Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Alien Defender Geo Armor Kishin Corps review

This review originally appeared on Anime Jump in 2003.

Let's clarify a few things. The original Japanese title of this OVA series is Kishin Heidan, which roughly translates to Armored God Corps. It's based on a series of early 1990s light novels by Masaki Yamada. The Geneon-produced anime was first released in Japan in 1993, and was released in North America on VHS as Kishin Corps in 1995. To further confuse the consumer, the 2001 DVD release is titled Alien Defender Geo Armor Kishin Corps, and when the title of each episode is shown, it has the kanji for Kishin Corps, and beneath that, in English, "Kishin Corps - Active Defense Force". Confused? So am I.

Kishin Corps is an alternate-history World War Two story of Nazi Germany's pact with evil alien invaders, the secret army raised by Japan, Russia, the US, and Britain to defeat them, and how your requisite stalwart young Japanese boy is caught in the middle. Once again Japan's semiautonomous Kwantung Army is trotted out as power-mad imperialists (okay, but only because it's true); Geo Armor Kishin Corps labels them the Kanto Army, and as our story opens they're after a powerful secret module. Our hero Taishi is on board a Manchurian train with his mom and his pop, who is, as you have already guessed, a top scientist. The train is halted by Col. Shinkai and his Kanto Army, but their hijacking is interrupted by the arrival of space aliens, goopy amorphous humanoids who have mastered laser beams and space travel but prefer to use Russian PpSh submachine guns. This three-sided struggle is again interrupted by a mysterious giant robot from the Kishin Corps because this is, after all, their video.

 Two months later Taishi, still holding onto the secret Macguffin Module, is leading a gang of orphans in Shanghai, staying one step ahead of the authorities and the Kanto Army. He helps a mysterious lady escape from Shinkai. This mysterious lady has a twin sister who is working with the Kanto Army to develop their own giant robots. Mysterious Twin swipes the Module from the kid gang, Taishi pursues, and again is saved by the intervention of the Kishin Corps. Taishi gets inducted into the Alien Defender Whatever Kishin Corps and gets to help out as their three giant robots - one land, one sea, one air - battle both the Kanto Army and our alien pals.

 You see, a few years back, mysterious modules fell to Earth. These modules enabled whichever nation that found them to build giant fighting robots. Coincidentally these were distributed amongst the Major Powers of the prewar Earth, which was lucky for us since we had a world war brewing. It would have been interesting to see what kind of giant robot France or Brazil would have come up with, but we'd have to wait for G Gundam to see THAT.

The Japanese version of Kishin Corps made the rounds of fansubs and fanclubs for a few years before its legit release. To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with it at the time; mostly because Part One is weighed down with a lot of exposition and infested with charming kids and their charming kid-gang antics. Once Taishi gets hooked up with the Kishin Crew and is blasting aliens, things pick up considerably. The best part of Geo Armor Kishin Active Defense Whatever Corps is the detail given to the titular robots: these are gigantic, heavy, riveted-steel behemoths. They have spark plugs and fan belts and vacuum tubes and hydraulics and all that stuff that your car has under the hood, and they all move with a ponderous weight that the animators do a terrific job portraying. In fact, there may be a little too much attention to detail. Kishin Thunder has to be transported to the battle via train: luckily, the bad guys have cooperated by locating their evil deeds or evil bases on train tracks. It's enough to make one think of Homer Simpson's favorite show "Nightboat", where there's always a river, or a canal, or a fjord.

Kishin Corps' main ingredient is characters rushing from one place to another: our heroes jump from moving cars to giant blimps to airplanes to trains and back again, always chug-chug-chugging towards another battle with the foe, rattling off great gobs of exposition every chance they get. And yet, with all this "action", nothing much happens. This is a 7-part OAV that easily could have been a 4-parter, or even a 3-parter without too much trouble. Even the fight scenes are padded like a junior high school girl's bra; while the explosions and gunfire conveniently halt, characters will stare at each other, stare at their opponents, stare at the new arrival zooming in from a few miles out. In a film with a stronger visual sense and a knowledge of how to use the quiet moments for effect - think Oshii's Patlabor - these time-outs heighten the sense of drama and contrast the action. Unfortunately Geo Armor Alien Kishin Defender Corps isn't one of those films.

Not much attention is given to making this period drama look like a period drama. There's an attempt to make the Nazis into bishonen-style prettyboys with long hair and dreamy eyes; the Kanto Army's leader Shinkai looks like a pumped-up Count Dracula, and there are enough giant, pointed shoulder pads to make Joan Crawford run for cover. The good guys are all pretty standard anime-character good guys, with the big hair and pointy chins and giant ears. These are, hands down, the largest ears for standard characters seen in anime since Tobidase! Batsuchiri. All told, Geo Kishin Armor Corps sports a really jarring look for a period anime, and one that begs the question, if you're not going to be obsessive about period detail, why do a period anime in the first place?

Characters all have standard issue anime-character crazy multicolored hair, defying gravity as if they were ignorant of the Hair Treatment Technology that was widely used in those turbulent times. If these characters happen to be dressed in period costume, it's because fashions haven't changed that much - and some characters aren't anywhere near the 40s, unless the Miami Vice look began in 1943.

The dubbing is well-acted, but clumsily written. There are plenty of awkward pauses and sentences that sort of make sense. Here's my tip; if the anime involves Japanese military, go with the subtitles. The DVD extras are: mechanical designs and character designs. There's a point-by-point explanation of the various systems of the various robots, which is where I learned that Kishin Dragon's Anchor Guns are powered by "gunpowder force". There is also a hilarious live-action segment, a round-table discussion starring non-acting gaijin playing high-level Nazis discussing the aliens, the modules, and the Kishin Corps in bad German. Available on the original video release, it's now professionally subtitled for everybody to enjoy. It is an interesting clamshell two-DVD set; instead of the standard black plastic Pioneer has given Geo Armor Kishin Corps a nifty copper-colored case that really stands out.

To be sure, there's some entertainment in Kishin Corps. The battle scenes are entertaining, if overused, and the concept of Japan at war with its own imperialist faction makes for a nice what-if. But the WWII setting is woefully underused and the aliens remain unexplained creatures from the planet Plot Device, while the character designs seem to be lifted wholesale from a completely different show. Plus, there are lots of annoying children. In short, Geo Armor Kishin Corps has some interesting parts, but they don't add up to an interesting whole.

-Dave Merrill

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