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 Amazon.co.uk anymore and I haven’t seen for sale on eBay in quite a long time.

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