Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Blue Submarine No.6

We-all-live-in-a Y... Blue Submarine No. 6? Who doesn't love a good submarine film no matter the color?

Das Boot (1981). K-19:The Widowmaker (2002). Below (2002). The Hunt For Red October (1990). Crimson Tide (1995). U-571 (2000). Atragon (1963). Even anime Nadia The Secret Of Blue Water (1989) has its moments. And then there's Blue Submarine No.6.

While maybe not in the same league (pun intended) or of the same caliber as Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boot, to be sure, in the medium of anime Blue Submarine No.6 (1998) takes the concept into science fiction waters and adds an abundance of unique, original design touches that makes for yet another outstanding entry for the action sub-genre (pun intended) and as an Original Video Animation (OVA) in its own class (another appropriated term).

Sadly, The Anime Encyclopedia incorrectly labels Blue Submarine No.6 (Ao No Rokugo) as nothing more than a mere "Evangelion clone." That comparison isn't at all justified. There are plenty of teen pilot/mecha series where that comparison might be apt but Blue Submarine No.6 is not one of them. Dual! Parallel Trouble Adventure (2002) (here) maybe, but not this particular tale from Studio GONZO. The comparison should at least resemble a giant robot series of which this is not. Those hoping for something like Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) would likely be in for a very big surprise. And for those who didn't care for Evangelion, realizing that is a small percentage, they would be missing out on something quite different. The post-apocalyptic world are where the comparisons end, but is essentially a staple of much sci-fi anime.

Tokyo-3 has seen its fair share of flooding. In Neon Genesis Evangelion the city has been impacted by the Second Impact. In Patlabor global warming has caused flooding resulting in The Babylon Project. One can look to Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex too. With Blue Submarine No.6, the Ozone layer has been destroyed. The polar icecaps have melted. And yes, the comparisons generally end there. Mankind has relocated into dome cities or underneath the ocean. If clone after means identical copy then I'm happy to report Blue Submarine No.6 bears no such resemblance to Evangelion. Yes, Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the many highlights from Studio Gainax if not the single greatest anime series of all-time. Blue Submarine No.6 can't compare, but as a four part OVA (Blues, Pilots, Hearts, Minasoko) gem from the creators of GONZO it stands in a class of its own and remains one of the great science fiction anime of our time. It's no wonder Blue Submarine No.6 justifiably torpedoed a spot in the book Anime Classics Zettai!: 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces by Brian Camp and Julie Davis. Though, how GONZO's Yukikaze (2002-2005) missed an appearance in that book will forever remain a mystery to me.

Ironically, Studio GONZO formed in 1992 by animators that hailed from Studio Gainax with the goal of creating computer generated 2D anime.

More irony? The director of Blue Submarine No.6, Mahiro Maeda, is a one of a kind original. He was no slouch as an animator and designer working Studio Ghibli's Castle In The Sky (1986) and Porco Rosso (1992). He also worked on Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise (1987), Gunbuster (1988-1989), Nadia The Secret Of Blue Water (1990-1991) and even Neon Genesis Evangelion for Studio Gainax. Impressive. He believed the time was right for an attempt at art through the process.

"It occurred to me that 2D and 3D computer graphics had developed together to the point they could stand together as a legitimate work of art, and as a product. I wanted to see what such a process would look like with a story behind it. I just wanted to give it a try and see what happened. I like the visuals for Macross a lot. I was game for a try" (Newtype). What happened was magic. Maeda's experiment was even backed with the full blessing of manga artist Satoru Ozawa, the man behind the manga (1967) on which the OVA was based, even though it was Maeda's first full immersion into digital production. "Digital technology is far faster. There is a limit to the manpower that we can afford under the budgets that the market allows us. So digital technology is an effective tool for maintaining a level of sophistication, quality, and consistency within those constraints" (Animerica, Vol.8, No.8, p.12).

Maeda, a Gainax alum, designed mecha for Gainax on Gunbuster and was also notable for re-designing the one and only Gamera for Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe (1995), Daiei's reboot of the classic kaiju. Maeda was also responsible for directing and creating character designs in Second Renaissance for The Animatrix (2003). He also provided key animation for Quentin Tarantino's animated portions of Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). And Blue Submarine No.6 herself remains one of his greatest achievements designing the blue sub himself.

Blue Submarine No.6's story itself owes a bit of debt to the sci-fi trappings of H.G. Wells' The Island Of Doctor Moreau (1896). Blue Submarine No. 6 offers a kind of modern anime retelling of the popular story. It's difficult to top the original film The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1977) by director Don Taylor, and there's a lot to like about the underrated and often discarded John Frankenheimer remake (1996) too. But Blue Submarine No.6 taps into those ideas and works as a kind of spiritual cousin to those films. In effect Dr. Moreau becomes the infamous and villainous Dr. Zorndyke.

Having said that, it's worth noting that the OVA is much more the product of a number of other conceits or concepts based its original source material, the manga created by Ozawa.

Though in truth the new Blue Submarine No.6 really doesn't look much like the original Blue Sub manga at all. It's very loosely based.

Ozawa declared, "Only the title really had anything to do with my Blue Sub 6" (Blu-Ray Interview with Satoru Ozawa). He continued, many fans were upset asking, "Mr. Ozawa, how could you let them do this?" In an interview with Ozawa he even noted the original manga concept idea for Blue Sub No.6 was rejected by his editors and that ship became the popular Blue Submarine No.1 dubbed the Coback. It was a favorite with Japanese children which speaks to the real design coup of that ship. The rear propulsion design does indeed make its way to the new vessel.

Beyond the manga, for the animation, Blue Submarine No.6 would apply bold blue colors and populate a story filled with magic and wonder as much as the manga inspired the minds of kids this anime was going to be for a new generation.

"The GONZO staff was given the creative freedom to throw out Ozawa's cartoony boys' adventure tale of spunky teen submariners fighting oceanic mad scientists  and monsters who want to conquer the world," noted Fred Patten (Newtype USA, May 2003, p.41). Patten added, "They updated it into a somber modern sci-fi drama featuring such topical... threats as overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, bioengineering run mad, destruction of the ozone layer, melting of the polar icecaps" and "nuclear weapons... into the hands of (mutant) global terrorists" (p.41).

The story centers on a battle between Dr. Zorndyke and Blue Fleet.

Zorndyke's mission is to create a water world. It is a vision of a brave new frontier of genetic mutations and aquatic creatures. He has built a device to wipe out all humanity.

Zorndyke's apocalyptic brave new world is met with a bastion of human resistance from Blue Fleet. Led by the sensational Blue Submarine No.6 the crew includes the shapely, sexy Mayumi Kino (think Kumi Mizuno but with pixie short red hair) complete with skin-hugging dive suit. Navy pilot turned deadbeat Tetsu Hayami is called out of retirement and channels the inner and outer cool of Cowboy Bebop's Spike Spiegel complete with dangling cigarette. This is, of course, a popular refrain. See Pacific Rim's hero story.

The Blue Submarine No.6, herself, is a gorgeous, dolphin-like mech creation that is a combination of CGI and classic 2D cel animation. In fact, Blue Submarine No.6 was really one of the first to implement the computer technology for anime.  It does so admirably as the anime continues to hold up remarkably well all these years on in both style and substance.

Shoji Kawamori (Macross: Do You Remember Love?) would contribute mechanical designs to Blue Submarine No.6.

Character designs, by Range Murata, are outstanding particularly Mayumi Kino. Shark mutant Verg, Zorndyke's heavy, is probe to fits of rage and the potential to become positively unhinged. Verg oddly refers to his creator as "papa." It is a twisted, genetically-engineered world filled with Mutio and Musuca, whale-like creatures. It is a masterfully created universe.

Sadly, given the OVA's brevity, character depth hits shallow waters but are still healthy enough to make a connection. Registering on the scale of emotional depth, one scene between Hayami and a Mutio mer-woman is staggeringly well-handled with genuine compassion.

In another scene, a Musuca, Red Spot, pleads with Blue Fleet to spare their genetically-engineered lives. Genetically-engineered lives matter too.

While state-of-the-art animation utilizing computers is often likely to date as it is likely to do, Blue Submarine No.6 still holds up quite well. The appropriate use of the color blue is applied to magnificent effect hiding the joins throughout the production. Thus, the cel animation and the computer work is rather seamless for it.

The animation is a splendid blend of traditional, computer-created 2D cel and 3D computer environments and mech. Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999) (here) is one of the best early examples of this complement. It's also worth noting the animation here is less rigid and more traditional in appearance than today's computer-aided animation that is often sterile, lacking in detail and aesthetic warmth.

As Benjamin Wright once penned in Animerica "full CG has failed to match the expressive atmosphere of tried-and-true cel animation in anime (as can be seen by the few fully CG anime works...)" (p.11). Films like the current Evangelion series of rebuild pictures look amazing but also look imprinted by the pristine inner fabric of a computer.

Fortunately with Blue Submarine No.6 the "flat" traditional animation created by the computer here looks much closer to traditional animation supported by 3D background environments. Characters are given the full 2D aesthetic while mecha are mostly given the 3D treatment with environments a mixture of CGI and cel painting. The blend works well here. As Zettai! noted, some series appear "overwhelmed" by their "computer-textured environments." That never seems to apply here. As Wright noted in Animerica, this OVA is "more a collage than a true fusion." But it's never jarring. This is why each anime must be approached on its own merits. Overgeneralizations can prove ineffective. Too many variables are in play. Blue Submarine No.6 is ample proof it can work and trick the eye with its artificial beauty.

A revolution was taking place as the evolution in animation continued. Directors like Maeda were taking full advantage of the options to build upon their visions with fiscally conservative avenues that worked without the degradation in terms of production. Before long directors like Makoto Shinkai and others would be creating worlds and entire films from the computing power of a single system.

The world created for Blue Submarine No.6 is nothing short of impressive. Drowned cities, blue skies, underwater landscapes, a thermal paradise are beautifully executed.

There is a propulsive feel and rush to the energy in Blue Submarine No.6 supported by the jazzy strength of a score by The Thrill. It's not a thrill for me personally, but it's not J-pop.

Though a result of its OVA form, Blue Submarine No.6 is a briskly-paced, urgent affair complete with an exciting sense of desperation peppered with quieter moments of human reflection.

Though arguably a weird, somewhat incomplete story to some, Blue Submarine No.6 nonetheless mostly succeeds with smart, well-crafted variations on a number of science fiction conventions making for a solid anime experience for fans looking for something a little different. It remains a striking animation too. Alongside Yukikaze and Last Exile (2003), Blue Submarine No.6 is one of the strongest titles ever to yield from Studio Gonzo.

Director: Mahiro Maeda.
Writer: Hiroshi Yamaguchi.
Designs: Mahiro Maeda, Range Murata, Takehito Kusanagi, Showji Kawamori.

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