Ever walked into your favorite Japanese restaurant and been torn on what to have for lunch – California roll or katsu, tempura or teriyaki? You might have ordered the bento box, a daily special traditionally featuring a variety of dishes in a neat little lunch box. National CineMedia is trying to lure the otaku to their network of digital theatres (including select Orlando sites) with Anime Bento, a sampler of four full-length animations from Japan. And like that namesake blue-plate special, you’ll want to consume carefully: Not everything on the menu may be your cup of sake.
The balance between the human and ghostly dimensions has been thrown into disarray as Eko, a former Karas, has attempted to seize power and bring order to Tokyo by force. The entity Yurine, who represents the will of the people, stands in his way with her newly risen Karas. Now an ageless battle stretching across both dimensions is in progress in prolific anime producers Tatsunoko Productions’ highly-anticipated Karas: The Prophecy. At least, that’s what the back of the DVD case says. I’m going to have to take their word for it because I didn’t understand a damn minute of it. I’m not fainthearted when it comes to obtuse animation: I first saw Akira on a bootleg VHS before it had been dubbed or subtitled, and was able to understand enough to be enthralled. But Karas is an unfathomable mess, so overstuffed with overdesigned characters and unmotivated action that it’s incomprehensible in any language.
The only thing approaching an intelligible storyline follows a pair of Mulder and Scully cops (one even says, “The truth is out there”) as they investigate a string of demon-related deaths in Shinjuku. But the film never sticks with one thread long enough to develop it; instead, it jumps POVs from Christmas cake–hawking kewpies to giant wrestlers who transform into giant-er robots and do battle with all the emotional engagement of watching someone else play Xbox. The 3-D background animation is slick, but it blends uncomfortably with the stiff, dead-eyed 2-D characters. Finally, the ending is so abrupt and unsatisfying (apparently there’s a sequel) that I had to rewind twice to see if I had missed something. Nope, I didn’t. Neither will you.
I didn’t expect the next selection to be any more palatable when I saw it came with a “Guide Book” featuring a dozen-plus pages of Engrish on the movie’s backstory. I was even more wary upon learning that it mixed steampunk sci-fi with the real people and events of the 1923 Munich Putsch that eventually led to Hitler’s ascendance. But much to my surprise, Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa turned out to be a better-than-decent blend of fact and fantasy. Better yet, it can be followed even by those without a master’s degree in the popular television series it sprang from.
If you haven’t yet seen FMA on Cartoon Network, it follows young Edward and Alphonse Elric, brothers searching for their missing father in a parallel dimension where alchemy was not displaced by science. When the film begins they are separated, with Edward in our world’s Germany between World Wars. Ed’s in the company of Alphonse’s earthly doppelgänger and a clairvoyant gypsy. Together they battle the Aryan-supremacist Thule Society’s plot to ensure the Nazis’ rise to power.
Alongside the magic-conjuring circles and dragon-battling dirigibles there are some serious philosophy and history lessons. Real-life figures like filmmaker Fritz Lang and professor Karl Haushofer, and real issues of economics and xenophobia, are handled in a fashion that’s fantastic yet still faithful. Anyone who enjoys alt-history (like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South) will find much to chew on. Any film that name-checks Nietzsche’s Übermensch and Der Ring des Nibelungen while still delivering epic battles and bug-eyed slapstick is worth an hour and a half of your time.
The one entree on offer that’s certified gourmet is The Castle of Cagliostro, the first feature from animation legend Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away). Miyazaki’s later films have gotten a bit lost in eco-surrealism, but back in 1979, he crafted a fleet-footed adventure that counts Steven Spielberg among its fans. Master thief Lupin III, aka “The Wolf,” was already the star of a long-running manga, two successful TV series and a live-action film when Miyazaki took over the production of the second animated feature and created an all-time anime favorite. The rollicking tale of stolen counterfeiting plates and mysterious monarchs is comparable to Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. It’s not just a good cartoon; it’s a great movie.
Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles was not available to review by press time, but it does feature the voice of Mark Hamill.[email protected]