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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ozanari Dungeon: Kaze no Tou: An Unfound OVA Treasure

Fantasy is such a blanket category in general, but I when I see or hear that word the first thing that comes to mind is a world filled with magic, swordplay, epic journeys, & maybe even some treasure to be found. When it comes to the fantasy genre (as I associate it) for anime & manga, it's easy to name an outright litany of iconic titles, especially if you count TV series; I'll refrain from making said list for all of our sanities. When you remove TV & focus on just OVAs, however, the list suddenly shortens pretty sharply, at least for ones that most anime fans in North America can make. As for me, one of the first OVAs I think of when I think "fantasy" is Ruin Explorers - Fam & Ihrie, a four-episode series from 1995-1996 based on the 1992 manga by Kunihiko Tanaka, best known as the character designer for most entries the famed Xeno Series. At the same time, though, there is a fantasy series in Japan that has never left its home country, but at the same time may be one of its most iconic & (overall) long-running, and it received its own OVA adaptation before Tanaka even debuted his original fantasy manga.

One of the earliest works of Motoo Koyama, Ozanari Dungeon was a fantasy series that ran in Gakken's Monthly Comic Nora magazine from 1989-1996, lasting 17 volumes. True to its title, which is probably best translated literally as "Careless Dungeon", Koyama told a lighthearted sword & sorcery-style fantasy story featuring characters who were all named after types of coffee, though apparently its second half did become much more serious & focused on telling a story of epic scale. Koyama would follow up with a sequel, Nariyuki Dungeon ("Resulting Dungeon"), which only ran from 1997-1998 for three volumes. After that Koyama would go on to other manga, but eventually returned with Naozari Dungeon ("Neglected Dungeon"), which ran in Jive's Comic Rush magazine from 2006-2010 for another eight volumes. During that run came a one volume spin-off titled Ozanari Dungeon Special in 2008, and after Naozari's end came yet another sequel, Ozanari Dungeon Tactics. From what I can tell, Tactics ran from 2010-2013 for six volumes, resulting in a total 35 volumes of fantasy manga, though who knows if Motoo Koyama may eventually return to this franchise once again. By the way, I am refraining from using a pronoun for this mangaka because I can't find a definitive answer as to whether Koyama is male or female.

Anyway, during the heyday of the original manga, Gakken & Toshiba EMI teamed with TMS Entertainment to produce a three-episode OVA series based on Koyama's manga. Released throughout the last quarter of 1991 on VHS & LD, Ozanari Dungeon: Kaze no Tou/Tower of Wind looks to be an original story that takes place relatively early in the overall story, giving a stronger focus towards comedy than the later run of the manga. There is some word that Studio Ghibli was more heavily involved in the production of this OVA than it usually has been for other anime (which is usually just in-betweening & backgrounds), but I can't find any definitive proof of that. What I can say, though, is that it did have a couple of (future) notable names in its key animation staff, but we'll get to that when appropriate. Until then, what exactly is the Ozanari Dungeon OVA like, and is it a forgotten fantasy anime that deserves to be up there with the likes of Ruin Explorers? Let's find out.

On their eternal goal of making money by finding treasure, Elven warrior Mocha, Nekomatango (a cat-like race) thief Blue Manjaro (Blueman for short), & Inumoarukeba (a dog/kangaroo-like race) magician Kili Mountain (a.k.a. Kilimoun) take on the job of retrieving the mysterious Dragon's Head from the Tower of Fire for Gazelle, the ruler of the Tower of Wind. What at first seems like a simple job winds up being only the catalyst of a plan to revive an otherworldly force so powerful that it could change the course of history, necessitating some direct involvement between Mocha's living sword Espre & his rival from the Magic Academy, Logos.

Probably the quickest way to describe Ozanari Dungeon, at least here in anime form, is that it's very laid back in nature. Mocha, Blueman, & Kilimoun have only one thing on mind for the most part, and that's making money, but they aren't greedy or deadly serious about doing so. Sure, the path to their goal is so laser focused that they can be easily manipulated as long as some sort of payment (money or treasure) is promised, but they are still laid back yet honorable people. When they steal the Dragon's Head from the Tower of Fire & it starts crumbling apart, for example, Mocha still makes it a priority to make sure that the priestess that lived there gets out safe & sound. Not just that, but when she asked our heroes to tell her what the outside world was like, because she was raised & stuck in the tower, Kilimoun bothers to showcase a massive, magical tour of the outside world instead of having the others simply tell her these things. Of course, when all things go to hell in the final episode, the trio don't try to escape & save their own tails, but rather they do the right thing & try to stop the evil happenings from advancing any further. Sure, there's a good chance that they may not get the money they were aiming for, but as a viewer you wind up liking them even more.

Uh, Ginger... You're face is looking pretty weird right now.

It also doesn't hurt that these three are entertaining, as well. Mocha can be sarcastic to those in her way, like openly wondering what kind of weirdo Ginger is in episode 2 (to be fair, he is a guitar-wielding sky pirate who gets shaved & massaged while hunting his prey), but at the same time is intensely spunky & never boring. It's also really neat to see a female elf who can't use magic, she instead is all about swordplay & strength, while also being very scantily clad yet not fanservice-y one bit; I almost want to categorize her as a barbarian instead of simply a "warrior", in fact. Me categorizing Blueman as a thief mainly comes from the fact that he can pick locks, which is an essential thieving skill, but his intensely short stature & focus on money also helps make him just that; he's the overall partner to any & all of Mocha's antics. As for Kilimoun, he's interesting in that he doesn't say anything at all; in fact, "he" could very well be a "she" for all we know due to the giant robe & hat. Instead, Kilimoun communicates via various signs he pulls out of his sleeves, usually "uttering" a word or two or simply "stating" how he feels at the moment. He's usually the one that notices when something bad is about to happen, like if a ceiling beam they're on is unstable or if Ginger fired a missile at them while they're on their three-person whirligig. If anything, Kilimoun might be the best character, as he can be just as sarcastic as his friends yet be able to do so without ever uttering a single sound. Even Espre doesn't shy away from some minor comedy, usually coming from his constant hesitance to directly help his friends when they're in a bind, because while he could easily do so, his main mission is to not directly influence the path humanity is taking in the world. In execution, though, Espre can be just as free roaming as anyone else, often leaving Mocha weaponless at many dire points due to his own circumstances.

As for the overall story of the OVA itself, it's a very solid, self-contained tale that works excellently for newcomers to the franchise, like myself. You quickly get the basic gist of the heroes & the world they live in, one where the guild where people can pick up jobs looks & operates like a literal office, and then go straight into the actual story itself, with nary any sort of scene that does nothing but waste time. Whether it's invading the Tower of Fire to retrieve the Dragon's Head, trying to escape from Ginger's assault at the Temple of Water, or the climax at the Tower of Wind, every episode is constantly moving forward, delivering both a lot of amusing humor & some really cool looking fantasy vistas. Sure, there is an occasional joke that relies on puns, normally because Kilimoun mishears a location for a piece of food, but for the most part the humor is more situational & basking in some of the inherent silliness of the product itself. For example, Ginger's means of chasing Mocha & gang throughout the Temple of Water is via what can be best described as a fantastical tractor with a set of rocket launchers attached to it; it's understandable that the heroes are running for their lives, but the viewer obviously finds it amusing. The moments of seriousness that are sprinkled about are also generally well done, usually involving Espre & Logos, but whenever Mocha has to be similarly serious & heroic she does so valiantly. Overall, the duo of Fumihiko Shimo (Air, Kanon [2006], Kokoro Connect) & Hideki Sonoda (Machine Robo, Raijin-Oh) did a great job on the writing front.

Now this is what I think of when I hear the word "fantasy".

As for the visuals, Ozanari Dungeon is definitely a looker at times. Supposedly, the obi on each laserdisc release touted that each episode featured twice the amount of frames as a normal TV episode of the time, for essentially the same length of time per episode, and I can't really argue against that at times. There's a lot of really fluid motion to be found & a bunch of subtle movements, like a simple head nod, that likely wouldn't look quite as nice if it was a traditionally-produced anime. The backdrops themselves sometimes look simply splendid, especially when it comes to the named locations. The Tower of Fire being inside of an active volcano isn't original, but it's still a very nice looking location, and the Temple of Water being on an island floating above a giant lake makes for an amazing image all on its own; credit must be given to art directors Tatsuo Iseri (eps 1 & 3) & Shuichi Hirata (Noiseman Sound Insect & Metropolis). Leading the entire product here was Hiroshi Aoyama, who normally doesn't direct anime & instead storyboards; following Ozanari Dungeon, Aoyama would only direct 2007's Rocket Girls, 2008's Top Secret ~ The Revelation~, & 2011's Wolverine. Still, his debut in the director's chair is a very good one, and his staff of key animators even featured some future notable names in terms of directing, including Nobuo Tomizawa (Futakoi, Ramen Fighter Miki), Toshihiko Masuda (Cybersix), Yuichi Yano (Moyashimon & Uninhabited Planet Survive), &, most recently, Kazuhide Tomonaga (Lupin the 3rd Part IV); others would later work on the animation for Animaniacs, Batman & Superman's 90s animated series, & Tiny Toon Adventures.

The character designs by Minoru Maeda (Dragon Ball, Touch) are both very accurate to Motoo Koyama's original designs as well as very emotive. Even Kilimoun has a nice range of facial expressions to match his word signs, and let's not even get into Ginger's crazy faces. The music by Kazuhiko "Kazz" Toyama (Darkside Blues, Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko) is overall very fitting for the fantasy motif, if maybe a bit traditional overall; it does a stellar job while watching, but may require a repeat watch or two for a song to really stick with you. In comparison, the opening & ending themes, both performed by Hidemi Miura, are instantly catchy & memorable. Opener "Motto Be Myself" mixes together a feeling of boundless energy with the laid back nature of Ozanari itself, making a perfect fit for the anime; the animation by animation director Teiichi Takiguchi is also both amusing & matches the OP perfectly. The ending, "We Are", is a fairly rocking ballad that fits the simple animation by Yasuo Otsuka (director of Lupin the 3rd: The Mystery of Mamo) very well, with the final episode ending in a perfect set up for said ED animation.

Best character, without a doubt.

The major cast is a small one, but overall is a solid one. Leading it is Teiyu Ichiryusai/Mie Suzuki (Bat in Fist of the North Star, Masao in Crayon Shin-chan) as Mocha, who mixes together a higher pitch voice with a nice amount of attitude; think of it as a female Bat that can actually save the day in the end. Acting as her closest confidant is Koyko Tongu (Kei in Dirty Pair, Slippy Toad in Star Fox 64 & Assault), whose Blueman is similarly higher-pitched but not in any annoying way. As a bit of a joke, Motoo Koyama is actually credited as the "voice" of Kilimoun, even though the character doesn't make even the slightest peep across all three episodes; easiest voice acting role ever, I'd say. Gazelle is performed by Kan Tokumaru (Pegas in the original Tekkaman, Anakaris, Bishamon, Sasquach, & Victor in Darkstalkers), who delivers an appropriately imposing villain when all is said & done, and he's backed up nicely by the legendary Daisuke Gouri as Logos. Finishing up the major cast is Issei Futamata (Ginger) & Kenyuu Horiuchi (Espre), who are intensely amusing & appropriately stoic, respectively.

Ozanari Dungeon: Kaze no Tou is honestly a perfect example of how to do a short OVA adaptation of a much longer manga. While I'm simply going to assume that the overall structure & style of the story & characters match Motoo Koyama's manga to please fans, it also tells an enjoyable &, most importantly, self-contained story so that newcomers don't feel teased; Logos does do the usual "I'll be back!" at the end, but otherwise everything starts & ends here. As for whether it matches up against some of its contemporaries, like Ruin Explorers, I actually have to say that it does so very swimmingly. In fact, I'm a good bit surprised that this OVA was never licensed & released here in North America during the 90s, or even early 00s, as I think it could have easily earned itself a bit of a fanbase & even received a respectable English dub had it been picked up by the likes of ADV, Media Blasters, or Viz back then. While I sometimes bring up the idea of "If I had my own anime company..." as a bit of a farce, simply because I'm no businessman, I do think that this wouldn't be a bad little title to bring over, even today. It's only three episodes, it's from a genre that usually appeals to a nice amount of people, & overall I think it's quality can make up for its lack of familiarity with most anime fans. Sadly, Kaze no Tou has yet to receive a DVD release, even in Japan, though if the LD master is the best we have then that's not a bad thing, as it does look very nice, even today; apparently, Toshiba EMI anime LDs tended to always look excellent. At the very least, TMS should get Ozanari Dungeon's OVA on a streaming site like Hulu or CrunchyRoll, much like what happened to anime like God Mars or Karate Baka Ichidai/Karate Master.

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