Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s War on Boredom: The Venus Wars

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).

21 Comments

  1. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko is not only one of my favorite directors but artists as well. Everything from his Dirty Pair work to Gundam – The Origin is gorgeous.

    I would love for him to do a movie or two based on one of his historical manga.

  2. I was hungover and staring in disgust at my Twitter stream full of weaboos with badly drawn underage girls as avatars, and thinking about just jacking all this anime bullshit in. So: pretty much an average morning for me.

    Now I’m punching the air and listening to 90s underground techno very loudly while wondering what classic japtoon to watch today. Good work gentlemen.

  3. Fact: THE VENUS WARS kicked ass. It’s a great anime, and yes, it certainly has the RAH vibe down. Kobayashi is certainly one of the most underrated mecha designers out there–it’s amazing that the man has done so much work but is barely mentioned or even recognized by many today.

    The manga for THE VENUS WARS arrived in the US after the film was released, and it is very, very good (I mean, it’s from Yas, big surprise!). However, it tells the war from two points of view–Hiro’s (renamed “Ken” in the American release) and Matthew Radom, an officer from the opposing faction. The mecha designs are different but are still excellent.

    Mark, thanks for spotlighting this anime. It is a classic and it’s bursting at the seams with SF goodness.

  4. Venus Wars never really ‘clicked’ with me, and I’m a full on RAH fanboy. I think my problem was too much of what was going on seemed to happen ‘just because’.

    OTOH I know so much more now than I did back then, I suspect the story was yet another ‘tale from the Warring States period repackaged for the modern world’ that is at the core of many stories, just as many movies here in the U.S. can be seen as some variation of ‘wild west/ Civil War Reconstruction’.

    But f*k all that film school theory shit, I will sing props to Yas until the end of time. His chara work has CHARACTER, and energy, and life. I wish more chara designers would learn from him.

    And I really really really wish Yas would direct a new Crusher Joe movie.

  5. Steve: One thing I was worried about overlooking in the review is the sheer energy and forward motion Yas packs into all the (sadly few) things he directs. No one’s going to mistake Crusher Joe or Giant Gorg, Arion, et. al for fine literature, but hell if one could ever describe any of them as “boring” or “unappealing.” All of them are on my short list for Introductory Anime — they’re just too fun and too accessible to not be.

    Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s War on Boredom could in fact continue as a miniseries moving on next to Arion and Crusher Joe. Manga could be shoe-in as well, CD has dug up Gundam: The Origin and Venus Wars as well as Yas’ fabled Jesus Manga. We do not, however, have full subs of Giant Gorg (CD has its strings to pull, but asking for a whole 80s mecha series to be finished off is a tall order), nor do I, or any CD staffer as far as I’m aware, have the Joan of Arc manga, which looks spectacular.

  6. Actually, I do have all three books of Joan! Got ’em in a New Years’ comic shop dive along with a copy of the MD Geist graphic novel.

  7. To Mark: Well said. Look, to use the hoary old cliche, CRUSHER JOE and most of Yas’ works are not Shakespeare, but they are damned fine works of animation, packed with action and humor and all the good stuff…and plus, the animation is top-notch. I have not seen ARION or GIANT GORG, sadly, but both always get high marks from those who have seen them.

    Having seen CRUSHER JOE, THE VENUS WARS and having read the manga for VW, GUNDAM: THE ORIGIN, STAR OF THE KURDS, and just being an all out fan of Yas’ character design work and art, I would second making “Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s War on Boredom” on ongoing feature at CD. Not just to make us older fans remember his work, but to expose it to those who have never heard of him.

  8. Nostalgia bomb! I first watched this in the wee hours of the morning before I had to head to school it was also the first subbed anime I ever saw. I had the same “holy shit” reactions aswell, great article. Keep up the good work CD.

  9. I have to second the praise for Yoshikazu’s artwork on GUNDAM The Origin. It’s not an easy Manga to find, but his depiction of classic designs like the Zakus and of course the RX-78 is not to be missed.

    He has the knack of making boxy, angular objects into something smoother, rounder, and almost organic.

    Hmm, now that I think about it, I wonder what the classic Transformers G1 robots would have looked like under his pen?

  10. Yeah, that’s Venus Wars. The plot barely exists and most of the characters are annoying, but it’s a damned entertaining movie from an underrated director.

    In fact, I’d say Yoshikazu Yasuhiko should’ve directed the original Gundam and everything else that Yoshiyuki Tomino ended up directing in the 1980s. At least Yas knew how to tell a story.

    I was actually disappointed at first when I read the Venus Wars manga, as its mechanical designs aren’t nearly as insane as the movie’s. What is this character-development nonsense? Where are my one-wheeled battlecycles and stadium-sized tanks?

  11. Tim Maughan had it right- lets throw on some FRONT 242 and watch some of the great 90’s and 80’s anime- COLONY DROP literally is reading my mind these days on the state of Anime, and remembering this now classic slice of time, and the great anime it produced!!

    THANKS COLONY DROP!

  12. To Kid Fenris: Actually, Yas did direct the third GUNDAM film (based on the original TV series). He did a fantastic job on that one, and it’s personally my favorite one out of the original three films.

    Ah, ya shouldn’t be disappointed with the VW manga just because the mechanical designs were different! C’mon, it came first, along with that weird character development stuff… (hope you are kidding there…)

    To Jason: Gotta agree with you there.

  13. I loved this movie ever since the bygone days of Saturday Anime on the Sci-Fi Channel. The only thing that’s irked me since then is the unnecessary stereotyped gay character who shows up to hit on Hiro and then is quickly disposed of, such a bizarre and unsavory moment in an otherwise great film.

    BTW, what dvd are the screen-caps in the review from? They look much better than any of the releases by Central Park Media. Are they from a Japanese release?

  14. I was behind the curve on VENUS WARS – tried to sit through it in raw Japanese on a day when I was grumpy and distracted, and put it in the “ignore” file for years. Much later I sat down and watched it with the subs, and was pleasantly surprised, it’s a tough little picture with a lot of guts and a surprising amount of emotion. We need more movies like VENUS WARS.

  15. Man, I’d love to see GIANT GORG or PANZER WORLD GALIENT or the J-9 shows released in subs today. The quality (art, music, and story) of those old ’80s mecha epics is enough to make one weep. I like modern anime, too, but there’s just something about late-Showa TV toons…

    Speaking of Yas: while he didn’t direct the show, his design work for the important GUNDAM predecessor ZAMBOT-3 bears examining. Great OP, too!

  16. Great article CD! I second Bruce in saying that Giant Gorg needs more recognition. YAS’ animation direction was perhaps just too unique for its time. A quick glance at Crusher Joe, Arion, or Giant Gorg gives you a feeling that he was trying to do something different, more gutsy, for lack of a better word.

  17. You made me realise that one reason I like Bowboy BeBop so much is the extent to which it channels Yas.And thanks for the nod to Dragon’s Heaven, an old favourite of mine and one of the few mech shows to have the courage to allow form to flee function and dance to its own tune.

  18. Another (belated) amen to Bruce for the Giant Gorg and Panzer World Galient recommendation. Robot centaurs – those were the days, my friend!

  19. I absolutely love Venus Wars. Hands down my favorite out of Japan. Lot of imagination, great story, politics, battles, and the characters are A+. I don’t understand why some are bothered by the character development? Not even the “off the wall” character bothered me. If anything it was good to see an anime with the guts to do something like that. I have to add I only watch Venus Wars with the English dub. It’s also top quality. Always hoped Yoshikazu Yasuhiko would have made another back then. I couldn’t imagine seeing it done today. Animation like this just isn’t around anymore.

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