Stephen reviews: Project A-ko: Versus (1990)

projectakovs_1Project A-ko: Versus [A-ko The ヴァーサス] (1990)
AKA Project A-ko: Uncivil Wars, Project A-ko: Versus Battles, Project A-ko: VS, A-ko the Versus

Starring Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Saeko Shimazu, Hiroshi Takemura, Sho Hayami, Masami Kikuchi

Directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima


Don’t tell me you’re surprised that there’s another Project A-ko. You do remember my reviews of the Urusei Yatsura series, don’t you? Just ‘cuz it’s got “final” in the title doesn’t mean they stopped there. As with Project A-ko 4, I only have my likely incorrect guesses to go by for why Nishijima, director of the original film, came back to make Project A-ko: Versus. Whether it was intended to revitalize the franchise or if it was only ever intended to be a one-off side story is beyond me, but if it was intended to restart the series it failed. No more official Project A-ko projects were made except the American comic book adaptations and tabletop RPG (yes, A-ko was that popular in the States).

Versus is actually a mini series, not a movie, however it only spans two episodes, “Battle 1: Grey Side” and “Battle 2: Blue Side.” Together they tell a single story, so it’s easy to cover them both in one review. A-ko: Versus takes place in the distant future where A-ko and B-ko are friends who hunt giant turtles on Tatooine (or whatever the hell they decided to call the planet here), and neither of them have ever met C-ko before. C-ko is the daughter of a wealthy businessman, and she gets kidnapped by the series’ antagonists, space pirates that want to use C-ko’s body to resurrect Xena. No, that time I wasn’t pulling out a pop culture reference for ease of comprehension. Xena is a long-dead sorceress that has the power to destroy the universe, so it’s a pretty big deal.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Project A-ko: Versus (1990) →

Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 4: Final (1989)

projectako4_1Project A-ko: Final [プロジェクトA子 完結篇] (1989)

Starring Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Tessho Genda, Shuichi Ikeda, Asami Mukaidono, Daisuke Gori, Sayuri Ikemoto, Yoshitada Ohtsuka

Directed by Yuji Moriyama


I can’t say why the filmmakers decided to call it quits at part 4. Perhaps they ran into funding trouble or just ran out of ideas. Maybe it was a case of staff arguing over the direction of the series. Since I’ve never seen any behind-the-scenes info on the Project A-ko sequels (and probably never will), I can only rely on my own unsubstantiated guesses. For whatever it’s worth, I think they realized there wasn’t anywhere else for the series to go and wanted to end the franchise gracefully rather than milk it until it became a stale echo of its former glory.

One of the reasons I say this is because Project A-ko 4 is basically a rehash of the first film. It once again mainly involves an alien invasion that interrupts A-ko and B-ko’s bickering. In fact, the great feud between the two has become so routine that even the other characters are unfazed by it at this point. The big difference this time is that their teacher, Miss Ayumi, is getting married to Kei, so the fight is over him rather than C-ko. This makes C-ko feel abandoned, and she spends much of the film rather depressed.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 4: Final (1989) →

Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody (1988)

projecta-ko3_1Project A-ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody [プロジェクトA子3 シンデレララプソディ] (1988)

Starring Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Tessho Genda, Shuichi Ikeda, Asami Mukaidono, Daisuke Gori, Sayuri Ikemoto

Directed by Yuji Moriyama


This time the series takes an odd turn. Cinderella Rhapsody starts off with a sepia-toned scene of several women playing pool. The style is much more realistic, and the tone is closer to film noir than slapstick. It focuses on subtle movements and glances like the slight jostle of earrings when someone tilts her head. It is only with great effort that you can tell the characters are actually A-ko, B-ko, and C-ko. The scene plays out slowly, without any comedy other than A-ko’s break shot literally breaking the balls, and your first thought upon seeing it will probably be, “Did I just put on the wrong movie?”

In a way, this scene is a good metaphor for the entire film. It’s out of place, the jokes are less frequent, it plays its parodies too straight, and it’s just kinda boring. What’s more, the opening scene has some of the best animation since the original film, making it feel like a waste of effort that could have gone into a more interesting scene. Overall, Cinderella Rhapsody is a disappointing entry in the series.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody (1988) →

Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 2: Plot of the Daitokuji Financial Group (1987)

ProjectA-ko2_1Project A-ko 2: Plot of the Daitokuji Financial Group [プロジェクトA子2 大徳寺財閥の陰謀] (1987)

Starring Miki Ito, Emi Shinohara, Michie Tomizawa, Tessho Genda, Shuichi Ikeda, Asami Mukaidono, Daisuke Gori, Sayuri Ikemoto, Yoshitada Ohtsuka

Directed by Yuji Moriyama

 


With the success of Project A-ko, it should come as no surprise that a sequel was quickly put out. What is a bit surprising is that instead of a full theatrical film, all the sequels to Project A-ko were much shorter, direct-to-video releases. As a result, Project A-ko 2 suffers from a pretty big downgrade in quality. The animation is nowhere near as good, and the music lacks that memorable charm of the first film. This also adds up to some less satisfying action as well.

With Katsuhiko Nishijima stepping down as director, it might be tempting to blame Yuji Moriyama who took his place. I do think Nishijima did a better job; Moriyama tends to linger over the jokes a little too long, and he doesn’t have quite the flair for exciting action scenes. But Moriyama is certainly no stranger to the franchise. He was character designer, animation director, and one of three screenwriters for the first film, so he didn’t just pop up out of nowhere with no idea what to do.
Continue reading Stephen reviews: Project A-ko 2: Plot of the Daitokuji Financial Group (1987) →

Stephen reviews: Project A-ko (1986)

projecta-ko_1Project A-ko [プロジェクトA子] (1986)

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.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Project A-ko (1986) →

Stephen reviews: Twilight of the Dark Master (1997)

twilightofthedarkmaster_6Twilight of the Dark Master [支配者の黄昏 Shihaisha no Tasogare] (1997)

Starring Toshihiko Seki, Emi Shinohara, Akira Kamiya, Urara Takano, Hiroya Ishimaru, Kaneto Shiozawa, Seizo Katou, Atsuko Takahata, Takaya Hashi

Directed by Akiyuki Shinbo


Twilight of the Dark Master follows the tradition of earlier grisly demon anime such as Demon City Shinjuku or Wicked City. It tells a similar tale of conflict between good and evil in a dismal future setting invaded by demons. In terms of adult content, it lies somewhere between those other two. It has a good deal of disturbing sexual content, but it is more subtly delivered than Wicked City‘s full-frontal insanity.

The plot is too convoluted for me to summarize here. Not because it is too complex, but because it drip feeds even the basic information over the course of the film, leaving you wondering just what is going on for the first half. This makes it difficult to give much information without spoiling things, so I’ll only give you the most basic premise. It’s about a newly engaged woman named Shizuka getting mauled (and perhaps raped) by a giant demon. Shizuka then sets off on a quest to find and kill the monster that attacked her. Along the way she enlists the aid of a mysterious wizard whose job is to hunt down demons.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: Twilight of the Dark Master (1997) →

Stephen reviews: X (1996)

X (1996)
AKA X/1999, X: Their Destiny Was Foreordained 1999

Starring Tomokazu Seki, Ken Narita, Yūko Minaguchi, Atsuko Takahata, Junko Iwao, Tōru Furusawa, Masako Ikeda, Kazuhiko Inoue,Mami Koyama, Rica Matsumoto, Kotono Mitsuishi, Issei Miyazaki, Jōji Nakata, Yukana Nogami, Toshihiko Seki, Emi Shinohara, Hideyuki Tanaka, Kōichi Yamadera

Directed by Rintaro


No, the title X has nothing to do with the film’s rating. It is in fact rated R. There’s no sex anywhere, and the only nudity is in the incredibly creepy opening scene where the main character, Kamui, confronts his naked mother. Before Kamui can do much of anything, his mother rips open her own stomach with her bare hands and pulls out a massive sword, which she then stabs into Kamui’s stomach. And just to end the scene on a confusing note, because it wasn’t confusing enough apparently, Mommy dearest spontaneously explodes in a spray of blood and severed limbs. Things like this are why Japan has cornered the WTF market. It certainly grabs your attention, but even after watching the film I’m not sure whether that scene was a dream sequence, or literal event. It doesn’t matter much though, as there isn’t much difference between the two in this movie. People travel through dreams, and the film is filled with apocalyptic visions.

The movie is about the end of the world, and the two groups fighting over it: the Dragons of Heaven who want to preserve modern civilization, and the Dragons of Earth that want to return the world to its natural state. Each side has six members in addition to the two fortune-telling sisters that lead them, and that means there’s obviously going to be some limits on how well we get to know them. Many characters have a sort of “Hi! Bye!” feel to them, just getting enough time to show off their stuff before dying. This film is an adaptation of a comic book series, and the problem of condensing a longer story will always be present. Rintaro has learned a few things in the decade since he directed The Dagger of Kamui, though, and the pacing in X is smooth throughout the film, giving a balanced focus to as many characters as it could.

Continue reading Stephen reviews: X (1996) →

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