ZONED: Grasshoppa! Dissected
Unmasking the Japanese DVD magazine that'll never make it across the Pacific--Grasshoppa!
What do Robot Carnival, Neo Tokyo, Memories and The Animatrix all have in common? Simple, they are all collections of wild ideas that have been lavishly brought to life with film, and wild ideas are just what Grasshoppa!, another of Japan's lesser-known anthologies, sets out to showcase. While not entirely animated, this Region 2 oddity is sure to appeal to anyone familiar with North America's mid-90s series, MTV's Liquid Television--the show that birthed both Aeon Flux and Beavis and Butthead.
Best described as a DVD magazine, Grasshoppa! consists of four volumes with a mix of six animated or live action short films each. Anime fans should instantly recognize the mind-numbing visuals of TRAVA - Fist Planet: episode 1 as being from director Takeshi Koike (Dead Leaves, "World Record" from The Animatrix) and the mind of Katsuhito Ishii (Party 7 and Shark-Skinned Man and Peach-Assed Woman). TRAVA is set in the far-flung future where Trava and Shinkai, two aliens not that far removed from the likes of Spike Spiegel and Jet Black, receive a lucrative contract to travel to the planet Fable and "mark" a place called Area 78. On their way, they come across Mikuru, a young princess with humongous hips and an Emeraldas-esque scar across her face, who was floating in a space capsule suspended in cryo-sleep. The planet itself seems to have the ability to heal old scars and others are after its secrets.
Just like much of the crazy antics seen in FLCL, Dead Leaves, and the recent RE: Cutie Honey, the viewer must forget about the underlying plot of TRAVA, simply taking in the series for what it is--a show filled with beautiful animation, cleaver sight gags, and witty dialogue.
The live-action Frog River is also carried over through all four volumes and centers on fourth-year college student Tsutomu whose infatuation with Mizuno, literally the girl of his dreams, becomes his ultimate downfall, as his "friend" uses it as a way to extort money from him. And when he unwittingly insults a gay couple, he finds himself having to prepare his mind and body to fight a kendo match that's all about honor. Hit or miss early on, Frog River becomes one of Grasshoppa!'s most endearing titles, thanks to its characters, cinematic style and excellent soundtrack.
Two other titles appear in all four volumes of Grasshoppa!. They are Hal & Bons, a fully CG generated series featuring two dogs being interviewed by their edible home-wrecker Mr. Mochi, and the street-wise "montage" films entitled WINDOW. The Hal & Bons segments showcase amazing lighting effects, but the inane plot never goes anywhere, leaving it looking like a mere DreamWorks style CG wannabe. WINDOW, on the other hand, is even more out there and it can become a complete snooze-fest. The rawness of the documentaries should appeal to the CKY crowd as they follow the lives of artists like Skate Thing and A Bathing Ape, but is unfortunately a tad too underground to appeal to most Westerners.
For all four volumes, the anime greats at Studio 4°C (Vampire Hunter D and Spriggan) contributed a series of special short anime films under the title "Sweep Punch". These films are all completely separate and individual, in story and animation style. The first is a musical number starring a CG hand puppet named Professor Dan Petory that answers such questions as why the Earth is blue and why UFO's fly zig-zag. Volume 2 features End of the World, a sci-fi/fantasy short about an alien girl that befriends a girl at a rock concert and then travels to another world to fight S&M monsters that would feel right at home in Heavy Metal. Comedy, which is anything but that, is a dark tale of a pale little girl that hires a mysterious swordsman that has the power to utterly decimate entire armies. The final tale, Higan, is about three men in mech powersuits fighting to the death against two mobile tanks.
With the core titles out of the way, the guest films and one-shot shorts are all equally amazing. The first volume features Bonheur Heights, a tale of a woman who is forced to kill her boyfriend because he wants to commit suicide with her. Volume two is a special treat, as it includes an episode of Oh! Super Milk-Chan that ADV failed to get its mitts on. This episode features Milk receiving the wrath of God. Sadly, while all the DVDs feature English subtitles, this episode is the one that received the most shoddy translation attempt. Large chunks lack any type of English subtitles at all.
Volume three's guest film is of particular note, as it is an action-packed short film by Hidaki Anno. Ryusei-Kacho is a middle manager with the super-human ability to ALWAYS get a seat on the subway train. He meets his match when a businesswoman tries to usurp his title. Done entirely in live action, the eye-popping film has the two characters running over passenger's heads and even flying into the atmosphere at one point. If Anno's work on Cutie Honey surprised you, then be sure to track down this little flick.
The final volume has a pair of two shorter films that are nothing short of bizarre. One features a schoolgirl seducing a giant slime monster that looks ripped right from an episode of Dr. Who and painted pink, while the other features a pair of living underwear that enacts its yakuza-style revenge on a couple of men for belittling the owner.
Grasshoppa! may have lasted only four volumes. Three special DVD compilations for TRAVA (Fist Planet episode 1, Frog River and Hal & Bons) were released, collecting various shorts in their entirety with a few extras. TRAVA is of particular note, as it collects the four parts that make up the first episode into a complete 47 minute feature and it even throws in a five-minute interview and an even shorter "Episode 2 Teaser". At less than three minutes, the teaser is enjoyable, yet all too short. It's best to consider it an epilogue, since there is little chance of a full-length Episode 2 ever being released. The first, and possibly only, printing of TRAVA also comes in a special collector's package, which contains two small plastic figures of Trava and Shinkai.
Though not as mind-numbingly strange as Oh! Mikey, open-minded viewers are sure to find more than a few favorites amid Grasshoppa!'s treasure trove of films. Every volume comes complete with English subtitles, making them import friendly for anyone with a Region 2 DVD player. For anyone willing to brave the import stores, feel free to check out CDJapan (www.cdjapan.co.jp), Jlist (www.jlist.com) and Amazon Japan's (www.amazon.co.jp) currently stock of DVDs for these titles. You won't be disappointed with what you will find!