• Bubblegum Crisis
    Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040
    The classic cyberpunk anime series gets reimagined
    Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040
    ADV Films
    Directed by Hiroki Hayashi
    Japan, 1998
    Every creative type, from the director to the painter to the photographer, has an early work that embarrasses them. This even applies to animation reviewers: In a 1992 review of Bubblegum Crisis, I described the character Priss Asagiri's signature song, "Konya wa Hurricane," as "searing." It's actually pretty good for Japanese pop, but it's still a few degrees short of searing. I generally plead fanboy enthusiasm in my defense, but after re-watching the first episode opener on AnimEigo's stellar Bubblegum Crisis DVD boxed set, I can at least say that said enthusiasm wasn't completely misguided.

    I consider the cyberpunk-tinged Bubblegum Crisis to be the first OAV series to successfully apply the music video aesthetic to anime, with quick-cutting visuals and every dramatic or action scene accompanied by a rock/pop/electronic score or song. It's a formula that is now familiar to anyone who catches summer films at the local cineplex, but watching Priss's "Hurricane" performance intercut with action-packed scenes on the streets of a futuristic Tokyo back in 1987 was something to experience.

    Despite the evolution of music-video styles and the rise of electronica and ambient music as suitable film score material, Bubblegum Crisis's aural style still holds up pretty well. So, too, do the visuals and the story. Set in 2032, a few years after a massive earthquake devastates Tokyo, the series follows the adventures of the Knight Sabers in the reborn MegaTokyo. The Knight Sabers are four female mercenaries who generally find themselves at odds with rogue Boomers, the cyberdroids manufactured by multinational mega-corporation Genom. Initially created to speed up rebuilding efforts after the quake, Boomers come in all shapes and sizes, from towering monsters to those indistinguishable from humans.

    The Advanced Defense Police have been formed to deal with rogue Boomers, but are for the most part outmatched, suffering high casualties in just about every scene they're in. On the other hand, the Knight Sabers' weapon of choice--aside from sass--is the hard suit, a form of powered armor loaded with individualized, customized weaponry, and it serves them well.

    All the elements are in place for a kick-ass series, and Bubblegum Crisis generally delivers. It's also something of a treat to watch all eight episodes back to back, plus the two Hurricane Live concert/music video features included in the boxed set. Originally released over the course of several years, Bubblegum Crisis' slowly unfolded, with little clues and hints dropped here and there. Remarkably, although just about every episode tied into a previous episode in some way, they also stood just fine on their own.

    But watching all the episodes together also highlights the series' weak points. Sylia Stingray and Priss, as group leader and spiritual anchor of the Knight Sabers respectively, naturally command the lead roles--especially since the two are settling old scores against Genom and to some degree the AD Police through their Knight Saber activities. But this comes at the expense of the other half of the team, Nene Romanova and Linna Yamazaki. Nene, an AD Police officer, at least provides inside ADP information and serves as the group's communications maven, but aside from her starring role in the very funny eighth episode (which shows that her perennial high spirits should not be equated with ditziness), she's only slightly more fleshed out than Linna, about whom we know nothing save that she's an aerobics instructor and a friend of a character who is murdered in the second episode (which, naturally, has further repercussions later). She almost completely fades into the background, which is a shame in any kind of team show. We also never really get an understanding of Nene and Linna's motivations for taking on this dangerous lifestyle.

    At least everyone gets equal screen time in Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040, the 1998 television remake released to video here by AD Vision. Actually, it's less a remake than a reimagining; characters have the same names and roughly the same relationships to each other, but everything else is fair game. The Knight Sabers, for instance, are now in opposition to the police, and their existence is hushed up through Genom's influence on the media. As if to make up for Linna's cardboard character in the original series, here she's the main focus: the Knight Sabers exist prior to her arrival in Megalo (again, the post-quake Tokyo), and she ends up falling in with them. In some ways, though, she's still a cipher: while her desire to help people fits in with her character, one still has to wonder about her chosen method of doing so--at least, based on the twelve episodes I've seen to date.

    As the original Bubblegum Crisis is considered a classic of SF anime, people will naturally be polarized on some of the changes made. Personally, I'm not overly fond of the new Sylia Stingray. In both versions, she is the Batman to the others' Robins: using her financial and technological resources, she gathers these three women to engage in her vendetta. I liked the old Sylia because she exuded a certain level of grace and good humor in her civilian life, but was hard as nails and cool as ice when it came to Knight Sabers business. She has the same level of dedication in Tokyo 2040, but is more prone to emotional outbursts and questionable judgment calls. It's one of those things that makes you realize how carefully the creators maintained a balance between the Knight Sabers' characters in the original series, which made them believable as a team. In Tokyo 2040 you end up asking yourself how they've survived for so long.

    The music, too, has been updated, with more of an industrial/rock feel that stands up better on its own. There's still some very competent Japanese pop, but it doesn't dominate the series as it did the original. On the other hand, given that the Bubblegum Crisis series is known for its wedding of music to story, it's surprising that, at times, the soundtrack is applied rather carelessly to the visuals. The percussive rhythms accompanying Linna's first assault on a Boomer shouldn't be the same as those playing when Genom honcho Brian J. Mason is giving orders to his employees, furthering his hidden agenda.

    Ultimately, it's still Bubblegum Crisis which has proven to be very adaptable over the years (there have been three other spinoff series) while retaining its core elements and therefore its appeal. Old-time Crisis fans would do well to check out Tokyo 2040; Tokyo 2040 fans should look at the original to see where it all came from.

    Originally appeared in Parsec (Spring/Summer 2001)
    Eight people - eight lives - one universal groove