"This ain't no party, this ain't no disco...this ain't no fooling around..." Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"
War from the perspective of civilians is not a new topic to anime. Films like Grave of the Fireflies and Who's Left Behind? cover the topic in grand tragic fashion. However, there's precious little anime that talks about war from the side of adult bystanders who get caught up in harm's way. Certainly, Macross starts this way when a civilian town gets transported through space and is recreated inside a war fortress. However, the characters all wind up becoming military anyway, so the perspective isn't maintained. In Venus Wars, we enter the midst of a civil war, and we witness a variety of folks trying to make sense of their role in it all. Although burdened by an epic manga source that has too many elements to translate into just one film, Venus Wars is an intelligent, impressively animated saga.
In the near future, an asteroid collision dramatically affects the planet Venus, making parts of it inhabitable by humans. Settlers have been on the planet for nearly 80 years when civil war breaks out between the two nations on the reddish world, Ishtar and Aphrodia. Ishtar wants to unite Venus under one banner, while Aphrodia strives to remain free and independent. It's in the middle of this conflict that our story takes place.
Hiro, his girlfriend Maggie, and his team of battle bikers race monocycles in dangerous but thrilling competitions in Aprhodia's capital city, Io. They have little to do with the political ramblings until Io comes under direct attack. The Aprhodian forces withdraw, leaving the metropolis under enemy control. At first, Hiro and company do their best to make it as the police state draws in. But eventually the corruption and fear become too much, and their fate takes a drastic turn when they decide to end the occupation of their biking arena by blowing up the tank that guards the track. Kids that once had no better thought in their heads than lapping their next opponent find themselves on the front lines of a war they'd rather not fight.
Venus Wars was a small step forward in anime filmmaking for its release in 1989. Although it doesn't contain the jaw-dropping graphics of Akira, the hit from the previous year, it has some innovating techniques. The entire film is washed in a reddish hue, not unlike the effect of the color bleaching seen recently in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report. This really sets a mood for the picture, giving us a "you are there" feel hard to capture in sci-fi pictures. Then there's the design work. Most of the vehicles have an otherworldly feel, more than minor variations on military creations seen today. The monobikes are awesome in their invention, and many of the other mechanical designs are a sight just to figure out. The animation itself isn't perfect, but it's forgivable with all the other unique eye candy keeping us busy.
Venus Wars gets a bit shakier when we start dealing with its plot and characters. Although we have Hiro as our lead, we've also got a substantial secondary character in Susan Sommers, the gutsy Earth reporter looking to get her big break covering the war in Io. There's also a large assorted cast to keep track of, and it becomes distracting. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the author of the original manga, also co-wrote the screenplay and directed the feature, and he's too personally attached to the story to trim it wisely.
A prime example of this is a sequence in the later half of the film when Hiro has some dealings with an openly gay cohort who tries to give Hiro advice about who to trust in his new position. There are several short flashbacks presented that make it appear that this character has been important to Hiro. A better screenplay would have just cut him out. He serves no purpose. Perhaps Yasuhiko thought that fans would be clamoring if this strange minor player were left out of the film; maybe he just liked the character. But it brings into focus the biggest hole...Venus Wars would have worked best either trimmed down and made tight into an eighty-five minute film, or expanded into a real two and a half hour epic.
The last two paragraphs make it sound like I don't like the film, which isn't fair. It's actually a personal favorite! Despite the problems, I thoroughly enjoy much of it. The battles, though not constant, are nicely choreographed and exciting. The story between Hiro and Maggie is touching as little details bring out their characters despite their limited screen time together. The music is by Joe Hisaishi, responsible for the soundtracks to almost all of Hayao Miyazaki's films, and though not his best work, it suits the movie fine. I also like the character growth. We may not know them as well as we should, but the couple of characters that do get arcs make the most of them.
From reports I've read, Venus Wars did mediocre box office business, and so nothing has happened with the property since. I would love to see the story told in detail over a thirteen episode television series, but that likely won't come to pass. For now, I'll be satisfied with the movie, a slightly flawed but compelling science fiction war picture that's been neglected too long.
Venus Wars -- violence -- A-