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.