The danger of writing about any "classic" anime title — meaning most anything from before whenever your target audience got into anime — is that what's "classic" to the reviewer will just seem old to everyone else. The same, I guess, goes for "classic" movies, a process that often turns into a struggle between a reviewer trying to explain why something like Citizen Kane is so widely revered, and the audience wondering why the picture is so narrow and isn't even in color.
Few people care about why something is influential or important; they care whether or not it's going to be any good (meaning, any fun to watch). Small wonder critics and audiences are at such a perpetual disconnect, and why writing about Bubblegum Crisis, an anime title that's 27 years old — older than many of its potential audience members! — needs to avoid revolving around its historical significance, or impact, or what have you. The core question needs to be: Is it still fun to watch?
The short answer is yes, although I'm forced to qualify that yes. There's no question Crisis has dated heavily: the hairstyles, the soundtracks, the technology, even the color schemes all scream Eighties! in the brassiest shades of pink and puce. Ditto the character designs (courtesy of Kenichi [Gunsmith Cats] Sonoda), the writing, the storytelling. But with all those possible negatives also come a few things not seen as much in anime as of late: an emphasis on adult characters rather than adolescent ones (at least in terms of biological age, if not always behavior); the ability to put female characters front and center without automatically making them cheesecake; and a level of craftsmanship and meticulousness in the animation that has since largely been replaced with digital production.
Maybe that puts Crisis right back into the realm of being a history lesson. I suspect I can hear the noses of the younger audience members wrinkling as I type those words. But there were enough fans who cared about such a thing to fund (with surplus) AnimEigo's Blu-ray Disc reissue of the series, and so maybe by that token some of the folks who've just wandered in the door will also be curious about it. Still, I know better than to bank on such an assumption. It's worth waving at all audiences, but let's not complain if it doesn't whet as many of their appetites as we'd like.
Set fire to the (k)night
I've long supposed that between lay Japanese audiences vs. creators — animation directors, artists, etc. — it's the former who are the more thoroughgoing fans of Western media. (Case in point: Dai Sato, who has never hidden his love of 1980s Hollywood action flicks and muscular SF.) Bubblegum Crisis is some of the best evidence around to that effect, since it lifts ideas, references, and images so freely from two of the biggest fan-favorite SF properties of the 1980s: Blade Runner and The Terminator. From the former it takes the sprawling, faceless cityscapes where the buildings rise to hundreds of stories, and where police hunt down humanoid robots gone berserk. From the latter, it takes the man-machine skeleton image, and the inventive, non-stop action mayhem. But it also employs at least one wholly Japanese concept, the sentai team, albeit in a way that's keyed more towards SF than fantasy.
Crisis borrows and retrofits many other ideas besides the visual ones. In place of Terminator's ominous Cyberdyne Systems and Blade Runner's monolithic Tyrell Corporation, Crisis gives us GENOM, a multi-national conglomerate with the sprawl and reach of a Samsung or a Sony. Everything from cars to watches to robots gets produced with their logo, although their most infamous products are "Boomers" — humaniform war machines that combine the destructive capacity of the Terminator with the duplicity of Blade Runner's androids. Normally they're used for labor and defense, but they have a dismaying tendency to fall into the hands of villains — with GENOM itself being one of the biggest offenders.
Someone has to take a stand against GENOM, and it isn't likely to be the A.D. Police, a well-meaning but laggardly, inefficient, and hidebound institution that nevertheless harbors a few decent souls. Instead, the real elbow grease for such cleanups are supplied by the "Knight Sabers", a quartet of body-armored vigilantes who swoop in, deal devastation to Boomers wreaking havoc, and then swoop on out again. They're available to all who can pay the price, but they don't come cheap, and the way they dispatch enemies and leave behind their (literal) signature is as reminiscent of stuff like Kamen Rider as it is to anything else.
The four Sabers, all female, each bring something different to the table. Team leader Priscilla Asagiri has a cover story to envy: by day she's the lead singer of the new-wave-ish outfit "Priss & the Replicants" (yep, Blade Runner again), but while behind the mask of her body armor she leads the Sabers into battle. Sylia Stingray runs the store that serves as the group's secret home base, and while she does her fair share of time in a suit, she mainly uses her society connections to keep tabs on GENOM and all the other above-the-law types they consort with. Linna, the athletic one, is mostly distinguished by her willingness to be first to trade blows with the enemy, and by her stick-to-it-tive-ness around her friends. And Nene is their connection to the A.D. Police, since she serves as an officer on staff and feeds the group back whatever information she can unearth from their files. She also spends more time than she ought to fending off Leon (Blade Runner yet again), the wiseacre cop who sees himself as the latest incarnation of Dirty Harry, even when the Sabers end up poaching most of his targets.
About half of the OVAs are taken up with self-contained adventures constructed around a basic pattern — Boomer shows up in some form, Sabers take care of business when the others can't — although each one wraps some changes around the formula and uses them to eventually create something like a through-line across episodes. From the start, there's hints that the Boomers are — or could be — a great deal more than they have been billed as, with the first episode involving a kidnapped girl that proves to be far more than just an innocent bystander. Likewise, in later episodes, there's more of an attempt to echo Blade Runner again, but in theme as well as in imagery and flavor, mainly by way of characters — both Boomer and, I guess, "post-Boomer" — who seek to have lives of their own that are not dependent on others. Good luck finding that in a world that mostly wants them dead — or where most of the rest of their kind are marauding, murderous monomaniacs.
Forward into the past
In his original review of Blade Runner, Roger Ebert wrote, "The strangest thing about the future is that this is now the future we once foretold. Twenty years ago, we thought of 'now' as 'the year 1982,' and we wondered what life would be like. Little could we have guessed that there would be no world government, that the cars would look like boxes instead of rocket ships, and that there would still be rock 'n' roll on the radio." We're now on the verge of moving into the future that was being speculated about in various 1980s near-future SF productions, anime and otherwise, and most of the general details are actually coming true; it's the specific, little ones that have turned out to be dead wrong. The flying cars aren't here yet — although it looks like we'll be getting self-driving ones along with them — and the robots are close behind, but when was the last time you used a floppy disc for anything?
It's tempting to talk about Bubblegum Crisis exclusively through that lens, but what a person finds dated about a given show is not always obvious. We might giggle at Crisis for using floppy discs or what have you, but most every notion of technology as expressed in the popular entertainment of a given day is cast in terms its audience will be receptive too, anyway. Most every "futuristic" story of the 1980s and 1990s outfitted its cast with all that was cutting edge for the time — cellphones (often embarrassingly chunky ones), computers (with boxy cathode-ray displays!), and so on. The situation's not all that different today: the technology seen in, say, the more recent Gundam productions may be more streamlined and less festooned with dangling cables than its previous-decade counterparts, but it's still largely cast in terms of what's got some real-world cool and cutting-edge caché for its audience.
The one other part of Crisis that's also visibly dated is the story, if only in the specific details rather than the general conceit. It's not goofy that Sylia's storefront is the group's secret base — well, maybe better to say no goofier than any number of other productions that had a similar idea. What comes off as goofy is the fact that it's a lingerie shop, although it's milked for blessedly little nyuk-nyuk double entendre humor. But Leon and the other A.D. Police are all used as a reservoir of dumb laughs, mostly jibes at their ham-handedness and smartass arrogance, and I was reminded of how nothing dates faster than stale humor.
What's refreshing, and if anything has dated the other way, is how relatively little the show relies on cheesecake or dumb sexual gags to either move things along or give the cast something to do. We've gotten too used to the idea that a predominantly female cast automatically implies those kinds of hijinks, whether or not we personally find it demeaning. (I do.) Hence the shock of something like Claymore, a show where an overwhelming percentage of the speaking and named roles are female, and has far more interest in them as characters than as sexual scenery than seems likely or possible. Hence, also, the relative surprise of coming back to Crisis and finding that its female cast members are a generally a smart and self-determinant bunch, but don't need to have their clothes torn off every episode just to remind the audience that they're, y'know, female (and thus okay to ogle). I resented how shows like Queens Blade reveled in such bogus feminism, where any complaints about the show's sleaze factor are ostensibly defrayed because once you've shown the ladies kicking butt, they're "strong" and therefore can handle anything thrown at them, including a little ogling.
I wish I could say Crisis ought to catch on with unacquainted viewers because of good things like this, but again I worry about people getting hung up on the wrong details. We can't depend on the nostalgia factor of any title to be contagious in an unironic way. Back when anime was a word-of-mouth, tapes-traded-in-clubrooms affair, it was easy to form strong attachments to whatever came along, in big part because it was so rare. It's hard for older audience members (many of them critics) to see past that, but it helps to be honest: what we see isn't always what everyone else is going to see. That said, it helps to stick up for the things you know have value. Bubblegum Crisis is a relic, to be sure, but a relic work hanging on to, and defending.