The glorious mess that is Bubblegum Crisis

Strangely enough, this is my first time actually sitting down to watch through the original OVA series of Bubblegum Crisis… which is kind of weird, given the age that I was first exposed to manga and anime. So even though I don’t get the thrills of teenage weeb nostalgia from BGC that I get from watching Akira or Ghost in the Shell, in theory that should balance out by allowing me to approach it from a fresh perspective. However, I find that I’m kind of at a loss for words as to where to begin reviewing it, in part because each of the OVA episodes is so unique. Apart from the shared characters, the shared world of Mega Tôkyô and the shared three-way dynamic of police vs androids vs vigilantes that drives much of the action, the OVA series episodes vary wildly in tone and thematic preoccupations, to the point where it begins to feel all over the place.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Bubblegum Crisis was the product of two production studios – Youmex and Artmic – whose partnership fell to pieces and who tied each other up with litigation before the series was even planned to be over. It contracted the artistic, animation and directorial talent of a veritable army of really familiar names, who at this point were mostly 20-something kids for whom this was their first shot at the big chair. Suzuki Toshimitsu (Techno Police 21C) came up with the concept. Akiyama Katsuhito (Armitage III: Dual-Matrix) was the main script director. Sonoda Ken’ichi (Gunsmith Cats) did the character designs. Aramaki Shinji (Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01) and Ôbari Masami (Fatal Fury, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer) did the mechanical designs. Individual episodes were directed by Yatagai Ken’ichi (Megazone 23, Gall Force), Hayashi Hiroki (Tenchi Muyô!, The Magnificent World of El-Hazard), Ôbari Masami, Takayama Fumihiko (Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, RahXephon) and Gôda Hiroaki (Ah! My Goddess).

When you get together this disparate mass of artistic talent tending in all different directions to put together a project like Bubblegum Crisis, generally speaking there are two possible results. If this dream team was put together just to make money, the result is a bland, boring, paint-by-numbers focus group-tested production-by-committee. (And sadly, it’s not hard to imagine what BGC would have looked like if they’d chosen this route: there are truckloads of cheap, hackish ‘girls with big tits, guns and power armour’ anime out there.) On the other hand, if it’s put together to make an artistic statement, and this many artists contribute, then it usually ends up as a complete mess.

And Bubblegum Crisis is a complete mess. Gloriously so.

It’s like if Blade Runner and Charlie’s Angels had a freeway accident with a Bon Jovi concert. And even within that freeway accident of a concept, you have five or six very different interpretations of how that accident should look. But one thing you can’t say about BGC, is that the different people who worked on BGC were afraid to push the envelope. When it comes to SFnal world-building, storyboarding fight scenes, designing mechs and hardsuits, or even making jabs at offering social commentary, Bubblegum Crisis isn’t afraid to bare some teeth and show some edge.

At the centre of BGC are the four ‘Knight Sabres’, a group of mercenaries and vigilantes who are hired to stop crimes and destruction committed by androids, or ‘Boomers’, designed by the sinister Genom Corporation. The multimillionaire leader of the Knight Sabres, Celia Stingray, and her younger brother Mackie, have a troubled family history with Genom Corporation. Supporting Celia are Priscilla ‘Priss’ S Asagiri (Blade Runner reference!), a biker and rock star with an attitude; Linna Yamazaki, an ærobics instructor with a penchant for making friends easily; and ‘Nene’ Romanova, an AD policewoman and the youthful good-natured dreamer of the group who enjoys sweets.

It’s possible to divide the OVA into, more or less, four ‘arcs’ – which go off in different directions and overlap and intersect at various points. The first ‘arc’ concerns an orbital superweapon designed by, basically, the US Space Force, and its connexion to a strange young blonde girl named Cynthia who has been kidnapped. The second ‘arc’ concerns the ruthless vice-president of Genom, Brian J Mason, and his attempts to take over the company. The third ‘arc’ concerns two female androids, Sylvie and An-li, who are attempting to gain their freedom from Genom. And the fourth ‘arc’ concerns the various clashes and silent political struggles between Genom Corporation and the Advanced (or AD) Police. In terms of tone, one can already see from the descriptions of these arcs that the tone of BGC oscillates wildly between noir and high 80s camp – between big robots firing massive lasers and blowing up buildings, and more sombre explorations of death and intimations of loss.

The one-sided (at least in the original OVA – scuttlebutt says Priss reciprocates in other iterations of the series) attempt at romance between AD policeman Leon McNichol and Priss has a kind of Archie Comics and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, burgers-and-malts, bikes-and-jukeboxes ‘hey, don’tcha wanna be my gal’ vibe to it, which adds to the campy oldies-rock atmosphere of the whole thing. There’s also a who is that masked woman?’ attempt at dramatising the Knight Sabres’ alter-egos which hails back to early superhero comics. But these are very quickly counterbalanced by the painful, broken and all-too-human relationships the Knight Sabres form with ordinary people on the sidelines, who end up falling victim to Genom’s schemes, lending a weight and seriousness to the series that it wouldn’t otherwise have had.

Weirdly enough, even the campy bits and over-the-top plotlines allow the directors to push the envelope in certain ways. ‘Tinsel City’ features a nice anti-imperialist moment tailored to appeal to the Ben Nortons, Caity Johnstones, Rania Khaleks and Caleb Maupins of the world. After being offered a contract by the USSD – in which the USSD military officer talks about the necessity of the US maintaining its global military dominance over the rest of the world and its ‘right’ to police the world with orbital weapons platforms – the Russian Nene Romanova uses her hardsuit’s lasers to burn a great big ‘screw you’ in the pavement to that same American satellite that’s tracking them from space, before changing back into her civvie clothes underneath a bridge. The USSD very promptly gets embarrassed when they lose the ‘black box’ that allows them to control their own space lasers. This in turn falls into the iniquitous hands of Mason, who uses them for his own purposes. Even the Sylvie / An-li arc makes reference to Genom secretly funding coups and civil wars in Third World countries and keeping the governments all safely right-wing and capitalist so that the Corporation can make more money off them.

Speaking of which: say what you will about Ôbari’s directing in ‘Moonlight Rambler’ and ‘Red Eyes’. Yes, he likes dropping you in the middle of overwrought action sequences and not telling you enough of what’s going on to follow him completely. Yes, he’s overly in love with his own shiny sinuous super-robot designs and making them do impossible contortions, sewper-kewl explosions and stuff. Yes, a lot of the action scenes don’t even make sense. Yes, he likes his strutting, pontificating supervillains. And yes, the whole hot lesbian vampire sexbots!! angle was clearly Ôbari’s own idea – his adolescent obsession with exaggerated 2D near- or fully-naked female bodies being as legendary as it is. Thank you, Mr Sonoda, for keeping the proportions realistic, at least! But it’s frankly impossible to imagine, for example, the hardboiled neo-noir elements and more subdued and thoughtful (even if hard R-rated) bioethical explorations of AD Police Files and Parasite Dolls happening without Ôbari. Ôbari Masami literally opened up the Bubblegum universe to a deeper, grittier level of cyberpunk exploration into the psychology and wrong turns of human-machine relations than BGC itself was ready to tackle just yet.

You heard me. I’m saying you don’t get AD Police Files without this scene right here.

However, the more ‘realistic’ arcs also have interesting things to say. ‘Born to Kill’ and ‘Blow Up’ have some fairly commonplace anti-corporatist thematic premises, and feature Genom Corporation using Boomers to ‘disappear’ whistleblowers and destroy poor people’s houses to make way for new developments, respectively. ‘Revenge Road’ is something of an answer to Kawajiri Yoshiaki’s ‘The Running Man’, but it doesn’t deal with a performance-obsessed loner with an axe to grind against himself. Instead it deals with one of the people who might have been a bystander or a victim of the biker-gang turf wars in Akira – whose love for a victim of these gang wars drove him to sacrifice his own humanity for revenge.

And there’s so much great stuff going on in the follow-up to ‘Born to Kill’, ‘Double Vision’, that it’s hard to know where to start. People have messy, organic relationships even in a world that’s being taken over by machines. The whistleblower that Genom killed, Eileen Zhang, was (it turns out) the daughter of a Chinese-American crime boss. ‘Double Vision’ follows how her sister Zhang Lingjia and the Hu Bang attempt to avenge Eileen’s death. (Hint: it involves a sweet-looking, blatantly Masamune Shirow-inspired arthropoidal tank.) This episode is particularly intriguing because it manages to go even further than Black Lagoon does in talking about the troubled ties of the Asian-American diaspora to family and place, and their complex relationship to their own history. Remarkably, ‘Double Vision’ features a Japanese corporation (Genom) procuring a Chinese prostitute for one of its scientists – and wholeheartedly disapproves. If this was an allegory, who the hell knows if it was deliberate? But this may be the closest thing I’ve seen yet in a popular anime to an admission that the whole ‘comfort women’ business was a problem and that it was wrong. It’s all the more impressive considering that Motomiya Hiroshi (of Salaryman Kintarô fame) got in a load of hot water for non-allegorically saying the exact same thing over a decade later. Not sure if this is what you were after, Suzuki Toshimitsu and Takayama Fumihiko, but if it was: good job getting it past the radar!

The last episode, ‘Scoop Chase’, outdoes even this by looking at the three-way dynamic of Genom, the Knight Sabres and the AD Police from the perspective of a civic-minded civilian who struggles to understand the Sabres’ motives. Again, it’s interesting because Gôda Hiroaki leaves a lot of room for interpretation and acknowledges that the Knight Sabres operate in a real moral grey area with regard to Genom and the police. Indeed, he seems to come off as saying that the AD Police actually have cleaner hands than the Knight Sabres… but that such moral limits come at the expense of a certain degree of inefficacy and vulnerability. If Ôbari is to be credited for opening up a broader horizon for social SF-nal questions about the blurred line between human and android, then Gôda is to be credited for the shift of focus toward the AD Police themselves.

It would be completely unfair of me to talk about BGC without paying due respect to the soundtrack, though I have already made several allusions to it above. The compositional mastermind here is Makaino Kôji, who also did the soundtrack for The Rose of Versailles, among other series. It’s practically all female-fronted 80s hair rock, AOR and synth-pop, most of it sung by the Knight Sabres’ voice actresses themselves. I will say that Ômori Kinuko has an excellent voice for this sort of music, with just the right balance of power and sweetness. It’s campy. It’s kitschy. It’s catchy. It’s eminently fun and listenable. It’s absolutely a guilty pleasure. And it’s amazing. The sheer amount of score that went into each forty- to fifty-minute episode is also worthy of comment. Each OVA in this series literally has its own soundtrack: the DVD collection I’m currently watching boasts thirteen original music videos that go with the series.

BGC clearly has a lot of really good ideas, a bunch of amazing artistic and musical talent, a clear æsthetic vision and a fun world to play around in. And Suzuki Toshimitsu let his dream team of writers, directors and animators go nuts with it. But what does it all add up to in the end? There’s a lot of potential here, and the creators mapped out a lot of that potential and did what they could with it. But it’s clear that Bubblegum Crisis left the lion’s share of that potential – whether that potential was used well or squandered – to the plethora of spinoffs and reboots that it engendered, including Crash, Files, Protect and Serve, Tôkyô 2040 and Parasite Dolls. A big part of BGC’s charm, back in the day, derived from its lack of direction and its episodic storytelling – and the fact that it ended so abruptly and incompletely further added to this mystique. Bubblegum Crisis is one of those anime whose imperfections actually enhance it rather than detract from it, and which is valuable not only on its own considerable artistic merits but also on its ability to continue to inspire original content in the same setting.


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