Buried Treasure
Black Magic M-66

by Justin Sevakis,

As far as anime directors go, I find Hiroyuki Kitakubo is pretty under-rated. Besides being truly talented at kinetic action animation, the guy has a sense of humor. From the edgy satire of Roujin Z to the over-the-top perverted bawdiness of Golden Boy, Kitakubo seems to be one of the more reliable anime directors out there. So for him to co-direct an anime with a young Masamune Shirow? You know it pretty much has to be a good time.

Black Magic M-66

Black Magic M-66 was originally a manga serialized in a fanzine by then-amateur manga artist Masamune Shirow back in 1983. By 1987, Shirow was quite well-known for Appleseed and Dominion Tank Police, and the OAV boom at the time meant that his high-action manga was in hot demand for anime adaptation. Bandai Visual (then "Network Co., Ltd.") and Movic worked to produce OAV's of both Black Magic and Appleseed. Appleseed, which turned out fairly mediocre, would be an early Studio Gainax work, while Black Magic was a joint project between Animate Film and AIC.

Shirow ended up co-directing with Kitakubo, who by that time was an anime veteran (having debuted as an animator on Urusei Yatsura TV... at age 15). The result was somewhere between the manga version and the Hollywood blockbuster, James Cameron's The Terminator. It's only 45 minutes long, and has just enough plot to fill it.

Sybel is a tough-as-nails TV news reporter. She's so dedicated to her work that she dresses in fatigues and wields her camera like it's a machine gun. (Think of her as a prototype for Maj. Motoko Kusanagi.) She's in the shower when her police scanner picks up news of a top secret military operation in a park just outside of town. She runs off to check it out, annoying cameraman Richard Leeky in tow.

The operation happens to be the unfortunate escape of a new advanced combat robot, code-named M-66. It's shaped like a life-sized Barbie doll, weighs over a ton, and comes equipped with every kind of weapon of mass destruction you can possibly cram into a humanoid figure. And, of course, its software is incomplete. For development purposes, the flaky genius designer input its target to be his cute teenage granddaughter Ferris. Just, you know, for fun.

Two models escape, and Sybel manages to get caught snooping by the military just as they're trying to take down one of them. One escapes into the city. So now, as Ferris is spending a night out with friends, this long-haired mecha of death is trying to hunt her down and kill her. Sybel finds this out as she's escaping from military custody, and proceeds to figure out where Ferris is by breaking into her and her grandpa's house and finding the note she left.

After finding her (and convincing her, with one decisive sentence, that she's in danger), Sybel leads Ferris on a terrifying run from death through city streets and skyscrapers, the M-66 often only feet away. The damn thing is so dangerous that the machine is basically demolishing the building right from under their feet. But Sybel is strong, and has a strong sense of justice. She'll Save Ferris, even if it kills her. (I do have to wonder if that reference was intentional.) As Yoshihiro Katayama's synth score swells, some of the most intense action scenes I've ever seen ensue; M-66 tears through walls and military personnel, and our heroines are just inches away from certain bloody gruesome death.

It's hard to tell where, exactly, Black Magic M-66 takes place. Given the character names, the English signs and the military involvement it's probably America, and what little we see of the cityscape makes it appear to be New York City, though the sci-fi aspects make it hard to tell for sure. Despite its being made in the 80's, the styles have aged quite well. Nobody has particularly big hair, and as everyone pretty much dresses as utilitarian as possible, the only fashion disaster is Ferris, who prances around in everything from a borderline bikini to a dress with a pink pantsuit. Ah, the 80's. Only Sybel's computer shows its age. It looks like a Commodore 64, but it's really probably an MSX.

The animation in Black Magic M-66 is good for its age, but occasionally attempts to bite off more than it can chew. Several cuts attempt moving-camera animation, and while animation director Keisuke Okiura is quite talented, he doesn't quite get moving perspective quite right. One shot in particular, of hikers running from the M-66, stands out as being a little "off." It's hardly enough to ruin the film, but just a little distracting. Other times, the odd sense of perspective adds to the suspense, such as when the two are trapped in an elevator with the robot.

Black Magic M-66 was first released by US Renditions in 1991 on subtitled VHS, but it wasn't until they sold the license to Manga Entertainment upon their entrance (and US Renditions/LA Hero's exit) of the US market that the dub really got out into the market at a reasonable price. Directed by Quint Lancaster, the dub is one of the many gems of the era produced by Animaze (after a brief shaky start-up period that churned out such cringe-worthy productions as Orguss and Macross II). Lia Sargent as Sybel is fairly one-note and monotone (as she should be), but my favorite performance of the dub is Tom Charles as Leeky, who perfectly manages the snide sarcasm that only complete wimps seem to be capable of. Melissa Charles as the teeniebopper Ferris doesn't overplay her hand, and as the anime's scream queen, she maintains a certain sense of spoiled rich girl dignity. The "walla" -- background voices -- are as good as the leads, and sometimes quite funny.

Despite all the bloodshed and wanton violence (bodies pile up like it's a John Woo movie) Black Magic M-66 never loses its sense of humor. This comes out at the quieter moments, like when Sybel has to deal with the useless sack of flesh that is her cameraman, or struggles to gnaw off the rope tying her wrists together. (There's scissors right next to her.) Gawkers witnessing the destruction shout "cool!" The military patrol gets goofed on by neighborhood kids. The concept itself, this ridiculously cute RealDoll out for blood, is pretty ludicrous as well, and the show owns up to this. What military in its right mind would fund something like the M-66? And why isn't the M-66 just demolishing Ferris with missiles?

At the same time, there's something uniquely human to M-66 that most action movies miss. Soldiers immediately react to the death of their friends. The assistant commander, upon defusing a tense situation, cracks an absolutely terrible joke and the two women just kind of stare off into confused space. It's action with both the sense of fun and gravity that one would expect from the best sort of popcorn movie.

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:
Once re-released by Manga Video at a really low price (my local Tower Outlet had a ton of 'em), the VHS releases of Black Magic seemed to be everywhere. However once they got around to releasing it on DVD, it seemed that the show was completely forgotten. A few copies sold, and then the disc quietly went out of print. The DVD has lots of shimmering artifacts (unmistakably from a bad PAL transfer, then being transfered back to NTSC), but is otherwise acceptable.

Manga Entertainment's license expired a few years ago, and the disc is now quite hard to find. Used copies on Amazon commonly go for significantly more than retail price. The license reverted to the licensor, which is Bandai Visual, so a very nice (but likely extremely expensive) reissue isn't out of the question.

Screenshots ©1987 Bandai Visual/Movic/Shirow Masamune/Seishimsha.

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