Thursday, April 16, 2015

Black Magic M-66

Covering science fiction anime here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic is a bit like the six degrees of Robot Carnival (1987) or Neo Tokyo (1987). I find the more I delve into the world of quality animation the artists I enjoy most tend to splinter and cross-pollinate one another in some artistic fashion or another be it character designs, scriptwriting, direction and so on. It's fascinating to see the key players from the world of Japanese anime crop up in one artist's production or another.

Unusual fan service I grant you. Still...

Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Katsuhiro Otomo, Rintaro and Hiroyuki Kitakubo are four big names that remain part of this recurring anime dream.

Our latest analysis zeroes in on Black Magic M-66 (1987). It is our third film from 1987 in anime, behind Robot Carnival here and Neo Tokyo here, marking what was clearly an impressive year for the medium.

This particular OVA (Original Video Animation) clocks in at a running time not much greater than an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (roughly 44 minutes) or Stargate SG-1 (42 minutes) and yet it is a complete feature based upon the manga of none other than one manga artist Masamune Shirow. The cyberpunk manga of the same name, Black Magic M-66 (1983), Shirow's earliest manga, predates the release of Shirow's seminal, inspired manga, the original Ghost In The Shell (1989), Dominion (1986) and even Appleseed (1985-1989), all of which wound their ways to popular anime franchises. Anime has depended heavily upon manga works since its inception and a debate often rages within otaku fandom on which would be most cherished- anime or manga? It's a fun if fruitless exercise, because most fans of animation or comic tend to enjoy or love or support both. I certainly do. I couldn't have lived without character designer/artist Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's interpretation of Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). In fact, while the timeless anime was released in the span of one year, the Evangelion manga (1993-2013) literally just ended seeing its final volume released as an English translation in the United States in 2015. So these outlets both have their place and many animators find working from an established manga franchise often brings along a built-in established fan base with it a la Ghost In The Shell (1995). Of course sometimes an anime explodes and takes on a life of its own a la the ongoing franchise of Ghost In The Shell universe.

Of course, a successful fate was not really enjoyed in the same fashion by Black Magic M-66. Shirow's Appleseed and Ghost In The Shell faired much better.

Going back to my original point, as one who enjoys the role of historian to anime film, like myself, it a joy to connect the dots. When you begin to analyze the artists often associated with the anime classics it begins to read like a veritable who's who in anime. It's a fairly insular world of familiar faces and in the early going it was certainly a much smaller orbit of animators than what has been established today. Black Magic M-66 is really no exception. In this case, the story, written by manga artist Shirow was also co-directed by Shirow. It would be the only film which Shirow had direct input, but the bulk of the animation direction likely fell upon the capable shoulders of director/ writer/ animator Hiroyuki Kitakubo.

Kitakubo is a gifted artist often not given the due he likely deserves, but not likely achieving quite the same deserved recognition of say Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Kitakubo worked on Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). He would one day contribute A Tale of Two Robots to the short story film anthology collection mentioned earlier, Robot Carnival (1987). The latter was indeed one of the most coherent visual treats on that thematically amazing collection. His association with Katsuhiro Otomo on that collection, perhaps an even earlier association, tied Kitakubo to his direct involvement on Otomo's anime adaptation of Otomo's own manga epic Akira for the 1988 film adaptation. Kitakubo would one day direct the state-of-the-art Production I.G. feature Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), one of the first anime to use digital animation and historically considered to be THE first. The aforementioned film ran just 45 minutes and thus the character portion of the picture, led by the fairly one dimensional protagonist Saya, certainly suffers from its brevity. The film was also guided from a narrative perspective by writer/director Mamoru Oshii through a series of writing teams as requested by Production I.G. leading to a chief scriptwriter. But Blood: The Last Vampire lacks much of the trademark style of Oshii. The film was nevertheless distinctively from the mold of Kitakubo. The visuals and action make it very much his film. It certainly doesn't suck. Get it. But you begin to see all of these connections.

Additionally worth noting, and likely Kitakubo's most impressive directorial moment would be Roujin Z (1991), a film written by then frequent associate artist and master Katsuhiro Otomo. Apart from some major highlights and notable accomplishments as an animator Kitakubo has remained relatively quiet since proving himself such a worthy director in the world of anime. Since 2000 it's anyone's guess what Kitakubo has been doing, but hopefully working in the anime industry still at least behind the scenes.

So will Black Magic M-66 suffer the same fate at 48 minutes as Blood: The Last Vampire would later? The writing of master Shirow will likely be the variable to determine that fate. The question is, does Black Magic M-66 deserve a place in anime hearts despite its brevity and relative unknown status? We plunge into the anime magic to find out.

A plane crash results in the inadvertent release of two M-66 anti-personnel automated soldiers. Utilizing some tremendous craft design for their search the military attempts to locate the now rogue units.

A manic professor working for the government discovers the military had loaded prototype target memory into the robots. That target, as a result of the prototype memory, is the professor's daughter, Ferris. Regardless of the mission, and illogically so, it doesn't stop the units from a bloody violent rampage with anything with which they come into contact. In other words, the information is not exclusive to destroying Ferris as pretty much anything in their path is toast.

The female androids themselves, female characters being a real trademark of Shirow, are terrifically designed and unstoppably fast and fierce in their executions. The mayhem, explosions and generally violent carnage would likely be the greatest draw for Black Magic M-66, because once it begins it's hard to look away. The body count rises quickly. It's relatively bloody. The editing seemed slightly more liberal and less judicious or disciplined.

Impressive is Shirow's grasp of the anime heroine he often populates within his manga world. His dogged female reporter, Sybel, is fairly three-dimensional within a very short run time.

After one humanoid is destroyed. The remaining humanoid itself appears to have a relatively high level of artificial intelligence capable of making efforts to blend in while it hunts. It's weaponry is one of the most exciting parts of the anime including breasts that roll down to reveal laser mechanisms where the nipples would protrude. Now those are indeed honest to God missile tits if you ever did see them.

Kitakubo's animation is typically strong if a bit rough and perhaps tough to fully appreciate due to the generally poor transfer quality of this early DVD. There's also notably less detail. A more sizable budget, a little more detail and a little more attention to the robot would have made this a stellar-looking OVA. As it stands it still looks relatively impressive today thanks to the application of over 20,000 cels implemented for the short feature.

Another little known fact is animator Hiroyuki Okiura worked on the film for Kitakubo. Okiura would one day work closely with Mamoru Oshii on Ghost In The Shell and then direct Oshii's Jin-Roh (1999). Again, we note the myriad associations and connections that populate the world of anime.

Shirow's story, while not as robust as the OVA Dominion Tank Police (1988-1989) story, is still relatively solid for a short film and apparently based on a chapter of the manga story called Booby Trap (perfect!). Shirow's classic design work and strong female heroine presence is in full effect against technology gone wild and a government machine that is not to be trusted. The suspense is surprisingly strong particularly in the second half as the Sybel character attempts to keep Ferris alive on the run from this female terminator unit.

It is also believed Kitakubo and Shirow borrowed inspiration from James Cameron's The Terminator (1984), though the manga predates The Terminator, this OVA postdates Cameron's first film in the franchise. It's even believed Kitakubo and Shirow borrowed liberally from the Ripley/Newt relationship of Aliens (1986) for the Sybel/Ferris bond. This may be true and as a result Black Magic M-66 never feels like a project that is entirely new or original. Shirow was much more successful as his own work matured.

Mamoru Oshii once proclaimed in so many words that Hollywood copies Japan and Japan copies Hollywood. Cameron himself is clearly an unabashed anime fan. There is certainly plenty of evidence around to prove that theory out.

Sadly, the OVA experience soured Shirow who terminated his interest with anime beginning and ending with Black Magic M-66. Apparently it all ended rather acrimoniously but with who is uncertain. Typically these things go south with the studios and the financiers, but not sure if there was a contentious component to the Shirow/Kitakubo association. It's too bad because the imperfect Black Magic M-66 shows promise and who knows where Shirow might have taken his work.

It's easy to understand why some creators turn back to manga as it is a much more independent exercise over the much more collaborative process of anime. Katsuhiro Otomo is one of the few truly successful manga artists (Domu) turned animators that seems to enjoy alternating between the two outlets even trying his hand at live action like Mamoru Oshii. Certainly Hayao Miyazaki, another writer of the strong female heroine, forged his massive Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1982-1994) manga before becoming the esteemed anime director he is today so adored and courted by Walt Disney. Those are just a few examples. For Shirow his move to taste the anime waters ended here with Black Magic M-66.

Shirow's story of an unstoppable robot searching for a target is certainly not breaking new ground. Films and short stories have been executing the concept for decades, but Black Magic M-66 succeeds enough for those who enjoy the monster on the loose thread with decent enough animation.

With room for improvement Black Magic M-66 comes cautiously recommended for fans of anime only, fans of Masumine Shirow and/or the work of Kitakubo. All others might look for something a little more substantial to pass the time. Though the OVA offers a deft blend of both Shirow and Kitakubo, this short film, like Blood: The Last Vampire, is by no means essential viewing. I wish I had better news. Oh well, I'll be back. For more anime, come with me if you want to live.


El Vox said...

I watched Roujin Z recently and although fairly worthwhile fell short of Akira. You're right about the three characters, which I never thought about--Star Trek, Gunsmoke: Chester, Matt Dylan, Doc, Superman: Supes, Jimmy Olsen, Lois. Of course they'll throw in some additional characters to further the storyline.

I'll have to see if YT has Black Magic. I was reminded of Terminator as I read it, which by the way while watching the coming attractions on the Interstellar disc they have a trailer for the new Terminator: Genysis, and I have to say it excited me about the film.

Also true about how Japan influences Hollywood and vice versa: Kurosawa's Yojimbo influenced from westerns, which influence A Fistful of Dollar, and Seven Samurai & Magnificent Seven comes to mind too.

SFF said...

Yes, the Roujin Z film, with a story by Otomo, but animated by Kitakubo doesn't quite reach the heights of Akira.

Genysis looks good. I'd probably enjoy it on the same level as Salvation. Solid but not exceptional. That's my instinct on it. I could be wrong.

I saw Looper recently. It was okay. I found it to be a bit of a yawn in parts and slightly overrated by the critics. It was okay, but nothing exceptional with one caveat. I did think the ESPer powers thread of Looper was the most fascinating part of it with the child and was, speaking of Akira, reminded of Akira and that kind of a film conceptually.

The director made a film that got me excited about the possibility of an Akira film. Maybe he should try it.

I thought about writing an entry on Looper but this pretty much sums up the aspect of the film I really enjoyed most and you opened a nice segue way for the comment. Cheers.

Roman J. Martel said...

Thanks for covering another forgotten anime. I wouldn't call this one a classic (but I still love this era of anime style). But it has some really good moments to it. It does feel a bit abbreviated at times, and some of the really great elements I like about Shirow's manga work don't really shine through. Although I'm basing this off a viewing from nearly a decade ago, so I could be quite wrong.

SFF said...

Your memory serves well. Your commentary is right on.

This is certainly by no means a gem or a classic, but some nice old school animation in a far too brief tale.

So yes, 'remember well you do'.