Buried Garbage - M.D. Geist

by Justin Sevakis, Oct 2nd 2008

There is no sport left in ripping on MD Geist. Since the time I was a newbie, Geist has been a favorite punching bag of otaku. Only in recent years, as fandom becomes more populated by younger fans who've never heard of the title, has it been reduced to something of a rarity to hear its name cursed. But for well over a decade, as Mike Toole observed in his old AnimeJump review, the title was a consistent #2 in lists of "worst anime ever."

The thing is, MD Geist is not that bad. I mean, sure it's still a steaming pile, but its stench is certainly no worse than many other Home Video Boom era OAVs by first-time directors. What gives the title its notoriety is not its level of heinousness, but rather how it's been held up as a classic; an exalted figure of anime at the art form's acme.

The main person ballyhooing the title throughout the history of anime in the United States is of course my former boss John O'Donnell, founder and managing director of the once mighty Central Park Media. The man has made Geist, the title character, the logo of his company since day one, and made sure the title was consistently the one held up for all to see. It can be seen pivoting lifelessly at the start of every U.S. Manga Corps DVD in a hilariously dated CG sequence to this day.

It's hard for me to fathom how someone can see MD Geist and consider it good, or even watchable. (My first inclination when I saw it back in 1995 was to use my parents' editing VCRs and cut together a quick AMV, incorporating all its myriad wonky scenes and animation mistakes and setting it to William Shatner's immortal rendition of Mr. Tambourine Man.) But there are more than a few people that do simply think this OAV is the bees' knees. They all seem to be older men, ones old enough to recall when Mad Max was the figure of masculinity that we all should aspire to. Apparently there were enough of those folks back in 1992 for the subtitled VHS to somehow make it into the Billboard charts. For those of us that were not alive in the 70s, it's just ridiculously over-the-top and silly... like a less sophisticated Fist of the North Star.

In a post-apocalyptic desert world called Jerra, a satellite comes crashing to Earth (and takes out a plane with it). Out of the wreckage walks a naked man with a mullet. That man, the titles explain, is a genetically-enhanced Super Soldier from the Most Dangerous Soldier Project: a man named Geist. He proceeds to walk to the nearest town, where he takes out the head of the local Murderous Motorcycle Gang (thereby becoming its leader) while attempting to attain a power suit. Hungry for blood, he helps the government take on a group of rebel forces.

This brings him face to face with Colonel Crutes, a man who was involved with the Most Dangerous project, and recognizes Geist. Reluctantly, he enlists Geist's support in a mission to stop the Death Force, a computer program that will unleash thousands of deadly robots all over the world to kill everybody. It can only be disabled by entering a big fort called Brain Palace. Crutes plans on eliminating Geist as soon as he can break in and stop the program... but Geist is a little stronger than he expects.

The show rips off Mad Max fairly liberally (as its creators admit to in the notably entertaining commentary track). Though Director credit was initially given to Hayato Ikeda, the truth is that it was really Koichi Ohata's work all along, and he was so young and inexperienced that the producers brought Ikeda in for appearances. In fact, Ohata was only 23 when he made Geist, and he pretty clearly had no idea how to tell a story. He and screenwriter Riku Sanjo pretty much approached the production as a collection of stuff they found to be "cool" without much regard as to how it came together. The animators, Ohata admits, were frustrated to the point of mutinous. Some scenes, such as the ultimate final battle, are so poorly laid out and colored that it's almost impossible to figure out what's happening.

Indeed, in its original state MD Geist was downright funny: it made almost no sense and had numerous registration errors. Characters erratically jump around the screen at least five times because the cells weren't properly aligned. One shot is so awkwardly animated that Geist's head appears to be flapping in the wind. Another features a guy being stabbed in the head, but then bleeding from his eyes. And then there's the ending, which crams such a ridiculous twist into the last 5 seconds that it seems like a mistake. Seven years later, Central Park Media sponsored a Director's Cut edition along with a sequel. Scenes were added and rearranged, the mistakes were smoothed over with video effects, and something resembling a coherent story emerged. (The American comic book adaptation by Tim Eldred was apparently used as a guide.) This elevated the show from "horrid" to "not so good:" the new animation simply looks nothing like the older stuff and it's actually even worse in quality, but the story actually kind of works.

The sequel, Death Force, brought the average back down to zero again. Consisting mostly of still pans as Geist does battle with the Death Force machines, another Most Dangerous soldier named Krauser, and eventually his own gleeful self-destruction, it's horribly paced and terribly animated. My favorite moment is towards the beginning, when a man that narrowly misses death at Geist's hand freaks out and proceeds to scream an elaborate plot recap for episode one.

There was a period of my life at Central Park Media where my life revolved around this show, and it nearly destroyed my interest in anime. Now, let me be clear: I am very grateful for my time at Central Park Media, where I learned professional discipline, and how not to be an annoying fanboy. I also got to work on some amazing projects and meet some of my idols. But at the same time, I had to work on a lot of terrible, terrible things -- pure, unmitigated crap that either put me to sleep or made my flesh crawl. This ranged from poop, torture and incest hentai that looked like it was animated in Windows Paint to, well, this. It was years before I could watch anime for fun again.

The idea to do an MD Geist special edition 2-disc DVD set came directly from John O'Donnell, and was greeted with groans by the production staff. It was not an unexpected request; indeed, the sublicense to Image for their DVD had expired a few months earlier and we were getting set to remaster everything they had (badly) released. What made us groan was not necessarily the show itself, but rather the inevitable nightmare it would be. As John so loved the show, it would be inevitable that we'd be spending months compiling the most ridiculously complicated disc of our careers. That meant we would be spending MONTHS marinating in the sewage pit that was MD Geist.

Sure enough, the next two months were spent in production, an inordinate amount of time for a back catalog DVD. I was tasked with taking scans of the comic book adaptation John had commissioned Tim Eldred to do and cutting the entire thing to be an alternate angle track for the film. (The book wasn't based on the director's cut, so this was actually pretty difficult.) My boss Tim did the same with scans of the sequel's storyboards. We toiled over freshly recorded commentary tracks and a pass through color correction and digital noise reduction. We even made a short video to celebrate the "Geist Rider", which consisted entirely of photos of John showing off the Marvel Ghost Rider motorcycle he'd bought at an auction. I ached to include my Shatner AMV, but alas...

The disc was so elaborate that it actually won an award! We'd submitted it to the LADV Expo, which was a trade show for the fairly-new-and-exciting DVD format at the time. We won the "best Special Interest DVD" category -- the same year as Citizen Kane also won! None of us could attend the ceremony, but the LADV people were nice enough to mail us our trophy, which appeared to be a piece of sawed-off PVC pipe spray-painted gold and screwed into a marble plaque (crooked). I wish I had a picture.

Over my tenure at CPM, the continued goofing on Geist by fans and staff alike eventually wore down poor John, and the man eventually went from utter denial ("it's the best anime ever made!") to resignation ("it's the best BAD anime ever made!"). The man still loves the show, and hey, far be it from me to criticize someone's guilty pleasure. (Once, he even showed me his ultra-rare vinyl 45 of the show's theme song!)

Nonetheless, the show got zero respect among CPM staff beyond what was implored upon us. On the second disc of the Collector's Edition DVD, there are a ton of slide shows preserving every item that went into producing Geist, from character design sketches and background art to an exclusive look at a several hundred dollar Geist resin figure that was being developed at the time and would certainly be unsell-able when it hit the market a few months later. When we assembled that gallery (every item directly under John's watchful eye), we noted that it would be an absolute must have for "the Geist fan."

There were many darkly snide moments like that at CPM, as I imagine there are at any company where one must work on shows they actively hate. I'm reminded of one particular incident where we were asked for suggestions in naming the forthcoming Urotsukidoji boxed set. I thought for a minute, "how would I describe the experience of watching the entire Urotsukidoji franchise?" And my suggestion was selected, and became the final name ascribed to that legendary OAV series that had been among the company's most popular titles.

The name was, "Hell on Earth."

Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
The MD Geist Collector's Series DVD is out of print, which makes my head spin, as I never thought Geist would be allowed to die. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of people willing to get rid of their copy; I found copies online for less than $5. It can also be found in the Mecha Masters boxed set alongside Ohata's other works, Genocyber and Cybernetics Guardian and a soundtrack CD. I can't imagine why John would allow his beloved show to go out of print, but perhaps business reasons prevailed. We can't always do what we want.


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