Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Blue Sonnet On It


When the five part Crimson Fang: Blue Sonnet original video series was released in 1989, American anime fans immediately thought of one thing - the margarine brand "Blue Bonnet." But even without any knowledge of Masahiro Shibata's original Crimson Fang manga, fans in the US immediately grasped familiar story beats, which include an evil organization bent on world conquest, innocent youngsters turned into fighting cyborgs, latent ESP awakened by stress or disaster, and the old standby, a Japanese high school where students secretly have amazing powers. Blue Sonnet’s story was digestible even without English translation. The terrific theme song by GO! helped seal the deal, and even if the anime doesn't quite live up to the promise of the OP, we felt it was worth at least a watch in 1989, and still do today.


Matsusaka City native son mangaka Masahiro Shibata debuted in 1973 with “The Sea Of White Roses” and spent some time as assistant to Sukeban Deka creator Shinji Wada before hitting it big with his most successful work, Crimson Fang: Blue Sonnet, a sprawling eight-part (19 volumes) shoujo-manga SF epic published from 1975-1986 in Hana to Yume, Deluxe Margaret and Bessatsu Margaret. The series focuses on the life of Ran Komatsuzaki, the titular Crimson Fang. Ran is that most stereotypical of Japanese pop culture characters, a super-powerful psychic girl whose immense abilities both prevent her from having a normal life and make her the target for those would use those powers for, say it with me, eeeEEEeevil. By the time the Blue Sonnet OVA appeared, Shibata had moved on to other projects, his next big series being the post-apocalyptic combat maid series Sarai, which ran in Shonen Gahosha’s Young King for a decade starting in 1998.


But let’s put some Blue Sonnet on it, shall we? Turns out the new student at Tokyo’s Osei High School is actually Sonnet, a super powerful ESPer girl rebuilt into a combat cyborg by Dr. Josef Merikus under orders of the evil world-domination conspiracy TALON (Directive No. 1, released July 16, 1989). Sonnet is enrolled at Osei to check up on student Ran Komatsuzaki, whom TALON suspects is also a powerful ESPer. And they're correct; not only was Ran orphaned in a plane crash and raised by wolves and later by her father’s friend Jin Kiryu, but it also turns out she’s harboring the immense psychic power of the entity known as Crimson Fang (Directive No. 2, released September 25, 1989). After a few arranged incidents Sonnet is convinced of Ran's power, but at the same time is confused by the friendship and warmth of normal human society (Directive No. 3, released November 25, 1989). Will Sonnet's loyalty to TALON and their world domination plans win out over her long-suppressed humanity? Is there a blooming romance between Ran and Shuichi “Bird” Torigai? What happens when the nurse at Osei High finds out Sonnet is a cyborg? Will Ran survive Sonnet’s attacks, and will her humanity endure possession by the Crimson Fang (Directive No. 4, released March 25, 1990)? Can Kiryu, Ran’s little brother Wataru and the esper Yuri invade the TALON fortress and rescue Ran? Will Ran’s romance with Bird – aka renegade Cyborg RX-606 – be allowed to flower, or end in tragedy (Directive No. 5, released June 25, 1990)?

Produced by several different studios including AIC, Mushi Production and Tatsunoko, the Blue Sonnet anime is very much a product of the late 1980s. The original manga’s story and characters are compressed severely, and we’re left with generic OVA-style characters staring into computer monitors, Bubble-Era Tokyo scenery being smashed, and square-faced middle-aged men with glasses hollering orders in high-tech laboratories, instead of the knock-down, drag-out Sonnet vs Ran fight the OP promised.

 

If you’ve seen a sci-fi OVA from the 80s you know what you’re going to be seeing in Blue Sonnet – lots of high-tech control rooms filled with data readouts, corporate office blocks headquartering the dastardly conglomerates bankrolling our conspiracy, and underground bases guarded by sensors, jumpsuited goon squads, and mechanical man-killing monsters.

 

The sketchy, zip-a-tone energy of manga is difficult to translate to the TV screen, and the dramatic freeze-frames and expressionistic background effects of shoujo manga seem to suffer most. Blue Sonnet is no exception, the melodramatic emotional beats of the story struggling to overcome pedestrian animation and generic late 1980s character design. Regarding the OVA series, Shibata himself commented “It was too bad to be talked about.” Director Takeyuki Kanda was a veteran of Mushi Pro and Sunrise – he directed Dougram, Galatt The Great, and his masterpiece Round Vernian Vifam – but translating years of manga story into five direct-to-video chapters might not have been the best opportunity for him to shine. The same could be said for Blue Sonnet producer Walker Company, which went bankrupt after the release of the 4th episode.


To American anime fans who weren’t familiar with the manga, Blue Sonnet seemed like just one more entry in a Blockbuster shelf full of big-eyed girls hollering while their latent psychic powers make everything explode. It’s no surprise the subtitled Central Park Media release failed to make much of an impact. The anime market of the early 1990s was still looking for the next Akira, and Blue Sonnet is definitely not that. But then again, what is? For all its faults, 30 years on we still have that kickin’ theme song in our head, and that’s proof Blue Sonnet still counts for something. The video is long out of print but you can find them on the YouTubes if you yourself want to watch Ran explode into Crimson Fang, see Sonnet recover her humanity, and perhaps find out, what is love? 

-Dave Merrill 

A version of this article originally ran in Patrick Ijima-Washburn's fanzine Mangaverse.


 



Thursday, April 28, 2022

Knights Of The Seiya Zodiac

 
portions of this article originally appeared at Anime Jump.
 
Back in the 1980s – I know this is a cliché but it’s all I got here, so work with me - while the Gundam franchise was napping, before Nadia: The Secret Of Blue Water made Gainax stars, Knights Of The Zodiac was pretty much all we had. Of course we referred to it by the Japanese title, Saint Seiya, even if at the time we had no clue the show’s title was a pun on the Japanese word for “constellation,” which is “seiza,” get it? American 80s anime fans spent many a happy, pre-Internet hour watching fuzzy VHS copies of the show, translating dialog and writing synopses of episodes. Sure, the show’s blend of fighting tournaments, Jack Kirby-esque cosmic drama, and manly male bonding appealed to nerds here, but in short order Saint Seiya made waves around the world, especially in South America and Mexico, where Los Caballeros Del Zodiaco penetrated the popular culture to such an extent that bootleg Seiya toys could be seen hanging, like executed banditos, from the fixtures of Tijuana street vendors. Years later the series would finally arrive in the States in a truncated series of weirdly modified DVDs from DIC and ADV. However, that 2003 DVD series ended prematurely and it took the advent of streaming video before English-speaking audiences could fully feel their cosmos, Seiya-style.
 

But what is this Knights Of The Zodiac, this erstwhile Saint Seiya? What made it a hit around most of the world? Well, when the weekly manga powerhouse Shonen Jump began publication back in ‘68, the editors conducted a survey of their target audience, Japanese schoolboys. The editors asked their potential customers about their ideals and their dreams and what they valued most; the children said they believed in friendship, perseverance, and victory. Of the many manga serialized in Jump, none exemplifies these ideals more than Masami Kurumada’s Saint Seiya.
 
Born in 1953, Kurumada was a manga-drawing delinquent who answered his Shonen Jump rejection letter by showing up at the offices to ask why. He learned the trade as an assistant to Samurai Giants artist Ko Inoue, and his first Weekly Jump series was “Sukeban Storm,” to be followed by his first success, the 1974 boxing drama “Ring ni Kakero” (Put It All In The Ring). "Ring" would be the template Kurumada would follow for the rest of his career, adventures of a band of manly-virtue-extolling men battling anything and everything that stands in their manly way with guts and fortitude, drawn in a distinctive style that streamlines the rougher men’s sweat aesthetic of Hiroshi Motomiya/Naoki Tsuji/Tetsuya Chiba aesthetic. Kurumada’s characters feature well-defined musculature and flat, iconic faces, as if Tomorrow’s Joe fought wearing a Halloween mask, a look common to the Japanese comic world, but perhaps seems odd and unfinished to the unprepared Western eye. 
 
Kurumada Saint Seiya manga pages from Nov. 17 1986 Shonen Jump

 
Halfway through "Ring" the merely physical struggles became absurdly metaphysical as the spiritual power of our heroes erupted out of the subtext and right onto the page, as boxing blows began to smash windows and destroy real estate. This physical manifestation of fighting spirit would feature in Kurumada’s works from then on, from "Ring" to "Fuma no Kojiro" to "Bt’X", and most popularly in the series we’re talking about today, "Evil Crusher Maya". I mean, Saint Seiya
 
 
Kurumada’s original Saint Seiya manga ran in Shonen Jump from 1986 until 1990, a total of 28 compiled volumes. Toei’s anime TV series ran for 114 episodes from 1986 until 1989. The Hades OVA series had 31 installments released from 2002 until 2008. The 25th anniversary anime TV series Saint Seiya Omega ran for 97 episodes between 2012 and 2014. Saint Seiya: Soul Of Gold was a 13 part “Original Net Animation” broadcast on the internet in 2015 and 2016. Saint Seiya: Saintia Shō , a prequel story of Saori Kido’s all-girl Saint bodyguard squad, appeared in 2018. Knights Of The Zodiac: Saint Seiya was a CG Netflix series streaming 12 episodes in 2019/20. And of course there are the theatrical Saint Seiya movies; the 80s films “Evil Goddess Eris,” “Heated Battle Of The Gods,” “Legend Of Crimson Youth,” and “Warriors Of The Final Holy Battle,” with the films “Heaven Chapter- Overture” in 2004 and “Legend Of Sanctuary” in 2014. So if you want to settle in and binge-watch Saint Seiya, set aside about a hundred fifty hours or so - more if you watch the TMS series Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas, an alternate-universe story of 18th century Saints battling Hades. This is why I stopped reading Marvel comics, guys.
 
 
Saint Seiya, or Knights Of The Zodiac as various marketing departments would have us call it, is at its core a cosmic gumbo of gods and goddesses playing endless role-playing games, with human beings as their tiny lead figurines. Awesome, world-shattering forces are brought into play every time characters blink or twitch, and when battling each other, the very fabric of the universe itself shudders with the force of their blows. Our heroes struggle through this melodramatic world – five knights, each with their own fighting styles, tragic backstories, and rough-hewn friendships forged in the heat of battle. It’s the kind of thing that 12-year old males think is cool, and 17-year old females draw doujinshi of. Just ask CLAMP. Leaning into this almost-shoujo look are the TV anime character redesigns by Shingo “Rose Of Versailles” Araki, making Saint Seiya practically nonbinary in its cross-gender appeal.


The Seiya story is this: sometime in the near future, the entire world is absolutely crazy for a gigantic martial arts tournament. The GRAAD Foundation, chaired by beautiful, enigmatic Saori Kido, has established the Galaxian Wars, in which armored fighters battle each other for what appears to be the privilege of winning a different set of armor, or, in the Seiya mythos, “Cloth.” Our hero Seiya, an impulsive, brave, loyal, clean-living Japanese youth, has spent six years at the training center on Greece learning to focus his cosmic energy and use it to pound foes with lightning-fast blows. He didn’t enter the tournament simply to be the greatest – he’s looking for his missing sister, and like Sue Cat, felt that worldwide fame would help. He wins the final round of the qualifying tournament, and receives the Pegasus Cloth. Once in Tokyo, he meets the rest of his Zodiacal chums: Hyoga/Swan, who fights with the icy blasts of Cygnus; Shiryu/Dragon, a Chinese fellow with a helpful back tattoo that reveals his weak point; and Andromeda/Shun, a very pretty boy who fights with his Nebula Chains. All have varying hair colors, national origins, and different primary colored tights. As the series opens we’re looking forward to seeing them battle each other, but quickly the tournament aspect of the show is ditched for a much more satisfying storyline, giving us Dragon Ball in reverse.
 

 
As our heroes vie for the top slot, a new drama unfolds – Phoenix, who may be and in fact is Andromeda’s brother, shows up with an army of Phoenix disciples, and instead of fighting for the prize like everybody else, he just steals it outright in a shocking display of unsportsmanlike behavior.
As it all turns out, Saori is actually the goddess Athena, and the purpose of the tournament is to fine the warrior who can wear the golden, super powerful Sagittarius Cloth and return her to her rightful throne as Goddess of Wisdom. Aligned against Athena and her Saints, or Knights as DIC would like us to call them, are Ares, the God of War, who has his own legion of armored fighters. As the show progresses, we meet more and more Saints on both sides of the struggle, all with progressively bizarre armor based on zodiacal signs that might not even exist. New mythologies are strewn about the place as powerful objects are stolen and regained, armor is destroyed and rebuilt, and heroes die and are reborn, a cycle of death and rebirth that Seiya itself echoed in its on-again, off-again American release.
 
 

In the years since that first Knights Of The Zodiac DVD, the Jump style of supernatural martial arts champions battling for friendship and honor has become familiar to the West; Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure have all Adult Swimmed and Netflixed their way into our collective hearts. But what did this genre look like to Americans unprepared for this style of story? What was the marketing justification for selling a 1986 anime series to a 2003 audience without decades of sports-manga context to place Saint Seiya in, to viewers who might merely see this as some kind of gender-flipped Sailor Moon?
 

 
The pre-DVD 1980s American anime fan scene had its Saint Seiya devotees, enough to make the Seiya merchandise a staple at early anime conventions and to make Seiya fan art a part of every anime fan publication for the last half of the decade. Saint Seiya’s most prominent exponent was Pat Munson-Siter, whose research and fan artwork was powerful enough to fill 112 pages of her Saint Seiya Series Review. This was quite an accomplishment, considering the sum total of official English-language Seiya material at the time was... pretty much nothing. Munson-Siter’s work became the basis for the Saint Seiya Role-Playing Game, an unofficial RPG system by John Lash that gave late 80s gamers the chance to throw dice and battle as the Saints. How many other anime series inspired American fans to create role-playing games? (the answer is 2.) Pat sadly passed away in 2020 and is missed by anime fan friends and family alike. 
 
 
At heart Seiya is a simplistic show where every defeated villain leads to another defeated villain, where every hero’s power-up is trumped by another power-up, which is in turned trumped by yet another power-up. Toei’s mid-80s television animation is serviceable enough, and actually has more life and movement than much of the TV anime seen in 2003, thanks to existing before deadlines tightened, budgets shrunk, and primitive digital compositing made shows obsolescent right out of the gate. Seiya’s characters actually move, and while the movement may be clunky from time to time, it’s at least honest. 
 

 
 
Episode 5 in particular stands out, titled “Miracle of Rebirth! Friendship of the Cosmos.” Directed by Kaname Pro director Shinichi Masaki, episode 5 pops with a lot of the bouncy flash and punch of the OVAs Kaname was producing at the time with of anime legends like Yoshinori Kanada and Mutsumi Inomata. Ep. 5 looks great, with lots of zooms, close ups, figure animation that actually moves, characters that shake their heads and blink and sweat, and plenty of anime cameos in the crowd scenes. This is the one to watch if you can watch only one, and it's the only one with this creative team, sadly.
 
Minky Momo and Fandora guest star in episode 5

 
Kurumada’s angular style was softened somewhat for television, but it’s still a singularly flattened vision and one that’s a lot less “cute” than anime contemporaries like Dragon Ball, much less a 2000s industry overpowered by shoujo and bishoujo visuals. Saint Seiya’s seriously dated clothing and hairstyles aren’t as dire a handicap, but honestly, you can’t look at Andromeda’s jeans-and-suspenders combo or Seiya’s sleeveless T’s without having flashbacks to Swatch watches and Duran Duran.
 
 
Regardless of changing fashions, Saint Seiya’s most appealing visual aspect remains untouched; the way the entire universe trembles whenever characters fight. Seiya throws a punch and galaxies whirl in the background; Dragon smacks some hapless lackey while planets explode and stars collapse. Our heroes are tied into the very life force of the universe itself, and when they battle, the fabric of space-time itself begins to warp and buckle. It’s both inherently silly and awe-inspiring on a sub-adolescent, almost primal level.
 

America’s first licensed Seiya was the ADV/DIC Knights of The Zodiac release, which of course was dubbed. I’ll give the localization points for resisting funny accents (Hyoga was just begging for a few Minnesotan “you betchas”), but on the other hand, the aggressive sameness of the voice talent fails to distinguish any of our heroes. They’re all bursts of hyper extreme sports Mountain Dew commercial enthusiasm, punctuated with large doses of instantly dated slang. While that may very well appeal to the crazy kids of today with their hair and their clothes, it’s hard to get into seeing somebody unleash a punch that destroys entire buildings, while the script has them mouthing wisecracks. 
 


The dubbing was one of the least jarring creative changes to this version of Saint Seiya. All the punching and kicking and wrestling is left intact, but what used to be healthy all-natural red blood is now green, or blue, or sometimes white. What this is supposed to accomplish is anybody’s guess. Was cartoon blood a bridge too far for potential television syndication in the early oughts? DIC has also seen fit to add superfluous transitional elements between scenes, just to distract viewers from the fake blood colors, I guess. In practical terms this means a cheesy-looking Great Value Saint helmet zooms across the screen and is destroyed by Seiya’s fist. 
 
 
What’s sadly missing from the DIC version is the music. The original show had a powerful rock/orchestral soundtrack, with a theme song by glammy rock act Make-Up, all choruses, guitar solos and a driving beat that helped to sell the entire idea of young fighters with giant hair battling to feel their cosmos. Knights Of The Zodiac replaces this with Wichita Falls alt-rock act Bowling For Soup’s cover of the Flock Of Seagulls hit “I Ran”. Perhaps a nod to the show’s 80s roots, a warmup for Soup’s “Phineas And Ferb” theme song, or merely an attempt to force some kind of cultural relevance into the show, in practice the song elicits double-takes from the Gen-Xers and shrugs of indifference from everybody else. Meanwhile the show’s new incidental music is a fakey EDM beat more suited to late night TV commercials. The original music was and is perfectly fine, thank you.
 

 
Changes aside, I found myself entertained by the show all over again. The brave youths struggling against the odds in a downright nonsensical universe full of gods, semi-gods, and increasingly outlandish armor are all still there, in spite of dopey dubbing, off-color blood, and poor music choices. There’s definite charm in a show that willfully combines male-bonding melodrama with convoluted mythology in the service of having heroes punch out the fabric of space and time. None of it really makes much sense, but that’s part of the appeal, which didn’t quite make the grade in 2003; ADV/DIC’s release fizzled out before completion and North America wouldn’t get more Seiya for years. 
 
 
The world of Japanese animation, and in fact the world in general have definitely changed since Seiya and his gang first premiered. As Western anime fandom moved through clubs, conventions, Facebooks and Discords and its enthusiasms moved from Dragon Balls to Gundams, from Evangelions to Narutos, Saint Seiya was a constant, kept relevant by a dedicated European and Asian fanbase, by a parade of sequels and side stories and a mountain of Bandai merchandise. 
 

Here in the 2020s we in the West can enjoy Saint Seiya without having to Bowl For Soup or swap for VHS off-air copies rented from the local Japanese grocery store. Saint Seiya Omega and Saint Seiya: Saintia Shō are streaming on Crunchyroll. The four 1980s Seiya films are streaming on Retrocrush. The Lost Canvas series and the 1980s films are also available on disc from Discotek. Hades, Soul Of Gold, Saintia Sho, Lost Canvas, and the 80s films are also streaming on Tubi. However, the original series recently was cut from Netflix and its most recent 2014 DVD release is out of print. For now, we are sadly bereft of our 80s champions until the time, hopefully not far off, when new Saints of Hope rise to rock the heavens for justice, or at least let us stream a TV show.
 
-Dave Merrill

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Queen Of One Thousand And Forty Years

 

On September 9, 1999, at 9:09am (Japan Standard Time), disaster will strike the Earth! Speeding by on its thousand-year orbit, the giant planet Lar Metal will miss us by inches, but in its wake comes destruction on a vast scale. Professor Amamori of the Tsukuba Observatory struggles with the biggest astronomical news of the century, along with his orphaned nephew Hajime and Amamori’s assistant Yukino Yayoi, a mysterious beauty burdened with an awesome secret and a terrible decision that will affect the destiny of both planets.

This is the story of Queen Millennia (Japanese title 新竹取物語 1000年女王 or Shin Taketori Monogatari: Sennen Joō, or "The New Tale of the Bamboo Cutter: Millennium Queen,") Leiji Matsumoto’s followup to his popular Galaxy Express 999. Queen Millennia would appear as a manga series, a TV show, a radio drama, and a 1982 feature film, released just as the TV anime was reaching its climax. A blizzard of Queen Millennia ballyhoo buried print and broadcast media in a blanket of thousand-year hype, leading some wags to describe the property as "The Queen Of Promotions."


Ultimately this millennial juggernaut would have less horsepower than the 999; merch plans and a 52-episode run were both cut short, and decades later Queen Millennia is perhaps known more in the West as part of a confusing Harmony Gold adaptation, or as an LP in the New Age section of your local record store, a little-seen footnote alongside more popular Leiji Matsumoto properties like Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express. Forty years on, what’s the deal with this 1000-Year Queen’s film? It’s been decades since Yukino Yayoi & co. first appeared on movie screens, but even though Japanese animation has enjoyed unprecedented worldwide prominence, the Queen Millennia movie remains firmly absent from the North American anime market.

The North American anime fandom of the Club Era (1977-1995) knew of Queen Millennia thanks to Roman Albums, anime magazines, and the occasional 5th generation VHS copy. Unlike some other anime of the period, the Millennia film was mercifully spared an edited, weirdly-dubbed American release, and even the fan subtitle crowd hadn’t caught up with it. So it was up to our Atlanta-based Corn Pone Flicks fansub group to get the job done. We had our pal Sue's script and our pal Shaun's LaserDisc, and soon it was one more star in the CPF fan subtitle galaxy. 

script and final product

 

Expecting rock-em sock-em SF adventure from that Queen Millennia fansub? This film delivers its struggles on a more spiritual scale, opening with a closeup of Yayoi’s long-lashed brown eyes slowly receding into space, advising everyone to get comfortable and settle in. Queen Millennia spends a lot of its run time showing us slow-moving planets, leisurely floating continents, and Lar Metal’s space invasion armada gently manoeuvring into formation, all set to a Kitarō soundtrack that inspires restful contemplation rather than cinematic excitement. 


The movie covers the major plot points of the Queen Millennia mythos; Junior high schooler Hajime suffers the sudden loss of his parents and an uncomfortable new life with astronomer Uncle Amamori, while crushing hard on his math teacher Yayoi and worrying about, you know, that whole impending When Worlds Collide thing. Hajime escapes a meteor-smashed Tokyo to a hollow-Earth survival shelter and learns not only was his engineer father somehow involved with the Lar Metal, but that his dream gal is actually cosmic royalty in the final days of her thousand year term secretly ruling mankind. Yayoi, a space-age Princess Kaguya (there’s that “Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter” tagline) now doing business as Queen Millennia, finds herself forced to reconcile sister Selene’s rebellion with the Earth emigration plan of her Lar Metalian fiancée Dr. Fara, while at the same time dealing with the anti-Earthling prejudice and unwanted affections of her Captain Harlock lookalike subordinate Daisuke Yamori. Ultimately, Yayoi must choose between her home planet and the Earth she’s purportedly been in charge of. And I say “purportedly” because judging by the last thousand years it doesn’t look like anybody’s been in charge.

Yayoi in regulation astronomy leotard

It’s an occupational hazard of adapted media, but sometimes watching the cinematic Queen Millennia is an exercise in spotting things the TV show and the manga did better. Yayoi spends much of her TV time dressed down in denim, chilling with her adopted parents and her all-purpose Leiji Matsumoto cat in their mom & pop ramen shop, letting us know she honestly enjoys the low-fi Earthling lifestyle. TV’s Amamori gets to spend more time hectoring the military-industrial complex and their takeover of his observatory (Macek’s script for the Harmony Gold version literally names it “The Military Industrial Complex” in his version, a Boomer child’s callback to Eisenhower if ever there was one). Hajime is allowed time to grieve lost parents and mix with schoolyard friends and rivals to mix. Selene leans into her resistance fighter persona and gives the viewer a fun masked mystery character. 


 

The movie version abandons all this in favor of long, lingering shots of planets, spaceships, floating chunks of Japan, and Lar Metal’s airbrushed Roger Dean album cover landscape. On the other hand, the film ditches the manga scene where Yayoi goes to Venus in an Lar Metal insectoid spaceship controlled by her entire, jaybird-naked body, Iczer One style, and that’s probably OK. 

Leiji Matsumoto self-insert fanfic

That’s not to say the Queen Millennia film doesn’t have its own unique anime charms. There’s a sequence towards the climax where Prof. Amamori, Hajime, and a parade of creative staff caricatures loot the No More War Museum and use the suspiciously well preserved tanks, warplanes, and automatic weapons to counterattack the Lar Metal assault force in a well animated clash of cultures. The film regains some momentum again when Yayoi confronts the ultimate ruler of Lar Metal, Laarela the Holy Queen, who manifests as a blank-eyed moppet radiating murder power, the creepiest levitating girl seen in film since Linda Blair defied gravity in The Exorcist.


 

The film’s distinct visual style is almost a character in its own right. We think of the 80s as being neon grids, primary colors, and high-tech hairstyles, but every decade has echoes of its past and countercultures always flourish in the margins. The occult had spent the 1940s and 50s strictly for cult religions and professional Nightmare Alley spook-show grifters, but these and other alternative worldviews gained new energy from the upheaval of the 1960s, as disaffected youth sought meaning and purpose away from stupid, vulgar, greedy ugly American death-suckers. This hunger for alternative spiritual meaning became known as the New Age Movement in the 1970s, embracing everything from Tibetan shamanism, Ayahuasca-fueled mystery ceremonies, the Rev. Moon, the Hare Krishna, spirit channeling, UFO contactees from countless planets, and the untapped powers of an entire flea market full of crystals, rainbows, dream catchers, pewter angels, gazing balls, and incense. The entire patchouli-scented parade was still marching sandal-clad strong into and throughout the 1980s.


Queen Millennia is wall to wall carpeted with these baroque, rainbow-crystal-healing-vibration hallmarks of the New Age, where there's a seeker born every minute. We’d see this junk science permeate pulp fiction of the time and Leiji’s was no exception; for instance, the Erich von Däniken ancient astronaut underpinnings of his Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Interviewed before Queen Millennia’s release, Matsumoto went so far as to describe the film as “occult-like.”

Earth ruled by powerful hidden adepts? This is old-school Hollow Earth Shaver Mystery stuff crossed with Madame Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters trip. Unseen Tenth Planets causing Earthly cataclysm and disaster is the backbone of numerous mid-century kook-science theories, the granddaddy of which is Worlds In Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky, a NYT best seller (!!) that suggests the planet Venus erupted from Jupiter four thousand years ago, and whose wild orbital journey caused most of the miracles of the Old Testament before it settled down in its current position. The scene in Queen Millennia where Lar Metal approaches Earth and we see a giant spark as the electric potential of the two planets equalizes? Straight outta Velikovsky. As a wild wild planet bonus, the film even gives us its version of Von Daniken wannabe Zecharia Sitchin’s "dark star" Nibiru, the rogue planet that killed the dinosaurs and has us next on its hit list. Don’t trust those Zeta Reticuli brain implants, kids.

Queen Millennia Book Club reading list
 

Queen Millennia's aesthetic of misty, transparent palaces, hazy skies, and vast prehistoric underground worlds would make a great book cover for any number of paperbacks in the new age section of any Waldenbooks or B.Dalton at any local mall circa 1985, which, by the way, also had the Record Bar or Sound Warehouse where you could find Kitarō’s Queen Millennia soundtrack album, released in America as "Millennia" on Geffen Records (Geffen- GHS 24084).

Kitarō or Masanori Takahashi is, of course, the renowned Japanese electronic-instrumental composer, blending folk, classical, and electronic music into what millions of late-night public radio listeners know as New Age music. Coming into prominence with his score for the 1980 NHK documentary "The Silk Road," his albums first saw wide American release when he signed with Geffen, who packaged six earlier and one new LP for the US market. American anime nerds, their pop culture radar antennae already alert for any Asian content, were quick to spot Kitarō's records. As with Harmagedon, this gave us the opportunity to purchase the soundtrack for a film we couldn't yet see. 

Queen Millennia Record Club selections
 

Putting Kitarō on the Millennia soundtrack assignment is a strong signal that this movie isn't going to be a typical Matsumotoverse space-warship pass in review; the composer's new-age reputation amplifies the film's new age themes. Of course, even harmonic convergences aren’t immune to the power of pop music, and as a counterpoint to Kitaro's spacey harmonics, American singer Dara Sedaka, daughter of Neil "Believe In The Sign Of Zeta" Sedaka, delivers Queen Millennia’s end-title tune "Angel Queen" (Canyon – 7A0149c).

All these new-agey cultural highlights might make for fascinating cultural analysis, maybe, but they aren’t enough to elevate Queen Millennia, a film that dazedly unspools its slow-paced story with animation that plods and rarely soars. The big secret of who Yayoi is and what she’s up to is unwrapped in the first ten minutes, leaving the viewer to glean what excitement they can from duelling space fleets and potato-head Matsumoto characters firing giant prop crossbows at alien fighters, only to be confused and bemused when the retired Millennial Queens rise from their Millennial Tombs and transform themselves into space ships, Turbo Teen style. By the film’s end we’re watching an entire rogue galaxy rushing towards us at Einstein-defying speeds, a deus ex machina climax that feels less like universal destiny and more like last-minute writer’s room panic. 

 

On a more concrete level, there are lots of beauty shots of 1999 Tokyo being smashed to bits and raised up in the air like in the end of five or six Marvel movies. The film definitely delivers disaster footage worthy of any number of mid-70s earthquake, tidal wave, volcano, Japan Submersion flicks. And if you're into the whole connected-Matsumoto-universe Time Is A Flat Circle thing, Queen Millennia shows us where Queen Promethium and the machine empire come from. This leads us backwards to Rintaro’s 1979 Galaxy Express 999 movie, a film with a similar assignment (boil down a TV series) but a more successful final product.

Voice talent, creatives, and Kitaro at Queen Millennia event

 

Queen Millennia shares a lot of staff with a different Toei SF epic, 1980’s Cyborg 009 Legend Of The Super Galaxy. Character designer/animation director Yasuhiro Yamaguchi, literal cult director Masayuki Akehi, mechanical designer Koichi Tsunoda, and DP Tamio Hosoda worked on both films, each featuring impractical yet stylish spacecraft, scripts and running times that freely bend the laws of time and space, and blatant references to the debunked theories of human history being influenced by ancient astronautics. Queen Millennia screenwriter Keisuke Fujiwara has written for literally hundreds of films and TV episodes, including 55 episodes of GE 999 and 53 episodes of Mazinger Z, making him perhaps the hardest working writer in anime-show business.


 

The film has seen French, Spanish, Chinese and Italian releases, but so far North American licensors have yet to give Queen Millennia any sort of home video outing. I’ve no doubt the questionable performance of the mid 80s Harmony Gold series influenced decisions at some point, and the film’s then-groundbreaking production committee financing might make for complicated licensing rights. Acquiring rights to the Kitarō soundtrack can’t help but add an extra layer of licensing-lawyer billable hours to the whole mess. Even today in North America’s anime-saturated market here aren’t a lot of companies willing to go that extra Millennia mile, and this is a shame. Queen Millennia is like no other film inspired by Leiji Matsumoto works; it is first and foremost a tragedy, the desires and wishes and struggles of ordinary and even supernaturally advanced peoples meaningless against the immense, unstoppable power of the cosmos itself. Will fans of early 80s SF anime and fans of new age synthesizer soundscapes ever be able to come together in front of the TV and enjoy a film made just for them? Or will one of those rogue planets or out of control galaxies stumble out of outer space and smash us to bits first? I’d say odds are about even. See you in the underground caverns!

-Dave Merrill