At least it doesn't star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Read on as Chief Justice Mike Jackson review this serious anime film based on the long-running video game series.
One possessed of an evil spirit will fight out of pride until his dying day, and most likely fight to kill…
Anyone who's played video games, either in an arcade or at home, is no doubt familiar with Street Fighter. The game has gone through numerous incarnations, and has endured like few other game titles (the Mortal Kombat series is the only one I can think of with similar longevity). The reasons for its popularity are numerous—game play that rewards skill, balanced combatants—but none more important than its interesting characters. Each is given a reason for their desire to fight in the ring, whether that is pride, revenge, money, et cetera. Their back stories meshed to create a larger tale in a way that even action cinema rarely does. So, it was only natural that the game would seep out into other mediums. One of the first was the eponymous live-action movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and the late Raul Julia. For those of you who don't know the meaning of "eponymous," here it means "really damn horrible." Fortunately the Japanese, who created the game in the first place, brought it to life with their anime, first as a TV series, then as this full-length movie, Street Fighter Alpha (called Street Fighter Zero in its native land).
Facts of the Case
Street Fighter Alpha centers on Ryû, martial artist extraordinaire. He and his buddy Ken have come to pay their respects to their late master, killed under mysterious circumstances by a former pupil. However, Ryû begins to have strange visions and feels his body succumbing to an outside, evil force. Compounding the mysterious events is the appearance of a young boy, Shun, who claims to be Ryû's long-lost little brother. Ryû and Ken are joined by Chun-Li, a babe of a fighter who also happens to work for Interpol. She is on the trail of Sadler, your garden-variety megalomaniac bent on world domination. He is kidnapping street fighters to drain them of their powers in an attempt to harness the Dark Hadou…the evil spirit that is beginning to engulf Ryû. As an incentive for Ryû to join his little street fighting tournament, Sadler kidnaps Shun, leading to the inevitable final confrontation. Can Ryû save his brother without losing his soul to the Dark Hadou?
I know this sounds negative, but I can't think of a better way to say it: Street Fighter Alpha is a poor example of anime. That's not to say it's not good, because I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's just that its visual style and story, to a casual fan like me, were different than "traditional" anime. The characters were much more detailed than the usual simplistic art of anime. Instead of the simplistic animation of most anime, the characters are drawn in a hyper-realistic fashion, not unlike the American comic book art that you might see on the pages of "The X-Men" or "Spawn." One thing that remains, maddeningly so, is the "by twos" animation, meaning that only every second frame changes. It's an animation shortcut that gives anime (at least most of the stuff produced for television) its familiar jerky appearance.
As for the story, the convoluted plot makes little sense, especially to someone who has not followed the television series (I have the first two DVD volumes waiting to be reviewed; wish I'd watched them first) or paid attention to the games. It's best to watch and play along. The tone of the story seemed inconsistent with the anime with which I'm familiar (and was radically different than the small bit of the TV series I've watched so far). It didn't fit into either the happy-fun category, like Sailor Moon or Ranma 1/2, and it didn't qualify as serious drama like Princess Mononoke or Ghost In The Shell. Its combination of pseudo-mysticism and mindless violence seemed at odds with each other, and its insistence on asking the question "Why does Ryû fight," only to leave the question hanging at the end, was frustrating to say the least. But, like I said, just play along, if for no other reason than to watch the well-choreographed fights and the tense conclusion. Hmm…can you call animated fights "choreographed"?
Niche publisher Manga Video issues a wide variety of Japanese animation both in VHS and DVD for American audiences. From what I've seen of their discs—this one and the remarkable Ghost In The Shell—they do a fine job all around: strong audio and video, with a respectable complement of extra content. Street Fighter Alpha is presented in full-frame, which as a direct-to-video film is its original aspect ratio. It is one of the best animation transfers I've seen, very close to rivaling Disney's transfer of Tarzan. Lines are crisp with little or no edge enhancement or shimmering. Colors are vivid. I noticed only one or two print defects during the movie, and no digital artifacts were visible. It's beautiful, in a macho sort of way. Audio is labeled on the packaging as Pro-Logic Japanese and English, and Dolby Digital 5.1 English. However, my receiver recognized the two-channel tracks as mere stereo. I vowed to watch it in its original Japanese, but after sampling the Dolby Digital track, I could not go back. The stereo tracks are thin and wispy, with little low end and a muffled sound level. The Dolby Digital track, on the other hand, is remarkable. It's an aggressive mix with great detail and clarity. All channels are given much to do, and bring you right into the action. The only thing that keeps me from declaring it the equal of my favorite digital tracks—The Fifth Element and Terminator 2—is the lack of panning or other directional effects. Unless you're an absolute purist, you'll definitely prefer it to the Japanese track.
For extras, you get an eight-minute "making of" video, which gives you a look at the voice recording and animation via black and white footage accompanied by the movie's score. An interview section gives you 30 minutes of subtitled interviews with the Japanese voice cast, the character designer, and the director. (By the way, Yoshihiko Umakoshi, the designer, was also a designer for Fist of the North Star; after seeing stills from it, I can see his influence on the highly detailed and realistic physiques of the characters.) The other extras amount to little more than promotional material for other Manga Video products, but they're more watchable (and re-watchable) than your average promos. Besides, the product catalog is even set to the sweet dulcet tones of KMFDM (actually, it's labeled "Manga 2000," but it contains video clips from nearly everything in the catalog proper, so why not call it a video catalog?). There's nothing that says "rewatchability" better than footage from Japanese animation set to pissed-off German techno.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think I've already pointed out the main negative: the complicated story line. It does a reasonable job of filling in the blanks of Ryû's and Ken's histories, but little attention is paid to the ancillary characters. Granted, they're not as important to the story, but those not intimately familiar with the games might be confused by the random appearances of the other street fighters. Who's this hulking guy who does the pile driver? What's with the dude with the mask and claws? Who's this "Birdy" chap? Akuma? Who's that? What's with the little girl who is fixated on Ryû? Fortunately, Mother Internet provided me with a few sources that gave details about the characters of the Street Fighter universe. At least now in retrospect I know who some of these people are, but it would have been nice to have know ahead of time. Perhaps character guides would be a nice extra for Manga Video to include with other discs of long-running series so new, potential fans can become acquainted with them in mid-story.
Anime fans will likely find Street Fighter Alpha a worthwhile rental at least, and it has enough rewatchability to be considered for purchase. Fans of the game may find it interesting to see familiar characters acted (voice-acted, at least) on screen, but the story's serious nature may leave their limited attention spans looking for something else to do. If you don't fit into either of those categories, but at least like actions films with a little weight and don't think that animation is just for kids, you just might enjoy it.
For those of you over 21, here's a fun drinking game for you. Watch the cast interviews, and down a shot every time someone says they don't own a DVD player. Don't forget to call a cab on your way home.
Manga Arts is commended for a worthwhile DVD, and the makers of Street Fighter Alpha are likewise commended for an enjoyable film. Case closed.
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