Ah My Goddess, the Movie

Well, as I said, for a while there, I got utterly fascinated by Ah! My Goddess, and ordered the full first season, plus the movie. I also downloaded the 20th anniversary OAV’s, which are often referred to as the third season. In my not-quite-comprehensive-anymore summary (last updated in 2008, I’m overdue), I stated the following:

Ah! My Goddess (TV) DVD’s owned S1 #1-4
Keiichi Morisato mis-dials, getting a powerful goddess as a girlfriend–for life! Then her sisters move in…. I need to finish this series. I liked it; sweet and romantic, a good “couples” animé that isn’t sappy, but I really don’t have much use for such a show.

And there it sat for almost three years, until ennui with all the recent seasons drove me back to some of my early anime. Since the thin-pack of the first season isn’t here and won’t be for a bit, I popped the movie in, as it’s not formally set anywhere in the continuity. For those familiar with the manga or series, it takes place about three years after Keichi and Belldandy meet; Keiichi is in his last semester and is moderately well known in bike-racing circles; Hasegawa is the club president, and Chihiro has started her parts store in a converted cargo container. Skuld has her angel, Peorth is in charge of Yggsdrasil, and Chrono is on her staff. Even if you haven’t been a part of the AMG fandom, it’s designed so that you can be introduced to the goddesses and the various characters in the show, so don’t sweat it if you don’t know who I’m talking about.

So, how did I like it?

In a word (or three), I loved it. Art, animation, music, almost everything about it.

I’m not going to summarize the plot here (outside the spoiler tag below) — it’s not terribly deep, but there’s an air of mystery about it until about the mid-point of the show. Some people obviously know the stakes, and some don’t. The important point is that the plot attacks the core of the show: the relationship of Keichi and Belldandy, and the fact that his wish became their wish. Belldandy is forcibly given selective amnesia; she doesn’t remember anything from the point she met Keichi. It’s basically a backstabbing effort to suborn her loyalties. This results in a great deal of pain for Keichi…. and Bell, being Bell, she hurts to see him in pain. At the same time, Heaven and Yggsdrasil are under attack, so there’s no help; the goddesses are stranded on Earth. The bad guys of the piece are understandable and even a bit sympathetic; they range from better-than-average to outstanding, and the diabolical plot is worthy of a master villain. In particular Morgan’s background and characterization is well done, if a bit shallow.

Edit: some side thoughts: In a parallel discussion with Steven, we talked about villainous foils in AMG. The nominal enemy of the goddesses is Hild, ruler of Hel, but she isn’t used here. Frankly, she’s an inadequate enemy, prone to silly plots and having incompetent help in Marller. The enemies in the movie had an intelligent and well-executed plan, which means that there is a real sense of drama, tension, and high stakes — something that is often missing from the TV series. In that regard, the movie is actually atypical of the AMG franchise: it’s drama/romance whereas AMG is normally comedy/romance. Personally, I think the series works better as drama. Fujishima thinks it works better as a comedy. Since he’s the one with a 20-year-long famous series and I have a blog with maybe 20 or 30 readers on a good day, I think he wins.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone, given the fundamentally sweet and romantic nature of the show, that True Love wins in the end, and that Bell and Keichi confront and surpass the tests placed before them by remaining true to each other. That’s a given in this sort of show, but the amazing thing about AMG is that it makes it real and sincere; not hokey and clichéd. It’s excellent writing, dialog, directing, and voice acting (in Japanese, anyway. Just run from the English dub.) And the music, done by the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra, is truly worthy of a motion picture — a major one. This thing had a budget, and it shows.

Another place that it shows, and the part I’m going to spend the most time time talking about, is the animation — especially in the middle of the movie. This is where I really went “wow!” watching it. Sad to say, it really points out the flaws and disappointment of the TV series and original OAV’s; the animation of the latter are terribly cheap at times. (In fact, the 3rd season OAV’s resorted to stills-n-panning for the climatic combat sequences.)

Such was not the case in the movie. In fact, while the final showdown in the movie was well done, the truly amazing scenes were in the middle of the movie, and involved a persistent feature of the entire series: racing. I had never seen go-carts like the ones in this movie before the club recruiting scene. They’ve got to be based on real racing carts, because the animator hasn’t been born that can put together anything fictional and make it so obviously right. Even more importantly, the animators went all out with the animation on them. No exaggerated horizon and speed lines vs. a monochrome background here. It’s all shown in such detail that I have to wonder if those scenes were digitally roto-scoped.

The trick to this design is that the carts are mixed-sex, 2-person; the rider is a key member of the team; she rides on her side and is in constant motion during the race, shifting her position from lying on her left side, a centimeter off the pavement to getting on one knee and leaning over the far (right) side of the bike. Screw up and you’re going to get splattered across the pavement at high speed; mis-time a movement, and cost your partner time because your weight’s pulling against the bike’s motion — and a wreck due to becoming unstable in a turn isn’t out of the question. As Keichi says, the driver has to trust the rider and open up the throttle to win. (I’m going to return to this in a moment)

We see the carts used 3 times, and every single time, the motions of the driver and rider are perfect. They are absolutely in sync with each other and the motion of the bikes as they hit the curves. There’s no sense that the animators just took a stab at it and said “pfft. Good enough.”

The screenshots make my point, but they don’t do the scenes justice. Watching the movie, you can feel the g-forces as the riders shift, especially during the third and final time we see them. Morgan has challenged the impaired Belldandy’s fitness, and demands a challenge: Megumi and Morgan team up against he and Belldandy to determine whether Bell or Morgan should be his partner in an upcoming race. Although I’ve only watched the movie twice, I’ve gone back and watched this scene an extra three or four times. How the race ends, and the consequences of it, are a bit surprising, and again, well-done.

That Keichi is willing to bet his partnership with Bell on the results of the race is all the more an indication of his confidence in her and love for her. That she’s willing to do it is an indication of her strength. In this form of racing, her face is literally centimeters from the asphalt; her left shoulderpad is not optional, and if Keichi misjudges a corner, she’ll get a face-full of pylon – or curb- at 30-50 mph. Edit: Faster than that, it seems, though I doubt these are as fast as professional F2 bikes. I was being conservative. Link thanks to Wonderduck.

It’s all the more amazing, given that just a few nights before, Bell’s nerve failed over Keichi’s driving, resulting in a wreck and damage to Keichi’s bike. In a heartrending scene, Keichi and Bell look at the damaged bike… and then Keichi apologizes to Bell, explicitly acknowledging that he was in the wrong to have driven in such reckless fashion. As the bike won’t start, the two of them silently push it down the road together.

The fact that Keichi’s first reaction isn’t to scream “What the hell did you do that for?” goes miles and miles towards explaining why Belldandy fell in love with him.

A few final notes to wrap this up: While the fanservice of AMG has never been any reason to watch it, there was one scene I found jarring. NSFW:
OK: Bell finally recalled the first set of suppressed memories, from Celestin’s original rebellion. There were two others, one where Bell’s uniform changes and another where the bottom of her breasts are exposed. Urd and Peorth are usually the targets of this sort of thing.

The packaging was light on extras; only a character summary, but I give high marks to it. There’s no spoilers other than the obvious. As for the dub, I recommend running away at high speed. The weaknesses of the R1 market and industry in this field are apparent. There’s not enough money to hire really good talent; any major animated films figure if they’re going to spend on good talent, they’ll buy marquee names to add “value.” All the performers sound like they’re mailing it in, and the fact that they’re just reading from scripts in various locations (as opposed to working simultaneously in one studio) means the emotional context and interplay isn’t there.

This movie isn’t going to displace Misaki Chronicles as my favorite anime ever, but I think it’s tied it. MC gets the edge for punching my buttons, but this is technically far better and done by a director and writer at the top of their game. Give me a year to think about it and I’ll let you know.

Art and Animation: A+
Voice Acting/Dubbing: A+/D
Plotting and Logic: A –
Storytelling and Pacing: A
Characterization: A+
Fanservice: Low
Music: A
DVD/Packaging & Extras: B (one insert, which character descriptions, non-spoilerish.

Overall grade: A
Highly recommended.

And tomorrow, I’ll play with some goofy theories about Keichi and Belldandy.

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