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Review: Bubblegum Crisis (Sub)

The Knight Sabers, left to right: Linna, Sylia, Priss, and Nene

Medium: Original Animated Video (OAV) (8 episodes)
Genres: Action, Science Fiction
Director: Katsuhito Akiyama
Studio: AIC
Release Dates: Feb. 25, 1987 – Jan. 30, 1991 (Japan), Remastered Edition: 2004 (AnimEigo–N.America)
Rated: Not Rated (Appropriate for 16+)

Some shows stand the test of time perfectly, and arrive in the modern day as ageless, critically-acclaimed classics that are watched again and again. Others fade away just as quickly as they sparked dully into existence. Bubblegum Crisis, the 1987 8-part OAV series that stormed the small American anime market in the early '90s, isn't really either one.

The series' vision of a futuristic "Mega Tokyo," crushed under the weight of its own sprawling mass, feels like a low-budget animated Blade Runner, complete with a special police force (the AD Police) that exists only to track down and destroy renegade worker robots called Boomers. The divergence from Blade Runner's iconic setting comes in the form of the Knight Sabers, a half-vigilante, half-mercenary squad of four women who typically take Boomer-related jobs from the highest bidder, donning robotic "hardsuits" and doing battle by night while holding inconspicuous day jobs like "lingerie shop owner" or "cyberpunk Hannah Montana."

The first four episodes of Bubblegum Crisis are little more than character building exercises for the Knight Sabers (Priss, Sylia, Linna, and Nene), featuring a variety of adversaries for the fearless foursome to take down. For example, one features a team of Boomer kidnappers masquerading as humans, while another one revolves around a murderous driver seeking revenge against one of Mega Tokyo's local motorcycle gangs. Arguably, the show has a consistent conflict between the Knight Sabers and the evil Genom corporation, but the screenwriters’ attempts at cohesion are weak at best. Meanwhile, the main plot in each episode is usually relatively predictable, with its pulpy, film noir-esque mystery framework, but that's not really the important part.

What is important? The sweet robot-on-robot action of course! The scenes in between the fights often consist of low-framerate animation or static images, but when the girls get into their hardsuits (created by influential '80s character designer Kenichi Sonoda*), the metal shines, the lasers fly, and the AD Police helicopters start exploding.

What I keep trying to figure out is why I love this show so damn much, even though it's just so damn bad. Even in the later episodes, when the animation takes a significant turn for the better, the episodic plots retain their maddening predictability. One of the Knight Sabers meets and befriends another woman who happens to be tied into some sort of evil Genom plot. Then someone hires them for a job and their new friend is brought into the fray. Rinse and repeat.

There's something special about Bubblegum Crisis, though. If nothing else, the Knight Sabers themselves are memorable, with Priss the hotheaded motorcyclist and indie rock musician, Sylia the lingerie shop owner and leader of the Sabers, Linna the boy-obsessed gymnast, and Nene the incompetent AD Police officer and hacker. Their expressive, distinctive character designs by Kenichi Sonoda (Gunsmith Cats, Riding Bean) bring the four to life, and their clashing personalities make for some genuinely funny moments of conflict between the girls. And then there are the robot fights. Nearly every one is filled with classic action-movie "Oh Snap!" moments, as robots (and people) are ground under motorcycle wheels, blasted with machine gun fire, and punched with EXPLODING PUNCHES. Priss even uses a rocket-powered kick in episode 6!

Of course, since each episode is its own self-contained story, directed, animated, and written by a partially new staff every time, the show frequently see-saws in terms of quality. Nevertheless, the two episodes that really stood out to me are episodes 6 ("Red Eyes") and 8 ("Scoop Chase"). The former, directed by Masami Ōbari (Gravion), features a sexoroid, a guy with control over an orbital laser, and the previously mentioned rocket-kick. The latter, directed by Hiroaki Gohda (Ah! My Goddess), is what I like to call "Nene's Aquaman episode," since it's clearly tailor-made to create a situation where Nene can contribute in a meaningful way to the Knight Sabers for once. Despite clearly being made for her, the episode still fleshes out her personality in a way that no other episode does, making Nene (to my great surprise) the most well-developed character in the show!

As far as I'm concerned, this is a show that, for all rights and purposes, nobody should like. It is simple-minded, trashy late-'80s pulp entertainment, created as a way to cash in on the cyberpunk boom that directly followed Blade Runner, but somehow, some way, I was — completely un-ironically — entertained by it.

So we're back to the big question: why do I love Bubblegum Crisis so much? After putting quite a lot of thought into it, I realized that the answer is really quite simple: It's fun. No symbolism, no emotion, no deeper meaning. Just good old-fashioned robot-smashing fun.

[Recommended]

* According to the information I have available to me, Kenichi Sonoda seems to be responsible for the initial hardsuit designs, despite not having a "Mecha Design" credit for the series. (Thanks, Daryl Surat!)



This review is based on a copy of the AnimEigo "Remastered Edition" DVD box set release of the series, borrowed from the Rensselaer Sci-Fi Assn. anime library.

4 comments:

Daryl Surat said...

I could be wrong on the hardsuit design origin, though to date I credit them to Sonoda. How much of those mecha were Kenichi Sonoda and how much were Shinji Aramaki is not something I know, though I'm 100% sure only Shinji Aramaki could design the Motoslaves: motorcycles that turned into robots (of course). There was a very short scene in the first CGI Appleseed movie directed by Aramaki featuring opponents very similar to the BGC hardsuits. I figure that's because after episode 4 (once Sonoda's involvement was pretty much done), the original designs underwent modifications.

Certainly BGC emphasizes style over substance, and perhaps the reason you like it is because the style it emphasizes is a rather unique one for anime. The much-lauded soundtrack, the particular handling of colors and shading, the level of detail present in the designs, the brief moments of nudity or extreme violence, the grim yet oddly cheerful setting and mood, etc: very little of this is present in modern-day entertainment the way it is handled here. The whole is perhaps greater than the sum of its parts, which may be why, despite its relative simplicity, you're not struck with the feeling of "man, I've seen a hundred cartoons just like this" even when watching it now.

Evan Minto (Vampt Vo) said...

Yeah, it's a really tricky thing to figure out, since there's no direct credit to him. What makes me lean toward Sonoda as the designer, though, is his credit on BGC 2040 for "Original Hardsuit Design."

I definitely agree with the show's insistence on style over substance. In fact, I was pretty unimpressed during the first few episodes, but as it went on it really started to grow on me, in large part because of a) the robot fights and b) everything about the characters, from their conversations to Sonoda's expressive designs. I think that it's hard to watch Bubblegum Crisis and not glean some sort of enjoyment out of it, even if you're watching it "ironically."

AstroNerdBoy said...

Heh. My soft spot for this anime comes from having lived in Japan from '89 to '91. So I got to watch this "new" thanks to my best friend and roommate. I wasn't into anime and back then, I used to tweak him on things. For this anime, it was the obvious title. "What the heck is a 'bubblegum crisis' anyway? Did they run out of bubblegum in the future?" *lol*

I had to sell this title a few years ago to pay medical bills and just haven't felt the urge to rewatch, even after your excellent review. I did keep "Bubblegum Crisis 2040" though because I like it a whole lot better.

abandonedfactory said...

Yeah, I have to say I enjoyed Tokyo 2040 more. I think it drove more towards a progressive plot, whereas (as you pointed out) the original BGC was very episodic.

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