Under the Dog (2016)

Just about three years ago I ran across a Kickstarter campaign that excited me quite a bit. A small company called Mentat Studios LLC had a vision – they wanted to produce an anime for anime fans around the world without the need for the industry standard production committees and TV networks butting in. It seems that there are a lot of industry types in Japan that are not fans of the current road that the anime market is going down e.g. visual novel anime projects and moe shows designed to sell merchandise and little else. Hiroaki Yura, the executive producer at the time, even went as far as to do a solid Reddit AMA that outlined the project’s vision:

“I hope UTD will give an example that the Japanese anime industry should really focus their attention globally, not just our tiny Japanese audience. Anime should be for the whole world, not just Japan. We don’t always want moe anime or a light novel based anime. I for one long to see anime like Akira.”

This was also the original trailer presented, none of this is in the movie, so it could be seen as a trailer of what could have been a later episode I suppose.

 

while the project did not make the five million dollars needed to make a full feature length film, it did make enough money for one 30 minute OVA episode. I really wish that it could have made more (although some issues the project had that I will talk about in a bit could have complicated it) because ideally Under the Dog was meant to be a TV series.

The staff consisted of Jiro Ishii, director Masahiro Ando, producer Hiroaki Yura, character designer Yūsuke Kozaki, and composer Kevin Penkin. Though the project was successfully funded, Creative Intelligence Arts and Kinema Citrus separated due to creative differences, and Kinema Citrus took full control. The split resulted in the replacement of some development staff, including Yura being replaced by Kōji Morimoto and Yoshirō Kataoka.

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This really worried me, because at the time the whole project seemed somewhat “up in the air” backer rewards started getting cancelled and rumors of creative differences were hitting message-boards. Now it’s early 2017 and I thankfully got my psychical Blu Ray disc to review – technically it was released last fall digitally, but I wanted to wait until I had the disk.

The Blu Ray itself is a bare-bones affair with basically just the film and a handful of special features including the above trailer and a few sound options.

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What we see in this episode is largely stand-alone, but like many 1980’s OVA episodes it’s full of stuff that would be awesome if further explained. There are characters, organizations, and other bits of world building that obviously had to be set aside to meet the running time, making this seem like a introduction to a show that will (likely) never exist. According to the original Kickstarter page, the overall plot is as such:

The story takes place within Neo Tokyo in the year 2025, five years after a severe terrorist attack at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Students possessing special abilities are forced into serving an elite anti-terrorist unit created by the United Nations, fighting against threats including other ability users. If these agents fail their mission, they will be killed along with their families, who have bombs planted within their heads. One member of this covert ops unit, a Swedish girl by the name of Anthea Kallenberg, seeks to find who she really is.

Not a whole lot of this actually makes much of an appearance in the actual movie, as the focus of fifteen minutes of it is built around two entirely other characters than Anthea. The OVA’s story underwent a massive reboot in February 2015, shortly after the staff shakeup and the removal of Creative Intelligence Arts from the project. This may be why the OVA’s story and feel is almost totally different from the trailer and the previously revealed plot elements (there is no mention of a terrorist attack on the 2020 Olympics in the final product, for example).

We find a young girl named Hana Togetsu who appears to be a member of some sort of clandestine organization and is referred to as a “Flower.” Flowers are forced to work under the United Nations to carry out assassinations of terrorists and other detriments to human society such as monsters called Pandoras. It’s implied that a failed mission results in imminent death for a Flower agent and her family, and considering the tension she appeared to have with her family at the beginning of the movie, it seems messed up. She has been planted (Flower! Planted! whoooaaa – I’ll get my coat…) into a school to shadow a boy that seems to have some sort of latent abilities that her organization is after. Too bad the US Military appears to run in Team America style to complicate things.

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On the technical side, everything looks pretty nice although not incredibly spectacular. I can only assume that the budget and staff change-ups meant that parts of this production were rushed. Some of the animation, especially some of the American soldiers is worse than other parts of the film, so they stand out as being somewhat off. This isn’t helped by English voice acting for these characters that isn’t the best. If anyone has been anime anime with half-English and half-Japanese dialog (Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad comes to mind), they usually end up like this since they use non-native speakers or untrained people that just happen to know English.

I really enjoyed the character designs for all of the principle characters, and would have loved to know about some of the other agents that we barely see. I found out by looking at the Anime News Network Encyclopedia entry for Yusuke Kozaki to see he has done a TON of stuff I enjoy like a DS game called Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan, Fire EmblemNo More Heroes 1 and 2, and even Pokemon Go. I need to possibly read some of his manga works if I can find any that are translated.

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All-in-all Under the Dog is a solid enjoyable watch that could have really benefited from being a bit longer. it definitely reminded me more of old-school anime (which is what they were going for) in that it pulled no punches, was bloody as hell, and was made for people like me in mind. It’s basically a cross between Gunslinger Girl and Evangelion in many ways, and despite my few quibbles above I’d recommend checking it out if you can. OH! and if you’re there you can try to find my microscopic name in the end credits!

I am hopeful that we get to see Anthea’s story told as this was recently posted on the official Website for this project:

We are excited to announce that a new partnership for Under the Dog is established! We should be able to officially announce more details soon, but for now, we just would like to let our backers know that Under the Dog, which started out on Kickstarter, will now expand beyond crowdfunding!

This is all due to your support. We thank you again and again, and please look forward to seeing what comes out of our new partnership!

I’m still assuming we won’t see more as this was months ago, but I’ll be excited if this turns out false and we do get more.

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And in case you were wondering….

The phrase “under the dog” comes from GREAT3’s song “Under the Dog” with a line that says “Why don’t you sleep under the dog if you are so sad” for which the meaning is trying to convey (in translation) the definition we had placed on our KS page: “when one is in a situation so disagreeable that they would wish to rather be “under the dog,” a place of dishonor, misery, and filth, in order to escape their current state of affairs.” While the meaning for “underdog” can still apply to the situations the characters will find themselves in, the original meaning comes from very specific elements that are not necessarily tied to “underdog.”
–Kickstarter FAQ answer

 


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Cyber City Oedo 808 (1990) OVA

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It wasn’t too long ago that most saw the science fiction sub-genre of “Cyberpunk” as a dying format. Yeah, The Matrix was a huge movie, but that was made almost fifteen years ago, and little else came of its popularity (aside from two somewhat questionable sequels). Pretty soon, things like 9/11 took all of the fun out of life, and anything that could possibly be seen as a commentary on the decay of society and runaway governments was a big “No-No”. In this climate. science fiction and fantasy media turned into escapist Hollywood CGI-fests and lost their subversive souls in the transition. We all watched endless reality shows and procedural police dramas all decade, wore stupid clothes, and listened to terrible music – man the “noughties” were awful! Their version of the future seemed to be that of excess and world domination through “democracy”. Too bad the bubble burst and we all came to our senses.

Let’s flash forward to today: People fear a global takeover by a prominent Asian country, a government agency has been caught hoarding tons of personal information on just about every one on earth, mega-corporations control world governments, and cyber-crime is on the rise around the world. If I didn’t know any better, people like William Gibson predicted the future and we didn’t even realize it! Every day, we edge closer and closer to the 1980’s view of the near future made flesh, largely due to societal and economic turmoil in the present. The one good thing coming out of this new cynical age is that our speculative fiction is cool again, and it seems cyberpunk media is coming back as a result. Fox has a new TV show called Almost Human that thrives on just about every trope the genre has ever laid out, there have been movies like Dredd, Elysium, and a new Ghost in the Shell series hitting the scene, and even Cyberpunk video games like Deus Ex hitting the shelves – Cyberpunk is back Baby!

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With all this new material out there, it’s fun to go back and watch one of the seminal Cyberpunk anime productions of the past – Cyber City Oedo 808. This show isn’t just a classic, it’s pretty damn influential for anime of the time, and one can see its fingerprints on just about everything that came after – even Ghost in the Shell. Today I feel like Cyber City Oedo 808 is becoming a forgotten gem, much like loads of other eighties anime, and people really need to get the word out on great classic shows.

Released as a three episode OVA way back in 1990, Cyber City Oedo 808 is just a tad longer than a feature film, so it’s not like a huge time investment is needed. One of the more endearing things about this show is that it reeks of late 80’s cheese. Everyone has big silly hair, garish clothing, one of them is essentially a cross-dresser, and the sounds of what could essentially be considered “hair metal” is everywhere.

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It’s the year 2808 and the booming megalopolis of Oedo (Tokyo of the future) is desperate to curb the rising tide of technology-based “cyber-crime”. The city’s governing body decides to follow the old adage of “it takes a thief to catch a thief” and brings in a group of criminals in a new initiative to take on the problem. Serving ridiculous 300+ year sentences for various crimes, Sengoku, Gogol and Benten are less than enthusiastic to be talking to their captors.

They end up being offered relief from their orbital penitentiary cells, but only if they take a deal from the Cyber Police. They are given a pathway to redemption in that each criminal brought to justice results in a shortened sentence, so theoretically they could attain freedom once again. In order to keep the trio in line, each reformed convict is outfitted with an explosive collar that would detonate if they do a poor job or try to escape their duties.

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For the purposes of this review, I actually watched this episode twice, once in the original Japanese (with what I assumed were fansubs), and a second time in English via the UK version. The reason I wanted to see the UK version is that it has an alternate musical track that is not present in either the American or Japanese releases, and to me it’s the superior version.

Manga UK hired a man named Rory McFarlane to compose a more intense soundtrack for their release, and to me the riff-laden guitar sound-scape is far more fitting to the setting than the original soundtrack. That’s not a jab at the original soundtrack by any means, but it just seems somewhat bland in comparison. The other gem from the English localization that stands out is the quality of the dubbing. I know this is a hot topic of debate for anime fans, but I base my opinions of dubs or subs on the actual quality of the product rather than the country of origin. Not all Japanese language tracks are God’s gift to mankind, and in fact I felt the script and voice acting was both more energetic, and fleshed out in the English Version.

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Speaking of the English dub, Cyber City Oedo is one of those anime titles from the early-mid 90’s that really stepped up its game with coarse language. I would even say that it’s basically hilarious in the way it weaves its vulgar tapestry. I enjoy the cursing because these characters are supposed to be anti-social former convicts, and let’s face it most people on the outskirts of society probably talk in a similar manner. Well….that, and it’s funny in a juvenile way, and in a similar vein to why Malcolm Tucker as played by Peter Capaldi is funny. Pardon my french here, but I wanted to showcase one of the most hysterical lines in the show just to get the point across as to why I loved it. This is from episode three:

“Get lost. You wouldn’t recognize a goddamn vampire if one jumped up and bit you on the end of your fucking dick. So just get off my back.”

The dialog is full of stuff like that, people swear even if it’s completely unnecessary to what they are saying. The whole thing reminds me of why I like the movie Shoot ‘Em Up starring Clive Owen. The movie is so unnatural, so over the the top that it becomes completely hilarious for all the right reasons.

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The English dub also does a great job of filling in quiet spots within the dialog. Sometimes there are long stretches of silence going on in the Japanese version, and the English dub fills this in with extra material. Even when a camera was silently panning off-screen in the original, the new version might include two characters conversing with dialog that acts as world building or character development dialog. I’m usually pretty critical of stuff like this considering I felt the “extra dialog” injected into Tekkaman Blade generally made the show cheesy and more childish, but here it really works. How else would we get a lecture from the Cyber Police liaison robot (Varsus) to Sengoku on his misuse of the word “fuck”? Outside of such a fun dub.

Cyber City Oedo 808 was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who happens to be one of my favorite 90’s anime directors. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, his works should. Kawajiri is the guy behind Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Highlander, The Deadshot segment of Batman: Gotham Knight, and even Demon City Shinjuku. Don’t forget his name, because the material he directed was essentially what got me into anime back in the nineties. Don’t be surprised if most of my posts on here have something to do with his works! There is really no other director that captured the American Market like Kawajiri, and his films were staples of many Blockbuster video stores around the country. Granted this is generally because his shows are all pretty violent, full of action, and other things teenage boys thought were awesome back then.

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I mentioned the characters of Sengoku, Gogol and Benten earlier, but did not say much other than the fact that they are foul-mouthed former convicts. Sengoku is essentially the main character of the show, although each episode is a character piece where each one gets the spotlight. He’s your typical hot-headed badass that doesn’t take any sass from anyone. Whether it be his boss, the robot assigned to watch over him, or fellow teammates, Sengoku is usually snarking at somebody. In the English dub he is especially hot-headed but likable in a weird way.

Gogol is a huge intimating computer hacker with a red mohawk and scars all over his face. I was pleasantly surprised by his character, as one would assume he would be the one-dimensional brute of the team, but he’s really the brains of the operation. Benten is an androgynous martial arts master that fights using mono-filament wire and acts pretty sadistic towards people he is fighting. Of the three, Benten is the least likable simply because he comes across sort of creepy. He does end up fighting a vampire though, so there’s points there!

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My long-winded introduction was basically laying out Cyber City Oedo 808 as a classic Cyberpunk show, but one might wonder how much it has in common with notable literary cyberpunk stories. Cyberpunk, as a genre, deals with the conventions of post-humanism, technology running amok, and the collapse of society, or as a notable anonymous article once put it [cyberpunk is the story of] “high tech and low life.” The world of Oedo is a very dark one, and it seems to run in a similar manner to the universe of the 2000AD books that Judge Dredd eventually came from.

It’s hard to piece together the societal structure the series is based in, but one can see that it is presented as very high-tech, and yet VERY fascist. In the first OVA episode, for example, a man under pressure confesses to a murder that is responsible for a horrible crisis that Sengoku is attempting to unravel. This is enough for Hasegawa (their boss) to order Sengoku to kill the man there and then without so much as a trial. When Sengoku fails to do so he is reprimanded and his sentence is increased due to insubordination.

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Sengoku shares the sort of philosophical leaning that many cyberpunk heroes deal with. He seems to resent what the world has become, and especially the over-use of technology in Oedo. A notable scene from the Japanese version shows a little bit of dialog that really sums his stance up: “What a Joke…We built a monstrous city, then we put the computers in charge…we rely too much on you damn machines, don’t we, junkpile? ” The English edition is basically the same just with more “F-bombs”.

If you are a fan of cyberpunk and have yet to see Cyber City Oedo 808 do yourself a favor and take a trip over to YouTube and watch the UK versions of it. It may be old, and the dub is unintentionally hilarious, but this is definitely a style of anime that really isn’t done anymore. Robots, Cyborgs, and Vampires all rolled into one, it sounds like my idea of a great way to spend a snowed in winter day!

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Black Magic M-66 (1987) OVA

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Science fiction stories, and more specifically cyberpunk stories, are by far my favorite type of anime and manga; and one of the grandmasters of the genre would have to be Masamune Shirow. Not only did he unleash the beast that was the Ghost in the Shell franchise to our defenseless eyes, but also brought a helping of Dominion Tank Police, Gundress and even Appleseed. Rest assured, as this blog continues, I will be posting more of his stuff than you can handle.

So, what makes Shirow’s work stand out so much? Despite his foray into erotic pin-up art for the last decade or so, Shirow’s work was essentially the formula that most 80’sand 90’s cyberpunk anime followed. His productions were characterized by sexy leading ladies, philosophical plots, and a procedural police drama flavor. On top of all of this, Shirow is known for his highly detailed level of world building; this is seen most notably in his vehicles, mecha, firearms, and cybernetics.

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Before Ghost in The Shell or even Apleseed, Shirow penned a science fiction manga simply called Black Magic. Bandai eventually got the rights, and produced a short OVA (original video animation) based loosely on a small portion of the comic. Hiroyuki Kitakubo also co-directed this piece, and later went on to work on such films as Akira, Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and Roujin Z usually as a key animator or storyboard director. So here we go – let’s look at Black Magic M-66, one of Shirow’s earliest works!

Black Magic M-66 is the story of a hard-as-nails and usually scantily-clad journalist named Sybil out for the scoop of her career. She learns about a crashed military transport and two lethal combat androids on-board. She assumes that the military is going to battle a “violent, armored thing on the road”, but little does she know, it’s worse. Perhaps because of the crash, or a fault in programming, these mechanical murderers get loose and set out to kill the granddaughter of their own creator. Sybil has a choice, if she wants her big payday, she better protect the girl from the bots.

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The plot essentially boils down to a prolonged chase scene that somewhat reminded me of the first Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator film. M-66 is like the Terminator and has been programmed to kill Ferris (Sarah Conner) who is only safe because she is being protected by Sybil (Kyle). Yeah, it lacks the time travel plot and other aspects, but the similarity is there. I wish that Black Magic M-66 could have been a tad longer, because the plot really gets rolling about 10-15 minutes into the movie, and rushed to the ending from then on. To me, It needs a bit more breathing room.

This video has a lot of what I like to call “the pervy side of Shirow”. I mentioned earlier, that Shirow basically exclusively produces erotic pin up art ever since he completed his manga Ghost in the Shell II: Man Machine Interface. People thinking that this career turn is a new thing, need to go back and watch Black Magic M-66. Not only is Sybil’s very first scene one where she is not wearing any clothes, but other characters seem to be border-line nudists as well. Ferris, The aforementioned granddaughter in question, walks around in what I can best describe as her underwear with shoes on for a good chunk of her early scenes.

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A special nod goes out to the way the android M-66s are designed and their “fighting style”. When they finally are spotted by the military and engaged, the inhuman,near animalistic way in which they move is almost unsettling. The “male” M-66, which meets a grizzly end by way of military might towards the beginning of the feature, is vaguely monkey like and sticks to the ground, whereas the “female” M-66 lumbers around shooting things with laser eyes and retracting knives as fingers. These monstrosities really bring this film into it’s own,and keep the whole thing full of “on the edge of your seat moments”.

Before I sat down to write this, I had never actually seen this anime for some reason. I think this boils down to the scarcity of the older Manga Entertainment DVD when I used to work at a retail store, and my unwillingness to spend large amounts of money on it. I believe the older DVD was released in 2001, and it wasn’t until a few months ago that a new company, Maiden Japan, re-released it minus any English dubbing. If in a pinch, I bet you could find it on any popular video sharing site, but I don’t condone that due to an actual American license, but whatever floats your boat.

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In conclusion, Black Magic M-66 is not as polished as later works from Masamune Shirow, but it still retains a lot of his trademark style. You have the procedural cop drama trope with the military guys, the mecha, the androids, and even the sexy female lead. All it’s missing is the philosophical treatment with the plot. If anything, it’s always fun to see where a director honed his chops.

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