BGC and its sequels, Ranked:
Ladies, gents and fellow weebs, I have now done the footwork of watching every single one of the canonical animated works set in the world of Bubblegum Crisis, featuring Genom Corporation, the Knight Sabres and the AD Police. And I am here now to set the record straight on which ones are worth your time and which ones are not. Long story short: I don’t hold with the nostalgic purists and sour-faced snobs who say that only the original OVA is worth watching; and I also don’t hold with the people who inexplicably prefer TV serials to OVAs just on principle (yes, such sadly do exist). To be honest, I agree about half the time with the ratings on MyAnimeList; my standards are evidently a bit different than a lot of other people’s.
I don’t necessarily expect picture-perfect graphics and style from my animation, though those are nice to have. I’m also willing to forgive some flubs in execution and storytelling if the end result is still watchable. To be honest I only really hated one of these titles; one of them was fun but just felt kind of pointless and insubstantial; and one of them bored me. The other three – two of them oldies, one of them a newbie – are in general well-crafted and thought-provoking pieces of science fiction:
6.) Bubblegum Crash! Unfortunately, the direct sequel of Bubblegum Crisis was a profound disappointment. Even if it represents the way the series was ‘supposed to end’, Crash! didn’t really break any new thematic ground from the original series. The core conflict was a tired, been-done rehash of the conflict between Brian Mason / Largo and Celia in Crisis. The storytelling was incoherent to the point where it basically asked us to ignore huge swathes of Crisis. And the thing which I hated worst of all: Crash! gratuitously transmogrified Priss and – to a lesser extent – Linna into self-centred, bigoted jerks (which they weren’t in Crisis or in Tôkyô 2040). Give this one a miss. If Bubblegum Crisis left you wanting more story, then Tôkyô 2040 does a far better job of recapitulating the basic contours, while actually retaining some sympathy for the main characters.
5.) To Protect and Serve. Meh. The best that can be said about To Protect and Serve is that at least it’s entertaining. But it’s basically a bog-standard garden-variety buddy-cop show; it’s Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop or Rush Hour with a few (ultimately cosmetic) cyberpunk stylings. It’s got the cop-corp-criminal three-way rivalry of Dominion Tank Police, but unlike that show it doesn’t feel particularly prescient about the relationship between man and technology, except for a vaguely anti-nuclear message at the end. Even though To Protect and Serve occasionally veers into retro 70s camp with its visual and musical style, unfortunately there wasn’t enough of it to sustain my interest. I guess the real draw of To Protect and Serve is the characters. We get to sympathise with both of the buddy-cops, Sasaki Kenji and Hans Kleif, over the course of the show, but with the exception of some Genom Corporation branding, some name-drops of Mason (or, I guess, Mason’s ancestor?), and of course the AD Police setting of the show, there’s no real connexion to the rest of the Bubblegum universe.
4.) Tôkyô 2040. A real mixed bag, I went in expecting to hate it but actually found it fairly competent. It went from being a kind of ‘mad boomer of the week’ show and Knight Sabres origin story to being a fairly intricately-involved story about a robotic takeover of Tôkyô. And the character arcs for each of the Knight Sabres are incredibly well done. Tôkyô 2040 did a stellar job of giving Priss a heart (and getting her and Leon together!), giving Linna a fun backstory, fleshing out Nene’s tenuous balancing act between the Sabres and the AD Police, and even giving Celia a bit more motivation in her vendetta against Mason and Genom than just the standard Batman backstory of ‘they killed my parents’. Even so, my biggest complaint with it is that it just drags. A lot of the story arcs that could be resolved within one or two episodes are strained out over several.
It also gives voice to some distressingly neoliberal politics, which is completely out of keeping with the strong leftist slant of the original OVA. Even though there is some implicit feminist criticism of middle management, rural and elderly people are treated with barely-concealed disdain, as are labour unions. Celia’s Dark Knight multi-millionaire act is essentially played straight (unlike in Crisis, where the last episode actually managed to critique the Knight Sabres’ vigilantism a little bit). The bland musings on God and the completely unearned ending panentheist transfiguration of Galatea manage to be both cheap and pretentious. If there’s one thing I have near zero patience for in anime, it’s these turgid, lame, sophomoric pseudo-philosophical treatments of religion in Japanese pop culture. I’d have put Tôkyô 2040 higher if not for the last three or four episodes.
3.) Parasite Dolls. The most recent of the Bubblegum Crisis universe instalments, I found Parasite Dolls to be actually spiritually similar to AD Police Files, as well as – I suppose not so strangely, considering who wrote it – Armitage III. It’s also the most unabashedly boomer-sympathetic of the whole run, apart from To Protect and Serve. Parasite Dolls is always going to invite comparisons to the other shows in the series, I expect – and the really blatant shout-outs to the original Crisis OVAs and AD Police Files seem to anticipate this – but it’s still kind of a shame since it stands up pretty well on its own.
It actually tries to toy with the dividing line between robots and humans from the other side of the line in certain ways. Boomers are actually shown in each of the three episodes to be approaching humanity, and the main boomer character, Rod Kimball, has almost a Data-like observer-of-humanity quality to him that renders him sympathetic. It’s heavily implied in the first episode that rich folks are exploiting the ‘mad boomer’ phenomenon for cheap thrills and sexual escapism. And the primary villain of the last episode is an anti-boomer politician (and possibly a forerunner of Celia Stingray and the Knight Sabres) who sees anti-boomer sentiment as a means of getting ahead and massing political power for himself. Parasite Dolls does a decent job of disturbing the viewer in order to highlight these important questions about the relationship of humanity to technology, but in a way that makes it almost a mirror image of AD Police Files.
2.) AD Police Files. The first ‘spin-off’ of Bubblegum Crisis also happens to be the best-executed. Playing up the ‘hard-boiled’ angle and zooming in on the day-to-day gumshoe work of the AD Police, the creators of Files were clearly going for a hard R-rated miniseries which nonetheless has a soul and a message. In a way, AD Police Files is a bit truer to Japanese cyberpunk’s roots in the technological body-horror films of Ishii Sôgo, Fukui Shôjin and Tsukamoto Shin’ya, in terms of its willingness to explore the raw ragged edge where human being fades off into the technological, and the degrees to which humanity is willing to sacrifice its existential grounding and sanity in the pursuit of technological mastery.
Files has quite a number of profound things to say about this, pointing in particular to the relationship between lust (the libido) and the desire for technological mastery (libido dominandi) of various sorts. The characters in Files all pursue various secondary human goods which are subsequently distorted by technology: enhanced senses; greater physical strength; more and better orgasms; more money; more status; more prestige. Files is unabashed and unapologetic, even at its bloodiest and most sexually-explicit, in showing us the ways in which these pursuits go wrong. Definitely not one for the kiddos, but still an important instalment in the Bubblegum universe all the same.
1.) Bubblegum Crisis. In this case, the original really is the best. It’s not just nostalgia talking either, since I really didn’t see BGC until just recently, and because despite the OVA series being good I’m not blind to its (actually somewhat glaring) flaws. The original OVA series had a massive writing and art direction team that was bristling with young talent looking for a chance to show off their ability and creative chops. As a result, the character designs, technical designs, set pieces, and most of all music, were all utterly stellar in terms of their execution. It’s still kind of an amazing feat that each individual OVA episode had its own soundtrack – and of course, having the voice talent of Ômori Kinuko onboard as Priss Asagiri clearly helped matters immensely!
Bubblegum Crisis isn’t perfect. I keep saying this because it’s true: in terms of storytelling, Bubblegum Crisis is a total mess. In fact, I’d go as far as to say there is no real overarching story; it’s more of an exploration of a setting and an æsthetic, using as springboards the three-way rivalry of the Knight Sabres, the AD Police and the Genom Corporation, and the concept of cyborgs gone bad. But as a result of its plastic willingness to go any which way its writers pleased, it was actually able to do some SFnal heavy lifting and make some pretty trenchant commentaries.
The series wasn’t afraid to throw some hard leftward jabs on gæopolitics: mocking American hegemony and the SDI, for example, or calling out corporate war profiteering in the Third World. It was more than willing to criticise capitalism per se, and show the consequences in terms of human lives of allowing corporations the degree of power and control that they do. And they came close – so incredibly close – to calling out the Japanese government-corporate collusion in sex slavery, though the fact that they set it in the future rather than passing explicit judgement on WWII allowed them to slip that one past the radar in a way that Motomiya Hiroshi was not. Bubblegum Crisis also allowed Japanese animators to push the boundaries on what sorts of commentary on technology-run-amok were even possible, which I think is perhaps one of the reasons why it continues to have the kind of resonance that it does among the fans. In any event, despite its flaws it remains a classic, and that for good reason.
Looking back on this ranking, it looks like it’s pretty clear where my preferences are and why. I like the series that either go all-in on the dark, gritty, transgressive hard-boiled elements of the Bubblegum universe – or else the ones that go completely the other direction (like the original!) that double down on the camp factor, music and pop-culture savvy elements. The ones I have the least patience for are the ones in the middle, the ones which are neither dark nor bright, the ones which can’t decide for themselves whether they want to be serious or irreverent. Bubblegum works best at the edges of its own thematic potentials; and the fact that it had such broad potentials to begin with is largely owing to the original creator Toshimichi Suzuki’s generosity and willingness to share his universe with a broad array of writing, design and directing staff who all had their own artistic visions.