Project A-ko Anime Review
US Release By
Schoolgirl Parody Action
What's In It
- Big Robots
- Little Robots
- Bikini-shaped Battlesuits
- Cute... ish Schoolgirls
- Giant Space Ships
- The Catfight of the Century
- Fully-Automatic Wrist-Mounted Missile Launcher
- High-speed Foot Chases
- Ambiguous Schoolgirl Relationships
- Pretty Darned Weird
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 2 (moderate)
- Sex: 1 (mild)
- Language: 1 (mild)
Years ago, Graviton City was wiped out by a falling chunk of space debris. It has now been rebuilt into a bustling high-tech center. A-ko and her lifelong friend C-ko are new in town, and are trying to get used to life at their new high school. This is not as easy as it could be considering that A-ko is a chronic oversleeper and C-ko is an airhead on a scale that makes the people in Clueless look like MIT students. But a few personality quirks seem insignificant when compared to the real social difficulty facing A-ko and C-ko: The alphabetically-appropriate B-ko, who has her heart set upon C-ko, and is determined to win her. The only thing that stands in her way is A-ko, and she vows to employ her genius in robotics, her band of loyal schoolyard minions, and her vast family wealth to achieve A-ko's demise. Unfortunately for B-ko, her undertaking does not prove to be as simple as it first appears, due to A-ko's superhuman strength and fighting skill. Things continue to escalate until it comes time for a showdown between the alphabetic trio, the mysterious spy "D"... and a full-scale alien invasion.
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Project A-ko is everything cliche and classic you love about old-school anime compressed into 80 minutes of action-packed film. It's ostensibly a parody, and sends up everything from Macross to Fist of the North Star, usually in weird and hilarious ways. It also has functionally likable characters (except for the terminally annoying C-ko) and something like a story, so it's a decent action-comedy anime even if you don't get the '80s-era in-jokes. Perhaps best of all, it's absolutely loaded with action--space battles, ground battles, air battles, mecha battles, the superpowered schoolgirl catfight of the century, and gratuitous use of the world's first and only wrist-mounted fully-automatic missile launcher on a battlesuit shaped like a bikini. It all builds to a chaotic, hilarious, action-packed crescendo to make for one heck of a memorable experience--no petering out at the end in this movie. It's also a very attractive film given its age, with smooth animation and spectacular looking action galore, plus has a distinctive (and not terribly dated) soundtrack with English-language songs.
Project A-ko is hard to top as an action-packed old-school anime parody. One word both describes and defines this film: Fun. Well, maybe three: Lots of fun.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Project A-ko is everything cliche and classic you love about old-school anime compressed into 80 action-packed minutes of film. It's ostensibly a parody, but it also has something like a story, fun characters, and it's loaded with awesome action. It's juvenile, it's empty, and if you ask me, it's more fun than a quality action movie and at least two anime comedies stuffed in a barrel of monkeys.
First and foremost, Project A-ko is a parody of almost every classic anime you've ever seen, and probably a few you haven't. Just to name a few: The whole setup is a vague Macross parody, the aliens send up Captain Harlock and his too-cool space captain kin, and there's Mari, a 10-foot-tall schoolgirl straight out of Fist of the North Star. There are also plenty of quick one-scene riffs, for example a movie-within-a-movie from Harmageddon, with the robot replaced by Colonel Sanders of fast chicken fame.
Of course, Project A-Ko is from 1986, so there won't be parodies of anything recent, but veterans of classic anime should find themselves smiling at nearly everything. If you haven't seen much anime, on the other hand, you're going to be missing a lot, and it'll seem far weirder than it has reason to. But, whether you get the references or not, there's plenty of opportunity for laughs in the off-kilter sense of humor that kicks in after the movie gets going.
There's my one other warning: It takes its time getting warmed up before flipping the all-out action switch for the sheer madness that the second half holds. I don't consider this relatively slow start a bad thing; it starts off with the more subtle jokes, setting up the cliches that eventually come together in the second half... which, it turns out, aren't put together quite how they're supposed to be, with hilarious results. It also has no issue with a common comedy pitfall: Instead of getting disappointingly serious or petering out toward the end, Project A-ko builds to a chaotic crescendo, just the way I like it.
But it takes more than just a long series of parodies to make a great comedy; if the plot is just a random assortment of scenes and the characters don't have any personality, there's nothing to make a connection to. Fortunately, Project A-ko is on solid footing there, too--the characters are two-dimensional but can stand on their own, the setting is internally consistent, and the plot, bizarre though it may be, is coherent. As with other great anime comedies, if you set up a functional reality populated by a really strange cast of characters, the bizarre situations will follow naturally, and will be all the funnier. None of this is to say that there's any kind of substance to it, but it's so much fun I didn't care. (A word of warning, though: Uber-ditz C-ko is annoying like nobody's business.)
Now, although Project A-ko will be more enjoyable if you're well-versed in classic anime (it is a parody after all), no matter what your anime background is, you'll probably be able to appreciate at least one thing about it: Over-the-top Action. Yes, "Action" with a capital "A." The first half of the movie is smattered with scenes that would make most anime of the era look pretty good. Then the second half starts, and so does the real show.
You've got: Space battles, air battles, ground battles, mecha battles, superhero-scale fist fights, martial arts, sword fighting, gunfighting, tank-throwing, school-wrecking, city destroying, spaceship crashing, and gratuitous use of the only wrist-mounted fully-automatic missile launcher ever to grace the animated screen. There's more action here than you can shake a battlesuit shaped like a bikini at. Add that to the rest of the film and you've got a movie that is--for those who enjoy this sort of thing--as much fun as anime has any right to be.
On that note, Project A-ko is visually well above average, particularly for a movie of its vintage. The character designs are cute and classically styled, but a bit different from the norm, and the mecha are (of course) old-school I-think-I've-seen-that-somewhere style. The art in general is solid and full of detail, and the animation is smooth and expensive--full theatrical stuff. The action--which, if I haven't already made that clear, is abundant--is impressively animated in every department--a spectacle to be sure.
Last, there's the voice cast, which is pretty darned good in the Japanese version. The casting is appropriately stereotypical and full of personality, from the primaries right down to walk-ons. I'd call Shuuichi Ikeda's performance as the Captain the most memorable--particularly funny toward the end. D, voiced by Tesshou Genda, also has some great moments--again, at the end in particular when things start to go really haywire. Emi Shinohara gives B-ko a refined, bossy menace that's all kinds of fun, while Michie Tomizawa's C-ko is so annoying it's hard to describe, but then she's supposed to be.
The English version isn't so good, but it's not that bad, either, especially when compared to some of US Manga Corps' other early dubs. No standout performances, but the humor comes through pretty well--if you prefer English dialogue, you won't be missing much.
The largely American music production is the one surprise--Richie Zito and Joey Carbone, in addition to Toji Akasaka, are credited with the music. The three vocal pieces--one theme for each character--are sung in English, but have the right sound and feel for a classic anime movie. (If you really must have J-pop, there are '90s-updated Japanese versions of the three themes in one of the sequels). The non-vocal background music, though largely synthesized, is decent and fits the moods quite well. I'm particularly fond of the lively action theme, although a few of the action scenes have less music than I would have liked.
As a fan of classic anime I can't say enough about Project A-ko, and it's hard to top as an action-packed old-school anime parody. With a few clever (and lots more not-so-clever) send-ups, fun characters, a plot with just the right blend of functional and silly, and as much action as you're liable to find in one place, one word both describes and defines this film: Fun. Well, maybe three: Lots of fun.
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If you're a fan of any of the classic anime parodied, you should find something to enjoy here. You'll find bits remarkably similar to, among others: Macross (Robotech), Gall Force, Outlanders, Fist of the North Star, Harmageddon, Captain Harlock, and just about anything that has a giant robot or super-powerful woman in it. As for similar comedies, the cult-favorite Shinesman and little-known The Ultimate Teacher are both worth a look as quality classic parodies, with the latter being closer in style and theme. The more modern Excel Saga is an even crazier sendup of absolutely everything, and I'll also mention Tenchi Muyo not as a parody, but for the vaguely similar epic-scale catfights.
Finally, there are of course three sequels, which are definitely worth trying out. The first of the three is the silliest and probably the worst (or least good, I should say), the second is better, and the third very nearly lives up to the original. There is also a two-episode OAV series, Blue vs. Grey, but that is a very different sort of comedy, and basically just uses the same characters in different roles. It is also much worse in all respects.
Notes and Trivia
Notes and trivia galore for this title.
To start with, Project A-ko is very loosely based on a never-finished Cream Lemon concept by Katsuhiko Nishijima (see below for details), but is essentially a standalone work written and directed by Nishijima. While there are a variety of spin-off artbooks, soundtracks, CDs, and other advertising material, there is only one manga adaptation: A 2-issue miniseries produced by CPM Manga in 1995 for the US market. It's all-color, drawn in anime cel style, and is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the movie.
If you can't get enough A-ko, there are three direct sequels, all of which are at least amusing, and each of which does something different with the characters and style. The two Blue vs. Grey OAVs, however, are totally unrelated story-wise, and I wouldn't recommend them at all.
Unlike the girls' names within the story, the title of the film itself is written with the Roman character "A" (A子), in a reference to the 1983 Jackie Chan film "Project A."
On that note, the names A-ko, B-ko, and C-ko are more than just the obvious alphabet parody: Nondescript characters in Japanese movies (like "Security Guard 1") are often referred to in the credits by letters (i.e. Security Guard A). More specifically, you frequently see "Girl A, Girl B...", which, in Japanese is "A ko, B ko..."
In addition, the character for "ko" is frequently found at the end of female names, and in fact, Eiko, Biiko, and Shiiko (which are pronounced the same as A, B, and C-ko in Japanese) all have "official" kanji writings. Eiko (英子), meaning roughly "English Girl," is a real (and relatively common) name, though it is more often written with another, similar-looking character. Biiko (美子), meaning "beautiful girl," is also a real name, though it's properly pronounced "Yoshiko." Shiiko (詩子), roughly meaning "song girl," can also be a real name (albeit an uncommon one), though again it's properly pronounced "Utako."
Writer-director Katsuhiko Nishijima is, perhaps, better known for high-quality mild hentai anime. Specifically, underwear fetish anime: He is responsible for both the underwear fetish action series Agent Aika and the (admittedly very funny) underwear fetish screwball comedy Labyrinth of Flames.
His other anime works don't seem as out of character when you consider that Project A-ko was originally intended to be a short in the erotic Cream Lemon series; a book that includes a short comic, character designs, and even storyboards was produced. For whatever reason, it was re-cast as a drastically cleaner (and more substantive) parody for a mainstream audience and a larger budget theatrical production. This origin is likely where the rather ambiguous nature of the three girls' relationship comes from; the original was not at all ambiguous (explicitly so). Based on this, one could infer that the implied relationship(s) in this film (drawn into question in the third film and then implied all over again in the fourth) are indeed what they seem.
Many of the designs for the film came from this original concept, including the look (and names) of A-ko, B-ko, and Miss Ayumi, as well as the Akagiyama 23. C-ko, however, looked totally different, and Miss Ayumi was originally also skimpy-battlesuit-equipped (plus the school turned into a giant robot in a riff on the SDF-1 in Macross).
Elsewhere in the staff are the non-Japanese names that show up in the musical credits. Richie Zito is an acclaimed session guitarist and music writer-producer who has worked in one role or another with acts from Elton John to Art Garfunkel to Cheap Trick. Joey Carbone, on the other hand, while LA-based and at one time the music director for Star Search, is probably best known for his Japanese connections; he claims to have worked with acts as big as SMAP and Max, and is credited with music for some other anime as well, including Rayearth and Child's Toy. Samantha Newark, who sings B-ko's theme, does occasional voice work, but her biggest role was the title character in the classic saturday morning cartoon Jem. Ironically, she did not supply Jem's singing voice.
The movie is loaded with references, but in addition to the rather obvious Macross, Harlock, Harmageddon, and Fist of the North Star nods mentioned in the review, here are a few more: Miss Ayumi, the teacher, probably not coincidentally looks almost exactly like the title character of Creamy Mami, popular around the time the film was made. A-ko herself may be an indirect reference to the pre-Dragonball Akira Toriyama comic and anime Dr. Slump, also popular in the early '80s. The main character of that series is a superpowered schoolgirl robot who looks nothing like A-ko, but Aoi Kimidori, another character, has a nearly identical hairstyle, and the odd little critter Gacchan superficially looks rather like C-ko. As for B-ko, her hairstyle looks a bit like Minmay's (from Macross).
On a more subtle note, during most of the flashes and other visual effects associated with explosions or punches, a word (in English) pops onscreen for a single frame; this is probably just goofing around by the animators (classic Disney movies occasionally had similar bits), but I suppose it could be a nod to the comic book history of the eventual "ultimate joke" about the source of A-ko's powers at the end of the film. Likewise, in a scene where missiles are being launched at the space battleship from a fighter, about every sixth one looks like a Pepsi can. On that note, the can kicked in the movie-within-a-movie is labeled "Dr. Bepper."
As for things that didn't make it into the film, the storyboards were released in book form in Japan, and you can see from the originals that A-ko's destructive shortcut to school through several people's houses was intended to be repeated several times. All but the initial run-through was cut. The early scene where A-ko stretches in front of a window was also intended to have her shirt transparent in front of the bright light, and this shot was actually animated, but a nudity-free version was re-done for the released film (the original version is included as an extra with one of the later movies by USM).
Project A-Ko was, when released theatrically, shown in 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, and U.S. Manga Corps' older releases are all in this format, letterboxed. Interestingly, however, cels for the film were drawn in standard TV 4:3 ratio and cropped to widescreen ratio for the theatrical version, while the "tall" version was available for video. USM's later remastered DVD release uses this non-widescreen video. It's not cropped--it's the widescreen version that cuts off the top and bottom of the frame.
What's most interesting, though, is that from an artistic standpoint the cropped widescreen version appears to be the "correct" one. A comparison with the storyboards makes it clear that the original artistic vision was closer to the version shown in theaters. Presumably, the animators filled in the top and bottom of the frame to make for an easier TV/VHS conversion. And, indeed, a few of the visual jokes work better in the cropped widescreen version--Mari's face, for example, isn't fully visible in her first appearance onscreen, making for a funnier reveal later.
On a somewhat related note, Project A-ko was one of U.S. Manga Corp's first releases, and in early VHS versions they boasted of it being in "Mangarama," meaning that the film is shown letterboxed, but rather than being evenly spaced, the black bar at the bottom is much larger, and the subtitles all show up down there, so they don't overlap the picture. Anamorphic DVDs and widescreen TVs have rendered this impossible, but it's a solution that I wish had been more common when feasible. (Even more random musing: Since Japanese can be written vertically, you could theoretically do the reverse with an old, non-widescreen video on a widescreen TV, putting the subtitles vertically in the black side bars.)
US DVD Review
The original DVD release was one of the first DVDs that US Manga Corps announced (back in May of 1998, if memory serves), and after over a year of delays, they finally managed to get it out the door. Taking that into account, the disc is a bit disappointing. It's the same as USM's other early theatrical DVDs done by Image, meaning solid but minimal--there are no special features whatsoever, save a chapter index and the two audio tracks. The well-separated stereo audio transfer is surprisingly good for a film this old--although there's some leftover hiss, it's quite crisp. The video transfer isn't quite as good, but still not bad for the era--it's letterboxed rather than anamorphic widescreen, and the colors are a little off, but it's otherwise beautifully bright and sharp. Almost too sharp, in fact; the grain stands out a bit (due to the older film print, I assume), which is fine, but throughout the movie you can see little hairline vertical scratches. Given the age and that it really is a film, I suppose these physical scratches on the print shouldn't be surprising, but I guess the VHS version wasn't sharp enough for them to show up. It's not a severe problem, and to put a positive spin on it, it really makes you feel like you're watching a movie in a theater. In all, a nice transfer, and definitely a worthwhile addition to a collection, but minimal as a DVD, and as expected, there is no Japanese cast.
USM later released a special edition DVD that includes the soundtrack CD, remastered video, and a number of special features. The new video is most noteworthy, as it uses the uncropped, non-widescreen version, discussed in the notes section. Apart from that, the transfer is nice; most notably the color looks much richer and more accurate than the older transfer (it's actually surprising how different the colors are). Sadly, it's still not progressive video, with a lot of interlacing artifacts (I don't know this for a fact, but it's possible that the 4:3 version was actually recorded from the start in interlaced, 30fps video, given that it must have been targeted at the video market).
The film has since been re-released on DVD by Eastern Star.
US Manga Corps calls it 13-up, which is about right.
Violence: 2 - Loads of fighting, and certainly some deaths (a space station gets blown up), but nothing graphic at all.
Nudity: 2 - Two very brief scenes, and a lot of metal-bikini-clad fighting.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - There certainly seems to be something going on between the three girls, but it's only implied, and may be platonic.
Language: 1 - A few scattered bits of profanity.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Eiko Magami - A-Ko: Miki Itoh
Biko Daitokuji - B-Ko: Emi Shinohara
Shiko Kotobuki - C-Ko: Michie Tomizawa
Mysterious Character "D": Tessho Genada
Captain: Shuuichi Ikeda
Miss Ayumi: Asami Mukodono
Mari: Sayuri Ikemoto (speaking)
Asa: Yoko Kogayu
Inee: Yoshino Takemori
Umee: Megumi Hayashibara
Defense Minister: Ohki Tamio
Story: Katsuhiko Nishijima/Kazumi Shirasaka
Director: Katsuhiko Nishijima
Art Director: Shinji Kimura/Kobayashi Productions
Music Director: Yasunori Honda
Music: Richie Zito/Joey Carbone/Toji Akasaka
Available in North American from Eastern Star on bilingual DVD.
Previously available from the late US Manga Corps on a remastered hybrid DVD "Collector's Series" that includes the soundtrack CD, or as part of a 3-disc set that included all the sequels and spin-offs, as well as the soundtrack, and prior to that on a more minimal DVD (one of USM's first, produced by Image), and before that on various subtitled and dubbed VHS editions and a subtitled-only LaserDisc.
Amazon carries the current edition: Project A-Ko (current version)