Black Magic M-66

Masamune Shirow is a very popular fellow in certain circles. Creator of the manga for Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, his unique character designs, complicated storylines, and attention to detail have brought him renown in America almost as much as in Japan. Unfortunately for avid readers, the screen versions of those two titles were dramatically different from his own work; though critically popular, they just don't quite feel like Shirow. In comparison, the short feature Black Magic M-66 from 1987 is faithful to its source material in both tone and look (if not storyline). This is no surprise, as Shirow had a major part in the OVA, not only contributing storyboards and script but also co-directing the project. The show over-reaches its grasp in terms of the animation itself, which is rudimentary, and the story is too close to a certain James Cameron/Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. It has a few set pieces that are as tense as in any film, and old-school fans may appreciate it. Nevertheless, with a plot as rote as this, you have to get all your cylinders firing all the time to excite your audience, and Black Magic M-66 isn't quite there.

Before the opening credits roll, a flying machine makes an unscheduled crash-landing in the wilderness. Its cargo, two robotic killing machines, escapes during the accident and head towards a pre-programmed target. Sybil, a young freelance reporter with a one-track mind for her stories, hears about the incident over a military band radio and heads out to the site. Once she arrives, she finds out that the government plans to cover up the mishap. However, the target programmed into the humanoids is none other than their creator's young granddaughter, who was entered into their databanks as a test. Sybil has to choose between getting the story of a lifetime on videotape or saving the life of an adolescent girl from the clutches of a virtually unstoppable automaton.

From an optimistic perspective, Black Magic M-66 does a few things right. First, it's probably the most faithful anime in terms of how Shirow actually does his artwork, particularly in character design. The Appleseed OVA and Ghost in the Shell films just don't look like his stuff, in my opinion, but the characters here do. Second, the show actually has tension in the final 15 minutes. Most shows don't really get to this point, but with some effective plotting and a mood-enhancing soundtrack, Black Magic M-66 starts to feel a little on edge, which is nice. Finally, it's nice to see a situation where the government troops are actually (vaguely) competent, rather than the stereotype.

However, this doesn't fix the primary problem--this is The Terminator in 45 minutes. There's just no getting around the fact that this story has been run into the ground, and it wasn't even new in 1987 when this was released. The Terminator films also worked because they developed strong characters and back stories so that we'd care about the cast even in their most implausible moments. Nothing like that here, as there's just no time for it, and the show suffers as a result.

If the animation were better, the show might get through, but it's pretty bad throughout. The budget just isn't there, and it shows from poor in-betweening work to weird facial expressions for characters. The music is nothing special except in those rare situations where the movie hunkers down into "mood" mode and gets things swinging. It's a case of been-there-done-that-bought-the-lousy-tshirt.

If action-adventure is your thing and you are willing to take 45 minutes to sit down with Black Magic M-66 expecting nothing more than some Friday night fun, you might just dig it. But at its length and age, it's definitely a rental at best. It's not boring, but it's so unoriginal that I can't see watching it often.

Black Magic M-66 -- brief nudity, violence, brief profanity -- C+