The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
Five years ago, I wrote a column about some of the works of Nobuyuki Fukumoto, a manga artist sometimes affectionately called FKMT by his fans. It was a celebration of milestones like Akagi and Kaiji, and several years on, I'm once again watching one of his stories, Mr. Tonegawa: Middle-Management Blues. It feels good to be a fan of the works of Nobuyuki Fukumoto in real time yet again. But the fact is, it feels like we're never too far from the celebrated manga champ of gambling, mahjong, and hard luck schlubs having yet another work ported to the small (or sometimes big) screen.
Tonegawa's interesting, because like most of FKMT's works, it might seem to be about crooks and mid-level yakuza, but it's really about immutable human truths. Kaiji taught us that sometimes the most desperate people are often incredibly authentic and sincere. FKMT's manga hit The Strongest Man Kurosawa might appear to be about a painfully awkward mediocre fortysomething failing over and over, but what it's really about is how discouraging and agonizingly tough it is to connect with people and make friends once you're hitting middle age. Tonegawa, for all of its goons-in-suits and ruthless-enforcer aesthetics, is about the importance of being a good and sensible middle-manager... even if you work for a maniac and it's your job to hurt people. I'm curious to see how far Tonegawa goes, because it's a spinoff of Kaiji, in which Tonegawa himself appeared as a villain.
Anime is brimming with spinoffs; most media is, in fact. The plethora of Marvel Studios films are essentially Iron Man spinoffs. There are Harry Potter spinoffs and Attack on Titan spinoffs and Gundam spinoffs. Sometimes you're lucky enough to get a spinoff of a spinoff, even! Those are pretty rare, but FKMT's done it—his breakthrough hit Akagi, about the exploits of a laconic mahjong savant, is itself a spinoff of his earlier series Ten. Akagi in turn has led to numerous manga tales of Washizu, Akagi's bloodthirsty, vengeful, and weirdly charismatic nemesis. I went through the trouble of tracking down a 4-page Washizu comic by none other than CLAMP; sadly, it's still drawn in Fukumoto's workmanlike style, even though you can kinda tell that Tsubaki Nekoi drew it. Dang it, I was hoping for a weirdly pretty creepy old guy!
But what separates a spinoff from a sequel, and what makes a good spinoff? In the former case, it's pretty simple—a spinoff diverges, instead of continuing the earlier work's main story. For example, the movie Minions is a spinoff, rather than a Despicable Me sequel. The latter question is a little more murky; in this writer's opinion, a good spinoff should address dangling questions from the original, or at least present an intriguing new setting related to the main story. That's what makes Fate/Apocrypha a fairly decent spinoff, but Today's Menu for Emiya Family a really good one!
The Fate universe is lousy with sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, a notable achievement for a franchise that started as a series of nigh-homebrew PC games in the early 2000s. The spinoff cycle cranked up with Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya, a series that tries to toe the line between dizzy magical girl parody and Serious Bizness, with pretty mixed results; it's occasionally charming, but the character of Illyasviel struggles to carry the series. Fate/Apocrypha is a flashy and entertaining action cartoon, and I have to hand it to the show for disavowing any canonical connection to the main story right there in the title. The only element preserved is the Holy Grail battle itself, along with the attendant connections between mages and their servants; from there, it's all about largely unwilling teams of mages and servants duking it out for the right to the grail.
A lot of Fate's most memorable moments are when the onerous mage/servant baggage is abruptly dropped, and the characters behave more like buddies, beleaguered co-workers, or a couple out on a blind date. Today's Menu for Emiya Family really gets this, giving us a setting where protagonist Shirou sets aside his burgeoning magical talents to cook and make smalltalk with his allies and adversaries. There are still moments of high action, even if the action is largely confined to the stovetop, but the show's sum total of pretty animation and endearing character moments serve to make it perhaps more enjoyable than any Fate stuff since the 2014 Unlimited Blade Works redux, and that's including the generally fine Apocrypha! I'm hoping that this show's success leads to a 4-episode ONA lark about Shirou's electronics theory and repair, where he ends the series not by defeating a rival mage and servant, but by replacing the blown capacitors on an old LCD monitor. Bad caps die when they are killed!
In preparation for seeing the franchise's intriguing new movies, I've been chewing my way through one of the great hits of the 2000s, Code Geass. The main series has aged decently—it's still a zippy, absurdly melodramatic tale of the ultimate Special Teen, a CLAMP-drawn tale of imperialism, rebellion, and what it might be like if a character like Char Aznable is totally the good guy this time. Geass's own spinoff, the 5-episode theatrical OVA series Akito the Exiled, is a tougher nut to crack.
I talked earlier about how a good spinoff ought to answer questions or present something new, but Akito never seems to get there. The series is meant to fill in the gap between Code Geass seasons 1 and 2, when the show's protagonist/antagonist Lelouch has been caught and his alter-ego Zero is presumed dead. During that time, the global Empire of Britannia makes a big play to take over Europe; amongst the forces striking back against the Imperium is Akito, the leader of a team of Japanese expats fighting against his homeland's conquerors abroad. Akito claims that he died once, and seems to be connected to Geass, the supernatural force that gives its users strange powers over the people. I don't necessarily expect to see the characters from the main series in a spinoff, and here you only see a couple of them, briefly. But Akito's story just isn't that compelling—when the series sets aside its long scenes of awkward, stilted dialogue (weirder in the English dub, which employs a lot of goofy accents) to get down to the business of slapping around disbelieving aristocrats in their high-powered Knightmare mecha suits, it's pretty good, though. Instead of the original's largely hand-drawn mecha battles, director Kazuki Akane opts for 3DCG. I'm usually not wild about this approach, but here it works pretty well, especially when the story calls for some wonderfully bizarre new Knightmares, like ones that move like scampering insects or a big suit that transforms into a centaur. But the show's visual twists are really all that make it notable.
What was the first really widely popular anime spinoff? I'd argue that it would be UFO Robot Grendizer, but a lot of people consider Grendizer to be more of a sequel, and they have a point. By the time Gundam was all in on spinoffs and side-stories, it was almost 1990. What is undeniably a spinoff is 1988's Fight!! Ramenman, a side-dish for Yudetamago's popular Kinnikuman anime and manga. We never got the original Kinnikuman adapted for these shores, and you can kinda see why—the show has a penchant for exaggeration and caricature that would've been a hard sell even for TV in the 1980s. I mean, just take a gander at this guy:
Man, the 80s was a wild time, alright! Along with the queue and the Fu Manchu mustache, the earliest animated versions of Ramenman also talked with a silly Chinese accent, which was later wisely dropped. Fight!! Ramenman is a reliably fun tournament show, in which our hero avenges the death of his dad, Somenman, by training and defeating a variety of enemies. You could honestly make endless fun spinoffs based on Kinnikuman's popular also-ran wrestlers, like Buffalo Man and Warsman. I'm not sure why Ramenman rose to the top—maybe the secret is in the broth.
I really dig the series Magi, which teams up nominally recognizable versions of heroes from the 1001 Arabian Nights like Aladdin and Ali Baba. Looming large over the show's proceedings is Sinbad, a heroic and powerful friend to the main characters. At the time of Magi's story, Sinbad's already sailed the seven seas, gathering wisdom, allies, and magical treasures to help his cause. Presumably, he also fought Popeye at one point. Magi's version of the character is handsome, well-spoken, handy in a fight, and a generally benevolent monarch, which made him wildly popular in the magazine character rankings.
Not surprisingly, Sinbad soon had a spinoff of his own, Magi: Adventures of Sinbad, chronicling his early exploits and rise to power. This spinoff is pretty effective, even though it has a lot more of Sinbad exploring dungeons and a lot less of Sinbad on boats. Part of the character's appeal in the main Magi story is that he's powerful and worldly, so it's satisfying to see a younger, dumber Sinbad grow into the hero of the mainline narrative. Like most good spinoffs, Sinbad also doesn't require a complete viewing of Magi; it only requires that you like Sinbad, who's probably the most likeable character in the entire damn series. I'm looking forward to the later adventures of Sinbad, in which he dissolves the Sindria Trading Company, becomes a comedian, and stars in a movie where he plays a genie. We all remember that movie, right?
Not all spinoffs hit the right notes like Sinbad does. I actually had to double-check the title of Galaxy Angel Rune, a spinoff so bad that my brain has apparently forcibly expelled it. Rune is rarely actively terrible, but it's a listless and disappointing follow-up to the fun, exuberant original Galaxy Angel. The show's best and worst episode is the one where the original Angel Brigade shows up; you'll be so grateful to see them, you'll momentarily forget you're watching a crappy show.
Some spinoffs tweak major details or shift entirely away from the original cast. The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, however, keeps the same cast of characters and nearly the same setting – just with a surprising shift in focus. The original Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was one of the 2000s biggest hits, anchored by its title character, who comes off as both an energetic heroine and a bullying antagonist. Here, the focus shifts to Yuki Nagato, the quiet, bookish one. Instead of a nearly-silent, brooding alien consciousness, here Nagato is a shy, vulnerable young girl who just has to keep the school literature club going! This approach doesn't always work, but if you have a crush on Nagato (and plenty of fans do) or like to root for the shy and quiet girl over the loud and brassy one, there's a lot to like here.
Armor Hunter Mellowlink is probably the best spinoff in the entire mecha anime genre. This is partly because it's part of the Armored Trooper Votoms universe, and VOTOMS is the secret maybe-best mecha anime ever made, a recognized classic that still not too many fans seem to have seen. It's partly because it stands alone perhaps better than any other spinoff mentioned here, a taut and engrossing war story that hooks up neatly to its predecessor but does not, in any way, require it. Ultimately it works because it's a damn good war story, and an outlier in the world of mecha anime, in which a revenge-driven hero defeats mechanized opponent after opponent, using no mecha of his own. Instead, Mellowlink Arity uses a 10-foot-long armor-piercing sniper rifle, a carefully-managed supply of traps and explosives, and his own panache and cunning to prevail.
Characters from the main VOTOMS story do appear, but only momentarily, in the background, to give you just enough time to remember that this show is part of a larger world. In some ways, you could argue that Mellowlink is better than the main series; you could watch this first and then VOTOMS, and still find both experiences totally coherent and satisfying. Section 23 and Hi-Dive have announced that they picked up the entire VOTOMS animated oeuvre; whether or not this includes Mellowlink hasn't been confirmed yet. I hope it's included.
The magical girl spinoff is an entire subgenre of its own. The Nanoha series started off as a brief gag spinoff, Tenchi Muyo! got a majokko spinoff that's better than the main show in Magical Project S, and there are even manga-only magical girl spinoffs of popular titles like Nisekoi. But none does it better than Nurse Witch Komugi-chan, a deafeningly loud, candy-colored, shamelessly indulgent, and frequently vicious parody spinoff of its progenitor, The SoulTaker. The master series is actually quite good, despite coming out in that early-2000s time when there was a lot of crap out there; it's stylish as hell, and has a more solid and enjoyable “dark hero” story than subsequent tries like Hellsing and Karas gave us. SoulTaker also gave us Komugi Nakahara, a super-powered mutant who betrays her evil masters at the Hospital organization to help out the show's hero.
The character of Komugi seemed at odds with the rest of the show; she was hyper-cute rather than gory and weird, and her helium-pitched voice also stood out. The role was a breakthrough one for seiyuu Halko Momoi, who'd spent several prior years toiling as a street entertainer and indie idol singer in Akihabara. The subsequent Komugi-chan OVA series seems like a natural response to the character's popularity—it lampoons the otaku lifestyle, featuring bad guys who literally jump straight out of 2chan, and a bust-up at Comic Market that turns into a melee. But it also parallels Momoi's career, with the title character Komugi working a series of shit PR and local singing gigs when she isn't saving the world as a magical girl. Her haunted, driven SoulTaker teammates appear as jackass co-workers. The OVA series' bawdy, totally impudent fanservice and unceasing Tatsunoko references are just icing on the cake. I remain forever angry that we never got the two-episode sequel released in the west; a recent series, Nurse Witch Komugi R, is itself a spinoff, one that unfortunately depends almost entirely on gentle character and story references to old Tatsunoko fare.
There are plenty of other spinoffs in the anime world. Lost Universe is a sort of spinoff of Slayers, with the two shows sharing both creative staff and the setting's guardian deity. Naruto's Rock Lee spinoff is kinda fun, but I find it vaguely disappointing that it's a gag comedy. Rock Lee clearly should've been the main Naruto series' protagonist! Angel Links remains a forgettable spinoff to Outlaw Star, and while there are a few hooks that link up Betterman to its predecessor Gaogaigar, an explicit crossover was in the planning later got canceled. Even now, fans in Japan are getting a JoJo's Bizarre Adventure spinoff, one that features Part 4's self-insert character, the manga artist Rohan Kishibe.
I feel like there have to be some notable spinoffs from the 70s that I forgot. Anyone remember any? Finally, what spinoffs would you like to see, readers? It's a fun thing to think about. As for myself, I want a Cowboy Bebop spinoff! Sure, we could go with the easy answer of having the continuing adventures of Jet Black, Private Dick. But what I want is a whole series of Big Shot episodes! That's right, give me zippy profiles of runaway crooks and the weirdo bounty hunters who chase them, presented by absurd cowboy caricature hosts! What's your dream spinoff?!
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