SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers Anime Review
Shin SOS Dai Toukyou Tankentai
New SOS Great Tokyo Exploration Party
US Release By
One sunny day three friends (and a tag-along little brother) meet for an expedition into the tunnels beneath Tokyo. Armed with the notebook from a father's youthful exploring, they set off in search of long-lost treasure. The tunnels turn out to be an unexpectedly lively place, and high adventure ensues.
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SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next is a little one-off all-ages adventure movie about a troupe of kids looking for treasure and finding interesting people and adventure beneath Tokyo. Vaguely like The Goonies without any of the gross and even less plot, it's fun enough but unsubstantial and over quickly. Its most memorable feature, however, is the weird character art, in particular the red, turned-up noses all the characters sport, making it look like the entire cast has a cold. That distracts from the fact that the animation otherwise does an admirably good job of making 3D computer work look like hand-drawn cel art. Otherwise it's a largely forgettable film; there are a couple of notably colorful characters inhabiting the tunnels under Tokyo, and about the last third of the movie consists of one extended battle/chase sequence, but none of it has any emotional substance at all nor any honest thrills.
In the end it's a simple film that more or less succeeds as a kids' adventure flick--it's fun, suitable for most ages, and doesn't talk down to the audience. It is also almost entirely without substance, drama, or even a sense of dramatic tension, so other than the notably odd character designs it's totally forgettable, particularly for something based on an Otomo story and backed with fancy computer animation.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next is a little one-off adventure movie about a troupe of kids looking for treasure and finding interesting people and adventure beneath Tokyo. A sort-of-sequel to an Otomo manga short and apparently intended as a children's flick, it's vaguely like The Goonies without any of the gross and even less plot. It's also unsubstantial and over quickly, but it is full of at least reasonably fun action for as long as it lasts.
The most memorable feature of the movie is the art. The whole production appears designed as much as anything to showcase 3D computer animation that doesn't look like it; the combination of a very good hand-drawn-style cel shader and intentionally decreased framerates (not choppy, but noticeably less smooth than it could have been) makes it easy to forget that it's computer animated. The attractive backgrounds (as attractive as a tunnel can be, anyway) look equally hand-painted, and the camerawork uses relatively static hand-animation-style framing to complete the "CG that isn't" effect.
From a technological standpoint it does an impressive, if not quite perfect, job of capturing the feel of hand-drawn animation. The one area it falls short is a bit ironically the fluidity of the animation; where hand-drawn cels use streaks and other effects to evoke fast motion, and cinematic-style CG usually uses motion blur, Tokyo Metro Explorers just uses a series of freeze frames, leaving it looking subtly less dynamic. The character animation looks a little stiff as well, though that's mostly nitpicking.
But when I said the most memorable feature was the art, I actually didn't mean from a technological standpoint; the character designs are weird, and not because of the technology. The otherwise anime-style faces have these odd little turned-up, red noses that make it seem like the entire cast has a cold. They were distracting and add nothing appealing, so I really wonder who made that call, particularly given how hard it's otherwise trying to "fit in" as traditional anime.
The second most memorable thing is a sharp-witted and completely unflappable girl following the boys for purposes of "observation." She's armed with a collection of portable power tools and plenty of creativity with which to apply them, making for a couple of amusing scenes and a nice contrast with the somewhat underprepared boys.
The third I don't really want to give away, since it's about the closest thing to a surprise twist the movie has in it, but suffice it to say there's a rather rollicking subterranean chase sequence through most of the second half of the movie. That's unfortunately pretty much it for the noteworthy features.
The movie gets rolling quickly, forsaking almost any backstory or character establishment. Probably a good call, given how short it is, but it leaves it feeling noticeably unsubstantial, even by kids' movie standards. A brief flashback of one boy's recently-divorced and apparently socially inept father hints at some sort of emotional substance, but that goes basically nowhere, and that's pretty much it. A couple of the colorful characters the kids run into, having willfully dropped out of society proper, have the potential for some pathos behind the humor, but again that isn't capitalized on at all.
Speaking of whom, once the kids get underground, there's less tunnel crawling than you'd think. They soon run across an underground shantytown populated by a wide variety of social outcasts (full of cultural references most non-Japanese won't catch), and things quickly launch into a small-scale (and bloodless) war. From there on it's an extended action scene for the remainder of the short runtime. If it doesn't sound like there's any "meat" in there, it's because there isn't. Even the big action finale doesn't have any sense of tension to speak of, and the wrap-up consists of "Wow, that was a heck of an adventure. Well, I've got a train to catch."
The end result is that almost nothing stuck with me afterward. Not that it was boring (it wasn't long enough to be even if it tried), but for what must have been a relatively substantial budget, and with Otomo's name attached to it, Tokyo Metro Explorers is a remarkably forgettable movie. Yes, it's a kids' movie, but given what Miyazaki and others can do within that genre, I don't consider that an excuse.
The acting (Japanese only) is solid, nothing more. The kids all sound like kids and the colorful underworld inhabitants are colorful, but there's no drama at all. The only performance that stands out is a deranged old man still stuck in WWII, but that's as much for his amusing dialogue as the voice behind it. No complaints about the soundtrack, other than to note that I can't remember any of it.
SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next is a simple film that more or less succeeds as a kids' adventure flick--it's fun, suitable for most ages, and doesn't talk down to the audience. It is also almost entirely without substance, drama, or even a sense of tension, so other than the notably odd character designs it's totally forgettable, particularly for something based on an Otomo story and backed with some fancy computer animation.
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Surprisingly little similar anime comes to mind. As an all-ages adventure movie The Cat Returns is somewhat similar in mood, though far more fanciful; Kiki's Delivery Service is also similar in mood, but with a completely different semi-fantasy setting. Whisper of the Heart is a third Ghibli film that comes to mind--it has a bit of exploring everyday places, but is drastically lower-key. As far as films based on Otomo works, this is pretty much unique; maybe reminiscent of the wild chase sequence in Roujin Z, and Steamboy is vaguely similar inasmuch as it has kids and adventure (plus this is the sort of side-effect of Steamboy), but that's about it.
Notes and Trivia
Based on a 1996 manga short by Katsuhiro Otomo of almost the same title (the movie version adds "Shin"/"New" to the beginning). The "Shin"/"Next" in the title is because it's effectively a sequel to the manga; the boys in this movie are using the diary of one of the kids in the manga, who is now an adult. There's no official English translation of the manga as of this writing.
The film also shares a chunk of its production staff with the Otomo film Steamboy; according to the liner notes, Sunrise studio was gearing up for a sequel to Steamboy after the first film was completed. When the project fell through (presumably due to Steamboy's failure at the box office), they decided to apply the computer techniques they'd been working on to a smaller project, and picked an Otomo manga short to base it on. Otomo didn't, however, have much input into the movie past that.
Aside from the mostly-real Tokyo locales, there are a number of cultural references and in-jokes in the background; the liner notes explain them pretty clearly, and are worth reading.
US DVD Review
The US DVD release features Japanese-only audio in Dolby 5.1 and an English subtitle track, plus a good selection of extras: A lengthy making-of featurette (almost as long as the film), an audio commentary track with some of the production staff, interviews, the theatrical trailer, and a 12-page booklet with interviews, background information, and liner notes. It's also very pricey as of this writing.
As with all of Bandai's Honneamise-label Blu-ray discs, this one shares a couple of features. One, it's entirely bilingual--the first thing you get to pick when firing up the disc is which language to show the menus in. Two, it is spectacularly expensive. I assume the latter is because of the former (the US may now share a region code with Japan, but videos still cost way more on that side of the Pacific), but it begs the question of whether a 40-minute kids' movie is worth in the ballpark of $50 (retail price $65, street currently around $45). The price actually isn't much different from the DVD version, but the answer is still "almost certainly not."
As for what it gets out of the Blu-ray treatment, again not much. Due mostly to the relatively soft visual style, there's almost nothing in the way of fine linework on the character art, and apart from a few scenes of Tokyo even the backgrounds aren't notably detailed or pretty, so all that extra resolution gets you little if any noticeable improvement. The soundtrack, similarly, doesn't contain anything that is going to show off the fancy Dolby TruHD 5.1 audio for those with sufficiently equipped sound systems. They didn't even bother to toss in an uncompressed 5.1 soundtrack for audiophiles, just stereo PCM. Then again, since the DVD costs nearly as much, if you have the hardware and simply must own the movie, you might as well go high-def.
Special features consist of a making-of featurette nearly as long as the movie, interviews with Otomo, the character designer, and the animation director, a commentary soundtrack on the feature itself, and the theatrical trailer. There's also a 12-page color booklet with some interesting liner notes, short interviews, and background info. Given that the visuals have little to gain from Blu-ray resolution, and the special features are no different from the DVD version, there's really nothing to make this a worthwhile Blu-ray purchase, particularly given the extravagant price. And that's before you take into account that the movie isn't all that good anyway.
The box is labeled 7-up, and despite quite a bit of fighting, that seems about right; it's on the realistic side but bloodless and there doesn't appear to be anyone seriously injured. The only thing of note are some general concepts about outcasts from society that might spur discussions with parents.
Violence: 1 - There's a lot of fighting, but it's entirely bloodless and even the dramatic tension is mild.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing whatsoever.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing.
Language: 1 - A bit of rough language does sneak into the subtitles.
Available in North America from Honneamise on subtitled (only) DVD and Blu-ray disc, and a little hard to find--anime-specific retailers carry Honneamise titles, but even Amazon doesn't stock them for some reason.