The Mike Toole Show The Least Essential Anime
by Michael Toole,
I've been watching some Doctor Who lately, which, depending on your point of view, makes me either way cooler or way less cool. The show is really hit or miss, but one of the neat things about the currently running season is the introduction of the Silence, a race of aliens who are terrifying to behold, but who vanish from your memory as soon as you look away from them. You know, an awful lot of anime is like this - a vast quantity of OVAs, movies, and TV shows flare and fade with remarkable swiftness. Actually, an awful lot of media is like this - Harold Robbins is one of the best-selling American authors of all time, but how many of his books can you name? Conan the Barbarian is flailing hilariously in theatres, unlike its theatrical predecessor - but an awful lot like the Conan 1998 TV series, which I didn't even realize had been made until a few weeks ago.
Let's dredge up some of these quickly forgotten anime. After all, it's easy to talk about the big list of the most essential anime films and shows, and it's even easier to wax poetic about epic stinkers like Garzey's Wing and M.D. Geist. It's even pretty simple to sniff out hidden gems, as long as you're observant, patient, and willing to sift through hours of YouTube clips or go to a panel on the subject at your local anime convention. But what about the least essential anime? What about the stuff that isn't just bad, or isn't necessarily awful, but just seems to dissipate, like smoke, immediately after its release? The discs and tapes quietly vanish from stores, there aren't many reviews, and even artwork is tough to locate. Let's look at a ten-pack of these lost non-classics, in chronological order of release.
Back when anime was still mostly Japanimation and there were only a few publishers, Robert Woodhead of AnimEigo took a gamble. See, back then, the idea of an anime franchise, with multiple video releases, was still a new thing. Streamline Pictures tried multi-volume releases of fare like Nadia and Zillion by branding the stuff "video comics," and AnimEigo would find success soon enough with Bubblegum Crisis. But in the same period, AnimEigo released the first episode of Shonan Bakusozoku, aka Bomber Bikers of Shonan, a twelve-volume OVA series that romanticizes the lifestyle of the bosozoku, gangs of kids who race around on tricked-out bikes, mopeds, and cars. This youth culture, detailed a bit more famously in the 1976 documentary Godspeed You! Black Emperor, is pretty entertaining to the outsider, chock full of crazy motorbikes, huge battle flags, greased-up pompadours, and the occasional tangle with the cops or a rival gang. Shonan Bakusozoku really tries to polish up the culture, presenting as its hero Yosuke Eguchi, a bad-ass greaser who can win any fight, fix any motorbike, and be a total master of embroidery. That's right, deep down this delinquent is a really nice and responsible kid with a charmingly weird hobby! The series was a hit in Japan, featuring genuine stunt-casting (pop idol Shō sang the theme songs and voiced the hero in the first episode before making way for Kaneto Shiozawa in subsequent volumes) and loads of pop and rock tunes. But the first episode is a dreadfully boring affair where our hot-blooded hero courts a nice girl, and wrapped up in a hot-pink VHS case, Shonan Bosozoku completely failed to resonate with American fans. Woodhead, for his part, would spend the next decade or so joking about the monolithic stack of unsold copies that loomed over the company office. As for me, I was no fool - when I saw the tape for sale at Suncoast video for $0.99, I knew what I had to do. I waited a few more weeks, and got it for $0.48!
For a few years, I was convinced that Central Park Media were keeping mecha designer and animation director Koichi Ohata in a box under CEO John O'Donnell's desk. He appeared at conventions hawking M.D. Geist, gave magazine interviews discussing the great Genocyber, and to top things off, the company released Cybernetics Guardian, aka CyGuard, a 1989 rock-bottom-budget OVA that was, like Geist and Genocyber, helmed by Ohata. CyGuard is only occasionally truly awful, but it lacks the elegant production design of Genocyber or the crazed energy of M.D. Geist. It's a 45-minute lark about John Stalker, a soldier for hire who tests out a new combat suit that promptly turns him into a slavering, flame-haired nightmare. He then rampages across the bucolic city of Cyber-Wood. In 2002, CPM packaged Cybernetics Guardian with Genocyber and M.D. Geist as a special OHATA COLLECTION, but frankly, if you've seen Geist and Genocyber, you've already seen the director at his best and worst, or worst and best if you prefer; CyGuard is completely dispensable.
Sonic Soldier Borgman was one of the most popular TV anime shows of the 1980s - its charismatic 3-member team of heroes captivated young fans in Japan and abroad, and heroine Anice Farm was 1989's anime "it" girl, appearing on the covers of Animage, NEWTYPE, and Animedia. The show's mixture of action and interpersonal relationships was pretty magnetic stuff, so naturally an OVA (Last Battle) and a short theatrical film (Lover's Rain) followed. ADV Films released these two featurettes, first separately on VHS and then together on a single DVD. That DVD isn't a bad value if you get it cheaply, but without the background and story details of the TV series, it loses a lot of its impact. Probably the best part of the DVD is a brief segment from a 1989 Borgman concert event, where fans packed a theatre to see the seiyuu who played their favorite characters perform songs from the show. More than anything about these forgettable movies, what sticks with me is the image of a 14-year-old girl, sobbing uncontrollably and saying that she'll remember Sonic Soldier Borgman for the rest of her life. I wonder if she still remembers? Fans over here didn't care to remember Borgman, so we never got a release of the TV series or the sequel, Borgman II.
MADHOUSE produced an immense volume of anime in the 1990s, and one of their production partners on several OVAs was a company called Filmlink International. This company was another one of producer Mata Yamamoto's operations, and most of the shows that it funded were eventually released by Yamamoto's American video publisher, Urban Vision. Now, even though they got goodies like Vampire Hunter D and Golgo 13: The Professional re-released and kicked out a few great titles such as Midnight Eye Goku, a fair amount of their catalog was firmly mediocre, very middle-of-the-road fare like Biohunter and Psycho Diver. But for me, Twilight of the Dark Master is singularly impressive in its lackluster nature - based on popular manga in Japan, the video release debuted at #1 over there. It was directed by the then-fledgling Akiyuki Shinbo, who's won a huge swath of modern anime fandom over with hits like Sayonara Zetsubo-sensei and Madoka Magica. He had yet to really develop his signature jarring visual style, and his work didn't really elevate the delicate character designs of Hisashi Abe. There's some good animation, but the story, about a struggle between supernatural powers in a futuristic city, never really takes hold. The most interesting thing about Urban Vision's DVD release is a time-lapsed showcase of Abe's intricate artwork, as he creates the disc's custom cover art on camera.
Speaking of character designers, you know you're in for a bumpy ride when a show's only real selling point is its famous character designer. Jewel BEM Hunter Lime has this problem. Its characters are designed by Atsuko Nakajima, one of the great character artists of the 90s; she'd lend her signature wavy-haired, shiny-eyed style to hits like Magic Knight Rayearth, Haunted Junction, Ranma 1/2 and Shamanic Princess. If you look at her resume, you'll see that she has blossomed from a gifted character designer into one of the best animation directors in the business. But Lime has multiple factors working against it - for one, it's one of those weird mid-90s OVAs that's really just a 75-minute advertisement for a much more detailed manga series. It's also one of those mid-90s OVAs that never actually got finished; mercilessly cancelled after the third episode, it lacks a proper ending. What it does have is a generous helping of fanservice, as the elfin title character jiggles her way through a series of chases and fights with bizarre, goofy little demons. "Cute & Sexy!,' cries the cover art desperately. Yeah, that's about it.
1999 would bring us Crest of the Stars, Magical DoReMi, and Trouble Chocolate. Now, there's a lot of anime out there that's celebrated for being so bad it's good - enjoyably dumb, awful stuff like Gundou Musashi and Dog Soldier. Trouble Chocolate, on the other hand, is so bad it's just... bad. It's probably the worst kind of bad, though, because it's just so uninteresting. When you make a photocopy of something, a bit of quality is lost. Photocopy it again, and more quality is lost. Keep doing this, and you'll end up with a grey smear. Trouble Chocolate is that grey smear in anime form, if you think of its original as Urusei Yatsura. There's a wacky main character, his zany love interest, rich and obnoxious rival, and numerous other weirdos. But not one of these characters stick in the memory - there is absolutely nothing interesting about Trouble Chocolate, except perhaps for its fascinatingly ugly color palette. The helium-voiced Sakura Tange was a huge favorite among seiyuu fans in the wake of her turn as the title character in Cardcaptor Sakura; I can only imagine that the producers devised Trouble Chocolate as a way of giving her something to do.
In 1971, manga artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama created one of the most enduringly popular hits in anime and manga history, the weird giant robot science fiction chronicle known as Babel II. Readers (and then, viewers) thrilled to the exploits of young Koichi, inheritor of an alien legacy, crazy psychic powers, and a nifty trio of sentient super-powered guardians. Babel II was a certifiable hit on TV in 1973, so it's no surprise that it'd get the OVA remake treatment in 1992, possibly fueled by the contemporaneous Giant Robo, which featured appearances by the show's characters. Then, in 2001, the story got remade again. It may be the least necessary remake I've ever seen - not only is the animation almost hilariously awful, the new version offers almost nothing new, aside from the occasional appearance of modern crap like cellphones and computers. Media Blasters picked up Babel II: Beyond Infinity (I guess Babel II: Beyond Watchable just wasn't a marketable title) with a parcel of other remakes of older properties from the same licensor, stuff like Barom-One and MARS the Terminator, but after Babel II pancaked, these other shows didn't make it out the gate. Looking at Babel II, it's not hard to see why.
Meanwhile, Gonzo was hard at work on a Final Fantasy anime series. Think of that for a second: in 2001, at the height of their powers, Studio Gonzo, under the tutelage of star director and co-founder Mahiro Maeda, was churning out a TV series based on Final Fantasy, one of the most popular video game franchises in the world. It sounds like a license to print money, doesn't it? SquareSoft was so convinced of its success, in fact, that the company ordered 52 episodes-- two seasons worth. The show, not surprisingly, didn't really tie in neatly with any other Final Fantasy story, but instead chronicled the journey of a pair of kids into a magical fantasy land that just happened to have chocobos and materia and stuff. In March of 2002, Square sheepishly announced that the show would end after 26 episodes, thanks to sagging ratings and fan response. Nevertheless, ADV Films banked on the strong Final Fantasy brand name, and the series came out on DVD here in North America. You can slot it right in next to Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within under the category of "I don't get it, why can't they make a good Final Fantasy anime?" Oh, well. At least Advent Children looks good.
A couple of months back, I guested on the ANNcast and spent an entertaining handful of minutes trying to stump Justin and Zac with a list of obscure titles that actually got DVD release in region 1. I finally silenced their affirmations and remembrances with Psychic Academy, one of the earliest ONAs. ONA stands for "original net animation," and is ostensibly used to describe anime that debuts on the internet. Wings of Rean was an ONA. So was Zaion, which would fit right in on this list, but I don't have room for it! Anyway, Psychic Academy came out in 10-minute chunks, and was adapted from a manga series that ran in Magazine Z, home of explosions and boobs. The series itself is an extremely typical affair about a teenager who discovers he has amazing psychic powers and has to go to the special psychic school for hot girlfriends (and you too, you loser). It got released on DVD by Tokyopop, who took an extremely atypical approach - they released it on two discs, subtitled only, and packaged each disc with a volume of manga. This has been done a few times, but it's usually a box set affair. Here, Tokyopop's version actually sneaked the discs into regular bookstores, but I doubt that helped sales very much.
We'll round out this list with a high-profile release. Submarine 707R. This 2003 2-part OVA features a great staff - it's based on classic 60s boys adventure manga by Satoru Ozawa, and animated by the late, great Group TAC. But solid animation and a good backstory can only do so much - Submarine 707R suffers from a pretty extreme case of Uninteresting Villainitis. The sub's commanding officer does look an awful lot like Mario from the Super Mario Bros games, though. This hoary thing somehow got released all over the world, even meriting theatrical screenings in some parts of the world. Here in the US, it got both a standard and collector's edition release, and was one of the few anime titles to come out on UMD, Sony's ill-fated PSP-only media platform. It probably holds the distinction of being the worst anime ever released on UMD.
Well, there's your ten. Obviously, there's lots more where that came from. It used to be that titles like this would be quickly forgotten, relegated to a single paragraph in the Anime Encyclopedia and left as a stub on ANN's own encyclopedia. But thanks to the internet and the amazing obsessive compulsions by us fans, we're able to remember a lot more anime than we really need to. Do you remember a show that seemed like a huge waste of time, but got released internationally anyway? Maybe one of my picks is actually a favorite of yours, and you're feeling the need to give me a verbal smackdown? Do you want to talk about old favorites like Big Wars, The Samurai, Junk Boy, or Soar High Isami? Lay it on me in the comments!
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