It's November once again, and that means one thing... Outside of Thanksgiving & Election Day, that is: Mecha Month! That's right, it's once again time to to talk about nothing but giant robots, & this year's Mecha Month will be better than before. Admittedly, last year didn't quite come off as well as I had hoped: Super Mobile Legend Dinagiga was pretty sucky, Kikou Sen'nyo Rouran was good but had a horrible tease of an ending, & my mecha-themed Twelve Animes list is one of my sillier ones; Super Robot Wars GC & XO was fun to write up & is now one of the most-read posts on this blog, though. Starting off this year, on the other hand, is the first half of a series that's been beating the odds & getting released here in North America, even if it's slow as hell.
I've already done a post about Anime Midstream last year, so I won't go into any detail about who they are, but they are still doing only one thing: Releasing Matchless Raijin-Oh, also known as Zettai Muteki/Absolutely Invincible Raijin-Oh. Announcing their license of the series back in December of 2008 & then releasing their first DVD at the tail-end of 2009 (with a wider release via Right Stuf & Amazon in January 2010), Anime Midstream has been churning out single DVDs of the series (each containing five episodes) at a pace of roughly one DVD every year. This past June they released Volume 5, marking the half-way point of the series, and Midstream even stated that this was the "end of Season 1" & with it would come the end of the Engilsh dub that they had been producing; the second half (i.e. "Season 2") will be released sub-only. Considering that I've been wanting to review this series & DVD release ever since I started this blog I've decided to break my "completely watched" rule & review the first half, with the fact that the dub ends here simply being all the more reason to talk about it now. Would you rather wait another five years (at most) for me to review this show?
The Jaku Empire of the Fifth Dimension has come to Earth with plans to invade & take over the planet. Belzeb, leader of the invading forces, plans to launch a giant missile filled with Akudama, evil creatures that take the form of whatever is found to be a "nuisance", but a giant robot named Raijin-Oh appears & tries stopping the missile. Belzeb is able to stop Raijin-Oh & force it to Earth, but the missile explodes & the Akudama all fall with no control. Raijin-Oh lands on top of a school, Class 5-3 specifically, but the being that was piloting the robot, Eldoran, saves the children of Class 5-3 by entrusting them with Raijin-Oh as he was weakened in the attempt to stop the missile. Calling themselves the Earth Defense Class, these children & their three giant robots Ken-Oh, Juu-Oh, & Hou-Oh (which can combine to form Raijin-Oh) are the only things that can stop the Jaku Empire.
Raijin-Oh is the first entry of the Eldoran Series, which was a collaboration between Sunrise & Tomy after the success of the Brave Series, which was a Sunrise/Takara team-up. Unlike the Brave Series though, which hit its biggest popularity with final entry GaoGaiGar, the most popular Eldoran show was Raijin-Oh and it's very easy to see why right from the first episode. There's no doubt that this is a show that was aimed at little children (even younger than what the Brave Series aimed for), but at the same time there's simply a ton of energy & fun to be found. There's very little cynicism to be found here & in its place is unbridled enthusiasm & imagination, especially when it comes to the Jaku Beasts that come from the Akudama. Almost as a precursor to the Zonder Robos from GaoGaiGar, the Akudama can be influenced from anything that can be considered as problem to either a single person or even a group, & since most of these are created with no control from Belzeb or his subordinate Taida they can truly be anything. Name another show that features giant monsters formed by a hatred of exhaust, garbage, possessed stuffed animals, gasoline, drunkards, the class teacher, yakuza, & even tests... Seriously, episode 7 features a monster that loves drinking alcohol & spews fire, episode 5 involves a walking, talking yakuza monster, & episode 3 has a test monster that shoots gigantic zeroes at Raijin-Oh!! Even a grown adult has to love how willing this show is at taking the formulaic & repetitive "monster-of-the-week" formula and continually keeping it fresh by having its monsters be completely unpredictable.
Another part of why this show is the best remembered entry of its franchise is because of how it actually focuses on establishing memorable characters, even when there's an entire class of students that appear every episode. The major focus is on five specific students: Jin, the "main character" who pilots Ken-Oh; Kouji, the "narrator" who pilots Juu-Oh; Asuka, the pilot of Hou-Oh; Maria, the "commander" of the class; & Tsutomu, who tries finding out everything there is about the power they've been put in control of. Jin is your traditional giant robot lead character in that he's hot-blooded, brash, impetuous, & always ready & willing to fight, which makes him easy to identify & tons of fun to watch. Kouji is the quieter member of the "main group" who loves nature, is always looking for aliens & UFOs (odd, considering he fights them on a regular basis), & is generally a pacifist by nature, but when push comes to shove he's always there to back up his friends. Asuka is the closest you get to a "playboy" for a fifth grader in that most of the girls fawn over him, though he's amusingly uncomfortable with mass attention & his design makes him look somewhat androgynous at times (his voice in either language doesn't exactly help, either), and can be the snarkiest member of the group but in a pinch he's completely reliable. Maria, following her role as commander, acts like the leader of the class at large, though she's not class president, which leads to many arguments between her & Jin but at the same time she's similarly strong-willed & brave when the time comes. Tsutomu is a textbook "nerd", right down to the bowl cut & glasses, which means that he's always bringing up scientific lingo & is the first to take charge when it comes to finding out new info on what Raijin-Oh can do via the Raijin Commander, a handheld device he always has on hand. At the same time, though, the show has fun with the character by having him be purposefully freaky in his dedication to learning. As a "main group" they certainly do a great job.
That still leaves another twelve students in the class to cover, which obviously means that there isn't enough time for the show to develop all of them in a deep fashion & still tell an overarching story filled with battles between giant robots & Jaku Beasts. The show's solution is to dedicate focus on one of these students at a time, giving each of them an episode to shine while also making smaller appearances in other episodes. This allows the viewer to actually identify each of these students, such as Hidenori (who has a fear of swimming that he has to overcome), Orie (a.k.a. "Potato", whose dog was killed by a runaway car), or Yu (who has self-esteem issues that makes her feel useless); even members of the "main group" can get their own respective focus episode. The show also establishes that in order to fully operate Raijin-Oh the entire class has to be inside the command center their classroom turns into (except for Jin, Kouji, & Asuka, obviously). For example, without Akira (the resident "punk rocker" of the class) the three mechs can't get launched, without Reiko (whose parents own a gasoline station) information assessment goes down (Tsutomu's owns words), or without Yu Raijin-Oh can't even combine because she's the one who initiates it. Sure, they aren't exactly gigantic roles, but it helps give a real sense of camaraderie & teamwork among the students.
Rounding out the recurring cast are Mr. Shinoda (Class 5-3's teacher), Miss Himeki (the school nurse), Principal Yazawa, Carol the School Goat (no, seriously), & rare appearances from the Secretary of Defense. Much like the students the show keeps these other characters entertaining, like Yazawa having a martial arts theme to him, Mr. Shinoda always being ready & anxious to help Miss Himeki out, & the Secretary of Defense always being uncomfortable about leaving the fate of the world to a bunch of fifth graders. An excellently humorous scene involving all four in episode 21 has them hiding inside of a tank during a Jaku Beast attack; the Secretary admits to not knowing how to pilot the vehicle, with Shinoda calling him out on that, but Himeki manages to out-badass all of them by driving the tank with Yazawa's encouragement. On the side of the Jaku Empire there's Belzeb, Taida, & Felzeb (a small, fairy-like being that lives inside Belzeb's chest [literally, when needed Belzeb's ribs open up & Felzeb floats out!]), with the leader of them all being Emperor Warusa, a demonic-like being of mysterious power. Overall it's a gigantic cast, to be sure, but the show manages to balance out everything by keeping the main heroes down to five, letting the rest of the class appear next to the five often (while giving them their own moments to shine), keeping the adults to either comical moments or scenes where they give advice, & the villains do their job excellently as repeatedly stopped bad guys.
Now while there's little to cynicism to be found in the show that doesn't mean that it can't poke fun at itself... Because Matchless Raijin-Oh definitely does just that. The writers were definitely going for some meta humor about the mecha genre itself in some moments & they always succeed. For example, the show has no problems playing around with the concept of stock footage, even going as far as having Maria's command center activation footage be interrupted as soon as episode 2(!), or making fun of extravagantly-long combination sequences by having Asuka show a "real-time" combination sequence during what amounts to a recap episode... And then right before the half-way point the show starts utilizing that real-time combination just so that they can save time for other stock footage! That's right, there's a bunch of stock footage in this show: Maria's command center activation, the classroom transformation, the pilots entering their mechs, the sortie of the mechs, the combination of Raijin-Oh, the God Thunder Crash (Raijin-Oh's ultimate attack) attack animation, and even more comes into play when the class starts getting "upgrades", specifically a partner mecha named Bakuryu-Oh, which Maria & the command center control, & the combination both of those mechs: God Raijin-Oh. In the end, that real-time combination ends up being not just a jab at the usual combination sequence, but it also doubles as a legitimate time-saving measure!
In terms of the overarching storyline, the show definitely fits a general pattern: An Akudama overhears someone complaining about something & turns into a Jaku Beast based on the nuisance, Taida finds the Jaku Beast & helps it become more powerful (on rare occassion Taida finds the Akudama & helps give it a form), the Earth Defense Class find out about the monster while dealing with their own personal stories, the Jaku Beast has trouble fighting the kids before Belzeb & Felzeb come in to power it up, & then Raijin-Oh combines together & ends the fight. The difference comes in the little details, mainly, such as how much time is spent on the mech/Beast fighting (sometimes it's pretty little compared to the rest of the episode), what personal story is going on, & how the Akudama itself takes shape. For example, in an interesting case of smart planning, Belzeb finds himself an Akudama in episode 21 & comes up with an ingenious idea: Tell the Akudama that he hates Raijin-Oh, creating a Jaku Raijin-Oh! As much as it was marketed towards little children, Matchless Raijin-Oh doesn't take the easy way out & simply go for easy, vapid entertainment. Instead, it goes for interesting storytelling & character development, while also poking fun at itself at times & even taking logical steps forward. By the end of Volume 5 the Earth Defense Class has two giant robots on their side, but Belzeb, due to his constant failures, is given a mech of his own by Warusa, Jaku Satan (as well as a snazzy new outfit). The addition of this mech results in two-on-two fights which brings about a nice change of pace & make me even more interested in how the second half works out. Volume 6 even changes things up right away by having the pilots head over to Africa in episode 26! Just to point out, Anime Midstream names the Jaku Satan "Leviathan" for Volume 5, and after asking I was told that the change was mainly because they could not seem to make the original name sound right for the dub & since the DVD was the last one with a dub they decided to change the name for the subs as well. I question the logic of changing the subs to match the dub in this case, but I was told that the rest of the DVD subs would revert back to the Jaku Satan name.
The staff behind the show isn't anything to sneeze at, either. Helming the show was Toshifumi Kawase, who also directed titles such as Dragon Drive, Next Senki Ehrgeiz, Tenjho Tenge, Shion no Ou, & Eat-Man '98; his series composition & scripting credits include The Law of Ueki, Umineko & Higurashi, Giant Killing, YamiBou, & Yakitate!! Ja-Pan. I've always considered Kawase to be a good bit of an underrated person in the anime industry (he's been in it since Zeta Gundam), & this show is a great example of the quality he generally brings about, though he has his misses as well (*cough*AWOL*cough); Kawase would return to direct every other Eldoran anime. The writing was handled by the duo of Fumihiko Shimo (Air, Clannad, Gravion) & Hideki Sonoda (Dancougar, Machine Robo, Sonic Soldier Borgman), who definitely showcase their knowledge of mech anime & what to poke fun at while telling an honest story filled with memorable characters. The character designs by Akira Takeuchi (Inazuma Eleven GO 2: Chrono Stone; normally an animation director) are simple but effective, truly representing the type of look children's mech anime had in the early-to-mid 90s. The mech designs are done by Takahiro Yamada (Next Senki Ehrgeiz, Dragon Drive [dragon desings], GaoGaiGar [Zonder Robo designs]), who you can tell had a ton of fun coming up with the various Jaku Beasts, & his design of Raijin-Oh is simple but impressive. The music is simply excellent, filled with memorable tunes that range from emotional to completely bombastic & triumphant. Naturally, that means it was done by none other than the legendary Kouhei Tanaka, master of mech anime music. Hey, it's hard to argue with a resume that includes the Sakura Wars franchise, Mobile Suit Gundam 0080, Dai Guard, Gunbuster, Overman King Gainer... And, of course, Mobile Fighter G Gundam & numerous entries in the Brave Series, including GaoGaiGar. The opening theme, "Dream Shift" by Kinuko Oomori (Priss in Bubblegum Crisis) & SILK, is an insanely memorable tune that's completely upbeat & fitting for the age range this show targeted. The ending theme, "Chikyuu Boueigumi Ouenka" by the Earth Defense Class, is a literal anthem for the students themselves; it's a fun little song, worthy of finishing up each episode, but it's certainly no "Dream Shift".
The Japanese cast definitely pulls its weight in this show, with many characters even performing multiple characters due to the large main cast. Jin is voiced by the insanely well-known Rica Matsumoto, who puts out an insanely energetic & hot-blooded performance; in fact, this was Rica Matsumoto's debut performance! Alongside her are Mari Maruta & Rie Iwatsubo as Kouji & Asuka, respectively; though neither seiyuu is as iconic as Matsumoto, they both deliver excellent performances worthy of teaming alongside their (then-future) icon friend. Konami Yoshida (Hana in GaoGaiGar, Umi in Rayearth) pulls double duty as the voice of both Maria & Hidenori and she does a great job with both, especially Maria. Bin Shimada also does double-duty as both Tsutomu & Eldoran, though Eldoran himself rarely appears in the show; Shimada's Tsutomu, though, is absolutely perfect for the character. Continuing with double-duty is Kiyoyuki Yanada, who plays the fairly different Belzeb & Mr. Shinoda so well that you might not even tell that they're the same voice. Not to be outdone by all of these double-duty performances, Megumi Hayashibara is an outright seiyuu machine in this show, voicing Felzeb, Yu, classmate Kozue, Miss Himeki, & even two of the student's mothers! To finish up specific performances, You Yoshimura voices Taida with perfect silliness & Toshiro Ishii plays an entertaining Principal Yazawa. Unfortunately, Yoshimura passed away during the production of the show, so after episode 38 Taida is performed by Mahito Tsujimura, the Japanese voice for Yoda in the original Star Wars trilogy; I'll judge Tsujimura's performance when the episodes featuring the voice change get released. No doubt about it, there's a gigantic cast to this show, so I think this covers the major ones.
When it comes to the English dub, Anime Midstream didn't go with an established recording studio but instead decided to do it themselves, using employees & even holding public auditions at Anime St. Louis 2009. Obviously, that means that the dub definitely gives off an amateurish sound & feel to it, yet it still manages to surpass all expectations (or lack thereof) & becomes an enjoyable dub in & of itself. Jin is played by "Yuki", who starts off a little scratchy in her attempts to sound like a young boy, but quickly acclimates well & pulls off a respectable performance that doesn't disappoint. Jo-Ann Ward & Marisa Rae voice Kouji & Asuka, respectively, who also pull off fine performances; both of them go for a slightly deeper sound than Yuki's Jin & it works for them both, though Rae's Asuka does have the side-effect of making the character sound as androgynous as the character can sometimes look. Jeremy Johnson's Tsutomu is appropriately nerdy & awkward and Maria is voiced by Cat Thampson (of webcast Nerd to the Third Power fame; also the dub's scriptwriter), who brings about one of the best performances of the entire cast. Other, surprisingly, excellent performances include John Cummings' Principal Yazawa, Stefan Gryncagjer's Akira (too bad his focus episode doesn't happen in the first half), Nic Rodriguez's Taida (who literally sounds like an English You Yoshimura), & Nikki Jones' Himeki.
The absolute two best performances, though come from Cole Eckert (who handles DVD production) & John Urbanek, who voice Belzeb & Mr. Shinoda, respectively. Eckert's Belzeb goes for an absolute over-the-top performance, giving off a fun "Saturday morning" feel, and his "Raaaahhhh!!!!" whenever he summons Felzeb to help power up a Jaku Beast is indescribably addictive. I once read that Urbanek actually did have some acting experience in the past, and it would show, because Urbanek's Shinoda sounds the most "natural" out of everyone; it's obvious that this guy has done something similar to this in the past & it helps lend some nice professionalism to the dub. Not just content with their own cast, though, Midstream somehow managed to wrangle some well known performers for a few smaller roles. The most obvious is that the Secretary of Defense is performed by Michael Reynolds (Gennai in Digimon, Captain Mutiny in Power Rangers: Lost Galaxy), who delivers his usual "grumpy old man" acting to perfection. The other known names make cameos as the voices of Jaku Beasts, but look in the credits & you can find the likes of Takahata101 (of TeamFourStar fame) & even Kyle Hebert (Kiba in Naruto, the present voice of Street Fighter's Ryu)! It's actually kind of sad to see the dub end at this point, because you can tell that the cast & staff had a ton of fun working on it, even if the fact that some of the cast were high-school & college students likely resulted in the dubbing itself being done very slowly, hence the slow-as-molasses release (possibly). I do hope that the people involved don't stop trying to showcase the talent that the St. Louis area has, because I was admittedly very impressed with that they did. This could have been an embarrassing English dub, but instead it became a sort of "Little Dub That Could".
Not just content with an English dub, Anime Midstream also tossed in some neat extras for their DVDs. The first two volumes feature music videos for "Dream Shift", the first being a true product of the early-90s & the other being set completely to footage from the show, Volume 4 has music videos for "Chikyuu Boueigumi Ouenka" & another unnamed (on the DVD) song, & Volumes 3 & 5 feature commentaries from the dub cast where they talk about how they all got involved with the show & what's going on in the episodes; Volume 3 has Yuki, Cat Thompson, & Marisa Rae for episode 14, while Volume 5 has the "Forces of the Jaku Empire" coming together for episode 21. Probably the best extra of all are outtakes that are featured on every single DVD, each of which add at least another 10 minutes of footage to watch. Most of them are little more than line flubs & the like, which are entertaining & filled with censor beeps, but there are plenty of instances where the cast make up lines for the hell of it... Some of which is purposefully filled with sexual undertones, which is made all the more funny by the fact that you hear these lines coming from fifth graders. The most interesting outtake, though, comes from Volume 3, where Yuki decided to run around the recording booth to make a scene of Jin running around sound realistic, only for her to crash into a chair. Finally, as a nice extra, the spines of each cover are meant to combine together to form an image of God Raijin-Oh's profile; as of Volume 5 we have most of the face shown.
Matchless Raijin-Oh is simply a joy of a mech anime to watch, and it's nothing short of astonishing that Anime Midstream has been able to keep releasing DVDs of it, even if it's at a snail's pace. Ever since I first heard of this show I was interested in checking it out, and I have had nothing but sheer fun with every DVD that has come out. Yeah, it's coming out via singles, but if you go to Right Stuf the price isn't too bad. Presently it totals out to $89.95 ($17.99/DVD), which is admittedly a bit more expensive than the likes of Discotek for the same amount of episodes, but compared to the likes of FUNimation or Sentai Filmworks it actually isn't too far off from what you'd end up paying for the same amount of episodes on DVD or BD. Anime Midstream takes this release seriously, and though they had some hiccups on the first two DVDs (for Volume 1 the dub oddly plays music & effects only out of the left speaker, while the dub alternates between speakers, & the Japanese audio only plays out of the right; Volume 2 was formatted in 16:9 instead of 4:3, but since it only stretched the video you can simply force your TV into 4:3 mode to fix that), but afterwards their releases have come off about as professional as any other anime company in North America. Here's hoping that the change to sub-only will only result in an accelerated release rate for "Season 2" once Volume 6 comes out, and hopefully this company won't simply disappear into the aether afterwards. Sure, the only way to watch this anime is by buying the DVDs, but I can guarantee that you won't regret it, as long as you're able to have fun.