High above the glittering chaos that is the metropolis of Neo Hong Kong in the year 2097 sits a solitary cloaked figure, grim and ever watchful. He is Captain Raven (Bill Fowler) of the S.T.A.N.D. organization, an elite group of armored supercops who defend the city from the terrorist threat known as the Virus. In his enormous office, he makes his plans, ignoring the disclosure demands of his outfit’s parent corporation and dismissing the inquiries of his team with curt statements delivered in an Eastwoodesque whisper. The only other being who knows his mind is his holographic lover Donna (Jessica Cavello), to whom he confides while warming himself in her ethereal embrace.
Man, do I ever want this guy’s job, a mid-level civil service gig with unlimited authority, no accountability, cybersex on company time, and a bitchin’ cape. And the mystery.
Mystery is the engine that drives Virus, a 12-part anime series that ran on Japanese TV in 1997 and is now available as a DVD trilogy from Manga Entertainment. Be warned, however: by the end of the fourth episode, one may wish to catch another ride — say, on the Character Development trolley or the Plot Express — because this one is on a decidedly circular track.
In this future, a group calling itself the Black Valentine has unleashed something called the Virus, a nasty bug that transforms people into grotesque monsters capable of shrugging off injury and manifesting fearsome energy weapons out of their own cells. Who’s in the Black Valentine and why they do this, we’re not told. Fighting for us are the S.T.A.N.D. (what this stands for is also not revealed), whose colorful armor protects them from the Virus and allows them limited bursts of augmented strength and speed with which to combat the monsters.
Into their midst comes a young loner from the wrong side of the tracks named Serge (Joey Rapporte). He attempts to assassinate Raven while the team is in pitched battle with a Virus-thingy who’s stolen its own mega-armor. Raven fends off Serge’s attack and calls him by name, whispering, “You are loved.” Serge retreats, as the monster is handing the team their hats, only to reappear in his own S.T.A.N.D. armor. Super-Serge then handily defeats the monster, displaying power levels even the team veterans can’t touch. When Raven recruits Serge into the group, the rest of the team is understandably curious about this potential murderer, now part of their crew.
I suppose we’re meant to be curious too, but the sheer number of questions director Masami Obari piles on makes us wonder if even he knows what’s going on. Why did Serge attack Raven? How does Raven know Serge? Why was there a suit of armor specially tailored for Serge’s body just lying around? What is ultimately the point of all this?
Only Raven knows, and withholding information is apparently his primary job function. This is not to say that using an unfolding secret to move a series along isn’t a valid and effective device — look at The X-Files or 24. But in those instances, viewers have their avatars, their Mulders and Scullys and Jack Bauers, whom we can follow and trust in their resolve to expose the men behind the curtain for us. In the case of Virus, however, not only are the villains obscure, but so are half the protagonists, with the other half mostly standing around scratching their heads and looking pretty. If we can’t identify with the heroes’ motives, suddenly the show resembles The X-Files less than it does, say, the second season of Twin Peaks — fair warning for future scenarists considering sacrificing clarity for mysterioso coolness.
Strangely, Virus not only denies identification, it also bucks the tropes of the anime subgenres of which it is a part, mecha and Go Rangers. Featuring armored battle-suits, Virus should appeal to those fans of techno-fetishist military sagas like Mobile Suit Gundam and Robotech, but unlike most mecha, this series eschews the usual extended suit-up scenes and loving depictions of weapons arrays. The S.T.A.N.D. soldiers just show up, take a brief moment to pose in their armor, then get to fighting.
Similarly, fans of Go Rangers (“go” as in the Japanese word for “five”) series like Gatchaman/Battle of the Planets, Sailor Moon, or Power Rangers, will see similarities here, but also crucial differences. The group’s field commander, Macus (Michael Schwartz), is a fairly minor character, and the requisite “hotheaded loner”‘s duties are split between Serge and the unfortunately named Jouichirou (Frankie Rome), thus diluting both characters’ appeal in this category where character development is crucial to success.
What is standard in Virus is the body objectification that runs through most anime. Heroes and villains alike achieve their goals through physical transformations, either donning cybernetic exo-skeletons or morphing into grotesqueries. The characters possessing the most knowledge are those who have foregone bodies altogether, in this case Raven’s holographic girlfriend, who alone knows Raven’s secrets. But even here there’s a difference. Adult-oriented anime tend to favor erotic displays of female skin, with male characters fully dressed and female characters showing liberal amounts of thigh and cleavage. The opposite is the case here. Both of S.T.A.N.D.’s female members, bubbly Erika (Vibe Jones) and adolescent hacker Mirei (Angora Deb), wear uniforms, with ties and short skirts, but little attention is paid to the flashes of skin they reveal.
The men’s bodies, on the other hand, are paid unusual attention. All three males wear open half-jackets, with Jouichirou in a halter top and Serge in no shirt, competing in some sort of washboard-abs competition. Macus wears a police/SS cap, and drapes himself over his motorcycle or pouts coquettishly while squeezing off a few at the firing range. Like so much else in this series, the homoerotic signifiers ought to be leading toward something, but they don’t.
Unlike U.S. television series, Japanese shows are usually one-season affairs, so the 12 episodes of Virus should arc toward a conclusion. Given this short lifespan, by a third of the way through, we ought to know something of what’s going on, and yet all we know is that we’re in the future, someone’s out to get us, male cops will dress like strippers, and that it’s apparently more important to be a Mysterious Dude than to advance the plot. Episode five or six seems awfully late to start moving things along, especially when half the cast is still waiting for something to do. At this rate, it’s hard to imagine the conclusion being worth the trouble to see, and that’s wicked uncool.