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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Far East of Eden: Ziria Oboro Hen: No Orange-Suited Ninjas to be Found Here, No Siree

There are so many RPG video game franchises that have never made it outside of Japan, and there are so many within that category that have yet managed to retain a respectable cult following outside of Japan. Possibly one of the most notable examples of that is Hudson Soft & Red Entertainment's Tengai Makyou. While it is more accurately translated as The Devil's Cave Outside Heaven, the franchise has the official English name of Far East of Eden, a portmanteau of the terms "Far East" & "East of Eden". The creation of Ouji Hiroi, best known as the creator of the Sakura Wars franchise, the concept behind Far East of Eden is an admittedly amusing one. Essentially, each main game is meant to be treated as an adaptation of a book that is a part of a series written by 19th century sociologist/historian Paul Hieronymus "P.H." Chada, which all took place in a land called Jipang, which is essentially a fictional version of Japan that is based on all of the misconceptions & tall stories that Western society has about Japan throughout history. When the first game, Tengai Makyou Ziria (pronounced "Jiraiya"), came out in 1989 it became an instant hit, partially due to it being the first JRPG ever released on CD for a console (the PC-Engine CD-ROM²). It was so successful that in mid-1990 Takara, Kadokawa, & TMS teamed up to make a two-episode OVA adaptation of said game. Itwas given the subtitle of Oboro Hen (which translates directly as "Strange Haze", & likely uses alternate kanji to be purposefully odd), but like every other entry in this franchise (minus a single fighting game for the Neo Geo), it remains a Japan-exclusive; it was re-released on DVD in 2005, first alongside the third game on PS2, followed by a general release. Therefore, let's see if this OVA could possibly work as an introduction for newcomers, such as myself.

After being told not to go after it by his friend Kumokiri, young thief Ziria decides to go after the treasure belonging to Hiruko, a beast that was sealed away long ago by the legendary Izanami & Izanagi. It's supposedly housed within Shirotaka Castle & guarded by Princess Yuki, but Ziria isn't the only one who's interested in Hiruko. A demonic wizard named Jashinsai wants to use Hiruko's power to bring back to life a giant clockwork soldier that's housed within the neighboring Kurotaka Castle, hoping to use it to rule over all of Jipang. It's up to Ziria, Kumokiri, a kabuki/mystic named Orochimaru, & a young, axe-wielding girl named Tsunade (who's a mega fan of Orochimaru's kabuki act) to stop Jashinsai & save the day.

Probably the first thing that really makes you pay attention to Far East of Eden is the world of Jipang itself. At first glance it looks like feudal Japan, maybe a little Meiji Era, but then you start noticing all of the purposefully-planted anachronisms. What look like candle-lit areas are in fact wired with modern-day electricity, old ink brushes are actually spring-loaded like modern pens, & let's not forget the giant robot-sized clockwork soldier at the end. At the same time, though, it's only so anachronistic, with everyone still either walking or relying on horses for land transportation, with Kumokiri's wooden tank, which can also be used as a submarine, being the most technologically advanced vehicle in the story. Personally, I just love world like this, where it's a mix of the real world & the fantastical. Yes, the anachronisms might result in you questioning why there are some advancements but not others, but that isn't really the point. Rather, it's the sheer spectacle of just how bizarre the land of Jipang is, and as the Far East of Eden series advanced it would mostly become even odder. In fact, one of the most beloved entries in the series, the spin-off Dai-yon on Mokushiroku/The IVth Apocalypse from 1997, flipped the script & took place in a highly-stereotyped & anachronistic version of the United States. It's easy to see from this OVA alone that the world of Jipang itself is a big reason for why the series became as beloved as it did, but luckily that's not all there is to it, at least for this OVA adaptation of the first game.

The other reason is because of the characters themselves. While not quite reaching the amounts of ridiculousness that later entries in the series would feature, like naming the main character Manjimaru Sengoku (a.k.a. "Hi, my name is feudal Japan in a nutshell"), the characters featured in the original Far East of Eden story are still entertaining. Based in part on the the old folktale The Tale of the Gallant Jiraiya, the three main leads may have the same (or at least similar, in the case of Ziria) names as those most anime & manga fans are familiar with by way of Naruto, but the similarities more or less end there. Ziria is a fun-loving thief who has an honorable heart, wasting no time whatsoever in deciding to help Princess Yuki when Jashinsai's forces first try kidnapping her; no matter what, Ziria is steadfast & loyal. Orochimaru has a slight bit of mystery to him, but otherwise is a wise & reliable partner to Ziria who's mastery of mystical arts, usually summoning a snake made of blue fire, helps everyone out when in a pinch. Finally, Tsunade is a small little girl who carries an axe on her back at all times & is in eternal love for Orochimaru, usually to his annoyance or ignorance.

While I haven't played the original game, I have noticed (through research or via the fighting game I have played) that some elements were changed or outright removed when it comes to the lead characters. For example, Ziria, much like his namesake, originally had a pet frog named Gama that could grow large & fight alongside him, but here's nowhere to be seen in this OVA. Similarly, Tsunade wielded a giant axe that was at least her size, if not larger, but in the OVA it's a normally sized axe of its kind. In fact, Tsunade doesn't really do much in this OVA. She uses her axe once to save Orochimaru early on, helps Kumokiri pilot a wooden machine to fight off some grunts, & helps to an extent in the finale, but that's really it. Sure, she get's captured in the middle, but even that doesn't add to much, outside of letting the villains know where the heroes hang out at. In that regard it can be argued that the OVA fails as an adaptation, but I'll get to how it still works on its own a bit later.

As for the other characters, they are a similar lively bunch. Kumokiri is a big & friendly pal to Ziria (& later Orochimaru, Tsunade, & Yuki), & his lackeys Koboke & Daiboke ("Little Kid" & "Big Kid", get it?) work just fine as helpers, especially in regards to their various contraptions, like the previously mentioned tank/submarine, which is powered by a bicycle. The villains, in comparison, are more or less your traditional lot, with most of them taking on false identities for the first half to initiate their nefarious plan. Jashinsai in particular is more or less memorable because of his green-skinned & xenomorph-like head design, but otherwise is your regular villain. The giant clockwork soldier at the end, though, is definitely a highlight; it's like seeing a giant robot or ancient Mechagodzilla cause havoc. Again, there does seem to be another bit of removal from the original game, as Jashinsai (at least in the fighting game) can transform into a giant monster named Lucifeller (but of course), and that is nowhere to be found here. Again, it does sound like this is a poor adaptation for those who are fans of the original game, but as someone who is mostly unfamiliar with the series as a whole, I think I noticed an aspect that really kept me entertained & glued to my screen while watching, for the most part.

Out of all of the genres of video games that have been adapted into anime, RPGs at least sound like the most natural choice, but at the same time adhering to the original story might result in the end product feeling too much like you're watching an RPG rather than experiencing the story itself. The Far East of Eden OVA, in turn, actually doesn't feel much like an RPG story, but rather feels more like an story that was meant to be told as a two-episode OVA, or even as a 90-minute movie (which the total run time is here). Ziria is by far the focus of the story, with Orochimaru & Tsunade not making their debuts until about a third or so into the first episode, and the three of them don't work as a real team until the climax of same episode. While I'm sure I could fit in certain moments into their respective RPG original scenes, this OVA focuses first & foremost on telling its story, rather than feel like it was trying to squeeze in as much of the RPG as possible, side missions & all. Sure, the end result was the lessened focus on Tsunade & a seeming removal of Lucifeller, which both do suck, but the trade off is a fun & focused story of a thief who winds up deciding to save the land he loves from a force that was sealed away because of how destructive it could be if unleashed by evil. In the end, though, I can at least guarantee that these changes came with the approval of the creator of the franchise, and that's because he directed this OVA.

Sure, he had help from director Yoshio Takeuchi (Night Head Genesis, Space Adventure Cobra [alongside Osamu Dezaki]), who also did the screenplay here, but Ouji Hiroi was the chief director of the Ziria Oboro Hen OVA, so it's likely that Hiroi planned for this anime take on his game to be a different interpretation in the first place; it could be an introduction for newcomers, while giving fans of the game something different. The character designs were done by Yoshiteru Tsujino, who did the original designs for the game, which allowed the anime to look more or less exactly like the game itself, which is cool. The only major change from the game was the music, which replaced original composer Ryuichi Sakamoto with the experienced Kouhei Tanaka (G Gundam, GaoGaiGar, Sakura Wars). Again, being unfamiliar with the game means that I can't say whether or not Tanaka adapted Sakamoto's original score, but what is here works well enough for the OVA, giving an overall feudal Japan feel alongside a generally upbeat style. There is no opening theme, technically, though the second episode's opening credits do use the first episode's insert theme, "Tengai Makyou ZIRIA" by Mitsuo Iwata with GALLOP, which is a very fun & catchy theme song for our lead; I'd love to find a full version of the song one day, because it's really good. The ending theme for both episodes is "Far East of Eden" by GALLOP, which is a Hiroi-penned ballad that works just fine alongside the sepia-toned bits of footage from each respective episode that play during both end credits.

Leading the voice cast is Mitsuo Iwata as Ziria, who is one of the very few to retain his role from the original game throughout every single iteration (original 2D game, OVA, & 3D remake). It's easy to see why, too, because Iwata's performance here is just filled with a lot of emotion & energy, making Ziria instantly likable. Had it not been for his tragic passing in 2000, I'm sure the legendary Kaneto Shiozawa would have reprised his role as Orochimaru for the remake, too, because his performance is a similarly perfect fit for his character; Takehito Koyasu would voice Orochimaru for the remake. Interestingly enough, Tsunade's situation was the reverse, where her original voice (Naoko Watanabe) would be recast for the OVA, in this case with Hiroko Emori (Anna in Blue Comet SPT Layzner, Chaozu in Dragon Ball), who does a perfectly fine job in making Tsunade sound young & impetuous; Emori would reprise her role for the remake. Kumokiri would be recast in every single iteration, being first voiced by Seizou Katou (original game), followed by Ichiro Nagai (OVA), & then by Hisao Egawa (remake). In Nagai's (Isaac Netero in Hunter X Hunter, Happosai in Ranma ½) case his voice fits the character very well. Seizou Katou (Megatron in Transformers [G1]), interestingly enough, is also another person who got to retain his role, in this case Jashinsai; yeah, he apparently originally voiced both Ziria's close friend & main enemy. Anyway, Katou's voice fits Jashinsai very well, and it's easy to see why he was re-utilized like Iwata. Finally, Yuki is voiced by Rei Sakuma (Kazumi Amano in Gunbuster, Sanrio's My Melody), who also does a good job with her role. Overall, the cast helps give the OVA that hopeful & fun feel that works in the anime's favor.

At it's core, Far East of Eden: Ziria Orobo Hen doesn't really do too much original, outside of the instantly lovable & anachronistic world of Jipang, but at the same time it doesn't really do anything wrong, either, making it feel very traditional in execution. Still, what is told is done so very well & the end result is a very solid & enjoyable anime. Sure, it very well may remove or change some elements of the original game, like Tsunade's giant axe or Lucifeller, but considering that Ouji Hiroi was in a director's chair for this OVA I'm going to guess that it was intended to be a different take in general. Sadly, just the like games themselves, this OVA remains without any sort of English translation, official or otherwise; it is very easy to follow visually, though. Outside of the fighting game, known best as Far East of Eden: Kabuki Klash, the closest we ever got to getting this series in English was when Victor Ireland's Gaijinworks worked on bringing over the 2006 Xbox 360 remake, Far East of Eden: Ziria -Tales from Distant Jipang-, but was denied due to Microsoft's publishing minimums, which I guess were too high for Ireland; there is word that Hudson considered releasing the sequel back in the day, too. Still, this OVA would have been a fine consolation prize, at the very least, allowing some bit of Far East of Eden story to be released outside of Japan in English. Now, though, the chances of this OVA ever coming over are much like that of the game series itself: Slim to none.

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