If I’ve learned one thing from watching Hiroshi Negishi’s Bounty Dog, it’s this: not every “godlike-alien-babes-living-in-the-moon-fighting-for-the-very-existence-of-mankind” anime film should be made. Fanatics of the form, or those interested in adding another footnote to the corpus of bad ideas gone really bad, may find some perverse pleasure in seeing it for themselves.
Set on a near-future, urbanized moonscape, Bounty Dog‘s plot is at times baffling, at times all too predictable. It centers around the struggle between the forces of good and evil. At least, I think they’re the forces of good and evil. Then again, the struggle may involve two cute but slightly whacked-out alien lunar chicks (or “Sleepers,” as they like to be called). The differences between the two possibilities aren’t all that clear; the film slides unintelligibly between standard alien invasion tropes and religious metaphysics.
The film’s brief prehistory is delivered either in mysterious flashbacks experienced by Yoshiyuki (Stephen Grat) or in mechanical asides. It eventually becomes apparent that the moon is actually an orbiting observational satellite sent to earth thousands of years ago. Every 2000 years or so, the Sleepers come to Earth to do a little fieldwork amongst the humans. Somehow, the “friendly” Sleeper, Yayoi (Teresa Gallagher), and the “evil” Sleeper, called “Darkness,” developed different opinions regarding the future relevance of humanity—Yayoi thinks it might be okay if humanity was allowed to live and Darkness doesn’t.
This difference of opinions leads to all manner of conflict and violence. Caught in the middle of all the mutual animosity are the story’s human heroes, members of the Bounty Dog Investigation Unit, sent on a covert mission from earth to the moon to perform some sort of surveillance or espionage on the moon’s operations. Again, rather than try to muddle through the causes and effects—who works for whom, what’s the political history between the communities on the Earth and the moon that would necessitate this type of covert activity?—the film simply assumes viewers don’t need to know.
In another series of fragmented flashback moments, we learn that a member of the three-person Bounty Dog team, Yoshiyuki, has at some point had a relationship with Yayoi. This relationship ended in the apparent death of Yayoi. However, while on the moon, Yoshiyuki is met by a young woman, Ines (also voiced by Gallagher), who turns out to be inhabited by none other than Yayoi’s consciousness. Ines/Yayoi informs Yoshiyuki that he must travel to the center of the dark side of the moon in order to destroy Darkness; otherwise, the human race will be annihilated.
Being the brash, two-dimensional character that he is, Yoshiyuki immediately believes Ines/Yayoi and agrees to attempt to kill Darkness. What follows is a straightforward narrative that leads Yoshiyuki and his Bounty Dogs through various apocalyptic battle sequences, eventually landing them up at the lair of Darkness. Ultimately and unsurprisingly, Yoshiyuki achieves victory over the forces of Darkness.
Normally, at this point in a review, I’d make a serious effort to draw an interesting critical or cultural conclusion from the very badness of the film, some sort of intellectual silver lining, but I know a losing cause when I see one. Bounty Dog feels like a big, fat, sixty-episode anime series squashed into a stand-alone, 1-hour OAV format.
Consequently, there’s much more going on “outside” of the film (all that extraneous history and context that’s assumed but never voiced) than inside it. What we end up with is a sketchy template that lacks supportive details. Even the relatively subtle character designs and the somewhat interesting mecha (created by Masamune Shirow of Ghost in the Shell fame) are lost in the drabness. The ultimate expression of this imbalance of outside and inside is, of course, the knee-jerk use of flashbacks. There’s certainly nothing inappropriate or aesthetically problematic with the use of this narrative technique—in fact it’s often an extremely powerful and provocative device. However, employed without subtlety or skill, merely as an armature to shore-up a perforated storyline, flashbacks can create a hopelessly empty kind of self-reference.
Bounty Dog falls prey to this empty gesture. It didn’t help that I watched Bounty Dog while (thanks to TechTV) revisiting the first few episodes of Serial Experiments Lain, an anime series with a deliberate pace, interesting ideas, characters who matter, and a complex and mostly coherent plot. Even the sometimes maddeningly opaque elements of Lain are acceptable because they’re earned. Such “earning” would be welcome in all of our culture-production houses (not just anime production houses). But Bounty Dog asks for a great deal of patience from viewers with little return.