Wednesday, 5 August 2015

#1: Gestalt (1997)


Director: Osamu Yamazaki
Script: Mamiya Fujimura
Based on a manga by Yun Kōga
Voice Actors: Hikaru Midorikawa (as Shazan); Kae Araki (as Ouri); Kazue Ikura (as Carmine); Mariko Kouda (as Suzu); Tsutomu Kashiwakura (as Shoushi)

When one begins a new blog, the first entry you write about is viewed to have some importance. An introduction, which I've done, and the first subject covered being something special. I could've made the first anime written on the blog be a special work of art. I could've covered Isao Takahata's The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) or Mamoru Hosoda's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), both of which are sitting impatiently in a line in my To-Watch pile. On the other hand such acclaimed works could be disconcerting in attempting to write about especially when you worry about coming off as an uneducated dunce coming out the starting gate. When you're tasting the waters you could instead choose an easy option to get used to the layout of your desired ideas for the blog. I could cover Gestalt instead. But this is also an appropriate choice for the first anime covered as well as the largest part of the blog's purpose is to dive head first into 1000 anime. There are only twenty plus Studio Ghibli films, not including those difficult to see shorts Hayao Miyazaki does for their museum, and the decision by the company to limit their production schedule for the unforeseeable future is going to reduce the chances of thirty films existing when I finish this blog. Mamoru Hosoda has considerably less directorial entries and there are many auteur anime directors unless they work on projects continually who will merely graze the number I need to beat to complete this insane project. This means I have to embrace stuff like Gestalt, randomly found in a second hand DVD store anime shelf, or face growing creeping madness before I reach a quarter of the project.

It's an apt choice too because the idea of the blog also means going through all the clichés of what "anime" is and finally admitting they're a major reason you actually watch these shows and films in the first place alongside the great canonical works. Enter Gestalt, a two episode, straight-to-video fantasy action story which has these clichés by the bucket load. Characters with large eyes, bright nineties colour designs and elegant costume designs? Check. Giant sweat drops appearing when a character is nervous or baffled? Check. Random comedy and pratfalls even in a scene when a villain is vanquished? Check. No ending as many nineties OVA releases had? Absolutely and you're stuck buying the English translation of the original manga online in its multiple volumes if you want an ending, one in motion only possible after in your mind.

Like many a fantasy anime, Gestalt the anime is a curious mix of mythologies in building its briefly seen then gone world. Father Olivier, a priest, leaves his order to discover the truth about Gestalt, one of the seven Gods of his world who is seen as a horrifying demon, one so terrifying that not only was he banished to a far away island but even saying his full name, rather than merely "G", is cursed. The one member of his order we see, sulking by himself in a chapel, sends a female dark elf after him called Suzu, but during a strange moment of charity from a female owner of an inn Oliver is given a female slave called Ouri as a gift, only to discover when unlocking her ability to speak through a kiss and a magic blessing that she is a powerful sorceress who is more than capable of clearing away obstacles with only half her original ability.

The result is a hodgepodge of Western high fantasy tropes that plays fast and loose with countless references to many around the world for a peculiar intercontinental blend. While it is a flaw with many anime, even well regarded franchises, the first anime choice for the blog forces me to relinquish my hand without hesitance and admit I love the sometimes convoluted implementations of mythology and esoteric ideas in anime. It becomes disappointing when an anime doesn't use its ideas to their fullest potential, but it's become obvious even the most generic take on mythology, like a story with orcs and elves, is immediately going to be watchable even if its incompetent with depicting the material because non-Japanese mythology and folk law is always interesting to see interpreted by Japanese pop culture. When its Japanese folk law and mythology it's also fascinating even if the writer was clearly making stuff up. Frankly a lot of Western animation I grew up with is so tedious with depicting mythology even in a way that's deliciously dumb. Live action western fantasy or horror films are even worse especially the former, lacking the unpredictable or unexpected you find in real mythology, which is why fairy tails for me have always linked to surrealism by way of the likes of Lewis Carroll, or the unpredictable you find in completely insane narratives of anime, where you enjoy someone like Go Nagai dragging a concept in a place you probably wouldn't have comprehended it to go.

The dialogue here, like many an anime, is full of vague super ability names only peppered with references to "Prospero" or "Tetragrammaton" that can make the dialogue obtuse in the same way Dragonball Z (1989-1996) would be if the audio was removed from the images out of context. This as well, in the first review for the blog, unless it's supposed to be an intellectual or deep show, where is becomes maddening, is now a form of cherry added to anime like Gestalt that I love knowing how nonsensical the subtitles can be. For me it comes off as strangely poetic in a trashy pop culture way. Gestalt tries to cram so much into its sixty minutes of existence that the result is a mess but an amusing one for me. This is a world where dark elves and magic exists, yet the order Olivier is from is explicitly referencing Christianity, a crucifix visible in the main symbolic image for the religion in this anime's universe only held aloft horizontally by a new figure. Suddenly, with the gaudy colourful look of an obscure nineties anime, you can go from medieval castle walls to Persian housing designs straight from Aladdin (1992) with no sense of geography separating them from each other. If anything the juxtapositions from cross pollinating ideas and concepts, including mythological ones, is one of my greatest pleasures in anime as, when it's a good one, they stand out, and when the anime is bad, it's still imaginative and/or weird.

You have the least expected combinations of myths tied together and emphasised in some cases by a lack of clear research in the symbolism, causing a strange reinterpretation of the material. Sometimes the ideas have been researched even a little, as here where the magic is based on the four classic elements, someone clearly having read about alchemy texts when fire is represented by salamanders, dragon-like beings including one Suzu rides, and water by undines, adding brief moments of elaborate world building through using mythologies.When its crass or misinterpreted, as anime can end up doing even when based on the Japanese folklore, it can be watchable in seeing the least expected interpretations to your favourite religions and cultural myths through the minds of a desperate creator.

Gestalt goes for a sloppy balance between a comedy with moments of fantasy action. Were it not for a few dollops of blood, not enough to horrify anyone, and the few sexual references this would be a fantasy story you could watch with children. Visibly its affected by some limitations in the production, at least in the jarring screen pans that take place at lot and really look bad. But it was entertaining. Its apt to begin the blog with something like this because even when it couldn't dare compete with anime that I find entertaining regardless of their dubious failings, I can find pleasure in a forgotten obscurity like this. if it was completely offensive or so maddening dull, if my tastes have shown me anything, will I ever felt real pain anymore, and unlike a television series, sixty minutes is not a lot of time with Gestalt's two episodes passing by very easily. Far from dismissive, its accepting the flaws with it but enjoying the viewing regardless. Even very silly things in Gestalt are funny to me, such as the use of a background with a sun and flowers drawn in crayon by what looks like a child's hand when Ouri praises Oliver for a potential virtue he has. Even the cheap comedic and visual effects are amusing for their tackiness such as the cliché of a young female character enraging another mature one by calling her an "old woman", more so when the older woman is a villain and gets distracted from her evil ways by the cheap insult with immense rage.

Also Gestalt manages to point out an aspect of a lot of anime that will become very apparent even when they show very dubious gender politics. This blog will show the very schizophrenic attitude to the subject as well as on the subject of kink and fluid sexuality in the medium. Gestalt does blunder into some strange areas of apparent humour in how Ouri is given to Oliver as a sex slave and when she offers to sell her body for them to be able to eat in one scene, but thankfully this gets dropped by the second episode, concentrating on a tiny narrative where a king of a city is starting to act strangely and is having a tournament where losers are fed to a horrible creature known as a Carrion Crawler, the combination of a worm and the torso of Queen Slug-for-a-Butt from the Earthworm Jim franchise. There is a cute and thankfully brief joke, enough so it doesn't become enough and block half the screen up with its existence, about Ouri only being able at first to speak in text boxes like an old RPG videogame character. Once she is able to talk, admittedly through the power of a kiss, she is the stereotypical strong female character but this in itself brings up complicated issues about the gender portraits of anime characters which is another thing I like in anime, where even in an apparently misogynistic work, not Gestalt but something else, you can have a mixed message that goes against the sexist ideal of women completely.

Suddenly Gestalt is another anime, like many I have watched and will cover, where a female character is seemingly a naive, girlish figure who almost always speaks in a higher pitched, lively voice only for this to be a mask to a more serious and/or confident woman, one who is much more tougher and usually more dangerous, always depicted from what I've seen unless it's a parody with the same voice actress deepening her voice for both English and Japanese dubs. This is exactly what happens with Ouri when its reveal she is a powerful sorceress who has happened to have magical restrictions forced on her for unknown reasons the anime sadly doesn't have time to deal with. Even if he is a priest and probably has a code of chastity, the fact that Oliver is the stereotype of the nervous male lead who would've flinch if Ouri stopped calling him master and said she wanted to be romantic with him, emphasises a contradictory idea that, for all the crass depictions of women in anime by male creators, there are a lot of depictions of strong women paired with timid men in them even if the women were depicted as schoolgirls with chests bigger than their own heads and chainmail bikinis. It reveals an odd reflection of anime writers and creators that they do this a lot, and in this case the original manga author is a woman which changes perspectives further. Even if Oliver has to help Ouri through a magic kiss to briefly reach a higher power ability, it still involves them in the end briefly becoming one as, effectively, a hermaphrodite figure of greater power, and for the few stocky muscular male side characters, most of the main ones including the male villain of the anime are depicted as elegant figures usually with longer hair and spectacular fashion senses even for a fantasy world.

Sadly when this anime ends, Gestalt is just starting the beginning of what is clearly a longer narrative, feeling like the prologue setting up some of the main cast from the manga. If it had more episodes or was a television series, I would've gladly watched more of it. It's completely un-offensive as it is, and I did find it fun to watch. Having it as the first review for the site is appropriate because if even this is immensely entertaining as a slight choice, I'm going to have a lot of further fun in fishing out curiosities like it from this period and other decades. Even works painful to sit through are going to be worth wasting time on them to fish out the quirks the likes of anime possess.

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