Battle Angel Alita (1993): Identity, Desperation and a World in Which I Wanted to Know More

    It has been a while since I’ve reviewed an anime, but I figured with “Battle Angel Alita” out I should better educate myself on the world before going in, which lead me to the OVA/Film that was made in 1993. It has been some time since I’ve reviewed an anime and I’m glad I went back to the 90s. The animation is simply stunning and the story is a brutal cyberpunk world with stakes. This story reminded me why I enjoy anime as an art and storytelling form in the first place, and just how much I miss hand drawn animation. I want this art form to come back. Hand drawn work is so underrated. The “Battle Angel Alita” anime is based on the manga by Yukito Kishiro and after watching this film I may have to check it out.

The film was directed by Hiroshi Fukutomi and supervised by Rintaro with the story written by Akinori Endo.

The film follows a Hunter Killer named Ido who finds an android in a Zalem (the floating city above) scrap heep and rebuilds her to be his daughter. He names her Gally and the story follows her relationship with the scavenger Yugo as well as clashing with her father as she wants to become a Hunter Killer and wrestles with her unknown past as she faces off against threats from Ido’s past and Yugo’s present.

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – Kauro Wada was the perfect artist for creating a soundtrack for this anime. He is able to create electronic reflection and also tension before and during fights. It reminds of me Vangelis’s “Blade Runner.” Both of these artists tap into the desperation of our characters but also their own disconnect as they face impossible situations. Cyberpunk naturally goes with electronic I think. I have yet to see a film that wasn’t at least competent. I also haven’t sought out awful cyberpunk films. I am also certain they exist.

The Animation – The animation is brutal. There is quite a bit of blood from whenever a character kills another. This works. I wouldn’t say it gratuitous because it fits the brutal cyberpunk dystopian world it takes place in. I also love the 90’s animation. You can see all the emotions in a character’s face, which in my experience you don’t always get with the going for stoic minimalist anime. This is a beautiful designed anime, even though it is unfinished in the story.

The Action – The action is brutal. Everything that happens has consequences. We see multiple heroes, villains and random people experience brutal deaths. This is the definition of dystopia and we aren’t hidden from that. The action lingers on kills as whichever character who is witnessing it has it sink in. The film is under an hour but every action that happens gives you time to take in what happens and what loss the character is facing. It is part of what makes this anime good.

Gally – In the just English dub this Alita. The dub I listened to kept her name as Gally so I’ll be using that in this review. She is one of the strongest parts of the story. She is seeking meaning in not knowing her past but also finding reasons to fight and to live. She goes against her “father” Ido to become a Hunter Killer, she loves and loses and she never stops fighting and growing. There is a reason the anime takes her name because drives the story. I wish it could have gotten more, as after the live-action her backstory is fascinating but the anime gives none of that rich lore.

Ido – Ido is her mentor, father and a Hunter Killer. He is the distant father dealing with baggage through most of the film but we see him open up at the end. This was a man cast from paradise/Zalem and the character we meet hasn’t accepted that fully. This is all me reading into his actions, but I don’t think he would have backed up Gally in the end if some part of him didn’t want to return home, especailly after the loss of his love when she was seeking the same thing. We don’t see him express it but the implantation is there is him wanting to return back, at least for revenge for what they did to the person he cared about most besides Gally.

Okay:

Yugo – Yugo is our love interest and I like how his naivety works. He thinks that his stealing cyborg parts will get him to Zalem, when a theme is no one can really get there. He loses his body and hte person he loves because of his obsession with this dream. I’m putting him as okay as the love story was a little fast and I didn’t see the dilemma of him being split between Gally and Zalem. That choice of choosing Gally before he dies should have meant so much more. The dub was good though. I believed he was the idealistic kid in love wanting a better life.

Vector – Vector is the main baddy and he is brutal but we never get who he is working for. Who is paying him? Is he just conning people and that is it? None of these questions are truly answered because the story is less than an hour long. He truly deserved more development. Not a con because at least he was developed enough that I got why people trusted his charm.

The Cons:

Unexplained Zalem – Zalem is never explained. It is implied a civilization might be up there, but in the dub I watched it was vague enough that the defenses could be automated. This was bad storytelling. A clear answer would have given so much more development to Yugo and Vector at the very least. The city is always present in scenes of the cityscape and is the climax of the film but in the end it doesn’t mean anything. This really hurt the overall story.

Gally’s Unknown Past – We never learn who Gally is, not a hint or anything. There was no point to this as even some detail would have given her complexity in the choices she makes beyond being a good person. Ido hints at knowing more but we never learn who she was before she was found in the trash heap. I say this as someone who thought she was one the strongest parts of this hour long long story. The main character needs some deeper development at least. Jason Bourne got more of that in his first film.

For fans of 90’s anime you should check this film out. For how much it is underdeveloped in regards to Gally’s past it gives Ido and the character dreams and conflict in the present a good exploration. This film made me see the live-action adaption, which will be a future review. Besides the animation and action, it worth seeing it for the world the characters inhabit and how they interact with it. This cyberpunk dystopian is brutal and the fact that our characters can choose to be good or are good means something. In this world choices have consequences that give weight to the characters.

Final Score: 8 / 10 Solidly good anime, worth your time.

 

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018): A New Studio’s Decent Introduction to the Studio Stage

With Hayao Miyazaki retiring soon and with it…I doubt his studio will ever be as strong. Hell, his son’s film “From Up on Poppy Hill” nearly put me to sleep and I’m afraid to see “Tales of Earthsea” given how much I love that series and the bad things I’ve heard about it. So lets put Ghibli’s future on hold. Who will take up the banner? Well Studio Ponoc throws their hat in the ring with this film as it captures many similar themes, from coming of age, nature v. science and other Miyazaki-esque themes. How did it do? If you like anime films I’d recommend it. It isn’t great but it is a solidly enjoyable outing. The film was released in 2017 in Japan but 2018 in the States so I’m counting it as my first 2018 film review.

The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who also co-wrote the film with Riko Sakaguchi and produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura.

The story involves Mary, a young girl in England about to start school who stumbles upon a Witch’s Flower which transports her to a magical school where she soon finds herself in over her head as Witch Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee seek the flower to their own ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is really neat. I like that the Magic School / World lives above ours so it is hard to access, and the fact that it seem to imply anyone can access it and be changed by it. This also leads to a con though, the logic of this world is never answered…which I’ll bring up later.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and very Ghibli-esque. It is open and gives characters a range of expression while also being fluid and full of compelling color, while remaining bright like a fairy tale. If they make more films with this aesthetic I may check out what they simply to see the animation and if they can take what great thing they have and make it better.

The Flashback – A mysterious witch is running away with the flower while being attacked by summoned water dolphin beings. The threat is high the entire time and we see her fall and her broom and the flowers become overgrown by the world below. This is an amazing setup and I wanted to know what happened.

Doctor Dee –  I saw the English dub because that was what released in theatres and Jim Broadbent is the one who voiced this mad scientist. He is really interesting as he sees unethical experiments as for the greater good and is seeking immortality. He also used to be tall but has now become short and uses machines to walk. His obsession has completely transforms him, but that didn’t change his love for Madame Mumblechook, the Headmistress of the school.

Great Aunt Charlotte – This is the character the movie should have been about. She is the witch at the beginning and we see that she’s settled down but still held onto a single flower. How did her life change after her escape? So much time has passed…but she was a witch so does her magic leave after she leaves the school? None of these questions are really answered. I wanted her story. She is way more compelling than our protagonists.

Okay: Mary and Peter – Mary and Peter are okay. Mary is clumsy and wants to help and doesn’t thing she is good at anything and Peter is a bully who ends up becoming more when he finds that Mary is friends with his cats. Mary saves Peter after becoming a witch and must stop Mumblechook and Dee…okay. This is all fine but none of them are all that complicated and I was far more invested in the side characters than our leads.

Madame Mumblechook – Madame Mumblechook is also okay, we don’t really see why the Witch’s Flower corrupted her motivation as Doctor Dee is the one doing mad scientist experiments and she is in charge of the school. We don’t really get her change beyond possibly her love for Dee? Which is a shame as Dee was driven by mad science, so he had more going on.

The Cons: World Development – Do Witch’s only get magic from the flower? Do you keep your magic if you stay at the school? How does the Witch World interact with ours? What is the difference between magic and science in this universe? This was a world of potential but it failed to fully explore the fascinating premise it started with.

I wish Studio Ponoc success, and given this is their first film they’ve released I hope they can continue releasing films of at least this quality and better. For any fans of the themes in Miyazaki and Ghibli films, check this one out. It has a lot of untapped potential but what they do explore is a lot of fun and the animation is simply beautiful. Here is to the future and hoping that Studio Ponoc will only grow from here.

Final Score: 7.8 / 10

 

Fist of the North Star (1986): Heads will Explode and a Hero’s Journey

Fist of the North Star (1986)

“Fist of the North Star,” is a film based off the manga series by Buronson and drawn by Tetsuo Hara. It was made into two anime series (from 1984-1988) in the middle of which this movie came out in 1986. There is also an American live action film of the same title too. This film was directed by Toyoo Ashida.

The story takes place on Apocalyptic Earth after nuclear weapons have destroyed everything and only the strongest survive. The main drama revolves around Ken known as the Fist of the North Star. The action takes off after the introduction of the world when his fiancee Yuria is taken by his former friend Shin. Ken is left for dead and cast off a mountain by his brother Raoh who wished to take his place in being the Fist of the North Star. From here the story unfolds from there.

Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The idea – Post apocalyptic or apocalyptic worlds have given rise to some of the greatest stories, especially in animation…from “Evangelion,” to “Akira,” and to many others I have yet to see. This is a world of mutants and magic fist attacks with some characters larger than life. It is an excellent idea that we are given to kick things off.

The Animation – The animation is fantastic! The characters are drawn with elongated style making their bodies and faces able to express a lot. Most have large muscles too, which fits the desert landscape of where it all takes place.

The Action – The movie is amazing with it’s action. It uses animation to push the boundaries as Ken’s attacks cause people’s heads to literally explode and body parts and blood are flying in most scenes…not to mention it kicks off a person melting in an atomic blast. It keeps that level of action through the movie.

Rei – Rei is a more feminine looking Hero and one of the more interesting characters in the movie. He teams up with Ken after Ken had saved some children and a village before as he was searching for the him…it turns out the man who had kidnapped his sister was Jagi who had taken Ken’s identity. His attack is cool is he creates chi energy that allows him to cut through limbs. He takes care of the kids that Ken saves. He also stands up to Raoh to save Yuria. He sees the big picture too and begs Ken not to fight Raoh so that the children and Julia can live.

Ragi – He’s insane and you can see that Ken letting him live in the past made him worse. His head is boiling and he breathes like Darth Vader. He fights to the end against Ken which is more than be said for Shin.

Raoh – Raoh the Conqueror is great, he shows that Shin is a nobody and manages to best Rei. His goal is stability through fear and his capture of Yuria is only to bring about Ken to defeat him. He is the brother with ambition and I wish the movie had given us more time with him and his conquest. We see him take out a nameless clan easily, but he is largely out of the picture until the last 30 minutes. He also killed his, Ragi’s and Ken’s father.

The Ending – It turns out that the children, specifically Lin becomes the hope for the future. Raoh ends the fight in order for her to be protected by Ken resolving the struggle between the brothers.  I liked that Raoh realized his pride and arrogance were destroying any chance of a future. It ends with the seeds growing and life returning to the dead world. Ken also find an Oasis where he finally can be with Yuria.

Okay: Ken – He is generic hero out to save his fiance. Nothing unique here…at least his design is a little interesting. He looks like Bruce Lee and he screams when he does his super fast multi-punch. Rei is much more interesting than him though, even though he doesn’t have the personal connection to the antagonists.

Shin – He has more depth than Ken in that he tries to win Yuria’s heart after he takes her from Ken, but he doesn’t do anything. He is there purely as a personal connection and motivation for the hero. Jagi was more interesting.

The Kids – Lin and Bat are pretty one dimensional. They play their role as the soul of humanity and human ingenuity though as Bat’s car saves Rei and Ken on a few occasions and Lin is the one who stops Raoh.

Cons: The Presentation of Women – There are a few good examples of them being given agency (the little girl Lin fighting back and helping Rei’s sister Airi find a reason to live) but more often than not they are victims or damsels. Isn’t the world ending supposed to give everyone a reason to fight? This was the most annoying thing about the film.

The Intro. Music – Is way too happy and idyllic given the world that this takes place and the actions that unfold…I don’t think it was meant ironically since this film doesn’t do irony.

The Final Fight – Raoh vs. Ken went on way too long. They destroy the city in the process and just doesn’t feel rewarding at all.

This was a pretty good anime film. I wouldn’t call it great because the protagonist just isn’t that interesting and it doesn’t do anything new with the tropes it uses. Also the overuse of damsels in distress doesn’t help…though Lin stopping Raoh is perfect to at least partially counter this. If you like classic anime or Kung Fu type films you will enjoy this. It has a pretty solid Heroes Journey and some great antagonists.

My final score for this film is 8.4 / 10. Pretty good, but not great.