Crusher Joe Review
Animé as a cinematic sub-genre has been experiencing a geometric (if not exponential) rise in popularity over the past decade here in the West. What was once the exclusive demesne of dedicated fans has since seeped into the pubilc awareness, and it's no small news when a corporate behemoth like Disney jumps at the chance to distribute the films of a small Japanese studio (Ghibli) in America. However, newcomers to animé - dazzled by the broad spectrum of modern titles - often miss out on highly-entertaining fare that predates the current rage. Such a show is Crusher Joe.
Cast your thoughts back to 1977, cue the words 'space opera', and Star Wars springs to mind, a film which made as big an impression in Japan as it did anywhere else. It may then come as little surprise that the very same year also saw the publication of Crusher Joe: Wakusei Pizan no Kiki ('Crisis on the Planet Pizan'), the first in what was to become a series of popular novels by aspiring writer Haruka Takachiho.
The Crusher Joe universe operates well within the standard bounds familiar to any science fiction fan. It's the distant future, humanity has spread across the stars, and the vastness of interstellar space is plied by a motley collection of starcraft. There is a galactic 'peacekeeping' force in the form of the United Space Force, but as per the usual military mindset their approach to most spacefaring problems is to simply blast them out of the sky. The need for more subtle operatives when it comes to dicey situations thus established, behold the 'Crusher Conference', a somewhat vague agency whose individual members (referred to as 'troubleshooters' but just as often resembling mercenaries) function in the grey area of the law. And, as we are told outright, the best team of Crushers is the crew led by nineteen year-old 'Crusher Joe'.
OK, so there you have the pitch. True, it's not high-concept stuff, but it is extremely effective space opera... not because it avoids the usual stereotypes of the genre (it doesn't even try), but rather because the writing quality is solid, the central plots are fairly interesting, and the action sequences are, well, stellar. In addition, both the Crusher Joe film and OVAs share a trademark quirky humour that will be recognisable to anyone who's seen Takachiho's other (and better-known) series, Dirty Pair. (In fact, the first-ever animated appearance of Kei, Yuri, and - yes - Mughi is in the Crusher Joe film, when our heroes are parked at a drive-in cinema. I confess I laughed in appreciation when I noticed what was playing on the screen in the background.)
What AnimEigo has done with this release (which only hit the streets last week) is to offer up every scrap of Crusher Joe animé ever produced (the self-titled two-hour film and the one-hour OVAs The Ice Prison and The Ultimate Weapon: Ash) on two DVD-9 (dual-layer) discs, and at a very reasonable price considering the set's 238-minute running time.
Crusher Joe: The Movie
Introducing us to the stalwart crew of the Crusher ship Minerva - navigator Alfin, engineer Ricky, pilot Talos, (bloody annoying) robot Dongo, and their captain, Joe - this original 1983 film (the best of the three shows on this release) starts innocuously enough with the gang being hired to deliver a cryogenically-frozen heiress to the planet Miccola. Of course, they begin to suspect they've been had after a bizarre warp glitch lands them well off-course, with an empty cargo hold, and no proof of their story when the USF locks them up under suspicion of piracy. Things go progressively downhill from there, but when they run into a 'retired' Crusher named Bard, he gives them just enough secret information to propel them into even more trouble!
To give more details would spoil the plot for you, which (like many a good Hollywood blockbuster) hinges on a fundamental misdirection early on which the audience works out just before the heroes do, and which sends Joe & Co on a much more dangerous mission than they had originally contracted for. Although not what one would call 'intricate', the story arc does have a few little twists which keep things from getting too obvious, and is of course overflowing with enough space dogfights and general derring-do to keep any action fan happy.
The Ice Prison
This instalment finds our heroes undertaking a perilous rescue operation, after (what at first appears to be) an accident degrades the orbit of a cometary core, threatening to plunge it down onto the heavily-populated planet Ooro. As usual, there's more to this than first meets the eye. Not only was the core being used as an off-world detention facility for political prisoners of the planet's authoritarian leader (Gellstan), but Crusher Joe and his crew soon discover that they're being left hanging out to dry as part of a PR exercise.
The Ultimate Weapon: Ash
The final episode focuses on - quelle suprise! - another rescue mission. As before, the stakes are high, as a long-running planetary civil war has only just been ended by an impartial mediator... but a cadre of high-ranking military officers prefers genocide to compromise. By way of mutiny, the starship transporting a biological doomsday weapon known as 'Ash' and the only person who can (dis)arm it were seized by the treasonous faction, and now its up to Joe & Co to stop the rebels before it's too late. Nor does it help that the courier's ship went down on a quarantined planet infested with 'Cloakers'... relentless battle robots designed to wipe out humans on sight!
Considering that all of the video masters date back to the 80s (although admittedly the OVAs, done in 1989, have aged better than the 1983 film), the picture quality on this release is entirely acceptable. By deciding to go with DVD-9 discs instead of the originally-planned DVD-10, AnimEigo was able to encode all three features at a very high bitrate, and it shows. The palette is rich, colours are bright (rather surprisingly so for a show that spends most of its time in outer space, or in drab futuristic installations), and blacks are, if not actually pitch, at least pushing midnight.
However, nothing is perfect and there are a few minor problems here. The most obvious is what happens to any print this old... it gets damaged. Particularly in Crusher Joe: The Movie, there's at least one brief vertical streak or speck of dust every minute or two. Similar nicks and glitches pepper the two OVAs, although far less frequently. All in all, they're at most ephemeral distractions and unless you are a perfectionist won't draw your attention away from the on-screen action that these shows excel at. There are also a few very rare instances of macroblocking, not so much in the blackness of outer space (thankfully), but usually when there's a bright flash that fills the screen, like in the early 'warp drive error' sequence in the film. Other than this, I've no real complaints with the video quality. (Frankly, I wish all early 80s animé could come across to DVD with colour saturation this good.)
On a side note unrelated to actual picture quality, there were only a handful of minor goofs. First off, there were a couple of obvious typos in the subtitles, but slightly more surprising was the use of a overlays... such as the ones that accompany each character's 'bio'. (Perhaps the DVD project team felt that it would look odd shunting all of the 'vital data' off into subtitles, but then again, the off-centre overlays look rather cheesy themselves.) The good news is that everywhere else, the right choices were made as regards visual presentation. Not only does each show benefit from its original Japanese opening and closing credits segments (the English version of the credits is available as a separate scroll after the Japanese sequence finishes), but in the case of the end theme song, the translation of the lyrics isn't hard-subbed onto the print (as is often the case with DVDs that bother to provide a translation at all), but rather is accessible as optional subtitles. Perfect.
As with the great bulk of current animé releases, the sound is a simple stereo mix. I was pleasantly surprised to hear stereo directionality being employed to good effect in a number of scenes (generally dogfights), and even a few simple acoustic tricks (like the tinny echoing of footsteps in a metal ship's corridor) coming across quite clearly. Mainly, though, the sound on the show is pretty basic and seems to emanate equally from both front speakers. These discs are bilingual, so you have your choice of listening to the original Japanese or going for the English dub. The guy they cast to do the dub for Joe performs well enough, and the VAs for Alfin and Talos are about what you'd expect... but then you hear Ricky pipe up and it puts you right off listening to the English version. Nor does it help that some of the dub VAs playing the baddies chose to ham it up something fierce. (To be fair, the voice of the robot Dongo is really vexing in either language.)
The sound director for Crusher Joe was the late Kouichi Chiba, who also worked on Dirty Pair, not to mention doing voice acting of his own on a number of famous animé (Giant Robo, Lupin III, etc.). His work here imbues all three Crusher Joe features with atmospheric and incidental music that would be perfectly at home in Star Wars or Star Trek. As for the end theme for the film and the OVA image song, well, they don't seem to fit the space opera genre as well, but maybe you'll like them more than I did.
The main menu design for the Crusher Joe DVDs will be familiar to anyone who's seen any of AnimEigo's Macross releases: namely, after the obligatory copyright idents there's a brief animated intro sequence which segues into the main menu, which is based around a cockpit motif. Which reminds me, Crusher Joe mirrors a lot of the sophisticated three-dimensional starcraft and architecture from Macross partially because the same mechanical designer worked on both projects (Shoji Kawamori).
Anyway, the menu controls are very straightforward, essentially consisting of the standard 'play', 'language options', and 'scene selection' choices, along with an option to access the English production credits. Access times are very speedy, and there's a smoothly-looping animation of (presumably) Joe's hands at the console underscored by starship noises. It all looks good and works well.
As for special features, well, there just aren't any... not even promos for other AnimEigo releases. There is, of course, AnimEigo's trademark 'liner notes' card, which provides interesting historical data regarding Crusher Joe and the people who worked on it... in this case a 1992 interview with writer Takachiho as well as the lyrics to the two end songs. However, don't despair... the back of the DVD case mentions that a trailer is included as a 'hidden bonus'. Not that I've been able to find the pesky thing, but that's because it's hidden, see? :-)
It's really hard not to like Crusher Joe, and I speak as someone who's usually not particularly fond of the 'mecha' sub-genre of animé... so if I like this show, I suspect it has more or less universal appeal. The fact is, the three features included on these discs take the space opera formula and absolutely run with it. In much the same way as The Castle of Cagliostro is a cracking good action/adventure film that just happens to be animated, so is Crusher Joe a great trio of space escapades that just happen to be animé.