Pile of Shame
Dead Heat & 3D Anime

by Justin Sevakis,

Sometimes the reasons behind an anime getting made are more interesting than the show itself. That's definitely the case with Dead Heat, an obscure 1987 OAV from Sunrise that runs only a half hour.

Back in the wild days of the nascent 80s home video market, there wasn't just VHS or Beta to choose from; there were also three competing videodisc formats on the market. Most of us remember LaserDiscs, the 12" shiny, heavy format that was used a lot in Japan and by American video buffs with deep pockets. But not many people remember the other two: RCA had a video vinyl record (that was about VHS quality) called the Select-A-Vision VideoDisc (or CED). That one was mostly only sold in North America. In Japan, Victor Corporation (JVC) had a similar format called VHD, or Video High Density.

VHD discs were stored in a square plastic caddy that was just under 10" wide. With both formats, you never saw or touched the disc itself: you slid the entire caddy into the player, which would grab the disc and hold onto it while you pulled out the empty caddy. As the disc spun, a diamond stylus needle then came down and read the signal, which was recorded not as grooves (uniquely, the VHD doesn't have any), but as difference in electric capacitance in the surface. Each turn of the disc held two frames of interlaced video. It was fairly advanced for its time, boasting features like chapters, limited interactivity, slow-mo, freeze-frame, and a capacity of one hour per side. The quality wasn't quite as good as LD, but better than VHS or CED. Discs were made with standard vinyl record presses, so they were cheap to make.

But delays bringing the VHD to market pretty much sank the format from the start. By the time of its release in Japan in 1983 both LD and CED were already bombing (VHS was emerging the clear winner), and while the discs were cheap to replicate, they ended up being very expensive and difficult to master. There were plans to release the format in the US and the UK, but those were scrapped before launch, meaning Japan was the only country in which it could gain any real foothold. And it did gain a small foothold for a time, becoming a niche player among home video aficionados.

In 1985, as one last desperate gasp for the format, JVC launched a gimmicky add-on to the technology: 3D capability. By wearing optional 3D LCD active-shutter goggles (which hooked directly up to the player with a wire), you could enjoy clean, sharp 3D video on a standard television. The discs were backwards compatible too, so you could watch them in 2D if you didn't want to bother. The extra picture data took up more room on the disc (which was now limited to a half hour per side), but it was a feature no one else had.. and, as it turns out, no one wanted.

To promote the format, JVC funded two OAVs that were to be made in 3D: Scoopers, which was based on Monkey Punch's sci-fi murder mystery, and Dead Heat. But the long lead time required for production meant that they didn't hit store shelves until 1987, when the VHD was already all but dead. JVC sold the two OAVs (along with the 3D US/Korean co-production Starchaser: The Legend of Orin) to anime fans with ads in Newtype and Animage, but sold few copies. Only 22 3D discs were ever released in total, and JVC gave up on the system entirely not long after.

I'll cover Scoopers another time, but Dead Heat is interesting because it's made by some noteworthy talent. Directed by Toshifumi Kawase (When They Cry - Higurashi, Beyblade, Shion no Ou), who by that time was a veteran mecha anime director, and scripted by Akinori Endo (3x3 Eyes, Armitage III, and quite a bit of Gundam ZZ), the short OAV was produced at Sunrise, who at that time had basically become a mecha Anime Factory. Animation director Toshimitsu Kobayashi, who had to figure out how to animate for 3D without any digital technology, has a resumé longer than the phone book.

In the 21st century (!), the hot sport is Formula X, a new type of racing using mecha with arms and legs, whirring along on two wheels like a motorcycle. The limbs give the mecha combat ability, which means for more accidents (the mecha appear to not have any seatbelts or safety gear) and more thrills. A-class riders are celebrated, while D-class racers are more or less amateurs, but every year the Open Cup race is open to everybody, and a good showing can mean shooting up in rank, or even taking the title of Top Racer.

Makoto and his gang of friends are definitely in D class. They're so broke that they need part-time jobs to pay for repairs to their mecha. They're lively, but don't really stand a chance against the big guys... until they're approached by a mysterious (and weirdly filthy) man named Hayami Go, who offers them a prototype Hyper-Engine for use in their mecha. The team decides to take a chances with the strange man and his engine... and while it's clearly REALLY impressive, the team has a lot of other things standing in their way. And it's also not completely finished, either.

Dead Heat is the earliest example of mecha racing I can find in anime -- a theme that would later be revisited in IGPX and Rideback many years later. Its short running time means there isn't room for much character development or much story. Rather, the film concentrates on the feeling of what its characters are doing. It has a very unique sensibility in its action. You can relate to the summer heat, the excitement of building something as a team and racing it, and bask in the familiar root-for-the-underdog themes of most sports stories. The show is nothing memorable story-wise, but it's well made and entertaining. I can definitely think of worse ways to kill a half hour.

The animation in Dead Heat is pretty decent for its era, but nothing overly noteworthy. That doesn't change the fact that both this and Scoopers are engineering marvels: not only did the parallax of each 3D shape have to be estimated and drawn out by hand, but the two "eyes" of the 3D image had to be shot separately, edited, transferred to video, and then combined into a single video signal, all on 80s analog technology, while somehow staying in sync. I honestly have no earthly idea how this was accomplished. I'm quite sure it was a nightmare. The film beat Scoopers to market by about 5 months, making it Japan's first 3D anime.

Alas, I have no VHD player, and I'm unaware of any attempt to preserve Dead Heat in its full 3D glory for the digital age. I have never seen the film in anything other than flat 2D. While racing makes for good potential 3D fodder, I'm quite sure that with old cel animation it'll basically just look like floating cardboard cut-outs. The film resorts to a lot of in-set "floating pictures" for its gimmicks. But just the same, it's fun to bask in the excitement of technical nerdiness that was, once upon a time, very hard to pull off. The story of the show makes for a very convenient parallel, that way.

After the failure of 3D VHD, the format died a slow death. Higher quality versions were developed but never released, as well as data and audio formats which saw limited use. The format was mostly used in karaoke bars until JVC finally pulled the plug for good in 2003.

Japanese Name: デッドヒート

Media Type: OAV

Length: 29 min.

Vintage: 1987

Genres: Mecha, sports, shounen, 3-D

Availability (Japan): There was a regular VHS release, as well as the VHD release mentioned above. I don't think it's been reissued since, but as there's an American film of the same name, I had a hard time researching this title.

Availability (English): There are fansubs, but they're in 2-D. They appear to be mastered from VHS.

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