We children of the late 80s and early 90s, are a special breed. Just ask the internet, it will tell you I’m right. We are key-holders of knowledge most esoteric. We remember ‘rewinding.’ We know the arcane symbiosis between BIC biro and music cassette-tape. We can recognize, indeed even name, members of He-Man’s frothy cabal of heroically gay bodybuilders. We learned cursive at just around the time that a computer-coding class would prove a whole lot more useful. We remember playing outside with friends- unsupervised! Memes shared on Facebook now assure me that is no longer permitted. What are all those kids on my street doing every day? I don’t know, presumably drugs and common-core math. Yes, we are a special breed. I am in my thirties and I am definitely very special. So the announcement that a new, live-action rendition of Ghost in the Shell was coming couldn’t help but get my very special attention. The winding down of my metabolism is more than offset by the fact that I was once the target demographic for the original anime production.
Just in case some of you readers are so fresh-faced you’re unaware of Ghost in the Shell, it was a Japanese animated film released in 1995. Within its slick, science-fiction framework, it combined rueful existential ponderings with lots of violence and female nudity. For many people my age it was among our earliest introductions to the broader world of Japanese animation beyond Saturday morning cartoons. So as this new version will soon be hitting our screens, I decided to revisit a few of the other anime productions that hold a similar place in my heart. These may not be the best productions, or notably obscure, or the most representative of the medium, but they are movies that, alongside Ghost in the Shell, I found at a key time, as I grew bored with Hollywood’s popular titles and began to look further afield for entertainment and inspiration. They are also a good checklist a psychiatrist could use to impugn my good name.
Fist of the North Star (1986)
Currently, Buzzfeed does not have a quiz titled, “Have You Ever Seen a Man Use His Bare Hands to Chop Off Another Man’s Arms and Then Comically Hand Those Severed Arms Back to That Man, Who Has Not Yet Realized That Both His Arms Are Gone?” but if such a quiz ever comes into being, there’s a strong chance it will make reference to the 1986 animated film, Fist of the North Star. And if it doesn’t, I’m not gonna lie, I’ll be surprised.
Fist of the North Star began as a manga series, before being adapted for TV. Both versions produced a voluminous amount of media, so it’s handy that the movie version clocks in under two hours. It apparently takes many liberties with the story-line established in the comics, but that definitely doesn’t matter because this is a film about a man who knows a martial art that makes people explode. The character designs and post-Apocalyptic setting are all clearly indebted to Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior but the hilariously graphic violence has few antecedents.
Director Toyoo Ashida doesn’t have much of an animation budget so he stylizes in static frames, using lots of hatching to emphasize lights and shadows and distorts perspective. The latter effect means you’re never quite sure what size everyone is. One minute a guy seems normal height, the next he’s fifty-feet tall, towering over everyone else. Women also don’t have nipples. I cannot comment on what artistic impetus that fulfills. It’s probably an allegorical representation of the scarred social tissue of a patriarchal society that has allowed female nurturing to wither in favor of callous brutality and people just straight blowing the fuck up.
The lure here is the archness of the violence, which vaults into brash pop-art as men stab each other with their fingers or don constrictive metal helmets just to stop an old battle injury from exploding their head.
Ninja Scroll (1993)
Ninja Scroll might not be the perfect movie – there’s hardly anything about scrolls in it, for one thing – but, revisiting it again after all these years, it surprised me how well it holds up. Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s film gathers just about every ninja trope you can think of and then injects it with his own barmy twist. The result is a grandly entertaining action film. The main draw here are the bevy of villains, each the practitioner of some dark, supernatural art. One can literally lurk inside of shadows. Another is a living beehive. A third turns their victims into living bombs. One more is blind, but really good at swords. If this cadre of super-villains were a band, that makes that last guy the bass player who owns his own van, but they’re cool and let him hang out with them. Their boss is a bisexual ninja with the power to resurrect. Not every film has one of those. Each bad guy is defeated in a fashion that subverts their dastardly talents, while the story-line weaves in enough intrigue to warrant anticipation for the next scene, without ever getting bogged down and taking itself too seriously. The narrative even necessitates some romance, and it’s exactly as convincing as you’d expect, but, like I said, it’s not a perfect movie.
Golgo 13: The Professional (1983)
Forget James Bond. Forget Jason Bourne. Forget Xander Cage. Forget that movie with whatshisname. That guy. Y’know the one. Yeah, he’s got a gun and he fights crime. Forget him too. They don’t matter because Golgo 13 is the baddest dude on the block. I genuinely love this movie, it is patently absurd and hugely entertaining. Originally a manga, the series was first brought to the screen in the 1970s in a live-action format, with Sonny Chiba playing Golgo, but the subsequent anime feature remains the fresher adaptation.
Golgo 13 is an assassin and he’s the best. Conveniently, from an audience surrogacy perspective, he only assassinates objectively bad people. The film covers a few of his exploits, loosely tying them into a larger narrative that, I swear, kinda manages a dramatic arc. Amidst the stories we’re treated to several spectacular set-pieces such as a high-rise sniper assassination that involves our hero in one sky-scraper, hitting his target in another, by aiming through a third. All in a day’s work for Mr. 13.
While I can’t help but dwell on the chaotic sense of fun the whole enterprise generates, I would be remiss to not talk about the excellent visual sense at play here. With a limited animation budget, the film opts to stylize many otherwise static compositions with surreal kaleidoscopic imagery, split-screens, and ostentatious editing. The whole thing is washed in a weary 1970s grit but then it also incorporates sequences with “cutting edge” computer-generated imagery. It’s a bizarre, incongruous choice, but when you combine it with so many others, it settles easily into place. Even if the first time I saw the CGI helicopter attack sequence, I thought the VHS had become somehow garbled. Despite having a live-action forebear, the anime dives back much further for visual references, and I’ve no doubt Seijun Suzuki’s masterfully shambolic Branded to Kill was a reference point for this feature.
As our hero strives to survive he must face-off against a selection of super-villains, including a flexible man with a speech impediment who’s maybe part-reptile (or simply a sex offender), and a pair of murderous, disfigured twins bearing the monikers, Silver and Gold. He’s also pursued by a bullish police detective and a civilian with a vendetta of her own. Each conflagration brings with it swirling bouts of surreal hyper-violence as Golgo 13 demonstrates his mettle. But it’s not all about the violence. Remember a few years ago, when people were posting photos of themselves planking (aka. lying flat) in ridiculous places? Yeah, Golgo 13 got there all the way back in 1983. And he does it during sex. Animation short-cut or Tantric mastery? You decide!
Finally, while I prefer original audio with English subtitles, Golgo 13’s English dub is a treat. The tweaked dialogue for the English-language version contain sentences you have never considered humans saying before. And for good reason. Has a woman ever initiated sex with the line, “I’ve waited so long for you to pull my trigger loving and softly?” No, I don’t think so. Although I usually avoid comic-cons so maybe I’m just missing sample data.
Perfect Blue (1997)
There’s plenty of legitimate discussion to be had about the artistic merit and interrogative of anime productions. This list, which encapsulates my formative exposure to the medium, mostly pedals in violence and debauchery. Now is that just because content like this has proved the most saleable to the west (yes!) or simple because I’m a fan of sleazy entertainment? (YES!) Either way, Japanese animation can certainly tackle serious subjects. Ghost in the Shell, though a bit teen angsty, isn’t a bad example of this, but it was Satoshi Kon’s debut feature, Perfect Blue, that struck me as an engaged, self-reflexive work of art.
Kon would go on to become one of Japan’s most praised auteurs, drawing both commercial and critical praise for his work before his untimely death. His debut feature spins a Hitchcockian tale concerning Mima, a pop idol who transitions into acting- a move which alienates many of her intensely loyal fans. Death threats come soon after and as tensions increase, it becomes apparent that no one may be more alienated in this career shift than Mima herself. Kon use animation’s ability to flatten the “real” and “extraordinary” into a single plane to paint a portrait of psychological collapse but the dichotomy allows an ambiguity that forces the viewer to explore. Kon also unfolds an unsettling commentary on Japanese society’s one-sided obsession with virginal female archetypes, something that he clearly views as unhealthy. Although critics might consider the method in which Perfect Blue indulges in scenes of violence and female sexual objectification problematic in its own right, there’s little doubt that the film digs deeper and asks more pressing questions than most of its stablemates.
Macross Plus (1994)
I’m entirely unfamiliar with the Macross franchise except for this entry. That’s an oversight on my part as there’s so much to recommend here. Across its four-episodes, Macross Plus forges a grand narrative that finally satisfies society’s wish to mesh love triangles, J-Pop, and epic space battles. Everyone wanted that, right? Yeah, I thought so.
Director Shōji Kawamori’s production leans heavily on sentimentality but it’s well measured, cultivating a soap opera feel that might successfully trick men into thinking about feelings and stuff. The project is dedicated to humanity’s ‘pioneers’ and centers on three characters, one brash and reckless but emotionally honest, while the others have allowed their dreams to wane. Though ostensibly better socially conditioned, the latter two characters grant their shortcomings too much power, allowing their thoughts to be moderated by technological middlemen- a fighter jet and an artificially intelligent pop-star. Unsurprisingly in a project that pushes action forward by having things explode, the apparatus that meld with human insights develop unhealthy agendas of their own, which necessitates additional explosions.
This is soap-opera for men and while that sounds like it’s not very progressive (it isn’t) there’s a vein of vulnerability here that at least conjectures that stoicism isn’t man’s only option. It falls back into traditional roles of men as daring actors and women as nurturing protectors, but the dynamism of the characters buys some leeway. In the end their troubled emotions become the crux of a grand space battle which is vibrantly rendered by a talented team. That team includes co-director, Shinichiro Watanabe, who would go on to develop Cowboy Bebop, which shares many rhymes with Macross Plus, both visual and thematic.
Macross Plus may fall short of profundity but it maintains a canny intelligence throughout, weaving a positive but cautionary message about following dreams but tempering them with social decorum. Yoko Kanno’s score, which veers from dreamy pop to jazz piano to more experimental ramblings, becomes central to the plot in the final scenes too, confirming her role as one of the most important contributors to the production. As with Watanabe, much of her work here feels like a warm-up for what would become Cowboy Bebop.