December 21, 2005

Ikki Tousen


"Guilty Pleasures" was a segment Siskel & Ebert used to do, touting movies that no proper, educated, civilized person was supposed to admit to watching, let alone enjoying. Anything made by Steven Seagal, to start with, or the Nastassja Kinski/Malcolm McDowell remake of version of Cat People. You would hardly be starved for similar examples when it comes to anime, but now and then one just jumps out at you, like Ikki Tousen.

Watching this blatantly sordid show, I can only imagine that right from the start the producer sat down with the director and writing staff and said, All right, guys, male demographic, lowest common denominators, let's take the gloves off and cover 'em all (okay, I can't really imagine that because it's based on a manga, so it's all Yuji Shiozaki's fault, but they no doubt juiced it up plenty for television). In any case, here they are:

  • A bunch of gang-banging, social-convention-shucking (but nonetheless obediently seifuku-wearing) high school students who moonlight as superhuman martial artists who leave holes in concrete walls with their fists. Ditto, the girls, only more so. (Check and check.)
  • That whole "Grasshopper" thing with the cool old geezer chopsocky master. (Don't leave the monastery without one.)
  • Never let the plot get in the way of the big fight scenes, consisting of:
    a. Guys beating up guys. (Boring, but necessary.)
    b. Guys beating up girls. (Whatever she's wearing getting liberally torn off in the process.)
    c. Girls beating up guys. (Especially if he's twice her height and three times her weight!)
    d. Girls beating up girls. (Obviously, much preferred to a, b and c.)
  • Whilst the fight is going on, lots and lots and lots and lots and LOTS OF PANTY SHOTS!! (Check, check, check, check and CHECK!!)
  • Failing that, totally gratuitous nudity. (Like, totally, check.)
  • Including a hot springs episode. (What, you think they would leave that out?)
  • Naked lesbian high school chicks. (No, really, it's important to the plot!)
  • Babelicious mom hitting on smart-ass high school jocks half her age (And you think your parents are embarrassing.)
  • Wacko insane psycho-killer antagonist with a Gene Simmons fixation. (Are there any other kind?)
  • Facing down a complete and utter ditz of a protagonist. (Completely and utterly check!)

Okay, I can hear you saying, so what? Another run-of-the-mill, been-there, done-that bit of pandering, low-brow shounen entertainment. Big deal. Most of what Enoch Lau might call the "PANTY SHOT!!" genre is pure dreck, unwatchable no matter how firmly tongue is pressed against cheek. What makes Ikki Tousen different is that these bottom feeders did a decent job on the animation, and settled on a boffo storyline. A good story beats just about any hand you can play.

The premise of Ikki Tousen has a bunch of high school students being possessed by the historical figures from China's Three Kingdoms era, and fighting the war all over again. Lasting from 184 AD to 280 AD, it was one of the bloodiest periods of civil warfare ever in human history. The military and political turmoil that arose out of it inspired the 14th century novel, The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, comparable in subject matter and literary importance to Tolstoy's War and Peace.

The novel had a profound influence on the historical narrative form both in China and Japan (including Fuyumi Ono's Twelve Kingdoms series). Another illustrative comparison might be Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, in which the Shakespearean classic is set in the context of an L.A. gang war. Ikki Tousen, to be sure, has been tarted up and stripped (literally) of all subtlety and nuance, but sticks to the Machiavellian complexities of the source material.

The result can be terribly confusing at first to the western viewer, especially since they use the Japanese character names, which over the centuries have strayed far phonetically from the Chinese originals. But the whole idea of placing these historical conflicts in a modern context, with the battles organized and fought exactly as a particularly violent sort of double-elimination, extracurricular high school sport, is so unexpectedly clever as to drag you unwittingly along for the ride.

Lastly but not leastly, Ikki Tousen is cheekily (literally) honest about what it's up to. As I have mentioned, we end up rooting for a hero whom even the narrator somberly intones is a dimwit. What, everybody around her wonders out loud, are we doing risking our lives defending this airhead? What, indeed, are we doing watching it? Um . . . never mind.

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