Megazone 23 Part I
It is 1985 Tokyo, and hot-headed biker punk Shogo Yahagi spends his carefree days dodging police, watching idol singer Eve's music videos, picking up girls, and hanging out with his biker gang buddies, when he isn't slaving away at the local McDonald's counter to pay for it all. One day, he has a chance encounter with a dancer and aspiring actress named Yui Takanaka, and they form a fast friendship that may lead to something more.
Then Shogo's friend Shinji shows him an incredible motorcycle that's like nothing either of them has ever seen ... and Shogo falls headlong into a government conspiracy that completely changes his perception of the world as he knows it, and threatens the lives of everyone he holds dear.
Back in the day, Megazone 23 was sort of this holy grail for anime collectors, because getting copies of it was nigh impossible, and even the horrendous Streamline dub (which clumsily attempted to tie this into Robotech) was an improvement over nothing at all. Then ADV Films acquired it, re-dubbed it, and then, almost immediately went under. (Okay, not really, but it still seems that way.) In any case, this franchise has been notoriously difficult to acquire outside of Japan, which is a real shame, because this is the series that launched a thousand anime archetypes.
Long before Shotaro Kaneda drove the streets of Neo Tokyo on the silver screen (though Akira had by now been running in manga form for three years), there was wild-haired Shogo Yahagi and his impossibly overpowered Garland - a bike that could ram into and total a BMW without so much as taking a scratch, go zero to two hundred in seconds, and do a zillion other things no normal motorcycle ever could. So what does Shogo do with it? Why, what any dumb biker punk would do, of course, show off! He baits the police on wild goose chases and even uses its functions to rescue the girl he likes from a sleazebag television director (who she's actually trying to seduce in order to get a leading role), all while incurring impossible amounts of collateral damage.
You'd think that such a character would come off as an unsympathetic chauvinist, and while that's largely true, it's also clear that these characters, as well as the other side characters we get to meet in this film are definitely a product of their time. Megazone 23 does a fantastic job of replicating the reality (or at least the overall perception) of mid-1980s Tokyo - a frenetic, idyllic metropolis of seemingly boundless prosperity, with bikers and idol singers and salarymen and office ladies all living their lives without any concern or thought for the very real, very scary calamities that might lurk just around the corner. Many commentators have pointed out some strong similarities to the setting of The Matrix, which came twelve years later, though not in fact directly influenced by this work; in turn, there are sources that claim that this was inspired by Robert Heinlein's "Orphans of the Sky". Either way, there is indeed a very strong sci-fi element in what initially appears to be simply a "cool mech" story, and the great revelation of what "Megazone 23" really signifies (which any reader can easily spoil elsewhere on the Internet) is handled extremely well here. This really could've fallen flat on its face: instead, the writing (by Hiroyuki Hoshiyama of Gundam fame) and direction (by Noboru Ishiguro, veteran of Space Battleship Yamato and later director of the exemplary Legend of the Galactic Heroes) seem to have spawned a hotbed of cool sci-fi ideas that have inspired countless imitators in the decades since.
Up to this point, the OVA format had been largely treated as a sort of dumping ground for failed concepts that weren't optioned as television series. Megazone 23 itself seems to have been planned the same way, but in choosing to go to home video, the creators were actually enabled to tackle harder-edged content than would have been possible on television, including explicit sex and violence. This initial episode seems to serve as a separation point in many people's mind between Western animation (which, apart from abortive experiments such as Heavy Metal and the featured words of the Spike and Mike festivals seems to stay content with family-oriented fare) and Japanese animation, which we all know by now doesn't shy away from being at least occasionally oversexed or overviolent. It must've seemed shocking to see nudity and blood in a cartoon in the mid-80s but at least here it really serves to emphasize the "reality" of these characters' situation, and while obviously intended as fan-service, it actually fits in with the overall themes of the storyline.
Another piece of the puzzle is the animation, which is clearly quite skilled and detailed especially given that this wasn't a theatrical release (though it may as well be). Of course it's archaic by modern standards, but for the time period was intended, it's really rather impressive. The character designs (by Toshihiro "Iczer" Hirano and Haruhiko "Macross" Mikimoto) are signature 80s looks, with tacky clothes, brightly dyed glam rock hair, and gaudy earrings, and they serve almost exceedingly well to establish the setting (in fact, even better than its sequels which are handled by other designers). The mecha seen later in the episode are fairly cool; there's always something viscerally satisfying about seeing large hunks of metal tear apart entire city blocks and Megazone 23 uses that trope to full effect, though the final battle is oddly anticlimactic, and entirely a set-up for the sequel.
What's very unusual in this anime (and rarely seen elsewhere) is the use of actual brand-name products in the show: characters swig Coca-Cola and work at McDonald's, go to see the 1984 bomb Streets of Fire, and even tote Dagger of Kamui duffel bags in what must surely be the strangest shout-out I've ever seen in an OVA. Far from removing us from the setting, this actually serves to intensify the connection with the real-life surroundings of Tokyo at that time.
If there is negative criticism to be had here, it is that the characters are a tad too simplistic, the sex and violence a little too gratuitous, the styling almost too far stuck in its timeframe, and therefore a hard sell to newer viewers used to everything being about "moe". Also, the acting in the ADV dub involves a lot of sometimes misdated slang (I noticed some 90s catchphrases in there, which jives poorly with the 1985 setting) and, more importantly, a lot of overacting, though it's still light-years better than what I remember of the old Streamline version (a bonafide "Macek-re"). If you can stick with the Japanese audio, do so; all the songs are in Japanese anyway, and Kumi Miyasato, who mysteriously hasn't done anything else since, is stellar as the manufactured idol singer Eve Tokimatsuri; "Senaka Goshi ni Sentimental" in particular is one of the seminal tracks of the 1980s anime repertoire.
Megazone 23 captures a time and place in Japanese history in a way that could never be truly replicated by a modern "period piece", and in doing so, has earned its place as a genuine anime classic. It's just a shame that the sequels don't stand up nearly as well.
A strong overall concept and skilled animation and storytelling overcome some minor flaws throughout this classic production. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: NOT FOR CHILDREN. There is one extended sex scene, as well as a couple of other instances of female nudity. Several people are killed, mostly in combat or as implied traffic fatalities, but with two characters being murdered onscreen (one of them particularly undeserving and tragic), and neither instance is sugarcoated.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, bilingual, from ADV Films
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Megazone 23 Part I © 1985 Victor Entertainment Inc.
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