This Week: Desert Rose (Suna no Bara: Yuki no Mokushiroku).
While an all-women version of The Expendables continues to be debated, this OVA jumped the gun to compete against many of those male action hero actors’ flicks when they were still in their prime.
Desert Rose strikes me as a property which should have had much longer legs than it did.
In manga form, the series started in 1990 under the artistic and narrative eye of Kaoru Shintani. The creative force behind Area 88 and Twin Hawks (Futari Daka), which co-hold the 1985 Shogakukan Manga Award for shōnen series. As such, he was very much a known quantity with big achievements to his name. Their animated renditions, Area 88 in particular, continue to hold a fond place for many. While one can look back now and consider this to have also been the peak of his impact on the industry, it does make the apparent misfire of being able to capitalize on Desert Rose all the more interesting to me. While the manga ran for almost a full decade, building up fifteen collected volumes in the process, only this single forty-five minute direct-to-video work from 1993 exists on the anime side.
Elite globe-trotting anti-terrorist divisions with a large multinational crew would of course appreciate the raw efficiency of the operation.
But on the entertainment media front there is something in having the desire for more.
Desert Rose fits square into the Girls With Guns sub-genre.
That said, it does attempt its own spin on the formula to stand out from its competition.
The 1980’s had popular anime series like Dirty Pair and Bubblegum Crisis. Celebrated then and now for their colorful science fiction worlds. The heavy electronic and pop music vibes. The camaraderie dynamics between their female leads and teams as they save the day. Also prolific were the likes of Cat’s Eye, which brought more of a modern crime edge. Desert Rose, to wit, deploys about as many named women as the three of those series combined.
The work has at its disposal not just an elite duo, trio, or even quintuple. But enough specialist soldiers for full military and security operations. Going along with this, it roots itself in a harder contemporary lens. The fall of the Soviet Union. Reunification of East and West Germany. The general international realignment of the early 1990’s demonstrated through overwhelming military events like the first Gulf War. Counter-terrorism and security operations over more loose canon problem solvers or renegade law enforcement groups without oversight or accountability.
None of this is to say the Desert Rose OVA is intellectual brain food, of course. This is still early 1990’s action movie fodder, as such things go.
But it does maintain being smart enough, also as such things go.
Enough nods to world events, technical feasibility, and so on to wave mental traffic along. The general flow never comes into dire question or outright breaks down. The production does well, for instance, to open with the leading ladies in uniform systematically clearing a building of armed opposition. It establishes their competency, ability, and unit effectiveness for our immediate go-to action. To prioritize that, rather than taking a more drawn out slow and social approach. In this particular case, with only forty-five minutes at Desert Rose’s disposal and such a large cast of named individuals for its running time, I feel this was the best approach.
Not too long thereafter, the women are speaking about potential post-mission vacation plans while in casual attire, before receiving news they will be heading out again. But that initial framing here is important. If this later scene of them pining for getting to go swimming in Florida had come first, it would establish the characters in a different (and I feel, more detrimental) fashion.
Especially given the small running time, where those first impressions count for a lot.
For that matter: it is surprising how low the level of skimpy fanservice is throughout. Particularly for a work of this general genre and expected ilk.
Between the military uniform clad opening, a side-mission for two in Paris with evening gowns, and most of the bulk of the piece taking place in Switzerland at an international summit villa in varieties of suits, sweaters, and French maid outfits for undercover security servers, it plays more on the conservative side. The most outright it gets in this department consists of a small workout montage at a gym. As if it had, indeed, fallen out of the same 1980’s its predecessors thrived in. Complete with legwarmers and leotards. A few seconds of shower panning later (with less on display than even in Macross: Do You Remember Love?), and that about covers how covered up the characters are the rest of the time.
To be crystal clear: that is still pandering.
Just being less so than others does not mean it is nonexistent.
Yet, I feel it is also relevant to point out how restrained, if not downright tame, the character attire and framing often is from the expectation one could have. All the more so for an OVA, which does not need to adhere to television broadcast rules.
When one considers how Kei and Yuri of Dirty Pair are often running amok in little more than space age wrestling outfits, this all seems like a rather particular orchestrated and intentional reaction. Desert Rose is by all means gunning for the “we have more action girls!” angle, to be sure. At the same time, doubling down on trying to do that without also succumbing to being far more suggestive than its predecessors. The latter end of that has led many a similar show to oblivion over the years. Dirty Pair is, I feel, about as well balanced an act that can be without shattering the character writing.
So it is a valid concern, which seems taken to heart here.
Let us assume Desert Rose can be seen as a kind of harder nosed response to works like Bubblegum Crisis.
In which case, the most similar anime adaption I am reminded of would, oddly enough, be the later Gunsmith Cats series. Kenichi Sonoda’s manga started just a bit later (1991) than Desert Rose’s. It received its anime rendition on a similar schedule (1995). Though it has fewer women leading the series than Bubblegum Crisis, it too goes for a modern setting, via Chicago in the United States. While the manga contains some rather explicit sexual content throughout, the three OVA episodes scrub everything in that department to about as far as Rally firing a gun in a shirt and panties during a home invasion. Meanwhile, the action choreography is given the highlight treatment through multiple environmental and delivery methods.
I mention this not because of some wackadoodle theory of if Sonoda was chasing Shintani. But rather, as part of trying to see Desert Rose’s place within a subset series of media trends. The general recalibration of many Girls With Guns style works after the colorful 1980’s futurescapes. Which applies in other ways as well. Series like Burn-Up! were also rolling out with “reality” law enforcement flavors as well for instance. But, with ever greater balloon bust proportions and corresponding exaggerated physics.
Ultimately, I feel Desert Rose is on the better end of enduring to the modern era, like a Gunsmith Cats. It places its fetishes largely in room clearing, a few explosive set pieces, and stable enough character archetypes to carry the day. It has limited time, and at least knows it. Rather than chasing after more exaggerated design trends or traits, the production is more interested in action movie fundamentals.
We hit all the major moments one would expect in a feature twice its size. Shootout. Staring at bomb wire cutting. Flashback to the past of the main lead. Vehicle chase. Securing and investigating a major threat to the VIP meeting location. The grand finale. Among others here and there. It all moves from one point to another without feeling too rushed. Though, it also does not leave a whole lot of time left between all that for developing the sheer number of named women under Captain Rosebank’s command. Not beyond setting broad quirks and behaviors, at any rate. A world spanning television show could have turned out dandy. Or, had this OVA ended up as a feature film, it would have provided more time to breathe in the size of the cast.
For example, a movie like Redline has the ability to give each of its colorful racers at least one key section, which goes a long way. I could see such space having benefits in a counter-terrorism unit as populated as this.
Desert Rose is, on one level, an above average OVA of its post-economic bubble time.
It does most of the things one would expect of a reasonable, solid early 1990’s counter-terrorism flick one would find in frequent cable television rotation. “Just” staring a large team of women, and with a lot less skin on display than one may expect.
Yet, it is such a simple and curious thing, when one gets to thinking about it like that. How difficult it still is for such works to be generated by even the live action film industry over two decades later.
In which case, then Desert Rose turns out to be a lot hardier than the mineral formations it shares a name with.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.