Sunday, 10 April 2011

Rogue Waitress Robots With Long Tongues

Screenshot from Bubblegum Crisis: a mutated robot waitress
Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 (1998)

Back in the days of our youth, friend Ollie leant me a VHS tape he had recently acquired. It contained the first few episodes of Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, an improbably-titled anime series (in fact, a remake of an earlier series) that debuted in 1998. It was four or five years later that he got his hands on it. It was also my first taste of Japanese animation that wasn't made for kids, my experience so far consisting, pretty much, of Pokemon and snippets of Dragon Ball Z.

When I took it home, I watched it on my little TV surreptitiously. I didn't want my mum to catch me watching it. Such things were not forbidden, but neither did I expect much approval. Partly it was because of the weirder content—in an early scene, a robot waitress, perfectly humanoid, is made to lick the shoes of an obnoxious customer, then goes rogue and transforms into a hideous monster with a long, lolling tongue. It's not exactly 'mature', in the sense of it being obviously inappropriate for youngsters, but it was hard to gauge how questionable that kind of stuff might be found.

Screenshot from Akira: Tetsuo's guts spilling onto the floor
Akira (1988)

Somewhat ironically, though, what felt more shameful was the fact that it was, well, a 'cartoon', and as everyone knows, cartoons are for kids. On top of that, no one escaped Pokemon in the late '90s, and it's easy to see how anything anime could get tarred with the same brush for those poor, frazzled parents who had to live through it. And on top of that, the core premise of Bubblegum Crisis is basically, let's face it, Power Rangers in high heels, so it felt like, at thirteen or fourteen years old, I would have a lot of explaining to do. 'It's rated 12!' I would say, when my mum inevitably caught me and gave me the shouldn't-you-have-grown-out-of-this look. 'That is approximately my age!'

As a result, watching this anime made for a teenaged audience felt like something I had to be secretive about. My parents have never been squeamish about me watching 'mature' films—I was allowed to watch 15-rated films when I was only 10 or 11, etc—but something about how it was animated and this kind of grown-up weird made a whole different beast. It made it 'adult' in a whole new, disturbing, exciting way. There was something maybe even subversive about it.

Screenshot from Ghost in the Shell: cyborg Motoko Kusanagi being wrenched apart
Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I think a lot if it had to do with the fact that the animation allowed it to go into a whole new realm of visuality. It's pretty fascinating to see a waitress undergo such a bizarre transformation, and the power of animation is that it can be particularly twisted about it. It can push us a little more beyond the accepted boundaries of reality and present us with something decidedly more nightmareish in quality. The rogue Boomers, as they were called, were neither human nor machine, organic or mechanical, but something in between, occupying their own stylised audiovisual space—they didn't just look weird, but made all kinds of disturbing noises too. Animation is flexible with reality like that.

I still like Tokyo 2040 for its style. The Power Rangers gig is a little embarassing, but it remains awesome for its colourful, grungy, visceral robo-goodness. It's no surprise that the medium has contributed so much to the 'cyberpunk' genre, and this particular anime, along with The Matrix, was one of my first tastes of it.

Screenshot from The Animatrix: a robot pushing its thumbs into a man's eyes
The Animatrix - The Second Renaissance Part I (2003)

It wasn't long after this introduction that I learned of The Animatrix, though Ollie intially warned me off, saying I wouldn't understand it as someone without much experience of anime. It required, apparently, a whole new level of comprehension. I think I believed him. In any case, I caught one or two episodes airing on late-night TV on the eve of the Matrix sequel's release (and eventually watched the whole thing at his place anyway), and was again mesmerised with the volume turned way down, conscious of my parents sleeping in the room above. From there, my interest has continued.

These days, familiar with a fair bit of mature anime (or non-Japanese animation, in the case of Aeon Flux), I kind of miss the feeling of furtively experiencing what felt so marginal, obscure and secret—being more familiar with the medium now kind of shines a light into its darker corners and makes it less of a tantalising, strange unknown. But the big irony remains that these 'cartoons', still dismissed as such by a lot of people, can offer so much in the way of seriously dark, weird artistic exploration, of which BGC's rogue Boomers are just the start.

Credit to me for titling this post like a porn video.

Screenshot from Aeon Flux: Trevor Goodchild gurning
Aeon Flux (1995)

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