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Monday, September 24, 2012

Explorer Woman Ray: and the Light of the Ords

I was going into this 1989 OVA expecting a horribly bland & bad anime. After all, any review I could find of this title wasn't exactly nice (even Mike Toole's old AnimeJump review from 2003 was negative). But here I am, having watched both episodes, and I honestly liked it. True, it isn't one of the all-time greats, nor is it one of the best of the 80s, but I honestly enjoyed watching Explorer Woman Ray.

Rayna Kizuki, Ray for short, is a professor & archaeologist who is currently on the search for more info on the mysterious Ord Tribe, who were known to worship the Sun. Her grandfather had started this search ten years ago with his assistant Rieg Vader, but he disappeared without a trace, & Rieg left shortly after. During her research two young girls, Mai & Mami, find her and have brought the mirror-like artifact that the Ords used, which Ray's grandfather had possession of, in hopes that it can help lead to them finding treasure. Unfortunately, Rieg has also been on the search & will do anything to get the mirror and find out the true nature behind the light that the Ord had once worshiped.

If you can't exactly tell from the synopsis, Explorer Woman Ray is an Indiana Jones knock-off. In fact, in some aspects it's a blatant Indy knock-off; Rieg, for example, looks like an anime version of Belloch from Raiders of the Lost Ark and even behaves in a similar fashion to the man. Ray, likewise, is essentially a female Indy and Mai & Mami are twin girls who are similar to Short Round from Temple of Doom. Now I can see why some people would find this to be a problem, since it kind of removes much hope for some sense of originality from this production, but the fact of the matter is that I love the Indiana Jones movies (yes, I even enjoy Temple of DoomKingdom of the Crystal Skull), and seeing an anime equivalent of it is a fun concept to me. The fact that it actually succeeds at being an anime version of Indiana Jones is, honestly, just a positive for me. Of course, I'm also coming off of watching Crystal Triangle, so take that however you want.

Anyway, Ray's story splits up fairly nicely with the first episode being very action-heavy and doing a nice job at introducing the major characters while the second episode is a slower-paced piece, delving more into the backstory between Ray & Rieg (i.e. Ray had a young girl crush on Rieg) and giving the story a climax. Now while this story is very Indy-like, Ray does differ in some ways, the biggest of which is that Rieg actually is a major focus in the story & actually fights Ray in the end, whereas Belloch in Raiders was only in a few scenes and never actually had a major confrontation with Indy. The battle between Ray & Rieg isn't filled with too much action & features a pretty silly moment where Rieg's sword loses to a random pipe Ray is given, but it was still nice to see the two actually have a final confrontation. Also, this title has an interesting twist where a nameless grunt leader (literally, he's named "Head Leader") actually ends up having some character to him and I honestly found him entertaining to watch to the point where I felt that he deserved to have more scenes. Head Leader at least did more than Johnathan, Rieg's big brute of a second-in-command who actually even gets punched out by Head Leader at one point.

But it's not like Explorer Woman Ray doesn't have it's faults, though, because it does. Much like how some people found Short Round highly annoying, Mami & Mai also can get annoying, Mai more than Mami. Admittedly, they were mostly harmless in the first episode and even were the focus of the OVA's awesome opening scene where they're being chased on a train, but both of them were pretty much useless in the second episode outside of a short fight scene, with Mai even having the gall to say that Ray is helpless without them. To the OVA's credit, though, when Mai said that Mami looked at her puzzled and wondered if that's really the case, so at least the OVA knows when to poke fun at itself. Another problem is that the animation hits both really high notes as well as pretty low notes, but they're separated by the episode count. What I mean by that is the first episode has some really great & fluid animation (some could argue that the first episode features some of the best short sequences of the 80s, like with the opening train scene), but the second episode features much more limited & error-prone animation. I can understand the more limited animation, since the second episode is slower-paced in general, but there are a couple of odd moments where the animation suffers, with the most obvious being a shot where Mai & Mami shout out Ray's name, but they're mouths animate like they are saying an entire sentence, complete with mouth flaps still happening after they stop shouting. It's overall just a noticeable blemish of an otherwise nicely-made production.

The animation was done by Animate-Film & AIC and it was directed by Hiroki Hayashi (El Hazard series, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040), with the second episode directed by Haruhisa Okamoto & Masato Sato, and that likely explains the difference in animation quality between each episode. Hayashi is a well-known director & creator, whereas Okamoto & Sato are small names in the industry, and the budget for each episode likely reflected that. The character designs were done by Hiroyuki Ochi (Armitage III, Burning Rangers), and they do work really well for this title, though Ray's hair, which is supposed to be brown, more often than not looks jet black. The music by Norimasa Yamanaka (Body Jack, Generator Gawl, Appleseed OVA) fits the title well enough, but it does admittedly sound more like background music for a video game, though the main theme is catchy enough. As a neat little bit of trivia, Ray's original manga-ka, Takeshi Okazaki, also apparently helped out with some of the animation work on this OVA. The voice cast is small but enjoyable, with Mika Doi (Misa Hayase from Macross, Marvel Frozen from Aura Battle Dunbine, Eclipse from Kiddy Grade) doing a very nice job as Ray. Following her is Katsunosuke Hori (Jiro Nakata in Zetman, Toshio Fukai in Eureka Seven AO), who delivers an appropriately brash Rieg, and Miki Itou (Android #18 in DBZ) & Minami Takayama (Conan in Detective Conan/Case Closed) as Mai & Mami, respectively. There was no English dub produced for this when CPM released this on VHS & LD in the 90s.

Ah, don't you love covers that change everyone's hair color?
After the less-than-stellar reception I was seeing online I was expecting to not enjoy Explorer Woman Ray, or at least feel that it dropped the ball in the second episode, but I actually came out of having a fun time with this title. Yeah, it won't be a part of my favorite anime of all time anytime soon, and it doesn't quite hold a candle to most of the Indiana Jones movies, but I still ended up liking Explorer Woman Ray. I like adventure stories like these, and Ray certainly scratched that itch just fine, maybe even a little better than I expected. From what I could find out, the Ray OVA actually isn't a 100% accurate adaptation of Takeshi Okazaki's original two-volume manga, which apparently tells a completely different adventure & even features some slightly different character development. I had brought up the original Explorer Woman Ray manga as part of my "JManga 13", and after seeing this OVA I really do want to read the manga now. I do love me a good archaeology adventure, after all...

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