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Buried Treasure
Coo from the Distant Seas

by Justin Sevakis,

There are some treasures that nearly everyone agrees should be in a museum. There are some that only appeal to a few people who find meaning in them. But there's a third type of treasure, and it's my favorite: the ironic treasure. It's a treasure that's not necessarily bad or of poor quality, but its real value lies not in its worksmanship, but its absurdity. It's like having hanging a painting of The Last Supper on your wall, except the bread and wine has all been replaced with cup ramen. Having the real Last Supper on your wall would be cool, but it's a lot more fun to have people over to admire the Last Ramen.

This week's Buried Treasure is that sort of absurdity. And it's made all the better for pretending to be a blissful, cute family movie.

No medium can do "cute" better than anime, so it should come as no surprise that an anime features, as its centerpiece, an absolutely adorable baby dinosaur. The little known movie "Coo of the Distant Seas" seems at first glance to be a gentle family movie about a young boy and his pet dinosaur... and then the heavy machinery comes out, the military starts blowing stuff up, and a girl takes off her shirt.

Yosuke is 12 years old and living in paradise. More accurately, he's living on a tropical island with his dad, a marine biologist. The only ones on the island are the two of them, their dog Cousteau and a tribe of natives that run the place. His school is three hours away by jet ski (yes, he gets to JET SKI to school when he's not taken there by a friend with a CESSNA), but really Yosuke spends most of his spare time with the local dolphins.

But one day the dolphins won't let him go to school peacefully. Instead they lead him to a sandbar, where he finds, washed up on the shore, a tiny baby... thing. It's got a big head, fins and basically looks like a shell-less turtle. Oh, did I mention the GIGANTIC ADOWABLE BAMBI EYES!?

Anyway, Yosuke brings it home, and his father, not really knowing what it is, decides it could be important enough to study and puts it up in his lab. Yosuke thinks it could be a dinosaur and names it "Coo" after the noise it makes. (Perhaps it's actually a Pokémon.) After the initial new pet questions (What does it eat? etc...), Coo becomes a member of the family, and Yosuke becomes his surrogate mother.

Up until this point, one would almost think this a Ghibli movie. The artwork is exquisite (art direction by Ghibli stalwart Nizo Yamamoto, whose attention to natural detail is always welcome), the music fun and the atmosphere joyful.

And then the cast expands. Strange white men with cigarettes show up and start sounding intimidating. We see them typing at a computer, tracking what must be Coo and its real mother. A hot red-head with a drinking problem shows up and crashes at Yosuke's house.

What ensues is like the bastard stepchild of "Free Willy" and a Michael Bay movie.

The red-head (her name is Cathy) dons fatigues and starts securing the house. Some men outside have cut the power and phone lines. They have submachine guns. Cathy, not to be outdone, turns some household items into weapons, ranging from a flame thrower to a stun gun. Unfortunately, she's no match for the evil forces, though, and soon enough, Coo is taken captive on a military warship. It's up to Yosuke, Cathy and the brave volunteers of Greenpeace... er, "Green Earth" to save him!

The military happens to be the French, and the reason they want Coo is to destroy any evidence of such a new and important species... so they can start using the ocean for nuclear testing. With motives like that, it's likely too much to ask for believable, well rounded characters. No, these are simply Very Bad Men. So bad, in fact, that they show absolutely no remorse when they try to MURDER THE KID with machine gun fire, miss, and end up shooting his beloved dolphin to pieces.

It should be obvious at this point that Coo is something of an ecological tale, albeit one that would make Miyazaki embarrassed to be alive. It might as well be sponsored by Greenpeace, if Greenpeace was recruiting for a war. Forget having two sides to any issue here; the world view on display is slightly less sophisticated than that of an average issue of Weekly Reader.

Let me stop for a minute here and get this out of the way: I support ecological issues, with scientific skepticism when necessary. I genuinely care about the world, wildlife and animals. I eat lots of meat, but refuse veal and foie gras. (Refusing foie gras is easy, as I am not a millionaire.) On the other hand, I know when I'm being preached to. In the case of Coo, I feel like I'm listening to one of those insane Public Access preachers on YouTube, clutching a bible in one hand and a banana in the other, foaming at the mouth about Satan.

...And strangely, it works. Despite its violent mood swings and wholesale manipulativeness, Coo is a fun, action-filled romp that's great for children ages fifteen and up. At that age, at least the boys will appreciate it when Cathy whips off her top to start prancing in the rain. The film slowly goes from heartwarming family tale to over-the-top propaganda that can easily be enjoyed in between gasps of, "Oh, they did NOT just do that." It's like watching Takashi Miike's "Audition", substituting pain with PETA.

Director Tetsuo Imazawa's record is spotty at best. His best work is probably the old space mecha series God Mars, and he's also served as episode director for a few episodes of everything from Rose of Versailles to Zatch Bell. His most recent series, Ayakashi - Samurai Horror Tales, is also decent, but his past is also littered with such trainwrecks as Psychic Wars and the incomprehensibly terrible religious cult sponsored film Hermes - Winds of Love. It's nice to see that he's capable of tender moments such as those Coo has to offer, but I also wonder if this might explain some of the odd changes in tone that make it unfit for family viewing. Character designs are (at least partially) handled by the always-fantastic Haruhiko Mikimoto (Macross, Orguss).

Perhaps the most ironic crew member for the project is screenwriter Kihachi Okamoto, a WWII veteran who joined TOHO Film Studios and had a long career through the 60's and 70's directing violent yakuza movies most westerners have never heard of. He was already 69 when Coo was released (he died in 2005 at age 81). While Coo was based on an award-winning children's book, the new violent twist on the ending is all Okamoto's work. I can't help but wonder what a Japanese WWII vet must think of atomic weaponry as it's currently bandied about amongst nations today, but at the same time... I'll bet he's eaten whale meat.

Adding to the strangeness of the project is the theme song, which is performed by Beatles progeny and 80's one-hit wonder Julian Lennon. It's terribly drippy, and used as backing to a montage early in the film of Coo and Yosuke frolicking in the ocean.

Coo, it's safe to say, is a bizarre mishmash of whack-you-over-the-head political messages, military intrigue, and lovely family fare, all cranked up to such a ridiculous level that it's impossible to take seriously. And yet, it's so well-meaning and charged with sweet moments that you can't dismiss it. It's absolutely worth seeing, just for the sheer lunacy of it all.

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:

Coo was released on VHS and LD in Japan, but I can't find evidence it was ever released on DVD. A fansub was released on VHS back in the day, and a low-quality rip has been spotted online.

Screenshots ©1993 Tamio Kageyama, COO Production Committee

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