Lost Anime: Gonzo's Mardock Scramble

Studio Gonzo is known for several things: making lots of anime series, letting those series disintegrate by the halfway mark, and epitomizing the style-over-substance approach that bloated the anime industry throughout the past decade. Studio Gonzo is also known for playing it safe. Most of their work, good or bad, goes right for the mainstream jugular or the sadly reliable vein of pillow-molesting anime nerds. There are few true experiments in the company’s catalog, and one of them was abruptly canceled: Mardock Scramble.

Mardock Scramble began as a novel by Tow Ubukata, a prolific author rarely at a loss for some bizarre idea. His works were behind Capcom’s Chaos Legion game, Production I.G’s mystic historical anime drama Le Chevalier d’Eon, and the incomprehensible Renaissance-superhero manga Pilgrim J├Ąger. Unlike Ubukata’s more fanciful tales, Mardock Scramble is straight science fiction: in Mardock City, a prostitute named Rune Balot is murdered by her amnesiac boyfriend. Resurrected by the local authorities, she awakens with powers over electricity. Then she tries to bring down her killer, with only a vague conspiracy and a talking, shapeshifting mouse named Oeufcoque to guide her.

Gonzo announced a Mardock Scramble anime series in 2005 to mark the studio’s 15th anniversary. Many were skeptical of Gonzo at this point, having endured Kiddy Grade and Burst Angel and other disappointments. Yet Mardock Scramble had names behind it: Ubukata himself provided the screenplay, artist Range Murata’s disquieting sad-girl artwork suited the story, and director Yasufumi Soejima had crafted the shifting patterns of Gankutsuou, which will likely be remembered as Gonzo’s only interesting series. Apparently out to make a good impression with this prestige project, Gonzo announced that Mardock Scramble would use a new type of 3-D digital animation.

Newtype magazine previews and the above flyer from the Tokyo Anime Festival give limited previews of Mardock Scramble, but they’re intriguing: a cocoon-like city, a future of strange technology, and a morphing weapon that decides to go around in mouse form. The OVA’s first and only trailer is equally austere, with actress Megumi Hayashibara reciting morbidly romantic lines while blood runs down the barrel of a gun.

This was all that the public would ever see of Gonzo’s Mardock Scramble. Late in 2006, the project was killed for what Gonzo called “various reasons.” One of those reasons was likely a matter of image. According to former Gonzo employees who saw footage of the first episode, Mardock Scramble was far from Gonzo’s usual marketable flash. It was a grim and freakish production, featuring such palatable sights as “a midget covered in breasts.” Gonzo likely knew that the series wouldn’t get on TV in Japan or North America, and that was a dangerous setback for a big-budget endeavor representing the studio’s anniversary.

Yet it was money that really killed Mardock Scramble. In an interview last year, Ubukata pointed to “the bursting of the anime bubble in 2006” as the reason behind Gonzo’s abrupt cancellation, and it makes sense. The anime industry’s North American boom was over by 2005. American companies had spent years trying to sell fans mediocre anime that no one wanted, and their market collapsed like a house of Venus Versus Virus DVDs. Gonzo had no time for unmarketable anime, not when it was about to throw a million dollars into each episode of Afro Samurai.

Mardock Scramble didn’t stay canceled for long. In 2009, Aniplex and a relatively new studio called GoHands started work on a trilogy of Mardock Scramble films by director Susumu Kudo (whose resume curiously includes the canceled T.A.T.u. Paragate anime). The initial movie, entitled The First Compression, is full of reasons why Mardock Scramble was perhaps too much for Gonzo. Balot’s background is unnerving, her rebirth leaves mental scars, and the film ends with her and Ouefcoque caught in a vicious, bloody showdown with a gang of deranged murderers. Those murderers include the above-referenced breast-creature and a man named, seriously, Welldone the Pussyhand. Ubukata wrote the original novel to highlight the problem of teen prostitution in Japan (a statement slightly shaken by the film's unnecessary shower scenes), and Kudo gives it a ruthless energy. The result recalls a hyperviolent ’90s anime OVA, but with an actual reason to exist.

It’s all for the best that the new Mardock Scramble (above) overshadows its unreleased predecessor. Gonzo’s track record is the worst of any major anime studio, and other promising ideas died on their watch (The Five Killers remains in limbo). Now beset with financial problems, Gonzo is perhaps worse off for letting Mardock Scramble get away. It was something different for the studio, but we’ll never know if it was also something better.

1 comment:

  1. Holy crap Five Killers looks amazing. We'll never see it, will we? :(