Friday, July 7, 2017

Forgotten Anime: “Luna Varga”

Distributor: A.D. Vision (ADV Films, USA)
Original Year of Release: 1991
English Video Release: 1996, NTSC VHS, Japanese Dialogue with English subtitles
Japanese Title: Demon Warrior Luna Varga (Maju Senshi Luna Varga)
Runtime: 4 episodes x 29 mins

Note: Originally posted on the "Lost World of Anime" website in 2006. Revised version published on the "Anime Archivist" blog in December 2012.

Please don’t judge this series of reviews based on the first one. While I may have picked an arthouse title to begin with, the majority of other titles certainly won’t be. In fact nearly all of them will be OVAs from the 1980’s or 1990’s. And most of them will be B-grade trash. That’s mostly because I’m focusing on titles that never made the leap from analogue formats to digital ones. The majority of these titles have been largely forgotten by anime fans. In the mid to late 1990’s, ADV Films pretty much dominated the US anime market, and released a whole heap of now rather obscure OVA titles during that period. Certainly with a large OVA market churning out over a hundred titles per year in Japan, there were plenty of short OVA series for them to buy and exploit. Unlike most US anime distributors, a sizable proportion of their VHS titles never made to DVD. “Luna Varga” is one of them. This OVA’s story goes something like this;

In a medieval world filled with shape changing humans called “beast changers”, the southern city state of Dunbas has started attacking its northern neighbours in an attempt to expand its territory. The war machine has come to the small country of Rimsbell. The princesses, acting on behalf of the king who is ill, refuse outright to surrender. The Dunbas troops prepare their assault and the princesses decide to ask their grandfather for advice. They search his room, but can find no trace of him. However one princess, Luna, accidentally discovers a secret passage which seems to lead deep below the castle. Luna soon finds her grandfather who warns her not to proceed any further down the passageway, which she of course does anyway. She finds herself in a gigantic glowing room. There a voice speaks to her and asks her if she wants “the power” and what she would use it for. Naturally she states that she would use it to defend Rimsbell. The room then seems to explode with light.

Outside, the battle is raging, and the numbers are stacked against the Rimsbell troops. Suddenly in the lake beside the castle, a large column of water shoots up and proceeds to head towards the Dunbas troops. A monster emerges and begins to wipe out the invaders whom soon retreat. The princesses’ grandfather tells his granddaughters that the giant monster is called Varga, originally resurrected by their ancestor Lord Legion to fight the King of Evil many years ago. The monster was sealed away, but it seems that Luna has resurrected it. Luna awakes and surprised that indeed she did resurrect the monster, but is also merged with it. Her bottom, legs and feet are stuck inside the monster. She is Varga’s “brain” and controls its actions. Though the army seems to have been defeated, one Captain, Bat Robis, won’t give up, and is determined to slay the monster, despite being 100 times stronger and taller than him. He eventually gets up on top of Varga’s head where Luna can’t be protected by Varga. Luckily for Luna, Varga can have a sword materialise her in hands for these kinds of situations.

With Bat retreating and the battle seemingly over, an unforseen event occurs as a winged creature abducts the youngest princess, Viena. Luna and Varga head into enemy territory, Logiran. However Luna soon realises that she can’t walk around town stuck to giant green monster. Varga tells her that she can still transform back to a human. However when she does so she discovers that she has a small green tail sticking out of her bottom. A young nobleman called Mil passes by and offers her a ride into town and some clothes (well naturally she’s naked after transformation). While riding through the busy streets with Mil and his underlings, Rapier and Gils, a young “hostess” (I think that’s code for prostitute) named Lil, runs out in front of their buggy, which comes to an abrupt stop. She is being chased by Bat Robis (who by extraordinary coincidence is also Mil’s uncle), whom she stole from. Unfortunately Bat notices Luna, and gives chase of both Lil and Luna with Mil and company in tow. Mass destruction the town ensues as they reach the Mayor’s house. The Mayor, who is a little bit miffed at the situation and doesn’t want his house destroyed, hires an incompetent black wizard named Gilbert Eizen who only manages to get knocked over by Bat. Completely pissed off, he calls forth a large group of flying creatures called Wyvern.

The Wyvern do more damage than the rest of them combined, and Luna, Bat, Mil, Rapier and Gils end up fighting off the monsters. Rapier attempts to force Gilbert to stop the spell, but he can’t remember how to do it. Luna decides that the only course of action is to transform into Varga, but Mil pleads with her not to do it. She ignores him and transforms, and easily defeats the monsters. But soon Mil’s worst fears are realised as the presence of Varga has unleashed another slumbering monster, a large sea serpent called Cross Serpent Varga who could destroy the entire town.

I watched ADV’s trailer for this show many times on many of their VHS tape releases over the years before I actually got around to picking it up. With its self-titled theme song, reminiscent of 1970’s robot shows (almost a parody of those types of songs), and its stereotypical fantasy setting, it didn’t seem my cup of tea. When the VHS format began dying off in the early 2000's, I finally picked up both tapes for about $5 each. Upon first viewing I didn’t like it a whole lot, but watching it again some years later for this review I have softened my stance on this title. The main set up of this OVA series is quite original. Having a girl stuck to a monster can lead to some funny situations. However Varga, the monster itself, is just an anime version of Godzilla, literally. He looks like Godzilla, and the sound effects are Godzilla sound effects, subtly changed, but it still sounds like Godzilla. Nudity plays a fairly big role in the series. After Luna transforms, she always ends up naked. Also the end credits feature her nude about 80% of the time. A large proportion of the OVA market of the time was, let’s face it, exploitation material, so really this isn't all that unusual. Another gratuitously sexual scene involved Lil asking Luna to travel on her journeys with her. Lil’s way of encouraging her to do so is to stick her hand down Luna’s panties and “please” her a bit. Of course Luna moans like a lunatic. All girls love being touched by another woman and are secretly bisexual. Well according to this anime anyway. That’s B-movie Exploitation 101 there.

A lot of reviews compare this show to “Dragon Half”. The only similarities are the inclusion of a dragon (monster in “Luna Varga”), both the leads have tails (though Luna isn’t a dragon) and they’re both set in fantasy worlds. That’s it. I can’t see any similarities really. “Luna Varga” is a comedy to a degree, but it’s not a madcap, slapstick one like “Dragon Half” despite some of the bizarre concepts. The second half of the series is much more serious and darker in tone, as Luna discovers where her sister Viena is being held and the reasons why Dunbas has been so aggressive are shown to be more evil and dark than anyone had imagined. The ending of the series also could be seen as a bit of a downer, depending on how you interpret the closing credits of the final episode (this ending may have something to do with the fact the manga series it was based on still had two years to run before it finished). However it’s the humour and the characters in this series which make it worthwhile. The mountainous captain of the Dunbas army, Bat Robis, provides a lot of a humour with his never-think-things-out and never-give-up-no-matter-what attitude. The nameless Chinese chef, who always seems to be there to feed Bat, has an almost “Iron Chef” like attitude to cooking and is a brilliant supporting character. The incompetent wizard Gilbert Eizen is a blast too (no pun intended), especially in the sequence where he battles a wizard just as incompetent as him from the Dunbas army. The “beast changers” are also pretty clever, but it’s a bit of a well-worn concept. Luna’s childhood friend and servant, Loco, who changes from a human to a winged cat, is the only one that stands out amount the “beast changers”.

Also of note is the music, composed by Kenji Kawai. Kawai’s music can roughly be divided up into two categories; the high budget orchestral work he usually does for films, and the low budget synthesiser stuff which is typical of his TV work, especially in the 1990’s, which is what we have here. I’ve always associated the latter with “Patlabor”, as his music here sounds a lot like his “Patlabor” TV and OVA work. Overall it’s a decent OVA with a lot of laughs, a lot of action and some drama. However it is a bit dull and derivative. We’ve seen it all before (well except for the merging of a girl and a monster), and more competently. It is cute and clever and I quite enjoyed it, but it’s nothing really special and the ravages of time haven't been kind to the series. Certainly the character designs look a lot older than the 1991 OVA release date, but his probably because it’s based on a manga that was released three years earlier. However I think it’s a real shame that stuff like this never gets re-released on DVD (or even Blu-ray, if the original film still survives). The series never received a Japanese DVD release either. Yet another 1990’s OVA lost to time.

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