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Today we’re gonna talk a little bit about anime history, as I tell you the story of Pioneer LDC and their 1990s cyberpunk franchise Armitage III.
Founded in 1938, the Japanese Pioneer Corporation lived up to its name for decades as technological pioneers in the creation of many home sound and video systems. They created the world’s first component car stereos and CD players, pretty much invented Laserdisc, introduced the first home DVD players, and generally stayed on the curve of home entertainment technology. There’s a good chance you have, or have had, some kind of Pioneer equipment in your home at some point in your life.
In the early 80s, Pioneer created a media branch called Pioneer LDC, which produced a lot of music, video games, and, of course, anime series. In the 90s and early 2000s especially, they focused on original anime series that weren’t adapted from an existing source material. Part of what made Pioneer LDC unique and interesting in the early 90s, is that they created their own US distribution branch, and released a lot of the shows and music that they produced themselves, making them a big player in the first wave of major US anime releases.
The mid-90s was the period when anime first started to hit relative mainstream attention in the US with the release of classic films such as Akira, Ninja Scroll, and perhaps most importantly, Ghost in the Shell. These films and others rode in on the home video craze in the 90s, with Blockbuster and other rental companies stocking the VHS and Laserdisk releases for years.
In 1995, Pioneer LDC released the four-episode OVA Armitage III, which was animated by frequent studio collaborator AIC and written by the later to be well-known Chiaki J. Konaka. Taking place in a cyberpunk setting on Mars which borrowed from the iconography of films like Bladerunner and other popular works of the 90s cyberpunk craze, the series was a pulpy, action-filled story with a good amount of attitude and not a whole lot of depth.
Armitage III explores themes of robot rights and racism, as android technology reaches the point of perfect human replication. It’s not a very new concept, and the series mostly uses it as a backdrop for its traditional Hollywood-style action movie story, but it has some points of interest, such as, and I guess this is a spoiler but the series is nearly twenty years old so frankly who cares, that the most highly advanced androids are capable of reproducing with humans.
In its penultimate scenes, Armitage actually reveals an interesting political backdrop, with the Mars colony trying to secede from Earth, and some stuff about Earth apparently being a feminist culture, whereas Mars apparently isn’t, but the series doesn’t go anywhere with this and, again, its themes largely aren’t explored with any kind of depth. Most of what the OVA has going for it are its cool background art, well-choreographed and animated fight sequences, and the fact that Armitage herself is animated with a lot of personality. I wouldn’t call her a great character by any stretch, but she’s at least somewhat memorable. Otherwise, the OVA has pretty bad pacing issues and becomes too cheesy and boring in the later half, so overall I can’t really recommend it unless you’re REALLY into cyberpunk.
While Armitage III was decently popular in Japan, it ended up being largely overshadowed by the release of Ghost in the Shell, which came out just a few months later. As I mentioned before, Ghost in the Shell was a pretty huge hit worldwide, and is often considered integral to the spread of anime to the Western market after its release in 1996. Now, I can’t prove this, but it seems pretty likely that the direct result of Ghost in the Shell’s popularity was the creation of Armitage III Poly-Matrix–which consists of the Armitage III OVA cut-together into a film, with about thirty minutes of content removed, and some additional scenes added in.
Poly-Matrix, as it turns out, is essentially a US-only version of the OVA, and received an exclusively English-language release. Pioneer’s ambition with this release is made obvious by the fact that they hired on Hollywood actors Kiefer Sutherland, Elizabeth Berkley, and Bryan Cranston as voice actors. In the wake of Ghost in the Shell, it seems that Pioneer were trying to not only ride the newly born US anime wave, but to breach even more mainstream success by attaching these actors, to increase the sense of legitimacy.
Unfortunately, with the original OVA already having been kind of choppy and only decent at best, the even more butchered film version is downright bad. Anime reviewer Sage over at That Guy With the Glasses has a video on the film, which shows how it’s not only badly edited, but horribly dubbed in spite of its star cast. It’s a shame too, because the Japanese voice acting in the OVA was actually pretty good, with Armitage in particular having been so lively that I was surprised when I found out she was a robot. In Poly-Matrix it’s, uh, not hard to tell, which kind of defeats the entire point of her character.
Poly-Matrix was not the industry-shaking hit that Pioneer seemed to think it would be, though it remained a modest success, staying on the shelves of DVD stores for ages. Even the VHS tapes remain sort of ubiquitous at used stores, at least in my experience. Throughout the late nineties and early 2000s, Armitage remained heavily advertised in anime magazines and the like, and in 2002, Pioneer produced a sequel in the film Armitage III: Dual-Matrix.
Dual-Matrix is awful. It’s among the most boring animated films that I’ve ever seen, to the point that throughout the movie I kept asking myself how it managed to get through production with no one realizing that they were working on a trainwreck. It feels like the script of a thirty or forty-minute short film stretched over the course of two hours, with aimless scenes that go on forever, no sense of pacing or timing whatsoever, and absolutely no personality.
While the OVA script was comparatively average for a Chiaki J. Konaka series, it at least felt lively and up to the par of a decent action film. The Dual-Matrix script comes from a guy who would later largely become known for slice-of-life series Hidamari Sketch, and it’s clear that he never should’ve been handed an action film. Most of the dialog is trite nonsense, and it barely expands on the plot of the original series in the slightest. Armitage and Ross feel like they were written by someone who read a synopsis of the OVA without actually watching it.
Unlike the original, the movie is digitally animated, with a much bigger focus on sleek, on-model designs. However, most of the scenes are devoid of life, and even the action scenes are markedly worse than in the original, with a lot of them being colored so darkly that it’s hard to tell what’s going on, and a general lack of the flow and style that made the action in the first two episodes of the OVA memorable. There are some moments of really fluid and detailed movement in the film, and I’d hardly say it looks ugly, but it’s not nearly enough to elevate what is altogether an abysmal film.
It’s hard to tell whether or not Dual-Matrix was any kind of success. Pioneer once again gave it a pretty big US release, hiring on Hollywood actress Juliet Lewis to play Armitage for the dub, and advertising the hell out of it; but whatever the case may be, this film was the end of the Armitage franchise. In 2003, Pioneer LDC was acquired by the marketing firm Dentsu, and the company’s name changed to Geneon Entertainment. They continued to produce anime and distribute it in the West, until the US branch of the company folded in 2007 during the crash of the US anime industry and economy. Most of Geneon’s licenses were picked up by Funimation and Sentai Filmworks, which had itself just been created from the dissolution of ADV Pictures.
Today, Armitage III is still readily findable via Funimation. There’s a DVD release with the OVAs and both movies on it, and you can watch both the OVA and the Dual-Matrix movie on youtube, in subtitled form. If you’re into the 90s cyberpunk aesthetic, the OVA is worth a look, but I wouldn’t recommend Dual-Matrix for any reason to anyone ever.
Geneon Entertainment Japan was merged with Universal Pictures Japan in 2009, and as of 2013 is currently known as NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan. They’re still producing anime to this day, though Armitage III, their failed attempt at a flagship franchise, has long since been put to bed.