Amon Saga

Director: Shunji Oga

I can remember my first taste of Japanese animation, or anime, as it's usually referred as. It happened years ago when I was very small, when I was having the same kind of lazy weekend as when I first saw Duel At Diablo. I was happy to find that the movie being played that day was an animated one, though not long into the movie I discovered it was unlike any other animated movies I had seen. - and in a good way. After all these years, images of that movie still are strong in my mind: a child swinging on a rope to grab a falling treasure map just before it fell into the arms of a greedy crowd below; a small sailing vessel in a desperate cannon fight with a gigantic pirate galleon; a large body of water completely draining to reveal a sunken ship, which the heroes patch up and sail triumphantly into the sunset at the end as the movie's evil pirate captain tries to swim after them. It's amazing how memories of a movie seen as a child can be permanently burned into your brain, though also frustrating as hell if decades later you still are unable to determine what the title of that damn movie was. My second experience with anime was a few years later, when one Saturday morning I stumbled across Robotech. I couldn't believe what I was seeing: an animated show that wasn't a comedy, and had a storyline both serious and engaging. I loved it, and I planned to watch it every week from then on... though the next week I discovered that the TV station had decided to stop airing it. Fortunately, stumbling across the episodes at a video store years later soon made it able for me to ease that particular childhood obsession.

I enjoy and appreciate anime. No, that doesn't mean I am patiently going through the 200 or so Ranma 1/2 tapes at my local video store, Every rose has its thorn, round and round, living on a prayeror that I know the difference between one Tenchi series from another. I've never even seen any episodes of Cowboy Bebop or Bubblegum Crisis. One reason is because I personally think it's kind of a rip-off to pay full rental price for a tape or DVD running less than an hour, which you'll find with many anime releases. But it's also because of the simple reason that there are a whole bunch of enjoyable things to watch besides anime. I don't like to limit myself to one genre, because I like to be entertained in many different way. I'm open to anything, as long as the particular example is a real movie (or TV show, for that matter.) That includes anime. I've seen and enjoyed every Hayao Miyazaki film currently available in North America, serious-minded anime like Barefoot Gen and Grave Of The Fireflies, and a few series such as Video Girl Ai have also impressed me greatly. (And you can bet I've been quick to pick up any anime with my hero Golgo 13.) I'm a fan, but not a fanatic, Despite this, I realize I have barely touched anime on my web site, maybe from fear I may then be accused of having Sailor Moon posters all over my room. Since it's been almost 300 reviews since I last covered anime, I think it's safe to review another example of it.

All kidding aside, I must confess that several times in the past I have attempted to review more anime, but for some reason I find it very difficult to do so; for some reason, I find myself unable to jot down more than a few notes. Of course, this has happened to some live-action movies I've tried to review, so it could be a particular bad streak of luck with the genre. My bad streak of luck was finally broken when I picked up Amon Saga. Those who are well versed in anime and manga will probably recognize at least one person involved in the production. Taking on the dual task of designing the characters and assisting in the writing of the story is the famed illustrator and character designer Yoshitaka Amano, famed for his design contributions to the Final Fantasy video game series and Vampire Hunter D. In fact, those two productions have a few minor similarities with this movie. Like Vampire Hunter D, the hero of Amon Saga is an expert swordsman (named Amon) wandering the ravaged and dangerous countryside, though the setting this time around is a medieval sword and sorcery world. Amon is no mercenary, but someone determined to kill the evil emperor of Valhiss, for reasons hinted at several times in such an unsubtle manner that it's no surprise when the reason is "revealed". Amon figures the best way to get the opportunity is to join the Valhiss army, but finds it still won't be easy once he's enlisted. Adding an extra complication is the presence in the Valhiss fortress of Princess Licha, who the Emperor has kidnapped from her father King Dari in an attempt to get the map that will lead him to the legendary Valley Of Gold.

No doubt that this plot will come across as exceedingly familiar to you, even if you are one of those people in Outer Mongolia who has yet to see the movies Conan "Wait! Spare me, and I'll teach you how to lean at an angle!"The Barbarian or Star Wars, both of which gave the movie inspiration not just limited to what was described above. But the unoriginal plot to be found in Amon Saga is just part of the long list of ways the movie fails to entertain. For starters, take the character of Amon. Unsurprisingly, he is a quiet and seemingly brooding character, but that in itself is okay - that's what you usually get in lone hero movies like this. I don't mind seeing another character like that, but only as long as there is something else to this character. In many cases, this is done by pumping up the "masculinity" of the character - such as giving him a tough appearance, showing him in action as a force not to be trifled with, or having him reveal emotions that are more callous and less concerned with his fellow man. But there is nothing about Amon that makes him an engaging action hero. Instead of looking like what you imagine a swordsman in a barbarian age would look like, he instead looks like the member of an '80 rock band, complete with dyed platinum blond hair. Nothing about his looks comes across as tough, and neither does anything he says, the little he does say; I think he says less than 50 words in the entire movie. He speaks as if he's speaking for someone else, and bored by having to do it. We learn a few details of his past, but we never get to learn any other side of Amon other that what seems to be a virtual indifference to what's around him. You get the feeling that even if you were to break through that stone-faced expression he keeps on his face throughout, you'd find nothing inside.

It should come as no surprise that the scenes with him and Licha are seriously lacking in chemistry, and why the movie consequently seems determined to keep them separated as much as possible. So Licha's eventual falling for Amon comes across as ludicrous for more than one reason. But while it's easy to understand Amon not being a lover, it seems that there should be no problem in showing him as a fighter. While it's possible that Amon may be a good fighter, the movie doesn't make it easy for us to tell one way or the other. The effectiveness of the fight scenes can probably be summed up best by revealing that a search on my part for other efforts of significance by director Shunji Oga turned up nothing. The fight sequences are incredibly poor, both in their direction and editing. Take the first fight sequence early in the movie, shortly after (you guessed it) Amon walks into a tavern, and his unemotional behavior raises the ire of the character Gaius. Seconds after the fight starts, Gaius, for some unexplained reason, chooses to run headfirst into a stone table. Perhaps the intent was to show Amon using lighting-fast reflexes to dodge Gaius' charge, but it comes across here as if Gaius decided all of a sudden to forget the fight for the pleasure of splitting his skull. There are a lot of other "what the hell just happened?" moments like that in the other fight sequences as well, which are also shown in odd and unnatural angles, and often too closely viewed to properly see both participants in action at once. Amon seems to be a good swordsman, but you can't see it for yourself.

There is also an additional problem with the particular fight sequences that are key to Amon finishing his quest. This problem also happens to affect much of the rest of the movie as well; that is, that the movie is sorely If Tex Avery had been born in Japan...lacking in a villain who comes across as a serious threat. There is really nothing about the Emperor that makes him really threatening, or even an interesting personality. The number of words he speaks in the movie is about the same number as what Amon ultimately utters. He's decked out in a robe and mask that hide his true form, no doubt in an attempt to give him a chilly appearance a la Darth Vader. But the robe and mask the Emperor wears are almost completely featureless, so he comes across as scary as a crude statue made by a primitive tribe. In fact, "statue" is the best way to describe the Emperor, because for the most part he elects to have his underlings do the decision-making and executing the decided tasks, and instead spends the time sitting or standing in the background (or not even bothering to appear at all.) Most of the work falls on the shoulders of his two loyal followers, Captain Denon and the wizard Mabo. At least they have some personality; Mabo seemingly near-insanity makes him somewhat of a creepy figure, and Denon comes across as brave and somewhat ruthless, though his design makes him look like a character transplanted from Filmation product at the time.

There is, in fact, a reoccurring inconsistency with the art design of Amon Saga. While Amon seems to have been designed with the utmost seriousness, many of the characters surrounding him seem to have been designed for other productions, productions of a less serious tone. Gaius, for one, looks better suited to fit in the slapstick mayhem and cartoonish atmosphere of Lupin III, more so since this gigantic muscular figure has been given a goofy voice more suited for a comedy. Considering the movie's mixed styles, as well as those previously discussed action moments that seem to make no sense at all, it seems to indicate  that the production team may not have had all the necessary resources it needed. Whether it was a lack of time, or a lack of money (or even) both, I can't say for sure, but the movie constantly resorts to a number of shortcuts. Some are understandable and acceptable, like someone going past the same trees again and again while racing through a forest. But when it gets to large sailing vessels cutting through the seas without bobbing up or down, or darkening a room so that the monster in it can't be seen except for his glowing claws, it comes across as cheap and passionless. This lack of effort can even be sensed in some of the dialogue. "So that's Licha, Dari Sem's daughter. She's being held hostage by the Emperor," is one example. Here's another: "In order to save the princess, we must meet the Emperor's demand and give him the map showing the way to the valley of gold."

Clunky lines like those uttered above are just part of what ultimately sinks Amon Saga, a truly bad script. It's not limited simply to dialogue that doesn't ring true, At least you'll have a legitimate big-fish story to tell your friends for the rest of your life - the little there is leftand a story that isn't terribly original. The awfulness in this case doesn't necessarily suggest that the screenwriters couldn't write better, but that maybe they didn't take the time to properly think over - by choice, or work circumstances, I can't say - the various ideas they conjured up. For example, the Emperor's fortress is on the back of a gigantic turtle. It's an eye-catching visual, but the idea becomes stupid when you think of it; wouldn't the fortress shake as the turtle walks? What would you do if (pee-yew!) the turtle died? And in a world with fierce lake monsters, wouldn't someone have properly checked out that lake the princess decides to go skinny-dipping in? Plus, who had the idea to have her go skinny-dipping without, you know, showing something? (Hey, if you're going to be too violent for the kids...) Maybe it's because the princess is a pretty forgettable character, so much so that her king father forgets about her while he schemes on his plans against the Emperor, and has to be reminded that the Emperor kidnapped her. Speaking of forgetting, you can forget about me bothering to say more about this movie. Anime fans, I guess I'll see you again after 300 reviews or so.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: The Brothers Lionheart, The Flight Of Dragons, The Last Unicorn