Reviewby Justin Sevakis, Oct 16th 2008
It's the big day for Katsumi, the newest member of the AMP, the special section of the Tokyo Police in charge of supernatural activity. It's the day she was destined to fight, the day she met the foul demon that took her parents' lives. That demon is Lucifer Hawk. Flashing back several years, we see what lead up to this ultimate battle, where a 19-year-old Katsumi returns to Tokyo to visit her mother in the hospital. At that point, she had never even heard of the battle her parents had been waging. But a chance run-in with the AMP will change her destiny forever.
Silent Möbius was, once upon a time, released on dubbed VHS by Streamline Pictures. It quickly became a fan-favorite, known for its dazzling animation (some of the best of its era), its dripping grotesque monsters, and of course, its fan service. It even got a small theatrical release (as a double feature with Neo-Tokyo). But alas, it went out of print quickly, years before the advent of DVD. Until Bandai Entertainment relicensed the title, it was known only to the old timers who remember renting the tape at Blockbuster.
Now, nearly fifteen years after its original release, Silent Möbius: The Motion Picture is back in America, sporting a new dub and a gorgeous new anamorphic transfer. It's not quite as impressive as my memory would have me believe, but it's still pretty darn cool.
We meet Katsumi as she's gearing up for what promises to be an epic battle. Her co-workers at the AMP are busy making sure the coast is clear, and as she rides the escalator up to meet her nemesis, she talks to her enchanted sword about the battle to come, and about her enemy: the Lucifer Hawk, otherworldly demons bent on destroying humanity. She has a very personal stake in this battle, and as her fight begins, she flashes back to four years ago, when this crazy quest of hers began.
At that time she was only nineteen, and returning to Tokyo to check up on her mother, who is suffering from the always fatal coughing-up-blood disease at a private hospital. What she doesn't know is that her mother got sick from protecting her and leading the fight (along with her deceased father) against the Lucifer Hawks with the aid of the AMP. Now that she's coming of age, Katsumi can no longer be protected, and soon she's seeing the beasts for herself. It's never a pleasant encounter and the AMP assigned to protect her really only make her freak out even more.
The animation itself is among the most sumptuous of its era, while still maintaining a distinctly "anime" look rather than delving into the realism of an Akira or a Wings of Honneamise. I don't mention those films lightly. Silent Möbius actually is on that elevated level of production from the "golden years" of anime, an era when it seemed to the creators as well as to the fans that the medium had no limits. Its short running time and somewhat inauspicious genre trappings prevent it from becoming one of the seminal works of the artform, but visually the film holds its own among the undisputed masterworks.
As the visuals were so clearly given priority over story, it should come as no surprise that it's the sole director credit of a man known for his animation direction. Kazuo Tomizawa's impressive credits include Paradise Kiss, Gundam and Legend of Galactic Heroes. Serving in Tomizawa's usual role is no less than five people. A lot of effort went into the visuals, but the vision is clearly from the creator himself, Kia Asamiya. The animator-turned-manga artist, credited under his real name Michitaka Kikuchi, co-wrote the screenplay, storyboarded, designed the characters and served as "Chief Director." Make no mistake, this is his film.
This explains what is perhaps Silent Möbius' biggest flaw: its narrative structure. As is often the case with Asamiya's manga, visuals are given a high priority at the expense of continuity, resulting in jarring narrative leaps and a sense of general incongruity. A large and rather integral chunk of the story is missing entirely. We know how Katsumi first meets the AMP and what brought her into contact at last with the Lucifer Hawks, but how she goes from a scared girl cowering in a corner and lashing out into the warrior that rises to the challenge is left a complete mystery. It's almost as if Asamiya wants to skip to the good parts. The resulting payoff, though spectacular, is unearned and therefore misses a lot of its potential impact. A large amount of that gap is filled in by the second movie, but by that point it's too late.
One might argue that this flaw is not fatal to the film simply because we already know what happens. We know Katsumi is the hero, we know she'll rise to the challenge once she gets over the shock of seeing her mother engulfed by a demon, and we know what will motivate her to that end. It's a Hollywood and comic book formula, and we know it by heart. Silent Möbius brings such a sense of style and elegance to this tired formula, it's almost as if the film exists solely to perfect it in anime form. The cyberpunk Tokyo, the strange combination of Judeo-Christian and Shinto mythology, the sense of over-the-top explosive action and the breathtaking animation combine to form a pitch-perfect homage to American showmanship.
Bandai was unfortunately unable to find the masters to the old Streamline dub that, although wonky in parts, had a certain charm to it. Regardless, the new dub by Ocean Group is far better. Nicole Oliver tones down the whining that I had so long associated with Katsumi and actually manages to make her sympathetic. It's a strong dub that's about on par with the original Japanese version (which isn't too hard, as this isn't the sort of film that calls for subtle, nuanced performances). Neither dub or sub fans are likely to have any complaints.
There were only ever a handful of anime titles like Silent Möbius. Big-budgeted, hand-drawn technical marvels like this were only possible thanks to the excesses of the Japanese bubble economy of the late 80s, which is now an ever-more-distant memory. The last decade's unparalleled advances in digital animation might, at first glance, make the vision of an entirely hand-drawn work like this one seem less impressive... but once one stops to contemplate that every frame of this intricate film was drawn, inked, painted and photographed by hand, one at a time, it's impossible not to feel awed by the whole thing. And any film that can still inspire awe seventeen years later deserves to be called a classic.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Breathtaking animation.
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