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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Imagawa Chronicles Part 3: Forgotten Impact

Previously on The Imagawa Chronicles:
"The 80s was a complete learning experience for him... 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."

If the 90s was Yasuhiro Imagawa's peak, then the 00s was definitely the "drop". It wasn't a bad time for the man by any means, but at the same time none of his works, especially those he directed, have become considered "classics" the same way Giant Robo & G Gundam have become. In fact, Imagawa may have sabotaged himself, so to say, because with the new millennium came a new Imagawa; one that defied expectations & did what he wanted. But, remember, just because a time in a man's career may be "forgotten" it doesn't mean it was subpar by any means.


In the year 2000 the anime industry was definitely a different world than it was in the decades prior. Digital animation was becoming more viable & slowly overtaking cels, the OVA market was all but dead with the advent of late-night anime, and "anime" itself seemingly lost its innocence through real-life tragedies like The Otaku Murderer & even productions like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena. After doing the short-lived Pet Shop of Horrors anime in March of 1999 Imagawa took a few years off & in 2002 came back with a creation of his own, one that was both an anime & a manga. But instead of an over-the-top mecha epic that he made his name on a decade earlier, Imagawa debuted... A comedy series starring a girl who's her own Seven Dwarves.


Due to production issues with the anime, the manga technically debuted first in November 2001, but Seven of Seven was simply nothing like what Imagawa was known for. Working with artist Azusa Kunihiro (for the manga), with original character designs by Mine Yoshizaki (who was also readying the debut of anime "classic" [emphasis on the quotations] Arcade Gamer Fubuki), Imagawa told the story of young Nana Suzuki (voiced, fittingly, by Nana Mizuki), a girl who gets affected by an experiment-gone-awry done by her inventor grandfather. The experiment results in Nana being split up into seven copies, including herself, six of which are based on different personalities of Nana: Hot-tempered, happy, sensitive, child-like, sexy, & smart. Together the seven Nanas (get it?) have to work together to get the original Nana through school life, a crush on a boy, and even fighting crime on the side as the Nana Rangers. Yeah, this was as far away from "traditional" Imagawa as possible, so it's understandable that this title doesn't exactly get brought up too much when talking about the man's career. At least with Virgin Fleet it could be argued that Ohji Hiroi was behind it more than Imagawa, but this? To be fair, though, does that mean that Seven of Seven is bad? Not really, as from the first episode it's obvious that Imagawa simply wanted to tell a comical story of a shy girl who goes through a change in her life & might even find love in the process... Only through six clones who represent different side of her personality & they all have super-powers via the experiment gone wrong (which was all her own fault, anyway). It definitely wasn't what was expected of Imagawa, but Seven of Seven was a fine show & would be far from the only time Imagawa would go off the beaten path.


2003 was a really light year for Imagawa, but he did get involved in a cool moment of cross-promotion between Japan, China, & South Korea. Korean animation studio Dr Movie, after helping out with multiple Japanese productions, finally broke out on their own with Suho Yojeong Michel, which was loosely based on the French novella The Little Prince & followed the journey of the eponymous lead character and his pilot friend Kim as they try to recover fairies from the mischievous Black Hammer Gang in order to help bring life back to the land. The cross-promotion came from the fact that this series would get airtime in not just its home country of South Korea but also Japan, where it was called Shugo Yousei/Guardian Fairy Michel, & China. Also, all three countries would help with the production: Dr Movie would do the animation, a Chinese studio would help with things like inbetweening, & Madhouse would help with pre-production; this is where Imagawa comes in. Along with Masayuki Kojima (director of Master Keaton, Monster, & the upcoming Black Bullet) doing the storyboards, Imagawa was in charge of "scenario" for the show. If you want proof in English, check the back cover of ADV's release of the show, simply titled Michel, though ADV mistakenly names him "Imakawa Yasuhiro". The Japanese airing, though, was subtitled, making Imagawa & Kojima the only Japanese people involved in the production. Though the show is obviously a children's anime, I've heard that it's a very solid production (probably one of the better Korean anime productions out there) & the Imagawa connection just makes me all the more interested in checking Michel out one day.


Michel was an interesting side-venture for Imagawa, but in 2004 he returned to what he does best: Directing old-school-styled mech anime. In fact, he returned to his childhood favorite with a complete reboot of Tetsujin 28. Taking place in post-WWII Japan, this series re-introduced anime fans to Shotaro Kaneda, the boy detective who finds himself in ownership of the remote control device that directs the giant robot Tetsujin #28, which was created by his father & Prof. Shikishima. When compared to Giant Robo, G Gundam, & Getter Robo Armageddon, though, there was one major difference with the 2004 reboot of Tetsujin 28: This was very much Imagawa's baby. Not only was he the director, but he was also handled series composition & scriptwriting, so what you see in this show is essentially Imagawa's mind in motion; Palm Studio was simply making this vision a reality. Unfortunately, among his mech anime productions this show is easily the least well known & celebrated, and that's for one main reason: Much like Seven of Seven it was the complete opposite of what he's known for.

Instead of being intense & over-the-top spectacle Tetsujin 28 was instead a slow-paced, semi-episodic story focused on Shotaro & the mysteries he would become involved with. Sure, there were battles between Tetsujin & enemy robots like Monster and the equally-iconic Black Ox, but the focus was definitely put on the humans & their stories. Tetsujin itself was created as a weapon of war & abandoned afterwards, but through experimentation was reawakened in a world not meant for it. This was not the same anime that the world loved 40 years prior, sometimes under the name Gigantor; this was a robot with a sense of sadness surrounding it. For example, Kenji Murasame loses his two brothers in the first two episodes due to the re-awakening of Tetsujin (partially caused by said brothers), and the robot itself tortures Shikishima as a reminder of the torture Prof. Kaneda went through during the war. Where anime fans were expecting a fun & crazy mecha romp, Imagawa made this Tetsujin 28 reboot a darker, more serious-minded (though still comical when needed) take on the giant that arguably started the entire genre. To this day it is the most recent Imagawa anime to have ever been licensed & released on home video in North America, in this case by the now-defunct Geneon Entertainment. It's out-of-print but still priced fairly across all six singles, though Volume 5 is sold for around MSRP; there is no boxset release.


With Tetsujin 28 being rebooted the way he wanted to tell it, regardless of if people wanted it that way, Imagawa's next project would be a similar idea. Remember back in Part 2 I mentioned that Giant Robo was meant to be Part 6 of a seven-part epic, but low sales killed off those other plans? Well, eight years after the OVA's last episode got released Imagawa found a way to return to this world he created: Through manga. Teaming with artist Yasunari Toda (best known for the S-CRY-ed manga & Gundam Seed Astray R), Imagawa debuted in September 2006 Giant Robo - The Day the Earth Burned, which followed the same style & tone of the original OVA but told a new story that took place in an alternate universe. In this story Daisaku comes across Giant Robo & actually works separately from Big Fire & the IPO, who both find out that the boy & his robot are part of an upcoming doomsday prediction. The manga also brings in more of Yokoyama's characters who weren't in the anime, such as Sally the Witch. Unfortunately, as much as Giant Robo is considered an anime classic, this manga reboot has seen next-to-no love from North American fandom; no manga publisher has licensed it & fan translation efforts stopped early in Volume 3 roughly three years ago.


2006 wasn't just a time for manga, though, as Imagawa did series composition & scriptwriting for two pretty different anime at essentially the same exact time, both of which utilized Palm Studio. First came the TV anime adaptation of Tetsuo Hara's Souten no Ken/Fist of the Blue Sky (the prequel to Fist of the North Star), which debuted on October 6. Detailing the battles Kenshiro Kasumi faced in his attempts to bring back the glory of his Chinese triad friends, the anime told an excellent story with memorable characters & featured majestic music by Marco D'Ambrosio (Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust & the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVAs from the 90s & early 00s), but from a production standpoint was a complete mess. Apparently this anime had gone through a few years of production hell, so it seems very likely that Studio A.P.P.P., with help from Palm, just wanted to finally get this show out & done with, and it shows at times. Even the home video release featured moments of just downright shameful animation, & the original TV airing even skipped over episodes 16-18 & 21, likely making TV viewers new to the story confused. To its credit, though, the home video release featured extra scenes, making some episodes last nearly 30 actual minutes, the voice work was extremely well done, & when the animation wasn't painfully bad it did look good. Unfortunately, character designer & chief animation director Yoshiaki Tsubata blogged numerous times about how poor the production's "business conditions" were, and that essentially sums up the Souten no Ken anime: Excellent story, characters, music, & voice work, but all wrapped up in a very mixed production. Personally, I can't hate it because of what it does right, and what Imagawa was in charge of (series composition & scriptwriting) was done right, but I can completely understand why people dislike it.


One week after Souten no Ken started on television came the debut of the TV anime Bartender, based on the Super Jump manga by Araki Joh (story) & Kenji Nagatomo (art). Made partially to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the cocktail, which was "defined" in 1806, the anime dealt with the nightly patrons of Ryu Sasakura, who is trying to find the "Glass of God" (a.k.a. the perfect cocktail). Each episode followed a simple execution: Patron would come to the bar Ryu works at, tell him what's going wrong with his/her life, and Ryu would make a cocktail that would fit the situation perfectly while helping solve the problem. Considering what the subject matter is it's understandable that the animation itself by Palm was highly limited, and that was the intent of series composer Imagawa & director Masaki Watanabe. In an interview with Otaku USA back in 2011, Imagawa admitted, “To be frank, we only considered the very best of the best voice actors. The concept wasn't animation to be watched. It was animation to be listened to.” While that doesn't quite work as well for international audiences, the end result was that Bartender still managed to be a very relaxed & soothing title to watch. For some people it might be a little too boring & uninteresting to watch, but those who find the concept intriguing & like drama stories (& maybe alcohol), like Imagawa himself, should probably give it a try, at the very least. Both this & Souten no Ken are fully fansubbed in English.


Interestingly enough, by 2007 Imagawa had been a part of the anime industry for just about 26 years yet had never worked on a theatrically-released movie. On March 31 that all changed with the release of Tetsujin 28: Hakuchu no Zangetsu/Zangetsu of Midday, a feature-length animated movie based on his 2004 reboot. Originally planned for release in 2005 the movie is actually an alternate universe story & supposedly doesn't require any previous viewing of the TV series to enjoy. Also, the subtitle is very likely to be a reference to what Imagawa had planned to be Part 1 of the Giant Robo saga, "The Birth of Zangetsu the Midday". The movie introduces Shotaro's big brother, also named Shotaro (spelled in katakana), who was part of a WWII squad who went missing & didn't know that the war had ended ten years ago & can also control Tetsujin. Together the two brothers find out about a special bomb created by their father than can destroy all artificial creations & spare living creatures (except for plants), and it's up to them to stop it from going off. Also, Shotaro (the younger) has to fend off the mysterious Zangetsu, who looks like a disabled veteran. For this movie Imagawa was just as involved in the production as he was with the TV series, but this time he even worked on the storyboards. I remember reading once that Imagawa was apparently disappointed with the final product, but I can't find anything to back that up. Anyway, though it was never licensed, this movie was actually fansubbed into English a couple of years ago, which translates the subtitle as "Morning Moon of Midday".


Imagawa finished up his non-directorial work for the 00s with a short TV production in early 2008: Hatenkou Yugi/Unprecedented Game, based on the manga by Minari Endo that TokyoPop released in North America under the name Dazzle. Lasting only 10 episodes, the story was about Rahzel Anadis, a young girl who's kicked out of her home by her father, who instructs her to "See the world." She quickly comes across two men, Alzeid & Baroqueheat, who travel with her, all the while helping people with their magic powers and finding out more about themselves. Obviously, the anime was an episodic one (there are 2 two-parters), with seemingly no real overarching story to speak of or any solid "goal" that the trio of main characters aim towards. Having only seen the first episode back when it debuted I can't say much about, but I certainly didn't find it bad by any means. In fact, the general consensus I've heard about it is that it's pretty good, especially in the writing department. In a true test of his writing skills, series composer Imagawa alone wrote the script for every single episode, with Minari Endo herself joining him for the last. The biggest praise I've generally read for this anime is the fact that the banter between the three leads is extremely well done & sounds very natural and believable. Luckily, the show was fansubbed in English back when it originally aired. Honestly, I've kind of forgotten about this series as the years have gone by, but the praise for the writing, combined with the fact that it's all by one man in this regard, might make this the biggest hidden gem in Yasuhiro Imagawa's entire catalog... A fact that's pounded in all the more by what followed this show. You see, in Spring of 2009 Yasuhiro Imagawa debuted an anime. After a decade of going against the grain & avoiding what made him a praised name in the anime industry by fans of the medium he decided to come back... And it was glorious, but with glory comes risk.

[ADDENDUM: I made a mistake here, as Violinist of Hameln was the first time Imagawa ever wrote an entire show on his own. It doesn't exactly lessen Hatenkou Yugi's importance, however.]


In Part 2 I mentioned that, after Getter Robo Armageddon, Jun Kawagoe would return to direct almost every Go Nagai-related anime production; this is one of those reasons why I said "almost all". Shin Mazinger Shougeki! Z-hen/Shin Mazinger Impact! Z Chapter was a reboot of the entire Mazinger franchise, telling a new variant of the original Mazinger Z story. The basic idea of young pilot Kouji Kabuto taking on the forces of Dr. Hell is the same, but the execution was different. In fact, Shin Mazinger was essentially the Go Nagai version of the Giant Robo OVA series. Yes, Sayaka, Baron Ashura, Count Brocken, Shiro Kabuto, & Boss were still here & given focus (and, in some cases, brand-new backstories!), but alongside them was a veritable encyclopedia of other characters ripped from other Nagai works. Characters based on those from Violence Jack, Demon Lord Dante, The Abashiri Family, & even the obscure manga re-telling Z Mazinger were brought into the story, and that's not all! Energer Z, the original concept for Mazinger, finally made its debut, the Kedora from a Ken Ishikawa-written Mazinger story was featured, & even Groizer X (which Nagai made for a Knack-produced anime in the mid-70s) was used as a villainous mech. Truly, this was a celebration of not just Mazinger but Go Nagai, and if you thought Tetsujin 28 had Imagawa heavily invested then you'd be blown away by how involved Imagawa was with Shin Mazinger.

Not only was he the director, but Imagawa was also series composer, the sole scriptwriter for all 26 episodes, storyboarder for the OP, ED, & final episode, and episode director for almost every single episode; the only episode he didn't direct was the last, which was directed by relative newcomer Shinya Sasaki. From the first episode alone the viewer could tell that this was going to be an insane ride, as it starts in media res at its most extreme: The end of the story. While not spoiling the absolute end of the story the anime starts off by showcasing the madness that would become the final climax before shifting back to the beginning part-way into episode two.  Much like what he did five years prior, Shin Mazinger was Imagawa's vision & nothing was going to stop him from telling the story he wanted to tell. Those who saw the show usually found it absolutely stunning & possibly the best example of what kind of person Yasuhiro Imagawa is. Unfortunately, Imagawa's absolute vision came at an absolute price: The show was a complete bomb in Japan, and it's because the way anime is considered "successful" has changed. Twenty years ago Mister Ajikko was a grand success because it was a ratings darling, but Shin Mazinger ran in a late-night slot where ratings tend to be a relatively minor factor. For late-night anime it's all about home video sales, with the time slot acting only as an advertisement, & when Shin Mazinger arrived on DVD it bombed with those who buy anime in Japan. Bandai Visual even gave the show a Blu-Ray release later on & it bombed. In fact, it bombed so hard that it killed Bee Media, the studio that animated the show! In the end, Shin Mazinger was both Imagawa's greatest success & Imagawa's greatest failure.
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It's kind of tricky to properly define the 00s for Yasuhiro Imagawa. From a creative standpoint it was easily his strongest, as he tried his hand at multiple genres: High-school comedy, children's, martial arts action, relaxed drama, & magical journeying. Naturally, he also did the mecha that he loved, but in this decade Imagawa was finally allowed to go all out. He told the Tetsujin 28 story that he wanted to tell (twice, even), he was able to return to his world of Giant Robo & tell a new version of the story, & he showcased a love for Go Nagai that had essentially never been shown before. Unfortunately, this strong creativity also resulted in most of the decade being relatively unknown to international anime fans. In the 90s there were only two titles that Imagawa had worked on that have never seen North American licensing: Violinist of Hameln & Hareluya II BØY. Compare that to the 00s, where only Imagawa's first three titles (Seven of Seven, Michel, & Tetsujin 28) have seen North American licensing, with everything else only being fansubbed. From a directorial perspective, Imagawa's work in this decade has remained relatively low-key: Just looking at ANN's Encyclopedia only Seven of Seven has more than 100 user ratings and Tetsujin 28 has the lowest number of user ratings out of his entire directorial catalog with only 38... That's less than the number of ratings the first season of Ring ni Kakero 1 has (49) over at ANN & just barely over what Season 2/Nichibei Kessen-hen has (36)! Yes, Shin Mazinger is highly acclaimed by those who have seen it, but the fact that so few have in fact seen it (83 over at ANN have rated it) is proof positive of how "forgotten" this decade was for Imagawa.

Check back later for the fourth & final part of The Imagawa Chronicles, where we look at what Yasuhiro Imagawa has been doing for this "presently-running" decade.

5 comments:

  1. I actually love Imagawa's Tetsujin-28. No, it's not the over-the-top romp that is Giant Robo but it's a very loving tribute and fantastic period piece.

    And there was a collector's box that contained all six volumes.

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    1. I only saw the first DVD a number of years ago, but I liked what I saw. One day I'll go into Imagawa's Tetsujin full bore.

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  2. "In fact, it bombed so hard that it killed Bee Media, the studio that animated the show!"
    ... Do you have serious source for this? Because last time I checked, 6 years after Shin Mazinger, Bee Media was alive and well, producing the Cyborg 009/Devilman team-up, which even ended up on the international scene through Netflix.

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    1. Admittedly, that part came from no "official" source, but I remember Mike Toole mentioning that Shin Mazinger's failure killing the studio that animated it. Maybe it wasn't exactly Bee Media, since a studio named CODE also animated it, but six years is also enough time for a company to essentially die out (or at least enter bankruptcy) & then potentially come back with new investors & leadership. Regardless, Shin Mazinger was a gigantic bomb in Japan, that can't be denied.

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  3. Too bad... I actually love Shin Mazinger. The ending rained bomb on me.

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