Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 22nd 2013
Black Magic M-66
In a world where robots are a functional reality, the Mario-66s are top-of-the-line anti-personnel military androids. When a helicopter transporting two of them malfunctions and crashes, the robots get loose and wreak havoc. Due to an unfortunate oversight while preparing them for transport, the M-66s are loaded with a primary target: Ferris, the granddaughter of their designer, Professor Matthews. While a special military unit is called in to deal with the incident, intrepid reporter Sybel* first tries to record the goings-on and later tries to rescue Ferris when she realizes that she is the only person who knows both where Ferris can be found and that the androids are specifically targeting her.
* - The spelling of this name varies depending on whether one relies on the subtitles or the credits at the end.
This 48 minute long one-shot OVA from 1987 might have faded into obscurity if not for one thing: it was the baby of acclaimed manga-ka Masamune Shirow, the man responsible for creating the Appleseed, Dominion Tank Police, and Ghost in the Shell franchises (as well as the lesser-known Ghost Hound and Real Drive), and represents his sole foray into anime directing, storyboarding, and screenplay writing. That pedigree makes this a worthy pick-up for long-time anime fans and Shirow completists, and its innovative take on the way combat androids might actually fight and be fought is enough to make this of interests to newer fans. Undoubtedly Maiden Japan's reasoning for license-rescuing and rereleasing this title on DVD for the first time in a dozen years went something along those lines.
The story is a very loose adaptation of one part of Shirow's original Black Magic manga, to the point that the anime version gives no indication whatsoever that the story is set on ancient Venus. That is hardly relevant to what little story this one has, though, as this is a very straightforward and narrowly-focused tale about paramilitary forces trying to contain two rogue combat androids and the reporter who helps protect the girl targeted by said androids. (While this might sound similar to the American movie The Terminator, there is almost certainly no inspirational connection, as the manga was first released a year and a half before the movie and James Cameron's first conceptualizations of the movie predate that by a couple of years.) The story is so action-focused that it has little room for things like character development; the Major is developed just enough to show that he is a highly practical, no-nonsense guy, Sybel is developed just enough to show that her being daring in obtaining a story is typical for her but reaching out to help someone in a crisis is not (as confirmed by a very funny sequence of her on other assignments that is shown during the credits), and that's about it for anything beyond one-note portrayals. A bit more world-building does get filtered in, showing that this is a setting where ownership and use of personal flying craft – even in an urban area! – is apparently not unusual, that there is a distinct other political entity called “the North” which has testy relations with the unnamed land of the story's setting, and that androids are not commonplace but nonetheless a reality. However, the setting is not blazingly innovative or distinctive.
While the OVA does have a bit of fan service early on and some goofiness throughout, the main reason that anyone would want to watch this is for the action involving the androids and the efforts to contain them. Compared to the way that military units are normally portrayed in such circumstances, the unit under the Major's command is surprisingly competent, diverse in composition, and sensible in their actions; definite shades of what would be seen in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex a couple of decades later can be found here. That serves to make the capabilities of the M-66s all the more convincingly frightening. These are not the aggrandized creations all-too-often seen in science fiction; they are simple, merciless killers who look like human-sized articulated dolls, move with the precision of acrobats and top-tier martial artists, and can rotate their heads and limbs in ways physically impossible for humans. You will not find combat-oriented androids anywhere else in anime which move like these do, and that alone can make the time commitment to watch this worth your while.
The animation work comes courtesy of a team-up between AIC and Animate, the latter of which would go on to become one of the leading producers of late '80s and '90s OVAs of pretty much all stripes. The age of the series shows, and those accustomed to the sharper lines and more vivid colors of more recent digitally-animated productions may not find the artistic style to their liking. Even for the standards of the time in which it was made, though, the artistry is a bit rough, and while the OVA generally does a good job with character animation (aside from one scene where characters are running into a forest), its animation of vehicles in general is rather clunky, especially early on. Background detail and character designs rescue the artistry grade; while Ferris has more of the typical cute anime girl look and wears outfits clearly keyed to '80s styles, Sybel's attractive near-nudity early on cannot dissuade from the more masculine impression she gives when fully clothed, and one woman amongst the Major's chief subordinates also has a masculine but entirely unattractive look. Other soldiers provide a wide diversity of looks, too, including some black soldiers whose thick-lipped designs may border on caricature to Western viewers even though their behaviors do not. Graphic violence content is significant but not gory, so the TV-14 rating assigned to the project feels right. Also look for a shout-out to one of Shirow's other famous projects on a T-shirt at one point.
The musical score for the series is hit-or-miss when present at all. In some scenes its mostly synthesized keyboard sounds do a very good job of driving the tension, while in other places it sounds corny. The OVA wraps up with the song “Finally,” which has a sound, beat, and flavor very typical of '80s pop music. Japanese voice work, which features Yoshio Sakakibara (probably best-known as Sylia Stingray in the Bubblegum Crisis OAVs and Integra Hellsing in Hellsing) as Sybel, is solid but unspectacular.
Although Animaze did do an English dub for the original Manga Entertainment VHS release in the mid-'90s, which was also included on the 2001 DVD release, it is not included on this release. Neither are the character bios which came with the 2001 release. In fact, this is as bare-bones as a release gets. Given that and the identical pricing, the original 2001 release is probably the best option if one cares about dubs and can find it. However, it has been out of print long enough that it is rather hard to find.
Black Magic M-66 does excel at a few things, such as one especially sharp scene involving a tense face-off in an elevator, and those things make this one recommendation-worthy. Those interested in android action and unconcerned about meaty storytelling should find it well-suited to their tastes.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Character designs, android action, military unit acts more intelligently than normal.
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