I'm sometimes amazed at the depths of the inroads anime has made into United States pop culture in just twenty years. Americans are a bunch that doesn't much care for other countries' pop music or watches many foreign films, and yet we love Japanese 'toons. Bros gush about Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and One-Punch Man. The internet brims with thinkpieces, written in English, examining and lauding Sailor Moon as a feminist keystone for Generation Y. The manga section at a given Barnes & Noble easily sees more traffic than any other aisle in the store. Cosplay! There are cosplay magazines on the rack at Walgreens, for god's sake!
Two decades ago, things were much different.
[WARNING: NOSTALGIA GLOP INCOMING]
We've all had a good laugh at those ridiculous and/or anodyne redesigns of Japanese video game box art for Western markets, the most famous offender being Mega Man. Some other examples:
|JP: Kame no Ongaeshi: Urashima Densetsu (1988)|
|NA: Xexyz (1990)|
|JP: Slapstick (1994)|
|NA: Robotrek (1994)|
|JP: Shining Force II (1993)|
|NA: Shining Force II (1994)|
The reasoning here was American buyers (presumably preteen or adolescent boys, and parents shopping for them) might be put off by exotic-looking covers. And these games' original covers certainly would have seemed exotic to most American consumers in the early 1990s. Remember, there wasn't a manga section in the big-box book retailers yet. The Japanese animation on TV was either judiciously scrubbed of any hints to its country of origin (like Voltron: Defender of the Universe) or were shows where the characteristic anime aesthetic was deemphasized to begin with, like Noozles, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Maya the Bee—Nick Jr. fare, mostly. Heck, the word "anime" hadn't even made it into the conventional lexicon yet. A 1993 GamePro ad for Keio Flying Squadron stuck out like a sore thumb, but neither me nor my friends knew what to call the way it looked. ("Like Shining Force, but more.")
It wasn't impossible to watch anime in North America, but one rather had to go out of his way to acquire it—which is why "anime clubs" became a thing. Bootleg VHS tapes usually had to be physically circulated from person to person, and legitimate releases were expensive: $19.95 (plus shipping) was how much two half-hour episodes of Ranma 1/2 used to cost, and just one episode of Tenchi Muyo! was about as much. Anime was such a niche product that one pretty much had to enjoy it communally, if only to split or circumvent the price tag.
That an anime scene existed was completely beyond my cohort's ken in the early 1990s. But we were playing a lot of Japanese video games, and couldn't help noticing that the look of, say, the Phantasy Star games (not to mention the titles shown above) was patently different from the cartoons we were watching and comic books we were reading. Many of us, myself included, found that compelling.
In the mid-1990s, a shift was underway. Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z debuted on United States television in 1995 and 1996—but nobody really noticed. Samurai Pizza Cats aired in 1996, and no amount of rapid Rocky & Bullwinkle-esque dialogue (written completely without reference to the original scripts) could conceal how damn Japanese the whole thing was. Cartoon Network's after-school Toonami block picked up Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z in 1998, placing them in timeslots where they'd actually be seen, and added Robotech, Ronin Warriors, Gundam Wing, G-Force, and Tenchi Muyo! to its lineup over the next two years. I think the tipping point of the invasion was the Pokémon craze, which hit its apex in 1999–2000. It was the first time that an anime, any anime, not only became normalized in the United States, but inescapable. (Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, despite being complete tripe, is still the highest-grossing anime to have been screened in US theaters.)
The internet was instrumental to the anime incursion, but at first it served mostly to spread awareness. Streaming video and BitTorrent were pipe dreams in the mid 1990s, so one wasn't going to find much watchable anime on the information superhighway. But one could learn about it on any number of series shrines and make friends with fans from across the world. Some of my acquaintances from a Nintendo message board I frequented were self-delcared otaku, and preached the superiority and sophistication of anime (read: "there's boobs and blood!") as compared to the undeveloped sensibilities of Western animation. The idea that there was a world of cartoons with the stylistic flavor of the console RPGs I obsessively played intrigued me, as did the promise of boobs and blood. I was determined to get my hands on this stuff one way or another.
Unfortunately, a twelve-year-old in the suburbs didn't have many options, especially if he didn't know anybody he could borrow tapes from. It was around this time I noticed an anime shelf had appeared over at Blockbuster Video (formerly Video Towne), but securing a rental wasn't going to happen. My mother drove me to the store on these trips and was interested in knowing what I'd be watching or playing, and something like Outlanders or Devil Hunter Yohko would be a very hard sell. (I remember there was a copy of Akira affixed with a red and white sticker that said "NOT FOR KIDS." It was the only tape in the store with such a marking. I'd really like to imagine that one day some eight-year-old asked his mom to rent it for him because he thought the box looked cool, and she supposed it was something along the lines of X-Men or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the other cartoons she'd seen him watching. And then she returned the next day with an unrewound VHS tape and a traumatized child, and the Blockbuster manager assured her it would never happen again.)
At some point—I guess I was in the seventh grade by then—I had a couple of lunchtime conversations with a classmate who actually had access to anime and wore a Vampire Hunter D T-shirt to school like once a week. (I'm guessing he had an older brother.) Justin; his name was Justin. It was from Justin that I heard about the Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday Anime block, which aired a Japanese animated feature film every Saturday morning. Finally! Access!
That Saturday I work up early, went down to the basement (where we kept the TV I had my SNES hooked up to), and flipped through the channels. The TV listings in the newspaper said the film of the day was Project A-ko, which I'd heard of before—if memory serves, in an InQuest magazine ad for the short-lived Ani-Mayhem CCG. I was stoked. That unattainable, outre world represented by the rows of tantalizingly strange VHS boxes in Blockbuster and a thousand GeoCities picture shrines was finally within reach.
...Oh my god. The whole broadcast is on YouTube, commercials and all. January 4, 1997.
Katsuhiko Nishijima (西島 克彦 Nishijima Katsuhiko) (born February 4, 1960 in Funabashi, Chiba) is a Japanese anime director known for panty-fanservice.I can't find an original source, but it's reported that Project A-ko was originally going to be an installment of the Cream Lemon OAV hentai series, but was repurposed as an action/comedy. In this behind the scenes video, Nishijima claims to have made Project A-ko because he was missing a few of his front teeth (true; see for yourself if you dare) and wanted to release a film that would make a lot of money so he could afford to get some dental work done (maybe not entirely false).
I'm finding I'd rather not dwell on the A-ko production team. Even though they know how to make a good cartoon, they're a bit icky.
Instead, since I so enjoy writing character descriptions and have so few occasions to do it lately, let's meet Project A-ko's main cast:
Kind of a girl-next-door type. Seventeen years old. Recent transfer to Graviton High. Easygoing. Mostly concerned with getting to school on time and taking care of C-ko. Easily frightened by horror flicks. Her special abilities include superhuman strength, agility, and durability, but she doesn't like to make a big deal of it.
Kind of a crazy person. Rich. Conceited. Brilliant. Like Tony Stark as a high school queen bee. Adores C-ko, despises A-ko. Might be gay, but it's less interesting/important an issue than you might think. Isn't very good at naming her inventions.
Kind of a pain in the ass. Presumably sixteen or seventeen, but looks like she's ten and acts like she's five. Inattentive. Sunny. Solipsistic. Idolizes A-ko. Has two settings: delighted and devastated. Both are loud.
It's worth noting that "A-ko" translates to something like "Girl A." So there are our leading ladies: "Girl A," "Girl B," and "Girl C." And there's also:
Kind of gross. Mysterious visitor to Graviton City. Stalks A-ko and C-ko. Spends most of his screen time breathing heavily, grunting, masticating, and chain smoking. Actually belongs to an all-female alien race. The appropriate personal pronouns are anyone's guess. A strong contender for the Miss Unfortunate Camel Toe tiara.
So: Project A-ko was my first anime experience. Had you asked me then for my reactions, I might have enumerated a few positives and negatives:
(+) It was cool to see anime-style designs in motion at a higher resolution than SNES/Genesis graphics, and with more context than the three-second Sailor Moon clips shown in the infrequently aired commercials for the Barbie-style doll line.So my first and only experience with Saturday Anime was a wash. I came around to anime over the next few years as it began dominating Cartoon Network's weekday afternoon programming, and when I became old enough to drive myself to Blockbuster and rent weird action-comedy-ecchi OAVs. But for a very long time I had no desire to revisit Project A-ko.
(+) The action scenes were far more intense than anything I'd seen in Western animation up to that point, though, really, it wasn't hard to outdo Felix the Cat, The Lion King, or Thundercats in that department.
(-) The dub was pretty heinous: staccato delivery, critical lines were delivered with precisely the same emphasis (or lack thereof) as the rest of the rapid chatter, and the main characters, all teenage girls, sounded like women in their forties.
(-) I never knew how I was supposed to feel about what was happening, or how seriously to take it.
(-) Actually, I thought the whole thing was pretty stupid.
Gundam Wing when it aired on Toonami, bought the box set a few years later, and watched it all again. In 2013 I dug out the DVDs and had more than enough of it after three episodes. When I was a sophomore in high school I never missed an episode of Outlaw Star: it hit virtually all the same beats and adhered to the basic plot structure of the JRPGs I was enamored of back then, which may explain why it tastes so flat to me now. My absolute favorite for a few years was Tenchi Muyo!—its designs and mythology are so splendidly imaginative—but I can no longer watch it without feeling like a voyeur into Masaki Kajishima's onanist Mary Sue daydream. (And yes I know there's much worse out there, but the fact that the creator/writer/director named the main character of his teenage harem anime after himself gives me a crawly feeling.)
And yet, when I finally took a second look at Project A-ko in 2014 (I'm thinking I was prompted to it by Frezno's tweetgushing about Dirty Pair, another 1980s anime), I found really enjoyed it. Watching it subbed was definitely a factor. So was having viewed a few hundred hours of various anime series between first and second viewings. Project A-ko is parodic pastiche of anime vogue circa 1985, but that's going to be far from evident to a thirteen-year-old whose experience with Japanese animation consists mostly of having watched Maya the Bee during sick days in elementary school.
We've got cities constructed around wrecked spaceships:
|Macross City (Super Dimension Fortress Macross)|
|Graviton City (Project A-ko)|
Boozy space mariners:
|Phantom Harlock (Space Pirate Captain Harlock)|
|Napolipolita (Project A-ko)|
|Kenshiro (Fist of the North Star)|
|Mari (Project A-ko)|
In 1997 I knew nothing about Fist of the North Star other than that there was an NES game with that title. I found Mari's inclusion in the film a rather confusing choice, to put it mildly.
It wasn't only the specific riffs or even the send-ups of general anime tropes that went over my head: Project A-ko's whole parodic ethos was lost on me because it was new to me. The kind of parody I knew and understood back then was the kind exemplified by Mad Magazine movie satires, faux film clips in The Critic, and movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux.
I went through a fairly intense Star Wars phase between the ages of twelve and fourteen (and I get a happy little tingle remembering how it was before the prequels existed), so naturally I made a point of renting Spaceballs a couple of times. Spaceballs loosely copies Star Wars' character archetypes, aesthetic, and plot, but it's completely absurd, low-stakes, and zero-tension from start to finish.
Now imagine if someone took Spaceballs and tweaked it a bit. President Skroob murders an entire planet, a'la Grand Moff Tarkin. Lone Starr and Dark Helmet's climactic Schwartz-ring duel is fifteen minutes long and has Prequel-grade fight choreography, but still keeps all the gags intact. The assault on the Death Star in A New Hope is reprised, and played totally straight. It would make for a far more dissonant film, all over the place in terms of its tone. Like Project A-ko.
Project A-ko's mixture of explosive, dramatic action and ironic comedy isn't a unique formula, and it certainly has its analogs in the West: Galaxy Quest, Shaun of the Dead, and Tropic Thunder, for example, all parody the genres they typify while simultaneously making the grade as competent sci-fi, horror, and action movies (respectively). In the domain of television animation, The Venture Brothers may well remain the most influential and adroit straddler of the line between smug satirical hodgepodge and genuinely riveting TV serial. (Shows like Archer, Rick and Morty, and even Gravity Falls owe a lot to the Venture boys.) But Project A-ko was playing the game over a decade earlier. (This doesn't mean that A-ko had any kind of influence on them, of course.) A-ko also makes a hell of a lot less sense.
In its first five minutes, we see the NASA Space Shuttle destroyed by a UFO that comes hurtling out of space and plows into Earth, obliterating a Japanese city in a sea of fire. Millions are killed. In the next scene we skip ahead a few years to a massive orbiting space station, where the launch of a deep space probe is underway. Accompanying these proceedings is the theme "Explosion," whose 1980s synthgoop timbre does nothing to diminish its gravitas.
"Okay," an inexperienced viewer might reasonably think. "This is a serious affair and I should be taking it seriously."
Then we cut to the life and times of an inexplicably superpowered schoolgirl (A-ko) who's always late for class because she's forced to give battle to the killer mecha dispatched against her by a jealous classmate (B-ko), who wants to be the exclusive friend of A-ko's jejune little rugrat bestie (C-ko).
"Okay," mulls the thirteen-year old, "maybe I shouldn't be taking this seriously."
Just as A-ko and B-ko are finally about to go mano-a-mano, we cut back to the outer atmosphere, where the space station we saw earlier has detected a gargantuan alien spacecraft headed towards Earth. After the incident sixteen years ago, Earth's defense forces aren't taking any chances, and the fighters are scrambled to intercept the visitors. In the ensuing space battle (waged to bellicose moogbeats of "Spaceship in the Dark"), all the wings are shot down and the space station is destroyed. Everyone on board is killed.
"Right. Now we're entering the third act. Things are about to get serious."
As A-ko and B-ko carry out their duel, inflicting ruinous collateral damage on the school building and the surrounding suburbs, the alien warship penetrates the atmosphere. Graviton City becomes the battlefield in the conflict between Earth's military and the invaders. Tanks roll through the streets. Fighter jets engage the aliens' arachnoid war machines. Buildings are knocked over, streets ripped apart, and the populace convulses in panic. A-ko and B-ko declare a temporary truce when "D" abducts C-ko and spirits her away to the mothership. A-ko fights her way into the heart of the alien fortress and fights "D," who turns out to be large female man in a war bikini. Then she reaches the bridge and meets the invaders' leader, who suffers a sudden bout of the DTs and blows up his own ship. Instead of dropping out of the sky and wiping out Graviton City (again), it gets snagged on the central skyscraper—which is actually what's left of the first ship that crashed sixteen years ago—where it rests safely suspended like Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly perched atop a flagpole. Crisis averted! Now it's the weekend and A-ko can take a couple days off.
"I have no idea what I should be thinking or feeling right now."
In retrospect—and as I'm skipping through the English language version and cringing—I think much of the fault belongs to the dub for making the film confusing instead of merely chaotic.
And chaotic it certainly is. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the film's inchoate stages, Nishijima and a few animators wrote out their ideas on notecards and spread them out across a table. They probably would have included:
• SchoolgirlsConventional wisdom says you can mix and match some items, but should exclude the rest. "Schoolgirls," "Yuri love triangle," and "slice of life" are eminently compatible, but the addition of "wanton destruction" and "intense space battles" risks a sloppy, incoherent final product. But Nishijima said fuck it: let's do all of it, and cram it into an hour and twenty minutes. And the toothless son of a bitch somehow made it work. I suppose if your heart, soul, and other sundry organs are set on dashing together an anarchic mishmash of a movie, you might as well go for the gusto.
• Yuri love triangle
• Intense space battles
• Slice of life
• Bad-ass fight scenes
• Genre parody
• Lots of shit exploding/wanton destruction
• Alien invasion
• World-building/futuristic setting
• Weird/unsexy gender-bending
• Mystery of a lost alien princess
A-ko, B-ko, and C-ko aren't taking it as a joke either. But the difference is that they don't care. They hardly even notice. They're too wrapped up in each other and themselves. A-ko is just annoyed that B-ko and now the aliens are pulling her out of class and making her come across as a troublemaking slacker to her teacher. B-ko is so fixated on shooting micro missiles and (literally) throwing tanks at A-ko that several minutes go by before she acknowledges she's smack dab in the middle of freaking Independence Day. And C-ko just yells and screams and cries, oblivious to the big picture. Even when one of the girls turns out to be the missing princess the aliens are hellbent on recovering, the fact doesn't register. None of them are paying attention. They're not even interested.
Enough bloviation. Project A-ko's genius boils down to this: my old favorite Gundam Wing has first-rate tech designs, great action scenes, and gobs of adolescent drama; it takes itself very seriously, but is actually pretty stupid. Project A-ko is also pretty stupid, and it knows it's pretty stupid; it doesn't take itself at all seriously, and it has dramadramadrama, gorgeous action sequences, and a confectioner's ton of technological eye candy to boot, and it occasionally glimmers with brilliance in spite of the inanity it wears with such elan. Not to compare apples to oranges, but I think the winner is clear.
Two of A-ko's brightest moments occur during its last five minutes. For the first half of the movie, "D" stalks A-ko and C-ko, snooping on them from a distance (though he learns there's really no such thing as a "safe" distance where A-ko is concerned) with binoculars, cameras, and video recorders. The focus of his photos and videos is usually on A-ko. So when "D's" communications with his superiors allude to a princess who crash-landed on Earth sixteen years ago, the viewer is meant to guess that A-ko is the one they're talking about: of course she's an alien! Why else would she have superpowers?
But no—the lost princess is actually C-ko. Which prompts the question: so what's the deal with A-ko anyway?
As it turns out, "brilliant" and "pretty stupid" might not be as mutually exclusive as one might believe.
My favorite moment of Project A-ko is at the very end, as in its last ten or fifteen seconds. Pretty much any creative writing teacher or screenwriting workshop will harp on the vital importance of character growth to a good story: stuff happens, the central figures respond to it, and their emergence from the process as changed people is the meat the readers/viewers suck from the narrative bones. Project A-ko doesn't do this. Like, at all. A-ko, B-ko, and C-ko haven't learned any lessons, aren't looking at the world, themselves, or each other any differently, and their status in the community has not changed one bit. They foiled an alien invasion and changed Graviton City's skyline forever. They wrecked half their school building and left a miles-long trail of destruction. C-ko has been unmasked as royalty from the Lepton Kingdom of Alpha Cygni. And yet it's had no lasting impact on them whatsoever. A-ko and C-ko are more excited about having received their new Graviton High student uniform over the weekend, really, and the fact that school's in session as normal on Monday shows that Graviton City is none the worse for wear for all the killer spiderbots and missiles that ravaged it just three days earlier. And as the girls run up the blasted trench that used to be a street, the final shot is of B-ko waiting in her usual place outside Graviton High's gates and breaking into a sinister this time for sure smile as A-ko and C-ko come into view.
After all that's happened, Project A-ko reveals itself for what it is: a simple slice-of-life movie. A slice of a life that has giant robots, the occasional alien attack, and what one YouTube commentator has called the "best bitch fight in anime history" (I wouldn't have used those exact words, but he's probably right), but a life that nevertheless goes on as always and before.
(To preserve the effect, it's best not to watch the three OAV sequels. But that's a writeup for another time—most likely never.)
Next: O, Canada...?