Debuting in December of 1984, Cipher by Minako Narita was a true oddity among shojo manga in general, let alone its co-runners in Hakusensha's LaLa magazine. While manga certainly could take place in the United States, Cipher was definitely drawn & written by someone who absolutely loved the country, especially what was going on there during the 80s. In fact, when Jason Thompson covered it in his House of 1000 Manga article, he outright called Cipher "The Most '80s Manga Ever." If anything, though, that sheer foreign-ness of the manga let it live a while in LaLa, with it ending in October of 1990 (right before the 90s would make the 80s look stupid, ala the 80s vs. the 70s, right?). Astoundingly enough, this manga actually came over to the U.S.! The now-defunct CMX, which was DC Comic's attempt to bring over manga, ended up being a haven for old-school shojo manga, & from late-2005 to early-2008 they released the entire series, at least I think they did; CMX called Volume 11 the "final volume", but in Japan it was 12 volumes. Anyway, in March of 1989 animation studio Magic Bus & Victor Entertainment released Cipher the Video... And a simple description of this OVA just can't do it justice.
Seriously, if you want an actual description as to what Cipher's story is, just read Jason's article, because Cipher the Video doesn't explain it one bit. For a basic idea, it's about twin boys, Cipher & Siva, who are both actors, models, & students, but the two trade off who does the acting/modeling & who goes to school, with everyone thinking that they always see Siva. In turn, this OVA is purposefully done in a "MTV Interview" style (you know, back when the "M" actually stood for "Music"), with music videos happening in between each interview segment that keeps everything tied together. Since it's so completely unlike anything I've ever reviewed I feel it's best to simply cover each portion of this OVA in order. Let's get started...
It starts off with "Prologue", which shows Siva waking up from bed & going for a walk throughout New York with a cover of "Against All Odds" (originally sung by Phil Collins) playing, which acts as the first music video. As a music video itself it's really simple, with the environment of New York City being the major focus & Siva simply being a background element usually. To its credit, this OVA really does a great job at conveying NYC & being accurate to the way it looked back in the late-80s. As an intro piece it's kind of barren & explains nothing, but as a setpiece it works nicely. Overall, it's an interesting start for the entire production.
It then suddenly starts into the next music video, a cover of "Let's Hear it For the Boy" (Deniece Williams). This is the closest the OVA gets to actually adapting the manga & showing what it's about... And the most conversation we get is main character Anise saying "I wanna be your friend!" to Siva via an intertitle, like it's a silent film. The footage also gets pretty wacky, with nigh-random shots that don't make sense being interspersed in between the footage, like one showing Anise, Siva, & Cipher on the Moon like they were a part of the original Apollo Moon Landing. It also "introduces" Siva & Cipher by having them dance next to their own respective "Tale of the Tapes" (well, Siva dances while Cipher literally conducts), even showcasing their real names (Siva & Cipher are stage names) & explaining "Date of Birth", "Place of Birth", "Height and Weight", "Hair and Eye Color", & "Type of Girl He Likes". It's in this music video that we also see visual effects like splitting the screen into multiple boxes and unrealistic backgrounds. Outside of those odd moments it showcases the everyday life of the three leads: They go to the park, get dressed for Halloween, cook food, etc. It ends with the three having a conversation, making you think it will maybe cover some actual story...
But instead we see a quick commercial for Super Bound Bailey's Cake Mix, which we're reminded is "ON SALL" (yes, "SALL"; yes, the video chapters does treat this CM as a separate part). After that we get the first "Interview", which involves Siva on set for a football movie which Siva describes as (word for word), "About friendship among the players and the team... Of course, love." When asked about the love element Siva makes sure that the interviewer knows it's, "Not just puppy love, that's for sure." The interview continues on with Siva saying that, even though he's not interested in football, he found it interesting & compared the struggle of a football player to that of a hero in a traditional story. It's honestly not a bad mock interview, though Siva does bring up one odd line: "Well, I've been in this world since I was real small, so I think I can understand all the troubles that he's [the lead] been through." It's odd mainly because it sounds pretty redundant, as if Siva is indicating that most people aren't "in this world" since they were "really small". He also remarks about all the bruises he's gotten by playing the game, though there are absolutely no bruises to be found on his bishonen face.
We're then treated to an overview to the movie itself, Winning Tough, which is the story of Sean (played by Siva), a nerd who ends up joining the high school football team because he has a knack for the sport. Sean also has to get past numerous "mistakes" to find love with Christine (Isabelle Jones) while also earning the trust of team captain Jeff (Fred Williams), who hates nerds. There's also Mose (Eric Lawrence), a wise old man who teaches Sean the "way of the football" with words of wisdom like, "You don't catch the ball with your own strength; you use the strength of the other to stop it. Remember, Sean, don't underestimate your own strength." Throughout the entire thing is an actual song by an actual Japanese band, "Living in the Dark" by Army Call Up Test, which is a fitting hard rock song for the movie. To be honest, as much as it sounds like I'm ripping into this two-minute mock trailer I actually really found it interesting. It comes off like a mix between Rudy & The Karate Kid... I'd pay money to see that!
After a fade out we get to not only the weirdest portion of the OVA but probably my personal favorite part: A music video featuring a cover of "Footloose" (Kenny Loggins)! The footage acts like a behind-the-scenes look at Siva's life during the production of Winning Tough, so he's avoiding his legions of fans, going to photo shoots, and hanging out with Cipher (who acts like his agent & wears a wig), all with footage of the mock movie playing in between. Seriously, though, "Footloose" is a song I can't help but love listening to, so the thought of this song, even if only a cover, being in an anime makes it hard for me to hate this OVA. Unfortunately, there is one issue I have with this portion, and that's the fact that the video is halted multiple times to add in some more mini-interviews. First is with the rest of the cast & director, who talk about Siva. Isabelle likes him, Eric finds him a little weird but fun, and the director praises how much like a real player Siva came off as in front of the camera. The second break interviews random New Yorkers, who generally praise Siva & admit how much of a fan each of them is... Except for random one guy, who simply answers with, "Hmm... Not interested." The music video itself ends with filming antics, brotherly bonding between Siva & Cipher, fireworks, & a lot of shots of Old Glory herself, because America.
We then get the second "Interview", which has Siva talking about the difference between being a "TV Star" & "Movie Star", as well as his past as a "Kid Star" & model. He also talks about being an "actor" in real life, like "an Academy winner." Actually, though I say Siva is doing the interview, he states that "Siva's a good guy," & brings up Jake (Siva's real name)... So is Cipher doing the interview here? I thought the idea was that no one except for Anise knew that Siva & Cipher swapped roles on a regular basis; I'm confused with this part. When asked about how many child actors have had protective mothers, Siva (Cipher?) gets hesitant (it's obviously a big part of the manga's story), which leads us to the last music video.
|Okay, all you fujoshi, you get one image to drool over.|
Unlike the previous ones, which were all covers, this is the actual song: "Kamikaze" by Thompson Twins (who member Tom Bailey was a big inspiration in Siva & Cipher's character designs). It's a really dark & slow song, obviously meant to tie in with the question about mothers that just came before. The footage here shows some of the sad past of the twins & helps showcase why they're so close to each other; for example, though they are not gay they are close enough to kiss each other goodbye on the lips. Interspersed with the footage is a return of Siva's journey through NYC from the beginning, which comes to a close with "Epilogue", where Siva comes back home to their apartment, wakes up Cipher & offers to make breakfast. The end credits then start scrolling, in full English, with the "Against All Odds" cover playing once again...
But that's not quite the end!
Now, yes, the OVA itself ends here, but after the credits finish we're treated to the "C.N.N. Video Special" (yes, they seriously ripped off CNN), which is essentially a "Making of" video for the OVA, narrated by Cipher ("As you know"). "Part 1: The Beginning" is about Cipher's first ever animated appearance in a 1986 commercial for Sumitomo Life Insurance titled N.Y City Story - Cipher, which is actually shown in full in this extra. The commercial itself is neat to watch, & features the Japanese song "I Don't Like" by Mescaline Drive, but the main attraction comes afterwards. The commercial was apparently popular, so in 1987 an offer to make an anime adaptation was made to Minako Narita, specifically to be done in the style of a MTV Interview. "Part 2: New York" is about the location scouting the crew actually did to make sure the OVA looked accurate to the East Village area, complete with comparison shots between the original photos & their animated counterparts. As I mentioned early on, the team here really did an excellent job in this regard... Almost too good in one way.
|I must admit... That's really nice framing.|
All right, I tried to avoid it, but I can't now... The Twin Towers are featured very heavily in this OVA, and this extra does point out that they specifically tried to get as many shots of the Twin Towers because of how it was the centerpiece of New York City. I understand that many people's lives were harshly affected by the tragedy of 9/11, but one shouldn't really hold that against this OVA; those towers really were an iconic landmark & represented some of the best of the United States of America. "Part 3: The Process" is a quick mention of how the director tried very hard to be accurate to the MTV & music video style, while "Part 4: Recording" covers the actual voice work, which I'll get to in a moment. Finally, "Part 5: Interview" is just that: An interview with Minako Narita, the director, & the character designer/animation director. Unfortunately, the VHS rip of Cipher the Video that's out there doesn't sub this interview, so I can't comment on it.
|See? I told you it was "On Sall"...|
This OVA was directed by Tsueno Tominaga (Initial D: Fourth Stage, Wangan Midnight, They Were 11), who actually does deliver with the idea of this production. The music videos are all pretty neat to look at & fit their songs very well, the mock interviews work, & (as mentioned) the Winning Tough trailer makes me wish it was a real anime movie. The character designs by Yukari Kobayashi (Cobra the Animation) look accurate to Narita's original designs, and though the animation isn't exactly of the highest quality, Kobayashi also keeps movement fluid & error free as animation director. Since this was animated by Magic Bus you can even find Satoshi Dezaki (older brother of the late, great Osamu Dezaki) credited as a producer! Even Minako Narita herself was involved with this production as "Music Planner", which probably meant that all the songs used were personally chosen by her. I've covered all the music during each portion they were used in, but I will finally mention that the covers of "Against All Odds", "Let's Hear it For the Boy", & "Footloose" were all done by the band Wags (at least, Johnathan Clements says so in his book The Anime Excyclopedia). The actual quality of the covers varies, though, with "Against All Odds" sounding too much like a bad imitation of Phil Collins, though the other two fare better; none of them top the originals in any way. The addition of an actual Thompson Twins song is really cool, though.
As for the voice work, Cipher the Video really stands out among anime by having no Japanese audio at all. Instead, to maintain "authenticity", the production brought in people who could speak actual English, which means that the quality is kind of all over the place. The only person to really talk about, though, is Jay Kabira, who voices Cipher & Siva. Overall, his English is solid, but it's obvious that Kabira is trying to hide his accent as much as possible, resulting in the two having a completely awkward accent when they speak. The rest of the cast is a mix of half-Japanese (who have definite accents) & actual foreigners like English educators and the like (who sound much more natural, but are given smaller roles). Hell, they even cast the dialogue translator & director as one of the interviewers. It's absolutely bizarre that this OVA was done in full English, but what's even more bizarre is the fact that Kabira also voices Cipher for the extra after the OVA. At one point he even talks about himself as Cipher & calls himself a "nice guy". If California Crisis is one-of-a-kind for its visuals, then Cipher the Video is one-of-a-kind for its audio.
I don't know what else to say... Cipher the Video is easily one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen, not just in anime but in media in general. From the "MTV Interview" execution to the use of multiple American pop songs (one of which is the real deal!) to the fact that it's in full English & even has its own self-serving "Making of" video this is just a weird anime to watch. Honestly, though, I can't really hate it. Yes, it explains essentially nothing about what the actual manga is about, except for that second music video (in a sense), but at the same time it has a lot of charm to it. Sure, some of it is awkward charm because of the varying quality cover songs & the English voice work, but it still has something to it that makes me want to not hate it; the fact that it has "Footloose" in it only helps it. If anything, it definitely makes me want to read the original manga, because I just have to know what the hell could inspire the creation of such an oddball OVA. Really, this is something that has to be seen to be believed and it can be found over at YouTube. I just wish we had better than a VHS quality rip; there was a LD release, but it's extremely rare. For fans of the manga this is likely worth watching for the fanservice, but even for newcomers it's just so unlike anything else out there that it is worth a watch.