Black Magic M-66 [ブラックマジック M-66] (1987)
Starring Chisa Yokoyama, Yoshiko Sakakibira, Ichirō Nagai, Kyouko Tonguu
Directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo & Masamune Shirow
The title of this anime has always confused me. First off, there is no magic at all; black, yellow, turquoise or any other color you can think of. This here is a sci-fi film. Nor is there any significant usage of the color black in a non-magical fashion. In fact, the M-66 robots the film is about are far closer to white than black.
Even the second half of the title is confusing. As the film opens, it states that the “M” stands for “Mario.” Is there a significant character named Mario? Of course not. Is there anyone playing a Nintendo, even in the background? Not a chance. The Mario reference is never mentioned, and it is only in the title screen that we ever see it at all. Thankfully I did luck out in searching for info on this, and it seems that Mario is actually short for “marionette.” Why they shortened it, though, is anybody’s guess. I’m just happy that I won’t have an aneurysm trying to figure it out now.
Fortunately the rest of the film is very straightforward and easy to comprehend, although that in itself makes the title even more confusing. If the film had been a nonsensical art house mindfuck, I wouldn’t expect the title to make any sense. But no, it’s just a run-of-the-mill action film ripping off The Terminator, but with less time travel, more half-naked girls, and a dash of goofy comedy.
Unlike Masamune Shirow’s other adaptations, the man himself apparently hopped into the director’s seat for the first and only time for Black Magic. Strange that he would put that kind of effort into this minor adaptation of one of his minor works, when he did not direct the much more popular and influential titles like Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed, but I can’t say what the deal was behind the scenes.
The plot starts off when a helicopter carrying some fancy high-tech boxes crashes in the woods. A reporter named Sybel (or Shebel as her name tag spells it), who is so dedicated to her job that she forgets to put on her clothes, intercepts a military radio signal about the event and rushes out to investigate. She soon finds that the super secret M-66 is on the loose, and it’s kicking the army’s ass pretty hard. It turns out that the M-66 robots accidentally got activated in the crash, and now they’re out to kill someone. Their target happens to be the granddaughter of the robots’ designer, and so Sybel sets out to rescue her in typical heroic fashion.
At first, the film tries to be vague and mysterious about what the M-66s are exactly, but it’s a wasted effort. Anyone who even caught a glimpse of the promotional art would already know that it’s a humanoid robot, and anyone watching the film would probably be doing so specifically to see some kick-ass robot action. The good news is that the film gets its act together pretty quick, and we get to see plenty of robot ass-kicking.
The early action scenes are where the film really shines, as they are well animated, fast paced, and pretty damn interesting to watch. Unlike the T-800, the M-66 doesn’t have any ability to talk. Instead, the programmers used all that processing power they saved to add in awesome kung fu moves. And if there’s anything more terrifying than the Terminator, it’s got to be a Terminator with the skills of Bruce Lee. Add in some laser eyes and you’ve got yourself one hell of a badass assassin.
That is, however, the high point of the film, and as the plot moves forward it seems to forget that the robots are badass martial artists. Each fight seems less interested in cool moves and more focused on implacable presence. That isn’t entirely bad — it worked just fine for The Terminator, after all — but it does lessen the excitement that had been present in the first half of the film. In the final act, it even forgets that the M-66 has laser eyes, making things even more mundane. Perhaps you could justify it by saying that the thing was damaged or just overheated, but it would have been nice to get that info from the movie itself.
It also feels a little absent of climactic tension. There are some pacing issues that don’t really build up the action to a crescendo the way a film should. I think this has to do with Shirow doing the directing himself. As a manga artist, he’s used to working in a static medium, one where the audience determines the pacing at least as much as the author, either lingering over a single panel or rapidly flipping through pages at whim. In a film the pacing is much more deliberately controlled, and that makes for a very different tempo of rising and falling tension. That difference could easily trip up someone working across that divide, and that may have happened here.
I do have to say that there is one other aspect of the film that I really liked, though, and that’s the way the military handles the situation. In a film where the main characters are average citizens fighting off a killer robot, you might expect the soldiers to be presented as incompetent or willfully stupid, perhaps even outright villainous, but in Black Magic they are shown as highly competent and genuinely trying to help protect people (it’s the police who look like morons). They just happen to be up against nearly bulletproof, laser-eye wielding, martial arts masters. The troops come across as intelligent and courageous when faced with this danger, and I liked that they were not left on the sidelines as irrelevant or merely out to cover up state secrets at any cost.
As much as I found a lot to complain about, Black Magic is still a pretty entertaining film. It’s got some cool action and not much else, but sometimes that’s all you really need. It’s short and sweet, and I would certainly take it over any of the Appleseed movies.