Old Schoolby Mike Crandol
So Mr. Uninformed walks up to you on the street and asks, "Why do you like anime?". "It's a smart alternative to America's mind-numbing kiddie-cartoons," you say. "Anime is a sophisticacted cinematic medium that features in-depth characterizations and well-written stories for intellectual audiences".
Just a few years ago that statement was easy enough to prove. Anime's reigning king was the thought-provoking Akira, actioners like The Dirty Pair and Bubblegum Crisis were introducing Americans to "intelligent exploitation", and The Wings of Honneamise and Ghost and Shell were putting our live-action movies to shame. These days, however, it's pretty hard to convince someone there's much substance behind the quest to catch every known variety of Pokémon or obtain Super-Duper Saiyan status. And you're not buying it, either.
If today's anime offerings have got you down, why not check out some of the classics? Unfortunately it's easier said than done: the fact is, much of the best anime has to offer just isn't available today. Since the demise of Streamline Pictures, the first big anime importer, many of the medium's finest works have been in distribution limbo. Today's distributors have allowed classic works to go out of print on the assumption that older titles will not sell as well as the newest Tenchi Muyo! clone.
These lost gems deserve better, and if you haven't seen them you owe it to yourself to track them down. Each month we're going to turn the spotlight on a different "moratorium" anime....that is, an anime that was once available commercially here in America but has since vanished from store shelves. With a little luck and a little $$$ you should be able to track them down on eBay or find them stuffed in a dusty corner of the neighborhood comic book shop. And hopefully we'll be seeing these films on video store shelves again real soon.
Films like Dirty Pair: Project Eden.
The initial television broadcast of The Dirty Pair enjoyed no great success, but the show gradually drew a strong cult following and in 1987 Kei and Yuri were given their very own movie. To this day it remains one of anime's finest big-screen installments of small-screen material, and is perhaps the only such movie to be superior to its television incarnation in every way.
Project Eden takes everything that was right about The Dirty Pair and amplifies it to the nth degree while correcting the series' shortcomings in the process. Whereas the TV show would sometimes go an entire episode without so much as a single explosion, this film doesn't let its audience forget why Kei and Yuri are called The Dirty Pair…Total Chaos is never more than two steps behind the girls and the pace never lags. And instead of being saddled with one of the innumerable no-dimensional love interests from the series, here the girls meet their match in the form of Carson D. Carson, a debonair but wise-cracking thief out to steal a priceless bottle of wine and later, Kei's heart. The movie plays up the ridiculousness of The Dirty Pair while at the same time upping the danger quotient with some truly nasty-looking monsters for the girls to fight, and there are some genuinely grueling battle sequences amidst all the hilarity. It also resists the easy opportunity to turn things into a nudie fest, and though the girls do indeed lose their already-skimpy outfits things stay strictly PG. Well, PG-13, at any rate.
It's also surprisingly witty and intelligent for The Dirty Pair, which was an enjoyable but rather simpleminded series. The story concerns one Professor Wattsman, a self-consciously mad scientist who believes the next step in the evolutionary ladder lies dormant in a rare metal called vizorium, used to power interstellar spacecraft. He's trying to create a new Adam and Eve, but all he's been getting are some big scaly monsters straight out of Aliens. The creatures have a taste for the vizorium from which they were born and attack some government-run mining facilities...who in turn accuse their privatized competitors of sabotage. Kei and Yuri are called in to sort out the mess and bump into Carson, after the mad professor's vintage 1945 General DeGaulle, and the three of them break into Wattsman's laboratory only to be mistaken as successful vizorium-experiments. The tightly-plotted script moves along at a brisk pace with a perfect balance of comedy and action and just a hint of melodrama for good measure.
Obviously Project Eden has plenty of farcical situations, familiar territory for The Dirty Pair, but there's also a degree of self-mockery that's unique to this film. We all know there's no reason for Kei and Yuri to fight crime in those ridiculously revealing outfits other than to give the audience what they want. The movie acknowledges its own exploitation by quickly losing Kei and Yuri's clothes in a bathtime monster attack and forcing them to complete their mission in stolen undergarments. In any other anime this would be a pretty cheap shot at fan service, but since the girls' makeshift clothing is no more revealing than their normal attire it makes for a funny and incisive statement about the nature of The Dirty Pair universe. Carrying the idea to an equal-opportunity extreme, the Pair steal their rags right off the back of Carson D. Carson, who spends most of his time clad only in purple polka-dot boxers.
Complementing the strong storytelling is some equally strong animation that uses anime's limited style to its fullest potential. Lower cels counts mean anime characters must hold key poses longer than Western animated characters, but Project Eden's key poses are so expressive and appealing they are joy to look at, and the characters move in an out of them with a lifelike elasticity rare for anime. The numerous action sequences are light years ahead of anything in the TV show…or any other anime from the period, for that matter…and there are two winning artistic endeavors: the opening credit sequence done in imitation of a James Bond film and a brief dream sequence for Kei that experiments with some extreme color palettes. Only in the film's climatic final confrontation do things falter as the audience is subjected to an overly-long slow motion battle between The Dirty Pair and Wattsman's machines. It might not be too bad, except for the 80's-cheese theme song “Gonna Make it Over the Top” playing in the background. Cheesy 80s music is another Dirty Pair staple, and except for the above mentioned instance Project Eden makes very good use of its score for comedic effect. Listen for the female chorus crooning “Wattsman!” every time the mad scientist makes a revelation…it's Comedy Gold.
Simple logic would seem to dictate that all theatrical versions of established TV shows be better than the original. As we all know this is hardly ever the case. Dirty Pair: Project Eden is one of the few glorious exceptions...it's not just bigger and louder, it actually IS better. Rarely do all the elements come together so nicely, and even all these years later it's hard to think of any other anime that's simply as much fun as this movie.
The film was brought to American shores by Streamline Enterprises, who gave it the subtitle "Project Eden" (it was known merely as Dirty Pair: The Movie in Japan) and released it in an English-dubbed version on VHS in 1994. Despite paving the way for commercial releases in the West, Streamline occupies a controversial place in anime history, with a reputation for releasing poorly-acted, poorly-translated English dubs. These complaints cannot be levied against Project Eden, which features a canny script translation that holds up well even in today's top-quality market...Wattsman's impassioned speeches in particular bubble with wit and charm. Strong performances all-around are provided by the vocal cast. Though there is some validation to complaints that Streamline's Kei and Yuri sound too much like Valley Girls they are more than capable actresses, and it's a real treat to hear future anime VA superstar Wendee Lee in one of her earliest performances as Yuri. But top prizes go to Steve Kramer as the delightfully eccentric Wattsman, and Kerrigan Mahan's turn as Carson. Much of the thief's personality and charm comes from Mahan's great vocal performance, and without it the character...and much of the movie...would be very dull.
Since going out of print Project Eden remains a staple of most Blockbuster Videos' anime section, so tracking this one down shouldn't be too hard. A while back ADV Films purchased the rights to the film as well as Streamline's two Dirty Pair OAV's, "Affair on Nolandia" and "Flight 005 Conspiracy", but as of yet no official announcement regarding a DVD release has been made. It may not be too far off; ADV has just released their first former-Streamline title, "Doomed Megalopolis", with the old dub intact. If they're smart they'll stick with Project Eden's dub as well.