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Friday, September 2, 2011

Salamander: ↑, ↑, ↓, ↓, ←, →, ←, →, B, A!!!

Man, that "non-review" of the Xevious movie I did was kind of depressing since it's impossible to ever see it.  I need something to cheer me up...

Ah, that's better. I miss you, Konami swiggle logo.

Thankfully, if you want to see an anime based on an old-school 2D shooter there is another option... And would you believe it's actually one of the best examples of how to adapt a video game into an anime? Sure there are better overall examples out there, like the Gungrave TV series, but when it comes to OVAs you can't do much better than Salamander.

Debuting in 1985, Gradius is one of Konami's most well-beloved and cherished video game series. One year later a spin-off game came out called Salamander, which traded in Gradius' mechanical-styled enemies for a bio-organic look. Though it kept its original name when it came out in Europe the same year, when it finally came over to North America the title was changed to Life Force, and it's that name that many fans over here remember due to an excellent NES port. In 1988, Konami teamed with Pony Canyon and Studio Pierrot to adapt Salamander into an anime, which would then be released under the "Konami Video Collection" label; the result was a 50-minute production that told its own variation of the game. It must have done very well, as nine months later a second episode came out and three months after that, in 1989, came a third and final episode. Though this OVA has never been given an official DVD release anywhere, it isn't exactly hard to find and it's an excellent case that video games can be made into really good anime.

During a trip to multiple satellite planets, Prince Ike Lord British is summoned back to his home planet of Latis due to a discovery. In the place where a museum is planned to be built construction workers found a Moai obelisk that looks exactly like the one that orbits Latis and functions as a marker for pilots. Though warned by his adviser Dorobo that doing so might create problems, Lord British commands that the obelisk be removed. Unfortunately, the obelisk is destroyed shortly after the removal is started, which results in the one in space being destroyed as well. Doromo warns that this incident will now result in an old legend coming true, which states that a giant dragon will come to Latis to destroy it. Not long after a mysterious planet called Salamander appears, covers Latis in a dark gas, and causes natural disasters to occur. Left with no other option British has to rely on three pilots from the planet Gradius, Dan, Stephanie, and Eddie, who went through a similar incident not long ago and tell them that the obelisk was a barricade-of-sorts and now Latis is under invasion by the Bacterian, who plan to transform Latis into a base for their own use and kill off the present population.

The base story behind Salamander is fairly simple, mostly due to its shoot-em-up roots, but what makes this anime work so well is the fact that story is the number one priority here. While I can see some fans of the series sad that action doesn't happen quite as often as one would think here, I do love how each episode actually makes it a focus to tell a story and develop the characters. In episode 1, Salamander, we're introduced to the major characters, with Lord British and Eddie getting the majority of the character development. Episode 2, Salamander Basic Saga: Meisou no Paora/Paula's Meditation, is a prequel that is based on the original Gradius and focuses on Stephanie and Eddie while also introducing Paula, who has great importance to the story from here on out. Episode 3, Salamander Advanced Saga: Gofer no Yabou/Gofer's Ambition, is the last episode chronologically and is based on 1988's Gradius II: Gofer no Yabou. As you can see Dan doesn't get an episode focused on him specifically, but that's partially because Dan is pushed as the main character and therefore gets his development in a slower, more gradual fashion.  Admittedly, none of the characters become supremely deep but at the same time they don't have to be deeply-developed characters. This OVA has the equivalent of six regular anime episodes and therefore they can only get so much development in, but the fact that are still characters you can remember and enjoy is what's important.

Now, yes, there is a use of some cliches here. Dan is the traditional main character who fights for justice, Stephanie is the tomboy-ish girl who still has her girlish side to her, Eddie is the sarcastic guy who has a mysterious past to his origins, and Lord British is a cocky prince who is also an ace pilot. But the fact remains that this is a case where the cliches don't get in the way of enjoying these characters. British, for example, becomes more humble as the story goes on and even admits defeat when his eventual love for Stephanie isn't meant to be. The fact that episode 2 take place before episode 1 means that you can watch this OVA in two ways, production-wise or chronologically. But, honestly, I feel that if you were to watch it chronologically a lot of what's talked about in episode 1, specifically how Eddie is involved in the story, loses whatever impact it has when you watch the episodes in the order they were released in.

Naturally, since this is based on a video game series there are homages all over the place. You can spot some from this review alone ("Lord British" is the name of one of the ships in Salamander/Life Force, the planets Latis and Gradius, Gofer, etc.), but one of the coolest things about this anime is how the homages don't become the major focus, but rather simply add to the enjoyment. You see plenty of Vic Vipers as well as the generic grunt units of the Bacterian, but you also get to see stuff like the barriers and missiles you can get by collecting enough power-ups used in ways that make perfect sense for the story; unfortunately, I didn't notice any lasers or ripple shots. Also there are some more nuanced references that you might not catch immediately, unless you're a hardcore fan. For example, when everyone is looking at the recon footage of planet Salamander in episode 1 what you see is actually the layout of Stage 1 of the game! Also, some of the music in the anime is actually just redone versions of songs from their respective games, and though they don't exactly match up with the more orchestral original songs, they definitely fit in excellently for the scenes they are used in. I also thought that there might have been a reference to the legendary Konami Code in the last battle, but if it is a reference then it's a slowly-done one and will probably go unnoticed by most people. Really, this is how you adapt a video game into an anime: Actually tell a functional story with characters that get development while at the same time keeping homage to the original source material both subdued at some points and focused at others. Many other adaptations tend to make references and homages the major focus, resulting in an under-developed story and characters that aren't exactly fitting into it well. Another great example would be the Street Fighter II Movie, which focused on only a few characters, while keeping the others to nothing more than short appearances, and actually made storytelling a focus. Yes, that movie and the Salamander OVA aren't going to win any awards for best anime of all time, but at the same time they actually work and become enjoyable even to those who aren't fans of their respective games.

Another reason why this anime works is due to its production staff. The late director Hisayuki Toriumi, of Gatchaman, Dallos, and Area 88 (OVA) fame, keep everything focused and nowhere in any of the episodes does the story drag on. The characters are all drawn in a very sleek and memorable look, and it's no surprise considering that they were drawn by the legendary Haruhiko Mikimoto, of Macross fame. Mech designer Yasuhiro Moriki (Godannar, Gravion, and Nadesico) makes the Vic Viper, Lord British (the ship, that is), and Bacterian ships look excellent in anime debuts; seeing an entire squadron of Vic Vipers just looks awesome. The music is an interesting production mainly because the man behind it, Tatsushi Umegaki, has never done anime before it and has never done anime again since it. Still, if this ends up being Umegaki's only anime work then he at least did an excellent job here. Music is actually only sparingly used in this anime, as there are a lot of scenes where it's just ambiance and talking. This lets the music become more important when it is used and everything, from the redone game music to Umegaki's original orchestral work, just sounds great. You can look around and find the OST for each episode, and I recommend doing so, if only for the redone game music. There is an instrumental opening theme, "The Salamander Prologue", that sounds great and overall epic, but it's the ending theme across all three episodes, "I Remember You" by Yasuhiko Shigemura, that's really memorable. Those who read my review of the One-Pound Gospel OVA will remember me saying that the ending theme for that anime, "Cry No More", was completely and utterly "80s", and "I Remember You" is much the same, but for a different reason. "Cry No More" is exactly the kind of song you would hear in a more light-hearted movie from the 80s, much like the anime it's used in, while "I Remember You" sounds like something you would hear at the end of a space adventure movie from the same decade. While it might make the song sound dated nowadays, though nowhere near as dated as "Cry No More", it doesn't detract from the fact that it's still a great song.

The voice work is also very well done, keeping up with the great production staff. Dan is voiced by Kouji Tsujitani (Miroku from InuYasha, Seabook Arno and Bernie Wiseman from Gundam's UC universe, and Nagamasa from Sengoku BASARA) and he delivers a great performance, keeping Dan "smart-allecky" but also very trusting. Stephanie is voiced by Noriko Hidaka (Noriko from Gunbuster, Kikyo from InuYasha, and Akane from Ranma 1/2), and she does a great job at making her character sound tough yet also caring and sad at times. Eddie is voiced by Kazuhiko Inoue (Eiji from Layzner, Rom Stol from Machine Robo, and Kakashi from Naruto) and makes Eddie sound perfectly like the sarcasic yet caring guy that he is. Finally, Lord British is voiced by the late Hirotaka Suzuoki, who voices British very similarly to that of Bright Noa from Gundam but here it fits perfectly; anytime I see the Lord British in a Gradius game from now I will imagine that it is piloted by Suzuoki. The other seiyuus put in good performances as well, and overall there is a slight feeling that you can call this a "star-studded cast".

Interestingly enough, Salamander was actually licensed for release outside of Japan in the 90s... But only in the UK. Western Connection was originally a foreign film company that moved over to anime in the early 90s, but they aren't exactly a fondly-remembered company over there. Even for VHS their video quality wasn't that good, their subtitling was average-at-best (i.e. mistimed and downright missing subs were common), and whatever English dubs they did do were of questionable "quality" (just look for their dub of The Enemy's the Pirates!, called Galactic Pirates, on YouTube). Still, at the same time Western Connection's line-up had some interesting UK-only licenses, such as the Slow Step OVA, which still to this day is the only Mitsuru Adachi anime that has been given a physical video release outside of Japan (sorry, Cross Game, but you're streaming-only), Idol Defense Force Hummingbird (released under the name Hummingbirds), the God Bless Dancougar movie (which not only predated CPM's release of the TV series by two years but is also the only part of Dancougar released in that region!), the previously mentioned The Enemy's the Pirates! OVA, and Salamander. I admittedly own a bootleg DVD of Salamander, which is how I watched it, but considering that the only subtitle track offered is in excellent English combined with the fact that there are missing subs in each episode (episode 2 is horribly afflicted by that) makes me think that these bootleggers simply ripped Western Connection's VHS release of the OVA.

At least WC knew who to quote; Helen McCarthy is a respected anime critic, after all.

WC went out of business in the mid-90s, with God Bless Dancougar's VHS release being one of their last releases and apparently extremely rare, and while their mistakes with releases certainly shouldn't be remembered at the very least we shouldn't forget that their odd choices for licenses could result in potentially good license rescues. Salamander has never been given an official DVD release in Japan, a great shame, but at least there are English subtitles already for it; if a company was willing to take the laserdisc masters and clean them up, not to mention simply go over WC's subs and fix/add to them then I could see this OVA be an interesting choice for license. Gradius is still beloved around the world and the Salamander OVA is not only great for fans of the series but also very enjoyable to anime fans in general. It's simple-yet-entertaining story, actually-developed characters, and multitude of homages to the original source material make it a textbook example of how to adapt a video game into an anime, or into an shorter OVA at the very least. I definitely say check it out, as it's not hard to find online and there's even a fansub out there that uses the bootleg subs but apparently fills in the missing spots. If you've seen nothing but lackluster fighting game adaptations before, I say that you should check out how a 2D shooter gets adapted.

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