Happy Halloween, Obscure Anime Thrill Seekers!
Two years ago I reviewed the Manga DVD based on Jirou Tsunoda's horror manga Kyoufu Shinbun, but last year I didn't talk about any sort of horror title; instead, I did my very first Theory Musing post about the "Three Pillars of Sports (Boxing) Anime & Manga"... But, to be fair, Superstorm Sandy was more than enough of a horror story for some people here on the East Coast. Well, for this year I'm going back to fictional horror & reviewing an anime from a man who knows a thing or two about Japanese horror: George Iida.
George Iida got into the film industry in the 80s mainly writing for pink films & the like, but in 1987 was able to direct his first film, Cyclops. The next year he had his feature-length debut with the movie Battle Heater, which is about a man-eating kotatsu (and, yes, this movie was released over here on DVD... I must buy this!), and would later go on to direct movies such as 1998's Rasen/Spiral (based on the novel sequel to J-Horror classic Ringu) & the live-action movie adaptations of manga like Tokyo Babylon (1993), Akagi (the first movie in 1995), & Dragon Head (2003). His most iconic work, though, was the 1992-1993 sci-fi/horror TV series Night Head, which wound up getting a made-for-TV movie sequel in 1994 & a manga adaptation in 1997 with art by Makoto Tateno (CUTE x GUY, Yellow), and in 2006 was retold in anime form under the title Night Head Genesis (which Media Blasters released here on DVD). What I'll be talking about is a spin-off of Night Head that actually was planned for a North American release by a company that brought over the horror-inspired JoJo's Bizarre Adventure... Fitting.
Sci-Fi HARRY originally debuted as a 2-volume manga back in 1995 which was written by Iida & drawn by the late Asami Tojo (X - Kai, Renai Junkie), but in October 2000 an anime adaptation debuted on TV Asahi that ran for 20 episodes; there was also a redo of the manga in 2001 drawn by Shinobu Abe. According to Iida, HARRY is actually a prequel to Night Head, showcasing one of the first cases of humans with psychic powers... And the psychological mess that it can bring to the user & the people he knows & meets.
Harry McQuinn is a socially-inept high school student who has no friends & isn't athletic at all. One day, during a basketball match in Phys-Ed, Harry is stuck with the basketball; his classmate John wants him to pass, but John's girlfriend Catherine encourages Harry to shoot. Harry's shot, though, is a complete whiff that shatters the window above Catherine & her friends, though Catherine later admits to John that the window somehow shattered before the ball hit it. Later that night Harry has a dream about Catherine getting raped, & when he wakes up he's in the warehouse district... Near where Catherine is trying her hardest to stop a rape from happening. After Harry fails to help her a sudden explosion happens, scaring the rapists away. Catherine takes Harry to her house, where her brother Elliot is watching Myscylus Mick, a supposed psychic who encourages his viewers to try bending a spoon with their minds. When Elliot wants to see Harry try he bends it with no trouble, even snapping the head off. As Harry trains himself for a TV showing that Catherine organizes people's necks start snapping suddenly, and a mysterious group known as Accuser looks into getting Harry for their own purposes.
What really sets Sci-Fi HARRY apart from most anime is how "real" & foreign everything feels. While no exact location is indicated the story definitely takes place in some part of rural America, though a cliffside villa indicates maybe the east or west coast, and the world the show takes place in is really no different from what a real town in the year 2000 would have been like. At the same time the very fact that this series gives off such an "American" feel in its world makes it completely foreign from most anime, even ones that take place somewhere in the U.S.A. Characters are designed to look "real", with realistic hair colors & even facial features (this show likely has one of the most respectful portrayals of black people in anime history!), but at the same time that kind of helps give the show a bit of a discomforting feeling. You feel like this could very well have happened in your neighborhood, if you live in the U.S., which is something that anime (by nature) doesn't normally do. That alone might be enough to make some people check it out, honestly.
Another interesting touch is the feel that the show gives off, which is that of a live-action serial drama. The "realism" that the show has really makes one think that this title could have easily been done in live-action with American actors & it would have worked out perfectly. While Iida himself wasn't involved in the direct production of this anime his experience on working for television with Night Head likely was a heavy influence on this anime. Each episode has a distinct focus to it, though they all lead off of one another into one constantly flowing narrative. Luckily, the mysteries that pile up don't all get saved for the very end, though; instead the second half slowly lets reveals occur as it goes on, saving the final mystery of "What is Accuser?" for the very end. I've seen people's reactions to the reveal of Accuser to be disappointing & somewhat vague, but I personally found it to be an interesting twist. Plus, if what Iida said is true & this show is a prequel to Night Head, then that very reveal is likely meant to tie everything into the original live-action TV series in some way, hence the reaction from those who likely never even knew of the supposed connection.
One aspect of Sci-Fi HARRY that can't be ignored, though, is its cast... Which is admittedly pretty large. Even when talking about major characters there's a good bit of them to go through, though it can be split between the two halves. Characters that are important throughout the entire show can be whittled down to a handful, with Harry himself obviously being the biggest one. Interestingly, Harry is pretty original among anime leads simply by being pathetic & weak; he admits to being nothing more than someone who isn't special & can't do anything right. John, in comparison, is your traditional "perfect" student; he's athletic, smart, & has a beautiful girlfriend. Said girlfriend, Catherine, seems like your usual "girl next door", especially in how she encourages Harry's apparent psychic powers. Her brother, Elliot, is like a younger Harry, except he's more quiet than anything due to a strained relationship with her big sister. By chance John gets Detective Mike Stafford involved in the case, & he makes for a strong police character by always wanting to know the truth & solving the mystery, even when he's forced to sign a contract promising non-involvement or told to take a vacation. On the "villain" side you have Kate, who's in charge of Accuser's mission to capture Harry; at first she seems to be your mysterious villain, but as the story goes on you realize that she actually cares about her work & feels that she's working for a greater good.
It's important to bring up the two halves because there is a change in focus between them. The first half is all about John & Mike's attempts at keeping Harry safe from not only Accuser but also Myscylus Mick, who desperately goes after Harry after the boy has his show canceled. From this first half you also have Stanley, Kate's second-in-command who fears Harry more than anything, even coming off as neurotically so. This half feels more suspenseful & mystery-focused than the other half, which definitely pushes the science-fiction aspect more. In the other half we get the focus moved from John & Catherine (who still appear often, though) to Ginori, a psychic who kidnaps Harry for her own purposes, & "Mother", a man who knows about Ginori & her ties to Accuser. Ginori's kidnapping of Harry results in Accuser replacing Kate with a psychiatrist named Meryl, who's looking for the same results as Kate but through genetic manipulation. Whereas Kate tries to seemingly protect Harry, though, Maryl tries to kill him & Ginori via assassins. This half definitely puts the reveals of the mysteries at the focus while also letting character development come into full-force.
Probably the biggest theme of the entire show is the need for validation from others, which is what showcases the (well-done) flaws of the characters perfectly. Harry's feelings of how pathetic he is makes him take any sort of friendship & kindness, even if it may not be honest & true, just because he wants to feel like he's needed by someone; he wants to feel like a "person" & not just some useless figure. John makes it his focus to find Harry when he's first captured by Accuser simply because Catherine is worried about him, but at the same time John visibly worries that by trying to find Harry he might lose his girlfriend to him, showcasing how John also wants validation in his life. Catherine, though, is probably the most complex one of the bunch. She seemingly wants to try to make everyone happy, but at the same time her own insecurities from her past, which involves her parents' divorce, make it hard to tell who she wants validation from. Ginori is similar to Catherine in that she captures Harry for own reasons, but at the same time wants Harry simply because he keeps her from being alone. Honestly, Sci-Fi HARRY is a show that's so in-depth & packed with story that I think I could just continue talking about it & still feel like there's more to tell. Needless to say, George Iida had an ambitious story to tell here, & while some can argue that a couple of parts don't quite work the way he meant for them to the overall package is simply engrossing & (mostly) unpredictable. To continue talking about the show would be to spoil what makes it work; it has to be seen to be believed.
It's almost appropriate that such a different type of anime like this was animated by Studio A.P.P.P, the same studio that did the original JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVAs, the Project A-Ko franchise, Robot Carnival, Roujin-Z, & the Fist of the Blue Sky TV anime; it's kind of ironic that the studio's name means "Another Push Pin Production", because their catalog is anything but. The direction & most of the storyboards were done by Katsuyuki Kodera, who does an excellent job in terms of pacing, framing, & visuals; interestingly enough, Kodera's only other directing gig was for Bomberman Jetters, which managed to switch from kid-focused storytelling to actual serious character development (with some darker elements). Interestingly enough, this entire show was scripted by only two people, but it's far from even. The first three episodes were done by Takeo Kusai, who also scripted an episode of Re: Cutie Honey, & these episodes were essentially the introduction to the main story, ending with the accidental mass killing Harry does to his live audience when he snaps the head off of a spoon on live television. Every episode afterwards was written by Mitsuhiro Yamada, who handled the series composition for Kurogane Connection & El Hazard: The Alternative World. While Kusai establishes the starting point, Yamada is the one behind all of the mysteries & revelations that the show brings about, & I felt that he succeeded in this regard; scripting 85% of a show on your own (essentially) is no easy task, after all.
The character designs by Shinya Takahashi (Odin - Starlight Mutiny, Kurogane Connection) fit the "foreign" feel the show exudes by utilizing some of the more "traditional anime style", like larger eyes for the females, but at the same time Takahashi manages to make the show look like a mix of Japanese style with American style; the two sides of Ginori (freakishly polite & scarily angry) are probably the best designs of them all. The music by Yoshihiro Ike (Ergo Proxy, Tiger & Bunny, Asura) is more often than not used solely for mood establishing & it absolutely succeeds in that regard; while there are more jazzy numbers used for establishing scenes, most of it simply fits the mood that's around perfectly & other times there's simply no music, keeping with the "horror" aspect. The opening theme, "Mysterious" by Janne Da Arc, is a fittingly eerie-yet-hopeful tune about accepting love, even if it's nothing but a lie, fitting perfectly with Harry's relationships with both Catherine & Ginori. The ending theme, "Ai wo Shiru ni wa Hayasugita no ka" by LUƆA, is a hard rock song about lovers who possibly weren't truly ready for such a realtionship, once again fitting the show perfectly. Finally, as I mentioned earlier this series was at one point planned for DVD release in North America by Super Techno Arts, the American publishing division of Studio A.P.P.P. (which, in reality, was simply just translator Cindy H. Yamauchi working on her own). Unfortunately, the anime bubble bursting did nothing to help STA & after getting all of JoJo released nothing else ever came from the "company".
The voice cast is also large & well done, lead by Ryu Itou's Harry. Itou isn't known for his voice work, with this being his biggest role in anime, but he absolutely nails down Harry's weakness & fear about his own powers. John is voiced by Susumu Chiba (Kondou in Gintama, Fujiwara-no-Sai in Hikaru no Go), who does an excellent job in making John sound like a young adult who's being forced to mature fully faster than he likely planned. Catherine is masterfully performed by Yui Horie (Hitomi in the Dead of Alive series, Eri in School Rumble), who truly makes you feel like she might slowly be turning into an emotional wreck in her confusion over her feelings for both John & Harry. Ginori is by Yukana Nogami (Honoka/Cure White in the original Pretty Cure, C.C. in Code Geass; now known simply as Yukana), who keeps the character scary by being both intensely polite in a freaky way but also being downright scary when she's angry. Mike is performed by Nobuo Tanaka (Geo in Bastard!!, Dio Brando in the JoJo OVA), & he turns Mike into absolute badass of a detective that's always great to see in action. Kate is voiced by Yoko Soumi (Zorin Blitz in Hellsing Ultimate), who delivers very well in making the (supposed) villain come off as sympathetic & "good". With such a large cast I'll simply finish up by listing the likes of Norio Wakamoto, Akio Ohtsuka, Koichi Sakaguchi, & Otoya Kawano, who also put in great performances.
Sci-Fi HARRY is almost too much to put into words. With so many characters, plot, & mystery going on there was a lot of potential for it to fall apart, but it manages to tell a truly engrossing tale of flawed people all getting involved in a young man realizing how special he truly is, along with the danger that his "special" abilities can bring about. While the "horror" aspect isn't really at the forefront in this show (some characters do fit it, though) it definitely succeeds in giving off a freakish & discomforting mood at times. George Iida certainly knows that the scariest thing of all is the human being itself, & this show definitely showcases that. Truly, I could keep talking about this show & what it brings to the table, but it's better for one to simply watch it; though it was never given a DVD release over here (truly a shame) there is a fansub of it out there for one to find. Watching this show definitely makes me interested in watching Night Head Genesis, so that might just be a future review one day... There's always next Halloween, right?