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Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Winter Sols-tice Part 4: Lost Galaxies

As I mentioned in Part 1, there are some titles I decided not to cover for The Winter Sols-tice. For Dear Brother & Creamy Mami, it's because they have both been completely funded & will see complete DVD releases (I helped fund all three sets of the former). For Black Jack TV, there are two sets already funded, but there's a fair chance that it will likely get fully subbed over at Anime Sols anyway, as there are only five episodes left to stream. As for Hurricane Polymar, the show got fully subbed & streamed due to the attempt of funding a complete series boxset, so at that point I would rather just do a complete review for the show if I wanted to cover it. The same applies to the 24 Hour TV Specials, which were 90-minute movies made by Tezuka Pro for 24 Hour Television, Japan's biggest telethon; any of those specials would warrant its own review. So, after removing those from the list, I am now down to just three titles to try out from Anime Sols. One was announced shortly before the site launched in May of 2013, another was a surprise inclusion alongside the launch, & the third is an oddity that clashes with what Anime Sols is all about. Let's finish this!

Blue Blink
In 1989 the unthinkable happened when Osamu Tezuka, the "God of Manga", passed away. A true workaholic who wanted nothing more than to continue making manga, his last words were essentially "Please, let me work!", the loss of Tezuka was something that simply could not be measured. When he passed away his last anime was finishing pre-production, and that would be the 39-episode Blue Blink. Based on the Russian animated film Konyok Gorbunok/The Humpbacked Horse by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, which itself was based on Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov's fairy tale The Little Humpbacked Horse, 1989-1990's Blue Blink was technically directed by Seitaro Hara (Temple the Balloonist), but Osamu Tezuka was credited as "Chief Director" posthumously. Admittedly, it being the last anime Tezuka ever worked on tends to be the most notoriety this series has, but let's see if the first three episodes feature the charm that the "God" was known for at times.

The story begins with Departing for Far, Far Away, where young Kakeru Haruhiko is visiting his father Shiki, a famous story writer. On the way a giant blue ball crashes in a nearby lake, and when the two take care of it it reveals itself to be a "lightning beast", like those Shiki wrote about. The young foal, named Blink, is soon recovered by his gigantic mother after she misunderstands Kakeru's motives & tries to fight him off. Meanwhile, Shiki is kidnapped by Emperor Gros, the villain of his very own story; turns out that Gros is real & somehow Shiki's stories were in fact revealing all of Gros' secrets. Kakeru & Blink chase after him & wind up in Viridian Town, ruled by Prince Horo, who refuses to let storm clouds pass. After that is The Secret of Grey Ranch, where Kakeru & Blink come across the owner of said ranch, which is where Horo said Shiki was taken to. Kakeru is told to work there for free for three months to get his father back, but the secret behind the ranch, which involves flattened cows, might change all of that. This preview ends with A Prisoner at Rose House, where Kakeru decides to take on the materialistic & vain Princess Kirara's "Seven-Part Quiz" in an attempt to win back Shiki.

I've stated before that Tezuka was known for being bizarre, but Blue Blink makes me realize that I knew absolutely nothing. I am not familiar with Ivanov-Vano's film (which actually was done twice by him) or Yershov's original story, but I still wonder if Tezuka out-odded them. While I'm sure that Tezuka hadn't planned on this being his final creation, it still feels like he conceived this to be like a giant example of his sheer imagination at work. Seriously, just re-read those episode synopses, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Giant lighting beast horses? A Comix Zone-esque concept of a writer being abducted by his own work, half a decade before the Sega Geneses cult classic? Flattened cattle?! That's not all of it, either, but this is definitely a "see it to believe it" show. Kakeru & Blink are helped out by Tanba, who drives a bus that can travel on the "Dimensional Highway", along with Nitch & Satch, two "sneak thieves" who also travel on Tanba's bus & plan on eventually selling Blink for big money; Kirara also joins them after seeing the beauty of nature. There's a real sense of grand adventure in just these three episodes, and it makes you curious about what other zany things are waiting. This could very well be Osamu Tezuka's most bizarre children's work ever, but at the same time you feel that it only could have been conceived by Tezuka. Nowadays if one was to pitch a show like this they'd be denied simply because of how weird it can be, but at the end of his life Tezuka could more or less be given a free pass to create whatever the hell he wanted.

That being said, there are some nitpicky things to note, like how Kakeru is literally given courage by Blink in each episode because of how scared or unsure of himself he can be... Yet in episode three Blink decides to give Kakeru courage "just this once". Also, a lot of what happens you just have to accept & move on. There's no explanation for stuff like the Dimensional Highway or what exactly lightning beasts are, nor does it seem like there's any real reason as to how Shiki was able to know what Gros' empire was doing without realizing it (though Gros guesses a psychic link of some sort), and I honestly am guessing that the show never really bothers to explain any of this, or at least bothers to do so in any detailed fashion. To be fair, though, I don't think that's supposed to be the focus, anyway. Blue Blink, in essence, is meant to be nothing more than a crazy, imaginative journey that the viewer goes on alongside Kakeru; it may not make tons of sense, but you really don't care. I actually wouldn't mind owning this on DVD, and I actually now regret never putting any money behind it when it had a drive. Technically, I could watch all of it over at Viki if I wanted to, but I now feel that this show does deserve more than a complete stream that uses crowd-produced subtitles.

Ninja Robot Tobikage
When talking about the kinds of titles Anime Sols could possibly offer on an old ANNCast, Sam Pinansky (the man behind it all) stated that he wanted magical girl shows to be given a chance to thrive, but he also mentioned that mecha would be unlikely due to licensing & the multitude of companies involved. Therefore, it was a really nice surprise to see 1985-1986's Ninja Robot Tobikage be given an attempt via Studio Pierrot when the site launched. When it comes to mech anime of the time, Tobikage is probably in the higher end of the middle ground, i.e. it's not an iconic 80s series, but it's also not completely forgotten; it did see inclusion in the Super Robot Wars franchise twice, after all (the Compact 2 Trilogy/Impact & UX). It also saw television time in some English-speaking territories, including North America, via Cartoon Network during the early-to-mid 90s under the name Ninja Robots, but said dub has essentially become forgotten. So let's check out the beginning of this show & see if it can rise to the instantly lovable concept of ninja & robots mixing together.

Joe Maya's adventure begins with The Opened Door, where our laid back & resistant lead ends up on the run when he neglects to attend the soldier aptitude test that all 16 year olds have to take on the Martian penal colony. He & his friends Mike and Rennie all wind up getting involved in a battle between two different alien species, the Zaboom & Rodorio. The introduction continues in Encounters with the Unknown, where Joe & the others get abducted by the Rodorio, who Joe inadvertently helped out. Joe wants to help them simply to spite the Martian government, but Mike isn't so willing to do the same. Rennie, on the other hand, is getting jealous from the attempts at flirting Joe does with the alien's princess. The beginning of the story finishes up via The Wounded Princess, when said princess, Romina, gets captured by the Martian government. Joe agrees to rescue her, deciding to completely commit treason & go against his government.

While I can't vouch for how Anime Sols calculates it, nor if it actually amounts to much considering the small numbers the site likely sees, it should mean something that Ninja Robot Tobikage is #3 on the site's "Most Popular" listing. As I mentioned, the very concept behind the show, mixing together robots with elements on ninja lore, is simply appealing from a core, visceral stance; the show having an awesome OP just adds to that feel (even the English OP tried doing a take on it). Thankfully, the first three episodes don't simply rely on its concept & actually fleshes itself out nicely. Joe's general attitude isn't really original for the mech genre, but his dedication to doing what he wants, and his steadfast conviction to be himself, is still fun & makes him enjoyable to watch. Rennie's jealousy easily sets up the obvious love triangle between herself, Joe, & Romina, and luckily she isn't a complete tsundere about it. She doesn't admit her love for Joe, but her rough attitude towards him only comes about when Joe's being rude. The show also actually bothers to establish that aliens from another sol system wouldn't actually speak the same "Terran" language as us, even having Joe & the Rodorians be unable to properly speak with each other until episode 3, when auto translators are properly tuned to "Terran wavelength"; it's a small detail, but allows some good visual expression.

The Martian government, lead by Commander Hazard Pasha & his second-in-command Dog Tack (got to love those names, right?), also makes Tobikage's central conflict more than a simple war by adding in a third party. Hazard simply wants to utilize the Zaboom & Rodorio technologies to strengthen his own army, with dreams of larger things in mind, and his slimy evilness makes for enough of a difference from the Zaboom forces that you get curious as to how this three-way conflict plays out. Simply enough, you come to watch Ninja Robot Tobikage for the ninja-styled robot action, which is done very well & more than enough of an appeal, but you stay because the characters actually play their roles much better than you'd expect. I did put money down for the first DVD set of this show blindly because of the concept, which actually offered a better value than any other set by covering episodes 1-15 (so that only three sets would be needed), and now that I've tried the show out I am even more disappointed that it failed. Of the first wave of drives, this show actually had some attempt at a last-minute push before failing, and I think that is proof that Tobikage should be given a second try. It even had a review of its first seven episodes done over at ANN, which sadly didn't do much to put it into the minds of anine fans. Yes, there are some odd inconsistencies to be had, even within the first three episodes, but the show is simply too fun & enjoyable to let such things feel intrusive.

Really, give Ninja Robot Tobikage a second chance. I mean this towards both Anime Sols, who should try DVD sets for it again, as well as anime fans in general.

Magical Emi
Every title that has been on Anime Sols has had some sort of funding drive to go with it, whether it's been for DVD sets or simply streaming. There is one exception to this rule, however, and that is Star Magician Magical Emi. Originally running for 38 episodes during 1985 & 1986, Magical Emi is the third entry in Studio Pierrot's magical girl franchise, and while Sols does offer the first three episodes for streaming there has never been any drive for it at all. So why is the show on the site? Anime Sols tried something different out a few months back by giving fans the opportunity to pre-order a hand-painted, 8.5" PVC figure that Alter Co. Ltd was making for release this past November. It wasn't a drive or anything like that, but rather a simple pre-order offering; you were guaranteed to get the figure no matter what. To help promote the pre-order offer, Sam decided to put the first three episodes up for people to check out the show the figure was based on. Technically, I don't have to cover this show, since it was never on the crowdfunding chopping block in the first place, but if I want to be as "complete" as possible, exceptions notwithstanding, then I might as well check it out if it's being offered. Who knows, maybe it will surprise me like Pastel Yumi did...

The magic is introduced in Mysterious Birth of a Magical Star, where little Mai, grand-daughter of a pair of magicians, comes across Topo, a mirror fairy who only she can see. Since she can see him, Topo gives her a braclet & wand that can grant her any wish she has at the moment. When her grandparents' magic troupe, Magaicarat, is having problems due to Topo's accidental interference (he inhabited a flying squirrel toy), Mai makes a wish & becomes an amazing older magician to help, inspired by her idol, the legendary magician Emily Howell (which also inspires her other name, Emi). Mai's life continues to change in A Magical Debut... Live on TV!, when Japan TV agrees to showcase Magicarat on its variety show, but only if the mysterious girl is there. Unfortunately for Mai, on the same day her family decides to go see a movie. The third episode, His Beloved Boxing, focuses on Shou, who's living with Mai's grandparents. He used to take up magic but now focuses on boxing, though many wonder if his heart's really in it, but when he's needed for a Magicarat show, after accepting a challenge from the boxing club's captain, Shou has to tackle two challenges one after another.

Creamy Mami was a show about a girl who, through magic, becomes a singing idol that gains a fanbase. Magical Emi is a similar concept, except you replace "idol" with "magician". On the one hand, I think it's pretty cool to see a magical girl show actually be about magic, i.e. the kind you would see on a stage show. On the other hand, this concept for a magical girl show relies solely on its lead character & the new persona she takes on via magic... And that's where the show loses me. Mai, quite frankly, didn't give me a good first impression with the first episode, and she only improved slightly across these three episodes. She has a ditziness that's similar to what Yumi had in Pastel Yumi, but where Yumi felt endearing & caring, Mai doesn't give me a similar feeling. A good example would be in episode two, when she has to balance spending time with her father & doing the magic show on TV. Instead of feeling conflicted about trying to please both sides, Mai instead acts like going to the movies with her family is a chore, even asking her mother why, "as a daughter," she has to indulge her father. What kind of attitude is that? There's no conflict of pleasing both sides here, but rather she acts like her family is just an obstacle to get past in this situation. She's much better in episode three, but that bit in the previous episode was just really off-putting. One last (nitpicky) nagging issue I had was simply how Mai received her power. It's not much in the grand scheme of things, but Topo giving Mai magic simply because he does that for anyone who can see him feels like a cop-out. Sure, Yumi getting her magic had really contrived reasoning behind it, but at least it felt like an actual reason compared to Topo's decision.

That being said, there is stuff to like in these episodes. Again, the idea of a magical girl show involving actual magic is pretty quaint; I honestly can't think of another show like Magical Emi in that sense. Also, Shou was a really entertaining character, generally making any scene with him in it enjoyable. Though he shows his dedication to boxing in episode three, I actually am curious as to why he stopped focusing on magic, especially when he showed in the same episode that he still is skilled enough to deliver. Finally, it's simply a very well done show. It's obvious that Studio Pierrot put a lot of effort into its magical girl shows, and this is another bit of proof for that. I can kind of see why Star Magician Magical Emi has its fans, possibly making it the second most-popular entry in the franchise(?), but I can't count myself as being a potential fan. While I would assume that Mai improves as a character, the show just starts off rough for her development, and though there's number of elements that I did like, I just don't see myself wanting to see more of the show, like I am with Pastel Yumi; of course, I'm likely in the minority here. Then again, I'm obviously not the kind of person this show was aimed at, so there. That being said, however, I am all for Anime Sols giving this an actual drive, even if it's just for streaming purposes. More content is king for the site, and I think there might be enough fans out there to give it a chance; they just need to know that the opportunity is out there.
This marks the end of The Winter Sols-tice, and what a ride it's been. To recap, I ended up trying out 17 different anime that are available over at Anime Sols to some extent, all of which but one saw some sort of crowdfunding drive at some point or another. What is my overall feeling on what Sam Pinansky is trying out? Well, it's an admirable effort, to be sure, and I think each show has some sort of appeal to an extent, though some are far & away better than others, but at the same time this catalog isn't the stuff that tends to sell or even get promoted in any way. To be blunt, almost no one cares about TV anime from the earliest days of the medium, mech anime that few have heard of, historically important products, or other "seemingly random crap" that has nearly never been spoken of by North American anime fans.

While I'm all for a site like Anime Sols existing, it's been & will likely always be a hard battle for the site to be known to fans; to this day I still see English-speaking anime fans say "I've never heard of this site before." Also, people tend to be hesitant to support stuff that isn't being done in a way they're familiar with. People have opined that Anime Sols would be much more successful if it utilized Kickstarter, and while that may be true to an extent it I would still argue that it wouldn't be a cure-all; I don't think something like Space Ace or Kerokko Demetan would magically be successes, for example. Also, there are more factors to consider when using something like Kickstarter, or even IndieGoGo, that likely make the Japanese companies involved hesitant to use them. Sam isn't a dummy by any means, he calls himself "Quarkboy" for good reason, so I'm sure that the way Anime Sols operates is likely the best way he could ask for & get a "Yes" to from the Japanese. Could it be improved upon? Oh yes, but unless Sam is able to get more people to work with him on the actual site itself, or even just from a promotional perspective, much of it is next to impossible to do.

Still, I will support Anime Sols as much as I feel I can; this month itself is an example of that. Hurricane Polymar was added to the site because it did well on a survey that the site put up after the initial drives were finishing up, and some of the titles from that survey are shows that I would love to see given a chance. Stuff like the Lion Books OVAs, Sei Jushi Bismark (a.k.a. Saber Rider & the Star Sheriffs), Moeru! Onii-san, Akai Kodan Zillion, Gowapper 5 Godam, the 2005 Black Jack movie, or even the City Hunter TV specials are all titles I would gladly love to see be given a chance on the site. Let's be serious here... Who else would bother giving most of these titles an honest chance here in North America?

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