California Crisis

Most OVAs from the 1980s that never made it across to American shores have been lost to the ages for a reason...they're terrible. I mean, we made hits in the US out of garbage like M.D. Geist! There are the occasional exceptions where ownership disputes, aging animation, or subject matter supposedly not of interest outside Japan kept the migration from happening. That said, I expect unlicensed OVAs from three decades ago to be pretty awful.

California Crisis has the hallmarks of bad anime -- inch-deep characters, a storyline that's nothing more than a series of chases, and about the most disappointing ending you can imagine. And yet it is also incredibly unique. With an animation style you've never quite seen before, an uncommon obsession with America, and a brisk pace that never bores, this failure is a fascinating way to spend 45 minutes back in the era of valley girls and signs in neon script.

An aging frat boy who needs to get his life together instead of spending it in the bottle, Noera spends most of his time taking care of his red convertible and getting drunk reminiscing about the old days with classmates who are now married and having families. Heading home one morning after a bender, he passes a cute airhead biker named Marcia who asks him directions (at full speed, even). But before they become too well acquainted, they become embroiled in a high-speed shootout between two other parties. Surviving against all odds, they wind up with a large sphere that resembles the monolith from 2001...well, if the monolith was the size of a 16-pound bowling ball. Anyway, the two of them have an otherworldly experience as they touch the thing, and they are slowly drawn towards Death Valley to find out who might claim the Gantz ball's baby brother.

On a surface level, California Crisis is just a way to kill time. Its plot is brain dead, and there's really no time for interesting threads to develop. As a production from a small independent studio, it seems more a calling card than a fully-developed feature. This is most apparent in Noera and Marcia, who barely have enough personality to register outside of their stereotypes, but the bad guys are so underdeveloped that they are defined more by their sneers and blank stares than what they are trying to accomplish. And finally, the ending is something out of an old Choose Your Own Adventure book when you chose...poorly. It comes to a screeching halt leaving almost every mystery of the show totally unresolved. Skipping it would not be a crime for these very reasons.

But for a student of 1980s anime, California Crisis is fascinating. The animation style is very unique, using a technique known as "high contrast" that creates unusual shadowing patterns. It reminded me at first of Megazone 23 Part 2, though the designs themselves are quite different. While not always aesthetically perfect, I was constantly asking myself, "What are they doing there?" Unfortunately, not everything in the animation department is superb; the sky usually is one shade, and the look is comical at times. However, they didn't skimp on many of the action sequences, which often include detailed motion rather than typical labor-saving techniques. There were moments where the visuals were absolutely brilliant and creative...again, not something to be expected from a forgotten-era OVA.

The creators must have had a genuine love affair with the United States, because there is attention to detail missing from most anime set in the English-speaking world. Signs are everywhere. In fact, the signs have more personality than the leads. And while there are a couple of spelling errors, what's fun is seeing just how many English words they got right. In a world notorious for its lack of English spelling prowess, it's amazing to see the animators get it mostly right. (It seems, too, that they probably didn't ever think the show would air outside of Japan, so there wasn't a need to intentionally mis-spell every major name brand.)

And whether you can appreciate it as a cult classic of unique animation or as a cult classic of utter stupidity worth a good razzing, it isn't boring. The forty-odd minutes just raced by. Even subdued sequences like an oddball outing to a music club playing wannabe funk, while odd, are very watchable. The show has no right to be as entertaining as it turns out to be. You can hate it for not being better, but you can't fault it for trying.

California Crisis is one of those shows that seems to have found a very small niche audience via Bit Torrent; the copy floating around the Internet isn't great, but it's not bad for something that came off a first-gen VHS tape. If you've never watched an anime made before 1990 (or weren't born by then), this is probably a write-off. But for collectors, aficionados, and students of a bygone era of anime, it's a fun find.

California Crisis -- violence, brief nudity -- B-