Undersea Super Train: Marine Express

My friend Andrew Shelton over at the now-defunct Meta Anime Review used to have a ratings category simply labeled "archaic." This was where he placed all those titles that he simply couldn't give a standard review. Shows whose artwork was too dated, whose plots worked generations ago but not now, whose mechanics don't fit our modern idea of anime -- that's where they landed.

Today is one of those days I wish I had that category, because it fits Undersea Super Train: Marine Express to a T. It's a television film that was shown as part of a charity drive (one that's still running 35 years later, by the way). It was created by none other than the great master of anime and manga, Ozamu Tezuka. It contains almost all the characters he created in his major works, though some only bear a passing resemblance to their personalities in their home stories. It is brilliant. It is awful. It is the amazing mess that only a genius could create. It is ludicrous and filled with plot holes that would decimate lesser works. It is never boring, often hysterically funny (though sometimes unintentionally), and has both heart and camp value. And amazingly enough, it's been released in the US for streaming by Hulu. Who would have ever thunk it?

A man is dead. Private eye Shunsaku arrives to find his client, the chief engineer of the Marine Express, has been murdered. The man had warned Shunsaku that he thought the Marine Express would be used as a means to ship weapons internationally. Shunsaku catches a glimpse of the killer and heads out in high-speed pursuit only to find himself run off the edge of a mountain road. He awakens to find out that medical marvel Black Jack has saved his life, only to be presented with an enormous bill that Black Jack expects to be paid.

But before they can get into billing issues, Shunsaku spots the killer's visage on TV, getting on the trial run of the Marine Express. He and Black Jack make their way to the train to see if they can catch the criminal. On board are a variety of other notables -- Astro Boy, Rock, and Doctor Narzenkopf. On its maiden voyage to Japan, the Marine Express will face sharks, exploding volcanoes, evil henchmen, a plot to destroy the superliner...oh, and a baddie with a multi-dimensional ray that transports people 10,000 years across time where Kimba the White Lion, Don Dracula, and Princess Saffire await. Um...yeah.

While the film suffers from maladies such as an unfortunate late '70s disco score and a certain difficulty blending Tezuka's often-silly character designs with his more serious ones, it's actually quite a well-made production for its era. The copy showing on Hulu is virtually clean of all scratches and is bright and crisp. While the frame rates aren't great, for something of this era to look as good as it does is notable. I was surprised to find that the technical limitations of the age of its creation didn't bother me.

Marine Express' problems come not from its artistic renderings but its utter disregard for logic. The movie isn't hard to follow; it's just impossible to swallow. For example, several dangers come from outside the tube in which the super train runs. However, we learn that the tube is self-repairing; even when it sustains damage, it is almost instantaneously reversed. Sharks might look scary and lava deadly, but they actually pose no real threat. So why does the train have to speed up? To create a sense of urgency that isn't really there. The train is filled with dummies; this is a test run, after all. So why is it so hard to find a bad guy when there's only six cars?

But that's only the half of it. At the one hour mark, we are whisked away into the domain of the evil genius Sharaku. Problem is, this has absolutely nothing to do with what has come before. There is virtually no way to see it coming, save for a very brief interlude where Sharaku's kingdom is mentioned. It's as if we've suddenly launched into a different movie with the same characters. It's as egregious a screenwriting error as you're likely to see. By this point, though, you've either already shut it off or you've decided to see the massive (figurative) train wreck for yourself.

And on that level, as a train wreck, it's not half bad. Is it good? Not in any sense I can think of. It juxtaposes physical comedy with overwrought drama and detective work with ancient tribesmen. It is a kitchen sink movie, and somebody forgot to run the disposal. But darn it all if it isn't still entertaining on a meta level. I continually found myself laughing at the absurdity of the things I was seeing. And despite knowing how dumb it was, I still kinda liked it. Shunsaku is lovable as the crusty old PI, and Rock (in one of his few heroic roles) is someone you can root for. It's always fascinating to see Tezuka use his characters in all sorts of unpredictable ways, too.

But can I recommend it? Ugh. If I do, my readers might find it lame beyond measure, and I would totally agree. If I don't, my readers (especially Tezuka fans) might miss out on a great MST3K night or a film that they might enjoy in spite of themselves. Ultimately, it's archaic, a piece of dated anime history made by a master, and for that alone it will get my lowest "recommended with reservations" grade. But if you start wanting to wear bell-bottoms and listening to Kool and the Gang, you've been warned.

Undersea Super Train: Marine Express -- violence -- B-