A heavy pastiche of American sci-fi worked over with an anime aesthetic and tempered with sentai trappings, Bubblegum Crisis was not just popular in Japan but also proved to be one of the biggest hits of the first wave of subtitled anime releases in the west. Unfairly labeled as “cyberpunk,” Bubblegum Crisis draws far more inspiration from the likes of Ridley Scott and James Cameron than William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and proves to be a bit more complicated than a simple one-word label could describe, combining 1980s sci-fi, anime and Streets of Fire.
Blade Runner stands out as the foremost inspiration for ARTMIC’s OAV series, with the first few minutes of the first episode mimicking the opening shot of the famous 1982 future-noir movie. It isn’t hard to spot more Blade Runner references in Bubblegum Crisis, as everything from the the omnipresent mega corporation Genom to the name of one of the main characters bearing homage to the Ridley Scott film.
It might be easy to dismiss Bubblegum Crisis as being highly derivative, as its creators were obviously influenced by a wide range of sources. But what makes the series stand out is the care with which these disparate elements are put together: the celluoid lovechild of Japanese creators who spent their childhood watching Japanese sentai television programs and later introduced to foreign science fiction films like Blade Runner or Mad Max. Less a pathetic mimicry, more a tribute to the films and TV that they love.
The series focuses on a post-modern Super Sentai vigilante group called the Knight Sabers who are devoted to fighting the mega corporation Genom, except for when they’re forced to take side jobs to pay the bills. Although the intentions of the Knight Sabers or their founder/leader Sylia Stingray are never overtly stated, it likely has something to do with their creation of advanced Boomer androids (who are mechanical as opposed to Tyrell Corporation’s replicants, which are seemingly organic) and may or not have been responsible for the death of Sylia’s father.
While the setting of Mega Tokyo circa 2033 may have been trying for a Blade Runner Los Angeles circa 2020 aesthetic, in truth it doesn’t that look that much different from modern Tokyo. The “Mega” in the name signifies that it’s not just futuristic, but that it’s been rebuilt after the Great Kanto Quake of 2019 that leveled the capital, a catastrophic event barely acknowledged during the series save for a neighborhood built within a gigantic fault.
As there are evil coporations and dangerous robots running amock, so to must there be a Blade Runner-esque force designed specifically to deal with the technological menace. Resembling less the trench coat-wearing detectives of noir favored by Blade Runner, Bubblegum Crisis’ AD Police prefers to take inspiration from ALIENS’ over-armed Colonial Marines because everyone knows the best way to destroy a rampaging robot is to subdue it with massive firepower and cause massive collateral damage.
Other influences are easy to spot, and I shouldn’t have to waste too much time pointing out one of the Knight Sabers is named Priss and she is in a band called The Replicants, or that the fourth episode is about a guy named Gibson building a car to exact revenge on a biker gang. What you might not notice is the heavy musical inspiration from the cult film Streets of Fire, or that the Knight Sabers are just an all-girl Super Sentai team with transformable motorcycles instead of combining robots in the shape of animals, dinosaurs or cars.
The Super Sentai aspect may be one of the more subdued aspects of Bubblegum Crisis, as it’s more thematic rather than visual. But the members of the Knight Sabers still need to balance their regular lives with their secret responsibilities, although their personal lives often end up interfering in their clandestine purposes.
It isn’t hard to attribute the series’ popularity among early western fans to the simple fact that there wasn’t a whole lot else being released at the time, but the Bubblegum Crisis succeeded in being far more compelling than many of its action/sci-fi OAV contemporaries. It’s clear from the music, designs and scripts that more effort went into the average 80’s OAV, even if newer fans may have a hard time seeing it as anything more than an old relic.
A testament to its popularity at the time can be seen in fan activity, which not only included the creation of a series-specific newsgroup (alt.fan.bgcrisis– which still gets sporadic activity) and the frightening amount of fanfiction based on the series. The Bubblegum Crisis Fan Fiction Guide lists 350 separate stories, some of which are different from the 400 stories housed at the Bubblegum Crisis fanfiction archives on eyrie.org.
Next time: The music, unfinished continuity and sequels of Bubblegum Crisis.