Mardock Scramble at New York Anime Fest

I can’t talk about the world premiere showing of Mardock Scramble— a film yet unreleased even in Japan– at New York Anime Fest without talking about the circumstances under which it was run: or rather, buried.

To ensure that no anime fans would show up, the movie was run against The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. This was the film installment, unseen by most folks outside of Japan, in perhaps the most beloved otaku anime franchise of the decade. A main voice actress was present, and she even gave a concert. If there was a “main attraction” anime event at the con, this was certainly it.

If you knew that Mardock was running at all, you were an anime fan and you had a sharp eye to find this not-at-all-promoted event in your guidebook. If you actually decided to go, you had to give up the biggest anime event of the weekend. I’ve spoken my piece on Haruhi (though the idea of a story, indeed a world, in which Haruhi Suzumiya disappears from the face of the earth is admittedly tempting), so my choice was obvious.

Furthermore, the movie was run in a standard-size panel room deep inside the Javits Center, near the back of the anime ghetto. We lined up for the front row, but there wasn’t much of a point doing so: the attendance for the premiere only about half-filled the room. Next to us, a much, much longer line stretched out for “Best Japanese Game Show”, the audience for which would later scream through the walls (a Javits-wide problem: the walls are just too thin and you can hear everything around you) over the first ten minutes or so of the movie.

Mardock Scramble deserved better. It could have gotten buzz going among anime fans, but everybody was at another movie. It could have gotten Comic Con buzz from an audience that devours SF and fantasy, but it was hidden in a spot most congoers couldn’t find or didn’t know existed. It’s the kind of thing that people like us have been begging the anime industry for– big, theatrical sci-fi anime– and on top of that, it’s actually good.

It is a bit of a curveball, though. From the premise– a murdered teen prostitute is revived as a cyborg and takes revenge– and the trailer, which only features action and every single nude scene in the movie, you might get the impression that this is a straightforward action film. It’s not. It’s an adaptation of an award-winning sci-fi novel by Tow Ubukata (who was in attendance at the premiere). It’s thoughtful, it’s deliberate, and the action you may be looking for is slow in coming.

Here’s a disclaimer: As an hour-long novel adaptation, there’s a lot going on in Mardock Scramble that I wasn’t completely able to wrap my head around– particularly the strange legal system– and I obviously don’t have the luxury of a rewatch. (Aniplex, if you’d like to send me that screener DVD I promise I wouldn’t do no bad things.)

Anyway, I can’t leave you with thoughts of that premise in your head without elaborating a little bit, so here goes: Rune Balot is brought back to life by way of illegal science (the titular Mardock Scramble) on the condition that she assist the benevolent mad scientist, the cop who saved her, and a very special little mouse. Rune’s first case as a super-powered Robocop is to put away the man who got her into this whole mess when he locked her in a car and set it on fire.

But in the illegal-resurrection-science business you have to take the body you dig up out of a car wreck, and dead-eyed child hookers with no will to live are not the greatest Robocop candidates. The first thing she does when she’s given an inkling of the power she now possesses is materialize a gun with which to blow her own head off. The real story here is that of Rune taking her first baby steps into power, into coexistence with the world, and into self-love. It is a bumpy road, and by the end of the first movie she hasn’t made it yet.

Rune makes it to basic function just in time for a pack of absurdly grotesque organ thieves (one fellow goes by the very literal name of Welldone the Pussyhand) to try and kill her and take her apart for the bits they like. Frankly, there are a lot of bizarre things on display in this portion of the movie (I’m tempted to just list them all, from Rune’s transforming weapon to the thieves’ fetish of grafting their collections to their bodies), and Studio GoHands makes it all look real good when the action starts. The awakened Rune is a wave of destruction: while her safety is never in question, her humanity is very much so.

Finally, I will warn you in advance. This movie just ends, and it does so at the worst possible point. I hesitate to call what happens in the first part of Mardock Scramble a cliffhanger, because they simply roll credits at the one-hour mark of a movie that feels like it should be half an hour longer. When the Japanese cover of Amazing Grace started to play (a bit much, guys?), discontented muttering buzzed through the aisles for about a minute. We were hesitant to applaud, because we felt very suddenly cheated. The applause came when we got over our immediate disappointment and were forced to acknowledge that yes, the worst thing about the movie was that there wasn’t more of it.

Since nobody outside of that room has yet watched this movie, you might be wondering when you’ll get a chance to do so. When asked, Mr. Ubukata could only ask us all to “please buy the Mardock Scramble novel from Viz in January.” This is an Aniplex production, but that doesn’t mean there’s any particular guarantee of US licensing or distribution of the film series. It’s a given that the world outside Japan won’t see this for a long time, though: going by the usual pattern for theatrical anime, it’ll be at least a year before the movie hits Japanese home video.

In this case, being first to see Mardock Scramble means that we face the most agonizing wait. Here’s hoping it’s short.

8 Comments

  1. Now the long, long wait to see Mardock Scramble myself seems that much harder after your review. Thanks for the hype, Dave.

    Tis a shame that the movie has very little viability in the US. Were this 2003, ADV or Bandai would already have the license.

  2. I hadn’t given Mardock Scramble much thought, but from all these great reviews of the film I just might buy the novel. Been itching to read something fun after I finished Loups=Garous.

  3. Hey Dave,

    Thanks for this, especially since a lot of people missed it at CC/NYAF. For me it was a matter of timing, not Haruhi. Been interested in MS since the days when Gonzo was to work on it with Range Murata doing the character designs.

    But is this film the first part of a trilogy of films? That could explain the ciffhanger ending.

    @Corti: You won’t have to wait too long for the novel–it should be available in the US in January of 2011; check Haika Soru’s site to find out more.

  4. Sadly, the second Mardock Scramble movie won’t be out until next fall in Japan, with the third and final one arriving in the fall of 2012.

    I reviewed the first Mardock movie over at ANN (link above), and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s cut from the harsh, dazzlingly violent stock of ’90s OVAs, but there’s some social relevance running through it. Again, it’s a shame the whole thing won’t be finished for another two years.

  5. Maybe if it didn’t have such a stupid name, more people would have shown up. I don’t care if it’s a new GITS – that name smacks of low-rent 80’s OAV.

  6. Nice write up! Have been intrigued about this ever since I saw the trailer and got some leaflets back at TIAF.
    Its getting a REALLY limited showing here in Japan – 2 sessions a day (about 9pm and 10:30pm)across 5 or 6 cinemas, only one of which is in Tokyo. Thats IT.
    Looks like they are hoping to make their money back with the bluray release I suppose.
    First redline, now this – the lack of promotion for GOOD anime thats coming out is really sad.

  7. Dave, this movie is a complete mess, and I think you’re trying to love it for all the wrong reasons.

    I mean, I can’t even figure out something as simple as what the agency that rebuilt the main character is supposed to be. Is it social services, a law firm, a bio-medical technology company, a military contractor, or what? It’s not supposed to be a mystery or anything either. The movie just wants it to be all of those things at once apparently. And that’s just the least of its problems…

    I really wanted to like it. Oh well.

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