Sure we’re virtually well out of the sphere of merely looking into the 1980s as a trendy hot-point of discussion, but what often doesn’t get shared within many writeups are the hidden, those unseen few, and often completely forgotten gems of the past that make up for much of this column.
Beginning in the early hours somewhere in San Diego, California, latter twentysomething ne’er do-well, Noera is reminiscing of the good old days with his former school basketball teammate, who is now helping run the local bar, Border Line. It is within this scene that we are made aware of Noera’s current lot in life which is drifting to say the least. Regardless, after what seems to be a hefty night of drinking and chatting, he is celebrating a newly acquired job in Los Angeles with a start time not too far away. Meanwhile a little ways north, near Edwards Air Force Base, incidents are in motion ready to alter Noera’s fortune during his drive back in his cherry red vintage, when he runs across a high speed chase involving a young blonde on a motorcycle, several big rigs, and more. Within these frantic moments, Noera meets the free-spirited Marsha, and is whisked headlong into a mad chase regarding a mysterious object fresh from a crash site, possibly alien in origin. And those doing the chasing are willing to use anything and everything (rocket launchers included) to get it back.
And such is the familiar, yet strangely refreshing premise of California Crisis: Gun Salvo , a virtually unseen (on both shores) OAV from the heyday of the VHS straight-to-video days that has the distinction of being one of the most loving tributes to popcorn Hollywood anime has ever attempted. Produced in 1986 by one-timers Studio Unicorn, and directed by Mizuho Nishikubo. And one doesn’t have to look hard to see just how cash-drowned the era was as this is easily the kind of anime production that could only have occurred during the mid-1980s. The budgets were largely in force, and so was a will to experiment. California Crisis is a bizarrely definitive vision of Americana by way of the Japanese animator, and has style to match.
The further we are entrenched in the chase pitting Noera, Marsha and her cat in danger from various agencies, including Russians, and a rogue unit of the US Air Force, the video’s brief running time gives us little in the way of rhyme and reason, but plenty of style to help carry it.
Even from the screenshot I am sharing up top, it is blaringly clear just how much free reign was given to creators and staff of this wild 45 minutes of breezy, summer movie-style adventure. The entire presentation comes off as the next logical stylistic step from Megazone 23‘s vision of the 1980s, which is to say that the entire visual palette is a pastel-drenched hybrid of anime and retro comic art akin to the works of 50s comic icon, Stan Drake. Hard outlines, and solid colors are the order of the day, creating something of the feel of an old pulp adventure comic that has just stumbled upon a hallucinogenic laced can of Coors. Also worth noting is the at times incredible soundtrack by Masaki Kurihara that evokes the vibe of late 1970s road movie, as well as a full-on embrace of 80s funk. Which is perhaps the perfect segue for the iconic sounds of Miho Fujiwara, who serves the pop music duties for the film. – If there is anything other than the visuals that are capable of burning themselves into memory, it is her voice and overall sound that grants the remaining package a singular aura.
Now as mentioned, the entire style is the substance here, as the staff did their part in paying tribute to the films that clearly inspired them. In fact, one could go so far as to opine that much of California Crisis lives and dies based on cineaste and pop culture familiarity. Much like the popular films to come later, in the 1990s, the piece is packed with even dialogue references to Robert Ludlum, Steven Spielberg, and others. There is a freewheeling, lighthearted feel to the whole affair that brings to mind many of the summer fare that was appearing in american cinemas around this time from My Science Project, Cloak and Dagger, D.A.R.Y.L. , and others. Rushing from one scene to the next, at times seemingly forced by production necessity, the project flirts often with spinning out of control. One almost gets the impression that had the budget been a little higher, a full-fledged film would have resulted. However, this leads to what manner of problems do exist in here.
So as the story unfolds, and our protagonists better get to know one another, one has the impression that a larger, more impressive reveal was in the planning. Problem is that while a lot of the film is visually exciting, this came at the sacrifice of story points what ultimately lead to missed moments, ridiculous means of exposition, not to mention quite a number of Deus Ex Machina interventions. Noera’s good looking, ordinary boy demeanor is as expected at odds with the hyper enthusiasm of Marsha, who seems to have no background to speak of, save for that she lives for the “american dream” believed to be within the enigmatic MacGuffin they are in possession of. He remains the voice of reason, while she has very little to stop her from achieving what she wants despite her limited (and potentially naive) means. It’s a classic pairing that comes to a head in a hotel scene that may come out of nowhere for some, but is also treated as a unique character moment that explains their divide perfectly. Their “crisis-borne” relationship is treated as a matter of fact, and is in tradition of a more western film tone. Something the crew of this clearly paid very close attention to.
Problems arise for the film when it becomes something of a game to figure out where the animation budget seems geared at. Given production budgets at the time, and despite the at-times incredible action animation, it becomes clear that the story can’t sustain itself, so the story naturally burns itself out by the finale which remains confused and underwhelming. And seeing as how the video only had one volume, and spelled the death knell of Studio Unicorn, this remains another classic example of that great last gamble, regardless of the outcome. Which is perhaps why my view of the film tends to remain positive as I find it more interesting when a work aims beyond the stratosphere, rather than within realms of the safe and familiar.
It is anime to the bones, and yet open to different visual storytelling models that predate shows like Cowboy Bebop, and the like. From the editing, to the use of music, to the snappy dialogue that happens in between action scenes. Having grown up where I did, a lot of this film brings back a world of not only memories of places I’ve been (seeing Edwards AFB was especially giggle inducing), but of simple meme-like visions of locations visited. There is a love of all-things California as art gallery in this OAV that is a reminder of all that is exciting about cultural exchange, as well as the dream of what America could be. (regardless off all those guns and helicopters) Make no mistake, California Crisis remains that kind of flawed, yet one of a kind anomaly that comes out of any affluent artistic period. It is online if you can find it (and it isn’t hard to find it at all), please give it a shot. I’ll wait.