Project A-ko
Three girls, a high school, and an improbable alien invasion add up to one of anime's funniest spoofs
Project A-ko
Central Park Media
Directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima
Japan, 1996
Project A-ko has an opening which features not one, but two recognizable SF clichés--one from an American comic book, the other a staple of Japanese SF anime. An unknown object crashes into the Earth, bearing with it an infant passenger... only instead of landing in Smallville, it screams right into the second cliché by crashing into a city, destroying it in a blast of heat and light. Cut to 16 years later, in the rebuilt Graviton City. Eiko Magami is racing to school so quickly, her friend Shiko Kotobuki is dragged airborne behind her. Little does she know that she will soon battle giant robots created by her teenage rival.

And that's really what Project A-ko is all about. On one level, it's a moderately wacky tale of a high school rivalry and an alien invasion. But what makes the movie twice as funny is the amount of takeoffs based on popular anime movies and TV shows, the "cameos" and swipes of characters from other productions, and the way it cheerfully plays with time-worn clichés. Even the title is a play on another movie (Project A, a Jackie Chan film.)

The cast of this movie is, inexplicably, 99% female, and centers around three girls in particular: Eiko, Biko, and Shiko, more commonly referred to A-ko, B-ko, and C-ko ("ko" being a suffix denoting young girls). A-ko, the redhead, has extraordinary super-strength; B-ko has blue hair and is possessed of fiendish genius; C-ko is blonde, excessively cute, and generally comes across as having the intelligence of a clam.

A-ko and C-ko are the best of friends. B-ko, however, wants C-ko to herself, even if she has to kill A-ko to do it. Every day, before school, she tries to defeat A-ko with a new, insane plan. Meanwhile, in space, a mysterious alien ship has been approaching Earth, their invasion coinciding with the day that A-ko and B-ko's rivalry culminates in a battle royale.

Part of Project A-ko's charm is that it expects a certain familiarity with Japanese animation from the viewer. While the anime neophyte can watch the movie and get a good laugh out of it, those in the know can point and chuckle at some of the general clichés being spoofed--and it's handled skillfully enough that those new to anime won't be left scratching their heads. The ripoffs and sendups from Fist of the North Star, Captain Harlock, and Harmageddon are funny enough to stand on their own, but when you know a little about the origin of the jokes, they become even funnier.

For example, Captain Harlock is a classic anime character, who piloted the starship Arcadia through space. One of Harlock's trademarks was that he was always casually sipping wine, even during a tense situation on the ship. This, of course, made him amazingly cool. In A-ko, the Harlock-like Captain, who commands an Arcadia-like ship, also clings to that glass of wine, but for a different reason--she's an alcoholic.

Cute in-jokes like that make Project A-ko all the more enjoyable for the budding anime fan: one can come back to it repeatedly, catching a new joke every time.

Originally printed in Sci-Fi Entertainment (August 1995)