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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Matchless Raijin-Oh OVAs: Time to Get Kids to Make Their Parents Buy Them Anime on Home Video!

It's November on The Land of Obscusion, so for the fifth time we are celebrating Mecha Month! I've got the first Super Robot Wars game review from me in four years in the pipeline, but before I bring back something for the first time in years, I feel I should put an end to something that's kind of become an accidental tradition for Mecha Month. It's time to cover the last bit of Matchless Raijin-Oh ever made.

While the first Mecha Month in 2012 was admittedly kind of lackluster (though it did feature my last SRW review until "soon"), for the second I decided to start things off by reviewing the first half of the first entry in the Eldoran Series, Sunrise's co-production with Tomy after the success of the Brave Series with Takara. I mainly did so because Anime Midstream, the small-time company that was bringing it over one DVD per year since 2009, had finally gotten to Volume 5 & decided that the English dub it was producing would stop there; since I had no idea when the rest would come out (if at all, even) I decided to play it safe & review "Season 1" right then & there, and it was a fun & always enjoyable ride of a show. To my surprise, Anime Midstream would release all of the second half in a single sub-only boxset the next year, so Mecha Month 3 started off with my review of "Season 2", which I found just at great & even felt was worthy of deeming the show an "Honorary Brave". With that out of the way, I decided to bring everything full circle & close out Mecha Month 4 with a review of the anime adaptation of Mohiro Kitoh's manga Bokurano, which was essentially the complete & utter deconstruction of everything that Matchless Raijin-Oh was. There was one last bit of Raijin-Oh I could potentially cover, but figured to not worry myself over; I'll get to them when I get to them, essentially. Well, at Otakon this year I found a complete laserdisc set of these last products, so what better way to put an end to my Raijin-Oh reviews (& close a chapter of Mecha Month) than to finally watch & review the OVAs that were produced after the show finished airing in Japan?

The week following the final episode of Matchless Raijin-Oh saw the debut of the second Eldoran anime, the comedy-focused Genki Bakuhatsu/Energy Bomb Ganbarugar, but the original series had been a great success for Sunrise & Tomy, so while producing the new series they decided to make some OVAs for the first series, with help from Youmex for distribution. This is pretty surprising, to be honest, because the OVA market was not really meant for children, and no Brave anime would see any sort of OVA continuation until late-1997's Brave Command Dagwon: The Boy with Crystal Eyes; this is proof positive of how popular & influential Raijin-Oh was in Japan. From mid-1992 to early 1993 a trio of Raijin-Oh OVA episodes were released, all taking place after the end of the original TV series & actually running concurrently with Ganbarugar; in fact, these OVAs had "official" episode #s to them. What Sunrise did was make believe that another 53 episodes were in fact produced, even listing the names of every single one of them across all three OVA releases, & even naming the various Jaku Beasts that were created in most of them. These fake episodes included "Earth is an Akudama?" (Episode 52, Earthdama), "Jin Hyuga Becomes a Woman?" (Episode 55, Okaman), "Aim for the Idol!" (Episode 77, Hell Beauty), "Bakuryu-Oh Defeated" (Episode 80, Jaku Bakuryu-Oh), "The Great Christmas Battle!" (Episode 90, Jaku Santa), & "Save Belzeb!" (Episode 99, Dark Falzeb), with some of them actually being told via audio dramas & one of them was even shown partially during a cameo appearance the EDC makes in Episode 17 of Ganbarugar. The OVAs themselves take place during the latter half of this hypothetical sequel, so let's simply cover each of them individually.

Okay, so there are technically four Raijin-Oh OVAs, but the first is not worth an actual review (hell, it's technically not even considered part of the actual OVA series) but I'll cover it quickly for completion's sake. Released on August 5, 1992, Class 5-3 Memorial is literally nothing but a quartet of music videos sung by Maria (Konami Yoshida), Asuka (Rie Iwatsubo), Kouji (Mari Maruta), & Jin (Rica Matsumoto). It starts with the TV anime's ending theme, "Chikyu Boueigumi Ouenka", alongside a roll call of all 18 members of the Earth Defense Class, followed by "Susume, Chikyu Boueigumi", a Maria-led song about the EDC as a whole, complete with her & Jin arguing before both choruses. After that is "Kimi to Boku no Soyokaze", where Asuka essentially sings coyly about him & a nameless girl, playing up his seeming status as the playboy of the class (even though he's intensely uncomfortable when girls group around him). Up third is "Uchuu no Tomodachi", a ballad Kouji sings about being welcoming & friendly to any & all extraterrestrials, which matches Kouji's obsession with finding proof of life outside of Earth... Even though he deals with not-of-this-world beings on a regular basis as one of the pilots of Raijin-Oh. Finally, the OVA ends with "Bokura no Hero - Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh", which is technically about the giant robot itself but doubles here as a Jin-focused music video, followed by end credits set to "Mirai wa Itsumo Bokura ga Hero - Dream Shift Ballad Version", a synth-instrumental ballad take on the anime's excellent opening theme. Afterwards, there's an "Omake" featuring commercials for the VHS & LD release, OSTs, Drama CD, & (then-upcoming) first OVA. In the end, this OVA's entire purpose was to act as a reminder of what the original TV series was like, while also pimping out a small portion of the songs that were produced in relation to it (seriously, there were a ton of songs made for this anime); it's the 90s equivalent of Dancougar: Jyusenki-tai Songs, except without any new animation to be seen. This OVA is nothing more than the appetizer to a main course.

Up first for the actual OVAs is Operation First Love!, which came out on September 30, 1992. This acts as Episode 76 & introduces some of the new elements that are the main focus of the OVAs. The EDC is now Class 6-3 (everyone's a whole year older), & they have a new villain in the form of Gokudo, a Fifth Dimensional being who has come to avenge Jaku Emperor Warusa & has sealed Belzeb on his back as a tattoo. The episode in particular features a Jaku Beast named Hatsukoi, which can make anyone & anything fall in love with the first person or thing it sees, including having the Moon fall in love with the Earth, resulting in it making a beeline to collide with the planet. The episode also doubles as a character-focused piece on class president Hiroshi, who harbors a crush on fellow EDC classmate Cookie, but is hesitant to admit his feelings, especially when Jin, Yoppa, & Akira start egging him on publicly. It's only made worse when Cookie falls madly in love with Yoppa, though no one realizes it's because of Hatsukoi.

Even though it's essentially taking place in the middle of this hypothetical second season, this episode does everything it needs as a real continuation of the original series while also feeling immediately familiar to fans of what came before. In fact, if anything, this episode feels just a little too traditional in that regard, since it doesn't really do anything new for the most part; this could have easily been an episode in the TV series with some minor changes. Still, the episode at least gives Gokudo a strong debut, having his sword-shaped base first appear as if it stabbed straight through the Moon, & his Belzeb-sealing back tattoo is pretty impressive; Falzeb, in turn, is more or less stuck at the base, hoping her comrade can be rescued. Still, if there's one thing that one can expect from "traditional" Raijin-Oh, it's that it's anything but what you'd expect, which this episodes shows well. In true fashion for the show, the concept of making anything fall in love at first sight has no limit, making Miss Himeki fall in love with Principal Yazawa (to the despair of Mr. Shinoda, natch), a statue of KFC's Col. Sanders fall in love with a random passerby, a high-rise fall in love with the neighboring building, & even creating a slight love-triangle between Kouji, Asuka, & Jin during the initial battle; of course, there's also the whole "Moon falls in love with the Earth" thing, too. Some see the Jin-Kouji-Asuka bit as the show poking fun at its fanbase, which apparently may have done some shipping between characters back in the day; to be honest, this is believable. In the end, Operation First Love! is a fun episode & a good return for Raijin-Oh.

The second OVA is Hinobori Castle Clockwork Dream Diary, which saw release on December 16, 1992. This is technically Episode 81 & re-imagines the entire show as if takes place in the Edo Era of Japan; the very end reveals this as a story Kouji made up & tells his class, if the title didn't hint at it. The story itself focuses on Asuka, who claims to be a master swordsman to his classmates but in reality is terrible at it. It's his hatred of samurai & swordsmanship that unknowingly creates the Jaku Beast Chanbara, and though he at first tries to be a student of Chanbara, Asuka soon realizes what the master swordsman really is. Without a doubt, this second OVA is one of the absolute best episodes of Matchless Raijin-Oh as a whole, if not the best episode in the entire series. Part of that comes from how fun it is to see everything reworked so that it can take place in Edo Era Japan, with the Department of Defense having to rely on muskets & cannons, the class having to take swordsmanship classes via Kendo shinai (though I doubt the actual era had girls learn alongside the boys), and Belzeb, Falzeb, & Taida are even brought back as their old villainous trio. Even better, the kids are still more or less the same, with only minor alterations, like Tsutomu now being a clockwork whiz, or Hidenori re-imagined as the son of a lord, complete with a partially shaved head.

What really sells the episode best, though, is the sheer amount of detail given in how the team at Sunrise brought Raijin-Oh to the Edo Era, with the result being the absolutely outstanding Giant Clockwork Raijin-Oh (this time using kanji that reads "Lightning God King"), which is what Hinobori Castle itself transforms into. The story, though establishing everyone as knowing about Jaku Beasts, has the kids first find out about & operate Raijin-Oh, and in turn the viewer gets to see how exactly you turn a giant robot into a giant, clockwork-operated machine. In short, it takes the entire EDC to operate, so while Jin, Kouji, & Asuka are still the main pilots, the other kids do things like moving the legs, shoot out the Raijin Sword (this time literally named the "Raijinken"), or use bicycles to generate the electricity needed to even start up the giant. It's a veritable tinkerer's dream, and those who love seeing every little detail being showcased will be in heaven here; hell, it uses a giant barrel filled with fireworks to fly around! There is just so much thought & detail put into literally just seconds of animation at a time in this OVA that I can't help but fall in love with it. It's similar to one reason why I enjoyed Clockwork Fighters: Hiwou's War, which utilized clockwork-themed "robots" in Meiji Era Japan. In all honesty, I could potentially dedicate an entire review for this OVA alone, because it's just that good.

In fact, this OVA would be referenced in Super Robot Wars GC, as you can unlock the Giant Clockwork Raijin-Oh as an optional replacement for the usual Raijin-Oh. That's pretty cool, I'd say.

Finally, the OVA series ends with Everyone is the Earth Defense Class, which was released on February 24, 1993, the same exact day the final episode of Energy Bomb Ganbarugar originally aired. Just like how the successor series was ending on the same day, this final OVA acts as Episode 104 & is the overall finale to all of Raijin-Oh. Class 6-3 is getting ready to graduate from elementary school to middle school, and with that comes the idea that they won't be the Earth Defense Class anymore, seeing that the school itself is the base that holds & operates Raijin-Oh & Bakuryu-Oh; Jin, however, doesn't want it to end. Unfortunately for the class, though, Gokudo invades their very classroom at that moment, having finally been told by Falzeb where the EDC's base is located; she was (falsely) promised that Belzeb would be released from his tattoo prison in return. Making things worse, Falzeb steals Maria's badge before she could activate the control room, leaving the EDC helpless. Half of the class manages to escape capture & get out of the school, but shortly afterwards Reiko accidentally quips that Eldoran may be the biggest nuisance of all, which results in an Akudama turning into Waldoran, which can spawn half-sized recreations of previous Jaku Beasts. It's the EDC's final mission as they have to regain their control room, rescue Belzeb from his imprisonment, & defeat Gokudo in order to save the Earth one last time.

I'm a bit mixed when it comes to this ("absolutely") final episode of Raijin-Oh. Conceptually, it's great, with Gokudo really showing off how dangerous he can really be in how easily he manages to manipulate Falzeb & capture half of the EDC (& later all but Jin), essentially giving him the victory. The idea of a Jaku Beast based on Eldoran is also simply the only real conclusion you can really have when it comes to how to put an end to the Akudama menace. The episode itself is also pretty nice, with great pacing & a nonstop execution, as well as taking into consideration at least one seemingly obvious idea by having the kids try enlisting Taida for help; naturally, though, he's essentially useless. There's even a nice reference to the earliest episodes of the TV series when Jin uses the Ryubikakyu/Flying Dragon Kick on Gokudo, with Jin trying to learn it being the focal point of Episode 4. Overall it's a fun & good finale that puts a bow on the entire Raijin-Oh package, but the main problem is that, to go off of the metaphor, the bow could have been tied a fair bit nicer.

The fact of the matter is that there is easily enough ideas & content in this final OVA to have stretched it out across two episodes. Especially when taking into consideration that the original TV series essentially had a finale that took three episodes to tell, condensing the final final episode into just one is kind of rough, and this hurts Gokudo the most. Since the second OVA was a fictional story that had nothing to do with Gokudo, this new villain only gets two episodes to make an impact, and while he does an especially good job with what little he has, you wind up feeling that he deserved more. Hell, Gokudo's focus in this episode comes at the expense of Waldoran, who honestly becomes an afterthought almost immediately after he appears; he spawns some mini-Jaku Beasts & then promptly becomes forgotten until the very end. Considering that these recreated Jaku Beasts could seemingly be hurt by even the military, Sunrise could have easily stretched this out across two episodes. Have the first episode feature Gokudo's capture of the EDC, the accidental creation of Waldoran, & the free kids try to deal with both problems however they can, while the second episode could be about freeing Belzeb, have him take on Waldoran to show his full redemption, & then have plenty of time left over to deal with the final battle with Gokudo. Hell, Gokudo's final gambit is to have his giant sword base cleave the Earth in two, yet that, Gokudo, & his Jaku Lucifer mech are dealt with instantly upon the reveal. On its own, Everyone is the Earth Defense Class works well enough as a finale to everything, and is easily the second best OVA of the bunch, but could have easily been better on the whole.

It goes without saying, but the Matchless Raijin-Oh OVAs feature essentially all of the main staff that worked on the original TV series, so Toshifumi Kawase was series director, Hideki Sonoda did series composition, Kouhei Tanaka did the music, Akira Takeuchi did character designs, & Takahiro Yamada did mech designs. Visually, the OVAs looks more or less like how the TV series does, only with maybe a little better video quality & some extra bits of animation here & there, but only just. One nice touch, though, is that all of the kids have updated wardrobes, and the small artbook that came with one of the LDs even shows that they've all grown as well, since it's a year later. Gokudo's design, though, is really nice, coming off as Edo Era clothing with a yakuza motif, and the Belzeb-sealing tattoo does look pretty cool, honestly. As for people who worked specifically on these three main OVAs, Operation First Love! was episode directed by Ikuro Sato (Episode 4 of Space Dandy), while Naoki Ishikawa (Episodes 86-92 & the OVA of Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's) directed the other two. While Sonoda wrote all three episodes here, he did enlist the help of Satoru Nishizono for Hinobori Castle Clockwork Dream Diary, while Yuji Yamaguchi storyboarded it. Nishizono would go on to be head writer for the likes of Haunted Junction & Psychic Squad, while Yamaguchi would eventually be series director for Studio DEEN's Fate/stay night TV anime & movie. Tanaka's music is mostly the same as before, though the second episode features a lot of new arrangements in order to fit the kind of instruments that would have been used in Edo Era Japan, and they all sound awesome.

The opening theme is still "Dream Shift", which is still an excellent song, while the first two episodes still use "Chikyuu Boueigumi Ouenka", which is likewise a fun song. The final episode, however, changes things up by using "FRIENDS" by Rica Matsumoto, Rie Iwatsubo, & Mari Maruta, which is a ballad that fits the theme of how everyone in the EDC went from being simply classmates to being true friends, and the use of a montage of each child's moment of focus during the TV series works extremely well with it. In terms of voice work, everyone involved with the TV series by the time it ended returns, with the only new voice being Akio Ohtsuka (Hades in Saint Seiya Hades Elysion, Blackbeard in One Piece), who fits Gokudo perfectly and is more proof that the character deserved more screentime. Even the voices of Hatsukoi & Chanbara, Kazue Komiya & Shozo Iizuka, are technically returning actors, as they did either bit roles or other Jaku Beasts in the TV series.

Matchless Raijin-Oh is a mech anime that I always had an interest in when I first heard of it back when I first found out about Super Robot Wars GC, which was the first time the anime was used in Banpresto's iconic crossover franchise. When Anime Midstream announced that it would be bringing it over back in 2008, I was excited because I never thought I'd get the chance to really see it. When I finally finished watching the TV series back in 2014 I was glad to say that the show was every bit as good & enjoyable as I had hoped it would be, and often it was even better for various reasons; read my reviews for more detail on that. Really, though, the TV series told a complete story, which is why I wasn't in any rush to really see these OVAs. In fact, when I saw the LDs at Otakon I initially didn't think much of them, assuming they were for the TV series; it wasn't until I actually pulled one out & really looked that I realized what they were. Having now seen these OVAs, I can definitely say that I'm very happy to have done so, because all three are very good in their own rights, and the second is simply outstanding in the overall scheme of Raijin-Oh. It really makes me wish that there was more of this, because the concept of these being nothing more than three episodes in an entire second series is a cool one, though they do work on their own as well. Hopefully one day Anime Midstream will license these OVAs, but for now I can live with my LDs.

And so it comes that I have no choice but to retire Matchless Raijin-Oh here on The Land of Obscusion, as I literally have nothing else that I can actually review properly, i.e. I can't review audio dramas. I really do hope that this series may wind up on some sort of streaming service, like CrunchyRoll or Daisuki, for easier accessibility, but until then I still say that Anime Midstream's five DVD singles & second season boxset are well worth the investment. If you enjoy mech anime & love it when a show features a wild imagination, then Matchless Raijin-Oh definitely fits that bill perfectly.

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