By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
or a few years during my interminable grade school education I sought refuge in the animated dreams of another country. Starblazers and Force Voltron (the land-sea-air crews version) saved me from the mass glut of the everyday variety of cartoon. While most of my classmates only watched Transformers and GI-Joe, both respectable series in their own right with various highs and lows, I traveled on the Argo, watched metal clad winged warriors spiraling out of the bottom of a plane in tight formation and felt the almost gravitational pull of a massive machine being formed before my eyes.
Even back then I could feel the differences between what was common on American television screens every Saturday morning and these otherworldly aliens. To me, a boy lost in the petty cruelties and strange interactions of third and fourth grade, these Japanese animated tales, although standard fare in their own country, were magical.
The animation was perhaps the largest signifier of difference with its concentration on movement and isolation of figures in motion. They were also strangely ritualistic, hermetic in their obsession with actions repeated in every program. The transformation sequences in Voltron are a good example. The process by which the vehicles merged together to form the benevolent, silent robotic giant, melting in a series of gears and awkwardly beautiful angles, was lovingly displayed as the center piece of the twenty minute program. The use of the Wave Motion gun in Starblazers is another example. While not used as frequently as Voltron's transformation, when used the step by step process by which the crew armed and fired their ship's awesome weapon was just as rigidly defined. Another distinguishing feature of these pieces were their story lines. Starblazers was, in essence, a serialized adventure. The characters were fit into a quest narrative, given specific personalities and histories and placed in a series of relationships. The viewer learned more about the major members of the crew as the story progressed and couldn't even be sure if that character would be around in the next episode; people died in Starblazers and weren't resurrected at a whim. For people who remember the program and watched it, I wonder if you were as surprised as I was to discover that Science officer Sandor was not all that he appeared to be or that even heroes can die as when the leader of the Black Tiger squadron was killed in a crash after a battle. These were potent images for a boy looking for an escape.
Ghost in the Shell, a game based on the extremely well received film of the same title, is a product of the anime vision. The cinematic elements of the game demonstrate the genre's fascination with movement and character. There are two basic sections. In the beginning the viewer watches a battle scene unfold like a music video, an obscure, almost dream-like sequence and a more directly narrative situational set up to the game proper.
The first piece is the most interesting. Cutting between a mechanical red spider tank and a women draped in wires who is seemingly in control of the little beast, the creators create a wonderful tension between what the viewer can comprehend given the most basic information and what remains unanswerable. The little bug tank battles its way into an ornately designed building, dodging cannon fire and narrowly avoiding destruction. The tank is invested with a definite sense of personality. It veers about, scrambling its legs in place before moving in a comical reminder of every Hanna-Barbara character and even smiling and clapping its claws/guns together when happy. It is a charming little addition and one that does not come as a surprise given anime designers' common interest in anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. There is a visual beauty to many of the images. During one moment the tank, surrounded by the flaming ruins of the once elegant room, clutches the greek-looking female statue with three of its legs while the fourth sprays bullets across the walls, hopping away just as its enemy obliterates the statue.
Although visually charged, this moment also subtly asks the question who is in charge. The tank grips the statue like the wires grip the woman in the other scenes. This woman, plugged into a hive of high tech hardware, is the ghost in the machine, the mystery to be solved. In the end of the sequence the two come face to cafe and a strange moment occurs. The tank becomes invisible while the woman, by disconnecting the machinery, makes it clear who is in charge of the illusion. The second sequence is more narrative based, a call to action and a provider of background and is, while not bad, certainly less interesting.
The animated sections of Ghost in the Shell, basically more advanced versions of Starblazers and Voltron, are built out of the genre of the anime film. Even though many years and advances in technology and technique separate these pieces, they are connected in spirit, a sibling relationship of provocative images remembered by a boy who needed the dream.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.