Dirty Pair: Project Eden

It’s customary (and a tad predictable) at this point for me to preface any review of an older anime title with some rose-tinted reflection on how it was in “the old days,” when we were trading VHS tapes by U.S. mail and had but a smattering of titles available for rent or purchase here in the United States. So let’s skip that part, since as fun as it is to drag those hoary old chestnuts out into the realm of public discourse yet again, the truth of the matter is it was never very much fun when we all had to do it. Nostalgia for “a simpler time” aside, I really don’t miss running off tapes on clunky old VCRs, waiting in disorganized lines at the overcrowded post office, then hoping that the virtual stranger at the other end of the transaction actually receives the package and, even more importantly, actually gets around to reciprocating. And then you finally have your own copy of whatever it was you were trading for, complete with shaky quality and occasional tracking problems.

For me, the Dirty Pair were characters with which I was very familiar while, at the same time, being completely unfamiliar with them. Their pictures were everywhere, fanzines talked about them, you could buy a lot of posters of them pointing fingers and/or guns at you, and I knew a fair deal of information about the series — but I had not actually seen a single episode. It wasn’t until somewhat more recently, when the Dirty Pair OVAs and movie were re-issued on DVD (the original television series remains missing in action here in the United States, and with the recent collapse of the domestic anime home video industry, it’s unlikely we’ll see it or any other old anime series any time soon), that I got a chance to actually watch the show that had spawned the two characters who, in many ways, became the poster girls for anime in the late 80s and early 90s. And as far as poster girls go, I’d be hard pressed to find better. Who could argue with those hot pants?

In the early 1990s though, there were a set selection of anime titles and characters hat everyone knew, either because they were representative of the tiny number of domestically available tapes, or because they were characters of such high profile in Japan that their notoriety filtered down to the United States despite the unavailability of the titles themselves. Dirty Pair was one of the more popular titles at the time, even though where I lived, it was only available if you were trading for fan subs. The OVAs were available elsewhere in the United States, with one of those now famous Streamline dubs, but for whatever reason, they never had it at the Specs Video and Music Store that, at the time, represented the sole spot in Gainesville, Florida, someone could go to rent or purchase anime.

The Dirty Pair was the brain child of science fiction author Haruka Takachiho. Takachiho, as the story goes, was entertaining Australian sci-fi author A. Bertram Chandler with a night on the town that included, among other things, a trip to a show being put on by the All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling group. At some point on the card was a tag-team duo known as the Beauty Pair (Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda). During the late 1970s, when Japanese pro wrestling was on the rise again, it was the Beauty Pair whose charisma and in-ring performances elevated women’s wrestling to a level of popularity previously unheard of, and one that would peak in the 80s and 90s with sell-out crowds the likes of which you would only find at major male-dominated wrestling events in the US at the same time. They even got their own movie.

I don’t know exactly what sort of conversation was transpiring between Chandler, Takachiho, and the two female “assistants” (Tanaka Yuri and Otoguro Keiko) in attendance with them, but being a sci-fi nerd myself, I can hazard a guess. Whatever the case, at some point Chandler made the comment that, while the wrestlers in the ring might be known as the Beauty Pair, the two people with Takachiho (the assistants) should be known as the Dirty Pair. This comment inspired Takachiho to come up with the idea of grafting the theatrical mayhem and violence and pro wrestling onto the world of science fiction. Basing the friendship of his two main characters on the camaraderie (sometimes somewhat tense) of tag-team wrestling partners, not to mention the penchant of wrestlers for massive amounts of destruction, the sci-fi comic creator came up with his latest creation. Drawing upon the names of the assistance who had, through some mysterious way we may never fully know, inspired Chandler to call them the Dirty Pair, Takachiho named his new duo Kei and Yuri.

They were agents for an intergalactic “problem solving” organization, sort of a space-age Pinkertons. Although Kei and Yuri’s official designation was “Lovely Angels,” most everyone called them the Dirty Pair for two reasons: 1) like Dirty Harry, they take on the assignments no one else wants or can handle, and 2) although they generally complete their missions successfully, some catastrophic act of destruction generally follows in their wake, though the Angels themselves are always cleared of any wrong doing or direct responsibility for the planet-size explosions that tend to follow them around. Yuri is the bubblier one, with long blue hair. Kei is the tomboy, with fiery red hair. Saying which one is “the short tempered one” is moot, as they are both prone to fits of rage. Tagging along with them is their weird catlike wookie creature, whose primary function seems to be to hang around unnoticed in the background until Kei and Yuri need some deux ex machina delivery of day-saving battle-armor and missile launchers, at which time he’ll swoop in and deliver any needed hardware. He’s like a hairy version of that helicopter from Spy Hunter that just randomly drops weapons upgrades along the highway.

Before too long, Takachiho’s Dirty Pair novellas were popular enough to inspire an anime series. The Dirty Pair cartoon ran for 24 episodes starting in July of 1985, then made the jump to OVAs (original video animation), common in the 1980s. OVAs were somewhere between a television series and a movie. Made specifically for the home video market, they could be anything from an entire mini-series (as the Dirty Pair had) to mini-movies running 45-60 minutes in length, to a feature length film. For the most part, the bulk of what was released in the late 80s/early 90s wave of anime in the United States was original video animation. After that, Kei and Yuri were licensed in the United States for a completely new series of adventures written and drawn by American comic book artists. I’ve never been a big fan of manga or of American comic books based on/inspired by manga, so I didn’t read the comics, though I think I might have purchased one at some point just because.

Project Eden is a feature length adaptation of the show, though it doesn’t require that a viewer really have much existing knowledge of the series. What you need to know about the Dirty Pair is summed up nicely in the opening action sequence, in which Kei and Yuri track down and fight with a group of black marketeers. One of the targets, a pompadoured hotshot named Carson D. Carson, manages to escape, and though the Angels manage to shut down the rest of the gang, doing so results in the obliteration of an entire space station. Then the credits kick in, and we can see, between the opening stinger and the style of the credit sequence, that Project Eden wears its influences on its sleeve. Specifically, this is goofball space adventure with a twist of James Bond.

From there, our scantily clad duo are assigned to investigate a series of bizarre attacks on a mining colony planet. The planet is divided between two major corporations, and one side is convinced that the other is responsible for industrial sabotage. Before the disagreement escalates to a state of war, Kei and Yuri must track down and eliminate the actual perpetrators of the attacks. Before too long, we find out that the attacks are actually the work of monsters created by a wired-up mad scientist with Andy Warhol hair. He has discovered that the very mineral being mined on the planet is actually a primitive step in the evolution of a new species, and using his array of bizarre mad scientist stuff, he has found a way to accelerate the evolution from hunk of coal to vicious uncontrollable monster, with the additional expectation that he will be able to further artificially evolve the creatures and create some sort of super-human. His plan is absolutely insane, but at no point is the character presented to us as anything but a stark raving lunatic. Complicating the case for Kei and Yuri is the reappearance of Carson D. Carson, himself after the mad Dr. Wattsman, though for an entirely different reason.

The plot sets us up for the Dirty Pair’s stock in trade, which is lots of action, some gratuitous titillation (though no actual nudity), and lots of hijinks. I’m generally not a fan of comedy anime, even when the comedy is dressed up in the trappings of a genre of which I am a fan. But most of what’s in Project Eden is pretty successfully funny. My previous experience with Haruka Takachiho was with Crusher Joe, another similar sci-fi adventure (the Dirty Pair even make a cameo appearance in the Crusher Joe movie, though only as images on the screen at a drive-in movie; Crusher Joe returns the cameo in this film) that proved the author was as handy with wit and humor as he was with action and great bundles of wonderfully drawn space stuff. My favorite bit of comedy, though, has to be Yuri sneaking around while wearing the shell of one of the Alien-esque monsters (which Wattsman thinks is even better evidence of the success of his super-evolution experiments), or the part where they try to extract information from Carson by playing, “bad cop, dangerous cop.” I’m not sure what has changed since the 1980s. Maybe it’s just me that has changed. I have much less tolerance for silly shenanigans and goofballery in new material. I rarely find it funny. But Project Eden, I think, is as successful a comedy as it is a rollicking space adventure.

And it is indeed a rollicking space adventure. Once the basics of the plot are established, the movie rarely stops to catch its breath as it plunges us into the mad scientist’s lair and the fight against the dozens and dozens of monsters he is creating without any apparent comprehension of the havoc his science is wreaking. He’s a mad doctor cut from the true Frankenstein cloth, whose obsession with research and making his next breakthrough is all that he is aware of. The consequences, everything else outside of the research, doesn’t even occur to him as something that might exist. The only other human he seems to be aware of is his well-trained butler/bodyguard, who spends most of his time waiting for the day he can serve an incredibly old, one-of-a-kind bottle of wine to his employer as a celebrating for the successful completion of whatever crazy goal Wattsman has in mind. When Kei, Yuri, and Carson arrive at Wattsman’s compound, both the plan to create a meta-human and the plan to serve the wine are put in jeopardy. Things get even messier when, during a botched experiment, Wattsman convinces himself that Kei and Carson are the successful fruits of his labor. A series of fist fights, monster fights, laser fights, and missile fights ensue.

As I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again, I absolutely love the look of these older, hand-drawn cartoons. Just as fans reared on modern anime comment disparagingly about the look of ol, hand-drawn anime, I make similar comments about the sterility of modern anime. Aside from admiring the sheer skill and amount of hard work that goes into creating traditional cel animation (and yes, I know creating computer-assisted animation is actually pretty hard, too), there’s is simply something in the whole aesthetic that appeals to me. The guys creating these sorts of space stories were, among other things, obsessed with drawing scenes cluttered with cool looking old space junk. There’s a loving attention to background detail that borders, to all our benefits, on the insane. by comparison, the sleek, clean lines of computer-assisted artwork just don’t grab my eye in the same way.

I don’t want to fall back onto the tired old “modern animation lacks warmth” nonsense, but it’s something like that. As with my reaction to the comedy in a movie like Project Eden, this is more than likely a product of the time and experience I had with the style. Project Eden and 80s sci-fi anime in general certainly had a stock style for their future, but it was one that I found appealing. There were the trappings of grit and over-industrialization and the post Alien/Blade Runner/William Gibson cyberpunk atmosphere, but it was blended deliriously with a frothy throwback to the days of brightly colored 60s science fiction. you know, back before everyone wore head-to-toe black leather and cargo pants. That perfect blend of the old “the future is shiny and awesome” with what was then the newer “the future is gritty and full of exposed duct work” targets me perfectly. I love it.

So too do I love the story’s ridiculous blend of space opera, martial arts action, comedy, and espionage spyjinks. Scriptwriter Hiroyuki Hojiyama is responsible for some stuff I really like, including episodes of the original Mobile Suit Gundam and Megazone 23 parts one and two. His work for Project Eden strikes a wonderful balance between action and absurdity. There, granted, some completely ludicrous moments, the most obvious one coming when Kei and Yuri, while exploring the ruins of a recently destroyed factory, stumble across the remnants of the staff locker rooms and decide to take bubble baths. The hell? Yeah, it’s really just a way to get Kei and Yuri into a monster fight scene while clad in nothing but towels (even though towels afford them more clothing than their usual hot pants and halter tops ensembles), but the entire thing is so over-the-top ridiculous that it doesn’t really strike me as bad writing. It’s not like we’re supposed to take their motivations seriously, after all. It’s just meant to be silly. And to get our heroines into bathtub.

In the service of fairness, however let me also point out that Carson D. Carson spends a considerable amount of time in nothing but his underwear, as well. In addition, mad Dr. Wattsman has his own nude bubble bath scene, or maybe it’s one of those Chuck E. Cheez pits filled with plastic balls, though given the hairy, sinewy nature of Dr. Wattsman, his foray into immodesty is somewhat less welcome than those of Kei, Yuri, and Carson.

Hojiyama also throws in the hint of a budding romance between rakehell Carson and tomboyish Kei, but it’s not overdone and their eventual emotional denouement is more of a spoof of such moments than it is an actual earnest effort to create some sort of cheap emotional reaction amid all the silliness and chaos. The script has proven itself, after all, very adept, and the underlying comedy of the “is Carson going to die?” finale is made more obvious by the fact that the entire thing revolves around Carson and the butler fighting to the death over a bottle of wine, even as hundreds of monsters go on a rampage around them.

For the most part, however, Project Eden‘s plot is short and to the point, lying just enough groundwork for us to get what’s going on while leaving plenty of room for sprawling action sequences. Although Dirty Pair is largely about action and massive amounts of destruction, it doesn’t concentrate on these elements at the expense of writing. Within the relative universe of science-fiction anime, Project Eden is fairly well written and expertly executed. Not complicated, not ambitious, but certainly a solid enough foundation.

Years after the original series was wrapped up, Kei and Yuri were given a make-over to turn them cutesier and younger looking. A new series, Dirty Pair Flash, was created around the new character designs, but it was never something I could champion. There’s probably no better example of my (potentially hypocritical) difference of opinion on old and new anime. I love the old Dirty Pair. Love the art, love the character designs, love the stories and the voice acting and the music. By contrast, I found Dirty Pair Flash unwatchable. Much less interesting in design, much more annoying in story, character, and acting. I’m tempted from time to time to give it another go, but that usually ends up with me decided that I could just watch the original Dirty Pair again and be perfectly happy without “Jim Henson’s Kei and Yuri Babies.” Part of what I like about the original Dirty Pair is that it was about grown-ups. Silly grown-ups, but grown-ups never the less. It wasn’t unusual back then, but these days, shows like Dirty Pair are a refuge from all the teen/pre-teen characters that dominate modern anime. I don’t want to see those characters regressed to a more childish, argumentative state.

Project Eden is meant to be nothing more than an amusing, action-packed space adventure. And on that count, it delivers in spades. The action is plentiful, the comedy mostly succeeds, and the characters are, while not exactly deep, certainly well thought out enough to make hanging around with them for 90 minutes entirely enjoyable. If Project Eden is tipping its hat to the James Bond films, then all I can say is it’s too bad Hiroyuki Hojiyama didn’t get to write Moonraker. We would have had a much more enjoyable, wittier movie if he had.

Release Year: 1987 | Country: Japan | Starring: Kyoko Tongu, Saeko Shimazu, Katsuji Mori, Chikao Otsuka, Osamu Kobayashi, Mikio Terashima, Toku Nishio, Shozo Izuka, Kayoko Fujii, Naoki Makishima, Shunsuke Takamiya, Taro Arakawa | Screenplay: Hiroyuki Hoshiyama | Director: Koichi Mashimo | Cinematographer: Atsushi Okui | Music: Kenzo Shimura | Producer: Yoshihide Kondo, Hironori Nakagawa | Original Title: Dati pea Gekijo-ban