This Week: Arei’s Mirror ~ Way to the Virgin Space (Arei no Kagami )
The official anime of the 1985 World’s Fair (or what may as well be).
For all their talk of reaching for the future and displaying the best the world will soon be able to offer, the temporary nature of world exposition events has a certain poetic quality for it.
Some leftover constructions endeavor well into the present, of course. Sites like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Space Needle in Seattle have become global symbols of their cities. We can hardly imagine their skylines without them at this point. Other less striking buildings turn into museums, science centers, university holdings, or the like. But a wide variety of what is built for these showcase events of cultural and technological sharing, display, and togetherness end up dismantled. Destroyed. Or otherwise left to the wayside.
For Arei’s Mirror ~ Way to the Virgin Space, this jumble of thoughts was very present in my head. As a video project, something in its format can not exist without some kind of external device to make it so.
This is not the first time I have tried to take a stab at a headline anime production produced for the purposes of a World’s Fair. Well over a year ago I tried to tackle Mamoru Oshii’s Open Your Mind (Mezame No Hakobune). In its original format at the 2005 event in Aichi, its special theater was an auteur masterwork of screens, statues, and rotating subject matter depending on the day. As near as I can figure out, Way to the Virgin Space did not have such a complex array of stage mechanics for its 1985 showing in Tsukuba.
But it did have a titanic name behind it, far larger a presence than even Mamoru Oshii has ever managed to acquire: Leiji Matsumoto.
World’s Fair events each have their own theme. In this way they unite what so many involved countries are trying to present under a single conceptual roof.
In the case of the Tsukuba 1985 exposition, its official designation came out to be “Dwellings and Surroundings – Science and Technology for Man at Home.” A fitting honor for a city created only in the 1960’s on the entire basis of it being a science center. Like an ambitious student trying in desperate fashion to stay within the confines of a given project, these themes are also often stretched far and wide by the display booths. Expo ‘85 was the show where the Sony Jumbotron made a big international splash, to become in time a feature of sport stadiums around the world. It has still retained presence as a generic name for such large monitors. Even when the underlying technology of the original CRT designs have long since seen replacement by LED screens and other developments, the name endures to the public. Japan could also demonstrate its newest High Speed Surface Transport magnetic levitation trains. It would even do so again at the aforementioned Aichi expo, via the Linimo line. Which I think is a nice link between these shows, beyond just each having their own anime shenanigans for me to talk about here.
Leiji Matsumoto has always been one to blend in the past quite a bit before looking ahead though. For all his fame in creating some of the most definitive space opera narratives in the Japanese and global media consciousness, it is always laced with what came before. Space Battleship Yamato revives the lost wartime hotel for a newer and more service ready legacy. Queen Millennia has its narratives of colonizer supervision force and colony blowback. Captain Harlock has enough World War “When Men Were Men” heroic idealism to last a lifetime. Galaxy Express 999 is about a human child searching the stars for the final destination which will grant him a perfect mechanical body. Yet it places significant emphasis time and again on showing the tragedy of this choice, how other people wished they never did.
All of which came out well before Way to the Virgin Space (which also had a small manga run that same year as this OVA). So in many respects, what happens next can be somewhat expected
The piece takes place in a far future time where mankind has extended far out past a polluted Earth. We have set up residence and shop so far through the universe where the prospect of it being the final frontier has lapsed. Rather, there is the consideration of if it may have an edge humanity may have reached. If we, and the other life in it, filled and/or used the place up. And so in some there is the sense of adventure towards our ability to perhaps get past such a thing. To reach a certain dimensional area of which would open up a path to new sights, sounds, worlds. The titular virgin space. Arei’s Mirror being a hypothetical location which may lead to it.
This being a Matsumoto production, I am not one to hold his ideas too hard or fast to actual science. After all, his famed works contain major elements such as equipping a World War II battleship and steam engines for space travel. He has always been more about overarching themes, mood, and atmosphere. That the best remembered animated versions of his works play well to dozens upon dozens of slow episodes on individual topics with small casts, or for rather long feature films, is no coincidence. Plot beats and moving things along are not his primary forte, and this is fine. I love many of his works for it.
The short has little time available to it, and in this case it wants to cram in as much as possible. Which puts it on an ill equipped footing from the start. Within two minutes of Way to the Virgin Space starting, we have seen our leads travel busy city streets. Asking for clues regarding the path to the rumored alternative space. Hitting up a late night dance club. Surviving a massive terrorist attack with explosions taller than any skyscraper in the city. Which may have been by revolutionary minded androids. Mankind’s mechanical offspring rebelling against a parentage which looks down on them in an ever crowded space.
Whatever the viewer may have thought they signed up for during their day at the fair, things on screen have become far more complicated.
A substantial portion of Way to the Virgin Space focuses on arguing how awful and terrible humanity is. The destruction it causes to itself, its creations, its worlds. That with every touch, there is yet more tragedy.
One prong of this comes from a stowaway on our leads spaceship. The arguments are overriding and commandeering. There is not much room for conversation when one is ready to kill another to make a point. A party can listen, but they may not be listening, as it were. The second comes courtesy of a more cosmic level, with its own objective. As perhaps expected in trying to find escape from the known and increasingly limited universe. Neither set of arguments makes persuasive locks that would pass muster past a school debate tier of blustery power plays or pithy Twitter statements. But, it does try to make its bombast as loud as possible. Extensive sequences showcasing everything from cavalry charges smashing infantry lines to the deployment of early machineguns. Naval battery bombardments to air raids razing cities to the ground. And more.
I feel one could be forgiven for perhaps expecting something more uplifting at or from the World’s Fair. There are some darker undertones present in what Oshii would create for his display decades later, of course. But the visuals and themes there are driven by the spectacle, sensation, and colors of nature.
And, to be fair, this video manages to find a way to dodge ending on a soul crushing note too. In fact, this was the first animated Leji Matsumoto work to use 3D computer graphics technology, deployed here for the grand finale . It was not the first big ticket anime to make use of such developments of course; 1983’s Golgo 13: The Professional predates it. Which has a charm to it nonetheless. The Professional has a swell 3D skeleton sequence near its start, which holds up well. But, it is far more internet infamous in certain hyperbolic circles for a polygon helicopter and skyscraper sequence towards its end.
Because of the future time and the destination goals of Way to the Virgin Space, our finale here can be more abstract and dreamlike. It is a visually inventive and colorful sight. A place I could see myself playing in an older Sonic the Hedgehog or Kirby game, which are each well after the release of this OVA. The quality level is floating around what one could expect from early prerendered Playstation era video game cutscenes. Which in that light remains impressive for how far removed that still was.
The OVA almost feels like it had a final four minutes or so it really wanted to visually execute on. Almost as if assembled backwards, to reach a set up it felt should be able to get us there. With so much of the middle being so much sprinting to the finish line listing off the warring sins of humanity to fill out the running time.
From a production standpoint, it is understandable to me why and how this was greenlit. The combination of features, ideas, and talent. Matsumoto is a colossal name is Japanese science fiction, so bringing a work of his in for the Expo would be a big score. Using a new smaller property would a good way to try something more experimental and unconnected to established franchises, in case it backfired. Familiar staff were still brought in to anchor a certain visual feel. Perhaps most primarily Kazuo Komatsubara, who adapted Matsumoto’s characters designs on numerous projects for animation, in addition to animating himself.
In practice, it does have a certain quality where it comes across as a lot of talented folks not having enough room. This may have been the height of the OVA era, but just shy of a half hour to tell a complete Matsumoto yarn start to finish may have been too much. So maybe the concept of there not being enough room in the universe has its truth in things.
Most of the middle I find interchangeable and thus tweeters toward the forgettable. An extensive amount of the video is rapid fire spreads of emergency and destruction without much for character buildup. But, this is not to say it is without bright spots. There is also a lavish extended dress and fabric intensive rotating dancer sequence. The kind of thing where the raw hours it would have taken to animate became paramount in my mind. Independent of all else, that alone would have been quite a sight back in the day. It has excellent placement to try and jazz the audience’s attention back.
Sakuga videos far and wide would be using that bit for everything it was worth today. If only we had a better source.
As an overlay while colorful landscape panning shots of the Earth go on behind it though, the best cut may well be the most difficult to try and present screens from given what we have to work with.
The video has never seen an enhanced version for Laserdisc, DVD, or any other media format past or present. Because of this, the very best quality version one is likely to run into will still end up being a tape multiple plays through its lifespan. An English language fansub copy does exist, oddly enough. That said, it comes with the caveat one may already fear from the screenshots I have selected. The level of video degradation present is extensive. To say nothing of blowing the image up on modern computer monitors and high definition resolutions.
This has been a more difficult post to me to piece together than most. In some sequences it is flat out difficult for me to tell what is going on, sure. Other times, like the dancing bit, I know they contain extravagant attention to flow and technical flair. But I also know I am not seeing them anywhere near their best. The plot and scene by scene dialogue are not what this video was ever designed for. It shows all the more given the greater prominence they have in the mind with their support components decaying.
I feel like I am wandering around at the end of the fair. Where the crowds are not what they used to be. Not every attraction is operating quite right. Some spots are already broken for the coming tear down.
This OVA did not become a Space Needle. Its purpose served, function achieved, and little else for it to do. Other than join the ranks of so much ephemera in the guidebooks of these long distant expositions.
It is tough to blame the fair itself in that situation. It is in its nature to come and go. To denigrate myself for not showing up sooner would be beyond silly too, as it would be for circumstances beyond my control.
I can not say I found the way I experienced it in the present engaging. All alone in a room with modern home theater equipment. But, I can imagine a set of circumstances in its past prime where we could have had at least a little bit more fun together.
Which, in a way, maybe that is not such an awful feeling to hold on to for the future.
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.