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Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Spriggan

Prepare to be transfixed by All The Pretty Explosions

Just in time for the new Netflix series, we’re getting to the more tenuously-associated parts of Katsuhiro Otomo’s filmography, with 1998’s action spectacle Spriggan. Credited with “general supervisor” and “screen story structure”, it’s not entirely clear how extensive Otomo’s actual role in the production was. Otomo certainly has nothing to do with the new six-part version that covers the same material (and more), adapted from the 11-volume shonen manga Spriggan, written by Hiroshi Takashige and drawn by Ryoji Minagawa. The movie version was heavily marketed in the West by its distributor A.D. Vision as “from the creator of Akira”, although it was directed by Hirotsugu Kawasaki, not Otomo. Kawasaki previously worked with Otomo as a key animator on 1988’s Akira.

One of the very first attempts at a regular manga anthology in the West, I have fond memories of this comic, along with Viz’s co-existing Pulp Magazine (2008–2002)

Originally translated into English for the US direct comics market by Viz Comics in 1992 as a 4-issue limited series, renamed Striker — The Armored Warrior (collected later under the same name as a graphic novel), it was followed in 1995 with the further 4-issue Striker — Secret of the Berserker, later collected in graphic novel form as Striker vol. 2 — The Forest of No Return. Further chapters were serialised in Viz Comic’s short-lived Manga Vizion anthology, initially renamed to the original title Spriggan in its first appearance in issue vol. 3 #6 (1998), reverting to Striker in vol 4#3, and concluding in Manga Vizion’s final issue, vol. 4 #8 (1999). These chapters were eventually collected in Striker vol. 3 — Vs. The Third Reich. Until now, those three volumes were all that existed translated into English, each long out of print.

Although I was sad that Manga Vizion ended, it was quickly replaced by Animerica Extra, which continued Steam Detectives, introduced me to Revolutionary Girl Utena, Fushigi Yugi and Video Girl Ai. Overall, it was a much better anthology.

In the UK, anthology magazine Manga Mania serialised Viz’s Striker — The Armored Warrior translation over eight issues, between August 1995 and March 1996. This was my first exposure to the franchise, and it’s also the story arc adapted by the movie, meaning there are a further ten volumes of manga story following the conclusion of the film, some of which are adapted in the recent Netflix version. US publisher Seven Seas has re-licensed the manga for the release of a quartet of 600+ page deluxe editions, the first due in August 2022. Finally, Western fans will be able to read the manga in its entirety.

I used to have a massive poster of this image on my bedroom wall, mainly to horrify my grandmother whenever she visited.

As I had no familiarity with the movie, and the fact it was only tangentially connected to Otomo, I originally planned to omit it from my series of retrospective articles. However, with the new Netflix adaptation from David Production (Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Cells at Work, Fire Force) released on June 18th, now is the ideal time to revisit the original animated version. Unfortunately, the movie is unavailable to stream, rent or buy online anywhere. The only legal option is to buy a secondhand copy of either the 2003 or 2005 special edition DVD releases from A.D. Vision.

A scan of the US DVD cover, probably your only chance of watching this film currently.

Also pushing my hand was fellow AniTAY contributor (and interim podcast host) Requiem, for whom Spriggan is one of his favourite movies. We agreed to collaborate on an article about it. So whatever happens from this point on, it’s Requiem’s fault. Over to Requiem: what is it that makes you remember this film so fondly? And what the hell even is a Spriggan, anyway?

Yu Ominae — normal Japanese High School Student by day.

Requiem: Doc, you ignorant slut. (For our readers under 35, this is an old Saturday Night Live reference). I will admit that I was quite amazed to discover that you had never dipped your cup into the cool waters of Spriggan before, given that we are weebs of a similar vintage, and this move made a decent splash among our people at the time. Dear reader, please keep in context that this was the late 90s, a time in which getting ahold of new anime releases could be difficult, and was almost always expensive, so a new movie of this calibre by — ostensibly at least — the man behind Akira, was a pretty big deal.

…and unhinged Murderboi by night.

I remember very well the first time I popped the disc in and watched this. Unlike the Doc, I had never heard of the manga, and had absolutely no foreknowledge of the content; thus I went in blissfully blind…and it was amazing. You children today might even call it amazeballs. I have a particular weakness for both A: media about secret organizations; and B: goofball action movies. Spriggan gave me both in spades. I loved it then, and I love it now. If it came out today, would I like it as much? Would it hold such a place of honor in my personal hierarchy if it didn’t have my nostalgia for the time attached to it? Honestly, probably not. But it came out when it came out, and it is connected directly to the nostalgia centers of my brain.

Oh, and a “Spriggan”, traditionally, is a small fae type creature from Cornish/English folklore that is unusually strong and often protects ruins and such.

Frenchman Jean has A Big Gun. The ladies love him. So does Requiem. Someone may need to tell his wife.

Doctorkev: The main reason I’d never watched this 1998 movie up until The Year Of Our Lord 2022 was that I was never much of a fan of the original manga. I only read it because it was in anthologies of other manga I wanted to read. Otherwise, it was a bland and forgettable shonen action manga, with thin characters, a hokey premise, and an uninteresting storyline. I admit that when I’d heard Katsuhiro Otomo was involved in the movie it piqued my interest, but by the time it was released on DVD, I was a poor junior doctor (poor in both time and money). I only bought anime that I was most excited by, or I could find cheap second-hand. I only found a £5 copy of Spriggan on DVD within the last year or so.

I has muscle.

It’s fair to say that Otomo’s involvement in the project punched up the story a bit. Main character Yu Ominae is given some extra background that wasn’t revealed this early in the manga (if indeed it ever was, it may be anime-original) that links his past to one of the enemies he faces. He also doesn’t start the film with his overpowered muscle suit, unlike in the manga. Overall there’s a bit more worldbuilding and a much longer prelude before the action truly begins, though the story remains incredibly thin.

This is from a particularly jolly scene where Yu’s classmate blows up. They omit this from the Netflix version, likely because it never happened in the manga.

Essentially it’s action scene, screaming and explosion, then some exposition, then some more action, more screaming, and more explosions, and finally everything explodes. I suspect Otomo also had a hand in that, because everything exploding is kind of his signature thing. He probably read the manga, likely saw the opportunity to explode stuff in an adaptation, and that was enough to fulfil his vetting process.

Grey psychic tentacle kid! Where’s Kaneda and his motorcycle when you need him?

Also, there’s a creepy pale psychic kid and writhing metal tentacles, two more of Otomo’s well-publicised obsessions. You can appreciate why the distributors made direct comparisons between Spriggan and Akira, even if they’re completely different types of stories. For one, Akira is a skilfully condensed distillation of two thousand pages of manga into one (mostly) coherent two-hour movie. Spriggan is, even at a relatively short 91 minutes, a bloated and ultimately dull expansion of a single 118-page story.

I’m sure this chap was one of the bad guys from Centurions.

The characters and their motivations are painfully stereotypical, and Yu’s origins and backstory are painfully generic. I do like the idea that there’s an Indiana Jones-style secret organisation that travels the world cataloguing, classifying, and when necessary, destroying dangerous artefacts from ancient, defunct civilisations. I appreciate the attempt to use biblical concepts and imagery to deepen the narrative, however it’s all really just surface-level window dressing. Everything essentially boils down to “mankind isn’t ready for the secrets of the gods, let’s not dwell on the mind-blowing concept that biblical stories were actually based on real events, so let’s just blow everything up and go back to our normal, unexamined lives.” It feels like such a waste of a fertile concept.

Stereotypical high-pitched, cackling, goggle-eyed anime henchman. This trope needs to die right now.

Although the action is very cool, smoothly animated, and with some spectacular moments, I got fatigued by the set-pieces and constant fights, to the point where I started to zone out. I didn’t care two hoots about any of these people. It seemed like every character had been lifted wholesale, unaltered, from other generic action anime and slammed into Spriggan without any attempt at originality. From the high-pitched cackling enemy mook, to the hefty chap with the gatling gun for an arm, I felt like I’d seen this all before. Perhaps that’s what comes from watching this film 24 years after release. These problems are shared by the new Netflix show, because much of the fault lies with the cookie-cutter shonen nature of the original manga. I’m sure Requiem will have some fierce words in his defence about this.

Skeletal dinosaurs randomly appear!

Requiem: Doc, you’re a man of man of taste and wisdom but you’re also truly, irrevocably WRONG. This movie is fantastic. I’m sorry it didn’t have any of those “themes” or “depth” or “meaning” you snobs in the UK may demand from films, but that’s not what Spriggan is about. This is a ludicrous explosion of sakuga, a distillation of the trope The Rule of Cool. It’s about cool-looking characters exploding your face with action set pieces. I mean, do people watch Commando or John Wick for the intense character studies, or because it’s fun to watch cool guys blow shit up? Exactly.

Jean blows some shit up. Just the way Requiem likes it.

When I undertook to rewatch this old favorite, I was concerned that it wouldn’t hold up, that its visuals would’ve lost their punch in the intervening two decades-plus. After all, I have the DVD but it had been at least 15 years since I’d watched it. But, and this of course is just to my eyes, I think I liked it more now, it looked even better. The rise of CGI and computer-assisted animation means that anime just doesn’t look like this anymore, especially sci-fi. Spriggan’s technology has this… I don’t know… crunchiness to it, a gritty, realistic dirtiness that you don’t get without top-notch hand-drawn animation. And the backgrounds in this movie! Especially in the scenes in Istanbul (not Constantinople), and the rock cliffs as Yu climbs Mt. Ararat; they’re quite breathtaking. This film is all gas, no brakes from start to finish, and frankly I don’t care that it doesn’t make a ton of sense.

In summary, this move rocks and is groovy and Doc is a wee doaty bampot for not liking it.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

KABOOOOOOOOOOM

Doctorkev: Spriggan was clearly a late ‘90’s attempt to capitalise on the popularity of ultra-violent action anime like Ninja Scroll, Wicked City and of course Akira. Presumably made with an eye on the Western anime fan’s tastes, it seems dated and unintentionally humorous now, especially when compared against the aforementioned films that have stood the test of time much better. Within Otomo’s ouvre, I feel it’s one of his weakest, and the one I’m least likely to ever re-watch.

As a brain-dead Saturday night action spectacle to accompany a beer and a curry, though, it’s probably the best choice of anything Otomo has made. There’s little in the way of deep, unsettling themes, no political commentary, minimal humour, and a complete absence of satire. If all you want from anime is to see bad guys get comeuppances and stuff to explode, then by all means, Spriggan is your thing. But for me, it leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

Thanks to my colleague Requiem for his contributions to this article, even if they were completely wrong. Now that I’ve covered every other anime associated with Otomo, next time it’ll be the turn of the big one — Akira. See you then!

The Earth endures for now… Though doesn’t it look like much of the Northern Hemisphere is caked in ice? A new ice age? Was this deliberate??

Spriggan
Directed by: Hirotsugu Kawasaki (Naruto the Movie 2: Legend of the Stone of Gelel, Onigamiden — Legend of the Millennium Dragon)
Written by: Hirotsugu Kawasaki, Yasutaka Itou
Supervised by: Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Steamboy, Memories)
Based on the manga by: Hiroshi Takashige and Ryoji Minagawa
Production studio: Studio 4°C (Memories, Princess Arete, The Animatrix)
US/UK licensor: A.D. Vision
Japanese cinematic release: September 5, 1998
US/UK DVD release: April 23, 2002
Runtime: 91 minutes
BBFC rating: 15

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