Rewatching Black Magic M-66

December 24, 2018

Black Magic M-66 is a fun little 1987 action OVA of an early 1980s short story manga by Masamune Shirow. Among other things, it is one of the few anime adaptations that is directed or co-directed by the manga author; Shirow is credited as co-director and for storyboards. The story itself is pretty straightforward, and is usually summarized as 'the efforts of a female journalist to save someone from an out of control military android'. As an early Shirow work and a short story, it's pretty much free of the ornamentation and twitches that show up in his later and longer works (you will not find much philosophical rambling here, for instance). With its limited run time and limited story scope, it's pretty much all action and setup for action, although it covers a surprising number of additional bits and pieces in the process.

Animation and production wise Black Magic M-66 is quite 1980s (with elements that feel distinctly old fashioned), but in a different way than Crusher Joe (which I watched last year); it's more Bubblegum Crisis than early 1980s. Part of this is that it's infused with Shirow's general design sense, which even then seems to have been pretty cyberpunk (in the military flavour). There are a certain amount of what are now amusing 1980s anachronisms, like the reporter's giant video camera and tape reels, and some of the outfits, and a cameo of a video telephone terminal (once a 'sure to come in the future' thing). But despite its 1980s origin, the whole thing stands up perfectly well today; it looks different, but not bad.

Black Magic M-66 may be straightforward, but it's also fun. The story (such as it is) is solid, the characters (such as they are) are amusing and good, there's periodic amusing bits, and both the action and the tension are well done. This is a race against time and against an opponent, and it works even when you have a reasonable guess of what's generally going to happen next. The M-66 is an implacable, persistent, and even clever opponent, but not an infallible one, and it has weaknesses. Also, the entire story is driven by a core mistake, where the M-66 was transported with test target data loaded that aimed it at a real person, and sadly this core mistake is all too realistic; over and over again us programmers use real data in testing and have it blow up in our face.

I first saw Black Magic M-66 a long time ago, and I rewatched it now for a tangle of reasons. Certainly part of it was that it was there and not very long (it's about 45 minutes), but also part of it was in reaction to not rewatching Full Metal Panic!. To some extent I wanted to rewatch something old that I had fond memories of and actively re-confirm those memories, so I could have more confidence in my past taste and my fond memories of past anime. Black Magic M-66 fits the bill nicely, and I think I liked it as much this time around as I did originally.

There's a number of things I noticed this time around that I either didn't spot or didn't remember from the first time. There's a military unit involved in the story and Black Magic M-66 is a lot less down on them than I would have expected; it's actually pretty sympathetic and also gives them some moments of humanity. The military and the reporter are effectively partners in saving the M-66's target, although each of them might object to that description. It's a little bit hokey that the military didn't use better weapons against the M-66, but the story does provide a couple of justifications and you can read between the lines to it being important to the powers that be to recover the M-66 in reasonably intact condition, never mind what it does to the people who have to achieve that.

(In fact, looking objectively at the story you could argue that the reporter's heroism is potentially unnecessary and the military would have done fine on its own, despite what she believes. I'm not quite sure this is true, because there are a couple of times where the reporter is there before the military is and saves the M-66's target, but it's at least close. This is an interesting angle for a story that is ostensibly about the reporter's heroism to take, although her heroism is genuine (and gets her respect from the military).)

I suspect that my current reactions to parts of the story are touched by this post 9/11 world we live in. Tall buildings more or less collapsing have a bit more bite than they probably did in 1987, as does a military unit running around ordering people in secrecy, shutting down news, and so on (although I suspect that this always read differently in Japan than in the West).

(There is also that Black Magic M-66 has 'flying cars' in the form of more or less planes that fly around at low level inside the city and have parking areas and so on. And yes, we have one getting shot down and crashing. This is very 1980s SF for anime from what I remember and shows up all over, but it reads quite differently today. In the 1980s it was futuristic and imaginable. Today, not so much.)

In my personal rating of Shirow animated works, Black Magic M-66 probably ranks highest of all anime that is directly based on a Shirow story instead of simply drawing from it. The Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series is significantly better and deeper, but it draws from Shirow's GitS manga instead of trying to animate it. The GitS movie, well, I have complicated feelings about that one and don't rate it very highly.

This sort of elaborates on some tweets of mine, because I feel like it.

PS: There are any number of things I find neat about Black Magic M-66 that I'm not mentioning here, because this is already long enough. There are all sorts of little details about it that I enjoy.

PPS: This time around I discovered that the M actually stands for something; specifically, it's 'Mario'. Really. It's even in the title card. I really don't have anything I can say here, except that I'm going to try to forget it again.

(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime 2018.)

Written on 24 December 2018.
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Last modified: Mon Dec 24 14:15:42 2018
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