Bubblegum Crisis - Ahead of its Time
Written by Ross Locksley on 28 Jun 2023
With both the anime and the soundtracks finding new life, we take a look back at the seminal cyberpunk drama, which for many UK fans was their first taste of anime (after Akira of course!)
The 1987 Youmex series, animated by AIC and Artmic, was very much a product of its time, or so it seemed. Featuring a (then) cutting-edge Rock'n'Roll soundtrack, references abound to Blade Runner and Terminator, the series blended in well with Western cyberpunk of the era. But in the current context, does the tale of Priss, Sylia, Linna and Nene, collectively known as The Knight Sabers, have a deeper resonance?
Let's talk about the cast. A team of independent, smart women banding together to fight crime might almost seem like a throwback to Charlie's Angel's, but here there is no Charlie. Instead, the leader of the team is Sylia herself, a woman with a mysterious past linked to the terrifying Genom Corp. and its robotic Boomer construction mechs. She enlists each of the other girls with a skill-set in mind and a singular purpose - stop Genom at all costs!
What strikes most about re-watching the original 8 episodes today is just how rounded the main cast actually is. They're very much individuals with separate lives and priorities. Priss is a loner who lost her boyfriend in the Great Kanto Earthquake (which is heavily alluded to itself have been the work of Genom), she struggles with her own anger and identity and is pushed to her limits throughout the series. Whilst she could be considered the "main" character, each of the other team members gets their own memorable story-line. So beloved was she at the time, that when news leaked that she might be killed off due to issues with the voice-actress' singing commitments elsewhere, fan protest stayed the executioners hand.
The loss of Linna's friend Irene is a gut-wrenching episode on its own, but to see it play-out with the arrival of Irene's sister, the pop star named Vision a few episodes later, really lends weight to the series of events that transpire and give Linna a depth she would otherwise lack.
Nene gets a solitary episode to shine, but it's a fan-favourite one; the ditzy redheaded computer hacker who works as a mole inside the city's AD Police Department must fend off a Die-Hard style terrorist attack armed with only her wits and hindered by a hapless photographer named Lisa that she's supposed to be looking after. Her victory is hard won, but the episode's lighter tone is a relief from the constant barrage of extreme events that preceded it and sends the series off on a happy note.
Nowhere else in the 80's, outside of anime, can I envision such a strong cast of leading females. Sure, Alien/Aliens had Ripley, but four well-rounded, well-scripted characters that you came to know and love? Nope.
The series had other forward-thinking aspects too. ADP officers Leon and Daley make a fine pairing to investigate and, later, support the team. Leon's arrogant and cocksure attitude don't go far towards impressing Priss, and he's initially a bit of a jackass. However, he isn't always too late to the party - his bravery and persistence do eventually lead to a glimmer of warmth from Priss, but moreover he also gets to save the day on one occasion, proving that you don't need to relegate male characters to idiot roles (a'la Ghostbusters 2016) to make the female cast look good by comparison. When written properly, they can complement and not eclipse one another.
And then there's dear Daley, the openly gay, super-flirtatious partner to Leon. While he could come across as a disastrous stereotype (and remember, this is the 80's where they were rife) he is, in fact, a highly intelligent and capable officer who puts aside his comedic routine to risk his life for the city when called upon. Beyond a few comedic asides, his sexuality isn't his entire personality. He's a terrifically balanced addition to the cast and he's probably my favourite character after lovable goofball Nene.
There are even elements of modern-day issues here. Evil corporations may be a staple that has lasted the test of time, but in the face of companies like Google and Facebook having such an insight into our every day lives, not to mention mergers atop mergers in all facets of industry, we really do seem to be heading for the cyberpunk future along the lines of Bruce Bethke and William Gibson. We also have a generation of young people beginning to rebel against this encroaching control, though I doubt many today would have the sheer grit of The Knight Sabers!
The animation may have aged, but the core concepts and themes of Bubblegum Crisis are as a valid as ever. With Animeigo's recent Blu Ray release now on shelves (though increasingly hard to find) this message in a bottle from the 80's helped to pave the way to bringing equality, acceptance and resistance to power to the screen. Sometimes, in order to look forward, you really do have to look back.
This article was originally published by Anime Independent in 2018, and is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
About Ross Locksley
Ross founded the UK Anime Network waaay back in 1995 and works in and around the anime world in his spare time.