Brain Diving A Lovely Angel
by Brian Ruh, Nov 2nd 2010
Sometimes I wish anime culture in the US was more like film culture. If you really get into films, you're not going to call yourself a cinephile if you just go to see whatever is at the multiplex every weekend. No, you're going to search out small and foreign films, and you're particularly going to seek out the older stuff that had a big influence on what's coming out today – black and white films, silent films, and the like. On the other, I sometimes get the sense that a lot of anime fans today don't have much sense of history of how the form came to be.
Okay, I'm really not trying to turn this week's column into some jaded old guy rant. But I do want to highlight how impressed I am that Nozomi Entertainment is bringing out something like the Dirty Pair TV series to DVD. I mean, this is a show that originally ran on Japanese television twenty five years ago. If you think about the fact that we've only had half-hour anime television shows for just shy of 48 years now, you'll see this is a pretty big chunk of time. I mean, there are more years between us and Dirty Pair TV than there was between Dirty Pair and Astro Boy.
This week I'd like to take an in-depth look at Dirty Pair and the two novels that are available in English – The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair and The Dirty Pair Strike Again. All right, if I'm being completely honest there's another book that's been translated that I'm not going to discuss. It's called “Legacy of the Dictator” and was originally serialized in 1997 online via the Microsoft Network in both English and Japanese. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find out what format it came out in or any other details about its release. I know it came out, but it seems to have disappeared into the online aether of the 1990s.
Recently Mike Toole wrote about anime that were based on stories from the west, but there's been a long history of foreign influences on Japanese entertainment, particularly in science fiction. Because of its focus on the future, science fiction has always traveled more easily between cultures than, say, stories about contemporary life. A lot of SF authors in Japan had an eye on what was going on in the west, and one of the key developments for Japanese science fiction in the late 1970s was the worldwide popularity of Star Wars. It's a particularly important touchstone for Dirty Pair author Haruka Takachiho, who has said that before Star Wars came out it was very difficult for science fiction that was not “proper” SF (in other words, pulpier “space opera” stories) to get published in Japan. Although there were SF stories with elements of space opera in them before Star Wars, such stories had nowhere near the popularity as they did after Star Wars. The success of the film prompted Takachiho to pull out some of the things he had previously written but thought unsalable and try to get them published. This resulted in the first novel in the Crusher Joe series, which came out in November 1977 and became popular enough to spawn a number of sequels, a film, a couple of OVAs, and a manga series. (This seems like a pretty quick turnaround – Star Wars only came out in the US in May 1977, and wouldn't get a Japanese release until 1978.)
Now, Takachiho was no stranger to science fiction or anime even before his first Crusher Joe novel came out. In fact, he was one of the founding members of Studio Nue in the early 1970s. The studio would work on series like Brave Raideen and Space Battleship Yamato in the 1970s, but are probably most famous now for their work on Super Dimension Fortress Macross in the early 1980s. (There's definitely a common theme going on here.) Because of Takachiho's involvement with Studio Nue, so the story goes, he and a couple of assistants from the studio named Keiko and Yuri ended up shepherding a visiting SF author around Japan. Eventually, they to a women's pro-wrestling match featuring a team named the Beauty Pair. The author commented that with Yuri and Keiko's antics, they should be called the Dirty Pair, instead. This gave Takachiho the inspiration to create his own fictional Dirty Pair, a team of trouble consultants named KEI and Yuri, and place them in the same universe as Crusher Joe. (It also explains why the pair's outfits so closely fashion-ified sportswear – they're based on 1970s Japanese women's pro-wrestling outfits.)
The basic idea behind Dirty Pair is that in the future, there is an organization called the WWWA that aims to be able to solve any sort of problem throughout the galaxy. The WWWA employs trouble consultants, who are matched with specific cases by computer in order to ensure the best people go to the jobs they are best suited for. One particular team of trouble consultants is the Lovely Angels, comprising KEI, Yuri, and their cat-like alien companion Mugi. (Although I have to say, the scenes are more funny in my head if imagine Mugi as his namesake from K-ON!) However, since they tend to leave a completely unintentional trail of death and destruction in their wake, they have acquired the nickname the Dirty Pair.
Now it's usually about this time in the column when I implore you to go read some other article for your further edification. But this time I'm going to give your eyes a rest. This week, instead of a Read This! we have a Listen to This!
I was excited to hear a little while ago that Mike Dent was producing an audiobook version of the first Dirty Pair novel. As much as I love reading, I just don't have all that much time for it these days. I can, however, squeeze in audiobooks in bits and pieces as I'm driving or walking to work, so I can really appreciate something like this. (If only I could get more academic books and articles in audiobook format.) I thought at first that this might be a dramatic reading of the novel, but it's actually more like a radio play, with different actors playing the parts of each character. This is, as they say, a “non-profit fan production,” but it certainly has some good production values. The main actors embodied their characters nicely, hitting the tone of the novel pretty much on the mark. If you're interested, get on over to the Anime 3000 podcast and check out the pilot episode. (I believe they're currently working on producing the rest, but the pilot is all that's currently out there.)
It's mentioned in a couple of different places that one of the reasons for making this audiobook is to encourage more people to buy the Dirty Pair novels from Dark Horse Books. As I said earlier, there are currently two of them out, but the last one was published in 2008 and I haven't heard rumors of any more forthcoming. If people buy more of what's already out there, though, perhaps they can be encouraged to release more of the series (or maybe even some of the Crusher Joe books).
The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair and The Dirty Pair Strike Again
I'm not sure if it's proper to call the Dirty Pair books “light novels” or not. They certainly fit the general concept – they're easy to read and frequently illustrated throughout. (The artwork on the covers and within is by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who is probably most famous for his art and character designs for Gundam.) I usually think of light novels as being more contemporary, though. I'll leave this particular point for others to debate about, but I mention it here to emphasize that despite their age, the Dirty Pair novels aren't really so different from some of the light novels being written these days.
This first Dirty Pair book actually consists of two shorter stories – one called “The Great Adventures of the Dirty Pair” and one called “The Case of the Backwoods Murder.” The first one is about the Dirty Pair investigating a mysterious explosion on an industrial research world that is essentially owned by a single corporation. The second begins with a body that washes ashore on a tropical gambling planet and leads the Pair to a disgraced scientist and bomb that have the ability to warp space-time itself. The 2007 release by Dark Horse Books wasn't the first time the “The Great Adventures” story was published in English. Actually, the book was issued in 1987 by Kodansha in their Kodansha English Library series. This was a line of books that came out in the 1980s, intended for Japanese audiences to help them learn English.
I haven't ever seen a copy of the Kodansha version for sale, so I don't know how much it would be if you want one. They do seem pretty rare, though. (I checked out the copy I have in front of me from my local university library, which may be your best bet.) However, there's not much difference between the old version and the newer one. The translation Dark Horse uses is actually the same one from the earlier version, with a few minor changes; for example, KEI's name was spelled “Kay” in the earlier edition. More noticeable, however, is the artwork. Not only o the Kodansha and Dark Horse editions have different covers, but their interior illustrations are different as well. The Kodansha book has a few that Dark Horse is lacking, and vice versa. (I'd like to get my hands on a Japanese copy of the book in order to see if it has all of the illustrations in it.) Also, the images in the Kodansha version are noticeably crisper. I don't know if it's because the Dark Horse version is larger, so they had to blow up the original artwork, but the pictures are blurrier and don't have as much detail. However, I probably even wouldn't have thought about it if I didn't have the other version right next to me to compare it to. The last difference between the two versions is that the Kodansha book has a set of notes at the back that takes selected English phrases from the translation and presents them in Japanese. I could see this as helpful if you knew Japanese and were trying to learn English; I'm not sure how useful such a feature would be for most English speakers trying to learn Japanese.
This first Dirty Pair book was first serialized in SF Magajin, a successful and high-profile magazine in the Japanese science fiction community. The story was widely acclaimed when it came out and won the Seiun Award (basically, the Japanese equivalent of the Hugo award in science fiction) in 1980 for best Japanese short story. Although I'm a big booster of space adventure, I find it surprising that “The Great Adventures of the Dirty Pair” won such an award. Although the ideas in the story are pretty solid, the writing often violates the old “show, don't tell” rule to its detriment. Since KEI is not only one of the Dirty Pair but also the narrator of the story, everything is written in the first person and will sometimes go on and on with expository information. And then you've got lines that are so specific it's actually a bit distracting, such as, “Lovely Angel entered an orbit that would intersect with Vulcan in 3,420 seconds.” First of all, it's not being particularly informative. I mean, I don't know off the top of my head how many minutes that is, do you? It's actually 57; so why not say that it will intersect in “a little under an hour”? Secondly, I find such specificity actually draws me out of the story and begins to grate on my nerves a bit, like that little kid who always has to be so precise that it you ask him to the time he'll use his new digital watch to tell you down to the second.
The Dirty Pair Strike Again is the first full-length Dirty Pair novel, and it too won the Seiun Award (this time for best Japanese novel) after it came out in 1986. In the years since the first Dirty Pair story, we can see that Takachiho had gotten much better as a writer, and he drops that tendency to be so specific. It also helps that he has an entire novel to work through, as it gives him more opportunities to expand the plot. This time, the Dirty Pair are assigned to investigate a mysterious bite received by a man on a distant mining world that was caused by a seemingly invisible creature, which in turn leads them to a creepy cult and a powerful alien presence. If anything, Takachiho might have wanted to pause for breath for a bit longer in the pacing of this book – the explosions and destruction start a few pages in, and the action seldom lets up throughout.
Above all, these books are enjoyable, but they have their flaws. In addition to what I mentioned above, Takachiho has a tendency to make the endings a bit too pat, and the stories stop pretty much right after the main action ends, which often leaves some character-related plot threads unraveling around the edges. But there are certainly other science fiction authors who conclude their stories in similarly unsatisfying ways (yes, I'm looking at you, Neal Stephenson), so at least this puts Takachiho in good company.
As you can probably tell from the covers, the Dirty Pair don't go around wearing much. But since this is science fiction, they're actually wearing much more than it appears – in addition to their evident clothing, they're also wearing an advanced, invisible polymer that covers the rest of their skin so that it only looks like it's exposed to the elements. Of course, this raises the obvious question: Why don't they just wear less revealing clothing and not have part of it be invisible. The main answer is that their sexiness is a part of what gives the Dirty Pair their flair. They both know they're hot, and they're constantly obsessed with finding good looking men, even while on the job. This may be just exploitative cheesecake, or it could be the flip side of those macho Bond-ish secret agents who go out on missions while trying to score with as many women as possible. For example, I don't think I've ever read a novel before where it gives the heroines’ measurements before; Takachiho makes a point of mentioning them in all three stories. KEI, as narrator, never misses a chance to titillate the reader with some remark, but it's usually done in a “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” kind of way, like when, after getting out of a hot shower, she remarks, “The color rushed to my light-cocoa-shaded skin and… Oh, ha ha… this is starting to sound erotic! For a body that spent a day traveling to hell and back, I gotta say, I was looking pretty good.” In this way, KEI and Yuri are almost parodies of themselves, so it can be hard to take them seriously, even when the stories put them right in harm's way.
There's a lot more Dirty Pair material out there than I've been able to talk about. In addition to the newly-released TV series, there's a film and an OVA series (all of which are, sadly, out of print at the moment), as well as a whole Dirty Pair Flash series that I'm not even going to go into right now. Of course there's a lot more available in Japan, including a new, ongoing Dirty Pair manga drawn by Hisao Tamaki (who also did the manga adaptation of Star Wars: A New Hope; see, these things come full circle.) If you're interested in the rest of the Dirty Pair universe, you can pick up a translation of the Crusher Joe manga from Studio Ironcat for pretty cheap, but if you're looking for the Crusher Joe film and OVAs, that could cost you. (As I'm writing this, the cheapest I've seen the double DVD set going for is around $100, although you can pick up the VHS tapes for much more reasonable prices.)
The Dirty Pair novels are far from perfect, but they are fun. They definitely fall into that category of pulp space adventure, which is the kind of stuff I grew up loving as a kid. (Then again, I am part of that Star Wars generation, much like the novels themselves.) In spite of their many flaws, I can't help but like them. Now if only we could get more such novels published in English.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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