Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bill Clinton vs. Guilty Gear

Politicians often take on video games, but they usually stick to the big and controversial ones—the Night Traps and Mortal Kombats of their eras. Guilty Gear, Arc System Works’ fighting-game mishmash of anime and heavy metal, flies well beneath mainstream attention. It’s hard to imagine such a niche series riling politicians back in 1999, when it was still obscure even in the fighter scene. But that’s what happened.

Concerned over violent marketing that targeted children, President Bill Clinton announced a federal study of the ways that games, movies, and other media might corrupt the youth of America. The centerpiece of his evidence, according to wire reports, was a video-game ad that invited players to “kill your friends guilt-free.” That ad could only be the magazine spot for the original Guilty Gear.


The ad is relatively non-violent, aside from Sol’s contorted way of brandishing his sword. In fact, Atlus softened the tagline with asterisks and a disclaimer in the fine print. It’s a particularly mild offering from a time when Sega pasted screenshots on a naked women and Sony joked about dismemberment.


Of course, Guilty Gear harmed no malleable young minds. As an impressive 2-D game on the PlayStation, it was noticed by dedicated fighting-game enthusiasts and a few others, but that was as far as it went. Clinton’s task force may as well have examined movie-industry marketing by scrutinizing posters of New Rose Hotel.

No children cared about Guilty Gear or its ads, and that’s how things stayed. Senate hearings on video-game violence made Night Trap notorious, but there would be no inadvertent publicity bump for Guilty Gear. Perhaps that’s because Clinton never mentioned it by name. So Guilty Gear stayed on the outskirts. It resurfaced a few years later with the Guilty Gear X line, which features a cross-dressing boy nun and a guitar-slamming witch who pulls off her top in victory. Such things might’ve horrified government investigators, but no one told them.

One question remains: Did Clinton’s staff put together a blown-up display of that Guilty Gear ad for their press conference? And did they later throw it away? I’m long past the stage in my life where I’d hang video-game posters on my wall, but I might make an exception for a souvenir of Guilty Gear’s moment in the government spotlight.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lost Anime: Gonzo's Mardock Scramble

Studio Gonzo is known for several things: making lots of anime series, letting those series disintegrate by the halfway mark, and epitomizing the style-over-substance approach that bloated the anime industry throughout the past decade. Studio Gonzo is also known for playing it safe. Most of their work, good or bad, goes right for the mainstream jugular or the sadly reliable vein of pillow-molesting anime nerds. There are few true experiments in the company’s catalog, and one of them was abruptly canceled: Mardock Scramble.

Mardock Scramble began as a novel by Tow Ubukata, a prolific author rarely at a loss for some bizarre idea. His works were behind Capcom’s Chaos Legion game, Production I.G’s mystic historical anime drama Le Chevalier d’Eon, and the incomprehensible Renaissance-superhero manga Pilgrim J├Ąger. Unlike Ubukata’s more fanciful tales, Mardock Scramble is straight science fiction: in Mardock City, a prostitute named Rune Balot is murdered by her amnesiac boyfriend. Resurrected by the local authorities, she awakens with powers over electricity. Then she tries to bring down her killer, with only a vague conspiracy and a talking, shapeshifting mouse named Oeufcoque to guide her.


Gonzo announced a Mardock Scramble anime series in 2005 to mark the studio’s 15th anniversary. Many were skeptical of Gonzo at this point, having endured Kiddy Grade and Burst Angel and other disappointments. Yet Mardock Scramble had names behind it: Ubukata himself provided the screenplay, artist Range Murata’s disquieting sad-girl artwork suited the story, and director Yasufumi Soejima had crafted the shifting patterns of Gankutsuou, which will likely be remembered as Gonzo’s only interesting series. Apparently out to make a good impression with this prestige project, Gonzo announced that Mardock Scramble would use a new type of 3-D digital animation.


Newtype magazine previews and the above flier from the Tokyo Anime Festival give limited previews of Mardock Scramble, but they’re intriguing: a cocoon-like city, a future of strange technology, and a morphing weapon that decides to go around in mouse form. The OVA’s first and only trailer is equally austere, with actress Megumi Hayashibara reciting morbidly romantic lines while blood runs down the barrel of a gun.


This was all that the public would ever see of Gonzo’s Mardock Scramble. Late in 2006, the project was killed for what Gonzo called “various reasons.” One of those reasons was likely a matter of image. According to former Gonzo employees who saw footage of the first episode, Mardock Scramble was far from Gonzo’s usual marketable flash. It was a grim and freakish production, featuring such palatable sights as “a midget covered in breasts.” Gonzo likely knew that the series wouldn’t get on TV in Japan or North America, and that was a dangerous setback for a big-budget endeavor representing the studio’s anniversary.


Yet it was money that really killed Mardock Scramble. In an interview last year, Ubukata pointed to “the bursting of the anime bubble in 2006” as the reason behind Gonzo’s abrupt cancellation, and it makes sense. The anime industry’s North American boom was over by 2005. American companies had spent years trying to sell fans mediocre anime that no one wanted, and their market collapsed like a house of Venus Versus Virus DVDs. Gonzo had no time for unmarketable anime, not when it was about to throw a million dollars into each episode of Afro Samurai.

Mardock Scramble didn’t stay canceled for long. In 2009, Aniplex and a relatively new studio called GoHands started work on a trilogy of Mardock Scramble films by director Susumu Kudo (whose resume curiously includes the canceled T.A.T.u. Paragate anime). The initial movie, entitled The First Compression, is full of reasons why Mardock Scramble was perhaps too much for Gonzo. Balot’s background is unnerving, her rebirth leaves mental scars, and the film ends with her and Ouefcoque caught in a vicious, bloody showdown with a gang of deranged murderers. Those murderers include the above-referenced breast-creature and a man named, seriously, Welldone the Pussyhand. Ubukata wrote the original novel to highlight the problem of teen prostitution in Japan (a statement slightly shaken by the film's unnecessary shower scenes), and Kudo gives it a ruthless energy. The result recalls a hyperviolent ’90s anime OVA, but with an actual reason to exist.


It’s all for the best that the new Mardock Scramble (above) overshadows its unreleased predecessor. Gonzo’s track record is the worst of any major anime studio, and other promising ideas died on their watch (The Five Killers remains in limbo). Now beset with financial problems, Gonzo is perhaps worse off for letting Mardock Scramble get away. It was something different for the studio, but we’ll never know if it was also something better.