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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Eat-Man: Oh, You Both Have Layers, Oh... You Know, Not Everybody Like Onions

Want to a know an easy way to make me giddy like a schoolgirl? No? Too bad, because I'm going to reveal it anyway:

This image came about this past February in that month's issue of Kodansha's Shonen Sirius magazine, and though they were purposefully coy about what it was about ("Taberu Otoko"... Yeah, really subtle) I was estatic: Akihito Yoshitomi's Eat-Man was coming back. First, starting March 26, chapters of the original manga were added to Nico Nico through Wednesday Sirius. Second, the manga would be given a "Complete Edition"/kanzenban (you know, the really classy re-release type) release that would compile the 19 volumes into 10; the first two books were released this past Friday. Finally, on May 26, Yoshitomi will debut a brand new manga named Eat-Man: The Main Dish. While I have enjoyed Yoshitomi's other works like Ray, some of Blue Drop, and what little I could read of the short-lived Tsurebito, none could top his biggest work. One of my absolute favorite manga of all time, I've mentioned Eat-Man on rare occasion on the blog before, but I've never really gone into much detail about it... I should change that.

Now say "AAH-kihito"....

While I won't be reviewing the manga itself, as I'm hoping the new Complete Edition release might prompt a license rescue (come on, Kodansha USA or Vertical!), I can certainly review the two anime adaptations it received. Debuting in Media Works' now-defunct Monthly Comic Dengeki GAO! (home of titles like +Anima, Those Who Hunt Elves, & Sorcerer Hunters) back in 1996, Eat-Man had to have been a nigh-instant hit because it wasn't even a year old when it received an anime adaptation. Literally, the first volume of the manga came out in December of 1996 & the first episode of the anime aired on January 9, 1997 at 25:45 (which is technically January 10 at 1:45 AM). Not only was this title given one of the shortest manga debut-to-anime debut waits in history but this was actually the second-ever "modern day" late-night anime (a topic I talked about a couple of years ago), also making it an important part of anime history. So, when the anime debuts so quickly after the manga did, how does one handle the adaptation? Well, in this case, it's by making it almost nothing like said original manga... But don't mistake this lack of accuracy for a lack of quality.

Eat-Man in general has been about episodic stories involving main character Bolt Crank, the "World Greatest Mercenary" who can eat inorganic matter & reproduce it from his body, making a synopsis kind of pointless, and in this regard the original anime is accurate in style to the original manga. In this anime we get 12 different stories, each featuring a different "guest character", one for each episode. Glass Walls has Bolt meet Culene Garbo, a fellow mercenary, who is offered a job to kill the local mafia boss; Culene is unsure of what to do, though, because mercenaries aren't assassins. In We Who Are About to Die Bolt is hired to assist Alessa Ropert, a biologist, in retrieving information from an island where genetic testing was once done to create new breeds of creatures. Room of Promises sees Bolt hired to retrieve a seemingly "cursed" painting, but Anina, the supposed heir of the painting & the hotel it resides in, has made it impossible for the last 12 mercenaries to do the job. Professional Courtesy is about Bolt being hired to rescue MacGuyer Sto, a mercenary who accepted a job to kill the leader of the nation that has been fighting against Sto's clients, with the life of one of the town's women, Justine, being used as "payment". In After the Rain Bolt is taken in by Donna, a dancer who dreams of one day making it big, but is presently stuck in a strip club. Ending the first half of the show is The Gene Window, where Bolt is hired by demolition expert Lilly Swanson to help her retrieve a memento from her late father, who worked in genetics.

The second half begins with The Lure of the Grave (The Cemetery of Temptation on the official subs), in which Cyril Dew, priestess of a church that worships Vishnu, invites Bolt to help her out with her wavering faith. Silence of the Icicles (or Ice Pillar, according to the subs) features Bolt being hired by Grifeld, warden of Zagard Prison, to help find out the truth behind whether or not intelligence agent Tatianna Kozuirev should be executed for treason; it's obvious that Tatianna is hiding the truth, but exactly what it is is what Bolt has to figure out. In High and Dry in the Sky/The High, Lonely Sky Bolt is hired by Lucas the Demolisher to help him get to an abandoned airship that's on a crash course with his hometown, a job that could likely kill him. A Piece of a Dream/Fragments of a Dream has Bolt hired by Major Mardi Gertz to act as a bodyguard during her return to her country's capital, where she will be awarded a medal. Unfortunately, she might just be an unknowing pawn in a game of wartime politics. Paradise is the penultimate episode, which has Bolt wind up injured on a "perfect" island & in the care of Dr. Jessica. The two wind up having feelings for each other, but Death herself wants to split them up. Finally, the anime ends with Endless Tomorrows, which is the only episode to continue off of the previous episode, where a now-retired Bolt begrudgingly accepts the job of Latacia, a shipmaker who wants help in finding out why the Lavion, an airship that was wrecked on its maiden voyage, has never crashed. The Lavion in particular appears in nearly every episode, seemingly following Bolt around.

I'll get to how different this anime is from the original manga in a moment, but first let's see how it's similar. Much like the original manga, and as one can surmise from the overview above, the focus is not on an overarching storyline but rather the many "adventures" Bolt Crank goes on. Now, to be fair, the manga does feature some longer stories that take up more than one chapter (as well as one multi-volume story arc & a standalone story that takes up an entire volume), but overall the anime is accurate in this regard. Also, the anime does handle some of Bolt Crank's general characterizations accurately, especially the enigmatic nature of the man. All you know about Bolt throughout this anime is that he has that "metal-munching" power of his, he's the apparent best in the business, and his past (& even future) is completely unknown. Finally, just to be fair, the anime does maintain the manga's world currency of "lido", so there's that, too.

Unfortunately, for fans of Yoshitomi's original work, that's where the similarities end, especially when it comes to Bolt himself. In the original manga Bolt was a man of little emotion & mainly showed his feelings through his actions & words; he wasn't Duke Togo-levels of unemotional, but it was rare to see Bolt show big facial emotion. In comparison, the Bolt in this anime, while not always doing the opposite, does show more emotion than usual. A lot of shots, for seemingly no reason at all, showcase Bolt doing this (admittedly kind of creepy) open-mouthed smile, but even without that does show numerous other emotions at times. Again, he's still enigmatic & prefers to stick to his usually blank face, but it's still a noticeable change from the manga. Also, the Bolt in this anime is kind of a more ruthless & self-loathing man. Though he does state at times that mercenaries are not "hit men", he actually kills someone in one story that he was technically hired to kill. Also, in a couple of other stories Bolt even kills people outside of his mission, something that the original manga version of the character would never do. Now, to be fair, those latter kills do have thematic relevance to the stories they happen in, but it's just such an out-of-character thing to see from Bolt. This take on Bolt also "quits" being a mercenary in the last two episodes, making him feel like he's had no self-worth up until that time. Again, this tends to work well with how the anime works thematically, but it's such a 180 from the original manga, where Bolt shows no regret in how he spends his life & simply "exists". Naturally, some of these changes can be slightly forgiven due to the fact that so little of the manga existed when this anime was made, but at the same time enough of these changes affect the way the character operates from a general perspective.

Still, though it seems easy to dismiss this anime because of the inaccuracy, there is just so much to like about it, especially if you like your anime with some nice hidden depth. Even if he isn't accurate to his original style, the Bolt Crank in this anime is still such a magnetic force, both for the stories being told as well as for the viewer. He carries every story, even if he's not much more than a bystander in the grand scheme of things, and he still carries that sense of uncertainty to him; you can't really predict what he'll do next. The real meat of this anime, though, comes from the subject matter & wealth of subtext that each story has. One could simply watch any of these stories, follow them from a surface glace, and feel satisfied with what's been told, but those who look even just a little deeper will find really nice & subtle inner conflicts going on. For example, Glass Walls is named such because the city the story takes place in is surrounded by a series of giant shards of glass. No one knows where they came from & no one bothers to find out why, simply because that's how it has always been. High & Dry in the Sky, when you really look at it, is as much about how a man like Lucas lives out what could likely be his last days as it is about saving the town from destruction. Professional Courtesy & A Piece of a Dream both delve into the problems of war outside of the battles, while The Lure of the Grave can be seen either as a look at how faith works for different people or even as a critique about cults. It's likely that these deductions are simply my own & can be interpreted by others in different ways; an old review of the first VHS over at ANN mentioned how Glass Walls featured existential symbolism. This Eat-Man anime is very much a show of many faces, and it's possible for multiple people to relate to the same story in completely different ways.

That said, the execution of the anime itself can also be seen as flawed. Since this was the second ever "modern day" late-night anime it obviously had an extremely limited animation budget... And it shows. There's very little action to this series, which kind of clashes with the concept of a man like Bolt Crank, and when action is shown it's mostly left to a minimum & will rely on your own imagination to fill in the blanks. Also, the show is very, very heavy on utilizing both panning shots as well as still shots with easily-repeatable animation cycles. The most egregious example of this is in The Gene Window, which both begins & ends with an animation cycle of a silhouetted girl slowly running against a white background with some flower petals falling; this cycle goes on for 1.5 minutes both times, totaling a literal 1/8 of the episode's runtime! Finally, when all is said & done, very little actually happens in all of these stories. By pruning some of the panning shots, & fine-tuning some of the dialogue and pacing slightly, one could easily tell nearly every episode in a half-episode/12 minute time frame. Plus, the ends of some stories are purposefully left vague & unanswered, allowing the viewer to decide what happened. Again, though, this is going to come down to personal experiences, as while one person might see these episodes as dragging on & accomplishing little others will see stories that are filled with tons of atmosphere. Seriously, each episode is outright oozing with some sort of atmosphere to it, and the relaxed pace can very well fool you into not realizing how much time has actually passed. Fitting amazingly with this sense of atmosphere is a relatively minor change to Bolt from the original manga: Changing the color of his glasses from black to red. The anime utilizes the red shades to great effect, putting Bolt into dark & shadowy spots, where the only thing one can see are the shades, with seemingly gleeful abandon.

While most people tend to refer to this anime as Eat-Man '97, due to the naming of the later series, while re-watching the show for this review I have decided to use a much more fitting moniker: Koichi Mashimo's Eat-Man. Yes, the man behind the "Girls With Guns Trilogy" of Noir, Madlax, & El Cazador de la Bruja and director of almost every anime entry of the .hack franchise, Tsubasa: RESERVior CHRoNiCLE, & The Irresponsible Captain Tylor was the man behind this anime... And, dare I say it, this might be his most personal anime production. Watching each episode really gives off the strong feeling that Bolt himself isn't really needed in any of these stories. This is blatantly obvious to be nothing more than a series of stories & ideas that Mashimo had in his mind & likely always wanted to tell in one way or another, but wasn't able to on his own. It's very likely that Mashimo saw what Yoshitomi created with Bolt Crank & thought "Hey, I can use this character to tell these stories of mine!", and went after the rights to adapt Eat-Man into anime. Adding Bolt & his power simply required a few concessions & alterations to what Mashimo likely originally had planned, but one could easily see Bolt replaced by an original character who has a similar in-world pedigree & these stories wouldn't have lost anything in the process. To be fair, though, these stories are really engrossing & Mashimo does stick true to Bolt's original character at times, with High & Dry in the Sky feeling the closest like the original manga. The fact that Mashimo not only directed this anime but was also the series composer, personally wrote the first & last episodes, & even did the storyboards himself for 1/3 of the show really showcases how personal this entire production must have been for him. Thankfully, it helps make the anime work even more, because you can feel the passion Mashimo must have put into it.

Not once does the actual Bolt Crank make a freaky face like this

Assisting Mashimo with the writing was the trio of Akemi Omode (Android Kikaider, GetBackers), Aya Matsui (Marmalade Boy, Dr. Slump Movies 6-9), & Atsuhiro Tomioka (Samurai 7, Ray the Animation), who all worked well in maintaining the atmosphere & mood each episode delivers. The character designs by Toshiharu Murata (Hellsing TV, Xenogears' animated cutscenes) aren't exactly similar to Yoshitomi's original artwork, even against his simpler art style from the 90s, but still works very well here; Bolt is still easily identifiable & all of the characters look nice and feature a fine variety of styles. After the writing, though, the most identifiable part of this anime is the music, which is an interesting case of using two different composers, in this case EBBY & Yuki Kajiura. Each person delivers a very different style to the anime, with EBBY (a longstanding Japanese guitarist who marks his sole anime work here) utilizing a lot of tunes that are heavy on mood, while Kajiura (who made her OST-composing debut with this anime & would go on to work with Mashimo multiple times) goes for a stronger synthesized sound with a heavy experimental feel. Even when EBBY goes slow there's simply a lot of emotion in his songs, & his rock-themed products are simply intense as all hell, but Kajiura manages to keep up by making each song she makes sound downright atmospheric; you could close your eyes & imagine complete environments with her music. Considering that Yuki Kajiura would go on to become one of the most celebrated anime music composers in history, with some even calling her Yoko Kanno's "rival", this should come as no surprise. In fact, it might be some of her best work, even to this day. The opening theme, which infamously plays to nothing but a credit list with some wipe transitions, is "Chiisana Koi no Melody" by Kinniku Shojo-tai, or King-Show for short. Simply put, this song is downright madness & not only feels out of place with this anime but Eat-Man in general; it was obviously only used to promote King-Show. Still, it's insanely memorable, with completely absurd lyrics & singer Kenji Ohtsuki screaming his heart out with absolute passion; in a nice touch, though, Ohtsuki dresses like (manga-accurate) Bolt in the music video. The ending theme, "Walk This Way" by FIELDS (also to a credit scroll), almost pales in comparison to the opening theme, but overall it's still a nice, jazzy song that fits the mood of the anime slightly better.

Considering that each episode is its own story there's only one real vocal performance to really talk about, which is Bolt Crank, performed by Masashi Ebara. Quite honestly, even if this anime's portrayal of Bolt was 100% incorrect to the original manga, instead of being only 50% accurate (at most), the one thing I would state as being "quintessentially Bolt" is Ebara's performance. He just absolutely nails the character down perfectly, almost as if Ebara was Bolt himself in a previous life or something like that. The blunt matter of speaking, the dry humor, the static emotional delivery, and even the Mashimo-altered moments of intense emotion are all delivered with such absoluteness that I can't picture Bolt having any other voice ever; Masashi Ebara is Bolt Crank. To give credit where it's due, though, the rest of the cast tend to do very good performances, as well, even if they only have one episode each. Those getting their chances to shine include Aya Hisakawa (Culene Garbo), Ken Narita (Sto), Mika Doi (Tatianna), & Wataru Takagi (Lucas), among many others.

Koichi Mashimo's Eat-Man is, if nothing else, a truly one-of-a-kind anime. There certainly have been anime before that were adaptations to their original manga in name only, but I don't think any other truly executes that kind of change, while still keeping a small bit of the original to heart, quite like this show. Normally, I don't think this anime would have likely ever been licensed for North American release, but (luckily) got this anime as part of a big package deal with d-rights, which included titles like Next Senki Ehrgeiz, Haunted Junction, and a certain military-termed anime that shall not be named (don't worry... I'll be getting to it soon enough). This is an anime that actually challenges the viewer to an extent and works very well when it comes to multiple viewings; you could very well pick up on a thematic element you might have missed the first time. AnimeVillage gave this a go via clamshelled VHS tapes, which are now tough to find, & when they became Bandai Entertainment they gave it another go on VHS, which are much easier to find. Still, there's a tape or two out there that's getting a little pricey now; there is no DVD release in North America. Since then the show received a Japanese DVD release in 2001 & a fansub was made using the French DVD release, wrongfully assuming that the show had never been licensed for English release before. While not exactly a popular anime with fans of the original manga, this Eat-Man still captured an audience to an extent & in 2005 actually ranked 75th on a "Top 100 Animation" nation-wide survey done by TV Asahi that was aired on television, slotting in right after The Rose of Versailles... Not bad.

After the end credits of the last episode was a splash image revealing that this anime was actually only meant to be the end of the "Lavion Chapter", indicating that Koichi Mashimo likely had even more stories in mind to tell with his take on Bolt Crank; this splash image doesn't appear in the fansub. Unfortunately, the Eat-Man anime that would appear the following year would be accurate to the manga to please fans, but the year after that Mashimo got his wish granted in a different way. In April of 1999 Dengeki Bunko published Eat-Man: Koroshi no Idenshi/The Killing Gene, a Mashimo-penned 274-page short novel that took place in the world he created back in 1997, featuring some sketches done by Toshiharu Murata. While I do own a copy of this book, which is technically categorized as a "novel" & not a "light novel", I can say that Bolt does don his Mashimo-approved red shades once again (as shown via the cover above), and the story seems to be told from the perspective of episode 1's guest character Culene Garbo. It's a shame that I'll likely never be able to read this story, but I'm sure it was kind of a quaint way for Mashimo to say good-bye to Bolt. Akihito Yoshitomi himself even drew an image of Bolt, Culene, & the Lavion for the end of the novel, essentially giving a "seal of approval" to the work. Hey, even if the anime & novel are stylistically different from the original manga, if the original creator himself is okay with it then I'm fine with it existing, too... But, then again, I already really liked this anime in the first place.

"Only someone who's eaten iron while crying can know what adventure really tastes like."
Hmmm, maybe Mashimo knew Eat-Man more than anyone gives him credit for.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. It's rare to see someone familiar with the manga give the first Eat-Man TV series such fair treatment in spite of how wildly it deviated from the source material. I personally love it because of the mood evoked by Mashimo's directing and how he was not afraid to put his own spin on Bolt Crank. And how great is his final line in the last episode?