Wednesday, 18 November 2015

#12: Lensman (1984)

Directors: Kazuyuki Hirokawa and Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Screenplay: Soji Yoshikawa
Based on the novel franchise by E.E. Smith
Voice Cast: Toshio Furukawa/Kerrigan Mahan (as Kimball Kinnison); Chikao Ohtsuka/Michael McConnohie (as Peter vanBuskirk); Katsuya Kobayashi/Gregory Snegoff (as DJ Bill); Mami Koyama/Edie Mirman (as Clarissa MacDougal); Nachi Nozawa/Steve Kramer (as Worsel); Seizo Katou/Tom Wyner (as Lord Helmuth)
Viewed in (a good Streamline) English dub

I had to cover an eighties anime. Seen as the golden age of anime, there's unfortunately a dearth of older anime in the UK that only Anime Limited and Discotek Media in the US is making amends for in a vast quantity - second hand DVDs and YouTube have had to make up for the lack of older titles for me as well as the rare release. Lensman however is a curious choice to begin the eighties on the blog however, an adaptation of a famous American sci-fi novel series that's not seen in high regard. The novels are an old statesman of sci-fi literature with a great reputation and heritage, but it's only had adaptations through anime, one this theatrical film and the other a TV series. The Lensman adaptation is about a young adolescent Kimball Kinnison becoming a Lensman by accident when a orb that imbeds itself into someone's hand transfers itself from a dying member to his after a spaceship crash on his home planet. This orb pulls him into the intergalactic organisation and embroiled in a war between the good Galactic Fleet and the evil Boskone Empire. The other aspect of this film, which is far odder, is that it's the debut of Yoshiaki Kawajiri, co-directing a film from an era before Akira (1988) that will be drastically alien to many casual anime fans, an era vastly different from the anime made after Akira, including Kawajiri's own, where you had uber-budgeted anime theatrical epics, many of which have been long out-of-print in the West.

Starting with then-cutting edge 3D animation to depict spaceships fleeing a hostile environment, the Lensman adaptation is clearly indebted to the original Star Wars trilogy. This becomes a severe crutch for Lensman to hobble along on. This is far from the longest film during the pre-Akira era, when anime theatrical films could be as long as two hours and a half like with Odin (1985) or Harmageddon (1983), but it manages the paradox of barely depicting enough detail for its simple plot and also being immensely sluggish at the same time. There's not a lot of plot following Kinnison and his friend - the giant, horned Peter vanBuskirk, the frankly useless female character Clarissa and the statuesque pterodactyl  alien Worsel - baring being perused by the Boskone Empire and ending up on one of their industrial planets where a narcotic is being mined. Somehow it doesn't take advantage of what's there already to add flourishes to deepen the characters' personalities or sci-fi intrigue more. Lensman misses a lot of opportunities and considering how long and vast the back story of the original novels are, this makes the narrative confusion of David Lynch's Dune (1984) a lot more acceptable when it still tried to cram so much into its feature length. This is baffling as well considering its screenwriter Soji Yoshikawa directed and scripted the Lupin 3rd film The Secret of Mamo (1978), and if there ever was a film that could've done with that one's strangeness it'd be Lensman.

Unfortunately like a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, Kinnison is an incredibly bland lead. Especially as the lens which makes up the film's MacGuffin is barely dealt with, a psychic contact to a whole federation which sounds similar to the Green Lantern Core's rings in DC Comics, and the lensmen themselves are barely covered, Kinnison is as bland as you can get. Even when his father's death in the first act should start an obvious character progression, signposted by him looking out a spaceship window with a J-metal song with eighties riffs playing to emphasise the growth, he's still a non-entity afterwards. The female lead is even worse, the only female character who, despite being a medic with military training, spends most of the film screaming or in vaguely dodgy situations tangled up by furry tentacles or stretched out in tendrils. Admittedly Kawajiri's female characters can by utterly objectionable in his later films, but this somehow feels worse than someone like Kagero in Ninja Scroll (1993). The film, like many sci-fi and fantasy stories, is helped by the side characters, such as vanBuskirk as the lovable giant who is entertaining in his gentle goliath personality and prayers to give up drinking or gambling when he's in mortal danger Then there's Worsel who's part of the interesting character designs for the aliens - part hand glider, part confident gunslinger - but he does unfortunately have a name which will immediately provoke sniggers from British listeners who know of Worzel Gummidge; even if they didn't, naming your Hans Solo equivalent Worsel is still going to cause Brits to giggle because it invokes that his home planet is somewhere in Yorkshire where the spaceships are tractors and everyone is drinking cider.

The best part of Lensman, as can be found even in the most disappointing of works, are the visuals and animation quality. Despite the limitations of the plot and characterisation there's still a vast creativity amongst the animators and cel painters where each planet, each farm land on an alien land, even of an eighties discotheque with skyscraper sized piston light shows are lovingly created. I've yet to stumble on a bad straight-to-video or theatrical anime for this blog, and while it's still early days, only if I cover a notorious example or scrape the bottom of the barrel will either lead to a terrible mess of doodles. From the Boskone Empire's biomechanical aesthetic - their various shapes to their cancer-like, Cronenbergian spaceships - to the settings across the universe, Lensman certainly has a lot to please the eye. Even the 3D computer effects, while dated, have an immense charm. In fact, during the final confrontation with the Boskone Empire leader where Kinnison is thrown through a series of hallucinations, there's an interesting mix of a 2D character design with three dimensions that's far from a mess.

It's just a shame how predictable and plodding Lensman is as a story. It's viewed as utterly unfaithful to the original source material, so badly that this might have affected its lack of DVD availability, and the fact the plot comes off as utter derivative and disinteresting makes the decision to have made the film as it is such a terrible idea with nearly thirty years of hindsight behind it. An anime shouldn't be stuck with a plain white meat hero fighting a generic villain, and ironically whilst the plots were still as simplistic, Kawajiri's solo work including more charismatic heroes and a series of bizarre adversaries, as if subconsciously he learnt from the mistakes here for his career. As Kawajiri's debut, this is merely a curiosity when his (usually) gorier and darker material later kept the animation quality but followed his more trademark peculiarities for better results. 

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