Buried Garbage - Harmagedon

by Justin Sevakis, Jan 8th 2009

The first anime I ever saw, Project A-Ko, piqued my curiosity. The third anime I ever saw, Dominion Tank Police, sold me on becoming an anime fan.

The one I saw in between nearly destroyed my interest in anime forever.

HARMAGEDON: GENMA TAISEN

Harmagedon is an incredibly ambitious film, an early Mad House work directed by Rintaro and with character designs by Katsuhiro Otomo. It's an epic story over two hours long and with a (at the time) huge budget. It also features indescribably amateur storytelling, ludicrous dialogue, and characters whose entire persona is made of ethnic stereotypes. There's a reason that its sole claim to fame among American fans is its famous parody in Project A-Ko. Watching it is something akin to listening to the ramblings of an aging hippie: mostly mind-numbing, rambling, full of clichés about love and peace, and yet punctuated by bits of bizarre racism.

A Transylvanian princess named Luna is on a jumbo jet when she has a bad vision. (Royalty doesn't tend to fly commercial to my knowledge, but never mind.) Just as she's screaming and freaking out her fellow passengers, lightening hits the plane, causing it to break apart and everyone in it to die.

Luna wakes up floating in the ether. A voice calls to her. "You have died. You must now become a psionic warrior." This deity of the non-sequitur is called Floy, and he/she/it is alarmed because Genma -- a large, floating skull thing -- is consuming the universe. Only a band of psychic warriors can stop him! Of course, we already knew all of this because the opening of the film literally TOLD us the entire story. The first five minutes of the film features a prancing butoh-dancing witch flitting about downtown Tokyo shrieking the entire plot synopsis at us. I'm sure it was meant to be artsy, but it's really just weird.

Luna is introduced to Vega, a creepy looking robot who's apparently the last of his "species." The two must gather up a bunch of "chosen ones" from across the world. Then we meet the Japanese chosen one, who is, appropriately, a high school student. Joe is a normal kid who's in a funk because he didn't make the school baseball team, and because his girlfriend broke up with him (due mostly to his big-sister complex). That's when the world around him freezes and he gets chased after by the creepy robot Vega. Instinctively defending himself, his psychic powers awaken. After a rocky introduction to the world of psychic powers, Joe eventually joins the team (Unfortunately for us, his maturation involves seeing a creepy naked flashback of his ugly sister.)

Later highlights include a stereotypical black kid from the streets of New York (a gang member wearing roller skates), a native American with a feather in his cowboy hat, a hindu monk and a martial arts-practicing Chinese girl. It preaches about the evils of racism and revenge. It's hard to sit through. The entire adventure clunks along, full of self importance, and utterly unaware of how cheesy it sounds, and how narrow its world view is.

It's slow. It's meandering. It barely makes any sense, and is filled to the brim with half-baked fantasy and science fiction cliché. I must admit, the artistry of Harmagedon is impressive at times, particularly in its intricate backgrounds and flowing hair movement, but every member of triumph is paired against another that just looks wonky and lazy. The production as a whole has aged incredibly poorly, to the point where it's hard to imagine anybody being impressed by it. The music, courtesy of Keith Emerson (of the 70s band Emerson Lake & Palmer) is just as dated, bringing to mind 70s TV specials. (According to Rintaro's commentary track, he recorded the entire thing while drunk or high.)

As bad as it is, anime history owes a lot to Harmagedon. After all, it was the first anime project (and indeed, the first movie) to be produced by publishing company Kadokawa Shoten. The story goes that president Haruki Kadokawa was excited by the hit series of novels by Kazuma Hirai and manga by Shotaro Ishinomori that he had published, and wanted to create a film adaptation. (Being a sci-fi fantasy, animation was pretty much the only medium it could be produced in.) After the film's successful release, Kadokawa greenlit more anime features, including 1985's Dagger of Kamui, 1991's Silent Möbius and Heroic Legend of Arslan, and many others. In the late 90s Kadokawa bought the struggling Daiei studios, and Kadokawa Pictures was born.

There's no denying it was quite a blockbuster for its day. It spawned artbooks, action figures, several computer games, and a (very rare) Laserdisc arcade game that used footage of the movie. Even today, the Japanese public generally regards the film as a classic, though it seems like people don't watch it very often. I have a distinct memory from film school where my friend and classmate Kazuya was over at my place, and saw the DVD of Harmagedon on my shelf. (I was working for CPM at the time, and we had just finished the 20th Anniversary release.) He went, "Oh, I remember this! I saw this in theaters when I was a kid!"

"Did you attempt suicide before or after it ended?" I asked. He smiled and said he remembered it fondly. I insisted that he borrow it, and attempt to relive some of those cherished memories.

The next week in class he gave the disc back to me, and with a smile on his face, told me that his childhood was ruined.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
Being one of the first big licenses from Central Park Media, Harmagedon has been released in pretty much every format under the sun, including subtitled VHS, dubbed VHS, subtitled Laserdisc, poorly authored DVD (from the early days of the format) and a decent DVD with a commentary track and "remastered" video (a process that appears to have done almost nothing, as it still doesn't look so hot). The latter DVD is pretty easy to get, and often shows up in $5 DVD bins at conventions. The remastered edition (released in time to commemorate the film's 20th anniversary) included the aforementioned commentary track and interview with Rintaro. It also features a memorably horrid dub by Kip Kaplan and his Audioworks Producers Group.

There's a Japanese region 2 release that's fairly cheap and probably looks better. It doesn't have the commentary track, though, which in my opinion is the only reason to bother with the damn thing.


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