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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Koukou Butouden Crows: Hello, Rude Boys, Crazy Boys, & Lonely Boys

When it comes to Japan's "yakii/delinquent" entertainment culture, there's nothing bigger than the world Hiroshi Takahashi created. Though he did some fairly no-name manga in the 1980s, he hit it big in 1990 with Crows, which told the story of the delinquent students in the rough & tough Suzuran High School. Crows ended in 1998 after 26 volumes, and Takahashi kept the series alive with some spin-offs & side-stories until 2002, when debuted a proper sequel called Worst, which is only now ending at 33 volumes. To help show off how foreign the yankii culture is to North America, one only has to look at what we got of Worst. Digital Manga Publishing released the first three volumes in 2004, which didn't require one to know anything of the previous series to enjoy, & the sales were so bad that DMP dropped the series faster than a potato that's on fire. Hell, ANN actually had an entire article back in 2008 solely to explain the appeal of the franchise! Meanwhile in Japan, the franchise, collectively called Crows x Worst, is a national phenomenon comprised of a large amount of manga, three live-action movies directed by Takashi Miike (two Crows Zero prequel movies [the first of which we got via Media Blasters] plus the upcoming Crows Explode movie), a giant line of collectible figures, a few video games (including an ultra-rare beat-em-up for the Sega Saturn that uses a super-deformed look & a recently-announced iOS game), & finally a rare two-episode OVA from 1994 made by Knack, the masters of poorly-made anime... So can you believe that the anime is actually really good?

Harumichi Bouya is the new transfer student coming to Suzuran High School, nicknamed the "School of Crows" because of the jet-black school outfit & the fact that all of the students are hated delinquents. Harumichi quickly becomes friends with Yasuo Yasuda, a small & weak boy who is easily preyed upon by the large Akutsu. Though Harumichi has no interest in the existing gang wars in Suzuran to determine who can lead the school as a unified group, a feat that has never been done in the history of the school, he still gets involved when his beastly power in fighting attracts the attention of Hideto Bandou, who leads a division of a motorcycle gang called The Front of Armament.

Much like when I reviewed Rokudenashi BLUES 1993 & Hareluya II BØY, the main appeal to any delinquent title is in the characters, & Crows is no different in this regard; if anything, it's become the standard of the genre. Harumichi is cocky, brash, & powerful, but at the same time he's actually slightly introverted & shy, yet he's still ready to take on any & all enemies that wish to fight him. Yasuda, Yasu for short, is easily rattled when things get troublesome, but at the same time works well as a second-banana for Harumichi. Hiromi, Honjou, & Makoto, the first three people Harumichi defeats, are all tough & hoping to one day find a way to unify the school, but at the same time they realize that it's better to fight for Harumichi's sake rather than their own, with Hiromi being the logical one, Honjou the most honest (& almost always wearing a medical cough guard [it's a yankii thing]), & Makoto the good-old "quiet but tough" one. Akutsu also ends up joining Harumichi's side, & though he's big and tough in reality he can be just as much of a pansy as Yasu. A big part of Harumichi's life style is to live life the way he wants, with true friends by his side rather than grunts that only follow him out of fear.

In an interesting touch, each of the two episodes of the OVA have their own focus & are even executed slightly differently. The first episode focuses on the fight between Harumichi & Bandou's group, with fighting being the main focus. Harumichi fights everyone, from Akutsu to Hiromi to Makoto to Bandou's subordinates Senda & Yamazaki, and the climax is the fight between Harumichi & Bandou. All the fights are interesting in their own way, with Harumichi's interest in each fight differing from misguided heroism (he only fights Akutsu on the "promise" that Yasu will introduce his beautiful older sister to Harumichi) to annoyance (Hiromi) to barely-interested (Makoto) to all-out anger (Bandou & his men). In fact, Harumichi even comes off like a horror movie stalker when he goes after Yamazaki, even hitching a ride on the back of a truck to catch up to him. All of these fights are quick but harsh, with blood flowing very easily in nearly every one of them. Bandou is made out to be a true ruffian & the ending is satisfying in a very "street justice" kind of way.

That focus on fighting is what makes Episode 2, titled Koukou Butouden/High School Fighting Legend Crows 2, all the more different in execution. Here we're introduced to Megumi Hayashida, better known as Lindaman, the all-out toughest student in Suzuran, though he only gets into fights when provoked; he doesn't care about ruling the school. The mystery behind him goes as far as people saying that he's a murderer, having killed his father & brother (which isn't true, but isn't false, either), which helps catch Harumichi's interest, making him want to fight the giant. Even though there is an excellent fight between Harumichi & Lindaman, the focus of this episode is definitely more about the story & characters, with Hiromi & Yasu visiting an alumnus of Suzuran to find out more about Lindaman, as well as a post-fight focus on introducing The Front of Armament, who make it their focus to take out Harumichi after hearing about his fight with Bandou. The Front are outright ruthless & violent, breaking Senda's arms & legs after telling them about Harumichi, beating down Bandou to the point where he has to get run over by a motorcycle in order to be defeated (the intent was to literally kill him), & beating down Yamazaki even after he betrayed Bandou. Unfortunately, the OVA ends somewhat suddenly with Harumichi thinking about how The Front are coming after him. There was a five month gap between episodes, so whether more episodes were considered or not is hard to tell; there is the possibility that the OVA just didn't sell all that well back in 1994. In 2006, there were plans to release the OVA across two DVDs in October, but they never came out, leaving them VHS-only & extremely rare.

Before we get to the production side of things, let me give a intro for Knack. Founded in 1967 by former employees of Toei & Mushi Pro, Knack made a name for themselves during the 70s & 80s. Unfortunately, that name was of doing less-than-average productions with subpar animation & outright copying of popular titles of the time. While they had a few noteworthy hits, like the anime adaptation of Gekkou Kamen/Moonlight Mask, The Adventures of the Little Prince, & Attacker You! (which in Europe was re-written to be a spin-off of Attack #1)), they also had clunkers like Astroganger (a Tetsujin knock-off), Psycho Armor Govarian (Mazinger meets Gundam), & Groizer X. In fact, 1973's Chargeman Ken! was essentially forgotten about until its 2007 DVD release, where it became a NicoNico Douga favorite because of it's poor animation, badly-synced audio, & downright non-heroic main character. Eventually, once the 90s hit, Knack focused more on OVAs like Crows, Grappler Baki, & Submarine 707F, and they found more success with hentai & helping out on productions like The End of Evangelion. After 1997 hentai Slight Fever Syndrome, though, Knack changed to a live-action studio, which they still do to this day, & in August 2008 they changed their name to ICHI Corporation. They eventually did return to anime shortly in 2008 with Zoku Attacker You - Kin Medaru e no Michi/New Attacker You, a 52-episode Japanese/Chinese co-production sequel to the original series that went straight-to-video in Japan.

Anyway, Knack's infamy really lies more in their TV work, because when they switched over to OVAs they actually seemed to do better. Crows, though still looking a little rough around the edges in general, tends to animate very nicely, with some shots featuring some extremely fluid animation, especially for the time it was released in. Director Masamune Ochiai (Don DraculaUFO Robo Grendizer) definitely did a great job keeping everything look rough & "dirty", truly fitting for the yankii style the franchise is all about. The character designs by Koichi Kagawa (his only anime work, to my knowledge) stick very close to Hiroshi Takahashi's early artwork, which didn't quite have the sleeker & more refined style his art tends to have now. I've seen some comparison shots between the manga & the OVA, & the OVA does a very nice job staying visually accurate. The music by Keiichi Goto, who worked on an entry in Osamu Tezuka's Film is Alive Filmography series from 1969-1989, fits fine by being rock-focused; it does tend to sound more like a soundtrack to a video game, though. The real gem of the music, though, is the use of songs by The Street Beats, a legendary J-Punk band that Takahashi is a mega-fan & friend of; Lindaman's name is even a reference to the song "Linda Linda". Insert theme "BAD" is a happier song that's used during the sillier & more positive moments in the OVA, while the ending themes, "Totsuzen, Natsu no Arashi no Youni" (ep 1) & "Outsider" (ep 2), are more hard-rocking style songs that work excellently as ending themes. The Streets Beats are essentially a big part of the Crows x Worst franchise, even being featured on screen, playing their song in Crows Zero's opening credits & having the song re-used in the sequel, so it's awesome to see Knack include the band's music for the anime.

Yes, it does a quad screen shot for no real reason...

The voice cast is also really good, doing well with the short time they had. Harumichi is voiced by Hidenari Ugaki (Argo Gulskii in G Gundam), and he does a great job giving the character a gruff exterior but silly interior. Yasu is voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi, who delivers his usual high-pitched scratchiness to perfection. Hiromi is voiced by Toshiyuki Morikawa (Naraku in InuYasha, Napoleon in Ring ni Kakero 1), who may not exactly be able to show off his tougher side in battle too often, but still delivers the thinking side of Hiromi well. Bandou is voiced by Kazuki Yao, who brings his highly-identifiable raspy voice to a fine-fitting character. Lindaman is voiced by Akio Ohtsuka, who does a great job with his deep voice in making Rindaman sound tough but not forcefully so. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the likes of Takehito Koyasu (Yamazaki), Juurota Kosugi (Makoto), Keiji Fujiwara (Senda), & Kouji Tsujitani (Honjou), who all do good jobs as well.

Considering the legacy of infamy that Knack has behind it, (Koukou Butouden) Crows could have easily been a horrible anime execution of what is now a Japanese cultural icon. Instead, the overall product is pretty damn good, though there is still a feeling that Knack probably could have given it just a slightly larger budget, if only so that it doesn't "look" rough, because some of the animation shown is pretty fluid & delivers just fine in terms of the yankii style. It's sad to see that the OVA kind of just ends, even after two 45-minute episodes, though when you consider that it apparently only covers about the first three volumes of the manga, there probably wasn't any good spot to end on without giving it a sense of "Read the manga for more!" It just goes to show even more so that, even though delinquent manga is a very popular genre, when it comes to anime the most we ever get are OVAs. Like I said, Hareluya II BØY was only partially a delinquent title, and even that one never received a DVD release. There is no way in delinquent hell that Crows will ever get licensed here in North America, and it's not even easily available via fansub. You have to go to YouTube & search for the OVA, but both episodes have been subbed via the captions option. Be warned, though, that the second episode was translated from Japanese to Russian to English, so it's pretty rough. Still, with Worst coming to an end, a new game being made, a new movie in production, & even the scanlations for Crows nearing the end, why not go check out the franchise's sole anime adaptation? It's definitely better than it's animation studio's reputation hints at.

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