Thursday, August 14, 2014

“...and in this our love is everlasting.” Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia

“Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”
-Carl Jung

Though historians and completionist fans of the TV series were undoubtedly happy to have them, the episodes released as With Love from the Lovely Angels were not what paved the way for Dirty Pair's future on Original Video Animation, nor were they even the first Dirty Pair OVA stories to be made. For that, we must travel back to December, 1985 and Sunrise Animation's experiment-within-an-experiment: Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia, the first proper Dirty Pair movie.

In the history of the series, Affair of Nolandia is frankly every bit as important as “How to Kill a Computer” and The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair, and yet for some reason it tends to go frustratingly overlooked by fans. In spite of what its release date and medium of choice might have you believe, this is not an epilogue to the recently-concluded TV show, this is something consciously and manifestly different. Affair of Nolandia can trace its roots back to the same place as the very beginnings of the first series, but walked a markedly separate path to the screen. The story of how it came to be and what it helped bring about is just as interesting as the story it actually tells, and it reveals a lot about how prescient this franchise has always been.

During preproduction of the first series, it was decided very early on, for better or for worse depending on your perspective, to take it in a noticeably lighter and more irreverent direction then its source material. Though Haruka Takachiho's novels are definitely humourous, they're also quite explicitly science fiction with an emphasis on world building and ideas. For whatever reason, though I strongly suspect it had something to do with Sunrise in a sense always knowing how niche science fiction (at least this kind of science fiction) tends to be, the TV show was designed from the beginning to focus quite heavily on slapstick, anarchic parody and self deprecation.

That's not to say it wasn't intelligent, it obviously was, it's just that as a consequence it traded in things like lengthy exposition and cohesive constructed worlds for heavy subtext, symbolism and a structure so unabashedly episodic that the one time it wasn't was a big clue things had gotten serious. Sunrise knew that while this tonal shift would give the show more broad-strokes and mainstream appeal, it was also going to very probably alienate a huge portion of people coming to it from the novels. So, all while the first series was being produced by one team, Sunrise gave a second team the assignment to make an OVA movie completely unrelated to the TV show that would overtly cater to the novels' hardcore science fiction fans. That film became Dirty Pair: Affair of Nolandia.

The first consequence of this is that although it trends far, far closer in tone and style to the novels then anything in the TV series, just like “How to Kill a Computer” before it, Affair of Nolandia is quite clearly establishing an alternate continuity of its own entirely distinct from that of either them or the TV show: A pattern that would hold for every subsequent Dirty Pair anime release. With the exception of the second series produced exclusively for OVA in 1987 and 1988 and the failed reboot of 1994's Dirty Pair Flash, (neither of which were in continuity with each other or with anything else), there would never again be a single, cohesive continuity for Kei and Yuri's stories.

Sunrise goes out of its way here to make this movie stand on its own, and this leaves an immediate and lasting impression. Even the girls have undergone subtle, yet noticeable, personality shifts; feeling far more adult, worldly and competent then Sunrise has shown them before while still being affable, quick-witted and jokey. They occupy a perfect midpoint between their novel and TV show depictions, and combine the best elements of both. But with the partial exception of the Angels themselves, absolutely nothing here is recognisable to someone who might only know Dirty Pair from the TV show. There's no Gooley or Elenore City, and the girls' home base is once again the Lovely Angel itself, which looks much closer to how it does in the novels. On that note I have to say I prefer the ship this way: As much as I love the Chibi Enterprise, this just looks sleeker and cooler. In fact, this particular interpretation looks a bit like the Naboo Starfighters from Star Wars Episode I, but, you know, in a good way. Also, while Nanmo is still here, Mughi's fur is black instead of brown, a nod to his novel counterpart, and he's furthermore considerably less of a cute animal sidekick, which is, again, appropriate.

Getting back to Kei and Yuri themselves, they get an altogether more realistic and mature design to go along with their more multifaceted and complex personalities, another sharp contrast with the deliberate cartoonishness of the TV show. And though their costumes look superficially similar to what they wear on TV, they too are slightly different and imbued with blink-and-you'll-miss-it symbolism: This time, the girls are clad in their own birth signs-Though Piscean Yuri retains her familiar Yellow, her lucky colour in Japanese astrology, Kei gets a striking Violet Blue, which symbolizes her Sagittarian heritage. It's details like this, combined with the lovely way the girls are portrayed here, which I'll talk a bit more about later on, that make this depiction of Kei and Yuri really memorable for me, and an honest-to-goodness contender for the definitive one. When I go back and re-read The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair and The Dirty Pair Strike Again today, it's this version of the Lovely Angels I picture in my mind, not Yoshikazu Yasuhiko's actual illustrations.

And it's not just our leading ladies; Affair of Nolandia is a truly inspiring and evocative work all around. This film is utterly fantastic in every sense of the word. It looks every bit as much of its time as the TV series, but it does so in altogether different ways. Now, when I say this, I don't at all mean it looks dated or passe: I think there's a unique...feeling is the only way to describe it...about science fiction from this period, especially Japanese science fiction, and it's something I have a genuine fondness for. It's hard to explain, and there's really only one other work I can think of off the top of my head that evokes something similar to what this movie does for me: The Star Trek movies don't count and don't have it. Star Trek: The Next Generation might have it very early on, but I need to rewatch it and I'm inclined to categorize it as something else...something running parallel with the divide between the mid-1980s and late-1980s.

But both this movie and the first Dirty Pair series have it, though Affair of Nolandia has it in spades owing to they way it so completely captures the imagination. Everything here feels vast and hauntingly beautiful, from the opening gaze deep into a starfield that seems to go on forever to Nolandia itself and even the Lovely Angel, which feels equally expansive and lonely at different points in the story. There's a sense of melancholy, nocturnal elegance and quiet introspection about the entire world, which is a perfect fit for the story Affair of Nolandia is telling us. And it's all summed up magnificently by the unforgettably bittersweet yearning of the theme song “Love Everlasting”, which takes the motorik of “Space Fantasy” to the logical limit by doubling down on the electronic percussion and pairing it with atmospheric touches of synthesizer backing reminiscent of twinkling starlight and Yasuko Maki's gentle, contemplative vocals. This is proper late night space trucker music, as is only befitting of the first real time Kei and Yuri are overtly set adrift in the intergalactic void.

If it seems odd I've made it this far without addressing the plot or the symbolic associations in its subtext, its because Affair of Nolandia also marks a turning point for the franchise in terms of narrative. This is an incredibly visual film, and it relies on imagery to an extent no previous Dirty Pair work (including the novels) has. Aside from the production value just being on the whole better given this is an OVA release, art design, though it's always been important in Sunrise's Dirty Pair, is definitely elevated to a higher stature here then it perhaps has been elsewhere. Affair of Nolandia wants you to look at the stories that its world is telling you, and in that regard the editing is something to behold. It's incredibly artistic and imaginative, and there are times it's borderline psychedelic in the actual consciousness-expanding sense of the word.

On top of everything else, there's a real sense of wonder and imagination here that sci-fi constantly tells us is its specialty as a genre and that it very rarely actually delivers on. The images of the creatures living in Nolandia forest still stick with me as I write this, and that part of the movie alone conveys more imagination then the overwhelming majority of Star Trek ever did. This doesn't mean, however, that the actual mystery plot is banal and uninteresting: Affair of Nolandia isn't Blade Runner and doesn't phone that part of the narrative in. But what this does mean is that it that standard plot structures are no longer as central to Dirty Pair as they might have once been, which also means, ironically enough, that in spite of its fealty to them, Affair of Nolandia also casts off one of the last remaining aspects of the franchise it inherits from Takachiho's novels that keep it beholden to pulp sci-fi storytelling. We can now tell stories about and through images and ideas without always having to link that all back to either some murder mystery or bit of comic showboating.

As for the plot itself, Affair of Nolandia is most commonly read as being extremely cynical and much “darker” and more “somber” then the other Dirty Pair animes, save arguably Flight 005 Conspiracy. But I don't think that's really the case. Except for maybe one admittedly pretty unsettling scene, I don't think this film is dark and moody at all. In fact, there's a great deal of comedy here that wouldn't feel out of place on the first series, except it's tighter, more refined and woven better into the fabric of the larger piece then was always the case on TV. Rather, what I think Affair of Nolandia actually manages to be is a more adult Dirty Pair story (On multiple levels-I should probably warn people watching it for the first time on my blog that there are more then a couple moments here that are definitely NSFW): This is a story that is unabashedly musing on notions of love, power, responsibility, dreams, visions and the fundamental nature of reality. Kei and Yuri set the tone from the very beginning, as they open the movie with an honest-to-goodness philosophical discussion about that which exists, that which doesn't and that which comes from someplace else, with Kei even explicitly stating people can make things real by transmuting dreams into physical form.

This turns out to be particularly telling foreshadowing, as the girls' mission is to protect a mysterious young girl named Missinie, an ESPer like themselves, who has gone missing in the impenetrable forest of Nolandia, the only habitable area on the surface of the gas giant Ookbar. Missinie has the power to create intense and disorienting psychic illusions, and there's a price on her head as there are several parties in positions of extreme power who have an interest in her abilities. Beat for beat, this feels like a distilled, condensed version of Takachiho's first two Dirty Pair novels: Kei and Yuri show up for what seems like a mundane mission, they get the cold shoulder from local authorities who clearly have something to hide, it's slowly revealed there's a lot more going on then it seemed at first glance, Kei and Yuri gain the upper hand by making contact with a higher and more enlightened form of consciousness that recognises them as its equals and everything ends in a spectacular action scene. That's not to say Affair of Nolandia feels derivative, however: The contrary, what's so special here is how it manages to do all this while still feeling fresh and new, demonstrating the malleability (and ultimate superfluousness) of this type of plot.

In terms of heady symbolism, Affair of Nolandia is as out-there and metaphysical as Dirty Pair has ever been: While Missinie is on the one hand creating illusions, its through them that she can fully express herself, speaking most fluently through images and memory. As Yuri says, this is how she “opens her heart”. Missinie, like the Angels, is a performer and an artist, and her psychic abilities represent the power to create worlds out of visions and emotion. We also get to see the other side of this in the film's one genuinely dark scene, where Missinie projects her fear into the horrific illusions she makes Kei suffer through before she comes to understand her and Yuri and their peaceful intentions.

The movie is unquestionably relentless about showing us Kei's nightmares (and it should be noted how many of them revolve around losing, or losing touch with, Yuri), and I could see this putting off people accustomed to the more lighthearted tone of the TV show. It's properly close to Commander Riker's psychic torture scenes in “Frame of Mind”, to the point I wonder if Brannon Braga or director James L. Conway had seen this, and I think this may actually be worse. It's also crucial that this happen to Kei, as Yuri, being Yuri, lacks a certain level of interiority it's easier to see in Kei. It's also possible to read this as another example of the girls' metafictional reality as to Kei, Yuri is not only a real person who is her soulmate, but someone that she, through her writings, projects a set of ideals onto. The scene is so creepy and effective that it actually brilliantly subverts the film's narrative coherence: Like Kei, we're left never quite knowing what's real and what isn't after that, but, in a world that actually is literally a mindscape, does it really matter? Do descriptors like that even hold any meaning anymore?

With a name like “Ookbar” I can't help but draw parallels with Jorge Louis Borges' short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, about a diegetically fictional country called Uqbar manifesting itself in the diegetic “real world” and how this is the first indication that a group of scholars and thinkers has pooled their thought-power to transform Earth into a new world of their own, known as Tlön. There really are a striking number of similarities between Uqbar and Ookbar: While Missinie has the power to create illusions and alter people's perceptions of reality, she herself is a product of Orun's genetic engineering experiments to forcibly impose his will on the universe. Nolandia, a verdant forest in the middle of a gas giant, is referred to many times as an impossibility, and ties into Kei and Yuri's opening discussion about how things are not real until we make them real. Even Ookbar's capital city on the plateau really shouldn't be there, and this proves crucial to the climax. In the words of the estimable Angry Video Game Nerd, Ookbar is *literally* a “planet where everything that never existed got thrown away”.

And just like Borges' story, Affair of Nolandia is about how different people give their dreams and ideas material form. But where Borges seemed at times concerned more directly with a kind of totalitarianism that could rewrite fact, Dirty Pair looks more frankly at the role of the Ideaspace in our everyday lives. Missinie seems malicious at first, but she's in truth a scared child projecting her own fear outward and giving it form. Orun at first seems like a straightforward capitalist obsessed with consolidating power, and he is, but he's much more than that as well. There's no real money to be made in the experiments he's doing, certainly not when compared to the potential prospects of the phony Uranium mine he's using as a cover story. No, what Orun wants to do is will the universe into perpetual war and conflict as proof of the power he thinks he wields: He's a psychopath consumed by dark magick. There's a very firm feminist critique here too, as Orun's attitudes are shown to be catastrophically destructive on a grand scale and implicitly part of patriarchy and male supremacy: Look at how his right-hand man is a hyper-masculine cyborg programmed for nothing more then sheer violence and how it's Samara who is ultimately redeemed as she comes to recognise the reclaimed divine femininity of Kei and Yuri.

And it's once again Kei and Yuri, women-become-goddesses and goddesses-become-women, who stand in contrast to the other characters, at first quietly, and then defiantly. Their love for each other and for the world governs their every action here, from Kei's adorable flirtatious tease in the opening scene to the absolutely heartwarming act they spend living alone together in Nolandia forest when the Lovely Angel crashes, which is what convinces Missinie they're of a kind and only want to help. Because while Nolandia may have had artificial origins, it's now part of the shared natural consciousness and must be treated with the same respect and care as the rest of nature. Unlike the manipulative Orun and the scared, confused Missinie, Kei and Yuri know how to communicate their love through images: The way this movie realises their psychic link, one of the extremely rare times this is explicitly shown in Sunrise's animes, is a genuine work of art that speaks volumes about who Kei and Yuri are and what they mean to each other. Through this level of understanding, Kei and Yuri birth worlds and tell stories in the mindscapes they share with one another.

And it's this same attitude of complete understanding and sublime self-actualization that leads to the dazzling back half of the movie, an absolute roller coaster of masterful action sci-fi full of compelling chases and dynamic fight scenes expertly blended with comedic interludes and dramatic pathos that never once feels inappropriate or misplaced as the Angels roar back into town on the winds of change. With Orun by this point firmly established as a truly despicable character, he makes a terrific heel and I really did find myself rooting for the Lovely Angels like this was some futuristic wrestling match. Yuri's unwavering dedication to chase down and punish Orun for his evil deeds is one of the single greatest sequences in the franchise and, because Affair of Nolandia saves its moments of large-scale property damage for just when they're the most important and appropriate, it's triumphantly satisfying and cathartic when the bad guys finally do go up in flames in properly spectacular fashion. Though the Angels may be guided by the larger universe and they don't force change through will as Orun tried to do (because that would be patriarchal), they still very much act on what they feel to be right in the moment. For “agents” of the cosmic oversoul (did anyone else notice that wordplay before?), that's the surest path to material progress as is possible to find.

(Kei and Yuri are frankly perfect here across the board: I might point out that Yuri seems to get a lot more exposition and dramatic speeches then Kei, but Kei isn't ever demeaned for this and it seems fitting considering Yuri has always been a more aloof and bookish person and this isn't actually out of character for her given her depiction in the books. And anyway, I feel I've been unfairly down on Yuri a lot recently and she truly does get some *amazing*, and entirely deserved, moments in this film. For this reason, on top of everything else it does so beautifully, if you're looking for one single work that best summarises the entirety of the franchise to serve as an introduction, I have no hesitation in recommending Affair of Nolandia as a terrific starting point.)

So perhaps then one way to read the final scene where Ookbar's capital city collapses into its atmosphere as the Lovely Angel warps away is as a commentary on how trying to weaponize ideas is ultimately self-destructive. The final shot serves as a more than fitting capstone for Affair of Nolandia on the whole: It's a defense not only of the redemptive reappropriation that Dirty Pair has always tacitly engaged with and that keeps it a relevant beacon of hope almost thirty-five years later as of this writing, it's an earnest and heartfelt statement about the role love and understanding play in enlightenment. And while Kei and Yuri are left alone with themselves and their thoughts, as it must always be, their act of love remains with us long after they drift off together into the night. Kei and Yuri dreamed the world together, and decided to share it with us. And we found it full of love, hope and starlight.

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