Sixteen years ago, a alien ship crashed on Earth. Today three high school students live in Graviton City, which has been built in that sixteen-year-old impact crater. Those students are: (a) A-Ko, the daughter of Superman and Wonder Woman, (b) B-Ko, an evil genius with access to industrial battlesuits and who wants to destroy A-Ko, and (c) C-Ko, a whiny brat. Then the aliens return...
Project A-Ko is a landmark in anime and allegedly a comedy classic, which doesn't do it any favours with modern viewers who watch it with that in mind. It started out as a porn title for Cream Lemon, but during production someone realised that this was actually good stuff and so they rejigged it for mass consumption. The only sequence that survives from its Cream Lemon days is B-Ko's bath scene, although it's hard not to see lesbian overtones in B-Ko's interest in C-Ko.
In 1986, Project A-Ko was revolutionary. Its parody elements, style of humour and action sequences were all considered outrageously over the top, but the film's success started new trends in anime. Unfortunately this means that it hasn't dated particularly well. Its comedy style has since been pushed even further by anime TV shows in 25-minute episodes, so at eighty minutes it feels oddly slow. I expected it to be madcap, but it isn't.
There's also the problem of its parodies. I'm not a fan of parody, especially when I'm unfamiliar with the source material... and after all these years you practically need a degree in Ancient Obscure Shit to get all the jokes. One might spot riffs on Megazone 23, Captain Harlock, Queen Millennium, Fist of the North Star, Harmagedon, Macross, Creamy Mami and more. Unfortunately these days you'd be doing pretty well even to have heard of all those shows, let alone to have watched them. If you're a hardcore anime buff, there are obviously some great jokes here... but when I first saw this, I hardly laughed at all.
Even the title refers to a Jackie Chan film, Project A. It's also arguable that B-Ko's father is another superhero, Tony Stark, Iron Man. He's a super-rich businessman with a moustache and a fondness for mechanised powersuits. Hmmm.
However despite all this, the film's still fun and lively. A-Ko is a redhead with the speed and strength of a runaway locomotive. C-Ko is an annoying crybaby who follows A-Ko everywhere, thinks she's wonderful and cooks meals that nearly murder the recipient. Their nemesis, B-Ko, is a purple-haired glamour girl who tries to kill A-Ko with robots, more robots and eventually the straightforward tactic of stripping down to her Anime Villainess Swimsuit and punching her through walls. Despite the animators' claims, there's a lesbian love triangle with A-Ko and B-Ko fighting over C-Ko (who has a huge crush on A-Ko). Oh, and aliens.
The silliness builds surprisingly slowly. At first it looks like just another schoolgirl anime, but then you meet B-Ko's henchmen. And her mecha. And her superpowers. Everything gets bigger and goofier until A-Ko's playing hopscotch on incoming missiles and attacking an alien battleship single-handedly. Its action scenes aren't half bad either. Despite its age, I can't think of anything much better offhand except Read or Die. Afterwards at home we even glimpse A-Ko's parents. It's breezy fun, with the main problem being that the story and characterisation are little more than a justification for the action scenes and parodies. It's good stuff, but a lot of it isn't particularly accessible for the modern newbie.
The first three follow-ups were direct sequels, after which the Versus OVA was an alt-universe retelling. Project A-Ko 2: Plot of the Daitokuji Financial Group is shorter and sillier, following straight on from the original and thus having aliens and spaceships on Earth right from the beginning. It's more of the same, really. A quiet first half escalates into goofy superhero action with lots of property damage but not many actual jokes. A-Ko's mayhem is fun but not funny. It's watchable, but don't make the mistake of expecting hilarity.
Project A-Ko 3: Cinderella Rhapsody features heterosexuality of all things, with A-Ko and B-Ko chasing the same boy. Weird. Admittedly A-Ko never seemed to see C-Ko as more than a friend, but it's odd to see B-Ko and C-Ko even think about blokes. This is the most serious film in the series so far, with actual characterisation and only a token nod at the end to the usual fight sequences.
Project A-Ko 4: Final is the only one I really liked. It takes every scrap of story and characterisation from the other three films and blends them into a final episode that would disappoint the "parody and superpowered fight scenes" crowd but definitely pushed my buttons. C-Ko snuck under my radar and went from being a gormless airhead to the most heartbreaking girl of the lot. Still more amazingly, it's funny! I laughed! I'm a sucker for characterisation. Give me people I care about and you'll get an emotional reaction, which is what this film achieves. Giving the series a proper ending like this was what inspired me to keep the discs, while hitherto the odds of my ever rewatching the series had been looking low.
Project A-Ko: Versus is a parallel universe side-step. A-Ko and B-Ko are bounty hunters in space, while C-Ko is now ten years old. Versus is fun and sometimes even amusing, but that second episode! Dear oh dear. "Total bollocks" is I believe the technical term. I had a laugh, but some of its plot developments are up there with the stupidest things I've ever seen. The art's more cartoonish too. This final OVA has received some fairly savage reviews and I can't entirely disagree with them, but I enjoyed it.
If you come to this series expecting classics or indeed comedy, you'll be disappointed. Even ignoring the ridiculous Versus, the films tend to feel built around their fight scenes. There's fanservice too. They may have removed the outright porn, but there's still lots of fanservice in the original and a fair smattering in the sequels. Number two is fairly free of it, though. The main characters are unremarkable and it took four films for them to acquire any kind of depth. Even Final I don't know if I could even recommend if you hadn't seen the other three, since it's basically continuing (and concluding) their story. The original is worth a watch, if only for historical value, but it's less funny than it used to be. In fairness though, it improves on repeat visits when you know better what to expect. Today... it's okay.