The Mike Toole Show
The Magnificent 1997
by Mike Toole,
This week, I'm finding myself stuck between stations. I've got a couple of pieces in the early stages, and one column that's almost done but just needs a little more detail to really make it work. Retrospective pieces are always good in a pinch, so I started thinking about 1987-- until I remembered that Daryl totally beat me to the punch! But anyway, thirty years is too long ago. The only thing I remember about 1987 is my precious Topps Jose Canseco rookie card, which, as a kid, I was convinced was worth at least twenty or thirty dollars. I checked eBay to verify this, and it looks like someone just sold 18 of them for 99 cents. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Ten years ago isn't quite long enough, though. You can tell your local savvy, enthusiastic anime fan that Gurren Lagann, one of their first big favorites, is now ten years old, and you'll see their face fall a bit, but the light won't go out in their eyes the way it will when you remind a slightly older fan that the original Berserk series isn't merely a classic, it's almost old enough to drink in the United States. That's why I'm looking at 1997.
In 1997, Sunrise and their sponsor, toy maker Takara, had a unique partnership. Year after year, the studio and their underwriter would collaborate to create a series about mighty robots with “brave” in the title. All of these shows were handled by Sunrise's Studio 7, and feature a main robot designed by Gundam ace Kunio Okawara. 1997's installment was farmed out to noted director Yoshitomo Yonetani. Yonetani has a real flair for the dramatic – you might know him from his more recent hit, Food Wars. Anyway, 1997's Brave series also showcased the talents of character designer Takahiro Kimura and composer Kōhei Tanaka, not to mention future star directors like Goro Taniguchi. This mind-boggling panoply of talent was assembled for one reason and one reason only—to sell these little hunks of plastic:
Sunrise's Brave shows may be colorful and entertaining, but the only reason they exist is because Takara ran out of Transformers cartoon tie-ins (or rather, a few quarters of lousy toy sales torpedoed the cartoons). The Brave franchise was a way to address that hole in the toy production slate, and for many years, it worked, bringing the adventures of transforming robotic heroes like J-Decker and Goldoran to both toy shelves and TV screens. 1997's King of Braves Gaogaigar was meant to be the ultimate Brave series, grander in scope and style than its predecessors. It succeeded admirably at this task, but it still failed.
Failed to sell enough toys, that is. Gaogaigar would be the final Brave series for that reason, plus the inevitable fact that good old 2D-animated Transformers returned to the airwaves that same year with Beast Wars II, giving Takara's latent meal ticket a new lease on life. In the meantime, Gaogaigar spun a thrilling, charmingly zany tale of earth's heroic guardians using alien technology to fend off malevolent aliens, one rife with transformation sequences, secret weapon upgrades, and bad guys-turned-good guys. If Gaogaigar had a problem, it's that its protagonist, Mamoru, was the least interesting character on the show. After all, he was surrounded by cyborgs, robot lions, control-panel smashin' girlfriends, firetruck robots, jet-propelled grandpas, ninja robots, a sassy robot fist, and the title robot, who sported a 500-foot-tall version of a squeaky toy hammer as its main weapon. Gaogaigar had another issue, too—kids weren't watching it.
That problem isn't that unusual (for me, it always brings to mind Invader Zim, a cult fave too sharp and weird for its kiddie target audience. Nickelodeon didn't want teens and adults watching, they wanted 10-year-old boys, dammit!), but Sunrise's solution kinda was. Rather than quietly cancel a show that was already paid for or desperately pivot towards the presumed audience of little boys, the studio gave Yonetani and Studio 7 a free hand. As toy sales flatlined, laserdisc sales jumped, and the series underwent a remarkable transformation from kids' toy tie-in show to an otaku show, one that imparts a more complex, intense narrative, more fanservice, and crazier fight scenes. The older audience was enough for Gaogaigar to continue surviving, in OVA and tie-in media form, for a few extra years, but it remains the ultimate Brave series. When Media Blasters picked the show up for North American release in 2006, it came as a surprise. Later, we'd learn that they'd had some sort of informal agreement to get it on cable TV, which is why they grabbed it and dubbed the first half. But that deal never happened, so we're just gonna have to sit back and contemplate the alternate timeline where Gaogaigar aired on Disney XD and nobody watched it. The show got a gorgeous remaster not too long ago, so now would be a good time to bring it all back.
What else did 1997 have in store for the curious TV anime viewer? Well, there was Saber Marionette J Again (make sure you read the title in an exhausted, resigned voice), a 90s sequel to 80s hero anime Wataru, that Dr. Slump remake that nobody really remembers so it probably didn't happen, that one Moby Dick sci-fi show that took Osamu Dezaki a long time to finish, that other Bible adaptation that took Osamu Dezaki a long time to finish, and of course, Master of Mosquiton '99. No, I don't know why they called a 1997 show “'99,” either. It's probably for the same reason that Blues Brothers 2000 had that “2000” in the title, despite the fact that it came out in 1998. They also made a Berserk anime in 1997. Yep, just like this year!
That's a good testament to just how long-running Berserk is. At this point, we can assume that a large and growing minority of Berserk fans were born after the manga debuted in 1989. The '97 adaptation covers the Black Swordsman and Golden Age arcs, for two reasons: firstly, because it remains the manga's strongest storyline, cementing the compelling Guts and setting up his endlessly adversarial relationship with his turncoat commander, Griffith- and secondly, because covering those two arcs was quite contemporary in '97. As the years dragged on, it became a running gag to suggest that someone finally make new anime covering the manga's later chapters—a gag only exacerbated by the 2012 film trilogy, which also adapted the Golden Age! We eventually got our new Berserk, and its flawed, rushed CG approach has drawn inevitable comparisons to the original anime.
If you ask me, the distance of time really helps to gloss over the fact that the 1997 Berserk TV series is also a showcase of bad, weird animation. It helps that animation mistakes tend to be a bit less noticeable in 2D, and it also helps that the 1997 version has the biggest quantity of the one signature Berserk element that needs to be present for it to work—Susumu Hirasawa's churning, hypnotic music. Hirasawa, whose musical output strikes me as sort of like tossing Philip Glass, Yello, and Peter Gabriel into a centrifuge, has contributed songs to almost all subsequent Berserk media, but he does the entire score for the 1997 series, as well the song “Forces,” which has become iconic and wholly associated with the series. I appreciate Berserk's excellent direction and pacing and dig its atmospheric artwork, especially Kobayashi Production's awesome painting work, but it's the music that has aged the best. Perhaps the show would've really gone over the top if its studio, OLM, weren't so busy with their other project, some show called Pokémon.
The thing is, Berserk is a pretty broad favorite, and Gaogaigar is at least a cult favorite. So let me wrap this installment up by telling you all about the secret best TV anime of 1997 – Battle Athletes Victory. Yeah, that's right, I'm talking about one of Pioneer's old “media mix” deals, where there'd be both a TV and an OVA version. But with Battle Athletes Victory, I'm specifically talking about a TV version of an OVA based on a largely forgotten Sega Saturn game. It's all about cute, stereotypical teen girls competing in futuristic versions of competitive sport events like relay racing, swimming, and of course, a zero-G version of tennis where serious injury is commonplace. Given all of that, how good could it be? I'll just say this: Battle Athletes Victory has a startlingly high capacity to surprise the viewer.
The series is about a young athlete named Akari Kanzaki in competition for the Cosmo Beauty, the title that goes to the best sportswoman on the planet. Akari likes sports, but lacks that killer instinct, and simply doesn't believe that she'll ever surpass her deceased mother, a former Cosmo Beauty who dominated the field in her heyday. Her handlers (including a grand old man who's actually named “Grant Oldman” Haw!) keep insisting that she's got the ingredients for success, she just has to dig deeper. And improbably, Akari keeps squeaking by, qualifying on technicalities and getting through loser's brackets.
Of course, the show's not perfect. It's undermined a bit by clinging to lame character stereotypes. For example, Akari's teammate Tanya is from Africa, so she's kinda nutty and feral! Wait, you mean to tell me Africa is a continent, not a country?! There's also a girl from Hong Kong who's known for scheming and hounded by her success-obsessed family. The American girl is an egotistical, tough-talking kid from the ghetto. The Russian girl is muscular and impersonal. But there's also a wacky moon hippie, a sweet-faced starlet who violently cheated to beat out her more talented sister, and Akari's pal Itchan, the show's moral center, and my favorite loudmouthed, stereotypical Osakan in all of anime. She keeps Akari focused, and reminds her that persistence and guts are what opens the path to victory.
If I had to attribute Battle Athletes Victory's success to one person, it'd be scribe Hideyuki Kurata, one of the most prolific in the business. He wrote most of the series, which finds its best moments in storytelling rather than its straightforward, run-of-the-mill visuals. He also wrote the adaptations of Hellsing Ultimate and Drifters! (He also wrote the adaptation of Oreimo…) As the show progresses and the sports action shifts to an orbital satellite, Akari meets a super-coach kept in suspended animation who talks grandly of sporting miracles and the overwhelming importance of belief. There are meditations on the pain of having long-absent absent family members, the angst of always being second-best, and the complexity of coach-athlete relationships. Battle Athletes Victory really is bigger than the sum of its parts. And why are they selecting a troupe of super-athletes, so far in the future? You'll find out in the final four episodes; it's a pretty wild twist.
The one thing that's always bothered me about BAV is how damn huge Akari's hair is. What kind of track and field athlete gets results without at least tying that forest down into a braid?! Anyway, 1997 also gave us shonen sport fishing masterwork Grander Musashi, squirm-inducing ode to high-school stalking Don't Leave Me Alone, Daisy, and of course, Meremanoid. Wait a minute, what the hell is Meremanoid?!
Some sort of fantasy/horror deal by Triangle Staff, is what. I have never heard of this show! Time to get hunting. After all, I've already seen Those Who Hunt Elves II and Tokyo Pig and an Chuka Ichiban, so I've got to keep working on experiencing the mysteries of 1997. In the meantime, what's your secret favorite TV anime? Is it from 1997? Is it… is it Tenchi in Tokyo? Oh god, please let it not be Tenchi in Tokyo! Talk about it in the comments.
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