The whole point of Project A-Ko is that it's one giant in-joke, an anthology spoof of anime clichés. It's a shame the joke isn't quite as funny on its own terms as it ought to be. But it's still funny and outlandish enough to rank as a landmark anime title, one thought lost to time until just this past year and restored lovingly. I laughed during a good deal of it, although I did wonder why many of the best laughs had to be off-center from the action itself.

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© Final-Nishijima-Moriyama / Soeishinsha_Ponycanyon
Girl A and Girl B in a rivalry over Girl C.

Space age love triangle

The story of Project A-Ko is pure foolishness. Some years after an anomaly from space leveled a city (only to have a new, better one arise from the ashes), schoolgirl A-ko — that is, "Girl A" — hurries daily to class with her ditzy friend C-ko ("Girl C") in tow. Literally, as A-ko runs so fast she drags C-ko flapping in the wind behind her like a flag. She also throws around desks like they're empty cardboard boxes and can punch through solid concrete

It's hard to see what anyone sees in C-ko, which I suppose is the joke. She's a crybaby, a terrible cook, and possessing the attention span of a gnat with ADHD. But she and A-ko have been friends since forever, and if there's one thing A-ko does, it's stick up for her friend. Doubly so when the wealthy, spoiled, and self-centered B-ko enters the picture and immediately sets her sights on C-ko. Why, is anyone's guess: again, that is the joke.

The first half of the film is essentially the same set of jokes in a loop: A-ko and C-ko make a mad dash to school to avoid being late; B-ko interferes by way of one progressively excessive battle plan after another; said plans come to naught due to A-ko trashing everything. And a secret agent type who goes by the codename "D" (ha!), spying on them, sustains one injury after another after being plowed into / run over / shouldered aside. The individual details are funny, but the whole is less so: it's like watching a Wile E. Coyote / Road Runner short (clearly one of the movie's many inspirations) but with only one invention made larger each time.

Eventually a larger plot emerges from the wreckage. Spy Guy D is reporting back to a soused starship captain from another spacefaring civilization (paging Captain Harlock!), whose mission is to spirit C-ko away and return her to native planet, as she has no idea she's really an alien princess. This makes both A-ko and B-ko fighting mad, and the two of them hurl themselves into the alien armada to get their friend back.

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© Final-Nishijima-Moriyama / Soeishinsha_Ponycanyon
The girls' rivalry for their friend meets a new obstacle: aliens.

Laughing in the face of absurdity

Viewers with long memories, or at least encyclopedic ones, will recognize any of the other anime or popular culture properties Project A-Ko nods towards or winks at along the way. I've mentioned a few above; there's easily a dozen more. That's how the film works best, as a gag-ridden batch satire of its predecessors. It helps to have fast fingers with both the pause and frame-step functions on your video player, as many of the gags (so lovingly annotated in the movie's extras) are single-frame throw-ins. One of the very best is saved for last: look carefully at A-Ko's parents as she leaves the house for the last time, and you'll have some idea of where her powers come from.

Many of the other individual bits are also funny. I had to laugh whenever A-ko's teacher starts with one of her nonsensical lessons ("Love in your Sigma Zeta, the path of love is always of the Rias type"). Also brilliant is a moment when one of B-ko's hulking brutes prepares to beat C-ko up, only to have C-ko think it's a game of rock-paper-scissors. And the climactic battle has a couple of hilarious bits, as when A-ko goes skipping atop one cruise missile to another to reach the mothership.

The bad news is that too many of these bits remain just that, bits. Too many of the gags settle for repeating each other at scale instead of building into unexpected directions. The biggest problem is that too often the movie as a whole doesn't really spoof the clichés it evokes so knowingly — it just evokes them, then expect us to laugh simply because they were trotted out in the context of the rest of the goings-on. I get that the epic destruction is a lampoon of the same kinds of apocalyptic imagery from the likes of, e.g., AKIRA, but again, just invoking it in a comedic context doesn't automatically make it comedic. There's a major space battle sequence at about the halfway mark that's a fantastically well-animated dead ringer for anything from the mecha franchises, right down to the ol' Wave Motion Gun. The gag is supposed to be that all this is happening on top of and around A-ko and B-ko slugging out their petty rivalry, but it's only funny as long as the two of them are on the screen, doing something that's actually, you know, funny.

I guess some of why I find this disheartening is because of the amount of time and money spent on it, often for payoffs that could have been achieved at a fraction of the effort. I will say, though, that the payoff moment from the space battle is great — it amounts to a one-shot parody of the entire Macross franchise. And I do have a nostalgic affection for Project A-Ko as an emblem of anime when it first began accruing a sizable fandom in the West. It's nothing short of a miracle that it has been restored from its newly found film elements. But I still wish the rest of the movie had been more than just the sum total of its marginalia and blink-and-you'll-miss-'ems.

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© Final-Nishijima-Moriyama / Soeishinsha_Ponycanyon
A larger gag isn't always a funnier gag, but sometimes it is funny enough.


About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.