The Mike Toole Show Unfinished Business
by Michael Toole, Jul 1st 2012
It's July, and we're basking in the glow of a packed Anime Expo, teeming with news, cosplay, and a whole lot of fun. Some publishers, like Funimation, have already pointed out more big news to come at Otakon. So, what do you think, everyone? After an uncertain couple of years, is anime, you know, back yet? Or are you still waiting on that weird Funimation/ADV lawsuit, or casting worried glances at Media Blasters, who are not dead but are starting to smell funny?
Just wanted to idly pose that question, along with one other one. In the past several weeks, myself and several other anime writers have noted the increasing usage of a peculiar little loanword: “cours” (クール). It's a bit of jargon that's been present in Japan for some time, but it's starting to get more recognition here. In Japan's broadcasting business, a cours is a period lasting 3 months, or a single traditional season - summer, fall, winter, spring. In other words, there are four cours per year. On the low end, most TV shows, anime and live-action J-drama, start with one or two cours (13 or 26 episodes) per season, but that can go all the way up to four cours, or 52 episodes. Naturally, fans in the west like to use this word to refer to 13-episode anime series, or 13-episode segments of longer shows.
Initially, I dismissed this as another attempt to take a simple concept and make it seem cooler by using a common Japanese word for something we already describe as “season.” But cours does raise a good point - it's a bit more descriptive than just “season.” Fate/Zero, which just wrapped, divided its two cours up between fall of 2011 and spring of 2012 - two discrete seasons. Meanwhile, Bodacious Space Pirates ran continuously for 26 episodes, while Lupin the 3rd: a Woman called Fujiko Mine got just one 13-episode cours. Pirates and Fujiko are single-season shows, but one's season is half as long as the other. Fate/Zero is being sold as two seasons, but I've tended to think of it as one continuing series. But in all of these different cases, cours always means the same thing: 12 or 13 episodes, broadcast over a 3-month period.
Does this mean I'm going to start using cours regularly? I don't know about that. I've been saying “13-episode season” and “26-episode season” for a pretty long time. Also, cours doesn't necessarily account for everything; what do you call Don Dracula, a TV series that only lasted for eight episodes? Would it be a cours lite?
Man. That was a pretty long setup for a terrible joke! Anyway, like many of you, I've been soaking in the particularly excellent spring 2012 season, and savoring many shows as they wound to their conclusions. The prequel Fate/Zero ended with an oddly muted bang and crystal-clear hooks to its predecessor Fate/stay night, while Bodacious Space Pirates closed with a satisfying but open ending (Satelight have already promised a feature film sequel). Kids in the Slope was a fine return to form by Shinichiro Watanabe. For the most part, I was very happy with the finales of the shows I've been watching, which got me to thinking about all of the anime that have had bad, dodgy, or just plain unfinished endings. Let's look at some of those!
Actually, the aforementioned Don Dracula is a pretty good place to start. This 1982 TV series, from the mind of the great Osamu Tezuka, seemed like a sure thing - it was based on Tezuka's extremely popular horror-comedy manga, about Dracula himself being abruptly moved to Tokyo, where he ineptly attempts to convince a skeptical public of his vampiric menace. The series was underwritten by a firm called Sankyo Planning, and scripts were created for 21 episodes. Full steam ahead, right? Well, not so much - Sankyo Planning sank quickly, and robbed of funds from their biggest sponsor, Tezuka Productions were unable to complete the series. Incredibly, just four episodes aired; even more incredibly, the additional four that were not aired remained “lost” in Japan (other countries, like Italy, got them dubbed) until the show's DVD release. Nowadays, you can see all eight at places like Viki. If you had the money, I'm sure Tezuka Productions would be game for getting the remaining fifteen episodes done!
Don Dracula isn't the first show to get derailed by vanishing sponsorship money, either. A few months back I mentioned Mechander Robo, Wako Pro's curious little super robot show from 1977. Mechander Robo was sponsored by the toy company Bullmark, who crashed and burned spectacularly in ‘77 and left Wako short on money to finish the show. The final set of episodes features more and more re-used footage, and the big finale? A recap episode. Bullmark robots in excellent condition are highly prized among collectors of Japanese toys; Mechander Robo itself? Not so much!
Mechander Robo isn't the only super robot show to face production troubles and a rushed, lousy ending. The great Mobile Suit Gundam was famously truncated to 43 episodes; if you haven't seen it yet or haven't watched in a while, I urge you to watch the last ten episodes, and take note of the fact that the story abruptly shifts into overdrive. It's amusing in retrospect, but it must've been confusing to viewers at the time. Well, it couldn't have been that confusing, because Gundam won awards, sold a ton of model kits, and became an anime institution. Baldios, however, didn't quite make it that far down the same path. It was also cut short and later “fixed” with a sequel movie, but its final episode, which closes with the earth engulfed in civilization-destroying tidal waves and an abrupt “END” title card, is hilarious to behold. Space Runaway Ideon would continue the trend, with a prematurely-ending TV series followed by movies.
The true champions of unsolved cliffhangers, cancellations, and cop-outs have to be OVAs. I'll bet every single one of you has seen at least one anime OVA that seemed to lack a convincing or satisfying ending. Hilariously, that's a long-standing trend that was started with 1983's Dallos, the very first direct-to-video animation in Japan. Yep, that's right, the first OVA ever made, a modestly entertaining, Mamoru Oshii-helmed ripoff of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was plagued by financial problems and left unfinished. In 1987, AIC and ARTMIC would team up to produce one of the most broadly popular OVAs of the medium's first decade, Bubblegum Crisis. BGC, which fearlessly lifted imagery and concepts from fare like Blade Runner and boasted a staff of some of the best anime talent of the time, was originally planned for thirteen episodes - but after the dust cleared, there were only eight.
So what happened? If AIC and ARTMIC were Bubblegum Crisis’ parents, just think of it as a messy divorce. The reasons for the split aren't made clear in my AIC 15th Anniversary retrospective book, but the series might've simply underperformed in Japan. BGC was a hit in North America, one of the first entries in the fledgling anime market of 1991, but going back and checking Oricon charts from ‘91 reveals that the show's final episode, the action-packed Scoop Chase, sold well under ten thousand units on laserdisc. Reasoning aside, AIC and ARTMIC's split made it effectively impossible for either company to finish the series. ARTMIC would try to address this problem with their own spinoff, the mediocre Bubblegum Crash, but AIC sued to get them to stop making that, too! Bubblegum Crisis remains a prized treasure of many older American anime fans, but it never got the proper ending it deserved.
I was never a big Bubblegum Crisis fan. I think my favorite failed OVA story is that of Mighty Space Miners. Maybe you saw Mighty Space Miners? it was a two-episode joint produced by KSS and Triangle Staff; ADV Films dubbed and released it on VHS, but it's one of those weird titles that never made the jump to DVD. I kinda enjoy it - it's got a typical plucky-kid-beats-the-odds story, but its approach, in which the real threat is simply the hard, unforgiving vacuum of space, seemed fresh to me when I saw it. The thing is, Mighty Space Miners, directed by the late, great Umanosuke Iida, was supposed to be six episodes. They had all six of those episodes scripted, there were storyboards... and then Triangle Staff ran out of money for the project. It was a labor of love for the studio, who bought ads in magazines like NEWTYPE and Animage entreating the otaku public to help them get the rest of the series funded. That was a noble effort, but it failed. Every time I see a successful Kickstarter, I remember Mighty Space Miners, and think of what Iida and Triangle Staff might've accomplished if they had that platform.
There's another “unfinished anime” category, but it's one that has a fairly sensible explanation. An awful lot of anime is based on successful manga, and is planned to both please existing fans and draw in new readers. The thing is, doing this can be awfully tricky when you have an animation staff capable of turning out 52 30-minute episodes (or, well, four cours!) of anime per year. Even with a new manga chapter every week, most manga-ka couldn't keep up with that pace. A lot of popular favorites, like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z, get around this problem by dropping in side stories and small elements that don't interfere with the main story. Sometimes, the anime will end up supplying an intriguing alternate ending, as the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime did. But sometimes, even something that's quite popular, faced with a dearth of new episode scripts, just has to stop. That happened to Masami Kurumada's popular Saint Seiya. The show would grow in stature around the world and exceed 100 episodes-- but even that only covered the first 18 volumes of the manga. After Saint Seiya's cancellation in 1989, it would take Kurumada a couple of more years to finish the manga story off properly. You'd think that Toei would jump right back on that horse, right? Nope! It took over a deacde before Saint Seiya - Hades Chapter picked up where the TV series left off.
A more obvious example of this phenomenon is probably Kentarou Miura's Berserk. This blazingly popular dark fantasy got the anime TV treatment in 1997, and would prove popular pretty much wherever it went. It performed well for Media Blasters in the US, so much so that the company was constantly questioned about a sequel. You see, the Berserk anime only covers the first and second story arcs, with literally thousands of pages yet to be animated. A sequel seemed like a natural progression, and for years, Media Blasters reps at conventions would claim that details of a sequel was being ironed out. But we never got one. Hopes of continuation were raised again in 2009, when a new trilogy of Berserk movies were announced-- but incredibly, they're covering The Golden Age, the exact same arc as the TV series! Now, part of the reason the TV series felt a bit truncated is because of Miura's famously erratic work schedule, but we've had fifteen years and... well, about fifteen volumes of manga since then. Will we get a true anime sequel to Berserk? Time will tell.
Yoshiki Tanaka's sprawling space SF epic Legend of the Galactic Heroes has a proper, satisfying ending, both in book and in anime form. But in 2008, the dearly departed Noboru Ishiguro adapted the writer's series Tytania as a 2-cours anime series. Naturally, I was interested, and enjoyed the only occasionally patchy writing for about eighteen episodes. At that point, I realized that there was no way that Ishiguro would have enough time to wrap up the story, so I did some research and found out that Tytania, the novel series, is still going. There was no way the anime could end well. I felt a bit cheated! Did that ever happen to you?
Sometimes anime isn't finished because the production company runs out of money. Sometimes there are legal problems. And sometimes, the end comes abruptly or sloppily as a stylistic choice, no less. Neon Genesis Evangelion’s famous 2-episode denouement was hailed as a bold experiment, bursting with animatic shots, still photos, and live-action video footage. Fans puzzled endlessly over what the ending meant; only later would they realize that Studio Gainax was alarmingly low on cash, and director Hideaki Anno was going through some strange mixture of existential crisis and nervous breakdown. Once Anno and his compatriots jumped on the rising wave of Evangelion’s success and used it to create the visually richer but dramatically different End of Evangelion, it just raised more questions. I still look at the next-ep previews, in all of their scribbly, penciled glory, and laugh; Gainax had no money, but by cracky, they went for it, and it worked!
I think my favorite unresolved anime story is one that eventually did get resolved, in a pretty unexpected way. That'd be a 1999 13-episode series from Sunrise called The Big O. I loved the Big O immediately upon seeing it; it reminded me of my great favorite Giant Robo in all the right ways. I reached out to screenwriter Chiaki Konaka, who had an English-language website. Turns out that he could write me back in English, and he was eager to talk about the Big O. Mr Konaka and I kept in touch for almost two years; I first started talking to him on the eve of the show's premiere on Cartoon Network in 2001. At that point, I'd seen the series to its end, in which it cuts to a dramatic TO BE CONTINUED title card right in the middle of a big fight scene. There was no sequel, and no plans for one on the horizon. Naturally I asked Konaka about this, and he said that he had ideas for more episodes; animator Keiichi Sato, creator of the Big O, signed on with Sunrise with a 26-episode story in mind, but it was cut to 13.
For a long time, I assumed this was the whole truth; it made sense. It continued to make sense after I got an email from Konaka confirming production of a Cartoon Network-funded sequel, in a brief message titled “good news from Japan”. (I still got that email!) Then, in 2004, I met the series director, Kazuyoshi Katayama, at Anime Central. Mr. Katayama told a somewhat different story-- according to him, nobody on staff had any notions that the show might get “picked up” or “renewed.” It was meant to stand alone, as a 13-episode project, for all time. Then why, I countered, did it all end on a cliffhanger? Katayama smiled wryly, and said that it seemed like a good joke. An unresolved TO BE CONTINUED really fit the mood of The Big O, right? I must admit, he had a point!
Finally, sometimes an anime ends on a weird, jagged moment for of one simple, universal reason: laziness. My favorite example of this is Tenamonya Voyagers. Anyone seen Tenamonya Voyagers? It's notable for being the first anime release to be DVD-only, a Bandai Entertainment title from way back in 2000. It's a strange little thing, a 4-episode lark about a trio of ladies on the run from intergalactic cops, chock full of so many references to obscure variety shows and sitcoms that even my Japanese friends had trouble deciphering it. It has its moments, and is an early collaboration between great director Akiyuki Shinbo and artist Masashi Ishihama, who'd link up with Besame Mucho and give us fare like Kamichu! and Welcome to THE SPACE SHOW. Tenamonya Voyagers doesn't show us a real ending; instead, it closes on a simple panning shot, while the narrator intones, “And then, for some reason, the story ended.”
And then, for some reason, the column ended. Wait a minute, no it didn't! I'm done talking about unfinished anime, but I would like to let you all know that I'll be appearing as a Featured Presenter at Otakon in just a few weeks! I'll be doing my usual DUBS THAT TIME FORGOT, with a brand new 60-minute program of all-new, all-different clips, plus a 30-minute “best of” intro, and a panel on THE WORST ANIME OF ALL TIME. Come see, and come meet me! In the meantime, what's your favorite unfinished anime? Do you think anime needs a neat, clean, satisfying ending to be good? Are there some anime that you just prefer seeing unfinished? Let me know in the comments!
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