Welcome to Anime Secret Santa, a gift exchange — founded by our friends at Reverse Thieves and currently run by the Taiiku Podcast — where the gifts are anime review recommendations. We’ll be publishing our reviews during the days leading up to Christmas.
My schedule for the end of 2023 has been extra crazy, and I was already far behind on a bunch of shows I really wanted to watch (Pluto! Scott Pilgrim! Frieren!), so I requested some shorter series from my Secret Santa. They obliged with three very well-tailored picks: Desert Rose ~ The Snow Apocalypse, Sailor Victory, and Bocchi the Rock. If I had more time I would have loved to have reviewed all three of them, but alas, I chickened out and went for the shortest of the three: Desert Rose.
I’m not kidding about “short”; Desert Rose ~ The Snow Apocalypse (a.k.a. Suna no Bara ~ Yuki no Mokushiroku) is a single 1993 OVA episode clocking in at a mere 47 minutes! That in itself shouldn’t be a problem. Consider the original Little Witch Academia ONA, which introduces a whole setting and cast and then delivers a satisfying, self-contained chunk of story in a mere 26 minutes. But unlike Little Witch, Desert Rose is an adaptation of a much longer manga, created by Area 88’s Karou Shintani. Like many short manga adaptations in the 1980s and ’90s, the OVA serves as a glorified ad for the manga, providing only a small glimpse into the original story.
Counter Attack Terrorism, or C.A.T. for short, is a private anti-terrorism paramilitary force, hired by governments around the world to prevent terrorist attacks before they happen. When a meeting room full of old male government officials watches a video tape of the team in a firefight in the OVA’s intro, they notice one key feature of C.A.T.: all of the agents are women. “Are the women the assistants?” one of the men asks, in the first of many pointed examples of sexism directed at C.A.T.
The group’s commander is Mariko Rosebank, a 26-year-old veteran of nearly every conflict zone on Earth, who nonetheless gets a requisite anime introduction via the aforementioned old men that includes how pretty she is and her “good proportions.” Besides some good looks and the ability to murder anybody with ease, Mariko also sports a signature rose-shaped scar, which we learn in a flashback is tied into her tragic past and burning hatred for “all terrorists.” Mariko “Rose”bank, a rose scar, and of course the title, Desert Rose. You get the idea: she’s beautiful but this rose has thorns.
With that out of the way, the OVA only has enough time for a single one-and-done mission, in which the team is hired to protect a summit of world leaders nestled in the Swiss Alps from a terrorist threat. What appears to be a set-up for another action set-piece turns instead into more of a mystery. Two C.A.T. agents tracking down a bomb-maker in Paris, while Mariko and her squad go undercover at the summit to scope out the premises and piece together what the terrorists are plotting.
Desert Rose is a frustratingly incomplete work. It’s just long enough to introduce the concept of C.A.T. and a few of its more colorful members, including my favorite: a sassy blonde who spends the whole time chewing bubblegum and trying to find men to flirt with. The central mystery has a pretty clever twist, but the mission is conspicuously lacking many big action scenes. By the end, even though the squad saves the government officials, there’s no final confrontation with the terrorists to cap off the story or give a real face to the antagonists.
On the bright side, director Yasunao Aoki (Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz) maintains a brisk pace throughout the OVA, aided by a few snappy, pulpy action sequences. My personal favorite is a chase scene in which two C.A.T. members tail a terrorist’s car through the streets of Paris from a helicopter; Aoki takes advantage of the different strengths of the two vehicles to create great moments of tension. Shintani’s character designs, faithfully adapted for animation by Minoru Yamazawa (Yu Yu Hakusho), are a delight as well, pairing smart military costumes with the delicate faces and hair Shintani is so famous for. Shintani began his career as a shojo artist and carried that influence throughout his career. If not for the occasional fanservice in this OVA, you’d be forgiven for initially pegging Desert Rose as a shojo manga (it in fact ran in seinen mag Monthly Animal House).
Another consistent highlight for me: the C.A.T. girls constantly showing up tough guys questioning their skills because of their gender. At one point a soldier tries to test C.A.T. by pulling a gun on the squad while they’re idly chatting. Instantly every woman in the room springs into action, pulling knives and guns out of nowhere and pinning him before he can even get his gun up.
I enjoyed Desert Rose and would recommend it to anyone interested in digging into some of the lesser-known OVAs of the ’90s. I can forgive its limitations in light of how short and easy to watch it is, but it’s difficult to ignore the squandered potential of this series. Here you have a military action thriller about a bunch of kick-ass women from Area 88 superstar Kaoru Shintani, with a healthy mix of action and comedy. It could easily appeal to fans of ’80s classics like Dirty Pair, but the series never got any more than this one-off OVA, and neither the anime nor the 15-volume manga series received an official English release. So Desert Rose remains a neat little historical curiosity, which it turns out is exactly the sort of thing I like to get for Anime Secret Santa!