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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Demo Disc Vol. 12: Quadrantid Quarrels

I have said before on the blog that I prefer to not have to rely a source like those bootleg anime DVDs one would find in any major city's Chinatown district, but the fact of the matter is that these products were a part of my early days as an anime fan. Admittedly, I was a bit of a bizarre fan, as I would buy legit products that saw North American release, while also watching fansubs as well as occasionally buying bootlegs whenever me & my friends went to Chinatown in New York City; my last trip there was before I started the blog, however. In the years since, I have thrown out most of those bootlegs, either because I finally bought legit releases or said bootlegs were simply ripped by others & distributed online, making owning those DVDs kind of pointless. That being said, I still own bootleg DVDs for three productions, and that's mainly because they've never been ripped online, and the chances of them being released officially are effectively nil. I actually utilized one back in 2012 for one of my Saiyuki reviews, so I figure I should finally utilize another one of them in a productive manner. Therefore, let's talk about children's toys that shoot marbles.

Because we all know who the REAL main character is...

Takara-Tomy's B-Daman line takes the old game of marbles ("biidama" in Japan) & mixes things up by having players shoot them out of launchers. It started up back in 1993 as a sort of spin-off of Hudson Soft's Bomberman franchise, the union of which would produce two anime series & last until 2000, but in 1995 a standalone line called Super B-Daman was launched, complete with a manga by Shun Imaga to help promote it. An anime adaptation of the manga would air throughout 1999 for 20 episodes, with it actually being the first digital production Studio Xebec ever did. Takara would introduce another new line in 2002 called Battle B-Daman, and a manga by Eiji Inuki would debut alongside it. The start of 2004 would see the debut of B-Legend! Battle B-Daman, an adaptation of Inuki's manga by Nippon Animation & Synergy SP that ran for the entire year, lasting 52 episodes. Only at this point did Takara finally decide to export the toy line internationally, & across both 2005 & 2006 the anime would air on television in areas like Canada, Italy, France, Latin America, & the United States; in fact, it would air in the US twice, first on ABC Family's Jetix block & then on Cartoon Network. In fact, I remember the English dub being surprisingly good & enjoyable, as it featured a lot of all-star talent, like Barbara Goodson, Dave Wittenberg, Mona Marshall, & even Steven Blum.

As for the original Japanese version, the first 26 episodes did in fact see "release" via Chinatown's bootleg DVDs, complete with English subs that are surprisingly good; the names are mangled, sure, but the translation is accurate, if a bit too literal at times. So let me investigate the first half of B-Legend! Battle B-Daman, if only to find out if the English dub was built on a solid foundation.

Yamato Daiwa lives in the B-DaWorld, where people settle various issues & compete for the fun of it using small machines called B-Daman, which shoot small balls out. Yamato was found & raised by cats until he turned 5, when he was found & taken in by a café owner named Mie Daiwa, who has become Yamato's surrogate mother for the past six years. All Yamato wants out of life is the thrill of being challenged, though without a B-Daman of his own he can only do so much. That all changes on his 11th birthday, when an encounter with a young boy named Grey Michael Vincent results in Yamato discovering a B-Daman named Cobalt Blade that Mie has kept hidden from him; turns out it was with Yamato when she found him. This discovery will lead to Yamato having to deal with the mysterious group called Shadow, who want Cobalt Blade for their own purposes.

Right away, Battle B-Daman makes itself different from your usual anime meant to promote a children's toy by way of its setting. Your standard anime of this ilk usually takes place in a real world setting of some sort, which often results in a bit of an odd feeling of, "Is the world really this obsessed with a toy?"; even Super B-Daman fell victim to this trope. Battle B-Daman, however, creates its own fantasy world, which alone allows the viewer to more easily accept that what's essentially a toy is something more important &, for lack of a better word, normal. Not just that, but B-DaWorld is primarily influenced by the Wild West, and most B-Daman users, simply named B-Da in the anime, actually holster their B-Daman in a fashion similar to an old gunslinger. Hell, the anime even uses what are essentially gun & bullet sound effects whenever B-Daman are fired & the marbles go flying, which only add to the feel. Mix that in with some characters also utilizing a other (stereotypical) regions like Middle Eastern & Chinese motifs from the same time period, as well as a bunch of anthropomorphized animals for more variety, and B-DaWorld itself is honestly one of the most interesting things about this anime.

Similarly, the game of B-Daman itself isn't quite as straightforward as the likes of card games or fighting between small tops. While there is your standard 1-on-1 battle, called Direct Hit Battle, there are a number of variants that the show uses to keep things unpredictable. There are single player games like Through the Gate, where you have to shoot marbles between pins to get to the other side, or Bowling, where you have shot to knock down as many pins as possible. For multiplayer you also have semi-direct competition, like having to knock a triangular puck into the opponent's field, ala the classic board game Crossfire. Along with some tricks that the show adds in, like using metal pins instead of plastic (making them harder to knock down) or having the players compete while standing on sheets that that tied to posts (keeping them from maintaining easy balance), and Battle B-Daman manages to stave off repetition rather well, all things considered.

Similarly, the characters are an interesting lot, with some being more or less standard in some ways, while others change things up in interesting ways. Yamato Daiwa, for example, is your standard lead for a series like this, being too impetuous for his own good at times but still dedicated to his friends & family. At the very least, he has some amusing cat-like tendencies, which either help him (like landing on his feet) or result in something silly (like running on all fours). Similarly, Grey Michael Vincent is technically a member of Shadow, but it's only because his sister Liena Grace Vincent is being held hostage, so he has your standard conflict of having to work for the bad guys, even though he established a budding friendship with Yamato in the early episodes. Tsubame Tsubakura is interesting by being a mix of a old-school samurai & ninja, so he talks using archaic Japanese (i.e. "sessha" & "onushi" for "I" & "you", & ending sentences with "de gozaru") like a samurai, & has a sword, but he also has skills that are more like a ninja on occassion. And, yes, Tsubame is indeed a boy, even though his character design has a ton of traits that make him look intensely feminine, like pink cheek marks, an overshirt that ends similarly to that of a skirt, & a very feminine-looking face; however, he's shown in multiple episodes in a hot spring without a shirt, instantly establishing that he's male.

Honestly, the most interesting of the main characters is Bull Borgnine, a boy whose cape hides various B-Daman tools & add-ons who also has a strong Jekyll & Hyde-esque personality. Normally, there's what I call "Aloof Bull", who is soft spoken, easily distracted, & has a habit of falling asleep while in a conversation. Then there's "Serious Bull", who is more pompous about his abilities, given larger eyes to convey emotion, & early on shows a habit of wanting to win others' B-Daman to add to his collection (though this trait is lessened as his friendship strengthens). Finally, there's "Competitive Bull", whose hair becomes red & spiky, and wants nothing more than to defeat his opponent. What pushes the Jekyll & Hyde element is that "Aloof Bull" knows absolutely nothing of what he does when he's "Serious" or "Competitive", with Episode 18 actually addressing this by having all three of Bull's personalities talk to each other for the first time inside his own subconsciousness. Unlike most parents in a children's series, who only appear every now & then, Mie Daiwa is actually with Yamato & company for the most part, acting as a surrogate mother to all of the kids, while also keeping Yamato in line when he gets too wild. Finally, there's Armada, a giant cat who's a master B-Daman maker that trains Yamato & Tsubame early on before joining them as a secondary adult figure, though he's often just as childish as the actual kids (if not more, sometimes to Mie's annoyance). Overall, the "heroes" for Battle B-Daman are a mix of standard & interesting, but all are consistently entertaining.

The first 26 episodes of the anime focus primarily on a main overarching story arc, which is Winners, a B-Daman tournament that Yamato's group & Shadow, lead by the mysterious cat Ababa, enter to take each other out during. In between the quarter & semifinals, though, are episodes focusing on the Super Five Field, a travelling challenge course lead by Cain McDonnel, which operate similar to the various types of games & help keep things fresh & stave off repetition. During the Winners-focused parts of the show, it operates like your usual competition, with Shadow trying to mess with Yamato's chances to advance, though there is one neat bit of long-term storytelling that's established in this first half. When Lee Yong Fa, one of Shadow's B-Das, tries to screw over Tsubame before their fight, he winds up getting accidentally roped into helping Mie fun her local café, where he's shown kindness & compassion by everyone's surrogate mother. In turn, after helping Yamato fend off some random thugs, Lee starts feeling remorse for his prior actions, which go against the more blatantly evil actions of his brother Wen Yong Fa & Ababa's strongest warrior, Enjyu. While Lee doesn't defect during this half of the show, it's obvious that he will eventually do so, and it's nice that the anime establishes this early, instead of simply having it be done in just a couple of episodes from out of nowhere. Similarly, the story with the Super Five Field Gatekeepers is first established in a six-episode mini-arc, before having them return at the end of the episodes I watched, allowing the story to believably switch between the two antagonistic sides well. Sadly, Winners isn't quite over at this point yet, so we don't see the final matches, one of which actually would be Wen vs. Enjyu, a rare instance where two villains from the same side technically go against each other.

I'd argue that a lot of what makes Battle B-Daman shine against other blatant toy advertisements of its ilk comes from the two men leading the charge, director Mitsuo Hahismoto & head writer Hiroyuki Kawasaki. Hashimoto is a veteran of children's anime, having also directed the likes of Beyblade G-Revolution & Bakugan Battle Brawlers, but he's also directed a number of Dragon Ball Z productions, including the TV special Bardock - The Father of Goku & 13th movie Wrath of the Dragon, both of which are generally considered some of the best in the franchise. Kawasaki, on the other hand, has handled series composition for a wide variety of shows, like Gundam X, Godannar, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, & Brave Police J-Decker. With those kinds of pedigrees, the two deliver a kids' show that features fun characters & personal stories that feel worthy of attention, all alongside the usual silly humor to keep kids smiling & laughing; hell, there isn't even much in terms of word puns, which are usually easy pickings. The character designs by fellow kids anime veteran Yoshihiro Nagamori (Beyblade franchise, Kirarin Revolution) are very good, especially in showing how small these kids are compared to the adults, & I think his style essentially defined a generation of kids shows that were exported from Japan.

I guess pee jokes were just too taboo for American television...

The music by Takashi Fukigami (who I can't find any info on whatsoever) matches the show's aesthetic well, with a lot of Wild West-style compositions, as well as a strong focus on hard guitar & rock compositions. In fact, the English dub would do something different from the usual edited dubs of its time by maintaining Fukigami's compositions completely, instead of replacing it with an original score; this was not adapted by the likes of 4Kids, Saban, or Nelvana, however, so that would explain things. Similarly, the anime's opening theme would be used as the basis for the dub's theme song. Said OP, "B-Fire", is sung by Naozumi Masuko, the lead singer of Dohatsuten, a band known for their intense hard rock songs, which in turn makes Battle B-Daman's theme song absolutely memorable & enjoyable in how gruff & deep it hits, while also maintaining a sense of fun for the kids to get into. The anime's ending theme is "Forever" by Natsumi, is a very sweet little lullaby that acts as the perfect counterpart to Masuko's hardcore gruff. Both songs also showcase Fukigami's versatility, as he was heavily involved in the creation of both theme songs.

A big part as to why the characters work as well as they do also comes down to the voice cast, which is filled with very fitting performances. Yamato is voiced by Reiko Takagi (Holy Kujo in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Yoshitaka Waya in Hikaru no Go), who gives the lead a perfectly young-sounding voice, though she does sound very similar to Mayumi Tanaka's Luffy from One Piece here & there, oddly enough. Grey is performed by Yuuki Tai (Cobray in Super Robot Wars Alpha 3), who does sound a bit deep for such a young child, but otherwise matches the character's various emotional states well. Bull's three personalities are all done by Kurumi Mamiya (the voice of Hamtaro), who actually delivers a different tone between each of the three types of Bull; even "Serious" & "Competitive" have a subtle difference in performance. While I previously mentioned how Tsubame's very design makes you wonder what gender the character really is at times, this is only compounded by Tomoko Kaneda (White Bomber in Bomberman, Marie in Please Teacher!/Twins!), whose performance, though delivering a bit of a gruffness, really just sounds super feminine; one could argue, however, that Tsubame's gender is purposefully not meant to be a focus. The rest of the major cast is rounded out with the likes of Daisuke Kishio (Enjyu), Tomo Shigematsu & Miyako Itou (Wen & Lee), Naoko Takano (Mie), Tadashi Miyazawa (Armada), & Kazuko Sugiyama (who does double duty as both Ababa & the godlike B-DaMajin, who acts as the narrator). Episode 26 also shows the first appearance of Marda-B, the real leader of Shadow, who is fittingly voiced by Mugihito.

Just a pair of covers from the range of episodes I watched.

I'll make no excuses here, because I was definitely not in the proper age range when B-Legend! Battle B-Daman's English dub debuted in 2005, as I was already starting college at that point; to be fair, I never saw the entire show when it aired. Still, I remember being impressed with the overall product, not just because the dub itself was enjoyable, but the content of the show itself seemed to be something special, especially when compared to its fellow ilk that was meant to shill toys to little kids. That's primarily why, when I saw those two bootleg DVD sets during my old Chinatown-visiting days, I bought them, because I was curious about one day seeing if the original Japanese version was as enjoyable as that dub. Though I obviously am still unable to see the entire story, Winners isn't even over yet, I must say that I feel the same about Battle B-Daman after seeing the first 26 episodes. The use of an original world instead of the usual real world proxy, the fact that the toy itself allows for a nice variety of gameplay styles, & the fact that the characters are either fun (if rather standard) or are actually pretty interesting for a kids series all make me feel that this anime is definitely a cut above most of its type; this is seriously one of the better (if not one of the best) children's anime out there. In fact, it's shocking that this has yet to see a re-release here in North America. We've seen Beyblade, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Monster Rancher, & even Fighting Foodons see re-releases in the past few years (some of which even include their original Japanese versions!), yet Battle B-Daman has seemingly been forgotten.

Seriously, some company needs to get into contact with d-rights & get this anime out on DVD, even if it's just the English dub, because it is that damn enjoyable. I'd also be curious about its 2005 sequel, Battle B-Daman Fire Spirits, but I hear that its English dub (which was made for the Phillipines) is pretty terrible. Hell, it's only North American appearance was a run of the first half on YTV in Canada...

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