Project A-ko Review (Eastern Star DVD)

Having started as an entry in the pornographic variety series Cream Lemon, the producers behind PROJECT A-KO quickly realized that the combination of cute girls trying to kick each other’s asses while being assaulted by parodies of the best anime characters and moments of the era had a certain mainstream appeal that would probably sell better outside of the curtained-off 18+ section of the local video store. They quickly abandoned the more adult elements in favor of stretching it out into a full-blown theatrical movie. Now I’ll admit, the fine line between an OVA and a Movie circa 1986 is one lost on all but the most clever of distributors of the time, but the production values and 80-plus minute runtime both suggest that everyone behind it had just enough faith in it to sell it as a bona-fide feature film… not bad for a goofy little porno about dueling lesbian hotties!

The result was successful enough to spawn multiple OVA sequels over the next five years, and was at the very least a modest success. Supposedly the title has gotten much more attention abroad than it ever did in Japan, which is a curious end for a title who’s pop-culture roots and visual sense of humor are so deeply rooted on things foreigners – even those with more than a passing familiarity with anime – wouldn’t be nearly as intimate with. Then again, Hasselhoff made it big as a German pop singer and Pabst Blue Ribbon is considered a luxury high-end item in China, so it’s virtually impossible to totally make sense as to why one thing is beloved in one country and bemoaned in another.

There wasn’t much of a script behind Project A-ko, as most of the action was dictated by the storyboards and ad-libbing was actually encouraged by the staff. According to assistant-director Yuuji Moriyama, the production had far more to do with 1940s Warner Brother cartoons – crazy people (by which I mean “animators”) in a room bounding ideas off of other crazy people – than the typical “Production Committee” designed anime titles we see today. Most individual scenes were handled by young talents who’d never had a chance to shine before; the staff went out of their way to try and give newbies a chance to do whatever they were best at, with some being so desperate to get in on this ridiculous premise they’d leave works off of their resume just to get in! Director Katsuhiko Nishijima went out of his way to make sure the repetitive story elements, like all those scenes of A-ko rushing off to school with B-ko, were constantly fresh and unique; repetition was something animators used as an excuse to recycle footage and save money, and the whole process behind Project A-ko was to turn anime expectations inside out.  In the end it was really just one delightfully absurd gag after another, riffing on the expected anime cliches of the period; giant super robots, muscle-bound karate masters, inappropriately timed bath scenes, alien invaders, epic space dogfights, and a high school heroine who just can’t ever get to class on time.

The story itself reads simple enough: The inexplicably super-human A-ko Magami is heading to her first day of highschool with her childhood friend, the petite, immature, and utterly ungifted in the kitchen B-ko Kotoboki. At school A-ko is reunited with an old rival named B-ko Daitoukuji, a beautiful and smart girl who’s good breeding and knack for dangerous robotics don’t keep her from being irrationally jealous of A-ko and C-ko’s strong friendship. The two girls fight over C-ko’s “friendship” — though I’m not convinced that’s all B-ko is after — but their inevitable super powered duel to the death interrupted by a full scale galactic invasion. Yep, aliens shooting beams of death from giant crab-bots in the vicinity are seen more as an annoyance by the two girls, and poor C-ko only gets caught up in the middle of it all when she gets herself kidnapped by the outer space creeps! Can A-ko and B-ko put aside their differences and save Planet Earth? Oh wait, they don’t care… well, will they save it as as a side-note to protecting their mutual best friend?!

Even the title was winking at anime fans. See, in the credits for TV shows they’d have one-liners and credit those people as “A-ko” and “B-ko”, or ‘Girl A’ and ‘Girl B’.  The flick was also released about a year after Jackie Chan’s popular-in-Japan action film “Project A”… not that Project A-ko has anything to do with Jackie Chan. The people behind it just thought it was a funny title and never bothered to come up with one that was funnier.

With ANN’s former Answer Man Zack B. having described it as “The Scary Movie of 80s anime”, you might think this is all convoluted nonsense and hardly worth your time. Topical humor rarely works five years after the fact, much less a quarter-century, right?  But the beauty of Project A-ko is that most of the exaggerated humor on display is the precursor to the ridiculous nonsense you see in shows that air even now in 2011. Giant attack robots built overnight, half-naked death duels that destroy entire cities, inexplicable lesbianism – it’s just as bizarre and strangely amusing as it was the day the film was released. And before you get too honked up for the original yuri anime or think we’re slinging smut here, even those crazy Aussies at the OFLC gave it a “PG” without blinking. There’s some boob and a moment or two of off-color humor, but it’s really no “worse” in tone or content than most mainstream comedy shows today.

Animation in particular tends to date horribly due to shifting styles and improvements in technology, but humor that’s riffing on the absurd tends to last for generations. If you like the off-color and random humor found in shows like Excel Saga or Maria†Holic,  you’ll probably find something to love about A-ko as well. I’ll also point out that while it may not quite be on par with something like Angel’s Egg or Akira, the animation for a 1986 comedy is regularly detailed and surprisingly smooth, without much in the way of glaring continuity errors or lazy shortcuts. Project A-ko is certainly a product of its’ time, but I don’t really mean that in a bad way – the animation industry was full of incredible talents who were sick and tired of working on talking animal films and stuffy space operas, so they took every opportunity to make the film look as fun and exciting as they possibly could. It’s all a farce, a smart-assed slice of satire, but that doesn’t mean the work was ever phoned in or cut short by production limitations.

If anything, only the blatant spoofing elements will be lost on audiences who don’t have a lot of classic anime under their belt. Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, Leiji Matsumoto’s heroic pirate Captain Harlock, scenes directly pulled from Macross: Do You Remember Love?, and countless other iconic titles from yesteryear get their moment in the sun by way of spoofing – though at least B-Ko didn’t rip off Bubblegum Crisis. That show actually came out a year later. Most of these gags are still pretty funny though, even if you don’t really “get” it. Who isn’t delighted by exploding Pepsi cans, or a familiar fast food icon popping up in a horror movie? In the same way that knowing a thing or two about Kung Fu movies and Spaghetti Westerns will probably make watching ‘Kill Bill’ that much more rewarding, it’s still easy enough to appreciate Project A-ko on its own over the top terms, even if the origin of some of the more specific gags  fall on deaf ears.

Another aspect worth touting is the soundtrack, provided by Californian artists Joey Carbone and Richie Zito. Each of the three girls was given their own theme song with a different American performer behind it, and the result is a shockingly catchy piece of American pop. Of particular note is B-ko’s ballad, “In Your Eyes”. I can’t properly explain what it is about that cheesy synth track set to deeply  emotional panging as B-ko thinks about C-ko…  and then casually caresses herself in the bath. It’s such a classy presentation of absurdity that it’s cemented the song in the part of my brain that’ll forever associate it with breasts and unyielding romance, which is a pretty awesome combo to associate anything with. The end theme, “Follow Your Dreams”, is similarly catchy and utterly perfect for the free-wheeling feel good nature of the flick as a whole.

Just in time for the film’s 25th anniversary, Discotek Media/Eastern Star has released a freshly remastered DVD (available here through their website, or wherever fine anime goods are sold). Central Park Media remastered the film themselves back in 2002 using the Japanese Laserdisc (Remember those? …anyone?), since word is the guys who own the title back in Japan have lost all the archival materials and only have a crumby faux-widescreen master from the film’s original VHS release left. Discotek has one-upped the old US DVD by removing countless bits of dirt and scratches from the print, stabilizing the “telecine judder” (ie: the camera doesn’t jerk around when it’s not supposed to anymore), and pumping up the colors to a full, vibrant glory without that uncomfortably yellow haze of the 2002 DVD release. Unfortunately, the archival materials were still M.I.A, and that means Discotek has also restored the crap out of the same analog Laserdisc release made in the late 1980s. All of the screenshots here have been taken from the new DVD – they’ve been compressed a bit to save on bandwidth, but they’ll give you a pretty decent idea of what to expect.

With the lack of proper elements in mind, Project A-ko quite good – probably better than it should! But it’s simply never going to look like Evangelion, Nausicca, Utena, Cardcaptor Sakura, or any other old-school title where they can restore it straight from the original film negatives. Maybe someday a batshit crazy fan in Tokyo will step forward with the last surviving 35mm festival print and a full-blown restoration on par with Rock and Rule can happen, but in the meantime it looks as good as it’s going to, and word on the net is that it’s notably nicer than the old CPM transfer in every respect.

The English dub is included, and like many who are probably already watching their precious DVDs, that’s what I saw first. Oh, my God, this dub sucks - even by shitty early 90s Manga UK dub standards! Ever wanted to hear a bunch of British girls fake American accents while reading lame puns from a clumsy translation? No? Well, now’s your chance! To be fair I’m still glad that they included it at all – the dub is  sort of a miserable time capsule back into what Sci-Fi Channel played 15-odd years ago to get me interested in spending more and more money on these crazy Japanese cartoons, but if you can walk away from it without blood in your ears, you’ve got a way higher tolerance for nostalgic pain than I do. The Japanese audio is the only way to go for this one (as always… *Ahem!*), and it sounds just fine – better than the dub, even, which is a rarity for films from Japan this old. The subtitles look almost word-for-word like the remastered CPM DVD, but like they always say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fuck around with it!

Virtually all of the CPM extras are present, too. We get a commentary track with the animation director (plus a short interview), a hilarious behind-the-scenes featurette where the animators talk about which of the three heroines give them the best boner,  music videos made from the nasty looking un-restored print set to the charmingly 80s theme songs, and a collection of original Japanese previews.  Missing are CPM’s restoration featurette – which is now moot, and an alternate angle using the American drawn comic books in place of the actual storyboards–but why, CPM? (Seriously, why did you even MAKE that?)  New extras include a brief but very cool collection of production art, and a cute animation outtake just for the lesbians in power suits guys that runs about a minute and a half.  All in all it’s a pretty stacked special edition, even if most of the content has been made available before.

Technology and audience sophistication may grow with each year that passes, but Project A-ko’s heart and soul have stood the test of time better than I expected. Eastern Star has put together a fine release at a great price, and if you’ve got a hankering for either a taste of classic creator-driven anime at its peak, or just a great comedy from any era, Project A-ko is highly recommended. If you’ve already got the Central Park Media DVD and you’re not the least bit picky about video quality… well, the lack of grime on the print, bold colors and warm, bright pallet have really worked wonders for the old girl. This is as good as Project A-ko is going to get for the foreseeable future, and if buying a second copy means you can pass the old release off to a friend, I’d say it’s well worth the double-dip.

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2 Responses to “Project A-ko Review (Eastern Star DVD)”

  1. joey carbone says:

    i was the composer & music producer of the soundtrack. does anyone have contact info for the manufacturer of this version ( EASTERN STAR STUDIOS)
    thanks

    joey carbone

    [Reply]

  2. Char says:

    Great review! This movie really is a treasure, the term “time capsule” is thrown around so much in reference to it but that’s really what it is. The only point in which our opinions diverge is the English dub, which I love and find endlessly quotable. (“I ain’t no boy, just cause I shave every day!” “I-It’s the Colonel!” “Ain’t it cold in that?” )

    In the absence of any others, I started a Project A-ko site called Graviton High a couple of years ago. The gallery is full of production sketches, rare Japanese books and merchandise I’ve collected since this movie worked its way into my brain as a teenager.

    [Reply]

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