Dallos: The Battle of Monopolis

(Check out my previous Mamoru Oshii film review here: Urusei Yatsura: Only You)

Before the premiere of Gundam in the late 1970s and the resultant Gundam Boom of the 1980s, giant robot or mecha anime in Japan were typically of the Super Robot variety. These kinds of mecha often had flexible bodies or seemingly-impossible powers that did not conform to the laws of physics and their attendant applications of strength. A good example of this type of mecha anime in the 21st is Gurren Lagann wherein the writers postulate a new type of energy called spiral power within all living beings that allows them to dominate their enemies with basically just the strength of their wills.

When Gundam roared onto the scene with its psychological realism, narratively sophisticated plots about war, terrorism, and geopolitics in a future age, and with mecha that conformed more closely to what one might be like in real life, it changed the entire landscape for the better. Studio Pierrot head producers wished to follow up the success of Studio Sunrise’s burgeoning Gundam franchise with their own philosophically and politically sophisticated Space Opera, and to this end they hired on Mamoru Oshii and his mentor Hisayuki Toriumi to co-direct the film.

In Dallos, the Earth has run extremely low on its energy and natural resource reserves and in the early 21st century scientists found that much of the needed raw materials back on Earth could be mined on the Moon. They installed colonies of people in large containment domes who progressively eked out a place for themselves within this seemingly inhospitable landscape all while mining the resources of the land and sending it back to their ever-increasingly autocratic Earthling leaders. The people of the moon, or Lunarians, realized their subjugation to this colonial power and occasionally staged revolts and rebellions. But no avail. The people were forcibly fitted with metal Id head-bands from that point forward on which all of their criminal and public information could be scanned with little effort from the military police spinners in the sky.

A dictator named Alex Leiger has been appointed the colonial ruler and during his tenure has used the levers of power to slowly limit the freedoms of the people and choke-hold them into an ideological somnambulence. But there was once a folk hero named Tatsuya Nonomura who raised an army to fight for his people. He became a martyr, but the remnants of his movement remained and continued to fight against colonial oppression, imperial aggression, and the rape of their home’s resources, which only serve to enrich the Earthlings without likewise benefiting the Lunarian extractors of those riches.

Furthermore, there is a large machine out in the craters of the Moon, called Dallos, which is worshiped as a religious icon by the old guard Lunarians. This device’s powers have been forgotten throughout the generations and is even more mysterious as it exhibits evidence of being of extra-terrestrial origin. So when the young brother of the cult hero Tatsuya reaches adulthood and somehow manages to get caught up in the anti-Earth machinations of a terrorist cell/freedom fighter unit (in civil war’s one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and it is only the outcome of the battle that ultimately determines the popular historical designation) of his brother’s old comrades- including the charismatic and intelligent Dog McCoy- a new war for independence begins with powerful and agile makeshift mining mechas and Dallos versus the much heavier-equipped Earth nation with its deluge of fighter ships and battle suits.

Much of the influence for the events of this film comes from the classic war film by Gillo Pontecorvo called Le Bataille d’Algers or The Battle of Algiers, which portrayed the dynamics between freedom fighting and terrorism in the face of colonial and imperial forces in perhaps the best cinematic adaptation of such a conflict to ever be staged and completed. The film follows the events of the Algerian people and their freedom fighter class who use terrorist bombings and guerrilla tactics, as well as the force of international pressure to eventually secure freedom for themselves as an independent state no longer under the control and hegemony of the French State.

The socio-political dynamic between these two narratives ought to be immediately apparent despite the geological and spatial differences involved between a war over a small channel and a war between worlds. But the characters- like Dog McCoy and the Nonomura brothers- in Dallos mirror the enigmatic leaders of the Algerian War for Independence. They repatriate tools once used for their subjugation into tools for combat against a repressive regime. And like in various iconic terrorist bombing sequences in The Battle of Algiers, female Lunarians in the city of Monopolis hide guns in baskets of flowers, which they pass on to radicals at checkpoints in order to ensure the success of high-target assassinations. They use their purses to conceal hand grenades and various improvised explosive devices in an attempt to run off their oppressors. And like in the classic Italian neo-realist tale of civil war, the military police who are native eventually switch sides and aid their homelands as they ought to have been doing the entire time anyway.

Dallos was an extremely ambitious project for its time and is considered to be the first ever OVA, or Original Video Release (direct-to-video anime release), as well as the first animated work ever released direct-to-video in general. It is a landmark film for both its technical and production aspects and is unmatched in quality even by classic OVA series released by those who worked on this project like Lily C.A.T. or Venus Wars. Many of the staff on this production, including a number of artists and the head producer, would later start their own production company called Studio Gainax and for their first really ambitious project- the masterpiece Space Opera Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise- they took Dallos as their central inspiration and high water mark of an achievement to try beating.

Although typically attributed Mamoru Oshii as head director and to his mentor and teacher Hisayuki Toriumi as writer, dig a little deeper and you will find that the entire first part of this four-section OVA series was directed by Toriumi. Oshii helmed part two, but both worked together on the third and final installments of the series. Oshii felt that the film would not have been as good as it became without Toriumi’s guiding hand and presence in the work, but the two did butt heads on many an occasion during its production  as well. From this point forward, Toriumi treated Oshii as an equal and the two never worked together on a production again as Oshii’s talents had become very apparent and he was now ready to become a head director in his own right.

Dallos is a tale about the human spirit for conquest and discovery: some of the most magnificent and beautiful aspects of our human nature. And it is simultaneously a story of geopolitics, power dynamics, and the lengths to which men will go for gold: even if it means enslaving their fellow men. And it was the springboard for an OVA Boom in the anime industry, which had never realized just how lucrative the home video market could be. More importantly, it was a springboard for Oshii, who was almost immediately given the opportunity to direct another Urusei Yatsura feature-length film. And the qualitative difference between this film and his prior attempt are leagues apart as Oshii finally found his footing as a director and developed many ideas he could not use in Dallos due to his co-director role on that production.

 

Ciao for now,

Cody

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