Thursday, January 31, 2019

Better Tomorrow from a Brighter Past ~ A Review of "Zillion"

In a strange twist this is the first proper anime review I have ever done here. I've made many posts about anime and where it has been, what it is doing, and where it's going, but nothing about a specific series and looking at its strengths and weaknesses and how it stacks up. Considering the amount of reviews I've done it wouldn't be fair to keep that up, so that will change here. Today I want to look at the '80s cult favorite anime series Zillion from 1987/88 and just recently re-released by Funimation on Bluray/DVD/Digital packaging.

Zillion was first created as a laser tag game in Japan in the mid-80s which rolled over into a TV anime series produced by Tatsunoko (and is the first production by popular animation studio Production I.G.) along with two Master System video games made by Sega. Each of these are highly regarded to this day. The franchise wasn't around very long, mostly being locked to peak anime year 1987, yet it is still looked at with a high degree of respect in Japan due to the sheer amount of quality it put out in such a short time.

Zillion's reputation overseas is very weird in that none of it come from the complete 31 episode (and OVA special) run of the anime or the video games made by Sega. Its popularity stems from a mere five dubbed episodes released on VHS by Streamline during the original anime boom of the early '90s and two separate music videos featuring clips each by Michael and Janet Jackson ("Scream") and Del the Funky Homosapien ("Cyberpunks") and that is more or less it when it comes to Zillion.

The show never got a full release, not even the unofficial sub community would touch it despite being a prime candidate for the job, licencors like Discotek never went near it, and the Master System being Sega's least known system in North America meant the games would never be popular, either. So outside of older anime fans who were around in a very specific time and place, Zillion was very much unknown and remained that way until, well, now.

But before we go further, it needs to be told what the series is about.

Zillion takes place in the year 2387 on a distant planet named Maris after man has colonized the stars. The Noza Empire has declared war on humanity and hopes to take the planet from them for their own needs. Three mysterious artifacts (rumored to be from God) were reconstituted into guns by the human military which have extra firepower against their enemies despite the fact they are not reproduce-able. They are given to a team of three: J.J., Champ, and Apple, who form a special group called the White Nuts that are used for special missions against the Noza. This series follows their fight against the alien menace.

The Opening

It should be said upfront that Zillion is an unapologetic action show. Every episode involves the White Nuts either involved in or assaulted by some Noza plot and they have to use their skills to fight back and win.

The series is episodic and every episode follows the traditional western three act structure method of storytelling with a finale that leaves the problem solved and the heroes just that much closer to overall victory. Aside from one two-part episode (labeled as such) in the middle of the series and the finale Zillion tells a complete story in each of its 31 episodes which all manage to simultaneously develop characters without having to rely on constant origin stories or hopeless misery. This is a bright series without any nihilism at all.

But it is also not a Star Trek Utopian fantasy. One extremely well directed episode has a Cyberpunk/Noir vibe where people are killed and one of the main characters fights through the dark city to show why he was chosen to wield his Zillion in the first place. The night ends as he reclaims his weapon and slays the evil at the very end. Another features a character who dies helping our mains achieve their goal of stopping a Noza plot as a true soldier sacrificing himself so they can win. Yet another has an ally die after a successful Noza attack. War, murder, and crime, still exist even 400 years later on another planet, even against an alien force, and all our problems between each other are still the same as ever. Just as they always will be. Zillion is a sort of look at the future pulpsters would have dug back in the day.

At the same time, technology has progressed and we've learned some new tricks to deal with the wilds of the untamed universe. The hardware here is impressive and very useful without feeling like blatant product placement. It all works to the benefit of the story.

The characters also match what you would hope to find in such a series. J.J. is the hotblooded skirt-chaser, Champ is the cool-headed tough guy, and Apple is the caring and stern mediator between them. All three mesh together very well and rub off on the others in different ways as a good group dynamic should. They're heroes, and ones you want to follow, and ones you want to win when their backs are against the wall.

To be honest, Zillion itself is very much a pulp series with the same inspirations every early anime had. It is action-based storytelling within a clear moral framework of good and evil, where the men are men and the women are women, duels between rivals occur and are expected, heroics are rewarded and are done without a second thought, and motorcycles transform into fighting mecha that can fly. Excitement is the name of the game and so is the good and just.

They don't make them like Zillion anymore.

Each episode is an adventure with crisp animation that is quite honestly above most TV anime and near OVA levels at times, fast paced and dynamic direction, and some of the catchiest '80s synth rock music you will hear. This is the sort of anime that was expected before the '00s. When I say that they don't make them like this anymore, I mean it. Zillion does everything a great anime should do, and does it expertly.

As someone who never saw the series (due to the aforementioned above reasons) I was intrigued when I saw that Funimation had licensed it for release. Most likely because it had never gotten any sort of proper shot overseas before. Speculation was that it was included as part of a deal with Speed Racer and that is how Funimation ended up with it, but they sure didn't slack on the packaging or the formatting. I picked this up because Amazon was offering a cheap preorder price and got the series and OVA, on 4 Bluray discs, 5 DVDs, and a digital copy, all in one normal box. And I have to say it was a steal.

I don't have a 1080p TV so I can't tell you exactly the difference in the transfer on Bluray, except that Funimation did a good job on encoding and subtitles. Everything is clear, understandable, and there are no artifacts or compression problems that I've noticed. The sound is also mixed well. The menus and packaging are right out of the Sega Master System: I would have posted said box here except none of the pictures online show off how good it looks in person.

The Second Ending Theme

Be wary of reviews for this series, especially from "respected" anime sites. I say this because they are reviewing it as being a nostalgic piece (which it can't really be) or for not being a subversive slog like most modern SF anime. There are those tempted to shoot Zillion down for being "dated" or for being shallow or harboring unacceptable attitudes, just as was done to the pulps it takes inspiration from. I have read at least one professional review that declared this an average series at best with nothing exceptional going for it. They say Zillion is a relic of another time and is best left in the dust as we move to a more progressive and enlightened anime era where things are far beyond simple, fun, and good, action series.

But they are wrong, and wrong in many ways.

There are no series like Zillion anymore, that is true. This is what makes it even more valuable as a discussion piece and makes it far from generic. Anime is in such a confused, disposable, and outright degenerate, state right now that it is easy to forget what it was like at its commercial peak. But even for its time Zillion embodies a pulp ethos and excitement for its content that wasn't common. Nor did most TV anime at the time look this good so much of the time or have such consistency. Had this come out last year for the first time it would still look and sound impressive, even if its content would have turned certain kings and queens of fandom off.

The 1980s were a positive time for Japan and there is a level of optimism and hope in an action series like Zillion that is no longer seen. You cannot emphasize how much fun the series has at such a constant rate. Zillion feels like it was made to tell a story and not made because it was an anime to dish out to otaku awaiting the next big thing. It was made for normal people, and that might be where much of the criticism comes from.

Other than complaining about "datedness" or other such nonsense, there is nothing to complain about here. Zillion is the sort of thing that got anime popular overseas in the first place.

The series exemplifies the dead art of cell animation, with popping effects and a level of sharp direction that wasn't seen much outside of movies at the time. The characters are not stock tropes, but actual characters with personalities that never get obnoxious or one dimensional. The music doesn't sound like the same goofy Casio keyboard notes ripped out of a sitcom like anime does now but as the type you would hear on the radio or at a concert. The character designs are typical of '80s anime in that they don't look like 500 other shows, but are clearly original to this series. All this sets it apart from not only its own era, but the current one.

Zillion isn't like anything currently being made, and the reason for it is that nothing like it can be. Not in an industry more focused on selling body pillows to a small percent of their shrinking audience, and not in one that has lost the freewheeling spirit and hope of its better days. It represents a better era, and it embarrasses what is being made now.

If that makes it generic then I'd hate to see what this decade will look like in the rear-view mirror 30 years from now. That is, if the industry isn't dead by then.

All that aside, this is the key point: Zillion is not generic, and looking around now it makes that charge less true than ever before. It is a hopeful pulp action series with a battle between good and evil that has quite the finale. You won't see anything like it in the current anime climate that much is for sure.

My final impression of Zillion is one that doesn't surprise me as much as what I've been noticing over the past few years. What appeared to be easy and simple to make: an action show with a heart, a brain, and morals, is increasingly revealing itself to be much harder to construct than what was originally thought. What looks simple is actually very much not. Tight direction, solid character development, high octane action, desperate stakes and situations, three act structure, and high quality animation, packed in less than a half hour running time is not an easy task. But they sure make it look easy here.

If you don't believe me then be sure to point out any television series in the last few years that can do it outside a minority example. However, they used to be more common than you think, and it was at a time when people hadn't walked away from television altogether, retreated to their basements, and gave up on life.

In that respect, Zillion is a classic. It is an example of a piece of art that neatly packages an entire era in time into a single place and it is an era when its medium and genre of choice was at its peak, on top of it. That isn't anything to scoff at, but neither is the show itself.

On the other hand, Zillion is just plain quality from top to bottom. As someone who did not see it when it came out, and has never played the games, I have no nostalgic attraction to this property. But I had a blast with every episode, and I highly enjoyed experiencing it for the first time. It turns out my blind buy was justified, and I discovered a bit more about how anime has lost its way and garnered a reputation far away from where it could be. The industry should have followed after Zillion more and less after an overrated series from the mid-90s that overturned everything it did well which ended up cratering the medium into the subversive hole it's been stuck in ever since.

But I digress.

I suppose I don't need to tell you that Zillion comes highly recommended by me, even to those who hate anime due to what they believe it is because of its current state. Zillion is what anime used to be: normal. This is a classic action show that you would get much enjoyment and inspiration out of regardless of who you are or your thoughts on it being animated and from Japan. There is a general appealing nature to this that doesn't really exist anymore in anime, and that's a shame. We could use more series like this, and more to take inspiration from what it does so well.

As it is, I can only sum it up as thus: Zillion is a deserved classic. It is one of the best things recently licensed and put out on the market. Don't skip it!

The First Ending Theme

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