The Mike Toole Show
Tales from the Bottom Shelf
by Michael Toole,
It started the same way this entire column did—I saw something that just made my brain start to overheat. In this case, it was my friend Dave Merill's article on weird old OVAs. Basically, he dug up a bunch of tapes (because really, these were all tapes, even if they came out on laserdisc) from that magical mid-1980s period that saw the height of Japan's economic bubble, and the attendant risky spending on all sorts of weird animation. That period brought us gems like Megazone 23 and Project A-Ko, but it also brought us tons of stuff that sank to the bottom of the pile so fast you'd think the boxes were loaded with rocks and not home videos.
Anyhow, Dave makes a column all about the least essential OVAs of the 1980s, and I sit bolt upright in my seat. Not just because he puts Elf 17 on the list, which is bullshit because I remember that being pretty good when I saw it with no subtitles in 1995; and not because he engages in some absolutely gorgeous bull-baiting by writing the entire Megami Tensei franchise off right along with the unquestionably weird 1987 Digital Devil Saga OVA. No, it's because my brain responds to the stimulus of a list of ten fairly forgettable direct-to-video cartoons with a shrieking rejoinder of “Oh come on, there are way better unessential OVAs than that!” Yep, I'm pretty sure I can top his mention of The Humanoid and its fixation on coffee.
First of all, let me switch back to past tense (why'd I write that last bit in present tense? Was it a style thing? A voice thing?) and say that I emailed Dave and made sure he was cool with me more or less stealing his idea to uncontrollably expand on it. That's pretty much how Dubs that Time Forgot started, and in much the same way, good old Dave was just fine with it, after he hit me with one specific show he wants to write about soon. (I'm not telling you what it is. Basically, if you like my column, you oughtta be reading his, too.) So join me, dear readers, on a fantastic voyage to the bottom shelf of the video rental place. Remember video rental places? The bottom shelves always had the really good movies, like Samurai Cop and Vindicator and—anyway, let's go.
I'm gonna start with Judge, a title that's already kind of its own running joke in the context of this column; I've brought it up before. It technically came out in 1991, but since its short-lived manga predecessor started publication in 1989, I'll just go ahead and lead with it. I'm fairly sure this didn't come out on DVD in Japan, but my usual research method (typing the title into Amazon JP and seeing what happens) kept getting derailed by results for Beavis and Butthead videos. The Japanese title, 闇の司法官 ジャッジ (Judiciary of Darkness: JUDGE), is in there, but only as a VHS listing. You can buy it for just one yen!
I just love Judge, but it doesn't really have any business being the centerpiece of your collection. It's a particularly low-budget OVA catering to bored salarymen about a quiet, unassuming office worker who, when the time is right, dons a funky wardrobe and hairdo to pass judgment on the bad guys, especially the really slimy ones who almost get away with it. This crude albeit satisfying revenge fantasy is interrupted when one of the defendants enlists the services of a defense lawyer—of Darkness! Yeah, Judge fits in nicely with a viewing of Harvey Birdman episodes.
Next, I'll talk about MAPS, the far-flung sci-fi adventures of a boy with amazing maps to the cosmos hidden inside his very being. “But Mike,” you're all shouting in your empty offices, classrooms, dorm rooms, bedrooms, basements, and ferry boat cockpits, “MAPS came out in 1994! We totally watched it together! It was actually pretty great.” That may be true, but I'm referring to the original MAPS, which came out in 1987! In other words, the one on the left, not the one on the right.
Don't worry, I was also thrown for a loop when I first came across this. I was alerted to the existence of the original MAPS OVA by the famous Gaga Reel, which dubs the tidy 55-minute feature “Star Quest” (not to be confused with the original dub of Wings of Honneamise, also unnecessarily retitled “Star Quest”). I think the best part of that Gaga Reel is its insistence that the fare advertised is great for the whole family—and then proceeds to flog the likes of M.D. Geist—er, excuse me, Thunder Warrior—and Super Nova, or as we know it, Project A-Ko. Kids love M.D. Geist!
If you've seen the 1994 MAPS, you remember a pretty high-toned affair with great production design and somewhat realistic character design. The original hews way closer to Yuichi Hasegawa's original comics, with softer, more rounded character designs, featuring those ubiquitous 80s snub noses. Like the remake, it's about a normal kid named Gen and his would-be girlfriend Hoshimi, who get swept up by a mysterious alien woman looking to utilize his amazing map power. The spaceship design, which replaces pointy space arks with art-deco looking giant flying statue ladies, is brilliant in both versions, but this older take on the story definitely feels a bit more rushed and compact. Instead of several bad guys, alien Lipumira spends the majority of the episode tangling with New Wave (or maybe it's “New Abe?” anyway, it's basically Akira Kamiya playing himself), a representative from the Space Patrol eager to charge her with piracy. Interestingly, while the key art features a blonde Lipumira, she's got lavender hair in the episode.
MAPS premiered in theatres as a double feature with TWD Express, which has also fallen right off the depth chart. Having watched and enjoyed the remake, I'd like to see MAPS translated, but there's no arguing that the newer version is what you should be paying attention to. You know what I'd really like, though? A translation of the sprawling, intricate original manga. Hasegawa didn't just make MAPS, he's the man behind Crossbone Gundam, arguably the best Gundam thing to never get a proper translation. That guy knows his science goddamned fiction.
MAPS never got fansubbed, but Cosmo Police Justy sure did. This OVA is one of these things that seemed to be on everyone's tape trading list, squeezed between the weird old Castle of Cagliostro fansub and the random tape of Miracle Girls episodes. On its face, it's a straight style ripoff of Locke the Superman, featuring a boyishly handsome, crazy-haired ESPer. Man, Japanese SF really loves the term “ESPer,” huh? I come across it way more in anime and manga than I do in western sci-fi. Justy Kaizard doesn't just have fabulous psychic powers, he's top cop at the Cosmo Police, responsible for bringing in dangerous ESP-powered bad guys.
The setup is simple enough. Justy's doted over by his adoptive kid sister Astelis, but he grimly muses, “Boy, she must remember the time I had to kill her father…” SMASH CUT to a younger Astelis weeping over the bottom half of an exploded dead body. Yeah, OVAs didn't pull their punches back then. Anyway, while it's kind of a rushed mess, Cosmo Police Justy still wraps up with a bitchin' asteroid field chase; what renders it non-essential is Locke the Superman, which does virtually everything that Justy does right down to the “young girl insidiously pitted against our hero” angle, only way better. Viz released some of the manga in English for some reason.
What I've got next is unquestionably the weirdest item on this list, outpacing even Judge. It was produced by Konami, the video game folks, so it has to be some sort of show based on, like, Contra, right? Or Double Dribble? Nope, Take the X Train, directed by the chameleon-like Rintaro, is based on a novel, and as the opening text indicates, DEDICATED TO DUKE ELLINGTON. No love for Billy Strayhorn, huh Rintaro? The show does have a funky little soundtrack featuring the top-notch Strayhorn composition, which was indeed made famous by Ellington and his orchestra.
Essentially, Rintaro takes a story that would make a better than average episode of The Twilight Zone – a storied electric train, once the star of the Japanese rails, has been scheduled for disposal, but wait, suddenly a weird ghost train starts racing across the country, doing damage and causing freak electrical reactions in its wake. Toru, a junior salaryman working for one of the railway companies, seems to somehow be able to cause the ghost train to react to him, and before he knows it he's being tersely questioned by shadowy government figures. “Do you think about trains a lot?” they ask. “Have you ever dreamed about having a heart transplant?”
When it's not creating weird, jazz-fueled suspense, Take the X Train is downright funny, featuring the hapless Toru grappling with a disinterested girlfriend and irritating boss. It's kind of a shame that this feature never made the jump to digital—while the story kicks it down the charts, it looks fabulous, and might still be a certifiable hit after undergoing some much-needed digital restoration.
You can kind of see the silhouette of a good story in Take the X Train, but other OVAs just seem to pump their fists and scream, “Man, fuck making sense!” Ladius (or is it La Deus?) is one such OVA. Produced by those stars at Ashi Pro, Ladius is all about the adventures of the spiky-haired Riot, who employs his cutie-pie twin robot girl sidekicks, Spica and Seneca, in the service of gathering Lido, an ancient energy source that once powered the lost Quall civilization. Quall civilization, huh? I hope they're talking about a whole race of this guy.
To get what they need, Riot and the twins have an item called the Eye of Zalem, and… man, this goddamn OVA is just full of McGuffins. A human cute girl named Yuta takes up with Riot, as he's pursued by bad guys who are called the Dempsters. There's a name that'll strike fear into your heart. Ladius is kind of fun to watch—it has big spiky hair, flashing eyes, crazy fight scenes, and so much more of what defined anime in its era—but it's just not coherent enough to be remotely satisfying. Ultimately, though, it's still easy to look it over and think, “I don't get it—why did we get Genesis Survivor Gaiarth, but not this?”
A lot of these old OVAs have peculiar titles, and few are more peculiar than Space Family Carlvinson. No, not “Carl Vinson,” just Carlvinson. I suppose the famous US Congressman's name was used because the aircraft carrier that bears his name was hanging out in the Pacific when Yoshitoh Asari created the manga? I don't know for sure, I'm just guessing. I'm also guessing that the “Carlvinson” was the name of the spaceship that a rag-tag band of aliens smacks into, causing a crash that kills most of the survivors. The aliens, which include a weird elf girl, a talking brain, a robot, and a furby, among others, land to check the wreckage out. What they end up finding is a human baby named Corona, so they decide to set up camp on the planet and try to raise her.
The result is a gentle domestic comedy with a variety of weird-ass monsters gamely trying to give a good live to an energetic little girl. It's cute, simple, fun to watch, and completely, 100% unmarketable to anyone who isn't either familiar with the comics or an adventuresome cartoon dork like you and me. Space Family Carlvinson isn't bad at all—it's directed by the great Kimio Yabuki, the guy who brought us Puss n' Boots—but there's just not that much substance to it.
Man, Explorer Woman Ray is actually pretty bad. It's a sensible concept—what if Indiana Jones was a kickass lady? Tomb Raider did a good job answering that question, but this was almost a decade earlier, so instead of Lara Croft we get archaeologist and adventurer Rayna Kizuki, and a couple of cute twin girls, and her old rival, and blah blah something about the lost secrets of the ancients. Explorer Woman Ray was supposed to be a big-deal “media mix” affair with tie-in manga, but even the manga vanished pretty quickly. Episode 1 of 2 OVA installments doesn't look that good to begin with, but heavy staff turnover between episode 1 and 2 make the end product even worse. Seriously, that second episode? Filled with hilarious animation mistakes.
One of the best and worst attributes of the 80s OVA boom is the financial bubble it was built on. Since cash and resources were just so abundant, animation studios seemed a lot less focused on making a well-crafted, coherent product, and more on creating something, anything, at all costs! One such creation is Del Power X, a one-shot OVA that gamely tries to parody everything in sight, from high school comedy to mecha anime. It's got good character designs, but terrible animation—there's one sequence in particular that'd look amazing if they'd just finished it, but they didn't!—and dialogue so rife with bad puns and wordplay that it's plain difficult to follow. The story features Manami, a pretty high school girl who's just trying to cozy up to the campus soccer star/wrestling otaku, only her tech-inclined grandpa keeps tinkering with powered armor and drawing the ire of a jealous old student.
Yep, this is the kind of show that features a bad guy named Nick Jagger, who says “I am Nick Jagger” at least two or three times to make sure everyone heard him and got the joke. The whole thing swiftly collapses in a pile of wrestling references (just what is so German about a German suplex, anyway?) and the characters promise to return in part 2. Del Power X is pretty bad, but I dunno man – is it really any worse or less essential than, say, Garaga?
Grey: Digital Target was actually pretty good, no foolin. I actually look back and think it's kind of weird that there was never a DVD release in Japan – it's got good production values for an OVA, and is based on a manga that was, at one time, known pretty well in several regions across the planet. I read a few of Viz/Eclipse's Grey comic releases growing up.
The OVA itself is essentially feature-length, telling the story of a mercenary fighting in a seemingly endless series of skirmishes between towns. There's a war on, but the enemy is unclear; the campaign is dictated by computers. You don't have to be a soldier, but if you want any hope of achieving a better life in a burnt-out, post-apocalyptic society, arming up is the only path to citizenship. But Grey isn't like the other soldiers; chilly and aloof, he seems to have a knack for surviving even when his comrades are wiped out, and while the other mercs are happy to engage the scattered resistance fighters trying to bring the war itself to a halt, he won't bother. Rebels aren't worth any points, see. I wouldn't put Grey in the same class as fare like Birth or Leda: Fantastic Adventure of Yohko or the Crusher Joe OVAs (if you ask me, the Ice Prison Trap chapter of Crusher Joe is the single best-looking OVA of the 80s), but it clearly deserves to be rescued somehow. But as of right now, you can only get it on DVD in France.
Let's wrap this up with the one title you can get on DVD back in Japan, and the one title that is emblemic of the pervasive weirdness of the 80s OVA market. That would be Dream Dimension Hunter Fandora. Fandora comes to us from the mind of Go Nagai, but really, does this look like a Go Nagai heroine to you?
Nope, she's got the 80s look in full force, though! This blue-haired cutie and her shape-changing buddy Kue (I think he's some sort of lizard dude? He has a tail…) valiantly fight against the evil Yog-Sothoth, a bad guy who just happens to share the name of the Lovecraftian elder god. It's disappointing, but no, it's just a cute name reference, not actual eldritch horrors. The production looks pretty alright, but the story gets less and less sensible over the three episode runtime. Perhaps most perplexingly, Fandora had an English dub, which was present on the original Japanese laserdisc release, but never really marketed or sold overseas. Why'd they make it?
So, there you have it: ten more non-essential anime OVAs from a time when OVAs grew on trees, when you could just reach out and brush original video animations away from your face. As I noted, almost all of these are way, way the hell out of print. I'm all for tracking down legal means to enjoy anime, but what's the etiquette in cases where you really can't get a copy, any copy of the show from the usual vendors? I really don't know, but what I do know is that there's nobody out there to really stop people from spreading these weird old goodies around. And if I've learned something from wasting my time on these dumb cartoons, it's that even the least essential OVAs deserve to be saved and watched.
So, readers: what's your favorite completely extraneous OVA? Which featurette do you store carefully in your collection, content in the knowledge that only you and like eight other people enjoy or even remember it? Sound off in the comments!
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