Sunday, 31 May 2009

Segata Sanshiro: Sakura Wars 2

Segata Sanshiro is awesome. Like, he could beat up Godzilla awesome. Consider the following...

As you might have been able to figure out by now, Segata Sanshiro was a corporate icon advertizing the Sega Saturn gaming system of the late 1990's. His name, in fact, is a multi-entendre: "Segata Sanshiro" doubles as the phrase "Sega Saturn Shiro" which can mean both "Play Sega Saturn" and "Sega Saturn White", the latter being the particular make of Saturn he was selling. The character is a joke on Sugata Sanshiro, the Judo master from the Akira Kurosawa film of the same name, and was played by Hiroshi Fujioka, who also played the costumed hero Kamen Rider in the 1970's.

What all this has to do with anything is that this cold-blooded living weapon had a softer side as well...

Leave it to Sakura Shinguji to tame the wild beast. The actress portraying Sakura was none other than Chisa Yokoyama, who played the character both on stage and as a voice in the games and OVA.

Unfortunately, while Sakura and company made the transition to Sega's next platform - the Dreamcast - poor Segata didn't. At least he went out the hero...

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Sakura Taisen V: New York, N.Y. (2007)

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

The most recent Sakura Taisen OVA is a complete sequel to the Sakura Taisen V video game. For the first time we really see a complete story, with Taiga preparing for his first starring role to the villainous Tutankhamen’s quest to become the new Sun God. It is perhaps the strongest OVA from a storytelling perspective, and the easiest to understand as a stand-alone story. Unfortunately, no North American company has yet announced a release.

The story begins in 1922 with Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's Tomb. As he approaches the central chamber, the door swings open and a mummy comes out and attacks him. Several years later, the New York Kagekidan has successfully defeated revived Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga, and Ratchet Altair has departed to Germany to oversee the development of the Berlin Kagekidan (possibly Sakura Taisen 6?). Taiga Shinjirou, Oogami’s nephew and the new player character, has been told he will be staring in the next Hoshi-gumi play: the play is Cleopatra and he will be taking over the title role. While Taiga has a crisis of gender identity, a young Egyptian man walks the streets of New York with his servant, a winged cat-girl named Bastet (the Egyptian goddess of cats, and protector of the Sun God Ra and, by extension, the Pharaoh). An attack on the Statue of Liberty by a giant mechanical Anubis isn't far behind in Tutankhamen's mad quest for deification.

As the story progresses we learn that Tutankhamen is drawing on spirit power from the city to give him the strength to become the new Sun God and create a new, perfect world. Meanwhile, so as to prove that America can give something back to other cultures, Taiga learns a little about Egyptian culture and vows to perform the best production of Cleopatra the city has ever seen. Will Tut be stopped? What will happen when he ascends to become the Sun God? And can the NYKD survive Taiga’s eccentric mother?

Like the fourth Sakura Taisen OVA, New York, N.Y. is not available by DVD, but is partially available online by the anime distributor and social networking site Crunchyroll.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Japan in Cherry Blossom Time (1932)

One of our alltime favorite YouTube channels is the Travel Film Archive. As a resource for those who are as interested in the romance of the past as in the romance of travel itself, it is invaluable and time consuming. This wonderful resource includes the following 1932 travelogue of, as the title says, Japan in Cherry Blossom Time.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Hokusai - An Animated Sketchbook (1970s)

The following short comes from animator Tony White, who says that when he first saw the woodcuts of Japanese artist Hokusai, he "realized that this artist was indeed a true animator at heart... he just didn't have the knowledge or the technology to be one in his lifetime. I therefore sought to bring his drawings to life for him, as homage to his genius."

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Steampunk Anime: Scientific Romances in the Land of the Rising Sun

As promised, here is an audio slideshow of my panel at the Otafest 2009 anime festival in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on May 16. It's in five parts, all of which are presented here. I also recommend watching them in the High Quality mode, which makes the slides more legible...

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Sakura Taisen: Le Nouveau Paris (2003)

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

This fourth OVA learns from the mistakes of its predecessor and weaves together a story set in-between Sakura Taisen 3 and 4, which shows the Paris Hana-gumi really coming into their own without Oogami present.

This series opens during the French Revolution, with a young count watching on with horror. Though he escapes beheading, it leads him to hypothesize that Eternity would be true power. Learning the secrets of alchemy and the Philosopher's Stone, he lives on to the 1920's, imprisoned and bound in a steam-powered wheelchair. A Mafia gang breaks him out during the confusion of the Paris Kagekidan’s assault on Salut’s palace at the end of the third game.

Several months later, the Hana-gumi are debating amongst them selves about who should be the new commander. Apparently Oogami gave each girl the impression that she would lead the squad when he left. However the debate is broken up when Grand Mere announces that there has been a rash of grave robberies in Paris. The PKD patrol a grave yard at night, and Hanabi sees a man standing at the foot of the grave of her dead husband Phillip. Fearing he is a grave robber, she rushes forward and Coqulicot sounds the alarm. As she nears, Hanabi realizes the figure is not that of a looter, but rather her own father. Fearing that if Baron Kitaoji learns of her involvement with either the Le Chates Noires club or the Paris Kagekidan he will demand her return to Japan, Coqulicot tries to cover up saying it’s a circus. The PKD members pull together a circus performance for one night for the count, but it is attacked by an alchemically created monster and the PKD have to launch into action.

Later, MI6 - Britian’s intelligence service - wants to know exactly what the truth behind the Paris Kagekidan is. Suspecting it to be based out of the Le Chattes Noires, they send agents to France to investigate. Mel and Ci are watching over the coat check during the evening’s revue when an errant parrot distracts them. When they come back from trying to catch it, an impatient British gentleman is waiting for his coat. Unfortunately, he discovers that the royal clock, a prized heirloom given to him by the Queen herself, is missing and threatens to make an international incident out of it. When Grand Mere returns from researching into the alchemical monster, she informs the PKD that unless the clock is returned within 24 hours, the French Government will allow Scotland Yard to search the premises; and the secrets of the troupe will be revealed. Against a quaint parody of Film Noir, The Avengers and James Bond - with hidden weapons, cunning disguises, elaborate torture devices and proper British gentlemen - the suspended Mel and Ci, Lobelia and the Hana-gumi launch their own undercover investigations.

Currently, Le Nouveau Paris is not available by DVD, but is available online by the anime distributor and social networking site Crunchyroll.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Simoun (2007)

The story begins with the devastating onset of a war between the Simulacrum Theocracy and its neighbouring nations of Argentum and Publum, in a strange alternate world where everyone is born female. Several choirs of Simoun - squads of airships with helical motors - have already fallen and it is time for the most renowned of the choirs, Chor Tempest, to enter into combat. Unfortunately for them, they hardly fare any better.

The most far-reaching death is that of Amuria, half of the choir's lead pair. A moment's hesitation by her partner and lover Nevril prevented them from completing the mysterious Emerald Ri Majon, a pattern of light in the sky, and allowed the enemy to open fire on their Simoun. Other pairs fall as well, and several of those left behind are so shocked and demoralized that they make the pilgrimage to the Spring to leave the life of the Sibyla behind forever.

What follows is the fall and resurrection of the Chor Tempest through the thick and thin of war. One of the major themes is the dynamic between the Sibyla being priestesses of the Simulacrum's divine Tempus Spatium on the one hand and warrior pilots on the other. Several replacement members of the team have little regard for the traditional, exalted role of the priestess. Their interest is in flying and avoiding the gender-determining Spring at all costs. Those members are matched by an administration continuously stressed by the pressures of war and increasingly given to regarding the Sibyla as nothing more than troops. Their greatest indignity comes when a suicide bombing attack on their home ship, the majestic Arcus Prima, forces them to fly border patrols aboard a run-down freighter.

The religious themes and dynamics in the series are among the most interesting. From the perspective of a highly secularized world that regards religion as a matter of the private sphere and has demystified technology, it is provocative to see a hypothetical world in which civic, military and technological structures are suffused with spiritual meaning. The Sibyla are not pilots but priestesses, the Simoun are not airships but the chariots of the gods, the Ri Majon are not weapons but prayers written in the sky.

Much of the conflict driving the story is the divesting of spiritual meaning from this world. From without, the enemies of the Simulacrum are either secular or fundamentalist. The secular power of Argentum takes to the air not in Simoun, but in Industrial Age aircraft. They solved the issue of all-female births not through fidelity to the mysteries of the Spring, but by surgery, hormonal treatment and gender assignments. The other power of Publum worships a derivative of the Tempus Spatium, the Animus, which drives its priestesses towards suicide bombings and terror attacks.

From within, the spiritual ground of the Simulacrum is being lost to the seeming practicality of militarism. The Sibyla find themselves not simply defending their privileged status as priestesses, but also heeding their call by defending spiritual values against the tide of secularism. For example, when a group of military chiefs demand that the Sibyla demonstrate their most powerful Ri Majon, Nevril and her new partner Aeru perform the Dandilion: a ceremonial formation used in diplomatic services.

The other dominant theme of the series is the development of the characters against this backdrop of war and death. This is where Simoun shines as an anime series in-itself, let alone as a yuri series ostensibly about showing girls kissing. The fact of all the lead characters being female and carrying on romances is almost incidental to their lives and development as human beings. There are even direct repudiations of typical yuri tropes. Where sisterly incest may be titillating for some viewers, several episodes are devoted to exploring how one such night ruined the lives and shattered the psyches of the participants. The larger theme of religion vs. secularism plays out in the relationships between characters, as do economic class conflicts, romantic obsession and "top gun" competition amongst fighter aces, all in addition to the psychological effects of violence and loss.

The world and its designs are richly conceived. The helical engine technology of the Simoun is wonderfully elegant, recalling the most beautiful lines of Victorian, Art Moderne, Art Deco and straight Utopian Futurist design. The cold victory of function over form in the industrial technology of Argentum is a marked contrast to the elegance of the Simulacrum, highlighting the spiritual divergence between the two.

Anime like Simoun are a touching and rare treat, made all the more so by defying the limitations of its own purported genre of lesbian fantasy. As previously noted, in a media environment constantly saturated with secularism and fundamentalism, the third way of religion presented here (in a lesbian fantasy!) as a meaningful participant in life and society is wonderful and can't be recommended highly enough.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Steamboy (2004)

Steamboy is not a very interesting movie.

It seems like a harsh thing to begin a review with, but the harhsness is required by how celebrated the film has become. It marked the second feature film helmed by Katsuhiro Otomo, whose first and most famous work is the overblown and incomprehensible mess Akira. With Steamboy, Otomo left the obtuse material of Akira behind, revealling that there is ultimately no "there" there.

The story revolves around the conflict between three generations of the Steam family - grandfather Lloyd, father Edward and son James Ray - and how to use their greatest invention, the Steam Ball. Industry faces off against inspiration at an alternate history Crystal Palace Exhibition as corporations and governments vie for control of this fantastic source of compressed steam power and the Steam Tower doomsday weapon using it.

The Steam Ball is itself an allegory for atomic power, or perhaps any form of technology, and therein lies the main fault of the film. We've seen this movie before. A lot of them came out in the 1960's, when there was substantial angst over the future of humanity in the face of the atom. Michael Rennie came down from the stars to warn us about it and James Mason floated up from the depths to protect it.

The one-note refrain of Steamboy is the same as nearly every other superficial meditation on how technology can be dangerous if put in the wrong hands. If you've seen any Science Fiction movie of the 1960's, you've essentially seen Steamboy. It is well-known that Otomo was deeply shaped by his experience growing up in the era, and perhaps that is coming out in this belated Atomic Age parable. Unfortunately, it adds absolutely nothing to the theme or the discussion. It can't even muster the sort of personal sensitivity of a film like Gojira. It just says nothing worth saying.

The problem of how to deal with technology in an appropriate manner was never fully dealt with in the 60's anxiety over nuclear power. The atom was merely assumed, what constituted technological progress was merely assumed, and the dramas of UFOs and Vernian weapons of mass destruction were played out along those paradigms. The only issue was whether or not the atom would be harnessed for creation or destruction.

Since then, more and more thought and attention has been devoted to the problem of progress itself. The technological paradigm is itself being challenged, and often found wanting. As Jerry Mander notes in In the Absense of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, "the idea that technology is neutral is itself not neutral - it directly serves the interests of the people who benefit from our inability to see where the juggernaut is headed." He provides a list of questions that any thinking society should ask when presented with a new piece of technology:
Which segments of society benefit from a new technology, and which segments do not? Who gains and who loses? Does a new technology concentrate power or equalize it? Does it serve democracy or not? How does a particular technology affect the human conceptual framework: what we think, how we think, and what we do know and can know? How does it affect the way we view ourselves and our relationships to each other, to the planet, and to other living creatures? What about effects on human and planetary health? Finally, all things considered, is it better or worse for the new technology to be introduced? And if we want it, at what scale of operation?
As examples, Mander points out the atom and the computer as technologies which are not at all neutral. Instead, he argues, they favour centralized authority and most benefit those already in power. Atomic energy requires an investment of thousands, even tens of thousands, of years by a centralized authority to deal with the byproducts. Compared to the amounts of information and money being efficiently shared via computer between military, governmental, media and corporate institutions, the idea that a PC and an internet connection is somehow liberating for the half-billion of the world's people who can afford one is laughable, even if they use it to publish "radical" activism tracts. Even in the process of them doing so.

No concerns like this are mentioned in Steamboy. None of Mander's questions are considered. Instead, the same common wisdom from 50 years ago is repeated: technology in the hands of bad people is bad but technology in the hands of good people is good. It can't even be said to gird up this deficient, overly simplistic and outdated thought with intriguing characters or engaging dialogue. The only thing to recommend about Steamboy is its art. It's a very attractive, well-animated, well-designed film. It looks stunning, and that is all.

Steamboy may serve the interests of newcomers to the genre of Scientific Romances in anime, for whom it is their first and only exposure. There are much better films to be recommended, however. Hayao Miyazaki's films - such as Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky - are far more nuanced in their approach to technology and timely in their concern over our relationship to nature. Obliquely, the Galaxy Express 999 series is also a more involved study of the effects of technological society on the human person. 999 also emerges as more imaginative, as do such OVA as Read or Die and such series as Escaflowne. Interested individuals would be better served seeking these out.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Sakura Taisen: Sumire (2002)

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

The boundaries between fiction and reality blur with the Sakura Taisen: Sumire~ special OVA. After several years as the voice and live performance actress for Sumire, Tomizawa Michie decided it was time to move on in 2002. To celebrate and bid her farewell, an animated remake of her live retirement performance was made.

In 1996, the voice actors for the Sakura Wars games performed in a live Kayou ("song show") called Ai Yue Ni, a musical play that was two musicals in one. It was both a story about the lives of the girls of the Imperial Theatre, with the voice actors performing in character and costume, and also one of their in-game stage performances brought to life. The show proved to be very popular with fans and became an annual - and then semi-annual - event. The performances for the Summer Kayou shows became more and more elaborate as time went on, specifically for the musical-within-a-musical portion. New Years and "Super" shows were added to the yearly line-up as well.

Eventually the top star both in the fictitious world of the games and in the minds of many of the fans of the live performances, Sumire's actress Michie Tomizawa, decided to retire from the franchise to have more time to focus on her family life. She had a live farewell performance dedicated to her, and in a tear filled performance said goodbye to her fans. Series creator Hiroi Ouji called Sumire a once in a life time character played by a once in a life time actress, and the idea of her being played by anyone other than Michie was out of the question. So an animated adaptation of the farewell show was created to effectively remove her character from the game continuity.

This animated special is a love letter to all of Sumrie's fans, but can be a bit bland if you're not a die hard connoisseur of the franchise. There is no action and no real conflict, just an emotional farewell to a friend that gamers, anime fans and theater attendees had grown to love over the previous six years. The one episode OVA is available on DVD from Funimation, but if you check it out be warned it's not by any means an action show. Do yourself a favor and watch it with the original Japanese audio, as this is Michie's farewell. There is a featurette on her as well.

However, Michie's family life eventually calmed down enough that she had time to be reunited with the Hana-gumi family. She appeared in the final Kayou shows in 2006, and the Sumire character did return for 2008's Sakura Taisen DS game.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Iblard Jikan (2007)

Iblard Jikan is a short animated film that almost perfectly distills the Studio Ghibli spirit in its brief 30 minute span. Directed by Naohisa Inoue, who also handled the similar dream sequences in Whisper of the Heart, Iblard Jikan is devoid of story and is instead a vibrant piece of living art. Paintings of the magical world of Iblard are set, with minimal animation, against the orchestral and synthetic musical compositions of Kiyonori Matsuo as a tour into the heart of the Ghibli aesthetic.

Without a story to distract, Iblard jikan draws the viewer into this world where Victorian and Art Moderne-influenced cityscapes teeming with characteristic airships and trolleys are wonderfully integrated with vivacious natural life. Steep, mountain-hugging villas are topped by lush greenery as pathways and trolley rails wind through pristine waterways. Pastel flowers and vines color a society that seems to have discovered the appropriate limits of necessary technology while living holistically with the natural world.

It is not without its outright fantastical scenes of floating mountains and multitiered lakes, but the real inspirational beauty of Iblard Jikan is in how it can just as well serve as concept art for our own world. This shows us a vision that does not eschew technology but does know its proper place, which is integrated with and in deference to life: human, animal and vegetable. In this is reflects, distills and crystalizes Ghibli themes that run through such films as Castle in the Sky and places as the Studio Ghibli Museum.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Air Meal (1994)

Hayao Miyazaki's love of aircraft is well-known. Less well-known is this short comic describing the history of that the great institution, the in-flight meal! Click on the cover below to read a translation of it, provided by the Conversations on Ghibli weblog.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Sakura Wars: The Movie (2001)

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

It's Christmastime and Oogami is still away in Paris during Sakura Wars: The Movie. The Hana-gumi are performing their Christmas play but there is a storm brewing on the horizon. An American company called Douglas Stewart has begun production on an unmanned line of steam suits that will be able to combat the demon hordes and replace the Hana-gumi as Japan’s first line of spiritual defense. However, acting Captain Maria smells a rat when she recognizes Brent Furlong, the young head of the company, from her days working in the New York Mafia, and begins her own clandestine investigation of the company. Also causing more confusion for the team is a headstrong new Hana-gumi member, Ratchet Altair, who is studying the Hana-gumi in order to implement a New York Kagekidan. Unfortunately, her ruthlessly efficient attitudes cause friction among the other squad members, particularly her former team mates in the original Hoshi-gumi Reni and Orihime.

In the new year the Hana-gumi are outperformed by Douglas' Japhkiel steam robots, Yoneda and Count Hanakoji disappear and the squad is disbanded. After Maria disappears as well, the leaderless Hana-gumi decide to get to the bottom of things and take back the theatre from the Douglas Stewart President. This movie ties together threads from the second and third video games to lead into the fourth and fifth.

The animation for this film was done by Production I.G. Who have animated the cut scenes for all the Sakura Wars games since Sakura Wars 2. This is the first time they worked on any stand alone animation for the franchise, giving it a closer feel to the games style then many of the other animated works. Production IG is well known for other works such as Ghost in the Shell and Blood the last Vampire.

Sakura Wars: The Movie is available on DVD from Geneon.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

A Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

In Japan, riding a steam train through outer space is a melancholy symbol of the human journey. Like the gentle drift of the sakura petal, the whistle of a train means a transition in life. That quality of humanity... those melancholy, bittersweet coming of age lessons... were inherited from Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad. Following the death of his sister in 1922, Miyazawa took a train voyage that set his mind to begin writing Galactic Railroad in 1924. The novel underwent continuous revisions up to Miyazawa's own death in 1933, though the middle section was itself never actually completed (but has been published nevertheless). In 1985, the story was adapted to an anime feature film that is the most accessible version available to the Western world.

The symbolism and themes of the film version are all but impenetrable, but nevertheless, it is a strikingly beautiful "renaissance" tale befitting the renaissance man that was Kenji Miyazawa. Besides the grief of his sister's passing, Galactic Railroad reflects the themes of wonder at the natural world and self-sacrificial service to others that came from a lifetime spent as a school teacher and progressive social activist. A staunch Buddhist and Romantic, Miyazawa believed that the best kind of teaching was hands on, in the field, experiencing nature first hand. He also translated that education policy during his tenure with the Hanamaki Agricultural High School into a social policy that sought to improve the economic, spiritual and cultural lives of the farmers he worked with.

The story itself focuses on a young boy (or a cat, in the anime version) named Giovanni who finds surviving the educational and social trials of the classroom a daunting task amidst his need to take care of his ailing mother and work in a printer's shoppe. Mercilessly teased by the other cats, Giovanni's closest thing to a friend is Campanella, the child of friends of his family. On the night of the Centaurus Festival, Giovanni has to miss a large part of the festivities because of his work duties, but finds even his lingering desire to attend stolen from him by the cruel teasing of his schoolmates. Choosing to opt out of the ceremony to launch candle-holding paper boats on the lake, he works his way to a hill and lies down... Only to be picked up by the Galactic Railroad.

On the Railroad, Giovanni mysteriously finds himself joined by a dew-covered Campanella and the two take off aboard the train to a journey across space, with stops at various stars to pick up and unload passengers or do a little exploring themselves. At Swan (Cygnus) Station, they disembark to meet up with palaeontologists who are digging up a new skeleton. Elsewhere, they rescue a group of people who were caught on a sinking, Titanic-like ocean liner, and deposit them at the glowing, heavenly Southern Cross.

It is difficult to be particular about the messages of Night on the Galactic Railroad. On one hand, doing so would give too much of the story away. Yes, there is much about nature, science, astronomy, palaeontology and the self-improving earnest desire to learn. There is also much about coming of age, growing up, leaving childhood and coping with loss. On the other hand, the symbolism is so thick that it often isn't immediately apparent in the film version. Being able to read the text clarifies a good sum of the movie.

Just as obtuse, but also just as satisfying, is Spring and Chaos by Shoji Kawamori of Macross and Escaflowne fame. A biographical film about Miyazawa, the human actors are replaced with cats in homage to Galactic Railroad and the film is decidedly non-linear and highly artistic. In fact, unless one has the benefit of an intimate understanding of Miyazawa through other biographical resources, much of the film is reduced to appreciating abstract animation art for its own sake. Like other biographies of universally (or at least nationally) well-known figures, the specific historical facts aren't as interesting or as necessary as the insight into the mind of the figure that a new film may reveal.

At least in regards to this topic, the insights are visually stunning. The creation of Galactic Railroad is symbolically illustrated by a train carrying Miyazawa's sister into a clockwork underworld. Images of this clockwork underworld, through which spirits drift between gears emblazoned with Buddhist icons, figure throughout. Galactic Railroad and the resolution of Miyzawa's inner turmoils are climatically realized in the most magnificent cosmic steam train launch in cinema. Imagine a pair of steam trains, one black and the other white, rising up from the earth like space shuttles, plumes of smoke in their wake, lifting into the evening sky and intertwining like dragons or strands of DNA, all to a choral crescendo. This is the celestial steam train flight to meet and transcend all.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Galaxy Express 999 (1978-1981)

Nothing captures the imagination quite like a steam train. There is, of course, the romantic image of the golden age of travel, from the waning days of the Victorian Era clear through the 1930's when steam was king on land and sea, where opulent passenger cars ferried their vacationers through picturesque mountains. There is also a wonderful organic quality to steam trains: the "chuff-chuff" of the engine as it releases the vapour of boiled water, the clanking of the heavy iron, the creaking of the wooden cars. If there is anywhere you must go, there are few better ways to go than via steam train... even when you're going to outer space!

The railway arrived in Japan in 1872 and in the 1920's, it inspired grieving author Kenji Miyazawa, who in turn inspired manga artist Leiji Matsumoto. Matsumoto's manga magnum opus - Galaxy Express 999 - was so well received by readers that it was translated into an anime television series that ran for 113 episodes between 1978 and 1981.

Galaxy Express is, for the most part, a pure futuristic Science Fiction story about a galactic society that has been severely segregated by those wealthy enough to afford cyborg bodies and those huddled masses too poor to obtain one. In this transhumanist society, the poor natural human beings are treated worse, even, than cattle. The cyborgs enjoy all the best that their immortal lives have to offer, including hunting vagrant humans for sport.

The story focuses on a young impoverished boy named Tetsuro who is journeying to Earth's main Galaxy Express station with his mother, in the hopes of being able to scrounge up enough money to afford a ticket to the planet Andromeda. Rumour has it that this last stop on the rails gives away android bodies for free. En route, Tetsuro's mother is killed by the huntsman Count Mecha and Tetsuro himself is left for dead. However, he is recovered from the freezing snow by the mysterious and beautiful Maetel, who offers Tetsuro a pass aboard the Galaxy Express in exchange for being her companion on the journey. Tetsuro accepts, but not before swinging by Count Mecha's castle to firebomb the place and mercilessly gun down the occupants... Including smashing the brain chamber of the pleading Count with the butt of his rifle. Escaping the police - for killing cyborgs is a crime - the duo make it to their train.

Amidst this Sci-Fi environment, the titular twist is that space ships can take on any form, and for intergalactic commuters, the most comfortable form is that of a train. The nature of the Galaxy Express 999's route is such that, for the maximum comforts of the occupants, it has been built inside and out to resemble a steam train.

Aboard this magnificent spacefaring, whistle-blowing railway, Maetel takes Tetsuro on a coming-of-age adventure spanning hundreds of worlds. And like Galaxy Express 999's inspiration, each stop along the route offers the boy a strong - and usually agonizingly melancholy - lesson. Some of these are moral lessons, like when they visit the world where everything looks blissfully pleasant yet absolutely nothing is prohibited... Murders happen right in the street and no one does anything. Following the kidnap and rescue of Maetel, Tetsuro learns that total Libertarianism isn't all it's cracked up to be. Occasionally these lessons come by crossovers with other Matsumoto charachters, like Captain Harlock, Queen Esmeraldas and the Space Battleship Yamato.

But for the most part, Tetsuro is slowly and steadily confronted with the question of whether or not he should be so eager to give up his humanity for the sake of a cyborg body. In fact, they don't even make it one stop before meeting a group of cyborgs trapped in an immortal, desolate subsistence on the desert planet of Mars. Going further to Pluto, they see the icy graveyard where discarded human bodies are laid to rest and meet the faceless cyborg guardian who laments that her machine body will never be as beautiful as the human one to which she can never return. Along the way they also meet a girl who received a new body for the sake of her baronial lover who then discarded her after all the other polite women of society followed suit, making her no longer the unique showpiece he wanted her to be.

After a long hiatus in availability, Galaxy Express 999 is currently viewable online via the anime distributor/social networking site Crunchyroll. Short of a complete series DVD release, this is one's most likely opportunity to see it. Besides the series, there were also two movie versions made: Galaxy Express 999 and Adieu Galaxy Express 999. Like many television-to-film transitions, these films sacrifice much of what made the series so wonderful by being a very minimal retread of the series' highlights.

More recently, the Galaxy Express franchise has been enjoying a resurgence in high "space opera" form. Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy is an hour-long pilot for a sequel to the original series, featuring much cleaner animation and a new story about Maetel and Tetsuro's second voyage on the railway to stop a new threat that has risen in the wake of the machine empire's downfall. Two comparable prequels have also been produced - Maetel Legend and Space Symphony Maetel - that, in contradiction to each other (Leiji Matsumoto is renowned for dismissing concerns for continuity), expand on the beginnings of the machine empire and bridge the gap between the Matsumoto series Queen Millenia and Galaxy Express. The series Galaxy Railways looks at a different corner of the universe, as young Manabu dreams of joining the Space Defense Force that protects the Galaxy Railways from alien threats. Though they have their moments, these unfortunately lack the melancholy and humanity that really makes the original Galaxy Express 999 what it is.

Though imbued with such typically and profoundly sad Japanese sensibilities in which every episode makes you want to tear your heart out, Galaxy Express 999 is ultimately a beautiful hymn to being human and enjoying enfleshed existence in all it's joys and sorrows and sensations.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Sakura Taisen: Ecole De Paris (2003)

Thank you to Rei Shaw, curator of Taishou Legend, for this review of Sakura Wars!

Opening to the Sakura Taisen 3 video game.

The third OVA in the Sakura Wars/Sakura Taisen series - entitled Sakura Taisen: Ecole De Paris - is the first OVA for the Paris Kagekidan. This is somewhat of a cross between the first and second OVA in format, with the episodes being character studies but tying into the backstory of the third video game in the series.

The story begins with Erica, a young girl studying to become a nun, being recruited as the first member of the Paris Kagekidan. Unfortunately she’s scatterbrained and clumsy, messing up both on stage and in mock battles. Because of this, she doesn’t have any real friends aside from maybe Mel and Ci, who manage tactical support and transportation in battle as well as run secretarial and store keeping duties of the theatre.

After befriending a noblewoman named Glycine and tripping up (and over) the famous thief Lobelia, during which is arrested as Lobelia's accomplice, she is forced to fight a demon monster in the Paris Museum. In the midst of the battle she is joined in by Glycine, who then becomes the second member of the Paris Kagekidan. Grand Mere, the commander of the PKD, then comments that it’s time to bring Oogami in from Japan, and the third game begins.

In the next episode, the PKD is put on standby alert while Grand Mere and Ambassador Sakomizu set out to capture Lobelia, so they can offer her a deal to work off her 1000 year prison sentence by working with the Paris Hana-gumi. Even with Oogami and Coqulicot on the team Grand Mere feels that their ranks are not full enough. Lobelia manages to escape every one of Grand Mere’s traps, and just when it seems like the Hana-gumi will have to be sent in Sakomizu volunteers to go one on one with Lobelia.

Finally, a training exercise goes awry when the enemy leader Salut imbues a robot combat dummy with a soul and real combat ensues. Only Oogami and Erica manage to get to their Koubu, and it’s up to them to protect the theatre from this threat.

Sakura Taisen: Ecole de Paris is currently available on DVD from Funimation.