(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.
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.