Lensman: Secret of the Lens (1984) review

Rated: 3 / 5

So Lensman has a very fascinating history to it that, in all honesty, is more interesting than the film itself. The film is based on a book series written from the 1930s and 1950s, which in turn inspired the Star Wars films, which in turn inspired this anime film that rips off the Star Wars films. On top of that, there’s an anime series that runs for 25 episodes, of which there’s a second Lensman movie that ignores the existence of the first and combines the first 4 episodes of the series together to make that movie (Lensman: Power of the Lens). And nowadays, you can’t get a hold of any of these on DVD, and you’d be lucky to find more than the first 11 episodes of the Lensman anime series anywhere.

On top of that, the original creators of the Lensman books fucking hate the anime adaptations, and forbid them from ever seeing the light of day again (almost like how George Lucas forbids the Star Wars Christmas Special from ever seeing the light of day again). The only times this ever got a release in the U.S. is from a limited television viewing of the Harmony Gold edition, and a Sci-Fi channel release of the Streamline Pictures version which aired in the special period in time during the early-mid 90s alongside the anime classics Robot Carnival and Vampire Hunter D. Unlike those two films, this one would fall into obscurity due to rights issues and conflicts between the film/show and book creators. Primarily because they were pissed with how many liberties they took with the source material, straying so far from it that it’s something that is only “inspired by” the books rather than “based on” the books.

It’s no wonder I never heard of this movie until recently, when I browsed anime on youtube just for the hell of it. I was curious because I hadn’t heard of this before, and wanted to see if there were any diamonds in the rough. Well, this was one of the diamonds. Not something I’d consider an all-time great masterpiece or anything like that, but it is quite entertaining (if you watch the right version), and is animated pretty damn well for an obscure anime (like a mixture of Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshiaki Kawajiri [the guy who was the key animator for Barefoot Gen, and who would later on create Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and Ninja Scroll]. And regarding what the “right” version of this movie is, there are two.

First there’s the more well-known Streamline Pictures version (came out around 1987-8), which just does a simple dub over the Japanese audio, keeping the original sound effects and music in, and not cutting any footage. The dubbing isn’t all that great, but it’s not terrible either; roughly what you would expect from the time period. And honestly, if this was the version I initially saw, I would’ve forgotten about the movie soon after it had ended. The pacing is slow, the music isn’t all the memorable (when you can hear it), and the plot isn’t all the memorable. In fact, the entire movie can be summed up as shallow entertainment, without any deep themes or high aspirations other than a surface level, “don’t these visuals look awesome!?” presentation.

Then there’s the lesser-known (and even more obscure) Harmony Gold version (1989). It has it’s own separate dub (which has some of the same voice actors from the Streamline version), which I actually enjoy more than the Streamline dub. It cuts out roughly 15 minutes worth of footage (mostly small snips here and there across the entire feature), which aside from a couple moments they clearly did just to make it more kid-friendly (like the father punching his son in the gut, because we can’t have domestic violence in anime) actually improves the pacing of the film. For the most part, I didn’t mind them taking out the bits that they did, as a film this shallow works better with faster pacing. And last, but definitely not least, the music was completely redone. Half of it was taken from Harmony Gold’s other acquired anime product, Robotech. The other half though, was created specifically for this film by the composer Peter Davison. That music from that guy, pure gold (no pun intended). It’s some of the best 80s synth music you’re ever going to hear from anything.

What’s criminal is that this Peter Davison score can only be found in this film. As in it’s not available anywhere else. Not on a soundtrack, not on an isolated track, nowhere. Currently, the tracks done by Davison are “lost”. Which means the only way you can hear it is by listening to the English audio of the Harmony Gold film itself, with the sound effects and voice-over that go along with it. There’s no other way. Well, if nothing else, it does make me want to rewatch a couple sequences over and over again just to have that eargasm sensation again.

Discovered this version of the film from YouTube by user 0088, who had a VHS recording of the original Harmony Gold version from its television showing (which as far as I know is the only way anyone could’ve gotten a hold of it, as it never had any official physical release to the public; unlike the Streamline Pictures version which at least got a VHS and Laserdisc release). Enjoyed it enough to where I wanted to see the video quality improved (along with some aspects of the editing), so I took footage from the Streamline release (which has a higher quality upload), and edited it to go alongside the Harmony Gold audio, until I got it as synced and edited as I deemed satisfactory. Guess the film made enough of an impression on me to get me to do that much.

As for the story, it’s your typical tale about a young man whose father gets killed by the bad guys pursuing a Lensman (people with a lens on their hand that gives them, I don’t know, psychic communication abilities, warnings for incidents about to happen, counter-laser-attacks; whatever powers the script vaguely decides to give it). The young man becomes a Lensman, get an oxman sidekick (Chewie), a female love interest (Leia), some midget jive-talkin’ wanna-be black guy (Mini-Nig), and has to kill Darth Vader/Helmet/Claw/Evil and save the galaxy from destruction while doing nothing but running away from the opposition until the very end. You know, standard 80s sci-fi fantasy stuff.

One of the main reasons to watch this film is for the visuals. Aside from being very well animated, it’s got its moments of creativity. With how the worlds look, the types of monsters that show up. That moment where they go to Ludicrous Speed. The drugged out web-spitting snails (unfortunately, the Harmony Gold version would remove the pipe-smoking bits). That moment with the tentacles (no, nothing hentai-related happens, but considering what one of the film’s director’s would later go on to do, something tells me he wanted to do more with them, but had to restrain himself). And Tron stuff. Seriously, there are some moments where they show off 80s CG, and let you know you’re watching some cutting edge 80s shit. I mean, to be fair, it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to look. It works decently enough. If nothing else, it’s better than that abomination of a sequence from Golgo 13: The Professional.

The other reason, of course, is the Harmony Gold soundtrack. Did I mention I love this soundtrack? The absolute best of what this soundtrack has to offer can be heard in this epic chase scene that happens about 2/3rds of the way through the movie. And this chase sequence lasts for 20 minutes. I shit you not. And the music that plays alongside what’s happening on-screen is absolutely perfect. Which is why I was shocked to discover that, in the Streamline version, this chase sequence is entirely absent of music. I mean, it’s still a fun sequence, but the Harmony Gold soundtrack makes it so much better.

Oh, right, and one other thing. The film ends on a sort-of cliffhanger. Make no mistake, it has an ending that ties up pretty much everything; but there’s this one moment which shows that the final baddie managed to get away, in a “I’ll get you next time Gadget! NEXT TIME!!!” sort of way.

Bottom line, this film deserves more than the obscure position it currently finds itself in. It’s bullshit, and it’s double-bullshit for making the Harmony Gold version extra hard to find (I consider it miraculous that someone managed to make and keep a recording of it for so long). So give it a watch sometime, if it suits your fancy.

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