Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Anime Music Video Compilations: “Nadia of the Mysterious Seas Music Video”

Publisher: Toshiba EMI
Format: VHS and Laserdisc, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue
Length: 29 minutes
Original Release Date: 30 August 1991
Animation Exclusive to this Release: Sort of…
Other Sources (Japanese unless noted): Nadia of the Mysterious Seas Music Video (Laserdisc, 1997), Nadia of the Mysterious Seas DVD Box (2001), Nadia of the Mysterious Seas Music Video (DVD, 2001), Nadia of the Mysterious Seas Music Video (DVD Re-issue, 2004)
Currently Availability (as of writing): Out of Print

Note: Originally published on the Anime Archivist blog December 2012.

In the early 1990’s, anime fandom in Japan and the west went absolutely nuts for “Nadia, The Secret of Blue Water” (or “Nadia of the Mysterious Seas”). Even the lead character, Nadia, a moody orphaned African princess and a vegetarian to boot, managed to knock Nausicaä from Animage magazine’s monthly character poll. That’s quite a feat as Nausicaä had been on top of the poll since 1984, and due to her personality and dare I say it, skin colour, Nadia seemed to be a highly unlikely candidate to make it to the top of the Animage character poll. In 1991 “Nadia of the Mysterious Seas” also won Animage’s annual Grand Prix. The irony of Nadia ending Nausicaä’s reign at the top of Animage’s poll was that “Nadia” itself was based upon a rejected Hayao Miyazaki story concept. He pitched the idea in the 1970’s to Toho Studios which was originally titled “Around the World in 80 Days by Sea”, which in turn was loosely based upon Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. While Toho shelved the idea, Miyazaki did use elements of it for his own TV series “Future Boy Conan” and his 1986 film “Laputa, Castle in the Sky”. However when public broadcaster NHK saw Gainax’s “The Wings of Honneamise” they was so impressed that in 1988, in cooperation with Toho, revived Miyazaki’s unused story and asked the studio to produce a series based upon it. It was first broadcast on Japanese TV in April 1990 and became Gainax’s first hit anime.

The story of “Nadia” begins in Paris during the World Exposition in 1889. 14 year old Jean Rocque Raltique along with his uncle, are here to compete in flying machine competition in an attempt to not only take home the prize money, but to be the first person to fly an airplane. While doing the final checks on the aircraft, Jean is taken aback by the sight of a young dark skinned girl riding a bicycle. He follows her to the Eiffel Tower in an attempt to become friends, however Nadia is very standoffish and refuses to have a bar of him. Suddenly a bodacious woman, Grandis Granva, and her two male companions, Sanson and Hanson (collectively called the Grandis Gang), attempt to rob Nadia of her pendant, the Blue Water. Nadia easily escapes and Jean decides to follow her and the gang back to Nadia’s current home, the circus. There she is a lion tamer and an acrobat. The Grandis Gang “buy” Nadia off the ringmaster, but Jean scatters the gang and rescues Nadia using a motorised monocycle borrowed from the circus. Despite this, Nadia still won’t have anything to do with Jean. That is until the Grandis Gang kidnap Nadia using their gadget packed Gratan tank. Using his uncle’s plane (unfortunately totalling it) and his own boat, Jean rescues Nadia again and the pair head back to Jean’s home in Le Harve.

Unfortunately racism rears its ugly head, and Jean’s aunt refuses to take Nadia in. With the Grandis Gang still in hot pursuit of Nadia’s pendant, the pair then set off in Jean’s own aircraft in search of Nadia’s homeland, supposedly somewhere in Africa. However the engine breaks down, and they find themselves stranded in the middle of the ocean. Luckily they are picked up by a passing US battleship. The battleship is currently in the midst of hunting down a mysterious sea monster that has been sinking merchant ships. One of the sunken vessels was the ship of Jean’s father, who is still missing. Later the battleship is attacked and sunk by the sea monster and Nadia and Jean are forced to abandon ship. Luckily Jean’s damaged aircraft manages to survive the carnage, so they climb on board in the hope of being rescued. As luck would have it, they suddenly find themselves inside the belly of a highly advanced submarine named Nautilus piloted by the mysterious Captain Nemo. The crew are in the midst of fighting Neo-Atlantean Empire, led by the evil Gargoyle, who wishes to enslave humanity and are the ones behind sea monster menace. The synopsis I’ve written only covers the first few episodes. I could write a whole lot more about this series, but the focus for this post is to look at its first music video compilation;

“My Precious Trick Star ~Yasashisa o Kureta Anata e~” performed by Silk
The opening song of this music video compilation comes from the rather hideous Nadia movie sometimes known as “The Secret of Fuzzy” which was released a month or so before this compilation. The song originally ran over the movie’s end credits and is performed by Silk, Kinuko Oomori’s (the voice of Priss from “Bubblegum Crisis”and possibly the best pop idol from the period in my opinion) band. While the song was originally released on the Nadia movie CD soundtrack in July 1991 (also released on Silk’s “Face” EP in December 1991), curiously the video itself doesn’t contain any footage at all from the film. Instead we are treated to a bunch of random footage from various episodes. Oddly enough this video also contains a couple of very short sequences which didn’t appear in the TV series itself; a corrected shot of the Nautilus and an alternate shot of a landing of a Neo-Atlantis saucer. They’re both “blink and you’ll miss them” types of shots. Why these shots appear here in this compilation is anyone’s guess.

“Jinsei-Koro no March” performed by Yuuko Mizutani
Like the majority of songs in this compilation, this one is a character song. Yuuko Mizutani is the performer and it is sung in the character she plays, Marie, a four year old saved by Nadia and Jean from being killed by Gargoyle’s troops in the early stages of the series. Most of the footage is from episode 13, “Run, Marie Run!” which has Marie playing with Nadia’s pet lion cub, King around the island she lives on, until she is rescued by Sanson from Gargoyle’s troops. The video also culls Marie and King material from the infamous “Island Episodes”, which were a batch of low quality filler episodes towards the end of the series. You’ll note that Marie often seems to torture King rather than play with him. This song was first released on the “Music in Blue Water” soundtrack in July 1991.

“Deai Ha Kousyo Kyoufusyo” performed by Yoshino Takamori
In this music video, the focus is on Nadia and Jean’s relationship. Most of the footage is taken from the first episode, “The Girl at the Eiffel Tower”, with the rest being taken from various other episodes. Like the bulk of the music here, this song is another character song taken from the “Music in Blue Water” soundtrack which was released in July 1991. Nadia’s voice actress, Yoshino Takamori, provides the vocals to this song.

“Warera no Bannou Sensuikan Nautilus” performed by Yasunori Matsumoto, Kikuko Inoue and Akio Ohtsuka
The third character song (from the “Music in Blue Water” soundtrack of course) and this one is a bit of a corker. It’s a rousing symphonic track which features three of the members of the Nautilus. I have previously mentioned Captain Nemo, played by Akio Ohtsuka (also Batou in “Ghost in the Shell”), but on the track we also have the vocals of Kikuko Inoue, who plays Electra, the blonde first officer of the ship who has a love/hate thing going on with Nemo. Interestingly Yasunori Matsumoto also provides vocals on this track. He plays Eiko Villan, whom most would consider a minor player in the story of “Nadia”. He’s the sonar operator aboard the ship but does have a link to Jean, albeit a minor one. The three actors sing the song together and there are no solo sections dedicated to any of them. There is however a breakdown part in the song where the three of them act out a scene on the bridge of the Nautilus during the heat of a battle. Unsurprisingly the footage in the video comes from various battle sequences in the series.

“Let’s Go Jean ’91” performed by Noriko Hidaka
Yet another character song culled from “Music in Blue Water”. This one is performed by Noriko Hidaka who provides the voice for Jean. The video’s main focus is on the many, many fights between Nadia and Jean. However there are also quite a few scenes which show them getting on together. A number of episodes provide the source of the footage, but the bulk of it comes from the infamous “Island Episodes”. This song is not to be confused with “Let’s Go Jean”, a completely different song which was previously released on an earlier soundtrack.

“Song for Beginning” performed by Kenyu Horiuchi, Kumiko Takizawa and Toshiharu Sakurai
This is the final character song on this compilation and it also appeared on the “Music in Blue Water” soundtrack like the majority of songs here. This one features the Grandis Gang; Grandis (played by Kumiko Takizawa), Sanson (Kenyu Horiuchi), and Hanson (Toshiharu Sakurai). And stating the bleeding obvious, the footage here is from various episodes and highlights the exploits of our favourite trio of inept jewel thieves. Apart from the actors singing in character, there’s also a few lines of dialogue towards the end of the song. I’ll note here that the Grandis Gang are essentially a homage to the bumbling evil trios in Tatsunoko’s “Time Bokan” franchise such as the Time Skeletons in “Time Bokan” or the Dorombo Gang in “Yatterman”. Gainax were probably referencing the Dorombo Gang more than anything else though.

“Blue Water” performed by Miho Morikawa
The final video on this compilation is “Blue Water”, the opening theme of the series. There isn’t much to say here, it’s edited rather uninspiringly (like many of the videos here) from various episodes. The song is performed by Miho Morikawa and was first released as a CD single in April 1990.

Probably the best thing you can say about this compilation is that it’s rather mediocre. With the exception of “Warera no Bannou Sensuikan Nautilus” and “Blue Water”, I found none of the tracks all that interesting. Couple that with some really uninspiring editing of the series footage. Again, with the exception of the video for “Warera no Bannou Sensuikan Nautilus”, the anime footage for the most part is not really edited in sequence to the audio. It seems at times they just slapped in any old footage they could find to create them. It makes for some rather tedious viewing at times. With the disastrous Nadia theatrical feature being released only a couple of months before the release of this compilation, one can only assume that Toho or NHK were trying to wring as much cash out of fans of the series as fast as possible before they gave up on the show and moved on to the next hit anime franchise. At the end of the video the “To Be Continued” title comes up. This is because Toho/NHK were planning on second compilation, due for a December 1991 release.

If you want the series legitimately, there are a number of options available. The easiest ones are of course the 2001 and 2004 DVD releases of both music video collections (I’ll be covering the second compilation in a few months or so). The 2001 version comes in CD jewel case (like normal CDs) which was a standard packaging for many Japanese DVDs in the format’s infancy. The second release in 2004 is in a standard DVD case. The sad part is that the minimum you’re going to pay for the 2001 release is about ¥3,000 and you may well pay over ¥6,000 and far, far beyond that (try five figures). The figures for the 2004 release start at ¥6,000 and beyond. Note that most of these are going to be second hand copies. A 2001 DVD Box Set of the series also contains the music videos, but is rather pricy, even on the second hand market. The only other option is the original VHS and Laserdisc release (with cover art – reused box art from a General Products garage kit of Nadia – as uninspiring as its contents) or a 1997 Laserdisc which compiles both music video compilations. All are rather hard to find, in particular the latter which is as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s rather telling that reissues of the series on DVD since 2001 and the recent Blu-ray box set omit both music video compilations. Both remain out of print on all video formats.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Roaming Around Japan: Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum and Takarazuka Grand Theatre

It’s been over eight months since I’ve done one of my travel posts, so I thought I’d do a bunch more and have a break from documenting my seemingly never ending DVD and blu-ray backlog. When I first went to the Kansai region in 2013, I wanted to do and see a ton of things. But you really need more than week (the original time I allotted) to make any headway in trying to explore the area. One thing I always wanted to see was the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture. Admittedly I have never been a big fan of his work (as an anime fan I feel like a heretic), however I still thought it would be fun to see the museum. I was also interested in going to Kyoto station which my guide book stated was home to Kyoto Tezuka Osamu World; a mini museum and shop with a theater which screened six exclusive anime films. Unfortunately I soon discovered it had shut down in January 2011. So the Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum remained the only museum in the area dedicated to his work.

To get there from Umeda station in Osaka, take the Hankyu Takarazuka Line to Takarazuka station, and then you can either get off there and walk one kilometre to the museum, or transfer to the Hankyu Imazu Line to Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi and get off at Takarazuka-Minamiguchi station. This trip will take a bit over half an hour. Takarazuka-Minamiguchi station is only 500 meters from the museum. The best way to get there is to use exit 1 from the station, walk north to the main road, turn right and walk around 45 metres. Then cross the road walk over the Takarazukao Bridge. The museum will be on your right at the cross road and is quite hard to miss.

Open from 9:30am to 5:00pm every day except Wednesdays, the cost for adults is ¥700. Looking around the museum it’s really hard not to see his influence on Japanese popular culture. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tezuka single handedly created both the manga and anime industries in Japan. From his early works in 1946 up to his final works in 1988 before his death the following year in February, he drew over 150,000 pages and published over 700 volumes of his manga. He created characters that became beloved over the world such as Mighty Atom (Astro Boy) and Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion). His animation works are also beloved with Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion being the most recognised in the west. Though you could possibly argue his animated works are hardly as influential when compared to his manga. However outside of Japan his animated TV series, especially those from the mid to late 1960's, were initially what he was best known for.

The entrance of the museum has a statute outside of the Phoenix from Tezuka’s long running but unfinished manga of the same name. Right inside next to the reception desk is a life sized statue of Princess Knight (Ribbon no Kishi). Above in the ceiling is a rather amazing stained glass feature which depicts his most famous works. This level showcases exhibits of various Tezuka manga and anime works, most encased in large glass tubes.  I was very taken by the display of Tezuka’s trademark beret and glasses (see below). This level also contains a theatrette. The lower level has a mock-up of Tezuka’s studio, a rundown of the history of manga in Japan, displays about how animation is made and for some reason Tink from “Princess Knight” on a disco ball. A door leads outside to a small garden.

On the top level is a library featuring all of Tezuka’s works, with some translated versions, a café and of the obligatory gift shop. There are also temporary displays which sometimes feature non Tezuka works. When I visited the display was “TOMM the 58th Exhibition: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan and Osamu Tezuka”, which highlighted the science fiction works that influenced Tezuka as a child. Unfortunately for some reason I didn’t take too many photos of the interior of the museum, such as the stained glass window in the ceiling. A lot of the displays are quite stunning.

The reason why the museum is in Takarazuka is that Tezuka was born and grew up here. You may know that his “Princess Knight” manga was directly influenced by Takarazuka Revue, the famous all-female musical theatre troupe which first opened in 1914 partly as a gimmick by Ichizo Kobayashi, owner of Hankyu Railways in order to increase patronage of his new Takarazuka line from Osaka. Tezuka’s mother often took him to Takarazuka Revue shows as a child. The original theatre is still here in Takarazuka (a second theatre operates in Tokyo) and is only 250 metres down the road. The first thing I saw on my way there was a fairly big florist shop with posters of various Takarazuka Revue shows displayed in the windows.

A number of statues from some of the more popular shows also line the street (such as an adaptation of "Rose of Versailles", above). I was rather taken back as I headed past the entrance to the theatre to the stage entrance where around 75 fans had lined up to great the actresses as they came in for their performance (see below). It was all very calm and very well mannered. Some of the actresses received flowers, some chatted for a little while and some just waved as they entered. I’d never seen anything like it before in my entire life. It was very ritualistic and strangely clam.

On a pedestrian island in the middle of the road was a waiting area for fans to watch the actresses enter the theatre side door. The thing is the vast majority of Takarazuka Revue fandom is female. It’s really quite a strange phenomenon. Many of the popular actresses in the revue take on masculine traits and it’s really hard not to notice the inherent lesbian overtones, yet it’s probably safe to say that almost all of its fandom is heterosexual. Many theories have been thrown up to explain what is going on here. The most plausible is that women are attracted to this entertainment is a subversion of stereotypical Japanese gender roles. Yet another fascinating aspect of Japanese pop culture.

As I'm not really a fan of musicals, I didn't really bother looking into seeing a show. Tickets seem to run from ¥3,500 right up to ¥12,000. Even though I'm not the biggest fan of his works, the Tezuka museum was quite fascinating. Coupled with the spectacle of the Takarazuka Revue fans, it was a really fun morning.

Next time I’ll be going to Minato to see the Zojoji Temple, Tokyo Tower and it’s infamous (and sadly defunct) Waxwork Museum.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Anime On the Big Screen: “Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie Part I: Beginnings/Part II: Eternal”

Venue: Dendy Cinemas, Level 2, North Quarter, Canberra Centre, 148 Bunda Street, Canberra City, ACT
Date: Sunday 9 December 2012
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Format: Digital Projection, Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Length: 130 minutes, 109 minutes
Production Date: 2012
Currently on Home Video in English (as of writing): No (Released on Blu-ray by Aniplex of America, July 2013)

Note: Originally published on the Anime Archivist blog December 2012.

I really, really had a lot of misgivings about going to this screening. A couple years back at Reel Anime 2010, I saw “Redline” was utterly pissed off with the audience who would not shut up and laughed at anything and everything, even if it wasn’t remotely funny. It was if the audience had never seen one of these newfangled motion picture thingies. It was seriously one of the worst movie going experiences I’d had in a long time. It really put me off the film, however I did change my opinion of it once I bought the UK BD/DVD pack of it. I suppose the second reason not wanting to go was, well I was never impressed all that much with “Madoka Magica” in the first place. For about a decade now, I’ve felt I’ve become rather out of sync with anime fandom. I don’t play video games, I don’t dig modern conventions and most importantly I don’t like whatever new overhyped “hot” otaku show is being pimped this week (with the exception of “K-On!” perhaps). I really don’t get “them” at all. So why am I here at this screening? Well, I do like to see anime on the big screen… Um, that’s about it. I have forked out $30 to see condensed versions of a show I already bought on DVD/BD (the expensive Aniplex USA sets). Am I going to drink the “Madoka Magica” Kool Aid like everyone else? Maybe I already have.

After attempting to finish off my Christmas shopping (and doing very well at winning that war, thank you very much), it was time to head up to the cinema. As Dendy now has individual seat booking, I find it pointless to come more than five or so minutes before screening time. And most of the time there’s a delay anyway due to cleaning or whatever. It’s a little annoying as I’ve never encountered such delays at the larger cinema chains (the biggies like Hoyts and Greater Union). It was a little hard to separate the otaku from the non-otaku waiting at theatre entrance in the cinema to be honest. That surprised me. After five or so minutes, the young ticket collector from Dendy announced that the screening for “Marr-doh-car” was ready (was he too embarrassed to say “Magica”?). I’d be informed when I picked up ticket that the free poster that came with the screening would be with the ticket collector. I picked up the first one in the box, but it had a small rip, so I quickly exchanged it for a less beat up copy. I must say it was kind of thoughtful of Madman to do this for fans. Though I bet it cost them practically nothing really as they have their own printing press. The poster (see above left) is pretty much a promotional one for the Australian screenings and varies little from the Japanese one.

Inside you could tell there were otaku here, mostly by the way people talked, the age range etc. Most were in their 20’s, but I was surprised to see some in their 40’s and an older lady in the same row as me. Most were slavishly hammering away at their smart phones or similar devices. Some were engrossed in talking to each other about what degree they were doing next or about other anime like “Bleach”. I once read that a number of anime fans are on the autistic spectrum, and gee, you could really tell by the tone of the conversations. I shouldn’t talk, a few years ago I too was clinically diagnosed on the spectrum after a long bout with depression. There were quite a few cloth shoulder bags with anime characters on them, and even a young woman with a Kyubey t-shirt. All in all something of a real mix in the crowd. Over 80 people showed up for the screening. That’s quite an amazing turnout for a city this size, for nearly four and a half hours (including adverts and intermission) worth of compilation anime films with very little new material, and with practically no promotion from Dendy. Like, not a bloody thing. Nothing. Not even an advert in the paper.

Pretty much everyone and their dog has reviewed or seen these films or the TV series so I’m going to be very brief on the synopsis of the films. The first film, “Beginnings”, covers the first eight episodes; we meet the very ordinary young high schooler Madoka Kaname. A new transfer student comes to class, Homura Akemi, who seems to know Madoka and oddly asks her to stay the way she is and not change. Latter, while shopping with her friend, Sayaka Miki, Madoka ends up venturing into a closed off area of the mall after hearing a voice. There she discovers a cat like creature called Kyubey who is being shot at by Homura. Madoka saves Kyubey however Homura demands she hand it over. Sayaka intervenes and a runs off with Madoka. However the two of them discover that they seem to have ventured into an alternate dimension with strange monsters lurking within it. Luckily the pair is rescued by another girl named Mami Tomoe, who seems to be using magic to repel the monsters. Kyubey explains that Mami and Homura are magical girls who fight witches who kill humans, and that the both of them should make a contract with him to help. For their efforts, Kyubey will grant them any wish they like. However all is not as it seems. Homura is hell bent on making sure Madoka never makes a contract with Kyubey, and Sayaka and Madoka soon discover that becoming a magical girl means certain death.

There’s a lot more to the story of course, but that will do for now. When I first saw the TV series, I was initially a little underwhelmed. I think due to the extraordinary hype surrounding the show, it meant that it really had a lot to live up to. But once the mid-way point had been reached, the payoff was just brilliant. The big problem I had with the show is that it is utterly depressing, and not even the ending made me feel less depressed. Overall I thought the whole thing was a bit “meh” and didn’t drink the Kool Aid and join the Madoka cult. I also have quite an aversion to compilation films, so my expectations for these two films were pretty bloody low. Much to my surprise I really enjoyed them. Sure the re-done and extra animation was hard to spot (outside of a new opening animation and brand new scene in the second film) and the films are kind of long, but the action flows seamlessly and besides the cliff-hanger at the first film, it really doesn’t feel like a bunch of episodes strung together.

There was an intermission between the first film and the second. To my surprise someone had switched on the cinema PA and it turned out to be a local cosplay club whom Madman had contracted out to give away a bunch of prizes. These turned out to be the local releases of “Madoka Magica” TV series Blu-rays, which sort of made little sense to me as most people had probably at least seen the series and most likely had it on BD on DVD. Confusingly they seemed to be asking for cosplayers only (I don’t think that was their intention) in their BD giveaway competition, in which people were asked what their favourite anime was then had to do a line from that show. I find this stuff rather cringe worthy, so I made a dash to the loo. At any rate my bladder certainly couldn’t stand a whole four and a half hours not being attended to. Besides the half dozen from the cosplay club, the fandom was certainly on show in the audience that day. For example I heard one girl get upset at one point during the film and her friend seemingly reassure her that it was only a film. I had this other bloke next to me comment to his friend that the appetite suppressants weren’t working as he chowed down on two buckets of popcorn and a couple of beers. Another bloke in my row talked loudly on his phone during the credits of the first film and kept doing so as the music stopped. Laughter ensued from the audience. Oh fandom. The other thing which really struck me as I watched the opening animation to the first film, was I really realised how strange “we” must look to others. Sitting here for four and a half hours watching a compilation of a TV series we’d all already seen, which features young girls in frilly outfits being manipulated by a cold, uncaring “cute” alien and generally the girls are having a shit of a time. It was a kind of “what the fuck am I doing?” moment.

The second film, “Eternal”, covers the final four episodes. The most significant thing about this film is the addition of a new scene. Though it was interesting, I felt it didn’t add a whole lot to the film. Mid-way through the film a clean opening of TV series was suddenly played, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’m really not sure what the point of that was. More than anything it broke the flow of the film and served no purpose at all. Aside from small changes to some scenes that only the most hardcore “Madoka Magica” fan would notice, the film isn’t that much different from the series itself. Having said that, I enjoyed these two films a lot more than the TV series. A lot more in fact. There a lot of very clever concepts in this series and most of them really work well. But for me there a lot of unanswered questions that the series and films raise. Such as the nature of the “magic” itself. I suppose with Kyubey being an alien entity, Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, can definitely be applied to this show, literally. I thought the witches world sequences early on in the TV series didn’t work too well. The animation styles just clashed too much. In latter episodes it looked a lot better though and in these two movies the animation styles looked seamless. The process in which the magical girl’s wishes were grated had me puzzled. I’m assuming that Kyubey’s people were granting them, but why would they grant Madoka’s? Wouldn’t that wish throw out their plans completely (even though in the end it was to their benefit)? I also liked the idea of Cleopatra and Joan of Arc being magical girls. That was utterly hilarious.

I knew that the preview for an upcoming third film played at the end of the second film in US and Japanese screenings. However it didn’t at the Australian screenings. I read somewhere that this was because an American patron had recorded the audio for the preview and posted it on the internet. Supposedly Aniplex had decided to pull the trailer in Australia to stop any more leaks. If that’s true the logic truly baffles me. As I understand it the US screenings are still showing the preview, plus they also get the bonus video of messages from the main cast during the intermission. I read that both the Sydney and Melbourne screenings where disasters with Blu-ray players conking out, and screenings having to be cancelled. Luckily nothing went a miss in Canberra. The audience were well behaved (only laughing uncontrollably whenever Madoka’s homeroom teacher, Kazuko Saotome, graced the screen), and the films where really well edited and kept the audiences interest (despite the long run times and odd inclusion of the TV opening in the second film). At over four and a half hours, this is easily the longest time I have spent in a cinema and I was surprised that I enjoyed my time there. I’m not quite converted on compilation films yet (nor drinking the Kool Aid), but these two films collectively get a 7.5 out of 10 from me.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Video Backlog: “Gatchaman II”

Publisher: Sentai Filmworks (USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles
Length: 52 Episodes x 24 minutes
Production Date: 1978 - 1979
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

If you haven’t seen the ending of the original “Gatchaman” series, please stop reading now as it’s pretty much impossible to do a write up of this series without mentioning the original’s shock ending. Two years have passed since the Science Ninja Team defeated Galactor at the heavy cost of the apparent death of Joe. However Leader X returns to Earth, sinking a cruise liner named the Queen Margaret. Abducting a child who has been sucked underwater, Leader X hastens the child’s puberty and in a very short time transforms him into an adult mutant named Gel Sadra who has been conditioned to head up the new Galactor. At an emergency meeting at the International Science Organisation (ISO), mysterious disappearances of military personal and scientists are discussed. Dr Nambu announces that Galactor has returned is behind the disappearances and that despite their apparent disbandment, the Science Ninja Team has reformed and will do battle with them.

At their new underwater mobile base, G-Town, the Science Ninja Team assemble to take on a new case. Nambu introduces Joe’s new replacement, Getz, however the rest of the team are less than impressed with his overly cocky attitude. Gatchaman and the team are sent out in the New God Phoniex to investigate newly discovered ruins of an ancient civilisation on Easton Island inside a cave system. But it is soon revealed that this is a trap set up by Galactor with Getz revealed as a Galactor agent who killed the real Getz and assumed his identity. After escaping and destroying one of Galactor’s mecha, the team set about silencing the faux Getz to avoid him telling Galactor about the location of G-Town. However Getz is found dead, killed by a feather shuriken, Joe's trademark weapon. A shadow on the wall of the cave seems to indicate that Joe is still alive. Outside, the team battle Galactor in their new mecha, however Ken’s jet is caught up in an explosion when he finishes off their base on the island. As he falls into unconsciousness, Ken believes he can hear Joe shouting at him to evacuate from the cockpit.

Ken awakens to find himself inside a cave with the rest of the Science Ninja Team surrounding him. Former Galactor scientist, Dr Raphael, has apparently saved him and killed the Galactor agent posing as Getz. Raphael tells them of his defection from the organisation and how he now fights against Galactor. In a later case, Gatchaman is sent out to the country of Amelia to sabotage a Galactor base. However, Gatchaman and the Science Ninja Team find themselves overwhelmed by Galactor agents. Miraculously a man claiming to be Joe appears and helps them defeat the agents. Joe explains that he was saved from near death by Dr Raphael and has been recuperating since that time. Joe rejoins the Science Ninja Team, who are overjoyed at the fact he is still alive. However as the team take on various missions, they soon discover something isn’t right. Joe takes on impossible tasks with superhuman strength in which he should be severely injured or killed, yet seems to manage to survive them all without a scratch.

Five months after the theatrical release of a compilation of episodes from the original TV series, this series debuted on Japanese TV in October 1978. It eventually became the basis for the 1996 English dub “Eagle Riders”. Two years prior in 1976, Tatsunoko had written treatment for a follow up series to the original “Gatchaman” where a dying Joe was saved by Leader X who then transforms him into a villain named Space Joker. Joe’s long lost brother, Jack, joins the Science Ninja Team as Joe's replacement, and of course end up fighting his brother. A second abandoned treatment is similar to the final broadcast series; an android duplicate of Joe is created by rouge scientist, and the android actually believes he is the real Joe. If it wasn’t already obvious (and most of the synopsis of the series on the web and in books already point this out), the Joe in the final broadcast version is mostly a cyborg created from Joe’s body by Dr Raphael. I really wished the original concept for the series was given the green light as this show the final broadcast version is a bit of a dud really.

This is despite the fact most of the staff on the first series had returned. In addition Akemi Takada ("Creamy Mami", "Kimagure Orange Road", "Patlabor") updated the character designs (from the original 1972 Yoshitaka Amano designs) and created new ones, famed mecha designer, Kunio Okawara (who did the original Gundam designs) created the new mecha, and most intriguingly Mamoru Oshii, who was a staffer at Tatsunoko at that time, was episode director and storyboard artist for a handful of early episodes. Despite Okawara being board for the mechas design, many of the designs are pretty mediocre and uninteresting compared to the outlandish ones we got in the original series. The New God Phoenix receives a new robot pilot, Pima (obviously influenced by R2-D2), whose main function is to enable Ryu to join the rest of the team on missions. Other changes include less Galactor mecha which I think makes the series a lot less interesting. In this series Galactor seems to me more concerned with creating natural disasters, and the Science Ninja Team seem to be constantly infiltrating and destroying Galactor bases most of the time.

The stories in this series (and the dialogue) are kind of rubbish to be honest. Sure, a lot of the plots in the original series where absurd and silly, however you couldn’t say that they weren’t fun. Tatsunoko put a lot of love, time and effort into the original series. It just looked brilliant, better than any other anime on TV at the time. With this series it seems minimal effort in just about all aspects of production was the order of the day. The animation in particular looks a bit shoddy and is in no way up to the standard of the original. Most annoyingly live action undersea footage is occasionally used for the ocean outside the windows in G-Town, which is not to scale with the animation in the foreground. The result looks as if they are in a part of the ocean where giant schools of fish roam. The music has also been changed with the fantastic original music by Bob Sakuma replaced with less exciting, and frankly inappropriate at times, score by Hiroshi Tsutsui. Apart from the R2-D2 rip off Pima robot, I noticed quite a number of sound effects ripped straight out of “Star Wars” including Tie fighter, light sabre and R2-D2 sounds. I even noticed the familiar whir of the TARDIS used as the sound one of Galactor’s mecha made.

While Joe’s mysterious return is the main plot for a number of the initial episodes, the focus soon changes to Dr Pandora, a female specialist hired as an assistant by Dr Nambu. While the team are suspicious of her at first, she proves where her allegiances lie and ends up being an invaluable member of the team. She even ends infiltrating Galactor bases on her own a couple of times. In the last few episodes of series, Pandora and Gel Sadra become the focus of the story of the finale, which also includes a Galactor plot to change the course of the sun thereby destroying Earth and the solar system. A secondary plot has Joe given a special mission by Dr Raphael in order to kill Leader X. Unfortunately the vast majority of the other episodes are just padding. Most are daft wastes of time such as an episode where Dr Pandora creates a device so children can communicate with animals only for Galactor to plant bombs in an attempt to kill them. Galactor, the ISO and the Science Ninja Team come off as incompetent a lot of the time when compared to the original series. Members of the Science Ninja Team seem to be captured by Galactor quite often, their machines totaled (with an almost a never ending set of replacement machines) and surprisingly there are a number of failed missions. Their personal weapons have been changed too, with Ryu’s being a weird green slime thing called Gripper. Luckily most of these rather daft weapons are used sparingly.

Sentai’s 9 disc set isn’t all that brilliant. The source is quite a cruddy looking old composite analogue master with a lot of aliasing and interlacing and blatant film splicing marks. It looks pretty horrible. For some unknown reason, the opening and closing animation only contains romanised lyrics to the songs. There’s no actual translation of the lyrics.

Overall, this is not a great series. Most of the episodes are pretty crappy to be totally honest. The writing is pretty bad and the mecha (when it appears) is pretty mediocre. With the final few episodes things do improve dramatically. However a lot of time has been wasted getting to these episodes for no real reason or benefit to the story. Looking at this series and the original, it’s as if the staff behind “Gatchaman II” didn’t really see the previous series and only read a few of the old scripts to get up to speed. Not only do Galactor's mechanised monster robots which were a key to original's success rarely appear, but also the commanders under Gel Sadra make fleeting appearances or don’t exist at all. Compare with the original series. The final few episodes are quite good, but don’t make up for all the rubbish which preceded them. 5 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: 14 TV series, 5 OVAs and 10 movies. In addition I am also waiting for additional parts of four TV series to be released before viewing them.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Anime DVDs You May Have Missed: “Space Firebird 2772”

Japanese Title: Hi no Tori 2772: Ai no Kosumozon (Phoenix 2772: Love’s Cosmozone)
Publisher: Madman Entertainment (Australia)
Format: Region 4 DVD, PAL, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and English Subtitles
Length: 121 minutes
Production Date: 1980
English Version Release Date: 21 June 2006
Currently in Print (as of writing): No

Note: Originally posted on the "Anime Archivist" blog in December 2012.

One thing I wanted to do with my old blog but never got around to was to write about anime and tokusatsu DVDs that were practically ignored by western fandom. The majority of these releases are non R1 (US and Canadian releases) discs, though there a number of US releases which never got much exposure and languished in obscurity. Some of these titles are unappreciated classics, some are guilty pleasures and some are downright hideous. However I believe all of them should have been noticed a bit more than what they were. First up is a relatively obscure English dubbed and subtitled Australian release of Osamu Tezuka's “Space Firebird 2772”.

Until recent times, anime releases in Australia have pretty much been dupes of either UK or US releases. As the US industry began to falter a few years back, and with the re-emergence of Siren Visual as a serious competitor in the anime market, a trickle of English anime releases that hadn’t previously had US or UK releases began to filter through. This is one of the first, and content wise, it was quite amazing that it even got released in the first place. Seriously, a (then) 25 year old anime film which veers strangely from very serious drama to rather odd Disney-like musical interludes? And in a tiny video market like Australia? So why did this title get a DVD release? The most likely reason was at the time Madman was releasing number of old anime by the God of manga, Osamu Tezuka, such as the 1960’s and 1980’s versions of “Astroboy” and “Kimba the White Lion”. I suppose it was a natural progression for Madman to seek out other Tezuka material. They must have thought they lucked out with this film which came with a pre-existing English dub, pretty much a prerequisite for any Madman anime release. One can only imagine the rights for the film were also quite cheap.

This film is loosely based the “Future” arc of Tezuka’s long running but incomplete “Phoenix” manga. In a far off future, Earth is dying. Mankind now reproduces by way of test tube babies, grown outside the womb in glass containers. From birth to adulthood children are raised in separate rooms, and their destiny, in other words their future career, has already decided. Godoh is one of these children. We see him being raised into adolescence when a large container is delivered to him. Inside is a female robot called Olga who has the ability to change into several forms of transport. Unlike the cold unfeeling computer that raised him up to this point, Olga is warm and caring. When reaching full maturity, he is contacted by a man named Rock Schlock, the Chief of Science, who orders him to the Science Centre for additional training as a pilot/hunter. However when he reaches the centre, his trainer, Boon, orders Olga off the premises as she is a robot. The training is hard and cruel, including the killing of animals, however Godoh comes out on top in his class. His skills catch the attention of Rock who proposes a special mission. He is to capture Cosmozone 2772, a bird like creature that roams the vacuum of space whose blood can bring Earth back to life. The mission is extremely dangerous; two missions have already ended in failure with the deaths of both crews on board. In return for taking on this mission, Godoh asks that he be able to move freely beyond the city for a day. Rock grants this request.

Godoh uses this opportunity to go out beyond the city limit to a beach with Olga. There he spots something in the distance. Olga flies off to investigate and returns with a flower. The two of them have discovered the flower garden where the elite of society, “the Elders”, live. There Godoh meets Lena. Though it is forbidden because they are from two different classes, the two of them start seeing each other. One night a patrol spots Godoh in the garden with Lena. The two of them flee in an air car, but after a long chase which ends in them crashing their car, Godoh is taken away to be sentenced. Olga along with Lena’s alien servant, Pincho, hide in the wreck of the car and escape when the coast is clear. Rock, destined to be married to Lena, takes away Godoh’s citizenship and sends him to Iceland to endure hard labour on the mantle energy project, which is designed to harness geothermal energy as solution to Earth’s energy problems. There Godoh is befriended by a fellow inmate and scientist, Dr Salta, who asks him to escape and search after Cosmozone 2772, the Phoenix, which its blood is said to be able to revitalise the Earth.

But derailing their breakout plan is an earthquake. It in turn destroys the turbine plant which spills millions of litres of scalding hot water in the direction of the prisoners. However Godoh is saved by Olga who has just inadvertently heard where he was being held after ruining Rock and Lena’s wedding (with the help of Pincho). That night Dr Salta decides to escape by stealing the spaceship, Space Shark, which is docked at the prison. But the breakout doesn’t go to plan and Dr Salta, Godoh, Olga and Pincho are cornered by Blackjack, the prison’s warden. Blackjack makes a deal; if Godo wins a fist fight against him, Godoh gets his freedom. If he loses he will receive the harshest labour in the prison. Unbeknownst to Gotoh, Blackjack sympathises with the group and takes a fall. Soon there are on their way to the planet Tear in the Antares system. Dr Salta’s friend, Van, lives there and apparently knows where the Phoenix is. After misunderstanding them and leading them to a different creature, Van leads them to a small dice like creature called Crack who knows a strange green blobby creature called Pooks. Through Crack, Pooks leads them to a creator filled planet. There they find the mysterious “Cosmozone 2772”, which turns out to be a huge Phoenix several times larger than their spacecraft. They soon discover that the creature is pretty much impossible to capture and quickly find themselves on the end of its attacks, which prove to be fatal.

This version of “Phoenix” was apparently created in response to the failure of Tezuka’s 1978 live action “Firebird: Daybreak Chapter”. Like that film, this animated version is far too ambitious for its own good. I’ve always found much of Tezuka’s animated output rather problematic. I do like many of his short experimental films, the 1980 remake of “Astoboy” (which was a personal childhood favourite), “Blackjack” OVAs and most of the adaptations of “Jungle Emperor”. But often I find there are just far too many ideas in his animated works and more often than not it becomes a jumbled mess. “Phoenix 2772” is no different. There’s a number of competing ideas in the film. Most noteworthy is the animation itself. Typically Japanese animation is divided up into separate “cuts” (shots) and an animator does that particular shot. But in this film, Tezuka used the Disney model for most of the film’s animation, where an animator was assigned a character and they were responsible for only animating that character for the entire film. Whether or not there is any noticeable difference in comparison to a normal anime film with a film with this kind of budget (reportedly several million dollars), is debatable at best. Other animation techniques are more apparent, such as filming a model of the Space Shark and then rotoscoping the film onto animation paper. There’s also the stunning single continuous shot of journey from Gotoh’s living quarters to the Science Centre at the beginning of the film. The camera pans up from Olga and Gotoh travelling in their air car and flies above the highway and city and then eventually comes back down again as he car arrives at its destination. This part of the film comes right at the end of a ten minute sequence introducing the Phoenix and showing Gotoh’s childhood. There isn’t a single word spoken in that time. Yep, no dialogue at all for the first ten minutes of the film. That’s some really ballsy film making there.

Other animation techniques come up a little bit short. Such as animating some sections at 24 frames per second rather than it the usual 8 used in most anime productions. In some sequences for some characters, such as Olga, the entire character, head to toe, is animated with individual hand drawn frames at 24 frames per second giving the character a “wobbly” look. As I understand it, this was done to show that characters had humanity and were alive. In Olga’s case, it was to show she was becoming more human. However this technique is a little too subtle and is inconsistently applied. It’s no secret that Tezuka was highly influenced by Disney and also the cartoons of Max Fleischer. This can be clearly seen in an early scene inside the prison as we see the silhouettes of the prisoners working. Tezuka also has this annoying habit of using really cutesy moments in his animated projects, which often threaten to throw the entire story off balance. Case in point; the two musical sequences featuring Pincho. They really feel out of place considering how dark the story can be. There are also some really inappropriately cartoonish moments such as Boon’s eyes comically bulging out as he taunts Gotoh. A lot of these moments seem to be there for no apparent reason other than Tezuka wanted them there. As a result, sometimes the film does feels just a bit self-indulgent.

The script, co-written by director Taku Sugiyama and Tezuka himself is also a bit of a mess. Certainly the overall plot is really quite intriguing. It’s partly a retelling of Pinocchio with bits of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” thrown in, wrapped around Buddhist philosophies regarding reincarnation. And to top it all off, at its core it’s also a love story and an environmental parable. But the addition of really cutesy characters such as Crack and Pooks and other rather odd elements such as the musical interludes derail the story to a large degree. I also think there is way too much plot to fit in a two hour film. Certainly a number of plot elements such as Olga’s jealousy over Lena and Gotoh’s relationship, are not explored adequately enough. The film could have done with some trimming and discarding of some minor plot points. Like most of his other works, Tezuka’s “star system” was in full swing in this film. Characters used in previous works here include Rock, Saruta, Shunsuke Ban (or Higeoyagi, subtitled on the DVD as “Van”), Boon, Blackjack, and Acetylene Lamp who has a small cameo.

The film has had a really tortured English language release over the years. Dubbed rather badly by Toho themselves via a Hong Kong studio, this version of the film first appeared on video in the UK around 1982. The film was latter cut down to less than 80 minutes for a US “kid vid” release in 1987. Madman’s DVD retains the uncut dub, which is stilted at best and due to its age sounds quite muffled when compared to the Japanese mono track. The subtitles on the disc are also Toho’s creation. While they aren’t bad, at times they do omit some of the secondary dialogue, though nothing really important is left untranslated. Some of translations of the character’s names are questionable such as “Van” instead of the more correct “Ban”. Despite some very minor NTSC to PAL conversion issues, the 16:9 anamorphic video on this DVD looks quite good for a 30 year old film. The only real extra on this disc is the original Japanese theatrical trailer. Overall this is a hard film to recommend to others. The story is quite epic, the animation, especially in the first half of the film, is stunning, but the film seems to lose its way around the half way mark. There are too many ideas, both in terms of story and visual techniques, that Tezuka has attempted to cram into its two hour runtime. It really feels like a flawed masterpiece, a missed opportunity. Don’t let the “G” rating fool you. This film really isn’t suitable for young children. Apart from including some animal and human death (albeit sanitised), many of these themes presented in the film would be difficult for young children to understand. Anime fans interested in films from the 1970’s and very early 1980’s, as well as fans who are interested in the history of general animation, would most likely enjoy this film. As for current availability, this is an out of print Australian DVD, and therefore is a bit hard to find in the secondary market, even for those living in Australia like myself. I have not seen a copy for sale on eBay since I originally wrote this review in 2012.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Video Backlog: “Martian Successor Nadesico”

Publisher: Nozomi Entertainment (Right Stuf, USA)
Format: Region A Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English dub and English Subtitles
Length: 22 minutes x 26 episodes (TV Series), 29 minutes (OVA), 81 minutes (movie)
Production Date: 1996 – 1997 (TV Series), 1998 (OVA, movie)
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

In the year 2195 the Earth has been invaded by an alien force called the Jovian Lizards. On the planet Mars, which has been colonised by human beings, its orbit it has become a frontline for a battle fought by humans and the Jovian Lizards. It’s quite clear that the United Earth Government are losing this battle. In a last ditch attempt, the Earth defence forces crash their ship into one of the enemy’s motherships, known as a chulip which crashes to the surface, wiping out some the colonist’s settlements. On Mars below in one of the colonies shelters, we meet one of the locals, Tenkawa Akito. After the shelter is attacked by the invaders, Akito tries to save people but is confronted by an army of their robots and is about to be killed. He screams and lights fills the shelter. Akito soon finds himself on Earth and can’t remember how he got there. He manages to get work on Earth as a cook but due to his panic attacks anytime the Jovians attack and fact he has a nano controller on his hand (so he can control machines), he is fired from his job because his employer doesn’t want his customers thinking he’s sheltering a deserter from the defence force. He soon bumps into Yurika Misumaru, a childhood friend from Mars, who is now the captain of the Nadesico, the most advanced space battleship ever made. The ship was made by a private company called Nergal. Due to fact the United Earth Government was incompetent in repelling the invaders, Nergal has built a ship to defend Earth and Mars. Yurika asks if they have meet before, but Akito doesn’t recognise her at first, but remembers her after finding a photo Yurika accidentally leaves of them together as children. He follows her to the ship where he is caught by security, who decide to employ him as part of the ship’s crew as a cook.

The overall recruitment of the crew of the Nadesico is rather questionable. The crew aren't exactly people you could rely on to save the Earth. While the captain neglects her duties and is more interested in chasing Akito, and Akito himself is more interested in cooking than Yurika or piloting the Astevalis (Nergal’s robots) in battle. Yurika also has to deal with the communications officer, Megumi Reinard, a former voice actor and rival for Akito’s affections. Other oddballs include the main pilot, Jiro Yamada (who likes to call himself Gai Daigoji) who is a big fan of the 1970’s anime “Gekiganger III”, and even shouts out names of attacks from the shows whilst in battle. The other pilots are just as weird. Hikaru Amano is a doujinshi artist and Izumi Maki is the rather strange fourth pilot who makes the worst puns known to humankind. We also have Seiya Uribatake, the main mechanic on board, a model making otaku. Ruri Hoshino, the 11 year old computer expert seems to be the only sane one amongst them. She thinks the whole crew are a bunch of idiots.

The ship is soon attacked by the Jovian Lizards, and Akito, still disturbed by the Jovians, attempts to escape using one of the robots aboard the ship. Akito ends up fighting off the invaders and manages to win the battle. Much to his disappointment, his display of his skills as a robot pilot have unintentionally made him a candidate to be the second Astevalis pilot on the ship (mostly due to the fact the main pilot, Jiro Yamada, has broken his leg). The Nadesico has yet another battlefront on its hands with the United Earth Government (UEG) who is a little miffed that Nergal wants to use the Nadesico to protect Mars, not Earth. Despite a rather desperate ploy by the UEG, Yurika’s father, Admiral Kouichiro Misumaru, who pleads with his daughter to hand over the ship, Yurika refuses to hand over the ship. Eventually negations with the UEG come to nothing and the Nadesico forces its way outside the atmosphere and onwards to Mars. Fighting off the Jovian Lizards all the way, it soon becomes apparent on Mars that Nergal is only there to acquire the Joavian’s Boson Jump technology, which can warp machines and people to any point in the universe. Worse is the fact the crew of the Nadesico later stumble upon the reality of what the Jovian Lizards actually are, and the fact the UEG has hidden this from the population for decades.

I first came across this show in 1997 or so via some of the first VHS fansubs I acquired. Looking through my collection of Animage and Newtype magazines during that period, I can see it was certainly a fan favourite and hyped up massively. I can clearly recall how excited I was for this show. Some 20 years on and the truth is the show has not aged all that well. While it is at it’s core a sci-fi show, it’s almost always played as a comedy, and a screwball one at that. Most the time it focuses on Akito as well as Yurika and their love/hate relationship, which for the most part doesn’t progress one iota during the entire TV series. Akito is surrounded by women, most of who seem to be after him. To a large degree it’s like “Tenchi Muyo!” with a larger focus on sci-fi elements. Luckily as the show progresses, most of the extended cast receive a fair amount of attention especially fan favourite Ruri Hoshino. However most of the cast are reduced to catchphrases or repeated actions, and seem fairly shallow and usually don’t receive much development at all throughout the series. There are exceptions; for example Ruri’s backstory is explored in great detail in an episode almost exclusively dedicated to her. But most of the cast remain clichés with catchphrases or overused traits. In particular the character Inez Fressange is annoyingly reduced to “the character that explains everything” which becomes really grating rather quickly. Frustratingly the series loves to take the mickey out of anime clichés, but then hypocritically trots out a different set of clichés at a rapid rate.

Amongst the slapstick and silliness is a rather good sci-fi plot involving the alien invaders, the Jovian Lizards, and the technology they use to teleport (known as a Boson Jump) themselves and their war machines. In addition to this is a really interesting sub plot involving a conspiracy by the Earth government hiding the true nature of the Jovians and Nergal and the government racing each other to reverse engineer the Jovian’s Boson Jump technology. Unfortunately few episodes in the series actually deal with many of these interesting sub plots. Even when a shocking plot point or twist is revealed, several episodes follow which are nothing more than pointless screwball comedies, as if the previous events almost never happened.

As I mentioned previously, the one thing that “Nadesico” does exceptionally well is parody. There are loads of anime references including the anime show that the crew watch, “Gekiganger III”, which is a parody of Go Nagai robot shows like “Mazinger Z” and “Getter Robo” mixed in with a few elements of other 1970’s action anime. Often what happens in “Gekiganger III” is mirrored in the lives of the crew. One episode seems to satirise the “Miss Macross” episode of the original “Macross” TV series and the five female assistants to the main chef look very similar to the Hummingbirds, an idol group from an obscure mid 1990’s OVA series called "Idol Defence Force Hummingbird". Other anime fandom activities referenced include cosplay, garage and plastic model kit making, doujinshi. The character Megumi Reinard is an obvious nod to Megumi Hayashibara, even referencing her qualification in nursing which was gained before becoming a voice actor. Amusingly Hayashibara makes a couple of guest voice appearances in the “Nadesico” movie. Despite all these fan friendly references, fans themselves also cop a bit of criticism. Hikaru’s rejection of Seiya’s romantic advances being the most blatant example. The show also breaks the fourth wall regularly with digs at the animation production and the characters, mostly with Ruri, directly addressing the audience.

The mecha design is particularly good, but the stand out element here is Keiji Goto’s character designs (based upon Kia Asamiya’s originals). While Goto’s character designs were ubiquitous in the late 1990’s, I think in hindsight they were really good and have stood the test of time. The music, both background and main theme songs, are also a highlight of the show and are very much of that period in the 1990's where a lot of anime related music was really well produced and had very high production values. Of note is the humorous character song sung by the robot pilots called “The Astevalis March” which appears as an insert song in one episode.

This blu-ray set, like the previously released DVD set, contains the movie “Nadesico: The Prince of Darkness” and the preceding “Gekiganger III” OVA. The movie is far superior in both animation and plot compared to the TV series, however it still contains a fair wack of the same brand of comedy seen in the TV series. The OVA for most part rehashes the animation used in the TV series, however the second half is an original “Gekiganger III” story. The OVA is bookended with new animation following the Nadesico crew as they watch the “Gekiganger III” in a cinema. Unlike the movie and TV series, the video source for the OVA is an old analogue video master. Extras on this version include the “Welcome to Belle Equipe” pre-broadcast video that was previously available only on VHS in Japan, and the similar “Nadesico Sorekara”, released prior to the movies which the original VHS came with a movie ticket. This release also includes the Japanese voice actor introductions found on the original laserdisc releases of the TV series. TV adverts for CD and video releases are also included. The back of this blu-ray release states it contains clean opening closings as well as music video, however they don’t appear on the discs (unless they’re referring to the clean opening/music video which appears in “Welcome to Belle Equipe”, which looks shoddy due to the analogue composite video source).

In conclusion, this is a series which probably hasn’t stood the test of time, however the movie version is pretty spectacular and the series itself is pretty entertaining. It’s easy to see why Ruri is such a fan favourite too. The overall plot is really intriguing, but honestly a lot of writing isn’t particularly good and I’d really wished that the drama had been the focus of the show, not the screwball comedy. I was going to give it .5 less, but on balance (and because I’m feeling slightly generous) I’ll give “Nadesico” 7 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: 15 TV series, 5 OVAs and 12 movies. In addition I am also waiting for additional parts of four TV series to be released before viewing them.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Forgotten Anime: “Luna Varga”

Distributor: A.D. Vision (ADV Films, USA)
Original Year of Release: 1991
English Video Release: 1996, NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles
Japanese Title: Demon Warrior Luna Varga (Maju Senshi Luna Varga)
Runtime: 4 episodes x 29 mins

Note: Originally posted on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2006. Revised version published on the "Anime Archivist" blog in December 2012.

Please don’t judge this series of reviews based on the first one. While I may have picked an arthouse title to begin with, the majority of other titles certainly won’t be. In fact nearly all of them will be OVAs from the 1980’s or 1990’s. And most of them will be B-grade trash. That’s mostly because I’m focusing on titles that never made the leap from analogue formats to digital ones. The majority of these titles have been largely forgotten by anime fans. In the mid to late 1990’s, ADV Films pretty much dominated the US anime market, and released a whole heap of now rather obscure OVA titles during that period. Certainly with a large OVA market churning out over a hundred titles per year in Japan, there were plenty of short OVA series for them to buy and exploit. Unlike most US anime distributors, a sizable proportion of their VHS titles never made to DVD. “Luna Varga” is one of them. This OVA’s story goes something like this;

In a medieval world filled with shape changing humans called “beast changers”, the southern city state of Dunbas has started attacking its northern neighbours in an attempt to expand its territory. The war machine has come to the small country of Rimsbell. The princesses, acting on behalf of the king who is ill, refuse outright to surrender. The Dunbas troops prepare their assault and the princesses decide to ask their grandfather for advice. They search his room, but can find no trace of him. However one princess, Luna, accidentally discovers a secret passage which seems to lead deep below the castle. Luna soon finds her grandfather who warns her not to proceed any further down the passageway, which she of course does anyway. She finds herself in a gigantic glowing room. There a voice speaks to her and asks her if she wants “the power” and what she would use it for. Naturally she states that she would use it to defend Rimsbell. The room then seems to explode with light.

Outside, the battle is raging, and the numbers are stacked against the Rimsbell troops. Suddenly in the lake beside the castle, a large column of water shoots up and proceeds to head towards the Dunbas troops. A monster emerges and begins to wipe out the invaders whom soon retreat. The princesses’ grandfather tells his granddaughters that the giant monster is called Varga, originally resurrected by their ancestor Lord Legion to fight the King of Evil many years ago. The monster was sealed away, but it seems that Luna has resurrected it. Luna awakes and surprised that indeed she did resurrect the monster, but is also merged with it. Her bottom, legs and feet are stuck inside the monster. She is Varga’s “brain” and controls its actions. Though the army seems to have been defeated, one Captain, Bat Robis, won’t give up, and is determined to slay the monster, despite being 100 times stronger and taller than him. He eventually gets up on top of Varga’s head where Luna can’t be protected by Varga. Luckily for Luna, Varga can have a sword materialise her in hands for these kinds of situations.

With Bat retreating and the battle seemingly over, an unforseen event occurs as a winged creature abducts the youngest princess, Viena. Luna and Varga head into enemy territory, Logiran. However Luna soon realises that she can’t walk around town stuck to giant green monster. Varga tells her that she can still transform back to a human. However when she does so she discovers that she has a small green tail sticking out of her bottom. A young nobleman called Mil passes by and offers her a ride into town and some clothes (well naturally she’s naked after transformation). While riding through the busy streets with Mil and his underlings, Rapier and Gils, a young “hostess” (I think that’s code for prostitute) named Lil, runs out in front of their buggy, which comes to an abrupt stop. She is being chased by Bat Robis (who by extraordinary coincidence is also Mil’s uncle), whom she stole from. Unfortunately Bat notices Luna, and gives chase of both Lil and Luna with Mil and company in tow. Mass destruction the town ensues as they reach the Mayor’s house. The Mayor, who is a little bit miffed at the situation and doesn’t want his house destroyed, hires an incompetent black wizard named Gilbert Eizen who only manages to get knocked over by Bat. Completely pissed off, he calls forth a large group of flying creatures called Wyvern.

The Wyvern do more damage than the rest of them combined, and Luna, Bat, Mil, Rapier and Gils end up fighting off the monsters. Rapier attempts to force Gilbert to stop the spell, but he can’t remember how to do it. Luna decides that the only course of action is to transform into Varga, but Mil pleads with her not to do it. She ignores him and transforms, and easily defeats the monsters. But soon Mil’s worst fears are realised as the presence of Varga has unleashed another slumbering monster, a large sea serpent called Cross Serpent Varga who could destroy the entire town.

I watched ADV’s trailer for this show many times on many of their VHS tape releases over the years before I actually got around to picking it up. With its self-titled theme song, reminiscent of 1970’s robot shows (almost a parody of those types of songs), and its stereotypical fantasy setting, it didn’t seem my cup of tea. When the VHS format began dying off in the early 2000's, I finally picked up both tapes for about $5 each. Upon first viewing I didn’t like it a whole lot, but watching it again some years later for this review I have softened my stance on this title. The main set up of this OVA series is quite original. Having a girl stuck to a monster can lead to some funny situations. However Varga, the monster itself, is just an anime version of Godzilla, literally. He looks like Godzilla, and the sound effects are Godzilla sound effects, subtly changed, but it still sounds like Godzilla. Nudity plays a fairly big role in the series. After Luna transforms, she always ends up naked. Also the end credits feature her nude about 80% of the time. A large proportion of the OVA market of the time was, let’s face it, exploitation material, so really this isn't all that unusual. Another gratuitously sexual scene involved Lil asking Luna to travel on her journeys with her. Lil’s way of encouraging her to do so is to stick her hand down Luna’s panties and “please” her a bit. Of course Luna moans like a lunatic. All girls love being touched by another woman and are secretly bisexual. Well according to this anime anyway. That’s B-movie Exploitation 101 there.

A lot of reviews compare this show to “Dragon Half”. The only similarities are the inclusion of a dragon (monster in “Luna Varga”), both the leads have tails (though Luna isn’t a dragon) and they’re both set in fantasy worlds. That’s it. I can’t see any similarities really. “Luna Varga” is a comedy to a degree, but it’s not a madcap, slapstick one like “Dragon Half” despite some of the bizarre concepts. The second half of the series is much more serious and darker in tone, as Luna discovers where her sister Viena is being held and the reasons why Dunbas has been so aggressive are shown to be more evil and dark than anyone had imagined. The ending of the series also could be seen as a bit of a downer, depending on how you interpret the closing credits of the final episode (this ending may have something to do with the fact the manga series it was based on still had two years to run before it finished). However it’s the humour and the characters in this series which make it worthwhile. The mountainous captain of the Dunbas army, Bat Robis, provides a lot of a humour with his never-think-things-out and never-give-up-no-matter-what attitude. The nameless Chinese chef, who always seems to be there to feed Bat, has an almost “Iron Chef” like attitude to cooking and is a brilliant supporting character. The incompetent wizard Gilbert Eizen is a blast too (no pun intended), especially in the sequence where he battles a wizard just as incompetent as him from the Dunbas army. The “beast changers” are also pretty clever, but it’s a bit of a well-worn concept. Luna’s childhood friend and servant, Loco, who changes from a human to a winged cat, is the only one that stands out amount the “beast changers”.

Also of note is the music, composed by Kenji Kawai. Kawai’s music can roughly be divided up into two categories; the high budget orchestral work he usually does for films, and the low budget synthesiser stuff which is typical of his TV work, especially in the 1990’s, which is what we have here. I’ve always associated the latter with “Patlabor”, as his music here sounds a lot like his “Patlabor” TV and OVA work. Overall it’s a decent OVA with a lot of laughs, a lot of action and some drama. However it is a bit dull and derivative. We’ve seen it all before (well except for the merging of a girl and a monster), and more competently. It is cute and clever and I quite enjoyed it, but it’s nothing really special and the ravages of time haven't been kind to the series. Certainly the character designs look a lot older than the 1991 OVA release date, but his probably because it’s based on a manga that was released three years earlier. However I think it’s a real shame that stuff like this never gets re-released on DVD (or even Blu-ray, if the original film still survives). The series never received a Japanese DVD release either. Yet another 1990’s OVA lost to time.