It wouldn't be Mecha Month without a review of some sort of title from the Super Robot Wars franchise... So how about we go laterally a little bit & talk about a spin-off, it's very first anime to be precise?
Debuting in 1991's Super Robot Wars 2 for the Famicom, Cybuster & its pilot Masaki Andoh were the very first original mech & character Banpresto ever created for its crossover epic. The character ended up becoming popular, so Banpresto decided to expand the character & his mech with 1994's Super Robot Wars EX for the Super Famicom, which introduced more units like Cybuster & introducing the Masou Kishin/Elemental Lords/Warrior Robot Gods storyline, which was then given complete focus with 1996's Super Robot Wars Gaiden: Masou Kishin – The Lord Of Elemental on the Super Famicom. The Masou Kishin mechs & characters would make an appearance in every major SRW title up until 2001's SRW Alpha Gaiden for the Playstation. The reason for their lack of appearances afterwards, outside of Cybuster, Valsione, & Granzon (who have been featured in the Original Generation games since the beginning), was generally attributed to the break-up between Banpresto & WinkySoft, who helped develop the early "Classic" games. This wound up being false (Banpresto simply felt that Masou Kishin was given too much focus instead of developing the new original characters), but it certainly was a strong rumor due to WinkySoft developing 2000's Seirei Hata Rayblade, which was essentially a Masou Kishin remake with all of the names changed, & the fact that no other Masou Kishin mech or pilot appeared in an SRW title until 2010, when The Lord of Elemental was remade on DS. So, where does an anime fit into all of this?
Well, in 1999 Banpresto decided to try new things with the Masou Kishin universe. At the end of the year they developed a retelling of the Super Famicom game with Shin Masou Kishin PANZER WARFARE, which showcased the Masou Kishins themselves in slightly new designs & gave them brand new pilots; for example, instead of Masaki Andoh, Cybuster was piloted by a boy named Keigo Kurtz Ferdinand. Earlier in the year, though, Ashi Productions made a 25-episode TV series (a 26th episode was made for home video) that introduced another alternate universe take on SRW's fantasy sub-franchise. Simply called Masou Kishin Cybuster, this was the first SRW-related anime ever made, even if the relation is only tangential, & was actually released in North America on DVD by Geneon Entertainment across 2004 & 2005, shortening it to just Cybuster. This wound up being the first official release of any SRW title in North America, a year before we got OG1 on the Game Boy Advance. Unfortunately, not only was the anime one of Geneon's lesser-selling releases (it sold less than 100 units/DVD on average, though Rumiko Takahashi Anthology did worse at double-digits!!) but it's also abhorrently hated by the hardcore Masou Kishin fanbase... Mostly because it's not the Masou Kishin universe that they love. So, to be fair, I'll leave comparisons to the original precursor to a minimum, because I want to judge this on its own merit (also, the amount of differences is so massive that I don't want to simply end up listing them). Is the Cybuster anime worth the vehement hatred or are crazed fans being just that: Crazy?
It is the year 2040 & Tokyo has seen better days. In 2020 a gigantic earthquake called the "Big One" ravaged the city & fifteen years later another one, along with a mysterious white light, created even more devastation. After the first quake Dr. Frank founded DC, an organization focused on cleaning up Tokyo's devastation & helping rebuild. Unfortunately, Dr. Frank died before the second quake, with control of DC transferring over to Shu Zoldark, one of his confidants, & mysterious mini-quakes have become more common along with portions of the city disappearing. Ken Andoh is a new recruit in DC who wants to help out with the clean up, but one day a mysterious, white, giant robot suddenly appears. This encounter with the robot, named Cybuster & piloted by the equally-mysterious Masaki, is only the beginning of Ken's discovery of what DC's true purpose, under Shu, is & what it means for the parallel world known as La Guias.
Even though this is a mech anime, Cybuster's main focus is actually on the characters & puts them at the forefront. Luckily, the cast is a generally feisty bunch & entertaining to watch. Ken always means well but is easily agitated & flustered; luckily, though, he isn't a hothead who simply rushes into combat. Mizuki is a childhood friend of Ken's who also joins DC & makes for a nice counterpart to the lead by being more logical & thoughtful, though at times she can be just as easily agitated as Ken, leading to many arguments between the two (which usually end with Ken getting slapped). Sayuri is Ken's little sister who is absolutely caring & thoughtful at all times, though she suffers from asthma due to the polluted air the devastation brought to Tokyo. Nanase is another new DC recruit who is constantly curious & wants to find out more, usually making her the one who calms Ken & Mizuki down. Finally there's Lyune Frank, another new recruit & the only child of Dr. Frank, who is obsessed with her ambition to be the true heir of DC, in honor of her father. These main characters may have their faults, Lyune especially, but they certainly aren't boring.
Supporting them are, surprisingly enough, their elders. Ryuzo is Ken & Sayuri's father, a freelance journalist who has been investigating DC for the past five years after his wife died while taking pictures of the "white hole" that appeared in front of Tokyo Tower during the second "Big One". Itetsu Kamijyo is Mizuki's father & an engineer who has been working for DC ever since Dr. Frank founded it; he too has his reservations about DC since Frank's death, but Itetsu holds his information until needed. Izaki is the new recruit instructor for DC who trains Ken & the others. Izaki has a great sense of honor & generally wants to do the right thing, but his loyalty to DC is too strong for him to leave the organization, even when things look bad. In proper Masou Kishin fashion, though, there is a Masaki, who is the initial pilot of Cybuster. Though he wasn't born on La Guias, Masaki grew up on that planet and learned to respect & trust the spirits that take the form of the Masou Kishin that protect La Guias. Masaki ends up being a mentor/partner to Ken & the others when they find out that DC isn't what they thought it was, let alone being the "Divine Crusaders" Dr. Frank founded it to be.
There are three main villains, all of which fit their roles perfectly. Shu is the head of DC who initially comes off as simply mysterious, but eventually shows his true colors & plays a perfect snake in the grass. Saphine Grace is Shu's second-in-command, keeping strict dedication to her job & showcasing absolutely no remorse in front of her enemies. Dallas is the leader of a for-hire mercenary group that Shu & Saphine hire when they see the threat Cybuster can be to their plans but, while he can be just as rough & tough as Saphine in combat, Dallas still has a strong sense of warriors' pride; he wants a battle to be had on his own terms & is disgusted whenever Saphine does something underhanded. While the goal of the villains is a relatively simple one they handle themselves in a realistic fashion, with the use of strategic retreats & the like.
While watching the show it's pretty obvious that the Masou Kishins are generally more powerful then DC's mechs, mainly due to their ability to use the elements, but that doesn't mean that it's a one-sided battle. DC's greatest creation is the Granzon, a mech outfitted with two MBH/Micro Black Hole Cannons, which help even the tide for the villains. In the end the show handles it self more like an uneasy balance, where Ken's group wants to stop DC as soon as possible but are wary of the MBH Cannon, especially when DC starts mass-producing the Granzon, while DC wants to destroy the Masou Kishins but don't want total destruction of their Prescion units in the process. In fact, the show itself works in a slower pace, letting the characters' development breathe instead of focusing more on crazy mech battles. Hell, Ken doesn't pilot Cybuster until episode 7 & all four Masou Kishins (Cybuster of Wind, Jaifer of Fire, Gottess of Water, & Zamjeed of Earth) aren't fully gathered until the penultimate episode! The discovery of who the "Spirits" of the Masou Kishins choose to be their pilots is one of the focuses of the story, but gaining full access requires trips to La Guias, which leaves Ken's group with fewer forces to defend themselves with; sure, they always have Lyune's Valsione (spelled Balcione in the subs), but it can't possibly fight off DC on its own.
If anything, that slower pace can be the show's biggest flaw. The best case of this is in the first five episodes, which comprise the first DVD. These early episodes are meant to establish the word, characters, story, & some of the first few mysteries which get solved shortly afterwards, but in the process they end up feeling like a bit of a slog to get through. They aren't boring, per se, but the most mech action you get out of them is Ken & the others taking on Cybuster with their dinky little RTs, back when they're still naively working for DC. Luckily, the characters manage to keep your interest somewhat, but it is a little bit of a rough start. Once the story moves over to Aokigahara's "Sea of Trees" in episode 6, though, the story goes into full gear & when Ken starts piloting Cybuster you start getting more traditional mech fights. Unlike the traditional SRW universe though, which is full of over-the-top bombast & zany action, Cybuster goes for a more real-robot execution. There's a lot of close-range fighting in this show, with punches, kicks, & tosses being more regular fare, though when the odds get more unbalanced the Masou Kishins do utilize elemental attacks often enough. Another interesting bit with the story that happens at the end is that some of the climaxes are pretty sudden, almost to the point of being anti-climactic. On the other hand, though, this does mean that some major characters end up dying in ways you wouldn't exactly guess, keeping the show somewhat unpredictable. Let's be honest here: Mech anime tends to follow a pretty standard formula in terms of execution, to the point where it can be pretty easy to guess what happens to who & how. If anything, these sudden "anti-climaxes", while not necessarily fulfilling in a traditional way, do make Cybuster memorable in their own way; whether or not the viewer will like them is going to be a personal choice.
Also of note is episode 26, which is an "omake/extra episode" that takes place before episode 1 & explains Masaki's past. Here we're introduced to Billad, who helped raise Masaki & acts as an older brother to him. As the two grow up Billad becomes more interested in science & technology, which is seen as blasphemy in the spiritually-guided La Guias, & eventually Billad leads a violent revolution to lead the planet towards a new path. Not only does this episode explain why exactly Masaki came to Earth in the first place, while showcasing a couple of visual nods to some later moments in the story, but it really pushes forth one of the major themes of the show itself: Science vs. Spirituality. Shu, like Billad, is strongly dedicated to science & tries thinking of everything from that specific perspective, while Ken's group ends up relying more of the spiritually-powered Masou Kishins, with Valsione being their only science-based creation. It even gets to the point where Masaki reveals how their "Gods" are able to travel between dimensions, but Shu swats away the explanation simply by stating that since it can't be scientifically explained, it has to be a bold-faced lie. Another major theme is environmentalism, with Ken & his friends joining DC simply to help clean up Tokyo from the mess it's become. Shu's mercenaries, though, tend to have no respect for the environment, even burning down entire portions of the Sea of Trees solely so that their search for the heroes' hidden base can be made easier; Dallas, though, does show some respect for the planet & apologizes at times for doing such heartless things (he's being paid to do these things, after all). Luckily, though, the show never really states either of these themes blatantly, though the environmentalism message gets close every now & then, which keeps them from being intrusive to your viewing experience.
The show was directed by Hidehito Ueda (AD Police [OVA & TV], Gatchaman F, the Fuma no Kojirou OVAs), who manages to keep the show moving at its slower pace but without making the show feel like a drag, outside of those first five episodes. The show was composed & supervised by Akiyoshi Sakai, who also looked over Denma Matsu's manga version of the story; though he did create Daikengo (a forgotten 70s mech anime) he also was the creator of Baldios, which is more fondly remembered. The character designs, and animation direction, was handled by Takeshi Itou (Kaze no Yojimbo, Mazinkaiser SKL, Macross 7 Dynamite), who gives the characters a more realistic-style look instead of a more traditional anime look, which also helps differentiate itself from the standard fare, let alone the original Masou Kishin universe. The mech designs by Yasuhiro Moriki (Gravion, Tobikage, Banner of the Stars series) were based slightly off of the PANZER WARFARE redesigns, and while they still keep the Masou Kishins looking like the always have there is a little bit of an Escaflowne influence in some of the finer details; it looks cool.
The music by Kazuo Nobuta (Mazinkaiser [OVA & movie], New Getter Robo, Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo) & Kenichi Sudo (Silent Möbius TV, The Girl Who Leapt Through Space) is a mostly orchestral production, fitting the slower-paced grandeur of the mech battles, though there are some notable pieces. The general battle theme is pretty catchy, while the music used for Cybuster's entrance in battle & the black hole theme are intensely demonic & chilling; very cool tunes. The opening theme, "Senshi yo, Tachiagare!" by Masaaki Endoh, is intensely addictive & filled with a message of fighting back against all odds; while not as fast-paced & intense as SRW's iconic "Neppu! Shippu! Cybuster", also covered by Endoh (as a part of JAM Project) at one point, this OP certainly holds its own very well against it. The ending theme, "nothing" by SEE SEE (which was the name Hitomi Yaida went under during her time as an indy singer while attending college), is a really sweet acoustic song that continually builds & makes for an excellent way to end each episode; I included this song in my look at underrated anime EDs this past September, after all. As an aside, the first seven episodes of the anime had the ED footage be footage of the episode that had just finished, but from episode 8 on it switches to images of the four main females from a larger group shot. Interestingly enough, episode 26 features its own OP & ED, though Geneon's last DVD still shoehorns in the TV OP & ED at the start & end, resulting in you seeing the OP & ED credits twice each on a full watch. Anyway, the opening theme, "Yume no Hate" by Yuka Hiroki, is a nice slow song that does a great job establishing the quiet peace that La Guias had when Masaki arrived on the planet. The ending theme, "Tamashii no Wing" by Mami Ishizuka, is an absolute badass song that fits the traditional image of Cybuster perfectly, & the fact that it plays during shots of Tokyo falling apart while Masaki & Cybuster come to Earth for the first time just makes it all the more awesome. These two omake themes would later be released not on the anime's OST but rather a release called [EARTH ARK] Masou Kishin Cybuster Vocal Edition, which is filled with songs based on the franchise.
The Japanese cast is an interesting bunch, filled with smaller names that certainly make their mark. Ken is voiced by Katsuki Arima (a.k.a Yusei Oda; Ichijou in Hareluya II BØY, Kengo Miyazawa in Little Busters!), who does an excellent job in delivering Ken's sarcastic, witty, & angry moments; this was actually Arima's last big role under his original name, which is a shame because he's a really good seiyuu. Mizuki is played by Yuki Masuda (Yuri Sakakibara in Sakura Wars), who does a great job keeping up with Arima's Ken, making the two a fun duo to listen to. Sayuri is done by Ryoko Nagata (Fuuka in Yoiko, Eclair in Kiddy Grade), who delivers a fine performance for the youngest member of the group. Even though she doesn't get to pilot a Masou Kishin, Yumiko Kobayashi (Sarah McDougal in Love Hina, Black Star in Soul Eater) still brings a good performance for Nanase. The rest of the major cast is done by Akira Negishi (Shu), Junpei Morita (Ryuzo), Kenji Nomura (Izaki), Naoko Miura (Saphine), Saburo Kodaka (Itetsu), Kotomi Muto (Lyune), & Fumio Yoshioka (Masaki), who all also deliver great performances. Overall it's an understated cast that really pulls their weight.
The English dub, though a little rough in the beginning, ends up becoming just about as enjoyable as the Japanese version. Ken is performed by Sean Roberts, one of the alternate names for the venerable Yuri Lowenthal (Suzaku for Code Geass, Sasuke in Naruto), who delivers probably the most natural & overall best performance of the dub. Mizuki was done by Jennifer Sekiguchi, a.k.a. Stephanie Sheh (Orihime in Bleach, Mamimi in FLCL), who started off a little forced but quickly acclimates to her role well. Shu is voiced by Michael McConnohie (Berserker in Fate/stay night, Emperor Britannia in Code Geass), who also directed the dub, who also started off a little rough but got very used to the character's snake in the grass attitude; the same is with Joan-Carol O'Connell's Saphine. Probably one of the dub's most surprising performances is by Ron Allen, ak.a. Kirk Thornton (Brandon Heat/Beyond the Grave in Gungrave, Gato in Gundam 0083), whose Izaki is silly, emotional, & absolutely fun to listen to; he might be better than Kenji Nomura's take on the character. The dub is rounded out by Abe Lasser/Tom Wyner (Itetsu), Alfred Thor/Michael Forest (Ryuzo), Cindy Robinson (Lyune, though pronounced "Leene" in the dub), & Kay Jensen/Kari Wahlgren (Sayuri), who also pull out great performances. A very enjoyable dub overall, which is surprising considering how unknown the release was over here in North America.
Okay, I can completely understand why Cybuster is so hated by the hardcore Masou Kishin fanbase: It is absolutely, positively nothing like the original universe that was introduced via Super Robot Wars. That said, hating on this anime simply because it's not the original version of the mechs & their characters is absolutely ridiculous, all the more so nowadays because if you want Cybuster piloted by Masaki Andoh you can watch the OG anime productions that have been made since then. As it is now, Cybuster is an interesting alternate universe take on this sub-franchise & those who are fans who are curious should still check it out, at the very least; just go in with an open mind & with little to no pre-existing expectations. Is it a perfect, must-see gem of a mech anime that's been ignored by the annals of time? No, but it certainly isn't a turd that is rightly ignored, like the way it's generally treated. If anything, I would love to see this show used in a future SRW title, if only to see how Banpresto utilizes it; it would be interesting from any perspective, at least.