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Friday, March 16, 2018

Tenkuu Danzai Skelter+Heaven: Do Androids Dream of Digital Love?

Back in that initial run of Idea Factory anime reviews, I covered Mars of Destruction, a mid-2005 OVA meant to act as a prologue to the IFMate brand's sixth dating sim of the same name for PS2. Since its release, it's gathered a bit of notoriety as being one of the "worst anime of all time", with it even being the #1 spot on the ANN Encyclopedia's "Worst Rated Anime" list for years upon years; I don't even know how long it's been there, but it's easily close to (if not more than) a decade at this point. In my review, though, I felt (& still feel this this day) that its status as one of "the all time worst" may be a bit overstated, but that's mainly because I feel that I've seen much worse, and have even covered some on this blog, like Legend of DUO, Twinkle Nora Rock Me!, & Gundoh Musashi, the last of which remains my #1 pick for that title. Now, to be fair, Mars of Destruction is bad, but for essentially just as long on that ANN list has been the #2 spot, which is another Idea Factory anime. Therefore, I think it's finally time to tackle the Tenkuu Danzai Skelter+Heaven OVA, and see if the people who use ANN truly know their "worst anime of all time".

The fourth game in the IFMate brand, Tenkuu Danzai/Sky Conviction Skelter+Heaven saw release in Japan on the PS2 on November 25, 2004, with its major hook being that it revolved around young women who piloted robots, with action sequences relying on Quick-Time Event-esque gameplay. A month later, on December 8, Idea Factory released a ~20 minute OVA to help promote the video game. Seeing as 2005 would see the company hire Wao World to do the animation for both games & OVAs, Skelter+Heaven is notable as being the final Idea Factory anime that the game company actually animated (primarily) itself. After a (surprisingly) decent, if annoyingly self-defeating, turn out for Steady x Study, does Idea Factory's final self-produced anime show some true advancements in capabilities... Or is this truly worthy of being called second worst (of all time)?

In the year 2030, Tokyo is invaded by a giant, squid-like creature that comes from space, with the military being helpless against it. Defense corporation Altamira Agency, however, has been working on technology for the pace 15 years, just in case interstellar invaders were to come: Wet Props, artificial beings made to look like women, who pilot giant robots named Skelters. With guidance by male commander Otoya Funagai, the Prop-piloted Skelters go into their first ever battle, and though they wind up succeeding in killing the alien invader, Funagai is deemed a failure as commander by Hiroaki Mishima, CEO of Altamira. Unfortunately, just one year later, an entire squadron of giant squids come down to Tokyo...

Just like GOC3, the OP & ED are full-frame, while
the OVA itself is letterboxed, which makes absolutely no sense.

Coming into this OVA prologue, I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, Skelter+Heaven's notoriety as a "#2 worst anime" would be a little overblown. Now, after having seen it, I have to say that I'm wrong, but not completely. While I have still seen much worse anime than this, this is easily the #2 worst Idea Factory anime that I've seen, with only Vara Noir really "besting it", in that regard. The biggest reason is simply because this OVA is absolutely boring, but it's not exactly for a lack of trying. Compared to Steady x Study, which just meandered about, Skelter+Heaven works as a prologue to a larger story, or at least conceptually. We're introduced to Funagai & the Wet Props, specifically Lin Ichikawa, the "lead female" who harbors love for her commanding officer, the mysterious squid aliens are given a sense of intimidation by the end, the idea of the Wet Props being experimental androids who have an unknown life span is established, and you see some character introductions for & interactions between the Props. It's just too bad that everything showcased is so generic & lacking charm that you feel next to nothing for anything that happens.

It really all starts with Funagai, who is so absolutely stoic to the point of being boring. Even when Lin admits her love for him during battle, his only reaction is to have a face that says, "Uhhhhhhhhh...." The OVA tries to set him up as finding attraction to each of the Props, because of how human they're becoming, but none of that comes across as really earned. Lin is easily the most believable of them all, giving off what feels like honest emotion when her compatriots are attacked in battle, or when she admits her love to Funagai. The only other Prop to be given more than a basic intro is Misaki Kashima, who harbors jealousy towards Lin, especially when Funagai has Lin take point in the attack, even though Misaki is the better pilot; her jealousy & need to prove herself right is there, but not much else. Aside from the rest of the Props, who are really nothing more than just that, we have Mishima, who's apparently only seen in this OVA & is more or less proven right when it comes to Funagai. The man seemingly chose a lesser-skilled Wet Prop to lead the fight against the giant squid alien likely because he harbored personal feelings for the girl, and while they did succeed, there was too much damage done to the Skelters, & Funagai himself even got shot down. Wait, aren't players supposed to be Funagai in the game? In that case, this isn't a good first impression of the man...

Yeah, they soooooo look like they're really there!

Now, after Steady x Study delivered a seemingly decent amount of animation production, I must say that Idea Factory effectively learned almost nothing from that, because this final self-produced OVA hits the same exact problems that their prior OVAs all had, plus an extra problem. Once again, CG backgrounds are in full effect here, and in some instances involving the Skelters we also have CG characters. In fact, there are a handful of shots that do feature drawn backgrounds, so when the all-CG mechs & characters are used we wind up with the inverse problem! Now, to be fair, the traditional animation itself is actually rather solid, & even the CG is better than the older productions, so the people at Idea Factory did learn things over the years, but even with the help of animation studio Minamimachi Bugyousho, it just clashes so strongly with the CG. You'd think that Idea Factory would have learned to stop with this mix, eventually, but that would only happen once the people there finally just hired another studio to do everything for them.

Adding to all of this, though, is some really shoddy sound mixing & editing, especially in a sequence of flashbacks in the second half. We so from Lin getting attacked & screaming at full volume, to suddenly going into a quick bit of silence to lead into the flashbacks. One could argue that this was done for the sake of some dramatic flair, but that would only work if the next scene actually took place after the battle, to simulate Lin's loss of consciousness at the moment. One can't even argue that the flashbacks are from Lin's point of view, as they're blatantly from Funagai's perspective, especially since these scenes end with Funagai remarking at how happy he is that the Props are all happy & smiling. After that, however, we get an extremely sloppy transition to the next shot, complete with the music not transitioning in any way; it literally switches from a slow ballad to a strong orchestral instantly. It almost feels as if the people at Idea Factory were starting to tire of constantly doing these OVAs, and didn't care if they made mistakes that they honestly didn't really do in the past, but I'll just chalk this up to more proof of this company being "The Ed Wood of Anime".

In the director's chair once again is Idea Factory co-founder Yoshiteru Sato, who once again showcases that he has a general idea of how to direct something, but almost never seems to know how to do it well; the Generation of Chaos III OVA really feels like a bizarre exception to Sato's general tendencies. Sato also wrote this OVA, along with IF staff member Toshihiro Sugiyama, which I've already covered above. The character designs by IF's Toshiyuki Ooshio honestly aren't that bad, with the designs of the Wet Props being very blatantly made to appeal to various males' ideas of beauty, though Funagai looks intensely generic; I get that you normally don't see the guy in the game, but give the player something to work with. The music by Kenji Kaneko is definitely not one of his better compositions; Kaneko would become a bit of an "iconic" composer for Idea Factory, but he obviously grew into that. For both this OVA & Steady x Study, Idea Factory brought in Kenichi Ohnuki to do animation direction, so he's likely the reason why these last two self-produced IF OVAs came out as decent as they did with the traditional animation. While not a big name, Ohnuki has been around since the 80s, doing both animation direction & character designs, working on titles like Metal Armor Dragonar, Gundam Build Fighters, Earthian (which he also directed), & the upcoming Gurazeni & Golden Kamuy TV anime. Needless to say, Ohnuki was a bit of a boon for Idea Factory to grab, but he was only involved in these two OVAs; once Wao World came in, Ohnuki was gone.

The voice cast has so little to work with, but some manage to do better than others. Unfortunately, Koji Miyoshi (Wells in Spectral vs. Generation, Zhang Liao in Romance of the Three Kingdoms [2009]) isn't one of them, because his Funagai is just as stoically boring as his character is, but at least one can say that his portrayal is perfectly fitting; Miyoshi is also apparently OVA-only, as Funagai doesn't speak in the game at all. Lin is voiced by Megumi Nasu (Fermat in Tales of Graces, Kimiko in HoiHoi-san), who is probably the overall best actor here, with lots of good emotion, but that's not hard when she's the character with the second most to say. Misaki is performed by Naoko Suzuki (Sexaroid Yuki in The Galaxy Railways, Kuea in Elemental Gelade), who gives a good amount of sass when needed. Since the other Wet Props have so little to work with in this OVA, the only other notable seiyuu would be the legendary Hideyuki Tanaka, who voices Mishima in his usual cadence; he may be OVA-only, but Tanaka still makes his character likely the best in the entire anime.

At not even 20 minutes, the Tenkuu Danzai Skelter+Heaven OVA is easily one of the shortest Idea Factory anime of them all, and it honestly feels like it's taking mercy out on you by not running any longer. While the traditional animation is honestly perfectly fine, it's completely wasted when it clashes so hard with the constant use of CG backgrounds, vehicles, giant robots, & alien invaders. It really does try to establish what the plot of the game is about, but it just feels so utterly boring in execution here. For comparison, Steady x Study may have meandered like crazy, but at least it flowed by surprisingly well; I was more shocked when I realized that the OVA was finishing up, than anything. Skelter+Heaven, however, just slogs on by, making it feel longer than it really is. While I have still seen much worse anime in general, this final self-produced OVA is definitely the second worst Idea Factory anime of all time, at least from the majority of them that I have seen. Still, Vara Noir is just untouchable when it comes to the lowest of the low, as it's animation is still worse, the CG backgrounds clash even more harshly, & everything that happened in it was just mind-bendingly stupid; I have yet to see that second episode, & I have no regrets about that. At least Skelter+Heaven has some company at the very bottom of the Idea Factory well...

Up next is the last Idea Factory OVA I am able to check out for the time being, as there is one last OVA out there that still eludes me. Fittingly, however, this is also the last anime that Idea Factory ever produced itself, so we'll see if this multimedia expedition ends with a bang, or with a heavy thud.

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