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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Matchless Raijin-Oh "Season 2": Truly an "Honorable Brave"

Previously in the Matchless Raijin-Oh Review:
"Matchless Raijin-Oh is simply a joy of a mech anime to watch, and it's nothing short of astonishing that Anime Midstream has been able to keep releasing DVDs of it... Here's hoping that the change to sub-only will only result in an accelerated release rate for "Season 2" once Volume 6 comes out, and hopefully this company won't simply disappear into the aether afterwards."
Well, this was faster than expected. Last November I held the second ever Mecha Month on the blog, and I started with a review of the first half of Anime Midstream's release of Raijin-Oh, partially because the do-it-yourself English dub was ending with Volume 5 & partially because I had no idea when the entire thing would finally get released. Now, just barely over a year later, I am holding the third Mecha Month here & I'm starting once again with the Earth Defense Class. Yeah, that's right, this past September Anime Midstream finished their release of this anime by putting the second half, all 26 episodes, into a 5-disc complete collection.

I hope no one put actual money down against this show ever being fully released over here.

The title splash doesn't change, so here's an eyecatch featuring the EDC.

It's definitely been a long wait for this moment to finally happen. Hell, I remember reading the initial announcement of Matchless Raijin-Oh's licensing back in December of 2008, six years ago(!), on my relative's computer when I was visiting family in Budapest; yeah, only when I'm in another continent can stuff like this be announced. Anyway, I was familiar with Raijin-Oh only slightly when this news came out, by way of the series being used in Super Robot Wars GC, but due to it's relative obscurity I had never seen any of it before. Naturally, I was excited about this show getting released here in North America, and I pre-ordered every single release as soon as it was scheduled. So, all these years later, there's only one question left to (finally) answer: Did this show meet my expectations & curiosity?

Does "Season 2" start with a giant vacuum monster sucking up all of the animals in the African Sahara? (... The answer is "Yes")

The battle between the Eldoran-powered Earth Defense Class & the Jaku Empire has reached the point where one mech vs. one Jaku Beast isn't enough anymore. Class 5-3 now have access to Bakuryu-Oh, a dragon robot that Maria & the command center control, and when combined with Ken-Oh, Juu-Oh, & Hou-Oh can create the almighty God Raijin-Oh. Belzeb, Felzeb, & Taida, however, now have access to Jaku Satan, a crystal mech that can not only fight alongside the Jaku Beasts that form from the strewn about Akudama but also combine with them to create Super Jaku Beasts. Unfortunately for the Jaku Empire's generals, however, their constant failure to defeat the EDC & conquer Earth is slowly angering Jaku Emperor Warusa. With the threat of being considered expendable imminent, Belzeb, Felzeb, & Taida decide to make finally identifying their opposition & locating their base a priority.

Yes, that's a giant little girl fighting a giant monster... What of it?

One of the best things about Raijin-Oh's first half was the sheer imagination that was showcased in each & every episode, and that aspect of the show is still in full force in the second half; in fact, it's even stronger in "Season 2". As I mentioned just before, episode 26 has Jin, Kouji, & Asuka go to the African Sahara to take on a Jaku Beast that formed over there that looks like a giant vacuum. Naturally, it sucks up as many wild animals as it can. Other zany & imaginative examples include a TV monster that traps Raijin-Oh in a world of television where our heroes are unable to properly attack the Jaku Satan, a Super Jaku Beast based on a haunted house, & even one that's an overzealous hero of justice that causes destruction in its wake; I don't dare spoil any more. It's no doubt silly stuff, and the show knows it, but it's the sheer embracing of everything that works in the show's favor.

The idea of having some episodes put focus on a member of the EDC is also maintained for the second half, and it's still just as enjoyable as it was in the first 25 episodes. In general they don't make any real dent in terms of the overall story, but seeing episodes that have Akira try to take on a Jaku Beast on his own to prove his worth, Yoppa wanting to impress his eccentric plane-loving grandfather by stealing the Raijin Commander, or the class trying to help push their teacher Mr. Shinoda & nurse Ms. Himeki together just help give identities to all of these characters. It makes all of them feel like actual kids that you could see exist in the world, and knowing that they're the ones in charge of protecting the Earth from the Jaku Empire is cool. The villains don't tend to get much development, but the second half does give them more to work with, especially in the last three DVDs. For example, Felzeb (the fairy-like being that lives in Belzeb's chest) actually gets an episode where she's sent out to find Raijin-Oh, but after getting lost in town she ends up hiding in Jin's hair; she ends up messing with Jin by making him think he has psychic powers. It's nothing much, but considering how Felzeb was the least seen & heard of the three villains it was nice to see some sort of personality from her in this episode. Episodes in the 40s even have them show some smart thinking to find out where the EDC base is, like kidnapping Kouji & Cookie or having Jaku Satan hover above the town & see where the robots launch from.

The subtle character development is actually one part of a larger aspect of Raijin-Oh: Paying attention to the little things. You may not notice it at first, but this show actually has a good number of things that either pay special attention to detail or keep a consistency when it comes to continuity. For example, as the story goes on the school year advances, and in the second half we see the fall & winter seasons. Instead of simply having the kids wear the same exact clothes they had in the first half, the animators gave all of the kids more stuff to wear. Jin dons a red shirt over his usual yellow one, Akira ditches his sleeveless vest for long sleeves, & Asuka, Maria, & Akira (among others) wear jackets to go with the colder weather. True, a lot of them still wear really short pants, but at least there is some sort of changing in terms of how you see the characters; most shows of this type have the characters wear just one set of clothes for the entire run. Even the stock footage has minor changes depending on the situation, like Bakuryu-Oh's launch sequence either showing the other classes in session or having empty classrooms depending on when it's launched. Sunrise could have cheapened out & went with some easy (or lazy) choices, but they instead decided to keep the sense that this is an actual world that the story is taking place in. Sometimes it's the little things that matter most, and in Raijin-Oh's case it's at least one of them.

All of these things add up to showcase one of Raijin-Oh's best qualities, which is its smart writing. Titles like this that are aimed at very young audiences are sometimes criticized for dumbing things down & playing too much with escapism for the young'uns. For example, other shows will play up how smart the kids are while making most (if not all) of the adults come off as idiots, but the adults of Hinobori aren't like that. Mr. Shinoda is the caring, if easily agitated, homeroom teacher who truly looks out for the well being of his students, even being completely ready & willing to help his students out if needed. The same also goes for Ms. Himeki & Principal Yazawa, and all three of these characters have their own personalities & come off just as relatable as the kids. For other adults we see regular people living their lives, guys who get drunk watching a New Years-themed Jaku Beast who's initially harmless & playful, and while the EDC are always the one's who save the day the adults help out in their own minor ways. Jin's parents in particular help make a shift in hero/villain dynamics at the end simply by being kind & caring people. Likewise, there are obviously lessons to be learned by the kids in just about every episode, but it's rarely (if ever) outright stated to the viewer; the creators hope that kids are smart enough to realize these things themselves. Finally, it doesn't demonize things like smoking or graffiti, but rather focuses on side effects of them, like not disposing of cigarette buts properly or defacing property. Series composer Hideki Sonoda & co-writer Fumihiko Shimo deserve a lot of credit for tackling a title like this in such a smart way.

Belzeb SMASH!!!

The staff saw no changes between halves, but it's worth celebrating them again. While he made his directorial debut with 1987 OVA Dead Heat (the first ever 3D anime), Raijin-Oh marked the series directorial debut for Toshifumi Kawase, who had sharpened his teeth on 80s Sunrise anime like Jushin Liger, Samurai Troopers, & both Gundam series of the decade (Zeta & ZZ). For a larger debut work Kawase helmed an overall excellent production & there's a very good chance of this show being the one that he'll be most recognized for in the future; not a knock on his later work, but rather he debuted extremely strong. Akira Takeuchi's character designs are simple but highly appealing, and he took no shortcuts when it came to the children of the Earth Defense Class. In such a large group of kids, not one of them look similar; all 18 are distinctly identifiable characters. On a highly personal opinion, too, I must say that I greatly prefer the new outfit Belzeb was given when Warusa gave him Jaku Satan. The original outfit was a cool, suave look, but there's just something to his later, medieval Japanese-influenced outfit that just looks much better. Takahiro Yamada's Jaku Beast designs are still very entertaining & varied, but there's a lot to like with his three main recurring mechs. Raijin-Oh has a great look to it, featuring a bit of an homage to Kunio Okawara in the general design, and Bakuryu-Oh looks impressive too, especially when in dragon form. As for Jaku Satan, it's actually really sleek in its crystal-styled design; a great use of simplicity winning over excessive detail. The music by Kouhei Tanaka is especially noteworthy. As the man behind the music of so many iconic anime of their time, Tanaka doesn't hold back at all for Raijin-Oh. Whether it's the lackadaisical theme of the children before & after their conflict for the episode, the bombastic battles between the EDC & the Jaku Beasts, or simply the coming glory of the combination sequence of God Raijin-Oh, every song in this show is superb.

[Also, on a sound-related bit of trivia, Jaku Satan's summoning sequence ends with two sound effects for when Taida & Belzeb (& Felzeb) teleport in; astute GaoGaiGar fans will immediately recognize the two sounds as those of the G Stone & J Stone powers being activated.]

The opening & ending themes don't change whatsoever throughout the show, but there are new insert songs that I talk about. Episode 45 is essentially a recap episode done in the form of a celebration of how awesome the EDC is via a TV special, followed by Belzeb hacking the signal to show moments when he's on top. The entire second half of the episode has Jin encouraging everyone to sing in order to cheer on Raijin-Oh, followed by Belzeb & Taida singing back in retaliation. It's completely absurd, and an absolutely blatant bit of promotion for music CDs that were coming out at the time, but luckily the songs are great & the episode wallows in how silly it all is. It was also directed by a young production supervisor named Goro Taniguchi, who would go on to create Code Geass; Taniguchi supposedly researched actual schools for this show. Anyway, first there's "Otoko ga Moeru Hinobori Kaikyou" by Rica Matsumoto (as Jin), an enka song that's appropriately self-praising & fitting for Jin. The second one is "Bokura no Hero・Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh" by Rica Matsumoto (who sings in her own voice here), which is easily the best of the lot & could have easily fit during any battle in the show. Finally, there's "Rival Ouenka・Jaku Teikoku VS Chikyuu Boueigumi", which is literally the ending theme but this time featuring a new first verse sung by Belzeb, Felzeb, & Taida as an actual singing battle against the EDC; it's ridiculous but very entertaining.

Emperor Warusa really is similar to God Mars' Zuul, isn't he?

The Japanese voice cast is still the same as it ever was, with Rica Matsumoto doing a really fun job with her debut role as Jin Hyuga. Likewise, Mari Maruta (one of the few seiyuu who only has one role in this show) & Rie Iwatsubo keep up nicely as Kouji & Asuka, with Iwatsubo also doing a cute job with Cookie (one of the youngest EDC kids). The winner for "most roles done by a single person in Raijin-Oh", though, is Kozo Shioya; his main role is EDC kid Daisuke, but he also voices a few minor human characters as well as numerous Jaku Beasts. In the "Season 1" review I did bring up how You Yoshimura voiced Taida for most of the show. Sadly, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage while the show was airing, with episode 38 being his last (at least that episode saw Taida pilot a copy of Jaku Satan, giving him a nice send-off). His replacement for the rest of the show was Mahito Tsujimura (Konoemon Konoe in Negima!, Gogen in Arc the Lad), who delivers a similarly nasal-sounding performance but with a much deeper voice. It's easily noticeable how different Taida sounds in these last 13 episodes, but it's still a really good performance. Also, I never noticed it until this change, but whoever voiced Taida also voiced the Akudama that formed each Jaku Beast, so Tsujimura's take on the Akudama give them a deeper, slightly more eerie voice. Finally, Emperor Warusa was performed by Shigezou Sasaoka (Mazinger in God Mazinger, Slum King in Violence Jack), who has a great "evil overlord" voice & he delivers superbly when he finally decides to enter the fight himself in the finale.

Anime Midstream's move from St. Louis to the Houston area meant that the English dub was no more, and there is a complete lack of extras in this "Season 2" collection, which is sad to see. The closest thing we get is a special message from the company hidden behind the Volume 6 DVD that thanks all those who supported them, talks about the influence Raijin-Oh had on mech anime at the time, and hopes that anime fans will continue to support them in the future, indicating that they aren't going anywhere. Unfortunately, one extra that I wish Midstream would have tried including was the original pilot dub that was made back in the 90s. Midstream founder Jimmy Taylor brought it up back when ANNCast interviewed him in 2010 & the special message mentions it, but this show was originally pitched for American television under the name Rocket Kidz (with a "z" because it was the 90s). This dub apparently featured some of the usual names of the era, like Barbara Goodson & Michael Reynolds (who was specifically cast in Midstream's dub as the Secretary of Defense to maintain continuity), but was seemingly never aired; it ended up being nothing more than a proof-of-concept that likely only lasted an episode or two. Sadly, this dub was never included as an extra, even though Taylor & the others admittedly used that dub as an influence for their dub. Here's hoping that if Midstream ever does the Raijin-Oh OVAs they might try including that original dub there. On a final note, though, Genki Bakuhatsu Ganbaruger, the successor to Raijin-Oh, did see a complete English dub for Cartoon Network Philippines under the Rocket Kidz name.

For the longest time that I've known of it, Matchless Raijin-Oh seemed like one of those anime that I was interested in checking out but likely would never actually get the chance to do so. Anime Midstream sounded like a bunch of crazy people when they announced that they had licensed this show, but I was on board as soon as I saw the announcement on that computer in Budapest. Thankfully, this show lived up to the hopes I had for it by being tons of fun & filled with an abundance of imagination. Not just that, but I was pleased with how much it focused on making all of the main characters seem like actual kids. I've always heard that, of the three entries in the Eldoran Series, Raijin-Oh was the one that focused most on character development, and that's absolute truth. Sure, almost the entire show was monster-of-the-week (only the last six episodes really have a strong linear narrative linking them, plus another few episodes in the middle), but this is an example of that formula being done very well. Each Jaku Beast was different from the ones that came before it, and every episode offered something different enough from the previous to keep it from feeling stale. Also, the three-episode climax was insanely well done, putting a final note on everything the show stood for. There's good reason why this show is considered the best in the Eldoran Series and was the sole entry from that to be included in Shin Seiki Yuusha Taisen, a game made to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of cousin franchise the Brave Series; it's essentially an "Honorary Brave". Yes, it's obviously made for young children, but is just such a joy to watch that it appeals to all ages, which is awesome.

Right now buying the entire show over at Right Stuf would cost around $150, which is a bit up there in price, admittedly. Well, with the winter season coming up, maybe TRSI can work with Anime Midstream & get a complete series bundle for the annual holiday sale. Remember, Shawne & Jimmy... If you bundle it, they will buy.

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