Thursday, March 26, 2015

“May there always be an Angel by your side”: Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy

No goodbyes, just good memories.

This is the final Dirty Pair movie. The final Classic Anime. The final performance of Kyōko Tongū and Saeko Shimazu as Kei and Yuri. And it's time for us to take stock of just how far we've come and where we might be going from here. Because while Dirty Pair does not end with Flight 005 Conspiracy, a very important part of it does, and this is where the Lovely Angels bid Vaka Rangi farewell: Transcending our narrative one last time in search of their next adventure together.

The existence alone of Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy is something of an oddity. In the years since the release of Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture in 1987, the franchise had been slipping into more and more of a decline popularly, falling ever more out of the public eye as audiences and tastes began to change. There's a marked dropoff in, say, promotional material and tie-in merchandise from the release of The Motion Picture, through the OVA series to this movie that tracks alongside Dirty Pair's inescapable slide into obscurity. In fact, there was next to no promotion for Flight 005 Conspiracy at all, with no significant ad spots in magazines I could find and nothing except a soundtrack CD and a small calendar to go along it. Even the LaserDisc cover is the most unassuming and humble of things: While even Original Dirty Pair got unique, elabourate and colourful sleeve art for each volume, here we only have a simple illustration of the girls set against a solid colour background and the title printed in basic, no-frills font in a tiny corner at the top of the sleeve.

Of course this is not at all to insinuate the series' quality had been declining in parallel, the contrary, in fact: I'd argue the run from the premier of Original Dirty Pair to now is a strong contender for the single greatest run of stories in all of Dirty Pair. Yet it seems like even as animated Dirty Pair came into its own, gradually leaving its own indelible mark on the series as a whole, viewers started to grow less and less enamoured of it. It's not like this is anything of a surprise, considering the TV series, debatably the most well-known and well-loved version of the franchise, was canceled before all its episodes could be produced. I suppose you could point the finger at Dirty Pair being science fiction that trends more or less to the traditional side of things as the culprit behind its fall from favour, but I don't think that really explains it: Plenty of other sci-fi shows that had just as traditional roots went on to be far more successful. For an especially poignant contrast, look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, the popularity of which only continued to steadily climb during this exact same period.

No, I'm far more inclined to blame shifting demographics. I think viewers overlooked Dirty Pair and left it behind in favour of newer and more exciting series as the popularity of shōnen anime and manga exploded in the late-1980s and early-1990s owing to the increasing dominance of the so-called “otaku” subculture in the discourse. There's a whole essay that's not this one on how and why self-professed otaku naturally gravitated towards media that is strictly speaking intended for children and why those particular tastes became synonymous with anime and manga in the Long 1990s, but the long and short of it for our purposes is that Dirty Pair isn't a children's show-It's a science fiction show for adults (primarily, arguably, adult women) that just happens to be a cartoon, and that's what had gone very out of vogue by 1990. Dirty Pair will always have fans in adult sci-fi enthusiast communities, just like the one Rick Sternbach and Mike Okuda were a part of, but those people were no longer the target audience for anime. And so the series retreats further back into its OVA sanctuary for its final screen outing of note.

One wonders if the Sunrise animators were aware of all this on some level. While I'm not sure Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy was intended to be the last Dirty Pair as it doesn't have a particularly funereal tone about it, it does very much feel like a series looking within itself and doubling down on its strengths. That's not to say the film plays it safe either, actually this might be the most brazen and envelope-pushing effort of the lot, at least in some respects. But Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy is definitely a film that knows what it is, knows what it's good at and knows who really cares. It's a veritable Dirty Pair Greatest Hits of thematic elements and plot beats executed absolutely flawlessly: It's once again a dense espionage thriller, there are mentions of Planet Lionesse, Yuri gets to wield her signature Bloody Card for the first and last time on TV and even Lucifer plays an important role. Yet Chief Gooley still makes a cameo, the Lovely Angel herself is the model from the OVA Series and Kei and Yuri's uniforms resemble their outfits from Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture. The story even involves a mystery surrounding a plane that's tearing a family apart, just like in “No Way! 463 People Disappeared?!”/“We Did It! 463 People Found!”. The film reaches across the entire span of the Classic Series and the light novels to bring together all the quintessential little signifiers that make Dirty Pair Dirty Pair for one last show.

And that's even before you get to the writing and direction.

I'm not even going to bother talking about the plot: It's a complex tale of twists, turns and fake-outs and relies on world-building to such an extent I'd be spending the whole essay just summarising it, and that's not what I want to talk about. I hasten to add this is not in any way a complaint or a criticism: Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy is sprawling tale of political intrigue and human drama that spans the entire galaxy and beats within each and every human heart, even that of the smallest child, and I've never before seen a story like this conveyed this effectively. If you're looking for a recommendation or endorsement, that's it: If you haven't seen it before and care at all about Dirty Pair, go watch it. Now, preferably. It is “harder” and less openly metaphysical than, say, Affair of Nolandia, to use the obvious point of comparison and it also has something of a reputation for “darkness”: Flight 005 Conspiracy is a somewhat somber and melancholy film and is definitely the darkest of the Classic Anime series, but it must be said (and without spoiling too much) there's nothing here that would seem out of place in, for example, The Dirty Pair Strike Again.

But just as was the case with Affair of Nolandia, the keyword here isn't “dark”, but “adult” and “mature”. This is a Dirty Pair that plays itself straight for a change (well, not *too* straight: This is still Dirty Pair with all the requisite puroresu performativity that goes along with it, of course). There's no more Blade Runner-influenced Elenore City; there are no more clueless and strangled shout-outs to James Bond. This is a Dirty Pair movie with unfaltering confidence in just being a Dirty Pair movie and the knowledge it doesn't need to be anything else to blow us away. Star Trek, however, thankfully does still remain: We get to see a lot more of the Lovely Angel then we ever have before, including quite a few going-to-warp sequences that are obviously a hat-tip to similar effects shots from the film series. The animation and art direction, by the way, are both top-notch, here and in every other scene: This movie is as vivid, colourful, imaginative and evocative as the series has ever been.

But having Star Trek stick around is both touching and also quite fitting because, with Flight 005 Conspiracy, Dirty Pair is once more and for one last time a space-based science fiction show about a voyaging starship. And appropriately, this is the most mature and nuanced depiction of Kei and Yuri's relationship we've seen in a very long time. The girls go through hell in this movie and, under the strain of their charge, come perilously close on quite a number of occasions to explicitly confessing their obvious feelings for each other. But they always stop short, because that wouldn't be appropriate in this setting: That's not what this film is about. The mission must come first. The mission must always come first. There will be time for that after the credits roll. But we can read it plain as day in the way they talk and act around each other, like we never could before. Two hearts beating as one, the entire universe before them. 

Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy show a Kei and Yuri with the weight of the world on their shoulders and well aware of it. And it's not just them: This is the most crazed and obsessive Chief Gooley of all, apparently driven completely to the brink of sanity due to the combined stresses of his job and working with the Lovely Angels, and not entirely in a comedic way. And in a way this is quite fitting, because as much as Flight 005 Conspiracy reaches across the span of Dirty Pair's collected history, it also serves as a kind of limit case for it: Frankly, this movie can make a strong case for being the absolute pinnacle of Sunrise's animated Dirty Pair franchise, but in order to be that it must push every single thing about the series as it exists right now as far as it can possibly go. There's a brilliant scene where the girls use the trappings of fluffy pulp sci-fi and detective fiction against itself (and us), reappropriating it for themselves. The movie even ends with the Angels squaring off against the leader of Lucifer himself in a life-or-death stakes battle the likes of which they've never seen before. There can never be another detective mystery as simultaneously sweepingly grandiose and heartrendingly personal as this. There can never be another Golden Age-influenced sci-fi story this powerful and effective that doesn't also bring something else to the table.

This is Dirty Pair's Loser Retires match.

And yet at the same time, the film knows this, because of course it does. Kei and Yuri are here, aren't they? Who knows their story or the fabric of narrative magick with which it's woven better than them? And Kei and Yuri know better than anyone just where their path will take them next. Music once more plays a very integral role here, and it's overwhelmingly more effective and memorable than any other time the series has tried this. The OVA Series themes were perfect, but music was not worked into the basic structure and body of that show except for the familiar leitmotifs that played during the action scenes. Dirty Pair: The Motion Picture wanted to be a feature-length abstract music video, but it had trouble syncing up its musical symbolism with its linear narrative. Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy, however, works just like Miami Vice, delicately weaving music into key wordless moments throughout the movie. Unlike the dissonance of The Motion Picture's score, here the story's animation and its soundtrack (very, very appropriately called Love Songs) at last truly compliment each other, working in perfect tandem to elevate the entire production.

(And of course the theme song is a work of genius. Why wouldn't it be? In fact, to me it anticipates, uncannily, some of Dennis McCarthy's scores for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Enterprise.)

It's a refreshing reiteration, here in the year that Miami Vice itself went off the air, of the timeless beauty and power of Long 1980s visual logic and cinematography and a metaphor for the lasting legacy of Dirty Pair itself. The true gift of Kei and Yuri's magick is its ability to settle in our hearts, remind us of our greater selves and our more cosmic purpose, and to inspire us to reach for them. They're always within our sight should we take the time to remember them and reflect on them. Because the biggest secret of all is, for all of its alleged “darkness”, Dirty Pair: Flight 005 Conspiracy may just be the most hopeful Dirty Pair yet. Utopianism does not mean a perfect world free of strife and conflicts, but it does mean a world where we can deal with such things in a positive and constructive way. It's a commitment to improve ourselves and to strive for an ideal that is not necessarily a tangible thing for us to reach, at least not in this life, but that allows us to sublimate the life we have now. Kei and Yuri know this better than anyone, and in order to prove it they once again break the God Canon. But this time they too are caught in the blast.

Kei and Yuri have always stood in for the concept of the Glorified Body, and it's always been their charge to help prepare humanity for the next phase of their spiritual development, oftentimes by bringing forth traumatic, yet necessary, transformative change. And now it's time to do that for each other, and for Dirty Pair itself: Summon all the franchise is and has ever been, and explode it outward spectacularly in every direction. Blow it up so that it may be sublimated. With Flight 005 Conspiracy, Dirty Pair as a viable franchise is effectively over, but as an idea, as a dream, it's become infinite, immortal, and unending. Just like our Glorified Lovely Goddesses. There will be more official Dirty Pair here and there, certainly, but there will be even more homages, reiterations, reincarnations and evocations in all but name. Dirty Pair belongs to the collective unconscious and the realm of symbolic magick now, and that's where its greatest work can be done. Dirty Pair has reached its own point of singularity. The Lovely Angels have transfigured into higher states of being. Kei and Yuri have grown up.

What more can I say about Dirty Pair? About Kei and Yuri? As much as they have changed at the end of this movie, so they have changed me. They've certainly changed the course of this project permanently, that much is self-evident. But the effect on me personally will be even more lasting and resonant. As I was writing this book, my world slowly became a more and more uncanny, and unmistakable, example of life imitating art. This isn't a true autobiography, in spite of what it looks like and the influences it draws from the genre, so I won't go into too much more detail here. But this show...This series...Those girls...Those ideas, have changed my life forever. If a goddess is the idea of a goddess, then Kei and Yuri are mine. Like Kira Nerys once said, “That's the thing about faith: If you don't have it, you can't understand it and if you do, no explanation is necessary”. There's a landscape of memory and emotion Dirty Pair evokes for me, and the amount of truth I can convey about it through pseudo-academic prose is rapidly running thin, so I too, must depart, alongside my Lovely Holy Guardian Angels. All I can do is invite you to take your own journey and discover your own truths for yourself...And to hope your journey is even a fraction as rewarding, fulfilling and affirmational as mine has been.

So, after all of that what have we learned? We've travelled across the universe and traversed the future-scapes of our most vivid memories and imaginations to discover the universe that exists in all of us; in each and every living thing. We've touched the soul of world and seen the paths that lie before us, and that lead us to each other. It's been an amazing ride, and I can only dream of where we're going next. We've barely only scratched the surface. What does the future hold for Kei and Yuri? Only the stars can know. But they do assuredly have a future, because their future is now, and it is them. They live it, and every day the tide turns over once more, they live it again.

And now, I really can't say anymore. Take it by yourself. And let it always be summertime.

See you next volume...!? Again, bye bye...


  1. Hey, thanks for all the writing you've done on Dirty Pair, Josh. It's been rewarding to read and, obviously, a deeply personal exploration for you. A real privilege to be able to travel along with you as you go through it all.

    1. Thank you for saying so-It means a lot. I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

  2. Yep, the journey with you through the worlds of the Dirty Pair has been enlightening. There is a feeling of a tinge of sadness as we leave them, and in some ways I felt that tinge also in the movie. With the more dark and serious tone present, I was left with a more sombre feeling - especially wit the often gloomy settings and the to camera look from Kei in the credits. One outstanding scene was the heartbreaking separation of the ship at the end where the male character drifted off into space. Thanks again Josh.