Neon Never Fades: Thirty Years of Bubblegum Crisis

Bubblegum Crisis is the embodiment of an era.

Few works so perfectly crystallize the state of anime fandom as the original Bubblegum Crisis OVA series. While it in no way succeeds on every level that a series should or could, it nevertheless continues to be a beloved work in the history of the medium. Bubblegum Crisis is a pastiche, a glorious mashup of the various influences and fan desires at the time, and is representative of what anime meant to western fandom in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For this reason it continues to be an exemplar of the medium to those of a certain vintage.

One of Crisis’ standout traits is how much it’s defined by the time in which it was released. It’s nearly impossible to view Crisis without taking into consideration how very ’80s it all feels. In fact, it might be one of the better litmus tests for determining the sort of anime fan you are dealing with – whether the fact that it is “so eighties” is its strongest selling point or its greatest flaw.

Identifying which qualities make it a work of the ’80s is not a particularly difficult exercise. Crisis’ characteristics are a rap sheet of that decade: an emphasis on overly detailed mechanical designs, a world on the brink, a shadowy mega-corporation that vies for control in the dark spaces, synth-infused pop, rampaging killer robots, profit-driven mercenaries living outside the law, and a penchant for detailed action sequences above all else. While modern fans might balk at the tonal whiplash from so many disparate elements haphazardly existing alongside one another, it’s this buffet-style take on an important and formative decade that makes it so endearing to many older fans.

Crisis, like any great work, draws inspiration from its contemporaries, particularly western science fiction films. Blade Runner, Terminator, Streets of Fire, ALIENS, Mad Max – the impact of these works on the OVA series has been reiterated far too many times to make unpacking them a worthwhile venture at this point. In fact, it is so ecstatic in its various homages placed in every nook and cranny that there is little to excavate; visual motifs, naming conventions, cinematography, nearly all of it is found in other works in some form or another. But it is precisely this familiarity which made it such a hit with western fandom.

Perhaps most important to its success in the west is the sense of one-ness with its creators. Many times fans of particular media seek out connections with those who make it – reading interviews to find what works influenced them, investigating their childhood to find shared experiences, even attempting to find what activities they do in their spare time when not making art. Fans often yearn to be heard, to feel as though their needs are being met and the feeling that someone is catering to their tastes.

The release of the OVA in the early nineties was a clarion call for many western fans. Here was an animated work which seemed to speak directly to them. Like children on the playground making friends at recess, Crisis was an eager playmate – these creators reveled in cool robots and dark skylines, pop singers and sweatbands. Here was animation that fed those most basic human desires: a sense of belonging to a group, and more of a thing. A glorious, messy, wonderful mishmash of murderous cyborgs and cute girls piloting transforming motorcycles. Like an acne-riddled teen defending music whose chief quality is volume, western fans will often step up to the plate to defend Crisis without being able to articulate precisely what makes it resonate because, “It just gets me, okay?!”

Many have criticized the series’ inconsistency and lack of depth, and rightfully so in most respects. Due to its long production time and numerous creative staff changes, at times it feels as though there is little connective tissue between each volume, even for an episodic show. Very little of the world is explained beyond the current situation that the characters are facing, and often times what could be an opportunity to explore the nuances of a dark, over-digitized future ends up being that much more fodder for action sequences. Other than Priss, much of the cast is forgettable and even our primary heroine stands out more for her attitude and synth-pop chops than any deep revelations about her personality. Even the term cyberpunk feels like a poor fit, given that any dystopian or transhumanist elements are essentially window dressing for chromed-out future tech.

But for those who love Crisis these aspects are features, not bugs. The OVA delivers on the things that otaku were deeply invested in at the time, pure and simple. Sure, the characters are mostly action movie clichés and the world lacks depth, but there are pop stars in cybernetic battle armor riding transforming motorcycles fighting violent metallic monstrosities through the neon-lit streets of a dystopian technoscape so… who cares? Megatokyo feels alive and vibrant in a way few other works at the time did, with its cavalcade of bizarre mechanical designs and fast-paced action set pieces. Every other scene is filled to the brim with unique cars, buildings, armor, robots, computer consoles, and science fiction tech that might only appear for a brief moment before disappearing altogether. Each episode has its own soundtrack, providing hours of original music that adds an element of verisimilitude few of its contemporaries (or successors) possess. Crisis is one of those rare occurrences where the desires, influences, and aesthetics of the creative staff are in tune with the audience that adopted it.

This is why even after three decades it is still celebrated by many fans around the world. Particularly for its western audience, Crisis exemplified anime’s early role in the U.S. as an offshoot of science fiction fandom; one that was often underserved by native offerings and disregarded by existing fan cultures. It spoke to fans in a visual language that communicated more than verbal language ever could. In fact, many of the episodes can be watched raw and still be enjoyed in the way it was intended, as numerous early fans undoubtedly did. The idea that anime connects like-minded individuals across oceans, national borders, and languages is something that old and new fans can find common ground in, even if current anime seasons are a bit bereft of sweatbands and transforming motorcycles. This is the rhythmic pulse of old fandom, the lifeblood of years gone by preserved in shining amber. Crisis is very much a product of its time, but it succeeded because of this, not in spite of it.

This may be why later outings for the series were never quite as successful or well-regarded as the original. The Crisis OVAs were not simply capitalizing on a trend or trying the latest gimmick as much as they were loving works created by fans and for fans – a connective thread that is unbroken by distance or time. While many other works have come and gone, Priss and the Knight Sabers have endured.

Tighten your bike helmet, plug in your keytar, and power up your Hard Suit, because even after three decades the forecast hasn’t changed – there’s a hurricane tonight.