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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Nora: Bubbly, Charming, Reckless, That Girl!

It's taken six years, but we're almost there: 200 reviews on The Land of Obscusion. Sure, it isn't technically 200 individual anime, manga, or anime/manga-based productions, but it's still 200 reviews. As always with my milestone reviews, I have something that's (to my knowledge) absolutely terrible yet fairly damn obscure in mind for Review #200, and it may very well be the worst of them all; that's really something considering what I've reviewed for my previous three milestones. Anyway, we still have one more review to go, #199, before we hit that milestone, so it's only appropriate that, before I torture myself as a form of celebration for the fourth time, we take a look at what came directly before it.

Satomi Mikuriya is a mangaka who made his debut back in 1970 with the manga Black Sword. He would go on to be involved in both manga & anime, first being the man behind the original concepts for the two Arthurian legend-based Blazing Arthur anime TV series from 1979-1980, the first of which saw American release under the name King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table. Later, he would provide designs on the Crusher Joe movie, Odin - Starlight Mutiny, & Phoenix 2772: Space Firebird, direct the (instantly outdated) CG in the intro to Golgo 13: The Professional, and have his unfinished SF manga Garaga be adapted into a 1989 anime movie. Amazingly enough, nearly every anime he worked on saw release in North America at one point or another. What I'll be focusing on, however, is his Nora series, which has never seen official release over in this side of the world.

Originally debuting in 1977, Mikuriya would make a few short manga revolving around the eponymous Nora Scholar, with the original Nora's Ark being followed by 1978's Nora's Shooting Star, 1981's Nora -The Vulcanized Ocean Current-, & 1984's The Twinkle Nora. This is all fine & dandy, and in 1985 Mikuriya decided to adapt this series into anime via the OVA market; two hour-long episodes were made throughout the year. Unlike most mangaka, however, this creator wanted to be a big part of the anime production, even having himself be director, with each episode having its own "episode director" to help out. Not just that, but Mikuriya also wrote the scripts, did all of the storyboarding, & drew all of the designs (both characters & mechanical), among other jobs. So let's see how Satomi Mikuriya fared on his first outing as anime director by looking at the first episode, simply titled Nora.

Nora Scholar is on her way to the Frontia space colony via plane & winds up befriending Prof. Zachariasen, who is leading the way to create colonies on Mars & taking a break at Frontia himself. While there, though, the two wind up having to stop the machinations of Artifiend, a self-learning AI created by the hateful Dr. Dohati, first by simply surviving various catastrophic failures at Frontia & then by trying to stop the human-hating AI from launching nuclear missiles & killing all of humanity.

Nora is kind of bizarre in that it manages to tell the story of a couple of innocents having to save all of humanity from nuclear destruction in the most casual & innocent way possible. This is mainly due to Nora Scholar herself, who is surprisingly way more mysterious & unexplained than you'd think. You learn next to nothing about who she is & where she comes from, but you slowly get the feeling that there's much more to this young woman beneath the veneer of her infectiously bubbly personality. Sure, she looks completely innocent & seems harmless enough on first glance, especially when she's first introduced by getting herself & Zachariasen in trouble on the plane flight by accidentally letting loose popcorn (a banned food for space flight) in low gravity & having a sleeping Zachariasen float about the cabin. However, by the time you get to the climax where she, Zachariasen, & even Dohati are trying to get to Artie (as she calls Artifiend) & have to deal with obstacles you see just how sneakily skilled she is. She takes out an oncoming robot by jumping over it & lightly pushing it into an electrical outlet, shocking it out of operation. When caught between two AI-controlled cars aiming to run her over, Nora acts aloof & unassuming before jumping out of the way at just the right moment. You don't fool me, Ms. Nora Scholar (if that's you real name!)... You're a dangerous one.

"Only about 50 minutes until the end of humanity, unless Nora
saves us all? Perfect time to drink some coffee, I'd say."

Really, the sheer casualness permeates not just Nora, but the entire mood & feel of this OVA. After watching this I started thinking about what actually happened at moments, and I realized that some truly terrible things happened during it! Artifiend's actions at first involve only Frontia but eventually affect Earth as well. This AI throws people off of escalators at high speed (i.e. physical harm), turns off the gravity so that pool-goers might get caught inside of an inescapable water bubble (i.e. drown), tries both frying people outside of buildings on the colony & freezing those inside buildings, crashes people-filled elevators into each other, & (on Earth) bursts dams to flood entire cities!! All of these things are shown quite blatantly in the OVA, though completely bloodless & without actually showing direct death (though the last one is kind of hard to act innocent about), but are seemingly treated more as things that simply happen than the actual atrocities that they can be, to varying levels. Hell, the end result of Nora trying to stop Artie is portrayed as our heroine outright saving the world & even getting embarrassed before the credits, but in a more serious-minded tale would be treated as something outright terrifying & (at absolute best) bittersweet. In the end, however, it's all okay because Nora is just so adorable, isn't she? I mean, sure, Nora herself is cute & endearing, but did she really make the world a better place in the end?

Honestly, I wish I had more to say about this OVA, but that's really it. The first half of this anime puts Nora & Zachariasen into various situations that tend to start innocent & silly before becoming more dangerous, though the innocence & comedy never gets replaced. Meanwhile, there are a couple of scenes where Dohati is drinking himself fat, constantly encouraging Artifiend to become the "demon king" it's named after. It isn't until Nora interacts with "Artie" during a video game & Zachariasen notices Dohati's name on a black list that the two realize what the cause of the constant colony failures likely is, and it isn't until Artifiend forces Dohati out of the underground bunker in order to enact its final solution that the main plot really comes into play. Even with all of that, though, Nora stays light-hearted & fun, never bothering to become deadly serious; after all, Nora & Zachariasen compare Artie to a rebellious teenager who doesn't know better. Make no mistake, this isn't an outright parody or some self-aware story... Nora (both the OVA & the character) is just that unassuming about it/herself, and I actually really enjoy it/her because of that.

Let's face it, "Artie" is as much a character as anyone else here.

As I mentioned at the start, while Satomi Mikuriya himself was the director (among other positions) of both of these OVAs, he did have help in the form of episode directors. First up in this position was Kazuhito Kikuchi, who would go on to direct the second half of Saint Seiya TV (i.e. everything that's not legally available over here), the seventh Dragon Ball Z movie (Super Android 13!), & Samurai Gun. Combined with the legendary Masami Suda handling animation direction, Hidetoshi Kaneko (Record of Lodoss War) leading backgrounds as art director, & Mikuriya's storyboarding & design work, the OVA honestly doesn't look bad at all. Sure, it's not exactly a highlight of the 80s OVA boom, and there are a couple of animation boo-boos that even I noticed, but overall it's very consistently drawn & I think it's safe to say that it captures Mikuriya's style down perfectly; it should, since he headed it up, after all. Assisting Mikuriya with scriptwriting was Reiko Nakata, whose only other job in the industry seems to have been with ecchi OVA Majo demo Steady the following year. Since the creator himself wrote this OVA himself, more or less, I'd imagine that the manga follows a lot of the same sense of whimsy & casualness, which honestly makes me wish that I could read the manga. The last major part of the staff would be the music, which was composed by Yuji Ohno, best known for the Lupin the 3rd franchise. Similar to his iconic franchise work, Nora's score is filled with a lot of jazzy songs, plus some more subdued soft tunes that really remind you that this anime was made in the 80s; not something you'd want to find the OST for ASAP, but absolutely fitting for the lead herself. Similarly, the ending theme, "Yumehiko" by Yuriko Yamamoto, is literally a playful ode to "Artie" as sung by Nora herself, where she calls the humanity-hating AI a precocious lover that has forgotten love & even compares the two of them to Adam & Eve... "Precocious", indeed.

The main cast in this OVA is rather small, which makes it easy to cover all of them, though sadly 3/4 of them have since passed on. Nora is voiced by Yuriko Yamamoto (Yuria in Fist of the North Star, Sara in Dancougar), who gives our heroine all of the casual & seemingly-aloof style that she exudes every single second she's on screen. Prof. Zachariasen was voiced by the late Kenji Utsumi, who honestly played a little against character by hiding his iconic & booming deep voice, which is likely more like how he normally sounded in real life. Dr. Dohati was portrayed by the late Ichiro Nagai, who delivered a traditional angry scientist who is literally drunk most of the time. Finally, Artifiend was voiced by the late Shuusei Nakamura (Tohru Rikiishi in Ashita no Joe, Daisuke Shima in Space Battleship Yamato), who sticks to a standard unemotional computer drone for most of the OVA, adding only enough emotion at the end to establish how much the AI has learned & "evolved", for lack of a better word. It's an extremely solid cast, showing the perfect contrast between the serious undertone of the story itself & the whimsical execution it follows.

Really, Prof. Zachariasen put it best himself when he said that, "Nora is like randomness incarnate." There's just such an aloofness, an air of whimsical unassuming, in not just Ms. Scholar herself but also the Nora OVA as a whole. Pretty much any other story about an AI that's essentially made to go rouge & hold humanity hostage with nuclear missiles would take itself very seriously & showcase a message of how people as a communal whole should learn to not be so quick towards killing ourselves & our planet, because the only logical solution to that would be to destroy us before we go too far. What makes Nora so bizarre yet entertaining is that it pretty much does the same exact thing as those more serious-minded executions, yet does so without taking itself too seriously. What's even crazier is that this isn't meant to be an outright comedy or a caustic parody, because when you really think about it, the happenings within Nora's story are all still very serious & even kind of dark & bittersweet after the finale... It's just that the main characters, & especially our heroine, work things out intensely casually. It was fansubbed earlier this year, so if you get the chance to watch Nora, then definitely do so, because it's honestly pretty fun & an intensely easy watch.

Interestingly enough, one of the production companies involved was Filmlink International, which was run by Mataichiro Yamamoto, who also was in charge of Urban Vision. In fact, all but two anime produced by Filmlink were brought to America via UV: An early-1985 OVA called Greed (no guarantee I'll cover that one day, but who knows) & the Nora OVAs. Going off of only this first OVA, I'm almost disappointed that we never received this anime, because I could imagine this becoming a small little cult-classic during the 90s VHS days, at the very least. All that being said, however, there is a second Nora OVA to cover, and I decided to make it Review #200 for damn good reason.

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