Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Video Backlog: “Dancouga”

Publisher: Eastern Star (Discotek, USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles
Length: 38 episodes x 24 mins
Production Date: 1985
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

During the late 20th century, an alien empire called Zorbados is in the process of invading Earth. With little effort and in a short amount of time, the invaders lay waste to the vast majority of Earth’s defences. At the Space Officer Academy in Australia, even new recruits are sent into battle. This includes the close couple of Shapiro Keats and Sara Yuki. Shapiro realises the Earth is doomed and believes this is his chance to make something of his life. He takes the bold decision to defect to the enemy. Sara attempts to follow but another cadet, the cocky Shinobu Fujiwara, fires at her plane to disable it which forces her to land. Shinobu advises the military that Shapiro is presumed dead but in fact has been caught and is being tortured by the enemy for information. Brazenly he tells them he wants to defect to their side and offers up a plan to prove himself. He suggests a plan to attack the top secret North American weapon cache, which supplies the continent and has caused trouble for the empire. Since Shapiro’s information is accurate, Emperor Muge soon realises that Shapiro could be highly useful to them and gives him a prominent position in their military, despite the grumblings of his generals.

Back on Earth, Shinobu is transferred to Japan as part of the Cyber Beast Force (or CBF), which is an agency specifically set up to fight the alien attack with advanced technology. There under the supervision of General Ross Igor and Professor Kotaro Hazuki, Shinobu’s fighter is modified. Sceptical that the modifications will enable him to better fight the enemy, he is given orders to pilot the machine now called the Eagle Fighter. As per his nature, Shinobu ignores the general and professor’s orders in terms of engaging the enemy. However, while in combat that he realises that through his anger, it changes into “Aggressive Beast Mode”, in which he is able to wipe out most of the empire’s fighters. Shinobu is soon joined by Sara who is tasked with piloting a tank called the Land Cougar. Though at first Shinobu protests at her inclusion in the team due to the fact she tried to defect with Shapiro, he later accepts her as a team member. Two others later join them; a young man named Masato Shikibu who pilots a tank called the Land Liger, and the rather aloof and cool Ryo Shiba who pilots another tank called the Big Moth (as in Mammoth).

Through the many battles with the aliens, they discover many things about their craft they pilot. All of them have the “Aggressive Beast Mode”, and can change into “Beast Mode” (into a mechanical Eagle, Cougar, Liger and Mammoth respectively). Not only that, their machines can transform into a humanoid form and eventually can link up together to form the giant robot “Dancouga” when Shinobu enters the code word “Dancouga” in his Eagle. Although they are sometimes defeated by the enemy, they always return to counterattack. They are sometimes helped by a mysterious fighter only known as the Black Knight who has his own beast warrior machine. However General Ross warns the CBF not to engage with the Black Knight as he may not be on their side. Early on in the series, Shinobu befriends a young girl called Laura Sullivan. Her mother has been killed in an attack on Sacramento city and only her and her puppy, Becky, have survived. But due to an alien attack, Shinobu manages to lose track of her. Later in the series, Sara discovers Laura and brings her back to the CBF base where General Igor eventually adopts her.

With the continuing Zorbados empire attacks, Sara notices the pattern of tactics being used is similar to those favoured by Shapiro. She believes that he is directing the attacks, however Shinobu convinces her that it’s a coincidence. In a latter operation Sara accidentally comes across Shapiro inside the enemy’s fortress. The confirmation that Shapiro did indeed defect to the enemy which shocks her. The former lovers are now on opposite sides of the war, directly fighting each other. As the series progresses towards its final arc, the war against the Zorbados empire is soon getting worse and it seems that Earth is losing. After a long search often hampered by the CBF themselves, the Zorbados empire eventually finds the hidden CBF base and attack it mercilessly. But General Igor and Professor Hazuki have an ace up their sleeve that may be able to save the Earth.

This somewhat mediocre robot show from the mid 1980’s has for some reason always fascinated me. I’ve previously written about it a few times. Possibly the only other franchise I’ve written about more is Gundam. Originally released by Software Sculptures on VHS in the US in the late 1990’s, it had the unfortunate distinction of being the longest series released on VHS that was never reissued on DVD or blu-ray.  Finally Discotek has decided to release the series on DVD. Although the show is from the mid 1980’s, it does feel at times it is a throwback from another era, especially with some elements obviously taken from super robot shows. Certainly with shows like “Macross” and “Votoms” airing years before “Dancouga”, the general set up of the series feels downright old fashioned. Couple this with the fact it’s an anime explicitly made to sell transformable toys and looking like a combination of “Go Lion” and any number of 1970’s giant combining robot vs alien invaders shows, it’s somehow is quite entertaining. There’s enough plot twists to keep the viewer interested nearly all the way through. Despite the fact CBF look like a clichéd fighting team on initial viewing, the characters have a decent amount of depth to them, though some can be rather unlikable at times, and some have really interesting backgrounds. But as I said before a lot of the show is pretty mediocre. A lot of the story is predictable. For example, guess who General Igor’s estranged son is? Also the way the general acts towards his team is pretty clichéd as well. Outside of “Zeta Gundam”, I’ve never seen so many people get slapped or punched (mostly team mates hitting each other or high ups doing the hitting).

Playing an odd role is a girl called Laura Sullivan. Though it would seem she’s only there to sell the soundtrack to the series (she sings a song named “Harmony Love” and her voice actor sings both opening theme songs.), she plays an important part in the end due the song she sings. The creators have also included some odd pop culture references in the show. A child solider they come across is named Dan Aykroyd, and the system that controls Dancouga is called “THX 1138”. Even worse is the terrible stereotyping of foreign people. Since the show takes place in many countries, the writers had many chances to show their general ignorance. In one episode the CBF go to Harlem in New York where they meet a group of African Americans who just dance and play Jazz all the time. In another episode they go to Switzerland where a local says “We Swiss are always prepared for war!”, and we cut away to the locals bringing out a massive cache of weapons and even anti-aircraft turrets.

Unfortunately some of the animation isn’t too crash hot. For a large number of episodes towards the first quarter of the series, in some scenes only the key animation is used. So there’s only about two frames a second in some of the animation. It looks terribly cheap, even for TV animation. Also some of the character designs are massacred by the animators and are really off model at times. However, towards the end of the series, especially in the last five or so episodes, the animation improves substantially. Like a lot of robot anime of the period the soundtrack is reasonably good. Most of it is with a full band and includes a lot of brass instruments. There are some synthesised tracks, but these are kept to a minimum and most of these are OK, albeit a bit cheesy at times. There’s no one on the staff roster of note other than Masami Obari who did some of the mecha designs and key animation. His style is pretty distinctive and you can easily spot his animation cuts, especially those involving Dancouga or any other mecha in the series.

Discotek’s 6 disc set is about as good as you’re going to get in terms of an English langue release. The original 8 volume set put out by Software Sculptures not only cut out most of the ending animations as well as the next episode previews, but the second opening animation featuring the song “A Real Kiss In Return”, was transposed with the first. Naturally the Discotek version reverses all of these edits and unnecessary changes. The original episode title cards had the episode title in Japanese as well as an English language title, often not a translation at all and sometimes phrased awkwardly or misspelled. Software Sculptures never actually translated or subbed the Japanese titles, however Discotek have finally done the right thing and subbed them. The translation in part seems to be ported directly over from the original script found on the old VHS tapes. I sort of wish they had scrapped that script and done a completely new translation. The other thing I noticed in this set is the rather noisy analogue tape hiss in the audio. I can only assume this was present on the Japanese DVD and blu-ray box sets, so I’m confused as to why the audio was never cleaned up. This DVD set contains no extras whatsoever. The final VHS tape in Software Sculptures’ release featured the follow up OVA, “Requiem for Victims”, albeit edited down to 30 minutes to remove recap footage from the TV series. Unfortunately, this OVA is not present in Discotek’s release. The company have not stated if they will release this OVA or the other OVAs in the franchise.

“Dancouga” is a decent robot anime TV series. Without the plot twists and fairly interesting characters it’d be dull as dishwater and just a toy commercial. It just manages to rise above being average. There is a significant rise in the quality of the story and animation towards the end of the series which just about saved this show for me. In short, this show is hardly as good as many other robot anime of the time, but still it’s worth a look if you like the genre. 6 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Five TV series, four OVAs and nine movies. In addition I am also waiting for additional parts of four TV series and two movies to be released before viewing them.

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