Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Harmagedon

"Some psionics must be scared to death before they trigger.
The danger has only started.
His powers are awake now.
But he doesn't understand them yet."
-Vega-



Sometimes the stars align and something cosmic happens akin to a big bang. Along those lines the explosively apocalyptic Harmagedon (1983) was birthed. The ambitious 132 minute post-apocalyptic film was likely fairly impressive in 1983, a rare epic thing arriving long before and pre-dating major anime films like Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise (1987), Akira (1988) and even Hayao Miyazaki's own post-apocalyptic Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984). Unfortunately, Harmagedon is also little known in anime circles never mind the cinematic mainstream. Why? Is the film worthy of a little more recognition given its pedigree? Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic pulls the pin and lobs the explosives himself to find out.



Harmagedon is actually a mature adaptation of a manga called Genma Taisen that began publication in 1967 written by one Kazumasa Hirai. The film was based upon the first three novels published for the series. Like a lot of classic anime, Ghost In The Shell, Knights Of Sidonia, and others, it is based on a manga source.

Harmagedon does have three impressive points going for it. First, it was directed by Taro Rin, later simply referred to as Rintaro (a one word association like Madonna or Sting though it was actually his real name).



Second, the film was animated by Madhouse Studio (Redline, Metropolis, Wicked City, Millennium Actress). The credential for Madhouse are incredibly long and impressive. They were discussed extensively in our close up of the film Neo Tokyo (1987) Click here for a closer look. To review, Madhouse was founded by Rintaro (Metropolis) with three others including personal favorite Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, Wicked City). Harmagedon would be in the expert hands of some of anime's finest animators. The list of their contributions is indeed apocalyptic.



Finally, the character design work for Harmagedon was by none other than Katsuhiro Otomo. If anything with direction by Rintaro and character designs by Otomo Harmagedon should at least look amazing. Right?

In our year long look at the work of Katsuhiro Otomo it's worth noting that Otomo's contributions to Harmagedon are the first recorded by the artist to the medium of anime. His influence here follows on the heels of his masterpiece manga works Domu (1980) and Akira (1982). Otomo would continue to work in manga, but Harmagedon was the first appearance of Otomo stepping foot into the world of the animated cel. Harmagedon would eventually lead to his input on Robot Carnival (1987) discussed here and Neo Tokyo (1987), the latter with his first notable directorial work in anime before landing with the atomic bomb mother of all anime films, his very own adaptation Akira (1988), largely hailed as one of the influential classics to breakthrough to the mainstream and broaden market borders internationally particularly with a major inroad to the Unites States.



So this impressive curriculum vitae aside, does Harmagedon deliver yet another noteworthy Otomo keeper? Should it be more than a blip on the anime timeline?

This two hour epic sci-fi tale is clearly intent on stuffing a good deal of information into its massive cinematic length. Is it too much?

Disappointingly, the first nineteen minutes alone comes off as a long, heavy-handed science fiction intro with an overly serious tone. Some voice overs are spoken in deep dark intonations with words like DESTRUCTION and DESTROY repeated. It comes off a little strong in laying the groundwork to the story of Earth versus an alien energy power known as Genma, hence its foundation Genma Taisen and the later anime series Genma Wars (2002).



The first section of the film works to establish a character called Princess Luna who becomes a psionic warrior. She is united with a surviving cyborg warrior, who lost loved ones of his own, called Vega. Vega, a warrior from 4 million light years away, is an extremely cool mecha design with some pretty nifty features that are animated well for the period. Though a good deal of time is spent on some characters that we inevitably learn very little about.



The next phase of the film introduces us to Jo Azuma, graced with Otomo's trademark designs. Rintaro works to bring Vega and Luna together with Joe as this super team of unlikely heroes continues to coalesce so that one day these unassuming warriors, with the gift of psychokinetic powers, may one day battle Genma.

Vega makes efforts to educate and caution Jo preaching to him the ways of the warrior. "If you exert your full strength it will exhaust you. If you use it too often it could cripple or kill you. If you're not trained you risk more than yourself - others might also be hurt. That's the nature of power. You have now awakened to your own power. When you can control it you will be a warrior. When that time comes we'll meet again." The drama is all very over the top.



When the enemy is introduced and given physical form it is indeed interesting and the animation, for its time, is quite impressive, but it is weird. As much as the story of Harmagedon might be up Otomo's alley thematically, there's plenty of room for Rintaro to play and bring his own unique stylistic strokes to the film. Rintaro is indeed a unique animator that certainly approaches what might be conventional material with his own unique animating craft and perception of that world.

At the midway point following a reign of destruction and armageddon-like mayhem in New York City, we are introduced to Sonny Lynx, a street punk and gang thug with psychokinetic powers. It's not racist. Sonny isn't a young, sweet boy. He's a little gangster.



After 70 minutes we are quickly introduced to the remaining psionic warriors that must comprise the psionic eight. An elder Indian named Yogin, a Chinese girl names Tao, Asanshi from Saudi Arabia and a Native American named Salamander all comprise the full team that will one day battle Genma, and henchmen Zamedi and Zambi. Together the team becomes the Star Trek crew or X-Men of the psionic warrior world - a group of characters we genuinely learn little about with the exception of Jo and maybe Vega. That's ashame with a run time over two hours.

In a hallucinogenic turn of the absolutely bizarre, there is this whole wildlife sequence featuring Jo and a seeming homage to Bambi (1942). Sometimes I wonder if Rintaro isn't on drugs. Some of his work cane be a downright trip. The sometimes psychedelic approach is complemented appropriately by the prog-rock noodlings of Keith Emerson, famously of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The whole effect is quite appropriate.



Harmagedon is clearly epic science fiction storytelling that comes off laborious or languid at times. In one extended scene where Jo's sister is terrorized, the villains seem terribly inept and in no hurry to take out their victim. The scene just lingers on and on. On with it already! But the film is replete with that trademark swirling Rintaro touch.



There is kind of detachment and stream of consciousness to Rintaro's work that takes the narrative into the fancifully apocalyptic and abstract. If you've ever seen Labyrinth Labyrinthos from Neo Tokyo you'll understand that aspect of the fantastical sometimes impenetrable quality. Harmagedon was written by Rintaro and as both the film's writer and director its successes and shortcomings fall squarely on his shoulders. Japanese themes and messages of spiritual connection are ever present. "I was wrong. I'm not alone. The animals, Luna and the others. They've been a part of me since before I was born. All life is tied together in the web of mother Earth. Love will always support you. Hate and bitterness won't protect the Earth from Genma. It's friendship and unity that bind us together." At times, it's a new age We Are The World. There is epic melodrama and epic yawn.



The character designs by Katsuhiro Otomo are distinctly his. There are some characters that have that striking Otomo look particularly in the male character of Jo. His design work, though early in his career is indeed notable for the Otomo stamp, but his contributions, though typically stellar, end there.

Fans of early era hand drawn animation will find a few sequences and moments in the film quite remarkable and a joy to behold as a fan of animation, but Harmagedon is by no means Otomo's best moment. It's a nice moment in the history of his development as an artist to be sure. More importantly, as ambitious as it may be, this film is also not Rintaro's best either. Still, what was attempted in the early 1980s here was indeed fairly adventurous for its time. What it retains in simplicity within a lengthy, epic, fairly complex story is made all the more challenging by Rintaro's animating flair and directorial approach. It is challenging, but its slow pacing has a tendency to undeniably lose the viewer.



Still, though I offer a less than enthusiastic portrait of the film, Brian Camp and Julie Davis would disagree. Harmagedon is, to my amazement, listed by the two writers in Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces as a climactic keeper. Camp adored the sci-fi, apocalyptic artwork of the era. But its problems of style over substance are sometimes too much to overcome for this writer. Camp leans the other way, in the other camp if you will. This excerpt offers a nice counterpoint for those that are interested separate from my own analysis. "Rintaro loves experimenting with color, light, and swirling images, and showing the world as his characters perceive it, particularly when they are altered states of mind or conditions of distress. Harmagedon gave him ample opportunity to indulge these tendencies, thanks to a plot about a cosmic struggle that allows for a constant array of breathtaking, intricate images not often experienced in anime. If one doesn't worry too much about the story's structural flaws or the lack of characterization, one can simply marvel at the artwork and dreamlike inner journeys...." (p.156). This is trademark Rintaro and the man can animate in dream-like qualities like nobody's business, but at over two hours in length it can be trying, taxing or pushing the proverbial envelope.



Thus Harmagedon while an interesting feature or footnote in anime's development is not a thoroughly satisfying film experience. The Anime Encyclopedia has a decidedly more negative slant on the film above and beyond this writer. Perhaps The Sci-Fi Fanatic hopefully offers a little balance to the assessment somewhere in the middle. I've taken issue with both of the aforementioned books and also loved much of what they have to offer, but differ markedly from them on Harmagedon.

Harmagedon may have a tendency to meander throughout its long running time, moving at times into Rintaro's love and flamboyance for the abstract, but its surreal efforts are indeed admirable.



Harmagedon may also not be the work of writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo, but how ironic he should lend character designs to a story surrounding a lead character he designed with great psionic powers? This is indeed a precursor of things to come for Otomo who was said to have been "disillusioned"  (The Anime Encyclopedia, p.271) by the experience. The story falls well within Otomo's bailiwick or wheelhouse, yet he did not have a hand in the writing it. Perhaps Otomo seized the opportunity to work with Rintaro on the kind of thematic material that had already been connected to Otomo as a writer in Domu (1980) and Akira (1982). Harmagedon plays right into Otomo's strengths but also his interests as a creator. Clever that Otomo. While certainly not trademark Otomo in quality, we all get our start somewhere.



Harmagedon isn't perfect, but offers a taste of two creators working together in the early going. One day that collaboration would lead to a harmonious fusion of minds and artistic talents for Metropolis (2001). Thematically Harmagedon feels like a warm up for Otomo's Akira on many levels. For now, Harmagedon is an interesting but not riveting sci-fi epic effort joining heroes together to face a common enemy in the mold of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954). It's another twist on a classic formula.

As Camp notes though, despite liking the film, "not enough is at stake. The potential for nail-biting suspense is undermined and viewers are not as engaged as they ought to be." That is a real big problem.



Those introduced to Harmagedon at a young age all those years ago might have fond nostalgic memories of it and therefore the film will hold a special resonance, but newcomers should wade cautiously. Fans of classic anime might enjoy giving it a look for some of its animated sequences, but generally speaking it's not a compelling enough story and at a long, unwieldy length. I'm sad to report that it is also not a must-see film as Camp and Davis would suggest. I wish it was.

Harmagedon offers grand aspiration I submit to you, but this is undercut by a significantly low cel count that undermines any fluidity the film might have had on the animating front. Relative to the film's length the count is low, the film is long-winded and the story offers a less than compelling tale of good versus evil despite some good ideas. I wouldn't say a bomb was dropped on me, but apocalyptic anime comes a whole lot smarter and exciting than Harmagedon.
Some use the expression 'You can't write this stuff,' but yet here we have a little black street hustler and youngster sitting on the lap of a robot warrior and working together to save the Earth. Yes, it's true, you really can write this stuff and here it is to our sheer amazement. Only in anime!

4 comments:

El Vox said...

Good review to what sounds like a fairly mediocre effort unfortunately. Perhaps some of these older animes should be reedited or tweaked like Evangelion to make them flow a bit better, but then that would require a bunch more money.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

That's certainly an interesting idea. I know when some editors approach these large or poorly edited productions, live action or otherwise, they can come up with some interesting end results.

Harmagedon would likely benefit significantly from such an idea. I think that is a sound consideration my friend.

Roman J. Martel said...

Thanks again for a review of one of those films I saw way back when I got back into anime in the late 90s. I remember thinking the name of the movie was sooooo cheesy. But the movie itself... well frankly I didn't remember much of it at all. Your images brought some memories back, but as you said, this one just doesn't click the way it could have. Some real potential here, but in the end, it just missed the mark.

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

All true Roman.