Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Spirit of Wonder: Miss China's Ring (1992)

Outside of a small coastal town in an England that seems to be stuck in an eternal, rather peaceful and un-classist version of late the late Victorian or early Edwardian era, a young Chinese woman everybody only calls Miss China is running an inn, being nice to the local children, and kicking asses with her superior kung fu when necessary, like a deviant Michael Ripper. China could be satisfied with this somewhat boring life, if not for her boarders, the mad scientist Professor Breckenridge and his assistant and junior inventor Jim.

Because science ain't cheap, and Breckenridge spends all his money on his inventions, the scientist is behind on his rent all the time, providing China with ample opportunity to kick his door in. Which seems financially counterproductive to me, but what do I know?

Jim's a slightly different case - China and he have one of those slowly developing romances going on that mostly consist of the possible lovers looking at each other longingly and not explicitly speaking up, a state of affairs that is somewhat ironic when one half of the potential couple is as decidedly lacking in shyness and reserve as China is when not concerned with her love life.

Breckenridge's newest invention is particularly spectacular. He has - or so he says - invented a way to travel to the moon. That's the sort of thing that should keep a man in rent money for a long time, one would think, but convincing people the professor has a direct line to the moon turns out to be surprisingly difficult even when he writes a happy birthday wish for a certain Chinese innkeeper on the moon's surface in large letters. At least, this particular invention enables Jim to show he's the kind of guy willing to give his beloved the moon. If she kicks it hard enough, that is.

Miss China's Ring is one of two OVAs based on the rather obscure - as far as my sources tell me, both in the mythical West and in Japan - manga series Spirit of Wonder by Kenji Tsuruta. It's one of those OVAs whose existence is a bit of a mystery: its source is after all not particularly successful, and its tone and style don't fit particularly well into any clichés about what real otaku like. The anime also doesn't fit very well into the bodies of work of its director Mitsuru Hongo (whose Outlaw Star is a perfectly fine time) or its screenwriter Michiru Shimada, both men who have spent most of their working lives producing mildly to quite successful anime of the "popular yet not exactly conceptually riveting" variety that just scream work for hire. It's not that Miss China's Ring is an incredible artistic statement, but it's something a bit different in filmographies that generally tend to the blandly commercial.

Visually, Miss China's Ring is nothing spectacular. It's dominated by muted pastel colours and character design that's not too generic - I suspect we have the manga source to thank for that - without anything in its designs that would be stunning, or spectacular. Which, come to think of it, seems to be the right way to go about this particular anime. This is, after all, not a story of high drama and ultra-violence (even Miss China's fights are on the quotidian side), but rather a soft steampunk tale that charms its viewers by treating the utterly fantastical and whimsical with the same smiling interest it shows for its characters emotional lives. That is, of course, a time-honoured way to treat the fantastical, yet not one that's used in the movies all that often, not even in anime. When I look at how well Miss China's Ring succeeds with this technique, I'm bound to say unfortunately.

How well exactly does Miss China's Ring succeed? I had a bright, dopey smile on my face for its whole final act, and if that's not recommendation enough for you, I can't by of any further help.



Patrick Drazen said...

Truly a beautiful anime, playful enough with the story and yet very much invested in Miss China's feelings. In its own wayit would make a great double feature with (of all things) "Plastic Little".

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

It's a pretty wonderful little film. I think I see where you're coming from with Plastic Little.

Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

The original manga did see a release in the US by Dark Horse, though they only concentrated on the Miss China stories rather than the entire book which focused on other characters and different time periods ("The Scientific Boys Club" was another section of the book that became the second OVA released a decade ago).

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Oh, thanks for the info. Don't know how I missed that.
Now I've got some Dark Horse manga to look for.