#57 : To-Y

Rule number one for rock n’ roll… never, ever, but never, sell out. Rule number two… repeat rule number one. Got that? OK, now let’s move on…

toy_1Here is a common tale about a young man who lived in 1980s Japan. He is a singer in a band and the name of that group was Gasp (note: The ‘A’ is the anarchist symbol when written… that earns 1,000 bonus points from me). A punk quartet they all were and the name of the leader, who this one-off OVA surrounds, as well as the name of this anime title is none other than To-Y (pronounced ‘toy’)… must of had interesting parents.

toy_2Our story begins at a live show where Gasp is playing their hearts out when a rival of To-Y decides to start trouble and the two get into a fist fight. Despite their popularity they are shunned from the venue and the band decides to regroup for their next show which promises to be a big break. To-Y returns homes with what looks like some groupie tag along who eventually meets a beautiful blonde girl who looks very similar to To-Y due to the fact that she is a direct cousin. She of course is a pop star and her manager also managed the boy who started the fight with To-Y. And it seems this manager wants to sign To-Y as well, I wonder what tricks she will try to lure him in (she looks quite dangerous after all)?

toy_3Don’t expect too much of a plot due to the length being under an hour. And… also be prepared for an open ending (I am still scratching my head on this one?). But what you should  be ready for is a production that is filled with style. I mean we are dealing with punk rock, the 1980s and early MTV styled creativity full steam ahead. It’s not a pretty piece, though it caught my eye for sure, but it is a good looking one filled with color and special effect that harken to the period it came from. Never the less, if I can sum up To-Y I would say it is a poor man’s Jem and the Holograms, with the boys being in the band and no sci-fi or holographic transformations (shows over Synergy).

Music is one of my many loves and finding anime that tell stories about young men and women who play instruments and form bands are welcome in my house. Call it wishful fantasy for a guitarist like myself that never quite got a band together, or call it a nice alternative to the usual robots, fighting or magical girls. To-Y is one of those odd ball OVAs that you dig up and for me am happy to have discovered. “Hey, hey. My, my. Rock n’ roll will never die.”

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#54 : Neo-Tokyo

Short collections are always welcome in my world. Anime often becomes a system of stereotypes… Shonen fighters, magical girls, mecha, Ghibli films. All are great, but is this all that there is to Japanese anime? And of course the answer is absolutely not. There is always something of an alternative. Something more artsy, a little bizarre and uniquely it’s own thing. Art for arts sake and without compromise. A true hallmark of that awesome studio known as Madhouse, welcome to the trilogy Manie-Manie Labyrinth Tales, better known here in the west as Neo-Tokyo.

NT_1We begin with my personal favorite, The Labyrinth. Directed by Rintaro, this a feast of visual delight. Rintaro has always been known for being excessive with visuals to the point that what you are watching becomes more important that the story itself. The story is simple here, an imaginative girl who while playing with her lost and found cat gets sucked into a surreal psychedelic ‘labyrinth’ that leads to a circus via a clock. It just goes to show, watch the invitation you receive from Pierrot-type clowns around grandfather styled clocks. I don’t know if this segment has a meaning or point and I don’t care. It’s pure Rintaro and often when I watch his work I just want to bask in it like a painting in a museum. Plus having the music of Erik Satie is a plus for me 🙂

NT_2The second part known as The Running Man is perhaps the most recognized of the trilogy. I believe this had some play on MTV back in the day and it was in the promotional material of Streamline Pictures. This film looks and feels like its creator, Yoshiyaki Kawajiri. He is best known for a lot of seinen action, think Ninja Scroll, but you cannot deny his talent as a character designer. Top notch, meticulous detail exudes in this tale about a reporter who has followed an unbeatable professional racer throughout his career. How has this man survived for so long in this dangerous sport and how long will he last at the top? The action is fast paced, but the sections where it feel that time or movement slows to a grinding halt is where the real drama begins.

NT_3Now to the final segment, I present Construction Cancelation Order. I can sum this one up with one name, Katsuhiro Otomo. It’s Mr. Akira essentially and yes this is a tale where the societal conditions have gone wrong, except this one has a bit more humor. A nerdy salaryman inspector is to visit a construction site in the remote region of South America to essentially shut it down. And that is a tall order as the machines have total control of the situation. And even though the site is in effect falling apart at the seams and abandoned, the worker robots still continue as programmed. Can our faithful inspector do anything to stop this insanity, or is their a way to just get out alive? This reminds me a lot of Otomo’s later work Roujin Z where he shows how letting technology thrive to solve our everyday problem without a safety net can bring disaster and a chuckle or two.

Hold on… we are going back to the first segment again to finish off as a sort of coda. The labyrinth doors closes… The end. Lets gives a round of applause for our three directors everyone.

NT_4So… what does this trilogy of shorts have to do with a title like Neo-Tokyo? Honestly, I can’t see one, except… except that it was most likely borrowed from that contemporary hit film, Akira. As stated, Akira was a license to print money here in the west back in the early 1990s and it’s creator and director Katsuhiro Otomo was associated with the film right off the bat. I am sure the consensus was… we need to find more work that features this guy to cash in on this Akira trend. And of course Neo-Tokyo was prime for the taking as there was not much else out at the time that had Otomo’s name as director on it. Too bad this film is nothing like Akira and that is neither good, nor bad.

A distant cousin to another all time favorite of mine, the beautiful Robot Carnival, Neo-Tokyo is for me darker and perhaps more streamlined. Helmed by three of Japan’s best directors and produced at Madhouse, Neo-Tokyo stands as one of the best examples of how far Japan stretched animation in the 1980s. I often have forgotten about how unique this one was in the past, but that is true no more.

#47 : Hyper Combat Unit Dangaioh

Fast fact… the opening sequence to the first episode of Dangaioh is awesome. WHOA talk about a whole lot of fun crammed into about three and a half minutes. This may be my favorite anime of what I call popcorn entertainment… sit down and have a blast with no strings attached and to be honest, no real sense of depth beyond what you see is what you get. Dangaioh takes what was fun about super robot mecha from the 1970s and early 1980s and injects it with a dose of higher octane fuel and sprinking in a little esper super hero as the topping on the cake. Be ready to “Cross Fight” because I want to talk about Hyper Combat Unit Dangaioh.

Dangaioh_1It’s time to separate from the uber serious space opera and so-called real robot genere of mecha and return to something more fundamental and basic. I view Dangaioh the same way as I view punk rock in that regard. And while pomp and circumstance of “big stadium acts” or “progressive rock” like titles of say Mobile Suit Gundam, Macross, or Ideon are very much beloved by me, I also find a relief in something simpler, harder and faster. Enter Dangaioh into the mix and I go… “Yeah lets ROCK!” But keep it simple and fun without over bloating it… like say contemporary action films of Hollywood.

Dangaioh_2In the process of the intro we meet our team of heroes who will pilot the Dangaioh machine. We begin with sensitive and level headed Mia Alice, crybaby and cheerleader Lamba Nom, hot headed Pai Thunder and Roll Kran, who is basically the useless guy. Wait a minute… three girls and one dude? That may be more common today, but for the 1980s that was something new. Usually it was the reverse with only one girl in a group of boys. Needless to say these four have been enhanced with esper qualities of various difference and their main purpose is to be sold to the “Banker” a pirate named, Garimoth, much to the chagrin of the jealous Gil Berg (who eventually sells out because why not, he wants to be the king of the group after all). Needless to say our four  heroes realize they are individuals and go against this predetermined destiny. Freewill wins!

Dangaioh_3And the fun starts from there. And over a period of three episodes we enter a “bad guy of the week” type of format. Again reminiscent of early days of mecha, Go Nagai would be proud to see the pendulum swing back towards a more simple approach to mecha. But, that is not to say it is completely elementary. The story at time digs deep into character psychology and in many cases backstory since our heroes are trying to rediscover who they really are. The artwork is awesome as well. As a fan of Toshiro Hirano’s style, it oozes with his certain touch of character design as well as overall direction. Plus, this has great mecha designs and ideas from Koichi Ohata. Nice to see that man’s skills as an artist than say a director, MD Geist anyone?

Dangaioh_4For those of us in the U.S., Dangaioh along with Gunbuster would be the first Japanese animation released subtitled on that old glorious format of VHS. Thank you U.S. Renditions for making this happen and it is sad you are not around today still releasing anime. These three tapes are collectors items for sure for some of us, including myself, but could you imagine purchasing one episode for about $30. And on VHS to boot, not say Blu-Ray or some other high definition source. How times and the market have changed.

Could it have been more than just only the three episodes? True there was that Great Dangaioh TV series, but nothing for the original. And that is fine, because why keep milking a story to death? Seriously, sometimes a great band may release an album or two and then move on to other personal projects. Dangaioh is very much the same. Rock on forever Dangaioh as we rise our lighters to the air for you. I will love ya till the end of time.

#46 : Black Magic M-66

BMM66_1You know what I love about the OVA format? In particular, the ones that came out in the mid-1980s… besides it was an awesome time for creativity… it is the fact you would get miniature one offs that were self contained. Under an hour was all the investment you had to give, which come on everyone, that’s not much time. And these were not promotions for a bigger project. These were the real deal and short and sweet. Masamune Shirow, known well for Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, would get his first anime adaptation in 1987’s Black Magic M-66. The rest they say is history.

BMM66_2Upon watching this one-off I am sure one thing will pop up in your mind. HEY NOW! This is very reminiscent of The Terminator. I am sure I am not the first to proclaim this, but it oozes the killer machine on the run, just not with Arnold Schwarzenegger stating, “I’ll be back.” This time we have a female bodied android and she is many times more dangerous and deadly. After a military plane crashes into an unassuming forest we find that two of these M-66s have escaped. Thus the military is hot on the trail along with guerilla reporter Sybel, who is our protagonist. Eventually one of the M-66’s gets taken down, but the other would find it’s way into the big city. And it’s target… I leave that to you to find out. There is no point spoiling this story.

BMM66_3…One thing I will say, wait for the scene in the elevator with Sybel fighting off the M-66. Well maybe not fight… more like, trying to stay at least one step ahead of this robot. This OVA may not have had the biggest budget, but the effect of turning and perspective in that tight space was impressive. I give you props AIC, even though most everyone else seems to give more attention to the other sibling you also produced in 1987, something called Bubblegum Crisis. Now back to our main content…

BMM66_4I will give this OVA three things that it does very well. First, as stated previously, it’s about 45 minutes long. And while it is a clone of cheesy action sci-fi adventure, it does not overdue it with a lot of Hollywood grandeur. It is like a compact sports car; a fun ride that does not get in the way. Second, props to making our main protagonist a tough lady. And being a Shirow work, she is in top shape and can take care of herself. I actually prefer Sybel more than Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi, because she is all too human and at times makes a mistake. And as mistakes are made I come to the third reason, that of humor. This show takes itself seriously to a minor point and that point is often broken because after all, this is a fun show. The is often the case with Shirow’s manga and I think the adaptations of Ghost in the Shell in particular paint Shirow as too dark. Au contraire. I often wonder if a lot of Shirow’s work is intentional satire.

As a beloved early staple of the VHS era, Black Magic M-66 has fallen out of favor and is often like that rare first album by a band that is passed over due to higher caliber releases that followed in the wake. It’s worth at least one view and maybe a second if you browse through a collection and say, “Well… this is a quickie. Why not?”

#25 : Robot Carnival

Robot Carnival is phenomenal… beautiful. Nine short films of pure genius. Much like picking up a package of new crayons, there is a color or two or maybe even nine that appeal to you? I have my favorites for sure, which I will disclose in time. There are many omnibus or collective productions that have come over from Japan, but Robot Carnival to me trumps them all. It is art for art’s sake and for all the directors who were a part of the production I am sure this was the assignment… ok you have about 10–15 minutes to tell a story and include some aspect of robots… have fun!

I have always enjoyed Japan’s view of what a robot is or can be. It is not some machine to be used for comedic entertainment or a scary monster that shows the darker side of technology. A robot can be a great force or nature, a superhero, a vehicle that has be piloted by someone, your best friend, but above all else a robot can also be as human as you or me. After all are we not organic machines that have emotional connection, the same can be said of something that is inorganic. Mixed with the free interpretation of what a robot can be allowed a large range of creative expression shown in Robot Carnival. No two pieces look or feel the same. But the one constant is the great music. Most of the shorts have no dialogue so in a way they are kind of like music videos. And guess who wrote the music for all of these shorts except one of them? That Jo Hisashi guy! Yes, Mr. Jo has a backlog of other soundtracks beyond the Studio Ghibli canon.

rc_1Robot Carnival begins and ends with it’s most well known creator’s vision of the “Robot Carnival” coming into town spreading it’s joy and fun. Katsuhiro Otomo (the Akira guy) shows his usual style by having this gargantuan transport vehicle partying it up as it travels through a barren landscape. The only thing is this party is laying waste and destruction in the wake of the vehicle’s journey (so Otomo). But hey look at music festivals and such after everyone leaves, it’s a major mess and trashed. Rock on the rolling Robot Carnival… ee maybe Carn-evil?

Alright I am going to go over the next grouping that I consider my also rans and then I will go in backwards order of my favorites from there. Not saying these are bad or they may not be a favorite of your’s, it is just that my tastes favor the shorts I will anounce later. Franken’s Gears is darkly funny and a complete rehash of Shelley’s FrankensteinStrange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion is funny and over the top. And Chicken Man and Redneck or Nightmare is one that I often look over and too be honest if I can give it another go I would probably favor it more. Now for my favorite four, the our seasons, fab four, the Beatles… 

Number 4… Presence: If any of the shorts is standard stock and trade shonen action and could have been turned into a longer single release OVA, this is it. Heavy action, driving music and awesome hair. Girl gets kidnapped, hero saves the day and a whole lot of fun… and awesome hair!

rc_2Number 3… Starlight Angel: Two girls having fun at an amusement park and one sees her beau being friendly to her friend (creep deserves a SLAP!) and girl gets mad, loses necklace and a robot in the park tries to return it. Then again some over the top stuff where a big bad robot takes her away and the robot mentioned previously turns into a handsome guy and saves the day… and then they fall in love. I love shojo and the work of Hiroyuke Kitazume and Starlight Angel has both. This one always reminds me of my niece and the times we (and my sister) had fun times at Six Flags and also her love of going to Disney World. To me she is the “Starlight Angel”.

rc_3Number 2… Presence: Loss, regret, can I be loved? This one could be the pièce de résistance of the whole collection for the production quality alone. Not that the other works are a slouch, but the detail work particularly with clothing and motion show a true strength of the old paint and cel technique. The story is about a man who basically is lost in his life. His marriage is dull, his wife seems to be more successful than him and all the usual responsibilities of being a man seems to have drained the life from him. He creates a female robotic companion, but when she comes to life she asserts her independence and again he becomes frustrated. This one is often looked at as an erotic piece, but I have to disagree as it is a much more metaphorical tale of looking to connect in a genuine relationship.

rc_4Number 1… Cloud: Yes, Cloud! But it’s slow and boring and doesn’t do anything. It’s basically a kid walking with minimal background changes and piano or synth music… SHUT IT. Yes it is in a ‘way’, but it is not slow, or boring, or bad, or stupid, it’s BEAUTIFUL! It is perhaps the most relaxing animation I have ever experienced, almost the equivalent of ambient music (Brian Eno anyone?). And the music makes it that more magical and this is the only production that does not feature notes from Jo Hisaishi. That, and I really like the wandering kid. He reminds me of myself as someone who is a daydreamer on a quest. So yeah, Cloud is my numero uno.

Lightning in a bottle. That saying comes to mind when I think of Robot Carnival. It may only happen once and when it does be thankful that you had the opportunity. Besides the older otaku culture who raves over this collection it can be in many ways a gateway drug to introduce Japanese animation to anyone who may not be warm to it. The limited dialog and shorter lengths makes easy digestion. But for those of us who love Robot Carnival, it is almost a religion. I am a proud fan of this one and glad to still keep my old laserdisc release even though we got a DVD release (Discotek, you made a miracle come true) as this is one of the reasons why anime is so much more than just the term anime.