Lensman Anime Review
SF Shinseiki Lensman
Science Fiction New Era Lensman
US Release By
In the year 2500 the Galactic Alliance is threatened by the menace of the Boskone empire and its tyrannical ruler Helmuth. When the Galactic Patrol ship Brittanica crashes on the planet M'Quie, a dying Lensman gives young Kimball Kinnison, son of a former Galactic Patrolman, the powerful Lens containing information vital to the survival of mankind. Joined by his faithful friend Van Buskirk, young Galactic Patrol nurse Clarisse "Chris" McDougal and fellow Lensman Worsel the Velantian, Kim must travel across the galaxy to bring the Lens to Galactic Patrol HQ, evading the pursuing Boskonians who will do anything to stop him.
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Based on the seminal space opera stories by E.E. Smith that eventually inspired Star Wars, directed by the famed Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and one of the earliest anime movies to combine computer animation with hand-drawn cels, Lensman certainly has the pedigree. While the animation is very '80s, the plot entirely familiar to anyone who's seen Star Wars, and the pure sci-fi story far less hard-edged than Kawajiri's usual catalogue, Smith's sense of adventure and Kawajiri's personal style still shines through in places. Lensman is first and foremost an action film and is quite a good one at that. People who take one look at the box cover before shrugging and looking elsewhere are advised to take a second look.
Lensman doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is--a good enjoyable space adventure. Hardly Kawajiri's best film, but excellent fare for fans of the genre who want to check out something retro and still worth a look for the rest of you lot.
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'Lensman' was originally a series of stories written by well known science fiction pioneer E.E "Doc" Smith and is considered one of the main influences on 'Star Wars'. This movie (the first directed by the now famous Yoshiaki Kawajiri) is based on the second Lensman story, 'Galactic Patrol'. Another notable feature of the film is that it was one of the first anime to make extensive use of computer graphics in its animation. Having examined its pedigree and given it the thumbs up, now its time to actually inspect the film itself.
Lensman's animation, style and content may surprise, or even put off, those familiar with more recent Kawajiri work such as Ninja Scroll or Cyber City. The animation is very '80s and resembles Space Adventure Cobra more than anything else, while the film is pure sci-fi, far less hard-edged than Kawajiri's usual catalogue of cyberpunk, horror and ninja warfare; however his personal style still shines through in places. Lensman is first and foremost an action film and is quite a good one at that. People who take one look at the box cover before shrugging and looking elsewhere are advised to take a second look.
As a Kawajiri action movie you shouldn't expect too much by way of a plot in Lensman. The movie's story is neither deep nor unpredictable and may seem familiar to anyone who has sen Star Wars (i.e everybody). Most of the ingredients are here: adventure-seeking farmboy? Check. Cute but independent love interest? Check (Chris even has the cinnamon bun hairdo for chrissakes!) Evil empire with even eviler emperor? Check. Information which must be delivered to HQ in order to save the galaxy? Check. Fortunately Lensman manages to offer a few twists on the by now well-worn Star Wars formula and there are easily enough differences to make Lensman its own movie instead of just another Star Wars rip off (remember that the story which inspired this preceded Star Wars by about two decades). Although the story moves along in very obvious stages as the action moves from M'Quie to Delgon to Velantia to the final showdown, we're usually having too much fun to care.
Unfortunately detail and characterization let the film down a fair bit: both are exceedingly minimal. When the characters are on a planet we see only what is absolutely necessary. No highly detailed and fantastically realized worlds here. (Delgon especially might as well just be a barren ball of rock with a few features to have adventures with). Likewise the characters fit into neatly defined and quite obvious roles and don't develop at all. Kim is a fairly straightforward anime hero and little else. Chris all but has a neon sign above her head shouting "love interest" from the very first time we see her. Worsel is a wonderfully designed character but doesn't get enough screen time to support this and ends up with no real personality as a result. Crazy DJ Bill is a funny character, with a bit more depth than you'd originally think, but is still nothing special. The best character in the film is probably Buskirk, who is funny, interesting and has enough personality to carry the whole length of the film, but is still the best of a bad lot. The designs (apart from Chris') are adequate enough, especially Worsel, although the dying Lensman who passes the Lens on to Kim made me think that Roy Fokker (from Macross/Robotech) had fallen through a dimensional portal into a different anime.
The aliens, spaceships and other technology are also nicely done. Although the human ships are fairly conventional, the Boskonian vessels look extremely organic, like giant brains or sea sponges, crude forerunners of the Raalgon vessels from "Irresponsible Captain Tylor." The Boskones themselves are an interesting, if conventional mix (although with an emperor like Helmuth none of the commanders last very long) but, as with all of the characters in the movie, lack personality. The use of computer effects, which you would expect to be very crude, actually looks quite good and works very well. I've seen anime, even modern anime, which incorporate CG very poorly (Initial D being foremost among these) but here the 3D spaceships and use of wireframe fits the style very nicely. The Lens transfer sequence deserves special mention here as being especially impressive. The cel animation is also very neat, although it bears no resembles to the highly artistic and clearly drawn animation Kawajiri usually gets from studio Madhouse. Something interesting (trivial, but interesting) I noticed is that the vehicle Kim and Buskirk use in the mine escape looks like a Flying Platform (from AKIRA) with a sidecar. Just thought I'd point it out.
The action scenes in Lensman are clearly the film's high point--as always with Kawajiri anime, even early ones like this, they are exciting, engaging, fast-paced and impressive. The struggle against the vine creature and the battle against the Overlords of Delgon, the escape from the Overlords' fortress and the death wheel chase, the thrilling escape from the mine and the great final confrontation against Helmuth, all are great fun and very cool. In fact, the first stage of the final confrontation reminded me of the old live-action movie "Tron" (that's a film I haven't seen in over a decade)! Although it gets a little cheesy as it goes on it's still good and you should be prepared for a few surprises. The action isn't Kawajiri's best (or even close) but is still excellent for its period, devoid of slow down, rushing background, or exaggeration. In light of this we can probably forgive the thin characterization.
The audio mix in Lensman is a mixed bag, an expression I regularly use to describe anime from this period. However, this time I use it in reverse. Lensman has a surprisingly good dub, not brilliant but with few to no really bad voices. The only character who might get on your nerves is DJ Bill and he's crazy anyway, so it's a big 'might'. The only real downer with the dub is that it can sometimes be rather hard to make out what the Boskones are saying, but this is a common problem with characters possessing deep, artificial voices (such as the Zentraedi in Robotech). Unfortunately, the soundtrack of Lensman is a bit iffy. There are a couple of nice (nice-ish) pieces of music, most notably just after Kim's father died and at certain times in the final battle, but for the most part the mood music is either badly placed, badly chosen, plain crap, or even totally absent, leaving some scenes feeling a little empty. This isn't a major gripe, but I definitely wouldn't bother wasting money on a soundtrack CD.
Overall, Lensman doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is--a good enjoyable space adventure. Hardly Kawajiri's best film, but excellent fare for fans of the genre who want to check out something retro and still worth a look for the rest of you lot.
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Space Adventure Cobra is, stylistically, as similar as you're going to get, although the content is considerably different. You could try Outlaw Star, but that's a TV series, not a movie.
Notes and Trivia
Based on a series of novels from the late 1930s though the '40s (specifically Galactic Patrol, completed in 1938) written by E.E. "Doc" Smith (who did, in fact, hold a PhD). Smith is generally considered the father of space opera, although oddly this is the only film adaptation of his work (and not a particularly faithful one, apparently). The movie spawned a 1987 anime TV series, as well, which has even less to do with the original novels. There is also a series of US comic books based on the Lensman universe.
It's also a historically interesting film as Yoshiaki Kawajiri's directorial debut; he has since gained fame for dark and usually very violent stylish horror/action movies, including Wicked City and Ninja Scroll.
US DVD Review
No licensed US DVD exists as of this writing.
About 10-up for a bit of violence.
Violence: 2 - Nothing disturbing.
Nudity: 0 - Not even a hint of skimpy clothing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing more than some (very) light romance.
Language: 1 - DJ Bill says the "S-word" once. That really is it.