Anime Review: Nadesico – The Prince of Darkness

Written by Richard Brown

Martian Successor Nadesico is one of my all time favourite animes. So when I heard the movie was being released in the UK in 2004 (with the same dub cast too), I was very happy. Then I watched it, blanked out the memory, and did not watch it again until someone brought it up at a committee meeting. Warning: a rant follows.

The Basic Plot

Its three years after the conclusion of the series, and the crew of the Nadesico have either moved on to other jobs or suffered a tragic end. Akito Tenkawa and Yurika Misumaru married, but then died in mysterious circumstances, leaving behind their adopted daughter, and fellow Nadesico Officer Ruri Hoshino. Ruri is subsequently promoted to be the Captain of the new Nadesico B, with a new crew. However, a series of attacks on the transport network soon present her with an unpleasant realisation, Akito andYurika aren’t dead, and mysterious forces are using them.

I’m sorry; it says “Nadesico” on the box, what’s this?

So, its 30 seconds in, and it appears that both the lead characters from the TV series are dead. And then we get a series of explosions, and some aged CG, as pretty much all the key events of the TV series are glossed over. Then its confirmed that Yurikaand Akito actually are alive, with Yurika being used as a glorified satnav, and Akito on a quest for revenge .The original Nadesico TV series was an affectionate parody of mecha and the fans that loved them. There was some decent robot action and plotting in it, to the point where it could be viewed as a straight mecha series, but that wasn’t the reason anyone was watching. And yet, somehow, this aspect is the main focus of the movie.  I think this calls for an internet meme.

Guys, Mr. Director etc, Nadesico was a comedy.

A comedy, not an Evangelion wannabe.

comedy.

What were you thinking?

Yes, while any sequel couldn’t have been pure comedy, given how the series ended, the exceptionally dark scenario the movie presents feels like a betrayal of the fans and characters. There are still funny bits; admittedly, the ratio is small, with a lot of it falling flat. So, from the start, if you had any real level of affection for the cast, you are going to be pretty shocked, or in my case upset. As such, I won’t claim to be unbiased in this review. I will however claim to have several good reasons to be upset, and these go beyond the massive and unwelcome change in tone.

Sequel syndrome and why you shouldn’t listen to the fans all the time

Occasionally in media, a supporting character starts to outshine the leads. Often its due to  the charisma of actor playing the part (such as with the Fonz, and Captain Jack Sparrow), or perhaps a character just seems so mysterious and badass that the fans just love it (Wolverine and Boba Fett, step forward). With this in mind, writers and moneymen often give such characters increasing screen time, although such moves can hugely backfire. The term “Jump the shark” was inspired by such a change. This has happened with Nadesico: The Prince of Darkness, a popular supporting character that simply can’t carry a movie has been promoted to protagonist.  In a way, this is nearly as cruel as what’s happened to Yurika and Akito, because not only is Ruri being used in way completely at odds with the TV series, suffering no small amount of nasty in the process by the way, she ultimately becomes a tempting scapegoat for the many mistakes made. Ruri deserved better.

“Why is making Ruri a protagonist a bad Idea?” I hear you ask, “Ruri is awesome”. Well, yes she is, but Ruri was a series mascot, and most definitely not suited to prolonged time in the spotlight. Ruri’s main function was to mock the rest of the cast for their stupidity and occasionally act as the voice of reason.  This is why Ruri was objectively pretty awesome, she combined mild contempt with unexpected wisdom, all in a knee-high package. However, Ruri can’t really do her comedy narrator role in her new position as Captain, and as a result she seems bland and two-dimensional.  Take away her snark, and she’s just a generic, somewhat moe female lead.  A plank. So, it seems the creative staff just didn’t get what made the series, and young Ruri, popular. Ask yourself this: would you like a sequel to Azumanga Daioh, which instead of being a comedy is a romantic tragedy called “Chiyo-Chan The College Years”? Or, say a sequel to Death Note about Ryuk’s endless quest for apples? Yes, you can see someone in the production meetings pitching something like this, but that person’s peers should have pointed out how unwise that would be. This isn’t a direct to video release, this is a full-blown theatrical movie, and the big push to shift Nadesico into a full-blown franchise, so why aren’t they playing to its strengths? After several days thought, I came up with the following simile: Turning the good natured Nadesico series into a serious/emo movie, with Ruri at the helm, is like fitting a turbo charger to a stretch limousine, painting it red, adding silver alloys, installing a deafening sound system, and taking it street racing.

Taking a chill pill

Now, I am going to ease back a little bit to acknowledge that a sequel should not a be a carbon copy of its predecessors, and there have been notable examples of franchises going though some quite radical changes and being renewed, or at the very least popular enough to keep things ticking over. If you want a western example, take a look at the James Bond films, Battlestar Galactica, Transformers Beast Wars and Doctor Who. In anime, you might hold up say, G Gundam, Macross 7, and the many, many, many Tenchi Muyo reboots. Hell, if something has been around long enough, you may even have to rework it just because tastes have changed, look at the Adam West Batman, and then the Christian Bale Batman. This movie isn’t like the above examples though, it isn’t a renewal or reinvention, instead it takes an existing cast of characters and setting, and shifts into a new genre, while maintaining continuity. The TV series definitely had its dark moments, sure, most notably the disastrous Mars mission, but most of its episodes were about things like otakudom, affectionate satire, rescuing polar bears, beauty contests, and a love polygon. The movie is largely about politics, human experimentation, and a teenage girl trying to cope with the fact her adoptive parents are not dead after all, but are still very far away. Is this not a move in the wrong direction? How was this meant to appeal to established fans, the people who made the movie a profitable possibility in the first place? Is this a stealth parody, a mockery of the way movie sequels can go bad, but went too far? Did they expect Ruri-mania to make it an easy hit? Yes, that seems to be the most likely explanation, given the bad habits of Japanese Otakus. As an ardent fan of the original series, this seems stupidity that almost defies description.

Check your baggage at the door

However, its best to judge an anime on its own merits, rather than what came before it. Let’s make the assumption that you watched this movie with no expectations, no experience with the TV series, would you enjoy it? The answer is probably not.  The limo gets up speed, flips over at the first corner, rolls five times, lands in an orphanage, and explodes. The movie only has one positive, in that it has a grade of animation appropriate to a theatrical release, but that’s about it. Everything else is at best mediocre. The first twenty minutes try to set up the plot, and introduces a new Nadesico battleship and its new crew, confusing established fans, something due in part to the movie being reliant on a Sega Saturn game not released in English. Let’s think about that for a second, when did you last hear of a video game being important to the plot of a movie? Yes, the Matrix sequels, and we all know how that turned out, with the directors ruining their reputation, and an otherwise excellent action movie being spoiled retroactively. So, even if we discount the sequel baggage, we have to accept that the movie is basically incomplete. It is fundamentally unwise for any movie to rely on other media to fill plot holes, and this movie has them in spades.

Things only get worse, story-wise, as the movie progresses. Have only just introduced a bunch of new characters, the movie brings back the original crew, confusing anyone who hadn’t seen the series.  Yes, this does happily mean a return of “Lets get to know Nadesico”, but the contrast with the infinitely more serious story is too sharp. It is also rather like the appearance of R2D2 and C3P0, or any number of the cameos from the Star Wars prequels, all they do is remind you of better times. Thus begins a hurried mess of plot based around interstellar travel powered by Martian colonists, A.Is compelled to spell plot points backward, a villain with a crazy eye, and dozens of named bit players who do little. If the plot was solid, I could forgive just about all of the above, but it isn’t.  The movie tries to be serious, but as so much of the running time involves rounding up the old cast, with their funny ways, the pacing is ruined. Its like a Star Trek film, as its too much of a cast reunion, when the plot needs moving forward. A lot of these characters simply don’t fit the style and direction of the movie; I’d imagine going in fresh to this anime, with so many characters and new concepts, you wouldn’t know what to make of it all. The resolution of Akito/Yurika issue ultimately has no emotional pay off either, the set up and characterisation being handled so badly. The characters involved have so little screen time; it’s hard to feel anything but contempt or indifference. It doesn’t help that Akito exposes himself as an emotionally dead monster in that infamous graveyard scene, thank you Mr. Director and writers for that piece of character assassination. The movie fails on its biggest gamble, and on almost every other level.

Conclusion

God, I think I need a drink. Or possibly a hug.

The Prince of Darkness is as bad as I remember, a failure in almost every conceivable way. It’s cinematic tragedy rivalling The Phantom Menace, that fails to appeal to new fans and angers the existing ones. Of course, I might be wrong, perhaps this is actually a pretty good anime, and my emotions are clouding my judgement. It did win the Animage Anime Grand Prix, a popular vote award, so clearly it appeals to some. However, I you ask you this, if it was that good, why has no more Nadesico media been made?

1/10

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