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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tobira wo Akete vs. Tobira wo Akete: Along Comes a Woman from a Fantastical Dream

Back in December of 2013 I wrote two pieces where I had two pairs of Japanese productions do battle with each other simply because they shared (essentially) the same name. I had the 1997 late-night mech anime Next Senki Ehrgeiz go up against the 1997 3D fighting game Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring, and the 1997 late-night ecchi anime Colorful lock up with the 2010 dramatic anime movie Colorful. It was meant to be a partially absurd concept that was only slightly done with any real sense of seriousness, but since then I've thought about bringing back this "Vs. Battle" concept between same-named products... So here we are now.

In 1981 author Motoko Arai wrote the fantasy novel Tobira wo Akete/Open the Door. In 1986, the novel saw two adaptations made, a single-volume manga by Junko Atou that ran in Hana to Yume magazine & a ~80-minute OVA made by Magic Bus & Kitty Film; it was directed by Keizo Shimizu. That same year saw the foundation of Studio 4°C by Eiko Tanaka & Koji Morimoto, an animation studio that would go on to become one of the most beloved & experimental. The studio wouldn't really make its name known until 1995, however, when it produced two-thirds of the anthology movie Memories, but in that same year Morimoto wrote & directed a 10-minute short that has essentially become forgotten with time, Tobira wo Akete/Open the Door.

Interestingly enough, both anime productions have become hard to get a hold of physically now. Shimizu's OVA originally saw a VHS & LD release, followed by a DVD re-release in 2002, but as of now it's nigh impossible to find any of those for sale; even Yahoo Auctions Japan brings up nothing. Similarly, Morimoto's short has seemingly disappeared as soon as it first came out. It's supposedly included as an extra on the DVD release of Morimoto's 1997 short Noiseman Sound Insect, but I can't verify that, as that DVD itself is pretty rare. Still, both are out there via "other means", including YouTube, with English subtitles. While it may not exactly be fair to have an anime short go up against something around eight times its length, at the same time it's not exactly genius to compare two products simply because they share the same name, with only the way the word "tobira" is written being the sole difference (the kanji 扉 versus the katakana トビラ).

Up above is the good-ol' Tale of the Tape, and the lack of character designer & music producer in the Morimoro short is because none are actually credited. As with the Ehrgeiz & Colorful battles, these two anime will be compared in these categories: Story, Characters, Visuals, Music, Voice Work, & Execution. Unlike the previous battles there is no extraneous category like comparing logos or taglines, as the logos for both productions are purposefully simple & neither have taglines.

Let's get it on!

Tobira wo Akete is about college freshman Miyako Negishi, nicknamed Neko by her classmates, who tends to avoid crowds & keeps to herself when she's not with her friends. She has a secret, however, which is that she has ESP in the form of telekinesis. One night she organizes a meet up between her, her friend Haruka Saiki, and a classmate Keiichiro Yamagishi, as all three have some sort of ESP; Haruka can teleport, for example. Upon the three meeting up, however, they're tossed into a dimensional rift, sending the three into an alternate world; Keiichiro gets split up from them during the rift. Upon going through a giant door, Neko & Haruka wind up in front of a giant crowd, with a hooded man named Radin declaring Neko to be the reincarnation of Neryulla, warrior queen of the Middle Kingdom. Five hundred years ago, the Eastern Kingdom invaded & conquered the Middle Kingdom, killing Neryulla, who promised to return one day. Now Neko has to lead a rebellion against Duran III of the Eastern Kingdom. It's a fun story that continually moves along, and there are even a couple of neat twists to be found at the end, one of which plays around with why exactly a story like this is usually told.

Tobira wo Akete is a simple story about Nonoko, a little girl who has just been told a bedtime story by her mother. She asks her mother to leave the door open so the cat can come in, but once the lights are off she meets a large "fairy" who takes heron a wild & colorful flying journey. The concept is completely fitting for a short story, with its real appeal being in the visuals, which I'll get to later. I think this goes without saying, but it's obvious that the longer production, with a more fleshed out story to tell, wins out here. Yes, it's blatantly unfair... But that's life, I guess.
Winner: OVA

The OVA works best with its characters by keeping the major cast to a strict minimum, and all of them have some sort of easily identifiable & relatable character trait. Neko is the introverted & quiet girl, due to her own sad past (which is brought up in a flashback), who takes a shining to the new world & importance she has as the reincarnation of Neryulla, as it makes her feel needed. Haruka is probably the best character, as he starts off as a vain playboy (sorry, "city boy") who hits on women but can't commit, but as time goes on he starts showing actual feelings for Neko & even utilizes his telportation abilities to act as reconnaissance. Keiichirou is a bit of a third wheel, and that's probably on purpose. His introduction was actually him meeting Haruka for the first time, and his major importance is mainly as Neko's steed, as he can transform into a lion (which fits the Neryulla mythos); I do enjoy how he calls Haruka an "old man", however, without ever stopping.

The fantasy world characters are very simple, but they're easy to work with. La Midin Dimida is the scantily-clad "ogre princess" of a neighboring kingdom who joins up with Neko & the others after battle, and her being a battle freak makes her fun to see. For example, when Haruka tries hitting on her during battle, even putting his hand over her breast, she takes it as him being willing to fight alongside her until death, because battle is all she really knows. There are also Towada & Jii, who are simply dedicated warriors who help out but don't amount to much more, but the final major character is Radin, who is completely, blatantly the villain. I don't feel that this is a spoiler, because from the first moment you see him you get the feeling that he's the villain. Maybe the original novel managed to keep his reveal as the villain hidden, but in the OVA Radin's design is so obviously evil, and some of the stuff he says to himself is so vaguely maniacal that you could tell that he's the villain. Still, he does the job well enough, and his reason for being the villain is an interesting twist on evil overlords.

As for the short, the cast can be counted on a single hand. We have Nonoko, the fairy, & Nonoko's mother (and this last one is completely nebulous). Being a short, it's hard to really give any of them real development, but for what they exist to do they all work out well. Nonoko is appropriately amazed & astounded with all of the vivid imagery she sees, while the fairy is properly mysterious yet trustworthy. Again, it's completely unfair to really compare the two in this case, but I want to cover all of the proper grounds.
Winner: OVA

Now here is a category where the fight is more balanced. Starting with the OVA, it's easy to see why this was released straight to home video, even though it's essentially a movie: It's very standard. Satoshi Dezaki's studio Magic Bus has never been known to be a visually spectacular company, and it does show here. It's not a poor production by any means, and when at its best it looks really nice, but this OVA is, visually, nowhere near the kinds of anime movies that were coming out in 1986. Remember, this is the year that gave us movies like Fist of the North Star, Arion, Ai City, & Castle in the Sky, and Tobira wo Akete isn't anywhere near as visually amazing as those. Who knows, maybe this was meant to be a theatrically-released production at first, but I really doubt it would really get the opportunity with Magic Bus. Now, to be fair, the studio has made movies, but none of them have really become known names (outside of maybe Big Wars, but that's partially because of it having the most generic name ever). Still, it's not a stinker visually, but it's an OVA for good reason.

Meanwhile, Koji Morimoto's short was made for one main reason, and that was to showcase what he's capable of when it comes to animation. Without a doubt, Tobira wo Akete is a visual powerhouse, especially for something from 1995. The sheer amount of color, the completely insane imagery, & the constant motion is astounding, and in some ways it looks better than some of the stuff we get now. Even more impressive is the use of digital effects, which results in some cool shots with backgrounds stretching away or a neat rotation effect; it does clash a bit with the traditional cel animation, but doesn't ruin anything. As I mentioned earlier, Studio 4°C is known for being a very experimental studio, and that results in some very impressive visuals that will stay in your mind. The short may be an eight of the length of the OVA & not feature things like strong storytelling or developed characters, but it more than trounces it visually.
Winner: Short

The music for the OVA actually comes from a completely non-Japanese person, Mark Goldenberg. While he's not a household name by any means, the man has seen some notable success in his career, most notably with American rock band Chicago, with which he co-wrote songs like "Along Comes a Woman" & was awarded a Star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He's also worked with Jackson Browne (lead guitar from 1994-2010), Willie Nelson, Peter Frampton, & even William Shatner. This OVA isn't even Goldenberg's sole time composing for a Japanese production, as he also did the music for the 1986 live-action movie Genkai Tsurezure-bushi. In fact, that very Chicago song  he co-wrote is a great comparison for some of the music Goldenberg made for Tobira wo Akete, as the battle sequences feature a very distinctly rock sound to them, and they do fit very well. While not every song is outstanding, and it may even leave your head after the story's over, some of the tracks are ones that you wish you had for your own music collection, if only so that you won't forget how they went.

As for the short, there's a good reason why there's no music composer credited for it: There is no original music. Instead, the short relies on three classical standards, Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy" & "Waltz of the Flowers", and Strauss' "Blue Danube Waltz". Their uses in the short are excellently placed & utilized, and I kind of feel bad about having to compare a more rock-infused sound with classical music, even though the OVA does also have some more folk & orchestral tracks. Still, while I really like the use of classical music in the short, & can understand that it was likely cheaper to go that route, I do appreciate it more when a production goes all the way & has something that's distinctly its own identity... Unless it's Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which can get away with the use of classical music simply because of the sheer amount of songs it uses.
Winner: OVA

Voice Work:
Both productions feature casts with known seiyuu, but again it's pretty much a lopsided battle. The OVA's cast is lead by Kyoko Fujimoto, whose lack of any other anime credits makes it obvious that she's a celebrity performance, giving more proof to the "this was likely originally planned for theatrical release" idea. As it is, Fujimoto does an okay job with Neko, delivering a nice sense of apathy & confusion towards her life, as well as happiness when needed. She definitely doesn't always inflect perfectly, but for a celebrity performance she does a fine enough job. Haruka & Keiichiro are performed by Kazuhiko Inoue (Reiji Arisu in Namco X Capcom) & Masamichi Sato (Hideo Shiina in Figure 17), respectively, who both do fine jobs, especially Inoue. Another great performance is from Fumi Hirano, who portrays Dimida in a very strong & straight-minded way, similar to her iconic role as Lum in Urusei Yatsura. The rest of the major cast is done by Bin Shimada as Towada as well as the late Nachi Nozawa as Radin, and both do fine with their roles, too. Nozawa is part of the reason why Radin works, even with his twist being so obvious.

The cast in the short is really just made up of three seiyuu, and even then very little is heard from them. Nonoko is played by Chika Sakamoto, who does a great job making the child sound very believable. Coincidentally enough, Sakamoto was also in the OVA as Kira, one of the children that followes Neko & gang around; she's the only actor to be in both productions. The fairy is voiced by Hiro Yuuki, though his performance doesn't sound anything like his usual fare, no doubt due to the added effects done to make his voice more willowy. Finally, Yoko Soumi voices Nonoko's mother, though it's only for a few lines in the beginning. To their credit, Sakamoto & Yuuki do great jobs, and the voice work does help add to the short's quality when it's used, but it's so sparse that I still have to give the victory to the OVA, which simply allows for more inflections & emotion.
Winner: OVA

Now, by "execution", what I'm talking about is how well each production actually utilizes its respective format. In other words, does the OVA utilize it's nearly-feature length well & does the short do everything it wanted to do in just 10 minutes?

When it comes to the OVA, it's at best nicely paced & engaging, but at its worst it's a mixed bag. The real issue mainly comes in the middle third, which is more focused on character development than story & action. I'm not complaining about it becoming more about the characters & their own issues, especially for Neko, but it does make the OVA drag slightly. Also, in what was likely a case of excising from the original material, the character development is more focused on Neko than anyone else. While that does seem like a no-brainer, there is a scene in the middle where Neko, Haruka, & Keiichiro enter a forest that showed them an illusion of Tokyo, hoping that they can get back home that way. Instead, the forest has them re-experience some of the saddest & darkest moments of their lives, but the OVA only showcases Neko's sad past. All Haruka & Keiichiro get is a shot of them crying along with Neko afterwards, followed by them wondering why they were forced to relive their horrible moments of the past. If I have to guess, the novel likely goes into detail about what the other two saw, and the OVA simply removed those parts, which is disappointing. Other than that, however, the OVA executes just fine, and the ending is an interesting twist on this kind of adventure, while also showing how all three have become better people through their journey.

The short, on the other hand, uses every second very well, never slowing down, outside of one short bit that's meant to act as a transition from one scene to another. Probably the best way to describe how this short works, though, is to call it a child's acid trip. The sheer assault of color, the outright bizarre imagery, & the highly imaginative scenes just really take over your senses, and it's obvious that the entire trip is one giant dream sequence. This is truly the kind of thing that could only come from a small child who only knows so much of the world; it's a really trippy experience. Really, though, this is all simply because Koji Morimoto was able to make this as long as he wanted it to be. He could pace it however he wanted, and end it when he felt it was right. The OVA, in comparison, feels like it was meant to be roughly theatrical-length, so it had no choice but to drag slightly in the middle, once again giving the feeling that it was planned as a theatrical production originally. While neither bombs in terms of execution, the short does work better the way it is than the OVA does, even if only slightly.
Winner: Short

So, with a final result of 4-2, the winner of this Vs. Battle is the Tobira wo Akete OVA! Still, when you look at how the battle worked out, the OVA won because of aspects like story, characters, & voice work. In other words, it won in categories where it pretty much couldn't lose in, because it was a longer & more involved production. Where the short won was in more technical aspects, the visuals & execution, which are essentially the reasons why it was made in the first place. The Tobira wo Akete short anime was made to showcase what Koji Morimoto was capable of, and it works excellently in that regard. In fact, some people would give the victory to the short, simply because of the fact that it won in categories that some anime fans would think of as the most important. Really, neither product is bad by means, and both are worth watching. In fact, watching the OVA made me feel that fan favorite light novel & TV anime series The Twelve Kingdoms was likely inspired by the original Tobira wo Akete novel. Both are about a girl & her friends being transported to a fantasy world, with the girl being a prophesized hero. The biggest difference is that the people in world of Twelve Kingdoms can't speak with the lead's friends, whereas everyone could communicate with each other in Tobira wo Akete. I personally like it when I can potentially find the inspirations to stuff that has notable fanbases, and watching the OVA has made me want to finally get to the Twelve Kingdoms anime one day (someday...), while the short makes me want to see more Morimoto shorts like Noiseman Sound Insect.

In the end, while the OVA may be the overall "winner" in this battle of same-named anime, both are well worth the watch. Both are on YouTube, so check them out.

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