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Megazone 23
© ADV Films
Emru Townsend · October 15, 2004 | Many classic animated films are referred to as "timeless"—that is, they never seem dated. That's not true, of course; every work in every medium dates itself in one way or another. However, there is a common trait to all "timeless" films, namely, they don't go out of their way to date themselves. Usually I think this is a good thing, and it's one of the reasons I've grown increasingly tired of in-jokey productions that try too hard to prove their hipness. They almost guarantee I won't care in a few years.

And then there's Megazone 23.

Released in 1985, Megazone 23 is remarkable in that it is utterly immersed in its era. Synthesizer music, leg warmers, and Betamaxes—oh my. But, you see, this time-stamping is entirely the point. Shogo Yahagi, the happy-go-lucky main character, along with his circle of friends, are neither rich nor poor, working jobs that allow them to pay the rent while maximizing their free time to enjoy Tokyo in the mid-1980s—as more than one character puts it, "the best time to be alive."

Except that it's not. The Garland, a prototype combat motorcycle that's easily the length of a car, falls into Shogo's hands, setting off a series of events that puts him on the run from the law and the military. It turns out that Shogo's world—everybody's world—is a sham, a simulacrum maintained by the Bahamut computer in the 25th century, while a secret war is being fought by a network of people who are trying to do an end run around the computer.

Of course, this sounds familiar: It's The Matrix, twelve years earlier. And, like The Matrix, Megazone 23 went on to spawn two sequels, each more techie than the last, only to reinforce a theme exalting the human ability to make choices, regardless of programmed destinies.

But re-watching the trilogy with over a decade's distance, it becomes clear that the Megazone 23 saga—or at least its first two instalments—is far more interesting as a cultural artefact.

Megazone 23
ADV Films, 2004
Originally released in 1985
Directed by Ichirou Itano
85 minutes

Megazone 23 Part 2
ADV Films, 2004
Originally released in 1986
Directed by Ichirou Itano
85 minutes

Megazone 23 Part 3
ADV Films, 2004
Originally released in 1989
Directed by Shinji Aramaki and Kenichi Yatagai
85 minutes

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Megazone 23 is the most layered, and I'm not even sure if that was intentional. It's not just that it's so stubbornly contemporary, but it also levels a broadside against bubble-economy–era Japan at the same time. Shogo and his friends aren't bad people, but they move through life almost on auto-pilot. When Shogo's friend Shinji is killed for exposing the Garland, Shogo's friends have difficulty holding on to their outrage. Yui Takanaka, Shogo's love interest, is blasť when almost sleeping with a slimy producer to further her career. And the phrase "this is the best time to be alive" is repeated just often enough that you're not sure if the speakers really feel it.

Think of the subtext in the context of Japan in 1985: prosperity has created a generation for whom everything, including rebellion, comes easily. On the surface, everyone is content; dig a little deeper, and there's a hollowness that's almost terrifying to look at. The implicit challenge: in the movie, a computer is keeping people passive and compliant. What's your excuse?

When Megazone 23 came out in Japan, there was nothing like it in anime. Furthermore, as it was released directly to video—it was the second-ever OAV—it had a certain level of violence, gore and sex that TV and theatrical productions couldn't approach. Looked at another way, it was taking on some of the characteristics of contemporary American movies, where sex and death were timed, dramatic events. Shogo and Yui have an extended, semi-explicit sex scene that crystallizes Shogo's resolve at just the right point in the film. And when another character is senselessly murdered, it's the event that finally galvanizes Shogo into action.

The result: Japan's OAV market exploded as the anime industry tried to capitalize on Megazone 23's success. In North America, where anime fandom was underground, it was the perfect recruiting tool. No one else was making cartoons with that kind of edge or currency. Given that many fans got (and still get) into anime as a reaction against Disney and toothless TV animation, its effect was profound. Far from being a hindrance, its timeliness made it a breakout hit on both sides of the Pacific.
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