New to the Site? Click Here for a Primer!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Star Dust: "Mr. Itano, Will This Be on the Final Exam?" "THIS IS THE FINAL EXAM!!!"

Ichiro Itano may not exactly be on the lips of the general anime fan, but for those who admire sleek & stylish animation of the 80s, then this man is one of the most cherished & beloved. After graduating high school in the 70s, Itano eventually joined the anime industry, becoming an animator for the original Mobile Suit Gundam, both the innovative 1979-1980 TV series & the 1981-1982 movie trilogy. He would make his name truly known, though, when he was offered a spot over at Studio Nue to help work on 1982-1983's Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. While working as a mechanical animation director (i.e. he oversaw how the giant robots animated), Itano decided to give the iconic Valkyries a little something extra whenever they fired their missiles. Simply firing off a lot of missiles at once did nothing for Itano, so he decided that every one of them would fly all over the place while in transport, with each having its own specific trajectory & motion. While he technically had done this visual flair before Macross, it was this anime's portrayal that would lead to it being deemed the "Itano Circus", which is now what any sort of wild & crazy multi-trajectory projectile scene is called, regardless of whether it was animated by the man or not (yes, even Pokémon has done it). Not many people have an actual example of animation named after them, so props to Itano.


Itano would eventually direct his own anime, as well, & I even previously reviewed his directorial debut when I wrote about Megazone 23 Part II International. His successive resumé in the director's chair is admittedly pretty small compared to other legends, with only Battle Royal High School, Violence Jack: Evil Town, Kujaku-Oh 2, & the infamous Angel Cop, followed by a large hiatus for the most part. Sure, he did the occasional bit of animation direction or "special direction" during the 90s, mainly for Macross-related products, but Itano didn't actually return to directing until the mid-00s, when he headed up Gantz & Blassreiter for Gonzo; after that, he's assisted on anime here & there. The man's hiatus was mostly because he wound up becoming a teacher, working at Yoyogi Animation Academy, "YoAni" for short. It was seemingly while working at YoAni that Ichiro Itano wound up directing what it easily his most unknown & forgotten work. It's so obscure that I never even heard of it once until a few months ago, when a VHS rip found its way online, there's no entry for it at all over at ANN's Encyclopedia, Wikipedia Japan has nothing on it, I can't find any cover art or even an Amazon Japan listing, & I didn't even realize Itano was involved with it until somewhat recently.

So let's see if there's anything special about Star Dust, a 30-minute OVA from 1992 that was seemingly a pet project done by Itano & his very own YoAni students.

In 2022, mankind deemed that Earth had become too inundated with garbage to store it there anymore, so it was decided to use space itself, with the Sun being the seemingly perfect incinerator. Over the next forty years, however, the League of Nations changed its position, for fear that using the Sun would eventually cause more harm than good, like creating massive solar flares, so it decided to use Jupiter as a proper dumping ground & formed the Cosmo Ecology Space Guard to manage transport. It is now 2061, and Cosmo Ecology space freighters have to worry about being attacked by outlaw sects that still use the Sun to dump radioactive waste. One of these freighters is home to Tsutomu Saki, a pacifist pilot who doesn't seem to be all that good at anything. When fellow pilot Robert Ryan is pinned down by an outlaw soldier named Jimmy Dean while the crew visits a satellite wreckage, though, Saki becomes the only person who can help Ryan, though Saki hopes to put an end to everything peacefully.


Star Dust is a bit of an anomaly when I really start thinking about it, especially through its very existence. Just think about it for a moment & you'll likely get what I mean, but allow me to explain for a bit. This is essentially the 30-minute anime equivalent of a student film, which in & of itself isn't odd, because I'm sure there are plenty of animation students that have made their own films in order to showcase what they've learned. What makes Star Dust odd, however, is the fact that this is a student film that was directed by an experienced & respected animator, which itself isn't traditional of a student film, & was seemingly made to be sold as a commercial product for purchase on VHS. Hell, there's an advertisement (just above) that promoted Star Dust alongside Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (the use of the same term in their names was likely a complete coincidence), which was also seeing release at the same time. Not only that, but Star Dust's OST was also being sold on CD, which just feels all the more bizarre. Maybe it's just me, but I honestly find the very existence of Star Dust, a seeming student film that was advertised & sold alongside major products, to be mind boggling. In that regard, what's this OVA even like?

Well, to be blunt, it's simply okay. I'll admit that I am giving this OVA a little leeway, mainly because of where it came from, but even then it's a fairly middle-of-the-road product; it's not terrible by any means, and it even has one or two interesting things about it, but it's also not great. It's a very simple story, focusing on how Saki's seemingly useless knowledge & reading of technology winds up being the way he & Ryan can take on Jimmy Dean when it seems like all hope is lost. Saki is really showcased initially as a pathetic member of Cosmo Ecology, who can't even guide a new shipment of trash into the appropriate vessel without causing damage to the vessel itself, yet can describe so much about the technology behind what they use in enough techno-babble to make Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation proud. In fact, the lack of any English translation for the OVA makes the first third or so a little tricky, since it's obvious that so much techno-babble & politicizing is used in the script that I could only get a very basic grasp of what exactly was happening & why. The synopsis I wrote a couple of paragraphs up came from me having to use Google Translate on a basic description that I could find over at allcinema.net, which was literally the only place I could fine online that actually had any real info on this OVA.


Luckily, once Ryan & his squad go into action against Jimmy Dean, who I don't even think was even mentioned by name in the anime itself (so I'm only guessing that I identified the character correctly), the story becomes much easier to follow & enjoy. Seeing Saki man up & go out into the battlefield & assist Ryan, while his ship took a few hits at that, was neat, and Saki's general ideal of peaceful resolution is a complete change from what usually comes about in stories like these in anime. Indeed, Saki & Ryan manage to simply incapacitate Jimmy Dean before actually going over to him in person & try to take him in peacefully instead of letting him go through with his "die via self-destructing his ship" plan. In fact, this moment feels very much like the finale, so much so that the next couple of minutes at the end, which show Saki & Co. trying to make it back in time before a rogue solar flare potentially gets them killed, feel like padding. While I didn't quite know what to expect going into this, I certainly didn't expect it to go in such a nonviolent direction. This is even more shocking when you consider who directed this.

If you take the Itano Circus out of consideration, there's one thing Ichiro Itano is mostly known for, and that's hyper-violence. Just look at the titles I mentioned in the second paragraph, because every one of them is known for featuring at least some modicum of blood, gore, & some sort of evisceration of the human body. Itano even managed to include hyper-violence into Megazone 23 Part II, which really didn't need any in the first place (& was even excised from some versions, like the DVD version of International I reviewed), and while I haven't seen any of Blassreiter, I wouldn't be surprised if that was pretty violent, as well. Therefore, Star Dust becomes even more of an anomaly, because there isn't any violence to be seen at all, hyper or regular; even the deaths of Ryan's comrades by Jimmy Dean are nothing more than ship explosions. This is especially amazing, considering that Itano himself not only directed, but also storyboarded & wrote the entire thing; this is Ichiro Itano at his most peaceful. Also, there is not a single instance of the Itano Circus to be found here, instead focusing more on everyone firing off single laser blasts from their ships. This is likely due more to the fact that this anime was fully animated by students, who were likely not experienced enough to really handle detailed scenes like the use of a Circus.


I have no idea how many students Itano had while at Yoyogi Animation Academy when Star Dust was produced, or even how many were at the school in total, but I will admit that I think Itano gave as many students a chance with this OVA. Including Itano & character designer/animation director Toshimitsu Kobayashi, this OVA featured 13 key animators, which feels a bit much for 30 minutes of animation, but that's nothing compared to the 130 people utilized for the in-between animation! No joke, it literally takes the ending credits 33 seconds to list every single animator, key & in-betweener. Adding in the staff/students used for backgrounds, cel usage, & the like, Star Dust has roughly 300 animation-related credits to its name, and I'm not checking to see if there's any overlap there (i.e. people who did more than one job). Even with that many people working on the animation, there is the occasional gaffe, like Cosmo Ecology's Captain Ray Fox being shown as having no head in a behind shot because the animators accidentally put his hat above his chair when it should be right on top of it. There was also a shot early on where Saki tossed Fox an item, and because of dust that wasn't removed you could literally tell that the animators simply moved the cel to simulate the item moving to Fox. Also, lip flaps are pretty rigid & rough; the timing is fine, but they just don't animate quite as smoothly as they would in a more professional production. These are not things I should be noticing, especially since I don't really go looking for animation errors like these, but since this was animated by non-professional students, I'm going to give it a bye. At least there is the occasional moment which looks really nice, and those are obviously the parts that Itano & Kobayashi animated themselves.

Speaking of Toshimitsu Kobayashi (Spice & Wolf II, Knight Hunters Eternity), his character designs actually aren't bad at all, with a bit of a mix between more traditional Japanese designs & more of a western visual motif for some characters; this is especially noticeable between characters like Saki & Ryan. Star Dust also managed to have some other professional involvement outside of the animation itself, likely due to the involvement of producers Toshihiro Nagao (Leda - The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko, Windaria) & Hideaki Kaneko (The Weathering Continent), as well as Yukio Hosono (who has no other anime credits to his name & was likely a YoAni employee that acted on behalf of the school). For example, the music that was deemed worthy of its own soundtrack release was composed by Junichi Kanezaki (Mashin Eiyuden Wataru, Lord of Lords Ryu Knight), and while it's nothing memorable after you've finished watching the OVA, it's not terrible by any means & fits the space motif well enough. Hell, this OVA even managed to snag the venerable & iconic MIO (now MIQ) for the ending theme. Said theme, "Piece of Love", is a excellent ballad that is so unknown among her other anime songs that even her own Wikipedia Japan page doesn't list it.

Lucille Crayson is forever judging you until you decide to man up.

I'm sure Nagao & Kaneko were also how Star Dust managed to feature an entire cast of professional voice actors, most of them very well known. Saki is voiced by Taiki Matsuno (Hajime Kindaichi in Kindaichi Case Files, Ling Tong in the Warriors Series), who sounds appropriately nerdy & pacifist. Ryan is voiced by Kazuki Yao, who sounds exactly as one would expect Kazuki Yao to sound, and he works fine for the character. Bridge monitor Lucille Crayson, who's critical of Saki until the very end, is performed by Miina Tominaga (Senritsu in Hunter X Hunter [2011], Noa Izumi in Patlabor), who sounds just as fine as anyone else, with her character's critical nature coming across well. Ray Fox is performed by the late Hidetoshi Nakamura (Seth in The King of Fighters, Messina in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure TV), who delivers a workable commanding performance as captain. Jimmy Dean (at least, who I think this is) is voiced by Kyousei Tsukui (Straight Cougar in s-CRY-ed), who is fittingly soldier-like & ready to die for his cause. The rest of the cast is made up of the likes of Nozomu Sasaki & Yuji Mitsuya (Jet Mars & Dennis Brown, Ryan's comrades), Toshiya Ueda (Jean Carlo Neeny, Fox's superior), & Hideyuki Umezu (Saddam Kabran, Jimmy Dean's captain), among some others. Like everything else about this OVA, the cast do their jobs, but none of them in particular go above & beyond.

I'm amazed I could fine a VHS cover in as good quality as this is.

I've reviewed some really damn obscure anime on this blog, but probably none of them are as much of a bizarre anomaly of a production as Star Dust. Considering that this was animated by ~300 students who were attending Yoyogi Animation Academy, & were likely being taught by Ichiro Itano, I still can't quite wrap my mind around this being released as a commercial product in a market that had just come out of the OVA bubble; Japan's Bubble Economy crashed right at the start of 1992, the year this anime came out. This was essentially a student film, yet it was directed by an icon known for dialing the violence level up to 11 (but is actually the opposite of that), featured characters designs, animation direction, & music by professionals, utilized a voice cast filled with notable names, & was deemed worthy of being marketed (at least once) next next to a Gundam production, one of the more notable ones, at that. This never seemed to receive anything more than a VHS release in Japan, & due to its rather generic title (even with a space between words) it's next to impossible to find any copy of it online; I've searched Amazon Japan & even Yahoo! Auctions Japan, & got nothing. Sadly, the pedigree of its animation staff essentially matches the quality of the OVA as a whole, because it really isn't anything special; it's average, at best. If you're a giant fan of Ichiro Itano then it's worth a watch, and maybe if you're just curious about said "pedigree", but this is far from being a hidden gem in Ichiro Itano's catalog, like B.B Burning Blood was for Osamu Dezaki.

In other words, there's good reason why no one remembers Star Dust.

No comments:

Post a Comment