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.