Thursday, August 28, 2014

“...and You're Not James Bond Either”: Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture (Dirty Pair: Project E.D.E.N.)

Stories are retold across different times, places and culture. While the forme of their symbolic power may change and morph to adapt to each new context, the underlying power remains whenever they are invoked. Stories can split off from each other and be shaped by the forces of mythopoeia, and can become as different from each other as they are similar.

It's fitting that Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture be named after the first Star Trek movie as it's existence is every bit as much of an inexplicable puzzle as that of Gene Roddenberry's abortive magnum opus. The last Dirty Pair outing had been the OVA Affair of Nolandia two years ago, an open acknowledgment of the franchise's by this point niche audience and a direct attempt to court them. Affair of Nolandia, despite being unambiguously brilliant, was not (and still isn't) terribly well received by fans who had long since fallen in love with the first Dirty Pair series, with which it was explicitly and manifestly made to contrast with. The same month, that very show had been canceled with two episodes left to air for reasons that remain uncertain, but are widely believed to have something to do with poor ratings. One might speculate then that with the sort of property the animated Dirty Pair franchise seemed to be turning out to be, the next logical step would *not* be a lavish, big-budget feature film released to theatres.

Indeed, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture seems like the complete opposite of Affair of Nolandia in every conceivable way: While Affair of Nolandia was a conservatively-budgeted OVA aimed at a niche group of science fiction fans (even, *gasp* using limited animation!) that bent over backward to differentiate itself from the TV series, this is a glitzy, grand-scale motion picture extravaganza self-consciously trying to ape the look-and-feel of the TV show in order to attract the broadest possible audience while also constantly trying to one-up and build upon it and somehow still trying to function as a standalone work. It really does feel like Sunrise's MO was “whatever we did on Affair of Nolandia, do the complete and total opposite this time”. Where Affair of Nolandia felt organic, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is all bright lights and neon strobes. Where Affair of Nolandia was atmospheric, contemplative and intimate, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is sprawling, flashy and spectacular. Where Affair of Nolandia felt psychedelic and spiritual, Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is a digital, computerized, high-tech sensory overload.

This has both positive and negative consequences. The first major plus is that, anticipating all this, the editing and cinematography here is beyond amazing and as a result Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is a movie that understands the power of imagery, mood and emotion like nothing else. This is, in all honesty, the most visually astounding and mesmerizing science fiction movie I have ever seen. The first twenty minutes alone are worth watching all by themselves: The film throws us Dirty Pair, Star Trek, Miami Vice, Dune, 2001: A Space Odyssey, James Bond, Cold War thrillers, MTV, late-80s house jazz influenced synthpop and every piece of Golden Age science fiction cover art you've ever seen crushed and blended together and served up as a hyper-concentrated tropical drink that's like a sledgehammer to your senses. It's the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster of visual media. Words really do not describe how unbelievably captivating and fresh this movie looks: While the first act is without question the most memorable, the art design and direction simply do not ever let up, taking the audience from mind-blowing vision to mind-blowing vision.

But this is telling, and I didn't mention MTV for no reason. What this movie does is try to take the “images and emotions” approach to visual media we last talked about in the context of Michael Mann and Miami Vice to the logical limit, and it's retroactively bleeding obvious this would be something Dirty Pair would try to do. The series has an understanding of spectacle that's completely unmatched, and it what it's touching on here is one potential way forward for the entire genre of science fiction. We know of course that sci-fi likes to let its worlds and its ideas speak for itself, and Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture tries to *literally do that*, featuring a great deal of extended sequences, including all the action scenes and the climax, that are utterly silent save for music that exist only to establish a setting and mood. They are, in fact, feature length music videos, and the movie is brazenly confidant that it can rely entirely on visual symbolism and the breathtaking artistry of its editing and art design. It's a revelation, a triumph and a masterpiece: The plot, frankly, is such an afterthought it's practically vestigial by this point.

And then the other show has to drop.

The other thing that happens when you toss the plot out as an afterthought is that whenever the movie does something that's not part of one of its groundbreaking, genre-defining paradigm-shift music videos it grinds to an absolute halt. There's some interesting stuff surrounding Professor Wattsman for sure: He's a charmingly obvious mad scientist who is obsessed with beating evolution, thinking the Sadingas discovered a way to circumvent natural selection by placing themselves in some kind of species-wide biological stasis once they reached the apex of development so they would never go extinct. It's clearly a backwards conception of how evolution works and Wattsman is interested in both eugenics and stagnation alike: There's a reason the bottle of wine that's so important to him came from Charles de Gaulle and his campaign against Nazi Germany's occupation of France. And this is why he's opposed by Kei and Yuri who, of course, would not approve of any attempt to strongarm nature and split humankind off from it. But the problem is this all comes way too late to be compelling in any way and is really the only remotely interesting idea this movie has, the art design and editing aside.

Structurally, this film's narrative is a mess. The dialog and characterization is frankly awful: Haruka Takachiho had a major hand in this one, more so than he did in any of the other Dirty Pair anime works, because he wanted to make absolutely sure that it was what he considers “proper science fiction”. And, well, it shows. Takachiho is resoundingly terrible at exposition, feeling he has to force everything else to stop so he can infodump at length about his world-building concepts. While evident in the novels, this isn't as big of a deal in them because Kei (like me) is a very rambling narrator who likes to go off on lengthy tangents. But this is in no way appropriate for a film like this, and it feels like whenever somebody opens their mouth (most egregiously Wattsman and Carson) the whole film just digs its heels in and refuses to move for like fifteen minutes at a time (though there is one admittedly funny moment where Wattsman declares, right at the camera, that “this is a secret known only to myself!” before going on about his mutated alien spice dudes or whatever).

Another consequence of Takachiho's increased involvement is that Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture leans much harder on the series' spy-fi trappings than previous Dirty Pair animes did. Although the original novels were detective stories, they weren't straightforward spy fiction, and this is a distinction that seems to have been lost in the evolution of science fiction between 1979 and 1987. So, the director for this movie is obviously drawing more from 1960s spy thrillers than traditional Japanese Golden Age science fiction, and as a result we get a preponderance of outer space bachelor pads and martinis, credits sequences straight out of James Bond movies and the Angels themselves get filmed like Bond girls. Personally, I don't think this was a good idea: True, Dirty Pair has done genre pastiches before (including a few of James Bond), but this was the highest profile thing the franchise ever did, being a large majority of people's first and only exposure to Kei and Yuri, and what this does is mislead a segment of the audience as to what the series actually is. Dirty Pair is Dirty Pair, not Charlie's Angels In Space.

(The upside of all this is the aforementioned design: This really is a special movie in terms of art direction. Rick Sternbach seems to agree, this being the version of Dirty Pair he seemed the most taken by as a designer, as he kept a copy of the art book and model sheets as a source of inspiration and one of his most treasured possessions. I can understand: The concept art alone really is enough to turbocharge your imagination.)

But the worst part of this movie by far is Carson D. Carson, who is utterly detestable. A handsome rogue of a thief who steals Kei's heart, he's a completely insufferable combination of Sydney from “Go Ahead, Fall in Love! Love is Russian Roulette” and Huey from “Come Out, Come Out, Assassin”, somehow managing to distill all of their negative characteristics into one overwhelmingly reprehensible Frankenstein monster of intolerable masculinity. From the moment he shows up, he commandeers the whole damn movie, which would be one thing if it actually acknowledged this was a problem and tried to use it to make some metacommentary about narrative and how Dirty Pair works, which it naturally doesn't. He throws his weight around and infantilizes Kei and Yuri at every opportunity-The joint worst scenes for me are when he lectures the girls in the hovercar for not being “pros”, basically calling them children, and when he rubs Kei's feelings in her face and uses them as an excuse to call her weak. It's absolutely excruciating to watch.

Furthermore, this reduces Kei to full-on tsundere, and there is just about nothing I hate more in anime than tsundere characters, because every single story I've seen them in is about showing how childlike women fall apart in the presence of the romantic male lead. Kei actually gets demoted to love interest here (Yuri, in case you're curious, is basically comic relief), which is just about the most jaw-dropping conceptual failure I have ever seen in Dirty Pair. Not only does it totally misread both the Angels and their metatextual aspects (I mean for one thing, Kei is supposed to be chronically unlucky in love), it allows a man to come in and push them out of their own story and neither understands why this is a problem nor attempts to say anything about it. This isn't metacommentary, it's a Mary Sue thrown in to reassert the “proper” patriarchal order in Dirty Pair because Sunrise obviously saw the returns for Affair of Nolandia and suddenly got cold feet about the prospects for their female led action sci-fi series aimed at females. It's completely inexcusable, and frankly ruins the whole movie for me.

(Oh yeah, I suppose I could mention how Kei and Yuri spend the overwhelming majority of the movie *literally* running around in their underwear. I would complain about this, except it's clear it's meant to be completely ridiculous and gratuitous and *everyone else* loses their clothes at some point too, including both Carson and the wizened Doctor Wattsman.)

Another thing about this movie that's not as effective as we perhaps might have hoped is the soundtrack. I had pretty big expectations for this, as the soundtrack to Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is widely considered by many fans to be the absolute best in the series. Already, I'm going to come out and say that it isn't, even just judging from what I've heard so far. I mean it's not terrible: There are a couple bits that sound like pastiches and updates of James Bond themes, which makes sense, and the rest of its is serviceable, inoffensive late-1980s pop music. Which I found to be...Not bad, but largely forgettable. There's certainly nothing here on the level of “Ru-ru-ru-russian Roulette”, “Space Fantasy”, “Love Everlasting” or, looking ahead to the second series, “By Yourself” or “Aki kara no Summertime”. The one song here I did quite like is called “Matters to Me”: Yuri dances to it while she and Kei are flying their hovercar through the skies above Agerna, and it's probably my favourite sequence in the whole movie.

Part of the reason I gather the soundtrack is as beloved as it is comes from the fact composer Kenzou Shiguma considered his music to be a marquee draw of the movie. Seeing the plot for what it was, Shiguma decided he'd score a concept album about his conception of who Kei and Yuri are and treat the movie as a musical or, well, a feature-length music video. This is frankly an abjectly brilliant idea, and I would have loved to see it fully realised because it certainly isn't here. One problem is that as stunning as the experimental editing is in places, its effectiveness is uneven across the movie as a whole. There are numerous points where we'll have just finished watching a groundbreaking, revolutionary science fiction film done as a music video and suddenly, as if somebody pulled a giant power switch, the action will cut back to people trying to painfully obviously fill space and kill time by robotically expositing the plot. It feels like the film would have been a lot better and a lot more effective if it really was just one big music video.

The other problem is, well, Shiguma's interpretation of Kei and Yuri is pretty flimsy and unclear. The basic idea, as I understand it, is that if Kei and Yuri are supposed to be 19, then this means they exist at some kind of midpoint between young girl and adult woman. Supposedly, Shiguma's score is meant to explore and convey this, though I confess I didn't pick up any of that myself. There is a germ of a good idea here, in that this could have been used as a commentary on the tension between the childlike simplicity that pervades so much idealism and the seasoned cynicism that so often comes with adulthood. Or perhaps, as people like Hayao Miyazaki and Shigeru Miyamoto often stress, the importance of holding onto a childlike sense of wonder and hope even as you grow throughout life and begin to have more tempered adult experiences. Kei and Yuri could then be read as the harmonious synthesis of these two ways of being. But again, I have to confess, I didn't pick up on anything of that nature: From what I can discern of the lyrics, they're pretty much all bog-standard pop stuff or trying to hearken back to the vibe of decades-old spy-fi, and neither the instrumentation nor the arrangement appear to be doing anything particularly special. Though, I freely admit I could be missing something.

All of this adds up to the sad conclusion that I honestly can't recommend Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture terribly highly, certainly not over something like the allegedly “cheap” and “dark” Affair of Nolandia. I can see why this is the most popular and beloved incarnation of Dirty Pair...But that statement can have two different truth conditions. There really is a lot this movie pioneers and does incredibly, incredibly well: It's a sci-fi landmark for its opening act and concept art alone. And, if you want a big-budget blockbuster version of the first TV series, I can see why you would really like this (Carson aside, that doesn't work as well for me because the film defaults to characterizations of the girls derived from With Love from the Lovely Angels). This movie does seem to be an attempt to take everything from the TV show and do it bigger, better and more spectacular. Unfortunately, this is equally as true for the show's problems as it is for its virtues, and it paints a dangerously inaccurate picture of what Dirty Pair is about on a very grand scale. If it's a masterpiece, it's a badly, badly flawed one.

My advice, go watch the first twenty minutes pronto-They're life-changing. If you can, track down the art book as well. But, you can comfortably drop the whole film as soon as the girls land in the abandoned experimental research lab; while the cinematography remains at that same mind-blowing level throughout the whole movie, it's really not worth it after that. Symbols have power and meaning and it turns out Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture is just like its namesake: A beautiful failure. At this point, Dirty Pair can do one of two things: Either double down on plot and linear narrative in an attempt to return to the postmodern science fiction of its early days, or drop them altogether and blast off into the realm of images, feelings, music and cosmic splendour, never to return.

Actually hang on a minute-Come to think of it, Dirty Pair would make a hell of a video game...

1 comment:

  1. What a horrible review. The fact that you tried to call Carson a Mary Sue is outright stupid. But the fact that you claim the Movie soundtrack is lacking is a load of bull. The score is compose of beautiful and very energetic scores that fit with the artistic imagery of the film making it a work of art.

    And it's far more memorable than anything Nolandia had to offer. Are you seriously trying to tell me Love Everlasting is more better than Pas De Deux, Over the Top, Through the Danger, and Sapphire Eyes? Yeah, I think you're showing some extreme biased.

    It's funny how you don't like this movie but like Nolandia, yet the overall fans opinion are inverse. I think you need to do a better rewrite.

    This review was full of nothing but biased, I seriously can't believe you claim Love Everlasting to be better than Project Eden's soundtrack. -__-