Project A-ko: Collector's Series (Enhanced) Review
With Project A-ko, I find myself in the unenviable position of reviewing a film that has become a revered animé classic with legions of devoted fans... in other words, a potential minefield. For many Western viewers, Project A-ko was their first exposure to Japanese animation, released as it was just before the start of the huge influx of animé into the European and American markets.
Setting its landmark status aside for a moment, though, what is the show all about? Well, ostensibly it's a whimsical story about three teenage schoolgirls – A-ko (energetic and gifted with superhuman strength), B-ko (intellectual, rich, and tech-savvy), and C-ko (childish and annoying). I'll expand upon the plot in a minute, but that's not really what this animé is all about. If this film had had to stand on its story and (rather undeveloped) characters alone, it might well have been a failure.
No, what ensured the rampant success of Project A-ko was the fact that it's one huge parody... a one-and-a-half hour in-joke for fans of Japanese animation. Of course, the pitfall here is that you can't spot comic allusions to shows you've never seen. So while a Japanese audience has no problem identifying the hundreds of tributes to other contemporary animé littered throughout Project A-ko, the average Western viewer may be left wondering just what all the fuss is about.
Another valid concern is that the show feels somewhat dated; what was a truly groundbreaking achievement back in 1986 has since had its more radical elements subsumed by later generations of animation, so things that must have seemed 'wild' and 'over the top' back then now look rather tame. In many ways, this is the fate of any successful show... the mainstream moves to incorporate and then surpass it.
So is it a washout for the not terribly animé-savvy? Maybe not. Even if you don't notice all of the places where Project A-ko is taking the mick, there's a lot of other stuff here to entertain you, depending upon what you fancy: super-powered schoolgirls, sailor uniforms, vaguely lesbian overtones, gratuitous 'panty shots', mecha, aliens, space battles... well, you get the idea. The problem is, if none of these categories really interest you, you may be entirely out of luck.
Back to the plot (such as it is): A-ko and C-ko are childhood friends starting their first day at a new school. Also in their class is B-ko, who becomes infatuated with C-ko and decides to steal her away from A-ko at all costs. Cue a series of crazy schemes on her part to get rid of A-ko, including the construction of gigantic mecha for her chums to operate and finally a powered battlesuit for herself. In the meantime there's a half-hearted attempt at a secondary plot involving some aliens who think C-ko is their lost princess and want to abduct her as well.
That's about it, I'm afraid. In the words of Yuji Moriyama (the animation director, character designer, and one of the writers), Project A-ko was intended from the very start to be 'mindless fun', as sort of a backlash against the trend towards 'animé with serious themes' that was growing at the time. In the on-disc commentary, he goes on to admit that the film isn't very coherent because everyone working on the project was encouraged to 'do whatever they wanted to' and chase on impulse any tangent that struck their fancy.
Indeed, these words of his ring very true as you watch the show. You can tell it was a labour of love, with a large team of relative unknowns (at the time) coming together to create something very innovative, but also fairly inconsistent. The amount of talent arrayed in the production of Project A-ko is frankly astounding... many of the people involved were just getting started back in the mid-80s, but have gone on to become major names in the industry. So it's safe to say that Project A-ko was a historic milestone in Japanese animation, but one that may not appeal to all fans of modern animé.
It's important to note that this is the new 'Collector's Series (Enhanced)' version of Project A-ko. It bears about as much resemblance to the original 1999 DVD release as a 10-carat diamond does to a lump of coal. Whereas the previous version was a bare-bones release plagued with video problems and almost universally-derided by reviewers, it's clear from watching this disc that a great deal of effort went into producing a respectable replacement.
First off, the entire film has been digitally restored from the video masters by Audio Plus Video International. The difference achieved by this process in the way of clarity and colour alone is nothing short of amazing, as the 'Restoration of a Classic' micro-documentary included on this disc illustrates. Major issues that were addressed included: 1, restoring the picture to its full 4:3 aspect ratio glory; 2, reindexing the colour palette to remove dinginess (for example, A-ko's hair is now brick red rather than a dull ruddy hue); and 3, smoothing jagginess in the original artwork that might trip up the encoding process.
So the video looks fantastic compared with its previous incarnation. However, despite this Herculean effort, it is not quite perfect. Thankfully the vast majority of the line shimmering that degraded the last release has been eliminated, as this was the most common complaint fans had with it. There's still a tiny bit of jitter evident in pans across scenes (more pronounced in vertical ones, of course), and occasionally there's a scene where it looks like the background itself is wobbling a little (although this may be a fault in the original animation and not in the actual encode).
I didn't notice any brightness dropouts or pulsating, which is good, but it did seem that a substantial minority of the scenes looked a bit on the soft side. Again, this may be an unavoidable side-effect of the anarchic approach taken by the original animators, as when everyone is doing their own thing, visual consistency becomes a bit more tricky to nail down. The strange thing is, there are plenty of scenes in this film which are rock-steady, with sharp edges, bold lines, and bright colours, so you'll be hard pressed not to notice the variations in style. Overall, a really solid job considering the age of the source material.
Both the original Japanese track and the English dub track on this disc are recorded in Dolby Digital Stereo. The audio's pretty much what you'd expect from a mid-80s animé, although perhaps using stereo directionality to better effect than some of its contemporaries. The Japanese voice acting was spot on, with all three of the girls sounding just right for their personalities... alas, even in the case of C-ko, who is clearly intended to be shrill, whiny, and obnoxious.
When it comes to the English dub, I'm slightly disappointed. Although the casting of the lead actors was fine from a voice standpoint, their delivery of the lines just comes across as really flat in comparison to the original Japanese. (Though of the three girls, I'd say B-ko's voice actor comes closest to achieving the same classic mix of indignation and slyness that her Japanese counterpart managed.) Unless I'm very mistaken, C-ko does a lot more screaming in the English version, which is annoying. Nor does it help that a lot of the dialogue's been altered to Western tastes, and many moments of silence have been overdubbed with speech that's not present in the original.
Anyway, the English dub's not awful, but just not to my liking. The Japanese outclasses it in every way, particularly when it comes to achieving some of the subtle humour that is this show's hallmark. There's also a third audio track, which is the full feature-length commentary by Yuji Moriyama... it's crisp and clear, perfectly balanced with the background audio so you can actually listen to what's going on in the film but hear him over it without any problems.
By the way, all of the theme songs for this show are in English, and were composed and recorded in America. From what I can gather, they worked up three individual 'themes', one for each of the girls. The music didn't really make much of an impression on me one way or the other, so I can't really say if the idea worked well or not.
This is one of the few animé DVDs I've seen where every last menu on the disc is animated and accompanied by a nice looping melody track. Beyond just the standard background animation, something interesting is going on with the actual text selections, too... they shimmer, float, and glow as moving highlights pass over them. There's also some kind of colour-coding going on involving gold and silver, but it's not clear what the significance of this is. (At least it's easy to determine which is the currently selected menu option, as it's always in a bold red.) Menu access times are very fast, and the layout itself efficient.
The selections from the main menu include 'Disc-Setup', 'Play Program', 'Select a Scene', 'Special Features', 'DVD-ROM', and 'Sneak Peeks'. The setup menu offers you a choice of English, Japanese with English subtitles, or the audio commentary track (also Japanese with English subtitles). However, as I've experienced on other CPM discs, the moment you make your audio selection the disc starts playing the film from the start... so you'll have to break out of it if you were planning to select a particular scene to watch. Speaking of which, the scene selection menu is broken up into four pages of four chapter breaks each.
The last three main menu options are all essentially extras, so I'll talk about them in the next section. Overall, very professional menus with artwork in keeping with the spirit of this film.
Central Park Media (U.S. Manga) has really pulled out all of the stops on this one. I've only personally watched one other animé DVD with a better spectrum of special features, and that's the limited edition tin of Akira.
'Trailers & TV Spots' includes no fewer than eight individual clips, including the original Japanese theatrical trailer, the English and French trailers, a lengthy 'synopsis reel for special events', and four promotional TV spots of varying focus and length. An interesting twist on the storyboard-to-film comparison idea is this disc's 'Comic to Film Comparison', which takes frames from CPM's own English version of the Project A-ko manga and presents them overdubbed with the English language track from the film itself. Represented here are five extended scenes (varying in length between one minute and three minutes long).
In place of the textless opening and closing segments that are often included on animé DVDs, this disc features 'Music Videos' of two of the English language songs recorded specifically for the film in Hollywood. Following directly on from this is the 'Behind the Scenes from Japan' featurette, which at first seems to be something of a misnomer, as the first 10 minutes are spent talking to incredibly uninteresting people at the music recording studio in Los Angeles, including three female singers with really bad 80s hair.
Fortunately, at about the 10-minute mark it shifts focus across the Pacific and proceeds to interview many key crewmembers at the animation studio in Japan. This section is actually quite entertaining, as these guys (none of the female animators are seen) desperately try to ham it up for the camera. This goes on for another ten minutes before the featurette makes a feint at closing, spending a few more minutes playing one of the English theme songs and then rolling the credits. Bizarrely, it then returns with an appeal by representatives from six of Japan's leading animation fandom magazines – Newtype, Animec, Animedia, My Animé, The Animé, and Out – to buy their magazines and go watch Project A-ko. (The last rep is particularly funny, though, and helps to relieve the general blandness of this segment.) Overall, this featurette is a good half-hour long.
The remaining extras on this menu begin to look slightly minimal by comparison, but are still nice to have. For instance, I think there's something very sweet about a company that includes a 'Fan Art Tribute' on a collector's edition animé DVD; this section only contains 10 submissions (OK, 11 counting the song), but it's just something you don't generally get to see. In the same vein, the 'Restoration of a Classic' micro-documentary may only be about two minutes long, but it provides a quick run-down of all of the digital remastering work that was done for this re-release of Project A-ko, and as such is interesting to watch. Slightly meatier is a four-minute interview with Yuji Moriyama where he's asked a few point-blank questions about the show. There's even some stuff here that didn't make it into his extensive audio commentary... like the Japanese belief that your blood type partially determines your personality type. Finally, there's a really brief (15-second!) advert for the upcoming Big Apple Animé Fest 2003.
If your computer has a DVD-ROM drive, there's a lot more content you can access... including around 30 still images, the entire film in comic form (CPM's English version of the manga), the same 10 fanart submissions I mentioned above, the entire script for the film (English dub version, that is), a full cast list for both Japanese and English voice actors, complete production credits, and web links. There's also the traditional 'Sneak Peeks' section of the DVD, featuring a selection of trailers for Project A-ko: Love & Robots, Project A-ko: Uncivil Wars, Geobreeders 2: Breakthrough, Now and Then, Here and There, and Legend of Himiko.
Beyond this, those who remember the slightly dodgy cardboard packaging on the previous version will be glad to know that the new Project A-ko: Collector's Series (Enhanced) comes in a durable clear Amaray case with useful info on the reverse of the slipcover insert, like most current CPM releases. Also keeping in line with Central Park Media's stance on region-coding for animé releases, this DVD is another all-region title.
You'd be forgiven for thinking we were done here, but (ironically) the best extra on this disc is one not actually listed among the special features on the back of the DVD case. Yes, I'm referring to the full-length audio commentary with Yuji Moriyama... which I would say is a 'must-watch' if you want to obtain full enjoyment out of Project A-ko.
This guy is highly enthusiastic, funny, and at times even witty. The level of insight he provides into this production is staggering, as is the list of explicit homages his team worked into the film... as well as the number of famous productions members of his team went on to produce. (I don't remember them all, but a quick sampling would include: Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, Macross, Gamera, Aika, Maho Shoujo, All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku, Fist of the North Star, Dirty Pair, Wings of Honneamise, Oh My Goddess!, Captain Harlock, Gunbuster, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and The Castle of Cagliostro.)
Something that always strikes me about Japanese commentaries in animé is how brutally honest they always seem to be. Unlike the oft-drossy commentaries found bundled on DVDs with most Hollywood films – where people are falling over themselves to congratulate one another or come up with the most amusing anecdote – the Japanese seem to be a lot more comfortable stating outright that 'That guy was a jerk and left us swinging in the wind' or 'I'm very proud of the number of panty shots in this film' or 'Yeah, we nicked that entire character design from someone else's show'. I noticed something similar on the commentary for Akira. I love it.
Anyway, obviously there's not enough room in this review to cover Moriyama's commentary properly, but it is fascinating, and highlights would certainly include his extensive discussion of how full-on parodies such as Project A-ko couldn't be made today because copyright restrictions are now much more severe than they were back in the mid-80s... and a rather sobering explanation of how animators use real-life disasters like the Challenger explosion and the Kobe earthquake of 1995 as models for illustrating destruction in animé.
So you want my verdict? Well, on the bad side I'd say the story is weak... essentially something Moriyama and his chums concocted on the fly as ideas occurred to them, and one that repeats the same actions over and over in escalating cycles. The characters aren't quite interesting enough, primarily because none of them are particularly likeable (even the eponymous A-ko thinks nothing of destroying people's homes so she can take a shortcut to school every day) and the central conflict between B-ko and A-ko seems hideously slanted in the latter's favour... as with Tom & Jerry or Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner.
On the good side, however, Project A-ko was a landmark production in animé, with good voice acting, spectacular battle sequences, a wicked sense of humour, and more parodies per minute than anything else I've ever seen. Adding to that the digitally-remastered video, competent audio, and superb selection of special features on this disc, if you are already a fan of this show, this is the definitive version to buy on DVD.