Project A-Ko

Project A-Ko is a reviewer’s nightmare. After the end credits have rolled, initial impressions have coalesced, and the infectious ’80s guitar pop of ‘Follow Your Dreams’ has subsided, the question posed first and foremost is: WHERE DO I BEGIN?

I’ve heard this movie described as ‘the anime that has it all’, and that’s really no exaggeration. This 1986 theatrical feature, which first gained popularity in the UK courtesy of a 1992 release via Manga Entertainment, is a real melting pot. There’s so much in the mix that it defies a quick, spoiler-free explanation. Spaceships! Super-powered schoolgirls! Alien invasion! Giant robots! Hermaphrodites! Really terrible lunches! Oh, my!

The feature’s storyline, though, is (mercifully) pretty easy to grasp. The setting is Graviton City, a city built around the remains of an alien object that crashed to Earth some 16 years previously. We’re introduced in fairly short order to Eiko Magami (A-Ko – geddit?) and her friend C-Ko, who are both about to start at their new school.

But all is not well. The girls quickly attract the obsessive attentions of their new classmate B-ko, who immediately begins plotting to divide the friends so that she can enjoy C-Ko’s friendship and affection exclusively. Can you smell psycho from here? Matters are further complicated by the appearance of ‘D’, a mysterious man who, in between being trampled by A-Ko on her way to school each morning, reports to his superiors aboard a huge spaceship, somewhere above the Earth.

Add in a heavy dose of satire, with riffs on Macross, Mobile Suit Gundam, Captain Harlock and Fist Of The North Star (amongst others) and what you have is the recipe for something truly left of field. In fact, it feels like the producers were hell bent on covering every genre of anime ever conceived!

For purposes of this review, I’m covering Animazing’s 2005 DVD release. This effort is basically little more than a re-packaging of Central Park Media’s 2002 re-issue. This means we’re stuck with what was good and bad about that particular offering. While the movie has been digitally restored to liven up the colour palette, it still has a VHS quality transfer. I’m personally a little eccentric in that I like this – it adds to that feeling of nostalgia for me, as if I was watching the show fresh from dashing home with it after school, after arguing with the shopkeeper over the age certificate. But, if the recollection of such heady times isn’t your bag, you may find the picture quality disappointing.

Another disappointment is the lack of a Japanese soundtrack with subtitles. We’re stuck with the 1992 dub, for good or ill. Again, my personal preference says this isn’t a bad thing, as the dub is one of those classic, old-timey efforts, with the likes of Stacey Gregg, Denica Fairman, Marc Smith and Toni Barry all present and correct. As with most dubs of that era, there are high and low points. Stacey Gregg voices A-Ko pretty much perfectly, and the whole cast deliver a pretty apt line of kooky, zany, madcap performances. Only Denica Fairman’s turn as B-Ko falls a little flat, in my opinion, as I found her performance somewhat stilted and one-note, to the detriment of some of the gags she delivers.

This edition includes some extras not present on previous releases, including a music video, a short but quite interesting documentary on the remastering process, and even some fan art. There’s also a short interview with animation director and character designer Yuji Moriyama. While none of this is especially mind-blowing stuff, it’s all nice to investigate once you’re done with the main feature.

So, the big questions, as with any ‘retro’ anime that finds itself released back into the modern market, have to be ‘does it hold up?’ and ‘is it worth your time?’

As with anything that’s played so squarely for laughs, it’s really tricky to answer with any degree of authority. Humour being so subjective – and especially when the humour is as openly self-referential as it is here – personal preference is always going to play a huge part. But, guardedly, I’m going to answer ‘yes’.

Let’s be under no illusions. Project A-Ko feels somewhat slight. It’s not a movie to watch if you’re looking for a profound storytelling experience, or characters you can invest in too deeply. It’s all about the screwball humour, a lot of which is communicated visually. But that said, it’s abundantly clear upon re-watching why it is so fondly remembered by long-time anime fans.

The animation is beautiful and elegant throughout, showcasing the sort of lovingly rendered, energetic visuals that quite literally sold an army of eager new fans (like myself) on anime back in the day. Yuji Moriyama’s character designs evoke what was, and still is, for many fans, the classic anime aesthetic. Whether we’re watching schoolgirls flinging themselves around, spaceships and jet fighters loosing off improbable numbers of missiles, or giant robots being rent asunder, it all looks fantastic and flows wonderfully. In fact, this is the sort of animation that bolsters the case for hand-drawn animation and old-school techniques in the modern era.

Where the humour is concerned, while it’s doubtful that today’s casual anime fans will get some of the references and in-jokes – and people are still explaining some of them to me years later – there are still enough broad jokes to raise a smile. I personally feel the movie has never been truly ‘laugh-out-loud funny’ so much as ‘amusing’, but even so, gags such as A-Ko landing unceremoniously on the cockpit of a passing jet fighter (you really have to be there, trust me) and leaping through mid-air, hopping from one incoming missile to another, are gamely delivered.

When it comes to screwball absurdity and gorgeous visuals, Project A-Ko still scores points, and it’s as worthy of revisiting as anything else from its era. For me, it’ll always feel like a call-back to a time when anime was fresh and genuinely exciting. I can see myself going back to the DVD for that reason alone.

7 / 10