The .466 Batting Average of Rintaro: Harmagedon

Rintaro is one of those directors that often gets mentioned in the same breath of the veteran Japanese cartoon connoisseur as the likes of Satoshi Kon or Mamuro Oshii, a director known for his large-scale productions and sweeping sensibilities that, back in the 80’s and 90’s, put him on the radar of many an old-fart anime fan.

But unlike Kon or even the likes of his protégé Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Rintaro has a less-than-stellar batting average when it comes to his directorial work. For every gem like Galaxy Express 999 or Metropolis, there’s a number of stinkers that rear their heads like Dagger of Kamui, Doomed Megalopolis, or X: The Movie, outings that are big on epic visuals and lite on essentials like cohesive narrative structure and interesting characters.

It goes without saying that Rintaro’s 1983 hit Harmagedon falls very hard into the latter category.

Based on a serialized novel series by Kazumasa Hirai that also had a manga illustrated by Cyborg 009 creator Shotaro Ishinomori, Harmagedon is a bloated epic following the wacky hijinks of a multi-ethnic psychic team and one hideous extraterrestrial cyborg named Vega (possibly the ugliest mecha design ever) as they defend the Earth from the powers of an evil space skull known as Genma. Most of the movie’s loose narrative follows the story of Jo, an ordinary Japanese high-school kid whose psionic powers are manifested after the aforementioned Vega terrifies him in an alleyway (parodied in the famous “Colonel Sanders” sequence from Project A-Ko). This 30 second parody is more memorable than all of Harmagedon’s entire 131 minute running time.

That’s all that can really be said about the story. It’s less a cohesive narrative and more a sequence of disconnected scenes of no consequence which take over two hours to get to the end. Cataclysmic events happen in the movie with no fan-fare: Manhattan is destroyed in a series of still images that last for roughly 20 seconds. Tokyo itself is completely demolished and left to wither in an endless cloud of ash entirely off-screen. What happened to Tokyo? The audience never finds out. A decent chunk of the running time before the climax is Jo moping around the devastated city looking glum and not accomplishing much.

Beyond the characters of Jo, Luna and Vega, the other psionic-warriors are nothing but embarrassing ethnic stereotypes. Take Sonny, the tough-talking black kid on roller-skates, setting the gold standard for future examples of street-wise roller-skating charisma like Chibi from Demon City Shinjuku and Eddie “Skate” Hunter of Streets of Rage 2 fame. The other members of the team suffer a worse fate: they’re not even named during the film. There is nothing about their personalities or backgrounds that come into play during the course of the film other than their basic character designs as “strong silent Native American” or “wise and elderly Hindu yogi”, a definite sign of three novels being condensed into one movie.

The film’s conception was the brain-child of publishing magnate/coke-fiend Haruki Kadokawa, who got it into his nose candy-addled brain to branch his publishing business into a media empire, starting with films. Rintaro, fresh off the success of the back-to-back blockbuster Galaxy Express 999 films (the first of which was the highest grossing movie of the year in 1979) was quickly selected due to the widespread popularity of the Galaxy Express movies and his apparent ability to adapt a long narrative, such as the GE999 manga. Whether due to the differences between adapting a novel versus a manga or because of Kadokawa’s very “hands-on” approach to producing, any pulse Rintaro brought to his Leiji Matsumoto adaptations flat-lines here. Even Katsuhiro Otomo’s character designs are generic as can be — any zest they may have once had seems to be sucked out of them for the sake of marketability. The character of Vega is such an ugly piece of design it’s a wonder if the man who gave the world his eye-popping mechanical designs in Akira is actually responsible for it.

In many ways the movie reminds one of David Lynch’s Dune adaptation, released a year after Harmagedon’s premiere. Both movies distill huge, multi-novel-length epic sci-fi stories into one long, bloated mess of a movie that goes through the motions like a Cliff’s Notes edition of the books they’re adapting, playing only to audiences familiar with the source material and being incomprehensible to everyone else. Many theater-goers must have read the books, because Harmagedon was a hit in Japanese theaters in 1983, spawning the usual landslide of merchandising. Included among the standard assortment of action figures and art books was an arcade LaserDisc game that made it to the U.S. as Bega’s Battle, featuring a grisly sequence of Jo’s friend’s face melting into a monster in its attract sequence, which no doubt caused many nightmares among Showbiz Pizza patrons.

It also did well among early North American anime fans, probably due to the stunning animation from Madhouse. Rintaro admittedly treats the film as a showcase for the burgeoning studio’s talent: particularly impressive is legendary key animator Yoshinori Kaneda’s visualization of Genma’s final form as a constantly swirling, churning space dragon made of volcanic fire. The special effects animation is eye-catching throughout, with beautiful effects animation for fire, lava and general lighting and explosions. It all compliments Keith Emerson’s prog rock soundtrack, which helps (or hurts, depending on the outlook) the film’s climax play like a hallucinatory version of Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade.

Harmagedon is too polished to earn the coveted “so bad it’s good” seal of approval, there’s not a lot of moments in the film that rise to the level of something like M.D. Geist or Mad Bull 34. No, it’s something worse than that; the director and crew forgot to make an entertaining and cohesive film, instead creating a showcase of sequences that individually may be adequate, sometimes even beautiful, but as a whole is a slog. Despite its status as unrepentant schlock, there are moments in Black Lion I’ll never forget. Immediately after watching all of Harmagedon’s two-plus hours, I forgot nearly all of it.

23 Comments

  1. Aside from the fact that I consider The Dagger of Kamui to be awesome, thus raising Rintaro’s batting average to .500, your closing paragraph effectively summarizes the trickiest part of actually getting a Harmagedon review done. Unless you’re taking copious notes as you watch (and in so doing, making the movie take even longer), it’s really difficult to remember what happens in this film! Usually a short phrase is enough to jog one’s memory, but my notes just say stuff like “plane crash,” “pilot light in oven blows up,” “suddenly is a racist,” and “ABSOLUTE ZERO! NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!”

    I’m just joking on the last one. There was no need for me to write that down, as it’s literally the ONLY thing I reliably remember about the movie. Over the last ten years I’ve continually forgotten, remembered, and forgotten again that oh yeah, there’s a ROBOT in this film.

    I guess it’s time to rewatch Harmagedon. AGAIN.

  2. I remember renting this way back and recall like two scenes, one taking place in the rain and there were some monsters in puddles or something, and another when a tall building’s windows crack and fall onto hapless passersby. Looks like Otomo borrowed that scene for Akira (When Takashi screams at the top of his lungs after his kidnapper is shot to pieces). I don’t think I watched Harmagedon in it’s entirety, may have to give it a re-watch. Also kudos for the A-ko scene,I never truly understood it until now.

  3. Pissing on Dagger of Kamui?

    Sir, turn in your nerd cred card.

    Dagger of Kamui’s animation is the most fucking amazing stuff I’ve ever seen, there is CONSTANT motion, gross or painfully subtle.

    OK, story is a bit of a mess but F**K is it pretty to look at.

    That is all.

  4. Yeah, really, Dagger of Kamui is the Japanese answer to American Ninja. As for Doomed Megalopolis, it’s an interesting misfire. And the X short makes up for the movie.

    “(possibly the ugliest mecha design ever)”

    You have to remember this was an era when blocky-looking robots were the in-thing.

    “Take Sonny, the tough-talking black kid on roller-skates, setting the gold standard for future examples of street-wise roller-skating charisma like Chibi from Demon City Shinjuku and Eddie “Skate” Hunter of Streets of Rage 2 fame.”

    I don’t think Sonny’s any worse than kids featured on certain American sitcoms at the time. Or certainly not compared to those in “The People Under the Stairs” and “Attack the Block”.

    “Even Katsuhiro Otomo’s character designs are generic as can be — any zest they may have once had seems to be sucked out of them for the sake of marketability.”

    Well, depending on when the production actually began, this style could’ve been one of many examples of before Otomo even established himself in the industry.

  5. This is why I keep coming back to this site; finding out about awful Japanese movies that will inevitably fall into my buttery hands on lonely Friday nights.

    If one was to purchase Harmagedon, and I’m assuming it is out of print, is there a certain version or release that is superior? (Like the Criterion collection release of Hard Boiled over the Dragon Dynasty edition)

    Speaking of misfires and Satoshi Kon, upon second viewing of Paprika, is it just me or does this movie have some serious problems in the storytelling department?

  6. Sure, it could use fifteen or twenty minutes of judicious editing. And we are talking about Rin Taro, so the curve is understandably pretty steep here when grading. But ‘stinker’? That’s harsh, man. The ten minutes of Sonny and the gang getting blasted in the jewellery store more than make up for the film’s less focused parts.

    Yes, Begas’ mecha design is unconventional, unique, disconcerting, clunky – alien, in other words. As if he was from another planet, to quote Macross II. But “ugliest ever”? Sure, if the 1970s never happened, okay.

    I completely agree that HARMAGEDDON never comes together as a singular film experience, but parts of it are outstanding. I think it’s biggest fault is that we’re watching it in 2011. Hindsight is golden.

    DAGGER OF KAMUI is another one of these movies that could use a trim, but any movie with three devil ninja and Mark Twain gets a free hall pass.

  7. *Well, depending on when the production actually began, this style could’ve been one of many examples of before Otomo even established himself in the industry*

    Depending on the internet, I would have to disagree.

    (ºº)>

  8. I read the first paragraph and I said I was going to totally defend Dagger of Kamui in the comments but I can see that was taken care of.

    As for Harmageddon, nice production but utterly forgettable.

    Did someone just claim that kid in The People Under the Stairs was a horrendous stereotype? My brain hurts.

  9. “You have to remember this was an era when blocky-looking robots were the in-thing.”

    You say this as though “blocky” is equivalent to looking like butt. Mospeada, which also premiered in 1983, is blocky, but doesn’t induce dry-heaving if gazed at too long.

    “Well, depending on when the production actually began, this style could’ve been one of many examples of before Otomo even established himself in the industry.”

    Domu was finished by 1981 and clearly is already in Otomo’s signature style. Akira started serialization in 1982, over a year before Harmagedon was released. Otomo was already Otomo.

  10. Zach:

    “You say this as though “blocky” is equivalent to looking like butt. ”

    Have you seen the 70s Buck Rogers? Or that Nintendo robot whatever the hell it was? Or even Dirty Pair?

    “Mospeada, which also premiered in 1983, is blocky, but doesn’t induce dry-heaving if gazed at too long.”

    Sure, if you’re ok with the proto-moe girl they shove on you when you just want to watch “another show like Macross”. Goddammit, Mint, I don’t want to see you strip-tease, and you have as much importance to the story as Shortround in Temple of Doom!

    “Domu was finished by 1981 and clearly is already in Otomo’s signature style.”

    Domu’s similar to Akira, but not the same. For example, there’s a lot more use of shadow than you see in Otomo’s later work.

    Bryan: Get the special edition, ‘cus it’s got the Rintaro commentary.

    Cody: Otomo didn’t really take off until Akira, which came out around the same year, so he obviously did journeyman gigs in-between. Don’t forget he was also working on Crusher Joe around the same time.

    Anyway, I forgot to add that it’s a tad unfair to compare Rintaro to Lynch, since at least RT had some experience in sci-fi, while Lynch only got hired on Dune on the basis that some exec thought, “Hey, if Lucas considered him for Jedi, he must be good!”

  11. > Yanki My Chain

    Not sure what’s worse, you bringing up extraneous shit when Zach is just talking about mechanical designs, or the idea that Macross was devoid of any proto-moe characters.

    Also, when you start arguing about how Otomo’s use of shadows totally change his style you end up sounding like the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons.

  12. @Yanki My Chain and Zach

    Vega looks like a poorly spray painted rip-off of the king of all cosmos from Katamari.

    That design works well in something like Katamari because it is deliberately quirky. But this is supposed to be a (somewhat) serious story, the design does not belong.

  13. “Most of the movie’s loose narrative follows the story of Jo, an ordinary Japanese high-school kid whose psionic powers are manifested after”

    You could sum up a good 40% of the anime ever made with that sentence.

  14. BryanRF: Have you seen some of the quirky robot designs in the good Transformers movie from ’86? No one complained about those…

  15. Dagger of Kamui was/is great. The animation is awesome and it has one of the coolest, funkiest soundtracks next to birth. And that Vega guy kind of looks like Lavos’s final form in the Chrono Trigger video game.

  16. You want blocky mecha? I got your blocky mecha right here. Two words:

    GOLD LIGHTAN

    “Blocky” was was the look of the awkward post-MAZINGER, pre-ZZ era. Another example: GODMARS — like a stack of refrigerator boxes. Next to GOLD LIGHTAN, HARMAGEDDON’s “Vegas” looks like Robotan.

  17. It’s Kanada, not Kaneda!

    BUT, thank you for mentioning that. I don’t care about this movie at all beyond that in all honesty and I’ll admit that I only got it so I could have that sequence in something better than Youtube-quality, but any review of this that doesn’t mention that scene would have been a very flawed review to me. It’s one of the most amazing animated sequences ever.

  18. I spent the day before Thanksgiving watching this anime, which has prompted me to now look at “running times” on dvd cases because I seriously didn’t know when this anime would ever end. But the best part for me was the New York City arc, with roller skating “african american” kids with racist lines along with it. Of course right after I got done, I went into Odin, which I thought was fantastic.

  19. I don’t know man…if there is one thing I miss about old anime is the ” less a cohesive narrative and more a sequence of disconnected scenes of no consequence which take over two hours to get to the end” genre. That’s pretty much what Do You Remember Love was. We only understood it because we all saw the TV series first, but in itself it was nothing more than an animation showcase. The same is true of…a lot of 80s anime, especially the OVAs.

    I mean…I LOVE that stuff. So you don’t know what happened to Tokyo…so what? If the world really did fall apart like that and you were living in it you might not know for years what happened to an entire city. SHIT IS HITTING THE FAN.

    I also loved Dagger of Kamui.

  20. If you’re chucking Dagger of Kamui in the “bad-anime” bin, then you’ve OBVIOUSLY not seen the worst that Nippon has to offer.

    Kamui no Ken tried a lot of fun things with its plot and settings. The convoluted story makes it that much more to watch and figure out. By no means, is this an anime for easy watching. On par with Akira, Evangelion, and Serial Experiments Lain, Kamui no Ken was made for analysis and rarely pleases the casual anime viewer.

  21. My son loves the anime and manga creations. To think “Godzilla” used to rule this side of the Pacific, not anymore I guess. Simple insights for a review.

Submit a comment