Wednesday 9 September 2020

The Flying Luna Clipper (1987)

Director: Ikko Ono
Writer: Ikko Ono
Stars: Anne Lambert, Ina Krantz, Mark Hagan and Zev Asher

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Back in the eighties, films weren’t as available as they are now, because the internet is a wonderful thing and we shouldn’t ever lose sight of that. Then, I’d read about amazing movies in fanzines that I had no expectation of ever seeing myself. Because I read quite a few zines, I could see the paths of the underground tape trading circuit manifest like a map out of the order by which the latest wild title that came out of nowhere, like Nekromantik or Urotsukidoji, would see review in those zines. For decades, The Flying Luna Clipper was one of those wild titles, a film for the psychotronic cognoscenti to rave about like it was manna from heaven but rarely seen by the rest of humanity. Now, of course, it’s on YouTube in entirety, because, of course it is. The world has fundamentally changed. It’s said that someone found a laserdisc copy in a thrift store, ripped it to digital and sent it to Matt Repetski, because he doesn’t merely write about movies, he writes about video games too. He showed it to Matt Hawkins at Attract Mode, who uploaded it to YouTube.

And that sparked a resurgence of interest in The Flying Luna Clipper, which is very possibly the most unique film I’ve ever seen and a sort of visual shot of happiness. It’s batshit insane, it makes next to no sense and yet, while watching it, I drift into a feeling that all is right with the world. Given that I’m writing in September 2020, the ninth level of the Jumanji game that has comprised this crazy year, that’s quite the achievement, especially for a film released in Japan in 1987, on Video8, Betamax, VHS and LaserDisc, for what was then the equivalent of sixty bucks. And, quite frankly, it’s not really even a film in the sense that we tend to think. It’s more of a psychedelic graphics demo, created on an 8 bit MSX computer. Nishi Kazuhiko had clout, as a founder of the ASCII Corporation and a vice president at Microsoft, and he wanted to create a unified standard for home computers in 1983, but he failed. Sony made the bulk of the MSXs and they only shipped five million units in Japan, those sales helped by the original Metal Gear game.

Research by Hawkins and Victor Navarro-Remesal has revealed that The Flying Luna Clipper, which always seemed like a brain dump of the wild imagination of creator Ikko Ono, grew out of the pages of MSX Magazine in 1986. Ono had combined art and tech early in a stint for the New York digital effects company known simply as Digital Effects, who had animated early “flying logos” for TV and created both the main title and the flying Bit for Tron. Returning to Japan, Ono became friends with Nishi and contributed regularly to MSX Magazine, responsible for all its cover art and for a monthly column called Ikko’s Gallery. His job was effectively to show how the MSX could be used to create art and he did so with beautiful surreal imagery that, through that year and into the next, starts to become recognisable as characters from The Flying Luna Clipper. The March 1986 cover has Yukio, a snowman with a tray of drinks, June 1986 introduces a pear smoking in a bar and the August 1986 cover features a sexy banana in a hammock.

It’s probably about this point that you’re wondering just what this film must look like. Sexy banana in a hammock? Ha, you haven’t seen anything yet! Maybe I should add that it’s possible to interpret this entire movie as taking place within the dream of a pelican! It looks, as you might expect, like an 8 bit game, especially with the opening screens a collection of mildly animated images with all progression forward done through Star Wars wipes. It reminded me of my days playing a Sierra On-Line PC game, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, though the sheer quality of the art means that their Kings Quest is a far better comparison. We start out in Florida, jumping image by image towards St. Petersburg on Route 92, where we zoom into a gas station with a giant plane on its roof. Smith has found it, a 1935 Martin M-130 flying boat, one of only three ever made and likely the only one that still exists. He calls it in to his boss, a bigshot executive called Kahn Blackquail, who is a black quail in a suit and tie.

This is a dream for Blackquail and dreams are notably important here. He has the plane transported to Honolulu, restored to flying condition and named the Luna Clipper. His goal is to “revive the romantic flights of the good old days of aviation”, even though the three real 1935 Martin M-130s, the China Clipper, the Philippine Clipper and the Hawaii Clipper, crashed while in service, killing 23, 19 and 15 respectively. That said, there is a palpable sense of anemoia here, a longing for a time before our own, aided nowadays by 2020’s consistent attempts to kill us. Part of that is because Blackquail’s plan is to have the maiden flight of the Luna Clipper to be to Tahiti and a string of other south Pacific islands, so prompting an atmosphere of exotica we know from the modern tiki movement. The exotic synthpop soundtrack adds to that too. However, Ono isn’t dismissive of modern technology, being an MSX animator, so he installs a 200” wide television screen inside the Luna Clipper, as well as seatback video screens surely ahead of their time.

I like the idea that nobody is allowed to buy a ticket unless they firmly believe that they’re a great dreamer, thus suggesting that we must be great dreamers too, given that they allow us to come along for the ride. However, our fellow passengers aren’t particularly like us. They’re mostly anthropomorphic fruit. And, at this point, that really shouldn’t surprise us. We’ve only seen one person thus far, a moustachioed gentleman named Jose who phones a duck in a leopardskin apartment who can’t pronounce his name. He’s Jose not Holose, the latter the name the film gives a recurrent image, a plus inside a circle, maybe because it’s the sun cross, astrological symbol for the Earth, and certainly part of the logo of Pan-Holose Airways, who fly the Luna Clipper. The duck is a passenger, Abibu by name. So’s a tomato woman called Nancy, with a baby tomato on her lap; Duku Camari, a Russian onion with a beard; Yukio, that snowman from Nome, AK; a top-hatted grasshopper named Anz; and a living pickle by the name of Loofar.

My favourite pair are the photographer named Tiara, who is surely the hottest turnip I’ve ever seen, taking me far back to the early days of PCs when we could fall in love with wallpaper images of anime characters, and the stewardess, Grace, another sexy banana in a film full of sexy bananas. Given that Grace ably introduces us to shows on the 200” Luna Clipper screen, maybe she’s a cousin to Gail, the sexy banana TV presenter of Honolulu Voices, who reported back in Hawaii about the upcoming flight. Maybe they’re both distant relatives of the sexy banana hulu dancers in bras that we’ll meet later in Tahiti. Hey, in this film, even the volcanoes end up with their own dance scenes, because why the heck not? If we’re going let Ikko Ono go hog wild to show us just what graphics work is possible on an 8 bit MSX computer, then why not let him give us dancing volcanoes and gorgeous turnips? The two key lines here are probably “Everything is true in your dreams” and “What a strange monkey the human race is”.

I should talk about these shows that Grace shows us on the Luna Clipper, as they transform this film into something still more than a graphics demo, especially as some are live action and others are animated in different ways, brought together with the MSX work with unknown other tech. For a while, this is like MTV VJ Max Headroom introducing schizophrenic public access TV. One minute, Grace is introducing Great Voyagers, which recounts a legendary Polynesian voyage from Raiatea 1,300 years ago to discover Hawaii. Then it’s time for Professor Dragon, an oceanographer seahorse with a pipe and a pot belly, to explain how we can make the Holose Cross in mosquito bites with our fingernails. Captain Ikko himself shot Gravity Dance, an avant-garde piece featuring lots of diving, a naked Japanese baby falling over a lot and waterfalls working in reverse. Eventually, we get to Parabolic Locus, a video art piece with alternating screen quadrants dedicated to fireworks and flowers. Break a giant Sony TV in the sky and it’ll waterfall out for diving.

It’s easy to fall into a need to explain The Flying Luna Clipper, but going too far down that rabbit hole finds madness. It’s clearly about dreams, as everything is true in them, remember. The Luna Clipper is Kahn Blackquail’s dream, within the context of the story, but it may be that the story is the dream of the pelican we see at the very beginning. The Polynesians found Hawaii because they placed their trust in a yellow bird that came to one of them in a dream and, by the end of the film, the Luna Clipper is overtly blurred with the yellow bird and the pelican. Yukio the snowman figures it out and apparently steals the entire plane at the end of the picture to take wherever he might dream, though he may well be having a dream within someone else’s dream, presumably making it doubly true. Maybe the whole thing is a fever dream brought on by our having been bitten by an 8 bit animated mosquito in our sleep and cutting the Holose Cross into our skin with our fingernails. Really, it doesn’t matter that much.

What matters is that this stands alone in the annals of film history as something completely different from anything else and, to an explorer of psychotronic cinema, that’s real value. The fact that it’s also both bizarrely watchable and bizarrely likeable, even given its technical limitations, an inconsistent pacing and a constant shift between wildly disparate surreal content, is a bonus. If we truly start to dig deep, we’ll never run out of questions. Why is there an intermission 41 minutes into a 55 minute movie? Why would the weather forecast in Hawaii include leaf colour in Paris and a seven day report for the Palau Islands. Why does Grace, our stewardess banana, suddenly acquire wings and a swimsuit? Is the Luna Clipper certified for travel outside our atmosphere? Was blackface still an acceptable variety show format in Japan in 1987? Who are the Japanese wannabe Beatles who show up on seatback video screens in montages of London? Why do passengers have to parachute onto Papeete? What’s Tiara the gorgeous turnip’s phone number?

The only way I can make real sense out of this movie is to see it as a brain dump of all the things that Ikko Ono seems to appreciate. Clearly, he likes to make art on his MSX computer, but that’s a gimme. Many of his covers for MSX Magazine have anthropomorphic animals or fruit as their focus: monkeys in spectacles, kingfishers in top hats or sexy bananas in hammocks. Many visuals inside are painted like postcards and the general design aesthetic reminds of scrapbook techniques, as if Ono adores distilling down treasured memories into single images and collect them together, even if their only commonality is that he thinks that they’re cool. There are maps everywhere in The Flying Luna Clipper and they highlight how much Ono doesn’t just enjoy travel itself but the ephemera that surrounds it, right down to airports and hotels and televisions in bars in farflung locations. Sometimes that feels just as important as the culture: the luaus, the pulsating totem poles and the sexy banana hula dancers. And that’s fine. Everything in a dream is true.

I’ve been a film fan for as long as I can remember, I dedicated a lot of hours in the eighties to old school Sierra On-Line video games like Leisure Suit Larry and, for a while, I really dug graphics demos, created on equipment that was primitive in every way compared to what we tend to have in our pockets today. What I never expected to see was a piece of entertaining video art that encompassed all three of those worlds. It may be that The Flying Luna Clipper is the only such piece of video art ever made, so making this film the best and the worst in its particular niche. There was talk about a sequel, during one of Nishi Kazuhiko’s periodic attempts to revive the MSX platform, quite a few pages in MSX Magazine Permanent Preservation Version 2 dedicated to The Flying Luna Clipper 2004, but it doesn't seem to have ever been made. Now, of course, such a creation would be seen not as technological possibility but nostalgia. That bird has flown. And it was a giant yellow pelican dreaming of being a 1935 Martin M-130 flying boat.

Review: The Flying Luna Clipper by Matt Hawkins at Attract Mode: Part 1 and Part 2.
Cine Ludens: ‘The Flying Luna Clipper’ by Victor Navarro-Remesal at Medium.
Dream Flight Interpreted: The Deconstructed Flying Luna Clipper by Matt Hawkins at Medium.

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