1985 Punk Cartoons That Totally Don’t Put Up With Your Shit And Do Whatever They Want, OK: Megazone 23

(This article will contain spoilers for Megazone 23, but so does the back of the DVD box.) Megazone 23 is one of these important movies. Originally a TV show that lost its sponsorship before making it to air, Megazone 23– pronounced Two…

(This article will contain spoilers for Megazone 23, but so does the back of the DVD box.)

Megazone 23 is one of these important movies. Originally a TV show that lost its sponsorship before making it to air, Megazone 23— pronounced Two Three– went to video as a 90-minute feature. Its success effectively spawned the OAV business that brought us at Colony Drop some of the Japtoons we most love. As someone who never saw it back in the day, I like it more for its role in the anime industry, what it was trying to do and how it felt than for the story it’s trying to tell. MZ23 has the reckless air of an animation staff freshly cut from of the bonds of sponsored TV toy commercials. They’ve got ideas, man, and they just can’t hold them back anymore.

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You know how this kind of thing starts. A young man (Shogo Yahagi) and his friends are living happy, idle lives biking recklessly and worshiping TV pop idol Eve Tokimatsuri, until the appearance of a fancy piece of technology sets off a chain of events that absolutely ruins everything. The machine in question is the Garland. A truly 80s creation by Hideki Kakinuma, the Garland is beautiful in its square-edged chunkiness, and reminds the nostalgic viewer of the impractical, bygone time when high technology was always huge.

As it turns out, the Garland is so sweet that it could only be very important military hardware, putting Shogo on the run from the military for most of the film. In this movie, the part of “The Man” is BD, played by a typecast Kaneto Shiozawa: smooth, stoic, and up to something. Besides running from the army, Shogo’s got to worry about romancing aspiring dancer Yui, often by methods involving bike robots. And, of course, he’s also got to deal with the newfound knowledge that his bike is actually a terminal to the secret computer that runs the world. His city life is a sophisticated fake. Eve is an AI. Everybody’s been living on a damn spaceship all this time.

As interstellar war approaches and the military stages a coup, Shogo decides to take on both oppressive authority figures at once with his bike. What really makes Megazone 23 unique is that Shogo gets his ass kicked. It’s crazy for anime, but get this: a kid on a bike, however sneaky and resourceful, just isn’t a match for the combined might of an army of trained soldiers. Shogo faces off with BD and loses decisively. Lying battered in his Garland, he’s awoken by Eve’s singing on the monitor. Shogo stumbles out into the city with only a stick to keep him standing, and as the music picks up, you think he’s setting up to make one last charge, realizing that tonight is what it means to be young. He’s not, though. He just walks away. And that’s the end.

You couldn’t pull this off in TV animation, and Megazone knows it. The movie, being a compilation of un-aired TV episodes, had the time to lavish additional attention on the things it cares about: the gleaming innards of machines, Ichiro Itano’s signature fluttering missile trails, sweaty girls in leotards and legwarmers dancing. It also toys around with some other stuff it couldn’t pull in TV animation– namely graphic violence and sex– with mixed results. The exposition-packed sex scene, where Shogo explains the secrets of Megazone to Yui as the two make love, is both awkward and hilarious. Kinoko Nasu wishes he was this good.

Thankfully, fans all over the world wanted to see what the animators of Megazone 23 wanted to see, and for better or worse, a lot of animators got the chance to make the cartoons they wanted to make. They were usually a lot like Megazone 23 itself: rough around the edges but full of passion. Whether you’re talking about today or twenty years ago, the anime business has always needed more of that.

7 Comments

  1. As Megazone 23 is like some bizarre fusion of Bubblegum Crisis and Macross, I’ve always felt like I should like it a lot more than I actually do. Despite doing a lot right, and probably being one of the more coherent OVAs of that era, something about it has never really clicked with me. It’s none the less an interesting film and if the stories of it being started as a TV series are true, there’s probably some interesting production stories behind it. Not to mention the entire debacle of it being turned into the Robotech Movie and all that that entailed.

  2. Your quote from Streets of Fire will probably pass by many readers, but it was an important influence on quite a few anime, and Japanese movies, of the mid-to-late 80s. It’s a great movie, and probably Willem Dafoe’s finest scenery-chewing role, including the Green Goblin gig. I always thought that ‘tonight is what it means to be young’ was a bleak acknowledgement of realpolitik, not a shout of challenge, but however you read it, it fits MZ23 like a glove. Nice to see you say a prayer in the darkness for the magic to come…

  3. Yay, I’m not alone with the Streets of Fire tip!

    The ending of MZ23 always felt odd to me. I’ve chalked it up to there’s something basically Japanese going on, something tied to deep pop cultural visuals. That image of Shogo staggering along holding on to a staff, broken and battered but still moving on- step by painful, blood dripping on the ground step, I KNOW I’ve seen that look before, that image. And I think the bit where he casts off the staff and strides along down the empty streets of ‘Tokyo’ MEANS something in a cultural statement. But I’m not sure I’m able to ‘read’ it the way that a native born Japanese, someone of young adult age at the peak of the Showa Era, would read it. I *THINK* there’s a subversive message in that.

    Somewhat like the ending to Blazing Saddles, where riding off into the sunset ends in getting off the horses and getting into seperate limos.

  4. so when are you righteous typists getting around to cyber city huh

  5. One of my favorite OAV of all time. I saw this very early into my fandom, and it has remained in my memories ever since. I think the first OST I purchased was some SM records bootleg of the MZ23 vocal collection.
    I definitely agree about the awkwardness of the sex scene, however, I did feel it still worked. I mean, I guess its part of the whole “sharing it all” with another.
    I am wondering if the TV series they announced a couple of years back died or what. I actually hope in some ways it has, because I don’t think they could recapture the magic of the original. So 80’s and so magical.

  6. Who cared about the bike?! Look at Yui and Eve great character designs! hahaha

  7. @ahvb: My homegirls and I will be compelled to kill anyone laying an unloving finger on our beloved Cyber City Oedo 808 …

    @Steve H: That ending reminds me of quite a few manga from the 70s, most created by artists who had been kids of teens during the war and Occupation. I don’t know if I’m right but it always seemed to me that maybe that’s how they actually saw, or imagined, their fathers and older brothers coming home. The mushroom cloud is the big showy image of horror from that era, but there must be a thousand smaller images of horror embedded in popular culture that those of us lucky enough not to have been there can’t pick up. I know there are images that were resonant for my parents and older cousins that I never ‘got’ because I was born too long after the war for them to go visceral on me. Maybe you’ve picked up on one of Japan’s visceral after-images.

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