Dreams are a funny thing. When you're young and passionate you lack the means to follow through. But when you're old enough to make them come true you're also sensible enough to let them go. The lucky ones find us before the cynicism. As was the case with Radio City Fantasy, a film with perfect timing despite being too ahead of its time.
Released to tape decks everywhere on July 21 1984, Radio City Fantasy is a foray into experimental animation and storytelling through sound led by the original MTV generation. Its sparse narrative is broken into fanciful vignettes set to the music of folksy new wave band Virgin VS--imagine Devo meets Bob Dylan--making it the anime equivalent of the film Heavy Metal, only with the cockrock soundtrack jettisoned in favor of synthpop.
The feature is steeped in the contemporary culture and architecture of a very specific slice of Japan--Shinjuku station, Chuo Park, 1984. Though the Coke cans, ice cream cones and skyscrapers make it timeless and placeless, ready to sweep up anyone in summers past.
Our protagonist is a young artist struggling to turn his picture book into a reality--or, failing that, his life into a fairy tale. He meets a girl, a stylish urbanite with a cool demeanor and ruby pumps to match her lipstick. Their dates are long walks through lucid dreams. They escape into fantasy and bring back souvenirs. The days are peaceful and idyllic. So what are they running away from in the first place?
Radio City Fantasy doesn’t believe in its own Utopia. The protagonist laments the city's man-made green space lost in a sea of concrete--"the nature isn't natural," as if the cherry trees lining the avenue were poured from an asphalt mixer along with the road. His contemporaries had similar doubts.
Take another 80s anime for example, Megazone 23, where the urban paradise turns out to be a computer simulation that cloaks a dystopian reality a la The Matrix. Or the live-action Kazoku Game, whose picturesque nuclear family turns out to be a domestic nightmare. The message is clear--life is too good to be true.
And in a way, it was. In just two short generations Japan rebuilt itself from the rubble of WWII to preside as the second largest global economy. But like the protagonist's cherry blossoms, nothing beautiful lasts forever. During the early 90s the headwind propelling Japan Inc. burst from the housing bubble, leaving the country to coast along into a double-decade of stagnation that continues to this day.
But during the 80s everyone was riding high on their newfound wealth, animators especially. At the time creators were entangled in the purse strings of TV sponsors and toy companies by the outdated production model cooked up twenty years prior by manga godfather Tezuka Osamu. The burgeoning home video market emancipated studios. With the VHS came the freedom to bypass the networks and sell their product directly, giving them complete control of content, production and most importantly, profit.
Nerds with disposable incomes transformed vanity projects into a cottage industry. A title only needed to sell a few thousand tapes to recoup costs and put the studio back in the black. Artists were safe to push the envelope and ignore the mainstream. The OVA--short for original video animation--was a format driven by creators, not network executives. And few creators were as driving as Radio City Fantasy writer Shudo Takeshi.
Shudo passed away in 2010 at the age of 61 but will be remembered for the characters he created for the world of Pokemon. As head writer during the formative years of the TV series he prescribed meaning and morals to the threadbare setting of the original Game Boy adventure. His script for Pokemon the First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back brought a rare touch of humanism to children's entertainment that helped make it the highest grossing Japanese film in North America, an accolade Studio Ghibli wishes it could claim.
But he didn't start out by busting box office records. In 1968 a young Shudo graduated high school to take his first script writing class. His project, Fairy Tale at Eighteen (18-sai no Märchen), was critiqued as ambitious though unfilmable--ten years ahead of its time, the instructor joked. Flash forward over a decade later to 1984: Shudo calls the teacher's bluff and updates the script as Machikado no Märchen--literally, Street Corner Fairy Tale--or as it says on the box, Radio City Fantasy.
The entire OVA is one long callback. In order to recapture the melancholy in the air from when he wrote the original script, Shudo brought on Virgin VS for the soundtrack. The band's vocalist, Agata Morio, is a folk hero from the late 60's who writes songs and directs films based on down-and-out slice of life stories from Garo, a now defunct underground comic anthology that was a cornerstone of the 70s counterculture movement.
Agata's breakout hit from 1972, "Red Colored Elegy" (Sekishoku Elegy), borrows its melody from the classic tune "The Moon over the Ruined Castle" (Kojo no Tsuki) with lyrics that build on the eponymous manga by Hayashi Seiichi.
Hayashi's semi-autobiographical Red Colored Elegy romanticizes the struggle of an animator turned starving comic artist, a theme that resonated with the sentimental Shudo and echoes throughout his film. Although the credits list Final Fantasy series concept artist Yoshitaka Amano as the character designer, the look of the protagonists and the line work are trademark Hayashi.
Several trains of thought linked together into a virtuous circle of inspiration. Hayashi's manga moved Agata to record the song that defined an era for Shudo, who later in life would ask Agata to write music for a film reminiscent of Hayashi's work. But the parents would outlive their brainchild. There was no DVD reissue, only the original VHS and LaserDisk releases which are either too rare or too niche to make it into online auctions. It lives on in YouTube clips, a digital phantom, and once the mods quash them, the dream will be dead.
If only all bits of pop culture were so lucky. Between the reboots, spin-offs and sequels, titles don't have the luxury of being forgotten. Something needs to go away to become nostalgic. Stumbling onto Radio City Fantasy is finding a lost mixtape or a faded Polaroid of an old girlfriend. It brings you back to time and place that exists only as a flawed memory. And is there anything more romantic than what never was?
Radio City Fantasy is available in its entirety here.
Written by Dave Kracker