The Mike Toole Show
The Tone of Locke
by Michael Toole,
There are a whole lot of different ways to watch anime nowadays. There's good old TV, both broadcast and cable. There's DVD, because it's hilariously cheap to own both a DVD player and many, many DVDs. More and more people are watching their anime online, which is pretty great because it's letting people see and discuss recent hits like Underpants and Socks with Straps right as they air in Japan. But it hasn't always been this good - just a couple of decades back, you had a simple choice. You could watch your anime on TV, or you could watch tapes.
That's right, tapes. Curious little contraptions with spools and magnetic tape and cheap black plastic cases and that little button that you could press to flip up the tape guard, which came in handy that one time when you had to reach inside the videocassette and attempt to un-twist the mangled tape containing your precious copy of Riding Bean, because the VCR decided to chew on the one part that you kept rewinding and watching over and over, the one with the bank heist and inexplicably nake-- ANYWAY, I'm sure that some of you are nodding in sympathy, while others are backing away slowly. But don't be afraid of tapes, because after all, buying and selling and trading tapes is what grew both the anime business and anime fandom through most of the 90s. Video tapes are old friends! Also, there's still some anime out there that you can't get on DVD in these parts-- only VHS. This time, we're going to talk about five of the best.
There was a time when it seemed like every anime under the sun was getting a DVD release. Hell, even completely unremarkable fare like Hyper Doll and Domain of Murder got released on DVD! But other titles never made that digital jump. In some cases, the publisher simply didn't make it to the DVD era. US Renditions were one of the forerunners of the anime business, bringing Gunbuster and Orguss to the masses when the anime boom was still more than a decade away, but not all of their catalog made the messy transition to Manga Entertainment later in the decade, or to other publishers further down the line. Ambassador Magma, an outrageously disappointing 13-episode OVA released across six VHS and laserdisc volumes, probably didn't deserve DVD treatment, but what about Guyver: Out of Control? This sleek, compact 1986 OVA companion to Yoshiki Takaya's original manga never made it beyond its initial subtitled VHS drop. Neither did Raven Tengu Kabuto, an animated digest version of Buichi Terasawa's medieval adventure manga.
In other cases, the VHS release came just a bit before before the DVD wave of the turn of the century swept everything up. That was the case with several ADV releases, such as Mighty Space Miners, Sol Bianca (the original, not Pioneer's remake), and Compiler, which Justin Sevakis lauds in his old Buried Treasure column. It was also the case with a small handful of Right Stuf titles, like the quirky Ai City, and like Leda - Fantastic Adventure of Yohko. I'm pretty fond of Leda. It's one of those deals that hearkens back to simpler times, when a production company could roll out an OVA featurette that focuses more on arresting visuals than top-rate storytelling, and the resulting product succeeds in spite of itself.
Leda is definitely like this. For my money, this 1985 chestnut's best feature is its character artwork, by the great Mutsumi Inomata. Inomata is a giant of the business on par with great illustrators like Yoshitaka Amano and Akemi Takada - veteran anime fans will quickly recognize her characters' flowing locks of hair, brilliantly weird clothing, and shiny, doe-eyed gazes from the likes of Windaria and Cyber Formula, while the younger set will revere her for her role as lead character designer for Namco's Tales RPG series. Inomata doesn't just provide Leda's painterly character artwork, either - she's chief animator, and she's backed up by savvy veterans like Tsukasa Dokite and young turks like Hiroaki Gohda, who has since risen to shepherd long-term successes like Ah! My Goddess and collaborate on new hits like Evangelion 1.0. Leda's story isn't quite equal to its animation quality, but it's certainly not bad - the title character is a schoolgirl (who humorously describes herself as a "bobby soxer" in the screwy Pacific rim-produced dub) transported to a mysterious fantasy world. Despondent over being rejected by a boy she likes, Yohko discovers that a cassette recording of a heartfelt piano aria she wrote for her indifferent objet d'affection is an incredibly powerful talisman in this world - and the bad guy who yanked her across time and space wants it! She then teams up with Lingam, a flying talking dog (awesome!) and Yoni, a young girl with a giant robot (awesome!!) to fight back. If you can find it, don't hesitate to check out Leda - Fantastic Adventure of Yohko. Watch it before your next viewing of Escaflowne, and connect the dots. Right Stuf has expressed some interest in releasing Leda on DVD, but have remained noncommittal - and it haven't happened yet.
Another VHS release that somehow slipped through the cracks came courtesy of AnimEigo, a fellow pioneer (but not Pioneer LDC) of the anime biz. I actually have to hand it to AnimEigo - not only did the accomplish the seemingly impossible task of getting all of Urusei Yatsura released on DVD, they paid close attention to their back catalog, giving solid DVD releases to everything from Otaku no Video and Arcadia of My Youth to Battle Royale High School and the aforementioned Riding Bean. Some of these releases, which feature the company's meticulous subtitles and liner notes, are now out of print and quite rare. Of their fairly beefy catalog, only four titles didn't see DVD release. These included Lupin the 3rd: Legend of the Gold of Babylon, undoubtedly the weirdest of all Lupin the 3rd installments; Shōnan Bakusōzoku, a somewhat decent but utterly unsellable hoodlum love story; SD Double Feature, a curious Wacky Races pastiche starring a cross-section of AIC and ARTMIC characters; and Genesis Surviver Gaiarth.
I liked Gaiarth a lot when I saw it fifteen years ago. Like Leda, this three-episode tale from 1992 features an unusually talented staff, headlined by ace character and mecha animators Hiroyuki Kitazume and Shinji Aramaki. Its hero is a buff young dude named Ital, a tough kid with a shock of blond hair and a huge laser sword. His parents are long gone, his father having perished in an old military conflict. Ital was raised to be a fighter by an intelligent robot called a war-roid, and like the famous Japanese soldier Hiro Onoda, he spends years doggedly waiting for fighting to resume in a war that ended ages ago. Ital eventually gets his wish, after a fashion, teaming up with another war-roid and a mysterious girl to duke it out with the bad guys. Gaiarth eventually saw release on DVD in Japan, but AnimEigo never bothered; their mid-90s VHS release was even dubbed, but it's long gone and all but forgotten. It shouldn't be!
Along with AnimEigo, US Renditions, and ADV Films, another early entrant in the anime home video race was good old Viz, who have gone from strength to strength over the years, leapfrogging from Ranma 1/2 to InuYasha to Bleach to Death Note. But there are a handful of titles from their early days that quietly sank, even as DVD's rise lifted the entire industry. Several of these were synergistically tied to their own manga releases, like Grey: Digital Target, Ogre Slayer, One Pound Gospel, and Mermaid's Scar. These are all pretty good; several come courtesy of MADHOUSE, and One Pound Gospel in particular really captures the charm of one of Rumiko Takahashi's lesser-known works. Viz also released the fantastic and highly influential Galaxy Express 999 films, and while Discotek will be releasing them in 2011, the company has indicated that they couldn't secure the rights to Ocean's very good dubbed version - so if you want GE999 in English, it's VHS or nothing. Then there's Sanctuary.
Sanctuary falls into the category of anime based on manga that Viz was also releasing - in this case, manga by the well-known artist Ryoichi Ikegami and writer Sho Fumimura. The company even went a step further and released the Sanctuary live-action film. Story-wise, this OVA was a breath of fresh air in the mid-90s; rather than focusing on sci-fi or fantasy, it's a tale of crime and politics. It's about two young men, survivors of terrible childhood trauma, who as schoolboys make a promise to each other: one will follow the path of politics, while the other will scale the ranks of the criminal underworld, and when the time is right the pair will join hands in forging a new, safe, and prosperous Japan by expertly manipulating both the light and dark side of the country's society. This intriguing concept made the manga a bestseller in Japan, and while the anime isn't a perfect rendition of the sprawling crime yarn, it's a pretty entertaining affair that does an extremely good job of porting Ikegami's distinctive, heavily-shaded style to animation; in that respect, it's even better than Crying Freeman. Viz even dubbed it into English!
Other latter-day VHS releases didn't see DVD release for a simpler reason: the numbers didn't add up. One example that comes to my mind immediately would be the pair of Leiji Matsumoto productions that Urban Vision released in the latter half of the 1990s, The Cockpit and DNA Sights 999.9. The history of Matsumoto's work in the US is an interesting one - Star Blazers is beloved enough that Voyager Entertainment's poorly-mastered DVDs still sell well today, while Roger Corman took a gamble on Galaxy Express and lost, Viz's more faithful adaptation sank out of sight, and the numerous other shows based on his work, like Galaxy Railways, Gun Frontier, and Queen Emeraldas, have always seemed to lack staying power. I'd venture that Matsumoto's only bona fide hit on these shores, aside from Star Blazers, is INTERSTELLA 5555. That's totally fine, because INTERSTELLA 5555 rules, but it's kind of a shame that the guy can't seem to get a toehold with anything else. Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because several years back, Urban Vision's PR manager, a nice lady named Rhona Medina, was being quizzed about their upcoming releases at Anime Expo. When a fan asked about The Cockpit and DNA Sights 999.9, Medina very explicitly stated that the VHS releases of these shows did poorly and the license was too expensive to consider a DVD release. Information like this is usually carefully guarded, so Medina's frankness was telling; nobody bought the damn things on VHS, so DVD wasn't happening.
I can only reinforce what Justin wrote about the Cockpit a few years back. It is a unique piece of work, and it's pretty awesome. My unquestioned favorite segment on the tape is the one with the scary World War II German version of Captain Harlock. DNA Sights is a different thing altogether; its production values aren't half-bad, with rock-solid MADHOUSE animation and some jittery CG work by a still fairly new Satelight, but it revisits a lot of Matsumoto's favorite things, like global oppression by machine people, young heroes named Tetsuro, willowy blondes that look like Marianne Hold, and Captain Harlock. In fact, Harlock is utilized as a deus Ex Machina, appearing only at the end to inexplicably kill the bad guys and save the young heroes. My friend Dave Merrill describes this scene as being like watching MacBeth, only suddenly Hamlet appears and murders the villains, and the curtain abruptly drops. There is one really neat wrinkle about DNA Sights 999.9, though. The English version features Michael McConnohie as Harlock, which is cool because McConnohie voiced Harlock in Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years, Harmony Gold's weird fusion of Harlock and Queen Millennia. While DNA Sights' absence on DVD is perhaps understandable, I don't get why we can't have nice things like The Cockpit. I mean, you can get Maetel Legend on DVD, for christ's sake, but not The Cockpit? Really? What the hell is wrong with you people?!
I'll close off this installment of my inane ramblings by talking about my favorite of this bunch, which also happens to be one of my favorite weird anime/manga titles in general. That'd be Locke the Superman. Locke has a really interesting production history - the original comics, by Yuki Hijiri, started way back in 1967 and actually saw their first publication in a fanzine. The series is still going today. Well it's not like there's a new Locke chapter every week - Hijiri's a pretty old dude now, so Locke only shows up occasionally. The series has remained fairly popular throughout the years-- Locke enjoys a particularly large female following, no doubt due to the character's steely gaze, youthful good looks, and tenderness towards women, and has actually managed to outlast several publishers. I think this is particularly neat, because it mirrors the story of the title character himself. Locke is a mysterious, emerald-haired psychic who usually hangs around the planet Lonwall in the Galactic Republic. His exploits span centuries, but he always appears to be a young man, somewhere between 13 and 18 years of age. Some experts whisper that he's hundreds and hundreds of years old, and maintains his ageless appearance to keep from scaring the shit out of people. Locke has watched empires rise and fall; he's the galaxy's most powerful psychic, so people are always looking for his help. But he likes to keep a low profile, so he only pops up sporadically.
Locke made the jump to animation in 1982, as the star of a big-budget feature film. Entitled Locke the Superman, this is an awesome, enthralling piece of work, full of conflict, crazy psychic/telekinetic fight scenes, and bursting with neat visual tricks. The reason you can't get it on DVD can be summed up in four words: Best Film & Video. This company is very well-known among older anime fans; they released a whole range of anime movies on VHS, some of them great (Macross: Do You Remember Love?) some of them not so great (Baldios). Trouble is, not only were these movies generally dub-only, EP-speed monstrosities, their initial releases were as kiddie videos with all of the violence edited out. In retrospect, it's kind of hilarious - you had a cross-section of some very sophisticated, unusual films (Dagger of Kamui, anyone?) with the violent bits crudely razored out, and fitted with cheap, awkward dubbing. A lot of fans I know bought these tapes, including myself - not because we loved them, but out of a weird sense of obligation. It was anime, we had to get it!
The Locke movie (which was retitled Locke the Superpower in some markets for fear of lawsuits from DC Comics) isn't the only piece of Locke animation to make its way stateside, either. Locke would return in an OVA sequel some years later, entitled Lord Leon. This brief affair was still really entertaining stuff, with Locke facing off against both a powerful, unstable psychic and a greedy, blackhearted industrial magnate. This OVA was also released by Best, though US Manga Corps handled distribution. The dubbed version is particularly curious, since it was produced without the benefit of a music and effects track, so an all-new, all-terrible musical score was whipped up, complete with hilarious "Locke the supermaaaaan!" theme song. The entire happy mess was retitled Space Warriors, to boot, and Locke himself does not appear on the cover.
Man, I really wish Locke was available on DVD! The movie, at least, is a lousy pan n' scan job, and I want to see it in widescreen. To add insult to injury, the Japanese DVD is letterboxed, so even the more faithful, local version ain't perfect. I also feel like there's an opportunity here, because there's actually two additional Locke OVAs, New World Command and Mirroring. The former is pretty gnarly, featuring some unusually crappy animation, but the latter, which is a mere 11 years old, holds up well. If publishers are getting out there and taking chances on Galaxy Express 999 and Dirty Pair, why not Locke the Superman?
Why, indeed. Why didn't any of these great titles make it to DVD? We know the reasons, in some cases. In other cases, we can make a pretty good guess. But all those aside, there's still a ton of anime that remains tucked away on obscure old analog tapes: anime like Wild 7, and Legend of Kotetsu, and AWOL, to name just a few. Do you have a favorite VHS anime, one that you've kept safe while you quietly pined for a DVD release? Talk about it in the comments, and remember: tapes are our friends!
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