The Irreconcilable Distance of Bubblegum Crisis
by Travis Hedge Coke
In 2021 it is easy to forget how unusual and how risky Bubblegum Crisis was on its release.
Bubblegum Crisis brought together elements of Walter Hill movies, late-era Robert Heinlein novels, a change in the Japanese economy, with a little bit of Top Gun and a little bit of Cutie Honey into a hip, laser-focused nerd highlight reel from 1987 it’s premature end in 1991.
The large stylistic riffs borrowed from Blade Runner and Streets of Fire seem now safely nostalgic. The impact on so many other works have rendered many visuals and audiovisual pairings too commonplace to clearly remember their one-time uniqueness. Kenichi Sonoda’s character designs both belong to a long gone era and may now read as a prototype for his later manga works.
Watching Bubblegum Crisis and not simply recalling it, however, brings immediately to the surface how goddamn weird that anime is.
A joint project between two production studios, part of the shiver of greatness in Bubblegum Crisis is various disparate creative impulses rubbing against each other. Members of the production team would take direct influence from what they were not allowed to let flower in BGC, to create Tenchi Muyo!, Gunsmith Cats, and BGC direct sequels and sidequals like Bubblegum Crash and ADP.
The original Bubblegum Crisis (it was remade – extensively – years later as a television series) was a high production, focused, direct to home media series which ran eight planned thirteen episodes, each with a run time varying from just barely over twenty minutes just under an hour. It will never be completed. We will never know it whole.
Some production staffers wanted to give the protagonist more downtime, to do silly or vacation-style episodes. Some wanted to up the LGBTQ+ content beyond one gay character and a shotgun spattering of homoeroticism. An all-action episode was proposed.
But, BGC stayed true to story and tone. Even series director, Shinji Aramaki, did not permit himself off-message indulgences when they came to mind. There was a plan, and that plan was not, really, to give anyone vacation hijinks or comfort. Not even the audience.
Even now, if you watch Bubblegum Crisis, particularly the earliest episodes, the effort to make alien, to make strange, this world and many of its people, is remarkable both for the effort and for the high quality of irreconcilable distancing that they achieved.
In the first episode, we know that, though she looks like a child and is spoken of as if human, Cynthia is a boomer, an android. We know it before the protagonists, especially Priss, the team hothead, knows it. This easily solvable mystery almost distracts us, especially in memory, from the mysteries the episode presents that we cannot solve, and definitely cannot sell faster than the characters.
Sylia, leader of the Knightsabers, a vigilante/mercenary team of armored combatants, has a bizarre moment while swimming, in which she remembers the death of her father, little gift to her, her adult work in robotics and prosthetics, and that she might be a robot.
Are we to believe that while other boomers are grossly mechanical, or approximate human like a mannequin, Sylia is a boomer who ages?
Her younger brother, Mackie, seems to have watched her grow up as he grew up.
Is her robotic state more more mental than physical? Is she programmed? Or are these flashes that we see concrete memories, but evocative?
Bubblegum Crisis thrives on evocation. Replicating live action science fiction movie splendor and atmosphere has also meant replicating live action budget workarounds and shorthand. BGC sticks with a very imply don’t show ethos at times, that helps it feel more real than cartoons who more freely explore the range of visuals that only having to be drawn and painted permits.
The world feels genuinely lived in. Characters subsist. Furniture has to last and rooms, be used.
The Knightsabers feel more like Star Trek or A-Team characters, than Gall Force or Ranma 1/2. It is easier to believe they get hungry, have a bad knee in the rain, have to pee but can’t find a bathroom. Sometimes the animated characters feel as if they would like to get through a scene and go sit down off-camera or go home.
The integration of self-generated music that can sell on its own (an album plus more tied to every episode) influenced the model that has become a standard after Neon Genesis Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, and even most of the Macross sequels. Prior to BGC, anime could be counted on for maybe an original song, for promoting a single or two per season from one of the producers.
The direct to home market/original animation video distribution allowed not only for the tailoring of runtime to individual episodes and control of release time, but permitted Bubblegum Crisis to indulge outre visuals, lots and lots of talking, and even a stab at animating the equivalent of a late 80s workout VHS, for one scene.
The animators do wonderful things with engines, motorbikes, and giant killer robots, but they are equally fantastic with concrete, flowers, and the detailed meals consumed by characters who eat more believably than your average cram-their-face cartoon.
The title, Bubblegum Crisis, is never explained within the series, but evoked the economic bubble crisis, a disposability and confectionary nature, and was seen within the series as if the title did have a specific meaning in that world. It, like many of the bait and wait scenes and general strangeness that would interrupt the afternoon action show and Hollywood sci-fi beats, left us primed and wanting.
The series is of its time and about its time, but BGC is still forward-thinking today. Much of what seems outdated then, continues to be outdated now, because there are always stragglers, conservatives, anti-progressives, and women in STEM being pushed out of the STEM communities. The modern day. Is always tolerating egregious pervs and suffering men too powerful to fail.
I want to say the rampant cheesecake has aged poorly, but it’s quaint compared to Kill La Kill or Prison School. And, focusing primarily on the women who armor up as the Knightsabers, the anime really does make an effort to present them as human beings, with achy feet, definite bank accounts, and actual lives. We could have aged poorly in the other direction, or it’s only confirmation bias.
You have to look towards the future.
Bubblegum Crisis’ future promise, because it is a promise that is less canonical and more how Shinji Aramaki, you, I remember wanting it to be, that promise that may include open homosexuality, freedom to express ACAB sentiments, valuing a physical and intellectual labor, class sensitivity, big puffy hair, and the International dream of owning an armored prosthesis with long buoyant ribbons streaming from your head, remains a future of 1987, 1991, 2021, and 2032.
The Irreconcilable Distance of Bubblegum Crisis
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