Anime in Retrospect: Bubblegum Crisis
The much-touted original cyberpunk classic has been seen by... almost nobody, it seems. Take a dive with us as we delve into the murky waters of distinctly 80's cyberpunk action!
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It’s not a wholly unique or enlightened statement, but many would agree that it rings true. Take, for example, this very issue of Animefringe. Most of us have been horridly run off of our feet, desperately dashing here and there as we've generally tried to do our utmost best in delivering the goods for our final issue. It's been a pretty chaotic and tiring time, but already I know that in one year's time, I will be looking upon the final days of November 2005 with a loving glaze over my eyes. Nostalgia is something that I tend to substitute in, even when I have no right to feel it.
Strange as it may be, I have a fixation with having been the age I am now in the 80's. Of course, this wasn't the case, and I'm glad that I haven't acquired the extra years that would come with being in my early twenties back then, but I have always wondered just what it would have been like to have been genuinely wowed by something like The Terminator at the cinema, walking out mullet-headed and proceeding to rave to all of my friends. I do much the same with anime. I was never around during the Akira days, back when any title that got some kind of English translation was special for that reason alone, and I was way too young to be paying attention before that landmark movie. So when I sit down and watch my Bubblegum Crisis DVDs, I have an occasional habit of imagining that I'm actually living in the past watching a carefully acquired cult video... which results in the strange sensation where I wish that I hadn't sold my VHS copies.
As a franchise in general, Bubblegum Crisis has lived in turmoil. After the successful reception of the first episode, the original OVA was planned to spawn thirteen episodes, but it only ever got as far as eight episodes, and so for years now, various attempts have been made to fill in the hole left behind. Unfortunately, unlike its more philosophical cyberpunk cousin, Ghost in the Shell, the quality consistency in the expansion of the Bubblegum franchise has been less than perfect.
An initial attempt to fill in the blanks and provide some conclusion to the original series came in the form of the three-part OVA, Bubblegum Crash!. In short, it failed to live up to its predecessor. Characters seemed to clash too much with their past incarnations, the animation was of a lower standard, and too much of it veered far too closely towards the utterly ridiculous. Since then, there have been other efforts, be it in the reasonable A.D Police OVA, the less reasonable A.D. Police TV series, or the fairly recent Parasite Dolls OVA. The most familiar incarnation for most, however, is the twenty-six episode series Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040.
Although touted at times as what the original OAV may have been if it had seen completion, Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 was an entirely different beast. The entire feel of the original was dragged away and replaced by a more chic look for the 90's, the character focus was changed (fans of Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 would do well to note that Linna is the least developed of the Knight Sabers in the original), and in general, it tried to change its strong points. Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 played closely to the popular trends of the time, forcing itself to try and pummel depth into its characters and to situate itself as a more focused psychological narrative. It also ran out of inspiration towards the end, as it descended into a plodding race against time, perhaps showing that Bubblegum Crisis may have benefited from being left incomplete. I certainly would have thought more highly of Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 had they never made the last ten or so episodes.
Enough with the other titles; the point of interest in this article is the original OVA that spawned all of this. Bubblegum Crisis represents something of a short-lived breed: the action-centric cyberpunk. This is a show that wears the influence of Blade Runner on its sleeve and throws in a heavy dose of brisk pacing on the side. Initially starting off as just a stand-alone episode, Bubblegum Crisis tells the tale of four young women: Sylia, Priss, Nene and Linna. Recruited by Sylia, they spend many of their nights wearing skin-tight hardsuits and doing battle with rogue Boomers, mechanoids gone wild, for reasons initially unclear. Known as the Knight Sabers, they tend to operate under the counter and for their own reasons. The first episode shows that Sylia has a very personal link to the core Boomer technology, while Priss holds a vendetta against the corporation behind their manufacturing, Genom. Fair enough. The company is involved in a lot of illegal activity, and it seems to be driven by your typical thirst for power. It provides a suitably ambiguous enemy, and its chairman, Quincy, may be proof that people like Governor Arnie were going to get important desk jobs one day.
The premise is a pretty straightforward one, and the story won't challenge you too much. While a lot of these sorts of shows these days tend to try and probe the human mind and look as intelligent as possible, Bubblegum Crisis had few things to say, but mostly, it strived off of its decaying setting and excellent action scenes.
Visually, there's little denying that this is a dated piece of work. Kenichi Sonoda was behind the character designs, and his eye for detail shows. This is a mixed blessing, as Sonoda's eye also picked up a lot of contemporary trends, and thus, it has to be asked of today's audience to believe that 2032's Mega Tokyo will become a haven for bad hairstyles. This problem is only really in the characters, and while they stand out quite blatantly, everything else works rather well. The city isn't a high-tech paradise in disguise, but rather distinctly dark and grimy. Think more along the lines of anime such as Angel Cop, or even Akira, rather than the more recent takes on the Bubblegum universe. Mega Tokyo is a city build after a massively destructive earthquake, and it seeps roughened re-development from man crevices. Likewise, the mecha designs, which hold up far better than the characters show insane detail, and they really look like that they could rust. There is a real sense of machinery here. Priss is saddled on a motorbike frequently, and it grunts rather than soars. Likewise, the Boomers, while generally disguised as humans, are suitable weighty in their feel once they shed their skins. It's a future balanced on reality, and while it sometimes misses the mark (chunky videotapes are certainly not a thing of tomorrow), its general visual presentation doesn't try too hard, and it is generally better for it.
Depending on the perspective that you take, Bubblegum Crisis may or may not have a lot to answer for as far as musical influence is concerned. Correctly or not, it is largely credited as the driving force behind the incorporation of pop music in animation, and it certainly has its fair share of it. The music is also synth-happy and as blatantly from its time period as Linna's leopard-skin clothing range. Reactions to this will vary, but with bands like The Killers resurrecting a degree of 80's sound with some considerable success, people may actually take more favorably to it today than they might have back in the 90's. Whatever the case, while often cheesy, most of the up-tempo pop rock tunes featured are catchy, and they often couple well with the action that they accompany. Most episodes open on a musical number, and this gives a fresh feel that eases the viewer into the mood quite efficiently, while providing a light cinematic quality. If nothing else, one can always laugh at the fuzzy blond wig that Priss wears on stage during the concert that opens the first episode.
Anime music videos were also brought to the forefront here, and the music video collection Hurricane Live was even released back in the days of the VHS. In the Bubblegum Crisis DVD collection, these videos have been spread out among the individual discs, which strikes me as a shame, but at least they are still available. They're worth watching too, especially the ones that include live concert footage so embarrassing that the poor voice actresses will never be able to live it down.
When all is said and done, Bubblegum Crisis knows where it stands, and it succeeds because of this. There is the odd political or man/machine comment, and some Blade Runner type questioning of the ever-calm Sylia, but when it comes down to it, Bubblegum Crisis is a cyberpunk action series through and through. While many of its future kin may have tried to compete with previous titles that had done the same thing except better, Bubblegum Crisis still stands right at the top of its game. Each episode, while remembering the things that came before it, can stand as a piece of entertainment on its own, and as rip-roaring entertainment at that. The stories do rely heavily on coincidence, to the point where to be a supporting character is to have a death wish, and this is played on frequently and gleefully as a means of intensifying the situation at hand. Night Sabers versus an out-of-control mech not enough? Add to the situation that it's a ticking bomb capable of destroying the entire city, and that Priss must kill the pilot, a recently acquired friend, in order to prevent this. Melodramatic underpinnings are allowed to roll around freely and to intensify the meaning of the action. Explosions and drama meet a straightforward but effective unison.
The action sequences themselves are all very well done, and they are the unquestionable highlights for the series. In part, this owes to the animation, which holds up very well. There is an obvious lack of CG assistance, but this hardly hurts the overall look of the production, and the importance comes down to the drawing of each frame. Put simply, while the general look may be a little less immediately accessible, the actual animation quality in Bubblegum Crisis quite easily surpasses that in Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040. The animators revel in delivering some stunning aerial acrobatics, as well as a couple of moments that thither close to being defined as bullet time. Animation is almost always seamlessly fluid, detail is never compromised, and the fight scenes benefit from this tremendously.
What may make the action segments truly entertaining, however, may well be the fantastic sense of momentum. Many of the key moments in the series take place on a road covered by lights, rapidly streaming past as an endless array of glowing dots. Even the stars in the perfect black sky get used as a means of communicating speed when the Knight Sabers are no longer motorcycle mounted. The winding roads are all animated by hand, and they move by without a single hiccup. Adding to this pulsating sensation is the soundtrack, adding a layer of convenience to rhythm and editing. It's common place for vocal tunes to kick in during moments of combat, and these allow for easy rhythmic editing and break the action scenes away as small self-contained music videos. It also helps the momentum, and in general, it helps to make it all entertaining to watch.
Although the key players in the series, the Knight Sabers aren't the only ones with the self-imposed task of doing away with illegal and disruptive Boomer activity. Standing a little less successfully in the background are the A.D. Police -- Nene employers -- a special division largely specializing in Boomer Crime. However, they tend to be overshadowed by the four ladies in hardsuits, but as character coincidence would have it, their separate paths cross regularly. Leon, the main officer, is established as a fan of Priss' work in the first episode with a failed attempt to hit on her. This hardly proves to be their first meeting, and eventually by sheer chance of time and place, Leon comes to know a little bit more than anyone else. Outside of this, his duties are carried out with the help of his partner Daily, a very out-of-the-closet homosexual, as the A.D. Police continue to fumble around reliably so that the real heroes of the show can continue to be justified in striking cool poses. This is just as well, as the A.D. Police choppers have a horrible habit of going down in flames.
The sort of atmosphere that Bubblegum Crisis creates simply doesn't exist anymore, as the formula for straightforward action and storytelling in a genuinely gritty future city seems to have died out. As much as I love what Ghost in the Shell does, I still think of this as something of a shame. For years now, Bubblegum Crisis has provided me with some of the best simple entertainment that I have ever had, and it is the one anime that I seem to be able to enjoy regardless of my mood. It has a certain timeless quality in spite of the aging visual designs of its characters, and the closed off, aggressive, yet morally grounded traits that comprise of Priss will survive far more easily. It may be incomplete, but there isn't a single low point in it, and if anything, it just keeps on getting better. By the time that the final episode, “Scoop Chase” bursts forward into its credit roll, there is little left to complain about. It leaves a few story links unresolved, but it ends on a quality episode that was well worth the time spent with it, and it has sufficient flare on that basis alone. For something that was initially to be only the one stand-alone fifty minute piece of animation, that isn't at all bad. It's a priceless piece of anime history, and one for which there still isn't a sufficient modern substitute.