Hugh David goes gonzo for Mahiro Maeda’s sci-fi classic
Today’s anime fans may not place as much store by the name GONZO, given their lack of a major hit series in the last five years, but ten years ago they were the company to beat. A decade after their inception, their list of successes then reads like many an older fan’s DVD shelf: Blue Submarine No.6, Gatekeepers, Vandread, Hellsing, Final Fantasy: Unlimited, Full Metal Panic!, Kiddy Grade, Yukikaze, Kaleido Star, Peace Maker Kurogane, and Chrono Crusade. Every new series announced was hugely anticipated, every trailer released a major event, the soundtrack CDs in hot demand at convention dealer stands.
In celebration of their first decade in business, GONZO put together a first-class team to create a science-fiction epic unlike anything they had done up to that point. Reuniting the creative team from their ground-breaking debut release Blue Submarine No.6 of Koichi Chigira, anime legend Mahiro Maeda (who drew on his background at Gainax and Studio Ghibli for his role as production designer here), and fashion designer Range Murata (back to conceptualise character designs), the 26-episode TV series had ambition and class written all over it, especially in promotional and series trailers. The result, however, divided fans and critics, and remains to this day the preserve of a select group, as opposed to the massive enduring successes that are the Hellsing and Full Metal Panic! franchises.
Why was this? For a start, with visual roots in 1900s Europe and 1920s Germany in particular, the extravagant visuals were only ever going to appeal to an audience still discovering steampunk. The show does not pander to the fan concerns of the time; it lacks mecha, serious fan-service, or juvenile humour. The blending of 2D and 3D CG work met with vocal disapproval from international audiences, as such combinations still do to this day. Finally, the actual storytelling itself is more mature, creating an epic tale which initially acts as a background to the personal journey of the lead characters, but then becomes the main story.
As is often the case with some of the best creative work, those elements seen as negative at the time by a wider audience are not only what endeared the show to a cult few, but which have allowed the series to age with grace. Playing almost like a sequel to Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky set in a later era, the characters are drawn with greater attention to human concerns than plot machinations, while the sheer volume of detail serves to make the world feel so real that the characters can focus on those concerns. The arcs they find themselves on make the 26 episodes feel like chapters of a good novel rather than weekly TV episodes. Spectacular action sequences nod to such past fan favourites as George Lucas’ pod race in The Phantom Menace or the epic space battles of Leiji Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock, while watched as a season box set the intrigues maintain their grip far better than divided up across a year. The soundtracks still stun as much as the frequently breath-taking visuals. In short, it is ripe for re-discovery by a new set of fans, especially with a sequel about to become available.
As a footnote for anime historians and those who love Last Exile, the series was enough of a success that the same creative team was brought together once more to develop Tow Ubukata’s Mardock Scramble five years later. Initial designs released looked simply stunning once again, but economic woes meant it was not to be. A huge shame; while the same project has finally been completed in a more traditional style, the what-if remains forever tantalising.
Last Exile is out now on UK DVD on Monday from Manga Entertainment.
Take flight with Last Exile Studio GONZO presents a richly romantic action-adventure fantasy, set in a world where retro-futuristic vehicles permeate the skies. Against this lavish background are the lives of young and heroic van ship sky porters - Claus and Lavie - who are forced to take on the mission to deliver a mysterious girl, Alvis, to the battle ship Silvana. Before they know it, they become entangled in an aerial adventure between two countries gripped in an eternal war of magnificent air battleships.
Jonathan Clements reviews a new account of Fu Manchu
The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia (sic) is an enjoyably traditional work of gentlemanly erudition, with research in dusty archives accompanied by a slew of lunches with bigwigs and interviews with associates, as our polymath hero Sir Christopher Frayling examines the origins of the infamous mastermind from Sax Rohmer’s once-popular novels.
Andrew Osmond investigates the long love affair between samurai and cowboys
28th February sees the classic Hollywood Western go East. Yuresarazaru Mono has the English title Unforgiven; it remakes the celebrated 1992 Western of that name, which was directed by its star Clint Eastwood and won the Best Picture Oscar.
This is the burning question for Attack on Titan fans, and it’s certainly not answered in the second volume of the anime series. Rather, Volume 2 shows a world which is still in the process of expanding, bringing on a great many vivid new characters – and arguably the most vivid of all isn’t even a human, but a sexy woman Titan who stomps all over the series.
Remembering the anime master who shunned the limelight
Toshio Hirata, who died on 25th August, might be reasonably said to have avoided publicity. Over the course of his career, he did gather a number of credits for directing, as well as storyboards, key animation and lowlier tasks, but he often obscured his own achievements by using the pseudonym Sumiko Chiba. In some cases, such as for his work on Azuki-chan, he simply asked not to be credited at all, claiming that his contribution was not really worthy of recognition.