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Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Torrential River of Directing: The 14-Year Anime Streak of Toshifumi Kawase Part 2

Last we left Toshifumi Kawase's decade-plus streak of directing anime, he had helped reinterpret iconic 70s anime Brave Raideen into the Gundam Wing-influenced bishonen romp Reideen the Superior, a series that seemingly did better than expected & wound up running for 38 episodes. While still working with Sunrise every now & then from here on out, though, Kawase would also start working as a bit of a freelancer following Reideen, often finding consistent work with Studio Deen (which itself was formed in the 70s by former Sunrise employees). Before we head into the next wave of Kawase-directed anime, though, we first have to bring up an experiment with how anime was brought to viewers that would become the very standard anime is made within.

In 1992 Japan's giant economical bubble popped, and with it came a notable crash. For the anime industry, the end of the bubble economy effectively killed the OVA boom that allowed seemingly anyone with an idea & money to make anime, with the 90s OVA market focusing mainly on pre-existing franchises or continuing off of recently successful TV series. In late 1996, though, a new idea was tested out on TV Tokyo, which was airing short-run TV series (i.e. 12/13 episodes) in late-night/post-midnight time slots, with said TV airings acting like long-form infomercials for the eventual home video releases. The first show to try this out, Those Who Hunt Elves, actually debuted a day after Reideen the Superior did, and when the latter anime ended, Toshifumi Kawase got himself ready to try his hand at working on late-night anime, with his first one debuting roughly three months later.

Mech anime on TV was, & still is, primarily made with the intent of having it act to some degree as a long-form commercial for a product based on the robots featured, whether it's as toys, model kits, or whatnot; I'm sure even Reideen the Superior at least had action figures for the Reideens themselves. Late-night anime, however, was not made with the immediate intent of marketing ancillary products; it's about promoting the show itself for otaku to buy on (then) VHS & laserdisc. That made Studio Deen's Next Senki/Record of Next War Ehrgeiz (which co-existed at the time alongside a 3D arcade fighting game also named Ehrgeiz) a bit of an anomaly when it debuted in October of 1997 at 25:15 (a.k.a. 1:15 am), making it the first mech anime to air in late-night. The series regaled how an experimental AI-driven Metal Vehicle (as the mechs were called) named S.A.C. (or simply "S") went rouge & affected the lives & ambitions of three sides (a female commander under the Next Government that created S, an anti-Earth rebellion group lead by a psychic teen, & a group of outlaws living on an abandoned space colony) during a war between the Earth Government & Next.

In turn, Ehrgeiz's story was really more about the characters, & how their various goals & ambitions interacted & finally clashed against each other when S' existence forced all of them to actually meet, whereas they normally never would have done so in the first place. Sure, there was some giant robot action to be found, but it was usually either treated as simply part of normal life (like when the outlaws had to steal goods in order to feed themselves & treat their wounds) or a means to an end. In fact, not one of the MVs, outside of S itself, were even given any special names; production sketches literally label them all as simply "[Character Name]'s MV". It's almost makes Next Senki Ehrgeiz an anti-mech anime, in that regard. Sadly, while I'm a big fan of the show (it just clicks with me), it's pretty damn obscure & forgotten (hence why it was the third review I ever did on the blog), and even in Japan it never saw anything more than a VHS & LD release, though it has been available via streaming on the Bandai Channel in Japan for a good number of years.

It did receive a subtitled VHS release in North America, though, around the turn of the millennium by, followed by a two-episode dubbed VHS by Bandai Entertainment.

Up to this point, Toshifumi Kawase's track record when it came to directing anime was pretty rock solid, with either a beloved work, a successful series, or at least something notable, if not some mixture of the three. No one has a truly perfect record, though, and for Kawase it came about at the start of 1998 with AWOL -Absent Without Leave-. Detailing how Major Jim Hyatt has to gather a ragtag group of soldiers to stop a terrorist who has control over a planet-devastating satellite program, which was meant to protect said planets, AWOL conceptually felt like the anime equivalent to a movie like The Dirty Dozen. What killed this anime, however, was the fact that a large majority of the series (literally, over 50% of it!) was paced so slowly that it felt like nothing was actually being accomplished in each individual episode; in fact, Episode 3's entire relevance to the plot was insubstantial, at best. AWOL's pitch-like pacing was so obvious, in fact, that Japan didn't even receive the original TV version on home video, instead receiving AWOL Compression Re-MIX, which "compressed" 12 TV-length (24-25 minute) episodes into four double-length (45-50 minute) OVAs; it even completely ignored Episode 3, proving its irrelevance.

This is not to say that Kawase didn't seem to try his hardest at making the original TV version watchable, however. The show tried using multiple camera angles to portray the same scene, to keep from simply lingering on static shots, & added in visual flair & style whenever possible, and the attempt was to be commended, but it was simply the equivalent to putting a shine on a turd; sure, it's doable (as MythBusters once proved), but it's still a turd in the end. Really, AWOL felt like it was originally meant to be a much shorter OVA series, but wound up being stretched out so that it could be made into a 12-episode TV anime, similar (but in reverse) to how some OVAs during the boom years (like Megazone 23) were initially planned to be TV series but then converted into home video exclusives. At least the music (& OP & ED themes) was really good, & marked the solo debut of Shiroh Hamaguchi, who had previously made his proper debut alongside Akifumi Tada with Ehrgeiz. Today in Japan, AWOL remains exclusive to VHS & LD (again, only the Compression Re-MIX OVAs), & it isn't even available on the Bandai Channel, unlike Reideen the Superior or Ehrgeiz.

Really, there's no need for one to watch AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave-, while the Compression Re-Mix re-edit is better but still featuring some flaws that just couldn't be compressed away; they were Reviews #150 & #151 for good reason. What is bizarre, though, is that's North American VHS release was for the original TV series, making it the only release of that version (& a bit of a collector's item if complete, if Amazon Japan's prices are anything to go off of). Similar to Ehrgeiz, Bandai Entertainment also gave AWOL a single dubbed VHS tape.

From 1983-1984 the duo of Takeyuki Kanda & Hiroyuki Hoshiyama brought to Japanese TV viewers a mech anime called Round Vernian Vifam, which essentially took Jules Verne's 1888 novel Two Years' Vacation & put it in space. Specifically, it detailed how a group of 13 children wound up being stranded on a space ship filled with mecha as they tried to make their way back to Earth after being attacked by aliens known as Astrogaters. Vifam would become a strong cult classic, receiving four OVAs over the following year, but director Kanda (Metal Armor Dragonar, Metal Armor Mellowlink) would die in a car accident in mid-1996, after directing the first half of Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team; Umanosuke Iida would finish that OVA series. In early 1998, though, Sunrise decided to revisit Kanda's take on Verne's story, resulting in Round Vernian Vifam 13, & Toshifumi Kawase was chosen to direct, right as he was finishing up with AWOL. In fact, Kanda has considered making a sequel & was starting the initial planning when he died, so Kawase was more or less the replacement director.

The second series to air in the Anime Shower late-night slot (following Fortune Quest L, & most recently will be airing Attack on Titan Season 2), Vifam 13 wasn't actually a sequel, but rather was a side story mixed with some alternate universe sprinklings. Essentially, the story took place in the time during episodes 23 to 26 of the original series, but at the same time some previously happening plot elements were changed around (like killing off a character or two early on), which at the same time made this new series not exactly a 1:1 exact fit into the pre-existing Vifam story. From what I could find out, Kawase's take on Vifam wasn't exactly welcomed too warmly by the existing fans of Kanda's work, even with Hoshiyama on board to help pen the plot, but at the same time it's not like Kawase was exactly in the ideal position, as he was essentially telling someone else's story because the original creator passed away suddenly; not exactly an enviable position, I'd say. I'm sure Toshifumi Kawase did the best job he could when it came to Round Vernian Vifam 13, and the series ran until late 1998, after 26 episodes.

Still, Vifam in general remains a cult classic, with remastered home video releases of both series in Japan, & the original series is actually available streaming with English subtitles legally over at Daisuki, though who knows for how long (i.e. the generally ignored pitfall of online distribution).

Those Who Hunt Elves started the concept of modern-day late-night anime back in late 1996, but the anime that started an entire year's worth was early 1997's Eat-Man, based on the mostly episodic manga by Akihito Yoshitomi. To be fair, though, to use the term "based on" would be somewhat generous, as director & head writer Koichi Mashimo's anime was almost nothing like Yoshitomi's original manga, which had only debuted within a year of the anime's debut. While time would be more kind to Mashimo's series, back then fans of the manga actually complained about the lack of accuracy. If nothing else, it at least showed that there was an audience that was willing to stay up late to watch anime on TV. Almost astonishingly, however, Studio Deen took note of the outcry & decided to give Yoshitomi's manga another go at the end of 1998, instead of simply deeming it a failure, with the second try being Eat-Man '98. Mashimo was not brought back, though, with Kawase being brought in to deliver a proper & accurate adaptation of the manga, with this second anime debuting only four days following Vifam 13's finale.

And Eat-Man '98 did indeed follow the manga's lead by having half of the 12 episodes adapt four stories from the early parts of the manga, with the other six telling two original stories created with help from Akihito Yoshitomi himself. The stories all focused on Bolt Crank, a wandering mercenary (i.e. a jack-of-all-trades for hire) who has the nickname "The World's Greatest Mercenary" due to his steadfast dedication for successfully doing his jobs; it also doesn't hurt that he has the ability to eat any non-organic object & then reproduce it for later use. Though Mashimo's take on Bolt was very intriguing in how open-ended & interpretive the storytelling was, it wasn't accurate to the character or the world that Yoshitomi created. Kawase's version, though more standard in comparison, was true to the original vision, & it's not like the stories told here were always straightforward either; Yoshitomi was known for relying heavily on inductive reasoning for his stories. In the end, Eat-Man '98 was more warmly received by fans, & is good proof of how Toshifumi Kawase has become the "reliable hand" director that I described him as in Part 1.

Personally, though, I love both Eat-Man anime series, whether it's Mashimo's heavily-layered storytelling or Kawase's accurate adaptation of Yoshitomi's style of tale weaving, but I can completely see why one would like one series but utterly abhor the other. Anyway, after directing four TV series within the span of 15 months, while also doing some episode directing for King of the Burning Desert Gandalla & storyboarding for Brain Powerd & Ojarumaru (Prince Mackaroo, internationally) on the side, Toshifumi Kawase finished off the 90s by returning to where he got his start in television directing, children's anime.

People outside of Japan might remember B-Daman, a toy line by Takara where kids could shoot B-Dama (literally "biidama", the Japanese word for marbles) out of launchers with the intent of accomplishing various goals, during the mid-00s when the toy line was released internationally & a few anime adaptations were aired on television in North America & Europe. In Japan, though, B-Daman has been around since 1993, & an early way Takara promoted the toy line was by teaming with Hudson & combining it with Bomberman. Alongside the Super B-Daman line, which saw its own manga & anime tie-ins, there was the B(omberman).B-Daman Bakugaiden/Explosive Side Story line, which saw TV anime tie-ins of its own, both of which were done by Madhouse. The first, B.B-Daman Bakugaiden, ran from February 1998 to January 1999, with Xebec's Burst Ball Barrage!! Super B-Daman actually debuting as Madhouse's series was ending; yes, during 1999 there were two (technically three) B-Daman anime series airing simultaneously. Anyway, a week after the first Bakugaiden anime ended, a second series, B.B-Daman Bakugaiden V(ictory), debuted, with Toshifumi Kawase taking the directorial reigns from Nobuaki Nakanishi (Kasimasi, Koihime Muso).

Though airing after the first series & having many of the same characters & voices, Bakugaiden V was not exactly a direct sequel. Whereas the original series saw the Bombers look like their usual selves, minus new belts that housed B-Dama, while they took on the Dark B-Da to save the world, Kawase's V had the Bombers portrayed as B-Dacops who protected an item called the Crysmond from a group of pirates called the Devil Vaders, who were lead by King Vader. In turn, the Bombers would often don armor to help in their B-Da Battles against evil. Really, the idea of using Bomberman to advertise B-Daman was a really smart one, & the Hudson gaming icon was associated with the Takara toy line from 1993-1999, while the Bakugaiden V anime would end at the start of 2000. B-Daman would get another surge of popularity when the B-Legend! Battle B-Daman anime would air in Japan in 2004, followed by an international airing in 2005, while Bomberman would receive an anime of its very own from 2002-2003 with Bomberman Jetters. Neither of these would involve Toshifumi Kawase in any way, shape, or form, though. Kawase would spend the rest of 2000 doing storyboards for You're Under Arrest Special & Turn-A Gundam.
This brings us to an end to Part 2 of Toshifumi Kawase's anime directorial streak, though I will admit that I am cheating slightly here, as B.B-Daman Bakugaiden V only had about four episodes actually air in 2000. I can make up for it slightly next time, though, as I'll be finishing up this overview of Kawase's 14-year run as consistent director by going over the last four anime that made up this streak, plus giving credit where it's due to Kawase's involvement in a notable American animation production.

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