Bubblegum Crisis Retrospective: Part I
by Jef Burnham
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In Part I of this retrospective, I’ll be looking at the 8-episode direct-to-video cyberpunk anime, Bubblegum Crisis, as collected in AnimEigo’s Remastered Edition DVD box set. These 8 original video animations (OVAs) were released in Japan between 1987 and 1991, and became one of the first animes brought to the States in the original Japanese language to be financially successful. The series was in fact so popular that it spawned a series of comic books, video games, a role-playing game, as well as numerous sequel and prequel series (two of which will be covered in Parts II and III of this retrospective).
The setting is Mega Tokyo, 2032. Seven years earlier, a devastating earthquake rocked the city to its foundations. Amidst the chaos of Mega Tokyo’s reconstruction, the sinister megaconglomerate GENOM constructed a massive complex in the center of the city from which they are systematically gaining control of the world’s governments. Although GENOM manufactures over 60% of the world’s automobiles, their #1 product is the Boomer, a sentient race of robots (imagine a sort of cross between Replicants and Terminators) that has yet to be acknowledged by the world at large as a separate race with a right to life. Thus, bred for war, the Boomers wreak constant havoc on Mega Tokyo in search of a means by which they might eradicate the human race. And the only things that stand in the way of GENOM and the Boomer’s domination of Earth are the AD Police and, BGC’s central characters, the Knight Sabers.
The Knight Sabers are a four-woman team of vigilantes/mercenaries-for-hire equipped with highly advanced combat suits and motorcycles that alternately transform into independently operating robots and mech armor for the Knight Sabers themselves. The Sabers have come together from very different walks of life, as evidenced by their day jobs, to work toward the common goal of defending mankind from the Boomers. Sylia Stingray, the Knight Sabers’ leader, owns and operates a lingerie shop, and is the daughter of a scientist who had been instrumental in the creation of the Sabers’ combat suits as well as the Boomers. The Sabers’ #1 fighter, Priss, is the lead singer of a rock band called Priss and the Replicants, revealing the extent of the series’ dependence on Blade Runner for inspiration. Finally, Linna is an aerobics instructor and Nene is a computer hacker situated as a mole within the ranks of the AD Police.
As mentioned above, BGC draws heavily from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, both stylistically and thematically, while shades of the manga Akira and Appleseed are also quite evident. Terminator too is a fairly obvious influence on the series, as previously indicated, especially with regard to the design of the Boomers, whose robotic forms emerge from false human skins. The series’ creators also make errant references throughout to Alien, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Max Headroom, The Third Man, Batman, and Madonna. But many of these references are hard to catch since they appear onscreen only during brief cutaways to computer screens being viewed by the characters. And in addition to American pop culture references, these screens occasionally feature curious free-verse poetry (in English), so it pays to have your remote on hand.
The animation is truly phenomenal throughout, and predictably dark, dirty, and bleak given the series’ origins in Blade Runner, while the Knight Sabers’ combat suits provide the visuals with just enough color to prevent the whole affair from becoming oppressively atmospheric. Yet Bubblegum Crisis is still downright dripping with atmosphere and features such a wealth of carefully paced cinematic sequences that there is ultimately little time remaining for the creators to fully develop the characters and storylines. However, the series’ epic 7-minute opening is absolute proof that these things are what the creators of BGC do best and I certainly can’t fault them for it, for ultimately the series has immense character even if its characters do not.
Still, the facet of BGC that has had the single most lasting effect on its viewers, and undoubtedly accounts for much of the series’ draw, is its soundtrack— or, to be more precise, its 8 soundtracks (As each entry in the series spawned its very own soundtrack album). After all, you simply cannot discuss BGC in any substantive manner without eventually addressing the toe-tapping, hair metal tunes of Priss and the Replicants, which not only provide for epic on-stage performances from Priss and her band, but, when utilized non-diagetically, fuel the intensity of the series’ numerous battle sequences. Indeed, the entire soundtrack, not to mention the tone of the series as a whole, is deliciously 80’s. And when it comes time to decide whether to view Bubblegum Crisis in Japanese or English, trust me when I tell you that Priss and the Replicants must be heard in the original Japanese (not to mention the English dub is generally incredibly painful anyway).
The only real problem I have with the series is that, while Bubblegum Crisis indeed maintains a loose continuous storyline, it is ultimately episodic in nature. To this end, each episode is a self-contained story with little relevance to subsequent entries— the exception being the storyline that bridges episodes 5 and 6. Of course, to me, the draw of the series’ atmosphere, soundtrack, and incredible action sequences is more than enough to compensate for its lack of a consistent throughline. However, BGC’s episodic nature has the unfortunate side-effect of causing viewers to feel like the series simply didn’t go anywhere when it ends after only 8 episodes (where BGC’s creators had initially intended 13). Fortunately, though, the international popularity of Bubblegum Crisis allowed animators to pursue the story further in the 3-part sequel series, Bubblegum Crash, which will be the focus of Part II of this retrospective.
As for AnimEigo’s 2004 release of Bubblegum Crisis, not only does the remastered transfer still look great, even on the most advanced home systems, but these 4 discs are absolutely packed with special features. Special features include text interviews, program notes, line art galleries, original Japanese promos, and, to further emphasize the importance of the series’ soundtrack, 13 music videos. The best of these music videos— the ones for which you absolutely must own this set (and frankly, if you’re an anime fan and don’t own BGC, your collection is incomplete anyway)— are the 4 videos that feature live action performances from the real-life band that recorded the songs.
There is, however, one special feature not mentioned in the above list which I have purposely saved for last. This is the Live Action BGC Special, “Holiday in Bali.” And in truth, I can’t even begin to understand what this damn thing is. It stars the voice actresses from the series as their respective characters (although two of them introduce themselves by their real names, which makes the whole thing INCREDIBLY confusing) while on vacation in Bali. The first half hour of the 40-minute piece alternates between a talking-head interview with one of the characters (or voice actors, depending on how they introduce themselves) and that character (or actor) singing a song while taking in the sights of Bali. The final ten minutes finds the characters (now all ACTUALLY referred to as the characters) eating dinner and talking about the Balinese people. What this has to do with BGC I just don’t know. It’s in no way futuristic or cyberpunk; it’s inconsistent when it come to the women’s portrayal of the characters; Priss walks around with her pants open for… fashion purposes(?); and there are no combat suits, boomers, or anything of the sort. I find viewing “Holiday in Bali” to be endlessly boggling.
Check out Part II of our continuing Bubblegum Crisis Retrospective, in which we’ll be looking at the BGC sequel Bubblegum Crash!, here!
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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