ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #1: Memories Episode 2 – Stink Bomb

If Rod Serling had made a Warner Bros. cartoon, it probably would have ended up like this.

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While each of the Ultimate Top Cartoons contains at least one quality that I fiercely admire, Stink Bomb has them all

I love the intense animation and timing in Ninja Scroll, but I could do without its adolescent moodiness and badassery, not to mention the excessive, voyeuristic violence that poor Jubei and Kagero have to endure.

I love the characterization, concepts, and set pieces in The Wrong Trousers, but I prefer my cartoons a bit more grown up.

I love the mature, volatile atmosphere in Who Framed Roger Rabbit that lends a dangerous, unstable edge to harmless-looking toons, but the story is ultimately disposable and the antagonist embarrassing.

I love the art design and the clever script of The Triplets of Belleville, but I found the final act to be lame and unsatisfying.

Stink Bomb has all of the best qualities from these cartoons, and none of the bad parts. It starts out hip and smart, gets rolling really quickly, and then it fucking catches fire, amusing, startling, and maybe even scaring any witnesses. It is a masterpiece, and if you were to ask me what kind of cartoons I want to make, I’d say “I wanna make Stink Bombs.”

This forty-minute marvel, the top of the Ultimate Top Cartoons, is the middle segment in an anime anthology called Memories, produced by the great Katsuhiro Otomo of Akira fame.

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I became interested in Memories because of the unique look of its final segment, Cannon Fodder. Its characters are designed to look like cute little toy soldiers, and its a far cry from your typical anime art style, so I was curious about it. After watching it, I realized that the style was only chosen for the sake of dark ironic contrast, and the story beneath it was grim and depressing. A lot of folks love Cannon Fodder for what they call a “powerful anti-war message,” but I found it tiresome, empty, and delivered with too heavy a hand. The animation is really good, though.

As for the first segment, Magnetic Rose…ah, forget it, that one was stupid with a capital “STU.” The animation in it is pretty good, though.

No, the real gem in the film is the unassuming Stink Bomb, the middle child that isn’t out to be dark or disturbing or tear-jerking or award-winning, but simply to be a heap of jeering, sneering, devilish fun.

It’s still okay for cartoons to be fun, isn’t it?

Now, before I start my synopsis, I feel I should mention that I’m a big fan of George Carlin. Have been since age nine. In one of his last HBO specials, Life is Worth Losing, Carlin closes his act with a bit he calls “Coast-to-Coast Emergency.” Here’s the premise in his own words:

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“I’m an interesting guy. I always hope that no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow bigger and bigger, until it’s completely out of control.”

He then proceeds to explain how a busted water main can lead to the transcendental annihilation of the universe.

As morbid as it sounds, I have a similar fascination with disasters, and this may be why I enjoy Stink Bomb so much. It starts with a dumb move made by a hapless nincompoop, and ends in an extinction-level mega-disaster that threatens all life on Earth.

And it’s all this guy’s fault:

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Meet Nobuo Tanaka, a lab technician at Nishibashi Pharmaceuticals. He’s come down with a bad winter cold, and he can’t stop sneezing at his desk.

His co-workers recommend that Nobuo sneak a sample of the new fever medicine Nishibashi is producing. It hasn’t been diluted for sale yet, so it should work great! Just grab one of the blue capsules from the red bottle on Chief Ohmaeda’s desk, they say.

Now, Nobuo is not a very swift man, and when he stops in at the chief’s office (which is unfortunately empty at the time), he makes the obvious mix-up: he takes the red capsule from out of the blue bottle.

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Yeah, it’s a pretty big mistake.

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Nobuo decides to take a nap in the guest room while the drug does its work. Meanwhile, the chief himself bursts into the lab, demanding to know who touched his red pills. His raving, wild-eyed demeanor suggests that something might be wrong. When Nobuo’s buddies say that it was likely Nobuo who poked around in Ohmaeda’s office, the chief freaks out further, and dashes away, presumably to find the culprit.

The techs have little time to ponder this weirdness before a strange smell wafts into the room. The lab rats notice it too. Then there’s a long, lingering shot on a ventilating fan that slowly fades to black.

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CUT TO: Nobuo, as he rises from a revitalizing sleep in the guest room — the following morning. He wanders the building, wondering why nobody woke him. He discovers the answer very shortly: everyone else in the building is dead. Even the lab rats.

Panicked and horrified, Nobuo calls for an ambulance, and then goes to the chief’s office to get some clue of what happened.

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He finds Ohmaeda sprawled before a control panel on the wall, his finger stretched towards a button that he didn’t live long enough to hit. Curious, Nobuo presses the button himself, and the whole building suddenly goes into emergency mode: sirens blare, shutters slam, and a dozen men appear on a giant monitor, ordering “to give this line priority!”

Then, a stern, middle-aged man spots Nobuo on his screen and asks where the hell Ohmaeda is.

This man is Nirasaki, the head of Nishibashi’s medicine development. Once Nobuo informs him of what’s happened, Nirasaki explains that the accident is likely related to a drug being secretly developed for the government. Nirasaki orders Nobuo to bring all samples of the drug, along with its corresponding data, straight to him at Nishibashi headquarters in Tokyo, immediately.

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Nobuo collects the samples and info based on the details Nirasaki provides, and just notices it’s the same red pill that he took the previous evening. Huh! Of course, he only realizes this after his conversation with Nirasaki is over, and he doesn’t think anything of it. He stuffs everything into a briefcase, and begins his trek to Tokyo on a little red bike.

Then a murder of crows falls dead out of the sky and hits him on the head.

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Nobuo loses control and crashes, and that’s when he notices that all the flowers in the valley are suddenly in bloom. Also, there are dead things everywhere. The ambulance and police car he called are both smashed on the sides of the street, as though their drivers simply bit it while at the wheel.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nirasaki and Mr. Kamata, Nishibashi’s president, are summoned to the JSDF war room to explain “just what the hell is going on” in Kofu Valley. The NHK news is airing warnings about a deadly “stench” in the area, against which respirators and even NBC suits afford no protection.

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A news team in a helicopter spots Nobuo and touches down to rescue him, but even with gas masks on, they all suffocate and perish before they can get within ten yards of him. Nobuo can’t figure out why.

Then a military convoy attempts to pick up and evacuate Nobuo, only to end up dying as well. Nobuo still can’t figure out why.

Nirasaki and Kamata, however, do know why. They explain to the JSDF that the pill Nobuo took was originally designed to protect people against methods of biological warfare, but an unknown reaction in Nobuo’s body has created an unexpected effect. It is now causing him to secrete a sweet-smelling, but lethal gas that asphyxiates any human or animal that breathes it. He has become, in essence, a walking chemical weapon.

Nirasaki adds the unsettling detail that this gas will thicken, and its deadly effects strengthen, as Nobuo eats, changes emotional states, or otherwise undergoes any activity that spurs his metabolism.

An executive decision is swiftly made: GET HIM.

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However, the military, even with its most advanced weaponry, can’t get Nobuo. Their snipers can’t draw a bead on him because the poison in the air makes their eyes water, and the gas has become so thick that it shorts out the computerized targeting systems in their tanks and helicopters. The army literally can no longer shoot straight, so while they accidentally decimate every structure in sight, Nobuo is left scratching his head as to what the hell they’re firing at.

My favorite moment in this sequence occurs when the army knocks out a bridge that Nobuo is riding on. As you can see below, the poor dope survives as though God Himself is guiding him:

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This is one of my favorite shots in all of cartoon-dom, if not my absolute favorite. I fucking love tracking shots like this. Just look at how the pavement judders and crumbles behind Nobuo! Look at how he bounces on his bike as the explosions propel him forward! Look at the flames and sparks and smoke plumes! Look at Nobuo’s face!!! It’s like watching Ichabod Crane riding around Syria! I love it!

Now that Nobuo has pretty much proven himself unstoppable, an emergency evacuation order is issued in Tokyo. Yeah, good luck with that. The highways are instantly hammered, the trains are all clogged, and the airports become a mass of writhing crowds and weeping children.

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Stink Bomb’s director, Tensai Okamura, cleverly intercuts the Tokyo crush with the degrading military situation, in which the all the vehicles have stopped responding and are now completely haywire. They’re firing at anything and everything, causing chain reactions of carnage, and inadvertently destroying themselves.

To quote Mr. Carlin:

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“At this point, it looks like pretty soon, things are gonna start to get out of control.”

It looks as though the only hope for humanity is for the United Nations to raze Japan to the ground, but all is not lost yet. Saunders, an American general who has an investment in Nishibashi’s wonder drug, decides to intervene, and he sends three American soldiers in cutting-edge, air-tight spacesuits to apprehend Nobuo.

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These super-suited soldiers corner Nobuo in a tunnel, and…well, I don’t want to give everything away. I will tell you that Nirasaki gets his briefcase back, but that’s it! You’re just going to have to watch the rest for yourself. You won’t be disappointed, and that’s a fact, Jack.

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So.

Whew.

Wow.

Jeez, man. There just isn’t all that much left to say anymore. This is Stink Bomb. You should go see it. It’s got everything that a Top Cartoon should: great art and animation, funny and scary moments, a delightful soundtrack, stellar voice acting, and a wicked sense of humor. I hope you weren’t waiting for me to pick at its flaws, because the truth is, I just can’t find any.


And thus the list of Ultimate Top Cartoons comes to a close. I hope you enjoyed reading these lengthy reviews because, I tell ya, writing these suckers really took a chunk out of me! Plus, my sinuses are starting to act up, so I think I’ll take one of these red pills over here and have a nap.

Hope to see you in the morning.

‘Night, all!

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ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #5: Ninja Scroll (Jubei Ninpocho)

Many are they who consider this their anime gateway drug.

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And rightly so. When I saw my first glimpse of this masterpiece on MTV, all of my brain cells dropped what they were doing and shouted a single question at once:

“What the hell was that???”

God bless 90s MTV. 90s MTV understood that, as emotional media go, music and animation are very close cousins. To develop the “edgy” attitude that it needed to stand out, the network employed freaky, stunning animation for its IDs and commercials. It even produced shows specifically to showcase wild animation. Liquid Television was the first such program, and it turned Æon Flux and Beavis and Butt-head into national names.

A later show, Cartoon Sushi, used clips from Ninja Scroll as commercial bumpers. My brother called me over to check it out because he knew I’d go nuts for it, and holy shit, was he right. I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. Even my father said “Whoa,” when he happened to see it. You know your cartoon’s special when mere seconds of it get a better reaction than the remainder of the show it’s sprinkled in. It also helped that Japanese animation as we know it was just beginning to sink its claws into American culture at this time. Most of us hadn’t seen shit like this before.

But once we had a taste, we all wanted more.

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The Japanese title of this movie is “Jubei Ninpocho,” which means “The Jubei Ninja Scrolls.” This peculiar phrasing is taken from the titles of ninja novels written by Futaro Yamada. These “ninja stories,” or “ninpocho,” were each titled in a similar manner: Koga Ninpocho, Edo Ninpocho, Yagyu Ninpocho, and so on.

The cartoon is set in a twisted version of feudal Japan, where blood and betrayal flow freely. In the opening scene, a roaming warrior named Jubei Kibagami is accosted by thieves, and seconds later, we’re told not only what we need to know about the setting, but also about our hero:

1.) Jubei is an unflappable man with a well-honed spider-sense.

2.) Jubei is a decent man who despises injustice.

3.) Jubei…is a badass.

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He even catches the rice ball without looking.

He is based on the Japanese folk hero Yagyu Jubei Mitsuroshi, a great samurai who was dismissed from service to the Shogun for unknown reasons, and who then spent years wandering Japan, perfecting his swordsmanship. Think of him as a Davy Crockett to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Our Jubei enters into a complex and nefarious plot when he happens upon a horrible scene: a monstrous man, Tessai, raping a young woman.

This woman is Kagero, a poison taster for the Koga ninja clan. She has just witnessed the slaughter of her comrades at the hands of her captor, who has since revealed himself to be a bloodthirsty monster with a skin of stone. Jubei bravely confronts Tessai anyway, and creates an opportunity for both he and Kagero to escape.

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The two ninja part ways, and while Kagero reports the night’s terrible events to her indifferent lord, Jubei is caught by the highly-pissed Tessai. What ensues is a frightful battle in which Jubei is nearly overwhelmed. Tessai’s sheer strength and stone shell seem insurmountable, but then something happens to turn the tide: the monster’s skin starts to crumble and soften, seemingly for no reason. Thinking that Jubei used some unknown technique on him, Tessai pours his rage into one last attack — one that backfires on him in a most satisfying way. This whole scene is dazzling from top to bottom, and you might need to rub your eyes afterward because you forgot to blink while watching it.

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Thus, Jubei draws first blood in a war against Tessai’s buddies, as well as the attention of a doddering, walleyed priest named Dakuan, who sees potential in the young ninja — and some use.

Dakuan, who is really a government spy, is the trickster of the story. His comical voice and appearance belie a cunning and ruthless personality whose motives are only ever kind on the surface. Still, he comes off as likable, and he’s also the only one who knows what the hell’s going on in this movie, so I can’t imagine anyone hissing when he shows up onscreen.

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Dakuan explains to Jubei that Tessai was one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, a team of demons hired by the Yamashiro ninja clan — the same clan that Jubei once ran with. The Devils are contracted to protect the Yamashiro as they smuggle gold to their lord, the Shogun of the Dark (a.k.a. Toyotomi), an unseen villain who wishes to overthrow the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. The Devils crossed paths with Jubei and Kagero while on their way to recover gold from a smuggler ship that sank accidentally, and now it seems they are entangled to the bitter end.

So how did the Yamashiro boys end up with all this cheddar? Well, some years back, its leaders discovered a gold mine, and instead of reporting it to their master, a Tokugawa daimyo, they tried to sneak the riches past him. A series of betrayals followed, and in an attempt to eliminate everyone who knew about the mine, one of the Yamashiro leaders, Gemma Himuro, ordered the extermination of his own men. This forced Jubei to slay his fellow ninja in self-defense, but in turn, he found and decapitated Gemma, and became a ronin.

But Gemma has revived, having somehow developed an ability to reconstruct his body after even the most traumatic of injuries. He now leads the Devils of Kimon, and seeks to undermine both Tokugawa and Toyotomi by purporting to guard the Yamashiro smuggling operation, and then stealing the gold for himself.

Whew! You get all that? Well, sorry; I tried. Let’s carry on.

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These Kimon guys are an eclectic bunch. Each one has some unique and creative method for killing. One of them can literally hide inside shadows. Another can both animate, and detonate corpses as if they were bombs on legs. One carries a nest of hornets in the flesh of his back, and is able to communicate with them and give them orders. Still another can use the snake tattoos covering her body to hypnotize and attack her enemies, while the last can generate deadly amounts of electricity and conduct it through even the thinnest steel wire. Such powers might not sound immediately useful, but the movie sees the Devils apply their skills in some mighty creative ways.

I find it incredible that this movie makes time for encounters with eight separate supervillains, but it DOES, and if I tried to cover them all in-depth, we’d be here for months. So, I’ll just talk about my favorite of the group instead: Mujuro.

Mujuro Utsutsu is a pale, soft-spoken fellow who appears, at first, to have little of the supernatural about him. It turns out he’s an archetypal blind swordsman, but that’s really not that exciting, not after some of the crazy shit this movie’s already shown us.

But then, he goes and pulls out a really nasty trick.

Mujuro is so skilled at determining his unseen opponent’s position that he can calculate the angle at which to tilt his blade so that it will reflect the glare of the sun right into Jubei’s eyes.

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“Your sight is your weakness,” he says.

This is one of my favorite moments in the film. Jubei is once again outmatched, but this time it’s in a way that’s so deceptively simple, it’s wholly unexpected. When combined with Mujuro’s aggressive fighting style, this bizarre talent nearly presses Jubei to the ground, and Jubei only survives the encounter because of pure luck.

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Well, luck, and the loyalty of a friend.

While it initially seems that Jubei and Kagero have divergent paths, and that they would likely be rivals in other circumstances, it’s soon made clear that fate has linked them together. Both are their clans’ sole survivors, and both of them have suffered from the cruelty of the Eight Devils of Kimon. Both are immensely talented warriors, and both have a strong sense of justice. They are also both in need of someone to trust while they’re in this awful situation.

So only an idiot would be surprised that these two fall in love. What is surprising is that they really can’t do anything about it. Kagero has spent so many years immunizing herself to poison that her body is now saturated with it. Anyone who makes love to her, or even kisses her, is signing his own death warrant (just ask Tessai). Kagero tries to carry this deadliness as a point of pride, but it is plain that she resents it, for it has caused her to lose something beautiful and human about herself.

It’s a doomed romance to be sure, and it certainly ends tragically, but the connection between the two is indelible. In a gesture of honor and respect, Jubei dons Kagero’s ruby headband, so that they may continue to fight — figuratively — as one. This metaphor becomes literal in the desperate, final battle when, having lost his sword arm, Jubei resorts to head-butting Gemma until the Devil’s skull turns to paste. It’s amazing.

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My most recent viewing of Ninja Scroll was also my first viewing of it on Blu-Ray, and holy shit…it looks better than it ever did. It sounds strange, but it really looks more impressive today than it did when it was first released, and that’s not something that can be said about many movies. I paused the playback many times just so I could take in the details in the artwork and to analyze the motion in the lightning quick ninja moves. I can’t imagine animation of this caliber ever, EVER losing its appeal.

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Of course, it’s not just the animation that makes Ninja Scroll wonderful, it’s the direction. The pace fluctuates as it should in any good movie, but it never gets too terse or too slow. The action scenes fly by with one intense, perfectly-trimmed shot after another, while the softer sequences provide much needed breathers. I’d hazard to say that there are one or two scenes that go on too long, but overall, it feels like the whole thing was produced in time with a metronome. I still marvel at the fact that this was made in 1993.

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If you’ve somehow not seen this movie before reading this entry, relax; you need not fear. Ninja Scroll is so masterfully produced that nothing I could write on this silly little blog could ruin it for you. Even after dozens of viewings, it continues to give me the chills. So if you’re going to see it for the first time (and for that you are envied), all I have left to say is that you should curl up in a warm blanket beforehand, because Ninja Scroll will hold you in shivering, wide-eyed suspense, all the way up to its final betrayal.