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Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Imagawa Chronicles Part 2: An Era of G

Previously on The Imagawa Chronicles:
"To this day Mister Ajikko is likely the most successful & inspirational anime that Yasuhiro Imagawa ever directed, with the 'reaction' being utilized in cooking anime & manga ever since... But, let's face it, these early days aren't what people think of when they hear the name 'Yasuhiro Imagawa'..."

Welcome to the 1990s. For Yasuhiro Imagawa this decade would be defined by the 7th letter in the English alphabet.


In late 1989 Mister Ajikko ended after 99 episodes, making it the longest weekly anime production Imagawa has ever done. In his debut as director he created what is possibly THE iconic cooking anime, but it was based on a manga; there was an existing story to go off of. Lucky for him, in 1990 he was approached by Yasuhito Yamaki (producer of Ninja Resurrection & the Urotsukidoji OVA series) about making an anime adaptation of Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Giant Robo. Imagawa, being a fan of Yokoyama's works, couldn't say "No" to such an offer. This moment marked the beginning of the single longest production Yasuhiro Imagawa has ever worked on, and is still considered to be one of his most iconic.


Interestingly enough, during pre-production Imagawa was informed that, while lead character Daisaku, the Giant Robo itself, & villain Big Fire were good to go, he could not use any supporting characters from the original manga or the live-action TV series (known in America as Johnny Sokko & His Flying Robot), but he found a solution to this odd situation. With permission from the man himself, Imagawa decided to fill in the supporting cast with characters from Yokoyama's entire catalog of manga, with the likes of Mars, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, & Suikoden getting taken from the most; a few original characters rounded everything out. This transformed Giant Robo the Animation: The Day the Earth Stood Still from a simple manga adaptation into a celebration of the entire career of Mitsuteru Yokoyama. Taking place in the near future, a group of scientists discover a new form of clean, renewable energy, creating the Shizuma Drive (named after one of the scientists). Unfortunately, the villainous BF Group want control over the Shizuma Drive in order to lead mankind to absolute ruin. To combat them is the International Police Organization/IPO, which have the Experts of Justice, super-powered warriors who combat the BF Group's Magnificent Ten, who are similarly super-powered. Though young Daisaku doesn't have powers he can command & control Giant Robo, a colossal mecha built by his father before the BF Group killed him.


With such an epic gathering of Yokoyama characters, some of which are purposefully going against their original characterizations, the production itself had to match. The animation was extravagant & fluid, making it still look amazing to this very day. Likewise, the music, composed by Masamichi Amano (Battle Royale, Radiant Silvergun, Princess Nine) & performed by Poland's Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, was grand & able to cover any & all situations. Amano created so much music that it took seven soundtracks to fully contain & is generally considered one of the best parts of the OVA series. Unfortunately, all of this hard work & grand budget didn't quite pan out as Imagawa & Yamaki had hoped for. After the first episode came out July 22, 1992 the following three came out at roughly six months at a time, but sales were slow & small, even with a two-volume manga side story drawn by Mari Mizuta that delved more into the background of the BF Group. By 1994 the gap between episodes expanded to nine months (from episode 4 to 5), & Imagawa and staff tried to fill in the gap with some short OVAs focusing on original character Ginrei, but they were nothing more than a stop-gap measure compared to the actual 50-minute episodes. When the OVA series came to North America in 1994, making it the first Imagawa anime to be licensed, it was more warmly accepted, but rarely do international sales become a major factor. Another reason for the longer delays, though, was because Imagawa took on another directorial job in 1994...  Which would become another of his most iconic works as well a return to a franchise he left behind in the 80s.


By 1994 Yoshiyuki Tomino has gotten tired of working on Gundam, with Victory Gundam being the last straw & one of the most kill-happy entries in the franchise. Sunrise, Bandai, & Sotsu then decided that, with the 15th Anniversary of the original series coming up, they should take the franchise into a new direction. Instead of the Universal Century/UC world that the franchise had been all about, these companies decided to create a string of Alternate Universes/AUs that would allow them to try new things out, and the first direction was to turn Gundam into a super robot anime. Imagawa was chosen to be the "chief director" due to his experience from working on Zeta Gundam, but he & the rest of the staff were initially hesitant about the super robot direction.  Luckily, he was impressed with the initial mech designs & decided to fully embrace this new style. Taking advice from Tomino, Imagawa admitted, "If you continue to make a copy of a copy of a copy eventually the image degrades to nothing." Therefore, Imagawa decided to give Mobile Fighter G Gundam his own personal style & by the end proclaimed, "This is MY Gundam, and I've made a Gundam that I can be proud of."

That said, his initial hesitation was far from his own. G Gundam went in a completely opposite direction than the rest of the franchise at this point in time in every way: There was no wartime setting, Kazuhiko Shimamoto (creator of Blazing Transfer Student) was brought in to do the original character designs, and the series relied on very strong & potentially even insulting stereotypes for not only the Gundams themselves but also the nation colonies they all come from. The anime focused on the 13th Gundam Fight, where "Gundam Fighters" from each nation would compete in one-on-one mech battles, with Earth itself as the arena, & the last man standing earning his nation the right to rule over all others for four years, when another Gundam Fight would occur.  Imagawa, in turn, took inspiration from things like world cinema, wuxia films, & even shonen battle manga, especially Masami Kurumada's Saint Seiya & Ring ni Kakero (which Imagawa was a giant fan of), creating a Gundam series that was as far away from Gundam as possible.  The end result was that, though higher-rated than Victory Gundam, it was initially not well received because of how different it was from the rest of the franchise, with Imagawa taking a lot of criticism from not just fans but also some staff members.  In fact, producer Masahiko Minami even went to Imagawa's home to protest his use of "Love Love" in the name of the final attack used in the show.  Imagawa fought back & used it, later stating, "I didn't even care if I wouldn't be able to work in the industry because of that 'Love-Love'. I truly believe that one cannot work as a director without enthusiasm and a love of challenges." The good news is that, as time went on & other Gundam series came & went, G Gundam has become much more well-received & appreciated by anime fans, and in 2001 was included in Animage's list of the 100 most important anime in history in terms of historical significance, influence and impact on the anime industry. To think that Imagawa was originally considered to direct what would become Escaflowne before joining the staff of G Gundam...


Unfortunately, G Gundam may have been too radical of a production, because Imagawa was not getting any other directorial work for a while after the show's end in 1995.  Sure, a few months later episode 6 of Giant Robo came out, eight months after the previous one, but this would mark the beginning of a 2.5 year gap between this new episode & the next, and final, one. Still, through Giant Robo & the Ginrei Special OVAs Imagawa was able to add a new skill to his repertoire: Screenwriter. It would take until late the following year, but in October of 1996 was the start of the TV anime Violinist of Hameln by Studio DEEN, based on the Shonen GanGan manga by Michiaki Watanabe. Debuting six months after a theatrically-released movie short, the TV series was about as much of a whiplash in style & execution from the movie, & original manga, as one can get. Imagawa, in his first ever stint as overall series composer & scriptwriter for some episodes, took what was originally a fantasy gag manga about a group of characters, all named after musical instruments, and their journey to prevent a great evil & turned it into a dark, serious, & operatic tale. Also, where the short movie was nicely animated for the time the TV series had an almost non-existent animation budget, resulting in most of the episodes heavily consisting of still images, slow pans, & even a lack of lip movement at times; some say this was because of the heavy use of classical music during some scenes. This resulted in the anime, sometimes nicknamed "Slideshow of Hameln", being reliant on its story & characters, and in this regard Imagawa & director Junji Nishimura (of Windy Tales & Simoun fame) succeeded. Those who managed to accept the limited animation have generally praised the TV series for its dark story, memorable characters (some of which were the complete opposite of what they were like in the manga), smart usage of classical music, and general execution. While not a perfect production, Violinist of Hameln was a perfect indication of what Imagawa could do from a composition & scriptwriting perspective.


Not content with simply resting on his laurels Imagawa continued working in this new position of his, and literally the week after Hameln ended in early 1997 saw the debut of Triangle Staff's TV anime Hareluya II BØY, based on the Weekly Shonen Jump manga by Haruto Umezawa. Unlike what just came before, BØY was a mostly episodic series, with only a handful of multi-episode stories, so Imagawa & his staff of writers mixed it up with stories taken from the manga as well as some original ideas. This resulted in the high school days of (the invincible) Hareluya Hibino & his friends having an interesting mix of ideas. Combine that with this being one of the earliest anime to air in a new, experimental late-night/post-midnight time slot & the writers showcased a brazen penchant for tackling some heavy material that would have likely never have been allowed in a traditional time slot. This anime took on murderous stalkers, potential rapists, & lewd photographers who intoxicated their "models" first, among other crazies, but also showcased more traditional & easier fare with some hijinks mixed in. The late-night slot also introduced a strong push from music companies to advertise their hot new stars, resulting in some anime of this time featuring songs that have next to nothing to do with the shows they're attached to. Imagawa & director Kiyoshi Egami (City Hunter '91, first half of Weiß Kreuz/Knight Hunters) were given a total of nine songs from SPYKE by King Records, yet managed to not only utilize them in fitting situations but also went above & beyond by integrating a few of them as part of the actual soundtrack via their vocal-less forms. Much like HamelnBØY also featured a limited animation budget, but it rarely went into the still & pan-focused shots of the former. In the end Hareluya II BØY was one of Imagawa's more interesting involvements, if only due to the heavy use of licensed music & this being the sole time Imagawa has ever worked with a Shonen Jump property. Unfortuantely, BØY is also likely the most obscure of Imagawa's "works", having never been given a DVD release (only VHS & LD, both of which are tough to get complete) nor any sort of English translation, official or otherwise; yes, the first three episodes were fansubbed, but they aren't translated well.
[NOTE: If you want more in-depth info on Hareluya II BØY you can read my review of it.]


Up next is something that has seemingly brought some confusion among some fans. From 1997-1998 NTV aired Kenpu Denki/Sword-Style Romance Berserk, OLM's TV anime adaptation of the legendary manga by Kentarou Miura (which is simply titled Berserk), and fans knew that Yasuhiro Imagawa was involved with it in some way. Since he had been doing series composition & scriptwriting at the time many seemed to simply assume that Imagawa did the same with this anime, but this is incorrect as there is no credit for him in this position in the anime. In reality, Imagawa had the somewhat vague position of "Series Concept Adviser", which, according to Google if you search the exact term (either in English or Japanese), has only ever been used in this anime & for Imagawa himself. If I had to guess, I would say that Imagawa was a big fan of the original manga & knew someone on the staff, so he was brought in to make sure the anime was accurate to the style of the manga; nothing more & nothing less. This brings us into 1998, which started off with the seventh & final episode of Giant Robo getting released, putting an end to a near-decade of production that unfortunately didn't quite live up to its potential. Imagawa originally planned this OVA series to be Part 6 of a seven-part epic, but has never been able to tell any of the other parts he obviously planned for... At least, not in anime form, but that's for another time.

The year also saw a new creation for Imagawa: Seishojo Kantai Virgin Fleet. Co-created with Ouji Hiroi (creator of Madou King Granzort, Moeyo Ken, & Sakura Wars), Virgin Fleet told the story of a pre-WWII naval school that housed girls who could control a power called "Virgin Energy" and their battle to prevent a new Russo-Japanese war from happening. While Imagawa did handle composition & scenario, he did not direct this OVA series. It's also generally considered one of his lesser works & is usually ignored in discussion; I'll leave it up to you readers to decide for yourself.  Also in early '98, Imagawa returned to what he originally entered the anime industry to do & did some of the key animation for the third & final episode of Akiyuki Shinbo (yes, that Shinbo) & J.C. Staff's OVA adaptation of Hitoshi Okuda's manga Detatoko Princess. What came next was probably the most controversy to ever come from Imagawa's career...


On August 25, 1998 the first episode of Shin (Change!!) Getter Robo: Sekai Saigo no Hi/The Last Day of the Earth, known in North America as Getter Robo Armageddon, was released on VHS & LD. An ambitious project meant to tie in with an audio drama called Getter Robo: The Moon Wars (which is commonly thought to have come first, but in fact was produced after the OVA series), Armageddon was the first Getter Robo anime since the 1991-1992 TV bomb Getter Robo Go. In order to wash away the bad taste of the Go anime Bandai Visual wanted an epic tale of a post-apocalyptic war between Earth's Getter Army & a mysterious alien force known as the Invaders. If one was to watch the final product you would see an interesting oddity: There is no proper director credited until episode 4, which credits Jun Kawagoe, who would go on to direct almost all future Go Nagai-related anime productions (READ: almost all). So, what happened to those first three episodes?

Here is where the controversy comes in. Yasuhiro Imagawa did in fact direct those first three episodes, which act as a prologue to the rest of the story, showcasing how the post-apocalyptic world comes into being. There were supposedly magazines at the time confirming this, but it's odd that an anime production would not credit its own director. Bandai Visual has never confirmed Imagawa's involvement, which made some fans wonder if Imagawa simply could not keep up with BV's fast-paced release schedule (episodes came out roughly 1-3 months after one another, compared to Giant Robo's half-year+ schedule). While that would be a fair reason, with help from Mike Toole, I found out a more definitive reason: At Ani-Magic 2003 Imagawa himself admitted that he had a major difference with a senior member of the staff & left the production as a result. Obviously a touchy subject that neither side seems to want to talk about in detail, we can only surmise what the difference was (Conflict in story direction? Animation style? How to kill off Musashi?), but it must have been a person very high up that Imagawa had a problem with in order to have his name removed from the entire production. Another piece of proof comes from simply watching the show. Those first three episodes are simply downright manic & insane in their pacing and imagery, and it's obvious right from episode 4 that director's were changed. While Kawagoe does a fine job with what he directs (there's good reason why he returned over & over for Nagai anime), it's obvious that he had nothing do to with those first three episodes from a directorial standpoint; they are definitively Imagawa in execution.


Luckily, Imagawa didn't end the 90s on a rough note with Getter Robo Armageddon. While it wan't a directorial job, he finished off the decade with another oddity: A 1999 TV anime adaptation of Matsuri Akino's Pet Shop of Horrors, which ran for only 4 episodes in March on TBS' Wonderful block. Outside of being an oddity in the very block it ran in (Wonderful was a half-length [~8-12 min] comedy anime block, while Pet Shop was a full-length [~24-25 min] horror-ish anime), the fact that it only had four episodes to it was another odd part about it; it truly is rare to see this happen on TV. Much like BØY, this show was episodic in nature, with each episode being a standalone story about a customer of Count D's Chinatown pet shop filled with rare & mystical animals.  Each "pet" comes with a strict contract that must be followed perfectly, or else they pay the consequences, and when enough homicide incidents occur D has to also fend off the investigation of Detective Leon Orcot. With direction by Toshio Hirata (Barefoot Gen 2The Fantastic Adventures of Unico) & animation by Madhouse, series composer & co-scriptwriter Imagawa helped adapt four eerie & absorbing tales of people who want that which they shouldn't and the consequences of their greed. Luckily, this show has seen a couple of DVD releases in North America & is still in print; plus, its short length makes it an easy one to see all of. While it doesn't quite end off this decade like how Mister Ajikko ended the 80s, Pet Shop of Horrors definitely was a great reminder of what this decade stood for in terms of Imagawa's career.
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As we say "sayonara" to the 90s, let's quickly remind ourselves of what this decade meant for Yasuhiro Imagawa's career. The 80s was a complete learning experience for him, with Mister Ajikko being the equivalent of a final exam that Imagawa not only aced but broke the entire Bell curve with; he showed that, when put in the director's chair, he can make magic. The 90s, then, was Imagawa putting everything he learned into action, while showcasing his own creative skills as a storyteller. Giant Robo & G Gundam are now considered anime classics & some of the best titles to come from the 90s, but when they first came out were either ignored by consumers or hated because of how different they were. Imagawa's own directorial tendencies also resulted in his excommunication from an entire production with Getter Robo Armageddon. Luckily, he was able to fill in his gaps with directing by showcasing his writing & composition skills, and though one of them may be a decidedly mixed bag the others showed that he was willing to try different things out & experiment. This decade did show the major "flaw" of Yasuhiro Imagawa, though, which is that his works aren't truly appreciated & enjoyed by most people until some time has passed, much like how a fine wine get better with age.  Similarly, Imagawa's career in the 00s would become one without a true definition until the very end...  But that doesn't mean that he wasn't defying expectations.

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