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Monday, July 13, 2015

Xanadu -Dragon Slayer Densetsu-: A Place Where Nobody Dared to Go... Because it's Deadly!

Having covered Hydlide in the previous post, let's examine the legacy of the game that co-created the Action RPG genre that same year: Dragon Slayer by Nihon Falcom. Though the company debuted in 1982 with Galactic Wars on the PC-88, Falcom wouldn't make a name for itself until the release of Dragon Slayer. Barely over a year later the company released a sequel, Xanadu -Dragon Slayer II- for the PC-88, and this is where Falcom became a force to be reckoned with. In a time where it was impressive enough for a Japanese PC game to sell 10,000-20,000 units, Xanadu set a smashing sales record by selling over 400,000 on its own, and it wasn't even the same kind of game as its predecessor. Similar to what Square would do later on with the Final Fantasy series, Falcom's Dragon Slayer series would switch up the gameplay for every entry; some would be Action RPGs, others would be more traditional, & one was even Real-Time Strategy. Some people might be familiar with later entries, like Romanica (III/Jr.), Sorcerian (V), or Legacy of the Wizard (IV), & the series lives on in spirit with the Legend of Heroes franchise, which is now one of the Falcom's biggest money makers; the first two entries were the sixth & eighth Dragon Slayer games. Xanadu was also the first game to ever receive an expansion pack, 1986's Scenario II: The Resurrection of Dragon, which also marked the debut of a young music prodigy named Yuzo Koshiro. Interestingly enough, Koshiro's music for the game was actually from the demo tape he sent Falcom when he was job hunting. Falcom liked the demo so much that they asked him if they could use it for their game, before outright hiring him.

Naturally, with Xanadu being the first true "big hit" for Falcom, it would receive multimedia productions. In 1987, a short manga adaptation by Kazuhiko Tsuzuki came out alongside the MSX port of the game, followed by a 50-minute OVA featuring animation by Toei & distribution by Kadokawa Video, both of which were called Xanadu -Dragon Slayer Densetsu/Legend of Dragon Slayer-. While Tsuzuki's artwork was used for the cover of the MSX port, mainly because the original game featured artwork taken from Ultima III: Exodus (& lead to Origin Systems ending a potential partnership with Falcom & suing), the manga & OVA are not directly based on the original computer game, but rather tell their own story based on the world of the game. So how is the very first anime based on a video game developed by Nihon Falcom?

Fieg Kamara is a solider for NATO in the year 2035, fighting in a battle over in Europe. Suddenly, the mech he & his two co-pilots are in is teleported to a mysterious world. While searching the area, Fieg's commander is eaten alive by giant insects, while his fellow soldier is cut in two by a beastman named Agora. Escaping in the mech, Fieg falls off a cliff, is rescued by a wizard, & taken to the kingdom of Xanadu to recover. Now an amnesiac who only knows his name, Fieg lives in Xanadu & one day meets Rielle, the princess of the kingdom. After the two accidentally see a vision of how Rielle's father was brutally killed by evil forces, Fieg & Rielle decide to head off in search of the legendary sword Dragon Slayer, which can stop the forces of black magic.

The 80s OVA scene was a giant melting pot of various genres & executions, and Xanadu kind of exemplifies all of that in just 50 minutes. Fitting for the decade is the sheer amount of violence, as nearly everything that dies in this story does so with a nice blood splatter, and there are even some gruesome finishes; the King of Xanadu's entire upper half is eviscerated by a spiked ball & chain, for example. In between all of this near-hyper-violence, however, is a lot of comedy. While the OVA as a whole goes more for whimsical fantasy, there are a lot of scenes where the focus is on making some sort of visual joke. Fieg & Rielle wind up being helped by an airship that's captained by a little girl, for example. Another odd moment of comedy is at the end, when Fieg is running roughshod though the enemy's giant airship before entering a room filled with monsters. Fieg's response is essentially, "Hey guys, sorry about killing your buds back there... Can we let bygones be bygones?" Our grand villain is so assured of victory when Fieg barges in, but once he realizes that the Dragon Slayer Fieg is wielding is the real deal he immediately asks his second-in-command for assistance, because he knows that he's screwed. Again, this is the main villain who was always shown to be large & in charge previously.

If nothing else, though, Xanadu is absolutely packed with content, pretty much to the point where you want to keep watching just to see what's going to happen next. Let's see, we got a boy from another world, a mystical sword that can save the day, evil villains who want to rule the world, whimsical airship users, a surprising amount of both silly comedy & 80s violence, and even a tentacle monster... Because it was the 80s. The story moves at a constant pace, not being content with relaxing & developing characters or story. This is best shown right at the start, when Fieg & Rielle see the vision that also acts as establishing the backstory for the viewers (definitely a quaint way of doing so, I must say). Rather than wonder about what they saw & what they should do for any period of time, Fieg immediately decides on heading off for adventure with Rielle, and the two do just that. The fact that Fieg is from Earth? Not important in the slightest outside of giving the OVA an effectively chilling & creepy intro, as well as having Fieg come across his mech in the second half & using it in battle for a short period; Fieg never even seems to recall his past in the end. What exactly do the villains aim to do? Who cares, because they have a giant spiky airship that can drop armies of monsters, and one of them is actually a giant tentacle monster! It doesn't exactly reach the same kind of madness & not giving a damn as Crystal Triangle, mainly because Xanadu still makes a lick of sense, but it's close.

Much like Crystal Triangle, though, it's that devil may care, "Yeah, let's do that!", attitude that makes Xanadu fun to watch. When Rielle was having a dream where she's a little girl with her King father, I started to think "Okay, time to eviscerate the King with the spiked ball & chain in order to freak out his daughter." I simply thought of it as a dumb, semi-sick joke to myself... And then OVA went & did just that! It was so sudden & absurd that I had to pause the OVA just to laugh myself silly. This is the kind of story Xanadu is. It doesn't care if alternating between silly humor & shocking violence doesn't quite mix all the time, it still does it all the same. That opening scene where Fieg's fellow soldiers are brutally killed is so unlike the rest of the story that it just sticks in your head. The search for the Dragon Slayer ends with it being stuck in a random floating rock, with no explanation as to how it got there; it's also banged up & rusted beyond use. One of the villains being revealed as a tentacle monster just seemed to make sense, as if the people behind this OVA thought, "Of course it's a tentacle monster... What else did you expect?"  Hell, the OVA even bothers to end with a sense of ambiguity by having a mysterious man, who only made two prior appearances, comment on how Xanadu's battle is only beginning, but it doesn't feel like the staff really hoped on making a sequel. Still, Xanadu isn't on a "So Bad It's Good" level, like Crystal Triangle. It's just too well produced & legitimately enjoyable, if intensely oddball, to be that.

Interestingly enough, this OVA has a surprising staff list, including some animators who would go on to much more notable work. In charge of everything was Atsutoshi Umezawa (Ghost Sweeper Mikami, Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne), who kept everything well done & overall a fine product of the OVA Boom visually; even via the VHS rip I saw, I could see that it looked very nice. The character designs & animation direction were done by Kouichi Arai (3x3 Eyes, Crying Freeman), who lead a team including the likes of Hideki Hamasu (Perfect Blue, Legend of Black Heaven's OP) as assistant animation director, Keiji Gotoh (Gate Keepers, Kiddy Grade, Nadesico) as in-betweener, & Jinichi Hayama (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVAs) , Keiichi Satou (Tiger & Bunny), Michi Fukuda (Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan), Tomokazu Tokoro (Haibane Renmei), Yasuchika Nagaoka (Banner of the Stars), Hiroyuki Ochi (Armitage III), & Masahiko Ohkura (Yukikaze) as key animators, among some others who would go on to be known for animation direction & character designs. I wish the list was shorter, but considering that all of those listed key animators would go on to direct iconic or well known productions in the future, there's no surprise why Xanadu looks as good as it does. This was a stepping stone for many future greats in the industry, making it almost an essential watch for hardcore animation guys & gals.

On the writing side there's Masaya Yamazaki (Attack No. 1, Dokonjo Gaeru), who is really the culprit for the mixing of goofy jokes & bloody deaths; whether it works or not is really up to the viewer. Finally, there's the music by Seiji Yokoyama (Saint Seiya, Space Pirate Captain Harlock), which is bit of an eclectic mix. While there are fitting fantasy-sounding songs, there're also some odd pieces, especially where they're used. For example, Fieg coming to the aid of warriors against the demons in the climax with his old mech is accompanied by more or less whimsical music rather than anything fitting for battle. Overall, though, it's really nothing you'll remember much of once you're done watching. The opening & ending themes are both rock songs performed by the band Emotion. "NO SURRENDER" is a song that slowly builds, but ends in the OVA before it can really get going, while "LONELY NIGHT" is a little faster & has more to work with. Both are fine songs, but not quite the level of "rock" as Falcom would become synonymous with around that time. The cast is small, but fine for what it is. Ryo Horikawa uses his more natural sounding voice as Fieg, only going into his deeper, more hot-blooded style near the end. Accompanying him is Shigeyo Kawamura (Naga in the Slayers OVAs & movies), who delivers a good rambunctious princess as Rielle. Probably the only other role of note, though, would be Agora, who Chikao Ohtsuka voices in an interesting mix of threatening as well as domesticated. Admittedly, the cast isn't exactly one of the OVA's strongest points, but it isn't a negative.

Xanadu -Dragon Slayer Densetsu- is a weird little OVA based on a video game. Taking aside the fact that it isn't really even based on the game it takes its name from, outside of some terminology, the entire thing really feels like the staff just wanted to have fun with the concept of a boy who has to save the day. Even if some of the ideas are nothing more than window dressing, like how Fieg is from our world, they do admittedly help make the overall product more memorable. So much happens in just 50 minutes, some of which is either funny in how silly it is or how shockingly dark it is, that it's really just a fun ride. This is really something you watch for the spectacle of it all instead of for the characters or the story, because there really isn't any meat to those factors. It's not a shining example of quality from the era it was released in, but it's far from being "bad". It's also better than you'd expect from a video game-based anime from the 80s. Hardcore animation aficionados (or fans of sakuga, to be exact), will likely find a lot more in this, since that animation staff reads like a resume of future great directors. Sadly, there is no DVD release for Xanadu out there. After the VHS release in 1987 there was a re-release in 1993 on, of all things, VCD (the cover above is from that release), but that looks to be the last Japan ever saw of this OVA. I would love to see this OVA one day receive some sort of English translation, if only because it's a fun ride that doesn't care about what you're expecting it to be, and that's where it can surprise you.

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