Stephen reviews: Harmagedon (1983)

Harmagedon [幻魔大戦] (1983)
AKA Harmagedon: The Great Battle with Genma, Harmagedon: Genma Taisen, Genma Wars

Starring Tōru Furuya, Mami Koyama, Ichirô Nagai, Toru Emori, Yasufumi Hayashi, Junpei Takiguchi, Takanobu Hozumi

Directed by Rintaro


How can I not love an 80s movie called Harmagedon? As soon as I realized I had missed out on what could only be a supreme gem of 80s awesome, I had to rectify the situation. Once I popped it in the DVD player and realized that this was also a film by Rintaro, my expectations were through the roof. Now I have always had my issues with Rintaro’s films, but one thing is certain: the man can make a badass action scene. Even when his films as a whole aren’t that great, which is usually the case, there is always some part of them so amazing that I still can’t help but love them. Then I found out he was teamed up with Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira, and my mind was blown. And then there’s the inexplicable addition of Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame, as music composer. Sure he only did about one-third of the film’s music, but there’s no confusing which it was when one of his tunes kicks in, synth ablazing. Do I even have to say more? This film is a total trip of epic proportions.

The bizarreness kicks in straight away with the narrator. Most films opt for a calm and objective narrator, but not Harmagedon. Its narrator is a crazed, black-robed fortune-teller prancing around the empty streets of Tokyo raving about the apocalypse. And mysteriously teleporting around. We mustn’t forget about that. If this doesn’t prepare you for some crazy shit, maybe the next scene will.

After a meteor crashes through Princess Luna’s plane, she is dragged off to see the coalesced energy of all living things. As it turns out, God’s true name is Floy. Floy gives Luna a huge spiel about somebody named Genma that’s been destroying the universe over the past billion years or so, and now she’s got to stop it. And that giant meteor that blew up her plane is actually a spaceship containing her new pal Vega, a cyborg warrior whose world and lover were destroyed by Genma eons ago. The flashback to his final battle is easily one of the best parts of the film. Strange flitting demons fly across the screen as spaceships explode. Vega’s farewell to his love is made all the more touching by its silence and stillness while Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor adds its weight to the scene. Maybe it’s just because Bach is awesome, but this scene worked brilliantly, and not just in a cheesy 80s schlock kind of way.

Sadly, despite such an awesome introduction, Vega doesn’t have a whole lot of focus over the rest of the film. In fact, the main character hasn’t even shown up yet. So after the whole save the world from evil thing wraps up, it finally introduces us to Jo. Jo’s been having a pretty bad day. He got turned down for the high-school baseball team, his girlfriend dumped him because he’s a little too fond of his big sister, and after wandering around aimlessly instead of that hot date he was hoping for, he got turned away from a porn theater, then beat up by some random guy on the street, and he finally winds up in a dark alley where he gets chased around by a robot shooting lasers at him. It’s not the day he was hoping for, but once he learns he has superpowers, the evening begins to improve. Finding out you can fling shit around just by thinking about it has a tendency to make everything better.

Much of the film centers on Jo learning about his powers while Genma’s demon henchmen try to kill him. But about halfway through we get introduced to Sonny, a black kid with the power to teleport that Luna is trying to recruit. Jo comes in to save the day, and we get a really disjointed collection of new characters that show up suddenly. At this point the film starts to suffer from that all too common anime dilemma: trying to do too much crap all at once. There’s never enough focus on the characters to really become attached to them, and when the serious events of the second half come around, we haven’t built up the sympathy to care about it.

Rintaro’s films always seem to fall apart in this regard, and most of it isn’t anything he could fix. The problems really lie in the condensed story that needs a much longer medium to work in, and I would love to track down some of his 70s TV work where he had the time to develop things properly. There are certainly plenty of sappy moments sprinkled throughout Harmagedon, clearly Rintaro still hasn’t fully developed his skills yet, but most of the problem lies in the lack of connection to the characters.

Am I just applying modern standards to a thirty-year-old film? Am I criticizing it for using techniques that were the best available at the time? Am I being too harsh on a product of the 80s? This film certainly left echos in later anime. Akira would later use the same red glow around Tetsuo as he used powers very similar to Jo’s. Rintaro used scenes very similar to the climactic battle of Harmagedon in the his later film, X. And any anime fan should have immediately thought of Sailor Moon when Princess Luna learns of her powers. Maybe I’m just too used to modern storytelling and am overlooking how this compares to other anime from the era and the impact it had on the industry.

One thing I am not overlooking, though, is the animation. I have rarely seen anything from the eighties that can compare. This is a great film to see just how awesome anime can look without the crutch of CG effects. The final confrontation with Genma plays out in an erupting volcano. Rocks get flung all over the place, and a massive ocean of lava churns around the characters. All of this is gorgeous, but once the lava starts spouting dragons to chase down the heroes in a crazed dogfight ascending into the clouds, the animation unquestionably ranks among the best ever made.

Like every other Rintaro film I have seen, I can’t call it a great movie, but there are moments of greatness within it. And despite a lot of disappointment with the plot, there’s enough beautiful and bizarre action that it was well worth the watching. There’s enough grand adventure and gorgeous visuals in here for anyone who can tolerate some good, old-fashioned 80s action to give it a try.

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