Anime of the Past: Project A-ko

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

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Project A-ko is a 1986 anime comedy directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima.  It was a movie that I originally saw when I was first getting into anime back in high school, and upon my first viewing, I thought it was alternately very funny and rather strange.  On the surface, it starts off as a movie about a schoolyard friendship and rivalry that spirals into interstellar warfare, which is absurd enough.  But one look under the surface and it’s easy to see that absurd doesn’t even cover half of it.

The focus of the film’s story is on three teenage girls; A-ko, B-ko, and C-ko (literally, Girl A, Girl B, and Girl C, like the names of female extras in a Japanese script).  A-ko, the lead, is a fairly average teenage girl; she tends to sleep in on school days, is alternately charmed and flustered by the antics of her best friend C-ko, and otherwise leads a fairly mundane life.  That is, as mundane a life a girl with inexplicable super-strength and super-speed can.  Every time she’s late for school (that is, every school day), she’ll grab her best friend C-ko by the wrist on her way out the door and crash through whole neighborhoods in a mad dash to avoid missing the first bell.

Pray you’re never anywhere near her vicinity on a school morning.

Then there’s B-ko, the richest girl in school, who becomes obsessed with stealing C-ko’s friendship away from A-ko.  She’s beautiful, sophisticated, highly intelligent, wealthy beyond imagination, and spends her free time constructing mechanized weapons of death to pound A-ko into the ground.  B-ko also has her own posse of schoolmates that do her bidding, though this mostly involves her sending them against A-ko like a teenage super-villain mook squad.

Finally, there’s C-ko, the source of the animosity between Girls A and B.  She’s a loud, dithering crybaby of galactic proportions, and an equally catastrophic cook.  Why, exactly, B-ko puts so much effort into trying to steal her away from A-ko is only barely explained (hint: she’s a sadistic jerk), yet that’s part of the absurdity inherent in the girls’ relationships with each other.

C-ko attended the Akane Tendo School of Culinary Arts.

And then there’s the sub-plot.  While the girls are living out their daily lives of school and simmering animosity with the occasional bit of explosive violence, an agent from an alien race is on Earth gathering intelligence on the location of their long-lost princess, who was left stranded years earlier after one of their ships crashed on the planet (and humans built a city around it, co-opting it Macross-style as their military space command center).  How this agent comes to the conclusion that C-ko is their long-lost princess is never really made clear, however, as his research methodology generally involves getting plowed into walls during A-ko’s daily mad dashes to school.

Everything comes to a head on the day that B-ko unleashes her ultimate weapon: a powersuit capable of matching A-ko in combat, with the additions of being able to fly and shoot missiles.  It would make Tony Stark proud.  As for how it looks, well…

…Let’s be honest. It would still make Tony Stark proud.

As A-ko fights a powered up B-ko, the aliens make their move and attack the city.  Not that this fazes the girls at all, as they just interject themselves into the alien invasion and use the various war machines against each other.  It isn’t until the aliens kidnap C-ko that the fact there’s an alien invasion going on even registers on their radars.  Forced to temporarily work together to save her, A-ko and B-ko make life a living hell for the aliens in the film’s final act.

All of this alone is silly enough, with a mixture of high school antics, transforming mecha, plenty of slapstick, and the occasional panty joke.  What I didn’t realize about Project A-ko the first time I watched it, however, is that the movie is actually a parody of other popular anime of its era.  And while the movie is funny enough without knowledge of most of these references, it’s much more hysterical for people versed in anime of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, taking shots at everything from Leiji Matsumoto’s Captain Harlock to the post-apocalyptic martial arts classic Fist of the North Star.  Even the title of the movie itself is a reference to the live-action Jackie Chan film Project A.

Subtle.

While the references may be old, the film isn’t necessarily dated.  At least, not in the pejorative sense.  The character designs, artwork and soundtrack are all very much in line with the medium trends of the mid-1980s, and the fact that the film refuses to take itself seriously only serves to help bridge the gap in time.  Project A-ko is like a bookmark that helps to catalog the popular anime of the era with its selected targets of parody.

Regardless of one’s knowledge of or interest in the history of anime circa 1986, Project A-ko remains as entertaining and comedic now as it did then.  For anyone familiar with the era, it’s well worth watching, while younger audiences may still find entertainment in the antics of the three girls, even if the context for some of the jokes is lost.  As old as it is, its goofball nature is as charming as ever.

Project A-ko is currently available on DVD through the North American publisher Eastern Star.  It is not rated, but contains violence and nudity.

About Justin Graham

Justin joined Oprainfall through…belligerence. (Note to others: This is not a good way to get noticed. This sort of thing only works once.) When he’s not writing about games or waxing nostalgic about anime older than a large portion of the site’s audience, he can be found playing JRPGs or beating up lots of dudes in Dynasty Warriors.




  • Oscar Tong

    Good to see another “A-ko” fan! I grew up in Hong Kong, where anime was rather quick and easy to get in Cantonese-dubbed dubbed form. (I would assume the original Japanese recordings were just as easy to get.) I had already seen “Project A”, although it barely registered in my young mind. It was just enough to make me do a double-take at “Project A-ko’s” parodic title. Of course, that was all the parody I recognized back then—my anime diet was mainly “Doraemon” (whose Cantonese title was “Ding Dong”, whatever that means), some show with a short blue ninja whose title I’ve completely forgotten, “Dr. Slump” (whose Cantonese title was something like “Professor I.Q.”, I think), and other kids’ stuff. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that—Doraemon rocks!) “Project A-ko” may look quite weird and wacky to onlookers, but it was totally normal fare to me. 😛

    One of my favorite things about “Project A-ko” is the English-language songs in it. I had watched it several times already when, one day, my ears perked up at the lyrics, and I said to myself, “Hey, is that ENGLISH?!” I was really excited to hear English songs—coherently written English songs—in an anime. “Dance Away” is my favorite, followed by “In Your Eyes”. I wish the vocal version of “In Your Eyes” had used the music from the instrumental version, though. Nowadays, “Dance Away” never fails to make me smile and cry at the same time. They’re really good eighties songs. (Fun fact: Samantha Newark, who played Jem in “Jem”, was the vocalist for “In Your Eyes”.)

    I love how “Project A-ko” takes me back to the eighties. Hong Kong was a city protruding from a filthy, slimy, cockroach-infested rat hole back then, but the popular entertainment, much of which came from or was derived from Japan, was the best, at least in my opinion. The music was livelier and had more character and flair, and anime starships, starbases, and such were drawn with an obsessive level of detail I rarely see these days. I can’t really put the entire experience into words, but entertainment-wise, it was a great time, and “Project A-ko” was very much a part of that.

    I saw it on Laserdisc. The format was always more popular in Hong Kong and Japan than in North America. It’s a shame the morons behind the format priced the discs so high. I still have my parents’ old Pioneer Laserdisc player. It’s not the best model, but it does the job for Laserdisc material that hasn’t been published on DVD or Blu-ray—pretty much all Cantonese anime dubs from the eighties and the first half of the nineties, sadly. 🙁

    Indeed, I can’t find the Cantonese dub of “Project A-ko” anywhere. I think everybody who’s got the Laserdisc doesn’t want to sell it on eBay, or anything, and I doubt it’s been transferred to DVD, not even in lazy letterbox. Even the old Aiko Animation Cantonese dubs of “Sailor Moon” and “Sailor Moon R” have vanished. I’ve got my memories, but no way of showing anyone what I’m going on about. Words can only get you so far. *sigh* 🙁

    • I too was surprised by the English song lyrics.  Since the first version of Project A-ko I saw was the English dub, I wondered if maybe the songs had somehow been redone in English to go with hit, but nope!  I was really surprised to find out that they were always that way.

      And I really have to give props to Eastern Star for stepping up and getting the publishing rights.  Ever since older publishers like Central Park Media, Geneon (formerly Pioneer Animation) and, to go even further back, Streamline Pictures went out of business, a lot of older titles have become difficult to come by legally without paying a premium for them.  But Eastern Star has brought back a lot of great titles; Project A-ko, Galaxy Express 999, Fist of the North Star, and even Unico.  I never, ever thought I’d ever see some of these titles get a proper, modern U.S. release with the collapse of the old publishers and the scattering of rights, but they’ve been knocking it out of the park.