PROJECT A-KO (1986)

Project A-Ko is an anime movie first released theatrically in 1986. A madcap action comedy jam packed with parodies, in-jokes and references from a dedicated team of young animators at A.P.P.P. who set out to make something a little bit different to many of the anime around at the time.

My history with A-Ko goes back to the early days of anime in the UK. I bought it on VHS in around 1994. It was among the first anime titles released over here by Manga Video (in around 93 I think) and like many of their VHS releases back then it was only available in an absolutely atrocious dub. Despite loving the film at the time it soon became a casualty of the VHS era. By that I mean when DVD came along I sold almost all of my VHS collection to fund my newfangled digital versatile disc player and as a result didn’t rewatch Project A-Ko for quite some time until a US DVD release came along.  Don’t judge me, I was a poor boy back then looking for work and at the advent of DVD as a format buying a player was an expensive business.

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Originally in the planning stages the movie was supposed to be an entry in the softcore hentai series Cream Lemon however at some point during pre-production the team decided they wanted to make something entirely different and more mainstream. Studio A.P.P.P. seems to have been populated at the time by some real characters with a quirky sense of humour and this is very much reflected both in the making of documentary (available on the current Discotek DVD release) and in the humour found in the finished product itself.  At one point during the documentary a staff member says that the movie was a product of director Katsuhiko Nishijima’s desire to make something “mindless and fun”. In this reviewer’s humble opinion it might be a little harsh to say the film is mindless but I get where they’re coming from. Story isn’t  really Project A-ko’s strong suit, it’s basically a collection of gags and spectacular action set pieces with a simple plot.

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C-ko (left) and A-ko get into trouble at school (and on their first day too).

The basic story concerns the superhuman, headstrong and happy go lucky A-Ko, her ditzy, childish best friend C-Ko and her rivalry with an arrogant rich girl called B-ko who has a penchant for challenging her to duels every morning before school. B-ko’s beef with A-ko is over something that happened when the two of them were small children that A-ko completely forgot about. On top of that B-ko falls madly in love with C-ko upon laying eyes on her for the first time and schemes to win her heart. All the while some alien ships are approaching Earth looking for their long lost princess….

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B-ko and her classmates/lackeys.

For a film primarily concerned with action and comedy Project A-ko actually does have a decent amount of world building. Take its setting of Graviton City for example; the backdrop for the story is a futuristic city built in the crater of a previous one that was destroyed by a meteor some fifteen years before our story begins. Like many 80’s anime the movie neatly sets this up right from the outset and gives you an idea of the universe it’s set in without resorting to lengthy narrations or long expository character conversations.

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The characters are what really make Project A-ko what it is though. A-ko is an extremely likeable protagonist, I love the way she just takes everything in her stride, her superhuman powers are such that B-ko’s constant attempts to defeat her before school with a never ending supply of robotic inventions (often piloted by her classmate lackeys) are little more than an annoyance. B-ko is a stereotypical “Oujo” (a term used in Japan for upper class rich girl characters in anime, manga and movies); the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and seemingly a genius level inventor judging by the robots she makes after only an evening’s work. Then there’s C-ko who’s well….not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. She’s a sweet and good natured girl and although her friendship with A-ko is quite touching she can be quite an irritating character at times because of her incessant shouting and habit of bursting into tears over the slightest thing.

The treatment of lesbianism in the film is interesting. It’s not portrayed in a sleazy way with any leery elements or even any overtly sexual scenes. In fact the whole film is rather wholesome with character relationships presented in an endearing way. Even though B-ko is technically the villain and has some horribly outdated views about “taking” C-Ko from A-Ko by force (she seems to misunderstand the fact they’re just close friends) she seems to genuinely be head over heels for her and acts just like any other immature high school girl in love. The girl may have some serious psychological issues but the depth of her feelings for C-ko are really quite sweet.

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B-ko sketching her latest schematics….maniacally.

The production values are great. A recurring scene in which A-ko rushes to school using her super-speed and destroys the neighbourhood every morning all the while accidentally injuring alien Spy “D” look fantastic. There’s great attention to detail in every other scene too; from the gigantic warship in the finale and the fighters that scramble to defeat it to the alien mecha which recall the glorious design work of the 80’s while simultaneously homaging the likes of Yamato and Macross.

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A-ko and C-ko give new meaning to the term “school run”.

Speaking of references to other anime there are tons of them. B-ko’s buddy/servant Mari is a muscle bound giant who looks a bit like a mixture of Kenshiro and Raoh from Fist Of The North Star except wearing a girl’s school uniform with pigtails. Amusingly her grunts and battle cries when fighting A-ko sound like a man’s yet she speaks with a regular schoolgirl voice. The captain of the alien ship has an outfit quite similar to Lejii Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock and lots of background cameos can be seen including a character that looks suspiciously like Yuri from Dirty Pair.

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Mari. An unusual…..girl?

I also need to mention one scene has been ingrained in my mind since my very first viewing on VHS. A-ko jumping between enemy missiles and using them as stepping stones to get to the alien base close to the end of the movie. Rumour has it that Osamu Tezuka complimented the animation director Yuji Moriyama on the animation in this scene. It’s also burned into my mind’s eye for another reason; it was used on every single video tape Manga Video ever produced between the early to late 90’s in a Manga Video trailer reel that always played before the main feature.

The overall craziness of the film just gives it a unique identity and you can feel the enthusiasm and energy of a bunch of young animators having a great time cutting loose. You can tell they were given free reign to do whatever they wanted. Apparently there wasn’t even a scriptwriter and the entire thing was conceived in storyboarding. This kind of relaxed approach to production could have really blown up in their faces producing something that was an incomprehensible mess however the breathless non-stop madness of A-ko is part of its unique charm.

The soundtrack is full of cheesy pop ballads with English vocals that were produced by American musicians Richie Zito and Joey Carbone. They fit the film surprisingly well though, in a more serious anime film they’d be horrendously out of place but in a light hearted comedy like this they’re perfectly fine.

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In summary if you’ve never seen Project A-Ko and you’re after a wacky comedy with some great animation that has a bit of fun with the medium it’s an easy recommendation from me.

The film spawned a few sequels and a terrible alternate universe spin-off called Project A-ko Versus (released in English territories under the title Uncivil Wars). If you really love the first film and want to see more of the characters the first three follow ups are watchable enough but unfortunately don’t recapture the dizzy heights of the original. I think the original film was a case of the right place and time and more importantly the right people coming together to create something unique and in this reviewer’s humble opinion…. quite wonderful.

Availability: Unfortunately the original video materials for Project A-ko were lost and so we’re unlikely to ever see a proper HD release on Blu Ray however Discotek have done a good remastering job on their DVD. Obviously given the circumstances it’s not as good as some other remasters on DVD but considering what they had to work with it still looks pretty decent. A UK DVD release is still available which seems to use the print of the first Central Park Media DVD release so the quality isn’t quite as good. If you can import go for the Discotek release.

TRIVIA:

As anyone somewhat familiar with Japanese culture will know “Ko” is a common suffix for a girl’s name (Kiyoko, Michiko or Hanako for example). A-ko’s name seems to be a pun on the Japanese word “Eiko” that means “child”. Therefore A-ko’s name is kind of like calling her “Child A”. The making of documentary Project A-ko Secret File makes reference to this, apparently “A-ko”, “B-ko” etc are a common way to reference characters in the production of Japanese drama TV shows. The staff had intended to change these placeholders but then decided to keep them this way (presumably for comedy value).

Samantha Newark, one of the female vocalists on the soundtrack was the voice of the title character of 80’s cartoon Jem. Despite the cartoon being about a band (Jem and the holograms) they didn’t utilise her other talent as she only provided Jem’s speaking voice. The songs were sung by someone else.

The film was originally part of a cinema double bill in Japan with the film Ami’s Journey (another Cream Lemon entry).

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