Venus Wars

April 13, 2024 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

The feature film Venus Wars has a special nostalgic cachet in Britain and America, at least among fans who are old enough to remember when Akira was a “new” thing. Following the release of Otomo’s film, Venus Wars was among the first batch of SF-action anime to be marketed as anime in those territories. In Britain, it was among the first video releases from Manga Entertainment, together with Project A-Ko, Dominion Tank Police and Fist of the North Star. (You can see how all these titles were run together as a “brand” in this vintage video trailer.)

Venus Wars has more specific Akira comparisons. It’s a science-fiction action-adventure, for one. The main story is set on a terraformed Mars, where two nations are at war, and several characters are forced into fighting when their city is invaded. Many of the protagonists are youngsters on motorbikes – well, kind of motorbikes, though they only have single oversized wheels, making them technically motor-unicycles. As other pundits have pointed out, the focal hero youngster – called, er, Hiro – could be mistaken for Akira’s Kaneda in some shots. That’s doubly true when he’s shown on a crimson bike.

Venus Wars was released to Japanese cinemas in March 1989, less than a year after Akira, and it was a beneficiary of the country’s bubble economy of the time. As with Akira, you can feel its greater budget in the rich textures and colours, and the sheer amount of flying rubble and gushing smoke. Early on, there’s a chase scene worthy of Akira; it starts with Hiro scuffling with cops, and builds up and up until he’s fleeing armoured vehicles over a rollercoaster of metal piping and stairways.

Venus Wars may well have been influenced by Akira – if not by the then-recent movie, then by Katsuhiro Otomo’s massively popular strip that had been running since 1982. I noted in another article how the Akira manga seems to be referenced in the TV series Gundam ZZ, broadcast long before the Akira film. But then Venus Wars also draws on the traditions established in the first Gundam series, all the way back in 1979. That’s hardly surprising, as Venus Wars’ creator is Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who was Character Designer and Animation Director on that series.

As in Gundam, Venus Wars is an SF adventure that’s emphatically a human conflict. There are no alien invaders, and many of the war images feel uncomfortably close to the real news. Throughout its decades-long run, Gundam often asked viewers to imagine how you would feel if your home, your city, was mercilessly bombarded in warfare. That’s how the first Gundam started, with a military attack on a space colony, shown through the eyes of school-aged youngsters fleeing the carnage. Many later Gundam series start the same way – Gundam Seed, for instance.

Venus Wars is arguably more “pulpy” than them, and yet some of the details can hit harder. After all, much of the film isn’t set not on a space colony but in what’s basically a first-world city, where ordinary life is blown asunder, not by giant robots but by shelling and tanks. The setting may be a terraformed Mars, but it’s easy to project yourself into the scenario, and by extension into the real wars it brings to mind. For viewers watching the film in the 1990s, that might be Srebrenica in Bosnia, where a Japanese critic once found a mural of Akira’s scowling Kaneda. Thirty years on, you may think of the recent horrors in Gaza.

If that sounds like far too much weight to put onto a cheesy action film, then consider the scene where Hiro rants angrily about the lies perpetrated by “his” government, while his naïve girlfriend covers her ears and says she doesn’t want to know. This may be embarrassingly sexist mansplaining, but the message is still plain; question the narratives spread by the people in power (another favourite theme in Gundam). True, the anti-authority moment gives way almost immediately to a hilariously awkward scene of teen desire – and for once, it’s the boy, not the girl, who’s in a state of undress.

Venus Wars was Yasuhiko’s third anime film as director, following his previous SF actioner, 1983’s Crusher Joe, and 1986’s Arion, a splendid reworking of Greek mythology. Both Arion and Venus Wars were adapted by Yasuhiko from his own manga strips, and they had music by the same composer, Joe Hisaishi. Yes, that Joe Hisaishi, who’s world-famous for his collaborations with Hayao Miyazaki. His Venus Wars score here can feel aggressively 1980s in a way that may make viewers love or loathe it, but there’s more to notice in it. For example, the plangent piano under the scene between Hiro and his girlfriend has Hisaishi’s wistful romanticism; it’s in the same continuum as his work for Laputa and Robot Carnival.

Finally, Gundam fans should note another little link to that franchise. Lieutenant Kurtz, who eventually becomes Hiro’s superior and rival in the film, is voiced by Shuichi Ikeda. By the time that Venus Wars came out, Ikeda was already famous for playing one of the most iconic figures in SF anime – Gundam’s Char.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Features Films. Venus Wars is released in the UK by Anime Limited.

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