#223 : Amon Saga

Can you survive the test to join the army of Valhiss? Do you wish to ride the giant turtle that features a city on top of the shell? … A giant turtle? That’s different. … Welcome to a minor introductory for the fantasy adventure known as Amon Saga, a 1986 OVA that made its way over here in the west on physical media somehow. Interesting choice and not my first pick if I was shopping for releases, but hey a $5 DVD is worth a try at least. I have had enough of all this futuristic sci-fi as of late, I want something more grounded, but mystical as well. Classic sword and sorcery are in order this time!

Amon_1Right off from the start I found something appealing about Amon Saga. Many often label it as a very generic fantasy OVA, maybe more on the lower end of the spectrum, but to be honest from my eye it’s good, but don’t expect a miracle. The production in terms of the visuals are strong and make up for the more run of the mill plot line of personal revenge for the death of a family member. Plus don’t forget to add in saving a princess and fighting fearsome monsters. The characters themselves are fairly average, but this is an action flick after all and could pass as a medieval Fist of the North Star featuring the swords and magic over martial arts. Or maybe this reminds me more of Vampire Hunter D?

Amon_2Picture now a post apocalyptic wasteland and a young man wandering on horseback coming to a cantina for a rest and a drink. His name is Amon and soon he catches the eye of the rough clientele and even befriends one in a bar room brawl. Soon that previously mentioned giant turtle makes its way into town. This is the fortress of Emperor Valhiss and his subordinates announce a call to invite nine men to join the ranks of Valhiss. Amon would qualify, as he should as he is the hero of this tale, for the coveted ninth position. His motives are not completely clear as of yet, but trust me, he has his eyes on revenge. Valhiss murdered Amon’s mother in front of his eyes and this is his reason to join up in the Valhiss army. While making a first attempt to slay Valhiss he would fail, but in turn would meet another alley, a captured princess no less, Princess Lichia. How very cliche.

Amon_3Let’s now look into the character designs as they have a familiar and inviting look to them. This grouping belong to the handiwork of one Yoshitaka Amano. Many of us have seen his designs ranging from the classic Tatsunoko superheroes of the 1970s (Gatchaman and Casshan as examples), the casts of Genesis Climber Mospeada (Robotech: The New Generation), Angel’s Egg, the previously mentioned Vampire Hunter D and even artwork for the Final Fantasy games. He even created a tarot deck that really differs from the usual Ryder Waite designs. With all this in mind I can see him being a good choice for Amon Saga and his artistry more than carries any weaknesses, or cliches, in the production.

Amon_4Amon Saga for me is a good popcorn flick and a decent OVA release. It’s a simple story, runs just over an hour in length and comes across well polished to my eye. This was worth a re-watch as often times I trust the judgment of others as to how I see certain anime releases. I liked Amon Saga, but I didn’t hold it to any high standards. While this is not on the level of say Record of Lodoss War, Amon Saga is a smaller and more compact package that doesn’t go over its head. Swords, magic, princesses, a menacing emperor, a Valley of Gold and a giant turtle, who could ask for anything more?

#221 : Starcom: The U.S. Space Force

“All Starmax and Star Wolves… Scramble!” It must be Saturday morning in 1987 and excitement is in the air from that opening statement. Do you remember Starcom: The U.S. Space Force? Oh yes, now this is what I call science fiction of the upcoming future, that may perhaps be the now(?)… how can this present day be the future promised? Part of me really wants to be a space cowboy still and yet the best I can ever get to that reality of riding in a spaceship are relegated to shows like Starcom. Yippee-ki-yay buckaroos and strap on your helmets because I’m off to the stars for this one!

Starcom_1Starcom represented one of the best toy ideas from the 1980s, regardless of gender stereotyping. While it did not have the big budget punch of say The Transformers, Cabbage Patch Kids, or LEGO, Starcom did have a certain niche that makes it still today a cult favorite. Space exploration, day to day general working equipment and also military combat all wrapped up in an almost Star Trek like future, or maybe more like Legend of the Galactic Heroes? Such a great toy line, one that I often held to what the future could become, and one that I did not have… which is ok. Motorized in strategic places and including magnets in others (including the figures’ feet!), Starcom had a lot of play value… plus no need for batteries!?!. Amazing. The only time I remember playing with these toys was at a house that belonged to a related cousin of my dad. I got along well with the two sons and on the floor was a ton of Starcom. The image is a little fuzzy, but that memory I vaguely remember was a good one.

Starcom_2Now then this is not a site about toys, what about the cartoon? As a show Starcom: The US Space Force is an interesting bird. 13 episodes in total it was a great installment for the Saturday morning lineup of the time and stood out in many ways. A large cast of characters, a broad outlook for space travel and exploration and an exciting atmosphere for what could be our future (I am still waiting!), Starcom has so much to offer. That and this is one of the best looking shows of the era and to no surprise it was animated in Japan. By TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha) no less, can you see the great line work, color, lighting and events fluid movement in various camera angles? A gorgeous show… that in some ways is kind of limiting as well.

Starcom_3Now this is a personal opinion, but I think Starcom didn’t live up to it’s full potential as a cartoon. True there were only 13 episodes made, and we can take that into account, but I feel so much more could have been flushed out. The two factions of Starcom and the Shadow Force of Emperor Dark (nice hair man) never get into any real political struggles. True this was a toy show and the point was to show off all those awesome spacecrafts flying around, but really no stories depicting the a large scale drama of the two sides. The majority of the show highlights the ‘Big 3’ of Colonel’s Derringer, Griffin and Corbin (Dash, Slim and Crowbar), the three commanders of the three branches of Starcom, with only minor appearances from other Starcom members. Hey guys, share the spotlight a little… please? And then there’s the background music, which is awesome, but some of it sounds familiar to another DiC produced show. Is it me, or did DiC borrow some of the soundtrack from Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors? It was good once, so why not recycle it? I mean who would know? … besides hard corps Jayce nerds (LIKE ME!)

Starcom_4Please don’t think I am trashing Starcom as a show. Despite these flaws that are more personal than anything, this show is really top notch. Visually, as I said before, it’s one of the best looking shows of the era. The writing is clever, with comedic puns that never grow old (I have a bad feeling about this!) and on the other end of the spectrum a touch of sophisticated nuance. This is classic hard sci-fi, more in line with original Gundam, with plot lines that seemed a little more mature than the usual stop the bad guys narrative. Nantucket Sleighride, Caverns of Mars and Hot Enough For You? are three great episodes that really showed the bigger potential of the Starcom universe. I still wonder when we will have the chance to live and work in space just like in Starcom? As an idealist I still believe it can happen in my lifetime!

… now I have heard that the Shadow Force logo is reminiscent of Legend of Zelda’s Triforce, but I think it looks just like LEGO’s logo for the first iteration of Blacktron, except swapping yellow for red?

#220 : Harmagedon

“That’s great it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, and aeroplanes… Lenny Bruce is not afraid”… ? … hold on a minute, is this like the end of the world as we know it, the end times, the apocalypse? Kind of and do I feel fine?… I don’t think so if that’s the case and yet from all endings throughout time they are also become new beginnings. Combine the ultimate disaster scenario with an invading evil presence from the far side of the universe and what do you get?, BIG trouble. In the year of 1983 I could sum this up with the title of a movie that was a box office hit in Japan. Let me guess is it Total Armageddon? Nope, more like Harmagedon.

Harma_1aHeroes unite! The evil Genma has made his way through the universe, bringing terror and destruction to every world he touches. Not bad for a large cloud like red skull? He is now set on Earth to claim as his own except he runs into a little problem. He has to face a squad of people who hail from all around the world, from different backgrounds, nationalities and races who happen to have psionic powers… almost sounds like a variation of Cyborg 009 in a way. And it should as the original source material, and title of the film, was known as Genma Taisen (The Great Battle, or War of Genma) a cooperative effort between Kazumasa Hirai and Shotaro Ishinomori (009’s creator). Genma Taisen even had it’s origins in the 1960s too! The first half of Harmagedon, and it’s a long half, showcases only a trio of our heroic cast: a psychic princess from Transylvania (really!), a resurrected robot warrior and our main protagonist, a young Japanese man named, Jo, who is having a very bad day. First he finds out he is not on the baseball team, then he gets dumped by his girlfriend and finally he ends up being chased by some strange robot in an alley that keeps shooting at him. Talk about a rough day!

Harma_2Another take on ‘Heroes unite!’ as we now look at another group of people, those who were responsible for the making of this mammoth of a film. First is Haruki Kadakawa who is not a name I often equate with anime often, except when I see his name plastered at the beginning of any opening credit sequence with that beautiful phoenix like logo. He was the executive producer and a high roller at that who made it loud and clear that he was the one funding this project! Let us next move to the powerhouse studio known as Madhouse and one of it’s best directors, the amazing Rintaro. Love him or hate him, his work is monumentally visual which sometimes looses a little depth in terms of story, or character. Next in line is our character designer who was a young manga artist that would get his first shot in the anime world. He would become ultra famous for a movie from 1988 known as Akira, but in 1983 he was just plain and simple Katsuhiro Otomo. And finally we need some music, so who could fill this roll? We need someone big, bombastic and different! How about Keith Emerson? Whoa really like from Emerson, Lake, Palmer? The guy who brought a massive Moog synthesizer on tour and had a reputation for stabbing knives into Hammond organs, amongst other things. Yeah we’ll take him! “Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends…”

Harma_3Many often poo poo Harmagedon as a film, particularly here in the west. In Japan it was a huge blockbuster at the theaters and popular. Did you see the reference in Project A-Ko for instance? We of course did not have much exposure to the original Genma Taisen sources that had been around for decades in Japan. That and the over emphasis of action and the visuals make Harmagedon a feast for the eyes, but awkward in terms of plot. You really have to know and have a passion for Genma Taisen to really love it, or just see Harmagedon as an example of an arthouse action film. And anyway, aren’t many blockbuster action films just visual spectacle. Yes, but not on the level of artistic beauty that Harmagedon exudes. Plus the emphasis of more realistic designs for both Tokyo and Otomo’s characters, as well as Rintaro’s touch, gives Harmagedon an edgy look that was not seen often in anime at that time. Don’t quote me on that, I heard this from many sources and they are so right!

Harma_4Several themes are brought to the surface, but one that draws a good amount of attention is some very open racism, which eventually resolves itself from understanding and compassion. Compassion is a great word to use I would say as an overall theme of this movie as we as humans need to respect the diversity of who we are and take care of this beautiful green world we live on which is not separate from us, but is a part of us. Our protagonist Jo also has his own feelings to resolve, all stemming from anger towards himself, the death of loved ones and even getting dumped and feeling not up to playing for the high school baseball team. Transforming anger into compassion, hate into love and believing in yourself is for me the major theme of Harmagedon. I understand this very well as this is a core issue I have been dealing with personally. And as of this writing in 2020, who can not say there is a lot of anger and frustration in our collective world? Jo would rise above his hate and is it me, or does this film also remind you in a way to Otomo’s Akira? In that movie we see the destructive power of personal hatred affecting each and every one of us. Both films end in total destruction and yet in both films there is a glimmer of hope that we can start again because being with people you love and that in turn believe in you, no matter the circumstances, can show a way toward one’s next season in life.

… I apologize as this one went a little longer than normal, but then again this movie’s running time feels like it runs longer than normal… maybe it was destined to be this way?