Black Magic M-66

Where Masamune Shirow is concerned, there’s quite often a feeling among his fans that the man can do no wrong. Fabled for his super-detailed, highly individual manga works, and beloved of not just manga fans but comics fans worldwide, it comes as no surprise that the enigmatic Shirow’s major works have all been adapted into animated form at some point. In fact, to date, the only one of his manga that has never seen an anime adaptation is ‘Orion’ his mind-bending tale of magi-tech and mysticism from the early ‘90s.

Shirow’s first major published manga, however, was ‘Black Magic’, a sci-fi tale that seems to consist of whatever crazy, off-the-wall ideas were bubbling in the young Shirow’s mind at the time. It’s an interesting read for folks who are perhaps more familiar with his seminal work on ‘Appleseed’ or ‘Ghost In The Shell’, where we see him toying with thematic and storytelling ideas that he would either go on to embrace whole-heartedly later on or reject outright. One particular chapter of ‘Black Magic’, entitled ‘Booby Trap’, would go on to inspire the 1987 OVA being reviewed here, ‘Black Magic M-66’.

Initially made available in the UK on the ill-fated Kiseki label, I vividly recall rushing to my local branch of Woolworths (ah, how times change!) to pick it up alongside Kiseki’s other major release, Macross II. This was back in the early ‘90s, when anime was still new and exciting over here, and there was still a notion that it could break into the mainstream and take over the world. (Ah, how times change indeed!) History may have proved such fanciful notions as premature, and Kiseki certainly crashed and burned spectacularly, but of you look around, you can still find a few of the label’s UK releases available on DVD.

The edition of ‘Black Magic M66’ that I’m reviewing here is actually part of a double pack with another of Kiseki’s offerings, ‘Plastic Little’. Together, both features have a combined run time of about 90 minutes, clocking in at around 40-45 minutes each. Both OVAs are presented on this disc as subtitled only.

So – enough waffle about the history and availability of this OVA. What you really want to know is, why should you give it your precious time?

Personally, I’ve always found ‘Black Magic’ to be the weakest of Shirow’s manga by a long way. Compared to his later works, it seems self-indulgent and wishy-washy, showcasing the man’s chops before he properly honed his storytelling craft. The ‘Booby Trap’ section is easily one of the stronger chapters, though, so it’s good to see that used as a loose template for the OVA’s story, which Shirow himself has had a hand in.

The plot itself is pretty slender, and somewhat reminiscent of James Cameron’s ‘The Terminator’. An army aircraft carrying two military assassin robots – the M-66s of the title – crash lands during poor weather, unleashing the killer cargo. Becoming active, the M-66s engage their default program, which sets them on a murderous rampage. Meanwhile, elsewhere, we meet Sybel, a freelance reporter who fits Shirow’s requirement for a plucky female lead. She becomes embroiled in the military fiasco while out sniffing for her latest scoop. Soon discovering that – for inexplicable reasons – the M-66s’ target is their creator’s own granddaughter, she sets about her self-imposed mission to save the poor girl. Carnage ensues.

Now, before we go any further, it has to be noted that this OVA suffers some pretty glaring storytelling problems. Perhaps the most alarming of these is the astoundingly poor logic of the M-66s’ target. What kind of idiot is the mad professor who built these robots with a pre-programmed urge to murder his own granddaughter? Either that’s a sign of lazy plotting, or we’re getting an insight into a DEEPLY unhappy family! I’m calling the former. We’re also asked to believe later that Sybel, a reporter by trade, miraculously knows how to fire a semi-automatic machine gun. There are a few similar moments of incredulity in the script, coupled with a handful of rather groan-inducing lines of dialogue.

However, there’s a sense of verve and spirit about ‘Black Magic M-66’ that rescues it from such awkward contrivances. It’s a pacey little OVA, with a nicely judged progression of urban destruction as the hunter closes in on its prey, aided by a well-judged soundtrack. True, there’s not a very pronounced feeling of tension or peril, but you certainly get some bang for your buck.

Kiseki’s transfer to DVD is pretty poor, alas, looking like a straight VHS-to-DVD port. That’s a shame, as the animation is really quite good, very smooth, and brimming with the sort of character that’s seen in later adaptations of Shirow’s books such as Dominion Tank Police. The characters all have that special something that we’ve come to expect from Shirow’s visual style – so nice to see that it isn’t compromised – while the assassins themselves are given an infinitely more attractive look than their manga counterparts. There are a couple of sequences – my favourites being the first appearance of the M-66s, and a tense moment where Sybel and Ferris are trapped inside an elevator with one of them – which make for really fun little set-pieces.

All in all, ‘Black Magic M-66’ is a pretty neat way to kill just less than an hour. It’s hardly perfect by any means, and you may find yourself struggling to keep up with the subtitles. But for a quick fix of quality anime, you could do much worse. Shirow freaks and those keen to revisit memories of the ‘90s anime boom will likely get a bit more from it, though, it has to be said.

If you can find the double-feature disc with Plastic Little, though, you’re in for a fun viewing experience, and a good value-for-money package.

7 / 10