Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Download: Namu Amida Butsu wa Ai no Uta (1992)

So, Download is an action/sci-fi OAV from 1992 that, on first glance, might look like a lazy and unimaginative Akira wannabe, but it's in the small details that Download keeps its charm and its uniqueness. It's about Shidou, a Buddhist monk-cum-hacker, who's dating an exotic dancer named Namiho. Unbeknownst to each other, they're both also using different methods to investigate the malevolent activities of the sinister Echigoya conglomerate. Eventually, they also team up with a biker gang who lost a friend to Echigoya's schemes to take the mega-corp down.

Now, though this is a fairly accurate description of the plot (which I've obviously left a lot out of to avoid spoiling anything in case any of you decide to go and watch Download), it might cause you to judge this OAV unfairly, assuming it's just one more entry among the many other darkly-toned and grimly violent cyberpunk OAVs and movies that were made in the wake of Akira's massive worldwide critical and commercial success. The way Download stands out from the crowd though, is in its execution.

Rather than putting on a parade of human misery, showing a world of starving street orphans and evil cyber-goons lurking around every corner, Download instead gives us a lighter take on the dirty and violent cyberpunk dystopia. The character designs (and the look of the world in general) have a soft, almost squidgy quality to them, and the way everything is animated, especially the way that characters move and interact with each other, has a frenetic, cartoonish look and feel. The result is that the setting, Moonlight City feels like a fun and exciting city of adventure (albeit a dirty, violent one populated by biker gangs and evil corporations), rather than the hellish pits of despair seen in the likes of Cyguard or Battle Angel Alita and so on (not that those works are necessarily bad or anything, just that it's nice to have something different).

The result is an entertaining and fairly unique way to spend 47 minutes, and one which comes highly recommended. It's a shame that this OAV seems to have been almost totally forgotten by history: it never received an official english release, despite being the sort of thing that Manga Video were filling the UK market with in the early 90s, and judging by the fact that the fansubs (done in 2015) only have a VHS rip as their video source, that suggests that it's been forgotten and never rereleased in Japan, too. A terrible shame that something so entertaining and with such a strong identity has been allowed to fall by the wayside like that.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Kamen Tenshi Rosetta

Kamen Tenshi Rosetta is a thirteen episode long superhero show from 1998. It aired at 1:30am (or 25:30, as Japanese TV schedules would put it), so it's safe to say it was aimed squarely at an otaku audience. It was also subbed in that interim period in the history of fansubs, after the decline of VHS, but before the rise of Bittorrent, when fansubs were distributed on DVD-Rs and VCDs. This, coupled with the fact that western tokusatsu fandom was still very small, made getting ahold of it in 2015 slightly more difficult than usual. It centres around a teenage girl, Jin Asuka, who learns one night three important things: firstly, humanity is being preyed upon by demons called "Dueltos", her salaryman dad Kenichiro is an egyptian-themed superhero named Jin Kamen Pharoan, and the ankh charm he gave her long ago is magic and allows her to become a superhero herself, Kamen Tenshi Rosetta.

From this premise, the show spends most of its run as a typical monster-of-the-week affair, with a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque angst towards the start, as Asuka never asked for her powers or destiny and so on. It doesn't even get a main villain until the last few episodes, just individual monsters that turn up, do evil stuff and get defeated. The show's writers were obviously big fans of Sailor Moon, too, as some of the plots feel very similar to the weekly monster plots in that show. In fact, there's an episode early on that's almost the exact same premise as a Sailor Moon episode: a mysterious audition looking to cast teenage girls is actually a front for an evil monster that wants to eat the girls. Rosetta's version of the plot is a little darker, though, as rather than audition for a TV drama, it's heavily implied to be an audition for porn, or at the very least, something seedy and unwholesome.

Kamen Tenshi Rosetta is generally somewhat darker in tone than most modern Japanese superhero shows, especially ones with female leads. But don't misunderstand: it's not bogged down in gritty drama and edgy grimness, in fact, it's got a lot of quite silly humour, even right up to the final battle. It's just that it feels a little less safe, the streets seem a little dirtier, the shadows a little darker than the usual. But like I said, it's never too dark, it's never depressing, and there's always some lovably terrible Japanese comedy round the corner to lighten the mood.

The action scenes are not bad, about as good as to be expected from a late-night low budget TV show. The worst thing I can really say about them without feeling like I'm being unfair is that a lot of the fight scenes take place in dark locations, and are shot quickly and often from a bit of a distance. Obviously, this is a decision the makers made to try and hide any weaknesses in the effects and monster suits, and it doesn't look too bad when you're watching the show, but it does make it harder to take cool screenshots of the fights to put in blog posts about the show!

All in all, Kamen Tenshi Rosetta is a pretty good show. It's nothing special, and it doesn't have the knowing winks to the camera that more recent otaku-targeted TV shows have, but it's a decently entertaining superhero show with a good balance of action, drama and comedy..