Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
I love Japanese animation and film, to the point where the two have taken up most of my adult life. Just the same, I must admit that the country makes a LOT of garbage. Most of its television is mind-destroying at best, and a majority of its dramas are pretty lame. But perhaps nowhere in Japanese media is the crap-to-quality ratio more apparent than in its home video industry. Since the mid 1980s countless volumes of trashy direct-to-video movies have lined the shelves of video shops around the country. Originally an extension of the domestic film industry (which, at that time, was in serious trouble from television and Western film and had pretty much resorted to making arthouse porn), "V-Cinema" has since become the domain of countless tiny production companies that operate out of dirty little offices all over Tokyo. Many are thought to be Yakuza money laundering operations.
As one might expect, this stuff does not exactly aspire toward quality. Most of it is shot on video for a budget less than that of your average porno. The screenplays are laughable and the mostly talentless cast either overact or sit there looking bored to tears. Occasionally the medium gives us a winner (this is where Takashi Miike and Ju-on director Takashi Shimizu came from), but the vast majority feature stories recycled from cobbled together tropes involving assassins, yakuza, S&M, monsters, school girls and lesbian sex, or some combination thereof. Despite the purient subject matter, most are excruciatingly boring. For example, seemingly every "hot female assassin" video must feature at least one 5-minute shot of the lead character naked on her bed lamely holding a gun and staring off into space. I still don't know who these people are that would watch these things, but I guess people keep renting them, because they sure keep on making them.
Most American anime fans have had minor run-ins with this unfortunate genre. ADV Films, Geneon, Central Park Media and Media Blasters all experimented with it, usually as an act of desperation. Retail buyers never really understood anime, but cute Japanese women in skimpy outfits need no explanation. (Too bad they don't sell at the retail level.) The business is referenced in anime like Perfect Blue (what sort of movie did you think Mima was filming?), but for the most part anime has been kept separte creatively, and thus spared the creative lobotomy. Only a few OAVs, dating from the late 80s and early 90s, bear the marks of the direct-to-video trade. But of the ones I've seen, only one comes close to the experience of watching V-cinema.
Dark Cat is a dreadful piece of work, written as though it was a low budget live action movie and directed artlessly, as if the very act of its conception was a disappointment to its creators. It's written as if by someone with ADD, unable to stay focused on a plot or a myth or a character or even a main problem.
The show opens with an intriguing premise: people are randomly and violently disappearing all over Japan. But never mind, that has nothing to do with anything. Hyoi is the new guy at school, and the girls think he's dreamy (though they don't really notice that he has giant hair and elf ears). Hyoi is actually a cat shape-shifter, who along with his brother Ryoi (also a cat) apparently fight evil and death. Aimi, who found and nursed Ryoi's wounds in cat form, apparently has several run-ins with the brothers.
Aimi is worried about her childhood friend Hiroki, who pined for a classmate who has since gone missing. Now that she's gone, he's in a deep depression and often stays holed up in his room. She secretly loves him, but knows he doesn't return her feelings. There are other plots involving school bullies and other crappy things about high school. So, with all these miserable people everywhere, it seems that the only thing people can do is turn into a giant mess of pulsing guts and phalii. It's apparently just what happens to the evil inside humanity, so soon the monsters are everywhere, attacking people and oozing from every pore of everyone who's even a little bit unhappy. It's all one big fleshy mess!
Dark Cat is one of only a handful of OAVs produced by Nikkatsu Corporation, the oldest and most powerful studio of Prewar Japan, but by that time reduced to a softcore porn company. Nearly all of its output by the late 80s was direct-to-video exploitation films. The few anime it financed were all low-budget hentai titles (including Battle Can Can, which basically is what would happen if Hanna-Barbera made a rape anime). But apparently the guys at Nikkatsu wanted to see if they could translate some of their cheap horror movies into anime, and thus Dark Cat was born. Surprisingly, Dark Cat is both sex and nudity-free: the tentacles pretty much keep to themselves and are otherwise well-mannered. I'm pretty sure someone drew a picture of these things and decided this was a job for animation, because on the budget available to the project it would have looked truly ridiculous in live action.
There are lots of ways Dark Cat feels like a cheap Japanese horror video; it's as if it was designed from the ground up to be a no-budget live action film. The staging is kept to nondescript high school and home locations, with scarcely even a shot of a public street. The scenes with actual cats are directionless, and could be easily done by just chasing some neighborhood strays around with a camcorder. The dialogue is that pungent mixture of bland and self-important, the style that permeates through bad Japanese horror movies. The expository dialogue is laid on thick. But what really makes it a piece of schlock is the high school love story, still taken seriously even as the love interest is a giant pulsing spleen spread all over a classroom.
Lest you think the art or animation might in some way redeem the show, let's put that hope to rest right now: this is some of the worst art I've ever seen in an anime. Backgrounds are generic as hell, and the layouts are so artless and off-putting that it's almost like the crew was working without storyboards. The cats themselves look demonic in an awkward, drawn-by-a-posessed-3-year-old sort of way. Except for the penis monsters, the animation seldom rises above 80s TV quality.
And ultimately, the whole thing is an excuse to show those monsters, and people exploding into monster state. Ryoi and Hyoi are utterly dull as protagonists, and their fight against evil makes little to no sense. The idea of who they are comes into question occasionally as Jukokubo, the Yoda of Dark Cats, swoops in and eats the monsters. He's involved somehow in turning people, and Ryoi is disgusted by him, but the battle against him is treated with such little fanfare that nothing particularly feels at stake.
Which is all for the best, since other than the flimsy love story, nothing is resolved. The show ends with Hyoi and Ryoi, in ugly cat form, ruminating on the inherent evil in humanity, and how bad thoughts can turn people into horrible things. If only things like that worked in real life, this show could instantly turn your worst enemy into a giant penis monster. And wouldn't the world be a better place...?
|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:
Dark Cat was quietly discontinued by Media Blasters (who inexplicably released it under their Kitty label, despite it not being hentai at all). Nobody even noticed, and many stores even still have it in stock. There's apparently a dub, which I've haven't seen, but the subtitle track, which is one of the first things the company ever produced, is one of the worst professional translation jobs I've ever seen. Somehow, it's the least offensive thing about the disc.
Visitor Q: Takashi Miike's most screwed up film (and possibly his most satiric), this deeply upsetting film features incest, necrophilia, wholesale lactation, domestic violence, drug use, teen prostitution and reality TV... and somehow still manages to be a heartwarming family drama in the end.
Big Boobs Buster: Masako is angry because the guy she likes turned her down. Her boobs are too small for him, apparently. So, she turns into a vigilante who stalks the stacked girls at school, attacks them, and takes a mold of their chest. Utter nonsense that derails early, but still has a bizarre campy appeal. Made far better with a borderline-parody dub.
Sumo Vixens: The sole watchable movie in the Kei Mizutani catalog (though I suppose her nudie video "Undressed for Success" could be entertaining in a cringing way) this cheapie actually has a few laughs that work. Surprisingly dark humor, including a girl addicted to huffing paint thinner.
Attack Girl Swim Team vs. The Undead: Nevermind how cool it sounds. It's really long stretches of boredom, punctuated by scenes with cheap latex masks and what must have been a director shouting, "okay, now everyone squirt fake blood everywhere and spaz out!" I've seen better films made by middle schoolers.
Sunny Gets Blue: The only thing worse than a scholcky nonsensical action movie? A schlocky nonsensical action movie with no action and English dialogue written by someone who clearly doesn't know English.
Ninja Vixens: So bad, Geneon released it under a fake name ("Neon-G") this series of ten painfully dull boob movies features pretty-but-talentless girls using Naruto-esque moves like "Boob Needle Jutsu!" Special effects courtesy of an Amiga. At least everyone dances to MIDI music through the end credits.
The Ladies' Phone (Sex) Club: Shot entirely through a Pro-mist filter and featuring some of the worst cinematography in history, this tries for comedy and just ends up really really confused.
Seen any others? Tell us about it in the forum!