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Andrew Osmond rings the changes with Xam’d

The series Xam’d Lost Memories, now out as a Complete Collection, was pithily described by the cofounder of its studio as being about “a man who transforms.” Specifically, Xam’d shows a teenage boy turning into a terrifying, deadly, out-of-control alien fighter. It recalls one of anime’s finest moments, when a boy became a lump of writhing, suety flesh and spilled over an Olympic stadium in the finale of Akira.

Before they hit puberty, most kids aren’t scared of transformation in itself. Rather, it seems cool and magic. The horror writer Stephen King commented on how his seven year-old son loved the ‘70s Incredible Hulk TV show. Every time Bill Bixby’s eyes turned green and his shirt sleeves ripped round Lou Ferrigno’s painted muscles, King Jr said cheerfully, “Old greenskin is back!” Japanese kids, of course, had their own transforming heroes: Ultramen, Rangers, Kamen Riders, Sailor Scouts…

But teenage transformation… that’s something else. It’s not just the hair and acne, it’s all the inner changes as well, as if some Cronenberg invader is taking residence in your mind and body. It’s well put in the fifth Harry Potter film (Order of the Phoenix), when Harry admits his growing pains to his were-dog godfather, Gary Oldman. “I just feel so angry, all the time. What if after everything that I’ve been through, something’s gone wrong inside me? What if I’m becoming bad?”

In America and Britain, there are few full-on screen portraits of adolescent body-horror. An exception is The Exorcist, a film that’s nearly forty years old, where a sweet young girl turns into a foul-mouthed, slime-spewing demon. (Parents can insert their own joke here.) Today’s blockbuster transformer is the reassuring Spider-Man, whose body makeover is wholly benign. You get boosted pecs and 20/20 vision, without, say, the poison fangs or extra legs.

As we’ve argued before on this blog, one of the ways in which anime appeals to Westerners is that it takes notions we know from our own comics mainstream… and pushes them further. Both Akira and Xam’d share the primary-coloured palette of American superhero strips. Take a look at Xam’d part 14, which features a spectacular battle involving two crazily mutating boys. One of them is a bloated, physiognomy-shifting critter, who looks like a cross between Akira’s boy-blob and the No-face monster from Spirited Away.

Both Akira and Xam’d show male monsters, huge boys’ heads growing from swelling sacks of flesh. Tetsuo, the antihero in Akira, seemed warped by his impotence (the ultimate male teen nightmare), while the Xam’d creatures fight over – what else? – a girl. But female transformations figure strongly in recent anime. In Claymore, for example, the heroine Clare wilfully becomes an outcast demon-slayer by eating the flesh and blood of her beloved… well, that’d be telling. The snag: as she grows in strength, she risks losing control of her power and becoming a demonic Awakened Being.

The recent Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor is just as ominous. As fans point out, it seems to parody “magic girl” anime shows (Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura). Only in this traumatic coming-of-age saga, the heroine uses her magic to summon a gun from her body. Meanwhile, her life is being cut away slice by slice: her family, her friends, and finally her self. That old greenskin Hulk lied to the kids. Transformation isn’t magic or cool; it’s inevitable, inexorable and bloody terrifying.

Xam’d: Lost Memories Complete Collection is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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