Wherein I review a pair of old-school series, a new-school series, and an OVA that wonderfully mixes old and new styles.
As part of a little “classics” journey to watch some things I missed back in the day, Dragon Half is token nineties anime material through and through. It has that nineties style, with the sharper angles than your softer digital fare today, as well as plenty of color, reliance on visual glow effects, and lots of SD to keep animation costs lower. It’s wacky, silly, and doesn’t resolve much of anything, but hey it’s just a little two-shot OVA adapted from a much longer running manga. What it does have is good ol’ fashioned style, humor, and just that “different” feel that is so nice to get after the myriad cookie-cutter high-school-based slice-of-life/rom-com series.
Does it stand up to two decades worth of evolution in the world of anime? Well, sorta. The animation is good enough (mostly) that it won’t stand out as atrociously “pre-digital” like some of the TV series from the nineties do (I love you, Kodomo no Omocha, but I’m talking about you). The music, if anything, is probably the biggest indicator, with some boopy MIDI fare and a synth-heavy remix of a Beethoven piece complete with nonsensical Engrish-sprinkled lyrics. The cartoony nature of the action might also be a bit dated, but I think this is only because so many series now fail to really utilize this strength of animation. Sure, they might have some sweat drops, colossal punches with flying through the sky, or giant pink head bruises, but so few really make use of the malleable nature of drawn characters like so many old Warner Bros. or Disney cartoons did. I suppose this is less a generational thing and more just stylistic differences, and today anime tends to lean heavy on the on-model easy-to-reproduce drawings.
At any rate, Dragon Half is a fun hour-or-so long diversion about a cute half-dragon half-human girl and her weird predicaments being a half-breed. It hardly stands above much today but if you stop and consider the timing of its release, especially in the US, then you can maybe appreciate a little the impact it had on Western fans and why it is, for those few older anime veterans, more than just a little nostalgic.
On the more serious end we have the wonderful little three-part OVA Gunsmith Cats, which trades cartoonishness for a Western-style hard-nosed crime-fighting girl-duo setup. The nineties is still strong with this one, though, as evidenced by the heavy stylization on guns, girls, and the mean-streets of Chicago, replete with thugs, goons, and hoodlums that need shooting. Don’t forget the lusciously detailed and faithful Shelby Mustang GT they drive.
Gunsmith Cats makes me happy, because it is a series that has a strong sense of style and identity and purpose and it sticks to that and delivers well. It’s got action, a bit of comedy, and yes even sexiness, and it manages to do this without feeling like pandering garbage. The music is fitting, the animation (especially the driving chase scenes) is often gorgeous even by today’s higher standards, and the whole package just feels solid.
Is it short? Well, yeah, but OVAs were common and more easily localized in the US being conveniently on one VHS tape. But what’s there is definitely good and worth checking out sometime. And does anyone else think the GSC opening maybe, just a little bit, influenced the later Cowboy Bebop opening?
Although not another nineties series, it’s the late 2000s six-part web-series Time of Eve, later made into a full theatrical movie. ToE takes place in the near future, where everyday androids exist to serve all sorts of roles, from construction, teaching, childcare, and of course general housework. The show focuses on a specific teenage boy’s relationship with their “houseroid” and the world of android ethics. What rights should they enjoy? Do they actually care? Have personalities? Should we treat them like impersonal tools or more like humans? Where does the line get drawn? The bigger ethics questions form the basis for both the backdrop of the world as well as the primary struggle for a lot of the cast. Even so, it manages to still be very character-driven as well, as we see our protagonist come to terms with how he should treat his android and how he should let its presence affect him as well.
The plot hinges on him finding a secluded café, eponymously named Time of Eve, where the one house rule is “no discrimination”. Androids don’t have to play “robot” and can relax and act, well, human. As a result, he quickly finds that the robotic talking androids he normally see are perfectly capable of acting like normal people, to the point that he cannot tell who there is a human and who is actually an android.
ToE is a fairly good looking piece too, with tons of little futuristic details to the environments, which are often given very nice sweeping 3D camera treatments. Character designs tend to be a bit more realistic than is typical (lots more roundness, for instance) and the CG stuff tends to be well integrated. Music is also pretty good and fits the style, sweeping shots, and futurism vibe.
The length is just right, too, as it gives plenty of time to explore a lot of interesting questions and have some real character growth without ever really dragging at all. The ending sort of feels abrupt, but I think they did a good job of hinting at the greater change that will inevitably occur in several of the characters, even if it isn’t shown. If anything, I’d still definitely go for a sequel or something, though it might be better if it focused on new people or something. Unless you just cannot get over the lack of moé or whatever, you probably won’t regret trying this one. And heck, it’s short enough it won’t feel like a huge time investment.
For a real short and sweet treat, there’s the beautifully produced Little Witch Academia, a mini-movie of sorts that expertly blends the cartoony power of animation with imagination, style, and spectacle. It evokes a mix of old-school Disney feel to the animation but yet distinctly still modern and anime.
The story is a bit simplistic and the characters are exaggerated but this tends to be more useful than not given its short 20-something minute run. There isn’t a lot of time to develop characters, so the fact that they all are mostly caricatures allows them to ooze their personality with every movement and line delivery and speeds up the whole “getting to know the cast” bit. In fact, it lets them do this while setting up the plot. This proves to be a good use of time, so there’s nary a bit of drag and lots to absorb despite the brief length.
And did I mention that animation? Colorful, fluid, fun, yet detailed. The mix of Western and Eastern styles is such a refreshing pleasure to behold, and the expertise with which the designs and movements of characters explain their character before they even utter a word is something you usually only see Disney pull off so well (admittedly, their renaissance phase more so) with Don Bluth a definite close second.
If there is anything negative to be said it is the length again. Too short! Rather, the whole thing feels like a test run, a preview of what could be possible. In fact, this seems to be just the case. Trigger is a relatively new animation company founded by some industry veterans and they just recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for something more. So far, it is planned to be another 20-ish minute short, but I get the feeling this is all to raise awareness of their skills and to garner interest with the goal of a feature length piece some day. Here’s to hoping that day comes sooner rather than later because Trigger seems too talented to let it to go to waste.
As of this writing, you can watch Time of Eve and Little Witch Academia for free on Crunchyroll. For the nineties OVAs, of course they are long since out of print I’m sure, so either find an old VHS tape, maybe there is a DVD re-release, or they’re probably on YouTube or something these days.