This is a special occasion here on The Land of Obscuion, & not just because it's Christmas Eve. No, this is a special review because this wasn't entirely my idea; in fact, I've been (kind of) requested to cover this anime. See, for the first time ever I a part of a giant Anime Secret Santa that's headed up by blogging duo the Reverse Thieves, with this being the sixth time they've ever done it. The concept is that anyone who writes about anime can send in their name, site, & some sort of list of watched anime (MyAnimeList being the most common), and the Thieves randomly assign each writer to recommend three titles to another writer; obviously, this is all under supreme secrecy. The titles have to be something that the "victim" has never watched in full, is at most 26 episodes long (movies & OVAs are also fair game), & has to seem like something the "victim" will most likely enjoy in some fashion. Each writer has to choose one title from the list each of them receive, watch it, & then review it in time for Christmas Eve; some do choose to cover all three. After all the reviews come out the Thieves then reveal who everyone's Secret Santa was. I've thought about being a part of this fun idea, but never did so until this year, so what titles were on my Secret Santa's request list?
Well, it was certainly a list that involved titles that I had some interest in, or at least became interested in. The first choice was C: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control (known only as [C] - Control over here), a 2011 noitaminA series directed by Kenji Nakamura, whose work I covered only a couple of months ago via Ayakashi: Goblin Cat & Mononoke. I saw the first episode back when it aired & was interested, but I decided to not make it my choice for this review; I might cover it at a later date, though. The second choice was Heat Guy J, the 2002-2003 series that gained infamy here in North America for how much Geneon hoped that it would be the next big hit. It did see airtime on MTV2, of all places, but it was only the first half & in a seemingly-random order. That is how I saw the show years back, however, so I decided to not choose that, either; maybe one day I'll watch all of it, as I hear it's even better in the second half. So that leaves the final choice I was given, and it was the perfect one for this blog. I had never seen it before, it was pretty obscure (even though it did see a release over here by Geneon), & I knew very little about it beforehand.
Ladies & Gentlemen... Black Heaven!
Kacho-Oji - HARD ROCK save the SPACE was a 13-episode TV series than ran from July to October of 1999 & was the brainchild of Hiroki Hayashi, the man who created Battle Athletes, El-Hazard, & the original Tenchi Muyo!. Pioneer Entertainment released it in North America during 2000-2001 under the name The Legend of Black Heaven, but when Geneon re-released it as a complete collection in 2005 they put the advertising towards one particular person, character designer Kazuto Nakazawa. By then Nakazawa had directed two short animations that were given tons of critical acclaim outside of Japan: The Origin of O-Ren, "Chapter Three" of Quentin Tarantino's stylish 2003 action movie Kill Bill, & the music video for Linkin Park's 2004 song "Breaking the Habit". With that bit of promotional trivia out of the way, let's see if Jack from Beneath the Tangles did the right thing by recommending this show to me.
Oji Tanaka is a simple assistant section chief who's married & has a young son... And his life is pretty bland. Every day feels boring & pointless, his job is always the same, & his wife Yoshiko is quick to throw away his one main hobby: Hard rock music. One day, however, his job gains a new employee in Layla Yuki, the same day Yoshiko threw away Oji's "Flying V" (the last guitar he had, and his favorite). Trying to drown himself into a drunken stupor that night, Layla comes up to him & promises to "take him to Heaven". That night he's able to rock out on a guitar just like his Flying V & the experience is simply euphoric. He soon finds out that Layla is actually a humanoid alien who has come to Earth to rely on Oji's guitar skills, because back in the day he was known as Gabriel Tanaka, the frontman of the band Black Heaven. Layla's race is in the middle of intergalactic war & his sound is able to power up the forces to defeat the enemy. Once it becomes obvious that Oji can't do it himself, though, he decides that it's time to bring the band back together.
Simply put, Legend of Black Heaven is anime for hard rock aficionados. Normally, this is a line I would put at the end of my review, but it has to be stated right away in this case, because there's no going around this factoid. While he is a family man who works for his wife & child, Oji feels most at home & consistently alive when he's playing guitar, and this is showcased almost immediately & to strong effect. In the first episode he's essentially a broken man, taken beyond the limit when he realizes that he won't ever see his Flying V again; he even goes to the dump that same night in a vain attempt to find it. Layla needing Oji's sweet licks results in him not only being happy, but also becoming a better man in general. He shows more caring & love to Yoshiko & there's even an episode where he tries to spend the day with son, Gen. Still, Oji comes off as having a drug-like dependency to rocking out, as he is willing to outright drop life in a second to play; he even ditches Gen on his own when he was supposed to look out for him! Oji is honestly very similar to Basara Nekki from Macross 7, as both put their music first & foremost over anything else, though at least Oji isn't a jerk about it, like Basara can be at times. There's an overarching story of Oji becoming a more complete man through this ordeal, and it's neat to see it feel more like rehab in some ways than simple glorification. Once Oji finally realizes that he's not being used for his music but rather his "sound", he has to change the reason he's helping Layla out, similar to how someone in rehab has to find new reasons to go on.
On the other hand, it's not like Oji's family exactly made his life easier, either. Gen is your usual young boy, loving the animated Super Sentai-analogue he watches on TV & acting out his imagination, even if it results in him playing with his father's precious vinyl collection. The development between Oji & Gen is dealt with fairly early, but it works really nicely. Yoshiko, though, is far more worse in this regard, made all the harsher when it's visually indicated early on (& much later admitted) that she & Oji got together partially because she was a Black Heaven groupie. She has no real care for anything related to Oji's hobby, calling his vinyl collection "trash", throwing out every guitar he owned, disposed of his amp years ago, & simply couldn't care less about what gives Oji life; she debuts really damn selfish, honestly. When the neighbors start seeing Oji hang out with Layla more, they start gossiping that the two are having an affair, making Yoshiko wonder if that was even possible for Oji to do. Luckily, Yoshiko does have her good points, as well. When push comes to shove she does showcase strong love & affection for Oji, and her worries of there being an affair come off more like she simply doesn't want to lose her husband, who she loves intensely, than anything selfish or egotistical. Yoshiko is a heavily flawed personality, yes, but that was obviously the intent. In an odd, and seemingly realistic fashion, Oji & Yoshiko make a great couple, and when one makes a dumb choice in life you do feel for the other.
The aliens that need Oji also have their own personalities & interpersonal issues to deal with, as well. Layla has a real appreciation for Oji's skills, as they are what saves them during battle, but she has strong opposition to this method of battle by Formalhaut, a general who wants his army's victories to be due to the power of their own strength and not by the mysterious power that a mere human has; he eventually learns to accept the need for Oji, but would much prefer something more reliable. Hamill is the lead scientist of the crew & she takes a strong affection for the science behind Oji's "power". She's easily the most interesting of the three due to the fact that she'll go to any lengths, even falsely seducing Oji, just to see what the results of such experiments yield; she's not evil by any means, but she's willing to go to those lengths for science. Then there's Layla's three subordinates, Kotoko, Eriko, & Rinko... Who are essentially this anime's equivalent of the Three Stooges. These three are silly, hopeless, & a little pathetic, but are completely lovable & any scene with the three of them are simply a joy to watch.
The idea of reuniting Black Heaven doesn't come into play until the second half, but it helps showcase the split between the days of youth, when dreams kept you going, & the reality of life, where you have to consider abandoning those very dreams. It doesn't take much for Oji to convince most of his bandmates to help him in the battle, but the fact that all of them have jobs, wives, & even children make it harder for them to be willing to simply drop any of that to help out, like Oji can be willing to do. Still, the band gets together & the second half puts much more focus on the sci-fi war aspect of the story, complete with the nameless alien enemy figuring out what Black Heaven can do & creating its own "power"... And, yes, the final battle is essentially a simultaneous "Battle of the Bands". While the rehab feeling is still in effect, especially with the strain between Oji & Yoshiko, the climax is hard-hitting, powerful, &, most importantly, definitively, & unequivocally, ROCK. Sure, you can be nitpicky & bring up how it's slightly contrived (just a bit), ridiculous, & the epilogue cuts away too quickly... But I'll be damned if it wasn't true to the passion, feeling, & "groove" of rock.
Black Heaven was part of what was a new movement in anime at the time, and that was the digital revolution. It's obvious from the first image that this show was animated completely via computer, with traditional animation only being indicated in specific moments & only for stylistic purposes. On the one hand, this does result in the show aging slightly better in some ways, mainly in the sense that it still looks pretty slick & nice today, 15 years later. Unfortunately, the then-new technology does showcase itself often, mainly when it comes to things like panning & movement of inorganic things like vehicles. There's a very stiff sense of movement with these, making it obvious that these things were moved by a computer program commanding where & when to move. Oddly enough, this even is noticeable with some character motion, like a hand moving into frame or even the odd use of fading to close a mouth; these are rare instances, though (the latter in only one scene). Aside from that, though, the show animates very nicely, and, though it definitely utilizes a fair bit of limited animation techniques, when its at its best Black Heaven looks great; the last episode in particular looks spectacular. Hell, even the use of CG for the alien spaceships holds up really well. As a co-production between AIC & A.P.P.P., it's really well done & even works as a positive showcase of the early days of digital animation. If I had to knock anything here, it would probably be the OP footage. Headed up by Shinji Hashimoto, who would later do the OP for Sci-Fi HARRY, his style does fit the rock image well but his fashion of rough animation just didn't sit well with me. It worked perfectly for HARRY's eerie & creepy vibe, but here Hashimoto's vision just freaked me out in the wrong ways, but that's just me.
The show was directed by Yasuhito Kikuchi (Busou Shinki, Infinite Stratos), who lead a very well done production & was able to keep the mix of laid back rock rehab & embracing of rock culture at an excellent level. Series composer Naruhisa Arakawa (Kingdom, Blue Seed) must be a rock fan himself, because the show's writing sometimes felt like a giant love letter to the genre. The general mood of the characters, willingness to self-deprecate, & the various shout-outs to legends like Dio, Frank Zappa, & Michael Schenker (who is specifically called a "God" in the show) just feel like it was written by people who know their stuff. Hell, every episode title is actually a song title, referencing bands like Aerosmith, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Rainbow, & Van Morrison, among many others. Not just that, but there's a ton of humor, both subtle & blatant, that just works perfectly here. Kazuto Nakazawa's character designs work very well for this show, making the Black Heaven members look appropriately old & "has-been", while still giving them a chance to redeem themselves, while Layla's race look very sleek & "spacey" (though still human). Geneon giving Nakazawa such focus on their complete collection cover is pushing it, though, as the show (extremely) rarely goes into the style of animation that Nakazawa became renowned for. I also want to give credit to Gorou Murata (Kannazuki no Miko), whose mechanical designs for the alien ships looked great; they're a big part of the reason for why the CG still holds up well.
Finally, there's the music, and for a show about rock it had to be perfect. Thankfully, Koichi Korenaga (Love Hina, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040) did an astounding job here. From fast-paced licks to slow & strong ballads to even more eclectic beats, Korenaga's soundtrack was outstanding. It was so solid that nearly every song felt like it was the instrumental version of an actual vocal song. Black Heaven's music is not a simple anime soundtrack, but rather could have been released as a standalone instrumental album (without the show even having been made) and it still would have rocked hard. The music even broke national barriers by including two tracks by international artists. The opening theme is "Cautionary Warning" by John Sykes, who has worked with the likes of Thin Lizzy, Blue Murder, & is most known for his work with Whitesnake (he co-wrote most of the band's self-titled album with David Coverdale); he's also had a successful solo career. Sykes' song is a fast-paced trip that rocks hard with some of the best out there, and the OP footage apparently even rotoscoped footage from one of his performances (which likely explains why I was freaked out by it). The song is so awesome that Korenaga made an instrumental arrangement that Oji & the band plays repeatedly against the enemy forces, and it never gets old. The other "foreign" song is "Into the Arena" by The Michael Schenker Group, which is used in episode 12 (which is named after the song) when Black Heaven is getting ready for the final battle, and it fits like a glove for setting the mood. These two songs alone make the ending theme, "Yappari Onna no Hoga Iiya" by Riyu Konaka, pale in comparison, even though it's a fun little (non-rock) jam on its own accord that I slowly grew to really like. Anyway, Black Heaven needed great music to properly sell its feel & mood, and it did so beautifully.
The voice cast for both the original Japanese & the English dub do a great job for this show, and since there are only a few major characters I'll cover them simultaneously. Leading the cast are Kouji Ishii (Taiga in GaoGaiGar) & Beau Billingslea (Jet in Cowboy Bebop) as Oji, and both give the character a much deeper voice than you would initially imagine. You quickly adjust to their voices, tough, and both did an excellent job; Ishii gives Oji some strong passion, while Billingslea gives him soul. Layla is portrayed by Miho Yamada (Atosuryua in Banner of the Stars) & Diva West (Ayuko in Dual!), both of which make the character inherently likable & easy to relate to. Yoshiko is voiced by Kae Araki (Felicia in Darkstalkers) & Michelle Ruff (Yoko in Gurren Lagann), and both of them nearly steal the show with their performances; either one makes it hard to hate Yoshiko for the way she tries to abandon her rock past. Another strong performance was by Rica Fukami (Sailor Venus in the original Sailor Moon) & Mary McGlynn (Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell [everything after the original movie]), with each making Hamill a true science-first thinker who simply wants solid, hard truth via results, nothing more. The Japanese version is rounded out by the likes of Jouji Nakata (Formalhaut), Rikako Aikawa (Gen), & Atsuko Enomoto, Ayako Kawasumi, & Miwa Yanagihara (Kotoko, Rinko, & Eriko, respectively), who also do splendid performances. The English dub also features Ian Hawk (Gen), Steve Bulen (Formalhaut), & Marie Downing, Bambi Darro, & Sherry Lynn (the Stoogettes). Finally, Cowboy Bebop fans will also notice one-episode cameos by Billingslea's old co-stars Wendee Lee, Melissa Fahn, & Steve Blum. In fact, not only does Billingslea get to do his own "Bang!" moment in this show, with completely different context here, but he also voices the big black man who kicks the ever living hell out of Blum's cameo character! Brownie points for that, no doubt.
The Legend of Black Heaven was certainly an interesting title for me to check out, but I sure as hell had a fun time doing so. As a fan of rock I loved the various references & the sensation that the story felt like both a second chance for Oji as well as little bit of rehab for his obvious rock addiction was really clever. There's no denying that the show is intensely quirky, however, especially when you get to the last few episodes, but I happen to really enjoy stuff that's quirky. This was a title that I knew of only by name before getting involved with this Anime Secret Santa business, and even then it was only barely, so I purposefully wanted to know as little about it upon watching it; I didn't even check out the OP beforehand, which I do sometimes. I think that helped all the more, honestly, because while I will admit that this won't go down as an all-time anime classic of the 90s, it is certainly worthy of being called a true "hidden gem". A couple of the old Pioneer singles are starting to go up price a fair bit, but the Geneon collection can still be found for a good price, especially on eBay. While I can't guarantee that I'll be involved in the Reverse Thieves' Anime Secret Santa program next year, as I always consider myself poor at actually recommending stuff, I definitely had a fun time for my first one, so thank you Jack. Hopefully your Secret Santa gave you something cool, as well.