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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Demo Disc Vol. 10: Odious Oni

It's time to celebrate, because Demo Disc has now hit double digits! Wooooooo!!

Ever since I started alternating between single series & multi-series for Demo Disc, the former category has had a consistent concept behind each entry. Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos was an unwanted anime license, Get Ride! AMDriver was an unreleased anime license, & Geisters - Fractions of the Earth was an unfinished anime license. Therefore, for the fourth single series volume of Demo Disc, I will be covering an unlicensed anime license!
Huh, that didn't sound good on paper, either.

Due to half-length episodes, there is no eyecatch.
Each episode ends with a still shot, though.

Banpresto's 1990 Game Boy game Oppressive Demon Record Oni was originally conceived as a puzzle game before being redesigned as an RPG. It wound up being the start of the Oni Series, which received seven more games, primarily developed by Pandora Box, across the Game Boy & Super Famicom, before finishing up in 2001 on the PlayStation with Oni Zero ~Resurrection~; Compile Heart brought back the series for one entry on the DS in 2007. In between the releases of 1995's Oni V: Successors to Endurance for the Game Boy & 1996's Tale of the Advent of the Bakumatsu Oni for the Super Famicom, Sotsu Agency & J.C. Staff came together & produced an anime based on the Oni Series. At the same time, the mid-90s saw a number of short-form TV anime being produced (Neo Ranga, Sexy Commando, etc.), so the resulting Touma Kijin Den/Legend of the Fierce Fighting God Oni wound up running for 25 episodes, each of which only lasted 10 minutes as part of TV Tokyo's Thursday morning Anime Asaichi block. Since then, the anime more or less became forgotten, so much so that I could only find 15 episodes-worth fansubbed, two-thirds of which isn't in the greatest quality due to age, plus two more episodes (17 & 18) without any sort of translation. So did it have any potential, does it execute the short-episode style well, and is it primarily for fans of the games?

Shuramaru is an young man raised by one of the village elders as his own grandson. Unfortunately, the rest of the villages shun Shuramaru, as his freakish strength has him labeled a "demon". Unbeknownst to all, though, is that Shuramaru is in fact part of the Oni lineage, which derive from ancient Yoma (demonic spirits) & have existed alongside humanity (both publicly & in secret) for ages. Shuramaru has to come to terms with his lineage, though, when a mysterious group from the future, who call themselves "The Seven Gods of Fortune", arrive with plans to kill all those they deem as having "impure genes", as the future has become bleak & filled with naturally sterilized people, whom they blame on those with said flawed genes. Luckily for him, though, there are other people of the Oni out there to help him fight back against their futuristic foes.

First & foremost, what kind of video game adaptation is Touma Kijin Den Oni? To be quite honest, I wasn't even completely sure if this was related to the video game series, simply because (from my research) there are no characters from any of the games in the anime at all. Turns out that the anime is simply based on the "world view" of Banpresto's Oni Series, and Shuramaru's name does follow the naming sense of the other Oni leads, who were named Tenchimaru, Takayamaru, Tokiwamaru, Otogimaru, Koganemaru, Hokutomaru, Yamatomaru, Shiroumaru, & Gedoumaru; it's like the Osomatsu brothers, but taken to literally 11! Therefore, fans of the RPG series will likely find thematic similarities & possibly even some references here & there, but those who have absolutely no idea that this anime is even based on a video game series will still be able to watch it, as it still tells its own (overall) original story, with completely original characters. In other words, Touma Kijin Den Oni is as much of an "adaptation" of Oni as Final Fantasy: Unlimited is of Final Fantasy, i.e. it maintains elements of the franchise, but also works on its own as a standalone story.

Anyway, onto the anime itself, so let's start with the characters, as it's a rather focused & small cast. The heroes are made up of those from the Oni bloodline, starting with Shuramaru. Our lead is a bit standard by being someone who wants to believe in humanity & protect those being hunted by the Gods of Fortune, but at the same time his power tends to instantly make him ostracized, if not outright given the killer mob treatment, by his fellow man. Ayahito & Misao join up with him rather suddenly in Episode 5, with only an indication that they sensed his power after he first transformed into his Oni form, with Ayahito being the calm & reserved warrior who only fights when necessary, & Misao the excitable & perky kunoichi who makes no attempt at hiding her current emotions at the moment. The group gets a fourth member in Episode 10 in the form of Musashi, a large samurai who faked his death so that the woman he was betrothed to can be with the man she cares for; a good way to show his sense of honor. Finally, there's Moegi, a supporting member who acts as Shuramaru's love interest, as she's seemingly the only human (aside from Shuramaru's surrogate grandfather) to instantly accept him for who he is on the inside. The heroes are more or less best defined by their archetypes, especially Ayahito & Misao, who don't get much development (at least in the episodes I could watch).

Quite honestly, it's actually the Seven Gods of Fortune who are probably the most interesting of all. Partially named after the actual mythical Japanese gods of good luck, the villains are curious primarily because their goal is actually rather noble. Due to what they deem to be "impure" DNA being passed down across generations, the birth rate of humanity in the future they live in is revealed to be as low as 0.0013%, and have decided to alter the past in order to fix the future. Unfortunately, the Gods of Fortune decide to take an extremist view of things, coming to the conclusion that simply killing off the earliest ancestors who carried these impurities would be the most efficient way. Granted, this gets into some wonky time-travelling aspects (the Gods keep going back to the future before returning to the past to enact their plans, for example), but the real appeal is in how the varying personalities of the Gods clash with each other & with the heroes. Leader Hajaoh's insistence on maintaining the "purity" of humanity starts to go against mad scientist Jusei's plan to harvest some Oni cells, with the intention of combining their DNA with that of the Oni to create a more supreme being, so much so that Hajaoh is eventually forced out of leadership due to the group's constant failures. At the same time, this conflicts the just & honorable masked warrior Takiyasha, who is easily the least villainous of the group (though he's only seen at the start & very end of what I could watch).

In terms of Gods with less stable personalities, there are Iolite & Padona Shuri, both of which find obsessive attachments to specific individuals. Iolite becomes crazed with Ayahito, to the point of verbally stating his love for the man, though whether it's actual infatuation or something else is left up to the imagination. As for Shuri, she becomes attached to Shuramaru, wanting to properly fight him & ending with her holding his severed head. This comes to a head when she fights Misao, who also wound up having feelings for our lead, & the latter makes Shuri realize that she may have fallen in love with him. I guess one could consider Shuri a yandere (i.e. one who's "deadly" in love with another), in that regard. Finishing up the Gods are Sara, who fights in hopes of finding a cure for her brother's sickness, & Niira Kan, a large-nosed man who does essentially nothing in the episodes I can cover. Finally, there's Karla, a woman who is fused, mind & body, with the Gods' central computer. Due to her overly protective nature for Hajaoh, it's obvious the two have some sort of relationship, but this is also something I can't comment on due to this only being a Demo Disc piece. Still, it's easy to see that the Seven Gods of Fortune are, far & away, more developed & interesting than the heroes that are fighting them.

Now then, it's time for the big question: Does this anime work within its reduced time length? While short-run TV anime has made a comeback for the past few years, the stretch of series that followed this similar format back in the 90s was a heavily mixed bag. Some series utilized the shorter episodes well, usually by being episodic in nature, while others sometimes just felt like the studio simply split up episodes into two, usually for the more serialized stories. Touma Kijin Den Oni, in turn, is kind of in the middle of the two. While there are stretches of episodes that do feel like they could have been combined into a single "traditional" episode, at the same time simply combining them wouldn't exactly work, either. For an example, Episodes 1-3 introduce Shuramaru, Moegi, the Seven Gods, & end with the first clash between both sides, perfect introductory stuff, but if you take all three episodes together, even removing the OP sequence, they total to ~23 minutes, which is just a little bit too long to have simply been one episode split in three. At the same time, though, Oni's pacing is more or less nonstop, with very few moments of real downtime between one major plot point & another. This can result in something like Musashi's introductory mini-arc going by rather quickly in just three episodes, and character & plot information being delivered one after another at times. To be fair, this does keep Oni from becoming boring, but at the same time it does occasionally feel like some episodes are done in a Cliff Notes fashion, to accommodate the shorter length.

Leading the anime's production was director Iku Suzuki (Maze, Moonlight Mile), and overall the anime isn't too bad for a mid-90s TV production. It is a little surprising to see a little bit of stock footage, considering the short length of each episode, but at least it's only for the Oni transformations, and they all look good; the flashbacks to prior episodes were a bit much, but the show did air weekly, so I won't complaint much. Interestingly enough, the entire script for the anime was solely written by Natsuko Hayakawa, who at the time was lead scenario writer for the Oni Series from 1994-1996; she was the pen behind the two games prior to this anime & the game following it. Since the anime was written by the person in charge of the story of the actual games at the time, I'd hazard a guess that it stays true to the way the games told their stories, and she does admittedly give each episode its own focus; each episode title is rather literal about who or what the focus is at the moment. The character designs & animation director were handled by Masayuki Goto (Maze, Kishin Corps), and visually the show is very much a product of its time, especially the hair. Seriously, the hair in this show can be all sorts of crazy in terms of just how big it is; Hajaoh & Shuramaru's Oni form are the biggest culprits of that. Still, everyone looks wildly different from each other, making it impossible to confuse one character from another. Just remember that Oni is definitely a mid-90s anime, & you won't be surprised too much.

Shuramaru, you just have to tell me you hair styling tips!

Also matching the decade it came out in is the music by Nittoku Inoue (Ayane's High Kick, Hoop Days), who is also known as the co-founder of J-Rock band Dogschool. Therefore, it's no surprise that 90% of Oni's entire soundtrack is hard & heavy rock (*throws up some sign of the horns*), & I mean that in a big way. There are tons of electric guitar-focused songs to be found here, and even though there are some softer tracks, even those still rely on the guitar very heavily. As someone who is generally a rock fan, I do think it's an overall solid soundtrack, and it fits the general mood & feel of the anime well, but it's definitely an acquired taste, especially if you don't just want rock every single time. Similarly, Inoue composed & arranged the theme songs for Oni, both of which feature lyrics by K. Inojo (Macross 7) & vocals by Maki Watanabe. Opening theme "Try" is a hard hitting intro, giving the anime a bit of a harsh first impression, though Inojo's lyrics focus on getting ready to fight a never-ending battle for peace. Ending theme "Hello" is essentially the closest thing you'll find to a ballad, with a much more somber sound, though still very much hard hitting, & Inojo's lyrics here focus on wanting companionship for the harshness of the world at large.

Matching the harsh licks is Watanabe's vocals, which are pitch perfect & appropriately somber, giving both songs a sound that's honestly not heard all too often in anime, which prioritizes hopefulness & excitement; they will easily stay in my mind forever more. If I have to choose, I actually prefer "Hello", and the way the anime uses it is interesting. The home video release compiled five episodes at a time, with "Try" only played at the start of the first episode shown. After the fifth episode ended, "Hello" would play for four entire minutes (not quite the entire song, though), playing the credits slowly while showing footage from the entire series, indicating that this ending theme was either highly extended for the home video release, or was not in the original TV airing at all; said credits are where I managed to get good-quality images for the later parts I watched.

Here's the rough quality of 2/3 of the stuff I had to watch for this...

Considering the relatively small overall cast there is, I can cover most of them here; also, the fansub actually gave its own listings, so let me use those! Shuramaru is voiced by Akira Ishida (Gordon in Fire Emblem, Takumi in Combustible Campus Guardress), who sticks to his usual style of performance, but gets to let loose some nice anger here & there. Misao & Ayahito have Akemi Okamura (Nami in One Piece) & Yasuyuki Kase (Kankuro in Naruto) to their respective credits, and they both fit their characters' personality quirks rather well; the fansub oddly doesn't list other roles for these two, so I chose some. Hajaoh is voiced by Mitsuaki Madono (Marron in Sorcerer Hunters), who really pushes the feeling of superiority the main villain does showcase throughout. Takiyasha is played by Akio Ohtsuka (Windman in "MKRE" [seriously], Narrator in Gundam Wing, Daikaku in The Hakkenden), and though he features very little in the episodes being covered here, it is still Ohtsuka delivering a great sense of honor & respect, even as a villain. Shuri features the voice of Kikuko Inoue (Belldandy in Ah! My Goddess, Queen in Miyuki-chan, Corvette in Idol Project), and she's actually one of my favorites, delivering a great sense of craziness & obsession over Shuramaru. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Kyoko Hikami (Moegi; Cacao in Vs. Lamune & 40 Fire), Tamio Ohki (Jusei), Rokuro Naya (Niira Kan, Shuramaru's grandfather, & Moegi's father), Mari Okamoto (Sara), Atsuko Tanaka (Karla), Tomohiro Tsuboi (Iolite), & Ikue Ohtani (Moegi's brother Hoshihiko; Meruru in Escaflowne). Overall, it's a solid cast, though none really seem to go outside of their own respective typecasting.

The first 3/5 of Touma Kijin Den Oni does showcase how this anime is definitely a product of its time, especially when you consider the format it was produced in. Short-form anime nowadays tend to be more about episodic romps that take proper advantage of the shorter episode lengths, but at the same time we, as viewers, are just so used to the "traditional" format that I feel like I might be judging a serialized short-form anime like this improperly. As mentioned, each episode I saw does have a specific focus behind it, so in that regard I think it succeeds in its format, but then there is the occasional feeling that a series of episodes could have been combined into one standard length, if not an episode feeling like it's giving me a Cliff Notes take on what was meant to be told. Am I judging these episodes based on what I'm simply used to through your standard, ~24 minute, episode length, or does the anime fail in properly utilizing its short-form length? At the very least, the anime does look nice for its time, the fact that it's written by the person who was writing the video games it was based in part on at the time is great for accuracy &, though the rock-focused soundtrack may not appeal to everyone, the music does fit the general aesthetic well (& might even match the games, too). Sadly, this anime only ever saw a VHS & LD release, & the only LD I can even find images or even online listings of is the first volume, so good luck trying to watch it all if you are curious; there was also a release for the OST on CD.

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