Apparently it was a little over seven years ago when I first wrote about California Crisis. Doesn’t feel like it’s been quite that long, but I guess WordPress data stamp stuff doesn’t lie. Unless we’ve split off into another divergent reality recently or something and I’m misremembering Berenstain/Berenstien Bears style.
Damn. Seven years.
Anyway, I got the itch to rewatch this one to see if it holds up. It’s one of those things that’s festered and mutated in my mind over the years. I really liked it when I first watched it, then I wrote about it and liked it some more. I watched it again shortly after that and thought about it some more. I put it on my all-time favorites list and praised it every chance I got. I edited my list and chose to keep it as long-time favorites dropped off. It’s taken on a mythic quality in my personal headspace– this “perfect” 80s anime OVA– a Platonic ideal manifest in reality. Over the last several years, I listened to the EP soundtrack more than I’ve actually watched the anime proper, preferring that perfect image to remain in my mind.
If anything, I love it more now.
You have a lot of filtering going on here, seeing something either through the lens of nostalgia or the lens of an outside perspective. You have that 50s retro throwback stuff that was popular in the 70s and early 80s with the old cars, diners, and the UFO/sci-fi in the desert plot. The visuals are very much of their time, which is just as much 80s pop art as it is 80s anime. All of this takes place in a southern California that can only exist in the mind of someone who has never actually been to So-Cal, but loves it none the less. The geography isn’t wrong so much as it has the feel of World of Warcraft, where all one needs to do is walk five steps and the terrain changes instantaneously. And since that outsider view is distinctly Japanese, you get this era mash-up filtered more through exported pop culture than anything. All of this gives it an almost alien aesthetic to it, since it really, as a whole, looks, sounds, and feels like nothing else made before or since.
All this weird aesthetic/nostalgia lens within lens stuff really does seem to serve a purpose, since there’s something going down about the United States and it’s boasting of freedom and prosperity. The main dude, Noera (Bad translation of Noel maybe?) is a former sports star who has long since “peaked” in life. After his glory days playing basketball and hanging with his friends, he’s become a mostly unemployed burn-out. The only friend he still sees has “fallen” as well, since he works in his wife’s bar. Their other friends have gone off, one of whom we find our is now in the military. None of these guys are where they wanted to be when they had their lives in front of them and full of potential, and the main dude has it the worst out of all of them.
Then there’s Marsha, the teenage girl he meets on the road. We never find out exactly why she’s running off to California on her own, but the way she bandies on about the American Dream and how she’s glad she’s chosen to run away to the West Coast gives you the sense that at the very least she’s run away from home. Maybe she’s running away from abuse or maybe she’s just a rebellious youth striking out early, but either way she’s a hapless dreamer just like Noera was when he was that age. Fitting she’s running off to LA, a town notorious for creating those sorts of dreams before chewing up and spitting out said dreamers.
These two characters come across an orb that’s sought after by the US and Russian governments. The zealous US general running that side of the search calls it the “Space Mind,” but that’s about all we ever learn about it. When Marsha finally pulls it out of its protective box and ogles it, she proclaims it to be “The American Dream.” At first this seems like a silly, childish exclamation, but it’s kinda perfect. To a lot of people, that manifest destiny isn’t just a metaphor for possibility and potential, it’s a mandate from God– a gift from the literal heavens. To proclaim an alien object sought after by powerful men who think only they are worthy of it to be “The American Dream” is pretty much right on the nose, since only the rich and powerful really ever see the bounty of such platitudes.
It’s fitting that once the object gains that label, military men ready to kill anyone in their way barge into the cafe, marking the main characters as shoot-on-sight enemies of the state(s). The “riff raff” are unworthy of such lofty goals, and anyone who has a chance of attaining such an elevated status has to be eliminated from the picture– no upward mobility and all that. The rest of the movie is spent watching the leads elude capture while heading to Death Valley, which they both saw in a vision when they first touched the Space Mind/American Dream. It leads to the “in the desert” 50s sci-fi conclusion setting, but it’s also a journey into last remaining wilds of modern-day America, searching for meaning the way settlers did during the push westward over a century ago.
That’s what’s messed up about the concept of The American Dream– it’s only attainable through looking towards new avenues of discovery and exploitation. It’s never about doing well with what we have and finding stability and happiness, it’s always about growth and change and conquering that which isn’t “us.” Even our outsider, put-upon leads buy into the notion that the only way to find the truth about this Space Mind is to follow this lead into the middle of nowhere, never questioning why this is the vision they receive. Good intentions, roads to Hell, and all that.
So they get shot at by US military helicopters, and even Noera’s buddy fires on him (Whether he ever realizes it’s Noera and Marsha in the truck, we’re never sure). Our heroes drive into a chasm, land in a lake or river or something, and get rescued by the Space Mind’s space mojo. They get this miraculous moment where they see colors out of space and all that, and you think they’re on the verge of discovering something wondrous…
The damn Space Mind is broken– water leaking into it– whatever made it special long gone. Whether it sacrificed itself to save them, or their salvation an aftereffect of the orb’s destruction, or something else, we never know. All we see is that the very reason why they came together as friends and went on this journey has been obliterated, and all we hear is the sound of military helicopters coming to do who knows what to our heroes.
Noera and Marsha pursued the American Dream, hoping to change their lives around, and all they’ve really found is death. They’ve also found friendship, and that’s definitely something of worth, but it’s also that friendship that ultimately doomed them. It’s a pretty nasty take on what it is to live in America and believe in its supposed purpose– that you may find temporary happiness, but in the end you’re just a pawn in someone’s greater scheme, and that your real purpose is to serve as fodder for their pursuits.
But hey, that’s what you get when the American Streets are Hot.