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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Put It All in a Piece of the Sun: A Double Kurumada Anniversary

On October 6, 2014, I celebrated the 10th Anniversary of the first season of Ring ni Kakero 1's TV anime via Twitter; simple, but just fine. I had planned on doing the same on this day, too, but then I found out something kind of cool: April 6, 2016 marks not just one notable Kurumada-related anniversary, but two.

In what is obviously a case of sheer coincidence, two TV anime based on Masami Kurumada manga debuted on this day. First up was April 6, 1996, which saw the debut of the B't X anime, which ran for 25 episodes until September 21 that same year. It was produced by TMS Entertainment & aired on TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) at 17:30 (5:30 p.m.), taking the place of the Japanese dub of The Oz Kids before being replaced with the first season of You're Under Arrest. Second was April 6, 2006, which saw the debut of the Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen/Put It All in the Ring 1: Japan vs. USA Chapter anime, which ran for 12 episodes until June 22 that same year. It was produced by Toei Animation & aired on TV Asashi during the late-night 26:40-27:10 (2:40-3:10 a.m.) time slot, taking the place of SoltyRei & being replaced later by Binbou Shimai Monogatari/Flat Broke Sisters. Both of these Kurumada anime actually mean a lot to me in terms of establishing just what kind of fan I am when it comes to watching anime & how I view myself as a fan of Kurumada's works in general. Therefore, to celebrate both B't X's 20th Anniversary & Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen's 10th Anniversary, allow me to do something I rarely do here & talk about myself, in particular what these two shows mean to me specifically.

But, first, here's some random trivia about both shows! Why? Because I'm a glutton for pointless trivia, so let me share it & make my thirst for useless info feel like it has a point.

B't X did feature feature staff from Saint Seiya's anime... But not in its most well-known positions.
Upon first glance, it really looks like TMS' B't X anime has nothing in common with Toei's Saint Seiya anime, namely in the production staff. B't X was directed (& head written) by Mamoru Hamatsu, the man behind cult classics like To-Y, B.B. Fish, the original Heroic Legend of Arslan OVAs, & the 2005 TV adaptation of Glass Mask, while Saint Seiya was directed by Toei's venerable Kozo Morishita (eps 1-73; now a very influential producer) & the lesser-known Kazuhito Kikuchi (eps 74-114). B't X's music was by Akira Senju, the maestro behind Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Victory Gundam, Tetsujin 28 [2004], & Valvrave the Liberator, while Seiya was arguably the biggest work in Seiji Yokoyama's career. Finally, the character designs between the two, though based on the same art style, were still visibly different, with Hideyuki Motohashi's interpretation of Kurumada's style being a notable change from that of Shingo Araki & Michi Himeno (who together adapted for Seiya, RnK1, & Fuma no Kojirou). Still, there was a small amount of staff that did work on both shows, though they were in lesser-championed positions.

First up was Eisaku Inoue, who worked as an animation director for both Seiya TV (as well as drew some key animation) & B't X. He also helped Motohashi with some character designs, too, a role he would later do alongside Araki & Himeno for RnK1: Shadow in 2010; Inoue also did some animation direction for Season 1 of RnK1. Another reprisal was for Yoshiyuki Suga, who wrote for Seiya TV, & would later become head writer for the second half of the show, before working with Hamatsu for B't X; likewise, Suga would become head writer for the B't X Neo OVA series. Finally, & most coincidentally, both shows featured Kazuo Yokoyama as a planner/producer. Granted, that's not a position one would normally think of in general, but an it's important one from a behind-the-scenes perspective.  If nothing else, the involvement of these men may have helped the B't X anime maintain a general familiarity for those who saw Saint Seiya first, or even those who did it vice versa, even though so much about them, especially from a visual, auditory, & directorial perspective, were notably different.

RnK1: NKH did have the original director on staff... For one episode.
One thing that must be stated in regards to the anime adaptation of Ring ni Kakero 1 from a production standpoint is the fact that its director's chair was more of a case of musical chairs. Across all four seasons was a total of three different directors: Toshiaki Komura directed the original season in 2004 & Shadow in 2010, Yukio Kaizawa directed Nichibei Kessen-hen in 2006, & Hiroshi Ikehata lead Sekai Taikai-hen in 2011. For two of these directors, RnK1 was some of their earliest work in the position, as Komura had only been a storyboarder & key animator until making his directorial debut with Kinnikuman II-Sei in 2002; he did direct the 1994-1995 hentai Magical Twilight, but I'm sure he doesn't pride himself on that. As for Hiroshi Ikehata, RnK1 was his first major directorial gig, having previously been a gif animator who burst into the anime scene as a bit of a wild card episode director before directing anime short Nogyo Musume! in 2010; he's also the only director to be born after the original RnK manga debuted. Yukio Kaizawa, in comparison, was the hardened veteran, having been a series director for anime ever since 1987's Bikkuriman, as well as being the director for series like Hell Teacher Nube, Shinken Densetsu Tight Road, & both Digimon Tamers & Frontier before helming RnK1's second season.

As for why Komura didn't return for Nichibei Kessen-hen, it was likely because he was already directing 2006-2007's Pretty Cure Splash Star by the time the show debuted in April, but he still managed to be involved with the (then) new season in one minor way. Episode 1 of the show, which re-established the main characters & main rival of the season, US Junior Champion Black Shaft, was actually storyboarded by Toshiaki Komura, though he didn't direct the episode itself; that would be done by Koji Yoshikawa, who would go on to direct Tenchi Muyo!: War on Geminar. It really doesn't mean much from an overall standpoint, but Komura being willing to storyboard the first episode shows that, had his schedule been open at the time, he may have directed Season 2 himself. While I have grown to like this season more than before via a recent re-watch, I still think it would have been better if Komura was directing it.

B't X had a T.M. Revolution opening theme... But only in Taiwan & China.
Obviously, the theme songs for anime are made specifically for one specific audience & nation, and that is Japan. Therefore, it's no surprise, especially in the 90s, for anime to receive completely different theme songs for when they get aired in other territories & nations. Still, it is odd to have said different theme song still be from Japan, yet used only for that country's closest neighbor, China; that includes Taiwan, too. While not the man's first ever song to be used for anime, that would be 1996's "Heart of Sword - Yoake Mae" for Rurouni Kenshin, a young T.M. Revolution had his second anime theme in the form of B't X's China/Taiwan-exclusive opener, "High Pressure" from mid-1997.

Sadly, I can't find any video showing what the actual OP itself looked like, so above is a video I made combining the original OP footage, which was made to go with Fence of Defense's "Haruka ~ Sailing for My Dream", with T.M. Revolution's song; at the very least, it's a rough approximation of what it may have been like. Personally, I prefer the original theme song, as Revolution's theme is just a little too upbeat & poppy for a Masami Kurumada anime, which pretty much always have some sort of rock-styled theme song, but I will admit that it still works well enough, at least via my concept video. If nothing else, one can consider "High Pressure" by T.M. Revolution to be the "Lost Kurumada Anime OP".

RnK1: NKH, like the series as a whole, featured a lot of voices from Tecmo Koei's Warriors Series.
This is mainly due to the fact that both the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime productions & the multitude of Warriors/Musou games utilize talent studio Aoni Production for their casts, but there seriously is a ton of overlap between voice actors for both franchises. Take the five leads who make up Golden Japan Jr., for example. If you refer to their actors by way of their Warriors characters, RnK1's main cast suddenly becomes Pang De (Ryuji), Chosokabe Motochika (Kenzaki), Yukimura Sanada (Ishimatsu), Zhou Tai (Shinatora), & Nagamasa Azai (Kawai). Two of their World Rivals, in turn, become Mitsuhide Akechi (Scorpion) & Hanzo Hattori (Don Juliano). Interestingly enough, Hiro Yuuki (Helga) & Toshiyuki Morikawa (Napoleon) have never done a Warriors game, while Takehito Koyasu (Black Shaft) has only voiced Rei for the two Fist of the North Star-licensed games.

It's when you get to the secondary cast, however, that things get really amusing. Kawai's sister Takako, for example, becomes the Chinese fox spirit Da Ji, Ryuji's surrogate father Zoroku "Tocchan" Omura becomes Zhang Jiao, Juliano's second-in-command Dinobaze is revealed to be Musashi Miyamoto, & the nameless man who commentates during every single fight in the series is, in actuality, Sun Ce (a.k.a. the best character in the entire franchise). Nichibei Kessen-hen, in particular, has two very funny reveals in that Mr. Whitey, the "Emperor of the South" of Shaft's makeshift Team USA (who was originally named after the first Grand Wizard of the KKK in the manga), was the noble Liu Bei all along, while the sensuous Miss Chanel is, appropriately enough, the nine-tailed fox herself, Kyubi. If you're a fan of Tecmo Koei's various Warriors games, I'm sure you would find the sheer amount of carryover to RnK1 to be worth an amusing chuckle, at the very least.

B't X Neo is on the left, Soul of Gold on the right.

Saint Seiya: Soul of Gold's finale made a direct reference to B't X... Neo.
This is a very simple bit of trivia, but a fun one for those who notice it. Since this does involve the finales of both shows, however, I should give a spoiler warning, though I will try to keep it vague & general enough, if possible. Anyway, after the passing of Shingo Araki in late 2011, it suddenly became a little odd to think of any animation company adapting a Masami Kurumada manga; Araki's take on that style had simply become that iconic to fans. So when Toei announced Saint Seiya: Soul of Gold for 2015, the studio did the next best thing by bringing in Hideyuki Motohashi to do the character designs, as he was the only other person, aside from Michi Himeno, to directly adapt Kurumada's art style to animation. The end result was that the Gold Saints from the original manga, who were now the main characters, did look visibly different from how the Araki/Himeno duo would have drawn them, but they still looked like how fans generally visualized them for the past 29 years.

Still, while Motohashi was the sole major staff member from B't X to work on Soul of Gold, the staff behind last year's show still decided to toss in a reference to the way the B't X anime as a whole ended off back in 1998. In the last scene of SoG's final episode, Asgardian maiden Lyfia, who had become a sort-of love interest to Leo Aiolia during the show, regales the young children of Asgard the tale of the brave Gold Saints who came to their land to save it from harm. Said scene is very similar, both in style & visuals, to the last scene of Neo's finale episode, where former Area soldier Karin regales the young children of Spirit General Foh Rafine's church the tale of how the brave warriors & their B'ts saved the land from absolute destruction. SoG's version of the scene works very well for those unfamiliar with the reference, but those who have seen Neo's finale will find the call back to be very cool & nice to see. Granted, Neo's take on said scene is the better version, mainly because the hauntingly beautiful "Hitomi wa Ikusen no Mado" by Aki Hata is playing during it, but SoG's is both a graceful way to end off a very enjoyable original side story to the original Seiya manga as well as a great reference to an outstanding alternate anime ending to Kurumada's manga of the 90s.

Not an actual photo of Ring ni Kakero 1's writing team.

All four seasons of Ring ni Kakero 1 were written by only three people.
While the director's chair for RnK1's anime adaptation was occupied by three different people across its four seasons, there were still some unchanging constants. Obviously, Michi Himeno & the late Shingo Araki were always on board as character designers (with Sekai Taikai-hen being Araki's last major work, as he supposedly did so some animation for the first episode of Saint Seiya Omega before passing), & Susumu Ueda was always brought back to do new additions to the musical score, but the final constant was the writing team. When an anime receives multiple seasons, each of which (in this case) were produced from anywhere between one to four years apart, the idea of having every single season feature the same exact writing staff seems to be a little too much. Sure, having the same person in charge of series composition (i.e. the head writer) is more than reasonable, but maintaining the same exact writing staff is a bit tougher, especially across (essentially) seven years. Still, that's exactly what Ring ni Kakero 1 did, and it did so with only three writers.

In my old reviews for each season I brought up the head writer himself, Yosuke Kuroda. The founder of Studio Orphee, a collective of anime writers, Kuroda is one of the most well-regarded writers in the industry, heading up the series composition for beloved anime like Honey & CloverGungrave, Big Windup!, Gundam Build Fighters, Please Teacher! & Twins!, Trigun, Tenchi Muyo!, & s-CRY-ed. One aspect of the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime I find interesting, & may help explain why it is so enjoyable for me, is the fact that a lot of the people involved in it were roughly in the right age range for the original manga when it ran Shonen Jump from 1977-1981, & Kuroda is one of those very people; he was nine when the first chapter originally ran. Overall, it just always felt like many of those involved had a deep respect & appreciation for that series. As for the two writers working alongside Kuroda, there was Noboru Kimura, who headed up shows like Amagami SS+, Dan Doh!!, Dragonar Academy, & Nyaruko: Crawling with Love! (a mixed line-up, sadly), & Hideki Shirane, head writer for anime like Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (a.k.a. "DanMachi"), Girl's High, & Date A Live, and both are former Studio Orphee members. Keeping the writing staff so small & unchanging really helped keep everything nice & focused, and it's simply another aspect that I've grown to appreciate for the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime.

Anyway, let's get serious. Why am I even bothering to celebrate the anniversaries of two anime that most people couldn't care less about? Because B't X & RnK1: NKH, respectively, made me a fan of Masami Kurumada & pushed me to be willing to watch anime in Japanese without subtitles.

I guess some new animation is better than nothing, right?

The first time I saw anything regarding Masami Kurumada was back in 2003/2004 when I caught a commercial on Cartoon Network's short-lived Saturday Video Entertainment System block for Knights of the Zodiac. This was DiC's edited localization of Saint Seiya TV, and said commercial immediately made me not want to watch any bit of it. I'm not sure if I ever did see any bit of KotZ on the SVES block, but if I did then it just solidified my immediate dislike for what it was. It wasn't until I first really got into anime in 2004/2005 that I started looking for fansubs of whatever I could find, and one show that did catch my interest was B't X. I was hesitant to give it a try, since it was from the same creator as that show that looked so unappealing to me, but I decided that it was best to not judge B't X on what I later found out was a piss poor localization. In the end, I wound up really enjoying B't X, and even more so for B't X Neo (which still has one of my all-time favorite anime finales of all time), and in doing so it made me willing & interested in one day checking out more anime based on Masami Kurumada manga.

Such a tease... Such an annoying tease.

I decided to check out Ring ni Kakero 1 mainly because my friends were really into Hajime no Ippo, and I wanted to watch a boxing anime as well, but Ippo's massive length was too intimidating; even today, I love Ippo but have only managed to watch ~3/4 of the first anime. In turn, I found RnK1, which was only a single 12-episode season at that point, and seeing that it was from the same creator as B't X made me more interested in checking it out. I became a fan of the show relatively quickly, but, unfortunately, by the time I saw the fansubs (late 2005-ish) only nine episodes of the show were actually subbed into English. I decided to buy a cheap bootleg DVD set back then to finish Season 1, because by then I heard word of a second season debuting in Spring 2006. Knowing that the fansubs for Season 1 wouldn't be finished by then, I decided that I would watch Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen without subtitles, or what's often nicknamed "raw"; eventually, Season 1 would be fully fansubbed... After Season 2 was fully subbed. Around the time that show was running, I was also taking my first (& only) Japanese class in college, and luckily the series as a whole tells its story well enough visually that I could still follow & understand what was going on on a basic level. After RnK1: NKH finished airing, I was anticipating a third season in 2008 (another two year wait, obviously), but when that didn't happen I more or less put the series behind me while I finally put my focus towards Saint Seiya by reading Viz's release of the manga; I really enjoyed everything that I saw from RnK1, but I left it in the back of my mind. It wouldn't be until the first hint of a new RnK1 anime in early 2009, which came true in Spring 2010, that I really got back into the series & became the big fan that I am now.
Once again, I wound up saying a hell of a lot more than I had planned, but I guess that just shows how much I care about this stuff, even if it often feels like only I care about them. If it wasn't for Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen then I may not have been quite as willing to try watching anime without subtitles, forcing me to become better at understanding Japanese in general, and if it wasn't for B't X then I may have never even checked out the first season of Ring ni Kakero 1, so these two anime do mean a lot to me as a fan of anime (& manga, too). Sure, it's my own bizzaro, personal story, but that's just how it is for me.

Will either of these two series ever see new anime productions, minus the new animation made solely for the 2012 & 2013 pachislot/pachinko machines that Ring ni Kakero 1 & B't X received, respectively? I really don't want to say, simply because we've always been shown that truly anything can happen when it comes to anime. At the very least, B't X's ideal timing came & went in 2014 (the manga's 20th Anniversary), but Ring ni Kakero 1 has, in my opinion, one last chance at perfect timing next year for the manga's 40th Anniversary. Still, one should consider how Fuma no Kojirou looks through the new animation it received for the brand new pachinko machine that came out only a couple of months ago...

At least the new Marina del ray songs made for it are exquisite...

I'm not saying that it looks terrible, especially since this was simply the least obscured image I could grab from the promo video, but it definitely is a different look from that of Shingo Araki or Hideyuki Motohashi... There's no denying that.

Happy 20th Anniversary, B't X TV!
Happy 10th Anniversary, Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen!

*Yeah, I know that Saint Seiya is celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year... But I want to see what is actually being done to celebrate it in Japan in a notable way before doing it myself.*

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