Sixteen years ago an alien spaceship crashed on Graviton City. It was never cleared away, so now a bustling, hi-tech district thrives on the island rebuilt around the ship. One of its citizens is A-Ko Magami (voiced by Emi Shinohara), a bright and cheerful schoolgirl who seemingly can’t help being late for school every single day. So she rockets across town at super-speed, bouncing off rooftops, dragging her bubble-brained, hyper-manic gal pal C-Ko (Michie Tomizawa) along the way. Yes, A-Ko is not your average Japanese schoolgirl. She is super-strong and super-fast, with a heart big enough to eclipse her occasional clumsiness, which includes crashing into the mysterious D (Tessho Genda) who spies on the girls every day. However, A-Ko’s amazing powers do not intimidate B-Ko (Miki Itou), the rich, beautiful, ingenious school bully who, for inexplicable reasons, has a hopeless crush on daffy little C-Ko and is hellbent on stealing her affections. To that end B-Ko pits her array of self-designed giant robots against the mighty A-Ko and when that fails, dons a hi-tech, missile shooting battle bikini to wage war on her rival in the classroom and on the streets! Then all hell breaks loose when an alien armada invades the Earth in seach of their long-lost princess...
Project A-Ko drew its title from Project A (1983), the Jackie Chan classic, and the spirit of the clown prince of kung fu is apparent in the manic martial arts mayhem that unfolds throughout this priceless artefact from the golden age of anime. Besides being a huge hit in its native Japan, the film was a key title in the early days of anime fandom, opening a world beyond tentacle porn and cyberpunk ultra-violence. Not that Project A-Ko seemed any less weird to western eyes: a slapstick sci-fi spoof involving a lesbian love triangle? Only in Japan, huh?
Well, yes and no. On close inspection, Project A-Ko’s then much-remarked upon “gay agenda” is only skin deep. What co-directors Katsuhiko Nijishima and Yuji Moriyama really set out to do was send up the melodramatic conventions of shoujo (“girls”) anime with their emphasis on intense schoolyard friendships and dewey-eyed romance. Here, a simple classroom feud is ridiculously inflated and the fate of the world hangs on three stroppy schoolgirls settling their differences. Given that the bubbly schoolgirl was something of an emblem of Japan’s booming economy in the Eighties, it is not hard to discern deeper satirical undertones. One of the funniest jokes finds the super-powered schoolgirls scrapping in the midst of the alien cataclysm, so caught up in their own little drama they don’t notice tanks and robots rampaging through the streets. In later years, following Japan’s economic downturn, live action filmmakers used the satirical-allegorical defence to justify scenes featuring the rape and torture of schoolgirl characters in low-budget splatter films. By contrast, Project A-Ko is a far less mean-spirited but more probing satire.
Nijishima and Moriyama, both of whom went on to prolific careers in comedy anime, crafted an irreverent but wholly affectionate send-up of anime conventions from giant robots to cute girls in sailor suits, spaceship battles to martial arts madness. The film is laden with in-joke references to both anime and American pop culture. Among the hilariously inventive gags: the spectacle of Ken, hulking hero of Fist of the North Star (1984), reincarnated as a savage schoolgirl in pig-tails, still striking his iconic karate poses. Leiji Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock, the most iconic hero in science fiction anime, star of his own landmark 1978 film and the movies Arcadia of My Youth (1982) and Galaxy Express 999 (1979), is here mercilessly lampooned in the guise of a drunken, increasingly manic transsexual. Even KFC founder Colonel Sanders pops up as a scary face down a dark alley in the movie A-Ko and C-Ko catch at their local cinema. This particular in-joke, liable to fly over most people’s heads, sends up an iconic scene from the anime blockbuster Harmagedon (1983). According to the indespensible Anime Encyclopedia co-written by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy: “Kentucky Fried Chicken had just opened its franchise in Japan and the lifesize statue outside every restaurant became a target for (Japanese) comedians for years.” The brilliantly crafted script pulls off some neat surprises and truly inspired gags, including one that belongs to the ages: the giant transformer robot that leaves its pilot in too awkward a position to reach the controls.
But besides being a great comedy, Project A-Ko is simply one of the greatest action anime ever made. Its set-pieces are superbly animated, featuring extravagantly designed spaceships and intricate cityscapes amidst indelible, exciting images like tiny A-Ko taking down giant robots like a human corkscrew or jumping off the noses of one jet-fighter after another in the midst of their dogfight with alien craft styled like bugs. Even if the viewer is wholly unaware of all its J-pop culture in-jokes, the film can be appreciated by anyone with a fondness for comedies that go increasingly over the top. It climaxes with a slapstick space battle not unlike the more sweeping epics routinely featured in Captain Harlock, before a final twist implies our young superheroine is the offspring of two iconic American heroes.