The so-called “Fred Patten ideal” of anime (named for the first person to write about Japanese cartoons and comics in the United States) is not exactly dead as some would tell you, it is merely in traction and hooked up to an IV drip cocktail of dextrose and a few debutante anime directors like Mamoru Oshii, Mamoru Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai. Of course, when the flagship hoisting the petard of your genre is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Code Geass, it might be time to tap your finger against the EKG monitor just to be sure.
If Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Venus Wars was a person instead of an anime movie, it would be the chain-smoking motorcycle-straddling teenage delinquent who won’t take any of your grown-up B.S., yet is secure enough in his masculinity to admit spending his earlier years reading Robert Heinlein and James Blish before graduating to William Gibson and George Alec Effinger.
Said personal history is in fact how I, judging purely from the animated and comic features he’s worked on, imagine the formative years of Yasuhiko himself. At this point I don’t care if it is not true; I want to believe! Given a chance between history and legend, go for the legend; this is what Yasuhiko’s work, anime and, by extension, Venus Wars, is all about.
The movie starts off with the opener standard to most all theatrical SF anime from the 1980s, namely, a long shot of outer space and voiceover narration delivered by a deep-voiced Japanese man. This voice establishes an outline history: at some point, a huge ice comet struck Venus, radically cooling down the temperature and transforming the atmosphere to the point that the planet became semi-inhabitable for humans. However, the colonies established quickly devolve into decentralized high-tech duchies, making Venus a hotspot for half-baked warlords and low-grade civil wars.
It’s not as dry as it sounds, and it only momentarily fools you into expecting it to be as somnambulant as a Space Battleship Yamato movie — immediately after the exposition, Venus Wars bursts into action. Holy shit, overdriven motorized unicycles racing in a deadly off-road rally across a blood-red Venusian landscape! Holy shit, that girl just got buck naked for those Venusian spaceport customs officers! That guy just fell off his unicycle and tumbled across a hard jagged rock face for fifty meters, the twentieth of which must already have been lethal!
Venus Wars wastes no time establishing itself as a stylistic powerhouse. Amazing design work, slick animation and sleek soundtrack (provided by Joe Hisaishi) all assault the viewer within the first two minutes of screen time. While the animation may not reach the excruciating frame-by-frame complexity of other late-80s SF extravaganzas like Akira and GAINAX’s The Wings of Honneamise, the quality inherent to the background art, character designs and mechanical designs easily matches up to both.
Looking at the credits for the film might explain why. Like the two movies named above, Venus Wars’s creative staff is a jaw-dropping “who’s who” of 1980s anime creators. First and foremost is Yasuhiko himself, as head director, screenplay writer and original creator (he pulled double and triple duty on many of his other projects), but there is also animation director Toshihiro Kawamoto, Sunrise and BONES superstar and one of those silent stalwarts of quality animation. Kawamoto mostly alternates between being a character designer (habitual Spike Spiegel cosplayers everywhere owe him several years’ worth in designer salary back payments at this point), an animation director and a key animator. His work history includes Mobile Suit Gundam: 0083 Stardust Memory, Dirty Pair Project Eden and Golden Boy; if you have never heard of any of these anime, please go shoot yourself.
Nor can one overlook the mechanical designer, one Makoto Kobayashi. Colony Drop could (and should) run an entire feature article on Kobayashi, the most overlooked man in mechanical design. Kobayashi lives a double life of doing one-off designs for robot shows, such as The O and Marasai in Zeta Gundam, and creating extremely bizarre and unorthodox doujinshi, art and scratch-built models featuring extremely bizarre and unorthodox mechanical designs. You may remember him as the original creator and director of the Moebius-inspired Dragon’s Heaven (he is not, however, the author of house cat manga What’s Michael?). He unleashes all of his charming unorthodoxy in Venus Wars, producing a visual style with a very arresting effect. From the unicycles to a squadron of very Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind air battleships to the movie’s other iconic “character,” the gargantuan lumbering battle tanks invading the protagonists’ home city, this is the SF you were promised, nay, taught to expect as a wide-eyed and, possibly, drooling child.
I was drawn into anime as an extension of a long-running interest in science-fiction. So many of the cartoons I watched and grew enraptured with featured lush, sprawling illustrations of whole new worlds, peoples and their machines.
Now, stop and rewind. Refocus on “whole new worlds.” Let’s go back and look at some of the anime titles I’ve been shamelessly tossing out throughout this article: Cowboy Bebop, Honneamise, Dragon’s Heaven, Nausicaa. Each of them features an entire new world, seemingly woven together out of whole cloth from a pattern crafted in the heads of creators who spent real, intensive time and effort doing so. The illusion of limitlessness, the sensation that infinitely many other stories could be taking place in these worlds that the viewer simply is not privy to. Venus Wars easily holds its own next to these titles. Yasuhiko has directed comparatively little in his career — Arion, Giant Gorg, Crusher Joe — which might vouch for the amount of forethought and careful preliminary work he puts into each project.
Venus Wars is infused with what I’m going to call the “spirit of invention”, a catchphrase that amalgamates the aforementioned aspects of serious attention toward design work and the ornate and convincing worldbuilding. In general, it’s simply an evocation of rampant creative spirit shot through with an extremely proficient skillset. There is also an element of enthusiasm in play, a bubbling liveliness about to burst out through the seams.
From the first few minutes of Venus Wars, one gets the impression that the staff on this movie was absolutely exploding with ideas. What kind of sports would people play and watch in a lawless frontier colony? How would they fight wars with each other? How would Earth react to the petty two-bit fiefdom squabbles in these backwaters? What color and shape of polycarbonate helmet would the riot police wear? These are serious, important issues here. Well, alright, some of them are not, but the fact that they are nonetheless addressed, and in a movie that has as few pretenses as Venus Wars, is what, for my money, makes good sci-fi great.
Some may dismiss worldbuilding as the epitome of incorrigible, corrosive geekdom in genre fiction. I say it’s the glue that binds genre fiction together into a compelling whole. To throw it out is to replace that glue with the bodily excretions of the sniveling self-referential scum that produce much of what passes as “avant-garde” science-fiction and fantasy today.
In conclusion, Venus Wars proves that the past is the future. Reactionaries are the new progressives. Or something of that nature. Check this movie out (and get the remastered version if you can find it).