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October 05, 2000

The Legacy of the Sailor Scouts

Anime has always had it's share of Magical Girls. In fact, that is one
of the strengths of Japanese animation, and one of the weaknesses of
American animation (at least when I was growing up, during the Fifties
and Sixties). While there was the occasional animation with a strong
female character, she was nearly always aided and protected by a
stronger male. In anime, the male presence in the M.G. show was just as
likely there for comic relief, or more often, to inject a little
romance.

Magical Girls have ranged from the sachharine (Minky Momo, whom I like,
by the way) to the comical (Akazukin Cha-Cha). In between we've had
Hime-chan no Ribbon and Miracle Girls. But it was with the arrival of
Sailor Moon that an entire sub-genre gelled. Now we can all recite the
prerequisites:

  1. An ordinary schoolgirl, just like you!...

  2. Is chosen by the gods, God, the Fates...

  3. To protect the Earth from Evil, Demons, Satan, beings from an
    evil dimension...

  4. By (often coincidentally) being in the presence of threatened
    innocents...

  5. And transforming herself into a costumed Magical Girl (with the
    most lovingly detailed animation in the show, to be repeated ad
    nauseum)...

  6. And using her gift of Magical Powers to neutralize the evil
    foe...

  7. Whereupon she transforms back into meek, mild-mannered Clark
    Kent--err! Yusagi!

  8. (7a?) Don't forget the mysterious male interloper who occasionally
    helps her and--rarely--rescues her, with generous doses of
    romantic dialog.

This formula (and yes, I know I've missed your favorite numbered step,
insert it where you please) has been so successful that we have been
subjected to a whole raft of clones, some not too bad, and some truly
horrible. We've had super-nurses, super-brides, super-gameshow-hostesses
(just kidding, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear this one is for
real).

Over time, there has been a gradual shift, an imperceptible transition.
The successful show has become the copy-cat has become the well-worn
genre. Within this repetition, there have actually been some original
moments. The trouble is that with a well-worn formula, you can get away
with a lot of just-don't-care storytelling. The viewer is comfortable
with the rhythms of the genre, and fills in the blanks. So I find it
hard myself to say when a M.G. show really is good.

One measuring stick I apply now is to see how my daughter likes it.
She's four years and seven months old, and has consumed every episode of
Card Captor Sakura ravenously. She's watched the eleven episodes we have
several times, sometimes with me reading the subtitles, sometimes with
no narration at all. As a result, I've enjoyed the show a lot more
myself than I might have if I'd watched it alone.

But this is not a foolproof yardstick, and at last we arrive at the
topic of this review. The series in question, launched in February of
last year, ran for 44 episodes. It's title is "Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne".
Here is the premise:

  1. An ordinary schoolgirl, just like you!...
Oops, let me start again. Kusakabe Maron is a high school girl with ordinary school friends, including her friend Toudaiji Miyako, daughter of a police detective. Miyako's family seems to take care of Maron a lot, and early in the series we are led to believe that Maron's parents aren't around at all.

Maron is a direct descendent of Joan of Arc. It is because of this
connection with the young female crusader (an historical Magical Girl!)
that Maron has been selected to fight the minions of the Devil. These
minions inhabit objects of beauty, often paintings, and beguile
innocents to capture their souls. Maron, with the help of her apprentice
angel Fin (a diminutive winged sprite) becomes Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne
(divine thief Jeanne), and 'steals' these demon-inhabited objets d'art.

There is a lot of repetitive formula, declarative phrases such as 'Game
Start!' 'Checkmate!' and 'Collection Completed!' when she has collected
the demon with a pin which transforms into a chess piece. She has a
small array of gadgets which aid her in her tasks as well, such as the
Rebound Ball, a ball on the end of a cord attached to her wrist, which
can grab any object she throws it at.

For reasons which escape me, she is compelled to announce the time and
location of each theft, leading to large batallions of police waiting
for her at each crime scene (they of course don't know the true purpose
of her thefts). Almost always, Maron's best friend Miyako is there with
her police detective father, vowing to capture the vile thief Jeanne.
She cannot recognize Maron, because as Jeanne, Maron has blonde hair. I
imagine it is the same astigmatism which afflicts Lois Lane.

The romantic interest and the competition comes in the form of Nagoya
Chiaki, a fellow high school student by day, and the mysterious thief
Sindbad (yes, Sin-d-bad) by night. From the first few episodes, it is
not clear what his allegiance is, but he has similar equipment, his own
angel, Dark Access, and a fine nose for locating those demon-infested
artworks which Jeanne is trying to neutralize. What does he want? Who
does he serve?

On the whole, with the normal creative variations, Kamikaze Kaitou
Jeanne conforms to the genre admirably. But it has a low-budget feel to
it that I don't notice so much in Card Captor Sakura. For instance,
there are scenes, such as one from an episode where Jeanne is surrounded
by police, where the figures who menace her slide left and right like
ducks at a shooting gallery. When Miyako runs towards the foreground,
her image becomes courser, the lines of her dress thicker, as if the
artists simply blew up the cel for successive frames without even trying
to touch them up.

The writing and character development feel a little too peremptory to me
as well. It somehow reminds me of Devil Hunter Yohko, a second-string
series if ever there was one, and Zenki, of which--though it was one of
my guilty pleasures--I at least had the sense to feel guilty about it!
Kelly (my 4.5833333... year old) pronounces this a show worth watching,
saving and seeking out. But this feels like a B-grade filler series to
me. It's worth catching a couple of episodes to see if it somehow speaks
to you, but I doubt it will become one of your fondest memories.

Posted by dpwakefield at October 5, 2000 11:23 AM