We have an absurd amount of anime at our disposal online. Even beyond the numerous shows that companies stream for free, there are those devoted nerds who track down obscure releases and offer them for mockery and edification. You can see many of these relics on YouTube or at the anime convention panels that specialize in such things. Heck, we can even download an amazing Prince of Tennis fandub once suspected lost to the ages. That’s historical preservation for you.
However, there’s one especially mysterious release that, to my knowledge, never found its way online: Star Quest. Its story begins with Gainax’s uncompromisingly ambitious Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, which was a really big deal back in 1987. My opinion of the film is not entirely praise, but there’s no denying the imaginative vision that Gainax brought to the movie. It’s the tale of another world’s first manned spaceflight, and just about every scene gives off the fascinating air of a reality that’s not quite ours but every bit as flawed. Honneamise caught the attention of many fans when it debuted in 1987, and a North American outfit called Go East Productions snapped it up and renamed it Star Quest.
Star Quest involved more than a new title, of course. Go East dubbed the film with a noticeably different script, changing a good deal of the dialogue and most of the names into a strange mix of Westernized titles and fantasy neologisms. Honneamise avoids any obvious Japanese or American names, cheating only by when its protagonist Shirotsugh Lhadatt gets the nickname “Shiro.” The Star Quest dub dispenses with this. Shirotsugh becomes Randy Wilson, pious street preacher Riquinni becomes Diane, and General Khaidenn becomes General Dixon. Oddly, the planet itself gets a name in this new dub: Eeya. Eeya indeed.
According to esteemed anime historian Carl Horn, Star Quest premiered on February 19, 1987 at Mann’s Chinese Theatre (now known as TCL Chinese Theatre) and never again appeared in public. Longtime anime collectors reportedly have copies of the film, but no clips or other records are available online. Contemporary reviews of Star Quest are also hard to find, but there’s an interesting account in the second issue of Anime-Zine. An article by Toren Smith recounts the plot of Honneamise and spends two pages explaining some of the differences between the original script and Star Quest.
Smith’s examples reveal a considerably different tone to the movie. Star Quest breaks the film’s mood almost instantly, with the main character describing his planet of Eeya just before he gives his name as Randy Wilson. For a denizen of a planet with an unimpressive space program, he sure knows a lot about its astrogeographical location. Likewise, Randy’s orbital homily at the end of the film is a lot longer and preachier than Shiro’s speech in Honneamise.
Go East Productions is nearly as puzzling as Star Quest. Horn’s old Usenet post links the company to My Little Pony, but it’s hard to find any firm details about the group (which shares a name with several unrelated outfits). Both Horn and Smith credit the Star Quest script to Budd Donnelly, whose IMDB page credits him with ‘70s B-movies like Cinderella 2000 but not Star Quest. It’s a forgotten film, and by all available accounts it deserves that fate.
Yet Star Quest seems an interesting relic in the history of bastardized anime. It’s not just a meddlesome dub. It’s a full-scale rewrite of a film that, in its original version, tries to encompass the whole of human progress and civilization. How did Star Quest handle that? How did it approach the attempted rape that, in my opinion, wrecks the movie? How did it translate scenes of a rival nation’s leaders, who speak in a subtitled fictional language? It may be that we’re all better off not knowing, and of course that’s why we want to find out.
It’s hard to dig up any details on Anchor. I can’t find any production sketches or promotional art from the film, and I’ve never seen so much as a sentence about its storyline. That’s understandable, since it never ventured past the planning stages in the depths of Studio Ghibli.
So why is Anchor notable? Because it involved three of the anime industry’s most intriguing directors: Mamoru Oshii, Hayao Miyazaki, and Isao Takahata. In 1985, Oshii went to work on a project at Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki and Takahata had recently established. The three of them planned to assemble a film called Anchor, which saw Oshii directing while the Ghibli founders produced.
The whole thing fell apart in record time. According to Oshii, the three of them scarcely worked out a plotline before arguing and going their separate ways. Nausicaa.net has Oshii’s take on his whole Ghibli experience, with opinions both fascinating and bizarre. He doesn’t say exactly what broke up the project, though. Perhaps Miyazaki mentioned that he “never liked Basset Hounds very much.”
Anchor remains fascinating for the same reasons that likely killed it: Oshii’s style is often markedly at odds with the Ghibli aesthetic. He’s crafted enjoyable TV comedies like Urusei Yatsura and a good chunk of Patlabor, but his more personal projects tend toward the dense poltical flavor of the second Patlabor film and the moody lament of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Miyazaki tends to make happier, brighter, family-oriented movies, and Takahata’s work explores much the same ground. Anchor was conceived just after Oshii directed the ornate, mystifying Angel’s Egg (left) and Miyazaki completed the spirited adventure film Castle in the Sky (right). Combining the two would make an interesting mess, if nothing else.
Neither Oshii nor the Ghibli leaders mourned Anchor that much. Miyazaki and Takahata soon crafted Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, and numerous other films that would make Ghibli the biggest name in Japan’s animation world. Oshii went on to direct the second Twilight Q episode in 1987, and the coming years would launch him into Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell. Even so, his recollections of working at Ghibli are particularly relevant in the light of the studio’s present condition. Ghibli goes through new directors at a rapid pace, and rumors of the company’s draconian leadership fit right into Oshii’s tale of the short-lived Anchor. Maybe one day he’ll tell us more about what the movie could have become.
A wise observer once described Gainax as two diametrically opposed anime studios in one. Good Gainax takes chances and creates interesting stuff. Evil Gainax does its best to ruin everything. Good Gainax made FLCL and those cool Daicon shorts, but Evil Gainax made Mahoromatic and He is My Master. Good Gainax made most of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, but Evil Gainax made that scene. Good Gainax upended the anime industry with Evangelion, and then Evil Gainax exploited it with remakes and uncomfortable merchandise.
Where does the never-made Route 20: Galactic Airport fit into this tangle of heroism and villainy? We’ll never have a complete answer, since Gainax canceled the project over twenty years ago and hasn’t mentioned it since. Yet all available evidence points toward Good Gainax.
Route 20 apparently began life shortly after The Wings of Honneamise hit theaters. It was the 1980s, Japan’s bubble economy was surging to the skies, and Gainax had scored an unprecedentedly huge budget for Honneamise. A second ambitious film seemed natural, and early magazine previews suggested that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Mahiro Maeda’s Route 20 would be that film.
Remember t.A.T.u., the Russian pop duo that bolstered their standard-issue songs with feigned lesbian overtones? Well, they officially broke up this past March. Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova’s act ran out of steam a good five years before that, of course, and it’ll survive only as long as department store music stations keep “All the Things She Said” in rotation. However, t.A.T.u. was big back in 2003, with both international hits and tabloid controversies.
And what else was big back in 2003? Anime.
The short-lived t.A.T.u. Paragate was always something of a mystery. It was an anime film starring the stage personae that Katina and Volkova projected, but the details were vague, referring to some paranormal gate that the two characters entered. Even the official website‘s story section had a “coming soon” label until it all abruptly closed in 2005, revealing little else about Paragate.
The swift demise of the film was likely due to Katina and Volkova cutting ties with their manager, Ivan Shapovalov. As the architect behind much of t.A.T.u.’s image, Shapovalov was the driving force behind Paragate, and he’s even credited with the screenplay. Without him, the movie died quickly. Shapovalov never answered my e-mails, so I’ll assume that’s the whole story.
But why should anyone care about t.A.T.u. Paragate, a hollow vanity project based on an equally hollow pop act? There’s one reason: Shinichiro Watanabe, director of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. Some see him as the best thing about the anime industry, and he excels at mixing music and animation. He signed on to direct Paragate’s opening, and even a t.A.T.u. song could be amazing in Watanabe’s hands.
It’s not clear if that opening animation was ever completed, or if any other parts of Paragate came together. It was in the planning stages for nearly a year, reportedly overseen by directors Norio Kashima and Susumu Kudo (who, coincidentally, ended up in charge of his own Mardock Scramble anime years after Gonzo canceled theirs). No footage of it can be found today. Searching for Paragate remnants is strange at any rate, as it’s hard to tell where the official material ends and the fan art begins. Perhaps that explains why t.A.T.u. Paragate was no major loss. At the most, it’d have a nice opening.
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 Jäger. 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.
Anime studios still value manga artist Masamune Shirow. No matter how much dreadful porn he draws, Shirow nonetheless contributes to all sorts of anime projects, including adaptations of his own comics and entirely original creations. A few of these projects were canceled along the way, though they’re not to be confused with Gundress, Landlock, and other things that should have been canceled. Most of Shirow’s never-made anime ideas are table scraps, but Neuro Heat stands out among his unused pitches.
In a calendar devoted to his lesser-seen artwork, Shirow describes Neuro Heat as a “3D-CG” TV series and comic that was his take on The Bionic Woman (or “Bionic Jamie” as Shirow knew it). He also paints it as a version of his own Ghost in the Shell aimed primarily at viewers outside of Japan. The show went no further than Shirow’s designs. And the comic? Well, Shirow’s far too busy drawing slimy-skinned mermaids being railed by squid-men and I-don’t-know-what else.
Neuro Heat’s art shows a team of Shirow-grade cyborg agents and mecha clustered behind the apparent heroine, Annette “Annie” Oakley (likely as much of a reference-laden pseudonym as “Motoko Kusanagi”). Shirow didn’t lie about the lack of originality: this is just Ghost in the Shell with a cheerful blonde Motoko and a mustache-sporting Batou. There’s even a redesigned Tachikoma in the background.
On the other hand, the idea of a Americanized Ghost in the Shell has merit, particularly if Annie were a hunted renegade, as implied by the “reward” caption next to her. Perhaps the show could examine just how an American democracy would use cybernetic technology, revealing social and political subtexts in the ways it differed (or didn’t) from the Japan-based Ghost in the Shell. Or maybe Annie would just wear a cowboy hat and eat a big sloppy cheeseburger while watching football on her giant-screen TV.
Plans for Neuro Heat dried up around 2001, though it almost seems a better idea today. Ghost in the Shell is still popular in North America, to the point where Dreamworks recently optioned a live-action version of it. Meanwhile, modern anime studios, besieged by creepy fans in Japan, are finding more high-profile work in mainstream Western properties like Halo and Batman. With all of this going on, it’s surprising that no one’s dusted off Neuro Heat.
A lot of kids discovered anime in the 1990s, but I was an unusual case. I wasn’t introduced to it by Sailor Moon or Ronin Warriors or the discovery that those Robotech episodes I’d caught years ago were pulled from three different and unrelated shows. I knew anime existed and I’d seen Akira on the Sci-Fi Channel, yet it wasn’t until I picked up a magazine called GameFan that I realized Japanese animation was a wide and frequently awful subculture.
One could run an entire website about GameFan’s idiosyncrasies, but it gave me an excellent introduction to anime. The magazine’s Anime Fan section was initially written by one Casey “Takuhi” Loe, who was both articulate and reasonably critical about things. Most anime reviewers of the day were either burned-out husks from the previous decade or apologists who loved anything up to and including Violence Jack, but Casey knew enough to describe anime thoughtfully while upbraiding the terrible releases (which came fairly often) and recognizing the guilty pleasures.
It was through Anime Fan that I first learned of Ghost in the Shell. In the March 1996 issue of GameFan, Casey ran the above image alongside a list of the U.S. theaters carrying the movie. That’s where the mystery arises. I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell many times over the years, and this shot of heroine Motoko Kusanagi, naked and underwater, appears nowhere in the film itself. Motoko is shown submerged in two scenes: one in which her bare android frame is assembled, and another in which she’s wearing a full diving outfit. Neither has her regarding a glowing, unseen object in her clutches.
The easiest explanation would classify this shot as promotional artwork cooked up by Production I.G before the film’s completion. Still, the imagery is strange for a simple promo shot; the overlapping bubbles and unclear background make it rather messy, and Motoko’s proportions look like something captured from a quickly glimpsed frame of animation. What’s more, every other piece of Ghost in the Shell promo art was either a direct grab from the film or some obvious illustration.
I doubt the image comes from a deleted scene. Animation is more expensive to finish than basic live-action footage, and studios usually don’t color and complete animated scenes that aren’t guaranteed to make it into the final product (the exceptions being rare and high-budget cases like Disney’s The Black Cauldron or Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time). Even if it were from an earlier cut of the film, a yanked clip would likely be included as an extra on the DVD or re-inserted in the new 2.0 version of Ghost in the Shell.
In conclusion, I have no real answer, and I have only Casey Loe’s old Anime Fan column to thank. Years distant, it’s still making me care too much about Japanese cartoons.