More anime in quick succession!

*Additional Cartoons Dept: In case you didn’t see (since I posted it awfully late), I’ve got an anime review down below this. And I’ve seen some other stuff besides that; for example there’s the first episode of Afro Samurai, the latest big hype television project from the ever-prolific Gonzo animation studio, notable mostly for its high-profile English cast (Samuel L. Jackson and Ron Perlman headline as hero and villain), its explicit Western targeting (I don’t believe it has yet aired in Japan, and there will apparently be no Japanese language release), and its comparatively lavish production cost of over one million US dollars per episode (which is probably why there’s only five of them planned). It airs Thursdays on Spike, but you can just watch Episode 1 in its entirety at their site.

The directorial debut of one Fuminori Kizaki, it’s very much an action visual showpiece, single-mindedly intent on dishing up gore and guns and blades and explosions, to the exclusion of virtually anything else. Make no mistake: the characterizations are minimal, the plot is derivative to the extreme, and some of the dialogue is almost epically awful, but there was obviously nothing at all on this project’s mind at any point other than looking cool and titillating people with tons of bloody action. It’s effective enough at that, and the project’s expense is obvious from its ultra-slick visual quality (fine character designs by animation director Hiroya Iijima). Wholly unpretentious, and I can see myself sitting though another four episodes of it, but understand that there’s absolutely nothing going on so far other than kewl fights.

Far more individual and bizarre a sword-swinging epic is the 1985 feature Dagger of Kamui, from veteran director Rintaro, assisted by a fabulous crew - among the key animators are Koji Morimoto (Memories, co-founder of Studio 4°C), Yasuomi Umetsu (Kite, popular character designer and hentai auteur), and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, a bunch of other dark action spectaculars). It’s based on a bunch of prose novels, and suffers from almost exactly the same problems that nagged Rintaro’s prior novel-based anime feature, 1983’s Harmagedon, a certain convolution from trying to stuff way too much plot into a two hour movie. Lots of big ’80s anime flourishes too, like poofy hair, some rocking electric guitar solos during ninja clashes, lots of flashy laser-like lights, and a big ballad (with lyrics!) being played during a crucial scene.

But goddamn it, it’s Rintaro so it’s at least spattered across the screen in a unique manner. Weird, almost psychedelic visual flourishes infest key moments, and there’s a great, weightless grace to the many action scenes. There’s a weirdly hypnotic pacing to ten minutes of lost boy ninja Jiro’s long flight from evil, nondescript and obviously important characters alike drifting in and out of view and action, lots of jumps in slow motion and freeze-frames at striking points. Then there’ll be three or so minutes of Jiro wandering around quiet scenery, only to be confronted yet again with electric guitars and a girl ninja who turns the hot springs red and attacks him with neon death butterflies.

The plot is your typical historical revenge stuff, with Jiro somewhat aimlessly seeking to defeat the man who tricked him into killing his father; somehow, this involves him setting forth on a quest to find Captain Kidd’s lost gold, a journey spanning many years and multiple continents. At one point, Jiro arrives in the US (everyone speaks flawless Japanese in the US, as you know), where he confronts slavery, saves Native Americans from evil cowboys, and briefly teams up with Mark Twain. Every ninja movie should have electric guitars and Mark Twain, and also end with the hero helping to orchestrate a national revolution back home. Obviously Kawajiri liked the whole ‘secret gold means the fate of the nation’ subplot, since it also turns up in Ninja Scroll.

But there’s just a lot more slightly stodgy, somewhat overreaching, vaguely experimental character to something like this when compared to the admittedly enjoyable cotton candy likes of Ninja Scroll and Afro Samurai. There's themes and stuff, like political awakening and the futility of isolation, and as goofy as it gets the effort has a way of gleaming through. Or maybe I'm just a slave to my '80s taste in Japanese cartoons. Who knows.