tails of the OVA or film.

It's nearly impossible to find this tape. It’s not listed on Amazon UK like the majority of other Western Connection titles and I’ve never seen it for sale on eBay. I had real difficulty trying to get a copy until I discovered somebody selling off their personal anime collection and offered them a decent price for it some 15 or so years ago. I don't know if it was worth all the effort to find it as the story and plot are a little silly and trite. The state of the master used for UK VHS release would also dissuade even the most hard core fans of the franchise from tracking the tape down. Still it's a decent robot anime and I got some kicks out of it, plus the animation is very good for a mid-1980's production. I would have thought that Discotek might licence and release this OVA plus the remaining OVAs to complement their “Dancouga” TV series DVD release. To date this hasn’t happened which is a bit of a shame.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Anime Blu-Rays You May Have Missed: “Library War: The Wings of Revolution”

Japanese Title: Toshokan Senso: Kakumei no Tsubasa (Library War: The Wings of Revolution)
Publisher: Kadokawa Shoten (Japan)
Format: Region Free Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English and Japanese Subtitles
Length: 105 mins
Production Date: 2012
English Version Release Date: 25 January 2013
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Debuting in the same season as the much hyped second series of “Code Geass”, as well as “Macross Frontier”, “Kaiba” and a whole slew of ongoing anime series based on very popular shonen manga titles, its little wonder that the original 2008 TV series of “Library War” was lost and forgotten by many anime fans (despite finally getting an English language DVD release from by Discotek in August 2015). Naturally this follow up movie had even less chance of being noticed by English speaking fans, despite the fact the Japanese blu-ray came with optional English subtitles. Based upon an extremely popular series of light novels aimed at young women by Hiro Arikawa, the series was turned into a 13 part anime TV series by Production I.G and broadcast on Fuji TV's noitaminA programming block.

The franchise takes place in an alternate Japan where the current era, the Heisei era, never happened. Instead in 1989 the Seika era began. This new era ushered in a wave of heavy handed censorship with the government issuing the Media Betterment Act (MBA) as law which allows the censorship of any media deemed to be potentially harmful to Japanese society. In order to police the media, the Media Betterment Committee (MBC) was created to enforce the law and target individuals, organisations and companies that flouted the MBA. However opposing this new Act and the MBC were local governments. They formed units to defend libraries and a new law was created; the Freedom of the Libraries Law. As both sides eventually resorted to violence, things came to a head in a major conflict between the two factions that occurred at the public library in Hino, Tokyo in February 1999, where a group siding with the Media Betterment Act raided the library. Several people died including Kazuichi Inamine’s wife. As a result Kazuichi created the Library Defence Force (LDF), a paramilitary organisation which serves to defend libraries against the Media Betterment Committee’s troops and their factions.

The anime adaptation however begins in 2019, where we are introduced to new recruit Iku Kasahara. She decided to join the LDF after encountering one of its members who saved her after being harassed by a MBC troop in a bookshop who wanted to confiscate the book she wanted to buy. Kasahara considers the man who saved her to be her prince. While she is quite proficient at the military side of her job, her librarian skills aren’t so great. She is always being chewed out by her commanding officer Atsushi Dojo. Neither of them gets along too well with the other (yes, of course they develop romantic feelings for each other!). Kasahara is roommates at her dorm with Asako Shibasaki. Shibasaki is a Library Clerk First Class, but also an intelligence specialist who is exceptional at gathering information. She also is very caring of Kasahara and is always helping her out. The series veers from “slice of life” light-hearted comedy and drama mixed with romantic undertones from our two leads (Kasahara and Dojo) to full on battles with the MBC wrapped in the politics of censorship and issues to do with freedom of speech.

The series ends with a major offensive from the MBC on an art exhibition. The LDF’s captain, Ryusuke Genda, is severely wounded along with Dojo, who luckily soon recovers. The brother of LDF member Hikaru Tezuka, (Satoshi Tezuka, leader of the Library Future Planning Committee, who opposes censorship, but also wants to shut down the LDF), manages to manipulate media stories in order to have them more favourable to the LDF. Even so, due to the casualties on the side of the MBC, Kazuichi Inamine takes responsibility and steps down as head of the LDF. This movie begins sometime after the end of the TV series, in the first or second month of 2022. While Kasahara prepares to go out a café with Dojo (though she denies that it’s a date), Shibasaski watches a news report on TV about a military helicopter crashing into the side of a nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture. She decides to say in the dorm room as it may be a developing story which could affect the LDF.

Kasahara and Dojo meet up, go to the café and later decide to head out to see a film. But before they can even reach the cinema they are both recalled back to work as an emergency has been declared. Upon arriving back at barracks, they spot several MBC agents in suits outside. Determined to get inside they barge past them, however it seems they aren’t there to stop LDF officers from getting in. Inside Kasahara and Dojo are given new orders; they are to be security detail to author Kurato Touma. Dojo is huge fan of his work and almost overeager to comply. It is explained that Kurato is being sought by the MBC as his novel “Nuclear Peril” has a plot similar to the crisis developing at the nuclear reactor in Tsuruga. The government believe that terrorists have copied the plot from the book and have put a warrant out for Kurato’s arrest. However the LDF want to defend Kurato and are horrified that the MBC is now going after authors. They attempt to have an injunction put in place for Kurato’s arrest.

Later that night, Library Future Planning Committee agents break into the dorms, attempt to abduct Kurato and turn him in. Hikaru Tezuka is livid at the actions of his brother. Shibasaki and Hikaru discuss what has happened so far and start to suspect the attack on the nuclear reactor in Tsuruga is a false flag in order to further expand the scope of the MBC to target and silence authors. Via Hikaru’s connections to his brother, Shibasaki manages to influence Satoshi Tezuka in order for him to speak favourably of the LDF and publicly question the role of censorship in society. This later causes someone sympathetic to the MBC to attempt an assassination on him. Meanwhile the LDF covertly transfer Kurato to the residence of Kazuichi Inamine into order to shield him from any attacks from the MBC. As they wait for the upcoming court decision, the housekeeper tips them off that she was questioned by MBC agents to Kurato’s whereabouts.

The MBC infiltrate Kazuichi’s residence, but Kasahara and Dojo have already initiated an audacious plan to get Kurato to safety. The MBC try to stop them by any means including firing live bullets at their car, but ultimately fail. Video of the MBC’s incredibly violent actions in attempting to stop Kurato's escape reach a local TV station who broadcast it. The public are disgusted at the MBC’s actions; however the station is shut down for a day by the MBC for violating the Media Betterment Act. Knowing they practically have no chance in winning the court case and that Kurato will be forced to stop writing or worse, locked up for good, the LDF try to come up with a new plan to protect Kurato. Kasahara suggests the idea of him asking for asylum at one of the embassies. The court case verdict comes down and Kurato is bared from writing for five years until they capture the terrorists. Kasahara and Dojo first attempt to get Kurato to the Dutch embassy then when that fails, to the British one, but are blocked by MBC agents at every turn. Worse is to come with Dojo being hit by a bullet in the leg. However Kasahara refuses to leave him behind or give up on getting asylum for Kurato.

While the bulk of both the TV series and movie is mostly concerned with the relationships of the cast, mainly the “will they or won’t they” romantic feelings between Kasahara and Dojo, the politics and ethics behind censorship also play almost an equal role in the anime. The basis of the Freedom of the Library Law which protects libraries from censorship in the anime is actually derived from a real act in Japan called Statement on Intellectual Freedom in Libraries. In that act it essentially states that libraries should have the freedom in collecting and offering materials, guarantying the privacy of users and opposing censorship. While not explicitly referencing it, I suspect the heavily criticised Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance Regarding the Healthy Development of Youths may have been an influence on the franchise. It does sound quite similar to the Media Betterment Act.

While the actions and uniforms of the Media Betterment Committee agents in the TV series scream “fascism”, the movie amps this up even further. The pre-credit sequence shows agents raiding the main branch of Kinokuniya Book Shop in Shinjuku, loading up several trucks worth of books then depicting them being taken to a large industrial incinerator complex and being dumped to individual incinerators by dump trucks. Unlike the TV series which shied away from showing mass book burning, here it makes no bones about the fact that it is done literally on a large industrial scale. Also not explicitly shown in the TV series was the censorship of mass media in regards to how the actions of the Media Betterment Committee agents are reported. In the movie it is made clear that any criticism of them would be met with sanctions against the offending TV station or paper.

Like the TV series, the film does have a large focus on the interpersonal relationships of the cast. Of course the main relationship is the burgeoning one between Kasahara and Dojo, which after being teased out over the course of the TV series finally comes to full fruition in the film. Several spanners are thrown into the works along the way including a new character, Kojima Kiyoshi, a woman Kasahara’s age who works at Kinokuniya and was saved by Dojo when the MBC agents raided her store, much in the same way Dojo shielded Kasahara form them. She plays a larger role towards the end of the film, but early on she runs into Kasahara and Dojo on the street asking Dojo if he would like to work for her. This new development of course doesn’t play too well with Kasahara. The other major romantic relationship which develops is between Shibasaski and Hikaru Tezuka, which in part leads into the subplot of Shibasaki cosying up to Satoshi Tezuka in order to make the media’s portrayal of the LDF more favourable.

However due to the heavy emphasis on the main characters and their relationships, as well the somewhat dry lead up to the injunction to Kurato’s detainment, the movie doesn’t really kick into gear until almost half way through. Once it does however, the action sequences are pretty spectacular, albeit in limited supply and perhaps a little over the top. However this is also one of the problems with the anime franchise as a whole. The over the top actions between both warning camps who are defending what amounts to a few books seems absurd, especially when there doesn’t seems to be any restrictions on other forms of media such as the internet (which is barely mentioned at all in the series or film). However the actions sequences are to a degree depicted in a more realistic light in the movie. The latter part of the movie shifts the film’s location to Osaka as Kasahara attempts to get Kurato into one of the city’s consulates so he can claim asylum. However this section of the film contains some of the worst Osakaian clichés imaginable, including the abuse of the local accent.

The animation for the film, like the TV series, was produced by Production I.G with Takayuki Hamana (director of “Prince of Tennis” and the recent “Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha” films) returning as director. For the most part it’s decently animated though doesn’t really rise above the quality of the earlier TV series. The cartoonish moments in the TV series, which mostly involve Kasahara reacting to Dojo, are not present and as a whole the tone of the film is far more steeped in realism and the politics surrounding the LDF due to the fact they have taken on Kurato’s case. The movie was released in two blu-ray versions by Kadokawa Shoten; a single disc version and special edition with one blu-ray and two DVDs; one also containing the film (which bizarrely doesn’t include English subtitles unlike the blu-ray) and the second with 94 minutes of extras including two radio shows, behind scenes of the recording of the soundtrack and the staff and cast at the opening day of the film. It also included a small hard cover picture book which is the same children’s book Kurato wants to write in the film. The box set also includes brand new artwork on the digipak and outer box and a flyer for the then upcoming live action film adaption.

Overall I can probably only recommend this movie to those who know and like the TV series. Due to the fact there are several flashbacks in the first part of the film, it’s fairly easy to watch it without any prior knowledge of the TV series or novels, but it would make the experience far more rewarding. The early part of the film is mostly preoccupied with tying up some loose ends from the TV series as well reintroducing some bit players, but also conveying the plot of the movie in regards to Media Betterment Committee wanting to detain Kurato Touma and the LDF filing an injunction to stop this. It really is a lot of elements to keep track of. I think for the most part the screenwriter and director manage to juggle all of those elements fairly well. However some parts are glossed over or just forgotten about. For example several characters claim that the terrorist attack on the nuclear reactor was set up in order to further clamp down on authors. However this is only mentioned twice in the film in passing and never followed up. The second half of the film is far more exciting and action filled, but it can become a little bit silly at times. However I think on balance both the TV series and film are worth your time. It has been over three years since Discotek released the TV series and it seems a little unlikely at this stage they will release the film. Luckily both editions of the blu-ray are still in print in Japan. The single disc version will set you back ¥5,800, the special edition set costs ¥7,800. Both can also be found in the second hard market for less.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Forgotten Anime: “Blue Sonnet”

Distributor: US Manga Corps (Central Park Media, USA)
Original Year of Release: 1989 - 1990
English Video Release: 1994 - 1995, NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles (also released as a NTSC Laserdisc, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles in 1995 and PAL VHS, English Dubbed in 1996, in the UK)
Japanese Title: Red Fang Blue Sonnet (Akai Kiba Blue Sonnet)
Runtime: 5 episodes x 30 mins

Sonnet Barje grew up in the slums of an unnamed US city. After being treated in an extremely cruel manner by a group of men, she discovers that she has the power of telekinesis and ends up taking revenge. Later she is rescued by Dr Merikus and who transforms her into a cyborg for the evil organisation Talon. A test in the Arizona desert, where Sonnet takes on and defeats a platoon of tanks and helicopter gunship, shows she can take on whole armies with the use of her heightened ESP solely by herself. Dr Merikus sends Sonnet to Tokyo to investigate a girl named Lan Komatsuzaki. Dr Merikus believes she is the “Red Fang”, an “esper” from a long line of Ancients who possessed incredible powers. Sonnet transfers into Osei High, Lan’s school, where Sonnet gains a reputation as being a “super lady”. She can speak seven languages, tops all her classes and is exceptional in any sport she plays. Lan however feels a certain unease about Sonnet and is wary of her. When she tells her guardian, investigative journalist and author Jin Kiryu, he laughs it off. He has taken care of Lan since she was small, and reminds her that her abilities as an esper are a gift and though she should show anyone her powers, she isn’t a monster. However Kiryu is aware that something inside Lan is changing her.

To test the hypotheses that Lan is an esper, Sonnet begins to create a series of accidents to force Lan to use her power. Sonnet telepathically drops a large neon sign on top of Lan and her friend Naru as they walk to school, but Lan moves the sign reflexively with her powers, out of harm’s way. This leads Lan to be more suspicious of Sonnet. Later that weekend, Naru, Lan and her half-brother Wataru head to the Japanese Formula One race as they received free tickets from Kiryu who was unable to attend due to work. In one of the corporate boxes above the general seating, Sonnet devises another accident in which she makes one of the race cars veer out of control and crash. This causes a chain reaction of accidents and eventually one of the race cars is flung high over the safety barrier into the crowd and into the path of Lan, Naru and Wataru. Lan almost subconsciously calls her powers and flings the car to the top of the corporate boxes, out of harm’s way. However Wataru has been badly injured. A man named Shuichi Torigai helps the group and goes with them to the hospital. Lan tells the ambulance officers that she has the same bloody type as Wataru and offers her blood for a transfusion.

Soon Wataru’s condition is stable. Torigai warns Lan to be careful of Sonnet as he leaves. She is rather surprised at this advice and tells Kiryu that she feels that Sonnet is after her. Sonnet is convinced Lan is the Red Fang. Dr Merikus arrives in Japan to confirm. He is greeted at the airport by representatives of Talon’s Japanese front, Azumi Industries. But upon travelling to the company’s experimental base in Narita, a group of bikers force them off the road and attempt to take Sonnet hostage (because as we all know, Japan is full of violent “Mad Max” style bikie gangs that attack people constantly). After making sure there are no witnesses present, Dr Merikus gives Sonnet the go ahead to dispose of the bikers. This display shocks the two representatives from Azumi, however they are also impressed. On a hunch Kiryu begins to investigate Azumi Industries after he learns that they are researching psychic powers as well as cyborg technology. The investigation takes him out of town which gives Talon a chance to pounce on Lan.

Dr Merikus orders Azumi agents to pose as policemen to trick Lan into thinking Kiryu has been hurt in an accident and take her out on a ship. There they lock her up, and Dr Merikus tells her that if she doesn't teleport, a time bomb will explode killing her and destroying the ship.While at first she panics and resists her captor’s request, eventually at the last second before the bomb explodes, Lan teleports and escapes. Dr Merikus has now confirmed she is the Red Fang and proceeds to the next stage of his plan. Knowing that Talon is after them, Kiryu decides to take Lan to an Esper expert, Dr Onagara. Although initially dismissive, Onagara is soon convinced of her power when Lan senses his granddaughter watching her, and later his horribly disfigured daughter Yuri, also an Esper. Onagara suspects that Lan has a hidden personality and she is suppressing her powers. After a number of tests where in one she leaves his house in ruins while under hypnosis, he concludes that she has complete control over her power. It's only recently that it has become more powerful. This due to the fact that she is finally "developing" as a woman (she's 17 but has only just gone through the final stages of puberty). Through the hypnosis, Lan also discovers that when she was young is was involved in a plane accident and was raised by wolves for the first few years of her life!

Unfortunately for Dr Onagara and his guests, Talon agents including Sonnet and Dr Merikus surround the house and take Lan and Kiryu forcefully. Dr Merikus orders them to kill Onagara, his assistant and his granddaughter, but Sonnet, who is beginning to question his tactics, secretly stops the bullets from killing them. The Talon agents set the house ablaze, but Onagara's assistant, daughter and grandchild are saved by Wataru and Torigai (or as Wataru nicknamed him, Bird). Bird reveals himself to be a prototype cyborg that Dr Merikus created. He rebelled and now fights against Talon. Meanwhile Lan and Kiryu have been taken to a secret laboratory. Talon wants to make clones of Lan so that they can have an army of Espers to do their bidding, and forcibly remove ovum from her to be planted into two surrogate mothers and a mechanical womb. Bird, Yuri and Wataru attempt to hatch a plan to rescue Kiryu and Lan.

I first saw this series in about 1996 when I started to get into anime quite heavily. I saw an advert of a local anime club, and I just wanted to come along to see some “Patlabor” TV episodes (the first two films had just been commercially released in Australia). However the club was also screening the first episode of “Blue Sonnet” that day. I was hooked. This show plays like a well written B-grade/exploitation flick. There's gratuitous violence, a bit of fanservice and nudity, 1970's-like superhero elements (a la Tatsunoko superhero shows like "Hurricane Polymar") and it's just completely over the top in just about every aspect. The oddest thing I discovered about this series was that was based upon a shoujo manga. Yes that's right. It began in the shoujo anthology “Hana to Yume” in 1975 and eventually finished in 1989. The manga which the OVA itself is based upon is actually called “Akai Kiba (Crimson Fang)” and the story is taken from an arc called “Blue Sonnet”. The manga was written by Masahiro Shibata whose only work published in English has been “Sarai” which was published by Comics One.

From what I’ve seen the OVA, like the manga does have a load of violence and nudity in it. Girls love exploding heads and naked women apparently. It’s kind of hard to fathom really. But then again look at the violence and bloodshed in CLAMP's “X” manga. However I think producers of the “Blue Sonnet” anime may have decided to amp up the violence and nudity content to make it more appealing to male viewers. Even though Sonnet is the bad guy, you really feel for her, especially after the opening sequence which shows her back story. She's been abused sexually, raped and is forced to be a prostitute. Of course she later violently kills the evil men that did this to her with the use of ESP. During the series Sonnet begins to change after she goes to school for the first time and realises what a normal life is like. She begins to question her life of violence and killing. The opening animation also shows Lan attacking Sonnet with her powers. This unfortunately doesn't happen in any of the episodes. Lan is just a normal reserved girl, except for the fact she has ESP, but she never lets anyone know she has it. She only uses it when she's in danger or upset, and then it's used almost subconsciously.

As the manga was rather long, it’s no surprise that there's a lot of storyline compacted into the five episodes, so with this review I had to cut out mentioning a lot of the minor characters and incidents that appear in the show. There are some real beauties. Dr Onagara's daughter, Yuri, helps out Lan when the Talon agents attack Onagara's house. Her back story is great. She was living with her boyfriend and has had a daughter with him. Yuri is a strong Esper, and Onagara wants her back to perform experiments on her. She won't go, so he tells the boyfriend about her abilities, and he leaves her. Absolutely depressed she attempts to kill Onagara and then throws herself on a fire. She is saved by Onagara's assistant, but due to injuries from the fire ends up a mute, blind and horribly disfigured for life. In another short sequence Lan has reoccurring nightmares of herself being carried nude by black hooded men towards a satanic looking altar. My absolute favourite scene though occurs in the fourth episode. Lan tries to escape from the lab with one of surrogate mothers. They head down a chute to escape guards and end up in a big vat of dismembered body parts and dead foetuses. Later, still trapped in the vat, the surrogate mother goes insane and cuddles one of the foetuses screaming that it's her baby and no one can take from her. Truly top grade horror-exploitation there. Still with all the horror and gratuitous exploitation-like atmosphere, the show never seems to take itself seriously. This is why it works so well.

The only real negatives of the show are the animation which isn't that spectacular for its time, especially for an OVA series. There’s also the lack of a conclusive ending. Will Lan and Bird continue to fight Talon? Will Sonnet finally rebel against Dr Merikus? Annoyingly these questions aren't answered in the anime. Like a lot of short OVAs based upon long running manga series, the series partly seems to be a ploy to get people to buy the manga to see what happens next. This OVA was released by Central Park Media (CPM) at a time when they had a dubbing deal with Manga Video in the UK. Manga dubbed a lot of their early titles, mainly because it was cheaper I suppose. Dubs like “Project A-ko” and “Dominion Tank Police” were a part of this deal. For whatever reason Manga didn't take on this project until two years after the US release. CPM didn't release it dubbed in the US either. It's a bit unfortunate as it's a really underappreciated anime.

Even though it may look like another needlessly violent anime that distributors jumped on in the early 1990's in spite of that fact, it is a really good show. It's origins from a shoujo manga probably helped the series have more depth than it would of had if it was an original screenplay. I really love this show so much that it was one of the anime which inspired me to review these out of print gems. The show hasn't been re-issued on DVD in Japan, so it looks like this is another anime title that will be lost forever. It's such a shame really. The good news is that despite being out of print for close to two decades, copies of the US and UK VHS tapes can still be easily found in the second hand market. “Blue Sonnet” is a hard anime to recommend to people. New fans will probably get turned off by the animation. Old fans might dismiss it as another overly violent anime that western anime distributors jumped on to make a quick buck. It's anything but that. It's a strange mix of violence, B-grade action, horror with elements of ESP and shoujo manga. It's a completely unapologetic action/horror series that's incredibly fun to watch. If you want something completely different from your average 1980's OVA anime, hunt down a copy of this series.