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The Mike Toole Show
Hip to Be Square

by Mike Toole,

Last Christmas, my editor, the inimitable Zac Bertschy, took notice that the Right Stuf's online holiday sales blitz included the complete set of a TV series called PAPUWA. He immediately called attention to this, so I followed suit. It's a lot of fun to pursue and/or flog something that's clearly at a deep discount because it's so deeply, hugely undesirable. (My favorite example? Moeyo Ken, which remains so unlovable that even now it's about six dollars for the whole series, and still very easy to get.) I can't really explain why, but I felt some genuine mirth and joy as the PAPUWA DVD set's stock first dwindled and then disappeared altogether. We'd used our connection to our audience and fandom to turn a reputedly lousy series into a dubious collector's item!

Obviously, I had to order my own copy of this treasure before the stock zeroed out. I chuckled to myself as I dug off the shrinkwrap and inspected my treasure-- PAPUWA was released as a set before ADV fell on hard times and introduced the "stack pack" to vaguely horrified anime collectors, so everything seemed to be in good shape. I took the six discs, filed them (once you have over a thousand of these damn things, you need a filing system), and totally forgot about them for a year. This month, I finally dug them back out and started watching them.

Oh yeah, I've watched some of PAPUWA. I watched it until my skin boiled and sloughed off in long strips. I watched it until my hair came out in big chunks. I watched it until all of my teeth fell out, but it turns out that was just a dream. Honestly, PAPUWA isn't the worst thing I've seen, and that might be its problem-- it has a deep, pervasive mediocrity to it. Based on a gag manga by Ami Shibata, the series depicts an island paradise populated by a an amnesiac, a grim-faced otter, a chatty poisonous mushroom, and the title character, a pudgy, motormouthed little boy in a grass skirt. (I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that "Papuwa" is a riff on Papua, New Guinea.) There's also the bad guys, a platoon of ex-military warriors whose flowing locks and smoldering gazes kept reminding me of the dudes from Patalliro, not to mention an an entire perpetually-stampeding herd of offensive gay and trans stereotypes. Seriously folks, it's kinda lazy and dumb to employ even one character with the "I'm flamboyantly gay and just go crazy at the sight of handsome boys!" tic, but PAPUWA has several, including a fishnet-wearing fish and a lipstick-clad pink tyrannosaurus rex. Maybe this worked in 2003? I dunno, but it certainly hasn't aged well.

The thing is, digging down into PAPUWA was only the beginning of my troubles. I soon discovered that the show, a 26-episode Nippon Animation production from 2003, is actually a sequel to an even earlier Nippon Animation TV series, itself based on Shibata's original manga. I'd like to stand up right now and demand to know why ADV Films only released the second season of PAPUWA, skipping the crucial original series. How am I gonna properly provide background details to my PAPUWA multi-user dungeon game if I don't know the whole story?! Anyway, if you want to see a delightful, amazing example of a song composer gleefully ripping himself off, compare the original Papuwa TV opening to the opening of Hare & Guu.

Watching PAPUWA naturally led me to ask questions, chief among them being "Why the hell did ADV Films release this?!" A likely answer to that actually became apparent just from looking at the copyright data and production committee. Turns out PAPUWA ran in Shonen Gangan, the manga and entertainment magazine published by SquareSoft. (They weren't quite Square Enix at that point, I don't think.) So Square were on the production committee for the show. Square Enix have handled these duties for a number of hits that have run in their magazines, from Fullmetal Alchemist to Akame ga Kill!. The software company also quite naturally produces anime based on their flagship Final Fantasy franchise, which has included everything from 1994's Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals to 2005's Final Fastfood: Advent Chicken-- er, I mean, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. During that period, they produced a TV series-- 2001's Final Fantasy: Unlimited.

Here's the thing: by looking back, we can see that Final Fantasy: Unlimited wasn't a very auspicious series, and was cancelled halfway through its 52-episode run. But in 2001, Final Fantasy was a hot goddamn ticket. The franchise had produced a long string of international hit games, with the latest installment, Final Fantasy X, driving fans to pick up the PlayStation 2 in droves. Square seemed to be acting accordingly, hiring the then-hot Gonzo Digimation and director Mahiro Maeda to create the new series. The production team was an all-star affair, including character designer Kazuto Nakazawa, mecha designer Makoto Kobayashi, and orchestra-driven music by Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu himself. The TV series debuted in October 2001, and fans overseas were insatiably curious about it. I was in the room at Anime Boston 2003 when ADV Films announced their acquisition of the title and a big whoop went up-- getting it was a feather in their cap.

Here's my theory, which must remain so because ADV Films's principals don't really discuss old business on the record. I think the publisher got Final Fantasy: Unlimited as some sort of package deal. Deals like this have been on my mind because I do some occasional work with a few anime publishers, who've all been telling me about how their licensor partners in Japan have been particularly eager to sell them package deals of multiple shows. This happens with new, in-production shows, but it's a particular selling point for older catalog titles. To use one infamous example, Central Park Media released Machine Robo because they got it as a package deal with Dancougar. Looking at the proximity of Final Fantasy: Unlimited and PAPUWA's production cycles (they hit about two years apart, which seems really long now, but negotiations were slower back then-- Square probably had art boards of the newer show when FF:U was getting signed up), it's easy to imagine the licensor either insisting that ADV pick up PAPUWA in addition to Final Fantasy: Unlimited, or offered PAPUWA to them for extremely favorable terms thanks to the company's prior licensing of FF:U. At the time, getting PAPUWA also probably made some sense because ADV were preparing to launch their cable TV channel, and needed programming for it. But that's very likely why we ultimately got PAPUWA in English, a reality that I'll consider as I continue watching the series (I'm three discs in, man! I can't turn back now!) and dwell on how much it cost to dub the stupid thing in English.

Contemplating the mysteries of PAPUWA led me straight down the rabbit hole to Final Fantasy: Unlimited. If you're new enough to anime that you don't remember this series well, allow me to plot its trajectory: I mentioned the big-name production team and plans for 52 episodes, but the show wrapped after 26 episodes. Fan apocrypha both here and in Japan has long held that FF:U was cancelled because it kind of sucked, and tanked hard in the ratings. That's not wrong-- the ratings played a part, and the series was patchy at best. In my opinion, it did a great job of "feeling" like Final Fantasy, with chocobos and musical stingers from the games everywhere, but a crappy job telling a story. But the real reason the series went down the crapper is because of the monumental commercial failure that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Square's attempt at going Hollywood went kind of amazingly badly, causing the company to lose their taste for investing in animation. It would take a good year or two and a major internal P.R. campaign by director/designer Tetsuya Nomura before the company would take a shot at animation again.

I guess what fascinates me is that Final Fantasy: Unlimited is one of those shows that's more or less disappeared from fan consciousness completely, despite the big name. The show isn't streaming or airing anywhere anymore. The DVDs vanished years ago, and I've heard no talk of bringing the show back into print, either here or in Japan. Advent Children is a perennial bestseller on blu-ray, and even Spirits Within eventually found a cult audience of its own. But not FF:U. That second set of episodes only ever materialized in the form of a book.

FF:U isn't the only "lost" Final Fantasy animation, either. The original 4-part OVA, a 1994 joint directed by Rintaro, never even made it into the DVD era. I actually think that's kind of a shame-- while the OVA's plot is scattered and dull, its connection to Final Fantasy V tenuous (heroine Linaly is a descendant of one of FFV's heroes, Buttz. Don't tell me the guy's name is "Bartz" or "Batts", alright?! It's BUTTZ, dammit! "Butts" is also acceptable.), it's one of those late 80s/early 90s OVAs that survives surprisingly well on the strength of good moments, particular sequences of great animation. For all of its faults, Legend of the Crystals is full of those moments, including some very solid work by the legendary Yoshinori Kanada. Urban Vision, Legend of the Crystals' stateside publisher, would eventually claim that the license for porting the show to DVD was too expensive. But I guess after sinking a big pile of cash into Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, almost anything is gonna seem too expensive.

I think that certain aspects of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within hold up well. That iconic shot of heroine Aki Ross from below, in reflection in the water, for example. The film's production design is top notch, and its depiction of rugged armored commandos in jeeps and choppers feels like it (along with Halo, obviously) wrote the blueprint for action games and animation for the coming decade. Some of my peers contend that, while the movie's senior production staff are Japanese, it's not truly anime, because it was developed in the west for a Hollywood-style release. They have a point there-- after all, Aki Ross is the product of CG animation wizard Roy Sato, and the screenplay was written by Hollywood scribes Al Reinert and Jeff Vintar-- but some aspects of the damn movie are just so anime.

Consider tough-guy hero Gray Edwards, captain of Deep Eyes squad, who looks like Ben Affleck and speaks with the dulcet tones of Alec Baldwin (don't sleep on Baldwin, by the way-- he's actually a damn fine voiceover artist). His crew opposes General Hein and his Zeus Cannon, which he wants to use to wipe out the endless waves of glowing, malevolent spectral dongs that have nearly wiped out humanity. Aki and Dr. Sid (this film, like all incarnations of Final Fantasy, is required by Japanese law to have a character named Sid or Cid) want to protect earth's spirit, Gaia. It's a big-deal western action movie, but the story still feels like it's straight out of a JRPG. It's particularly interesting to listen to the film commentaries on the DVD, where both Japanese and American production staff studiously avoid talking about the movie's box office failure in favor of discussing its long production cycle and technical innovations.

Advent Children maybe wasn't the Final Fantasy movie that we needed, but it was the one that we deserved. It's not great (my thoughts on it are still live over at Blastr), but it's just good enough. What fascinated me about going back and checking this film out is its companion piece, a 25-minute OVA called Last Order: Final Fantasy VII. This thing was only included with the fancy collector's edition of Advent Children, so there's a chance you haven't seen it yet. It's very much worth seeing, simply because, like Advent Children, it's a remarkable product of its time-- only for the opposite reasons. Where Advent Children is beautiful and lustrous and a bit ponderous, Last Order is hard-edged and halting. Its aesthetic, driven by Hisashi Abe's character designs, is kind of in opposition to Nomura's flashy, pretty look. It's very jarring, because Last Order just feels like more of a companion piece to Highlander: The Search for Vengeance than Advent Children. Its only misstep, in my book, is a pretty big one-- the thing tries to retcon the events surrounding Final Fantasy VII. Advent Children does that too, but is a bit more subtle about it.

Apart from the Square Enix connection, there's no logical reason why PAPUWA came out in English, so that's the theory I'll work with for now. (I'm still trying to figure out why Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick came out in English, though! Not that I'm complaining.) What astonishes me, in researching and writing this piece, is the fact that there isn't more Final Fantasy animation. We live in a world that's seen lengthy adaptations of Dragon Quest and the Tales franchise, as well as a variety of other fare like Star Ocean, Ys, and Xenosaga. You'd think that creating Final Fantasy anime would be a license to print money. But they tried that, and it didn't work out. After all, PAPUWA was available to purchase new on DVD a lot more recently than FF: U! Know what I'd like to see? To hell with Final Fantasy, I want a polished, gripping movie adaptation of Chrono Trigger, complete with the Akira Toriyama character designs. Someone get to work out that. In the meantime, I'll keep suffering through PAPUWA.

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