The Mike Toole Show Arms And The Fan
by Michael Toole, Apr 7th 2013
I was all set to go, and then Roger Ebert died. I don't want this column to turn into Dead Guy Showcase, but Ebert was a big personal hero of mine, and probably the main reason I started writing essays and criticism about anime, so I'll talk about him for a moment. Critics and movie buffs across the world are posting up some great tributes to the man (the Onion's is my favorite). Personally, I'll always remember Roger Ebert for two things: his Jaws: The Revenge review, and the fact that he was easily the most visible film critic to champion the medium of anime. If you ask me, his words helped the perception of Japanese animation in the west immeasurably. “Japanese animation,or ‘’anime,'' as its fans call it,” Ebert commented in 1996, “is an enormous but almost invisible phenomenon in this country.” Enormous, but invisible. In some ways, it still kinda is, isn't it?
Roger Ebert had a special affection for Grave of the Fireflies, Isao Takahata's masterpiece about orphaned kids struggling in the wake of Japan's WWII defeat. Not only is it in his “Great Movies” collection of essays, he included it in one of his Ebertfest film festivals. He didn't stick strictly to heavy-hitters like Akira and Totoro, either-- Ebert was quick to recommend fare like Hiroyuki Kitakubo's fine Roujin-Z and Gainax's Royal Space Force, about which he mused on the youth of director Hiroyuki Yamaga. What might he have said about Evangelion? Unfortunately, we'll never know.
My ruminations on Roger Ebert have really only altered the prelude of this column, not its thrust or content. The fact is, I started writing this piece in my head last week, at Sakura-con, the very instant I reached out to a shelf in the dealer's hall and grasped a copy of Project ARMS volume 9. You know, the one that's perpetually out of stock on Amazon. The one that you can seemingly only buy as part of a complete set for a hundred bucks from eBay sellers. The one that, probably because it's the last in the series, is just damn hard to find.
I've talked about this phenomenon before, and it's proven to be a surprisingly popular topic: there's always that one disc (or two, or three) that just seems to elude capture no matter how much searching you do. For decades, rare music lovers have found themselves digging through crate after crate of grotty old LP records, looking for that one gem, like the first pressing of Lou Reed's TRANSFORMER or a picture-disc record by Iron Maiden or the Sex Pistols. The DVD revolution has given rise to a whole new generation of crate-diggers, men and women busily combing used shops and yard sales for fare like the Criterion version of John Woo's The Killer, Clownhouse, and Good Burger. (Yes, the Good Burger DVD is a collectible that's worth thirty or forty bucks nowadays. Go figure!)
I love dwelling on this stuff-- it is fascinating and a little sad to me that revered classics like Perfect Blue and Macross are out of print and slowly slipping out of sight. But you know what? I'm gonna talk about Project ARMS instead, because I love that damn show! Actually, I'm kinda surprised that it's so completely out of print and off the map, because it's a Tokyo Movie Shinsha show, and TMS have been pretty aggressive about getting some older portions of their library out there for worldwide streaming audiences. Maybe the fact that there's no big names attached to it? The series is helmed by a tag team of veteran TMS guys, and the animation work is directed by Junichi Takaoka, a busy artist who's been in the mix for plenty of recent fare like Gosick and Last Exile: Fam the Silver Wing. He was one of several exceptional key animators for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and has decades of experience under his belt. Project ARMS is very much a TV show with a TV budget, but Takaoka and his team do plenty to make it look good.
The show itself is based on a manga series originally called ARMS, written by Kyoichi Nanatsuki and drawn by Ryoji Minagawa. It starts at a small high school, where a student named Ryo Takatsuki is showboating a bit by rappelling down the building's wall. The arrival of a grim-looking transfer student with a huge cast on his left arm complicates matters; the new kid has a grudge against Ryo for some reason, and when they fight, weird stuff starts happening to their bodies-- at some point, some unknown entity altered these kids, giving them each a biologically supercharged arm. Before that gets too crazy, both guys are attacked by a platoon of highly-trained mercenaries... and Ryo absolutely mops the floor with them.
The thing is, Project ARMS’s conceit isn't that Ryo is some kind of secret badass soldier, like Fullmetal Panic’s Sousuke Sagara. As both friends and enemies start to loudly wonder why a dumb high school kid can outsmart and outfight seasoned professional soldiers, the guileless Ryo explains that he's just using some basic skills that his dad taught him on their frequent camping trips: stuff like hiking, hunting, a few simple but effective self defense techniques, and complicated and engrossing games of hide and seek. You know dudes, camping! And that's where the series digs the hooks in-- Ryo isn't prepared to fight, to run, to join forces with a trio of troubled kids with powers similar to his, but he sets to the task with purpose. The bad guys, the Egrigori (Aramaic for “watchers”-- or “angels,” maybe?), are suitably ruthless and calculating, the cast is complex and fun to root for, there's this weird, cryptic Alice in Wonderland motif threading through the series, and barely a single episode goes by without at least one awesome action scene. I'm particularly impressed with Masaki Sato's character designs- he gives the characters a dirty, heavily-shaded look that meshes well with the action onscreen.
By the time Project ARMS adds two more protagonists, a sad, put-upon kid with ultra-swift, powerful legs, and a wry, confident girl with a technologically enhanced mind, the series hits a runner's high of fun cliffhangers and off-the-wall bad guys, some of whom end up becoming good guys after it becomes clear that the Egrigori aren't loyal to them, either. On the whole, the first season of Project ARMS is a great, underrated action show-- one that, without the presence of a budget re-release or a streaming option, is becoming as elusive as its hero. There's an entire second season of Project ARMS, too, though it's reportedly not quite as good as the first. Fortunately, it is easier to find, so my completionist ass won't have to sweat tracking down some of the later volumes. The more intimidating task is collecting the 22-volume ARMS manga series, which Viz helpfully branded Project ARMS and pushed out in its entirety throughout the 2000s. But that's on the list too, since there are entire storylines-- notably, a trip to New York for Ryo and his nano-augmented pals-- that are absent from both seasons of the TV series.
Conventions like Sakura-con are a good place to pick up weird loose discs like this one-- with Suncoast gone and the vast majority of FYE stores vanished, the cluttered dealer's tables of a large convention is a pretty good hunting ground. I wasn't able to find some stuff, like that pesky last volume of Kurokami on DVD, or that possibly-fictional last Galaxy Angel Rune, but I did get a couple of piecemeal Urusei Yatsura discs and the fourth and final volume of Toei USA's Slam Dunk. Getting their clunky, badly-authored discs for $25 each at release was out of the question, but I don't think I ended up paying more than three bucks for any of them in the end. And man, they sure were confident about their releases! Just check out that ad copy.
Thinking about Project ARMS led me to ruminate on the artist, Ryoji Minagawa, who also co-created a big hit called Spriggan. Now there's a series I'd more or less forgotten about, until a couple of weeks back. I was in the bathroom at the Brattle Theatre, fresh off of seeing one of my favorite comedians, Maria Bamford. Like many small movie and performance theatres, the Brattle papers its restroom walls with old onesheet movie posters and handbills. In the men's room, right next to the mirror, is the poster for ADV Films’ theatrical release of Spriggan. Because they released it, you see. In theatres, even! I'd have taken a photo of the poster, but, well... it was the bathroom, see?
Back in the 90s, when the Spriggan film was in production, a lot of fans were pretty hyped about it. It was supervised by Katsuhiro Otomo, ostensibly taking a break from his labored delivery of Steamboy, and animated at the ambitious folks at Studio 4C. Interestingly, Viz had already released a few volumes of the manga in English, under the somewhat less obscure title Striker. I think the title change was a Shogakukan thing; the French editions of Spriggan were also retitled Striker. The film was a pet project of animation director Hirotsugu Kawasaki, who also storyboarded and co-wrote the affair, even working with Minagawa and his writing partner Hiroshi Takashige to adapt the manga for the big screen.
The resulting action-adventure, a multimillion-dollar affair, really shines... sometimes. The setup-- youthful Yu Ominae seems like a regular student, but he's really a Spriggan, a highly-trained special agent of ARCAM, an expeditionary force that tracks down ancient alien technology all over the world!-- is a bit forced and sloppy, but once Yu flies to Turkey to sniff out what might be the original Noah's Ark, the action starts. I went back and watched Spriggan again this week, and was struck by the opening action set piece-- Yu races through Istanbul, outmaneuvering his attackers by running, jumping, and climbing around the old city's winding streets and buildings. Nowadays we'd call his schtick parkour, but we weren't using that word in 1998.
Spriggan is good, sure, but it ain't quite great. The pacing is way off-- that great action scene is followed up by ten or twenty minutes of travel and exposition before the next badass action scene, and that's generally the story for the remainder of the movie. While Yu and his enigmatic fellow Spriggan, Jean Jacques Monde, are tons of fun to watch, their adversaries, a US military-funded cyborg corps bristling with weird weapons, are oddly uninteresting and one-note. Tie it all up with the clunky tagline of NOAH WILL BE YOUR GRAVE!, and you've got what amounts to only a slightly remarkable action movie.
What I also remember about Spriggan is just how hard ADV Films pushed it in 2002. They managed to get it into theatres, albeit with the usual arthouse/roadshow distribution. It was the centerpiece of their distinctive old “Do it now!” trailers for ages, and at Anime Central that year, the dealer's room was awash in Sprigganmania. Back then, ADV partnered up with Suncoast to run their booths, and one of the salesmen was inducing the crowd to scream “Spriggan!” every few minutes in exchange for free stuff. That got old pretty fast. The convention's lost and found must've had something like twenty copies of that damn DVD by the end of the weekend, too. All that leaves is the manga-- and while Viz kicked out three books in the early 90s, the rest never quite came out. Is now the time for a Spriggan revival?! ...no, probably not. Although, if they got a US release of that movie on bluray, I'd have a pretty hard time saying no to it.
Seeing Spriggan again also got me curious about its director, Hirotsugu Kawasaki. The guy's CV isn't particularly huge, but he's worked on everything from Akira to Studio Ghibli movies to Kenomuzume. I kinda knew who he was, because he's one of the three men, along with scribe Katsuhiro Otomo and director Tensai Okamura, who made “Stink Bomb,” the best part of the film Memories. But just like Project ARMS’s animation chief, Junichi Takaoka, Kawasaki's a guy who has spent most of his career as animation director, rather than chief director. Spriggan’s an exception. So is Legend of the Millennium Dragon, which I tracked down and watched this week, as well.
I've been curious about this film for quite some time, because it's one of the few big-budget anime films to be available on bluray in the US. It received an almost completely unheralded release in 2011 from no less than Sony Pictures. The thing is, the few critics who reviewed it mostly gave it a pass, citing pacing problems that sounded awfully similar to Spriggan's. Funny thing-- I didn't want to pay for Amazon's pricey quick Saturday shipping (I watched the movie yesterday, haw!), but it only took a quick search to remind me that there was not one single brick n’ mortar retail store in Boston that would have this movie in stock. I love online outlets like Amazon and Deep Discount, but it bums me out that there's pretty much no place left to browse a really large selection of anime in person.
Legend of the Millennium Dragon is a visually sumptuous film, an earthy story about a good but indecisive boy going back in time to the Heian era, an age of dragons and magic and oni and stuff. The kid, Jun, is summoned because he was predicted to be a messianic figure; through the movie, he learns the value of not judging books by their covers (the seemingly malevolent oni aren't truly malicious, for example), and does the typical hero's journey where he stands up against a powerful but misguided antagonist and becomes a slightly better, braver person in the process. The movie is run through with neat-looking monsters like tengu and eastern dragons, and it looks really nice on blu-ray. But it's... boring.
That surprised me a bit, because Spriggan only gets boring in a few fitful places. But Legend of the Millennium Dragon, an official title that differs somewhat from the Japanese title of Onigamiden, “Demon's History” really reminds me of Brave Story, another visually rich but curiously dull family movie about an irritatingly regular kid who goes on a fabulous magical adventure. What Millennium Dragon gets right is its visual style and action sequences-- Kawasaki cheats a little with overly-simple character designs, and his penchant for using the camera to make wide, sweeping circles around the action gets a bit repetitive, but the scenes of combat between men and oni, as well as the bits involving the Orochi, the eight-headed dragon, are fantastic. Ultimately, Spriggan and Millennium Dragon reveal a director who is incredibly technically proficient, but just hasn't mastered good storytelling. I still want more movies like this one-- and priced at around fifteen bucks, I don't really regret getting Millennium Dragon-- I just need for them to be a little bit better.
So: that's Project ARMS, Spriggan, and Legend of the Millennium Dragon-- three interesting anime productions chained together by two creators. Spring is here, which means that I'm sizing up simulcasts and desperately hoping that Crunchyroll or Hulu or Anime Network or somebody announces a deal to stream Attack on Titan. What new TV anime will you be watching this week? And just what did you guys make of Spriggan, anyway? Let's talk about it in the comments!
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