Starring Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Tessho Genda, Shuichi Ikeda, Asami Mukaidono, Daisuke Gori, Sayuri Ikemoto
Directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima
Thirty years ago Project A-ko took the anime industry by storm. It was one of the biggest names in anime, and thoroughly beloved by just about any anime fan in the ’90s. So now, for its 30th anniversary… well, pretty much nothing is happening other than me writing up this review. The franchise has been dormant for the past 25 years, and people seem to have just forgotten about the whole thing. I suspect there are vast swaths of younger anime fans who have never seen it, possibly never even heard of it.
This strikes me as strange. More than any other title, save for perhaps Akira or Ghost in the Shell, A-ko was the face of anime in the West. And if you ask me, I would say A-ko is a much truer definition of the art form. Akira and Ghost in the Shell were great films, no question about it, but they are the face of anime solely because they have mainstream appeal. People who don’t like anime often like those films anyway, because they don’t really represent what anime is like. Anime is about over-the-top absurdism, larger-than-life action, and exaggerated emotions which cannot be portrayed with live action; because human faces cannot actually contort like that.
The film started life as a porno flick that somehow snowballed into a bizarre and convoluted story about superpowers, robots, and alien invasions. The pornographic aspect kinda fell by the wayside and was quickly abandoned. I get the feeling that creative control was pretty much nonexistent on Project A-ko. The director commentary track makes the production sound like a frat party where everyone was drawing animation cells instead of chugging beer. He states that tons of visual gags were inserted into the animation without the writers or directors even knowing about it, such as missile launchers that shoot beer cans and a ludicrous number of panty shots. But rather than turning the film into an incoherent mess, that playful exuberance just winds up shining through into the film itself, filling it with a joy and excitement that is hard to replicate.
What surprised me the most this time around was realizing just how much of a slow buildup this movie has. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Project A-ko is its high-octane action scenes, but those don’t actually come into play until the second half of the film. The first half slowly builds up the characters and the situations, so that when the action finally does cut loose it makes for a great payoff to situations we’ve actually developed an interest in.
But the film really doesn’t focus on the sexual aspects, no matter how much they may permeate the story. Instead, Project A-ko focuses on A-ko’s superhuman strength and speed, which at first seems like just a simple visual gag, but gradually grows into one of the more important aspects of the plot. This slow buildup coordinates well with the way the film builds up the characters’ conflict as well. If the film had shoved everything in your face right at the start, it would have quickly become exhausting. But as an ever increasing realization, it works wonders to sustain the pacing and keep things interesting.
The film is a smorgasbord of parodies about anything related to anime at the time. Macross and Captain Harlock are perhaps the two most prominent, and there are tons more to go along with them. But despite all the anime in-jokes, they are so silly and obvious that you don’t really need to be familiar with the source material to get most of them.
The animation is also fantastic, capturing aerial dogfights and martial arts mayhem with equal skill. The commentary track mentions how much work it took to animate A-ko running, and how hard it was to figure out how to make her stride match the distance she moves while still looking natural. All that effort paid off beautifully. Every time A-ko dashes around the screen, it carries a dynamic energy that makes the scene come alive.
The fact that it wasn’t an adaptation is part of why Project A-ko is so well paced. It had enough room to breathe life into its world and characters in a way that most films of that era couldn’t do, such as Harmageddon, another film that A-ko briefly parodies. Original anime films, like most of Mamoru Hosoda’s and Makoto Shinkai’s output, are much more likely to have a well-told story, and I wonder just how many of those we would’ve gotten if Project A-ko hadn’t paved the way for them 30 years ago. (Or maybe Castle in the Sky would have had the same effect, but this is A-ko’s birthday; stop trying to steal her thunder!)
But while the film itself is near flawless, its legacy is a bit more questionable. Project A-ko is also heavily responsible for the popularity of ecchi anime (what TV Tropes refers to as “panty fighters”), a genre (“style” might be a better term) that I tend to think of as porn for 14 year olds. They often feature no nudity, no excitement, no character development, but lots of well-endowed women in tight shirts and short skirts. (Agent Aika probably being the most notable one to follow in A-ko‘s wake.) I usually criticize such works as having nothing more than incredibly boring stories and cheap titillation that could be easily found by a simple Google search instead.
But whatever may have spawned in its wake, A-ko is easily one of the best anime comedies ever made. Even after 30 years of new titles, I can’t think of anything that definitively surpasses Project A-ko. So if you have even a small interest in anime you should definitely track it down. And if you don’t wind up laughing your way through the film, then you should just avoid comedy anime all together ‘cuz it’s clearly not for you.