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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Demo Disc Vol. 9: Precocious Pilot Programs

Pilots have been around pretty much since the concept of television as entertainment, for the most part. Only so many programs are given the green light right away, with the rest having to go through some sort of testing period, usually resulting in the production of pilots to act as proof-of-concepts. This isn't anything new for anime, either, & I've even reviewed a few pilots on the blog, like the ones for One Piece, Hunter X Hunter, Seikimatsu Leader Den Takeshi!, Dororo (via the TV series review), & Ring ni Kakero 1. That being said, pilots aren't exactly the easiest things to consistently review. Sure, some have enough to them for me to actually do a review of fair enough length, but others aren't that lucky; the HxH pilot review is proof of that. Therefore, this volume of Demo Disc will be all about anime pilots, but we're not starting with your everyday pilots that wound up resulting in more. Instead, we'll be looking at pilots that never went anywhere, similar to what happened with Takeshi! or Perfect Victory Daiteioh (see Vol. 1 for that one). Sometimes these unlucky dead ends wind up seeing official release at some point, but at least one of these in this volume was never meant for general public viewing, but is now, so let's try to see why these precocious little scamps didn't go anywhere.


Space Adventure Cobra (English Dub Pilot)
We're starting things off here with something a little different, as first on the plate is a pilot for an English dub that never went anywhere. While dubbing TV anime in an uncut fashion is the norm nowadays, it was next to unheard of back in the early 80s, but TMS felt that it had a true international hit in the form of the anime adaptation of Buichi Terasawa's Shonen Jump manga Cobra. Therefore, before TMS even opened its own American office in Los Angeles, an English dub of a single episode was produced, with the hopes of getting the entire show dubbed & aired on American television. Take into consideration that TMS wasn't planning on treating Cobra like a piece of children's programming, like how animation was essentially treated back in the 80s (remember, this is TV we're talking about), but rather wanted this dub to be for a general audience, if not primarily older audiences. Unfortunately, a market for animation aimed at older audiences (hell, a market for "anime" in general) just didn't exist in North America yet, so the pilot was never picked up by anyone. Luckily, TMS hasn't exactly kept this dub secret, & Right Stuf's first DVD set for the TV anime does include it as an extra on Disc 1. Therefore, how is this pilot, & does the dub hold up well for being more a proof-of-concept than anything substantial?


Johnson is a no-name employee at Novotrade, an intergalactic shipping company. He's so expendable, in fact, that he's been chosen to do a fake investigatory search for the Avatar, a missing freighter that was carrying a ton of gold bullion; Novotrade simply wants the insurance, but needs to prove they searched. Deciding to use the chance to take a quick vacation, Johnson stops off at a casino for fun, only to find the Avatar being held by the Dark Side Clan, the most powerful group of space pirates around. After finding out, Johnson has to escape, only to realize that he's actually Cobra, a legendary space bandit & leader of the Resistance against the Dark Side, who changed his identity & voice to protect himself.

I must say, it is nice to be completely surprised & taken aback, because I was ready to make this a really short segment. I had thought that the Cobra dub pilot was simply a dub of the first episode of the TV series, which I had already covered when I reviewed the Jump Super Heroes Vol. 3 DVD back in 2013; therefore, I was ready to simply link to that & focus just on the dub. What I got instead, however, was an actual "pilot", i.e. something completely different that likely was indeed made before the TV series itself. And, boy, is this pilot something different, in both good & bad ways. On the good side, I'm amazed at how much content there is in just 21 minutes. Near the end I had to bring up how much time was left, simply because I was wondering if everything that had already happened actually went by in less than 20 minutes. This is simply a jam-packed pilot that never bores, is constantly moving, & stays entertaining due to how fun it is to see "Johnson" in action.


That being said, though, I still have to prefer the actual first episode over this pilot, and that's mainly due to how their origin stories play out. The first episode, much like the original manga, has Johnson learn about Cobra after getting a Total Recall-esque fake dream where he imagined that he was the legendary rogue, only to have his old life encroach into his current life shortly afterwards. The pilot, on the other hand, has Johnson learn about Cobra by accidentally seeing an underground Resistance sermon, where Cobra & Galaxia (Armaroid Lady, originally) are showcased as deific leaders of their group, shortly before the sermon is busted by the Secret Police. It just feels a little too ham-fisted & awkward in execution, whereas the actual series plays it strong by sticking to the Philip K. Dick homage that it always was in the first place. Also, though this pilot was likely still directed by the late Osamu Dezaki, it doesn't feel quite as visually splendorous as the TV series' first episode did; the common use of split screens was effective, though. Overall, it's still a really cool pilot in & of itself, but it's really just a first try at something that would be done better. Still, I wonder if this pilot was made with an English audio track in mind from the start, because I never knew of a Cobra pilot before now, & there doesn't seem to be a Japanese audio track anywhere for it.

As for the dub itself, it's rather solid, even 30+ years later. Johnson/Cobra is voiced by Michael Bell (Lance in Voltron, Raziel in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver), who has all of the charisma & goofiness in check, even if his voice isn't exactly what you'd instantly imagine as belonging to a pulp-like space hero; he quickly grows on you, though. Galaxia is voiced by B.J. Ward (Princess Allura in Voltron), but her style is a little stilted & robotic, which doesn't exactly fit "Lady" well. Patty Paris, who plays Galaxia's incognito identity, the robot Queeg, does a great job, though. The rest of the known cast include Tony Pope, Neil Ross, Brianne Siddall, & Melora Harte, & Steve Bulen, and even though there is a good bit of overlap with that of the original Voltron, Cobra's dub holds up much, much better than Voltron's. Finally, for a bit of trivia, this pilot dub was co-produced, co-direct, & edited by John Semper, who would go on to become head writer on Spider-Man: The Animated Series in the 90s... Which featured animation assistance by TMS. Coincidence? I think so.


Enter the New General Commander, Dai Atlas!
The Generation 1 Era of Transformers will probably remain the most beloved part of the entire franchise, but one can't say that it ended all too well when it came to the original animated series. After three seasons (which vary in quality) & a theatrically-released movie (which is still infinitely better than Michael Bay's movies), Transformers ended with Season 4, which was nothing more than a three-part finale titled The Rebirth... And it sucked as hard as possible. In Japan, however, Takara & Toei completely ignored those three episodes, & instead produced three actual sequel series (The Headmasters, Super God Masterforce, & Victory), which all finally saw release in North America in 2011 via Shout! Factory (& will be seeing a re-release this June); I'm thinking of reviewing one of them later this year, in fact. Still, Transformers only maintained popularity in Japan for the rest of the 80s, & while production did get started on a fourth series, Transformers Zone, only the first episode ever actually got made & was released on July 21, 1990 as a standalone OVA (a DVD re-release happened in 2004); there were supposedly plans for a two-episode TV special, but it never happened. Since I doubt we'll ever actually get Zone over here on DVD, let alone the Scramble City OVA (I'm not counting the commentary-only version we got on Sony's DVD release of the movie), let's see how Transformers G1 truly ended, because it's got to be better than The Rebirth.


Following the events of Transformers Victory, a new leader for the Destrons/Decepticons named Violen Jiger (a Quintesson-esque figure with three heads) takes command & revives the "Nine Great Generals" (Devastator, Menasor, Bruticus, Trypticon, Predaking, Abominus, King Poseidon, Overlord, & Black Zarak) in order to gather Zone Energy, destroying the planet of Feminia in the process. Luckily, the Cybertrons/Autobots managed to save some of the residents of Feminia, including a boy named Kain & his animal buddy Emusa, but with the potential loss of Supreme Commander Victory Saber. While the Powered Masters Dai Atlas & Sonic Bomber search for Saber, the Destron Generals attack the Cybertron planet of Zone & steal Energon Z, which helps power the planet, before heading off to Earth to find Zodiac, the element that helped create Earth & the Universe; it's said that Energon Z & Zodiac, when combined, can create a new planet. After bringing Victory Saber back to Zone, Dai Atlas & Sonic Bomber head to Earth to save it once again, also finding a young girl named Akira who joins the group.

It's generally stated that once Takara decided to go on its own with the Transformers toy line, the Japan-exclusive sequels slowly became more & more "anime" in look & style, with Victory being a notable change. In that regard, Zone looks to be a little more in the middle ground, with the visuals in general definitely being more like products of its time from Japan, especially Kain & Akira, but at the same time the iconic transformations of the mechs themselves aren't given their own major (stock footage) sequences (which Victory apparently did), instead reverting back to the original real time execution. It's also definitely a bit more on the unflinching side at one or two moments, as Devastator is outright killed by Dai Atlas by being drowned in lava (his hand reaches out for a moment, with the insides being seen slightly), & when another general is cut in half by Dai Atlas at the very end, you can see visibly the brain having been cut in two. Also, the fact that it opens with the complete destruction of an entire planet reminds one very heavily of Transformers the Movie, which is always a positive in my book. Admittedly, I think it would have been slightly better from a storytelling aspect if Victory Saber actually died at the beginning as a form of self-sacrifice, but I guess that would be encroaching on Optimus Prime's territory. Really, though, it just makes Dai Atlas becoming Supreme Commander feel a little odd; if Saber is perfectly fine, then why can't he continue leading? At the very least, a lot of stuff happens in this pilot, almost enough that this could have been a two-parter on its own. While I think the Destron Generals were a little too summarily defeated here, it does a neat job setting up what would have likely been the basic plot of Zone, in which Violen Jiger would continually try to get a hold of Zodiac in order to use its massive power for himself.


That being said, there is one nagging little issue, almost a nitpick but enough to get at me... Is Kain a boy & Akira a girl? I guess so, but only by the very end of the pilot, because otherwise the two are drawn & dressed so gender ambiguously that I honestly couldn't quite tell right away; the fact that both are voiced by female seiyuu doesn't help either. Seriously, the only indications that set me straight was a blink-and-you'll-miss shot of Kain blushing when Akira bumps into him when the ship they're on gets hit my enemy fire, & Akira has every-so-slightly longer eyelashes that I honestly didn't notice until the end. It shouldn't get to me, but it really did just bother me enough to have to bring it up here. Regardless, when combined with some good music by Katsunori Ishida & Michiaki Watanabe, though when Dai Atlas & Sonic Bomber power up using Zodiac I couldn't help but feel that "The Touch" should have played instead, plus a stellar theme song by Ichiro Mizuki, Transformers Zone makes for a fun & interesting pilot for a series that, sadly, just was not meant to be come 1990; at least it's infinitely better than The Rebirth. There were apparently some "story pages" showcased in some issues of TV Magazine that indicated what would have happened next, but no manga adaptation was even made for this series. Even sadder is that, supposedly, Shout! Factory did indeed try to bring over Zone & Scramble City, but were denied by Toei; I can't verify if this is true, though, or if it's simply fans making wild guesses. Admittedly, I could only see these two OVAs being released as part of a larger product, as there simply wouldn't be enough between the two of them to be worth selling as a separate release, unless it was put out for $20, at the most. Unless something changes, the "true" finale of Transformers Generation 1 will just have to remain locked over in Japan... Officially, at least.



Record of Phantom Zone War Shiden
We're back to talking about Anime Crash with this one, but instead of focusing on something the company actually licensed, we're looking at something it tried to co-produce with Japan. While Kimio Ikeda isn't a name that's going to be known to most anime fans, his impact on the industry was massive. He helped Osamu Tezuka produced the original Tetsuwan Atom/Astro Boy anime in 1963, assisted Tatsuo Yoshida in making the original Mach GoGoGo/Speed Racer anime in 1967, & produced cult-favorite puppet "anime" X-Bomber/Star Fleet in 1991, among other things. In 2004, Ikeda got into talks with Abrams Gentile Entertainment, which was working with Anime Crash, about co-producing a new action/racing anime, ala Speed Racer; it would be called Shiden ("Purple Lightning"). After all was said & done, a pilot episode was produced sometime in 2004, complete with an opening theme, for "just under a few million dollars". Sadly, after shopping the pilot around, no one bit on helping produce the complete TV series, & after Ikeda passed away in 2007 the project truly died. After making his excellent overview of Anime Crash for ANN's Answerman in 2014, Justin Sevakis was allowed by Jason Veronico (who worked for Crash until its death) to upload the pilot onto YouTube (since all of the involved companies are apparently now defunct), so let's see what could have been for Genjiku Senki Shiden.


Raika is heading over to the home of his grandfather, a racer who one day went missing, for a nice vacation with his female friends Aki & Haru. After the two girls head out for some errands, Raika accidentally comes across a hidden passage to his grandfather's garage, inside which is a car the likes of which he's never seen; it even has a dreamlike, holographic image of a girl giving him a warning. Turns out this is nowhere near a dream, though, as Aki & Haru wind up being attacked & chased by a mysterious group, specifically to capture Haru. The two girls get split up, with Aki finding her way back to Raika, who helps her race to the rescue in said hovercar, while Haru is picked up by a man named Caim Barts, who tries to keep her from harm. The group chasing after Haru is lead by Zarlas, the despotic ruler of the world of Radou who feels that Haru is the "Maiden of Noam", a "wedge" between Earth & Radou. The only thing that can help Haru & Caim right now is the Shiden, the mysterious vehicle that Raika & Aki are driving.

Whereas all of the other pilots have some sort of relevant information to be found regarding them, this is not the case with Shiden. The pilot that Sevakis was allowed to upload has no credits whatsoever, so I can't even check if the names I used in the synopsis above are technically correct, let alone properly credit whoever actually worked on this pilot; it's all guess work & listening by ear here. Anyway, the Shiden pilot is essentially the first episode of the never-produced story, establishing Raika, Aki, Haru, & the basic set-up, as well as giving a short look at the world of Radou before the opening theme plays. The first half is mostly on Raika & his realization that his grandfather had some big secrets that no one knew of, with Zarlas' chase after Haru becoming what drives the second half. Absolutely nothing is explained in this pilot, at least what I could tell (as there is no translation), whether it's Raika's relationship with Aki & Haru, why Haru's bell-laden bracelet glowed when Zarlas was nearby, or even who Caim even is (though one should guess that he's a good guy, at the very least). While I completely understand that the point was that things would be revealed as the story advanced, it doesn't exactly do much good as a pilot that's meant to attract companies to help pay for its continued production. Really, I think Shiden more or less drove over its own feet by going in this direction, as all it really has going for it as a proof-of-concept is that it looks cool.

Because if you're writing about a car anime, you gotta show the car.

I mean, certainly, if this pilot was truly produced with roughly a few million dollars, it should at least look nice, and it does. Visually, the show does look of its mid-00s time, but the budget was least there to make sure that everything moves fluidly & doesn't take the cheap way out too often. There's even some interesting designs, with Zarlas' grunts looking more than a little Eldritch in style. What little is known of the staff behind it is what's listed over at the ANN Encyclopedia, so here's hoping it's accurate. Toshihiro Nagao directed the CG, which does honestly hold up better than most of its contemporaries do nowadays. Old-school animation direction Takao Kozai (Mazinger Z, Star of the Giants) lead the animation crew, which is probably why it does looks nice, as there was a true veteran leading the way. The music by Masaaki Hirao (Galaxy Express 999) is fine, though I can't tell at all if he composed the absolutely catchy & excellent opening theme, which truly sounds like what an old-school anime theme from the 60s or 70s would sound like if it was made for the first time now. Finally, the Shiden itself was designed by Anime Crash's Tasayu Tasnaphun, & it's a sleek hovercar design that works in its simplicity, & I honestly kind of like the giant green orb in the back that seemingly powers the vehicle. Though no voice cast is listed, I can tell that Raika is voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi & Zarlas is performed by Takehito Koyasu, due to obvious vocal tells the two have & both use here. Also according to the ANN Encyclopedia, Genjiku Senki Shiden was meant to be a 26-episode TV series, & if though I do feel that this pilot, overall, does fail in doing its job in giving a good idea as to how this was going to really play out, mainly because it focuses too much on simply being a first episode, I still really enjoyed what was made here, & it's at least worth a watch over at YouTube; the sum manages to make it rise above its faults. At the very least, it's a shame that awesome opening theme nearly wound up being completely lost with time, so thank you Justin Sevakis for keeping that from happening.

Eyecatch for this one, because the actual title splash is intensely boring.

Battle Stage1 -Quickening-
In 2010, AIC helped produce the anime adaptation of light novel series My Little Sister Can't Be This Cute, which is also known for short as OreImo. That anime featured a smattering of made-up anime that the characters watched, and one of them was a mech anime titled Justeen. After OreImo finished up, AIC then announced in October of 2011 that a real-life Justeen anime would actually be made, as (according to Wikipedia Japan & Twitter) AIC had always planned on having the idea be more than just an anime-within-an-anime. Well, turns out that a single episode was all that was ever released, on December 29, 2011 by G-Mode, & it even has a preview for episode 2 (Battle Stage2 -Awakening-) at the end, so let's see if Justeen actually had anything to it, or if it should have stayed simply a piece of fake anime.


Just as humanity started expanding its presence into space, a new threat has attacked the Earth. Taiga Amakake's family makes up the JusForce group of the Intergalactic Force. His father is commander, his sister is second-in-command, & his brother Seiga pilots the giant robot Justeen Omega, which is what Taiga wants to do more than anything, but hasn't been declared chosen due to his hand not displaying the same symbol that his brother & father both have. After a battle puts Seiga into the infirmary, however, Taiga might just actually get that opportunity...

Justeen's pilot kind of suffers from the same problem as Shiden's in that it acts more like a first episode than an actual proof-of-concept pilot, i.e. it doesn't quite explain as much as it should to attract investors; hell, Taiga never even gets into a robot of any sort in this! At the very least, Justeen does do a better job at setting up what exactly is going on, though it is a relatively simple concept, since it's an "Aliens attack Earth" world build. Really, while there is a relatively enjoyable mech battle from Seiga in the middle of the episode, the real focus here is on Taiga & his family more than anything. The enemy force isn't even given a proper identifying name at all in this pilot, hence why I don't mention one, which makes it all the more obvious that this is meant to be the start of a story about a boy who wishes to prove his worth to his family, because he wants to do more in order to protect those he cares for. At the same time, though, AIC also adds in some bits of fanservice, like Taiga's friend Saki being introduced by having her find him lounging on the roof, only to have her panties shown for a split-second when the wind blows, followed by Taiga getting a full-blown shot of her panties when she stands over him. The Episode 2 preview also showcases both a good amount of jiggle, plus downright bare breasts, likely making this product an OVA from the start, rather than the TV series that was initially assumed.


Still, since it's an AIC production, the pilot looks really nice on a purely visual perspective, & the character designs by animation director Keisuke Watabe (CrestBanner of the Stars, Persona 3 movies) are very sleek & appealing. The various robots shown in this pilot were designed by a group of people, namely Keisuke Watabe, Ken Ootsuka, Kyota Washikita, Masahiro Yamane, & Seiji Handa, and it helps give them a nice variety of styles. The music by Takashi Nakagawa isn't anything especially memorable, but the ending theme, "Densetsu no Senshi Justeen" (sung by Nakagawa himself!) is fun in an old-school way. Admittedly, I like what Justeen was trying to indicate what it was meant to be, as in a series about a family helping each other save the world from aliens, but at the same time the inclusion of blatant fanservice just feels odd, since it takes itself relatively seriously. Hell, said second episode preview showcases a heavy focus on taking place in a bath house, resulting in the aforementioned jiggle & bare breasts. Look, I'm not against fanservice in anime, but either have it match the general tone of the story or actually try to have it make sense when it's used, which Justeen doesn't bother to do in the slightest. Still, the Justeen pilot, though a little bland in some respects (especially when it comes to the giant robots) does enough to make me interested, & it is a little sad that AIC never got the chance to actually make this more than just a simple anime-within-a-anime to be found in OreImo.
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Really, though, that's the general consensus when it comes to this volume of Demo Disc. Every one of these pilots showcased some sort of potential, but just didn't have luck on their sides when it came to actually making more of them. TMS' Space Adventure Cobra dub pilot would have been a revolutionary product had it actually been picked up by a network, Transformers Zone could have actually given a true & proper finale to Transformers Generation 1 if it was allowed to continue (while also being deemed the last series at the time), Genjiku Senki Shiden would have been a one-of-a-kind production for its time had Kimio Ikeda been allowed to produce it all, & Justeen was definitely a passion project for AIC. Sadly, them's the breaks, sometimes.

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