Saturday, February 3, 2018

Anime On the Big Screen: “Eureka Seven Hi-Evolution 1”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 3 February 2018
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 93 minutes
Production Date: 2017
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

We’re only at the start of February and a second anime film is having a limited release in cinemas in this country. I still find it somewhat weird that every month or two I can rock up to the cinema to watch an anime film. A decade ago you’d be hard pressed to find a single anime film at a touring film festival, and then it’d be most likely a dubbed film print of something that had been available on video for years. Alas today’s film is a compilation film, something I’m never too keen to watch. However it was a nice day to get outside; a relatively cool 23°C, which is unusual for this time of year. I said in my previous theatrical anime review that I was no longer going to talk about the patrons who come to these screenings, but have sort of reneged on that. Only seven people showed up including me, with a couple of really talkative otaku types behind me and another couple in front who left 45 minutes into the film and never returned (with good reason…). So, on with the discussion of the film;

We are taken back a decade before the events of the first episode of “Eureka Seven”. Humanity is in the midst of an all-out battle to rid the world of Coralian threat. Military researcher Adrock Thurston decides that the plan to destroy the Coralians using a newly constructed super weapon called the Silver Box is too destructive and must be stopped as he believes both forms of life can co-exist. Adrock rebels and enlists the services of Eureka, who is a female human form of the Coralian sent to by the sentient Scub Coral to understand and communicate with humans. In the series the Scub Coral are a kind of alien race who have merged with the Earth and have caused humans to migrate as they terraform the planet. Scub Coral have various physical manifestations which are known as the Coralian. Using a robot type craft called a Light Finding Operation (LFO), Adrock and Eureka take out several missiles which are launched to kill the Coralian. Meanwhile the battle on Earth is going badly; the vast majority of Earth forces have been wiped out. As the Silver Box activates, Adrock jettisons Eureka to save her and heroically destroys the weapon, presumably dying in the process as it explodes. In his final words he wonders aloud about how his son will grow up and what he would think of him, and proclaims the event of the destruction of the Silver Box as the Summer of Love.

A decade later in the year 12,005 AD, Adrock’s son, Renton lives in the town of Bellforest. Living with his grandfather, Renton attends a military school. He is utterly bored senseless and tries to fill up his spare time by attempting to surf the trapar waves using his own board and idolising Holland Novak of the anti-government militia and counterculture collective Gekkostate. However trapar waves are a by-product of Scub Coral which are rare around that town, leaving him to be rather unsuccessful in his attempt to surf. His only link to the sport, a local seller of merchandise, packs up and leaves as no one is interested in the sport except Renton. Later the area where he surfs is fenced off by the military and destroyed by Scub Coral emerging through the surface. His life sucks even more when a LFO crashes into his house. However inside is Eureka whom he will later befriend. Not shown in the film itself and only alluded to via voiceover and a couple of scenes is Renton managing to board and be accepted onto the Gekkostate.

Renton is treated quite badly by the crew and Holland himself. Eureka later ends up nearly merging with Scub Coral in a mine and is badly injured and takes a long time to recover. Because of these events, Renton eventually runs away. However things don’t go well back on the ground for him. All of his money and possessions are stolen except for his board. He wanders around a city and eventually ends up sleeping with a group of homeless people. He is later awakened by pounding dance music and finds himself in the middle of a block party in the middle of the day. Two of the party attendees, a couple in the thirties, Ray and Charles Beams, befriend him and eventually decide to adopt him. Though a little unsure at first, Renton eventually bonds with his new adoptive parents. Renton finally feels at peace with himself. The husband and wife duo are guns for hire and take on various missions, often with Renton in tow. However two events cause Renton to rethink staying with his new parents.

So more than a decade after the original broadcast of “Eureka Seven”, for some reason a decision was made to create a trilogy of compilation movies and release them into cinemas. Stranger yet there has been a real push to release the films into cinemas outside Japan, including the US, the UK, France, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and here in Australia. The press release from Bandai Visual loudly trumpets that the previous series “Eureka Seven AO” sold over 800,000 units on home video in Japan, which is probably why they’ve decided to make and release these films now. However as far as I'm aware the “Eureka Seven AO” series was received rather lukewarmly in the west. Regardless, the original cast and staff from the TV series have all pretty much returned for these compilations films.

As I mentioned before, this film started off with the “Summer of Love” event which was only hinted at in the original story. The first 25 minutes or so of the film are dedicated this this event in the form of a newly animated battle between the Earth forces and the Coralians. I must say it’s quite an amazing spectacle. However I did feel it did run a bit too long. After that we are treated to excepts of a memorial service held a decade after the event and a sequence showing Renton being chased by a pack of dogs, apparently which is meant to occur between episode 24 and 25. Unfortunately this is where the the most interesting elements of this film ends. From this point onwards the film shrinks from a cinemascope format (16:9) to the 4:3 TV format the original TV series was shot in. Yes, it’s pretty much all TV footage for the rest of the film. I really don’t understand why this was done. The “Zeta Gundam” movies for example, have the TV footage cropped to cinemascope even though they too were shot in 4:3 format. Why have they chosen not to crop the 4:3 TV footage for this compilation film?

Now in a normal compilation film, the vast majority of it is usually edited in a coherent, linear, in sequence kind of way. Not with this film however. For some reason, the director has decided to tell Renton’s story completely out of sequence. We are constantly thrown forward and back in time with title cards reading “Playback” or “Rewind” in between scenes and the only point of reference being the amount of days or hours before or after Renton is chased by the dogs. But at times it seems the original point of reference changes. Adding to the confusion is the completely unnecessary amount of on screen text which does give some useful information such as place names, but includes increasingly trivial amounts of data such as character’s biometrics, absurdly detailed information about various mecha and bizarrely information on why Renton is not wearing a helmet while riding a bike in one short shot, and text labeling a meal of tacos at a dinner table. There has to be several hundreds of separate on screen text blurbs during the film. Little of it adds to the story. The vast majority of the time it just piles on the confusion of the way the film is being told; an out of sequence, schizophrenic retelling of Renton’s story.

The most puzzling thing about this film is the almost complete absence of the Gekkostate and its crew. I think the total amount of screen time dedicated to them amounts to less than five minutes, though it's possibly less than three. It’s a really bizarre and odd omission, as in the original TV series the Gekkostate is key to the plot of the show and the reason why Renton wants to get out of the town he is stuck in. Also conspicuous in its absence is the magazine that the Gekkostate publishes; ray=out. There is not a single mention of the publication in the film, at all, which is strange as it played a key role in the TV series. Instead the main focus of the film is on Renton’s relationship with Ray and Charles Beams which mostly takes place in the episodes from 19 to 24. Secondary to that is Renton’s relationship with Eureka, however not much of that material is presented in the film. We can see that he has a deep connection with her, but little is shown how this relationship developed.

It’s plain to see why that couple left the cinema only half way through the film. The film recounts the story of “Eureka Seven” in a bizarre and unnecessarily confusing manner that is neither entertaining nor gives new insight to the series. The copious amounts of on screen text do not help, nor does the fact that key parts of the story are missing or the jarring leap from cinemascope to old pre-digital TV sized format. If you’re a diehard fan of the series and wanted to see what the “Summer of Love” was about, it’d be great film to watch. But for viewers new to the franchise and hadn’t seen the over decade old series it was cut from, you’d be absolutely lost and have no idea what was going on. There is a preview for the second film in the series after the end credits, which is due for release sometime in 2018. The couple behind me said they wouldn’t be going to see it. It's easy to understand why. Apart from the newly animated 25 minute opening sequence, there’s little here of any value in this film. 4.5 out of 10.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Anime DVDs You May Have Missed “Ninja Robots”

Japanese Title: Ninja Senshi Tobikage (Ninja Warrior Tobikage)
Publisher: Payless Entertainment Pty Ltd (Australia)
Format: Region Free DVD, PAL, English Dubbed
Length: 20 episodes x 24 minutes
Production Date: 1985 – 1986
English Version Release Date: Late 2007
Currently in Print (as of writing): No

Note: Originally published on the “Anime Archivist” blog in July 2014.

Despite being a minuscule market in terms of physical home video media, in recent years Australia has gained a reputation for releasing some really obscure anime titles. This title probably takes the cake. In the mid 1990’s, a video production company called Alexander Entertainment Group dubbed this rather unknown and unloved Studio Pierrot robot show from 1985. The English dub, broadcast on the Cartoon Network in smaller English speaking territories such as Singapore, India and Australia, seemingly it didn’t develop a fandom of any sort and languished in obscurity. The only logical reason this show got a release here was the distributor (who makes cheap DVDs for dollar store outlets) most likely got the licence for an ultra cheap price.

Before I we get into the synopsis, I must warn you that I haven’t seen the series in its original language (the first 15 subtitled episodes were streamed on the now defunct Anime Sols website, but I couldn't be bothered evading the geoblock to watch them to be honest). All I’m going off is the English dub, which is pretty dire and muddies the plot something awful, making the show almost incomprehensible at times. Regardless, I’ll do my best to try and tell you what the show is about. Several hundred years into the future, mankind has terraformed and colonised Mars. The planet is run by a militarised dictatorial government with most of the inhabitants and immigrants being of convict stock. The only employment options are the military or construction work. Once teenagers turn 16, they must be tested to see if they are suitable to join the army. If they aren’t, then they must join the construction industry. In short, If you are over 16, work is mandatory. Joe Miya is one such 16 year old who should have turned up at an assessment centre on his birthday. Instead he is illegally using a gun to hunt down rabbits with his friends. His childhood friend, Jenny, reminds him he should have gone to the assessment centre as today is his birthday, but he ignores her warnings. He states he would rather work with his father in constriction. For the moment let’s put aside the fact Joe could just deliberately fail his military exam and would be automatically shunted into construction…

Upon hearing that new group of immigrants has arrived in town, Joe and his brother Mike go down a local bar to meet them. Joe immigrated to Mars when he was a child and misses Earth. He quizzes them about this home planet, but a fight breaks out and the military police intervene. One of the officers spots Joe and asks him why he didn’t show up for military testing and why he owns a gun. His bizarre excuse is that he forgot that today was his sixteenth birthday, an excuse which doesn’t go down well with the MPs. Both Joe and Mike assault the officers and flee from the bar in their dune buggy-like vehicle. The military police give chase across the vast barren landscape. Just about as the pair of them are about to be caught, an alien spacecraft materialises above the group, causing Joe and Mike to crash. To add to the already chaotic scene, a group of robots, also apparently of alien origin, appear and proceed to attack the alien spacecraft. The leader of Mars colony, General Hazzard, is advised by the military police of the appearance of the alien spacecraft and orders it’s capture. Planes and tanks from the Mars forces arrive and attack to robots, but the robots practically wipe out the military forces. Mike pleads with Joe to return home, but Joe states he would rather stay and watch. Unfortunately for the pair a robot attacks them and they are forced to flee. Joe spots a large gash in the spacecraft’s hull caused by a robot’s kusarigama (chain sickle – yes, the robots resemble Ninja) and runs in to take cover. There he is confronted by a group of human-like aliens; two women being protected by a few men. They threaten him with a gun and shout at him in a language he doesn’t understand. Before he can grasp the situation, the group dash though a hidden door which locks so Joe can’t enter.

One of the robots enters the spacecraft hell bent on killing Joe. He runs to what he thinks is a pile of junk in a corner for cover but discovers he is inside a giant robot (Joe seemingly can’t tell the difference between a robot and scrap metal – not too bright our Joe…). Joe manages to destroy his attacker and later outside the ship his robot transforms into a lion. Eventually he destroys enough of the robot attackers that the remainder retreat and the lion robot seems to unceremoniously eject him from the cockpit. From the entrance of their ship, a group of aliens stare down Joe, Mike their two friends Kanji and Rio (who’s curiosity drew them to the battle). Mike and Joe are later captured along with Jenny (it is never explained why she was captured as she wasn’t anywhere near the ship). The female leader of the aliens, a princess, motions the trio to enter the cockpits of three robots on board the ship. However none of them can make the robots move. The military suddenly arrives asking the aliens to let Joe, Mike and Jenny go. Despite having little understanding of what is going on, Joe flat out refuses to obey the military order, despite Mike and Jenny’s protests. Then without warning, the enemy robots appear again. Joe heads out again in his lion robot (with anger apparently the trigger into making the robots function), to repel the attackers. The military use this opportunity to invade the ship and abduct the alien princess. Joe notices the military’s plan and merges with a ninja-like robot (who has wiped out some of the enemy robot prior to this), and pursues them.

The show is already confusing enough at this stage, mostly due to the dreadful scripting of the English dub written by someone who really didn’t understand the show and the characters, or gave a airborne copulation about continuity. What happens after the first two episodes just defies belief. Pretty much every episode in this English adaptation from episodes three to ten is out of order. And this is seemingly not the fault of the el cheapo video distributor Payless. The next episode preview at the end of each offending episode matches up with the following out of order episode. So we go from Joe on Mars chasing down the military who have kidnapped the princess, to the aliens now speaking English, the Princess (called Rowena) safe and sound, the ship in space above Mars and Jenny piloting a robot in uniform. It’s utterly confusing. As far as I can make out, the episodes are arranged in the dub thus; 1 – 2, 9 – 10, 5 – 8, 3 – 4, then from episode 11 it retains the Japanese order. Is it a cock up or deliberate? I’m leaning towards the former. In the jumbled episodes we discover that Princess Rowena and her male offsider, Icelander are from the Andromeda system on a mission to find the ninja warriors who can pilot their three Ninja Robots, in order to save their planet which is being attacked by the Romalians. Apparently the ninja warriors can be found on Earth. However they are being attacked by the Romalia forces headed up by Gretan. Rowena’s ship, Xenos 5, had to make a forced landing on Mars due to an attack. When Rowena was kidnapped, Gretan does a deal with General Hazzard to capture the princess for himself. Hazzard has ambitions to conquer earth with the alien Romalian technology.

To be absolutely frank, the show is a real dog’s breakfast. Even when you take away the really substandard English adaptation, there are elements in the original Japanese show which just don’t make a lick of sense. For example how and why (and how) did the aliens capture Jenny, and why does Gretan maintain his alliance with Hazzard even though there’s absolutely no advantage to him? It would be nice to compare the English adaption beside the Japanese original to at least find some answers, but as I said before, seriously I couldn’t be bothered evading Anime Sol’s geoblock. Even when the episodes are viewed in the correct order, the English script still manages to confuse the fuck out of the audience. For example the reason behind Princess Rowena’s journey to Earth is confused several times; in one scene it is stated they are looking for the Ninja Robots (even though they are aboard the Xenos 5) and they are journeying to Earth to get a fuel source. The dialogue is just as baffling and confused. At one point Mike and Joe return home to their father. Joe asks his brother “Mike do me a favour; get the Ninja Robots”. However in the next scene they are sitting down together having a meal. In another scene an army officer confronts Joe who has just stepped outside the Xenos 5. Joe responds “I don’t know anything about aliens!”, with the Xenos 5 in full view in the background. A scene in the first episode has Hazzard introducing his offsider as Doc Doc. Doc then proceeds to call himself Doc Tac. One of my favourite lines was Icelander’s putdown aimed at Joe; “Be quiet loud boy!”. That’ll teach him. The writers also are completely ignorant in regards to basic scientific facts that even primary school children would know. Even though it is blatantly clear where the show is set, several times it is implied that Mars is outside the Solar System and at one point it is stated that Mars is 6 light years away from Earth.

The sole person who seems to be responsible for this dreadful English dub is Buz Alexander. I suspect this is a pseudonym, but I can’t be sure. If he did indeed script and direct the entire series, I can only assume he never attended film school or classes on script writing. Apart from the dreadful and nonsensical dialogue, the voice acting is pretty flat and uninspired. You have to admit that is sort of strange seeing that there are some pretty decent voice actors in the cast; Wendee Lee, Steve Kramer, Cam Clarke etc. I can only imagine this was due to the direction and possibly the production being a little haphazard. The accents of the characters are all over the place. Icelander is given some sort of faux British accent, Hazzard’s is just plain weird and two men from a ninja-like clan living at Mars’ polar region have Russian accents for no apparent reason. A lot of these accents are quite poorly done and I was initially a bit confused about where the show was dubbed. I thought it was produced with mostly Singaporean actors and American actors as the leads. Apparently it’s all American talent. As the show progresses the voice acting and scripting do improve, but only marginally.

Another element of the production which was a little substandard is the music and audio mix. Naturally the original music has been stripped out and replaced with some of the lamest, cheesy, dull synth you could imagine. Bafflingly only some of the sound effects have been replaced (the vast majority of the original effects remain) and the overall mix of dialogue, music and sound effects is rather poor. You could only conclude that this show was made on a tight budget, possibly bargain basement licence fee, translated and dubbed on the cheap, and the post-production quality amateurish at best. While this adaptation never made to North American broadcast or cable as far as I’m aware, I note that each episode ends with a CBS Broadcast International ident, which is rather intriguing. Obviously CBS thought the show was good enough to sell overseas, but not good enough to broadcast themselves. The Payless DVD versions are OK. You only get two episodes per DVD, but the discs were dirt cheap and video is much better than expected. There are a number of audio dropouts, mostly during the end credits, which isn’t a big deal. The DVD cases are pretty cheap; two of them have pretty much fallen apart, like they were made out of degradable plastic. Payless only released the first 20 episodes of the series. I emailed them back in 2008 to see if they planned to release the final 23. Their response was that the licensor would only let them have the first 20 episodes, which sounds kind of odd and was probably a bullshit answer.

Putting aside the rubbish English adaption, all you can say about “Ninja Robots” is that it’s a pretty mediocre robot show. The lead, Joe, is an annoying, selfish brat and I couldn’t warm to him. His brother, Mike, is bland and almost invisible. Jenny is easily the most likable of the trio. A fourth Earthling, Damien, from the ninja clan at the Mars polar region, also doesn’t really add much to the story or plot. He’s dubbed as a Californian surfer dude complete with clichéd dialogue. The aliens are far more interesting characters, in particular Icelander who is always bumping heads with Joe. The tension builds up nicely towards the mid-section of the show and puts the Xenos 5’s journey into peril. The major storyline in the show is who is piloting the mysterious ninja robot who helps out our heroes (which Joe calls Cybertron), but the advance of this plot point is glacial. However there are parts of the story which just don’t make any sense at all. The one that really bugged me was Gretan’s alliance with Hazzard which is clearly only beneficial to Hazzard. It is never explained why Gretan keeps bothering with him. The only thing which impressed me about this show was the fact there doesn’t seem to be much cut out of the English adaptation. In the first five minutes of the first episode there’s animal death, a panty shot and a fist fight. A scene in a latter episode has Joe spying on Jenny as she takes a shower. All of this is shown uncut. It’s a bit odd considering this adaptation was probably made in mind for terrestrial broadcast.

Overall, it’s a dreadful adaptation of a terribly mediocre anime. The crowd funding to get Anime Sols to release the show on DVD fell way short of its target goal. As a result Anime Sols didn’t stream any further episodes past the first 15. Like a lot of out of print Australian DVDs, the Payless discs are pretty much impossible to find now, though random DVD volumes do pop up on eBay from time to time. Though unless you were a fan of the show, I really couldn’t see the point in going out of your way to obtain it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Dead English Language Anime Magazines: “Protoculture Addicts”

Publisher: Claude J. Pelletier, Ianvs Publications, Protoculture Enr, Protoculture, Christopher Macdonald, Protoculture, Inc.
Format: 170mm x 240mm (Comic Size), 167mm x 255mm (Comic Size), B5, 207mm x 270mm (Standard Magazine Size)
Genre/Type: Anime, Manga, Japanese Live Action, Japanese Music, Convention and Events Coverage
Years Active: 1987 – 2008
Issues Published: 97 + 6 Special Issues

Note: Originally published on the “Anime Archivist” blog in June 2014.

Protoculture Addicts felt like one of those magazines that seemed to be around since the dawn of time. I recall seeing the magazine at various comic book shops during the mid to late 1990’s, but for whatever reason I thought that it just didn’t seem to be worthwhile purchasing it, especially when I was already buying Anime FX (formerly Anime UK), Manga Mania and Animerica. However when Anime FX fell off the perch and Animerica seemed to be overtly gunning for a general casual audience rather than the core fandom, I decided to pick it up. Despite the rather lacklustre design, I was rather surprised at the depth of the articles and how it was overflowing with information and data. I became a devoted reader.

Once I had acquired a few back issues, I realised the magazine wasn’t always like this. Starting as a number zero test issue in Autumn 1987, then the first true debut issue in Spring 1988, it was through and through a “Robotech” fanzine. Based in Canadian city of Montréal, Quebec, it was started by three French Canadians; Claude J. Pelletier, Alain Dubreuil and Michel Gareau. From 1988 to the end of 1991, the magazine was published in comic book formats, black and white, 36 pages long, typically in a bimonthly schedule. While the first seven issues (to April 1990) had the by-line “The Official Robotech Fanzine” on the cover, there was absolutely no evidence in the magazine or its credits to show that this was the case. However I was advised by one of the former writers that did indeed have a licensing agreement with Harmony Gold. Certainly the word “fanzine” was never in dispute. The early issues are amateurish as hell. Regular columns in the initial issues included “Robotech Trivia”, “Uh?! The Chronicle and the Bizarre & Odd in Robotech” (named because of the overuse of “Uh” by characters in “Robotech”), information on Robotech RPGs and news on the franchise. The layout looked pretty awful (a lot worse than Anime-zine and Animag, whose layouts were mediocre at times) and the writing was quite “fanish”, naïve and ignorant, certainly in comparison to the other anime magazines being published at the time.

For example Pelletier’s article on “Japanimation” in issue 2 really highlights the fact he practically knows nothing about the subject outside whatever what was available on TV or in local video stores (again, compare with the contents of Anime-zine and Animag). Other articles included an utterly fanboyish series on making an actual Macross Valkyrie and a truly horrible comic called “Operation Aborted”. The story, and I kid you not, involves a female veritech pilot who is considering an abortion. Her pilot boyfriend is killed in a battle with Zentradi and she decides to keep it. Obviously Christian right wingers wrote comics for the magazine. At any rate, it’s a comic that’s just so horrible in so many ways, including artwork. By issue 8 (April 1990), things were changing. The “Official Robotech Fanzine” by-line had disappeared from the magazine’s masthead and anime other than “Robotech” related material had started to appear on the covers as well as in the articles. The letters section show there was a minor backlash to the format change, but as Pelletier rightly pointed out in some of the first issues, Robotech’s popularity was on a downward swing. The only way for the magazine to be truly viable was to expand out into the wide world of Japanese animation.

With issue 12 in 1991, the layout and design was given a much needed revamp. Over the next few issues, the magazine developed a content template which it would pretty much use until the final issue some 17 years later. The magazine now contained regular sections such as news and reviews, anime synopses, reports on conventions (and anime club info), regular in depth articles on Japanese live action titles as well some fan art and RPG material. While the writing and layout had improved dramatically, some of that cringe worthy fanboy stuff of early issues remained. A section called “Anime Gossips” was introduced which was fanboy humour at its most lame. Here’s a sample; “Thanks to the success of rock singer Priss with her layout in Easyriders magazine, the National Rife Assocation has chosen S.W.A.T. commando Deuan Knute to be the centrefold for their organization’s journal”. Yes, a whole page that junk was wasted for way too many issues. Eventually it was scraped around 1995 or so (I’m missing few issues from that era).

Prior to their new layout and general change in direction, the magazine released a couple of specials. One was pretty mainstream; a full colour “Akira” poster/magazine (produced in conjunction with ex-Anime-zine staff), however the other caused some waves in the anime fandom community. Pelletier had noticed that many anime included shower and bath scenes. He decided to produce a rather tongue in cheek “Anime Shower” special. Produced in the same black and white comic book format as Protoculture Addicts, it featured still shots of anime girls having showers or baths. Toren Smith even wrote an article for the special which notes how mixed public baths were common place prior to WWII. While Toren acknowledges the voyeurism in these scenes in anime, he cheekily adds that it’s good that anime was sending a positive message to youth about personal hygiene and that his favourite shower scene is from episode 124 of “Urusei Yatsura”. Some of the fandom reaction was negative citing that the concept was sexist and exploitative. Yes, there were some seriously uptight fuckers in anime fandom even back in the early 1990’s. Regardless, two more “Shower Specials” were produced by the magazine with the final issue published in 1993. There also was a sister magazine published by Ianvs Publications from 1991 to 1995 called Mecha Press, however other than coming from the same publisher, it really was a separate magazine to Protoculture Addicts, so I won’t be dedicating any time to it. I only have two issues anyway so I currently have no plans to write about it as a separate blog post either.

The first issue of 1992 saw Protoculture Addicts’ format expand to B5 size. Alain Dubreuil stepped down as editor and publisher Claude J. Pelletier took up the role. The US anime industry was in its infancy with AnimEigo, US Renditions, Streamline Pictures and U.S. Manga Corps all releasing titles every month (with a list of titles and release dates now regularly published in the magazine until it’s last issue). The magazine stated publishing semi-regular interviews, mostly with people connected with the North American side of things. People like comic book artist Ben Dunn and John O’Donnell of U.S. Manga Corps. Interestingly in the O’Donnell interview, the magazine stated that John was formally head of Sony Video Software, which explains the bulk of the company’s early catalogue. Some Japanese creators were interviewed such as Johji Manabe Haruhiko Mikamoto and Yoshiyuki Sadamato (all guests of AnimeCon ‘91), but these were few and far in between. The magazine also began publishing regular articles on Japanese music and a short lived section on non-Japanese animation. Information on RPG material disappeared.

The magazine’s format expanded to a standard US magazine size with issue 22 (March/April 1993), but still remained back and white except for the cover. Over the next couple of years the magazine also expanded to 60 pages in length and fine-tuned its regular columns. From 1995 to its final days, the magazine was split into six distinct sections; editorial/letters; a news section on anime, live action, manga with a comprehensive list of US release dates; short reviews on anime, manga, live action, model kits and some music; long form in depth “Spotlights” on anime series and films; “Anime World” which included reports on conventions and film festivals, as well as in depth articles on various parts of the anime industry and fandom; and finally “Anime Stories”, which were short write ups on anime, about one or two pages long. Outside of those sections the occasional video game review popped up and model kit news was occasionally published.

The gradual change from what was frankly a really unprofessional, scrappy looking fanzine into a polished and really well written professional anime magazine (though not as visually pleasing as say Animerica or Manga Max) is quite amazing. There was also some quite exceptional writing. Of note are parts of the long running series “Anime World”. From 1998 to 2000 the magazine published a sixteen part (yes that’s right, 16 parts) series on censorship called “Anime Under Fire”. It outlined the “for” and “against” arguments, and as you can imagine there’s lots of dodgy and misleading stats for the pro-censorship side. For example, in regards to a link between TV violence and real violence it is noted that the homicide rate in South Africa rose to 130% in 12 years after TV was introduced. No, of course the violence had nothing to do with apartheid! It’s all the fault of television! Correlation does equal causation apparently. In another section, a proponent of censorship actually admits there isn’t any evidence to show that any media causes social unrest or crime, but asks for censorship anyway. In 2000 Protoculture Addicts also published their first and only book; “Anime: A Guide to Japanese Animation (1958 – 1988)”, which was actually an English translation of an Italian book.

From 1996 to 2005, the magazine continued on its way with very little in terms of content or layout changing, maybe a few more colour pages added and a gradual increase in pages to 72, but that was about it. Then with issue 82 in 2005, the magazine became a sister publication to AnimeNewsNetwork.com (ANN) with its owner, Christopher Macdonald, taking over as publisher. Many of the site’s staff including Bamboo Dong, Carlo Santos, Therron Martin and Zac Bertschy wrote for the magazine. While I’m not the biggest fan of ANN, I must admit the injection of new staff didn’t make the quality of the magazine suffer, in fact it improved. Only two issues of the magazine came out in 2004, compared with a full six in 2005 when ANN took the reins. With the May 2006 issue, number 88, the magazine finally went full colour, became binded instead of stapled and had a revamp of its layout. A manga preview was also published in every issue.

However the end was coming. Issue 97, the July/August 2008 edition, was published, and that became the final issue. In June 2009 Pelletier cited that the collapse of the US anime industry, the Global Financial Crisis as well as personal illness had caused delays in publishing issue 98. The fact was most modern anime fans had no need for magazines; they could get whatever information they needed from the internet. While many online anime retailers had already stopped stocking the magazine a couple years prior, Protoculture Addicts’ website formally announced the cancelation of subscriptions in February 2010. It was later stated that the next issue would be a special 100 page issue entitled “80 Anime You Must Watch!” to be released in Summer 2009, with a second special to be released later in that year. Right through 2010 and a little beyond, the public were constantly promised that issue 98 would be coming. It never arrived. Meanwhile the staff from ANN gave flippant responses to people who questioned them about the status of the magazine on their forums. Eventually the Protoculture Addicts section on ANN’s forums was deleted.

Supposedly the magazine still exists per se, in name only. You can buy back issues in ebook format from DriveThruRPG. The magazine’s website still existed recently as 2017, but hadn’t been updated since 2012 and was partly non-functional. A more recent visit to the website confirms it has been finally taken offline. Though Protoculture Addicts had an extremely amateurish, and quite frankly poor beginning, it really turned out to be quite an informative and well written magazine. The last ten issues are fantastic with the content and design coming together really well, though the magazine’s content had been quite good since the mid 1990’s. I suppose regardless of a magazine’s quality, English anime magazines (and print media as a whole) are doomed to die. The current generation doesn’t really give a rat’s about most physical media. I would guess Protoculture Addicts’ incredibly sporadic publishing schedule during its last few years also helped them reach their eventual fate. In some years as little as two issues out the promised six were actually published. I can’t imagine advertisers or subscribers were happy about that. Even though I have pretty much dumped printed media as a whole, there’s a part of me that feels that we have lost something important with the demise of these magazines.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Anime On the Big Screen: “Mary and the Witch's Flower”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Saturday 20 January 2018
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 102 minutes
Production Date: 2017
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No

It seems that Madman will be releasing a ton of new anime films to cinemas, with at least three before the end of February, though two of those are compilation films. But the first film getting a limited theatrical release this year is of course the much hyped debut feature from Studio Ponoc; “Mary and the Witch's Flower”. After rushing back and forth to my parents’ empty home in Cambewarra (I’ll write a post up about this issue at a later date), I came back to Canberra a bit exhausted and to near 40°C temperatures. As per usual the screening was at Dendy, however in an apparently new section of the cinema. Business must be booming for Dendy as they’ve built six new screens across a walkway in the southern part of Canberra Centre (accessible from behind the box office). Traditionally with my reviews of anime films in cinemas, I usually talk about the makeup of the patrons who come to these screenings. But during the last last eight months or so nothing has really changed, so this is the last time I'll be talking about the patrons; about 30 people showed up of all ages, a real cross section of community. Apart from the four native speaking Japanese people who sat behind me, there was nothing of note. The only thing I really noticed is for all the trailers of upcoming Hollywood animated films screened before the feature, the audience seems unimpressed by them all. No one laughed. There wasn’t a murmur from the crowd. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the film;

A prepubescent girl named Mary Smith moves out to the English countryside into her great aunt Charlotte’s home, Red Manor, during the holidays ahead of her parent’s arrival. There isn’t a great deal for her to do there as the estate is practically in the middle of nowhere, there’s no children her age to play with and even the TV is broken. Mary tries to busy herself by helping around the house. First she tries to help the house keeper, Mrs Banks, but ends up nearly breaking a mug. She then turns her attention to helping the gardener, Mr Zebedee, but end up damaging one of his plants. In frustration she tries to sweep up fallen leaves in the garden but somehow ends up with a large bin of leaves on her head. A young boy called Peter, who is on an errand to deliver something from his mother to Charlotte, sees the mess she’s in and teases her by calling her a monkey due to her red hair, hair which Mary is really self-conscious of.

Later as Mary is having a picnic, feeling really sorry for herself, a black cat comes up and befriends her. She follows the cat, which bizarrely seems to change from grey to black, down a dry stream bed which leads to an odd dry and dead looking part of the forest. There she discovers that there are two cats, not one which changes colours. The pair of cats lead her to a mysterious flowering plant which glows. Intrigued, she takes some of it's flowers home. Mr Zebedee identifies the flowers as fly-by-night bulbs which are incredibly rare in the region. He also explains to her that the two cats, Tib and Gib, are owned by Peter, which doesn’t impress her one little bit. Later than night, Tib comes to her window and she lets him in. He seems really scared by something and she lets him stay in her bed. But by the next morning the cat has disappeared.

The following day Charlotte hands a note to Mary with an address and instructs her to go into town to deliver some jam to Peter which she reluctantly does. Peter tells her that Gib didn’t come home last night and has gone missing. The pair search for the cat in the forest. There she finds Tib and follows him in the hope of finding Gib. Mary refuses to heed Peter’s warning that the locals don’t head into the forest while it’s misty and continues to follow the black cat into a new part of the forest she has never been to. There she discovers a large tree with a intertwining root system and a broom caught up in it. She manages to free the broomstick and somehow accidentally bursts a fly-by-night bulb on to her hands. The sticky substance ends up on the broomstick handle which makes it come alive. It whisks both her and Gib away (with both of them riding it like a witch and her cat) into the air high above the clouds. As they are about to crash into a giant thunder cloud, the broomstick flies down into a strange land where an odd building can be seen sticking out of a misty valley.

After a crash landing, Mary is met by a large anthropomorphic rodent called Flanagan. He mistakes her for a student at what Mary discovers is a magic academy called Endor College, a school for witches. As the first rule at the college is that trespassers get transformed into creatures, Mary decides to play along. She is greeted by the headmistress, Madame Mumblechook, who takes her on a tour of the college. Along the way Mary accidentally shows off her powers she has acquired from the fly-by-night bulb, which greatly impresses Madame Mumblechook and the chemistry teacher, Doctor Dee. However in Madame Mumblechook’s office she later admits that she got her powers from the fly-by-night bulb. After accidentally taking a master book of spells, Madame Mumblechook suspects she is hiding something. To appease her, Mary gives her the piece of paper with Peter’s address, telling her that is where her powers came from. Mary and Gib then manage to leave via the broomstick with Mary having no plans to return despite her belief that Madame Mumblechook thinks she will enroll in the school. However later that night Mary receives a magical message from Mumblechook informing her that she knows that she is a complete fraud and not a real witch and even worse she has kidnapped Peter. In exchange for letting Peter go, Mary must give her the rare fly-by-night bulbs she has in her possession.

As I said before, this is the debut feature film for Studio Ponoc, a new animation studio made up mostly of former staff from Studio Ghibli in the wake of that studio’s decision to cease production on theatrical features. Heading up the studio is Yoshiaki Nishimura whom you may remember as the long suffering producer of Isao Takahata’s final film who made prominent appearances in the documentaries “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” and “Isao Takahata and His Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. Prior to this debut feature, the only other thing the studio has worked on was a TV commercial for Japan Rail West. The director of the film is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who is most famous for his directorial debut with Studio Ghibli, “When Marnie Was There”, which like this film is an adaptation of a British children’s novel.

“Mary and the Witch's Flower”, is also based on a children's novel; Mary Stewart’s slightly obscure 1971 children’s fantasy novel “The Little Broomstick”. The late Lady Stewart was better known for “Merlin Trilogy” of novels and her romantic suspense novels. Her 1962 novel, perhaps her best known, “The Moon-Spinners”, was made into a live action feature by the Walt Disney Company in 1964. I do find it rather strange that this relatively forgotten author and her rather obscure children’s book (Lady Stewart only wrote three children’s books in her lifetime) was chosen by the studio as a basis for their debut feature. I suspect this has less to do with the studio and more a decision forced on them by the film’s production committee. Japan’s production committees (the group of companies ponying up the cash to make films) are full of notoriously conservative and risk adverse salarymen who wouldn’t know a good idea if it bit them on the arse. They are essentially why most modern live action films in Japanese cinemas are dull, inward looking local crowd-pleasers that never reach an international audience outside film festivals.

Unfortunately I thought this film felt really derivative, like a pastiche of every Ghibli film of the last 15 years. Studio Ponoc seems to be trying to fill the void Studio Ghibli left with a knockoff feature film. I mean even the studio’s logo mimics Ghibli's to a large degree. All of the designs in the film really feel like rejected designs from a Ghibli production. The story is also riddled with problems.  Being adapted from a British children's novel from the early 1970's, a lot of the early part of the story just felt out place as I think the film is meant to be set in the modern day English countryside. For example the markings on the moving boxes seem to indicate a modern era, but curiously we never see modern conveniences, like mobile phones and computers. Coupled with the rather old design of Peter’s bike and Chaolette’s old 1970’s era CRT television, it gives the impression that the film is set in a much earlier time period. Then you have some very Japanese traits which seem out of place in an English countryside setting, such as Mary wearing Japanese style slippers inside the house and the bento box wrapping on her lunch box. The status of Mary's parents is, as far as I'm aware, not mentioned in the film. Due to a line of dialogue about the mayor dying, I initially thought both her parents were dead. I also had difficulty with the story in terms of the journey Mary went on, from being unsure about herself and her appearance, to her the eventual acceptance of herself at the end of the film. It felt really ham-fisted, as did the development of the relationship (or lack thereof) between her and Peter. Not enough time was spent developing these two important ideas in the script. As a result I did feel distanced from both characters.

Add in the fact Ghibli has previous produced two films based on children's or young adult's fantasy novels by British authors, and having been set partly in a fantastical school of magic, the whole film just really feels uninspired and like it's riding the coattails of other films. You just really have to question why Ponoc chose to adapt this book over an original work or adapting something else from a genre that hasn't been done to death. However once the film reaches the half way mark with Mary attempting rescue Peter from the clutches of Madame Mumblechook, there was enough interesting and well-staged action sequences to keep me entertained. But some of the action becomes a little too silly to take seriously, especially in some of the scenes involving an escaping group of animals who were transformed into strange creatures that Mary rescues. The message at end of the film also felt contradictory; Mary states that she doesn’t need magic to become who she is, however she’s just spent the majority of the film actually using magic to discover who she is and to feel comfortable with herself.

Summing up, I had a lot of really mixed feelings about this film. I did like a lot of the film from the half way mark to the finale, but due to the designs and subject matter it's really hard to shake off the feeling that it's a Studio Ghibli knock off. It saddens me that the production committee, studio and distributors all probably wanted this and are most likely pleased with the result. Studio Ponoc should be aspiring to be better than this. This is a really disappointing and mediocre debut film for the studio. 5 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Anime Music Video Compilations: “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Sound File”

Publisher: Pioneer LDC
Format: VHS and Laserdisc, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue
Length: 30 minutes
Original Release Date: 25 January 1994
Animation Exclusive to this Release: Yes
Other Sources (Japanese unless noted): Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Volume ! (DVD 1999), Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki DVD Box Set (2000), Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Volume ! (DVD 2005, Reissue), Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Blu-ray Box Set (2009), Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Volume 4 (Blu-ray 2009), Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki DVD Box Set (2010, 2012 Reissue)
Currently Availability (as of writing): Out of Print

Note: Originally published on the “Anime Archivist” blog June 2014.

Pioneer’s US anime division (later renamed Geneon) released nearly all the material that was available to them in the “Tenchi Muyo!” franchise. This included the (then) two OVA series, plus a bunch of spin off OVA specials, even the Pretty Sammy OVA and first TV series, plus two TV series and three movies. On top of that the company also released “Chisa and The Heaven & Earth Band – Live In L.A.”, which is a video of a concert at a small club featuring Sasami’s voice actress Chisa Yokoyama. Certainly Pioneer made some baffling choices for their US releases in their time, but releasing what is essentially an idol video in the US market in the late 1990’s (even if it was of a US concert) probably tops them all. I can’t imagine it sold many copies. Despite all of the Tenchi material Pioneer/Geneon released, for whatever reason they passed on this music video compilation. Perhaps it was due some music licensing issues, but putting that aside, it does seem weird that they chose to licence a Chisa Yokoyama concert video and the Pretty Sammy TV series over this compilation. US reissues of the Tenchi OVAs on DVD and Blu-ray have also excluded the compilation, unlike Japanese reissues.

I was going to forgo a synopsis of the series, but realised that some newer fans have no knowledge of the franchise (lucky buggers). So for the few who haven’t seen the original OVA series, the story goes something like this; a seemingly ordinary high school boy called Tenchi Masaki is spending his holiday at the family’s Shinto shrine deep in the mountains. It’s not a particularly fun holiday as his strict grandfather has been constantly training him. Fascinated with a forbidden cave within the shrine’s grounds, Tenchi decides to swipe his grandfathers’ the keys in order to unlock a padlock at the entrance of the cave. After accidently obtaining the keys after a martial arts spar with his grandfather, Tenchi explores the cave and discovers the remnants of a legendary sword used by his ancestor which apparently was used to seal a demon which is held inside the cave. Messing around with the sword, he manages to unseal the demon which luckily for Tenchi stagers back into the darkness when it touches the sword strapped to Tenchi’s waist. Terrified, Tenchi makes a beeline for the cave’s exit and hastily tries to reseal the entrance.

The next day Tenchi returns to school and somehow ends up sleeping until the early evening on the school’s roof. He awakens to find on the roof with him a young woman who calls herself Ryoko. Ryoko tells him that she is a 700 year old demon whom he has unsealed and she plans to take all her frustration out on him. As she fires hurls fireballs towards him, Tenchi pleads with her to stop. Luckily Tenchi has brought the sword with him to school. As Ryoko attacks him, the sword produces a blade of light. Tenchi grips the sword which seems to have a mind of its own and starts attacking Ryoko. Eventually Ryoko’s arm is cut off, she retreats and Tenchi runs home as the school explodes around him from the fight. Thinking that it’s the last he’ll see of her, Tenchi is surprised to find Ryoko I his room, demanding he give her a gem embedded in the sword. Later the alien Princess Ayeka shows up and it is revealed that Ryoko is actually a wanted alien criminal. A fight with ensues and Ayeka, her sister Sasami and Ryoko are stranded on Earth due to the destruction of each other’s spacecraft. The trio seem to have no choice but to join the Masaki family.

Over the next few episodes, more female aliens how up including the dim witted police officer Mihoshi, a mad scientist called Washu and Ryoko’s spaceship called Ryo-Ohki, who transforms into a cute carrot obsessed cabbit (part cat, part rabbit) when not travelling across the universe. Certainly there’s a bit more to the show than that, especially the first OVA series, but that will do for now. The show evolves into a harem anime with wacky romantic hijinks and misunderstandings, etcetera, etcetera. You know how it goes. It’s probably safe to say this show popularised the now really tired harem genre. On to the music videos;

“Flashback Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki (Ryoko’s Theme)” performed by Seikou Nagaoka
The footage for the videos in this collection is mostly sourced from the first six OVAs, which make up the first series. This particular video mostly uses footage from the first two episodes. The main focus is on Ryoko and Tenchi’s battle at the school showing a lot of the destruction. From that we move on to the third episode with footage of Ryo-Ohki being “born” and the confusion and misunderstanding behind that (thanks to Ryoko deliberately stirring up trouble). Edited into the video as well is the scene where Ayeka and Tenchi end up wet and alone in storage shed after sheltering from the rain. Ladies, it’s shirtless Tenchi time. The final scenes include Washu and parts of the climactic battle in the final OVA of the series. The music used in the video is a background piece which would be familiar with anyone who has viewed the series. While the laserdisc jacket gives the music the very appropriate title of “Flashback Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki”, the actual title of the piece is “Ryoko’s Theme” and was first released on the soundtrack album “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Music Collection Volume 1” in August 1992.

“Magical Girl Pretty Sammy” performed by Chisa Yokoyama
The next video contains the only real new animation in the entire compilation. As you may have guessed from the title of the song, this video follows the adventures of Sasami as the magical girl spin off Pretty Sammy. I believe this video is the first animated appearance of Sammy. The video begins with Sammy following Tenchi around as works as a labourer. After work stuck under the awning of shop in heavy rain, Sasami offers Tenchi an umbrella. It’s patently obvious that Sasami is smitten with Tenchi. Later as Tenchi works as an ice cream salesman on a beach, Sasami throws a bottle of suntan lotion at the back of his head when he leers at Ayeka in her bikini. Mihoshi’s long suffering partner, Kiyone, also makes her first animated appearance here as Sasami’s nemesis. She abducts Tenchi and Sasami transforms into Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, destroys Kiyone’s ship and saves him. This animation isn’t exclusive to this compilation. It later appeared as the closing animation in the OVA “Tenchi Muyo! Side Story: Galaxy Police Mihoshi’s Space Adventure”, which was released two months after this compilation. However in the Mihoshi OVA, the animation is reduced to a quarter of the size of the screen in order to show the credits. The song itself was first released on the “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki CD Special” album in July 1993.

“Oujo-sama to Oyubi! (Call Me Queen)” performed by Yumi Takada
The subtitle of this song, taken from the March 1993 album “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Music Collection Volume 2”, is “Imperial Education of a Groom”. That should give you a good idea of what the song and the video are about. Like most of the tracks in this compilation, this song is an image song with voice actress Yumi Takada playing Ayeka, singing about literally whipping Tenchi into shape. Unlike the other videos in this compilation there is no animation. Instead cels scroll across the screen. The video starts out fairly normal with shots of Ayeka intercut with images of Ryoko pulling faces. It then devolves into (tame) S&M imagery with poor old Tenchi being tortured in various ways; being tied up, being whipped, having hot wax from a candle dripped on him etc. Naturally Ayeka is shown in her PVC mistress gear throughout. But it’s not as bad as you think. It’s played for laughs with a lot of super deformed shots towards the end. A break in the middle of the song features a spoken word cameo from Tenchi begging her to stop and Sasami expressing excitement at seeing her older sister dressed as an S&M queen.

“Ueno No Koi No Monogatari (Love Story of Ueno)” performed by Masami Kikuchi, Ai Orikasa and Yumi Takada
The fourth video’s song is yet another image song, a ballad sung by the characters Tenchi, Ryoko and Ayeka. Strangely the song itself isn’t about the characters or the series. It just seems to be about a couple who are really down on their luck, homeless in fact. The footage for the first part of the video is various shots culled from the first and second episodes of the series. It’s edited to show mostly Ryoko, who sings the first verse of the song. However most of the shots have already been used in the first video of this compilation. As the second verse kicks in (sung by Ayeka), we see shots from the third and fourth episodes, mostly of Ayeka as you’d expect, but yet again a fair wack of it was previously seen in the first video. There’s some footage with dialogue inserted during the instrumental from the third episode when Ryo-Ohki hatches from her egg (I’m sure it’s a she). A second section of dialogue from the fourth episode from the onsen scene ends the video. Overall the video is pretty mediocre. The song was first released on the album “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Music Collection Volume 1” in August 1992.

“Towa ni Towa ni Hoshi no Yume (Forever, Forever Dreams of Stars)” performed by Orikasa Ai
This image song is all about Ryoko’s love for Tenchi. It was originally released on the “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki CD Special” soundtrack in July 1993. Most of the footage in the front end of the video is culled from the battle sequences in the last OVA episode. We are then treated to some footage from the first two OVAs, again mostly Tenchi and Ryoko’s battle on the school roof top. The best material is saved for last with quite a number of shots culled from the fifth episode. All of these shot involve a very sweet sequence in the OVA where Ryoko fondly recalls watching Tenchi as a small child over the years as he grows into a young man as she was sealed inside the cave. The bizarreness of Ryoko intently watching a prepubescent Tenchi taking a leak outside the cave always amuses me to no end no matter how many times I watch it. Watching this compilation again, I was reminded of the tails on some of Royko’s clothes. I could never really understand their function or purpose. Well, other than to confuse the audience into thinking she actually had a tail.

“Taiho wa Kazemakase (Leave the Arrest to the Wind)” performed by Yuko Mizutani
Pretty much everyone except Washu and Ryo-Ohki have had a video dedicated to them in this compilation. The only one left to go is everyone’s favourite ditzy galaxy police officer Mihoshi. The video for this upbeat image song contains, as you’d expect, scenes from the last half of the series. The best sequence I think is Mihoshi failing in an attempt to arrest Ryoko and Ryo-Ohki proceeding to take a bite out her gun. The rest of the video just shows off her incompetent and clumsy nature, as a police officer and off duty. There’s quite a number of grabs of dialogue from the show (inserted during instrumental breaks in the song) highlighting the humour caused by her actions. The video ends with entrance into the Masaki household in episode four; crashing into it with her spacecraft. Though not mentioned in the video or on the LD jacket, the subtitle for the song used in the video is “Police Magic”. The track can be found on the “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Music Collection Volume 2” soundtrack, which was released in March 1993.

“Renai no Sainou (Talent for Love)” performed by Chisa Yokoyama
The final video in this compilation isn’t actually a music video. It’s just the clean ending animation from the series. In the animation a stylised cartoonish version of Ryo-Ohki grows a giant carrot over the course of a year while braving the worst and best the four seasons dish out. The song was originally released on the “Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki Music Collection Volume 1” soundtrack in August 1992. Surprisingly there are no credits at the end of the compilation. Instead we are treated to “Mystery Preview” which ends up being adverts for the first OVA in the second series, “Hello Baby!” and “Tenchi Muyo! Side Story: Galaxy Police Mihoshi’s Space Adventure”. Both adverts do not contain any animation from the OVAs, instead the visuals are shots of the pre-production image boards with narration by Chisa Yokoyama as Sasami.

To be honest, I was never a big fan of this franchise. Once I got to the second series of OVAs, I kind of lost interest. It’s easy to blame the franchise for popularising the harem genre. In fact I think it really should take the blame for dreadful crap like “Love Hina” and the dreck which followed. Of the all the videos in the compilation, only “Magical Girl Pretty Sammy” and “Call Me Queen” contain any new footage. Even then, the Pretty Sammy video is already available in the closing credits of the Mihoshi Special (albeit reduced to a quarter of the size) and the Ayeka bondage fest is just still shots. The other videos are rather mediocre, both in terms of editing and music. I will admit the Mihoshi image song is kind of fun. Of course the major problem is the lack of available footage to make the music videos. At the time only the first six OVAs had been released, so there are a lot of repeated shots through the compilation. For example the exact same shots of Ryoko for the first episode appear not only in the first music video but in three other videos.

This one is most definitely one for the hardcore Tenchi Muyo fan. Casual fans need not apply or waste your cash on this one. Perplexingly there’s no English language release anywhere, so the Genon Universal releases from Japan are the only way to get it legitimately. Unfortunately all of the Japanese DVD and Blu-ray releases this compilation was on are currently out of print. In the second hand market, you can generally pick up the more recent DVD OVA series box set for less than ¥7,000. The Blu-ray box set will set you back upwards of ¥20,000 for a second hand copy. The fourth volume of single Blu-ray disc release can be found for around ¥4,500, though many copies are being sold for almost three times that price. The original VHS and laserdisc versions of the music video compilation are still relatively easy to find and range in price from a measly ¥100 to less than ¥1,500.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Obscurities in the Western Connection Catalogue: “Samurai Gold”

Release Date: 19 September 1994
Format: PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Runtime: 60 mins
Catalogue Number: WEST018
Japanese Title: Toyamazakura Uchucho Yatsu no Nawa Gold (Cosmic Commander of the Toyama Cherry Trees: His Name is Gold)
Japanese Production Date: 1988

Note: Originally published on the "Anime Archivist" blog June 2014, based on a previous version published on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2005.

This is the fourth part in a series of nine articles on the somewhat obscure 1990’s UK based video distributor Western Connection and the anime titles that they released in English, titles that no one else bothered to re-released anywhere else. For a run down on what I thought made the company so special, see here. During 1994, the company continued on down the path of releasing some very obscure titles. Slightly more well known titles such as “Grey: Digital Target” got an English subtitled release several years before the USA as well. And so we come to yet another obscurity; “Samurai Gold”; a sci-fi anime adaptation of a late 19th century kabuki play. Here’s a rundown of the show I swiped from a review I wrote long ago;

It is the late 21st century. Japan is now linked together with a number of its own space colonies by a giant computer named EDO. Helping EDO are five Overseers. One of the five, Retklaad Mount has a son he has disowned named Gold who is bit of a playboy. After losing his money by gambling it away at a seedy bar, Gold and his girlfriend, Midi, are set upon by a group of cyborgs and a mountainous gay strongman. Even though he fights valiantly, the attackers flee when a squad of police arrive headed up by Gold’s uncle, Ebota. Ebota tells him that his father has been injured in an attempt on his life by an assassin. However the only the only thing his father says about his attacker was that a ghost tried to kill him. Ebota thinks it may have something to do with Retklaad’s recent trip to the space colony Fedovar. Ebota manages to convince Gold to look into the matter.

Gold arrives in Fedovar with Midi and meets up with Ebota’s son, Ritt. Ritt has been looking into the attempt on Retklaad’s life and has made some surprising discoveries. Retklaad was supervising a test flight of a small space craft named Ovaconia. On board was the ruler of Fedovar, Tonodono Plenmatz, his wife and his son Ion. During the fight, the ship goes out of control and crashes, apparently killing all on board. Afterwards people connected to the ship and the family commit suicide or end up having fatal accidents. Ritt and Gold decide to check out the abandoned Plenmatz mansion. Unfortunately inside they discover the large gay man who attacked Gold on Earth had been following him and the pair end up dodging his massive blade. The killer tells Gold that he was the family butler and faked his own suicide to avenge the deaths of his employer. He believes that Retklaad casued their deaths. Gold doesn’t get much more information out of him as during their fight he throws the butler out of the window.

Gold has also discovered information in the mansion that that shows Midi is actually Princess Beryl Plenmatz. When he confronts her about this, Ion Plenmatz, her brother who was assumed dead suddenly appears and confronts Gold. Ion tells Gold he was the one who attacked his father and asked Midi to pretend to be his girlfriend so she could get close to him in order to extract revenge on him. Ion also believes that Retklaad is responsible of the death of his parents and wants revenge against the Overseers. Midi doesn’t want Ion to kill Gold but with his henchmen, Ion hunts Gold down and blows up a section of swamp Gold has run into for protection. Ion believes he Gold has been eliminated.

Midi returns to Ritt’s house in utter disbelief over the death of Gold. However they hold out faint hope that he may have survived and wait for several days in hope for him to return. The pair are soon surprised to see a news report on TV saying that Gold has been appointed as a new Overseer. In a press conference, Gold claims Ion has been killed and that he has received information that Retklaad was part of a conspiracy to kill the Plenmatz family. The other Overseers begrudgingly decide to hold a trial for Retklaad, but they know a lot more about the conspiracy than they are willing to say in public.

The OVA is based upon a light novel which essentially is based vaguely upon a novelisation of a kabuki play called “Toyama no Kin-san” from the 1890’s. The kabuki play itself is based upon the life of an actual person named Kinshiro Toyama, who lived about 50 years before the play was written. The OVA plays like a samurai drama set in space with an extended court room scene at the end. Despite the fact it is set in a sci-fi setting, many of the elements are deeply inspired by the designs and culture of the Edo era (1603 to 1868).

Though my synopsis makes this OVA look like it’s a serious piece of drama, quite frankly on the surface it’s complete fluff. The plot is certainly there and it’s quite good and has plenty of twists, but at times it just hangs there in the background, and if you weren’t paying attention to it, it just wouldn’t really matter. It plays second fiddle to the comedy, action set pieces and the laser sword fight scenes that take centre stage. That is until the quite long and somewhat dry court room scene at the end of the OVA. This manages to put a spanner in the works and if it wasn’t for another laser sword fight sequence in the middle of it, things would have come to a grinding halt.

There’s some odd stuff and arguably what could be seen as a number of blatant rip-offs in this one shot anime. First the space colony Fedovar looks exactly like the space colonies from Gundam. I’m amazed the lawyers from Sunrise didn’t come knocking at their door. Then again they were a direct lift of Gerard O’Neill’s cylinder colonies. Second was Ritt. He looks almost exactly like Yusuke Urameshi from “Yu Yu Hakusho”. Note that “Yu Yu Hakusho” wasn’t released until 1992. Hmm… The elderly Overseers may also look familiar to anyone who’s seen “The Wings of Honeamise”. Putting aside everything else and that damned court room sequence at the end, the worst element of “Samurai Gold” is the horrible voice acting of the woman who plays Midi, Hashimoto Kazuko. She’s the worst Japanese voice actor I’ve heard in a long time. There’s no emotion in her voice, and at times she sounds like a robot. She’s pretty bad. Kazuko seems to have landed the role only there because she’s a singer (Midi sings a couple of songs in the show).

Despite the negative points which are few and far in between, I kinda liked this OVA. The character designs are pretty good (despite Gold’s mullet), the action is handled well, the comedy at times hits the right spot and music is one of the highlights with some good orchestral pieces. The bottom line is that it’s sort of fun for what it is. It flows pretty well and it’s action scenes are well done, but the totally misplaced court room sequence (well it’s more like a Roman Colosseum than a court room) destroys that flow and the interest of most of the audience.

But being a Western Connection release, of course the VHS tape itself is riddled with problems. The subtitle timing is horrendous on this one. More than a couple of times I had to figure out who said what as the previous lines would end up looking like being said by another character. And to make matters worse, characters would talk, and there would be no subtitles. Jesus Christ, there’s just no professionalism on display here at all. The plot is already convoluted as it is. The subtitles just confuse things further. And then we get this credit during end title sequence;


Seriously, what the fuck? The only time I’ve ever seen this kind of rubbish on a commercial anime tape or DVD is on a Western Connection tape. What were they thinking? The other weird thing which I have only really seen on Western Connection tapes, is that the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) rating is actually a sticker, not printed on the cover itself. Somehow the VHS slicks were being printed before the tape had been rated by the BBFC, then the appropriate classification sticker was (crudely) stuck on. Pretty much every Western Connection release from this tape onwards has a classification sticker affixed to the tape’s slick. I really can’t fathom how or why this would be a good idea. There’s also the synopsis of the anime, taken directly from the Anime UK/Anime FX magazine review. So Western Connection where sending preview copies to the magazine, getting the review early, then quickly designing the covers using the reviews as the synopsis on the back and then somehow printing up the covers before the BBFC had a chance to classify it? The mind just boggles at the insane way this company must have been run.

This yet another case where a completely unknown anime was given a subtitled release in the UK without having any kind of release in the USA. And like many of these OVAs, it hasn’t had a re-release on DVD in Japan and it’s highly unlikely to either. In fact judging by the lack of information I can find on the title, I’d guess it has been long forgotten by Japanese fans. In 2018, the Western Connection version is (unsurprisingly) quite rare. I can't find a copy anywhere for sale in the second hand market. It’s an OK OVA, but you’re not going to be missing much if you don’t watch it. Despite the fact it is a little bit forgettable and nowhere near being a masterpiece, I still find it a little sad that anime like this will eventually end up disappearing into the ether, forgotten by anime fans and never to be seen ever again.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Anime DVDs You May Have Missed: “Stormy Night”

Japanese Title: Arashi no Yoru ni (Stormy Night)
Publisher: Asia Video Publishing (Hong Kong)
Format: Region 3 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional Cantonese dub and English and Chinese Subtitles
Length: 105 minutes
Production Date: 2005
English Version Release Date: 10 November 2006
Currently in Print (as of writing): No

Note: Originally published on the “Anime Archivist” blog May 2014.

Besides films by Studio Ghibli and Mamoru Hosoda, family and children’s anime films are generally ignored by western anime fandom as a whole. Luckily GKids has taken up the slack and are releasing a number of these films as limited theatrical releases in the US, however not a great deal of these films have made it to home video so far for whatever reason. Occasionally an English subtitled script made for limited or film festival screenings will end up on a foreign release DVD or Blu-ray. It’s in those rare moments that anime fans have an opportunity to legitimately see some of these films. Out of the blue in 2006 came a Hong Kong English subtitled release of this children’s movie, “Stormy Night”, a film that will probably never see the light of day on video in English elsewhere.

The film follows a young male goat named Mei, who lives in a forest with the rest of his flock. Mei is grazing on a grassy hill one afternoon with number of goats when a thunderstorm blows in. Mei, who is terrified by thunder and lightning, gets separated from his companions and ends up taking shelter inside an abandoned barn. In the pitch blackness of the barn, Mei hears what he assumes is hooves of another goat entering the barn to take shelter. It is in fact a slightly injured wolf named Gav who is using an improvised crutch made from a tree branch to move about. Unable to see or smell each other and assuming the other is of their own species, the pair strike up a conversation and discover they have a lot in common. Both lost their mother at an early age and were skinny during childhood. Things are going so well that they agree to meet up again the next day in front of the barn for a picnic. They agree to use the password “stormy night” so they can recognise each other. The storm finally passes by daybreak. Gav leaves first, but Mei’s legs have fallen asleep so he can’t leave with Gav. As a result the two never see each other.

The following day arrives and Mei returns to the barn. He’s a little early, so he decides to hide behind a tree nearby and surprise Gav. Gav soon turns up and sees the grass moving around the base of the tree and realises that Mei is hiding behind it. He decides to sneak up and surprise him. Mei hears Gav moving closer towards the tree and jumps out. As the two of them yell out “stormy night” they see who each other really are and are astonished. For whatever reason Gav doesn’t eat Mei and Mei doesn’t attempt to flee. They decide to still have their picnic up on top of grassy field on top of a small mountain. On the path up the mountain, Gav accidently loses the lunch he was carrying around his neck in a piece of cloth. Unfortunately he starts salivating and dreaming of eating Mei and has to fight himself several times to avoid devouring the small goat. Despite Gav’s hunger, the two of them strike up another friendly conversation. Though there are some awkward moments, such as Mei asking if Gav eats goats, to which he lies and says no, the two of them steadily become friends. However Gav’s hunger gets the better of him and as Mei is walking away he attempts to attack him. But Mei turns around which stops Gav in his tracks. Gav tries to cover up his attack up by asking if they can meet again on Zephyr Pass. Mei happily agrees.

The day of their next meeting arrives, but Mei is caught out leaving the flock. Though he explains that he is going to Zephyr Pass to meet a friend, his grandmother forces him to go with two friends, Tap and Mee, as a precaution as previously wolves have attacked goats there. Gav has arrived early at the meeting place and hides in bushes when he spots the other two goats with Mei. Tap decides to boast about his knowledge of wolves and shows off some defensive moves, accidently kicking Gav in the heads who is still hiding. Gav jumps out and screams in pain, scaring off Tap and Mee. Gav and Mei laugh off the incident and decide to meet yet again, this time at Rocky Bluff. Unfortunately when Gav returns to his pack, the leader, Gil, tells the pack of a new plan to capture goats by going to Rocky Bluff. Luckily it’s a foggy day and Gav manages to save Mei from a member of his own pack. The pair hold up inside a cave until the danger is over.

Back at the goat’s flock, an elderly female goat recounts her near death experience at Rocky Bluff. She also recounts to the disbelieving flock that she witnessed Mei run away with a wolf. Mei is questioned in front of the entire flock by the goat elder. He admits he is friends with Gav and tries to defend his friendship by saying he’s a good guy. The entire flock is shocked. They can’t understand how they could be friends and suspect Gav is tricking Mei. The elder goat decides he should meet with Gav one more time in an attempt to find out where the wolf pack plants to hunt. Mei feels a little ashamed and begins to question his friendship with Gav. He feels he has no real option but to follow the elder’s orders and meets up with Gav beside the river. A rainstorm blows in and Gav spies a cave on the other side. He suggests to Mei they take shelter there. While attempting to cross the river by jumping on rocks, Mei falls in and Gav franticly saves him. Resting on a rock in the middle of the river, they both confess to each other that their respective flocks/packs found out about their friendship and have cornered them into spying on each other. Both believe in their friendship with each other and don’t want to be separated. Gav suggests they should escape and the pair of them jump into the raging river. The goat flock and wolf pack, who have both been watching Gav and Mei, gasp in astonishment. Gil and the rest of the pack vows to track down and punish Gav for his betrayal.

This film is based upon a series of seven picture books written by Yuichi Kimura and illustrated by Hiroshi Abe. The first book, “One Stormy Night” was released in 1994 and was an unexpected hit. Kimura was encouraged to write more with “One Sunny Day” following in 1996 and a further five books between 1997 and 2005. An annual stage musical began in 1997 and was followed by this feature film in 2005, a drama CD in 2006 and a follow up CG animated TV series “One Stormy Night: Secret Friends” in 2012, which was directed by Tetsuro Amino (director of “Iria – Zeiram the Animation”, “Macross 7” and “Shiki”). The 2005 film on this DVD, was directed by Gisaburo Sugii, who has directed a wide range of very diverse anime in his career including the 1984 version of “Glass Mask”, “Touch”, “Night on the Galactic Railroad”, “The Tale of Genji” and “Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie”. The film was produced by the recently defunct Group TAC who produced a number of diverse and plain odd projects including “Black Blood Brothers”, “Viewtiful Joe” and two of Japanese cult Happy Science’s bizarre anime films (which I will be having a look at sometime down the track).

For a film based on a series of picture books and aimed at young children, as an adult I found it to be really entertaining. I’ve always felt that western children’s entertainment is overly sanitised, especially modern day stuff. To a large degree Japanese children’s entertainment isn’t. Take the opening scene of this film which is quite dark and somewhat violent. It follows the wolves hunting a goat pack. We see a child Mei and his mother being stalked by the wolves. She encourages him to flee and rips off the ear of the pack’s leader in order to save Mei (and yes, you see the wolf’s bloody ear flying across the screen). But despite her efforts, she soon succumbs to the pack’s attack and is surrounded by the wolves who eat her. While the death of Mei’s mother isn’t graphic, we are left with no doubt as to what is happening, with a long overhead shot of the wolves gathered in a circle around her. I really can’t imagine a sequence like this appearing in a Hollywood kid’s film.

As you may have guessed by my description of the opening sequence, this is really isn’t just a simple little kids’ film. Oh sure, the cast is made up of talking animals, but the makers of the film certainly don’t talk down to their audience. While there are plenty of jokes in the film at the expense of Mei and Gav’s unconventional relationship, there are a number of very serious moments when the pair really question their friendship. One scene shows Gav arriving back early in the morning, wiping blood off his mouth, after hunting prey the previous night. Mei angrily asks if he has being hunting. Gav explains he was only eating field mice and that he has to eat meat. Mei acknowledges this but still feels uneasy about what he does. There are also some really tender moments such as Mei offering himself up to Gav as a meal when they find themselves trapped in a snowstorm. Naturally Gav finds himself wracked with guilt and love for his friend and can’t go through with it. The supporting cast are quite interesting too. The leader of the wolf pack Gil, is a bit like a yakuza leader, with the rest of the pack a parody of a gang (keep an eye out for Gil’s girl in the background). Similarly the goats personalities are rather well fleshed out too. While most are cautious of their surroundings, the young goats such as Mee and Tap come off as a little naïve. Amusingly the old elder goat is almost always moved around by the rest of flock by being held up mid-air as if she was crowd surfing at a music festival.

Despite being over a decade old, the film still looks pretty good for its age. It looks like they’ve tried to keep the artistic style from the picture books intact. Most of the animation is really well done, but some of the CG shots, in particular the river sequences, look a little shoddy. But what really shines through here is the story. It’s really entertaining for a children’s story and has quite a number of twists and turns towards the end of the film. There’s plenty of action and suspense in the second half too as Mei and Gav become fugitives with Gil and the rest of the wolf pack constantly on their trail. For most anime fans though I think the problem they will have with this film is that it’s squarely aimed at kids. You can’t deny that. But I think if you can watch something as childish as “Cardcaptor Sakura” (you KNOW it was made for and aimed at children, despite the fact we know who all the merchandise aimed at) or other magical girl anime like “Creamy Mami”, then really you should have no trouble with this film.

While this DVD only has subtitles as the only English option, an official English dub authorised by the film’s main investor, TBS, was released in several parts between December 2008 and November 2009 on Youtube. It was also made available as a free downloadable file (seemingly no longer available). It’s rather baffling as to why this dub hasn’t made it to DVD or Blu-ray or why no publisher in the US, UK, Australia or anywhere else decided to pick it up and release it to the home video market. Lets’ face it; the vast majority of family and children’s animated films reaching western cinemas are gigantic CG animated films with tons of big name actors and jokes squarely aimed at adults. It has sort of surprised me that a bunch of smaller distributors haven’t taken up the opportunity to release some of the many Japanese animated kids films released over there to western cinemas (or home video). They’d be great alternative to the sameness of the current crop of Hollywood CG blockbusters. Sure, in the past we got a new Miyazaki movie every so often with a couple of poorly distributed Ghibli films from other directors in between, but no one other than GKids seems to be interested in these sort of films. There must be a market there if GKids is willing to take a chance with these films. It baffles me that with a pre-existing dub, you’d think this film would be a shoo-in for at least an English language home video release somewhere.