#146 : Astro Boy (1980 TV Series)

AB80_1I bow down before thee, for you Astro Boy are the head patron saint of all anime. But wait, this is not the original version from 1963 that is often considered among the first modern anime to be conceived. No, this is not that version from 2003, nor that animated movie that was… umm… yeah. This telling of Astro Boy is like the middle child of the family, a reimagined version from 1980 that was under the full direction of it’s original creator, the man himself, Osamu Tezuka. I bow yet again. For this time round we present Astro Boy in FULL COLOR!, an upgrade from the black and white of the 1960s. So fancy! Heroes we look up to and admire come in all shapes, sizes and ages, but how many have the heart of an innocent child? Or even better, is an innocent child who is curious and sensitive to himself and everyone around him? Astro Boy is this and that’s why we fans love you!

AB80_2The character of Astro Boy… he is so cute and a lot like a stuffed animal. I just want to hug him and keep him safe from harm, but more than likely he will be the one protecting me instead. A mix of Superman, Frankenstein and Pinnochio that is rolled into an idealistic hope for the future, Astro Boy tells stories with an aesthetic originating in the 1950s/60s with animation advancements from 1980. We are in an idealized utopian world of the nuclear family, school days and good always triumphing over evil. Progress, optimism and the coming of advanced technologies spearheaded with science that includes a product that defines the show, robots. One of those robots is a young boy who was a clone of a boy who was tragically killed in an auto accident. The grief and guilt from the boy’s father led to the birth of our protagonist Astro Boy, which by the way, is the plot for the opening episode.

AB80_3The joy of Astro Boy is that really and truly is a show for children. And yes, it can also be enjoyed by the whole family, or even us youth minded adult types. The storylines for each episode are mostly simple to digest and easy to follow and often times you may be asking yourself, am I too old for this? And then the truth begins to shine from underneath, as is the magic of Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka’s humanitarianism and depth are renowned in every work he created, but it is in full display in Astro Boy. The bright colors and simple designs are just a package for the drama and lessons that each episode portrays. Nothing is held back, including at times the cost of one’s life. Astro Boy is a show with a high body count and often depicts some sort of sacrifice. The difference is that there is always a moral teaching behind everything. Tezuka does not lie to children and shows that loss and even death are a part of our lives and that violence is not always the answer. Tezuka’s Unico movies are of a similar caliber.

AB80_4Each episode is self contained so there is no overarching serialized story that comes to a final conclusion. The episodes featuring arch nemesis Atlas are the closest to a having a larger narrative and offers much in terms of drama. Atlas became my favorite character and his tragic story alongside his beloved Livian, brought much in terms of maturity and personal reflection. Many times anime portrays the villain, or antagonist, as a more appealing character than the hero; Atlas belongs with this grouping of classic beloved bad boys… and girls. On another note one special episode stands out. A crossover story, which features Tezuka alums Black Jack, Rock and Sapphire; a welcome treat for those of us who are fans of the ‘God of Manga’s’ work.

I whole heartedly recommend Astro Boy as a starter anime if you have young children. And for those of you who are full grown, such as myself and I am sure you as well, the 1980 version of Astro Boy is something of an oddity to consider if it crosses your path. Relive the 1950s/60s from the perspective of the 1980s in the current moment of whatever year you consider the present. In the end it’s all the same.

#145 : Crying Freeman

CF_1Crying Freeman… sex and violence… sexy people and intense fighting… bare naked bodies with tattoos and death on the par with Fist of the North Star. If action movies could be infused with cheesy late night erotic dramas they would come out as Crying Freeman. It’s like Golgo 13 sans the James Bond references and stoicism and injected instead with yakuza culture and a protoganist who is more humane than a cold blooded killing machine. Crying Freeman: not politically correct, over the top, erotic and totally not for children… it’s the type of anime that when you were young you stayed up and waited for you parents to go to sleep so you can experience it without their knowledge of what you were doing in the wee hours of the morning. “Hey kids when are you all gonna get some shut eye?”

CF_2Don’t ask my why, but the first episode of Crying Freeman does two things for me. One, I think of the George Michael song Careless Whisper, why was this not on the soundtrack it would have been amazing? “I’m never gonna dance again, Guilty feet have got no rhythm…” And then that saxophone line hits and then it’s all over… Now number two, I laugh and laugh hard. For an OVA that takes itself so seriously on being a ridiculous ultimate fantasy of masculine cock swagger, one can’t help but chuckle at times. Crying Freeman is not a comedy, but it sure can pass as one. In a total of six episodes I can recommend the first two as it sets the foundation of the story and I leave it up to you to finish the final four. By then it becomes repetitive and a top this crazy sexual, or action moment, again and again. … If anything watch the first episode, it’s so good at being bad it’s amazingly entertaining.

CF_3So here is the basic plot… a former artist is turned into a hired killer for the 108 Dragons by means of torture, interrogation and acupuncture. The only humanity left within him appears as crying when he frags someone due to a subconscious reflex. Our hero’s only hope is wanting to be a quote free man again who also has this habit of crying… now this title makes sense. During one mission he is spotted by a beautiful lady artist, which means the poor girl, who for no luck of her own accord, has to be silenced due to being a witness. She has just turned 29 and knowing that she is to be killed has only one wish. To… not… die… a virgin! OK, this is… different. Freeman eventually shows up and she confesses that he can kill her if she can go to bed with him. He agrees and it turns out… he is a virgin… too? SAY WHAT! Two gorgeous specimens of human ideal beauty and both have never had sex? Really? Seriously? Well it could happen to the best of us? You can laugh now if you wish, because I did. In the aftermath of joining together in coitus, a committed relationship would blossom and the plot now centers around Freeman saving his lover from harm. This is only the first episode and it seems so ridiculous, but I can’t help but say that I enjoyed it; who in their right mind came up with this?

CF_4The original manga was penned by the name of Kazuo Koike, who has a reputation for the bizarre and outlandish. I give this man props for being so mind blowing on a level I can’t even comprehend. The other side of course is the man who created the illustrations and character designs, one Ryochi Ikegami. He is the key to Crying Freeman’s biggest saving grace. The man’s style is beautiful and is a much more realistic rendering approach in regards to human anatomy and very much so, facial structure. This is not the usual cartoonish look most associated with anime, Ikegami’s talent is more like great figure drawing.

So often titles fit into the term ‘Manime’ (I hate that term) and Crying Freeman is no exception. The joy of Crying Freeman is in the fact that this is B-grade, maybe even C-grade schlock, but it does have a decent story… decent?… and can always be good if you need a laugh or a WTF moment. Sadly it still does not have George Michael, sigh.

#144 : Bubblegum Crisis

BGC_1The year of 2032… Mega Tokyo… hey what happened to regular Tokyo?… all hell has broken loose with these so called Boomers trashing the place. These androids are even too much for the illustrious AD Police, even with all their firepower and sophisticated technology. I demand to see how much of the tax revenue is being spent for this organization. We must therefore have a need for a third party to aid in this scenario. Welcome to the ’Hurricane’ world of the Knight Sabers. A world where a quartet of armored young women are the best answer for peace and justice. A world known simply as Bubblegum Crisis.

So Bubblegum Crisis… it’s like Blade Runner with both the action intensity and sexiness turned way up high. Plus, get extra hairspray as this is the 80s; tease that hair kidos! I guess if one is to make their own anime homage to a Blade Runner-like universe, one must do it very LOUD! Make is sexy! Drop all that film noir moodiness and introspection and let the action tell the story. And for good measure why not add in a little bit of The Terminator, Batman and Streets of Fire for good measure. Plus why not also spice things up with a little sentai squad action, wearable mechanical armor and good looking characters via Kenichi Sonoda. Hmm, explosions and attractive people with a dash of cyberpunk for good measure, now I see why this OVA gained some notoriety. For a time Bubblegum Crisis defined what anime was for many fans, but as we all know, anime is so much more than just well animated hi-octane action stories.

BGC_2OK just who are these Knight Sabers exactly? A lingerie store owner, a motorcycle obsessed rock singer, an aerobics instructor and a junior member of the AD Police make up our heroic quartet. Interesting… just shows you don’t really know people that well outside the office. While their day jobs are quite ordinary, the Knight Sabers crime fighting skills are anything but. With the aid of skin tight wearable armor that aids in performance, these girls can kick some serious butt. Seriously! Kind of like Saint Seiya with super high end technology that has a more fetish like approach that could rival the robot designs from say The Humanoid? With high heels too! Gatchaman may have thigh high boots, but the Knight Sabers have stilettos. And it is these spike heeled suits that do the best damage against the Genom Corporation’s never ending renegade Boomer population. The AD Police try their best, but they often have a better role as spectators. The fighting style that the Knight Sabers employs reminds me a lot of Casshan… come to think of it he had a streamlined body suit too. Holy cow, where are all these references to other anime coming from?

BGC_3Bubblegum Crisis is perhaps the biggest creation of the studio AIC. Built on the bedrock of Megazone 23 and two other Sonoda designed entries, Wannabies and Gall Force, Bubblegum Crisis is AIC at it’s height. Perhaps these three previous entries led the way like stepping stones towards Bubblegum Crisis? Who can say, but everything was right and in place to bring the Knight Sabers to the OVA market, which by 1987 was really in high gear. Bubblegum Crisis is in many ways an original creation that is an homage to so many pop culture references. Fans of sci-fi and anime making their own anime their way.

BGC_4I know Bubblegum Crisis is beloved by many established fans and everyday is introduced to new ones via whatever method you choose to watch. I will say I like it, but I don’t get all the hype. Maybe because this was one of the best options back in the day as it was easy to come by and it spoke towards certain demographics. I will admit it’s a classic, animated very well (almost seems like each episode is a mini movie; late 80s OVA quality!) and a nice example of cyberpunk as a genre. As a piece of action entertainment Bubblegum Crisis is stellar, but for me at least it starts to wear down particularly in the later episodes. Still, it is fun and has a rockin’ soundtrack, can’t complain about that!

Special : Watership Down

WD_1This is the real real world… this is nature interpreted through an artist’s particular vision and, or vernacular. A veritable John Constable, or even at times a J.M.W. Turner landscape coming to life with all the lush blues, greens and browns that echoes a quiet summer’s day with a punch of yellow and orange. An organic world of basic survival, gut instinct and presence within the moment. Except our vantage point of view is not from our familiar human senses, but from those of the animals of the wild we commonly call rabbits. This is the epic of the heroes journey set in an honest portrayal, a grand adaptation of the original source material (how often does that happen?) and a story that will last for thousands of years. This is the original animated version of Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

I am totally, totally breaking the rules with this entry. Watership Down has absolutely nothing to do with Japan in either the source material, or the production. It is British in origin, British in terms of production and vocal casting and American with director Martin Rosen. The adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel technically should not be here… yet I MUST include Watership Down on this website. I love this film and draw so much inspiration from it. It may be perhaps my all time favorite animated creation. So much so that in one of my classes in college, I used Watership Down as visual material for one of my best design projects of my academic career. Watership Down is not just any other movie, it is my personal spiritual myth, my Holy Book.

WD_2Watership Down begins with a core element that is something we must all face, that of the unexplained. Fiver’s sixth sense of impending danger and Hazel’s trust in him to go on a great journey to find a safe land, paradise, Arcadia (Captain Harlock reference) is not of the rational. I often think sometimes animals in the wild have an intelligence that a portion of humanity has lost. A true deep connection to the universe that does not question the motives behind signs, or feelings. Call it whatever you wish, but to our lapine friends they put their trust to Lord Frith. For it was Lord Frith who bestowed the gifts of swiftness and cunning to El-ahrairah, the original chief of the rabbit race. With cunning, quick decision making, or trickery and a fast stride a rabbit can and does survive. Yet often we humans lose this ability to see and feel our true essence because of the conformity structures we try to belong to. When one “Let’s go and let’s God” (God as your personal definition) we become closer to those of the wild and in essence our truest selves.

WD_3Hazel is not the only one to believe Fiver’s calling. A group of deserters join including a former Owsla (Army) officer, Bigwig, to find this special land of safety. They must traverse unknown terrain, encounter obstacles and at times lose a comrade. They must learn just who to trust and keep faith that their journey is true even when deviation becomes tempting. With a gorgeous film score, exceptional voice acting (I became a fan of John Hurt immediately) and the natural style of the artwork, both characters and backgrounds, I often feel that I am outside in the world of nature and with our little friends on their quest. Sometimes fiction looks more real than fact? Watership Down is a masterpiece that took itself seriously and is a true labor of love. This movie can’t hide from the apparent details.

WD_4Animation and in particular the traditional painted cel has always been a source of joy and a personal sanctuary for me. Watership Down is a testament to this style. After the movie, I felt obliged to buy and read the book which I have gone threw a handful of times. Either medium provides the depth and assurance I sometimes need to know that I am one with this universe and that the cycles that we all live through are worth the ups and downs. Many talk about the so called violence in this film, but they are missing the true core. This is an honest and mature look at our lives and not some flashy over dramatization to appeal to a low common denominator. To Richard Adams, Martin Rosen, Angela Morley, the cast and production crew I heartedly thank you for giving all of us such a beautiful epic.

#143 : Pole Position

PP84_1“Fun and excitement are abundant today as the Pole Position team get their own entry at The Classic Anime Museum.” … now that’s how to start an episode. 😉 It feels like Saturday morning though it may only be Tuesday Afternoon… I’m looking at myself, reflections of my mind… nice Moody Blues tie in, hehe. Pole Position was for me a staple reason to get up early, grab a bowl of Cheerios, or Rice Chex and cuddle up with my favorite toys for a couple years. Based on the classic arcade game by Namco, Pole Position was and still is one of my favorite shows from my formative years. Time to buckle up again for another ride.

PP84_2Often when it comes to video game adaptations into animation you have one of two choices: be a literal copycat or completely jump the shark and turn the show into something completely unique. Pole Position easily took the later option. Seriously, how does one turn an arcade quarter muncher driving laps around Fuji Speedway? An episode can turn into a quick game over if you hit any of the objects on the track, or the other cars… instant EXPLOSION! We need to do some heavy modification here work, à la Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors as an example. DiC created both of these shows and knew how to take creative liberties to the extreme to create a cartoon. And in either case, it works… splendidly!

PP84_3Now… let’s start off this alternate version with a brother and sister stunt team who are accompanied by their even younger sister and their pet. Is it a crossbreed between a monkey and a cat, or something else altogether? Who cares, it’s Kuma and I want one and I like him. Or, it is her? Maybe their non-binary? Very forward thinking! Now for the secret… Dan and Tess Darrett are more than just your everyday stunt drivers. Like their parent were, they are secrets agents for the organization Pole Position and solve crime and mysteries. Only their boss, their uncle, knows. And instead of the fancy open wheeled Formula One racer, let’s give Tess a red vintage Ford Mustang and Dan some blue futuristic prototype each with a computer A.I. that communicates with them, Wheels and Roadie. Brilliant, brilliant, I think we have a winning entry here.

PP84_4Pole Position is a stew where we take the name of a popular arcade racer, mix in elements of Scooby Doo, Knight Rider and James Bond and end up with a 1980s version of Speed Racer. And since the show was only 13 episodes, it doesn’t grow stale. It’s almost perfect for what Saturday morning cartoons used to be. Had it been a longer run for syndication, 65 episodes, then Pole Position may end up running out of steam? Maybe? Can’t say, because like everything, Pole Position is what it is and I love it for what it is. Action and adventure, cars, futuristic technology for the mid 1980s and being animated in Japan… I call that a killer combination. Check the credits at the end and mashed between the American and French staff you discover all the animators were Japanese. Even famed mechanical designer Shinji Aramaki contributed work. Oh yeah almost forgot… this is a DiC show… you have to have a classic Shuky Levi soundtrack and theme song. Yeah… now were ready to race! … um, who has the keys?

Honestly, a Saturday morning can be any, or every new morning of your life. Perhaps even a Saturday morning can occur during the afternoon or evening? Adjust accordingly to your local timezone. We all have a reason to get up every morning to see a new day… at least I hope so. For a time there was fun entertainment before the crack of dawn, but nowadays you may hit the snooze button twice before realizing it is past noon. In the end it does not matter when you get up, or what you define as the morning as you can always watch a Saturday morning favorite, like Pole Position, either via physical media or somewhere online at anytime. How the world has changed; as a kid I would have never saw that coming.

#142 : Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01

M01_1If one is a fan of mecha, machinery, or action with the inclusion of a machine of some sort, then Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 would be considered as close to porn for fans. Watch the opening scene with all the mechanics and electronics… it’s total mecha hentai, second to perhaps the credits of Patlabor 2. Only a mechanical designer would have created something like this OVA and in the case of MADOX-01 that is the truth. The name of Shinji Aramaki is all over the place… director, story creation and mechanical designer. I bet he was the caterer too? … Funny thing about MADOX-01, it reminds me of another OVA, I wonder what it could be? Though it’s not exactly the same it does remind me of… umm? Hmm? Let me think on this one…

M01_2The year, 1987. The place, Japan. The man,  Shinji Aramaki. The rise of the OVA format gave opportunities for many younger and/or junior rank members of the anime industry to take on the big role of directing a project. Names like Ichiro Itano, Koichi Ohata and Toshihiro Hirano went from special effects artists, mechanical designers, or character designers and moved into the realm of the director’s chair. Aramaki’s portfolio was filled with many mechanical designs ranging from anime including: Genesis Climber Mospeada, Megazone 23 (wait a minute!… oh never mind) and Bubblegum Crisis and western based shows like Pole Position, M.A.S.K. and even the original Transformers. Quite a nice lineup there so yes, he can draw machines very well… very well, but what about directing? I suppose its true to stick with your strengths and that is what Aramaki did with MADOX-01. A mechanical designer directing an anime all about mecha… what a surprise.

M01_3The Japanese government has a new fancy weapon, wearable armor in fact. Codenamed the MADOX-01 it showcases quite the firepower and agility. It’s pilot even defeats an old stalwart in more traditional equipment, much to his chagrin. Yeah old man, you lost to a girl! I always thought women were better mecha pilots anyway! 🙂 Later the machine needs to be transported to a new location and somehow becomes lost after an accident (shakes head). Can’t the government afford a decent security transport? Almost like in Black Magic M-66… keep track of your toys kids! Then this fancy device ends up in the hands of some nerdy engineering student who seems to understand how it works (hello Amuro Ray?) and then becomes connected with it literally. Now Mr. Smarty Student has to evade the feds, including that angry guy from before who wants revenge so bad for being beaten before (chuckles). Again a little like Megazone 23 with Shogo with the Garland and being chased by the military and gaining a rival with B.D. …

M01_4… Ah ha, it was Megazone 23 after all? Though I am stretching it a little, there are similarities if you take both OVAs from a certain point of view. Both stories want our protagonists to get back to their respective girlfriends at the end, but they have a minor issue of being wanted, as well as chased, from a larger authority. MADOX-01 is a far simpler story and is more based around the action than the unfolding mystery and drama of Megazone 23 (first installment to be specific). MADOX-01 is fun and has some unique character designs as well , but it is really a one and done sort of viewing. If you love mecha and action you will more than likely rewatch, while if you are more into shojo, or romance, I doubt you would consider it in the first place. I would highly recommend Megazone 23 in either case, just because it is a personal favorite and a far more superior production (my opinion). Either way they are both products of action powerhouse studio AIC!

By the way, in case you are interested in what came of Aramaki-san he continued on as a director years later. Remember the CGI movies of Appleseed and Space Pirate Captain Harlock? He was behind the chair on those films and they really left me flat… I couldn’t do fifteen minutes of either one. MADOX-01 is thankfully watchable, short and old style cel drawn too… mmm, I love the smell of analog in the morning.

#141 : The Dagger of Kamui

You love ninja and samurai stories, I love ninja and samurai stories… we all love a good ninja or samurai story. Here in the west we have the epics of ancient Europe and the American western to delight our tastes in mythology, but for some of us there is a draw from an alternate source, the native myths of the East. Anime’s representation of a skilled man (or woman) is numerous: Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin and Ninja Scroll just to name a few. But what if we can marry the samurai genre with the western genre into a film? Yup, that’s been done before… ever heard of 1985’s The Dagger of Kamui?

DoK_1Even if one is not much into action, ninja skills, or sword mastery, The Dagger of Kamui can still be a worthy watch; even if only just once! The Dagger of Kamui equates the definition of the big epic expensive action film, with an art house twist. Big… no no no… more like say, HUGE! Take a break my friends because this is one of those long journeys that spans Japan, Russia and then the wild west of America. Now that is quite a tour! You even get to meet historic figures like Geronimo and Mark Twain too. What?! And this is still considered a ninja, or samurai film? Or perhaps the ultimate shonen fighter? That may be stretching it, but does it matter? Nah, not at all. Just remember, to tell a large epic journey will take some time and this film is long, two plus hours long. And no intermission either (except the pause button, shh! it’s a secret), so be prepared.

DoK_2The Dagger of Kamui is a great example of ‘the hero’s journey’. The Hero with a Thousand Faces has now reached 1,001; a quick nod to you Joseph Campbell! Our hero is Jiro who is in no better terms, a bastard. He is an illegitimate child adopted into a loving family and also an individual whose heritage is partly Ainu, the native culture of Japan that was once frowned upon. Needless to say the kid is not well liked, or respected for no fault of his own except the ignorance of those around him. These elements don’t help when Jiro returns home to find his mother and sister murdered. Take a guess who gets the blame with no due process? With a dagger in hand that will unlock many clues of his origins and destiny, Jiro goes on the run to at first find the murderer of his family and then… well, that’s the beauty of being on a quest… it’s open to discovery beyond imagination.

DoK_3The story may be huge, the music is funky, with electric guitar and traditional Japanese drumming, but the visuals are a sight to behold. This is one gorgeous movie. Backgrounds are lush. Motion is fluid. Colors are bold. The fight scenes are like expressionist paintings that have come to life that could easily pass as a psychedelic experience. No surprise really as this was made at Madhouse, a studio which seems to have two quality settings in the visual department… amazing and fantastic. That and with a director like Rintaro, the ocular experience triples if not quadruples with his use of editing, color and dynamics. Let me go back to the fight scenes again. They are not like the usual brawl. Think more in terms of a well choreographed dance in a lucid dream you can only have at midnight where all around is magic and wonder to behold and see. Conflict becomes poetic art; danger becomes beautiful.

DoK_480s anime cinema has many standout choices. Many originate from well known directors, franchises, or are just at the right place at the right time. The Dagger of Kamui can fall into line with say the Fist of the North Star film for being a big action epic where our hero has to face up against a his major arch rival in the end, but The Dagger of Kamui is a completely different beast altogether. Some action films are just that, an action film. But there are those action films that are blessed to have been created by an auteur studio and an auteur director as well. There is something special about these movies, even though they can be a little long winded. The Dagger of Kamui is one wild ride!