Virus Buster Serge (1997)

https://cinemaoftheabstract.blogspot.com/2014/11/virus-buster-serge-1997.html

So much anime has been made since its origins in the sixties, just in the era when the West caught onto the medium, that you don’t need to go far into it to reach the ninety nine percent that you take the best, the one percent, from. Be it obscurities, the underrated, criminally forgotten, the guilty pleasures, the mediocre, the product and the worst. Even in the UK, before we got a lot of anime now, always behind on the USA of having so much titles get released, we still got some obscure titles on VHS and DVD, probably to be found in a second hand DVD store or charity shop. Virus Buster Serge is amongst this anime, it’s history vague for me – a videogame adaptation, from the same creators of Bomberman Hudson Soft, though I cannot find screenshots of the Sega Saturn game in question, just the PlayStation one from 1999 that proves this franchise did have fans. When the anime starts on its first episode, the first information, the setup, repeated in the opening title credits between a male and female voiceover, immediately reveals why this title has became obscure. Immediately it sets up its crippling flaw, that it feels like a twenty four or so episode anime series crammed into just twelve episodes. You already have complicated dialogue that tries to sound important and throws in words like “Black Valentine” which, while eventually explained, aren’t revealed as early as possible in the episodes themselves or are particularly needed. Already, I’m criticising the anime in the first paragraph, but I’ll give the following statement. It is utterly fascinating in my obsession with nineties anime, but I’m not going to recommend the series except only to those curious with anything I say or the screenshots you see. This is an anime which wanted to be and sound important but comes off as something vague and peculiar instead, as much of its interest as well as its weakness from the fact this feels like it was handicapped before it even got out onto television, not necessarily because of anyone in particular working on it.

As the series doesn’t actually explain its plot as it starts, I’ll simplify it from all the jargon that gets thrown at the viewer immediately in the first episodes for a simple outline. A form of satellite hovers above a future Earth, sending down a form of virus which effects computers and human beings equally, causing horrible mutations and with the clear goal of weakening humanity, to spread and control the population if left unstopped. The problem has been lengthy when the series start, Earth unable to eliminate the satellite, but have kept the virus in some control. Set in Neo Hong Kong, the group employed to eliminate any virus outbreaks are S.T.A.N.D., (the acronym is never actually explained), part of a larger, potentially corrupt organisation, and are effectively the moodier cousins of the Power Rangers. The group is led by the enigmatic Raven, a man who is cryptic and rarely providing information that would’ve helped his group if they were informed of it. Actually, to get to the ending of the series immediately, a lot of problems that take place in the series could’ve been softened if he told someone any of the information of a bleak background story he knows of, furthered by the unexplained prescience of a female main computer hologram named Donna whose interactions with him in hushed tones clearly mean she represents something of importance. He’s has long black hair, he looks pretty when he broods, and eventually even his own group rebel against him in the final episodes. Said team originally starts out as four members, one staying back to pilot their assault ship and provide tech help, the others (literally) melding their power suits, Variable Gears, onto their bare flesh before combat. Marcus the methodical veteran with a penchant for jackets with fur on the neck. Jouichirou, the cocky guy. Mirei, a teenage girl who pilots their assault craft and, a talented computer hacker, makes the perfect tech person for the team. And Erika, the convention of the female anime character – hand-to-hand combat specialist, the sexy pin up figure for viewers, the potential love interest for the main protagonist, and unfortunately given the position of being the one who gets emotional and cry at least once rather than be as tough as the smart male viewers would want her to be. An inexplicable fifth member, titular protagonist Serge, appears out of nowhere during a virus related incident to try and kill Raven. Rather than have him imprisoned, Raven hires him, knowing something secret about the mysterious Serge and his dark countenance.

From here, S.T.A.N.D. must take on the virus outbreaks while being targeted from their own side as well as through what they face. It’s been possible, with flaws or not, for an anime to cram a much bigger story into a much shorter length then would seem practical. It would common especially in the nineties however for anime to have abrupt endings or none at all. Virus Buster Serge even as a TV series has a frantic tone to getting all its content, including an ending, into just twelve episodes. Twelve episode anime can work, but this story and what it desires to do clearly needed double its length, especially when it’s more concerned with esoteric dialogue rather than action or pushing the plot along. Virus Buster Serge could’ve been as generic and as off-paced as a twenty four or so episode series, but it would’ve spaced out all this series tries to cram in. It’s a series, as someone who usually isn’t a big fan of them, where episodic, one shot episodes would’ve been welcome, needing the four tier plot structure of longer anime series – opening quarter introducing the world, plot and characters; next quarter setting up the main plot; the third quarter the dynamic turn of events; the final quarter the finale – rather than smush it all in as it does. The series decision to try to be mysterious, of conspiracy, secret identities, a psychological drama with people in power suits fighting bio-mechanical monsters, doesn’t help. It clearly wants to be Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996).

The comparison makes a lot of sense considering Virus Buster Serge came to be two years after the first episode of Evangelion. Evangelion is one of the most popular anime franchises in Japan and the West, as well as one of the controversial. One which pushed the potential for unsettling content, which would mean a lot of television anime would be made to shown at two or so in the morning from then on, as much because of the production difficulties, of how to end it and how co-creator Hideaki Anno had a psychological breakdown halfway through producing it, thus leading to improvised experimentation and even darker psychological content. When animated sci-fi is usually seen as Transformers in geek culture, Evangelion pushed for more adult, psychologically complicated sci-fi in anime. It meant, after, there was a period where more experimental anime series were given a chance, from Serial Experiments Lain (1998) to Boogiepop Phantom (2000). It also led to imitators, something I don’t criticise as, considering Evangelion is still a gigantic merchandising industry by itself, I wouldn’t blame anyone else wanting a piece of the moody sci-fi pie. I cannot look at Virus Buster Serge and not think someone had been influenced by the popular franchise, only rather than characters and their back stories against the situations taking place, Virus Buster Serge was more interested in a lot of jargon that sounds significant. This series also saw Evangelion’s later episodes, once something went weird, and maybe The End of Evangelion (1997), where everything went to hell, and it throws symbology and freakish imagery around continually. A ghostly woman with angels wings, a white throne in a septic white room, vague swirling colours and depictions of cyberspace like a cybernetic, omninous snowball. Nothing about it has any real depth to it, but God bless the series, it’s poor but it’s memorable for its structurally pointless, but well drawn, symbolism. It even borrows Evangelion’s crucifix imagery, which even Evangelion didn’t depict with any actual depth to it originally.

Most of the series, when it’s not these scenes, or an occasional action scene, are characters in static talking of vague things. Obvious plot points don’t get explained until much later on then they should as already mentioned. Everything, despite the bright nineties, hand drawn colours of the characters, is muted, grey or darkly painted. There are no real background details if you notice, not a lot of background figures or detail, adding a lifeless feeling. The other divisive issue with this series is the character designs by the director himself. I am not criticising his abilities as an animator, as I still need to see his best work which has some pedigree of his behind it from what I’ve read of. He has become obscured in his craft from the early 2000s or so, having ended up directing hentai (porn) anime and steadily directing other work within the last decade, but is someone who has some well known titles in his career, including a few fighting game adaptations. His character designs are distinct, but are exaggerated in a way that feel they could’ve only worked in the nineties, not palatable for many in the last few decades looking on at them. The male character designs aren’t that drastic, barring the lithe muscular figures, but it’s the female character designs that stick out like a sore thumb. It’s not even the proportions, as there have been many an anime you can accuse for female characters with insanely large breasts, waspishly thin waists, and lengthy legs. It’s the faces, drawn and on these stereotypical proportions, which stand out, especially with the character Erika. Unconventionally shaped faces and eyes, snaggletooths and a ill-proportioned mix between cartoonish and attractive. At times, the designs work, but drawn at certain perspectives and angles, they look off in symmetry and quality. I also suspect this series was handicapped in being a television series – unlike feature film or straight to video anime, the former usually high budgeted, the later able to have more time to work on them depending on the specific project, television had a strict deadline, and Virus Buster Serge does feel like one with not the highest budget it could’ve gotten.

So what exactly happens in Virus Buster Serge when it’s all put together? There’s a lot of mystery, vague events taking place in the background, but were they worth doing when we could’ve have a more conventional superhero team story which more action, a little of the sci-fi and intrigue? The thing with Neon Genesis Evangelion, for its psychological drama, was that, being inspired by Ultraman, it was an action sci-fi first, with the character building and unsettling content built around this genre core. It’s not even that it had the advantage of more episodes, as for its rocky production history, where line drawings were used in episode previews instead of animation, and probably not out of stylistic flourish, it managed to do well for itself with a giant legacy as a reward. Virus Buster Serge could have worked with what it had. The episodes have to juggle the symbolism, the esoteric and the exposition in a mad cocktail. It should be legitimately weird and interesting for all its intrigue, and in some ways it is as a curiosity of the nineties anime industry. The colours, the genre melding, the view of the future coming up to the Millennium, the hand drawn results certainly for me entertaining to view rather than a good narrative story. The irony is that, despite its trippy symbolism, it never becomes trippy in structure and tone. It becomes fraught between the action sci-fi and the mysterious drama, and its more the conventional action sci-fi in the end, making the intrigue pointless, wasting time that could’ve been somewhere else, and not making it strange enough to get on the Abstract List.

I find more to get from this examining the result as it stands, not good, but to look on at with interest. As stated early on in the review, this is an anime only for the curious. Most people will find it generic and not that interesting. That’s not to say there aren’t fans of Virus Buster Serge online, but I can see many that won’t like it. For me it’s interesting to look at instead.

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