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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ray the Animation: What is a Man? A Miserable Little Pile of Organs!

Name: Masami Okui
Nicknames: "Makkun"
Date of Birth: March 13, 1968
Debut Year: 1989 (as a concert backup singer for Yuki Saito), 1993 (solo)
Iconic Song: "Rinbu -Revolution-" (from Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Last Woman Standing?: Yes

Unlike the previous three members of JAM Project, Masami Okui didn't really have an actual non-anime music career. Sure, she did backup singing for singer/actress/poet Yuki Saito's concerts, but when Okui went solo in 1993 her first song was "Dare Yori mo Zutto", which was used in the OVA The Girl from Phantasia. Also unlike her JAM predecessors, Okui didn't get her "iconic song" as fast as Kageyama, Endoh, & Kitadani did once going solo. She would go on to do songs for titles like Compiler ("I Was Born to Fall in Love"), Tekkaman Blade II ("Reincarnation"), & Ghost Sweeper Mikami ("My Jolly Days") before getting a duet with Megumi Hayashibara for "Get Along" & "Kujikenai Kara!", the opening & ending themes to the original Slayers anime in 1995, followed by a duet with Katsumi Matsumura for "MASK", the ending theme to Sorcerer Hunters; great songs, to be sure, but not solo hits. It wouldn't be until 1997 that Okui finally got "that song" with the opening theme to Revolutionary Girl Utena, "Rinbu -Revolution-". She joined JAM in March 2003 along with with Yoshiki Fukuyama, but don't let the sole remaining female member of the supergroup fool you, because she's probably the most active member from a career standpoint. Aside from singing Masami Okui has also done tons of writing & composition for other artists; Kageyama has also done these jobs as well, but nowhere near as much as Okui. In fact, no other member of JAM Project has ever composed the entire soundtrack to an anime!

It's a French cover, but it was the best quality

Akihito Yoshitomi is one of my favorite manga-ka of all time, mainly because of one title: Eat-Man... But that isn't what I'm focusing on right now (that will come a little later this Spring *tease*). While slowly coming to the end of his iconic work in late-2002, Yoshitomi started up a new manga that took inspiration from one of his favorite titles, Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack. Running in Akita Shoten's Champion Red magazine, a spin-off of Weekly Shonen Champion (where Black Jack had originally run), Ray was Yoshitomi's take on a medical drama about a miraculous doctor who can perform seemingly impossible operations, though it wasn't a complete copy of Tezuka's classic. The manga lasted seven volumes until mid-2005, which also included a cross-over with Eat-Man's Bolt Crank, followed by a two-volume spin-off in mid-2006 called Ray -The Other Side- that was published under the name Ray+. In between the two, though, was an anime adaptation of the original manga by Oriental Light & Magic/OLM that lasted for 13 episodes. So, can Ray the Animation hold a candle to an anime & manga classic?

Ray Kasugano is a girl who was born for no reason other than to have her organs grown & sold on the black market. After her eyes were removed she was rescued from "The Organization" (as she calls it) & ended up coming across the infamous unlicensed doctor Black Jack, who gave her new eyes. Ten years later Ray has grown up to become a doctor herself with amazing skills, but that's partly due to what Black Jack gave her, as she has special x-ray eyes that allow her to see through objects; she uses her eyes to see things other doctors can't. Recommended to a hospital lead by Director Sawa, who helped save her all those years ago, Ray joins the staff & handles dangerous surgeries, all while trying to find out information about what happened to her childhood friends at The Organization & attempting to put an end to their ways.

The easiest way to describe Ray is that it's a "SF Medical Drama", ala how Ring ni Kakero was called "SF Boxing" by Japanese fans. It's definitely a medical drama in that Ray comes across a new patient in almost every episode to cure, but the sci-fi element comes in by way of what exactly Ray is tackling. Some afflictions are more tame, like removing a series of skin-covering rashes or resuscitating a stopped heart, but others definitely go into possible-but-exaggerated, like helping a girl who suffers from seemingly random cuts appearing on her body & acting as if she's possessed by another being. The focus becomes even stronger when The Organziation becomes more involved & sends Ray truly strange cases, like a man who has acceleratedly aged & causes electronic equipment to go haywire when the operation begins. To be honest, though, when you have a doctor who has x-ray eyes & even a young psychic boy who has to live in a "bubble" these sci-fi elements don't really become bothersome. Hell, even Black Jack himself had numerous moments of doing the impossible & entering sci-fi territory.

In the second half the story starts focusing more on The Organization & Ray's origins, giving the show a slightly different feel to it. While operations are still done, the storytelling becomes more focused & concepts like reincarnation & cloning get brought up. In fact, the last four episodes feature no operations at all, instead focusing on bringing the story to its conclusion, though these concepts are still at the forefront. In real life cloning is doable but highly controversial, and the anime takes on the issue in a very smart fashion. Even psychoanalytical concepts like the Oedipus complex are hinted at, but executed in ways that really make you think. These last four episodes really showcase how good the writing is, and in the end the finale brings a great sense of finality to everything, with no plot holes or lingering threads left behind. Sure, some of the twists & turns aren't exactly original or unpredictable, but the execution of these moments are still very well done, and even the elements of a love story are fully showcased but never come off as forced & unbelievable.

Much like how Black Jack worked because of it's titular character, Ray works because the main character in worth giving your attention. Ray Kasugano may not be the unlicensed legend that her inspiration is, but she's still known for her skills, but at the same time she's a bit more caring for her patients at first glance. True, most of them are essentially shoved onto her by Sawa, but in the end Ray still stays loyal to all her patients & promises to do everything that she can to help them. Her mysterious past makes you want to know more about her, but it's not exactly like she's hiding anything; she wants to know the truth as much as the viewer. Backing her up is Shinoyama, her self-procliamed "partner", who supplies her with tools & artificial organs when needed while also taking her to locations when necessary. Shinoyama definitely has feelings for Ray, and he has no issues showing them, but Ray usually shakes it off; she isn't a "tsundere", but rather is simply focused on her job & her life mission, though she eventually starts seeing what's she's missing. A few episodes in we get introduced to Red Ribbon, one of Ray's friends from The Organization who seemingly managed to escape (named as such because of the red ribbon she wears in her hair), who's mainly there to help give Ray some sense of family & normalcy; though Ray knows housing her might end up bringing trouble, she takes in Red Ribbon like she was a little sister.

The rest of the cast is mainly secondary, but still manage to be notable. Sawa is the peg-legged, one-eyed director of the hospital who mixes together toughness with sensitivity, though his past with The Organization is generally a no-go for conversation. Misato is the head of the nurses and is the most personable of the group, wearing Chinese buns in her hair & taking pleasure in toying with the slight love triangle between Ray, Shinoyama, & co-worker Sumi (who has feelings for Shinoyama, but is too shy to show them strongly). Also in the hospital is Kenji, the previously mentioned "bubble boy" who's also psychic; Ray relates to him due to his situation & converses with him often, sometimes looking to him for comfort. There's also Koichi, another of Ray's old friends (& who she has feelings for), who is referred to often but only really important in the final episodes. Finally, there's the nameless "Man with the H ring", who sold off Ray's old eyes & is the head of The Organization. While his face is shown off within the first half, his ambitions & goals aren't revealed until the second half, and some of his scenes are also some of the most uncomfortable, especially when the reasons behind his actions are brought up; a fine villain.

As a neat aside, Black Jack is featured in this anime, though mainly as a bookend (i.e. he only appears in the first & last episodes). In the original manga, Yoshitomi only heavily hinted that it was the legendary surgeon, instead referring to him as "BJ". For the anime, though, Tezuka Productions got involved, allowing the use of not only the actual name but also bringing in the voice of Black Jack himself, Akio Ohtsuka; his face is still mostly obscured, though. Five days after Ray the Animation's debut, Tezuka Pro debuted Black Jack 21, a spin-off of the TV series that came right before it that focused on a linear story & had a stronger "SF" influence. The show apparently featured assassins that chased after Black Jack & referred to him only as "BJ", possibly in an attempt to acknowledge the two series as being in the same world. In Ray's case Black Jack's inclusion is nothing more than a couple of cameos, but at the same time it's enough to give Ray a sense of importance as a doctor, as she's partially only as good as she is because of what the great doctor gave her. Thankfully, Ray manages to rise to a high enough level that you'll be pleased that, in the world of Black Jack, there are at least two "miracle doctors" out there.

This anime was directed by Naohito Takahashi (Berserk TV, Danball Senki/LBX), who keeps everything looking nice & moving at a good pace; while OLM isn't exactly a "breaking the bank" kind of studio they're still very reliable for good looking work. Atsuhiro Tomioka (Monkey Turn, Ehrgeiz, Samurai 7) worked on series composition & part of the scriptwriting, and with Shuichi Kamiyama & Yuuji Hosono really delivered. Though I haven't read all of the original manga, it feels like they did adapt all the way to the end, but considering that would mean fitting 7 volumes worth into 13 episodes it probably resulted in some medical cases being removed. Still, if that allowed the focus to be put on the underlying story with The Organization then I'm fine with that, as those parts were definitely the best. The character designs by Hisahi Kagawa (Fresh Pretty Cure, SaiKano, Toriko) definitely stick very close to Yoshitomi's drawing style, which is a great mix of sleek & simple characters that easily appeals.

Probably the most impressive piece of the production side of things, though, is Masami Okui herself. Pretty much everything music related was written & composed by her, whether it's the background music or the opening & ending themes. With help from "God Speed", which I'm guessing was the backing band she had for her album of the same name that came out around the anime's debut, Okui didn't simply make a few songs & leave it at that. No, she made enough songs to fit two CDs for the OST release, and she showcased a nice range of music. Okui tends to generally do high-energy songs, but at times she's done slower, more subdued songs, and her Ray OST showcases this, mixing together slower beats & even elevator music-style songs for Sawa's hospital, sad themes relating to Ray's past & other somber moments, more upbeat tunes for characters like Shinoyama (she even made a version of his theme solely for his cell phone!), and obviously fast-paced songs filled with energy. The best song from this part of the OST has to be "Theme of RAY ~M~", which acts as the literal anthem for Ray when she's ready to perform her medical duties. It simply makes Ray out to be an absolute badass doctor that can't be stopped, similar to what Tak Sakaguchi did with "The Theme of B.J." from the 2003 Black Jack: The 4 Miracles of Life TV special. The opening theme, "zero -G-" by Masami Okui, is similarly high-energy & fits Ray's never-die sense of wanting to know the truth. The ending theme, "Yuunagi" by Tomoe Oumi, balances everything out by being a soothing slow theme. Overall, for her first (& only) time as the person behind an entire anime's music Masami Okui hit a home run, maybe even a double or triple.

Sakura Nogawa (Erica Hartmann in Strike Witches, Hinaichigo in Rozen Maiden) voices Ray, and I've heard some complaints that her voice may have been a little too high-pitched for someone so serious; personally, I found her voice fitting as a young woman who never truly escaped her past. Shinoyama is performed by Hiroki Takahashi (Kikumaru in Prince of Tennis, Hisoka in the original Hunter X Hunter anime), who fits the character perfectly; Takahashi just seemed like he was fully embracing the character in his performance. Red Ribbon is done by Ui Miyazaki (Iroha in Sumomomo Momomo, Aurica in Ar Tornelico), and she does a nice job as the young companion to Ray. The rest of the "major" cast is rounded out by Jin Yamanoi (Man with the H Ring), Yuusaku Yara (Sawa), & Youko Honna (Misato), who all do great jobs with their performances, especially Yamanoi in the last few episodes.

Ray the Animation is a really interesting "SF Medical Drama" that works well in two different ways. The first half focuses more on the medical drama, showcasing all sorts of crazy operations Ray has to perform while slowly revealing bits & pieces of the underlying story. The second half slowly downplays the operations & puts the story at the forefront, bringing up interesting questions about touchy medical subjects & delivering even more on the sci-fi side of things. While Eat-Man still remains my favorite work by Akihito Yoshitomi, this anime really solidified my feeling that Ray was a great next step for him. The feeling was obviously reciprocated by Tezuka Pro, who would bring Yoshitomi in to do a short story for the 2005 anthology manga Black Jack Alive, alongside the likes of Go Nagai, Makoto Tezuka, Naoki Serizawa, & Masayuki Taguchi. It took a few years, but this anime did get licensed by Maiden Japan (Matt Greeenfield's post-ADV anime licensing studio that has absolutely no relation to Sentai Filmworks & Section 23, okay?!), who gave it a sub-only DVD release in 2011; in fact, I actually wrote about the licensing on this blog when it was announced, so this review had to come eventually. Masami Okui also deserves props for showcasing her music chops by doing the entire OST & succeeding very nicely; I can only hope that I can get her to autograph my DVD set at Anime Boston this weekend. So, for those who enjoy the likes of Black Jack, you can definitely check out Ray the Animation, which manages to not only act as a great homage but also works as a great story on its own.

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