The Mike Toole Show
A Low-Down Dirty Pair
by Mike Toole,
Once again, I'm spending the weekend surrounded by the riotous color and noise of an anime convention. This one's Anime Next, taking place in central New Jersey, not far from the weird, unsettled beauty of the Pine Barrens. It's a good show - I was here in 2013, and when the show's organizers asked me to come back, I agreed without hesitation. All the stuff that we associate with cons - engaged and appealing creators, like the gang from Studio Trigger, musical acts, a diverse slate of panels and videos, and wave after wave of cosplayers - is in place here. But something particularly interesting happened when I bumped into a couple of friends of mine, Erica and Laura, out on the convention floor. They were cosplaying, so I snapped a couple of photos - photos that would be retweeted and favorited several hundred times over the next few hours.
They were dressed as the Dirty Pair-- and specifically, they were going for the look of the characters in the seminal TV series and movies of the 1980s. I'm always impressed when costumers suit up as old school characters; I never stop wondering how they discovered the stuff. Who keeps feeding Ranma ½ episodes to teenagers, for example? I never go to a convention without seeing at least a couple in disguise as its heroes and heroines. But to me, the appeal of the Dirty Pair is obvious, and apparently Twitter agrees.
I touched on the origins of the Dirty Pair, both in my salute to the late translator and publisher Toren Smith and my look at the connection between anime and the Seiun literary science fiction award. But I didn't point out one of the most interesting facts about the Dirty Pair: the characters and stories owe an awful lot to a pro wrestling duo called the Beauty Pair. The story goes that in 1978, Takachiho, in order to entertain visiting author A. Bertram Chandler (noted for creating the pulpy, dimension-hopping sailor John Grimes) took him to see a night of Japanese puroresu. At one point during the evening's bouts, they saw these gals.
The team of Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda weren't just tag-team champs—they were a cultural force that inspired hundreds of young girls to give pro wrestling a shot. It's easy to lazily think of women's pro wrestling as a sideshow to the men's events, because that's how it developed in wrestling promotions on this side of the pacific. But it took on a life of its own in the Japan of the 70s and 80s, characterized first by the Beauty Pair's rise to fame and then by the Crush Gals' entertaining feud with heels Dump Matsumoto and and Bull Nakano, which actually eclipsed men's wrestling in popularity for a time. But in 1978, Takachiho took Chandler to see the Beauty Pair, with a couple of Studio Nue staffers along for company. At some point, the rapacious clowning of the staffers caused Chandler to remark that, unlike the girls in the ring, their companions were more of a “Dirty” Pair.
And thus, the Beauty Pair, tag-team champions of the World Women's Wrestling Association (aka the 3WA), gave rise to the Dirty Pair, tag-team trouble consultants in service of the Worlds-Wide Welfare Association (aka the 3WA). The duo of tomboyish Kei and elegant Yuri had a lot going for them—a state-of-the-art ship, a powerful alien companion, and eye-catching uniforms. The books actually go well out of their way to explain that Kei and Yuri's sexy outfits are actually state-of-the-art transparent body armor, which has always been one of my favorite dumb, absurd justifications for skimpy outfits on gals in science fiction.
Two of Takachiho's books are out there in English, and they're a bit challenging to read. He writes the tales in first-person from the point of view of Kei, and I never really found his attempts to capture the internal monologue of a fiery young woman convincing. Maybe it's just a tough thing to translate. The second book, which is the one that hooked a Seiun award, is something that probably should've been straight-up adapted to anime—it's packed with stuff like mecha-suited assassins and invisible monsters. It does prominently feature something that was dropped for the anime, which is Kei and Yuri's psychic powers. Yep, in the books, they actually have a sort of resonant precognition—a predictive power that hinges on them working together. Book 2 also specifically pits them against Lucifer, a criminal syndicate that kept reminding me of James Bond's SPECTRE when I was reading the book.
Ultimately, Takachiho's books are enjoyable, but a bit clunky. What puts them over the top is the personalities of Kei and Yuri themselves. Despite the go-go boots and halter tops, the pair exude confidence and chemistry, and never really make the reader doubt that they're anything but capable and clever trouble consultants. Takachiho also spends a lot of time defining Kei and Yuri by their respective tempers and romantic preferences, which is kind of goofy and dated, but also hilarious when the shit really hits the fan and the reader discovers that it's actually the demure Yuri who's the more angry and violent of the two.
1985's Dirty Pair TV series is a good indicator of the ultimate cleverness of Takachiho's creation, because what he came up with is a set of characters and a universe that are really easy to hand off to other creative staff. He was a member of Studio Nue, who contributed the show's memorable mechanical design, but he didn't handle scriptwriting duties on the show, and the episodes aren't strictly based on his work. The stories are a riot of interplanetary squabbles, interrupted vacations, assassination attempts, and lousy first dates, often ending with buildings, cities, and even entire planets exploding in flames. The Lovely Angels are good at their job, but the public calls them the Dirty Pair because their cases inevitably end in some sort of large-scale destruction. One of my favorite Dirty Pair details is the charmingly dystopian 3WA, whose master computer repeatedly rates the duo highly and assigns important cases to them. After all, the death and destruction that follows in their wake isn't usually their fault, but the result of an amazing chain reaction of unfortunate coincidences.
It's the TV series that turned Takachiho's work from a modest SF literary hit into a classic. For me, there are two major reasons for this: one, character designer Tsukasa Dokite, and two, the seiyuu who play Kei and Yuri, Kyoko Tonguu and Saeko Shimazu. Just like the characters in the books, the two voice actresses have palpable chemistry, and play off of each other extremely well. Dokite took the books' illustrations, by renowned artist Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, and turned 'em into designs that were easy for the animation staff to draw. A lot of what he did was just following the style at the time, giving the girls cute, round faces and snub noses, but it's remarkably effective work. Particularly, I've always been impressed with Kei's hair. In the books, she sported a wolf cut, which looked alright in 1978 but wasn't going to cut it in '85. So Dokite just gave her this big red poof. You know, I remember this hairstyle. I don't remember it looking good on any real-life people, but for animation, it works amazingly well.
The TV series led directly into the apex of the franchise and one of the great, fun anime films of the 1980s, Dirty Pair: Project Eden. Simply entitled Dirty Pair: The Movie in Japan, this 90-minute romp sees the Lovely Angels thrown into a Cold War pastiche, as they try to figure out a mining issue that's causing the two governments of Agerna to feud with each other. There's a charming mineral thief, mysterious aliens that are only kinda-sorta ripped off from H.R. Giger, and a genuine wacky mad scientist behind it all, complete with his own theme tune. Beyond the look of the aliens, it's tough to point to a specific SF film or aesthetic that Project Eden is riffing on. I find this particularly impressive, because the 80s was awash in anime fare that gleefully ripped off Blade Runner, Star Wars, and everything in between. But this film does a good job of standing on its own. Its only real weakness, if you can call it that, is that it's not so much of an ensemble piece—it really puts the focus on Kei. Folks in the US (and possibly beyond? How do you tell which countries are allowed to watch which YouTube videos, at this point?) can go right ahead and start watching, which I recommend you do. (Seriously, only 5,000 views?! Unacceptable!)
The movie is followed by additional films and OVAs that are kind of a wildly mixed bag. My favorite by far is yet another interrupted vacation, as Kei and Yuri go to a planet where Halloween is a big deal to chase down a misdelivered, extremely dangerous battle robot. This episode is fantastic on two levels. On one hand, there's a plot involving a bunch of criminal gangs dressing up in silly Halloween costumes to disguise their dirty work. Kei and Yuri are completely baffled by this phenomenon—they don't celebrate Halloween, so the whole thing is a bizarre nuisance to them. On the other hand, they have to chase down the robot, which looks pretty much exactly like the Terminator. But this isn't tense SF pursuit, it's broad, slapstick comedy, as the hapless robot (it's not programmed to attack… at first, anyway) spends the entire episode fleeing desperately from the wrathful duo, who blame it for ruining their vacation.
My gut reaction is to ignore Dirty Pair Flash, because that thing was a dumb, ugly reboot that nobody liked, right? No, it's actually proof that I'm an out-of-touch doofus who lives in a bubble, because Flash actually did extremely well both in Japan and overseas. You know, I've watched the whole thing, and it's really not that bad, it's just that the new designs for Kei and Yuri are really aggressively 1990s, and aged badly almost immediately. The personalities we know and love—aggressive Kei and coy Yuri—are intact, but there's new hair, new costumes, new ships, new voices… it's pretty jarring. A series of OVAs led to more OVAs, and more OVAs, and then no more OVAs.
Thing is, if that redux of Dirty Pair isn't your bag, there's a comic version. Not manga comics, either, but an American affair by Toren Smith and Adam Warren. This isn't what you might think of as “Original English Manga”, as Tokyopop desperately described their generally lousy products, either—it's exuberantly illustrated by Warren, whose take on the characters is definitely in the style of American superhero comics, but still completely recognizable and appealing. The late Mr. Smith's scripts are surprisingly clever, as well; the comic version actually killed off one of the main characters and managed to make it suitably interesting.
Warren has moved on to his own hit series, Empowered, but he still reps Dirty Pair—he was quick to retweet the photo I took, and commented on the characters' enduring popularity. The thing is, the whole reason we got Dirty Pair comics in the first place is because there wasn't any manga for Smith to license in 1987, when he was trying to get his manga translation business off the ground. The first real, sustained stab at Dirty Pair manga didn't happen until quite recently, in fact. Its approach isn't groundbreaking—it's a 2-volume adaptation of the second novel—and so artist Hisao Tamaki tries to sell it by taking the girls' designs, which are already sexed up, and making them borderline ludicrous, with barely-concealing boob-tube tops that say “WWWA” on them.
In a sense, Tamaki's work is still faithful, because Kei and Yuri's latest new look is still evocative of pro wrestlers, with high boots and matched outfits. Maybe that's why I'm so cool on Dirty Pair Flash—they don't look like wrestlers. You'd think the books would be an easy sell to the west, but the market's tougher than it's ever been, so no new Dirty Pair manga for us.
Seeing the reaction to my friends' splendid recreation of Kei and Yuri does make me wonder one thing: we live in a world of incessant reboots, relaunches, reduxes, and redos. Dirty Pair strikes me as something that could make that approach successfully. So what would it take to bring the Lovely Angels back to prominence. A new anime TV series? A movie? Maybe a mid-budget western sci-fi flick? An HBO direct-to-cable style series? I want your take, gang. I also want to know which of you bought Dirty Pair Flash in droves, so we can all argue about whether it's good or not. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled at fan conventions around the world, because the Lovely Angels are just around the corner.
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