The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
Anime Boston, my hometown con, was a lot of fun this year. As is now tradition, roughly 20,000 nerds crammed into the Hynes Convention Center to get hyped up over their favorite cartoons from Japan. I've noticed something recently about convention life—first, that anime cons often function as a sort of “big tent” for all sorts of nerdy stuff, including video games, American cartoons and comics, and Doctor Who. Some fans worry about this stuff overtaking the actual anime, but I didn't see a whole lot of that in evidence at AB. I realize that this is partly down to the con's programming staff wisely refusing to abandon their mission statement of spreading Japanese pop culture in favor of My Little Pony, but everywhere I went, I saw people really into Japanese animation. Don't worry, fellas—anime is alive and well, and not about to be swallowed whole by something called Homestuck.
One standout AB experience was a pretty crowded and lively Sentai Filmworks panel. Back in the early 2000s, ADV Films panels used to practically spill out into the hallway at the larger conventions, as they routinely burst at the seams with exciting licensing announcements and product giveaways. I've been to several panels from Sentai, one of the many firebirds that rose from the ashes of ADV, and they're usually sparsely attended and low key, so it was nice to see a trend in the other direction. The thing is, when a fan asked Sentai's DVD and blu-ray production manager (and occasional ADR director) David Williams about Elfen Lied, David reminded the audience that ADV Films still exists—because, you see, they still hold the rights to Elfen Lied. A couple of weeks later, we've got the announcement of an impending blu-ray releases of Elfen Lied from ADV (care of Sentai Filmworks, of course), and that's got me thinking: just what's left of the old ADV Films catalog? Which of their late 90s release slate never made the jump to DVD? Let's find out.
This isn't the first time I've talked about old anime VHS releases that fell into a bottomless pit after the format was quietly phased out in favor of DVD. Pretty much every publisher has at least one or two. But do you know how many of these orphaned ADV catalog titles there are? More than twenty. With that number, there's gotta be a few diamonds in the rough. So what's first up? I've gotta start with a heroic trio of titles from the diseased mind of Go Nagai.
Fans around the world know Go Nagai's two faces: one as dark hero and super robot trendsetter, with genre-defining hits like Devilman and Mazinger Z, and the other as pervy genius, with cute and sometimes pretty racy fare like Cutey Honey and Kekko Kamen. Well, these three—The Abashiri Family, Delinquent in Drag, and Hanappe Bazooka—all tilt a bit towards the the latter. The first one, about an entire family of crooks and ne'er-do-wells and their precious (and formidable) daughter, was one of the first titles I ever reviewed in the pages of Animerica. It kind of sucks. Delinquent in Drag was supposed to get a DVD release, but it never happened. That one's a bit better—its comedic tale of a Koji Kabuto lookalike's need to masquerade as a girl to get a good private school education is fairly fun to watch. Hanappe Bazooka's weird depiction of a high school kid and his cursed index finger, which can either smash buildings or drive women nuts for him, is actually a collaboration between Nagai and celebrated manga writer Kazuo Koike—yep, the Mad Bull 34 guy. (In fairness, he's also the Lone Wolf & Cub guy!) It's probably the best of these three, but like the other two, it's missing in action.
Let's see… how else can I group this weird assortment of titles by theme? I know - anyone remember Adventures of Kotetsu? It was one of those weird short OVAs that seemed to be everywhere you looked in the 90s, which makes it like an awful lot of the rest of this list. But anyway! It's the tale of an energetic young girl (who looks an awful lot like girl Ranma) in the hunt for her missing older brother. It turns out that our heroine Linn Suzuki has some mystical powers – powers put to good use at the Kuon Detective Agency. Kotetsu is only really memorable for a few things – its dubbed version takes a stab at Linn's somewhat archaic Kyoto accent by using an actress with a credible English accent, firstly. Secondly, it's got lots of fanservice, and thirdly, it was directed by a guy named Yuji Moriyama.
Everyone should know who Yuji Moriyama is! He cut his teeth working for Mamoru Oshii on Urusei Yatsura. He was part of the Gainax crew that kicked out greats like Royal Space Force and Gunbuster. He directed goodies like Project A-Ko and Geobreeders, and baddies like most of the rest of those A-Ko OVAs and Geobreeders Breakthrough. More recently, he's been the go-to guy to direct Bleach movies, and his old pal Hideaki Anno brought him back to work on the first new Evangelion film. He directed Kotetsu, but he also provided character designs for a couple of OVAs called Luna Varga and Compiler. ADV Films also kicked these two out on VHS, and I think they're pretty alright.
Luna Varga's strengths lie chiefly in silliness (it's the amazing fantasy story about a pretty girl who finds herself permanently seated atop the head of a gigantic, Godzilla-esque lizard—attached by the butt, you see, because she acts as its brain) and fanservice, but that's OK since Moriyama specializes in that stuff. Compiler is a teensy bit more restrained, telling the age-old story of computer programs that are beamed into the real world and turn out to be attractive women. Two of these programs-turned-ladies, Compiler and Assembler, decide they like it here and set up shop with their human boyfriends—but it's sometimes necessary for them to leap into action and thwart other girls from computer program-ville, who wish to take over our world.
At its heart, Compiler is a light little romantic comedy, with bits of action and fanservice. It doesn't boast a particularly exciting pedigree—sure, it's based on manga by Kia Asamiya, but that doesn't necessarily work out to a big hit. Just look at what happened to Corrector Yui! What has me pining for a DVD release is the show's exceptional dubbed version. The lead roles, filled out by old ADV stalwarts like Spike Spencer and Kelly Manison, are pretty straightforward, but the series happens to have a lot of background chatter, and there the scriptwriters go bananas, inserting all manner of outlandish accents and references, most of which are clearly audible. ADV Films actually announced a DVD release for Compiler, but they started running into financial troubles not long afterwards. We never got it.
According to company president John Ledford, the OVA Bite Me! - Chameleon has the dubious distinction of being ADV Films’ worst-selling VHS tape ever. It's definitely the sort of thing that I look at and wonder why they picked it up in the first place, the unexceptional tale of Eisaku, a tough-talking, pompadoured yankii kid… who happens to be barely five feet tall, shorter even than most of the girls in class—combined with his awful personality, this makes him an object of ridicule and bullying. The show does shine in his frequent moments of angry defiance (“The penalty for abusing me is DEATH!” Eisaku screams at an incredulous bully, in a scene that still makes me laugh), but there's nothing there for fans, more accustomed to shoujo versions of this sort of story, to latch on to. Bite Me! - Chameleon would be right at home next to Shōnan Bakusōzoku, which happens to be AnimEigo's worst-selling anime title ever.
Suikoden: Demon Century may share a title with Konami's popular RPG series, but they aren't related—they just have common source material, the well-regarded classic Chinese novel Outlaws of the Marsh. The central concept is the same—a hero has to bring together a huge group of fighters with wildly disparate talents against a tyrant—but in the OVA, the setting is shifted to modern times, and the story is so truncated that it's mostly just confusing. I'll round out this group with Dark Warrior. I love Dark Warrior, because it's just so awful. It's strictly seinen stuff, the tale of a Bill Gates-esque supernerd (written by people who don't seem to understand how computers work or what they're for) who's roped into a conspiracy and genetically tweaked so he becomes a rampagin’ human superweapon. It's got everything: bad animation, dumb dialogue, and head-explodingly hilarious fight scenes. ADV's release was preceded by Manga UK, who didn't even bother translating the title (I'm sure fans were really roped in by seeing “MAKYU SENJO” in huge letters on the box)—and while Manga released both episodes, ADV didn't bother after that first one. That's probably for the best.
What do the preceding nine titles have in common? With the sole exception of Hanappe Bazooka, not one of them got a DVD release in Japan—they were laserdisc and VHS-only affairs. In fact, the vast majority of this list never made it to DVD even in Japan, which made me wonder if there was a technical issue with getting old 90s-era master tapes transferred to DVD. I asked our good buddy Justin Sevakis, who's shepherded a variety of old movies and OVAs to digital for several studios. He comments:
“There's a few issues, but you can make a DVD from an old analog master, and it'll probably look fine. The issue is more with the original creator's rights, and if everything has been cleared for DVD release in general. Unlike Americans, Japanese companies tend not to take advantage of that "every video format that will ever be invented" clause on contracts. Every new step has to get cleared by the creator. So if there was no DVD in Japan, contractually nothing was set up for a DVD release anywhere else.”
So it's unlikely that many of these old shows are plagued by issues with materials or master tapes. Instead, they're simply mired in old contracts! What fun. Well, what happens when you add video games to the mix? That's… hard to say, really. It doesn't surprise me that Sega has pretty much taken its old one-shot Panzer Dragoon OVA and buried it in the backyard; even the Japanese Wikipedia article takes shots at how awful it is. But the OVA, an early exercise in 2D/3D CG integration, still hit the market here courtesy of ADV Films. It's fun to imagine what it would look like on DVD, actually, since you can already see artifacting, pixelation, and lousy aliasing on the VHS version. Fire Emblem, a franchise popular for decades in Japan but only prominent on these shores for the past 10 years or so, got its own OVA, which ADV Films saw fit to release in spite of the fact that the first English-language Fire Emblem game was several years away.
Did either of these two make it to DVD in Japan? Of course not! But two other titles based on games—the PC-based Dragoon and PCEngine-based Megami Paradise – did get DVDs in Japan. Despite the lack of context, Dragoon's VHS release on these shores made all kinds of sense—it's the kind of OVA that opens with the hero incredulously asking the naked heroine what happened to her clothes. Megami Paradise, with its magical tale of an entire world of cute girls, dudes! is a little harder to follow, but that one's not about the plot, either. Director Katsuhiko Nishijima, who co-created Project A-Ko with Yuji Moriyama, is famous for panty-fanservice stuff like Agent Aika, Najica: Blitz Tactics, and Labyrinth of Flames, and he's right on task here—there's enough bizarre upskirt shots in Megami Paradise that you could describe it as a prototype for Aika. Maybe that's why it's on DVD in Japan, where so many other shows aren't.
The Girl from Phantasia wasn't just hard for me to remember—I saw it once, in 1996—it was just plain difficult to find information about it, period. This is most likely because it was just called FANTASIA in Japan, only spelled out in hiragana instead of katakana. Hmmm, guys, help me remember: was there some OTHER animated movie called Fantasia?! In addition to that, didn't Namco make a beloved RPG called Tales of Phantasia, too? Yeah, I found all sorts of information about those two, but not so much about the anime, a 30-minute OVA that is, once again, mostly about fanservice. Gude Crest: Emblem of Gude actually ran in theatres in Japan, which shocks the hell out of me—not only is it barely feature-length at 50 minutes, it's dull as dishwater, about a Dirty Pair-esque duo of ladies in search of a magical talisman. I guess the selling point might be the character designs by Tsukasa Dokite, who did such memorably good work on Dirty Pair? But the girls in this film aren't nearly as memorable, and the lame fantasy-adventure plot doesn't hold up either. What does hold up reasonably well is Rail of the Star. A charming little children's story about a Japanese family living in Korea who face adversity after the nation loses World War II, it's workmanlike and low-stakes (our heroine, Chitose, is rarely in any real danger) but perfectly serviceable. This film is good enough that my mom, a schoolteacher at the time, ganked it for her World History for 3rd-graders class. It does kinda disappear in the shadow of superior films like Grave of the Fireflies, but it ain't bad. It also ain't on DVD.
We're nearing the end of this pretty long list, so it's a good time to bring up Iczelion. As the title suggests, this is actually a spinoff of sorts for the prior OVAs Iczer-1 and Iczer-3 (I am convinced this title scheme only exists so people will loudly wonder where Iczer-2 is). Both of those got DVD releases (and I do recommend Iczer-1, which can be turned up for five or ten bucks these days), but Iczelion never did. It's certainly not a classic, but it retains its predecessors’ decent animation and themes of robots combining with girls, fanservice, and more fanservice. I think my favorite on this list is Sol Bianca. I'm not talking about the 3-part digitally-animated OVAs that came out from Pioneer—there was a 2-part story about ten years prior, also created by AIC. ADV released this across 2 tapes, dubbed and subtitled. The second episode is markedly less awesome, but the first one is great—a neat starship, a cool all-girl team of interstellar bounty hunters, tons of action, and a badass climax featuring one of the girls operating an orbital sniper rifle. This one came out on DVD in Japan, so I'm hoping that some publisher… well, basically, I'm hoping that Discotek picks it up.
The reason I'm bringing up Discotek specifically is because my favorite title on the list of ADV Films’ VHS-only relics used to be a 2-part OVA called Mighty Space Miners. But a month or two ago, Discotek announced that they'd gotten the rights to it! Frankly, this is a release that fits right into their strategy of rescuing old titles with pre-existing dubbed versions. And while it does have the great 90s OVA conceit of “awesome! Also, unfinished,” I still recommend it. It's got great animation and nifty character designs, and while its protagonist is an energetic, gee-whiz kind of kid, the story constantly reminds the viewer that he's trying to save himself and his pals with the constant dread of sudden explosive decompression hanging over his head. The OVA bombed in Japan, but it was so well-liked by the team making it at they bought an ad in Animage entreating fans to help fund the next episode. Never happened. Wonder if they can Kickstart it?
So tell me, gang: anything on this list catch your fancy? Did I miss a title? I'm pretty sure I didn't, but you never know with me, do you? There's more than twenty titles here—they all got subtitled versions, and most of them got a dub, too. Which one are you waiting for? Any other older classics from the VHS era (or older!!) where you just can't figure out why there isn't a shiny new DVD release yet? Sound off in the comments!!
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