Puppet Princess (Karakuri no Kimi)

This is a typical OVA in some ways – violence and nudity (or the threat of rape being passed off as ‘comedic’), all predictable things about certain anime genres, some of which have certainly come to tire me after a couple decades.

Puppet Princess (Karakuri no Kimi) 2000

That isn’t to claim Puppet Princess is terrible, or that I think it’s impossible to take on serious themes in anime either, but Puppet Princess feels too casual with its application of that content for me.

I should talk about the story sooner or later – but first, Puppet Princess almost seems bit of a warm up for Karakuri Circus, especially when it comes to the puppetry (which was probably the best aspect of the anime).

An adaptation of Kazuhiro Fujita’s one-shot manga, it’s a straightforward but still at times exciting story of vengeance. Rangiku (the Puppet Princess) recruits warrior Manajiri and together they seek and eventually take on Lord Karimata, who murdered her family.

There are a few fun surprises, especially toward the end, and the art and animation works for me, though this 2000 OVA won’t deliver things you might be used to if you favour modern action sequences and techniques.

Is it worth chasing down?

Maybe if you’re a fan of Kazuhiro Fujita or the era of production perhaps, or just if you really love swords and shinobi.

3 Stars

Nasu: Summer in Andalusia (Nasu: Andarushia no Natsu)

I end up spoiling the ending to this OVA just below these first pics, and so if Nasu is on your list then maybe read no further! Otherwise, I’m going to mention probably my fav part about this cycling drama, which is something that happens at the end.

Nasu: Summer in Andalusia (Nasu: Andarushia no Natsu) 2003

Nasu follows pro cyclist Pepe over the course of a single race on the day his older brother marries his ex.

The narrative describes this as Angel having ‘stolen’ Carmen, though she seems perfectly happy – but what I enjoyed was the fact that at the end of the anime Pepe obviously hasn’t forgiven either of them.

Is it petty of him? Warranted maybe?

I can’t decide, because in the OVA I suspect we don’t get the full context (compared to the source material perhaps) but I was sort of pleasantly surprised that there was no use of the ‘forgiveness no matter what’ theme in Nasu.

(And apparently I was so surprised that I’ve got another paragraph about it below, lol.)

It’s possible I expected that trope to appear due to the unwavering support Pepe receives from everyone while he races through the hills outside, and eventually through his hometown, in a compelling race featuring multiple threads. But the theme didn’t show up and I thought that was an interesting move, story-wise.

But getting back to the race itself, it’s not just Pepe vs the other riders, it’s Pepe vs the oppressive heat, vs his own limitations, vs his dream of escape, vs his lingering resentment and even the threat of being fired by his sponsor.

At only 45 minutes long I never felt a lag and throughout the OVA, the art and animation both felt top notch with a nice blend of 2D and subtle CGI to keep things dynamic perhaps – especially once the race hits town.

You’ve probably noticed from the screen caps that there’s a fair Studio Ghibli feel to the colours and character designs, and that might be because Kitarō Kōsaka* directs, and aside from that, his experience really shows in every aspect of the anime.

As a bonus, while knowing nothing about pro cycling prior to watching, I learnt a little during the course of the anime, perhaps enough to better understand a real life race were I to watch one.

Having said that, I don’t think you need to be a cycling fan to enjoy this – it’s a great, short drama with a vibrant setting and tension-filled race…

… and yet, is the cat really called Negro?

4 Stars

Sin: The Movie

Sin: The Movie is a cyberpunk OVA with a few big action sequences but a fairly brisk plot in some sections – maybe too brisk. It’s only 50 or so minutes long, but it feels like it’s telling more of a feature-length story.

A connected issue was the character work – the variety in design isn’t matched by the depth of charactarisation, which is a shame, as a bit of extra screentime would have been great – especially for Elyse who too often feels like a plot device.

It is an action-focused cyberpunk anime and so that’s where the focus is (and sometimes that’s exactly what I’m looking for) but maybe Sin didn’t have the kind-of breathtaking action that often makes up for other possible deficiencies.

On the upside, if you’re a fan of the era, the style or genre in general then there’s probably going to be just enough to satisfy.

But before I finish, I want to quickly jump over to video games for a moment.

Back in 1996 there was a game called Quake, which was pretty big deal in the gaming world, and its engine and variants thereof would soon feature in more than a few games that followed, one of which was Sin.

And I mention this of course because Sin: The Movie is loosely based on the game and I was interested to learn that the game team seemed at least somewhat involved in the movie. (It was also produced by ADV Films from top to bottom too, which I hadn’t realised).

3 Stars if I’m feeling generous.

I forgot to mention, the music is performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which does give the movie an extra dimension.

Now and Then, Here and There (Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku)

Now and Then, Here and There (Ima, Soko ni Iru Boku) 1999

This was no walk in the part – equal parts compelling and disturbing.

And if you want to see a fictional narrative that explores the brutal horrors of child soldiers then look no further, since Now and Then, Here and There wipes the floor with something like Children of Whales for instance.

With that admittedly dramatic opening paragraph, I won’t actually do a long review but instead mention something connected to the show first.

Not too long ago, actress Hiroko Konishi (who played Boo) revealed awful, abusive behaviour by NTHT director Akitaro Daichi. I doubt the animation industry got as much attention as Hollywood in terms of exposing abusers, so I hope things can start to change there too.

If you do take a look at this short series, expect some tough moments but you’ll be moved throughout.

Maybe the animation is not endlessly flashy, but it doesn’t need to be at all. The story and characters are the stars – and there are some real heroes here, like Shu and Sis (to name just two), based in part on how they try to solve their problems. They contrast perfectly with the villains too, from the psychopath Hamdo to the brainwashed/cowardly Abelia.

No easy answers to complex problems in this anime.

And thanks to Curtis for the rec 🙂

Pet Shop of Horrors

Pet Shop of Horrors (1999)

I definitely would have watched more of these.

Pet Shop of Horrors is a great example of ‘episodic’ storytelling, with its sombre tales contained neatly within each episode. There are two links between stories – Count D and his LA pet shop, and detective Leon, who is trying to uncover the truth about the place.

Aside from the cautious friendship between the two characters, the mysteries here focus on Count D’s customers and their folly.

Perhaps in time, maybe Madhouse could have built successive OVAs into a series – but that was probably never the plan. I guess also, this show isn’t ‘horror’ enough for folks who want gore and shock? And sometimes when a show doesn’t easily fit into one genre, it’s hard to sell. I dunno, I should research its reception!

But my point is (finally!) that this Pet Shop of Horrors is more like supernatural mystery more than full-on horror, and even at times, tragedy.

And while there’s a clear structure to the episodes – meet a customer to see what dangerous creature D sells them, then watch that customer struggle with their choices, there’s enough variety with mermaids, rats, serpents and kirin, and the characters, that I enjoyed each tale.

It was also fun to see what felt like a nod to Gremlins (but may not have been, of course) re: Count D’s rules about his caring for his pets.

Finally, the question of whether and/or how the customers invariably broke those rules was where most of the horror came into play, and depending on whether they were meant to be sympathetic characters, so too, the tragedy.

This feels like a somewhat forgotten OVA from the late 1990s now, but I liked it a lot.

4 Stars

Amon Saga

Amon Saga (1986)

Amon Saga is classic sword and sorcery in anime form that is definitely up front about its influences – obviously via tropes common to the genre, but this revenge story might also bring to mind Schwarzenegger-era Conan too.

Elsewhere, there’s an interesting mix between what I think of as hints of Elric of Melniboné and ‘D’ from Vampire Hunter D.

And maybe that’s partly due to the character designs by Yoshitaka Amano?

The OVA also has a few exciting sequences and some memorable moments and characters (for me, it’s Alcan who almost steals the show) yet what I think I enjoyed most was the visuals – especially the use of colour and shadow.

Some older films, especially those that pre-date modern CGI techniques, spend a lot more time on composition, on shadow or colour, and while my screencaps probably don’t back up my claim, it’s definitely there.

I really enjoyed Amon Saga but it’s probably not one I’ll watch annually, despite the visuals.

There’s a lot to like there but the story didn’t match it, I think, whether because of a bit of missing world-building or the sense that Amon rode off into the sunset simply ‘because’, or the fact that I didn’t really get to know him enough.

However, if you like retro anime, fantasy and adventure, then this is still going to satisfy on some levels at least, even if it probably won’t end up your new favourite.

3 Stars

Thanks to Josh for bringing this to my attention too 🙂

Not my best screencap effort here 😀
The transfer for my DVD seems a bit darker than it probably looked upon release.

A-Z Challenge “D” is for Dallos (Darosu)

Dallos (Darosu) 1983

The first OVA produced!

Dallos feels extremely topical now when wealth inequality is so vicious, and you could certainly also read the OVA as a critique of colonialism – though I’m not sure Hisayuki Toriumi, Mamoru Oshii and Studio Pierrot were making a ‘message’ story? I should do more reading there.

Still, the themes are definitely present and expanded via inter-generational conflict as much as being driven by events around the Lunarian rebellion.

Science-fiction and action tropes do fill a lot of the short series, and although there’s time for politics too, what caught my eye (aside from the world-building) were the now ‘old-school’ visuals from both character and mechanical design – it does feel like the 1970s are very close.

But when I learnt that there were essentially two directors on Dallos, I think it became easier to see the action scenes when Oshii was clearly in charge.

Dallos is told from a few POVs. It mostly follows our hero Shun, rebel leader Dog and antagonist Alex as they struggle for control of the colony, and it doesn’t rush the story either, which is great. I guess if you’re mostly into modern animation, however, you’ll really see the age of the art.

In a way, two stories from 1966 came to mind when I finally saw Dallos – one was We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (filmed as Total Recall in 1990) and the other The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. For the latter, the production team mention it as an influence but my association with the Philip K Dick story is a little more nebulous to me – not sure I can put my finger on why.

I still really enjoyed the OVA series and my only qualm I guess, was that I think I expected a little more mysticism from the film for some reason – maybe since the ‘god’ of Dallos itself seemed to be set up that way? Still, that feel was not absent at all, but I guess I just wanted something extra.

Obviously if you’re a science-fiction fan, or curious about this pretty cool piece of anime history, or Oshii’s early work too, then you’ll probably enjoy Dallos but visually it’s not at the level of Ghost in the Shell, for instance, and I wonder if tonally, this is more the work of writer and co-director Hisayuki Toriumi?

4 Stars*

I love how huge the theme can be 🙂

*To borrow from Iridium Eye Reviews a moment – maybe remove a star if you’re not so interested in the history of anime.

And this is my third review for my A-Z Challenge 🙂

Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru)

Kai Doh Maru (Kaidōmaru) 2001

I got the sense that Kai Doh Maru (and its focus on incorporating CGI into the storytelling) was somewhat connected to the same Production IG approach and era that included Blood: The Last Vampire.

The visual style of Kai Doh Maru is striking in a different way however, thanks to the washed out or water-colour look, an aesthetic the team use to evoke a historical feel. And it is distinctive, but watching it now… the early 2000s CGI is quite dated, at times reminding me of old architectural software, due to that flatness.

On the other hand, direction of the sharp action sequences feels great – and when colour appears it really stands out. I also liked both character design and the soundtrack but overall this isn’t one of my favourite OVAs.

The main issue I had was with the pacing and plot. Since Kai Doh Maru is around 40 minutes long, and takes on a pretty large story, there are a lot of gaps in what occurs onscreen. If I knew the Heian period and stories around the Shitennō well, maybe I’d have followed better – especially in regard to what I’d consider an abrupt ending. (And so maybe that’s not a fault of the storytelling truly, but a deficiency in my knowledge.)

Further, I surely missed many subtleties throughout due to that. I did pick up on the heavily restrained romance between Lord Raiko and our heroine of course – but having said that, the focus is on war, politics and historical details. There’s also a supernatural element too, but I won’t spoil how it’s used.

I certainly don’t see Kai Doh Maru mentioned much, even among older fans, but it’s memorable even if I don’t precisely think I enjoyed it from top to bottom.

2.5 Stars

Blood: The Last Vampire

Blood: The Last Vampire (2001)

Vampire fiction often brings an erotic sub-text along with the horror but Blood: The Last Vampire focuses on the dread. Not only because here, our vampire is a fury-filled avenger, but because the creatures she hunts are more like demons, perhaps. And not handsome ones, either.

Still, whichever name these bat-like fiends have, they’re to be hunted, and it’s up to Saya to do so. She’s sent into an air base and the nearby school for her hunt, posing as a student in part for maximum costume effect, I think. (Not in a fan-service way, but more to contrast between the look of a typical victim and hunter).

(In a different vampire story, Saya would probably be a first victim and then a villain – but this is more of a Buffy approach).

Anyway, getting back to this story; I loved every minute and was disappointed that the following ‘Blood’ movies and shows are not particularly related.

But if you like the genre and you find this OVA somewhere, then I reckon what you’ll be watching is bit of a seminal work.

For me it is, anyway.

Or maybe that’s just my tendency to lift up something that I probably first saw in high school as a paragon (as can be all too easy to do)… but either way, Blood: The Last Vampire seems like a masterclass in lighting alone.

The whole thing is quite cinematic, really. The CGI too, is incredible, especially considering the release date of 2000. Now, lately I’ve been taking shots at older CGI left, right and centre, and sure, you’ll see a few moments here and there that don’t seem perfect, but the team must have worked so, so hard on those visual elements.

Like other examples of the genre, this short film is very much set in ‘night’ and the shadows reflect that, but it’s not an inky mess of low-key lighting that will have you squinting for detail; there’s plenty to see and heaps of variety in colour too, including a great, sickly green at times.

What also had me transfixed, aside from tantalising hints about Saya’s past, was the setting, both the time period and the location. I can’t say I’ve seen many anime films or series set in a US air base on Japanese soil, on the eve of the Vietnam War in 1966. During Halloween, no less!

In terms of the plot, there was at least one little twist that I didn’t see coming, and I thought it was pretty perfect. Aside from the visuals, what I remember most at this moment, is how sullen, angry and cold Saya is. And yeah, that’s a pun that I could have avoided 😀

But I bring her disposition up because I was interested to see whether (or to what extent) she’d warm to poor Amino, the school nurse who is, to some extent, as much a main character as Saya herself.

Connected to their reasonably brief time together is the realisation that Blood: The Last Vampire is definitely a prologue. It was envisioned as the first in a three-part tale, but perhaps because Sony was involved with Production I.G for the funding and production, the rest of the story is made up of sequel video games (and a manga too).

Having said that, this is a self-contained OVA with a resolution, but it very clearly sets up expectations and interesting hints, and functions as an excellent first bite of a longer story. And yeah, again – I couldn’t help myself with the silly pun!

5 Stars

(With an eye to please international audiences, this film has a lot of English audio and not a whole host of subtitles, also allowing some of the cast to show skills in both languages 😀 )

A-Z Challenge: “L” is for Lily C.A.T

Lily C.A.T (1987)

I definitely enjoyed Lily C.A.T but I think if you want terror in space, then you will invariably be more satisfied by the film it owes the most to, which is of course Alien.

However, that doesn’t mean this longish OVA is not worth checking out if you’re interested in the genre. Or that it doesn’t have moments of tension. And for me, there were also parts that definitely ‘explored the human condition’, to borrow a phrase from literary fiction circles.

And as a bonus, I actually wanted some of the characters to survive!

As an aside that is actually a couple of paragraphs long, when I use the ‘Toys in the Attic’ episode of Cowboy Bebop in my classes, we talk a lot about the influence of Alien on the ep (and 2001: A Space Odyssey among others) but I think Lily C.A.T should get a mention too.

It feels like part of that famous homage episode (especially the blob itself and the blowtorch) are close enough to what you’ll see here, to warrant a mention at least. Certainly, my obsession with connecting texts to one another is something I might one day cut back on, but it’s out of my system for the rest of this review at least!

There’s plenty about the film that uses the typical ‘crew dies one by one’ structure, but the menace itself is something a little different. And when you do catch glimpses of a certain thing, you might recognise creature design by Yoshitaka Amano, with a Vampire Hunter D style, if a little more muted perhaps.

Actually… it turns out that I lied about the intertexual references, as I do have one more that I’ll get to in a moment:

So, there’s a nice layering of mystery in Lily C.A.T that I also enjoyed.

Generally, the crew is trying to figure out what went wrong to interrupt their ‘hypersleep’ flight. However, at the same time they learn of imposters aboard, and so while folks are trying to determine who they can trust amongst the humans, they’re also having to deal with increasing threats from the non-human.

It does add an extra dimension to the suspense, which I really enjoyed but if you’re looking for a really slick, vividly animated film then you might find Lily C.A.T a bit dated. However, that’s not to say it’s bad – for instance, the hanger door sequence was ace.

But back to the reference I mentioned – parts of that sub-plot seemed to echo They Were Eleven (an earlier space flight themed manga/anime) though obviously the idea of false identity is not new.

Worth it if you’re interested in ‘retro’ anime, I reckon.

3 Stars

[This is the first entry in a challenge (that I hope to one day finish), where I have set myself the goal of watching something for each letter of the alphabet – you can see the list over here if curious].