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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Samurai Spirits 2: Asura Zanmaden: Fair and Square... En Garde... VICTOLY!

When anime started becoming a notable niche in the late-90s & early 00s, it was popular for companies to license & release TV series, OVAs & movies based on video games; admittedly, it allowed for crossing over to more than just anime fans. Unfortunately, for every individual Street Fighter II Movie, Virtua Fighter, & Fatal Fury we got, we seemingly received at least two lackluster (if not simply outright terrible) adaptations alongside them. Stuff like Tekken, Panzer Dragoon, Battle Arena Toshinden, Art of Fighting, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer, & Samurai Shodown almost became the faces of video game anime, with the end result being that we actually missed out on some really good examples that had just about as much cachet to them from a simple name recognition perspective. We never received Ninja Ryukenden, Far East of Eden: Ziria Oboro Hen, Salamander (okay, the UK got that one), or even Shinken Legend Tight Road (the game never got made, but it was based on one), and that also applies to successive entries to what we did get, especially if the later product was the better one. A very good example of that is Samurai Spirits 2: Asura Zanmaden/The Demon Slaying Asura Tale, a two-episode OVA from 1999.

SNK's Neo Geo arcade hardware was utilized from 1990 to 2004, making it the longest-running arcade hardware ever made, but it's not like SNK never tried to move away from it. In September of 1997, the Hyper Neo Geo 64 came out, and it was meant to be the successor to the Neo Geo, with 3D rendering capabilities & even a planned home version (similar to the MVS & AES). Unfortunately, the Hyper 64 just didn't succeed to even a fraction of what its predecessor achieved, and in 1999 was discontinued. Only seven games came out for the Hyper 64, four of which related to a major SNK franchise. The last two games, 1999's Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition & Buriki One, related to the shared Fatal Fury/Art of Fighting timeline, and before those were two Samurai Shodown games, which finally advanced the storyline past the second game. First was Samurai Shodown 64 in 1997, which introduced Shiki to the franchise, while the other was 1998's Samurai Shodown 64: Warrior's Rage, known as Samurai Spirits 2: Asura Zanmaden in Japan. Not to be confused with the similarly named Samurai Shodown: Warrior's Rage for the PS1 from the following year, this game would receive a prequel anime one year later, taking place across a couple of days before the events of the game. It's honestly not hard to surpass the 1994 TV special, so let's see how screwed over we were by not getting this OVA instead.

1790, late Autumn. It's been a couple of months since the battle with Yuga the Destroyer & his living puppet warrior Shiki, and Haohmaru has been staying at Nakoruru & Rimururu's home while slowly honing his skills. One night, after felling a bunch of thugs for a job, Kibagami Genjyuro comes across a mysterious warrior who can summon a sword, great axe, & shield from nowhere, with Genjyuro actually losing the successive clash. The next day, while surveying the area, Nakoruru comes across a weakened Shiki, who she takes in with the hopes that she's finally broken free from Yuga's control. In reality, though, Shiki is still after Haohmaru, but after her is Asura, the warrior who defeated Genjyuro. With Shiki hunting for Haohmaru, American ninja Galford hunting after Shiki, Asura willing to kill anyone who's in his way, & even Nakoruru being haunted by the darker side of her personality (later identified in the franchise as Rera), who tries to encourage her to stray from her pacifistic ways, who is truly safe from harm?

It really is shocking how different the Samurai Spirits 2 OVA is from it's TV special precursor, and all of it is for the better. The biggest of all is that this second attempt is, absolutely & completely, a Samurai Shodown-accurate product, almost as if SNK way trying to apologize for how altered the TV special was from the source material. Being a prologue to the game, it's not surprising that the story doesn't exactly have any real "resolution" to it, but even then the story that is told here is head over heels better than what came before. While there are enough moments of combat here, the focus in these two episodes is primarily on establishing character development & reasons for why they are in the successive game's plot. Nakoruru wants to help Shiki finally become free from Yuga's control & be her own woman. Galford, in comparison, wants to kill Shiki, seeing it as the only option left to help her (& also end Nakoruru's inner turmoil, as he cares for her). Rimururu wants to help her sister out, proving her worth in the process. Haohmaru, after clashing with Asura, wants to not only fight him one more time but also finally put an end to Yuga & Shiki. Genjyuro, though only making a single appearance in the OVA, likely wants revenge against Asura due to his loss. Shiki is still following the commands of Yuga, though deep inside she likely wants freedom. Finally, Asura is shown as having been sealed away once before by Yuga, and now that he's been freed he wants to slay the demon, as well. While there are other characters in the game itself, it's nice that so many goals & reasons are established (or at least can be inferred) in just two episodes.

To go alongside this focus on character establishment & development is a nice balance of seriousness & lightheartedness. This is seen primarily in the first episode, with Haohmaru being the fall guy to Rimururu's earnest & blunt reactions towards her house guest essentially doing nothing but lying around & barely training, or Haohmaru fishing by trying out one of his strongest attacks to dry out a river, only to have Poppy & Galford steal some of his fish (& then Galford asking if he can grill his fish). This is mixed about with plenty of seriousness, whether it's Genjyuro's short fight with Asura, Nakoruru coming across Shiki, or Asura's skirmish against Haohmaru. The second episode is more or less focused on serious storytelling, though Rimururu's initial antics lend some endearing humor before even she decides to become more serious-minded. Really, though, it's not too surprising that this OVA succeeds with story where the TV special failed, as SNK's fighting games of the 90s were always the ones that prided themselves on telling good stories with developed characters with the limited executions that the arcade scene put onto the genre. Since this OVA is a direct prologue to one of those games, the characters seen here are as accurate as they can possibly be, with all of the nuance that SNK always managed to instill into them. Now, yes, this is primarily meant for fans of the series, because there is no attempt made to properly introduce these characters to newcomers ([the eventually named] Rera in particular just appears with no hint as to who she is), but I do feel that this OVA wouldn't exactly leave first-timers completely dumbfounded. Much like SNK's other franchises, everyone in the major Samurai Shodown cast leaves an immediate impression, and that comes through here.

I'm not anti-Nakoruru... It's just a striking image.

In a change of pace, I'm going to bring up the voice cast here, and that's because it also ties into how accurate this OVA is to its source material. One of the most commonly-derided parts of an anime based on a fighting game, at least those of the 90s, is that they don't utilize the game's voice cast, if one was there to start with. If you were lucky there would be one or two characters with reprisals, but otherwise everyone was recast, which in turn would make the anime feel all the more distant. Samurai Spirits 2: Asura Zanmaden, then, may be (one of) the first video game anime to have every character be reprised by their game voice actors at the time. Haohmaru is voiced by Daiki Nakamura, who would be best associated with the character via the later Capcom vs. SNK 2, and he is honestly still one of the best & most iconic takes, with a perfect mix of gruffness & seriousness, yet also nailing the more silly moments inherent to Haohmaru's sometimes simple-minded way of life. Nakoruru is performed by Harumi Ikoma, who until King of Fighters XIV was the definitive voice of the Ainu maiden, and therefore delivers a pitch perfect performance. In a true example of voice range, Ikoma is also the iconic voice for fellow SNK characters Blue Mary, King, & Charlotte, none of which really sound like Nakoruru. Similarly, Kuwata Kong's Genjyuro, Mantaro Koichi's Galford, Keiko Kamitani's Rimururu, Kaori Minami's Shiki, & Kazuya Ichijou's Asura are all excellent, giving their respective characters more of a girth & expansion that the fighting games of their times just couldn't deliver.

In terms of staff, there isn't much to go off of through online sources, even Wikipedia Japan barely lists anyone, but there is enough out there to give proper credit towards. It was directed by Kazuhiro Sasaki, a well-versed key animator & animation director who made his one & only appearance as overall director here. Still, Sasaki's experience as an animator is likely why this Ajiado-produced OVA looks so good, easily blowing the prior TV special out of the water. Scenes are set up excellently, the visuals stay true to the feel & general mood of Samurai Shodown, &, most importantly, it looks like the franchise. Though the two Hyper 64 games featured character designs by Senri Kita, this OVA features characters by Aoi Nanase (Seraphm Call, Angel/Dust), which works similarly to Masami Obari working on the Fatal Fury productions by giving everyone a stark & effective look, while also making them look extremely close to their SNK originals. Shiki looks the most striking through Nanase's design, while Nakoruru actually looks the roughest, primarily due to her eyes being remarkably far from each other, which was a bit of the "moe style" of the time; it doesn't ruin her, but it is noticeable in some scenes. Finally, the music by Osamu Tezuka (Shadow Skill, The Slayers), not to be confused with the "God of Manga" of the same name, is exquisite, matching the time period of the story while also adding all of the proper emotion & feeling that each scene requires at the moment.

It might seem a little odd that I found so much to write about for Samurai Shodown: The Motion Picture but didn't have quite as much to say about Samurai Spirits 2: Asura Zanmaden, but that's simply a good example of how being negative is easier than being positive, and this is especially true when it comes to any sort of criticism... Why else are most online reviewers known for tearing things apart, especially when they do so via video? Still, make no mistake that the 1994 TV special is, at best, a mediocre story that's not all too accurate to its source material, while the two-episode OVA prologue to the second Hyper Neo Geo 64 game in the franchise from 1999 is a must-watch for fans of Samurai Shodown, and might even be enjoyable enough for those who aren't quite as versed with the game. The biggest problem with anime based on video games during the 90s was that most of them tended to simply be nothing more than blatant promotional material & fanservice, cramming all of the characters in at the expense of any sort of actual storytelling & character development. At the same time, though, modern day adaptations seem to suffer from being primarily for the existing fans at the expense of welcoming in newcomers, though storytelling is given more of a focus than before. In a sense, this OVA is kind of the middle point of the two executions, by being of short length, yet staying true to its source & focusing on telling a proper story. By being short & intensely focused on what it wants to do, the Asura Zanmaden OVA winds up being way better than it honestly had any right to be, especially considering the (end of an) era it came out during.

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