Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT AND TEZUKA

Condemned to endless book reports, American kids in the Baby Boom years (Sept. 1, 1946 to 12:29pm Nov. 22, 1963) found solace in the pages of Classics Illustrated, an entire line of dulled-down comic book condensations of the Important Books that your English teacher wants you to read instead of Mickey Spillane novels or Mad paperbacks. 



Osamu Tezuka’s version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, however, isn’t your father’s Classics Illustrated, which are now safely residing in plastic bags in antique malls across America. Tezuka’s 1953 manga was first published by Osaka publisher Tokodo, the outfit behind other early Tezuka works like NEW TREASURE ISLAND, ANGEL GUNFIGHTER and his versions of PINOCCHIO and FAUST.  Perhaps recalling acting in his school’s stage production of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Tezuka extracts the key elements of Dostoyevsky’s tale of murder, morals, and class struggle, delivering a blessedly streamlined version that gives us both the crime and the punishment.  



This English-language version was published in 1990 by the Japan Times, with translation by the sure hand of veteran Frederik L. “Manga Manga” Schodt. It’s a narrow softcover book with a colorful dust jacket that gives anti-hero Raskolnikov a curious blonde ‘do. The dialog and captions are in friendly hand-lettered type with translations in Japanese at the bottom of each page, lending credence to the suspicion that this is meant as an English teaching tool.

What’s the crime in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT? If you’ve ever seen Hitchcock’s ROPE you know what I’m talking about when I talk about smarty-pants intellectuals who convince themselves, after a few too many readings of Carlyle’s Great Man Theory, that they too are Special Snowflakes for whom normal rules of behavior don’t apply.  CRIME AND PUNISHMENT’s Raskolnikov is one of these troublemakers, and after a particularly sad bout of poverty-enhanced over-intellectualizing, he grabs an axe and murders the local pawnbroker. 


Tezuka keeps the murder off-screen (this is a manga for kids, after all) and in a subtle use of his cinematic manga skills, keeps the camera still and lets the closed door tell the story of both the murder and the oblivious painters goofing off downstairs.




Is Raskolnikov inhuman enough to commit cold-blooded murder, and sociopathic enough to rationalize it as being for the greater good? Will his sister Avdotya be forced to marry someone she can’t stand? What will become of the family of Marmeladov, who’s been killed in a hit-and-run carriage accident? And will Inspector Porfiry use his detective’s instinct to track down the real murderer?


Schodt’s translation keeps pace with Tezuka’s goofier digressions, giving us dialect, slang, and friendly nicknames for all those difficult, gigantic Russian names – Raskolnikov becomes “Roddy”, for example. Sure, this might be not quite what Dostoyevsky had in mind, but Tezuka knows that comics should be comic, a philosophy that would leaven his work even as it later went to places as dark as anything Dostoyevsky ever contemplated. 



If you’re looking for a painfully accurate graphic novel version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT -which you aren’t, but let’s just say you are for the sake of argument -- if you are, then keep looking, because this is definitely not it.  Tezuka’s chopped and channeled manga brings it home in less than 150 pages, and while major plot elements are jettisoned, he still gives us the meat of the story, delivered in his friendly, fluid mid-50s style, full of ruthless revolutionaries, the predatory rich, drunks, beggars, and what may be the earliest literary appearance of the prostitute with a heart of gold. 




Wracked with guilt and horror, Raskolnikov’s personal tempest goes unnoticed in the storm of history as a revolution breaks out around him in a cinematic, non-canon touch Tezuka throws in almost casually. Maybe his editor told him to wrap it up.  The Japan Times edition wasn’t meant for sale outside Japan – the price is only in yen – but perhaps an enterprising manga localizer can uncover the negatives and put this classic back in print for an English-reading audience.  And hurry, some of us have book reports due!



Tuesday, March 6, 2012

MEGAZONE 23 PART 2


this review originally appeared in 2005 at Anime Jump. Like Part 1, the DVD is currently available at bargain prices and you should totally get it.




It’s tough for me to review this film objectively. It’s an integral part of my late teenage psyche. I wasn’t a particularly introspective 18-year old, but there were two things I was sure of – I liked punk music and I liked Japanese cartoons, and MEGAZONE 23 PART 2 combined them both in a package convenient enough to stick in the pocket of your trenchcoat and impress your fellow late-80s teens with at any gathering.


And why not? It’s a Japanese cartoon starring punk rock kids on motorcycles who defy the police with machine guns and super robots in a battle to expose the massive fraud that underlies their very society. The film obsesses over details like beer cans and cigarette packaging and stars doppelgangers of the “Like A Prayer” Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and female pro wrestlers, and instead of the bug-eyed, melon-headed look that segregates most anime to the back of the visual arts bus, MEGAZONE 23 PART 2 stars recognizable human beings with nostrils and scars and sex lives. It’s about as far as you can get from SPEED RACER and still be a Japanese cartoon.


I think I went to high school with these guys

I can’t say PART 1 interested me overmuch; the Mikimoto character designs seemed like stale MACROSS, the Garland motorcycle-robot was entirely too functional, and on the whole I was more interested in watching VAMPIRE HUNTER D or DIRTY PAIR. PART 2, on the other hand, was a completely different story, and I mean that sincerely. It didn’t look, act, sound, or smell anything like the first MEGAZONE. In fact it didn’t look like anything we’d ever seen, at all. You could tell right away – via Yasuomi Umetsu’s no-nonsense character designs - that this wasn’t some kids’ TV cartoon tarted up for a direct-to-video release. Hell, in the first two minutes there are about six misdemeanors and eighteen felonies contained in a scene of mayhem and property destruction as wild if not wilder than anything Hollywood or Hong Kong would offer that year (1985!!) And this isn’t outer-space flying saucer nonsense – these are real life Tokyo neighborhoods being overrun by 80’s punker bosuzoku.



Except they’re not: this Tokyo is a fake, a prop, a stand-in. The real Earth’s been destroyed and the human race is inside the Megazone, a giant space ship big enough to hold entire cities and millions of people, some of whom know they’re living out one of science fiction’s hoariest cliches and others who never wonder why no one they know has ever actually been, you know, outside the city.


The unbelievable truth

Our hero Shogo Yahagi would still be one of these brainwashed proles if he hadn’t had the good sense to get involved in the hot motorcycle business. Turns out his stolen bike was a top-secret transforming giant combat robot designed to fight aliens in outer space, and that his entire life has been spent inside a giant space station, whose main computer systems are controlled by an artificial intelligence who moonlights as an idol singer known as EVE. While investigating this mystery- well, okay, he was committing grand theft super transforming robot motorcycle, all right? -Shogo winds up accused of murder and on the run, and that’s where PART 2 starts.


Holographic or not, the gals all love Shogo

Reunited with his biker pals, Shogo rekindles his romance with Yui and works out a plan to fool the authorities and find out once and for all what’s really going on. Meanwhile his opposite number in the government, the enigmatic B.D., can’t spend too much time searching for Shogo, because the hideous space aliens that attacked the Earth have found the Megazone, and are kicking ass on Earth spaceships with weapons that remind us uncomfortably of Roto-Rooter Gone Wild.



Naturally the key to everything is finding EVE. Aren’t most of life’s mysteries solved through communion with idol singers – especially computer-generated ones only slightly more artifical than the real thing? The incongruity of seeing total punk rockers going gaga over easy-listening top-40 pop music takes the edge from PART 2’s realism. On the other hand the punks of 1988 were going apeshit over the “swing revival” ten years later, so anything’s possible. When EVE isn’t singing, the Shirou Sagisu soundtrack ranges from moody 80s synth to some good honest speed metal guitar work.


typical anime club meeting circa 1985

After a running battle through “Tokyo” between the motorcycle punks and the cops and the all-out space assault by the sicko aliens, B.D. and Shogo achieve detente of sorts, though it’s academic at that point because EVE has activated A.D.A.M. and that means that the Megazone is destroyed in a total rotoscoped-from-atom-bomb-test-footage sequence that still looks pretty impressive. At this point you can either make some sort of fancy-pants biblical reference about Eve giving Adam knowledge which drives them out of Eden (Megazone), or you can make a joke about the Coleco Adam, possibly the worst home computer ever marketed to a confused American public. The choice is yours.



Not to give anything away (I think the spoiler warning has expired in a 20 year old film) but MEGAZONE 23 PART 2 ends its tired science fiction cliche of people living on a space ship so big they think they’re on Earth with another tired science fiction cliche of a small group of survivors left to repopulate a new planet. But that’s OK; you kind of want a familiar ending after the A-bomb test footage. Besides, if you’re watching MEGAZONE 23 PART 2 and aren’t focused on the visuals, you’re missing out, because the darn thing looks great. There’s a lot of rotoscoping and serious attention is paid to light and shadow and color and hair and clothes. There’s none of the fakey shorthand stuff so often seen in TV anime. Not that there aren’t outer-space giant robot laser gun battles in this film – there are, and plenty of ‘em – but there’s a real attempt to convince us that the high-tech and the low-brow exist in the same world. The animation’s reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, but even the less competent scenes have a punky charm.


eat hot lead, fascist pig transforming robot!

The dub pedigree of MZ23 2 is iffy; an English track by Intersound (the Robotech people) was included on a Japanese LD, but it never got a proper US release. I didn’t get my bootleg video pirate copy until 1988! ADV’s new dub ditches many of the earlier version’s more colorful moments; no longer do machine-gun toting punk chicks shout “EAT HOT LEAD FASCIST PIG!” while lighting up a police helicopter. However, the ADV script does actually acknowledge the existence of a PART 1, something the 80s version glossed over entirely, and dodges some of the production pitfalls of the earlier incarnation (hint: when a character complains about noise, it helps to actually have noises in the background). The voice work is smooth – almost too smooth at times for the characters, who, after all, are unemployed squatters with bad personal hygiene – but overall ADV’s version is professional and entertaining all the way.



Ultimately, in the face of the film’s climax, the valiant stand of the motorcycle teens against the adult world of authority winds up being pretty meaningless. Just like real life. Still, as director Ichirou Itano says in the accompanying interview, the real message of the film is the you should take defeat gracefully and move on to the next challenge with no regrets, because you did your best and it’s not your fault the world is filled with phonies, Holden Caulfield.


BD bulks up, gets fashion sense, punches Shogo's lights out

The interview is part of one of the disc’s extras, a fold-out poster. Itano, the inventor of the now-ubiquitous “missiles flying everywhere” visuals used in most SF anime, was given carte blanche to follow his bliss with MZ23 2, and the result is an anti-authoritarian epic with a heart and sharp as hell looks.


best use of multiplane camera rack-focus zoom ever.

Maybe you’re just looking for some 1980s revival anime, or if you always wanted to see the anime take on the Sid Vicious look, or if your jones for severe realism via Japanese cartoon character design wasn’t satisfied by AKIRA or JIN-ROH. If you want anime with colorful and unique characters, cosmic storylines, and plenty of property damage and beer, then MEGAZONE 23 PART II is where you need to be.

-Dave Merrill
Next: probably not reviewing "Megazone 23 Part 3 Part 1", because that would involve me, you know, having to watch it.