Lensman: Secret of the Lens (1984)
Director: Kazuyuki Hirokawa, Yoshiaki Kawajiri
You've probably never heard of Lensman: The Secret of the Lens because for whatever the reason, this film is very obscure, it’s not talked about a lot amongst anime fans, or even science fiction fans, which is strange to me because this movie is so damn entertaining, so well animated, that it’s a pity it isn't more popular. Even finding decent pics for this review was a small task! But whatever, I’m here to spread the goodness and inform you lovers of anime out there that this is one of those movies you've never heard of that you should give a chance to. Lensman was one of the first anime movies that I watched, along with Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of theValley of the Wind (1984), that taught me that animation could be so much more than what we got in Saturday morning cartoons; something far superior and complex than a 20 minute episode of He-Man and The Masters of the Universe. Speaking of which, the animation was fantastic on this film! You could see the filmmakers were going for something special, which is something I always look for in anime films, it has to be something special. So, what’s Lensman all about and why should you take your time to check it out?
Lensman is the story of a young boy named Kim, who lives a happy life farming with his father on the peaceful planet of Mqueie. One day, a spaceship is about to crash land on their corn field, but Kim, being the excellent pilot that he is, boards the ship before it crashes and lands it himself! He quickly explores the ship and comes upon a dying member of ‘The Galactic Patrol’, who hands him a magical Lens which immediately adheres to Kim’s hand. Kim doesn't know it yet, but the Lens will give him enhanced mental abilities and telepathic powers. Soon, Kim learns that the Boskones, an evil race of beings enemies to the human race, are after this particular lens because it holds the location of the ‘Devil Planet’, home planet to the Boskones. The film is a chase sequence, as the Boskones chase Kim and his friends across the galaxy, trying to destroy the Lens. Will Kim unite with the Galactic Patrol in order to hand them the location of the Devil Planet? Or will the Boskones destroy Kim and the Lens first?
The cover for 'Grey Lensman' one of the many Lensman novels written by Edward E. Smith
Basically Lensman is this amazing property which has been around since the 1930’s when its creator Edward Elmer Smith wrote the first Lensman story and published it in the legendary science fiction magazine ‘Amazing Stories’. Since then, there have been a whole series of novels, comics (from Eternity Comics) and manga. There was even an anime series entitled ‘Galactic Patrol Lensman’ and a couple of board games. At one point director Ron Howard was developing a film adaptation through Universal Studios and Imagine Entertainment, unfortunately the project fell apart because it was deemed too expensive by Universal. But of course, it’s a whole universe were talking about here. This is a story that spans planets and many alien races. We’re talking spaceships and wars in space, of course it’s going to be expensive. If you ask me, this whole property has an amazing potential to become a successful franchise, but Hollywood has famously backed out of many a good opportunity, so it doesn’t surprise me. I guess they won’t take a chance with it because it isn’t an ultra popular property like say Marvel comics and a film adaptation could go the way of the dodo like say for example Ender's Game (2013), a film based on a well established science fiction series of novels, that went nowhere. But then again, that movie kind of sucked anyways. But Lensman is all sorts of awesome! Well, at least this anime film version is. I loved every second of it.
The thing about this film is that it feels a lot like Star Wars. This film was released in 1984, so I think its safe to say that Star Wars fever was in full force back in those days (has it ever gone away?) so it doesn't surprise me that for every character in this movie we have a counterpart in Star Wars. Hell, even one of the characters has her hair made up like Princess Leia’s famous hair do. But whatever, Star Wars rip off or not, where this film excels is in its designs. The spaceships, the aliens, everything looks amazing! For example, the Boskones are all organic beings, so their spaceships, their armor, their everything looks organic and alive. This is a unique looking universe that I’d love to see translated into a live action film. Yet while live action films usually have to deal with budget limitations, the cool thing about anime films is that they don’t rely so much on a budget. Everything is done on paper, with traditional animation. There is no limit as to where the imagination of the filmmakers can take us because they don’t have to build sets or costumes, all they have to do is draw and animate whatever cool idea pops into their heads! And in this respect, the animators behind this film really out did themselves. What I loved about Lensman is that they focused a lot on doing these long takes of action where they don’t cut and the camera moves all over the place, following our heroes around. Best example of this would be the amazing escape sequence when they rescue Buskirk and the good guys escape on these hover cycles. Awesome action! Wonderful animation. So be ready for a movie that has some amazing animation techniques that were pushing what could be done in traditional animation.
Back in those days, computer generated images where giving their first baby steps and so animators kept trying to mix computer animation with their traditional animation often times with bad results. Examples of films that tried this are films like Rock and Rule (1983) and Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985), not bad movies on their own right, but those computer animated sequences just stick out. I personally hate it when they do this, but whatever, lets chalk it up to experimentation. Lensman: Secret of the Lens opens with Boskonian ships that look like giant pulsating brains, but rendered in computer animation. There’s also some computer animation towards the end, but again, this sequence just doesn’t look as awesome as the rest of the traditional animation. Thankfully, these CGI sequences don’t last long and the film reverts back to the awesome traditional animation that Japanese are so good at. The traditional animation side of the film is what really makes it special for me. The computer images seem crude and less detailed then the awesome traditional stuff. Obviously, animators where trying the next hot thing in animation and this is probably why we get some bits of crappy computer animation, which was in diapers back in those days. Still, those scenes are a small hiccup in an awesome movie filled with fantastic moments of animation.
Lensman: Secret of the Lens is none stop action from beginning to end. It never stops. It’s a huge chase sequence, we go from rescuing one character, to rescuing the next. From planet to planet, with all these crazy alien creatures! There’s this character who is also a Lensman that is just so cool, his name is Worsel, he looks like a man bat or something, cool character, again, this movie is all about the uniqueness in its design. The story for this film is all about the proverbial ‘chosen one’, the farmer boy who becomes a hero, so you see why I make the Star Wars connection. Still, the concept of the Lens and the Galactic Patrol is an awesome one with enough original elements to them to keep you entertained. If you feel like checking out some cool sci-fi anime, with fantastic animation and awesome action, give Lensman: Secret of the Lens a chance, you won’t be disappointed. Or bored.