The Laughing Target
by Justin Sevakis,
One of the hardest parts about writing Buried Treasure every week is the constant reminder that almost everything you remember fondly from your younger days actually isn't very good at all. When I first started writing the column nearly two years ago, I had a long mental list of shows I'd seen or rewatched fairly recently and was extremely passionate about. Obviously, those ran out quite a while ago, and since then I've been forced to rummage through some of the dustier sections of my brain (and my anime collection) to find new material. There are forgotten possible gems that I simply haven't seen yet, but enough of them are 50+ episode sci-fi epics that watching unfamiliar material presents a risky time investment. Most of the time I'm forced to rely on my old memories.
Inevitably, I will happen across a show that seemed incredibly important to teenager Justin back in 1995. I'll attempt to rewatch it, and be utterly disillusioned that I ever had such horrible taste. This has happened several times with the Rumik World OAVs, three 50-minute adaptations of short stories by Rumiko Takahashi, celebrated creator of Inu Yasha, Ranma 1/2, Maison Ikkoku and Urusei Yatsura.
The importance of this series is immediately apparent to any one of the countless otaku that discovered anime at Blockbuster Video, for they were almost always part of the initial assortment of anime VHS tapes Blockbuster started carrying in 1993. And yet, upon rewatching, one discovers that they have aged badly. The once-hilarious Maris the Chojo (The Supergal) is now quite boring and predictable, and the time traveling romance Fire Tripper is flaccid and old fashioned. But it turns out that one installment does hold up quite well today. That episode is called, "The Laughing Target".
Rumik World: The Laughing Target
Anime horror is not easy to do, and most attempts at the genre either fall flat, or end up becoming more of an exercise in dripping gore. Somehow, Laughing Target manages to maintain a level of creepiness throughout, and its 1980s production values only add to it.
In a traditional Japanese household, a very well-dressed woman is looking for her daughter. When she finally finds the toddler, she looks possessed, and is surrounded by demons that look like potato-sized leeches. But a blink of an eye later, and everything's back to normal. Something isn't right.
14 years later, a teenager named Yuzuru is trying to calm down his girlfriend Satomi. He's just been informed that his "fiancée" is coming to live with them (also his second cousin), and Satomi is incredulous that he has a fiancée. Over coffee, he explains that his family is really traditional, and the betrothal was made by their parents when they were very young. He hasn't seen her since, and never really took the arrangement seriously. Surely, she didn't either, right? Satomi isn't so sure.
At any rate, her mother has died mysteriously, so Azusa is to live with Yuzuru's family. Upon returning home, Yuzuru is startled to find his cousin Azusa waiting for him. She's the picture of porcelain doll beauty, tall with jet black hair and white skin. And she has taken the betrothal so seriously that she's never had any need for other boys. Yuzuru's mind races, trying to figure out how to politely get out of this.
Things are further complicated by Azusa's arrival in school the next day. Scared by the outside world (she was clearly very sheltered), Azusa notices Hitomi's puzzled glances. This clearly won't do. After dark, when Hitomi is in the locker room after archery practice, Azusa approaches her. She makes it very clear that she claims Yuzuru as her own. She also makes it clear that she's no longer even human. What follows is a fairly by-the-book supernatural thriller, a cat and mouse game that reminded me somewhat of Terminator. It's very well done.
Some parts of the story could never happen these days -- cell phones would have eliminated some of Satomi's helplessness, for example, and the idea of a traditional family living in rural Japan and virtually untouched by expectations of the modern world was farfetched in 1986, and downright silly today. And yet, there's little to remind us of these comforts in the story, where the only thing really obviously dated are some of the clothes. Azusa's upbringing wasn't just ultra-traditional, it was other worldly.
Like all the Rumik World OAVs, Laughing Target has a few pacing problems (as one might expect from a 30-something page story stretched to this length), but in this case a slow build only helps the tension. As Azusa becomes more corrupt with the demons that have possessed her, things get more intense. I was somewhat startled by how assured the storytelling is; at no point does the narrative resort to "hearing" characters' thoughts, or inserting a random voice-over.
There are little touches throughout that give Yuzuru and Satomi's world the realism it requires to be involving. From a less-than-literate classmate stumbling over his out-loud reading, to the slightly chaotic look of girls playing volleyball at lunch. Azusa's world is portrayed in far more impressionistic sequences, including a stunning flashback of when as a girl she was attacked by neighborhood boys. Some of the more hair-raising scenes take lighting cues from the 70s experimental theater movement.
It wasn't until years later that I saw the dubbed versions of the Rumik World series, which were simply the British dubs from Manga UK, released in the States by Central Park Media. For some unknown reason Manga Video UK's usual London-based dubbing crew (headed by director Michael Bakewell) decided to ditch their usual practice of dubbing with American accents for these shows, and instead went with an entirely British feel. The result was mixed, but in the case of Laughing Target, I think it's the right choice. After all, America really is too young a country to have the baggage of centuries old history clashing with modern sensibilities.
It's decidedly one of the better dubs Manga UK put out during their lifetime. I particularly liked Theresa Gallagher as Satomi, and some of the back and forth dialogue with Yuzuru (Richard Pearce) is particularly nice work, and honestly sounds like real teenaged lovers having a conversation. The more strained conversation with Azusa is particularly nuanced, and you can tell at once what's going through each character's mind. That's far more than I can say for most dubs. The Japanese version, comparitively, is just as involving, though it uses a more stagey style of acting than one is normally used to in anime.
Laughing Target isn't perfect, but it's thoroughly engrossing, and that's saying something for a genre that was always one of anime's weakest. It won't be something that sticks with you for very long, but is at least retains its fun, even if age has added a bit of camp to it. For those interested in seeing what Takahashi can do other than never-ending romantic shonen action comedies, it's probably your best bet.
|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:
Central Park Media's rights to the Rumik World series expired long before the DVD era, and the series appears to have been largely forgotten pretty much everywhere. Your options are the subtitled VHS (cheap and easy to find), the dubbed VHS (a bit harder), and the subtitled laserdisc (pretty much impossible). As the titles are owned by Shogakukan, the only company that could easily release these is Viz, and they appear to have pretty much given up on anything this obscure.
Screenshots © TAKAHASHI RUMIKO/SHOGAKUKAN.
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