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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Spelunker is a Teacher: You Too Can Surmount Incredible Difficulties!

Part 2 of this look at anime based on Western video games goes in a different direction than the first part.  While Wizardry felt like it was "in on the joke" in the way it handled its world, it really wasn't joking but rather simply took the way the game played seriously & went with it.  In comparison, the subject of this review most definitely is "in on the joke", mainly because the Japanese created the joke in the first place.


Spelunker was developed by Tim Martin, one of the founders of the short-lived company MicroGraphicImage, back in 1983 for Atari's line of 8-bit computers.  It was ported to the Commodore-64 by Brøderbund in 1984, the arcades & Famicom in 1985 by Irem, the MSX in 1986, and the Famicom version was released in North America for the NES in 1987.  The goal of the game was to simply get your nameless spelunker from the top of the giant cave he was exploring to the bottom, where a pyramid filled with treasure was located.  The original Atari & Commordore versions helped make it a popular computer game back in the 80s, but the NES/Famicom version was what took the game beyond anything Mr. Martin could have imagined.

You see, this spelunker was easily killed, and the NES version made it all the more easier to die.  You die in one hit, so anything (including falling bat droppings & even your own flare when it comes down) will kill you.  Also, falling down more than just a few pixels worth will kill you (literally, you die in mid-air!), so even jumping off the top of a decline will kill you.  This resulted in the title being loved in Japan as a "kusoge/crap game", i.e. it was loved because of how "crappy" it was...  Yet, oddly enough, Spelunker is actually highly addictive; you always want to keep playing & get further than the last time.  The spelunker himself (amusingly given the name "Spelunker" by the Japanese) actually even became a part of Japanese lingo with the term "Spelunker Taishitsu/Spelunker's Constitution" & word "Superu", both of which essentially mean "getting injured by the smallest things" (it's commonly used in Japan for professional sports).  In 2009 Spelunker received both a Spelunker Anthology Comic as well as a full-on remake for the Playstation 3 called Minna de Spelunker/Everyone Spelunker, which was released internationally via PSN in 2010/2011 as Spelunker HD, and in 2011 Enterbrain released a 4-koma manga called Spelunker Sensei or Spelunker is a Teacher.  It's this 4-koma manga that also received a Flash OVA adaptation that's funny & just short enough to keep from becoming tired & repetitive.


It's a new school year at high school and one of the new teachers is a man who wears a plain white t-shirt, blue jeans, sneakers...  And a spelunker's hardhat.  His name is Mr. Spelunker & there's something special about him: He dies.  Very easily.  A lot.

It's easy to tell what the main joke of this short 30-minute OVA, split into two 15-minute halves, is: Spelunker dies very easily, even in a normal environment like a high school & the town it's located in.  Luckily, the anime doesn't solely rely on Mr. Spelunker dying over & over, but instead it also pokes fun at the very idea that such an easily-killable person even exists.  The first skit involves the students playing a prank on their new teacher by wedging an eraser between the door & the molding, so that when it's opened the eraser falls on the victim's head; Mr. Spelunker calmly states that this is not enough to kill him.  As the skits go on some of the students make jokes about what can kill Mr. Spelunker, & said teacher is all too happy to assure them that he's not that easily killed...  Only for him to die in a later skit by something only slightly more painful.  In concept this joke can get boring really fast, but the anime manages to stay fresh by utilizing the two halves in different ways.


The first half focuses on showing how easily Mr. Spelunker can die, but a good number of the jokes aren't even about him dying.  For example, an early skit is all about Mr. Spelunker telling the entire class about being careful & not dying, using his numerous deaths the previous week as an example; everyone laughs, but he's deadly serious and then wonders why everyone's looking at him in an uncomfortable way.  Still, there are some moments where the joke is how easy he dies, such as getting hit by a bike or (stupidly) eating the tail of a piece of shrimp.  In fact, a large focus that becomes noticeable is that Mr. Spelunker is seemingly suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder...  He's deadly afraid of dying, even though he always revives shortly afterwards.  A humidifier shooting out spurts of vapor reminds him of the crags in the cave he used to explore that shot out gas (that, yes, kill him instantly), and it freaks him out so much that his fellow teacher wonders if the vapor would kill him; he says "No, it can't", but even he's not sure about that.  When a waitress asks Mr. Spelunker what to order for lunch, after dying numerous times before, his only response is to yell "Anything that won't kill me!"  It's actually a hilarious way to handle the very thing that made the game so loved in Japan, and it makes the first half really enjoyable.

The second half, on the other hand, actually features a stretch of time where Mr. Spelunker does not die.  By this point the other teachers & even the students have gotten used to him dying, so the joke actually becomes inverted in that Mr. Spelunker is actually able to stay alive by being a teacher.  A female teacher even encourages Mr. Spelunker to start dying again because his "dedication" (she feels that he's willing to die to help his students) inspired her to be a better teacher, even though she can't die as easily as him.  On the flip side there's an extended story about a delinquent who wants to rule the school, and is told that "in the greater picture" Mr. Spelunker is the toughest guy in the school, but once he realizes how easily the man dies the delinquent is worried that he'll be thought of as a murderer.  The joke comes to a climax when it's shown that Mr. Spelunker is actually quite tough & can hold his own in a fight!  It's pretty cool to see each half of this OVA be somewhat different from each other; they even have their own OP, ED, & eyecatch sequences!  Sure, it's a one-note joke, but instead of relying on that joke & simply calling it a day the title plays around with it, examining it from different angles and putting a neat spin on it with the whole PTSD & non-death angles.


The studio behind this OVA is Studio PuYUKAI, which creates all of their animation via Flash.  Luckily, Flash animation has improved a lot since its early days back in 2005 & such (just look at Hanoka, the first-ever televised Flash anime...), so Spelunker is a Teacher actually looks pretty damn good considering the way it was made.  Characters are crisp, backgrounds have some depth to them, and the animation itself is really fluid; this is certainly no bargain-priced production when it comes to Flash.  The staff is PuYUKAI people, so they aren't known names, but Minoru Ashina (director), Mickey Miki (music), & Minoru Takehara (animation director), along with their animators, all do a great job at maintaining a tangential adaptation of the video game.  Miki's music in particular is nothing but remixes of the music from the NES version, but he remixes these three or four songs in numerous ways, which helps keep everything new.  The gem of the soundtrack, though, is the opening theme, "Risk my life" by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi (who's most well known as the composer of Sega hits like Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter 2 & 3, & Shenmue I & II), which takes the main music you hear when playing the game & adds in some of the absolute greatest Engrish ever written; nowhere else will you hear a Japanese man say something like "surmount incredible difficulties".  The opening theme, "Koi wa Tanken" by Kana Ueda, takes the victory music from the end of the game & adds in lyrics that, when translated, essentially say "I don't understand you all that well, Mr. Spelunker, but I love you."  It's a riot, and the silly ways Mr. Spelunker dies during the credits are enjoyable (in NES-style visuals, no less).


The voice cast isn't big, but they definitely just add to the silliness & enjoyment of this OVA.  Tomokazu Sugita steals the entire production as Mr. Spelunker, generally delivering an utterly unemotional & dry character, which adds to the hilarity, but also doing just fine suddenly bursting into fear or surprise when appropriate.  The rest of the cast, whose characters are identified by their description, is filled out by Kana Ueda (the female teacher), Takaya Kuroda (the Phys-Ed teacher), Yui Kano (both a female student & the waitress), Satoshi Hino (the delinquent), and even Norio Wakamoto makes a couple of "appearances" as a narrator who asks the characters banal questions ("What's your New Year's Resolution?" "What's the most embarassing death you've had, Mr. Spelunker?"), who have simply perfect answers.


Spelunker is a Teacher is only based on a video game tangentially but it's still really damn funny, and it doesn't overstay its welcome by being only 30 minutes long.  It stays fresh by utilizing each half in a different way (PTSD vs. accepting his easily-killed life), and it also doubles as an interesting way to see how a Western video game has become a cultural icon in Japan, even if it's in a bit of an infamous way; I wonder how Tim Martin feels about his creation's infamously iconic status (has he ever seen this OVA?).  The OVA even received both a regular edition release (on the left) & a special edition release that features a "Special CD" that has a 60-minute conversation between the voice actors, where they talk about Spelunker & retro gaming in general.  True, this OVA does require one to understand the joke to really appreciate it, but it's not like the game is hard to find.  Spelunker is always kept fresh in the minds of gamers by Tozai Games (who presently own the rights), who not only have released the previously mentioned Spelunker HD on PS3 but have also released the NES version on the Wii, Wii U, & 3DS Virtual Consoles.  Hell, Spelunker himself was even snuck into the PS3 game 3D Dot Game Heroes as a playable character (he's even listed in the credits under the "Special Thanks" section)!  Yes, Spelunker isn't exactly a game that everyone will like, especially because of how easy it is to die, but it's honestly extremely addictive to play, & the HD remake even adds in insanity like 6-player online cooperative!  Is it truly a "kusoge"?  Well, one could certainly argue that, but I enjoy it & the OVA is pretty damn funny, too.

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