Friday, January 11, 2019

Taking an Unscheduled Break

Unfortunately I will be taking a little bit of a forced break from this blog for a little while. My PC is on the way out (think the hard drive is just about to give up the ghost. Had this PC for 9 years, which is a decent run), so I'll be getting a new one. However no one in my local area does custom PCs (I refuse to go to Harvey Norman for an overpriced one), so I'm going to have to order one online. Been meaning to do this for a long time now, but the impending death of my current PC has finally forced my hand. As a result I won't be doing any more posts for a little while. Hope to be back within a month. It's bit of a shame as I have been on a roll for a little while and have been able to make a post almost every week for a while now.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Obscurities in the Western Connection Catalogue: “Dancougar”

Release Date: 24 April 1995
Format: PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Runtime: 77 mins
Catalogue Number: WEST038
Japanese Title: Chouju Kishin Dancouga: God Bless Dancouga (God Bless Dancougar)
Japanese Production Date: 1987

This is the eighth part in a series of nine articles on the somewhat obscure 1990’s UK based video distributor Western Connection and the anime titles they released in English, titles that no one else bothered to re-release anywhere else. For a run down on what I thought made the company so special, see here.  Continuing on with their 1995 releases, a very productive year for the company, we come to one of the odder tapes they released; the feature length OVA “God Bless Dancougar”, a concluding chapter to the 38 part “Dancouga” TV series which had not been released in English at that point in time. I previously reviewed the 2017 Discotek DVD release of the TV series here. Besides being an odd choice for UK release, what makes this release one of the strangest releases from the company is the baffling state of the video master that licensor Toho gave Western Connection.

Taking place a year or so after the final climatic battle seen in the “Requiem for Victims” OVA, the Earth now seems to be at peace. All members of the Cyber Beast Force (CBF) are still with the military, mostly training new recruits, but some of them have second jobs; Sara is a model and Shinobu performs in a band. Shinobu invites everyone on the team including Professor Hazukito and Laura to one of his live shows. Due to a curfew placed on the city’s residents, everyone is soon forced to disperse, which is lucky for Sara and Shinobu as they still have some unresolved sexual tension from the TV series that needs to be resolved. Both of them have a fight after he says he was kidding when he said that he loved her. They both storm off, but Shinobu soon meets an older woman named Reki Shikishima who invites him to her underground bar. The bar is essentially illegal due to the government imposed night time curfew.

The next day Sara goes to see an old friend of hers from the Space Officer Academy that she hasn't seen before the war. Sayuri was rather timid when Sara first met her, but now she has a doctorate in computer engineering and seems very confident. Sara almost doesn't recognise her at first. The following day the CBF are scrambled as a giant monster, possibly something left over from the Muge Empire invasion, attacks the city. The team are having trouble trying to defeat the monster, and even Professor Hazukito is unable to provide them with any information or tactics to deal with the creature they're fighting. During combat Sayuri contacts Sara and gives her all the data she has on the mysterious creature. Unfortunately a tragedy is about to occur. The fighting closes in Masato's family villa and it is destroyed, instantly killing his father. The monster then self-destructs destroying the city as a result.

The military are furious and detain the CBF for a quick court martial, the result of which has them sent to military prison with hard labour. Inside the prison, Shinobu meets an inmate who asks him if he wants to be part of a break out. Shinobu egarly agrees and uses a compact laser cutter to break out of his cell that night. He then heads for the rendezvous point the inmate told him about. There he is surprised to find Masato and Ryo, but Sara isn't with them. The inmare tells the other CBF teammates that she has been rescued by Sayuri. He leads them to an abandoned subway beneath a building where they meet the Black Knights. They were the team of fighters formed by Alan, the man known as “The Black Knight” who piloted the black beast warrior machine and helped out the CBF from time to time in the TV series. Although their leader is now gone and they are no longer fighting an alien enemy, they still operate as a guerrilla squad, fighting the government. Before they can explain their actions, the guards from the prison find them and fire upon them. The Black Knights team tell them to escape and to go to the bar where Shinobu first met Reki.

When the three CBF team members arrive, Reki tells them that she was the Black Knight’s girlfriend, and that she has carried on his legacy. Professor Hazukito is also there and tells them that he is involved in this too. He explains that Sayuri is planning to control the world by the use of a super computer and the government has become tyrannical. Somehow Sayuri has managed to create a computer that lives off data and this computer has created a new dimension that might cause the world to vanish into dimensional space if it isn't stopped. Not only that, Sayuri has kidnapped Sara. The CBF members set off to defeat Sayuri and rescue Sara, but unbeknown to them Emperor Muge is alive and well, and it is he who is behind this plan.

This OVA is quite a decent follow up to the TV series and somewhat lacklustre “Requiem for Victims” OVA. While I felt the story was a bit weak when compared to the storylines of the TV series, the animation more than makes up for that. For the most part it's really fluid and the designs benefit a great deal from the extra attention paid to them. In particular the transformation and battle sequences are much more realistic and exciting here than they were in the TV series. The Dancougar transformation scene benefits the most here and you can clearly see how all four beasts fit together. The sequence is lovingly animated and detailed. Confusingly after the climactic battle in this OVA, a short pop video like sequence with the CBF playing instruments as a band and singing a song is inserted just before we see the conclusion of the story. Not sure what the idea was behind that. It just comes off as odd or perhaps a rather cynical attempt to advertise the soundtrack.

Unfortunately the mind boggles at the reasoning behind this release from Western Connection. This tape was released over a year before the “Dancougar” TV series began being released in the US on VHS by Software Sculptors. “Dancougar” never played on TV in the UK either, so why in hell would they pick it for UK distribution? While you could probably understand the OVA to degree without watching the TV series, it’s far more beneficial to do so. UK viewers must have been utterly confused as to who these people were and what they were doing. The wedding sequence at the end of the film must have bamboozled them completely. I can just see hundreds of UK viewers saying “where the hell did this girl come from?”. I bet some viewers must have concluded that all of her scenes prior to the wedding sequence had been deleted from the video.

But that’s not the weirdest aspect to this release. Toho have given western Connection a very odd master of this OVA indeed. Apart from the title sequence being edited with stock footage to remove the “God Bless Dancouga” title card (maybe Toho thought western viewers would be offended by the title?), you can frequently see the edges of where the paint stops near the top and bottom of the animation cels. The first thing I noticed while watching this OVA was I could sometimes see through the cels to the backgrounds at the top and bottom of the screen. As the film progressed, legs and heads disappeared as they got closer to the top and bottom of the screen, explosions stopped at the top and bottom of the screen as well, people became floating torsos and occasionally in close-ups of character’s heads, they suddenly had bald spots then miraculously grew their hair back within milliseconds (click on images to enlarge);

So what in hell was going on? It would seem this OVA was shot in a “open matte” aspect, possibly for dual TV/theatrical distribution. This was a very common practice in the 1980’s for theatrical anime. What used to happen with anime films in this era was that they were shot in an “open matte” format (i.e. 4:3 ratio, same as a normal TV screen), then matted into theatrical ratio for theatrical distribution (i.e. the top and bottom of picture blacked out so it was the same as the theatrical ratio, “vista” size, 16:9 ratio). This way when it was later shown on TV or for video distribution, there was no need for an expensive pan and scan conversion since it was originally filmed in a 4:3 TV sized format. What doesn't make sense however is why the camera operators have filmed “God Bless Dancouga” in a way so you could see where the tops and bottoms of cels had ended (the painters and animators only paint and draw what needs to be shown in a shot or frame, nothing more. Characters don't usually take up a whole cel from top to bottom).

The end result in a 4:3 format is pretty distracting at times and I don't understand at all why they've done it. It's just done in a completely half-arsed manner. There's no way in hell this is suitable for a 4:3 ratio TV broadcast. It seems so damn unprofessional. I just don't know what to make of it. I've never seen anything like it before I saw this tape. Oddly the OVA was never given a theatrical release as far as I can tell. The Japanese laserdisc and VHS versions of the OVA are “faux widescreen”, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, covering the “unfinished bits” in the original open matte print. One wonders why the film wasn’t shot in widescreen format to begin with. Perhaps the idea was to give it a theatrical look and this was decided on very late into production. I guess we’ll never know. The master given to Western Connection is pretty scratchy and the sound is quite muffled and somewhat tinny too. Somehow I get the feeling Toho just gave them the crappiest master they could find.

Western Connection's production is also up to their usual crappy standards. The subtitle timing is a little off as per usual but more spot on than some of their other titles. Surprisingly some of the translation isn’t great. Some of the lines don’t make a lot of sense. As for the VHS slick, instead doing the usual and taking the synopsis from a Anime UK/Anime FX review, they've actually written one themselves. However it misspells or makes up character names (who the hell are Shino, Rat and Masa?) and borders on the edge on being incomprehensible. In fact it's complete dribble and barely makes sense. Bizarrely two of the three pictures on the back of the cover of the tape aren't even from this OVA. One is a shot seems to be from the concluding “Dancouga” OVA series “White Hot Final Chapter” (which hasn't been released commercially in English anywhere in the world yet and most likely it will never be). The other picture isn’t even from the “Dancouga” franchise at all. It’s from “Ai City”, another Toho movie that Western Connection released as “Love City”.

This is another bizarre release that has seemingly been dumped into the UK market for no apparent reason (other than the fact it was part of a package deal Western Connection struck with Toho). Unless you had seen the TV series, you'd end up scratching you head many times during the show wondering what the hell is going on. A lot of stuff from the TV series is referenced during the OVA. This is not a standalone OVA by any means. The original reason I got this tape was I that had watched the US VHS release of the TV series and wanted to see what happens next. Of course by the time the TV series had been released in the US (in 1996), Western Connection had disappeared off the face of the Earth and this tape wasn't being sold in the UK anymore. While this this nonsense was quite frustrating for fans, it was fairly common practice at the time. Licensing an OVA or film is far less risky than a long TV series, even if viewers really need to see the TV series first if they are to make heads or tails of the OVA or film.

It's nearly impossible to find this tape. It’s not listed on Amazon UK like the majority of other Western Connection titles and I’ve never seen it for sale on eBay. I had real difficulty trying to get a copy until I discovered somebody selling off their personal anime collection and offered them a decent price for it some 15 or so years ago. I don't know if it was worth all the effort to find it as the story and plot are a little silly and trite. The state of the master used for UK VHS release would also dissuade even the most hard core fans of the franchise from tracking the tape down. Still it's a decent robot anime and I got some kicks out of it, plus the animation is very good for a mid-1980's production. I would have thought that Discotek might licence and release this OVA plus the remaining OVAs to complement their “Dancouga” TV series DVD release. To date this hasn’t happened which is a bit of a shame.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Anime Blu-Rays You May Have Missed: “Library War: The Wings of Revolution”

Japanese Title: Toshokan Senso: Kakumei no Tsubasa (Library War: The Wings of Revolution)
Publisher: Kadokawa Shoten (Japan)
Format: Region Free Blu-ray, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English and Japanese Subtitles
Length: 105 mins
Production Date: 2012
English Version Release Date: 25 January 2013
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Debuting in the same season as the much hyped second series of “Code Geass”, as well as “Macross Frontier”, “Kaiba” and a whole slew of ongoing anime series based on very popular shonen manga titles, its little wonder that the original 2008 TV series of “Library War” was lost and forgotten by many anime fans (despite finally getting an English language DVD release from by Discotek in August 2015). Naturally this follow up movie had even less chance of being noticed by English speaking fans, despite the fact the Japanese blu-ray came with optional English subtitles. Based upon an extremely popular series of light novels aimed at young women by Hiro Arikawa, the series was turned into a 13 part anime TV series by Production I.G and broadcast on Fuji TV's noitaminA programming block.

The franchise takes place in an alternate Japan where the current era, the Heisei era, never happened. Instead in 1989 the Seika era began. This new era ushered in a wave of heavy handed censorship with the government issuing the Media Betterment Act (MBA) as law which allows the censorship of any media deemed to be potentially harmful to Japanese society. In order to police the media, the Media Betterment Committee (MBC) was created to enforce the law and target individuals, organisations and companies that flouted the MBA. However opposing this new Act and the MBC were local governments. They formed units to defend libraries and a new law was created; the Freedom of the Libraries Law. As both sides eventually resorted to violence, things came to a head in a major conflict between the two factions that occurred at the public library in Hino, Tokyo in February 1999, where a group siding with the Media Betterment Act raided the library. Several people died including Kazuichi Inamine’s wife. As a result Kazuichi created the Library Defence Force (LDF), a paramilitary organisation which serves to defend libraries against the Media Betterment Committee’s troops and their factions.

The anime adaptation however begins in 2019, where we are introduced to new recruit Iku Kasahara. She decided to join the LDF after encountering one of its members who saved her after being harassed by a MBC troop in a bookshop who wanted to confiscate the book she wanted to buy. Kasahara considers the man who saved her to be her prince. While she is quite proficient at the military side of her job, her librarian skills aren’t so great. She is always being chewed out by her commanding officer Atsushi Dojo. Neither of them gets along too well with the other (yes, of course they develop romantic feelings for each other!). Kasahara is roommates at her dorm with Asako Shibasaki. Shibasaki is a Library Clerk First Class, but also an intelligence specialist who is exceptional at gathering information. She also is very caring of Kasahara and is always helping her out. The series veers from “slice of life” light-hearted comedy and drama mixed with romantic undertones from our two leads (Kasahara and Dojo) to full on battles with the MBC wrapped in the politics of censorship and issues to do with freedom of speech.

The series ends with a major offensive from the MBC on an art exhibition. The LDF’s captain, Ryusuke Genda, is severely wounded along with Dojo, who luckily soon recovers. The brother of LDF member Hikaru Tezuka, (Satoshi Tezuka, leader of the Library Future Planning Committee, who opposes censorship, but also wants to shut down the LDF), manages to manipulate media stories in order to have them more favourable to the LDF. Even so, due to the casualties on the side of the MBC, Kazuichi Inamine takes responsibility and steps down as head of the LDF. This movie begins sometime after the end of the TV series, in the first or second month of 2022. While Kasahara prepares to go out a café with Dojo (though she denies that it’s a date), Shibasaski watches a news report on TV about a military helicopter crashing into the side of a nuclear reactor in Tsuruga, Fukui prefecture. She decides to say in the dorm room as it may be a developing story which could affect the LDF.

Kasahara and Dojo meet up, go to the café and later decide to head out to see a film. But before they can even reach the cinema they are both recalled back to work as an emergency has been declared. Upon arriving back at barracks, they spot several MBC agents in suits outside. Determined to get inside they barge past them, however it seems they aren’t there to stop LDF officers from getting in. Inside Kasahara and Dojo are given new orders; they are to be security detail to author Kurato Touma. Dojo is huge fan of his work and almost overeager to comply. It is explained that Kurato is being sought by the MBC as his novel “Nuclear Peril” has a plot similar to the crisis developing at the nuclear reactor in Tsuruga. The government believe that terrorists have copied the plot from the book and have put a warrant out for Kurato’s arrest. However the LDF want to defend Kurato and are horrified that the MBC is now going after authors. They attempt to have an injunction put in place for Kurato’s arrest.

Later that night, Library Future Planning Committee agents break into the dorms, attempt to abduct Kurato and turn him in. Hikaru Tezuka is livid at the actions of his brother. Shibasaki and Hikaru discuss what has happened so far and start to suspect the attack on the nuclear reactor in Tsuruga is a false flag in order to further expand the scope of the MBC to target and silence authors. Via Hikaru’s connections to his brother, Shibasaki manages to influence Satoshi Tezuka in order for him to speak favourably of the LDF and publicly question the role of censorship in society. This later causes someone sympathetic to the MBC to attempt an assassination on him. Meanwhile the LDF covertly transfer Kurato to the residence of Kazuichi Inamine into order to shield him from any attacks from the MBC. As they wait for the upcoming court decision, the housekeeper tips them off that she was questioned by MBC agents to Kurato’s whereabouts.

The MBC infiltrate Kazuichi’s residence, but Kasahara and Dojo have already initiated an audacious plan to get Kurato to safety. The MBC try to stop them by any means including firing live bullets at their car, but ultimately fail. Video of the MBC’s incredibly violent actions in attempting to stop Kurato's escape reach a local TV station who broadcast it. The public are disgusted at the MBC’s actions; however the station is shut down for a day by the MBC for violating the Media Betterment Act. Knowing they practically have no chance in winning the court case and that Kurato will be forced to stop writing or worse, locked up for good, the LDF try to come up with a new plan to protect Kurato. Kasahara suggests the idea of him asking for asylum at one of the embassies. The court case verdict comes down and Kurato is bared from writing for five years until they capture the terrorists. Kasahara and Dojo first attempt to get Kurato to the Dutch embassy then when that fails, to the British one, but are blocked by MBC agents at every turn. Worse is to come with Dojo being hit by a bullet in the leg. However Kasahara refuses to leave him behind or give up on getting asylum for Kurato.

While the bulk of both the TV series and movie is mostly concerned with the relationships of the cast, mainly the “will they are won’t they” romantic feelings between Kasahara and Dojo, the politics and ethics behind censorship also play almost an equal role in the anime. The basis of the Freedom of the Library Law which protects libraries from censorship in the anime is actually derived from a real act in Japan called Statement on Intellectual Freedom in Libraries. In that act it essentially states that libraries should have the freedom in collecting and offering materials, guarantying the privacy of users and opposing censorship. While not explicitly referencing it, I suspect the heavily criticised Tokyo Metropolitan Ordinance Regarding the Healthy Development of Youths may have been an influence on the franchise. It does sound quite similar to the Media Betterment Act.

While the actions and uniforms of the Media Betterment Committee agents in the TV series scream “fascism”, the movie amps this up even further. The pre-credit sequence shows agents raiding the main branch of Kinokuniya Book Shop in Shinjuku, loading up several trucks worth of books then depicting them being taken to a large industrial incinerator complex and being dumped to individual incinerators by dump trucks. Unlike the TV series which shied away from showing mass book burning, here it makes no bones about the fact that it is done literally on a large industrial scale. Also not explicitly shown in the TV series was the censorship of mass media in regards to how the actions of the Media Betterment Committee agents are reported. In the movie it is made clear that any criticism of them would be met with sanctions against the offending TV station or paper.

Like the TV series, the film does have a large focus on the interpersonal relationships of the cast. Of course the main relationship is the burgeoning one between Kasahara and Dojo, which after being teased out over the course of the TV series finally comes to full fruition in the film. Several spanners are thrown into the works along the way including a new character, Kojima Kiyoshi, a woman Kasahara’s age who works at Kinokuniya and was saved by Dojo when the MBC agents raided her store, much in the same way Dojo shielded Kasahara form them. She plays a larger role towards the end of the film, but early on she runs into Kasahara and Dojo on the street asking Dojo if he would like to work for her. This new development of course doesn’t play too well with Kasahara. The other major romantic relationship which develops is between Shibasaski and Hikaru Tezuka, which in part leads into the subplot of Shibasaki cosying up to Satoshi Tezuka in order to make the media’s portrayal of the LDF more favourable.

However due to the heavy emphasis on the main characters and their relationships, as well the somewhat dry lead up to the injunction to Kurato’s detainment, the movie doesn’t really kick into gear until almost half way through. Once it does however, the action sequences are pretty spectacular, albeit in limited supply and perhaps a little over the top. However this is also one of the problems with the anime franchise as a whole. The over the top actions between both warning camps who are defending what amounts to a few books seems absurd, especially when there doesn’t seems to be any restrictions on other forms of media such as the internet (which is barely mentioned at all in the series or film). However the actions sequences are to a degree depicted in a more realistic light in the movie. The latter part of the movie shifts the film’s location to Osaka as Kasahara attempts to get Kurato into one of the city’s consulates so he can claim asylum. However this section of the film contains some of the worst Osakaian clichés imaginable, including the abuse of the local accent.

The animation for the film, like the TV series, was produced by Production I.G with Takayuki Hamana (director of “Prince of Tennis” and the recent “Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha” films) returning as director. For the most part it’s decently animated though doesn’t really rise above the quality of the earlier TV series. The cartoonish moments in the TV series, which mostly involve Kasahara reacting to Dojo, are not present and as a whole the tone of the film is far more steeped in realism and the politics surrounding the LDF due to the fact they have taken on Kurato’s case. The movie was released in two blu-ray versions by Kadokawa Shoten; a single disc version and special edition with one blu-ray and two DVDs; one also containing the film (which bizarrely doesn’t include English subtitles unlike the blu-ray) and the second with 94 minutes of extras including two radio shows, behind scenes of the recording of the soundtrack and the staff and cast at the opening day of the film. It also included a small hard cover picture book which is the same children’s book Kurato wants to write in the film. The box set also includes brand new artwork on the digipak and outer box and a flyer for the then upcoming live action film adaption.

Overall I can probably only recommend this movie to those who know and like the TV series. Due to the fact there are several flashbacks in the first part of the film, it’s fairly easy to watch it without any prior knowledge of the TV series or novels, but it would make the experience far more rewarding. The early part of the film is mostly preoccupied with tying up some loose ends from the TV series as well reintroducing some bit players, but also conveying the plot of the movie in regards to Media Betterment Committee wanting to detain Kurato Touma and the LDF filing an injunction to stop this. It really is a lot of elements to keep track of. I think for the most part the screenwriter and director manage to juggle all of those elements fairly well. However some parts are glossed over or just forgotten about. For example several characters claim that the terrorist attack on the nuclear reactor was set up in order to further clamp down on authors. However this is only mentioned twice in the film in passing and never followed up. The second half of the film is far more exciting and action filled, but it can become a little bit silly at times. However I think on balance both the TV series and film are worth your time. It has been over three years since Discotek released the TV series and it seems a little unlikely at this stage they will release the film. Luckily both editions of the blu-ray are still in print in Japan. The single disc version will set you back ¥5,800, the special edition set costs ¥7,800. Both can also be found in the second hard market for less.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Forgotten Anime: “Blue Sonnet”

Distributor: US Manga Corps (Central Park Media, USA)
Original Year of Release: 1989 - 1990
English Video Release: 1994 - 1995, NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles (also released as a NTSC Laserdisc, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles in 1995 and PAL VHS, English Dubbed in 1996, in the UK)
Japanese Title: Red Fang Blue Sonnet (Akai Kiba Blue Sonnet)
Runtime: 5 episodes x 30 mins

Sonnet Barje grew up in the slums of an unnamed US city. After being treated in an extremely cruel manner by a group of men, she discovers that she has the power of telekinesis and ends up taking revenge. Later she is rescued by Dr Merikus and who transforms her into a cyborg for the evil organisation Talon. A test in the Arizona desert, where Sonnet takes on and defeats a platoon of tanks and helicopter gunship, shows she can take on whole armies with the use of her heightened ESP solely by herself. Dr Merikus sends Sonnet to Tokyo to investigate a girl named Lan Komatsuzaki. Dr Merikus believes she is the “Red Fang”, an “esper” from a long line of Ancients who possessed incredible powers. Sonnet transfers into Osei High, Lan’s school, where Sonnet gains a reputation as being a “super lady”. She can speak seven languages, tops all her classes and is exceptional in any sport she plays. Lan however feels a certain unease about Sonnet and is wary of her. When she tells her guardian, investigative journalist and author Jin Kiryu, he laughs it off. He has taken care of Lan since she was small, and reminds her that her abilities as an esper are a gift and though she should show anyone her powers, she isn’t a monster. However Kiryu is aware that something inside Lan is changing her.

To test the hypotheses that Lan is an esper, Sonnet begins to create a series of accidents to force Lan to use her power. Sonnet telepathically drops a large neon sign on top of Lan and her friend Naru as they walk to school, but Lan moves the sign reflexively with her powers, out of harm’s way. This leads Lan to be more suspicious of Sonnet. Later that weekend, Naru, Lan and her half-brother Wataru head to the Japanese Formula One race as they received free tickets from Kiryu who was unable to attend due to work. In one of the corporate boxes above the general seating, Sonnet devises another accident in which she makes one of the race cars veer out of control and crash. This causes a chain reaction of accidents and eventually one of the race cars is flung high over the safety barrier into the crowd and into the path of Lan, Naru and Wataru. Lan almost subconsciously calls her powers and flings the car to the top of the corporate boxes, out of harm’s way. However Wataru has been badly injured. A man named Shuichi Torigai helps the group and goes with them to the hospital. Lan tells the ambulance officers that she has the same bloody type as Wataru and offers her blood for a transfusion.

Soon Wataru’s condition is stable. Torigai warns Lan to be careful of Sonnet as he leaves. She is rather surprised at this advice and tells Kiryu that she feels that Sonnet is after her. Sonnet is convinced Lan is the Red Fang. Dr Merikus arrives in Japan to confirm. He is greeted at the airport by representatives of Talon’s Japanese front, Azumi Industries. But upon travelling to the company’s experimental base in Narita, a group of bikers force them off the road and attempt to take Sonnet hostage (because as we all know, Japan is full of violent “Mad Max” style bikie gangs that attack people constantly). After making sure there are no witnesses present, Dr Merikus gives Sonnet the go ahead to dispose of the bikers. This display shocks the two representatives from Azumi, however they are also impressed. On a hunch Kiryu begins to investigate Azumi Industries after he learns that they are researching psychic powers as well as cyborg technology. The investigation takes him out of town which gives Talon a chance to pounce on Lan.

Dr Merikus orders Azumi agents to pose as policemen to trick Lan into thinking Kiryu has been hurt in an accident and take her out on a ship. There they lock her up, and Dr Merikus tells her that if she doesn't teleport, a time bomb will explode killing her and destroying the ship.While at first she panics and resists her captor’s request, eventually at the last second before the bomb explodes, Lan teleports and escapes. Dr Merikus has now confirmed she is the Red Fang and proceeds to the next stage of his plan. Knowing that Talon is after them, Kiryu decides to take Lan to an Esper expert, Dr Onagara. Although initially dismissive, Onagara is soon convinced of her power when Lan senses his granddaughter watching her, and later his horribly disfigured daughter Yuri, also an Esper. Onagara suspects that Lan has a hidden personality and she is suppressing her powers. After a number of tests where in one she leaves his house in ruins while under hypnosis, he concludes that she has complete control over her power. It's only recently that it has become more powerful. This due to the fact that she is finally "developing" as a woman (she's 17 but has only just gone through the final stages of puberty). Through the hypnosis, Lan also discovers that when she was young is was involved in a plane accident and was raised by wolves for the first few years of her life!

Unfortunately for Dr Onagara and his guests, Talon agents including Sonnet and Dr Merikus surround the house and take Lan and Kiryu forcefully. Dr Merikus orders them to kill Onagara, his assistant and his granddaughter, but Sonnet, who is beginning to question his tactics, secretly stops the bullets from killing them. The Talon agents set the house ablaze, but Onagara's assistant, daughter and grandchild are saved by Wataru and Torigai (or as Wataru nicknamed him, Bird). Bird reveals himself to be a prototype cyborg that Dr Merikus created. He rebelled and now fights against Talon. Meanwhile Lan and Kiryu have been taken to a secret laboratory. Talon wants to make clones of Lan so that they can have an army of Espers to do their bidding, and forcibly remove ovum from her to be planted into two surrogate mothers and a mechanical womb. Bird, Yuri and Wataru attempt to hatch a plan to rescue Kiryu and Lan.

I first saw this series in about 1996 when I started to get into anime quite heavily. I saw an advert of a local anime club, and I just wanted to come along to see some “Patlabor” TV episodes (the first two films had just been commercially released in Australia). However the club was also screening the first episode of “Blue Sonnet” that day. I was hooked. This show plays like a well written B-grade/exploitation flick. There's gratuitous violence, a bit of fanservice and nudity, 1970's-like superhero elements (a la Tatsunoko superhero shows like "Hurricane Polymar") and it's just completely over the top in just about every aspect. The oddest thing I discovered about this series was that was based upon a shoujo manga. Yes that's right. It began in the shoujo anthology “Hana to Yume” in 1975 and eventually finished in 1989. The manga which the OVA itself is based upon is actually called “Akai Kiba (Crimson Fang)” and the story is taken from an arc called “Blue Sonnet”. The manga was written by Masahiro Shibata whose only work published in English has been “Sarai” which was published by Comics One.

From what I’ve seen the OVA, like the manga does have a load of violence and nudity in it. Girls love exploding heads and naked women apparently. It’s kind of hard to fathom really. But then again look at the violence and bloodshed in CLAMP's “X” manga. However I think producers of the “Blue Sonnet” anime may have decided to amp up the violence and nudity content to make it more appealing to male viewers. Even though Sonnet is the bad guy, you really feel for her, especially after the opening sequence which shows her back story. She's been abused sexually, raped and is forced to be a prostitute. Of course she later violently kills the evil men that did this to her with the use of ESP. During the series Sonnet begins to change after she goes to school for the first time and realises what a normal life is like. She begins to question her life of violence and killing. The opening animation also shows Lan attacking Sonnet with her powers. This unfortunately doesn't happen in any of the episodes. Lan is just a normal reserved girl, except for the fact she has ESP, but she never lets anyone know she has it. She only uses it when she's in danger or upset, and then it's used almost subconsciously.

As the manga was rather long, it’s no surprise that there's a lot of storyline compacted into the five episodes, so with this review I had to cut out mentioning a lot of the minor characters and incidents that appear in the show. There are some real beauties. Dr Onagara's daughter, Yuri, helps out Lan when the Talon agents attack Onagara's house. Her back story is great. She was living with her boyfriend and has had a daughter with him. Yuri is a strong Esper, and Onagara wants her back to perform experiments on her. She won't go, so he tells the boyfriend about her abilities, and he leaves her. Absolutely depressed she attempts to kill Onagara and then throws herself on a fire. She is saved by Onagara's assistant, but due to injuries from the fire ends up a mute, blind and horribly disfigured for life. In another short sequence Lan has reoccurring nightmares of herself being carried nude by black hooded men towards a satanic looking altar. My absolute favourite scene though occurs in the fourth episode. Lan tries to escape from the lab with one of surrogate mothers. They head down a chute to escape guards and end up in a big vat of dismembered body parts and dead foetuses. Later, still trapped in the vat, the surrogate mother goes insane and cuddles one of the foetuses screaming that it's her baby and no one can take from her. Truly top grade horror-exploitation there. Still with all the horror and gratuitous exploitation-like atmosphere, the show never seems to take itself seriously. This is why it works so well.

The only real negatives of the show are the animation which isn't that spectacular for its time, especially for an OVA series. There’s also the lack of a conclusive ending. Will Lan and Bird continue to fight Talon? Will Sonnet finally rebel against Dr Merikus? Annoyingly these questions aren't answered in the anime. Like a lot of short OVAs based upon long running manga series, the series partly seems to be a ploy to get people to buy the manga to see what happens next. This OVA was released by Central Park Media (CPM) at a time when they had a dubbing deal with Manga Video in the UK. Manga dubbed a lot of their early titles, mainly because it was cheaper I suppose. Dubs like “Project A-ko” and “Dominion Tank Police” were a part of this deal. For whatever reason Manga didn't take on this project until two years after the US release. CPM didn't release it dubbed in the US either. It's a bit unfortunate as it's a really underappreciated anime.

Even though it may look like another needlessly violent anime that distributors jumped on in the early 1990's in spite of that fact, it is a really good show. It's origins from a shoujo manga probably helped the series have more depth than it would of had if it was an original screenplay. I really love this show so much that it was one of the anime which inspired me to review these out of print gems. The show hasn't been re-issued on DVD in Japan, so it looks like this is another anime title that will be lost forever. It's such a shame really. The good news is that despite being out of print for close to two decades, copies of the US and UK VHS tapes can still be easily found in the second hand market. “Blue Sonnet” is a hard anime to recommend to people. New fans will probably get turned off by the animation. Old fans might dismiss it as another overly violent anime that western anime distributors jumped on to make a quick buck. It's anything but that. It's a strange mix of violence, B-grade action, horror with elements of ESP and shoujo manga. It's a completely unapologetic action/horror series that's incredibly fun to watch. If you want something completely different from your average 1980's OVA anime, hunt down a copy of this series.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Dead English Language Anime Magazines: “V.Max”

Publisher: V.Max, Newtype Press, Newtype Publishing, R. Talsorian Games
Format: 210mm x 280mm (Standard Magazine Size)
Genre/Type: Anime, Manga, Tokusatsu, Anime Music, Model Kits, Role Playing Games, Convention and Fandom Events Coverage
Years Active: 1991 – 1996
Issues Published: 17

As San Francisco Bay Area based anime magazine Animag entered the 1990’s, several internal issues within the magazine’s staff and its publisher, Pacific Rim, caused a major rift. Though the magazine did survive the internal and external conflicts, several staff left Animag for good. This included Animag’s co-founder, Matthew Anacleto, who was reportedly so frustrated with chaos at Animag that he along with other ex-staff created their own magazine; V.Max. Though not explicitly stated in the magazine itself, though referred to in a line below the masthead, V.Max was intended to be an upgrade of the A.N.I.M.E. (Animation of Nippon Inter-Mediary Exchange) newsletter. That newsletter was the original newsletter of the fan collective/club that Animag was born from. The title of the magazine, V.Max, was taken from the mid 1980’s anime series “Blue Comet SPT Layzner”. In that series, the titular robot’s A.I. system Fouron could engage a high performance system named V-Max at will.

Like other magazines of the era,V.Max had similar content; several anime and manga series profiles, a rundown of several new OVA releases, CD soundtrack reviews, a short one page profile of someone in the anime industry, a somewhat light-hearted news section and lists of Japanese laserdisc releases which of course included catalogue numbers so you could order them. The magazine was initially bi-monthly and ran for 28 pages in black and white with a colour cover. With the exception of CD soundtrack reviews, no actually critical review appeared at this stage of the magazine’s life. Instead there were only short synopses of anime and manga. An editorial from editor Chris Keller explained that it wasn’t the magazine’s job to tell the reader what they should or shouldn’t watch. They would only provide information and it would be up to reader to decide. The magazine also included lyrics or quotes from various anime which began on the cover and concluded on the contents page. This was a rather cute idea, but it only lasted until the sixth issue.

As per other English language magazines of the era, the subjects chosen for the more in-depth articles were usually the more popular titles amongst US anime fandom of the time; “Nadia of the Mysterious Seas”, “Video Girl Ai”, “Legend of the Galactic Heroes”, “Gundam”, “Record of Lodoss Wars” and “Patlabor”. Profiles of anime staff also were of people who were well known to fandom at the time; Naoyuki Onda, Hideaki Anno and Yasuhiko Yoshikazu. Interesting titbits in early issues included a report in the news section that in a Japanese supernatural magazine Go Nagai claimed that real demons were models for the creatures that inhabit his manga. Make of that what you will. Several conventions of the era were also comprehensively covered. Of most interest was coverage of Anime Expo ’92, held in San Jose, California in July. Though not sufficiently titled or explained, one photograph seems to show guests Haruhiko Mikimoto, Buichi Terasawa and Yoshiyuki Tomino performing karaoke!

As further issues of the magazine were released, it became quite apparent that the staff really didn’t think much of any English language adaption made for the US market, be it manga, or English dubbed or even English subtitled VHS tapes. The two main targets seemed to be Viz Communications and of course Streamline Pictures. The report on the Streamline Pictures panel at the Anime Expo ’92 was rather scathing. It stated that Carl Macek implied that “Robotech” was far better than “Macross” and that the core target of Streamline Pictures’ dubbed VHS tapes were people who “live in trailer parks watching TV and eating fish head sandwiches”. Not sure if this quote was 100%  accurate, but I think we all know that at time Macek could come across as bit of a narcissist and was often rather critical or downright hostile to anime fandom. While I think a far bit of criticism and bile directed towards him by elements in fandom was way out of line, its little wonder he pissed off a large section of fandom.

By mid-1993, things had changed substantially for the magazine. In the seventh issue it was announced that local model and garage kit shop Newtype had taken the publishing reins. The news section was gone. Profiles of newly released Japanese OVAs as well as the CD soundtrack reviews were replaced with reviews of locally released English language tapes, Japanese and some US CD soundtrack releases and an addition of video game reviews. And because a plastic model and garage kit shop was running the show, the magazine now included lengthy reviews of a garage kits. A fan art page was also added. By this time the magazine ballooned to 40 pages in length. In this short era of the magazine, it continued to stick to its core coverage of two or three manga and anime features as well as listing new and forthcoming Japanese laserdiscs and whatever new dubbed and subbed VHS tapes were being released in the US. Three big names in the anime industry were also interviewed for the magazine; Koichi Ohata (mecha designer and director of the infamous OVAs “M.D. Geist” and “Genocyber”), Haruka Takachiho (author of the “Dirty Pair” and “Crusher Joe” novels) and legendary Japanese voice actor Megumi Hayashibara.

Only after three issues, the era of Newtype running the show was over. Enter R. Talsorian Games, a role playing game company best known for their games “Mekton”, “Cyberpunk 2020” and their adaptation of “Dragonball Z”. In some ways they were a perfect fit for the magazine, but in some ways they weren’t. The first major change was the magazine went from bi-monthly to quarterly. The list of new and upcoming Japanese and US releases disappeared and the fan art page only continued to appear sporadically until it eventually disappeared altogether. Worst of all R. Talsorian Games devoted least eight pages to its anime related role playing games each issue. Despite the fairly sickening self-promotion by its new commercial publisher, V.Max continued to produce the same high quality articles on various anime and manga including features on “Yu Yu Hakausho”, “Compiler”, “Gatchaman” and more obscure manga such as “Desert Rose”.

This new era of the magazine also included a large focus on fandom, and not just reports on local US anime conventions. The very first issue of the R. Talsorian Games era included a report on Comic Market 45 (aka Comiket), the winter 1993 edition of Japan’s largest and most insane doujinshi festival. Written by then overseas coordinator for the Comiket organisation committee, US ex-pat Chris Swett, it gives a short but informative run down of the event. A more lengthy sidebar article presents a more detailed history of the event with a comment from the chair of Comiket welcoming foreign participants as well as an address to obtain more information on how to get a table at Comiket. I believe this is the very first time Comiket was profiled (or even mentioned) in an English language publication. A few issues later the recently opened Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture (half an hour from Osaka by train) was profiled.

The author of the sidebar article on Comiket was the infamous K.J. Karvonen. He gained quite a reputation due to a review of a book and various articles and opinions written for Hawaiian based anime magazine Animeco. I won’t be going into what he wrote or why his views were not appreciated (to put it mildly) in the US anime community at the time as I will be looking at Animeco sometime down the track. At any rate, Karvonen got his own regular column in the magazine in late 1994 called Otaku World. While his article on Comiket might have been informative and measured, his writing (and rantings) in Otaku World weren’t. His first article about Rumiko Takahashi’s panel at the San Diego Comicon in August 1994, wasn’t too bad. It did however get a little worse from there on. He got his wife, Tery, to write up a perspective on fandom from the viewpoint of female anime fans. Tery, being a comic book artist, supplied the drawings for the article as well. It’s as you’d expect and terribly fanish. A latter article on Canadian anime fans, in particular the Vancouver Japanese Animation Society and its fansub offshoot, the infamous Arctic Animation was just as embarrassingly fanish. Editor Chris Keller’s promise in the very first issue that it would never navel gaze or pander to this stuff seemed a rather hollow one.

However I did enjoy the two part interview that Karvonen did with Running Ink Productions, a fan powered animation company that created the opening ceremony animation for Anime Expo ’92, called “Bayscape 2042”. The animation was obviously inspired by Daicon Film’s opening animations for Japan SF Conventions in 1981 and 1983 as well as borrowing heavily from various AIC OVA productions like “Bubblegum Crisis” and “Gall Force”. The two articles provide a very interesting insight to the production difficulties of the project and what they hoped to achieve in the future. This final era of the magazine also included interviews with really big names in the anime industry including Yasuhiro Imagawa, Go Nagai, Monkey Punch, Akemi Takada, Mamoru Oshii, Nobuteru Yuki and Scott Frazier (now known as Jan Scott-Frazier). The other big addition would be inclusion of a regular tokusatsu column in 1995 written by Bob Johnson, who co-founded “Markalite” magazine and would later go on to co-found the SciFi Japan website.

While a lot of the writing on anime, manga and various conventions and events was really well done, the major problem I had with this magazine was its issue with English adaptations, specifically English dubbing. Not a great deal of the reviews received anything beyond three stars out of five. I do think the US actors and directors who take on the task of dubbing anime always seem to have a difficult time with the material they're trying to localise, and the results are rarely as good as the original. But I understand that people like them, and for whatever reason a lot of people just won't read subtitles. But the staff at V.Max didn’t want to acknowledge this and hated dubs with a passion. No matter how well a dub was done, they seemed to just rip it apart, simply for the fact it was a dub. Chris Keller even wrote a three part editorial (meant to be a four parter, cut short by the demise of the magazine) devoted to why he didn't like dubbing. It was quite tiring at times. I really wished they concentrated on the content of the anime when reviewing, rather than the English voice acting.

By 1996 the end had come and R. Talsorian Games stopped publishing the magazine. The reasons as to why they took this decision were never made public. While the magazine had some great articles and good interviews with a lot of top Japanese creators and people associated with the anime industry, I sort of understand why they couldn’t complete with the competition. By the time the mid 1990’s had rolled around, magazines like Anime UK, Manga Mania, Protoculture Addicts and Animerica had entered the market several years prior, refined their content and had become major players. They had much better articles, more positive reviews and were less critical of English dubbing and companies trying to release anime and manga. A lot of anime fans, most who had only come into contact with the commercial US anime industry, chose other magazines over V.Max, and looking at the competition they had it's not hard to see why. While there are a number of issues are available in the second hand market, for general collectors I don’t think there is much value in collecting issues of V.Max other than for curiosity. This is yet another obscure English language magazine that has pretty much been totally forgotten, lost to time in the history of US anime fandom.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Anime Music Video Compilations: “Kimagure Orange Road Music Version: Their Love Repertoire”

Publisher: Toho Video
Format: Beta, VHS and Laserdisc, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue
Length: 34 minutes
Original Release Date: 10 September 1988
Animation Exclusive to this Release: No
Other Sources (Japanese unless noted): Kimagure Orange Road The OVA DVD Box (2007), Kimagure Orange Road OVA Series 1 (Rental DVD, 2007)
Currently Availability (as of writing): Out of Print

In my last instalment in this series, I made the observation that very few of these anime music video compilations ever get a commercial English language home video release. This video was next on my list to review when US video distributor Discotek Media announced they were re-releasing the “Kimagure Orange Road” TV series, OVAs and first movie in a standard definition blu-ray release. The most surprising aspect of the yet to solicited release is that this music video compilation is to be included in it. Regardless, I decided to review this anime music video compilation as I think the earliest the Discotek set will be released is a few months into 2019, perhaps we'll have to wait a little longer than that. Before we get to the actual music videos, a rundown on the story of the anime;

The Kasuga family have been forced for a seventh time to move to a new neighbourhood. 15 year old teenage son Kyosuke, his two twin sisters, Manami and Kurumi, and their father Takashi, have a problem; they are a family of espers. They call their esper gift “the power”. While they try their hardest to keep the power under wraps and away from the eyes of the general public, at her last school, Kurumi used her power to enable her to run a 100 metre sprint in three seconds. This of course led the family to move once more, away from the attention of the school and neighbours. After moving in to their new house, Kyosuke explores his new neighbourhood. He climbs up a set of steps near a local park counting each one as he goes. At the top he sees what at first glance seems to be a flying saucer, but is in fact a red straw hat flying through the air. Kyosuke jumps up to catch it and ends up putting it on his head in the process. He looks up to discover the owner of the hat; Madoka Ayukawa.

Kyosuke and Madoka strike up a conversion about how many steps there are leading up to the park. After a brief and playful argument, where Madoka says there is 100 and Kyosuke swears there is 99, Kyosuke compromises and says there is 99 and a half. This amuses Madoka. She leaves telling him to keep the hat as it looks good on him. He tries to ask her name by she just smiles and walks off. The next day at his first day at school, Kyosuke is befriended by two girl crazy classmates, Seiji Komatsu and Kazuya Hatta. He realises that Madoka goes to his school and asks Seiji and Komatsu about her. They tell him that she is a delinquent and it’s best to avoid her. However he is already smitten by her. After school Kyosuke witnesses Madoka defending her best friend, Hikaru Hiyama, from a group of bikers who are mad at Hikaru for dumping their leader. Even though Madoka is much smaller in stature, she beats the living daylights out of all of them. Shocked and impressed, Kyosuke goes to talk to her, but she claims they have never met. She pulls out a cigarette to smoke but Kyosuke uses his power to destroy the tip of it. He berates her for smoking to which she replies by slapping him.

However the next day when they meet in the hall, Madoka is again playful and friendly with him. In gym class Kyosuke is highly impressed by Madoka’s routine on the balance beam. Kyosuke decides he wants to impress her as well by using his power to make a slam dunk during the boys’ basketball game, but eventually decides against using the power. After school, sitting alone in the gym mulling over things and regretting not impressing Madoka, he casually throws the ball towards the hoop and uses his power to make it go through. Unbeknownst to him, Hikaru has been hiding in the equipment storage room having a cigarette, has seen his basketball skills and is quite impressed. Later Kyosuke bumps into her at a disco while looking for Kurumi who has snuck out of the house. Hikaru asks him out on a date which puts him off guard and he find himself saying yes. On the day of the date however he runs into Madoka and the pair spends the day in the park and later in a café. There he finally remembers his date with Hikaru and blurts it out, which makes Madoka furious. Kyosuke realises he has made both girls angry with him. Over a short period of time both girls make up with him. A love triangle soon forms with Madoka and Kyosuke developing obvious crushes for each other, Hikaru having the hots for Kyosuke, Madoka being unable to hurt her friend Hikaru’s feelings to tell her to back off, Kyosuke developing an interest in Hikaru and being indecisive and unable to choose between the girls. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the videos;

“Night of Summer Side” performed by Masanori Ikeda
There’s not much to say about his one. This opening video is basically a list of credits of all the songs that appear. Little snippets of the other videos appear as the credits are listed. Unlike most of the other songs in this compilation, the version presented here is the cut down opening theme “TV size” version, which runs about a minute and half. As most fans of “Kimagure Orange Road” know, this song was the first opening theme of the TV series. It was first released as a single in May 1987.

“Summer Mirage (Natsu no Mirage)” performed by Kanako Wada
The first proper music video in this collection. In keeping with the summer theme of the song, naturally most of the footage culled from the TV series is summery in nature. The opening scenes of the video are taken from Kyosuke’s dream sequence for the start of the second episode. The video soon turns into a montage, first featuring Madoka,  then turning its attention to Kyosuke. In between there are plenty of beach shots edited in from various episodes. Most of the footage seems to be culled from the first few episodes. The song used for the video was the first closing theme to the TV series and was first released as a single in May 1987.

“Orange Mystery” performed by Hideyuki Nagashima
The summer and beach themes continue on to the third video. In particular episode 18, “Madoka's Challenge! Big Monday!!”, in which several shots of Madoka surfing have been used, and episode 19, “The Couple’s Experience - Forbidden Island of Love!”, which mostly uses various shots of Kyosuke and Madoka goofing around and having fun on an uninhabited island. As per many of the videos in this collection, Kyosuke and Madoka’s rocky relationship takes centre stage. This song was used in the series as the second opening theme and was first issued as a single in September 1987.

“Dangerous Triangle (Kiken na Triangle)” performed by Masanori Ikeda
As per the title of this song, this video focuses on the love triangle between Hikaru, Kyosuke and Madoka. Appropriately it begins where all the trouble started; in the disco in the third episode, titled “Mood Swings - Rowing First Date”. The first few shots show the other disco patrons then we focus on our favourite trio; Hikaru, Kyosuke and Madoka. However in the TV series, this song was actually used as an insert song to episode 11, “Don't Ring the Wedding Bell!!!”. It seems a bit odd the producers of the compilation didn’t use footage from that episode for this video. This song first appeared as a B-side to the “Night of Summer Side” single in May 1987.

“Sad Heart is Burning (Kanashii Heart wo Moeteiru)” performed by Kanako Wada
This video mostly focuses on Madoka. It initially begins with Madoka playing her saxophone by herself. Footage from several episodes is used showing her playing the instrument. We then swap over to other footage of her from random episodes (the footage isn’t really heavily weighted from any particular episode), with Madoka mostly looking forlorn and despondent. Yes, it’s all very cheerful stuff. This video is the first to introduce several slightly cheesy video effects which will become more prominent as the videos progress. The editors here have used several “film strips” and “photograph” effects laid over various scenes at random points. This song was used as the second closing TV series theme and first released as a single in September 1987.

“Like a Salvia Flower (Salvia no Hana no you ni)” performed by Kanako Wada
This song was used as an insert song in episode 22, “An Adult Relationship? Madoka Secretly Returns Home in the Morning!”. In fact the video directly edits in the sequence it was used in; being sung by a character called Yukari (who makes a second appearance towards the end of the series as well) with Madoka playing in her band as a guitarist. In the episode's plot Madoka has also written the song. While the bulk of the video uses footage from this episode, there is also clips of Madoka as a mermaid from episode 19, “The Couple’s Experience - Forbidden Island of Love!”, and summery footage culled from episodes 14 and 17. The song used in the video appeared as a B-side to the “Sad Heart is Burning” single in September 1987.

“Inside This Heart One More Time (Kono Mune ni One More Time)” performed by Hideyuki Nagashima
Episode 16, “Well, Do You Believe or Not? Madoka Saw a UFO!”, forms the entire basis of this music video. The main plot of the TV episode has Madoka and Kyosuke seeing and taking a photo of a flying saucer, then discovering it was a prank played by his twin sisters. However the video mostly focuses on one of the best sequences in the TV series, where Kyosuke uses his power to race a motor bike around a mountain pass in order to stop Madoka joining a motorcycle gang. Yes I know, some of the stories in this TV series can be really daft. But it is a really lovable series all the same. The song used here was originally released as a B-side to “Dangerous Triangle” in September 1987.

“Again” performed by Minako Fujishiro
I haven’t mentioned this before, but several of the videos have new spoken word intros or outros by Madoka or Kyosuke which are mostly about love. Several title cards also appear at random points before certain videos. Before this song a title card stating “Intermission” appears, which is probably a sign saying you should skip it. The editors here go full on with the cheap video effects, culling random bits of episodes and making a mess of things really. Both the song used in the video and series itself deserve better. The video concludes with some summery footage, thankfully unenhanced by video effects the audience was previously subjected to. “Again” was a B-side to the “Turn Around My Darling (Furimuite My Darling)” single which was released in September 1987.

“Breaking Heart” performed by Yuiko Tsubokura
This video also has a music/band motif, initially using scenes from the second opening animation with the bulk of the video being sourced from episode 43, “Broken-Hearted Hikaru! Chase me to Winter Beach”. That episode is one of the most interesting in the series. While the story revolves around Kyosuke playing drums in a band for a battle of the bands competition and his guilt around his belief he may have slept with another woman when he got drunk, the main highlight of the episode is how avant garde the storyboarding is. It really seems out of place amongst the other episodes in the series. Oddly this song was actually an insert song used in episode 13. “Breaking Heart” first appeared on the “Kimagure Orange Road Sound Color 2” album which was released in October 1987.

“Genina” performed by Kanako Wada
Most of the footage here is taken from the final episode of the TV series; “Caught the Love! And The End”. Along with the penultimate episode, “Sad Farewell. Search for Madoka's First Love”, both form a time traveling adventure story where Kyosuke imagines what it would be like if he hadn’t caught Madoka’s red straw hat that day. Somehow his grandfather sends him back in time from the present day of 1988 to 1982 where he meets younger versions of his friends including Madoka. He ends up spending time with her and ends up buying her famous red straw hat. However most the footage in the video concentrates on the older Madoka and Kyosuke. The song used in the video was released in May 1987 as a B-side to the “Summer Mirage” single.

“Actress in the Mirror (Kagami no Naka no Actress)” performed by Meiko Nakahara
This song is rather upbeat considering that it’s about a guy who broke a girl’s heart. Like many of the videos in this compilation, this one focuses on the relationship between Madoka and Kyosuke (I could never understand what he ever saw in Hikaru). Like many of the videos in this compilation, the footage is culled from a wide variety of episodes. There also isn’t really a unifying theme to the video at all, unless you call randomly strung together shots of Madoka and Kyosuke a theme. I guess to a degree it could be, but that’s the theme for the entire compilation. The song used for the video was originally released as a single in January 1988 and was used as the third opening theme for the TV series.

“Dance in the Memories” performed by Meiko Nakahara
Like the first video I this compilation, this one is a just a closer with credits. It does feature some still scenes from the TV series as “photographs” on a black background. “Dance in the Memories” was used as the TV series’ third closing theme. It was first issued as a B-side to the “Actress in the Mirror” single in January 1988.

I’m pretty sure this was the first music video compilation I ever saw. I originally got the compilation on the end of a VHS fansub I acquired back in the late 1990’s. Years later I acquired it again on laserdisc. The original versions released in 1988 (Beta and VHS tapes and the laserdisc) contained a lyric sheet. Personally I think the compilation is a little average. Like a lot of anime music video compilations, it feels like an afterthought; just something to further fleece the fans via a “new” video release. The music however can’t be faulted. Most of the songs contained on this release are pretty damn good, especially the opening and closing themes. I even bought one of the latter compilations of the vocal tracks from the series (which of course included all the opening and closing themes), which is a rarity for me. I was never much a fan of anime music or J-Pop as a rule.

Since the original 1988 release, the compilation has only been reissued once; as an extras on the three disc “Kimagure Orange Road” The OVA DVD Box back in 2007 by Toho in Japan, which of course is out of print. As a result currently it’s a little hard to come by. That three disc set costs ¥17,000 to over ¥30,000 in the second hand market. The box set was also released as three separate discs, which Toho pressed up for rental video shops. I saw a bundle of all three discs on Rakuten selling for ¥3,000 which is a lot cheaper. Original VHS tapes go for around ¥1,500. But it doesn’t really matter as Discotek will be releasing the compilation as part of their blu-ray release of the OVA series sometime in 2019, making it widely available for the first time since 2007.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Obscurities in the Western Connection Catalogue: “Hummingbirds”

Release Date: 24 April 1995
Format: PAL VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English Subtitles
Runtime: 47 mins (OVA 1), 26 mins (OVA 2)
Catalogue Number: WEST037
Japanese Title: Idol Boueitai Hummingbird (Idol Defence Force Hummingbird), Idol Boueitai Hummingbird ’94 Natsu (Hummingbird '94 Summer)
Japanese Production Date: 1993 - 1994

Continuing on with the seventh part in my series on the utterly obscure 1990’s UK based video distributor Western Connection and weird and wonderful anime titles that they released in English that no one else bothered to re-release anywhere else. This time we’re looking at my favourite title they released; “Hummingbirds”

For some unknown reason the Japanese government decides to outsource the defence forces. The only people crazy enough to pick up the baton are the entertainment industry. This means that the air force is now entirely comprised of idols. Each week the TV programme “The Best Guy” ranks idols using pilot skills and even record sales. A new group of sisters collectively called Hummingbirds are trying to break into the scene. Mina, Uzuki, Satsuki, Yayoi and Kanna Torishi are trying their luck for the first time on the show, being “targets” for boy band SNAP (a thinly veiled parody of real boy band SMAP). But the SNAP boys aren't very good shots. Middle sister Satsuki is so frustrated she attempts to make her plane hover vertically, so that the SNAP boys can easily lock on to her and “shoot” her down. However this naturally puts a great deal of stress on the plane's engine and it begins to spiral out of control downward. Luckily Satsuki pulls out in time.

The show's producer, Kudo, is quite interested in the girls performance despite of, or perhaps because of Satsuki's brain explosion. He arranges a meeting with the Hummingbirds' manager, Hazuki, also the girl's mother, where the two of them nut out a deal to make a record and music video to make them into idol superstars. But Satsuki is a little uneasy at the idea that she will be the focus of the group. Her real goal is to win the best pilot award and follow in the footsteps of her pilot father who disappeared while on a mission some eight years ago. Still the dancing and singing lessons and training begin in earnest and soon they are ready to make their debut. Standing in their way is the manager of SNAP, Yajima. He deliberately attempts to sabotage their debut by forcing the girls to wear animal costumes and performing in old clapped out Phantom F-4 jets, while out on a mock sortie against SNAP. While the girls reluctantly comply, they take out their revenge on the SNAP boys by locking on to all four of them to “shoot” them down in less than a minute.

Taking a different tact, Yajima tries to wine and dine Hazuki into letting him manage the Hummingbirds, however she isn't having a bar of it. Meanwhile the girl's idol career is really taking off with concerts, music videos and strange Japanese TV programmes invading their hotel room and waking them from their sleep early in the morning. But the main job of the Hummingbirds is self-defence of Japan's skies. The girl's grandfather has completed their rather futuristic customised planes (which suspiciously look like the craft from “Thunderbirds”). They're now completely ready for their idol debut on “The Best Guy”. In fact they're featured in a special section of the show called “Spotlight Corner” and will be performing their new single. However when the girls reach the tarmac to board their planes for the show, they are shocked to discover that someone has attached bombs to the landing gear on their planes. The bomb squad will take 40 minutes to arrive, by which time the TV show will be over. About to pull out, Satsuki rallies the group saying she won't give into intimidation.

Kudo for some unknown reason knows how to dismantle bombs and radios instructions to the girls. Naturally they discover the bomb is a fake and the girls take off just in the nick of time to perform their single, much to the displeasure of Yajima who had the fake bombs planted. Later at home, the Hummingbirds are called out to defend Japan against invading aircraft above Tokyo Bay. But the girls have to deal with Kudo and his cameraman offsider who have taken off in a helicopter to obtain footage of the girls in action for a music video. One of the enemy aircraft shoots at Kudo and it's up to Satsuki to save him. In the second OVA on the tape, an idol swimming competition on the USS Enterprise is interrupted by an invading plane. The Hummingbirds take off to investigate only to find that the pilot in question is an invited guest. However the guest takes it on himself to challenge the Hummingbirds and in particular goes after an unwilling Satsuki. The second eldest sister, the tomboyish Yayoi, locks on to the guest and gleefully “shoots” him down.

When the guest lands on the USS Enterprise, he reveals himself to be the handsome Goro Kato, a top pilot once under the command of the girl's father. This causes a ruckus in the Hummingbirds camp and Hazuki even tries to recruit him, though the girls are decidedly unimpressed. Goro has in fact been recruited to train Yajima's new pilot duo Reiko Hosokawa and Hitomi Nakajo, who form the curvy and sexy pilot team the Fever Girls. Both are rather peeved off at the Hummingbirds closeness to Goro and decide to challenge them to a beach volleyball match. While the Fever Girls lose the match by a point to Yayoi and Satsuki, they do win the “Nice Body” competition. But the duo refuses to give up and train hard to beat the Hummingbirds. Unbeknown to everyone, Goro has some dastardly tricks up his sleeve, none of which impresses the Fever Girls, whom despite their highly competitive nature, want to fight fair and square.

Essentially this show is nothing more than the core part of a multimedia project for a five woman idol group, oddly enough like the anime also called Hummingbird. The group was made up of Kotono Mitsuishi (who played Satsuki), Sakiko Tamagawa (Kanna), Yuri Amano (Yayoi), Fumie Kusachi (Uzuki), and Hekiru Shiina (Mina). Of those five, Kotono would be the most famous in the west. She has played Excel in “Excel Saga”, Murrue Ramius in “Gundam Seed”, Misato Katsuragi in “Evangelion” and in her most famous role, Usagi Tsukino and her alter ego Sailor Moon in the series of the same name. Sakiko although not a well-known name in the west, would most recognisable to fans as the voice of the Tachikoma in “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex”, Pirotess in “Record of Lodoss War” and Natsumi Tsujimoto in “You're Under Arrest”. In four short years, the group pumped out a huge catalogue of items including 14 albums, four singles, two concert videos, four cassette dramas, two pocket novels, three CD-ROMs and of course four anime OVAs.

While some sources say that the OVA series was based off the novels by “Irresponsible Captain Tylor” author Hitoshi Yoshioka, the fact is there is less than a month's gap between the release of the first novel and the Hummingbird's first album (with the release of the first OVA was only two months after that). One can only assume that the idol/seiyu group, anime and novel were all planned at the same time. In fact my artbook contains pictures of a recording and photo session for the Hummingbird voice actresses with the dates of these sessions being December 1992, a whole six months before the release of the first novel.

The series itself is quite frankly totally inane. It's dumb, silly, quite superficial, mostly a cynical ploy to help the singing careers of five women and to sell a lot of merchandise. However it is quite fun like a lot of 1990's OVAs, and can be surprisingly clever and is very funny most of its length. Like Macross, we have a defence force and idol singers, but this time it's played for laughs. Everyone involved knows the show is silly and is having fun with the concept. Funnily enough “Macross 7”, released two years after this video series, was somewhat similar with a band that defended their Macross cruiser home against enemy attack by flying in Valkyries and singing. The “Hummingbird” anime's story focuses mainly on the middle sister Satsuki, but there are moments dedicated to all of the sisters. As the ages of the girls range from 12 to 19 and with a number of personalities between all five, there is probably a girl here to please anyone. And with all of the insert songs and concert scenes (as well as the merchandise tie-ins), of course the show is squarely aimed at the idol otaku. There are quite a few fan service shots but unlike a lot of modern anime it's relatively tame.

The addition of the Fever Girls in the second OVA does increase the amount of fan service substantively. Curiously, while the pair are idols, there musical career is never even hinted at. There are numerous parodies in the show and some are quite clever, but most are about as subtle as a brick through a window. As I previously noted, the boy band SNAP are of course based upon the popular band SMAP who recently broke up. The “Thunderbirds” planes the Hummingbirds fly don't even attempt to disguise their design origins. They even launch in a similar manner to the classic British “Supermarionation” show. Even the girl's family name, Toreishi, is a pun which sounds like “Tracy” in Japanese (Tracy is the name of the family which ran International Rescue in “Thunderbirds”). Hummingbird was latter parodied themselves in the TV series “Martian Successor Nadesico”. The Howmei Girls (the five female assistant chefs aboard the Nadesico) have more than a passing resemblance to the anime Hummingbirds.

Western Connection’s VHS tape contains only the first two OVAs. Frustratingly the tape has edits to the closing animation on the first OVA and both the opening and closing animations on the second. First they removed the end credits to the first OVA, but then also cut the opening to second OVA, removed the ending of episode two and stuck the opening of episode two on the end of the OVA. Seamless it ain't. There's a prologue before the opening credits on episode two, and the opening theme song begins before the opening animation starts. The sloppy editing with the music abruptly stopping is incredibly jarring. There were two reasons why this was done, both explained by translator and UK anime guru Jonathan Clements. In an article on music translation in Anime FX magazine from 1995, Clements explained the ending was cut because he had received a video tape from the company which had audio through one stereo channel only. As some of the solo singing of the girls was panned into left or right channels in end song on the second OVA, he couldn't hear the lyrics to the whole song, hence he couldn't translate the whole thing and therefore the ending was cut.

But several years later in the book “The Anime Encyclopaedia”, co-authored by Clements, the entry on “Hummingbirds” tells a different story. Western Connection had apparently decided to get a “discount” from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and thought that messing up the opening and closing credits in the process was a smaller price to pay. The BBFC would charge more to classify a title if there were two or more episodes on a tape. The second tape in Western Connection’s “Slow Step” release also suffers the same fate; however the result is virtually seamless. Not only do we suffer the opening and closing animation edit nonsense on this tape, but like all of Western Connection's releases, this one not only has the usual slightly mistimed subtitles, it also has some bizarre production credits. After the ubiquitous subtitling credit from company head Sahsa Cipkalo (for whom quality control wasn't a high priority) and the Jonathan Clements translating credit, two odd subtitles appear;

What the hell is up with that?! Am I watching some crappy little fan subtitled tape or a professional release? Honestly, what sort of professional video company does that? Oh that's right, I forgot I was watching a Western Connection tape. They aren't professionals. The packaging is the usual; slapped together artwork and the synopsis from Anime FX. The artwork isn't too bad, but the picture is stretched on the front and text covers Mina's face. In late 1995 in the news section of Anime FX magazine, it was stated that Western Connection had acquired the remaining two unreleased OVAs for “Hummingbirds” and were planning to release them in 1996. However by the time 1996 rolled around the company was dead and buried. I suspect they hadn’t even acquired the OVAs and Cipkalo was just stringing the public along.

Again this title is one that is hard to recommend to others. Some will find it hilarious, others will hate it. If you enjoyed the singing in “Macross” (especially “Macross 7”) and bishoujo aircraft titles like “Stratos 4” and “801 T.T.S. Airbats”, you're probably going to enjoy this title. I do love trash like this and enjoyed it immensely. Unfortunately it was never picked up for distribution in the US, and I suspect it's highly unlikely to be in the future. Pioneer in Japan released a two DVD box set of all four OVAs in 2001 with single disc releases a year after (sadly without English subtitles and all versions now long out print). If you want to legally see this show in English, hunting down the increasingly rare UK release would be the only way you would be able to see it. But it doesn't seem to be available at all in the second hand market as anymore; Western Connection's VHS isn’t even listed on anymore and I haven’t seen for sale on eBay in quite a long time.