Project A-Ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody

It's hard to create a great comedy, and perhaps even harder to create a great sequel to an already fantastic film. Sometimes, the stakes are raised and the gags become louder, noisier, more grotesque...see any of the Police Academy films for proof. It's as if they have to prove that they can "top" what came before. In this rare exception to the rule, Project A-Ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody is perhaps not as funny as its original incarnation because its creators gave it an actual plot. It's still got plenty of sight gags and homage to anime of the past, but this episode actually makes A-ko and C-ko more human. It's cute and sweet, and though the comedy level is muted (especially 20 years after its creation), it's an enjoyable watch if you liked the feature film that started this series.

It's time for summer break, and A-ko can't wait. With visions of meeting a boyfriend floating in her head, she's determined to lose a couple of inches and look her absolute best. Of course, C-ko couldn't really care less about boys; she's much more interested in hanging out with A-ko and eating as large an amount of food as humanly possible. But when C-ko nearly gets run over by the mysteriously handsome motorcyclist Kei -- and A-ko falls head over heels for him -- the two friends find themselves starting to drift apart. And while the slightly deranged B-ko hunts for the opportunity to make C-ko her very own "best friend," she also finds herself attracted against her will to the hunky Kei. Add declarations of love, a theme park opening from what's left of an alien ship, and rivalries galore, and you've got the makings for a showdown between rivals that even the Japanese Self-Defense Force can't stop.

Released in 1988, two years after the original, Cinderella Rhapsody was able to work with fans' acceptance of the characters and moved them in some different directions. For one, there are parodies of multiple genres here, but primarily romantic drama. The jokes are more subtle and involve some shows never released in the US, though much of it works well on its own, event though those familiar with shojo classics like The Rose of Versailles will get the biggest kick out of it. Of course, there are sight gags aplenty, ranging from A-ko's frustrated transformation in a dress shop to the agonized faces of those subjected to the worst song ever possibly written. But on the whole, especially in light of the manic comedies we've seen over the last ten years, it's slowgoing. Nevertheless, what shines here is that comedy is not always about speed but timing, and several of the jokes are perfectly timed. I've seen this show a half-dozen times over the years, and while I know each bit that's coming, I still got a few hearty laughs out of it.

That said, this really is a show only for fans. There's very little setup -- it's expected you're quite familiar with the universe -- and the ending is a bit too short and tidy. I also expect that those who aren't familiar with anime of 30 years ago will miss most of the in-gags (heck, there are several that I know must reference something I'm not getting). For those who avoid such things, there's also a quick bit of nudity in a racy scene during a "movie within the movie." It would otherwise likely be acceptable for young teens, but I doubt they would find it terribly interesting. The US release by US Manga Corps looks vaguely acceptable, but the print is dirty in spots and certainly looks its age.

I realized on this go-around that I'm not as enamored with this installment as I once was. Still, I have a spot in my heart for Project A-Ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody. It's a much sweeter story all things considered than any of the others in the series, and the fact that it's a little simpler and slower makes it stand out. Sadly, this series ended on a terrible note with Project A-Ko Vs., and I still felt the distaste for that catastrophe when I was watching this episode again. However, those of us who were around for the beginning of this series know that this is much closer to the standard set by the original. If you liked the first film, give this a try.

Project A-Ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody -- brief nudity, comic violence -- B+