Like many of my spacenoid comrades here at Colony Drop, one of my earliest experiences with anime was tuning into the Sci-Fi Channel’s Saturday Anime block almost a decade ago. For better or for worse, I can still clearly remember most of my experiences with its rotating selection of movies and OAVs from Demon City Shinjuku, but I must have missed it.”>the lovably bad, to the downright ugly.
Having only recently cut my teeth on Robotech, the Saturday anime block was one of my first experiences with “real” anime, something new and strange and totally awesome despite the edits for time and content (I wonder if I still have that VHS of Fatal Fury to marvel at Mai, who spent most of her screen time half-obscured by a mosaic). It was here that I first encountered Iria: Zeiram the Animation, which I recently revisited on DVD. Having had very warm recollections of this six-episode OAV, I was pleased to discover that Iria was still fairly enjoyable even with my nostalgia goggles removed.
Made in 1994 by Ashi Productions (Blue Seed, Macross 7, Vampire Hunter D) and directed by Tetsuro Amino (who went on to direct Macross 7, and also directed the Starship Troopers OAV), Iria entered the OAV scene relatively late in the boom of the early 90s. The presumed purpose was to promote Zeiram 2, the most recent installment in the schlocky live-action film franchise it was based on.
Iria serves as a prequel to the two live-action films, exploring the fledgling career of the spunky interplanetary bounty hunter and the beginning of her ongoing battle with the titular Zeiram and its various incarnations. Given the intellectual caliber of the source material it was meant to promote (hot alien babe battles homicidal bio-weapon in virtual reality with the aid of two bumbling Japanese electricians), Iria unfolds with remarkable style and dignity.
If you’re even remotely familiar with a certain Western sci-fi franchise, you may well be knocked flat by the wave of deja vu that Iria will unleash. Zeiram, a murderous, vaguely anthropomorphic, and nearly indestructible alien with a vaguely defined mode of reproduction and a grotesque phallic projection from its head, attracts the attention of a shady corporation that seeks to exploit its capacity for destruction and make a fast buck doing so. When the captured creature inevitably gets loose and starts dismembering anyone in its path, the Tedan Tippidei corporation takes the logical precaution of abandoning the crew to their gruesome fate and pretending the whole thing never happened. Their attempts at damage control are unfortunately frustrated by the meddling of a female warrior who takes issue with the corporation’s lethal hubris and vows to expose and destroy the creature wherever it occurs. Iria, then, is certainly not delving into unexplored thematic territory, but it certainly is fun all the same.
The story begins with greenhorn bounty hunter Iria on her first assignment. She defuses a hostage crisis in a standard anime setup, taking on a purple-haired jackass and his two-shot revolver only to get shown up by a rival jackass riding an autogyro (In spite of such a timeworn setup, I liked the resolution, where the two cutesy hostage girls immediately bolt for the bathroom upon being freed. That was admittedly a clever bit of color). After being playfully needled by her Gren and his veteran friend Bob, Iria is reminded that she is still an apprentice bounty hunter, and therefore is not allowed to be awesome until they kill Gren off twenty minutes later.
Sure enough, Bob and Gren embark on a secretive contract to rescue the crew of the vessel transporting Zeiram, blasting their way through Tedan Tippidei’s army of ninja-running, pony-tailed androids on the way to the interstellar teleporter. To their annoyance, Iria tags along and, in true Ripley fashion, she only barely escapes with her life in an escape pod after blowing up the ship and leaving Gren to a mostly ambiguous fate. Landing safely on a resort planet, Iria is accosted by stock anime street urchins, including a tomboyish young whelp who quickly develops a massive (but fairly convincing) girl-crush on our spiky-haired heroine. After saving their tropical ghetto from the injured Zeiram, Iria embarks on her great crusade to bring about Zeiram’s demise with incidental violence and an aggressive public awareness campaign. (But mostly with her gun.)
Another coincidental but pleasantly surprising similarity between the Alien franchise and Iria occurs in the authentic toughness of their central heroine. Iria puts up with the standard litany of quaint Japanese sexist aphorisms (“Women should wear makeup”, etc.) and shrugs them off entirely instead of getting adorably flustered as we all know women are prone to do. She’s no-nonsense and action minded without being an ice queen, and her more emotional moments are believable without excessive melodrama. The nature of the medium demands she betray a few fanservice moments to keep the otaku awake, but they are mercifully short and surprisingly tasteful. In many ways, this conservative, suggestive approach to Iria’s sex appeal works for the best, because it contributes to her authenticity as a sexy character rather than a fetishized cartoon with boobs. And if you don’t really buy any of that, well, at least she kicks a whole lot of ass.
And when Iria’s in action she and the show she’s in both look damn good, even fifteen years removed. The animation is coherent throughout with a few standout moments, particularly the final confrontations with Zeiram in episodes five and six. Amino and Ashi certainly don’t slouch on the spectacular fights, with all the flip-kicking, swordfighting, knife-throwing, blazing guns and copious explosions they entail (Bear in mind that many of these things occur together within the same fight). Given that this is Colony Drop, I feel that I should clarify that the show continues to look pretty good when there isn’t a battle on-screen. The backgrounds are all colorful and distinct, and the kooky mechanical designs, encompassing the aforementioned ninja robots, the land speeders (sorry… I mean “creepers”) everybody drives, and jackass Fujikuro’s inexplicable autogyro really add to the show’s visual distinction.
Masakazu Katsura of DNA2 and Video Girl Ai fame is responsible for the character design, which would immediately explain why Iria looks so much like a pallette-swapped Karin Aoi, though the designs work well nonetheless. The overall visual style seems to suggest Outlaw Star, which baffles me because none of the principal staff of Iria seem to have been involved with that later production. It may seem like flimsy praise to say that you can distinguish Iria from other shows at a glance, but given the prevalence of visually homogeneous digital productions (at least on TV), this aesthetic competency seems to be turning into a lost art.
The aforementioned visual design seems to be largely the domain of Keita Amemiya, who was the creator of the original Zeiram films. According to ANN, he also seems to have gone on to create Tweeny Witches. Pity, that. All in all, Iria‘s aesthetic seems to have aged quite gracefully.
Iria may not qualify for legendary status, but it’s certainly a classic of the late phase of the OAV boom. It’s well paced, it’s action packed, and basically offends none of the five senses (at least not until the moé shows learn how to make their girls smell like vinyl through the TV). It’s cheap, it’s fun and it’s certainly not the worst 168-ish minutes you’ll ever spend watching anime. Scavenge it from your local record store’s anime ghetto and savor the flavor. You may thank me in the comments section below.