I have mixed feelings about the Sci-fi/SyFy channel, but one thing I’ll always be grateful to them for is introducing me to non-shounen anime. In the late 90s, the station ran a weekly anime block on Saturday mornings, and, as their audience wasn’t the same people watching Cartoon Network after school, Sci-fi/SyFy aired a different kind of anime than would run on Toonami: science fiction movies and OAVs (and curiously, a lot of bad fighting game anime) targeted at an older demographic. Examples include the infamously boring Odin, Kawajiri’s Demon City Shinjuku, and the first Tenchi Muyo! film—a movie I think actually holds up today, despite the franchise it’s attached to. I’m sure you’re wondering, “With such quality offerings, why-ever was the block discontinued?” I know, I know. Believe me, though, they did show some unequivocally good stuff! The standout title they aired was a six-episode OAV called Iria Zeiram: The Animation.
Coming direct to video in 1994, Iria is the story of the eponymous young lady and fledgling bounty hunter, Iria. The show is set in a unique, Southeast-Asian-inspired future. It opens in a way that will likely seem familiar to fans of certain venerated Hollywood science fiction films. Iria and her older brother take a job involving the rescue of a space station crew, but, when they arrive, most of the crew has been slaughtered. The culprit, and the antagonist for the entire series, is a supposedly-immortal monster known as Zeiram. Our heroine and a growing party of companions must hunt down and kill something that can’t be killed; something, it turns out, that Iria also has a complicated, personal connection with.
There was, and still is, something about this show. Action-packed without being dumb, grim without being morose, sexy without being exploitative, Iria walks this tightrope of being distinctly a Japanese anime while simultaneously being something more familiar to American audiences. Back when I saw it for the first time, I certainly didn’t know enough about anime to understand how Iria distinguished itself from its peers and how that helped (and still can help!) make it a wonderful point of entry into the medium for people like myself. Iria is a confluence of cinematic cultures. It blends powerful imagery of films from different genres, eras and countries into a remarkably cohesive world full of visually striking people and objects.
Despite the fact that this OAV is a prequel to two live action Zeiram films, series creator Keita Amemiya wanted to do more than just recreate his movies in anime form. Throughout the process, he was conscious of the fact that the medium of animation offered him a chance to do things he couldn’t previously do with his world and characters. The previously-established world of Zeiram is blown out to include a variety of locales on several different planets. Iria’s travels take her to towering, cyberpunk-esque corporate districts, abandoned brushland, isolated space stations, and dilapidated slums (which Amemiya says were inspired by imagery of Vietnam). Yet, the peoples of these places are bound together by a common culture, Amemiya’s mashup of Southeast Asian fashion and architecture with Hollywood future-tech. Men’s hairstyles will remind you of period films set in China, and the conical hat serves as a central feature in the design of all the show’s vehicles.
But it is the sheer amount of detail in the production design, even more than its unique stylistic fusion, which makes the Zeraim universe feel like it might actually be a small slice of future history. Pause and examine any shot of the interior of Iria’s home. The furniture, the chachkies, and the layout of the home all contribute to the exotic nature of Iria’s setting. And, my god, the weapons. Iria and her companions have a seemingly innumerable amount of bespoke weaponry, most of which you will see in only a single scene. Even in the final episode, our heroine is still busting out new tools to aide her in the fight against Zeiram.
Speaking of Zeiram, he cuts quite an imposing figure. The monster’s silhouette is meant to recall the ronin characters from period films Amemiya saw as a child: a tall man wearing a cape and a traditional wide-brimmed hat. A more up-close inspection of Zeiram reveals that the creature was also heavily inspired by iconic American movie monsters of the 80s and 90s. In the middle of its “hat,” Zeiram has a small face which extends out from its body via a tentacle-like muscle. The face often bites people, and such scenes intentionally evoke Alien’s xenomorph. Along with Alien, Amemiya claims that he was influenced by Predator and Terminator as well. Zeiram was meant to be a monster that changed form and was difficult to stop.
Iria seems to be cribbing from Alien in other ways as well. Ben of Colony Drop sees the title character as Alien’s Ripley given an anime makeover. While Iria fills that role when broadly comparing the OAV to the Hollywood film, Iria also has her own, distinct arc which sees her go from being an innocent, brash girl who relies on others to an emotionally mature and responsible caretaker. It is the early phase of this arc, when Iria chiefly identifies as “Glen’s little sister,” and also her character growth through the show’s crises, that serve to distinguish the character from her inspiration…but not so much that the lineage is obscured.
This brings me to why I believe Iria is an anime of some significance, at least to fans in the English-speaking world. I think it’s easy for us to forget how not-easy-to-get-into that anime can be for American audiences. Not only do the obvious language and cultural barriers exist, but, as Justin Sevakis has pointed out, Japanese film and TV often draw on a different cinematic heritage than do American productions. Pace, timing, shot sequence, shot composition; anime has its own knowledge base to draw from in the construction of these and other constituent elements of film, these “filmic recipes.” Iria manages to both pull from this knowledge base and also offer identifiable inroads for the non-Japanese viewer. Come for the Alien references, stay for the character arc and animation. Even the Southeast Asian inspired motifs are just that imagery filtered through foreign eyes, and, thus, aren’t all that dissimilar to such depictions in Western films. In its own very specific way, Iria—this confluence of cultures— is the ideal anime gateway drug.