Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger doesn't have nipple cannons, but he can hock a mean loogey.
"There's no killing style. There's just killing. Sayonara."—Mylene Hoffman
There's a killer amount of anime being released lately. If you aren't staying on top of the genre, you have to rely on face value to judge what's under the covers. To put it bluntly, anime recycles themes often and you can usually make an educated guess about the nature of a show from scant details. The front cover of 009-1 (Volume 1) promises yet another tale of a female cybernetic agent with impossibly large breasts and deadly skill (haven't seen that lately). But the back cover promised something else: old-school animation straight out of the Lupin III era. Neither cover tells the real story of 009-1.
Facts of the Case
Mylene Hoffman and the other agents of the Zero Zero section are elite female covert operatives. In a cold war that has continued for 140 years, their job is to gather intelligence and perform missions to maintain the integrity of Western Bloc. Eastern Bloc agents struggle to get the upper hand, seeking new forms of energy to make the killer weapon to end the Cold War.
The future holds many twists on the typical espionage thriller, from psionic mutants and space travel to cybernetic implants. Yet there's always room for hard-boiled, old-fashioned professionals to do things the old way.
Having no foreknowledge of this series, the original manga, or Shotaro Ishinomori's previous work—and with the buxom cover model as my only guide—I wasn't expecting much of 009-1 (Volume 1). Any traces of bemused disdain evaporated under its sheer cool. Animation director Naoyuki Konno has meticulously melded old-school espionage conventions and Shotaro Ishinomori's first-generation character designs with a modern sensibility and glossy effects. The result is a treat for fans of anime both old and new, particularly for those who love spy franchises such as James Bond or The Avengers (there's even a little Austin Powers thrown in for good measure).
The series revolves around Agent 009-1, Mylene Hoffman. Mylene might best be described as Golgo 13 in Fujiko's body. Golgo 13 from The Professional is an absolutely stone-cold professional who will use sex, guns, his intellect, or his bare fists to obtain his objective. Fujiko (of Lupin III fame) is a crafty, anatomically gifted woman who uses a flirtatious exterior to mask her mercenary tendencies. These influences (or did Ishinomori influence them?) are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin. Both The Professional and Lupin III rely heavily on conventions forged by James Bond movies and other cold-war espionage tales. As a result, Agent 009-1 is an unstoppable cocktail of feminine sexuality and professional precision who lives in a very familiar environment of cross and double cross.
Naoyuki Konno evokes this Cold War environment with apparent ease. The opening shots of the series feature long trains of tanks and missiles, much as the Soviets used to do at the height of the Cold War. He constantly references old spy flicks through compositions that set spy against spy without any words at all. For example, when you see a deserted city street with two men in trenchcoats, you intuitively know they are opposing agents and one of them is going to die. This reliance on established conventions leads to some delicious twists that will please spy movie fans. For example, the first episode presents us with Ludmila Schindler, an Eastern Bloc director with reddish hair, a warty nose, and a ruthless bearing. Any fan of From Russia with Love will recognize in her Rosa Klebb, Bond's most loathsome opponent. This reference leads to a lesbian interlude that shows what might have happened between Klebb and Tatiana Romanova; the difference is that Mylene Hoffman uses the tryst to gain information and to take pleasure.
Between Agent 009-1's cold-blooded marksmanship and the Cold War imagery, you might expect 009-1 (Volume 1) to be all business. Indeed, its complete lack of sympathy or madcap antics makes 009-1 (Volume 1) a refreshing change of pace from modern anime that can't help from throwing comedic asides into otherwise serious stories. But 009-1 does have a bone-dry sense of humor. For example, Agent 009-1 literally has "sweater cannons"—machine guns are cybernetically implanted into her breasts. This image is straight out of Austin Powers, as are the mod outfits worn by the slinky agents of section 009.
Not only are these absurd images funny, they give 009-1 a distinctive style. It's hard to explain the net effect of grafting a mod pop art aesthetic onto old-school anime. You feel like you're watching a time capsule because of the exaggerated noses, flamboyant hair, and flat line art. Yet the explosions and action scenes are thoroughly modern with eye-popping CGI. 009-1 is a best-of-breed meld of hardcore, old guard anime with next generation eye candy. At the same time, 009-1's modern perspective allows it an affectionate send-up of the old guard.
009-1 is also refreshing because it has no obvious formula. The presence of four 009 agents in the opening episode sets up a team-oriented anime, but the others are largely absent from the next three episodes. In those three episodes, Agent 009-1 is a passive observer of psychic phenomenon, is locked in a deadly mano-a-mano showdown, and finally is part of a bipartisan treasure hunt. Even 009-1 herself is not constant; she goes from cold to warm, bemused to irritated, and passive to aggressive so that we cannot get a read on her character. Yet she is a joy to watch in each episode.
The compelling characters, ultra-cool spy vibe, and hardcore action are great, but 009-1 throws in decent animation and fantastic audio to boot. The soundtrack is superb, at turns moody, peppy, and exhilarating. It follows suit by using techno and synth pop to recreate jazzy spy numbers rooted in the '60s. A dynamic, detailed surround track peppers your walls with bullets and bombs. Alice Fulks does a great job with the English dub, but many of the guest characters sound hokey. The original Japanese cast is superb all around, particularly lead actress Yumiko Shaku.
ADV has also provided a thorough extras package. The liner notes are comprehensive, with character profiles that go beyond surface detail and interviews with Naoyuki Kanno and writer Shinsuke Onishi. Aside from previews and clean credits, ADV includes three meaty extras: "Interview with the Director + Staff," "How the Manga Became an Anime," and "Weapons and Gadgets." The latter is corny because the show has some corny elements; it is based on a theatrical 1960s manga after all. The interview segments show the deep respect that the staff has for Shotaro Ishinomori and the immense pressure they're under. Japanese vocal actress Yumiko Shaku is both fetching and lucid as she discusses Mylene's enigmatic personality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lest I go overboard with the praise, I should expand on some of the show's corny aspects. One hitman is known as "The Egg" because he's so hard-boiled. What kind of hairstyle do you suppose he sports? Speaking of The Egg, his explanation of his ability to avoid danger is, to be kind, tenuous. Then there's the bad guy known as "The Phantom," who wears a bat mask and dresses like a castoff from a gay burlesque.
Also, though Mylene gets naked at the drop of a hat and the sex scenes are not dumbed down, she has no nipples. Neither The Professional nor Lupin III shied away from correct anatomy. It is so ridiculous to see these naked Barbie Doll torsos in "hard-boiled" anime, and it drives me nuts. It makes the nudity weird and disturbing rather than effective.
Although I appreciate these elements, fair warning is in order for those who oppose violent anime. You'll see people shot clean through the head, kids shot in the back as they run away, and other gruesome imagery. Unlike the nipples, these images are not sanitized.
There was a time when anime seemed too self-derivative to flourish. I've railed against cookie-cutter shows many times in past anime reviews. But 009-1 (Volume 1) shows that carefully crafted homage with a modern coat of paint can be entertaining and original while embracing cliches and conventions. The secret seems to be pretty, sophisticated women, unflinching violence, and a dry sense of humor to cushion the blow.
Are you kidding? We need more Agents like Mylene on our side.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Liner Notes
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