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Buried Treasure
Venus Wars

by Justin Sevakis,

Ah, Venus Wars... The anime equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. Sure, it aspires to be more. It doesn't quite reach the level of intelligence it thinks it has; it seems a little corny and simplistic in parts. Some of the characters are annoying as hell. But damn, if it isn't a lot of fun.

In the distant future, Venus is habitable, thanks to a collision with a meteor that stripped it of its dense atmosphere. But nearly 100 years after colonization began the place is hardly hospitable. The habitable land is divided between the warring nations of Ishtar and Aphrodia, and both seem to be full of the downtrodden population, resentful for having immigrated there in the first place. Among the youth, the hit game is Battle Bikes, a brutal sport played on motor unicycles (which are much cooler than they sound) with at least one fatal accident per game. ("People would get bored otherwise," muses one onlooker.)

Earth-based reporter Susan Sommers arrives in the Aphrodian capital of Io, full of excitement at getting assigned to such a dangerous place. (Earth seems to be a place that's achieved utopia during the time Venus went to hell.) In fact, she's just in time to witness the fall of Io: Ishtar forces are actually in the process of invading. While covering the resulting chaos, she bullies her way into a carload of friends on their way to their hideout.

The "friends" happen to be the Killer Commandos, a team of battle bikers. Among their star players is Hiro, a young man with a serious chip on his shoulder. He's dating the ever-cheerful Maggie, and quietly seems to delight in rolling her eyes at her innocence. She's taking the destruction of her city quite hard. Hiro, meanwhile, is sullen as he blithely breaks martial law curfew after Io is occupied.

Hiro's sullen nature catches up with him quickly: in a chance run in with police, his insistence on running away gets himself shot. He manages to limp to Maggie's apartment before passing out. When he wakes, he sees that Maggie is cheerfully trying to nurse him back to health. He also notices a photo of his family's farm, a government project her father was involved with. Hiro vents his bitterness: his family's entire legacy was a lie, as all the attempts to grow plants on Venus have ended in failure, and the government keeps funding them to keep going for appearance's sake. He's sick of being lied to, he admits.

Back at Killer Commandos' headquarters, the team's coach Gary has secretly been stockpiling weapons, and the team's leader Miranda is onto him. She approaches him with a reckless idea: to take down the enemy tank that's been occupying their stadium by themselves. Gary is dismissive -- he's made these stupid youthful mistakes before. But Hiro returns just in time to remind him that he and his team are entitled to make the same stupid mistakes, for the same reasons. And so the team begins its rookie assault on the tank. It's a mistake that will end in tragedy, and gets most of the team drafted into the real army.

Days later, Killer Commandos teammate Will seems to be happy with his new role in the forces, but Hiro and Miranda are miserable at being forced to join an army they don't trust. Susan somehow manages to regroup with the team (the army won't let her go back to Earth, in fear she'll leak classified info) and seems to have struck up a romance with Will. She wires up a camera to his monobike on his first mission. This doesn't end well: Will never comes back, and a hysteric Susan runs off to look for him. Hiro is nearly mutinous with rage, but one commander, Lt. Kurtz, sees some potential in his riding and shooting skills. He proposes a challenge: he'll let the rest of the team go. If Hiro can beat Kurtz in a battle bike match, he can go home too. But Hiro loses, and has to fight. He is, after all, a man of his word.

Though the setting and most of the cast is Western (Hiro seems to be the only Asian in the film), the story clearly has roots in both creator Yoshikazu "Yas" Yasuhiko's embellished ideas of World War II (he was born in the immediate aftermath, in 1947) and in the tradition of Hollywood epics. Yasuhiko is perhaps best known as the illustrator behind Dirty Pair and Crusher Joe and character designer for the original Gundam. His gritty, techically intricate style permeates every frame of Venus Wars, from the funky unicycle motorbikes to the dirty look of a sci-fi city under siege. Other crew notables include storyboard artist Sachiko Kamimura (character designer of Heroic Legend of Arslan and City Hunter), art director Shichirō Kobayashi (TO-Y, Loveless, Utena) and animation director Toshihiro Kawamoto (Cowboy Bebop, Golden Boy). It's a film that aims high. The animation is impeccable, though not without its flaws: experiments with live action terrain backgrounds don't really work very well. The action scenes are spectacular in their level of mechanical detail; Yasuhiko painstakingly isolates angles of sandbags falling, rubble smoldering and the tinier details that give a real sense of place and purpose to the team's misguided efforts.

What truly surprised me, coming back to Venus Wars after all these years (it was one of my first anime) was that it's actually rather smart in its characterization, if not its politics. Though I had enjoyed it in my youth on a purely visceral level, I didn't much appreciate the depth of its emotional underpinnings. It is a little bit simplistic, but its level of human involvement makes it one of the stronger war stories I can remember. The way most films go about depicting something as big as war is to focus on a single human point of view. Often this feels artificial and ignorant of significant details, but Venus Wars generally does a good job of filling in the blanks. (Maybe sensing the story needed some Top Gun homoeroticism, Yaz also inexplicably added a couple completely inconsequential sequences with a gay soldier hitting on Hiro.) Ultimately, the film resonates stronger with me today than it did when I first saw it as a teenager, when I likely had more in common with the sullen, angsty Hiro from the beginning of the film than the changed man he becomes at the end.

The epic feel is successful in other ways as well. Venus Wars simply feels like a movie in a way few anime features do. Maybe it's Jo Hisaishi's wonderful musical score, or perhaps the quality of the action; whatever it is, as the drums flare dramatically at the end, we can almost feel the chill on our skin from the overzealous air conditioning of a multiplex.

Anime titles seldom get real star power attached to them (nobody outside of otaku circles have heard of most popular voice actors). But Bandai was clearly intending Venus Wars to be a mainstream hit, hiring one of the singers from the popular 80s boy band Shonentai, Katsuhide Uekusa, to voice Hiro. He stands out among the other voice talent; while most of them whip out the standard Voice Actor performance (and ham it up a little), he stays mostly sullen and monotone. It works for his character, even if he isn't really a great actor. (His acting career has been lighter than other members of the famous boy band talent firm Johnny & Associates, leading me to believe that acting was perhaps not his forté.) Nonetheless, I'm sure his participation encouraged lots of squealing girls to go see a sci-fi war anime they otherwise never would have attended.

The English dub was produced by Manga Video UK back in 1992 and dubbed in London by the usual stable of Manga UK talent, featuring director Michael Bakewell leading a stable of American expatriates and Brits attempting to fake American accents while reading scripts with resolutely British sentence structure and inflection. I love this stuff, but even I must admit Ben Fairman as Hiro is more than a little milquetoast. Anna Alba is cute as Maggie, while Denica Fairman (best known in the States as the original B-ko) turns up the annoyance on the gratingly naïve reporter Susan Sommers. (One has to snicker at that name.) Overall, the dub misses a few of the more important dramatic moments; one would be better off watching this one subtitled.

Venus Wars is a loud, fun and mildly intelligent work; a celebration of youthful stupidity that celebrates the small triumphs in life that taste all the sweeter because of everything one loses. Its look is a little dated, but it's still arresting today, nearly twenty years after its release.

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, no English version.
R5 Import only, and out of print.
R6 Import out of print and rare.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Do digital fansubs exist*? YES
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com. *at the time of writing, to the best of our knowledge.

How to get it:
Sadly, your only choice for a DVD is the one Central Park Media made way back in 1998. No anime company (heck, few Hollywood studios) really knew how to make a proper DVD at this point in history, and this is a terrible disc for a number of reasons. First and foremost, its video source is the Dubbed VHS master, which was transferred from NTSC to PAL, color corrected to hell (crushing lots of fine detail in the dark areas), then transferred back to NTSC. It's letterboxed (as there's no new transfer, not much could be done about that), has horrible ghosting from all the standards conversion it went through, and suffers from some shimmering and rainbowing. A couple shots that originally featured Japanese captions along the bottom are zoomed in to crop them off. The subtitles also are in a font that nobody in their right mind would use today. It was decent in 1998, but today it's in dire need of a proper remaster. Alas, this seems unlikely. Venus Wars was discontinued, and its license lapsed along with much of the CPM catalog.

Nonetheless, this disc is easy to find used for dirt cheap.

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