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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Pachislo Kizoku Gin: Much Like the Reels, My Finger Will Stop Time

When people think about gambling, especially casino games, one of the first thoughts will be about slot machines, those games of chance where one inserts some coins, pulls a level, & hopes to hit a jackpot. In Japan, however, traditional slot machines are illegal due to the country making gambling illegal, not to mention the more or less random nature of the game. In place of that is Japanese slots, also known as pashislo (a.k.a. pachisuro, a.k.a. pachislot, a.k.a. pachinko slot), where tokens are used in place of actual currency, winnings are traded in for prizes & snacks (though there's always a shady booth outside of a parlor or game center to cash those in for actual money), and a trio of buttons are used by the player to stop each of the three reels. Combine all of this with some stringent rules & regulations and pachislo gives the allure of actually relying on skills (even if mostly illusory) & is big business in its home country. Part of the continued appeal in pachislo (& its pinball-influenced cousin, pachinko) is the fact that, since the start of the new millenium, it has become the secondary home of many licensed properties, including anime & manga.


If you can name a popular anime or manga, even if it hasn't seen anything recent via film or print, then there's a big chance that there's some sort of "pachi" machine based on it. Rokudenashi BLUES, Aquarion, Code Geass, Saint Seiya, Ashita no Joe... Hell, it doesn't even need to be anime or manga, as there are literally pachi-machines based on people & stuff like Elvis, Koda Kumi, or even Knight Rider! In fact, some machines with original concepts have even been adapted into anime, like Battle Girls - Time Paradox, Yoshimune, Bakumatsu Gijinden Roman, or Rio Rainbow Gate!. So, to modify the gambler's fallacy slightly, shouldn't that mean that there's anime & manga about playing these things? Well the answer is yes, and I'm not talking about something like the second half of Kaiji: Against All Odds, where the lead character goes up against the pachinko machine from Hell, or the amusingly large number of pachislo & pachinko manga that's out there. Rather, I'm talking about an utterly forgotten anime called Pachislo Kizoku Gin, or Slot Noble Gin, as the official English title translation says. While there was a short manga that ran alongside it, as pictured above, the main attraction was a 23-episode, late-night TV anime that ran throughout 2001 on Fuji TV. To my knowledge, this is the sole anime about playing pachislo that has ever been made, & I didn't even know it existed until last June, when Lynzee Lamb included it in her list of "6 Obscure Anime Series Lost in Time" over at ANN. Since then I managed to actually buy the Japanese R2 DVD boxset from Amazon Japan for a shockingly cheap price, ~$40 (including shipping!), so let's see if I gambled my money well on this show about pachislo & the "slotters" that play them.


Ginya Otonashi dreams of one day becoming a novelist, but for the time being works part-time as a journalist for a pachislo magazine, even though Ginya isn't exactly too interested in the game. He's told by his editor Hino to find the best slotter in Japan so that he can do an exposé, but not knowing where to start Ginya winds up at the local bar he frequents, where his on-again/off-again girlfriend Yuri works part-time. Bar owner Dai Shibaura, a former pachislo maker, decides to let Ginya in on a big secret & takes him to an underground parking lot, the elevator in which leads to the Slosseum, a secret organization where people can compete against each other in pachislo. The goal of any Slosseum slotter is to advance up the ranks, from rankless to Knight to General to King, in order to earn the right to go up against the Ultimate King, Ryo Daiba. Shibaura brought Ginya along because he sees potential in Ginya's visual acuity, as he can even stop a pinwheel on the exact color he wants. By giving it a try, Ginya not only becomes more interested in playing pachislo but gains the attention of Daiba. With the goal of fighting Daiba in mind, Ginya will move his way up the ranks in the Slosseum, but by becoming more involved in pachislo he'll also dig up, & have to put closure to, his old childhood memories of his real father, Kojirou Shinbashi, a pachislo maker who left his family behind & was never seen again.

Though created by a company called Kids Media, or maybe because of the company's name, just from reading the synopsis for Pachislo Kizoku Gin one would instantly think that it's the adult-aimed equivalent to a childrens' gaming anime, like Cardfight!! Vanguard, Beyblade, or Yu-Gi-Oh!... And that conclusion isn't too far off base. In numerous ways, Gin does operate on a similar formula as those titles. Ginya continually takes on tougher opponents in pachislo matches, first in 4-6 person groups and then 1-on-1 once he reaches Knight rank, and the various opponents showcase different ways of playing pachislo. An early one, for example, relies on distraction & slight mind games. This also applies towards the major characters. For example, Ginya works with his visual acuity & relies on the chances of reaching renchan, or repeat bonus rounds, while Shunichi Oumi, a local doctor, listens for how his machine is sounding, as if reading a heartbeat or various vital signs, before going in big. Even people who aren't part of the Slosseum utilize various methods of play, like a pianist who plays as if she's at her piano or a boxer who relies on quick button presses, as if he was delivering quick jabs. While one can obviously question the reliability of some of these ways of playing pachislo in real life, it at least keeps the various games from feeling repetitive, and this applies even more in the second half.

She's only in one episode, but she really makes it count

For whatever reason, once Ginya reaches Knight rank the opposition not only becomes tougher, but also wackier. It starts off simple with a military-influenced guy who's easily defeated, but then we get a flamboyant, effeminate man who relies solely on fate & mysticism, making me think that the monk from an episode in the first half, who relied on prayer & chanting, was normal. But then afterwards we get Annie Kisaragi, a fusion of Annie Oakley & Cutie Honey... I am dead serious. She dresses like a cowboy, has a holster for tokens instead of a gun, & when she throws away her hat, revealing herself to be a woman, she shouts "Annie Flash!"; to be quite honest, she's my favorite of Ginya's opponents. We also get a punk-styled dummer who plays with his sticks, a data-loving professor, the seeming love child of Jackie Chan & Bruce Lee, and a few others. This is very similar to the various kind of themed characters seen in those gaming anime meant for children and, to be quite honest, it's cool to see a title like this still have fun with itself. Ginya's reactions to them are usually in the form of slight confusion, so it's obvious that the people behind the show were just playing around & going all out. This is really something the show needed to do, because otherwise the pachislo matches would be pretty boring; there's only so much you can do with stopping reels on a slot machine, after all.

Now if Gin was all about the pachislo matches themselves then I could accept it for what it is, but the real heart of the show is that it's actually more of a character drama, with pachislo mainly being the unifying link between people. A quarter into the show, Gin comes across a photo showing a younger Shibaura, and when he asks the bar "master" about it he's shown a picture of Ginya as a little boy, alongside his mother, Sakura, & father, Kojirou Shinbashi. This sets up the middle portion of the show, which is about Ginya having to come to grips with the fact that his father is indeed alive, and trying to understand why he left his family & didn't even bother to visit his wife when she was on her death bed; Ginya & his sister Mai were raised by their aunt & uncle afterwards (which is where their last name of Otonashi comes from). Alongside this is Ginya slowly finding out more about Ryo Daiba, including his own sad past involving a friend who ended up dying (with a smile) due to his obsession with pachislo. Daiba took up the game first as a means of revenge against what killed his friend before changing his reason to playing in his memory. What links Ginya & Daiba together is the Yozakura #1 pachislo machine, which was co-designed by Shibaura & Shinbashi as well as being the machine that Daiba's friend was tinkering with before his death; Daiba has said machine in his collection. While Daiba is more or less done with his demons, though his dedication to the game in his friend's honor has resulted in his own body weakening (complete with blurred vision & fainting spells), Ginya makes it his mission to find out where his father is & try to figure out why he left everyone, all the while still competing in the Slosseum in order to make it to Daiba. While the subplot with his father doesn't quite end the way most people would assume, it still gives enough closure in its own, subtle way.


There's also a strong focus on developing the relationship between Ginya & Yuri, especially when pachislo becomes more involved in Ginya's life. At first, their budding relationship is made rocky, especially when Ginya essentially stands up Yuri in the second episode by making it to his Slosseum match instead of meeting her for a date. The first half even has a slight love triangle between Ginya, Yuri, & Oumi (a self-assured playboy), made all the stronger when Yuri starts going out with Oumi on a couple of occasions. In the end, though, Yuri more or less uses Oumi to learn pachislo in an attempt to see what made Ginya more interested in the game, showcasing strong affection for our lead. In fact, Yuri kind of accepts a lot of rough goings from Ginya, especially when he blatantly hides what he's really doing, since it's a secret organization, and even effectively stands her up a second time in the second half after new rules are introduced in his match, ruining his original plans. Luckily for him, though, Yuri actually waits for him for an insane amount of time; she's that dedicated to him.

That being said, it's easy to find all sorts of stories about people who become too obsessed with something like slots, or gambling in general, and elements of that do come into play in Pachislo Kizoku Gin. In the second half we're introduced to Aoi Murasame, owner of the Slosseum & Daiba's love interest. She's highly dedicated to Daiba on a personal level, but as it becomes more obvious that Daiba can only continue playing pachislo for so long due to his weakening condition, she starts being put behind the goal of fighting Ginya when it comes to Daiba's focus. Similarly, Ginya slowly showcases hints of this as the story advances, and while Aoi is willing to stick by her man throughout it all, even if it wrecks her emotionally, Yuri has a distinct breaking point that gets passed right before the final match. There are other indications of pachislo being something that hurts as much as pleases, such as the two episodes involving the boxer, Ryu Kasamatsu, as he takes up pachislo as a way to avoid facing the shame he felt when he suffered a car accident after becoming national champion, as it affected his abilities on a mental level. Granted, the show is still about pachislo, so it never really goes too far in demonizing the game & the way it can affect players, though Ginya sometimes comes off a little like an idiot for choosing a game over a woman who cares for him & the ending is shockingly, almost depressingly, bittersweet, but I'm going to chalk all of that up to a sense of romanticizing than anything else. Still, it's nice to see the anime actually go in that direction to some extent & not just come off as saying "Yes! Play pachislo now!"


In fact, it's kind of shocking that Gin doesn't play up the fact that it had backing from Aruze (now a part of Universal Entertainment, the company behind arcade classic Mr. Do!), as it doesn't feature any actual machines from the company. Instead, the small handful of machines showcased are apparently only inspired by actual Aruze machines. Also, this was made more or less just before licensed properties were utilized for pachislo & pachinko, not to mention predating the advancement of utilizing video screens & semi-storytelling (though there is one machine later on that hints at this advancement). Instead, the machines shown here are pretty generic in theme, like "Dragon", "Fire Box", "Magiclot", or (most amusingly) "Robotec". In the end, the anime is more about the people playing these machines & their own personal problems that it is about actually playing pachislo. While there are the silly & wacky characters, this is very much an adult-oriented production, so much so that it could have easily been made as a live-action J-Drama. The fact that it's an anime instead, however, is a positive in my book, as it gives it an identity all its own.

This anime marks the one & only time an entire anime production was headed up A-Line, a subsidiary of Actas (Mazinkaiser SKL, Girls under Panzer). Aside from apparently doing the last three episodes of éX-Driver, Pachislo Kizoku Gin is A-Line's sole time in the limelight, and has since been nothing more than an assistance studio, helping out with things like in-betweening, digital painting, & key animating. Taking that into consideration, it's not surprising that Gin isn't exactly a looker, even for its time. The first three episodes especially have a pretty rough time, with some awkward faces being drawn in particular. After that bumpy beginning, however, A-Line seems to find its groove & the show slowly gets better & better from a visual perspective. Sure, overall the show never truly rises far beyond above-average, and characters' eyes still have the occasional problem when you really look at it, but I can definitely say that I've seen shows with much worse animation. If anything, the problems arise more from the fact that A-Line doesn't try to rely on highly limited animation, i.e. the studio tries to animate things as much as it can, but it's obvious that a full TV production is just a bit too much for this studio. At the very least, A-Line is still around to this day, so I can give the studio credit for being ambitious for its sole leading production; it may have been beyond the studio's full capability, but at least it tried to be more. I will also give credit to the last six or seven episodes, however, which all looked nice & showed the potential of the studio the most.


Leading the staff was Hidehito Ueda (Fuma no Kojirou, episodes 100-131 of Toriko), who keeps the show operating just fine without any real problems, aside from the limitations of the studio itself I just mentioned. Much like Toshifumi Kawase, Ueda is another director who's consistently good & reliable in that position, but simply has never really had an product that can be considered iconic. This show has an interesting situation when it comes to the series composition/head writer position, because it had two people in that spot, with the first only heading up a small portion of episodes; another show I reviewed that had a similar situation was Sci-Fi HARRY. In charge of the first six episodes was the late Hiroyuki Hoshiyama, who headed up the scripts for many Sunrise mech anime & was the creator of Round Vernian Vifam. The rest of the show was headed up by Tsunehisa Ito, who helped Ryosuke Takahashi conceive the story for Blue Comet SPT Layzner. While I doubt this was due to the separate influence of these two men, Hoshiyama's episodes were all more focused on the pachislo & having Ginya see the various ways of playing the game, while the story almost immediately became focused on the character drama once Ito came into charge. Overall, the lack of subtitles made certain parts close to impossible for me to properly understand, like when Ginya gives a rousing speech to Annie Kisaragi that's so encouraging that the spectators all stand & applaud, but what I could understand was well written & both played up the more zany elements of the Slosseum as well as the more serious & focused dramatic elements.

The characters were all designed by Junichi Hayama (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVAs, Votoms Finder), and while the show doesn't always adapt Hayama's 80s-influenced "manly" style, it still helps give the show a striking visual look; Hayama's original drawings for the characters are also just excellent. The music is done by the tag team of Cher Watanabe & Makoto Takou, both of which are people who anime fans might not know by name but may have some familiarity with their work. Watanabe has done composition & arrangement for many excellent anime themes, like "Hustle Muscle" (Kinnikuman II-Sei), "Hello Darwin! ~Kokushin on Demand~" (Sgt. Frog), & "Gou-ing! Going! My Soul!!" (Digimon Savers), and has also done the soundtracks for anime like The Prince of Tennis (both the National Tournament OVAs & New), Maken-Ki!, & Onegai My Melody. Takou was originally the lead vocalist for the band The Permanents, who did the song "Ai no Muscle" for Kinnikuman II-Sei, before doing writing, composing, & arrangement on image & character songs for anime like Konjiki no Gash Bell!! & Digimon Frontier; he's also done the soundtrack for the Princess Resurrection OVA. Overall, Watanabe & Takou's music for Gin is very good, utilizing a mix of rock, blues, big beat, & even a little ska, helping give everything both a down-to-earth feel as well as a real sense of grandiosity. The opening theme, "Ajisai" by SHUUBI, is a superb song that just feels very subdued while also sounding grand & celebratory of what the future may hold. The first ending theme, "Heart Breaker" by Brikin Hotel, is a great counterpart to the OP by being a blues/rock mix that makes for an excellent downer for those who may be easy to excite & enthuse. The second ending theme, "SALT,SAX,OCTOPUS" by BLAW JOB SILVER (greatest Engrish band name ever), is a fast-paced & energetic ska song that actually works very well as a match to the final battle that's upcoming, giving everything a sense of urgency to it; a shame that it's only used for five episodes at the end.

Seriously, Hayama is an excellent artist

The major cast is a small one, but it's notable for both relying on smaller name seiyuu as well as just being well done. Ginya is voiced by Kousuke Toriumi (Imaizumi in Yowamushi Pedal, Kiba in Naruto), and he's probably the best performance in the anime, giving the lead a great, casual style as well as being very passionate & emotional when needed. Daiba is performed by Yasunori Masutani (Guan Yu in Dynasty Warriors, Sanjuro in .hack), who tends to stay very calm, cool, & collected throughout the show, making the moments of weakness & determination later on feel all the more important. Machiko Toyoshima (Kuina in One Piece, Ms. Machiko in Kaidan Restaurant) voices Yuri, helping give the character some nice emotion that the viewer can help relate to, especially when she's forced to choose between Ginya & her own dreams. Oumi can be both a very serious characters as well as the oddest of the major characters, so it's nice to see Kenji Nojima (Masaki in Time of Eve, Mamoru/Tuxedo Mask in Sailor Moon Crystal) being able to deliver on both fronts. The rest of the major cast is filled out by Kinryuu Arimoto (Shibaura) & Yurika Hino (Aoi), who both do good jobs as well, with the various opponents Ginya faced being voiced by the likes of Michiko Neya (Annie Kisaragi), Toru Ohkawa (Ryu Kasamatsu), Takahiro Sakurai (drummer Ken Hayashi), & Jouji Yanami (Prof. Hajime Kasai), who is also given a quick spoken reference to Yatterman's Boyacky, who Yanami also voiced.


Pachislo Kizoku Gin is definitely an oddity among gaming anime, and that's probably its greatest strength. While pachislo has been referenced in anime & is, in general, strongly linked to the medium nowadays, this anime came right before that link was strengthened, and by actually being about pachislo it makes it completely different from its contemporaries, which are merely based on pachislo machines. In a lot of ways it works like an adult-oriented take on the stuff that's used to hook little children into buying things like toys & card games, but at the same time the anime does actually showcase the darker side of pachislo & the ways people can be sucked into obsession. The ending that comes after the final match between Ginya & Daiba is, seriously, one of the most shockingly bittersweet that I've seen in anime, and it definitely is a great example of how this show may have started off a bit rough, but it only improved as it went on. The final match itself is much more than simply two men playing pachislo for hours on end, too. This is a series that I do wish was more available to older anime fans in general, though the DVDs aren't exactly expensive to import, & while it will likely never happen I would gladly re-watch this entire thing if it had English subtitles of some sort. If I ended up enjoying this one as much as I did "raw", imagine how much more I'd like it once I fully understand everything that's being said.

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