Harmagedon is an endearing combination of massive ambitions and goofy end results. It’s grand in scope, full of wonder, and thoroughly over-the-top, all of which are things I can admire on the right day. To some people it’ll come off as an animated version of an epic science-fiction novel written by a high-school kid during study hall, but in a weird way that was exactly what I liked about it. I admire movies that are bold, that stick their necks out and run the risk of looking foolish. Sometimes they fall flat on their face; sometimes they achieve greatness; and sometimes, even more rarely, they wind up doing both at the same time.
Genma Taisen, the movie’s Japanese surtitle, translates as The Great War Against Genma—Genma being a demonic creature that is slowly destroying the whole universe (something like the Nothing from The NeverEnding Story). His—its—swath of destruction is now endangering Earth itself, its inhabitant blissfully ignorant of the devastation to come. Well, except for Princess Luna of Transylvania, the “esper” who is awakened to the danger Genma poses when an asteroid obliterates her transatlantic jet. Hovering between life and death, she comes into contact with a kind of cosmic consciousness that implores her to find others like her across the world and defend her world from destruction.
Like I said, over-the-top. One of her other comrades, in fact, was inside the asteroid that collided with her plane—Vega, a cyborg warrior from another civilization long-destroyed by Genma. He has to be coaxed out of his (metaphorical and literal) shell before he’s willing to fight again, but when he does, he teams up with Luna to go bring in the most pivotal member of their team. That turns out to be the adolescent Jō, a young man with unharnessed psionic powers and a faintly gruesome fixation on his sister. The scenes involving both the disciplining of his abilities and his slightly-overbearing love for Sis are good examples for how the movie as a whole teeters between heartfelt and camp. Which side Harmagedon ultimately falls down on will depend largely on how easily you giggle at such things.
It may also depend on how well you’re swayed by a good-looking movie. Much of the ambition that went into Harmagedon shows up in its animation and design work, orchestrated by director Rin Taro (he of Metropolis, Dagger of Kamui and many other staple anime productions) and visualized by production designer Katsuhiro Otomo. The animation itself isn’t quite in the same league as Otomo’s own Akira (which was produced five years later, in 1988), and some of that may be due to the fact that Otomo’s designs were apparently far more idiosyncratic than what the animation company was used to working with. That said, there are so many good individual moments, so many images and sequences that stand out, that they push the whole movie into far-above-average territory. I particularly liked the final climactic battle against Genma, but there’s a number of other set-pieces that are no less impressive, as when Jō and his friends try to stop a demonic creature that has transformed itself into a giant ball of magma and is leveling whole city blocks.
What’s still frustrating is how there are many other individual elements of the movie that break its overall tone, sometimes quite badly. One thing that bothered me was the movie’s handling of a number of the other espers—like Sonny Lynx, a young black gang member from New York, or the yogin and American Indian who do little more than stand around and offer advice in stolid tones. Maybe the idea is that they’re meant to be archetypes and not fully-developed individuals—but in a way, that’s even worse. What’s the point of a movie that celebrates humanity triumphing against the indifference of the universe when that humanity is embodied as a bunch of relatively faceless types, most of whom are only introduced two-thirds of the way through the action?
Then again, I’m fairly sure none of this is deliberate. I don’t think the movie is consciously trying to be offensive—the filmmakers are sincere about their characters being a diverse group, they just don’t know how to elegantly handle the details of any character who’s not themselves Japanese. I’m reminded of the way Osamu Tezuka tried to deal with the Hebraic faith in his manga Adolf—he was also sincere, but committed such gross factual inaccuracies that it made his story all the harder to appreciate. But on top of that there are many other things that simply don’t work at all, like the bizarre opening and interstitial segments with a gypsy fortune-teller, or Keith Emerson’s faintly annoying musical score.
Harmagedon was derived from a series of novels by famed Japanese SF author Kazumasa Hirai (creator of 8-Man), later adapted into manga by Cyborg 009 creator Shotaro Ishinomori. Producer Haruki Kadokawa, always fond of bombastic and emotionally broad storytelling, snapped up the movie rights and insisted that the resulting production would only work as an animated feature. It’s hard to say how faithful the movie is to the book(s); since the series was an ongoing piece of work when the movie was release, I suspect it was a condensation of one part of the story, with others compressed or omitted entirely. Maybe, like the Guin saga or the Vampire Hunter D novels, it’ll turn up in English, and give us that much more perspective on this fascinating if hit-and-miss production that’s become a legendary piece of work almost in spite of itself.
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