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The Mike Toole Show

by Mike Toole,

It took me ages to track it down. I'd been after this particular OVA for something like eight years, and for a long time, the hunt just didn't go well. First of all, the show wasn't a “true” OVA, it was an ONA that was briefly broadcast online, but region locked to Japanese users. The eventual DVD release wasn't sold as a stand-alone product, but included as a bonus item with a related video game. One big wrinkle: when the game was released, the DVD, intended as a pack-in for customers at GameStop, wasn't finished, so it didn't arrive with the game. Something like two months later, copies finally showed up for buyers of the game, but in drastically short supply.

So, how did I finally obtain King of Fighters: Another Day? eBay, actually. The Japanese DVD wasn't sold separately from the game, but some enterprising reseller had separated the two, and so for the princely sum of about fourteen dollars, I had my prize. There are actually a number of pack-in anime like this, brief OVAs or featurettes sold exclusively with other products like toys and games. They're almost uniformly a huge pain in the ass to find, be they the .hack OVAs that came with the PlayStation games, the “Day of Sigma” cartoon that only appears on Megaman Maverick Hunter X, or the VHS tape of the Dinozaurs pilot episode that shipped with some toys in 2000. (If anyone has that one, drop me a line!) But I'm not here to talk about pack-ins—I'm here to talk about SNK's anime based on fighting games.

Street Fighter, the 1987 video game from CAPCOM, features one playable character, Ryu (two if you count Ken, the palette-swapped player 2 version) and ten bad guys to punch and kick your way past. The story is extremely rudimentary, with only occasional character background details revealed. Street Fighter II, the 1994 animated film, features sixteen major characters from the sequel. Its story concerns a pair of nomadic shotokan karate champs teaming up with an INTERPOL agent and a revenge-seeking air force pilot to topple a southeast Asian drug lord. I'm fascinated by this progression, by this compulsion to take these absurd ciphers and walking stereotypes and give them a complicated backstory. I'm most fascinated by the way this pattern repeats, with very little deviation, across more than a dozen separate anime based on fighting games. See, it's not just Street Fighter II. A lot of people think, “well, Street Fighter II is the first anime based on a fighting game, right?” Nope, that was actually Fatal Fury.

Most people who've watched these things will tell you that the Fatal Fury anime OVAs and film are amongst the best in the genre. Masami Obari, who retooled SNK's iconic character artwork for animation and directed the Fatal Fury theatrical film, isn't exactly a story guy, but he knows how to animate a big fight or chase scene. The plot, based on a 1991 video game where you can only actually play as three characters, is about a tough guy with a baseball cap (we'll call him “Baseball Cap Man” even though his name is Terry) and his brother, a fellow tough guy with long hair (“Long Hair Dude” aka Andy) must get revenge from their father and mentor's rival, a dangerous, amoral martial artist named Geese Howard (no clever nickname for him—“Geese” is rough enough). They're aided in their grim journey to bring down their father's killer by a boisterous muay thai practicioner and a busty lady ninja.

I'm a fan of this stuff—Viz's old VHS release of these Fatal Fury shows was an early favorite of mine, when I was just starting to really get into anime. Both of the OVAs and the movie are dumb and repetitive, but fun and flashy. What's interesting is that, in the past couple of years, I've had the chance to talk to multiple people who'd worked on them. Gundam Unicorn director Kazuhiro Furuhashi, who directed the second Fatal Fury OVA, recalled a show that was pleasantly straightforward, with few production issues. Oreimo director Hiroyuki Kanbe, who'd worked on both the second OVA and the film, spoke of a show that really helped him develop his action animation chops. Both men spoke highly of Masami Obari; Kanbe, in particular, was emphatic about how much he liked working with the famed animator, and how much he learned. So in a few surprising ways, these Fatal Fury animations have carried some influence forward.

There's a long held rumor related to Obari (and this is just a rumor; it kinda sounds too amusing to be true, so I tend to doubt it) that, at a convention party, an inebriated Kazuto Nakazawa (the El Hazard and Kill Bill guy) approached fellow influential anime artist Tsukasa Kotobuki, and pointed a finger at him. “It's your fault that [Masami] Obari's character designs got so weird!” the first man accused. See, Nakazawa had worked with Obari on Battle Arena Toshinden, where it was his job to adapt Kotobuki's character designs for animation, which is why the line's got that sense of truthiness. There's a grain of truth there, at least in terms of Obari's character designs. Just look at key art from the first Fatal Fury OVA, compared to the film.

It's pretty drastic, isn't it? Chins and noses narrow, and eyes get progressively huger. And then there's Obari's later character design work on Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer and Virus Buster Serge.

I've read these character designs described as “insectoid,” which sounds about right. Amusingly, Kotobuki's changed his angle; his recent work on Gundam: The Origin is completely different from his old style. It's refined and sharp and not at all cartoony and bug-eyed. How about that story about Nakazawa's little jab, though? Do you think it's true? I read it on the internet, so it must be.

But we were talking about Battle Arena Toshinden, right? Yet another fighting game anime, Tōshinden is a notorious shitshow that seems to have suffered something just short of a staff revolt between episodes one and two. Just take a gander at Ellis in episode one versus Ellis in episode two:

Yeah, you can see that something broke along the way; Obari's credited as series director, but he only actually directed the first one. Tōshinden protagonist Eiji isn't seeking revenge, but that's okay—his rival, Duke Rambert, totally is! Other than that, the franchise's main hook is that the characters use swords and knives to fight each other, and not their fists. Let's exhaust the Obari angle by bringing up his 1996 OVA, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer. Based on a Neo Geo game by developer Technos (ah, the Double Dragon people!), Gowcaizer is a largely unintelligible story about high school students with super-powered magical stones that give them awesome fighting powers and really, really improbable armor. Gowcaizer, as pictured in the example a few paragraphs up, is probably the apex of Obari's weird character designs. But he doesn't have to adapt existing video game work here, because Technos were savvy enough to just use him for the video game. In a bit of amazing casting, his voice even shows up in the game. American live-action anime girl Apollo Smile plays Karin, the hero Isato's love interest, in a version where CPM just lopped off the three episodes' interstitial opening and ending credits and dubbed it “the movie.” I wonder what it'd be like to see Gowcaizer at the movies? Anyhow, Masami Obari's since backed off from character designs and gone back to robots—it was him that crafted the gloriously nutso Gundam Tryon 3 for Gundam Build Fighters Try. I like his action cartoons, but I think robots are still Obari's greatest strength.

Fatal Fury's success as an adaptation meant that producer SNK (that's Shin Nihon Kikaku, or “New Japan Project,” not Shingeki no Kyojin, fellas) were hungry to get a follow-up made. They once again teamed up with NAS to bankroll a TV movie based ontheir Street Fighter ripoff Art of Fighting. Studio Comet rendered the animation—they'd handled some duties on the Fatal Fury stuff, so you'd think they'd do a great job again, right?

Yeah, not so much. Art of Fighting is one of those productions that was so troubled that the original off-air TV broadcast version is highly prized, because a number of cuts had to be thrown out and re-animated for the home video release. It's nowhere near as egregious as champions of the “fix it for video” race like Gundress and that one episode of Wizard Barristers where nothing ever moved. Also, cutie-pie little sister character was played by a young singer/actress named Ayumi Hamasaki. Not long afterwards, she became a huge star in Japan, and a notable global pop star as well. If you buy the Japanese DVD, her voice is replaced with a sound-alike. That's really fascinating trivia to me, and a testament to the power of talent agencies—because their star was once attached to something dumb and mediocre, they somehow managed to get her out of newer releases of the film. Don't worry, though—seemingly ever version of Art of Fighting on YouTube is the one that features Hamasaki as Yuri. Yep, there's here name right there.

Art of Fighting's dumb-looking characters and improbable plot twists have kinda conspired to make it a cult favorite. Part of the reason why illegal copies are all over YouTube is because it's the choice of shouty YouTube dudes everywhere (I will never understand these YouTube dudes, and deeply envy their seeming popularity). It's easy enough to see why—the main duo, Ryo and Robert, are an obvious ripoff of Street Fighter's Ryu and Ken, and the climactic battle involves Ryo using a swimming pool diving board to leap 20 feet in the air and grab onto a fleeing helicopter. Ryo and Robert aren't out for revenge—they're just small time detectives in the fictional American city of South Town, until a zany mix-up sees them trying to get Ryo's sister back from a crime boss. So I guess later on, they're going for revenge, alright? I'm sure there's some revenge in there somewhere.

SNK kept going with the TV specials with 1994's Samurai Shodown, which ADV released in the west and dubbed “The Motion Picture.” The game series is a perennial favorite, featuring a variety of historical and fictional samurai slashing the hell out of each other, but while the anime doesn't plunge to the depths of Art of Fighting, it commits an even graver offense—it's dull, the kind of thing I struggle to remember even having seen it multiple times. All I can tell you about it is that most of the characters were killed by Shiro Amakusa (yep, same dude from Makai Tenshoh!) and now they've been reincarnated and are on a quest for revenge. A sequel and OVA based on fan favorite character Nakoruru remain unreleased, a scathing indictment of just how drab the franchise is. After all, we got Gowcaiser, but not all of Samurai Shodown?!

So how did that King of Fighters anime turn out? It's actually got some pretty good bona-fides—its animation comes courtesy of Production I.G, and the action scenes are top-notch. Unfortunately, it's nature as kind of a sidecar to the video game is really evident—the whole thing is cut into four ten-minute chunks, and each chunk only has about seven minutes of footage, with the rest being a credit reel with a tune by Japanese-Canadian rockers Dakota Star blaring in the background. Still, if you like this stuff, it's good to see characters like Terry Bogard (aged forward here, in his “Dad Version” Mark of the Wolves incarnation) and Mai Shiranui back again. But like many fighting games, the sprawling cast is a little too sprawling. My favorite bit? In the dubbed version, the characters pronounce the name “Soiree” kinda like a Canadian guy saying “sorry,” which made it a lot more fun. Also, I couldn't stop looking at Iori (who wants revenge, natch) and his huge head.

That's troublingly large, right? He oughta get that looked at. There's about half a dozen more fighting game anime, too. On the CAPCOM side of things, there are a multitude of spinoffs and follow-ups to Gisaburō Sugii's entertaining Street Fighter II movie. I don't think any of them are really worth a damn aside from Street Fighter II V, a TV spinoff with a young version of Ken and Ryu that's charmingly schlocky, even considering the source material. There's Darkstalkers, which is flashy and fun to watch but plotless (I think that Donovan, the monk character, wants revenge? It's been a while), and there's Power Stone, a TV adaptation of the ragingly fun Dreamcast game that just about broke the sound barrier hitting the cutout bin when it was released on home video. There's both the old 2D and the new CG versions of Tekken, which are hilariously bad for wildly divergent reasons. They keep threatening to make a Guilty Gear anime but it hasn't happened yet, so we'll have to settle for Blazblue. I think my favorite of these also-rans is Virtua Fighter, which rises above its rudimentary source material (it came out in the wake of Virtua Fighter 2) by being a zany, Scooby Doo-esque globe-trotting adventure. I own cels from this series, and I'm not sorry.

I guess what fascinates me about these productions is that they're almost never any damn good at all, but they just keep getting made. Some of them sell well, sure, but not all of them, right? Are there other fighting games ripe for anime adaptations? Do you look back and mourn, as I do, the lack of a cheesy OVA version of World Heroes or Fighter's History or Fighting Vipers? Are you hoping that a deal is struck for a Skullgirls anime, because let's face it, that'd probably be pretty damn cool? Kick in a comment!

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