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.
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.
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…
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.
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.