Thursday, April 14, 2016

Video Backlog: “Magic Users Club!”

Publisher: Nozomi Entertainment (Right Stuf, USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Dub and Subtitles
Length: 6 episodes x 28 minutes
Production Date: 1996 – 1997
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

An enormous cylindrical alien spacecraft takes out a defence satellite and continues onwards into the Earth’s atmosphere. Above the Pacific Ocean, the US military attempt to take it on with a fleet of ships and tens of fight jets. Drones are launched from the alien spacecraft who then proceed to vaporise the fighter planes, missiles and ships, without harming a single human being. Fast forward to a year later; the world’s governments have realised that if they do not attack the alien spacecraft, now known by the world colloquially as the Bell, then the Bell and it’s spherical black drones, known as Eyeballs, do no one harm. The Bell seems to be some sort of unmanned exploration device, though no one really knows its true purpose. As a result the bulk of humanity go about their daily life without worrying about it or the Eyeballs.

However the president of the Magic Club Kitanohashi High School, Takeo Takakura, has taken it on himself to rid the world of the Bell. However in reality he only said this to impress fellow club member and underclassmen Sae Sawanoguchi because he has the hots for her. One Saturday morning he asks the club to gather at the pier. However of the five members of the club, only Takeo and Ayanojyo Aburatsubo show up. Aburatsubo is the vice president and also the only other male in the club, however has eyes for Takeo, who has no intention of reciprocating his feelings. Eventually the clumsy Sae shows up to join them much to Takeo’s horror as he really has no intentions of fighting the Bell. Sae’s best friend and fellow club member, Nanaka Nakatomi, joins them but only remind Sae that they both agreed to not to go. However Sae ends up bawling and says she’ll support him anyway. In the end Takeo, Aburatsubo and Sae take off on their broomsticks and fly out over the ocean towards the Bell, despite the fact Sae can barely fly on her broomstick.

With Takeo still not knowing what to do, the three arrive within visual distance of the Bell. However they are soon interrupted by Nanaka who flies past them at an incredible speed hanging from her out of control broom. She eventually decided to join the group, but only has rudimentary magic skills. The trio’s collective efforts to stop her fail, and as a last ditch effort to stop her crashing into the side of the Bell they get her to let go of the broom stick with Aburatsubo eventually saving her from the fall. The out of control broomstick is eventually vaporised by the Bell when it ventures too close. This sets off a number humanoid probes who decide to examine the club members. The probing becomes too much and Sae accidently transforms one of the humanoids into a pillow. Panic ensues and everyone makes a run for it, however Sae gets captured. Despite the other humanoids attempting to vaporise their broomsticks the other club members manage to escape end up in the ocean. Sae ends up accidently vaporising her captor with her magic and floats down on a hired boat which contains investigative journalist Mitsuru Minowa and his photographer Yoshito Yoshimoto. A little embarrassed, Sae heads off three on the remaining broomstick. Mitsuru is intrigued by the four of them and decides to investigate them further.

The following day Nanaka drags Sae into the clubroom at school to inform Takeo of their resignation. Who would want to be in a club that fights aliens? While Takeo is gutted at this, there is also the pressing issue of the Manga Club encroaching on their club’s space. The club’s president, Mizuha Miyama, has a nasty habit of bullying Takeo using her uh, “ample assets”. However the fifth member of the Magic Club, the skittish boy magnet Akane Aikawa, uses her magic to create a flower on Miyama’s head. She tries to pluck it off, but another appears in its place. It doesn’t matter how many times she repeats this, a new flower takes its place. Her doting Manga Club members rush her to the infirmary. Unbeknownst to everyone, Akane’s magic has gained the attention of one of the Eyeball drones that proceeds to break into the infirmary and examine the flower and Miyama. Sae asks Takeo if he’s going to help, which leads the rest of the club (minus Akane who’s on a date) to mount a rescue plan save Miyama. The replacement magic to remove the Eyeball more or less works (after a couple of attempts), but the club soon realise that they have to use their magic more cautiously so as not to attract the attention of the aliens.

This little OVA was easily one of my favourites in the mid to late 1990’s. It was sort of a “gateway drug” into magical girl anime for me, even though it strictly isn’t magical girl anime per se (it’s aimed strictly at the male otaku set, not prepubescent girls). I think it was also the very first anime I saw which featured a high school club, a feature which modern anime certainly isn’t short of now days. The OVA was directed by the king of magical girl anime, Junichi Sato (“Aria the animation”, “Princess Tutu”, “Kaleido Star”, “Keroro Gunso”, “Tamayura”), and I think was the first anime he directed after he left “Sailor Moon R”.  Ikuko Ito did the fantastic character designs, Mahiro Maeda (of Gonzo and early Gainax fame) did the mechanical designs and the CG sequences and Ichiro Itano was the animation director for the avant title which featured the massive battle between the Bell and it’s drones and the US Navy. I especially love that sequence, even though the CG Bell is by modern standards really low res and primitive. I’m pretty sure some anime fan’s speakers where damaged by the boom of the instrumentation and sound effects after about 45 seconds of complete silence (due to the fact the Bell is in space for those first 45 seconds).

While the story and plot of the OVA is pretty good, the characters make it shine. Sure they are a bit clichéd; Sae is an utter klutz, Takeo is a perverted teenage boy, Akane is the hot babe, Nanaka the tomboyish best friend and Aburatsubo is the yaoi archetype. However they are terribly endearing and it’s hard not feel empathy for them sometimes. There is a slight emphasis on “ecchi humour”, however it isn’t the driving force of the show and is mostly used to make fun of Takeo’s tendencies. I think from the early to late 1990’s was bit of a golden age for the OVA format. While there was a lot of trash, there are a number of gems including this title. The budget looks reasonably large with a number of fantastic animation sequences. For example the sequence where Sae meets the magician Jeff as a young girl in the forest, or Aburatsubo taking Nanaka for ride on a broomstick around the empty school, or the five club members using their magic to turn a campfire into a circle of dancing fire people. These moments are truly magical, if you’ll excuse the pun. There’s a follow up TV series which screening in the wee hours of the morning in late 1999. It’s a decent show but hardly as fun as the OVA. The transition of this show from OVA to late night TV series mirrors what happened to the OVA market. Certainly a lot of these late night TV series would be far better as short OVAs due the fact there’s not a lot of meat on their bones. It’s a pity that the OVA market is effectively dead.

Nozomi Entertainment’s DVD is far better than anything Media Blasters put out. This version removes those shitty English overlays of Japanese text, actually has a stereo track for the English dub and has a great set of features, including a short behind the scenes look at the long departed studio Triangle Staff (of “Serial Experiments Lain” fame). The video isn’t brilliant with some aliasing and moiré artefacts, mostly in the dated CG sections. However there is no HD version of the show and it is a step up from the Media Blasters DVD version. Overall I think this a great little show. It makes me really pine for that short period where OVAs existed. The animation is fantastic, the music too and the story is quite fun, if a bit silly. I really enjoyed catching up with this title which I hadn’t seen for years. 8 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: One movie, one OVA, five TV series, also waiting for second parts for five shows to be released before viewing them.

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