<Released in straight-to-video in 1985, Megazone 23 is a sci-fi action thriller almost as heady with ambitious ideas as The Matrix – and, perhaps coincidentally, the two share a number of similar plot points.
Directed by Noboru Ishiguru (a filmmaker who also brought us such classics as Macross and Space Battleship Yamato), Megazone 23 had just about everything you could want from a mid-80s action show: transforming robots, copious action, a hero with a cool bike, and like Macross, a curious fascination with Japanese idol singers. Stitching it all together, though, was a surprisingly smart sci-fi premise.
Shogo Yahagi is just your average Tokyo youth as Megazone 23 opens; he likes to hurtle around the city on his bike, hang out with his friends, flirt with ladies and generally make a loud, shouty nuisance of himself. In what could be a bit of karmic justice, it’s Shogo’s motorcycle fetish that draws him into the story’s central conspiracy.
A lot of these shortcomings are explained by Megazone 23’s unusual production history. It was originally conceived as a 12-episode television series, and a fair chunk of its action scenes were already drawn and animated in order to create promotional trailers. But when the studio lost its sponsorship, the producers decided to edit the story down to a more manageable 80 minutes and release it on VHS instead.
In the mid-80s, the straight-to-video market (known there as OVA or OAV) was still in its relative infancy, and was better known for offering short, racier output that couldn’t be shown on TV. This is likely why Megazone 23’s animators threw in odd things like a predatory boss and a saucy love scene in a giant circular bed – ‘Too hot for television’ scenes like these would help sell the thing on video. Unexpectedly, though, Megazone 23 was a huge success, becoming one of the key titles that helped popularise the OAV as a venue for more mature, less commercial anime than was permissable (or commercially viable) on television.
Philip K Dick, and other writers like him, helped popularize the notion of simulated realities in modern fiction, and these ideas later found their way into such disparate 90s movies as Peter Weir’s The Truman Show and Alex Proyas’ Dark City.
In Megazone 23, there’s what we might now call the Red Pill moment. If reality’s a simulation, then why did the powers that be choose the mid-1980s (or the late 90s in The Matrix’s case) out of all the epochs in human history? BD has a simple yet quite brilliant reply: out of all the eras the computer could have chosen, the 1980s was the most prosperous. And, looking back at Megazone 23 now, we can see Japan in all its bubble economy pomp: the big hair, the shoulder pads, wall-to-wall idol singers.
Like The Matrix, Megazone 23 understands that a fabricated world can be more comfortable, even seductive, than a real one.