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Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Torrential River of Directing: The 14-Year Anime Streak of Toshifumi Kawase Part 1

Anime, much like any form of visual storytelling, is a collaborative effort, but most people tend to look at a single name when giving credit to its creation & final product: The director. It makes perfect sense to do so, as a directorial role is that of someone who leads others, so the director is the person who generally takes command & claim over how the final product is. Some directors wind up having a strong style to them, which makes it easy to see which ones are done by specific people. For example, no one's going to confuse an Osamu Dezaki work with a Yasuhiro Imagawa joint. There is something to be said, however, for a director being a reliable hand, i.e. someone who can deliver quality work consistently. For me, one of the most reliable directors I can think of is Toshifumi Kawase.

Back in 2014 I did a series of posts called The (Yasuhiro) Imagawa Chronicles, where I gave a general overview of the entire catalog (at the time) of Yasuhiro Imagawa, who started with Tatsunoko before quickly making a name for himself with Sunrise. Toshifumi Kawase's career starts off very similarly, as he also made his name with Sunrise. He started back in 1980 as a production assistant for Invincible Robo Trider G7 before doing more or less the same from 1982-1984 with Combat Mecha Xabungle & Aura Battler Dunbine. It was during Dunbine that Kawase would see his first taste at directing, as he was episode director for Episodes 17 & 22, and even got a character named after him in the form of Captain Kawasse. Following that, Kawase worked as a storyboarder & episode director from 1984-1990, working on Heavy Metal L-Gaim, Zeta Gundam, Gundam ZZ, Metal Armor Dragonar, Mister Ajikko (the last time he & Imagawa would work on the same production), Legendary Armor Samurai Troopers, Jushin Liger, Kiteretsu Daihyakka, & Brave Exkaiser. In 1987 he made his debut as director when he headed up the OVA Dead Heat, which is most known for being the very first 3D anime & one of the few initially made for the obscure VHD videodisc format; I might check this out & review it, one day, though I can never see it the way it was intended.

Following all of that, however, Toshifumi Kawase would start working as the director of entire TV anime series, and his reliability is easily shown here, since every year from 1991 to 2004 saw at least one anime series directed by him. A 14-year streak of directing anime (if you include his work with series composition, it becomes 17 years) is nothing to sneeze at, so what I want to do is give a general overview of what exactly Kawase directed during his decade-plus streak. This isn't going to be quite as extensive as what I did for Yasuhiro Imagawa, but that's mainly because, during this very streak, Kawase still worked on other anime as a storyboarder &/or scriptwriter, & adding those titles would literally double the amount of shows to cover! I'll be splitting this up across three parts, and for Part 1 we'll be sticking to the early-to-mid 90s, from his most "iconic" work to how he helped reinvent a highly influential mech anime of the 70s.

Looking at Kawase's resume up until 1991, it's easy to see that mecha was essentially his forté, so it's no surprise that his directorial debut for TV would be in that genre. At the start of the decade, though, Takara decided it was time to finally retire the Transformers franchise for the moment in Japan, where it ran for a good bit longer than around the world. Teaming with Sunrise, a replacement named Brave Exkaiser aired on television, with it becoming the first in the Brave Series, which ran across eight entries until early 1998. After the instant success of Exkaiser, though, Takara's then-rival Tomy wanted some of that as well, so it teamed with Sunrise to produce its own mech anime/toy line co-production, which wound up being the Eldoran Series. While Tomy's franchise wouldn't last as long as Takara's, it would have a singular & (seemingly) nonconflictive production. Maybe Tomy wasn't as strict on what its shows would be like, but I do think that having the same person behind all of the shows also helped. While the Brave Series would change directors numerous times (Katsuyoshi Yatabe [90-93], Shinji Takamatsu [93-96], Tomomi Mochizuki [Dagwon], & Yoshitomo Yonetani [GaoGaiGar]), the Eldoran Series had a single director for its entire run, and that was Toshifumi Kawase.

First up was Matchless Raijin-Oh, which ran from 1991-1992 & showcased the battles between the Earth Defense Class, fifth graders who were gifted giant robots & a command center by Guardian of the Earth Eldoran, & the Jaku Empire of the Fifth Dimension. It's been stated that each Eldoran anime put its focus on a specific element, and in Raijin-Oh's case it was to focus on character development. While the anime itself was essentially a "Monster-of-the-Week" series for 95% of its episodes (only the last 5 or 6 episodes actually continued somewhat directly off of each other), it took advantage of that looser storytelling fashion by giving each of the children at least one episode focused around him or her. While that doesn't sound like much for most mech anime, which feature maybe a handful of characters that appear at all times, Raijin-Oh had 17 elementary school students in essentially every episode, i.e. a literal class of characters. While there were only three who piloted the robot directly, the other 14 had secondary importance, like energy maintenance, recon, or even simply allowing the three robots that make Raijin-Oh to even combine. Admittedly, while said development for some characters was rather simple, it was still enough to make viewers recognize each & every one of them, & when combined with a massive amount of imagination for the monsters (plus a knack for being willing to poke fun at itself & the genre at large), Matchless Raijin-Oh remains the most beloved entry in the Eldoran Series. It ran for 51 episodes, received a few OVAs that continued the story, & is probably the closest thing Kawase has for an "iconic anime".

If you want more info on this anime, I have reviewed Matchless Raijin-Oh, plus the OVAs, with the TV series actually available for purchase on DVD here in North America by way of Anime Midstream; the first half even received a (surprisingly solid) English dub.

A week after Raijin-Oh ended in Spring of 1992, the Eldoran Series saw the debut of its second entry, Energy Bomb Ganbarugar. Compared to its predecessor, this entry had a slightly more complex concept, as a trio of kids (Kotaro, Yosuke, & Rikiya) from a neighboring city as that of the EDC wind up being given a trio of robots by Eldoran, after a bomb accidentally breaks a seal & unleashes the Devil Beasts of the Demon World, lead by Yaminorius III, who wishes to bring back his leader Gokuark. Unlike Raijin-Oh, the focus in Ganbarugar was primarily on the Ganba Team, who are mentored by Kotaro's father, who was turned into a dog after trying to fight Yaminorius; similarly, if the Ganba Team's identities are found out, they would also turn into dogs. Another change was in the fact that Eldoran also gave the kids ninja-like power suits that gave them their own personal powers, like super speed, senses, & strength. Alongside that, the animal robots that form Ganbarugar itself have humanoid forms, allowing (with continually expanding "Ninja Techniques") for more pre-combination combat before forming the titular giant robot.

Still, the drop in focus to just three main kids (plus their dog mentor, I guess) meant that Ganbarugar wouldn't keep the character-focused aim of its predecessor. Instead, the second Eldoran anime upped the comedy ante, becoming a series aimed more on word play & silly monsters & situations. While Raijin-Oh did feature some pretty ridiculous & absurd Jaku Beasts for the EDC to fight, they were all created due to something being deemed a nuisance by someone. In Ganbarugar, there was no such requirement, so Devil Beasts could be based on anything, from sewing to violins to cakes to frogs to even bananas, among many other things. The end result was a comical series that was one part Super Sentai, one part Gatchaman, & one part mech anime, but in the end Energy Bomb Ganbarugar seems to be the least cherished entry in the Eldoran Series, though that's likely more because of what the third entry went for rather than it being "bad". There was also the late-1992 OVA Energy Bomb Ganbarugar Encyclopedia, which was simply a general overview of how the show works, utilizing footage from the first 14 episodes.

After Ganbarugar ended, the Spring of 1993 featured the third & final entry in the Eldoran Series, Matchless Passion Gozaurer. Unlike the prior two entries, though, Toshifumi Kawase took a more hands-on approach with this anime. Alongside being the director, Kawase also handled series composition, i.e. he was the head writer, as well as scripting seven episodes himself & even storyboarding two at the end. He did do a little writing & storyboarding for Raijin-Oh & Ganbarugar as well, but only an episode or two, and only as a co-writer. Gozaurer focused on the attempted invasion of Earth by the Mechanization Empire, which had already mechanized all of the planets from Neptune to Mars, with a 6th grade class from Harukaze Elementary being given a line-up of giant dinosaur robots by Eldoran to fight back, & the kids call their group Saurers.

Gozaurer differed a bit from its predecessors in two notable ways, the first of which was that a girl (Shinobu Asaoka) was one of the main pilots, which had not been done before in the series; Maria Shiratori was team leader in Raijin-Oh , but didn't pilot a mech in the traditional sense. The other, more major, change was that Gozaurer put a larger focus on telling a serialized storyline, whereas its older brethren were essentially "Monster-of-the-Week" stories at heart. Interestingly enough, Brave of Legend Da Garn, the third entry in the Brave Series, had ended just a couple of months before Gozaurer debuted, & it was a heavily-serialized entry in that series, so much so that Takara complained to Sunrise about not simply making a toy commercial (this would come to a head in the finale of the next series, Brave Express Might Gaine). I wouldn't be surprised if Toshifumi Kawase found some inspiration from Da Garn when he took the head writing reigns for Gozaurer, and the end result was a series that, to my knowledge, is generally considered the second most beloved entry in the Eldoran Series, due to its focus on storytelling & returning to developing the children more.

Sadly, Matchless Passion Gozaurer would be the final complete entry in the Eldoran Series, with nothing more coming from the franchise until 2001, when a short pilot for a fourth entry, Perfect Victory Daiteioh, was produced in an attempt at getting interest in a new anime series; Kawase supervised the pilot, but didn't direct. A complete anime wouldn't happen, though a manga series would run in Dengeki Hobby Magazine for a bit. Today, though, Takara & Tomy have since merged together to form Takara Tomy, with the Brave Series & Eldoran Series now being considered sibling series in spirit. In fact, Raijin-Oh was included in New Century Brave Wars, a PS2 strategy RPG made to celebrate Brave's 15th Anniversary in 2005, while Raijin-Oh & GaoGaiGar have later crossed over in 2008's Battle of Sunrise & 2015's Super Robot Wars BX. All four Eldoran productions would also crossover in 2009's Super Robot Wars Neo for the Wii & 2013's SRW Operation Extend for the PSP.

After three straight years of making mech anime for young children, & helping reinvent mech anime to an extent for the decade (as younger leads would become more common in the 90s), Kawase had a couple of months before his next directorial work would debut, following the end of Gozaurer. At the same time, his next series would be the first time he was technically adapting someone else's work. Originally debuting as a manga by Takehiko Ito (Outlaw Star, Good Morning Althea), Lord of Lords Ryu Knight debuted in Spring of 1994, and followed the trend of super-deformed mech anime that series like Mashin Hero Wataru & NG Knight Lamune & 40 helped make popular at the time. Taking place in the world of Earth Tear, the story followed Adeu, a knight who follows his "Ethos of Chivalry" while trying to make his way to the Earth Blade, a giant sword stuck in the world that reaches towards the heavens. Along the way he befriends Princess Paffy & her two escorts, Sarutobi (a ninja) & Izumi (a priest), and the three wind up having to stop evil forces from taking over Earth Tear.

Seeing as the super-deformed mecha genre was primarily aimed at children, much like the Eldoran Series, Ryu Knight didn't really diverge much from that on the surface. What it did do, though, was deliver a fun & entertaining mix of fantasy, comedy, & super robot-style action, with a strong focus on character interaction & personalities. As the main overarching story got introduced & advanced, however, Ryu Knight did start to serialize a bit & take itself more seriously, with even a tinge of darkness seeping out for the endgame. The idea of a darker side of Ryu Knight likely came about due to an OVA series named Lord of Lords Ryu Knight: Adeu's Legend, which debuted just three months after the TV series did & showcased a darker & more serious alternate universe take on Earth Tear. While new episodes of Adeu's Legend would come out until Spring 1996 & last for 17 total episodes, it wouldn't be quite as well received as the original TV series was. None of the OVAs were directed by Toshifumi Kawase, either, instead seeing Masashi Ikeda (Gundam Wing, Cluster Edge) lead the way, & Tsukasa Dokite directing the final, hot springs-themed episode. In the decades since, Ryu Knight mainly stuck to the memories of fans via DVD releases & the like, but in 2009 & 2013 it was included, alongside the Eldoran Series & Lamune, in SRW Neo & OE, respectively.

Following the finale of Ryu Knight, Toshifumi Kawase took a break from directing, working on some shows in the meantime. The first was doing storyboards for Kishin Douji Zenki, while the second was helping write & storyboard some episodes of Gundam Wing. The latter series in particular would help bring about a new style of mech anime, mainly in that the main characters were created with a heavy bishonen ("pretty boy") style. The Brave Series was one example, as the penultimate entry, 1996-1997's Brave Command Dagwon, was obviously influenced by Wing's style; Kawase also did some writing for that series. Another notable anime using that influence was Kawase's return to directing, which was also a reinterpretation of an iconic mech anime from the 70s. Debuting in late 1996, Reideen the Superior was a complete reboot of Brave Raideen (yes, the spelling is as confusing as "Casshan" vs. "Casshern"), which back in the day showed the first movements towards focusing on storytelling in mech anime, especially when Tadao Nagahama took over directing following Yoshiyuki Tomino's departure. All that being said, however, this new Reideen series' status as a mech anime (especially after another reboot was done in 2007) can be debated...

Reideen the Superior starred the Reideens, five young men who done power armor to take on the the Super Devils lead by the evil Lushu; when not fighting, they masquerade as an idol group lead by their manager Reiko. Unlike Akira Hibiki before them, however, the Reideens didn't pilot any giant robots, instead relying solely on their own skills & armor to defeat each Super Devil, making it arguably not even a mech anime in the end. In fact, the only giant robot in the entire series is the God Reideen itself, which isn't even really shown until the latter half of the series. If anything, Reideen the Superior was the final evolution of the bishonen style, as Gundam Wing's leads only fought via their Gundams, while Dagwon's heroes first fought in their power armor before fusing with their giant robots when needed; after all, why need those pesky robots, when pretty boys are all you need?

I joke, but Reideen the Superior was apparently a surprise hit for its time, as it was originally scheduled for only about 26 episodes, but good ratings wound up with it being extended to 38. The story with Lushu was finished at episode 28, while the last 10 dealt with a sort of civil war between the Reideens, including new warriors who were introduced during the first story arc. Unfortunately, Reideen the Superior is the sole entry in the overall non-related trilogy to have not been released on DVD or BD as of yet, with the only home video release on VHS & LD back in 1998, & it only received a digital release on the Bandai Channel in Japan just last year. This will only be the first of Kawase's works to have yet be released outside of VHS & LD, however.
We end Part 1 of this overview of Toshifumi Kawase's decade-plus streak of directing anime here, but check back later for Part 2, where we finish up the 90s by checking out Kawase's contributions to the early days of late-night anime, & how he started work going into the new millennium.

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