Friday, 22 June 2012

Codex Hermetica, Chapter 4: Crystal Triangle

I'm not dead yet.  Just been really of busy of late, what with the rebellion and all.  No, seriously the bastards at work gave me 10 hour shifts and I'm not getting paid for anything over 40 hours, so I'm a little pissed.  Anyway, here is something way too long.

Codex Hermetica
Chapter 4: Crystal Triangle

I think this is getting needlessly messianic
--Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

You can tell a lot about a culture by how they portray themselves in their entertainment. For Americans, not only do they portray themselves as the heroes and leaders of the world, but they are the strongest and most powerful nation in the world. As much as Americans love an underdog, they can only portray themselves as such against an outside force, generally an alien invasion of some sort. American entertainment is truly devoid of the sort of despair that is found when a small nation is cornered between two larger rivals. But for most the world, that is the case.

In the sixties, England was a nation in decline, its Empire lost, its position as world power failing, and facing increasing irrelevance. What entertainment appeared? James Bond. For many second-rate powers, that can not compete on terms of physical strength alone, the idea of an agent holds great appeal. Maybe they can't save the world with their armies, but they still have agents that are a force to be reckoned with. In the last decade in anime, this 'agent' position has been increasingly been filled by Lupin III (ignoring the fact that he really is a Frenchman), although this is an incorrect reading of the character of the gentleman thief, or has Camus would call him, a 'dandy rebel'. But look back a handful of years, and you will find, in the action hero genre, a number of Japanese 'agents', that fight to save the world, often while fighting interference from both the Americans and the Russians. It is in this perspective that we meet, in the anime movie Crystal Triangle, the character of Professor Kamishiro, archeologist, mystic, and all-around badass.


Crystal Triangle suffers from a bad case of plot schizophrenia. It can't decide if it wants to be Indiana Jones, James Bond, or H.P Lovecraft. And so, it ends up trying to be all of them at once. Short story: it doesn't work. Each act goes in a complete different direction, as if each part was written by a different person, with no knowledge of what came before. The side characters suffer the most from this treatment, as their actions are personalities seems to waver drastically from act to act, and even the Professor himself acts erratic from scene to scene.

ACT 1: Rock the Casbah
Crystal Triangle starts out by laying the mysticism down hot and heavy. Besides the Ten Commandments, there is another message that God revealed to humanity, of extreme value, but one that has been lost to time. It is said that however learns the message will control the future of this world. Countless quests have been launched to find this treasure, but all have failed (the famous leader montage does not disappoint, as both Napoleon and Hitler make an appearance, as is traditional in such stories). Anyway, the story proper starts in the sands of the Middle-East. Our hero and his female American associate (a blonde bombshell, as expected) are traveling to investigate some ruins discovered that indicate a link to this message. Things take a turn for the south, though, when the dig site is occupied with 'guerrillas'. It was quite surprising to see these men labeled as such, and not as terrorists. But of course, in 1987 the idea of 'terrorists' had not entered the public zeitgeist yet, and so these be-turbaned men armed with AK-47s and RPGs received the moniker 'guerrillas'. It is interesting to see how little the generic Middle-East baddie has changed over the years. These fellows would not be out of place in any modern story. Anyway, our hero is a pinch—how can he defeat all these dudes with just a 6-shot revolver? By shooting a crate of dynamite, of course! I've never actually shot a crate of dynamite before, but I'm pretty sure it won't blow up. And anyway, why does an archeologist have a crate of dynamite? The whole purpose of archeology is to save old ruins, not blow them up! Even for excavations, there are far better tools than simple explosives. In fact, the only people that used dynamite where the British 'archeologists' of Egypt, who where more concerned with breaking into tombs to find treasure than actual archeology. But it doesn't look like Prof. Kamishiro is that into archeology either, as he proceeds to destroy the remainder of the ruins in order to defeat the guerrillas.
I've destroyed a priceless cultural artifact!  LOL!
In the ruins of the ruins, the party finds an odd cube, with inscriptions in an ancient language that only the Prof can read. But the victory is short lived, as the terrorists guerrillas return. After a fortuitous air-strike saves their butts, our heroes celebrate by getting nasty in the backseat of their stolen terrorist jeep. Sex in anime is rare enough, and this kind of casual sex is almost never seen. But it does solidify the fact that Kamishiro is an international man of mystery, as well as satisfying the Japanese subconscious desire to bang a blonde chick. But so far the character is much more Bond than Jones. He is tomb raider and treasure seeker, a man that kills with a smile and has sex with hot foreign ladies. Our first look at him reveals a rough ne'er-do-well, a rouge, and a man not all that heroic. The act ends with a foiled hijack by the terrorists guerrillas, another surprise, given the sensitivity of the topic today. It is hard to remember that hijacks once were not at all uncommon, and they generally ended with little bloodshed in the previous millennium. I imagine this scene would be cut if this was made today, but it was interesting to see another example of how things remain so similar, and yet so different through the years.

ACT 2: It Belongs in a Museum
In the second act, the setting shifts to Japan, where it will remain for the remainder of the show. This lack of internationality is a weak point in the story. A lot of what makes a good 'agent' story is traveling to exotic lands, as it implies a projection of power from the host country. But by placing the remaining ancient ruins in Nihon, it reinforces Japan as a traditional center of legitimacy and culture, so it's six up and half-a-dozen down any way you spin it. In this act, Kamishiro becomes much more Indiana Jones, trying to decipher the artifact and uncover the mysteries behind it. He is aided in this quest by two grad students, one somewhat dumpy girl with a crush on him (another thing reminiscent of Indiana Jones) and a dude who is the most useless character I've ever seen. His only reason for existence is to balance out the genders (for awhile, we are at risk that this will turn into a harem show), and he doesn't do a single thing of importance the rest of the show, so you can forget him. And then there is the mysterious Yamato Nadeshiko, Miyabi, that shows up out of the blue, claiming to be the daughter of the Professor's old friend. Miyabi immediately starts hitting on the Prof too, and the dumpy girl and her get along like two cats in a bag. After borrowing Goldfinger's laser to carve up the cube (with some great eighties era COMPUTERS! moments) the release two crystal triangles (actually they are pyramids, since they have three dimensions) that when combined in certain patterns display a new riddle. The gang heads down to the shrine of Himeko, while the various other factions maneuver around them.

There are two things about act that I really care about. The first is the cat, Meow. The cat only shows up in a handful of frames, and really has no importance to the story, besides showing that Kamishiro does have some elements of normal humanity in him, but I really like the animation of him. It's no where near as impressive as the jet fighters in the climax, or really anything else in this show, but in just these few scenes, they really give him a personality. He is done in a completely different animation style that the rest of the show, and I like the change up. The other thing is the character of Grigori Effimovich, the KGB agent and grandson of Rasputin. I do not believe that Rasputin had any issue, or that the Soviets would have left any alive if he did, but he has more than enough descendants in anime. I know that Lupin III battled a grandson of Rasputin at one point, and I am certain there are more. The character here is far different than the one that appears in the climax—here he is portrayed as a madman set on destruction, as he proceeds to lay waste to the temple for no real reason. Here he has little more to him than wanton destruction for the sake of destruction. He lacks the nobility he displays in the climax, and this change is not a good one. While he is a better character in the climax, such drastic changes should not take place in such a short story frame.
I'm not saying it was aliens, but...

And finally, some foreshadowing. We are quickly learning that Miyabi isn't everything she claims to be, and there are some truly hideous monks running around with casting magic spells. There is some mysticism in Indiana Jones, so this is not completely out of place, but it doesn't fit the atmosphere of the story so far. But whoever these monks are, the path to God's message goes through them.

ACT 3: The Dunwich Horror
The first act was a bit of Bond mixed with Lupin, the international intrigue coupled with grave robbery. The second act was Indiana Jones, a clever archeologist trying to prevent ancient artifacts with mystical powers from falling into the wrong hands. The third act was lifted straight out of a Lovecraft novella. It turns out that these strange, magical monks are actually creatures from beyond space and time, biding their time on earth until the stars align and their powers return. This is mixed into the urban legend of the rouge star Nemisis. If you have not spent a Saturday afternoon watching the History Channel, let me break it down for you. There have been a number of mass extinctions to hit the earth in its long past, and the have a rough regularity to them. Not enough for any scientific rigor, but coincidental enough for the tin-foil brigand to latch on to them, blaming the catastrophes on a rouge star that drifts through the solar system every X million of years. There have been a few pulp science novels about it (Asimov wrote a book called Nemesis on a similar concept) but there is no scientific evidence at all for this star. Nemesis is returning in the year 1999 (shit, I already missed it) and God's Message is needed to prevent another mass extinction. The plot structure starts to fall apart here, if you couldn't tell. The addition of these Lovecraftian monsters serves to only confuse the plot farther. What was Quest for Mystical Artifact is now The Call of Cthulhu, and it just doesn't mesh with what came before. It would be like if you took Indiana Jones and put him in a story where he ended up meeting some aliens and unearthing a buried flying saucer...God Damn You, Lucas! To make things worse, after this arc the story goes back to the Quest for Mystical Artifact storyline (yes, the Hin get tacked back in there, but they are irrelevant to the true conflict of the fourth act), leaving this adventure to Japan's version of Arkham as almost a side story.
So edritch horrors have spines.  Thats good to know
But I am neglecting the most important part of this arc. First, the badass yakuza dude joins the party, in one of the best introduction scenes out there. The yakuza bodyguard is the one bright spot in this show, he provides an aura of competence and suave that the students are solely lacking, and changes the complexion of the story from one man against the world to a team against the world, which really improves the storyline. While most of humanity remains petty and corrupt through the tale, he exists to remind the viewer that there are still those who believe in honor and are willing to fight for the sake of the world. It might seem cheesy to hear, but his existence is necessary to lift the crushing pessimism of the rest of the tale.

However, despite the yakuza's manliness, he can not stand alone against the Shadows out of Time. Fortunately for the world, Professor Kamishiro has been trained in secret spiritual arts by a group of Tibetan monks in a remote monastery. I am not making this up. Yes, this movie has Tibetan monks in it. Well, so far it has read like a who's who of plup conspiracy theories, so this should come as no surprise. Kamishiro uses his super awesome skills to defeat the monsters, although his shirt dies a valiant death in the effort, much to the delight of any ladies watching. Man, the professor is ripped! How exactly does a full time professor manage to master a forgotten language, travel around the world, learn the ultimate final move from Tibetan monks and still keep a figure like that? I sure feel inadequate. Joking aside, this one a central flaw of the story. Like with the plot schizophrenia, the writers can not decide who the character of Kamishiro is. So they keep add more elements to his character, but never manage to reconcile those traits, until all that is left is a jumbled mess of awesomeness. Yes, having a character with secret Tibetan knowledge is cool, but you don't need to make it the same character.

ACT 4: What Does God Need With a Spaceship?
I'm not certain what God would do with a spaceship, but he sure seems to get them a lot. After dispatching the ravenous monsters, the gang heads north, to Hokkaido, where, caught in a Mexican standoff between the Americans and the Russians, they proceed to dig up a spaceship that contains the Final Message from God. This is the climax of the story, where the two superpowers battle it out to see who is worth to possess this message.

There are a few more factions present to play a role in this showdown, however. The shadow behind the Japanese throne tries to cut a deal with the Professor. It was this shadow that dispatched the yakuza dude, and after Kamishiro turns the deal down, he orders the bodyguard to capture the archeologist. Once again, the yakuza proves himself to be a true man, as he refuses to betray Kamishiro. To atone for this action, he proceeds to cut his own finger off—an impressive show of fealty and honor. That, with one exception, is the last act of importance he does in this movie, but what an action it was. As so as Japan, the nation, watches from the sidelines, the remainder of the Hin aliens make a move as well. They don't try to match the humans by power, but instead try to out maneuver them. It turns out Miyabi, who the Professor had been starting a rather chase relationship with, was a Hin sleeper agent, or more correctly, a brainwashed agent. In a moment of indecision by the humans, the Old Ones take control and have Miyabi seal her self inside the craft, with the instructions to destroy the Message.

While the aliens try to defeat humanity, we humans prove we are more than capable of the job ourselves. The Russians try an end run around the standoff by using a helicopter fleet to grapple and tow the craft to Soviet territory. The Americans don't stand still, and they start shooting down the copters, and the Russians scramble their jets, the whole thing devolves into a mess. Not to mention that all the damaged aircraft manage to crash spectacularly against the sides of God's Spaceship. Seriously, that thing is like the Bermuda Triangle of damaged jet fighters.

So our hero now stands, watching in disbelief as humanity once again manages to muck up its own future for petty considerations of power. The Russians, realizing that they will not be able to control the Message, decide to destroy it to prevent the Americans to have it. As the crippled spacecraft begins to fall back to earth, Miyabi reaches something that reveals to her God's Last Message to His Creation, and psychically transmits it back to Kamishiro, her feelings for him able to overcome the Hin's brainwashing before the ship is demolished.
You look different from the pictures I've seen
This is the creature that she encounters in the ship. Is that supposed to be God? If so, it does explain a lot, actually, like why there are so many insects on this mudball. But I seen a lot of depictions of God, but this has to be the weirdest out there. Even South Park, in all their irreverence, didn't draw God as a giant caterpillar slug thing. And it, whatever it is, is killed in the crash, although I doubt God could be slain so easily. But Kamishiro announces a very Nietzschean proclamation of 'God is dead' after the fact, so I have to believe that is what the authors intended it to be. Just think of that thing the next time you're saying your prayers.

As I alluded to before, the character of Grigori Effimovich changes drastically from his first appearance. When before he was little more than a madman with a rocket launcher, now, he is a much more nuanced and human figure. Here, he fills the traditional Japanese role of the 'rival'. The Japanese 'rival' is an interesting tradition, and is a very aristocratic ideal, a sort of frienemy that one uses as a goad to hone their skills, a challenger that you respect, that you wish to surpass, not destroy. In this system, a man wants to see his rival succeed and be strong, so they have worthy foe to face. Coming from a culture where 'rivals' are not as much respected as hated, I find such a concept almost alien in nature. I remember holding celebrations when a rival team had a particularly bad year, delighting in their loses. Perhaps that is dishonorable, but I was always more of a pragmatist. Anyway, Comrade Grigori's delight at the discovery of the spacecraft is quickly replaced with dismay as his watches his country try to steal the vessel right from under the American's noses. In the end, he realizes that the message must be shared with all humanity, and he dies a noble death, destroying a helicopter and himself in a fit of rage against the stupidity of mankind.

Act 5: Conclusion
The Russians evacuate the field after the spacecraft is destroyed, leaving the Americans in possession of the ruins of the ship and the corpse of the God-Emperor. But despite humanity's best efforts to destroy itself, the Message has been received by the Professor. The American CIA agent threatens Kamishiro, but he correctly calls the bluff—the American's won't kill the only one that can save the world. 'Will you tell me the message?' the agent asks. 'I won't tell you. Not now,' he replies. 'Besides', he says as he turns away, 'You wouldn't understand it even if I told you'. As the gang walks off into the sunset, the Yakuza smiles. 'Hell of a guy...' At the story's end, Kamishiro has progressed from Bond all the way to Moses, breaking his stone tablets in rage at the fickleness of his people.

So, in the end, what was Crystal Triangle? It could have been a number of things, a three-sided spy thriller, an Indiana Jones mystery, or an alien resistance war. But it tried to be all of these things, and as such failed at achieving any of them. And the story feels rushed—trying to cram all of these plot points into a 90 minute span removes almost all characters development. Not only that, but there is no room to explain anything, leaving the viewer confused at the sudden story shifts. The artwork is generally good—the faces are detailed, the aliens are adequately horrific, and jet fighter dogfight is nicely done. But the character's bodies are kind of odd, the men are drawn the 'reverse pyramid' style, with immensely broad shoulders and tiny little waists. And while the many important scenes are well animated, the animation suffers in other times. But the real question is in the realm of Value. What value is in Crystal Triangle? The movie is incomplete, fragmented, and confused, the characters are for the most part unremarkable and the story fails to hold on to any sense of suspense. Of times, you will find a redeeming factor, something you take away from the story that makes watching it worth your while. And even though Kamishiro is 'One hell of a guy', he is too much of one—he feels like a composite of heroes instead of an original one. And the one thing that could save the show, its novelty, is undercut by how seriously the show takes itself. An interesting experiment, but it does not make a good, or for that point, entertaining, movie. It is a pity – the dialogue and character concepts are pretty good, and any one of those ideas would have created a good story, but this is a case of less is better. I would recommend skipping this one. There is precious little to gain from this mess.

The Boxscore:
Plot: 3
Art: 7
Sound: 6
Character: 7
Enjoyment: 4
Value: 5
Overall: 5.3
Grade: C

Recommendation: No. There just isn't enough good to balance all the bad. This is basically a Sunday evening cable movie. You know that one movie that you've seen two-thirds of several times but have never seen it in its entirety? The one that you watch between commercial breaks of something else? Yeah, that is what this is. If someone put it in front of me I wouldn't complain, but I wouldn't go seek it out either.

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