I’ve been talking about anime a lot this year. And because I’m an older anime fan, a fan boy, as it were,it’s easy to reach back into a history that’s older than some of you and point to these old classic works, things that are important and influential and you should feel ashamed you don’t know about them, I guess, if my expectation of generalised anxiety and imposter syndrome is usefully applicable.
Partly, this is because I’m a believer in the idea that remembering art is enough to make it meaningful, and there isn’t really a bottom threshold on ‘worth talking about.’ I watched a lot of garbage back then, some of which I found it fun to ridicule but some of which wasn’t good in a very boring, tedious way.
I think part of the framing for this needs to be the kinds of things that were happening in 1990s anime, and the whole like, way that re-recordable media shaped the world we were living in. It’s weird to think about it now, in hindsight, how the VHS was brand new before I was born, but in the course of my lifetime I got to watch it go from an invasive species to the dominant force in home rental to being replaced by DVD and then almost as swiftly, the entire idea of the home rental being snuffed out. Like the rise and fall of the Roman empire, just before I was old enough to realise what I was even seeing.
I’ve said in the past that Sierra was able to generate a lot of interesting niche games because the media they were releasing was re-recordable and the time investment per unit was quite small. If a game failed, you could just recall the units, replace the boxes (which were not negligible costs), but the disks you could just put a different game on. This meant there was a lot of trying odd things and niche concepts on the way to creating a whole bunch of classics, and odds are good, if you bought one of those classics, there had once been some failure on those disks before.
Now, I don’t know if this applies directly to the nature of things in the animation industry in Japan but I know there are some related things that were happening. There was the period of the OAV or OVA, and there were mighty arguments about which was the proper name for it. VHS taped anime were sometimes stunningly expensive, by the way – there was a period there where Dragonball was being sold two episodes at a time on full-priced VHS tapes, and you had to pick dub or sub when you bought it. Aside from long-running super-serials though, there were also tons of these OVAs – small series, maybe 3 episodes long, on a single VHS, of an anime that may or may not be part of a greater series, may or may not have a self-contained story, and may or may not relate to something that you already cared about.
OVAs were weird because they were almost like a sample kit from the anime production out of Japan. As we understood it at the time, these were cheap tapes sold near the cash register, sometimes in display, sometimes at cost to test and see what anime had a chance to succeed. Sometimes they were excerpts of bigger stories made to milk more money out of the diehard fans (like the OAVs for Ranma 1/2, which focused on a few stories that the anime never got around to), and sometimes they were just field testing ideas to see if there was enough audience to make them (like the OAVs for Tenchi Muyo, which represented a wholly separate continuity to the eventual TV Series…es).
Essentially, there was a lottery going on to get an anime made for ‘your thing’ if your thing could do something interesting and fan-grabby in about three to five episodes, and it was into that breach the supremely weird yet somethow fascinatingly basic Geobreeders leapt, holding onto its bags and bags of fanservice.
Let’s talk about Geobreeders.
Geobreeders is an anime that serves for me the same job Street Sharks serves your Seth Macfarlane style comedian – it’s obscure enough that you might remember it if you were there, and if you weren’t, it kind of looks made up, but it also looks so generic that you’d believe it even if you did think it was made up. It’s this weird thing made up of a collection of things the author clearly cared about a great deal with literally no connecting tissue that you’d call a plot holding it together. You know how there are people disappointed with the way Game of Thrones ended, because the series clearly was fixated on forcing some end points, no matter how the story got there? Geobreeders is the antimatter to that problem, a series with literally no idea where it’s going in the next ten seconds, but taking whatever opportunity it can to show off a new thing that piques the creator’s special interests.
It’s an alternate-present for the present the manga started, so, 1997, set in a prefecture that just happens to have ghost cats (bakeneko, which I know, is another thing, but seriously, that’s what they call them) as their local problem, which are more like cyber catgirl ghost hackers that mess things up because they’re bored. These ghost cats are such a problem there’s a government organisation, HOUND, to contain them, and for some reason there’s also a private security firm, Kagura, for when HOUND fall short, or when HOUND want some kind of plausible deniability, or when companies want it solved without involving the government’s definitely-not-a-military-force.
Kagura is six people.
Five of them are, in some way or another, complete tools.
If you look at the cast lineup from these images you might be forgiven for thinking it’s super gay if you’re an optimist with yuri goggles, or harem bullshit, if you were alive in 1999 and had seen an anime before, but it’s weirdly neither? Despite the excessive eye towards fanservice, this series just doesn’t seem to dive on opportunities to show off tits or do long panning shots up the body of a character or show a jiggling boob as the backdrop to an important trick the way that the more extravagent fanservice vehicles of today know how to do.
The series was in your late-90s ‘the heroes are all as bad as the danger screwup screwball’ style, like Slayers was, and the cast is mostly girls, even the enemies and the rivals, and it doesn’t seem to be born out of a desire to represent anything about women in society as much as the mangaka behind it was a fan of Many Different Types Of Tits.
You can run down these characters as sort of bargain-basement renditions of different archetypes of Fanservice Movie Girl Protagonists. And I don’t just mean you get five different (say) Lina Inverses. You get specific types of genre-transplanted screwball characters, people who are both extremely excellent at their job and breathtakingly incompetent at the same time. This is almost the beta model for Burst Angel where someone had the revolutionary idea of ‘what if the girls… kissed?’
First up in our fanservice brigade, you have Yuka. She’s a Boss, a dithering dunderhead who seems to always be losing money or doing things that would lose money, is Suspiciously Young Looking, fights with a crossbow, wants beer, and is basically Lina Inverse. Supposedly, she’s in her thirties in the series, but she looks the way the series represents fourteen year olds.
Next up, we have a dojikko coder girl, a girl who’s not like those other girls, because she likes rollerblading and hacking on extremely big briefcase-sized laptop computers, because she’s the most 1990s vision of Geek Chic you’d get out of Japan. To make sure she’s not useless in combat scenes, she uses butterfly knives, and grenades. To make sure she is useless, she has panic attacks and maybe has a crush on Our Protagonist, The A Boy. She has a name, and I swear I didn’t have to look it up – Takami. Honest.
She fit this very specific view of ‘nerd girl’ from the anime at the time. A girl who was into computers but got overwhelmed by them, cute and approachable but also not, you know, scary or intimidating because well, hey, she’s a giant otaku nerd girl, and she’s into [you-surrogate].
With those two standard archetypes, the series dives into the weird with you have Maki Umezaki, who dead set, is meant to be wearing Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal Music Video suit. She considers herself ‘the lone gunman’ of the group, narrates her own life like she’s in a noir movie, and has a huge variety of extremely detailed vintage guns that the mangaka very much likes drawing and the anime follows through on that technical drawing.
Maki takes over the camera at times. Her subtitles appear in sepia. She adds film grain as she talks, and her mundane conversations are filled with noir like pauses.
Then there’s Eiko Randou, who is the sort of dignified, mature, serious office lady of the group, represented by her looking like a bikini model who’s maybe twenty four. Remember how I said everyone in this group is like the center of another movie? Eiko’s basically a Bond girl who killed Bond. The fanservice she brings is equal parts, well, Office Lady Boobs, but also martial arts geekery, the kind you get when a woman who is on the precipice of turning 25 transforms into an hourglass transporting beach balls busts out knuckledusters and starts fist-fighting ghosts.
The final of these five Yu, who kinda feels like she came out of a Riding Bean spinoff, at least when you see how her truck is drawn in its loving, fine-line, and fine-line-on-fine line detail. She’s basically a chubby, lazy getaway driver. There’s lots of pics of her napping sprawled out on things, because the author likes drawin’ thick girls snoring, I guess, and her truck does a lot of jumps, to show action, and to give the artist an opportunity to, I don’t know, upskirt the car?
The final Kagura employee, and ‘the one sensible one’ is Taba, who’s just a dude. That’s your lot, clearly masculine audience, project onto this, and not any of the cool shapeshifting hacker catboys, because a catboy would require us to give up an opportunity to show you another ghost catgirl, with tits. Oh, and also, Taba has a pet cat. She was, as far as he knew, an ordinary cat, but it seems she’s a bakeneko, and she just wants fish and for him to stay home. She is nice. She is harmless, but also probably super important. Don’t worry about finding out how important, the anime will never tell you and I’m not sure the manga knows.
Any given story will feature a hacking knife-fight, a noir gunfight, Eiko super-spying around something, Yu ramping the van off something, and Yuka shooting someone with a crossbow, in this really confused, constant mix of Hey This Sounds Cool, Let’s Try That, Why Not, And Cats. And the OAV was given this formula of manga stuff, which was definitely going nowhere, fast, and told to make a few episodes with no specific intention or plot resolution.
I’m mixing together my knowledge here, because I have read something like twenty issues of the manga, and watched all the OAVs for this series. The good news is that this mix does not yield some fascinating synthesis that you won’t get if you just watch the OAVs, though, because I cannot tell you a single goddamn thing that happens that you could call ‘plot’ rather than ‘an event.’
The crew go to a location, try to stop a bakeneko messing something up, make a mess, get out just barely making money to make ends meet, repeat. Mysterious figure comments in the shadows about the importance of Maya. Dun dun dun. That’s your lot. Characters are introduced to be nice to look at, usually have no meaningful or lasting conflict, everyone leaves friends, but also a giant smoking crater, because our heroes ruined it, because we are, after all, doing something in the vein of Slayers. Everything technical that’s a fanservice type is rendered in exquisite detail – cars, guns, computers, speakers for retro music hardware, specific kinds of vaporiser machines, American military aircraft, boats and grenades – which suggests this wasn’t cheap to make.
And as far as I can tell, there’s not so much a narrative as much as it is A Bunch Of Stuff Happens.
If you go looking, you can find the dubbed OAVs on Youtube, but I couldn’t find anywhere legitimate to watch it online. It’s not bad, but it’s sure no classic. It’s just like if you wanted a bit more Gunsmith Cats or a bit more Riding Bean or you thought one of the many girls they put on the advertising was cute.