Superhuman action, mecha, galactic-scale collateral damage, and in-your-face fan service; as rote and perhaps expected as these elements are within the anime medium, it can be argued that there is a science to making it all work beyond the confines of the time in which it was made. Not unlike a well-timed comedic moment, or even a tightly constructed plot reveal, it is often more about execution, rather than originality. So when I make mention of a feature film originally meant to be an installment of the legendary “Cream Lemon” series of proto-H anime shorts, one may also be surprised to know just how important Yuji Moriyama & Kazuhiko Nishijima’s Project A-ko is to modern anime, as well as projects of the past which it lampoons with biting wit, and boundless energy. So when the sneaky minds at Discotek Media announced that they were planning to bring this title back to home video, one can only imagine my reaction.
So what does it mean when someone like myself who tends to dismiss most ouput that relies on so many of the aforementioned tropes, and gimmicks regards one title with an unending love and admiration reserved for Masterpiece Theatre material? Two simple words; Application and precedent. When looking back at everything this project brought to the forefront during the industry’s heyday, one can easily see that this was a film that could by no means be made today. Or even ten years ago for that matter. Truly an artifact of it’s time, and yet by way of sheer audacity, it remains something of a cult classic, even among fans of Japanese animation. But should you ever meet a fan, it is often the kind of fandom rivalling a dangerous crush. And possibly the prime reason for this is how much A-ko loves and adores the art of animation, and the possibilties of comics. It’s a wildly enthusiastic hug to all within the realms of fantasy- particularly pulp superhero & science fiction. And yet it does all of this without alienating potential converts. No easy task, as the film is chock full of some impressive anime & manga in-gags, as it careens wildly around a simple one-joke conceit that hardly disguises itself as a plot.
The ::sic:: PLOT:
At it’s very essence, Project A-ko is the tale of a schoolyard girl brawl gone horribly awry. It’s Eiko (A-ko) Magami’s first day in a new school during a whole new day in Graviton City. ( A happy-shiny megalopolis constructed over a crater forged by a devastating meteor impact years prior to our tale.) Along for the day’s first class is her definitively dim-witted best buddy Shiko (C-ko-ERGH..) Kotobuki. A short, blonde-haired, childlike creature decked with cuteness to spare, and blessed with all the charm of a bad ringtone in a movie theater.Their first day in class is in many ways hectic enough, but only becomes worse when the seemingly well-mannered model student, Biko Daitokuji finds herself entranced by the fire-alarm charms of C-ko. So she takes it upon herself to claim what she feels is rightfully hers, by way of any dirty trick that could be devised by the beautiful heiress. Unlucky for her is the revelation that the redheaded transfer student in A-ko, is endowed with….wait for it….superhuman strength, and incredible speed! It is within this bizarre quasi-love triangle that the show begins in earnest, and only exacerbates when it is discovered that a group of aliens are watching from above- in search of their lost princess, who may, or may not be who we think she is…But knowing just how defiantly the film wishes to play with things, it is pretty easy to figure out. But the REAL fun is when we as audience begin to ask the burning question…WHY? By why ask why, when the surprises don’t end there? Can Graviton City survive?
Confessions Of A Near-20 Year Homeless Alien
From mistaken identities, to hand-to-hand girl-on-mecha action, to some incredibly staged action sequences, (Yes, even by today’s standards.) the film continuously flirts with going completely off-the-rails insane, and yet, never loses the ability to decompress by laughing at itself. It fully knows what it is, and gets completely drunk on it by the finale as three parties seem primed to destroy virtually everything around them over something so patently absurd.
Now I won’t go into any detail regarding the many anime references littered throughout the film as it is well-cataloged all over the internet, but I will make mention of the wealth of talent involved- which is pretty astonishing. Names such as Toshiyuki Kubooka ( Giant Robo, Gunbuster, the Lunar game series), Atsuko Nakajima (Ranma 1/2, Trinity Blood), Kia Asamiya (Steam Detectives, Silent Mobius), as well as a personal favorite, Tsukasa Dokite (Dirty Pair) who’s main contribution to the piece remains, at least to me, one of the defining moments of the anime medium. A gag so wildly over the top hysterical, it demands keeping the remote close by. In fact, there are many “did I just see that?” moments in the film, it is hard to pick them all out on first viewing. In the days before CG-intervention, many of A-ko’s visual charms range from the charmingly simple, to the out-right bizarre.
Also worthy of note are the audio contributions made by the cast, as well as the unforgettable score by Ritchie Zito, and future J-pop darling, Joey Carbone (who went on to write several songs for Johnny’s Jimusho). The score is a pitch-perfect mixture of synth & rock from the Top Gun school of film scoring, which plays beautifully with the film’s vibrant primary colored universe. Featuring early vocal work by Michie Tomizawa (Linna in BGC & Rei in Sailor Moon) as the potentially savant C-ko, as well as Emi Shinohara, who went on to become Makoto in Sailor Moon as well. Her Biko is something of a cool spin on the Lex Luthor archetype which actually wins points for making her something of a sympathetic villain, even when it is clear that this is a young lady OBSESSED. When she sheds tears, assuming her role as villain in this predicament, one can’t help but jibe a little. And this is part of the secret weapon Project A-ko hides underneath its spectacle & unrestrained ambitiousness; a sort of sincerity regarding our two main battling archetypes. Without this, the whole gag wouldn’t work, and one can’t help but feel that this one character is worth all of this (even when perhaps the best thing for us all is to shuttle her off into deep space). The quarry means something to them, and it goes a long way(for the film at least- Can’t say the same for the OVAs made soon after).
So when I make mention of precedence & application, it is merely in the context of history. Looking at decades of the evolution (or-de-evolution) of so-called “fan service”-centric anime, it seems that even many who worked on this film went on to television projects that inevitably succumed to the very thing that helped their work reach new creative highs. Much like the lightsaber, one of the striking minor elements in a film like this inevitably becomes the fodder for lesser shows like Agent Aika(which Moriyama also worked on) . A creator’s masterstroke sometimes becomes its own prison. When one looks back at A-ko, one might realize that a mere panty flash wasn’t what made the show stand out so much as where and how. The gag since then has become over-emphasized, and therefore becomes irrelevant & even boring. So when it’s done here, it all feels like a part of a larger, wackier fabric. And executed with dare I call it, “class”. So when an industry relies on a gag executed so much better elsewhere, it comes off as tired, and dishonest. Whereas here, it comes off as an important image that goes along well with it’s playful XX-chromo power play. And as displayed by the entire work’s attention to action detail, complete with explosions, crumbling structures, and flying machinery, this is Michael Bay-level spectacle, except with an actual focus, and none of the infantile baggage- again, done 25 years ago.
Project A-ko by its very nature, is anime broken down to its most base components, packed with nitro-glycerin for blood, and shamelessness on its sleeve in its wanton reverence for otaku fantasies & lack of regard toward anything resembling conventional narrative. This is a penultimate example of a medium fully at the mercy of a mad group of artists in love with their work. An animator’s anime. All the wild takes, inside-gaggery, and hyperbolic action one expects- and yet in the realm of these seemingly stock-card thin characters, there is a life that veers well beyond the borders of the screen(and possibly bounces off into another universe). We’re talking a film that does for seifuku what 2001: A Space Odyssey does for viewers as David Bowman enters Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite. It is a laugh-wrenching amalgamation of genre-fantasy’s best and worst qualities, and yet it all continues to work its daffy magic 25 years later. And again, all before a certain recent Hollywood director ripped off visual cues from this film, whilst losing sight of the sly, feminine empowerment undercurrent that permeates it. While the intention may have been the opposite during the time of production, the final product is startlingly ahead of the curve.
It’s a title that I still love to spring on friends, and a title I always hate to see come to its finale. And it never finishes without leaving me feel energized, and hopeful for those times when pop art penetrates the stratosphere, and into pure crowd-pleaser territory.
For a short time there, it began to feel as though titles that some would consider dated, or even old-hat would stand an ant’s chance under the magnifying glass of anime industry armageddon. But to see Discotek Media take point, and bring back this beloved title harkens to something of a return to sanity in a landscape fraught with corpses of dead-on-arrival tv series, OVAs, and even feature films. All with tales of woe to share. And yet, A-ko is one of these strangely stalwart titles that no video collection can truly do without. So to see it back in the ether for possibly an entirely new generation to discover, it’s a heartening move. Make no mistake..A-ko’s back, and all is right with the world.
Discotek is a dvd distribution company that has quickly parallel-wired my mind when considering license choices. And as much of what adorns the new dvd release comes from the previous CPM releases of the film, it is still too sweet to see so many extras still available for what remains a criminally underdiscussed title in American anime fandom. Especially worth it for the amazing Yuji Moriyama commentary that fills in so many blanks regarding the chaotic production of this film. A must own.