Reviewby Justin Sevakis,
Mystical Laws, The
Sometime in the 2020s, China is overtaken by a Nazi-esque power known as the Godom Empire, led by crazed madman Tathagata Killer. The United States and the United Nations are helpless to stop its advances as it pushes world domination with technology that seems a millennia ahead of anything the world has ever seen. Meanwhile, Sho Shishimaru is a doctor working for an international relief charity. He's also a member of an international secret society, known as "Hermes' Wings." He is sometimes slightly psychic -- meaning he gets flashes of the future -- and one day these flashes tell him that soon Japan will be under Godom's control. It doesn't seem like such a farfetched scenario -- Godom forces are about to attack, actually. And when they do, they're after Sho. Saved by a group of Buddhist monks, Sho is informed that he may be the reincarnation of Buddha, and if he really wants to help save the world, he's going to have to do some training.
One could be forgiven for not getting too excited when the neo-religion known as Happy Science (Kofuku no Kagaku) comes out with a new anime feature. The religion, which started in 1986 when banker Ryuho Okawa announced that he was the reincarnation of Buddha and his then-wife was the reincarnation of Aphrodite, has become one of Japan's biggest "new religions," with increasing influence in politics and local chapters on several continents.
Despite comparisons to everything from Scientology to AUM, the religion itself has a reputation for peacefulness. Starting with Hermes, Wings of Love in 1997, and continuing with Laws of the Sun (2000), The Golden Laws (2003), Laws of Eternity (2006), and Rebirth of Buddha (2009), they've produced anime feature films and released them theatrically in Japan. Produced and usually co-written by Okawa, these films have consistently been something to avoid: well animated, but also some combination of laughably silly, blatant religious propaganda, or just really boring or incomprehensible.
To my surprise, The Mystical Laws is none of these things. It's a pastiche work of anime, manga and Japanese sci-fi heroes and story tropes, containing little new material but pieced together in a somewhat surprising way. The protagonist, a well-meaning doctor named Sho, is straight out of a seinen manga, while the dastardly ruler of the Godom Empire Tathagata Killer is decidedly from the sentai supervillain tradition, electric bullwhip and all. Alien elements are modeled after everything from Leiji Matsumoto's works to Legend of Galactic Heroes, while further homage is paid to everything from Evangelion to Space Battleship Yamato. The vague beliefs of Happy Science are integrated into the film's sci-fi cosmogony, but they're hardly being sold as fact. In fact, they appear no more intensely than the cosmogony of any other sci-fi fantasy anime.
This reshuffle of anime clichés might sound fairly boring, but somehow the pacing and the earnestness with which it's all told make the final product likable, if not great. Sho is someone we naturally root for, even if he bears little in the way of unique personality traits. Maybe it's relieving to have a responsible adult protagonist be the one who gets to negotiate with aliens and save humanity, but it doesn't hurt that he's also smart, competent and gentle. "Normal" adults don't get to meet alien races and save the universe in anime. They don't do battle with cackling villains brandishing swastikas. It's a small twist, but a strangely intriguing one.
If the choice of protagonist makes for an interesting twist, so do the politics that line the rise of the Godom Empire. Playing upon fears that a weakened United States would be unable to stop a further militarized and rogue China, leaving Japan defenseless, the film plays upon real concerns, while being careful to extinguish any genuine racism that might come into play (going so far as to point out Japanese-caused reasons for the historical grudge. This all strikes a reasonable, if not quite believable tone.
That said, the symbolism becomes heavy-handed at times. The Godom Empire emblazons a barely-modified swastika in red across everything, and famous historical events are referenced seemingly purely for their visuals -- the storming of the beaches at Normandy struck a bizarrely discordant note, among others. The seriousness of it all is diminished by the cartooniness of it all: Tathagata Killer is hard to take seriously when he's electric bullwhipping his subordinates in his Evil King Chamber while wearing an elaborate mask and laughing maniacally. Mass slaughter and genocide are implied, but not shown or stated outright, and none of the violence in the film would merit the film anything worse than a PG rating.
All told, this profoundly odd mix of a mature protagonist, a silly villain, realistic world politics, and space opera fantasy shouldn't blend together well, but somehow it works. When characters die and civilizations are attacked, there's real dramatic weight, and the film succeeds at being engaging on a level that surprised me. It's all just so earnest, it's hard to dismiss.
Somehow The Mystical Laws got shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. How that happened, exactly, I'll never know: mainstream audiences would reject The Mystical Laws, with its bumpy pacing and otaku story hooks, as if it were a botched organ transplant. But among the higher end sci-fi TV and OAV series Japan has produced over the last decade, especially those aimed at older anime fans, the film stands in good stead.
As with the previous Happy Science films, the main animation producer is not credited. Previous films were quietly produced by the then-struggling Group TAC, but as they are no longer in business, we are left to wonder at the studio behind Mystical Laws. Whoever it is does a remarkable job with consistency -- the animation is good-to-great throughout -- with particular attention paid to lighting effects. The visuals are marred only by a climactic battle sequence featuring 3DCG spirit warriors, which looks as bad as any "professionally made" CG I've seen in over a decade. Indeed, it looks like a video game cut scene from the early Playstation 1 era. But the scene is short, inconsequential and quickly forgotten.
Also like previous Happy Science anime, there is an English dubbed version (with full cast and crew in the credits), which was not screened for us but will likely be included on future home video releases. The subtitles were serviceable, but presented a few translation oddities: at one point someone remarks of the bad guy, "Hmph. Tathagata Killer... If that IS your real name!" Aliens from planet Vega are referred to as Vegans. Between the prominent mention of Lake Titicaca and the evil empire being named Godom, I found myself quietly making a lot of Beavis & Butthead jokes to myself.
I was pleasantly surprised by The Mystical Laws. What could have been another barely-coherent mix of sermonizing and propaganda was actually a respectable little sci-fi yarn, reverential to anime history and yet new in its approach. It's a well-intentioned, well-made pastiche work, earnestly arguing for tolerance of the religious views of others. You can't really make fun of that.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Surprisingly fresh-feeling and earnest. Consistently good 2D animation. Not (really) an ad for Happy Science.
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