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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Haja Taisei Dangaioh: The Forgotten "Start-of-it-All"

You know, a little part of me is still amazed that Dangaioh still isn't regularly available in the North American anime market. This title is not only a part of the history of the North American anime industry, but it’s arguably one of the biggest parts of its history. Before 1990 all anime that was made available in North America was dubbed into English, usually edited for time or content, and was either aired on TV or shown in theaters or it was released straight to video. U.S. Renditions, the then new anime label of Books Nippan (which itself was the U.S. branch of book wholesale company Nippon Shuppan Hanbai), was the first company whose focus was on releasing anime in its original Japanese-language version, with English subtitles so that people could understand what was being said. Their first releases were Gunbuster, i.e. the OVA that originally put GAINAX on the map before Evangelion made them legends, and Haja Taisei Dangaioh, simply called “Dangaio” by U.S. Renditions. These two OVAs were, to my knowledge, the very first anime to be made available in North America uncut, unedited, and subtitled. Gunbuster has since gotten a very nice DVD release by Bandai Visual USA, though it was never cheap to buy and is now Out-of-Print, but Dangaioh has gotten the short end of the stick since its original release across three VHS tapes.


This OVA is the creation of Toshihiro Hirano, now working under the name Toshiki Hirano. Anime fans might recognize the man as the director of titles like the Iczer Trilogy, the Hades Project Zeorymer OVA, Magic Knight Rayearth TV, The Devil Lady, and most recently Angel Heart and two of the movies within the Fist of the North Star: New Savior Legend series. Hirano was definitely a name back in the 80s and still was fairly known in the 90s, but with the new decade his output has definitely lessened. The basic story is that four teenagers, Mia Alice, Roll Kran, Lamba Nom, and Pai Thunder, are abducted by the scientist Professor Tarsan and erased of their memories. They also have differing psychic powers, but it’s never really indicated if Tarsan gave them the powers or if they already had them. Either way, the four are meant to become elite soldiers for The Bunker, an evil group of “space pirates” who love destruction and power, but decide to escape from Tarsan so that they can hope to regain their memories. They do end up teaming up with Tarsan, though, so that they can fight The Bunker and stop them for good.

This OVA is only three episodes long, so admittedly story is not exactly the strong point, but at the very least it’s done nicely by giving each of the four main characters focus across each episode… Well, except for Mia Alice.  Considering that she’s made into the focal character it’s odd that she actually gets the least character development; outside of the revelation that she’s the only Earthling of the team and that her psychic power, a mix of telekinesis and psychic energy blasts, is the strongest of the four we really get nothing else about her. Pai also gets a little shafted, since her story is told in the first episode and hence has to share time with the introduction of everything as well as Mia’s barely-there backstory, but Mia gets most of her development in the last part of the first episode and then really nothing is added onto that afterwards. Lamba gets the entire second episode for her backstory and Roll gets the last episode for himself, at least. But the main focus is more on how each of these characters evolve and how they have to potentially throw away their pasts in order to combat The Bunker, and in that sense the story does succeed for the most part. My favorite character, though, is Gil Berg, a power-hungry servant of The Bunker who gets the chance at capturing and killing the team, and even after supposedly dying comes back for more. The man goes to any length to show how serious he is about killing the team, especially Mia; he gouges out a perfectly good eye just to show how loyal he is to The Bunker, for example! And Shigeru Chiba’s performance is just excellent, making him sound like he’s growing progressively insane over his absolute need to kill the heroes. The end, though, is a bit of a cliffhanger, and it wouldn't be until 2001 that a sequel would be made… That had absolutely nothing to do with the original except for revealing what happened to Mia and barely anything else after that. Oh, and the sequel ends on a cliffhanger as well.  Since there was a 14-year wait between those two anime, though, maybe we’ll get part 3 of the Dangaioh saga in 2015. Here’s hoping!

[2016 ADDENDUM: Nope, didn't happen. Looks like Dangaioh is dead as a door nail.]


With this being a mech anime and all it would be wrong to ignore the mech designs, which are actually really nice. Bringing together a group of designers, we have the legend himself Shoji Kawamori, fellow legend Masami Obari, Koichi Ohata (the creator of M.D. Geist), and Yasushi Ishizu (who worked on Gundam 0080 and 0083 as well as Dirty Pair TV). Obari obviously designed the Dangaioh itself (and most recently re-used some of the design in Super Robot Wars Z original unit Shurouga), and overall the mechs all have a cool look to them; no complaints there. The Danagioh itself is a very Go Nagai-esque mech, from it forming by the combination of the characters’ jets to it having a “Rocket Punch” of its very own (it also gets a two-handed variation called the Spiral Knuckle). Oh yeah, and normally timid Roll becomes utterly hot-blooded and badass when piloting the Dangaioh, complete with Akira Kamiya going into full-on “Ryoma Nagare-mode”… Wait, Mia Alice is the focal character, yet she doesn't pilot the mech when it combines? It really is like Hirano wanted to try something different by making Mia the main character but realized that she wouldn’t be a believable main pilot. Either that, or once he found out that he got Akira Kamiya to voice Roll he decided that he couldn't waste the chance to have Ryoma piloting his mech.


The music itself is fine, but the real treats are the opening themes. Episodes 1 & 2 feature "Cross Fight", a duet by old-school anime theme singers Mitsuko Horie and Ichiro Mizuki (who also voice two semi-major characters in episode one) which is nothing but awesome and is right up there with the best mech anime themes there are. Episode 3 features "Cheap Thrills" by Hidemi Nakai which is a really cool rock song and actually fits in well with that episode’s darker tone. Over time "Cross Fight" has definitely overshadowed "Cheap Thrills" to the point where fans might even forget that there was a second opening theme, but both are great. The two ending themes, which each cover the same episodes as the openings, are really nice slow themes, which are great at calming you down after hearing Ryo… err Roll screaming his heart out during battle.


Now I will admit that Dangaioh did get another release in North America by Manga Entertainment, both on dubbed VHS in 1996 and on DVD in 2003 under the name “Dangaioh: Hyper Combat Unit”. It’s just that I personally won’t admit that the release exists, at least the DVD version. By the time the DVD was released we were heavily into the era where dual-audio DVDs that featured uncut episodes were the norm, but here came Manga releasing a version of Dangaioh that was not only missing the first episode, but had the other two episodes condensed into a single, movie-style feature and due to these changes the DVD was dub-only. I haven’t seen the dub, nor do I want to, but from what I hear it’s not even a good dub. Even the U.S. Renditions VHS tapes, with their not-quite accurate subtitles which also infamously named the attacks “Psychic Wave” and “Psychic Sword” as “Side-Kick Wave” and “Side-Kick Sword” (though my tapes don’t have that, so I guess they fixed them for later prints), are a much better and more accurate version of the OVA to watch. Hell, even its nowhere-near-as-good sequel TV series Great Dangaioh got a better DVD release, and the original OVA was released on DVD during Great’s release! Hmm, now the Gunbuster DVDs missing one bit of music doesn't sound nearly as bad, huh?


Overall, Dangaioh isn't a must-see title for all, but considering what its release paved the way for, not to mention that it is simply a fun and enjoyable mech romp, this title definitely deserves at least one last good release here in North America. It’s not like the U.S. Rendition tapes are expensive now or anything like that, in fact they’re downright cheap on the Amazon Marketplace, but it’s the fact that it hasn't had a good release since then that’s the problem. Then there’s also the fact that those old VHS tapes are getting older, and it’s only going to be tougher to get ones that are in good shape. I recorded my tapes onto a DVD last year, but the end of episode one had a tracking problem for a few seconds that I couldn't do anything about. If Gunbuster can get a (mostly) uncut DVD release that was given real genuine care to, then so should Dangaioh. It’s always good to know your history, especially when it’s enjoyable.

1 comment:

  1. Damn, Dangaioh is a fucking masterpiece. I'm not even kidding. I personally think it is a must-see: it's enjoyable as fuck, some of the most delicious female designs (seriously Hirano makes the most beautiful women), Obari as fuck, the mecha are fantastic...I could go on.

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