It is 1969. Happy-go-lucky thirteen year old orphan Marin Asagi (voiced by Kaori) lives with her adopted grandmother, Moto (Rikako Aikawa), in an impoverished but merry tenement block amongst an array of eccentric neighbours, including elderly inventor Shuta (Isamu Tananoka), his wacky American assistant Mike (Mitsuo Iwata), the triplets who run the local store, and busty nurse Jun (Kae Araki) whose father became an alcoholic after her mother ran away. At school with her best friend Moe (Ayaka Saito), accident-prone Marin’s big worries are caused by boys constantly peeking at her underwear. Until one day the vast otherworldly city of Brigadoon appears in the sky and starts raining rampaging biomechanoid monsters called Monomakia that seem bent on killing poor, hapless Marin. Escaping these giant alien assassins, Marin unearths a curious device at a local Shinto shrine that unleashes Melan Blue (Hochu Otsuka), a kick-ass super-robot from Brigadoon. With Melan as her protector, Marin is guided by Lolo (Mayumi Shintani), a sarcastic little green cat-like alien that seem to know all that is going on, and a mysterious green-haired boy who claims to hail from the far-flung future, towards unravelling the mystery of Brigadoon as its crumbling castles continue falling from the sky.
Although part-inspired by the Scottish legend behind the famous MGM musical with Gene Kelly, as evident from Yoko Ueno’s lovely Celtic-inflected choral score, this delightful anime adventure is very much its own eccentric entity. Brigadoon came and went with little fanfare back in 2000 but has since been widely reappraised as among the most vivid, engrossing and inventive genre outings of the past decade. It was part of a mini wave of retro-Sixties/Seventies anime unleashed around this time, but unlike similar entries such as Gatekeepers (2000) and Z-Mind (1999) does something substantial with the concept, incorporating historical figures from President Richard Nixon (Shozo Iizuka) to Apollo Eleven astronauts Neil Armstrong (Junichi Sugawara), Buzz Aldrin (Akimitsu Takase) and Michael Collins (Isshin Chiba) into an increasingly ambitious plot.
One memorable monster battle even erupts at the site of Expo ’69 - a landmark cultural event in Japan that inspired a generation of artists and engineers - where the iconic Tower of the Sun sculpture by famous surrealist artist Taro Okamoto unexpectedly comes to life as a malevolent Monomakia. Alternating in tone from screwball comedy to slam-bang sci-fi action, the set-pieces come across a deliberate throwback to tokusatsu rubber monster mash-ups of the Sixties and Seventies, only given an anime adrenalin shot in terms of pulse-pounding pace and verve. With a plethora of eye-catching oddities, the creature combat sequences are exciting stuff yet at the same time, Brigadoon paints a nostalgic portrait of an eccentric, impoverished yet close-knit community not far removed from Federico Fellini’s masterful Amarcord (1973) with a similarly surrealistic flavour. Outlandish-enough real-life events are often punctuated by Marin’s zany fantasies that typically end with either a close friend or herself meeting a comically exaggerated death.
Despite getting off to a rip-roaring start, the plot takes awhile to establish itself, with an early over-emphasis on silly sex gags (e.g. Marin and Moe are envious of Jun’s bountiful bosom, local schoolboys are forever peeking at our heroine’s panties). Yet once things get going the story maintains a heady pace and proves complex and thought-provoking with many satisfying twists and turns. As Marin discovers Lolo is only one among hundreds of color-coded super-intelligent feline inhabitants of Brigadoon controlling the space-time continuum - a concept further expanded in the even more subversive Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) - and immersed in a conspiracy involving her own identical double, a mysterious super-villain known as the Hensu-chi and an apocalypse threatening two worlds, the tone gradually darkens with a harrowing increase in levels of violence and psychological angst. Equally, the plot confronts its child heroine with real life problems like school bullies, body issues and the tragic loss of a loved one. Yet the tone remains pleasingly buoyant throughout as when an intergalactic senate to determine the fate of the universe devolves into a frantic custard pie fight or when Marin’s big messianic moment has her don a golden robot chicken suit before the finale showdown.
Some fans took issue with Takhiro Kimura’s chara designs, but speaking personally they are very appealing and the whimsically pastel-shaded production design maintains a high level of invention. Incredibly hyper and cheery, bespectacled Marin is an engagingly multi-layered heroine, alternately goofy, sweet and earnest, going literally starry-eyed over each fantastic event in her hitherto ordinary life. Her frankly eyebrow-raising under-age interspecies romance with Melan provides a surprisingly substantial emotional core running throughout the deceptively chaotic but actually well thought out narrative that builds to a succession of final revelations that fully satisfy while the transcendental conclusion is truly mind-blowing.