Pile of Shame
SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next

by Justin Sevakis,

SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next

Anime fans who were around back in 2007 might remember a company briefly appearing on the scene known as Bandai Visual USA. If they do remember, it's usually not a fond memory: BVUSA was the first attempt by a major Japanese anime producer to insert themselves into the American market and try to make it more like the Japanese market (i.e. much more expensive, but also much more lucrative). Their timing was poor, as was their grasp of the American market, and they were eventually folded into Bandai Entertainment.

Their tale of woe is quite a story, but it'd be one best saved for another day. Seven years later the company is a distant memory, and the most interesting aspect of that little division is not its once-weirdly antagonistic relationship with its audience, but its catalog. Bandai Visual USA released a few major classics (Patlabor movies, Gunbuster), but also quite a few shows that nobody noticed and nobody bought. Among them were a smattering of B-list TV shows and OAVs, but the most conspicuous disc on their shelf was always the one with the ludicrously kludgy English title: "SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next."

Ostensibly created by Katsuhiro Otomo, Tokyo Metro Explorers is a 40-minute "movie" that's actually a sequel to a 1980 one-shot manga he wrote (which was released in book form for the first time in 2006). The story has never been published in English, and it seems that Otomo had little to do with this film, which was written by the normally dependable Sadayuki Murai and directed by newcomer Shinji Takagi (who I have a feeling is not the same Shinji Takagi that directed Samurai Pizza Cats). This Takagi has more of a digital/technical background.

The film acts as a 3D cel-shading showcase for SUNRISE. While a few cuts of background characters resort to tried-and-true 2D animation, nearly all of the film is animated with articulated 3D designs with a pretty convincing cel shading process applied. This was pretty state-of-the-art stuff in 2007, but today it's not so exciting: there are small rendering errors here and there. The actual animation of the 3D models is actually quite decent, only really showing its seams when characters act out in more typical "anime" ways. The designs themselves aren't the most attractive things in the world, but they do make for a unique art style. The backgrounds, which are mostly digital watercolor paintings, are still pretty impressive.

The story is pretty simple: Ryuhei's mom recently left, frustrated because his dad is a bishoujo figure otaku. So the remaining boys in the family -- dad, Ryuhei and little brother Sasuke -- are packing up to move. Ryuhei finds an old notebook from his dad's childhood, and in it are maps to the vast, secret underground network of tunnels under Tokyo. Somewhere down there, according to the maps, is treasure. And so Ryuhei gathers some friends to go explore with him, and Sasuke tags along too. Later, snotty sister Momoyo appears, mostly to be a complete condescending jerk to the main group of kids.

It doesn't take long before the boys meet some of the colorful characters that live down there. One is Grandpa, the old man with severe dementia, who thinks he's still a soldier and WWII is still going on. He's spent the last several years trying to dig out an old tank that's been housed elsewhere in the vast underground. The "treasure" turns out to be a vast underground cavern where a bunch of homeless crazy people live and be weird together. The kids get separated, young Sasuke gets taken in by the crazy old man, and various misunderstandings make way for a destructive adventure with the tank, the subway system, and a lot of firepower.

You would be forgiven for saying the premise is highly reminiscent of the classic 80s movie The Goonies, with its themes of a group of kids going off on an impossible adventure together. It's not a far off comparison, except in that it lacks heart and the human touch that made that film such a classic. The kids don't act like kids -- in fact, the character writing is so bland and stiff that the characters are completely indiscernible from each other. Kids getting to do things like pilot a WWII-era tank through the underground subway tunnels should be the stuff of dreams and excitement, or if we want to be realistic, would scare most kids into the fetal position. But these kids don't react at all. With the exception of crybaby Sasuke, they are uniformly calm, unsurprised and by-the-numbers about everything -- as if they were all actually fully grown accountants dressed up to look like kids. Japanese CG characters have long been criticized for looking "dead behind the eyes," but these characters are dead on another level.

I was frustrated by Tokyo Metro Explorers, mostly because the idea of anime involving the underground "mole people" living in abandoned stretches of underground transit systems in big cities is a really intriguing premise, with a lot of human tragedy and amusing ingenuity. Similar (real) characters living in AMTRAK tunnels of New York City were explored in the groundbreaking 2000 documentary Dark Days, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. But here they're used as window dressing, and an amazingly rich premise is left to waste. The actual day-to-day problems of life down in the cellars, which are absolutely compelling and ripe for amazing storytelling, are completely unexplored, and the characters are simply dopey archetypes, if that. I get the feeling the creators did absolutely zero research into life down there, or for homeless people in general.

With no real sense of tension, no real characters to root for and an impressive but unexciting visual look, there's not much to recommend Tokyo Metro Explorers. The show simply lays there, limp, like a dead rat in a subway tunnel. A very expensive dead rat, that is. It deserves to be buried along with the company that released it here.

Japanese Name: 新SOS大東京探検隊 (Shin SOS Dai Tokyo Tankentai )

Media Type: Movie

Length: 41 min.

Vintage: 2006 (released 2007)

Genres: Adventure, kids

Availability (Japan): The movie was released on DVD and Blu-ray with English subtitles and a good number of special features.

Availability (English): The US-release Blu-ray appears to be the Japanese disc with different packaging. The DVD was obviously changed to have English menus, but is essentially the same.


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