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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Shinken Legend Tight Road: A Standalone Story Mode Without a Fighting Game

In our modern times, the apparent standard for most new anime is to run for one entire calendar season, or roughly 12/13 episodes; this is often called a "cour", after the French word for "course". Anyway, while this essentially started being a standard once anime started moving into late-night slots, this wasn't the only time anime tried out the single cour format. An interesting experiment with this idea was actually done by Toei Animation & TV Tokyo back in the second half of 1994, and in the complete opposite of late-night. Instead, two single cour anime were aired Fridays from 7:35-8:05 in the morning, and while the first show (Metal Fighter Miku) did see release in North America on DVD by Media Blasters back in 2001, the other has gone on to hyper-obscurity... So you know that I'm the perfect guy (i.e. the only man stupid enough) to check it out.

Running from October to December of 1994, Shinken Densetsu/True Fist Legend Tight Road (or simply Shinken Legend, as the VHS covers say) actually has a bit of an interesting, but short, history behind it. Similar to Metal Fighter Miku, this was conceived as a multimedia production, with Shinken Legend in particular meant to promote an upcoming fighting game published by Zamuse & developed by a small little dojinshi developer called Gust. Unfortunately, the game never actually saw release (if even development), though Gust would go on to become a successful RPG studio through its Atelier & Ar Tornelico franchises, & is now owned by Tecmo Koei Games. While it's not the only time an anime has been made to promote a video game that never came out (90s OVA Early Reins is another example), I'm not sure if any others were actually done to the scale that Shinken Legend was, i.e. an entire TV series being made.

So when an anime is based on a fighting game that never actually comes out, what's the end result like? Let's find out.

Taito Masaki is working on a cruise ship as payment for a trip to the country of Grazia, which is where his father went to five years ago in search of a dream, only for him to die. While on the ship, Taito becomes involved in the search & apprehension of Charlie, a missing British solider who's also part of a "Human Weaponization Concept" codenamed Rabbit, due to the red eyes test subjects have when enraged. This is only the beginning of Taito's journey in Grazia, though, where he teams with Brigadier General Sarah Jones (Charlie's commanding officer), Gerard Gelain, & Kicks Rockwell as they decide to take on the Spiral Palace run by Captain Klaus Daggats, Grazia's "God of Fighting", who has a relation to both the Rabbit project & the death of Taito's father.

When you think about, Shinken Legend doesn't really try to hide its fighting game roots, because the cast of characters & general story honestly fit that nature well. While the story mostly takes place in Grazia & the Spiral Palace, the characters themselves are a fairly varied & international lot. Aside from his plot of finding out the truth behind his father's death, Taito Masaki is more or less a young Japanese man who wants nothing more than a good fight for the simple reason of constantly challenging himself. Sarah Jones is a British soldier who is looking for her squadmates (Charlie & Samson), and wanting to avenge Charlie after his death in Episode 2. Gerard Gelain & Kicks Rockwell are more or less like drifters, as both help out mainly because they befriend Taito on the ship & find him interesting, but both offer something interesting, like Gerard's use of sumo or Kicks' seeming ninja-like qualities (fast, throws shuriken-like objects, etc.). Hell, in Episode 2 Charlie kills a friend & shipmate of Taito's named Blanka. Yes, an experimented-upon soldier named Charlie fights & kills a man named Blanka. I'd swear that this was meant to be a reference to the 1994 live-action Street Fighter movie, which combined Charlie & Blanka together into one character, but this show debuted before the movie did in general... I'm still sticking with that being a blatant reference to Street Fighter in general, though.

Then we have Klaus' forces at the Spiral Palace, who are just as varied. Ilya Orlov is a young Russian man picked up by Dr. Zulowski (who helped create the Rabbit project) who's an unemotional "Killing Machine" & fights using a bo staff that lets out a bright light to distract his opponents. Suzaku Kimonin is a Japanese monk who wants nothing more in life than fights with strong opponents. There are also the Three Color Dragons, made up of oldest brother Kokuryu, middle sister Hakuryu, & youngest brother Kouryu, who all fight using Chinese martial arts. They're the newest additions to the Spiral Palace, and through an encounter in Grazia, Hakuryu becomes hesitant to fight Taito when Klaus orders the three of them to take him on. Samson is a Muay Thai fighter who technically isn't being forced to fight when his time comes, but his own pride as a warrior drives him; he can't simply stand aside when he has a chance to avenge the man who beat Charlie. We have Bogey Mizuhara, a former soldier who was responsible for taking Charlie & Samson from Sarah & slowly showcases that the only person he looks out for is himself, becoming a bit of a third-party by the end. Then there's Gina Daggats, the whip-using & panther-partnering daughter of Klaus who harbors a hatred for Taito due to how his father & Zulowski, in her words, "stole her father from her". Finally, aside from Klaus Daggats himself, there's Keith Brando, a psychotic battle freak who also enters the Spiral Palace in order to take out both Taito & Klaus in order to prove that he's the true "God of Fighting". Not counting Charlie & Blanka, who are only important for story purposes early on, that puts the unreleased fighting game's roster to a solid 14 characters, with Klaus obviously being the final boss & Keith being the equivalent of a secret character who has no real storyline purpose.

Holy crap, is this image freaky as all hell!!!

Speaking of the "final boss", Klaus Daggats is an interesting mix of character types. He's a visibly older man, likely well past his prime, & first being shown as possibly wishing he could be as naturally dominating as he was when he was a professional kickboxer. At the same time, though, Klaus still manages to exude this feeling of superiority & power, and I think his age actually helps make him more unnerving. For example, the image above is how he's first shown at the end of the OP sequence, & it's simply freakish; it's an especially strong first showing, honestly. Without a doubt, there's a bit of an influence from Street Fighter's M. Bison (a.k.a. "Dictator"), complete with both donning very militaristic outfits, though in Klaus' case it's because he was a captain at one point. At the same time, though, his entire goal is to use Zulowski's Rabbit research to allow him to regain the youthful & powerful body he once had. His desperation to reach the heights he once naturally achieved makes him willing to inject himself with the finalized form of the Rabbit serum, turning him into a "Drugful Berserker", or DFB for short. In the end, though both are definitely the antagonists of Shinken Legend, Klaus comes off more as someone who was simply willing to do anything for his goal of seeming godhood, while Zulowski is more of a blatant "villain" in that all he cares about is perfecting his research, even if it means taking advantage of Klaus' dream in order to do so.

Another interesting mix is the Spiral Palace itself, which is more than it assumes from outward appearances. While the central staircase (a spiral one, natch) looks appropriate for the tower, complete with a labyrinth of illuminated halls for Ilya to fight Taito within, strewn about are a series of areas that are entire locales in & of themselves. Suzaku has his own shrine that he meditates in, the Dragons have an entire mini-palace (complete with its own lake!), Samson fights in a dilapidated mini-coliseum, & Gina holes out in her father's money pit that holds tons of golden trinkets & the like. Combined with other areas, like Zulowski's research lab, a small heliport, & Klaus' giant pipe organ room, the Spiral Palace winds up feeling pretty cool & impressive; it has an old-school "villain's lair" feel, which is appreciated. It helps give the tower itself a fun sense of personality, and when everything goes to hell in the final episodes, & the tower itself starts slowly crumbling to pieces, you kind of feel sad for the Spiral Palace's destruction. After all, it was only home to these battles; it didn't cause any harm on its own.

In terms of the story that's told, Shinken Legend admittedly doesn't aim to redefine anything, but it is a generally tight tale, with the focus mostly on Taito's mission. Sarah's mission to rescue Samson (after Charlie's death early on) is an important part of the story, & helps give Klaus more definition as the villain, but Taito's journey to find out what happened to his father is really the major driving factor. At the same time, though, the anime doesn't try to rush into the battles at the Spiral Palace, which helps set up some elements nicely. The first two episodes on the cruise ship actually feel fairly different from the rest of the show, instead coming off more like a slasher flick in how a Rabbit-crazed Charlie is that dangerous, but at the same time it establishes a lot of the characters. Sarah's basic story is introduced, Gerard & Kicks get to show off some of their quirks for a moment, Bogey is shown off as the slimy snake that he stays all throughout, & Taito is shown as a likable lead who values friendship & camaraderie. Following that are three episodes which set up the plot involving Klaus, introducing Isabella Fioretti (a doctor friend of Taito's who looks out for him), the Dragons, Keith, & Gina, helping establish some future fights. Finally, the rest of the show is Taito & company taking on the Spiral Palace.

For the most part, every episode from here until the end is focused around a specific fight, mostly seeing Taito take on someone new; the only exception would be Sarah vs. Suzaku. Yeah, Gerard & Kicks don't have any featured fights, though there are some minor bouts on the side they have (like Gerard vs. Ilya). That being said, every fight has something interesting or even unexpected, which helps keep everything from feeling stale or standard. Not just that, but even some of Klaus' warriors wind up with some extra development. For example, Ilya goes from a quiet yes man for Zulowski to someone who starts to think for himself, which slowly clashes more & more with his loyalty to the doctor. Also, for something that was meant to tie into a video game, it's surprisingly focused on traditional hand-to-hand combat, with only Suzaku showing any sort of ki-based specials. It all finishes up with an epilogue at the end that shows where everyone winds up following this ordeal, acting as a series of mini-endings for everyone; basic, but then again many fighting game endings were like that at the time.

It actually makes me curious as to how the game was going to work out, as most fighting games of the time were heavily influenced by Street Fighter II, which featured all sorts of non-traditional special moves. Sure, Virtua Fighter came out a year prior to this show, but that was definitely an outlier at the time, & Tekken debuted as Shinken Legend was wrapping up. It will just have to remain a mystery, I guess...

Shinken Legend Tight Road marked the first time Yukio Kaizawa directed something other than Bikkuriman, and he would go on to direct anime like Hell Teacher Nube, Digimon Tamers, & even co-direct the just-debuting Kira Kira Pretty Cure a la Mode. In that regard, combined with the experimental time slot & show length, it's not surprising that this anime isn't exactly going to go down as a visual showcase of its time, with the occasional rough drawing & the like. Still, the show definitely has moments that shine pretty well, & the fighting itself is generally animated well & showcases the varying fighting styles nicely. The show also marked the debut of a young man named Michio Fukuda, who did the character designs here. After Shinken Legend, Fukuda would hone his craft as an animator before finally moving onto directing with Hyakko, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan - Demon Capital, & Terraformars Revenge. Still, Fukuda would fondly remember his debut anime, naming it his favorite "in terms of character design" when interviewed by ANN back in 2011. It's easy to see why, too, because Fukuda's designs here are all really good. He sticks with everyone having a generally basic design, but at the same time giving enough to let their personalities shine through, like the image above showing Samson's soft side, while his outfit shows how he's become a partial slave to Zulowski (complete with a crown of thorns, too!). I personally really like his design for Keith Brando the most, as the giant jacket covering his loose yellow overalls helps illustrate just how carefree he lives, only thriving for his next win.

The writing was handled by the duo of Kazuhiko Godo & series composer Kenichi Kanemaki (Natsume's Book of Friends, Hell Girl), with the two literally taking turns; Kanemaki had odds, while Godo had evens. While this series won't go down as an inventive or innovative yarn by any means, I think the two managed to handle the idea of making a fighting game into an anime well by putting the focus on actually telling a story, & only delegating importance to characters when necessary; I'd say that having the anime be made to accompany the game was a novel idea, too. The music by Gouji Tsuno (Kishin Douji Zenki, Bakusou Kyodai Let's & Go!!) matches the conceptual video game roots by featuring a nice mix of hard rock & softer jazz beats, plus some mixes, and it's actually all rather good; I could easily see a lot of the songs here be used in what would have been the video game. I actually wouldn't mind grabbing the OST that came out in late 1994, in fact. Matching the great soundtrack are a couple of really cool theme songs, both performed by Nobuhiko Kashiwara, best known for working often with AKB48 & also co-arranging "FLYING IN THE SKY" (G Gundam's iconic 1st OP). Opener "GLORY" is a really upbeat song that makes standing up against uncertain odds sound hopeful & exciting to face off against; it also shows off all of the major characters very nicely (especially Klaus' freaky face). Closer "Ima wo Kakenukete Ike" is similarly upbeat & hopeful, & I actually have to give the edge to it over the OP, if only because it has a more memorable beat & tune to it. Also neat is that the ED footage is all about the denizens of Spiral Palace, showing off their individual areas, but having them all be silhouetted (minus Gina, but only a little), making for a great hint of what to expect from the very start.

The voice cast for Shinken Legend is filled with mostly smaller name seiyuu, with arguably the three biggest names still being relatively early in their careers at this point. For example, Hikaru Midorikawa is a rather notable name now, but when he voiced Taito in this series he had only started getting major roles, like Kaede Rukawa in Slam Dunk & Toshihiko Tanaka in Aoki Densetsu Shoot!; he was still a few months from debuting Heero Yuy in Gundam Wing. Similarly, Megumi Ogata started off strong with Kurama in Yu Yu Hakusho, but it wasn't until 1994 that she started getting more major roles, like Sailor Uranus in Sailor Moon S or Kicks in this series; she was still a year off from Shinji Ikari in Evangelion. Finally, Hideo Ishikawa wouldn't even get major roles until the new millennium, which makes his role here as Kokuryu understandable. Still, all three do well in their roles, with Midorikawa making a good lead actor. Sarah is voiced by Wakana Yamazaki (Ayane in the Dead or Alive series), and she's actually one of the best performances here, to be honest. Hisao Egawa's (Killer Bee in Naruto Shippuden) Gerard is entertaining & well done, enough that I wish his character did slightly more, while Tomohisa Asou's Bogey is perfectly slippery & untrustworthy. Another highlight is Nobuhiko Kazama (Van Damme in Xenoblade), who makes Keith sound perfectly insane about fighting. Rounding out the rest of the cast are Tetsuo Sakaguchi (Dr. Zulowski), Mahito Ohba (Klaus), the late Shiho Niiyama (Gina) & Kazunari Tanaka (Ilya), & Michio Nakao (Suzaku), among a few others. Overall, while the cast may not have all that much in terms of readily-recognizable voices, it's still a good one overall, helping make the show more enjoyable to watch.

Today, fighting games tend to put a lot more focus on telling actual stories, with most featuring a full-on cinematic "Story Mode", with Guilty Gear Xrd & Street Fighter V being two of the best examples. In that regard, Shinken Legend Tight Road was actually ahead of the curve by essentially doing the same exact thing as those games, only ~20 years prior & on TV. Likewise, one could also see Shinken Legend as the precursor to the concept of adapting fighting games into TV anime series. Sadly, the only other examples of this happening in the 90s were Virtua Fighter, Street Fighter II V, & Power Stone (which this anime predates all of), with all others being only given movies, OVAs, or TV specials, with highly varying quality. Taking that into consideration, Shinken Legend actually comes out as a solid, if admittedly unambitious, action series that would have made for a rather good advertisement of the fighting game, had it actually gotten made & released... Which brings me as to why this anime has likely become as hyper-obscure as it now is.

Simply put, Shinken Legend Tight Road was made to advertise a video game, with even the prospective publisher listed on the copyright. From what I can tell, though, Zamuse may not have even lasted that much longer past 1994, which would explain why the game never happened. Therefore, the very existence of this anime in the first place became pointless, so why would Toei try to promote any further? Granted, the anime studio would eventually release Shinken Legend across three VHS tapes (no LD release, from what I can tell), but even that didn't happen until two years after the show aired, and they aren't exactly easy to get a hold of now; obviously, there's no remastered DVD release. I wound up having to use a proxy service to get these VHS tapes from Yahoo Auctions Japan, as Amazon Japan has no listing for them at all, and after the shipping it still wasn't as cheap as I was hoping it would be. Still, I had a good time with this show, and it is listed on Toei's US website, so it likely is available for licensing. While I doubt it will ever get touched for even streaming, if the impossible was to ever happen I'd certainly say that it would be worth a watch.

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