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Monday, October 9, 2017

Spectral Force (OVA): The Beginning of "The Ed Wood of Anime"

So a few weeks ago I reviewed Spectral vs. Generation, a 2D fighting game that crossed over characters from Idea Factory's IF Neverland brand. While that game in particular never saw release in North America specifically, the franchise itself actually had a curious introduction to the English-speaking market, but first some quick history. Technically, the first game in IF Neverland was Idea Factory's second ever game, 1996's Spectral Tower, a dungeon crawler that took place in the fantasy world of Neverland. That being said, though, the game didn't really define anything in particular about the world it took place in, & would be effectively replaced in the actual canon by 1998's Spectral Tower II, so one can argue that IF Neverland as a franchise & brand actually started 20 years ago. The game in particular was Spectral Force, released on October 9, 1997, which was essentially the spiritual successor to Sega's Dragon Force on the Saturn. You see, developer J-Force was on the verge of bankruptcy during development and, after numerous months of unpaid work, a lot of the Dragon Force staff left & joined Idea Factory to make Spectral Force; Sega's Kansai branch would finish the original game (& then develop the 1998 sequel).

However, Idea Factory's founders, Shingo Kuwana (formerly of Data East) & Yoshiteru Sato, had plans to be more than just a video game studio, & Spectral Force would be the start of IF's multimedia expansion. While the game itself featured a very rudimentary anime opening, when it came to the release of Spectral Force 2 in October of 1998 Idea Factory produced two adaptations of the original game. There was a manga drawn by character designer Shinnosuke Hino, which ran in Shinseisha's Comic Gamest & was compiled into a single volume by Koei, while Idea Factory itself would make a two-episode OVA for release on VHS... Yes, a video game company decided to make an anime on its own; both episodes would then be released on a single DVD in 2001. At Anime Weekend Atlanta 6 in 2000, ADV Films announced plans to work with publisher Studio Ironcat to bring over Spectral Force, with ADV handling the OVA & Ironcat dealing with the manga; according to the news, the game was even planned for release. A year later, at AWA 7, Studio Ironcat revealed that the manga was ready to go & would even be part of a giant package containing the game, OVA, & manga; likewise, ADV's dub & subtitle work was finished (at least, that's what the copyright says). Unfortunately, Ironcat was in a very rough place at that time, so the manga never saw release. In the end, ADV would be the only company to release anything from the deal, though for whatever reason it wouldn't be until mid-2003 via dual-audio DVD, three months after Xicat Interactive had released Black Stone: Magic & Steel on the Xbox, which is technically the first IF Neverland game to be released in North America & Europe (though the Japanese release, titled Ex-Chaser, would come later & actually make it a proper entry for the brand).

Since then, the Spectral Force OVA has gone down as one of the worst anime ever officially released in North America. Still, I want to celebrate what I consider the "proper" 20th Anniversary for IF Neverland, so since I can't really play the game (it's very menu-based, so a good familiarity with Japanese is essential), let me see what happens when a video game studio tries its hands at making an anime for the very first time... If it's anything like most of the other Idea Factory anime I reviewed back in 2013, then I'm not expecting much.

Demon Century 997. The main continent of the world of Neverland has been under the rule of Demon Lord Janus for the longest time, using fear to quell any revolts by humans & prevent yet another war that would kill millions like before. Still, the humans want their freedom back, so a small troupe lead by a young warrior named Chiffon manage to get a hold of the Tenmaken, a sword made by the gods, & Chiffon himself uses it to kill Janus after infiltrating the Demon Lord's castle. With Janus' death, Neverland is about to be brought back into a massive war for control, & Hiro, the human/demon daughter of Janus, now has to decide how to lead her father's forces into battle. In the meantime, a demon named Jadou, who is actually Hiro's older brother who was banished by Janus years ago, has summoned a young girl to Neverland, one whose magic he can use to take command of Neverland for himself & turn it into a world meant only for demonkind.

Last time I looked at Idea Factory anime, they were made with the same basic idea, and that was to simply act as a prologue in order to promote their respective video games that just came out; Kingdom of Chaos: Born to Kill was the sole exception (&, surprise, it was the best of them all). The same is true of the Spectral Force OVA, as it does nothing but establish a lot of the major characters, especially for Hiro's side of things, & set up some of the basic conflicts that the game would feature. The first episode is all about Hiro, as her older sister Plana hires three mercenaries, Sato, Chic, & Zakifon, to escort her on a mission so that she's not around when Chiffon arrives (as Janus knew it was the end of his era), though Hiro still manages to get back in time to see her father killed with the Tenmaken. The second episode has a lot more to it, showing how helpless the Demon Army are at the moment, with Chic trying his hand at making a temporary alliance with the forest elf land of Pliesta lead by Azalea, & maybe even the island nation of Muromachi lead by Orochimaru, in order to stand a chance at survival for the moment. There's also a little bit of introduction for Jadou as well as Little Snow, the young woman he brought to Neverland from Earth, but it doesn't go further than establishing them on a basic level. While there are likable characters to be found, it's reserved only for Hiro, Sato, & Chic, who are the only ones to actually do stuff of note & do relevant things, making them feel relatable. Zakifon is injured early in Episode 2, taking him out for the rest of the OVA, Chiffon & his allies are only in the OVA to kill Janus & then get ambushed by Hiro & Sato's squad in the climax of the OVA, & everyone else gets nothing more than the most basic of introductions.

Really, that's the major problem with Spectral Force as an OVA, and partially why it's lambasted: It's set up with no payoff. This is the same overall issue with essentially all of the anime that Idea Factory itself produced. Unlike the more recent anime that Idea Factory has other animation studios produce (Hakuoki, Hiiro no Kakera, etc.), these various OVAs were part of the company's greater plan, which was to be a multimedia house that could develop games, produce original animation, draw manga, & overall be multifaceted. Yes, this results in nearly every single one of these OVAs being more or less worthless to anime fans, especially those outside of Japan, and because of that I feel like I have to judge them on a different scale than I would a proper review. Kingdom of Chaos' OVA series was the only exception to that, and in turn it felt like Idea Factory had learned lessons by then, realizing that being nothing but a prologue to a game can only go so far, but rather it needs to be enjoyable on its own merit; being based on a three-year old (at the time) browser game likely gave it free reign, too. That being said, however, I still put Spectral Force on the somewhat higher end of the spectrum (no pun intended?) when it comes to "Idea Factory anime", simply because it's two episodes long, which in turn gives it more to work with for stuff like character development & storytelling; Generation of Chaos III's OVA is still better on the whole, though, doing a better job at establishing the basic conflict as well as actually showing a substantial skirmish. Yes, that's blatantly faint praise, as what is here is still rather bare & simplistic, but it's not like I was expecting much from the start, anyway.

Unlike all of those other productions, though, this OVA actually saw license & release outside of Japan. For the longest time, I simply figured that ADV just came across it & thought a quick buck could be made off of it, but after looking into the old news stories of the time, I can see that there was more in the works. The OVA was only meant to be a part of a larger picture, with Ironcat's release of the manga likely expanding on the story & the game itself being the main attraction; I have no idea who was going to publish the game, though. If I had to make a guess, I'd say that it was Idea Factory that approached ADV & Ironcat, not the other way around, but the grand plan to release all three productions wound up failing due to Ironcat's legal issues at the time & the game being a no-go in North America. Without the manga & game to go with the OVA, ADV likely just sat on its end of the deal, but after a couple of years decided to simply put it out & see if a buck could still be made; the dubbing & subtitling work was all done & ready, after all. Mike Toole revealed in his ANN column back in 2013 that ADV's Matt Greenfield quietly speculated that the OVA was simply cutscenes from the "unfinished game", but he'd be completely wrong there (& not just because the game did come out). That being said, he wasn't too far off in some way, as Idea Factory did outright reuse a couple of quick snippets from this OVA for the intros of Spectral Force 2 & Spectral Force: Lovely Wickedness.

I didn't think one could make Geisters look decent...
But, as they say, it takes all kinds.

Of course, there's the other reason why Spectral Force is so lambasted, and that's because this is an anime done by a video game developer. Seeing this OVA makes me realize that Idea Factory learned lessons almost instantly upon deciding to make its own animation, because the first episode throws together hand drawn cel animation & mid-90s CG work without abandon, and it looks absolutely terrible. Most of Idea Factory's self-produced anime utilized CG backgrounds, but it's easily at its most blatant & ill-fitting in this first production. It's obvious that these environments were created using the same CG that the PS1 games at the time used, & I wouldn't be surprised if the OVA outright reused assets & backdrops from Spectral Force 1 & 2's CG cutscenes (maybe even from Spectral Tower II, for that matter). Then we have the CG used for the giant monsters, which is easily some of the worst examples of mixing together 2D & CG I've ever seen. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Geisters featured a better mix, and that was also rather poor. Thankfully, this mix is only seen in Episode 1, with Episode 2 removing all of the CG monsters completely & just sticking with CG backgrounds; it's like the people making this OVA realized how stupid the mix looked upon finishing the episode.

As for the cel animation itself, there are a handful of moments where it does shine slightly, with some cool movements & drawings, but overall it's barely tolerable for a first time production, at best. While characters aren't exactly drawn off model, they do often have some rough drawings, especially for the faces, and the entire production just feels very amateurish. I even found one quick moment (literally a second or two) where the staff accidentally filmed a cel off-center, so you see Chic's head cut off at the top... Oops. There are also a few moments where the images gets inexplicably blurry & unfocused, which is just unacceptable. To be honest, the whole thing feels like one of those random OVAs that were made during the 80s boom by a group of people who only knew the basics of how to animate, but since they had money they were able to produce an OVA & put it out to market. In that regard, I actually kind of admire Spectral Force, because Idea Factory showed that its staff truly could make an anime & turn the company into a multimedia organization. Again, though, I'm not saying that it was a completely successful endeavor (though they certainly tried for a bit), but I commend that Shingo Kuwana & Yoshiteru Sato had a plan & actually went though with it.

Uh, Chic, you're looking a little flat headed up there...

Speaking of Yoshiteru Sato, he wrote, storyboarded, & directed the entire OVA himself, which makes me wonder where he came from, as he wasn't a former Data East employee like Kuwana was. Regardless, when it comes to Idea Factory anime they seem to only be directed by one of two people, Sato or Taisuke Katou. Sato would take the lion's share of these productions, with Katou being a back-up, of sorts, and that's shown with this OVA, as Katou was assistant director for Episode 2. Honestly, both of them had their high points (Sato did Generation of Chaos III's OVA, while Katou did Kingdom of Chaos), but here it's obviously a freshman effort, though I must stress that Episode 2 does come off better, overall; still, I'm only shining a turd. In terms of writing, Sato does well enough, but some more explanation of characters & what they're fighting for would have been nice. The music is simply songs from the game's score done by Toru Kobayashi (Generation of Chaos 1 & Next), and it's decent wartime music, if a good bit generic; Kenji Kaneko would help give Idea Factory games much better OSTs later on. Finally, the character designs are co-credited to original designer Shinnosuke Hino & Tatsunori Nakamura, the latter of which would take the reigns & become character designer for a ton of Idea Factory's output up through the 00s. Really, the character designs are the best part of this OVA, as Hino & Nakamura both have knacks for being able to create large swaths of characters, each of which looking different from each other, and (when the rough animation allows it) the OVA manages to convey that well, as no character looks super similar to another. Finally, the end theme of the OVA is "Message by Midnight" by Yoko Kawasaki, which is a nice little ballad that's enjoyable enough.

The Japanese voice work, which was one of those few anime productions to feature seiyuu legend Shigeru Chiba as sound director, features actors from Spectral Force 2, though I can't quite say if all of them are the same as in the game. Leading the cast is Yuko Miyamura (Chun-Li in Street Fighter Alpha & EX, Asuka in Evangelion) who voices Hiro with a fitting insecurity & unsure feelings about how to continue on without her father & sister. After becoming the face of IF Neverland, Miyamura would continue voicing Hiro until 2006, when she was recast in Spectral Force 3: Innocent Rage, though she did voice the character Culcha in that game; Miyamura's final game as Hiro was the crossover RPG Chaos Wars that same year. Sato is voiced by Hisao Egawa (Cao Ren in Dynasty Warriors, Geki & Goldymarg in GaoGaiGar), though ADV misnames him as "Teruo Egawa", who gives the ninja a good duality of earnest passion, both in terms of hot-blooded fighting & stalwart dedication to his leader in Hiro. Chic & Zakifon are played by Nobuhiko Kazama (Gara in Dr. Slump [1997]) & Yasuhiko Kawazu (Corin Nander in Turn-A Gundam), and though Kawazu sadly gets little due to Zakifon being taken out of commission in the second half, Kazama does well enough as both a spry gunner & a selfless negotiator. Kazama also voiced Chiffon in Spectral Force 2, but characters in IF Neverland changed voices fairly often; only a handful really kept consistent actors for long periods of time. In turn, Ryotaro Okiayu voices Chiffon in the OVA, & he does a decent "hero of the people" performance, but again gets little time in general. The rest of the cast is rounded out with the likes of Atsushi Kisaichi (Jadou; erroneously credited as "Jun Kisaichi"), Hiroshi Isobe (Orochimaru), Michie Tomizawa (Plana), & Banjou Ginga (Janus), among others.

I will never say "No" to a chance at making a composite image!

As for the English dub, it's a David Williams-directed production, featuring a number of ADV regulars of the time. Hiro is voiced by Jessica Calvello (Hajime in Gatchaman Crowds, Hange Zoe in Attack on Titan), and she pulls out a surprisingly good performance, easily the best of the lot. Sato is performed by Brett Weaver (Gai in Nadesico, Tora in Ushio & Tora [both OVA & TV]), and he's pretty much the second best, helping keep Sato likable in English. Probably one of the most annoying performances comes from Spike Spencer (Shinji in Evangelion, Papillon in Buson Renkin), who gives Chic this high-pitched voice that only rarely feels fitting; otherwise it's ear-splitting. Surprisingly enough, the short-heard performances of Azalea & Orochimaru by Hilary Haag (Fuko in Clannad) & the late Randy Sparks (Ushio in Ushio & Tora [OVA]), respectively, are actually rather decent; they both managed to "get" their characters with so little to work with. Jadou is voiced by Jason Douglas (Beerus in Dragon Ball Super, Sandman in Gravion), who gives a lot of vile bravado for the few lines he has. The rest of the ADV cast is rounded with the likes of Kelly Manison (Plana), Chris Patton (Chiffon), Ted Pfister (Janus), & Monica Rial (Little Snow), alongside others. Finally, on an adaptation level, ADV's translation interprets Neverland as being Earth from long, long ago, & that Little Snow was brought from the future, but that's never indicated at all in the entire canonical history of IF Neverland. It's just an odd change that makes no sense at all.

Using the better Japanese cover here.

After watching the Spectral Force OVA, & thinking back at the other Idea Factory anime I reviewed back in 2013, I wound up coming to a conclusion that I had not considered before. When I covered Gundoh Musashi back in 2011 as Review #50, I deemed it "The Anime Equivalent of The Room" due to its awkward production (to put it lightly), resulting in something that truly has to be seen to be believed; even today it astounds me. Today, the OVAs that Idea Factory self-produced are generally considered some of the worst anime of all time, even to this day Mars of Destruction & Skelter+Heaven are the #1 & #2 worst-rated anime over at the ANN Encyclopedia, but thinking about how they were made reminds me of a legendary movie director, Edward Davis Wood, Jr. The director of infamous movies like Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, & Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed Wood made the movies he wanted to make, regardless of what Hollywood thought of him or whether or not he was actually "good" at making movies (spoilers: he wasn't). Still, Ed Wood now has a cult fanbase, both because his films are generally considered "so bad, they're good" & also due to his love of film inspiring others to make their own movies.

In that regard, I do consider these "Idea Factory anime" to be "The Ed Wood of Anime". Shingo Kuwana & Yoshiteru Sato had a dream to not just make video games but also create anime to go with them, and in the end they managed to do just that, with the fact that they did so in a time where it wasn't as easy to just make OVAs (like it was in the 80s) making it all the more impressive. Yes, almost none of these OVAs were actually "good" in the end (though I will at least stand behind GOCIII & especially Kingdom of Chaos), but at the same time I can't quite hate them like most other people tend to, because I admire the fact that Idea Factory actually got them made & released... Well, except for Gakuen Toshi Vara Noir, which really is just that insufferably bad. Still, with this OVA out of the way I'm only just past the half-way point, 7 out of 12, so I'll be returning to cover the rest of these Idea Factory anime at some point... Maybe sooner rather than later, in fact.

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