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Monday, May 26, 2014

Eat-Man '98: It's "Hard" Work Being a "Bolt"-Hungry Mercenary...

In keeping with the return of Eat-Man, here are the covers of the first two volumes of the "Complete Edition" re-release. Every two volumes will combine to create a landscape image, which I think is pretty awesome.

Koichi Mashimo's Eat-Man anime from 1997, while a worthwhile anime on its own, had a big hurdle against it: It wasn't actually an adaptation of Akihito Yoshitomi's original manga. In what is a truly rare instance of complaints from fans actually resulting in something substantial, Studio DEEN & TV Tokyo gave it another go. Essentially, Eat-Man '98, named after the year it aired (obviously, though Jonathan Clements & Helen McCarthy's The Anime Encyclopedia didn't quite get it), was the complete opposite of what came before it: Where '97 was in-name-only, '98 was accurate; '97 aired at the beginning of its year, while '98 aired at the end; and where '97 had a very minor animation budget, '98 was given more to work with... But does that also mean where '97 was really damn good, '98 pales in comparison? Justin Sevakis would certainly argue so, even calling it "putrid" back in 2000, but I would argue otherwise.

While the original anime series had a different story for all 12 episodes, Eat-Man '98 tells only six stories in the same span of episodes, four of which are taken straight from Yoshitomi's manga. Bye Bye Aimie (an "Another Story" from Volume 3) is a two-parter which has Bolt Crank get involved in a serial murder mystery which has resulted in the deaths of five scientists, all of which worked 10 years prior at a research center that worked in biogenetics; Bolt has a past with this center as well as with Detective Aimie, who is helping solve the mystery. World's Greatest Mercenary (Chapter 10 in Volume 4) is a one-shot that has Bolt coming to the village of Mavid, which is on the verge of being demolished by the Konzeln Corporation, where he's hired to protect the villagers. Konzeln, though, has the services of Hard, a man who has been given the nickname "World's Greatest Mercenary", a name normally used to describe Bolt. Bodyguard (a side-story from Volume 2), the other one-shot, sees Bolt waiting for an airship after missing the previous one. With another airship coming in an hour, Bolt agrees to protect Francois, a mysterious girl in a large tower, while he's waiting. Francois' miraculous blood is wanted by all and a small battle happens outside, along with her friend Andy trying to climb the tower to rescue her.

Ambrosian Days is the first original story in this anime, and the only four-parter. It's a (surprisingly) relatively laid-back story where Bolt stays around with Jessica O'Neil, a monster hunter, in the capital of Ambrosia during a time when the king is deadly sick & everyone's hoping that the new heir, which is determined by who can transform the kingdom's legendary dagger into a sword, will be dicsovered. At the same time Du Marc, a a vizier-esque medicine man from a neighboring country, is plotting to take control of the kingdom from the shadows. Mega-Mix (Chapers 11 & 12 in Volume 4) is another two-parter, this time featuring Bolt on a mission to return Myra, the daughter of the president of the Dykstra Corporation, back to her father; head of security Marco wants to bring back Myra for his own reasons, though. The anime ends with The Farcical Dream, the other original story, a two-parter where Bolt & a returning Hard are hired as bodyguards by opposing parties in the presidential election between Senator Sharif & the incumbent Grant. Unfortunately, a third mercenary named Raffin, that may have been hired by one of the parties, makes things more difficult & a journalist named Thelma Abigail is also trying to find the truth.

The biggest change between Mashimo's take on Eat-Man & the original manga, outside of Bolt himself, was in the very world it took place in. The world of the original anime was semi-cyberpunk at the very most, but in the manga the world was much more varied. In one story Bolt would be in a seeming cyberpunk dystopia, but in the story immediately afterwards Bolt could be in a more subdued environment or even a near-fantasy area, where the only thing "missing" would be some sort of magic. This varied world is completely maintained in '98 & brought to life very nicely. For example, Bye Bye Aimie takes place in a semi-futuristic city, with flying cars & all sorts of giant video screens, while Ambrosian Days happens in almost a completely different, semi-fantasy world that has none of the cyberpunk stylings of Aimie's story but rather elements like mythical legends & even giant monsters, though some minor technology does still remain. Sometimes there's a mix of the two like in Bodyguard, which has a port for airships to dock at but otherwise is essentially free of major technology or Mega-Mix, which takes place in a cyberpunk city but features flashbacks to a simpler desert environment. This varied world also comes into play thematically, such as the conflict between the quaint village of Mavid & the advancement-focused Konzeln.

Yoshitomi's style of storytelling is another change from Mashimo's style, mainly in that there isn't really any sort of subtextual themes; it's a fair bit more "traditional". Still, that doesn't mean that Yoshitomi is not a good storyteller, because the manga-adapted stories in this anime all tell very enjoyable tales. In fact, the stories the anime adapts are actually some of the best in the entire manga, which isn't meant to be a slight against the later parts of the manga but rather a compliment to Yoshitomi as a whole, as it means that he was consistently telling great stories with Bolt since the beginning. Yoshitomi also has a penchant for maintaining some sort of twist, whether it's a simple character reveal or a story-altering revelation, and it never really feels stale in this anime. Obviously, I'm not going to reveal any of the twists in these stories; find those out yourself. Still, for those who want subtle storytelling, Yoshitomi doesn't necessarily make things blatantly obvious or dumb stuff down for easy reading; there's enough in these stories to look at them in a deeper fashion. There's also some nice humor in many of these stories, but it's similarly subtle & rarely pushed onto the viewer in way that says "Isn't this funny? Why aren't your laughing?!"

So, how do the original stories keep up? As mentioned in the synopses above, Ambrosian Days is actually pretty relaxed in its execution, essentially giving it a slight "everday life" sort of feel. There is an underlying story involving the Ambrosian Sword being stolen, but even the way that "conflict", if you can even call it that, is solved is really self-solving & almost a parody of what happens when a villain doesn't take a legend seriously. The surface stories have some neat mix-ups, like Bolt, Jessica, & her friends joining a volunteer army to fight a giant demon or local bar owner Coco having to deal with her more lurid past, and overall Ambrosian Days is a neat little change of pace that feels pretty self-contained. The Farcical Dream, on the other hand, is a little more traditional in execution and is probably the weakest story of them all. Still, its focus on Hard, showcasing his dedication to the job & how mistakes can mess with him psychologically, is a nice thing to see, and there are just enough little twists to make it a good watch; it just pales in comparison to the other stories. Also, from a technical perspective, there were just a little too many scenes that took place in dark environments, making it tough to appreciate what's actually being shown in this last story.

But enough of the story, right? Let's get to how the characters work out in this anime. Bolt is, naturally, back & this time he's completely manga-accurate compared to where Mashimo's take on the character was inaccurate. This Bolt is more stoic, rarely showing a big change in emotion, and even when he shows moments of happiness, anger, or surprise it's very subtle & low-key. Unlike the previous anime, '98 also has a recurring character in the form of Hard, Bolt's mercenary rival/ally. He only appears in two of the stories but it's easy to see why he becomes a common recurring character in the manga: He's just very likable. Similar to Bolt, Hard is an honorable mercenary that simply wants to do the best job possible & puts doing the job at the forefront, with the money earned simply being a nice incentive. His introduction acts as a test of character for both himself & Bolt, and from that test the two gain a strong sense of respect between each other; in the manga this respect strengthens into a friendship between the two, though it's also subtly implied.

As mentioned at the beginning, the companies involved with Eat-Man '98 wanted to give this series a stark difference in execution from the prior series and, aside from being accurate to the manga, a way to do so was to give the new anime a higher animation budget. In comparing both Eat-Man anime series visually there's no denying that '98 has the higher animation budget & looks "better" from that perspective. Though there are still a notable number of panning shots & sticking to still images in episodes, it's still not anywhere near as common as in the Mashimo series & there's more animation in general, resulting in environments like cityscapes looking more vibrant & full of life; to be fair, Mashimo's stories rarely showcased things like cityscapes, though. The visual quality of everything just looks crisper & not quite as "showing age" like in the prior series, and there's even some use of CG in '98. Luckily, the use of CG is limited only to moments when Bolt reforms items from his right hand, this time following the manga's style of actually morphing Bolt's body to accommodate the item (instead of simply shooting a beat of light that turns into the item in '97), and unlike some anime that used CG from the late 90s it still looks good to this day. One thing that's similar between both series, though, is they way things like backgrounds & environments are handled. There's a type of familiarity in some of the environments for both series, especially when more natural areas are drawn, and that's because both Eat-Man anime productions featured the same art director, Tsutomu Ishigaki (Space Adventure Cobra TV, Magic Knight Rayearth TV).

With the intent of being accurate to the manga in mind, instead of bringing back Koichi Mashimo to '98 the production instead brought in Toshifumi Kawase (Shion no Ou, Tenjho Tenge, Ehrgeiz), who I mentioned during my Matchless Raijin-Oh review last year, which was Kawase's TV directorial debut, as being a fairly underrated anime director. While it's true that he doesn't really have "that one anime" to back up his career, I've always found that Kawase is a consistently good director that knows how to deliver great products; he just hasn't delivered an "iconic" work. Eat-Man '98 is one of those examples in that the overall product is great and showcases Kawase's skills as director, but it's simply a title that won't be considered as "iconic". The writing was handled by a trio of writers in a roughly even-split, but the only notable name is Atsuhiro Tomioka, the sole writer to reprise the position from Mashimo's vision; overall, though, the writing is fine & stays true to the original manga. Part of this could be, in part, due to the fact that Akihito Yoshitomi himself was brought into the production, being credited under "Original Design". This likely meant that Ambrosian Days & The Farcical Dream, though exclusive to the anime, were likely thought up conceptually by Yoshitomi first & then left to the writers to make into reality. The character designs by Isamu Imakake (Ehrgeiz [original character designs], The Mystical Laws [direction]) are sleek, stylish, and generally more accurate to Yoshitomi's style than they were in Mashimo's series, while the mechanical designs for the vehicles & monsters by Junya Ishigaki (Xenogears, the Xenosaga series) & Takahiro Yamada (Ehrgeiz, GaoGaiGar's Zonder Robos) are nice, sleek, & really stick true to Yoshitomi's heavy use of curved surfaces & relative lack of right angles.

In another similarity to Mashimo's series, a very memorable part of Eat-Man '98 is the music. While most people give tons of credit in the original anime to Yuki Kajiura, who would go on to create an iconic career in anime music, people shouldn't forget the involvement of EBBY, a long-running guitarist whose only anime work was with Eat-Man. Just like that title, '98's music is the sole anime involvement of Yu Imai, former keyboardist for Japanese rock group Sadistic Mika Band (a.k.a. The Sadistics, Sadistic Yuming Band, & Sadistic Mikaela Band). Imai wasn't alone, though, because he brought in the help of Magic & BLACK CATS, two Japanese rockabilly bands (who were both reaching the ends of their careers). The end result is a soundtrack that has some really nice, subdued, & atmospheric songs, but the best songs of all are the ones that really showcase the genre that the two bands come from. These are the songs that are heavy on guitar & drums and really give off a strong wild west feel to them, showcasing why rockabilly was the genre that gave us the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, & Buddy Holly. There are even a couple of songs that almost sound like they were influenced slightly by some of Kajiura's songs in the original anime. It's a little faint, but if you get the chance compare Kajiura's "Theme" to Imai's "Bolt no Theme II"; it may just be me, but I hear a slight similarity between them, especially in the "verse" 7 & "chorus" portions.

This rockabilly style extends to the vocal themes as well, with Magic doing the opening & ending themes, & BLACK CATS doing an insert theme. The opening is "Burning Blue", Magic's final single, which is a fast-paced & highly enjoyable anthem that, though not quite fitting lyrically, musically fits Eat-Man's world-trekking journeying & wild west-style abandon perfectly. Likewise, ending theme "Tabibito" is a great way to end off an episode of the series, with it's slow yet hard-hitting guitar beat giving off a great way to say "good-bye" to Bolt for the moment. Even though I don't know anything of Magic aside from their work on this anime, looking at "Tabibito" as their final song (it's the second track on the single) makes this sound like a farewell to the band in general, talking about being "Born to be Free, like the wind, like the clouds, like the moon, like the stars." BLACK CATS has a self-titled insert song used only during the climax of episode 3 that is nothing but sheer rockabilly awesomeness. The anime uses the English version that sounds a good bit Engrishy, but the beat, speed, & melodic hook is simply exquisite & the scene it's used in, featuring Bolt & Hard kicking all sorts of ass, is downright bliss. The Japanese version is also quite enjoyable to listen to, as well. Overall, '98's music is a different beast from the original anime's, but it's also one that, like the production as a whole, just fits the style of the original manga best.

The final similarity to bring up from the original anime is the fact that Bolt Crank is reprised by Masashi Ebara, delivering another pitch-perfect & seemingly "born to play" performance. Matching up to him nicely in the only other multi-story reprisal is Hard, who is voiced very nicely by the late Hirotaka Suzuoki. In a funny coincidence, Suzuoki's Hard is an official "fellow mercencary" character for Bolt to relate to, while the original anime had a similar role in the form of MacGuyer Sto from the Professional Courtesy story. Sto was voiced by Ken Narita, who has since become the "official" replacement voice for Suzuoki's characters in Gundam Unicorn, Saint Seiya Omega, & Rurouni Kenshin: New Kyoto Arc due to his similar-sounding voice. Really, all I'm saying is that, should a new Eat-Man anime ever get made & Ebara reprises Bolt, Narita taking Suzuoki's role would be neither surprising nor ill-fitting. Filling in the rest of the roles for each of the stories is a near "all-star" cast involving the likes of Norio Wakamoto (Du Marc), Takehito Koyasu (Marco), Banjou Ginga (Senator Sharif), Kazue Ikura (Vanessa), Yuko Miyamura (Myra), Tessho Genda (President Grant), & Fumihiko Tachiki (President Dykstra), among numerous others.

Interestingly enough, this anime did get an English dub, but it was only for Bye Bye Aimie, a.k.a. the first two episodes. This was similar to what happened with Ehrgeiz & "that military-termed anime I'll (regrettably) get to soon", but at least with Eat-Man '98 this dub tells a self-contained story. Bolt is voiced by David Kaye (Treize in Gundam Wing, Sesshomaru in InuYasha), who actually delivers a very good English counterpart to Ebara's performance. There's a nice melancholic sound to his voice & there's enough of that dry, sarcastic touch to some of his lines that works really well. Aimie is performed by Venus Terzo (Female Ranma in all but the earliest episodes of Ranma 1/2, BlackArachnia in Beast Wars: Transformers), and she does a very admirable job in showcasing the no-nonsense attitude of the character, while giving slight hints to the sad past she once had & seemingly can't escape from. The rest of the cast similarly delivers good performances as well, including Doc Harris (the police captain), Brian Drummond (Detective Axe), Kelly Sheridan (Aimie's roommate Naomi), & Michael and Paul Dobson. Among these short-lived partial dubs that Bandai made in the early DVD/late VHS days, Eat-Man '98 definitely had the best of them all & the fact that none of the cast, outside of David Kaye, would have needed to come back makes it worth watching as its own little production. Still, I would have loved to see the dub continue, if only to hear more of Kaye's Bolt & to see who would have been cast as Hard.

Eat-Man '98 is an anime that I always felt was one of my personal all-time favorites, but having not seen it in just slightly less than 10 years I have wondered if I'll still feel the same about it now, especially after seeing someone like Justin Sevakis be pretty hateful towards it. Well, having re-watched the show, I still really enjoy it, but I will admit that I love it for different reasons than why I love Koichi Mashimo's product. Mashimo's Eat-Man is really cool & worth watching because of how different it is from most anime in general & features a bunch of subtext that can make you want to go back to it multiple times to see what else you can find. In comparison, Eat-Man '98 is admittedly a much more traditional & "normal" anime, which is likely why Justin hates in comparison, but at the same time the stories here are much more fleshed out & feature stronger storytelling, visuals, & overall production value. Watching '98 the first time made me want to read the manga, which went on to become one of my all-time favorites. Honestly, I really love both anime productions for these differing reasons, but I completely understand why someone would enjoy one product yet hate the other. But, if put into a gun-to-the-head "pick one or die!" situation, I'll still have to answer with '98, if only because I love the manga that much. While the old VHS tapes are a little trickier to find, the Bandai DVD release can still be had for relatively cheap. Still, I would certainly love to see a re-release, if only to fix some of Bandai's errors. For example, they mistranslated the last line of the opening as "Futari wa yuku/We'll be together" instead of "Futari Burning Blue/We'll be Burning Blue", there's a wildly mistimed sub in Mega-Mix, and a couple of the next-episode previews feature some visual glitches.

Anyway, Eat-Man has always been one of the best manga I have ever read, and the two anime adaptations are both very much worth checking out, if only because of how different they are from each other. Today is perfect timing for this review to be published, because today is the debut of Yoshitomi's return to Bolt Crank, Eat-Man: The Main Dish, in Kodansha's Monthly Shonen Sirius. Here's hoping The Main Dish gets some sort of simul-publish over at CrunchyRoll, the "Complete Edition" re-release of the original manga gets licensed (preferably by the likes of Kodansha USA or Vertical), and one day both anime productions get licensed rescued. I can only pray that this can be the start of new things for the World's Greatest Mercenary, Bolt Crank.

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