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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman: The Noblest of Multi-Colored Squads

Name: Hironobu Kageyama
Nicknames: "Prince of the Anime/Tokusatsu Song World", "Mr. DBZ", "Kage-chan"
Date of Birth: February 18, 1961
Debut Year: 1977 (as lead singer of LAZY under the name "Michell"), 1981 (solo)
Iconic Song: "Cha-la Head Cha-la" (from Dragon Ball Z)
Catchphrase: "SPARKING!!"

If JAM Project-founder Ichiro Mizuki is the "Aniki/Big Brother" of anime songs/anison, then right behind him is Kageyama. After his time with the band LAZY during the late-70s, Kageyama found his place in life as the singer of songs for tokusatsu & anime, starting with the eponymous opening theme to 1984-1985's Dengeki Sentai Changeman (under the name "KAGE"), followed a few months later with "Star Dust Memory", which was an insert song used in episode 9 of Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross. After doing theme songs for Uchuusen Sagittarius & Transformers: The Headmasters, Kageyama did the opening theme for a shonen anime called Dragon Ball Z... I think I can leave the history at this point, because everyone can guess what happened to the man afterwards. Anyway, this Kageyama-themed anime I've chosen for JAM Project March is one I remember hearing about often back in my early days as an anime fan, and I want to know if it's still as good as I remembering hearing about it.

Created by Kaim Tachibana (Boys Love, Pieces of a Spiral), Tokumu Sentai/The Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman ran in Gakken's Comic Pocke magazine from 1993-1998, lasting nine volumes. Built specifically as a parody of tokusatsu franchises, especially Super Sentai, Tachibana's manga was successful enough to be made into a two-episode OVA in 1996 by Production I.G. In 2000 Media Blasters licensed & released the OVA on VHS & DVD, featuring an English dub done by Coastal Carolina Sound Studios (Baoh, Blue Submarine No. 6, Virtua Fighter), now known simply as Coastal Studios. When I first became a big anime fan ten years ago I remember more "battle-hardened" fans constantly praising this English dub as being one of the few to actually surpass the original Japanese by & large, ala Cowboy Bebop. As the years went on talk of Shinesman died down, but anytime I saw it mentioned again the dub was still being praised; Justin Sevakis even once called it Coastal Carolina's "crowning achievement". Therefore, I wonder, as someone who has never seen it before: Is Shinesman still worthy of being called a good parody, & is the English dub truly better than the original Japanese?

Hiroya Matsumoto wants to enter the trade business in honor of his father, who passed away recently. During an interview with the Right Trading Company he's asked by Kyoko Sakakibara (head of HR) what color best fits a "hero", and Matsumoto's answer of "red" (inspired by how his little brother Yuto loves sentai hero Greatman Red) got him the job. To his surprise, not only does Matsumoto get a job in sales but he's also been chosen to have a secret secondary job: He will protect the Earth from alien invaders from the planet Voice as Shinesman Red, one fifth of the Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman.

Like any sentai group, Matsumoto isn't alone. Fighting alongside him are four of his fellow co-workers: Ryoichi Hayami/Shinesman Moss Green, Matsumoto's calm, cool, & collected sales partner; Shotaro Ono/Shinesman Sepia, Matsumoto's manager who has a wife & young daughter; Shogo Yamadera/Shinesman Grey, a car-crazy HR employee; & Riko Hidaka/Shinesman Salmon Pink, an "office girl" in another sales division that's treated as nothing more than an errand girl. All of them have their little quirks, like Hidaka's surprising hand strength or Yamadera's insanity when someone else is working on his car, & it really helps make each of them identifiable.

This OVA, though overall not advancing much in terms of the overall storyline, focuses on Shinesman's battles with Princess Hekiru Shiina, the cousin to Prince Sasaki (the head of the invading forces). You see, Sasaki & his second-in-command Seki decide that in order to take over the Earth they have to do it discreetly... So they decide to do so by running a trading business & become the main sponsor for the tokusatsu show Greatman, which gives them great market shares. Naturally, Shiina's idea of invading by outright threatening civilians kind of clashes with her cousin's plan, & the fact that Shiina isn't exactly all too bright doesn't help any bit, either. Anyway, I hope you all noticed what kind of parody Shinesman is...

Yes, it's actually a mostly-subtle parody, with everyone going about their business (both good & evil) pretty seriously. Still, there are blatant jabs at the ridiculousness of it all at times. Ono repeatedly comments at how their special weapons, such as the "Business Card Cutter", "Cuff Beam", or "Tie Clip Bombs", are pathetically weak, and everyone who isn't a Shinesman brings up how "dull" & "boring" everyone's color is, except for Matsumoto's (naturally, since he ripped off an "actual" sentai hero). Seki takes his hidden identity as a businessman at Science Electronics so seriously (he's actually president instead of Sasaki, who's a new recruit) that he doesn't want to make long-distance, interstellar calls until nightfall because the electricity costs at night are much cheaper. Also, civilians have become so used to the idea of over-the-top advertising for stuff like sentai shows that when Shiina teleports down to Earth with a monster everyone thinks it's simply just an elaborate bit of PR. Then there are some of the jokes that aren't blatant, like how Ono, Hayami, & Yamadera wear suits that match their Shinesman colors, but Hidaka & Matsumoto don't do the same; Hidaka's hear is pink, though, & Matsumoto sports a red tie. It's a silly concept and the anime knows it, but it also doesn't just make fun of everything.

In fact, the OVA not only parodies sentai-style tokusatsu but it also fully embraces it. Though there aren't any giant robots the group is color-coordinated, there's stock footage of transformations, the heroes & villains engage in traditional business without knowing that they are actually enemies, & the power of friendship and teamwork saves the day in the end... Even if Matsumoto only assumes that they can do an attack they've never attempted before. Hell, between the eyecatches in episode 1 there's even a fake ad for Shinesman-branded shower items! Much like a sentai show, too, part of the appeal is also in the characters, even the side characters. Little Yota Matsumoto is simply adorable & even 100% accepting of anything his older brother has to do, because he respects the fact that he's a businessman (though he'd obviously go over the moon if he knew his brother was a superhero); Matsumoto, in fact, is highly protective of his brother (almost absurdly so). Sakakibara is the clear-cut leader, though she obviously doesn't care about human resources (while interviewing Matsumoto she simply draws a large flower on his information), but even she's keeping secrets from her team. Hitomi Kasahara works as recon for the team but unknown to all but Sakakibara she's actually also from planet Voice with the hopes of stopping the invasion; in this OVA she finds out that her brother Seki is helping Sasaki.

On the villain side there's Sasaki, who's essentially like a spoiled brat & doesn't fully understand why Seki's plan of taking over the Earth is the best idea, yet he doesn't have anything better to think up. Seki, on the other hand, is also calm & able to keep Sasaki at bay, but at the same time he might be a little too focused on his methodology. Shiina, on the other hand, is an energetic ditz who actually has a kind heart deep inside. While undercover she falls for Matsumoto, since he saw her bare skin (she had to either kill him or love him, after all), and though he acknowledges her selfishness he still finds her too nice to ditch; this makes Shiina wonder if she's a horrible "bad guy". For something that's meant to be a parody & is only two episodes long the characters are surprisingly engaging & it really makes you wish that more had been made.

The OVA was directed by Shinya Sadamitsu (Birth/Planet Busters), who had to be a fan of sentai when he was a kid because he nailed the style down really nicely, and the Production I.G. animation is really fluid & nice for the time. Combined with that was a great script by Hideki Sonoda (Dancougar, Sonic Soldier Borgman), which combined comedy with the mundane excellently. The character designs by Akiharu Ishii keep close to Kaim Tachibana's original style & still looks nice to this day. Finally, the music by Yoshihiro Ike (Sci-Fi HARRY, Tiger & Bunny) works for the title but unfortunately doesn't do much else, though the variations of the opening theme are all really cool. Said opening theme, "Shine/Shinesman - You Are the Hero" by Hironobu Kageyama, is an absolutely addictive theme song that harkens back to his toku theme days. Even the lyrics embrace the silliness, by stating that Shinesman works for "no tax" & is always on hand for a 24-hour shift. The ending theme, "Wings of the Heart" by CALL, is a good slow song, but nothing completely memorable, unfortunately, especially after the awesomeness of Kageyama's song.

In an interesting twist, Kaim Tachibana purposefully last named all of her characters after seiyuu that she loved, hence why the enemy planet is named "Voice", & all of them were brought on for the original Japanese audio. Therefore, we have Yasunori Matsumoto (Gourry in Slayers), Sho Hayami (Aizen in Bleach), Kenichi Ono (Sanger Zonvolt in Super Robot Wars OG), Kouichi Yamadera (Spike in Cowboy Bebop), & Noriko Hidaka (Noriko in Gunbuster) as the five members of Shinesman, all of which do an excellent job with their characters; they should, since they were "chosen" from the start. Likewise, Nozomu Sasaki, Toshihiko Seki, Hekiru Shiina (the only outright blatant reference), Rica Matsumoto, & Yoshiko Sakakibara bring in similarly good performances. Overall, the original Japanese cast mixes in great emotion with subtle humor, with some blatant humor used at times.

In comparison, though, Coastal Carolina's dub is the complete opposite in terms of execution. If the original Japanese was mostly subtle, then the English dub is mostly blatant. The Shinesmen themselves are much more willing to make wise cracks & even knock on the fourth wall at times, especially in regards to anime fan culture. Hidaka in particular is probably given this change the most, though Yamadera comes close numerous times ("Grey is goooooood!!!"). Also, the humor goes very much "American", with some purposefully euphemistic lines used in place of traditional talk. To it's credit, though, it's still completely accurate to the original story & not exactly a "gag dub" (ala Ghost Stories), but it's obvious that this was made by people who looked at tokusatsu from a different perspective. Essentially, the original Japanese was influenced by Super Sentai while the English dub was influenced by the early years of Power Rangers. Still, from a performance perspective, it's a great dub direct by Scott Houle, with the Coastal Carolina regulars pulling in tons of energy & emotion. Probably the best of the all would have to be Pamela Weidner, who delivers a completely enthusiastic Shiina that you'll remember for a good long time.

The Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman is an excellent parody & homage to tokusatsu by embracing the concept & taking to such a mundane-yet-ridiculous direction. The best part of Media Blasters' DVD release, which is highly out-of-print though still priced very reasonably, is that you get two different executions of the same idea. The original Japanese version goes for a more subtle parody, while the English dub does the opposite by aiming more for blatant poking fun of what's going on, but in the end both stay true to the original idea of what Super Sentai stands for. So, to answer the questions I had at the beginning of this review, this OVA is still worthy of being called a great parody, but while the dub is excellent I'm not sure if I can call it "by & large" better than the original Japanese, simply because it's the complete opposite of that audio. Really, that second question is going to have to come down to what each viewer wants more of, but in the end Shinesman is an OVA that you'll gladly watch at least a second time just so you can compare & contrast.

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