Sunday, June 15, 2014

SIGKILL: How to Kill a Computer

That Dirty Pair would eventually make the leap to animation is a total no-brainer.

Although clearly indebted to Golden Age science fiction, this is a series that has always placed deliberately over-the-top, staged action sequences high on its list of priorities. Haruka Takachiho may be a master at prosaic imagery, but the fact is Dirty Pair has always been an intensely visual series. After all, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko's illustrations are just as iconic to the look and feel of the novels as Takachicho's own writing is, and you can't inherit as much from professional wrestling as Dirty Pair does and not end up tackling visual media in some form. The question was not if there would be a Dirty Pair anime, but precisely how the series would bring its unique spin to the medium because, perhaps counterintuitively, there are also some things about it that make it somewhat hard to adapt.

Chief among these is the fact the the novels are told in the first person from Kei's perspective (or rather, what she wants us to think her perspective is), and this ties into their use of extremely clever postmodern and self-aware literary techniques. Kei being an unreliable narrator and an oral storyteller firmly working within the conventions of serialized sci-fi, light novels and fanfiction means that a great deal of Dirty Pair's uniqueness comes from being a book series in the first place. For the anime to succeed on any level other than a purely superficial one, it's going to have to translate this sense of knowing and pointed structural playfulness into some equivalent visual media form.

Which, thankfully for everyone, it does. But to get an understanding of how, we once again have to take an extremely fine-toothed comb to the proceedings here, as this is another case where a lot of meaning is deliberately left to be conveyed through subtext and subconscious association. First of all, fans of the novels will likely immediately notice that everything looks a lot different in “How to Kill a Computer” than it did in The Dirty Pair Strike Again, which was, if you're playing along at home, just last year. Kei and Yuri now look quite a bit more cartoony (as does Mughi), though not in a bad way, and their outfits have been slightly tweaked to make them brighter so they stand out on 1980s TV sets. The girls' starship, the namesake Lovely Angel, is a completely different vehicle. In the novels, Kei describes something that sounds like a cross between a rocketship, a flying saucer and a fighter jet, but the anime's Lovely Angel looks like a pink, superdeformed Star Trek Phase II USS Enterprise (Andy Probert and Matt Jeffries version, not James Cawley version).

(This was by no means unintentional. The show's director was a massive, massive Star Trek fan and would slip in references at every opportunity. Trekkers may also want to take note of the readout on the computer monitor Yuri is looking at during the episode's opening moments.)

The penny drops when the introductory narration comes on, it's not Kei, and we are introduced to the girls flailing around in the apartment they share together that is literally malfunctioning at the time we meet them. Sunrise Animation's Dirty Pair anime series is not an adaptation of the Dirty Pair book series at all, it's a full-on reboot. Actually, it might be better to describe it as an alternate continuity, and this touches on something Japanese media has a far more comfortable grasp on then US media does: In Japan, it's much more readily accepted that a story is a malleable thing and will change each time its retold or translated into a different form, which is something that all oral storytellers have of course always known. There doesn't exist in Japan, at least at this point in time, the same kind of obsessive canon and continuity fetishization that defines genre fiction discourse in the West.

We saw this a bit with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in that the film version by necessity had to not only distill and condense the epic, sprawling, Byzantine complexity of the manga, but also come up with a satisfying ending to a story that wasn't supposed to be finished yet. But it's the most clear with the animated Dirty Pair franchise, which has, plot-wise, absolutely nothing to do with the novels, and was by design a version of Dirty Pair custom-tailored to take advantage of the capabilities of animation as a medium. Even taking that into account, its connection to its parent franchise is somewhat dubious: Haruka Takachiho has complained in the past that the show's animators “threw away the novels”, but he's also said he worked as a creative consultant and tried very hard to translate the franchise to animation as best he could. Regardless, the point here is while this show is unquestionably Dirty Pair, it's manifestly and explicitly a different interpretation and conceptualization of Dirty Pair. In fact, this series isn't the only Dirty Pair alternate continuity, nor is it the only Dirty Pair alternate anime continuity. Actually, it's not even the only Dirty Pair alternate anime continuity produced by Sunrise. But we'll get to that at a later date.

So, if this is a completely different sort of Dirty Pair, what's new and unique about it, apart from the superficial costume changes and character redesigns? Well, one big thing is the addition of a couple new supporting characters. The first is Chief Gooley, supposedly in charge of the 3WA, or at least Kei and Yuri's division of it, and their immediate superior. I have mixed feelings about this guy. In the books, or at least the last one, the chief was a nameless, blowhard stick-in-the-mud suit who existed mostly to overreact in front of the girls, throw his weight around and get comically knocked about by the flying shadow ninjas in jetpacks. I like this, because it reinforces the motif that Kei and Yuri are unquestionably the heroes and thus the series' commitment to anti-authoritarianism, as even the 3WA itself is not spared from being part of a corrupt and dirty world that Kei and Yuri need to cleanse by fire. Gooley, by contrast, is frequently portrayed as a more nuanced and sympathetic character, and there's a slippery slope from that to infantilizing the girls and depicting them as irresponsible children who need to grow up (thankfully this anime for the most part avoids falling into this trap, but at least one of the future Dirty Pair adaptations won't be quite so lucky or conscientious). In this episode though, Gooley pretty much fills the same role the chief in The Dirty Pair Strike Again did, which is much appreciated.

The second new character is Nanmo, a small egg-shaped robot dude with one eye who wears tennis sneakers. I've never been entirely sure what Nanmo actually *does* on this show: She (Nanmo's AI is sometimes referred to as being female) seems to be Mughi's partner, and the two of them usually work together to maintain and operate the ship's systems and, like Mughi, Nanmo is very good at being a Deus Ex Machina to move the plot forward should circumstances demand it. Nanmo is also one of the bigger sources of criticism for this show from fans who consider themselves loyalists to the original novels, and it's not terribly difficult to see why. Nanmo is self evidently in the category of “cute robot sidekick” characters in science fiction shows, which is not a group of characters that people who value sci-fi being taken seriously as a genre tend to be especially endeared by. Personally, I find Nanmo to be as inoffensive as she is largely unnecessary, so I don't have a huge issue with her and she definitely has her moments of cuteness.

The biggest change between the show and the books is the depiction of Kei and Yuri themselves, however. While they are more or less the same Lovely Angels we know and love, there are a few key differences. Since Kei is obviously no longer the narrator, the anime series has to define the girls a bit more clearly then the novels can get away with. The first happy side effect is that we get to know Yuri a lot better than we did in the either of the previous three stories. Though “The Case of the Backwoods Murder” did elabourate on her background a lot, it, like all of the serial stories (especially The Dirty Pair Strike Again), the majority of what we learn about Yuri is what Kei imagines she's thinking and tells us she does. In the novels, Yuri comes across as a bit aloof, even a bit stuffy at times, given the mask she's trying to wear. In the show however, she's peppy, upbeat, jokey and wonderfully sardonic with a quick wit. She also tends to freak out a lot faster than Kei and a lot more often than she used to, but mostly it feels like she's just being dramatic. She definitely comes across as someone who's trying to be very kind, gentle and understanding, but this just makes it even more obvious she's a terrible, terrible Yamato Nadeshiko.

One of the criticisms the anime sometimes gets from die-hard fans of the novels is that it, according to this argument, essentially becomes “The Kei Show” because it has a lot of stories that focus on her and gives her so many opportunities to act tough, badass and hyper-competent that this steals the spotlight from Yuri, who they feel the show maligns for being “too girly”. Again, I find this to be a misreading: In my opinion, the anime pulls something far more nuanced and deceptive. Although Kei does get quite a lot of chances to show off, there are just as many times, if not more so, where she's portrayed as feckless, impulsive and irresponsible (which I think is the real problem as that's not Kei either) and either way what I think the show is actually doing is pulling a very subtle redemption job on her. Remember, while we we only know Yuri from what Kei told us about her in the books, we likewise only know Kei through how she talks about herself, and it's clear to me at least that Kei either has some self confidence issues or is extremely self-effacing.

Recall Kei knows she's not conventionally attractive, and this shapes the way she chooses to tell us her stories. She'll put Yuri down, sure, but she'll also, implicitly, make her own actions look bad. She quite deliberately draws attention to the fact she's being unfair to Yuri on a diegetic level, which actually reveals a tertiary metatextual layer: Kei's behaviour in regard to how she compares and contrasts herself with Yuri is meant to call her readers' attention to the fact that what she's actually doing is glorifying Yuri, which makes a *lot* of sense if you stop and thinking about it. If Kei is telling a story she knows people are reading and listening to, if Kei has written herself into her story as a character and furthermore if Kei loves Yuri (both as a younger sister and a soulmate, which I think is fairly overt, and on perhaps another level if you choose to pursue that level of subtext), it would follow that she might portray her author insert avatar character, the narrator, in a negative light for portraying Yuri in a negative light, thus encouraging her readers to sympathize with Yuri more than her.

(This might also explain why Kei gives the weight she does to the Yamato Nadeshiko aspects of Yuri's act: Just like some young women do in the real world, perhaps Kei holds her best friend in higher esteem than herself and is maybe trying to paint her as someone her readers will find likable, admirable and desirable. Alternatively, she could just be trying to get her little sister figure some action.)

But the anime, being visual media told from the perspective of a series of cameras, has a different task before it. There's at least a simulacrum of a more unvarnished or “objective” take on things (although even here the show is quite clever and misleading, which I'll touch on in a minute). So yes, Kei is a bit more badass and take-charge and Yuri is a bit more offbeat and silly then in the books, but this was a needed twist on the characters to compensate for what the novels already did and for the shift in perspective jumping over to a different medium naturally entails. Rather than getting Kei and Yuri wrong, what I think this actually does is make them even more complex, multifaceted and interesting. What we get to see here are different sides of Kei and Yuri's character and personality that we might not have gotten to see had the anime not happened and given the novels' quirks. But of course, this is Dirty Pair, and this is far from the extent of the show's ruminations on performativity: If the fundamental joke of the novels is that Kei is aware she's telling a science fiction story that comes out of feminist fandom and the fanfiction scene, the fundamental joke of the anime series is that Kei and Yuri are aware they're being filmed for a TV show.

Though it doesn't seem like it starts out a major theme, if you look closely at the pilot, you'll find quite a number of shots of computer screens and security monitors that quickly pan back to shots of people watching computer screens and security monitors. And, in case there was any doubt about what kind of show this was going to be, the series' own intro sequence (set to the energetic and infectious “Russian Roulette”) features first Kei running back and forth making sidelong glances at the audience and then Yuri looking straight into the camera, pointing her finger at it and causing the glass to shatter around a bullet entry wound that jump cuts into existence. There's even a very prominent monitor in the intro itself, that seems to be playing its own version of the sequence while the “second” monitor (the one we're watching) plays a different one. Notably, there's a moment where Kei and Yuri fly out of the background monitor directly at us, before taking a hard swerve to the space behind the camera.

Along these lines, possibly the most dangerous trap the Dirty Pair anime could have fallen into would have been to depict the action in a kind of overtly filmic, representationalist style, and thankfully it deliberately avoids and subverts this at every opportunity. We even get the professional wrestling joke squared away right from the start, first with two young boys the Angels are trying to rescue, but who laugh at the girls and tell them they can't possibly be 3WA Trouble Consultants because they've never seen them on TV, and then by having a confused man ask “why are there female wrestlers here?” when Kei and Yuri dramatically “enter the ring” to let everyone know they're here to help. This is a delightful moment not just for that meta-joke, but also for how Kei and Yuri seem to cue their own intro music and spotlights, as if they're both directing the scene and editing the action from within the narrative itself.

The pinnacle of this theme actually comes in the post credits trailer for the next episode, which Kei and Yuri actually MST3K riff over. It's delightfully unexpected and becomes one of the reoccurring highlights of the entire series: At the end of every episode the girls come in and directly address the viewers at home and tell us what to expect from next week's show, frequently complaining about the quality of their scripts. Sometimes, they even go so far as to imply they haven't actually watched their own show yet and are just as surprised as to what happens as we are. Any pretenses that this show is going to be anything resembling straightforward cinematic spectacle or that Kei and Yuri are anything other than Gonzo filmmakers booking their own angles is at this point completely out the window.

And furthermore, “How to Kill a Computer” is a visual treat. The girls' new home base of Elenore City is a breathtaking vista of neon and concrete canyons that looks like a blend of Blade Runner's Los Angeles and Foundation's Trantor, but of course derivative of neither because Dirty Pair came before Blade Runner and isn't doing Asimov-style science fiction. The city's signature fixture, the Leaning Tower of Damocles, which gets its infamous tilt in this episode, is an imposing and powerful sight that speaks quite clearly to the state of technologism in this future, (especially when the AI controlling it decides to revolt, giving us this week's humanity-threatening emergency). The cinematography is equally as evocative as the setting it captures, with picture-in-picture scenes that resemble a wall of computer monitors and flashing green warning signals and countdown timers constantly superimposing themselves over the action, as if the world itself is indeed on the brink of suffering a catastrophic system-wide crash.

(That this show is able to look as lush and gorgeous as this on a regular basis is testament to the savvy way Sunrise went about cutting corners: While Dirty Pair does not utilise limited animation in the Scooby-Doo sense, what it does do to save time and money is use a lot of static shots and crossfades, allowing absolutely all of the resources to go into the art design and into making imaginative, creative landscapes and backgrounds. As a result, while it's obvious this show was made on a budget, it by no means looks “cheap”: It's some of the most beautiful and evocative science fiction ever put to film.)

Speaking of computers, it's easy to write the plot of the pilot off as another “rogue AI goes berserk” story, but it does actually take this stock archetype to some interesting places. There's the obvious reading of this being a cautionary tale about surrendering so much to technology and automation, which would actually paint this as an almost Gene Roddenberry-esque boring morality play (Kei even pulls her own twist on the Captain Kirk School of Computer Repair in the climax), but I think it's more fun to read this story different ways. BRIAN the AI is clearly a character, not just a machine that goes haywire-He explicitly blames humanity for betraying him by installing the emergency kill switch in the Z-Box, and we're of course supposed to sympathize with Nanmo, so this episode is obviously not coming out of Grimwade's Syndrome. Also, note how the Z-Box itself is shot like a nuclear launch button, and how in-universe it's even treated like the “nuclear option”: So, on top of everything else, there's a faint Cold War analogy going on here. In its own way then, “How to Kill a Computer” is returning to the theme of humanity turning its back on the world and what the consequences of that might be, it's just that this time the metaphor is translated into the language of Japanese science fiction and delivered through the inner workings of the setting itself.

And that kind of subversive twist is what elevates something that might otherwise be seen as a middling techno thriller romp into something really fascinating and memorable, a good a start as any to this new Dirty Pair. On top of that, this episode is just a laugh riot: Jokes fly fast and frequent, and they're really good jokes with perfect timing. The anime on the whole plays up the comedy elements of the franchise to a much greater extent than the books do, to the point they verge on slapstick, but it's all absolutely flawlessly executed and really, in a franchise like this it's kinda impossible not to fixate on comedy.

And it all seems to have worked, as the Sunrise anime is definitely the most iconic, popular and beloved version of Dirty Pair, albeit mostly in retrospect (the show did poorly enough in the ratings it was canceled before all the filmed episodes could be aired), which is kind of amusing considering all the blatant shout-outs to the original Star Trek. Although even so, the anime was always critically acclaimed and Sunrise managed to win our favourite girls the coveted Animage Grand Prix award for Best Anime in 1985, putting it in illustrious company (the previous year's winner was, well, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). While “How to Kill a Computer” may not be as dizzyingly meta or aim as high as The Dirty Pair Strike Again, for a 20-minute episode of a cartoon show it's pretty fantastic. And when Kei and Yuri take off in the ending credits sequence grooving to “Space Fantasy” (which you really ought to see for yourselves, it is a thing to behold), we end feeling like our future is finally in good hands.


  1. Wow cool. Loved it!

    What a fun episode to watch - gonna watch through the rest. Thanks for your analysis, helps to appreciate it more too. I like what you say about storytelling as an oral tradition within Japan and how much more fluid and alive it is (as within India). I *love* the thought of a living continuity, really how could it be any other way? Why do folk seek to limit and pin down things such as continuity in Doctor Who or Start Trek to such an obsessive degree - to the point where it could be argued that at times it damaged both shows as they adhered to that pressure.

    Have you hear of kamishibai, an old form or storytelling within Japan where essentially the myths are told around the use of pictures by a live teller using a small box for display, usually as a street show that would travel round towns and villages? It is said to be the origins of Manga and still is practiced - even in Scotland and Edinburgh there are at least two practitioners of it that I know. That's part of why I don't have a problem with static panels in animation as it links right back to such roots.

    Great stuff again!

    1. I've not heard of kamishibai before you mentioned it, and having just now looked it up I'm very intrigued. I really, really like the idea of this being part of the lineage of manga, and thus anime: It adds a whole new layer of conceptual richness to something like Dirty Pair.

      Speaking of static images and working-class image-based street-level storytelling also reminds me of an idea that is held very sacred in Polynesian tradition: That the act of writing a story itself is tantamount to killing it, as keeping it in the oral tradition means it can always continue to grow and evolve.

    2. Thanks for the reply Josh (I've been away). Yes absolutely, Kamisihibai is a solid part of the lineage that leads all the way to anime - and well worth checking out. I love the fact as you say that it comes from the street and the people.

      Love also the Polynesian reference - this the heart of what keeps story alive, I completely agree with it. We should be telling Trek Tales on street corners and in cafes and bars.