New from Japan: Anime Film Reviews

Brian Camp compares the adaptive processes of Sanctuary and Ghost in the Shell.

Around 1995, Japanese animation (anime) began pouring into North America, Europe and across the globe in video form. Most of these titles were unknown outside of Japan and never covered by animation journals. Whether a title is highly popular or very obscure, a high-quality theatrical feature or a cheap and unimaginative direct-to-video release, they all look the same on a store shelf. Therefore, Animation World Magazine will regularly review several new releases (including re-releases not previously covered) that have merit and about which our readers should know.

El-Hazard: The Magnificent World.

By the end of 2001, the entire El-Hazard anime series will be available on video and DVD from Pioneer Entertainment. The variety of titles and formats is rather confusing however. Below we list the variety of compilations.

El Hazard: The Magnificent World, Volumes 1  4. © 1995, 1998 AIC, Pioneer LDC, Inc.

El-Hazard: The Magnificent World. V.1, Battlefield of Confusion. V.2, The World of Beautiful Girls. V.3, The World of Thunder. V.4, The World of Endless Adventures.

OAV series (7 episodes), 1995-1996. Director: Hiroki Hayashi. V.1 - 3, 50 minutes; V.4, 75 minutes. Price & format: video dubbed $19.98 each; subtitled $24.98 each. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

El-Hazard: The Wanderers. V.1, The Adventure Begins. V.2, The Ultimate Weapon. V.3, The Winds of War. V.4, Final Adventures.

TV series (26 episodes), 1995-1996. Director: Katsuhito Akiyama. V.1 & V.4, 7 episodes/175 minutes; V.2 & V.3, 6 episodes/150 minutes. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98 each. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

El Hazard 2: The Magnificent World, Volumes 1 - 2. © 1998 AIC, Pioneer LDC, Inc., TV Tokyo.

El Hazard 2: The Magnificent World. V.1, Awakening of Kalia. V.2, Promise for Reunion.

OAV series (4 episodes), 1997. Director: Yoshiaki Iwasaki. 60 minutes each. Price & format: video dubbed $24.98 each; subtitled $29.98 each. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

El-Hazard: The Magnificent World DVD Box Set.

El-Hazard: The Magnificent World. OAV series (7 episodes), 1995-1996. Director: Hiroki Hayashi.

El-Hazard 2: The Magnificent World. OAV series (4 episodes), 1997. Director: Yoshiaki Iwasaki. Price & format: 3 DVDs, bilingual, 365 minutes, decorative box & 16-page booklet, $119.98. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

Take a shy teenage boy and surround him with beautiful girls from straitlaced sisters to sexy nymphettes in a fantasy-comedy situation. This formula made the A.I.C. studio's Tenchi Muyo! one of the major anime sensations of the early 1990s (September 1992 for the next half-dozen years). By the mid-'90s A.I.C. felt it was time to try a fresh variation. El-Hazard: The Magnificent World moved the formula from Earth to a fantasy world, most obviously a mixture of the Arabian Nights with The Prisoner of Zenda; although scripter Ryoei Tsukimura admitted to being a big fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars novels, and director Hayashi to being an addict of the Marx Brothers movies.

A superscientific and/or magical artifact beneath Shinonome High School in Japan sends three students and a teacher to a Persianesque alternate dimension. Makoto Mizuhara, 17, is a cross between a nerd and an idealistic knight. Katsuhiko Jinnai is the stereotypical rotter from a British school novel; a cheat and a schemer, though not a coward. His sister, Nanami, is a bit bossy and materialistic but basically good-hearted. Mr. Fujisawa doubles as chaperone and comedy relief; he is an amiable but weak-willed drunkard and chain smoker. The world of El-Hazard is at war, with the good nations (allied under leadership of Roshtaria) defending themselves from the evil Bugrom Empire whose femme-fatale Queen Diva leads an army of giant insect warriors. The Eye of God, an orbiting satellite doomsday weapon left over from an earlier technological civilization, can only be controlled by the two princesses of Roshtaria, but one of them, Princess Fatora, has just disappeared. If news gets out it could destroy the morale of the allies. Makoto happens to be an exact lookalike of Fatora, so he is drafted to impersonate her until she can be found: the Zenda setup, except that it requires a very embarrassed boy to dress in drag, with appropriate risque setups like trying to sneak into the men's room when he has to go. Jinnai offers his services to Bugrom as a would-be conquering Napoleon (he names the giant bugs of his command staff after his favorite Japanese movie actors), so Makoto idealistically has to help the Roshtarians. There are three priestess/magicians of Fire, Air and Water. A love rivalry develops between Nanami and Shayla-Shayla the hot-tempered Fire Priestess over Makoto, who wants no part of it. Mr. Fujisawa wants to get back to Earth before his cigarettes run out, unaware that husband-hunting Water Priestess Miz Mishtal has her eye on him. And so forth. A detailed cast and synopsis of all the subplots would fill several pages. There are assassins, evil "Phantom tribesmen" (fantasy Dark Elves under another name), and lots of other major characters (not to mention the minor ones), all of whom have distinct personalities that usually clash amusingly, alternating smoothly between humorous and dramatic scenes. The pseudo-Middle Eastern fantasy costumes and landscapes by Nobuhito Sue are truly beautiful, and the music score by Seiko Nagaoka is of theatrical feature quality.

The original El-Hazard was released as seven OAVs (the first is 45 minutes, numbers 2 through 6 are 30 minutes each, and the climax is 40 minutes) between May 1995 and January 1996. The first episode was so popular that plans were quickly made to milk El-Hazard to death. A 25-episode TV remake, El Hazard: The Wanderers, started on the air before episode 5 of the OAV came out (October 6, 1995 through March 24, 1996). It retells the same basic story, but with more emphasis on the subplots (lots of aimless wandering about the world) and eliminating most of the risque humor (the cross-dressing situations; the nude bathing scenes). The costumes and landscapes are still lovely but it is painfully obvious that the animation quality has been cut by almost 50%.

An actual sequel, El Hazard 2: The Magnificent World, was only four OAV half-hour episodes, released between March and October 1997. (It is the final DVD of the beautifully-packaged 3-DVD boxed set.) The poor-quality animation is still evident. In this rendition, Mr. Fujisawa gets cold feet on his wedding day and runs off to explore El-Hazard. The others set off on a quest to find him, joined by the real Princess Fatora who only appeared in the last moments of the first series. She is a spoiled bitch lesbian, and a running gag is that she constantly uses her resemblance to Makoto to try to seduce the girls who are in love with him. They all cross paths with Jinnai, still trying to become the generalissimo of a Bugrom Empire; he has discovered a new doomsday device from that earlier civilization and is about to try it out ... El-Hazard 2 definitely suffers by comparison with the original series, but it is a pleasant sequel for fans who want to spend a couple more hours with the charismatic characters.

El Hazard: The Alternative World, Volumes 1 - 4. © 1998 AIC, Pioneer LDC, Inc., TV Tokyo.

El-Hazard: The Alternative World. V.1, The Priestess of Water. V.2, The Spring of Life. V.3, Ruler of the Universe. V.4, Dreams of Tomorrow.

TV series (13 episodes), 1998. Director: Yasuhito Kikuchi. V.1, 4 episodes/100 minutes; V.2 - 4, 3 episodes/75 minutes each. Price & format: DVD bilingual $29.98 each. Distributor: Pioneer Entertainment.

The final entry in the franchise is a second TV series, El-Hazard: The Alternative World; 12 episodes broadcast from January 7, 1998 to March 26, 1998 with a 13th epilogue episode added to the later video release. This is a sequel to both OAV series. Miz Mishtal has stepped down as Water Priestess to marry Mr. Fujisawa, and a new Water Priestess, Qawoor, is being coronated when the whole cast is swept off to an alternate world. There they find the same-old same-old. Arjah, an evil self-styled "ruler of the universe," is trying to conquer the Kingdom of Creteria. He needs a mystic weapon, the Spring of Life; the attempt to activate it has drawn Qawoor and those around her to this world. Makoto & Co. nobly have to save Creteria as they did Roshtaria; Jinnai finds this world also has giant bug warriors who will take his orders; etc. The main difference lies in a major subplot involving Gilda, the young commander of Creteria's royal guard. Gilda is well-intentioned, but her pride in her own abilities and her lack of confidence in Creteria's apparently-weak ruler leads her to plot a military coup "for the good of the nation;" an internal weakness in Creteria's defense which both Jinnai and Arjah are quick to exploit. A.I.C.'s animation is again clearly limited in comparison to the original story, and Makoto has to figure out how to save the day while fighting off the distracting romantic attentions of Nanami, Shayla-Shayla and Qawoor. There are certainly many worse anime titles than El-Hazard: The Alternative World; but as with El-Hazard 2, this is a sequel which suffers in comparison with the original work.

Summary: If you just want one sample of the original series, which is a classic, Volume 1 of the El-Hazard video (dubbed or subtitled) should suffice. There is unfortunately no individual DVD release. If you want the entire original series, the DVD Box Set is a good buy, which will also give you El-Hazard 2. If the lower animation quality of El-Hazard 2 is acceptable to you and you want still more of what has turned into a formulaic plot, go on to El-Hazard: The Alternative World. As for El-Hazard: The Wanderers TV series, comparing it with the original OAV series provides some insights between what is considered acceptable risque adolescent humor in Japan's video market versus what is acceptable for family TV programming.

Oh My Goddess! V.1 - 2.

OAV series, 1993-1994. Director: Hiroaki Gohda. V.1, 3 episodes/87 minutes; V.2, 2 episodes/69 minutes. Price & format: DVD (bilingual), $24.95. Distributor: AnimEigo.

One of the genuine fan hits of the 1990s, to the extent that there were impassioned arguments among fans as to whether the Japanese title Aa! Megami-sama should be translated literally as Ah! My Goddess or more loosely as Oh My Goddess! to get in the English pun on "Oh, My God!''; until creator Kosuke Fujishima went on record in favor of the latter. It began as a manga in September 1988; another variant on the teen "magical girlfriend" formula, but with an unusually sweet and romantic plot. By 1992 the manga was so popular that its beginning was adapted into this five-episode OAV release. College freshman Keiichi Morisato is the stereotype of the nice guy who lets everyone impose on him. He is shocked when young goddess Belldandy appears to grant him a wish. He wishes that he could have a girl friend just like her; and Belldandy herself is assigned to remain on Earth with him. The "Relief Goddess Office" in Heaven alters reality so that the two teens are able to set up housekeeping in absolutely chaste circumstances, with Keiichi's younger sister moving in to provide a chaperone. The setup is so proper that Belldandy's more extroverted older sister goddess Urd joins them in episode #2 to deliberately spice things up with some mild femme fatale humor. Episode #3 brings in their youngest sister, Skuld, a tomboy whose magic runs toward mechanical gadgets. Having set up the basic plot, the last two episodes throw it into jeopardy. The goddess' attempt to leave Fate running on automatic while they are on Earth is breaking down, and God orders them back on the job. Keiichi and Belldandy are heartbroken at being separated. Urd and Skuld determine to help the two lovers, even if it means risking the wrath of God...

Oh My Goddess! Volumes 1 - 2. Images courtesy of AnimEigo.

The OAV skips much background, assuming viewers are familiar with the more detailed comic-book serial. Fortunately, AnimEigo included extensive notes in its 1994 American video release, which are also in the new DVD version. Belldandy (present), Urd (past) and Skuld (future) are the three Fates from Norse mythology ("Belldandy" should be Verthande), Heaven is Asgard and God is Wotan. In the myths the three Fates guard the world-tree Yggdrasil from the monsters and demons that would destroy it. In Fujishima's version Heaven is a futuristic computer center, Yggdrasil is the master program that controls Fate, and the three sisters are the programmers who keep the fate of humanity running smoothly. (Skuld "debugs" Yggdrasil by chasing after the bugs -- spiders with rabbit heads -- with a mallet.) Many more revelations appear gradually, although they are less important than the interplay between the characters. Oh My Goddess! is a rare title in which the story is less important than the attractive personalities. Keiichi, Belldandy, and the others are so darn nice that you would want to spend an evening with them if all they did was sit around drinking tea and chatting. Fujishima's comic book, which goes on far past the events in the anime, is one of the most popular translated manga in America, appearing monthly from Dark Horse Comics since August 1994.

The five-episode OAV was one of A.I.C.'s highest-quality productions. The first four half-hour episodes appeared quarterly between February and December 1993; the 40-minute finale did not come out until May 1994. The animators clearly took enough time to do a good job. The music by Takeshi Yasuda has been a fan-favorite CD import for years. AnimEigo's DVD includes not only the usual options of both English and Japanese audio tracks, with or without subtitles, but a "dub your own" option for would-be voice actors with the music and sound FX but no dialogue.

pattenanime13.gifMobile Suit Gundam, Volumes1 2. © Bandai Entertainment. All rights reserved. pattenanime15.gifMobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team, Volumes 1 - 2. © Bandai Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Mobile Suit Gundam. V.1, The Battle Begins! V.2, The Red Comet. V.3, The Threat of Zeon. V.4, Desert of Despair. V.5, Ambush! V.6, The Black Tri-Star. V.7, Back to Space. V.8, The Battle of Solomon. V.9, New Type. V.10, Lalah's Fate.

TV series (43 episodes), 1979-1980. Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino. Price & format: video & DVD English language, V.1-2 & 10, 5 episodes/125 minutes, V.3-9, 4 episodes/100 minutes, video $14.98/DVD $24.98 each. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team. V.1 - 4.

OAV series (12 episodes), 1996-1999. Directors: Takeyuki Kanda, Umanosuke Iida. Price & format: V.1-4, 3 episodes 75 minutes, video English language $19.98 each; DVD bilingual $24.98 each. Distributor: Bandai Entertainment.

There are several TV anime series that have been massively influential. Mobile Suit Gundam is without doubt one of them. It revitalized the exhausted "giant robot" genre by taking it from a juvenile fantasy scenario and putting it into a more realistic military-action science-fiction setting. Instead of the mighty robot and its righteous adolescent pilot-companion performing as a simplistic superhero team fighting evil villains, the robot became an advanced battle vehicle, one of many in an air/space force fighting in a futuristic war; and the action focuses upon the human interest story of the young pilot. Macross/Robotech, VOTOMS, Patlabor, Evangelion -- every giant robot anime series during the past twenty years that has achieved any popularity has followed the new formula created by Gundam in 1979.

Gundam has become an industry in its own right, catapulting its producer, Sunrise Inc., into the ranks of Japan's major animation studios. The original Mobile Suit Gundam was 43 episodes, broadcast from April 7, 1979 - January 26, 1980. These were condensed into three theatrical features. The sequels started gushing out in the mid-1980s, with new TV series, theatrical features and direct to video series; not to mention the live-action TV movie, the video games, the Japanese amusement park attractions, etc., etc. Zeta Gundam, Gundam-ZZ, Gundam Victory, G-Gundam ... anime fans have been both amused and frustrated by America's first taste of the franchise being the 1995 Gundam Wing, one of the more recent variants.

Mobile Suit Gundam was created by director Yoshiyuki Tomino, who has admitted that he wanted to film Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers but Sunrise couldn't afford the TV rights. So he wrote his own version, focusing upon realistic warfare using plausible advanced military technology but turning the alien-creature menace into human adversaries. The action begins six months into a war in "Universal Century 0079" (around 2200 A.D.) between an Earth world government and Zeon, an artificial orbital space colony that has declared independence but is really trying to establish a dictatorship over all humanity. 15-year-old Amuro Ray, a civilian on another orbital colony being evacuated to Earth, is drafted into using his scientist father's Gundam battle-suit prototype to keep the evacuees alive as they are harried by Zeon's fighters. The complex military soap opera follows Amuro's relationship with his estranged family, his civilian buddies and new military companions (including budding romantic fumblings), and his increasingly personal rivalry with Zeon's "Red Baron"-like ace pilot Char Aznable (with glimpses of Char's own secret war against his superiors); as he grows during the last half of "the One-Year War" from a naive schoolboy to an experienced and bitter combat veteran. Gundam featured a large but charismatic cast (designed by fan-favorite character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko), believable emotions and dialogue, gripping political and battle situations, and a rare hard-science sci-fi plot that blended technology (the space battle hardware) and biology (hints that Amuro and Char were superior "Newtype" humans due to being raised outside of Earth's biosphere).

pattenanime18.gifMobile Suit Gundam revitalized the exhausted giant robot genre. © Bandai Entertainment. All rights reserved. pattenanime19.gif The robot as an advanced battle vehicle in Mobile Suit Gundam. © Bandai Entertainment. All rights reserved.

The first sequels were set between one and thirty years following Gundam's conclusion with the defeat of Zeon. They generally established that "everybody is no damn good," switching back and forth between the Earth Federation and Zeon as the good and bad guys depending upon which political faction is in charge of which nation; with the civilian population sinking into despair as the fighting continues apparently endlessly. Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team, set on a different battlefront of the One-Year War, attempted to recreate the relatively positive mood of the original story, when both sides expected a quick and permanent victory. The Earth Federation has manufactured enough Gundams to send a division to Southeast Asia to take it back from an occupying Zeon army. Freshly graduated Lieut. Shiro Amada, assigned to command the 08th Mobile Suit Team, must prove to his veteran squad that he has what it takes to lead them; must help still rawer rookies fit onto the team; must win the friendship and aid of native guerrillas who consider both the Feddies and the Zeeks to be destructive invaders; and must overcome and defeat the Zeons' experimental Apsalus superweapon. The 08th MS Team starts out as basically a cleaned-up boys'-adventure version of the 1965-1975 Viet Nam War with giant robot battle armor instead of tanks, evolving into an improbable Romeo & Juliet romance between Shiro and Zeon's Apsalus test pilot, the lovely Aina Sakhalin, as the two former idealists for their causes become disillusioned by seeing the reality of war. The twelve half-hour episodes were released to video between January 1996 and July 1999; an unusually long period caused in part by original director Kanda's death in July 1996.

Mobile Suit Gundam, which started it all, is still considered the best of all the series in story depth and character development, although the animation quality (produced when Sunrise was a poor, struggling newcomer) is primitive compared to the sequels. The VHS video version presents Gundam as it has been edited for American TV broadcast; the DVD version is uncut. Unlike most DVDs, however, the original Gundam series is dubbed in English only. Due to business decisions in Japan, the original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles could not be included. Both English dialogue and the Japanese dialogue with subtitles are available on The 08th MS Team series. Its twelve episodes offer a good summary of the Gundam plot and spirit in a new story featuring the higher-quality animation of the late 1990s.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.

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