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Animecon 2003 - "Anime Strikes Back"



When setting off on a weekend-long watch of what is old, new, hot or not in animeland, one should begin this watch well-rested. Otherwise, one starts to notice things in a nasty nagging way. For instance, that the fate of the world is constantly in the balance; that people who are awarded superpowers to save this world are forever whining for the banalities of a "normal" life; that men always turn on the tears at the eternal conflict between Head (make that: imposed duty) and Heart, while women (make that: bimbettes) always turn on the volume when their collossal ego is slighted by some person (generally male, and called jerk, rude, and loner - this is a pejorative term) not interested in licking their heels and butts to a shiny finish, and sadly, in case of tragedy it is these bimbettes who survive; that endless comic mileage is to be had out of unsubtle innuendo and people acting like idiots, while tragedy centers on basically futile violence presented as "necessary" and characters having stupid heated arguments just before one of them dies; that extravagantly sized human-shaped body armour is still considered a viable way to travel and do battle, despite the enormous damage it inflicts; that enormous damage is generally treated as a cool visual with no lasting effects (presumably off-screen maintenance crews always rebuild Tokyo in time for the next ep); that humans are enormously paranoid about machines, and this while machines are always unrealistically having "feelings" infused in them; and that "tough" female characters often have some memory of past trauma pop up to reassure the audience that deep down inside they're sensitive gals really.

This was sort of the case for one of the main characters in Noir, a series about three assassins, of whom one kills like a pro, one like an instrument, and one like a gifted child. The latter two - although the last one appears much later - vy for the title of "Noir", though it may be a bit unfair to say that of the first contestant, since she wakes up one morning remembering nothing, except that she is Noir. This the audience discovers after the first assassin gets an email inviting her to make a pilgrimage to the past, turns up at the appointed time and place, chases what looks like an unassuming schoolgirl, joins forces with that person to kill the bunch of thugs lying in wait for them both, and finally escorts the mysterious girl home, mesmerized by the tune from an ornamental watch. This watch, its cover bearing the embossed image of two sword-bearing women suspiciously resembling the duo, features in the opening credits which tell of a prophecy of two death-dealing maidens dispensing God's justice - although Mireille, the professional assassin who has traumatic flashbacks at the sight of this watch, frankly admits she's in it for the money - so that the appearance of "the real Noir" somewhere around episode 10 throws rather a spanner in the works. In the last episode that was shown, I was no nearer to knowing the identity of the mystery girl of whom Mireille says: "You can stay with me until I find out who you are - and then I'll kill you" and who humbly accepts this offer. In all that time, the women have combined their pilgrimage to the past with many successful killing assignments - French Security officers, rebels, mafia members, corrupt ex-politicians and targets of the "Soldats" who, it seems, hold the secret to Noir - and sightseeing tours in Paris. They have no cause to whine for ordinary activities like walking through the rain and eating ice cream on a sunny day; they do all these things, and combine them with visits to a solemn procession of enemies and authorities, most notably "l'Intoccabile", a grand dame of the mafia drawn in shades of pale purple, who relies solely on her force of character to freeze her opponents while she runs a dagger through them. This character is responsible for Mireille's recurring flashbacks, and by "recurring", I mean at least once per episode, or what's left of that episode after the tiresomely repeated opening credits. But then this series, of a sombre beauty and sometimes pompous gravity, is not fast-paced, despite the constant popping of bullets; it is a feast to the eye and an intriguing whodunnit, or should that be whoizzit. And it is untypically respectful to the female members of the cast in not hinting at marriage in the opening/ending songs, loading girly accessories onto them or giving them chances to become more like "real women"; if anything, they both have to prove their worth as ruthless killers, and blonde bombshell Mireille mixes revolvers and lipstick as easily as her plainer companion hides forks in her sleeve to stab visitors coming over for tea.

Sombre beauty may have been the idea behind X, a tale of two times seven dragons, those of the sky and of the earth, on whose final duel the fate of this world depends (yawn) and who are drawn so alike (the two final duelists could be twins) that I don't feel much obliged to tell them apart and learn their names when they all die seconds after being introduced anyway. This was the OAV, maybe it was intended as summary of the TV series; I've seen trailers more coherent than this. It was followed by Creamy Mami, so I fled into the next room and the last five minutes of Zoids, a Digimon clone - or is Digimon a Zoids clone? Anyway, great fun if you like big mechanical animals turning sharp corners with lots of smoke and breaking bits off buildings. A little more concerned with the aftermath of such wild action is Dai Guard, my first giant robot anime of the weekend, which seems to be about giant body armour battling aliens (emerging from the sea, and of rather interesting makes and models, which of course need much firepower to be destroyed) but is in fact about petty corporate politics and high-salaried suit&tie pen-pushers who stall rescue actions because it would be more cost-effective if the civilians died, and moan at the pile of bills following each successful mission of the giant robot that requires a crew of three to work it, and was intended only as company mascot because the maintenance needed to keep it in fighting state would exceed the company budget. Irritable young hotblood Does The Right Thing and is then chewed out by his bosses and his bosses' bosses - maybe the series evolves later on, but the first three eps were pretty formulaic. A series that is about giant body armour battling aliens (one of them, the baby-faced brain behind it all, obviously involving computer graphics) and has even fresher, finer, crisper animation - it would look great as a serial cartoon on cornflake boxes - is Z-minds, young to very young girls in glowing big golden-faced body armour that can separate into Smarties-coloured vehicles, fighting the many tendrils of Evil while keeping up civilian identities as hapless young teens dipping cautious toes into the pool called "boyfriend". There's a touch of tragedy as this boyfriend, who looks like a bad case of the seventies but is really a defected secret agent of the Enemy, is killed and in his dying effort helps the girls to overcome the fiend in the Final Confrontation, after which their minds are wiped and it Never Really Happened, so what is that pendant - his farewell gift - doing around the neck of the girl who can't quite seem to remember...? Seeing the tag end of this series, I realized what the supermech in Samurai Pizza Cats was a spoof of. I also realized that this series, too, isn't really about giant body armour battling aliens, but about girls at the Barbie age who dream in class, experiment with make-up, fight Evil to give some semblance of importance to their lives, and lose their love to battle because that's more romantic than being dumped.

What a stark contrast with Saishuu Heiki Kanojo ("She, the ultimate weapon"). This story is narrated in retrospect by a virtually noseless nerd with glasses (all the characters here are pretty minimal-nosed) who one day, and not quite of his own will, became the boyfriend of the slow loser-girl who insisted walking uphill to school every day despite clearly being too weak and short of breath to do so comfortably. The idea wasn't quite hers either, their date was fixed up by her more assertive sister, who feels she should get a taste of the good things in life after having spent most of her childhood visiting hospital. And indeed there is nothing much more to do in their boring small town where news of the outside world hardly penetrates, so that an air raid in which one of the nerd's friends is killed, comes as quite a surprise - and, double surprise to the nerd, this weakling who can hardly struggle up a hillside is a cyborg built to protect the area through annihilation tactics that don't leave her feeling better about herself (and make me wonder who the responsible tacticians are and why they haven't been fired yet!) and the machinery integrated into her body was presumably the reason for the frequent hospitalizations. Bit by bit, the "machine" component takes over her body; she loses her sense of taste, rockets spontaneously fly from her back and although the nerd tries to comfort her by saying one day when their children have grown up they will look back at this time and laugh, I doubt she even has her own heart and lungs any more, let alone reproductive organs. She does have a beeper so the army can call her up to attack the enemy any time, no matter how disruptive this is with regard to school, family and private life. It's a good thing her "boyfriend" has taken it on him to support her emotionally - that is, until events leading to his sleeping with an old acquaintance break them up - as, horrified by her physical state and impervious to the admiration and even interest she draws from the common soldiers, she undergoes her own life with passive dread. The atmosphere of this series can be summed up by the scene where the nerd proposes that they both flee, to Tokyo or some other big city; to which she replies that these places have already been destroyed.

But not every girl with a mission has such a hard life. In Magical Princess Minky Momo, a dedicated vet has to leave his wife to cure polar bears of the common cold, and in view of the climate, it could take some time before they get better. Oh, if only they had a child to babysit mommy! And suddenly, they do; a pink-haired miracle girl with three animal add-ons (a moth-eaten dog, a something-else and a bird that thinks it's beautiful) waves her wand to create a room, a trailer for her helpers and a false past to fool the childless couple. "Uh, yeah, sure, we have a daughter." Fortunately, she only came to gather brownie points, wait, star points to please her real parents. Like a proper magical girl, she has an adult form which in one episode she makes available to a bad-tempered hunting-dog puppy called "Mary Jane" whose biggest wish is to become human so she can wear glasses, and hide the panda markings around her eyes which repel potential dog buyers. Until one day a buyer realizes her true potential and insists on acquiring this pup for his kennel where he breeds high-class hunting dogs, which means that pretty soon she'll be, um, -cough- I thought this was a children's show. That was the second episode when Minky Momo came into her Doctor Doolittle abilities; in the first episode, the bird was needed to translate for a racing horse poisoned by the competition, although it was barely audible above the roars of laughter brought on by the horse's whifflings. The sick horse beseeched his brother (who had a problem with letting humans sit on his back) to win the race instead and save the ranch, which he did, by a tongue's length; and what that means, I'll leave to the reader's imagination.

From star-princess slapstick, it's only a small step to Magical Princess Tutu, or, as her friends know her, Ahira ("duck") who quacks like a duck, bumbles like a duck and dreams every night that she is a duck, and that there is a sad prince she has to save. A ghastly nutcracker also comes into the picture, telling her she must finish the story that lies open-ended since its original teller died, and that she must stop quacking like a duck, or she'll become one. That's harder than it sounds, when her somewhat doubtful friends constantly affirm how much they like her as she is: quacky and scatterbrained. Her mission is revealed after a chance meeting with "Muto" ("mute"), a gifted ballet dancer - part of the elite of gifted pupils at ballet boarding school, in fact - who is curiously emotionless, and passively follows the orders of his jealously watchful fellow-seniors; it seems he has given up his heart to seal away some evil, and she must recover all the pieces of it, each piece representing an emotion. Reality is run through with Grimm's and Andersen's fairy tales and every classical ballet the scriptwriters could find; Ahira is the ugly duckling who has to protect the bewitched prince from the black swans and follow the nutcracker's directions to restore reality and end things like Sylphides popping out of graves and doll-like proprietors serving cold meals in inns that look like gingerbread houses. But when she's truly confused, she can always count on Edel, a kind of mechanical Mrs Manythings, to sort things out for her. Every episode has Ahira transforming into "Princess Tutu" (which rather enhances her mediocre dancing skills) to dance the duet that will win back yet another piece of heart. Between duets, life is comedy with a cat for a teacher and a giant anteater in class. Ahira also calls on her powers in emergencies: when Mute fell out of a very high window, the audience roared again as Magical Princess Tutu danced to the rescue.

Himiko Den features some six or more magical princesses, including a warrior, a dancing girl, a supposed traitor, a nerd and even a girl transported from the present into this fantasy past, called Himiko. These queens-elect, as they are called, all have a connection to Bokka, a mysterious force that is central to the Yamatai, a rag-tag people subjugated by the leader of the Kune because they failed to present him with a proper government, and he felt they could do with some reorganization. Far away in his floating fortress (is it just me, or do all conquering villains have floating fortresses these days?) the emperor has no idea what is going on between these people and his son, General Shikaru, whom he left in charge. This Shikaru, a fetching tyrant with high spiky shoulder plates and an interestingly painted face, is not only inept at breaking Yamatai resistance, but is doing some very illicit black mojo at the Yamatai's sacred shrine, that even his four demigod assistants - a heel-licker, a quiet soldierly type who secretly pines for him, a good-natured type who secretly pines for the disfigured girl he keeps locked away, and a sarcastic one who sees through all these things - know little about. After a rough journey into this unfamiliar place, Himiko is lucky enough to fall in the hands of the good-natured one, and even luckier to be freed by the Yamatai resistance on her way to Shikaru's palace, although she feels neither gratified nor grateful, and, unlike her foster brother who has searched the land to find her (she's an orphan, of course, her real parents are the old rulers of this race, and it is her destiny to, blah, blah, blah) she just wants to ditch this lot and go back to the comforts of the modern (Western?) world. But first, there is a war to be won and a destiny to be fulfilled... This was originally a video game, I later found out. Which must be why I'm constantly being switched from one set of characters to another in their progress to a communal goal: to cleanse the altar and restore the flow of Bokka.

From magical back to mechanical: in the ironically named Gall Force: Eternal Story, a small all-female crew that survived yet another fierce battle in an intergalactic war, loses at least one member per episode on their way to the Promised Planet, where they will be first to arrive, as a freak time warp has thrown them ahead of the rest of the fleet. Once there, an experiment they unwittingly underwent to combine their DNA with that of an enemy race as a way to end the war produces the first male, a clone of his mother. She does not of course undergo the indignity of labour; the embryo is beamed out of her and miraculously grows up in one day to become her identical twin plus extension. I wonder to what extent these gals are "female" anyway; they do leave lipstick and toiletries all over the place, but the idea of sexual reproduction seems alien to them. Ah well, having come all this way and sacrificed all that life to find they are only guinea pigs, the last useful survivors tear up the planet and the clone escapes with the wimpy dumb blonde that had me wondering: "okay, when are you going to die?" to create the human race on planet Earth, where, generations later, we see lookalikes of the dead members. An amusing retelling of the Adam & Eve story; that all of humanity should have descended from a dumb blonde and a clueless clone explains much. The clone I can warm to for his resemblance to Macky Stingray; the whole series has the look and feel of the old Bubblegum Crisis.

If that was somewhat ridiculous in a grim way, the opening credits of Brain Powerd (yes, the "e" is supposed to be missing) almost had me singing "Barbarellaaaaaaah!" A nude female drifts into view, her body partly obscured by lettering; more nudity drifts past, I think some of it male, showing little obvious connection with Orphan, a slightly Galactorish organization that sends out teens piloting huge robots called Grand Chers (a pointer to the damage they cause?) which, and that is an original touch, are born out of "eggs": huge discs containing all the data needed for construction, a kind of anorganic DNA. If the disc doesn't hatch into a robot, it becomes stiff, hard and dead; while it activates, it whizzes though the air slicing ships and buildings, and when I say "disc" I do mean something with the diameter of a small fairground carrousel. One of these discs hatches into a more sensitive, intelligent form of robot than the Grand Cher, a "Brain Powerd", and fortunately the young girl chancing on this just happens to be the expert on these symbiotic robots and skilfully takes the vulnerable newborn on its first ride. "Careful, you won't make friends by breaking things," she admonishes it when it ploughs up the tarmac in its landing, having already knocked into buildings left and right. Her empathy with these dumb, gentle giants leads her to lash out at an Orphan pilot who has always treated them as mindless machines, and he begins to doubt the doctrines of Orphan, which I would like to know a little more about anyway, and terrorism ensues of such a clumsy nature that I thought: "If this were a real war, you'd be dead now." The only thing about the series I could warm to was the sollicitude shown by tough couple Russ and Nanga (a skinny guy with a Rambo headband and a B.A. Baracus type) for their robot crafts. Otherwise, the series is irritatingly disjointed and lacking in credibility, the brainwashed fanatic Orphan teens defecting a little too easily, the contrasting of mega-mechas and snug little houses with tomatoes in the vegetable patch a little too facile, the robo-friendly but screechy main female a little too obviously destined to become the love interest of the quiet guy she dislikes.

The short film Hoshi no Koe ("Voice from the stars") raised my esteem of the robo-suits genre a little; these suits are genuine robots, and mere decor - as is the whole war-with-aliens that they're employed for - to the actual story, which is that of two school friends becoming increasingly separated in both space and time. One joins the military as a space cadet, the other stays home. The cadet sends messages to her friend through her celphone; first they take hours to arrive, then weeks, then months, and the last message she sends before being killed in an ambush will take eight years to reach its destination. This particular girl's wish to lead a normal life, eat ice cream and walk through the rain, I can sympathize with. Her repeated re-stationings bring about an isolation that is frightening because it's not just a matter of being far apart, but of existing in a different time; a disparity that can only be bridged, the film suggests, through death.

The mammoth among robo-suit series is, of course, Gundam with its many subseries (even more than there are Sailor Moon series, I believe). Mobile Suit Gundam: 8th MS Team atypically isn't set in space, but in some (it appears) east-Asian jungle, and consequently smacks of "M*A*S*H". The entire series was shown, although I can't say I was awake for all of it. An idealistic young military commander (who, on his way, has a chance meeting with "the enemy", of which the significance becomes clear towards the end of the series) takes over a unit that seems cursed with bad luck, happily confident he can change its fortune. At first, the series is very much about blasting the badguys, and the small annoyances of living in cramped quarters in a military outpost; there's no Lebanese crossdresser or iffy dentist, but a semi-coward who fears the war will dash his hope of becoming a musician, his sidekick's reliance on letters from his girlfriend "BB", and the noisy daughter of the village headman (also leader of the resistance movement) who thinks the new captain isn't paying enough attention to her, more than make up for that in terms of noise and chaotic behaviour. This village girl is a good example of the anime bimbette's essential callousness: when the sidekick gets the heave-ho from "BB", and as a result becomes so absent-minded that he almost causes the captain to be sucked into one of these robots' feet, which leads to a well-deserved reprimand, Miss Village Loudmouth yells at the captain: "Don't you have any feelings (ie. shouldn't you be snogging me)?" Years later, sidekick still sighs over BB's photograph, and Miss Don't You Have Any Feelings tears up the photo, throws the fragments in his face and tells him to shape up and forget about her. I guess feelings just don't matter if they're not hers; or, if she's over her crush, everyone else should be too.

That's how the series starts, at least; it becomes progressively grimmer, as a scientist on the "bad" side prepares a super-weapon (ie. super-destructive, as if there was anything left to be destroyed) and a high military commander quite happily prepares to sacrifice the idealistic captain for some tactical reason, much to the disgust of his immediate inferior. A ship of wounded refugees is allowed free passage, then destroyed anyway. On the badguy side, too, people are betraying and killing each other on such a scale that I wonder if this is a new wargame variant: "you off your men, and I'll off mine". There is a final showdown with big explosions and some highly disobedient behaviour from the disgusted inferior, the idealistic captain seems to have become the martyr of peace, and quite suddenly the war is over and his old friends wonder what became of him and if he's really dead. He isn't, of course, but the military high nobs who played dirty think he's dead, and he's quite happy to leave it that way.

Another classic to be shown at this animethon was Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa ("Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind"), yes, Miyazaki's Mary Sue with the suspiciously flesh-coloured pants who saves the day four or five times in a row, only to save it again. (To be fair, the film was a compression of several volumes of manga.) I must say I've come to appreciate this character. She doesn't have a boyfriend, she doesn't need one, she doesn't whine that maybe she'd have a boyfriend if her tits were bigger, she doesn't play the mediator for some boy that she secretly has a crush on herself. "Marriage" is totally off the table. She doesn't constantly and breathlessly apologize, nor is she so stupid or clumsy that she'd need to. Her clothing is not minimal and revealing; it is so drab and practical that you wouldn't guess she's a princess. Nor does she have to wear pretty gowns and jewels to indicate her status, because she is respected and obeyed for her skills and intelligence, of which she gives proof often enough. That she's smart and a crack at anything from insect-taming to swordfighting (when the occasion calls for it) and even quite a scientist as her secret plant lab reveals, also doesn't mean she has bulging biceps or battle armour or some hidden space-vessel leaping in sight at the snap of the fingers; all she has is a flighter, a flare gun and a whistle. She has no magic charms to transform into some super-version of herself, nor is she fulfilling some Destiny that she never asked for. What an incredible relief! She doesn't give a thought to how popular she is and how many friends she should have, she doesn't act the weak little woman and cry, she's no part of scenes where the female gets oggled by some male while not or barely dressed and hits him with a mallet from Hammerspace, and most important of all SHE DOESN'T BLARE ON AND ON ABOUT RUDE JERKS WHO HAVE NO FEELINGS! She may be a Mary Sue, but she's non-hero, non-super, non-bimbette and the same can be said for all females in this film. I used to think that was fairly normal, but in the world of anime, it's exceptional. Anyway, having come to appreciate this character more, I can add that the animation is overall good, and where Ohmu and toxic forests are concerned, it's magnificent; a balm to the sore eyes brought on by too many robots and explosions.

A last girl/robot/explosion feature that doesn't fall under the criticism above, because the main character is much like Nausicaa in terms of intelligence, independence and absence of stupid anime cliches: Armitage III: Dual Matrix. I caught the tail end of the Armitage III OVA (of which I'm not sure where it belongs in the timeline; Naomi and Ross seem to die in a battle against fighter robots, but they're alive and well in the closing shot) and was favorably impressed by the animation. From what little I knew of the character, I hadn't been inclined to watch: Naomi Armitage is a nineteen-year-old (hey, by anime standards, that's retirement age!) Martian secret agent with a terrible secret; yeah, let me guess, she's a robot. A very special robot, it turns out: one with the ability to bear children. Completely normal organic children, even. A feminazi political leader wants to exterminate her production line because the position of women would be threatened by androids capable of bearing children (which, by the way, is a bitter comment on what exactly the position of women amounts to) while a money-grabbing big company boss wants to mass-produce baby-bearing androids because he thinks that having androids procreate is cheaper than making them on the assembly line, or something. At any rate, he smells money and pulls some nasty tricks to find out the secret to Naomi's proven fertility (she has a young child), since the two Naomi clones he made (hence, "Dual Matrix") aren't conceiving. (Maybe because, unlike Naomi, they didn't have a roll in the hay with her semi-robotic partner Ross.) I'd like to know how the whole pregnancy could have happened at all; it sounds like Gatchascience to me. After much combat with the scary two clones (they wear vaguely saucer-like helmets and come with an Evil Giggle module) the jerk is killed, serve him right and the family is happily reunited, the child no longer shocked that her mother is a robot. Which is something, considering the attitude of the human settlers on Mars to robots is nothing short of racism, although the Earth's attitude to the Martian settlers is little better. So, the robot-paranoia theme was a little more mature than I expected. As was the animation. Like much anime, this film has Caucasians. Lifelike ones. It also has black people, middle-aged women, elderly people, all of them lifelike. What it doesn't have is "japanimated" character design, silly stereotypes, anime bimbettes and totally unrealistic explosions; the backgrounds and mechanical structures are as detailed as the characters are, and one shot of a half-finished "Third" (a robot of the same model as Naomi) from the Armitage III OVA shows that the animators at least spent thought on how such a robot would be constructed.

And now for something completely different, as Monty Python members used to say. Kaze no ki to uta ("The song of the wind and the trees") is one of those films that starts in the middle of a story, and for those not acquainted with the story (which is in manga form) requires some introduction. In a boarding school financed by rich poet and notable society figure Auguste Something-or-other, the orphan (relative?) he has adopted and raised, Gilbert, hangs out, skips classes and passes exams by getting cheat notes in return for you-know-what. But it's not as simple as that; Gilbert is deeply and even romantically devoted to his guardian, who neglects and abuses him emotionally because, supposedly, pain will make him a poet and save him from mediocrity. In reality, as school principal Rosmarin is well aware, this pain from someone he can't strike back at is making him practice the same techniques on fellow-pupils, seducing and rejecting them. The tension mounts to a point where his two most regular lays fight each other over nookie rights, and the loser is expelled. The winner, furious that his hard-won possession continues to sleep around, poisons him by forcing him to swallow ivy leaves, and he stumbles back into the dorm bedroom that he shares with the simple but true Serge, placed there deliberately because he's the only one who doesn't know Gilbert's reputation and even if he did, would not join in the general contempt. And that's where the film starts.

It takes Serge a while to figure this nasty character out, but he takes it on himself to be the anti-Auguste, and partially succeeds. This was one of those early shonen-ai-but-not-about-sex classics, created by women for women, cited as example for the notion that the gay-male genre, which depicts men in a "feminized" way, is there for unsure adolescent girls who are afraid of the other sex and need something intersex, not-quite-boy, to train their fantasies on while coming to terms with true masculinity in their preparation for a proper, heterosexual adult life. Bollocks! Firstly, 99 percent of all anime characters are "feminized" in the sense of having big eyes and round heads, female ones even more excessively so than male ones; if boys and girls look alike, it's because they're all drawn with the same (and for either sex, unrealistic) facial proportions. Secondly, the genre is enjoyed by young girls, housewives and grandmamas, and the mangaka are clearly learning; even the positions are more realistic these days. And thirdly, what does this theory imply about lesbian porn films and the men who rent them? But about this film there is indeed something funny. In his voice, and the suggestion of lip-gloss, Gilbert resembles not a girl, but a grown woman; both he and the long-locked, black-eyed, somewhat intimidating principal sound eerily like Queen Beryl. (The main villain of Sailor Moon, for anyone who remembers that show.)

Times have changed; I still remember the empty room at a previous con where Zetsu Ai was playing, and the statement in the booklet of an even earlier con that adult material would not be shown, to counteract the popular idea that anime is all sex and tentacles. Undeterred by ID checks at the door, half the convention was crowding in to see Level C, which I had read about as being plotless sex in unbelievable positions, and I was curious to see how the makers had managed to fill up a one-hour film with this. The premise is laid out in the first few minutes: thrown out of yet another house by yet another woman, a white-collar opportunist who's been around in all the senses of the word, in search of new lodgings, hits on a good-looking young man of schoolgoing age who's out later than he should be (what was that about men being feminized again? Although it's been years since anyone used that line to me) because, as the young man huffily points out, he has an evening job - as fashion model. Still, his luxury apartment is not paid for out of this job, but provided by his brother. Having already invited himself to dinner, the opportunist inquires if his brother is as good-looking as his host and whether he might be introduced; very subtle, as someone from the audience commented. The young model, strangely unoffended, accepts what the opportunist offers by way of rent: a moment of pure pleasure.

What follows is an illustrated step-by-step guide of How To Have Sex With Another Man and Why It's Okay. The animators' very creative solution to not being allowed to draw genitals drew perhaps more laughter than the silliest moments in anime of the comedy genre. The opportunist not only makes good on his promise but turns into a loving, caring roommate, and there's a suggestion of plot at the end when an unknown woman tests the fidelity, not of the opportunist, but of his new lover. Why does this sort of harmless twaddle carry warnings all over it? Okay, so the premise is absurd, the characterization wooden and the whole story just too damn silly. The same can be said of Minky Momo.

I Me My Strawberry Eggs (Engrish anyone?) is intentional comedy. Idealistic (aren't they all) young (male) P.E. teacher hopes to find job at nearby school to pay his rent so that the landlady won't make mincemeat of the sign-bearing dog, but finds the second bit between brackets a hindrance; it's an almost-all-girls school led by a stuffy matron who believes that men are evil and lecherous and therefore forces the female pupils to wear long, hampering skirts that no boy can take a peek under. (Processing all that cloth into blindfolds to put on the male pupils would solve the problem, but no one likes easy solutions. She does intend to get rid of the males by not admitting any new ones, but even with all the boys gone, I doubt the girls would be allowed to ditch the stupid skirts.) Anyway, the matron is NOT going to hire a male (mental image of matron fainting dead away) teacher. His pride wounded, he finds an ally in the landlady who is unimpressed with "that old fossil" and dresses him up as a woman. As such, and after a test of having the clumsiest girl in the school run 50 yards without stumbling (and that does involve hitching up the stupid skirt) he's accepted and can now prove to the world in general, and the stuffy matron in particular, that not every male is evil and lecherous. The clumsy girl plays quite a part in this, as she and the new teacher become very attached to each other, the poor teacher even finding himself sleeping in one bed with her when she fears the girls' dorm is being visited by a ghost. It is in fact a peeping-tom fellow-tenant, which discovery has most of the girls marching to the house armed with clubs and pitchforks, except the clumsy one who really doesn't care what kind of pervert it is, as long as it isn't a ghost. And it's the clumsy girl who first braves the matron by following the teacher's advice to wear something more practical in gym class: a pair of shorts, which for some reason have to be red, shiny and very tight. Wearing their T-shirts over these shorts, the girls do look as if they're naked under the T-shirt and simply painted their crotches red; the episode is (sub)titled "Crimson cheeks of shame". And therein lies the flaw of the series. What the teacher has set out to disprove, is the central comic element. If he's not a pervert, he's the only male character that isn't, and the audience is happily invited to join the ones who are. Unlike Level C, I found this series genuinely offensive, and the comedy isn't funny enough to compensate.

For real comedy - which, in view of the series' reputed popularity, the Japanese appreciate as fully as I do - there is Jungle wa Itsumo Hale no chi Guu (no translation given, but it's about Hale, his mother and the adopted girl Guu, who live in the jungle) which can be described as hilarious insanity. There is barely a moment that isn't funny. Hale is playing a video game, ignoring his mother who wants him to do some shopping. "Did you save the game?" she asks sweetly, and then pulls the plug. Cursing himself for his stupidity in not having saved, he goes into the jungle to get the requested basket of bananas, but is frightened by, and runs away from, something huge and dark that tries to swallow him. The next day his mother brings home an adopted orphan: a sweet, smiling girl who plays happily with him on the rug before the TV. The day after sees her much less sweet and smiling, but possessed of a voracious appetite. She swallows clothes, TV sets, elephants and classrooms of pupils, and doesn't always regurgitate them. Yes, this is undoubtedly the same dark thing that swallowed him on the night of the bananas, but who's going to believe him? In the eps shown, he runs around trying to cover up her activities and stop people from being eaten, and crying out: "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry! Hey, what am I apologizing for?"

Soul taker is not even remotely funny, although it looks like the nightmare of someone with a hospital phobia. An anonymous boy, lacking the trappings of school and family, falls in with some grizzled bounty hunter type while trying to clear up his confusion (and mine!) about a sister who is dead yet may be still alive, and a mother who, he vaguely remembers, stabbed him to almost-death. A girl - a qualified nurse - takes him in, saying she is his sister, and he knows she isn't, yet at some level, she is. His enemies who capture and kill her (in the course of conducting medical experiments on her, which fortunately the audience was spared from watching) qualify her as a "flicker"; an illusory reflection of his sister's conscious, "not real" and therefore expendable. These enemies are the cool collected head of something half hospital, half fortress, and the obviously gaga "physician" who attacks people with nasty instruments, hypodermic syringes and his long snaky tongue. To fight them, the boy relies on his gradually discovered talent to transform into a monster, something even his companion is not fully comfortable with. Insane, but not funny. An exercise in surrealism.

Those who own or have owned dogs may recognize it: a sound halfway between whining and whimpering, with the duration of the former and modulation of the latter: the sound made by a puppy that really, really, really needs to pee. As the tapes brought to the con were bad, and an expedition was made to Amsterdam to collect the original unsubbed DVDs of Figure 17, no textual explanations relieved the constant puppy-needing-to-pee sounds coming out of Tsubasa, the daughter of a single dad moved out to the country, who feels much less at home in the new surroundings than he does, and spares no effort in making this clear to the watcher. Unfortunately, this is the character that the series will be centering on.

Pleasant intermezzo: a very round, smoothed, streamlined spacecraft crashes in the forest. This series' animation is as clear and crisp as that of Z-Minds, and likewise mixes in computer animation. The craft's owner, a man-from-Atlantis type, is knocked out with a scratch on his forehead. Running after the dog who has run into the forest barking, Tsubasa sees a monster, half crab, half spider, with a big conical centre containing one eye. (Spoiler: punch it through the eye, and it dies. For a while.) The man-from-Atlantis awakes and activates a liquid body armour that flows around him like Ultranate, then takes on the monster. The monster extends tentacles and sharp rocky blades at will, and runs the poor man through. (Another spoiler: he'll be all right. In the next episode he was impaled on a row of blades, with no lasting damage. He did lose the ability to transform, though.) The monster now turns its attention to Tsubasa. (Oh, if dreams could come true!) She flees into the craft, a bottle of body armour breaks and leaks beside her, she is outwardly transformed into a young woman glazed with purple (inside, she's in a kind of globe-shaped alternate dimension, scared and whiny while the body armour does all the fighting) and temporarily kills the monster after a fair (and tedious) bit of acrobatics. One eighteen-year-old can split back up into two nine-year-olds, it seems, because Tsubasa now has a twin sister, who is far more enterprising than she is and all set for fun & play. The Atlantis-man quickly assumes the role of guardian to stop all that youthful enthusiasm from ending in tears. They return to Tsubasa's house, where the first thing to tackle is blending in with the natives. Not a problem for the twin, who can be passed off as Tsubasa's long-lost sister, but harder for a man in a spacy suit with long turqoise hair (of a shade rarely seen even in anime) ending in big, conspicuous metal coils. The girls think so too, and Tsubasa-clone starts to brush black paint into his hair. The camera then zooms out to the house's exterior, there is an enraged "Nani??" and the next shot shows the space-man looking resigned, his hair cut scruffily short. The only reason why I'd follow this series is to watch the earnest space-man undergo further indignities as he plays daddy to the bouncy clone; the one-per-episode combats between SuperTsubasa and the ever-reviving monster don't do much for me, while the main character herself is a positive deterrent.

The West has Charlie Brown. Japan has Azumanga Daioh, a study in understated absurdity. The setting is an average school. There is a girl from Osaka, who after a communal decision (in which she takes no part) is called "Osaka". She is extremely slow-witted and vaguely wonders if she's really as slow-witted as people say, while trying to keep hold of a bar of soap. There are two teachers who used to be in the same class, the sympathetic P.E. teacher and the bitchy English teacher who gets drunk in bars and relies on her friend to get her home. There is a teacher (male) who may or may not be a pervert, but obviously has a screw loose. There is a tall withdrawn girl (whose quietness makes her "sooo much cooler than a guy") who likes animals and tries, repeatedly, to stroke a cat which opens a wide mouth full of shark's teeth and bites her on the finger. There is a highly competitive girl and a very young bright girl with rich parents who invites the others to tea. And all this without the hysteria, screeching and innuendo I've become used to. A perfect, gentle ending to a weekend of far too little sleep.



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