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 what 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 what I thought was 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].

Tokyo Babylon Collab – Coming Soon!

Once more, Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews and I have teamed up to review an anime with the word ‘Tokyo’ in the title 😀

Tomorrow (or the next tomorrow) I’m happy to be hosting the review of this Clamp OVA, so keep an eye out if you’re a fan!

(Last time we wrote about the fantastic Tokyo Godfathers, and you can read that review via this link right here).

Black Lagoon (Burakku Ragūn)

Black Lagoon (Burakku Ragūn) 2006

So! I was pretty certain I’d enjoy this going in, and I certainly did, and so thanks to everyone who voted back in April!

I could probably centre most of this review on the OVA in a way (and most of my criticism) but I actually want to stay with the series proper for the most part. All I really knew about Black Lagoon prior to going in was that the setting was non-typical for anime, it was violent and that Revy looked good in shorts. 

Somewhere around here at the Heap I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that I’m a fan of the ‘girls with guns’ genre, and I like action films and crime shows too, and so Black Lagoon had three ticks right off the bat. The fourth tick was the fact that it featured (on the surface at least) a ‘mismatched crew’ as main characters.

And the series does delve into the related idea of ‘found family’, something I also enjoyed – but the main focus is probably on shooting things. Bars and people mostly – sometimes vehicles too, but if you’ve researched the manga say, then that won’t be a surprise, as you’ll know that Rei Hiroe mentions being influenced by directors like Woo or Tarantino.

Here’s a quick summary from Wikipedia on the premise:

The story follows a team of pirate mercenaries known as the Lagoon Company, that smuggles goods in and around the seas of Southeast Asia in the early to mid 1990s. Their base of operations is located in the fictional harbor city of Roanapur in east Thailand near the border of Cambodia.

And that’s where I think I’ll move to first in this review – the setting.

Seeing Southeast Asia in anime is pretty rare, and obviously I was thrilled watching a show set somewhere other than a school, but also the clear blues and warm colours were so good too. You can almost feel the sun in so many episodes. There’s plenty of green, blue, and other bright colours too, and even night goes for yellows and purples a lot of the time. The city itself becomes an important character, and Rock critiques it in short monologues, while being aware that it affords him a certain amount of freedom too.

On the other hand, the series isn’t a nuanced exploration of another culture; it’s a story about various criminal factions and their competing interests in a fictional city, and one unlucky guy who has to navigate it all.

Black Lagoon is probably closer to a long action movie in some ways – so what you explore instead of another culture, is the lives of criminals and their shoot-outs. I think the rising tension in the pacing (and a focus on increasingly over-the-top action sequences) feeds my impression there, but the characters aren’t just shapes that happen to hold guns either. You will get to know the crew if you watch this, chiefly Rock and Rebecca, and even antagonist Balalaika.

However, I do wish I’d been given the chance to learn more about Dutch and Benny, who eventually became a little side-lined. And okay, I know that we all know that bare skin sells all kinds of media, not just anime, and Rebecca is an interesting character – no arguments there, but just a few more scenes on the background of Dutch and Benny would have been superb. (The manga doubtless does that, but I’ve not read it so I don’t know for sure).

Now, as I sometimes do here, I’m going to switch to dot points in an effort to curtail the length of this review – some of these are probably spoiler-y too:

  • You might like this show if you gravitate toward underdog stories, especially with Rock being sold out hard by his bosses.
  • To stick with Rock a moment, I found it interesting that he’s depicted as kinda disinterested in sex. Clearly, he’s surrounded by women he seems to find attractive but I wonder if his desire to stay in the ‘twilight’ helps keep himself at armslength from the interest he receives. Obvious counters to this could be Yukio or the possible implications in the OVA about him and a certain someone else… but I’m not sure.
  • The piece of music for the ending (and the footsteps) is really sinister.
  • Shenhua stood out because again, South East Asia in anime feels rare to me, and to see a Taiwanese character was great. She’s incredibly shrill, but setting that choice by the director or voice actress aside, I thought it was interesting that identity issues weren’t glossed over – you can see it play out a little between her and Revy in their back-and-forth.
  • Ginji needs a prequel series!
  • Seriously.
  • He does.
  • It was excellent to remember a time (via the U-boat arc) where neo-nazis were seen as actual villains, rather than described in some mealy-mouthed euphemism like ‘alt-right’.
  • The evil kids cliche + incest storyline felt a little off here, mostly because it occurs within the confines of a ‘shoot ‘em up’ basically, with no real time spent dealing with the horror the characters must have been put through prior to their appearance in the episodes.
  • Being an action/crime series, there are plenty of great action sequences, and even a few moments of humour here and there, but one of my favs actually comes from the OVA, where the intercutting POV shots and wider ones feel really fluid (during a scene in the The Yellow Flag with Fabiola).
  • Having talked a lot about the action, I want to quickly mention that the best moment for me is when Rock finally stands up to Revy and all her grandstanding bullshit. Close seconds probably occur more than once in the Yakuza arc.
  • And finally, Megumi Toyoguchi (who plays Revy) does an ace job with the whole ‘dead inside’ vocal performance, a sharp contrast from say, her work as Winry in FMA.

Onward quickly now to Roberta’s Bloodtrail, the OVA series that aired a few years after the second season of Black Lagoon.

So, the main series definitely has an ending, and plenty of chances to imagine ‘what happens next’, but ‘…Bloodtrail’ carries things on nicely. However, it once again sidelines Dutch and Benny for the most part.

The OVA is just as fast-paced and action-heavy as the main seasons too, but things are dialled up – from both violence to fan service and sexual violence too, so maybe take note if you were already on the fence about this show.

Roberta doesn’t get to be much of a character here, which is a bit of a shame, she’s mostly a Terminator instead. On the other hand, she actually takes some damage. I found that interesting, as if the nod to realism was almost ‘pushing back’ against a precedent Black Lagoon had set, where a character slices bullets in half with a katana for instance, and the focus is on stylish cinematic violence.

Reading around other reviews and comments, I see some folks didn’t like Rock’s development in the OVA and I am 50/50 on that myself. I think it’s more than reasonable that he’d be influenced by the villainy around him, but I wonder if the transition was handled a little bluntly onscreen?

I also wonder whether Balalaika almost became a little cartoonish for a moment (in episode 4 I think it was), but all in all I think the OVA is definitely worth watching if you enjoyed the regular seasons. It was interesting to see whether Rock’s gamble would pay off, and by the ending you’re left thinking he only got half a victory in some ways, perhaps a little more realism creeping in?

4 Stars

Gunsmith Cats: Bulletproof

Gunsmith Cats: Bulletproof 1995

Gunsmith Cats maybe still holds that ‘cult’ status now, even after the internet has no doubt introduced more folks to this mid-90s OVA. (So too, the Kickstarter campaign that funded a re-issue a few years back now.)

I love so much about this series but I’m torn when it comes to rating Gunsmith Cats.

And my main concern with the show is obviously Minnie May. I understand in the English language versions she is meant to be (technically) an adult and while she acts like one in some ways, she sure looks like a kid and so it’s creepy. In the manga, it’s worse than creepy.

So I can’t say this is a five-star work of art – even if the art and animation can be top notch, especially that car chase.

Obviously, if you’re a fan you’ll know that Gunsmith Cats and Riding Bean have a clear connection but I think the appeal of the show is the action rather than its links, especially the vehicles, guns and the way they’re both animated. I’m not one to rhapsodise over guns at all but the attention to detail throughout is undeniable.

The same goes for the cars – Rally’s Cobra is pretty amazing.

But not all of the action sequences are based on the road – there are a few tense moments indoors too, often fed by that classic action convention of ‘who can the good guys trust?’. If you like the type of US-style action films that bring stuff like Lethal Weapon to mind, there’s a good chance you could enjoy this despite the loli crap.

I’ve always found the story engaging and one of the antagonists is something a little different in some ways, yet so clearly ‘action film’ in others. It can be fun to spot those moments, and in terms of spotting things – it’s also clear that care was put into the setting too. Production teams spent a bit of time in Chicago and so what I imagine are a few key tourist spots or buildings pop up during the three episodes.

Ultimately, I think this is a key text in the ‘girls with guns’ sub-genre but it’s definitely not without an unpleasant flaw.