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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Demo Disc Vol. 13: Feisty Forerunners

After taking a season off for the newly-debuted segment Retrospect in Retrograde (that will return in September), it's the return of Demo Disc! Back in April of last year, for Volume 9, I looked at four pilots that were originally meant to lead into something more, but none of them went anywhere. Whether it was to an attempt to produce an English dub for Space Adventure Cobra back in the 80s or simply trying to get actual series made via Transformers Zone, Genjiku Senki Shiden, & Justeen, they were all examples of pilots not going anywhere. Therefore, for this (maybe unlucky?) Volume of Demo Disc, let's do the opposite & look at the other side of the spectrum: The forerunner (I've also used the term "precursor" before, but I'm trying to eventually use every letter of the alphabet for Demo Disc...). Unlike those prior four, every product I'll be "Demoing" here was simply the first anime product of something that would eventually see more anime made for. In fact, of them all, only one is actually intended to be a "pilot", so let's start with that one. The fact that it helps celebrate the Golden jubilee of an iconic series that I've actually covered on the blog before is a just a sweet bonus... Also, I always do Demo Disc in chronological order, so there's that, too.

Ashita no Joe Pilots
No matter what name you decide to call it by, Ashita no Tomorrow's Champion Rocky Joe will forever be one of the most influential manga ever produced, even 50 years later, and its original anime adaptation directed by Osamu Dezaki is arguably just as important. Still, back in late 1969, it's not like the anime was simply going to be instantly greenlit. Therefore, Mushi Pro's Osamu Dezaki & Masao Maruyama decided to produce a couple of pilots, both around 10 minutes long, in an effort to find a TV station willing to help produce it, all because they were fans of the manga. In fact, they made these pilots without the knowledge of Mushi's founder Osamu Tezuka, because they felt that he wouldn't approve it, since it'd be "competing" against Tezuka's own work. In the end, Dezaki & Maruyama found an interested party in the form of Fuji TV's Koji Bessho, and the rest is all history. So now, with 50th Anniversary anime Megalobox having just ended, let's see the earliest forms of Ashita no Joe in anime form!

The two pilots are named "Aoyama" & "Rikiishi", though it's tricky to tell which order they were produced in. In terms of storyline, the Rikiishi pilot goes first, as it covers the beginning of the manga's story, where Joe Yabuki is introduced by fighting off some yakuza that are threatening some children in the Tokyo slums, as they might have stolen from the men. It then covers ex-boxer-turned-drunk Danpei Tange seeing Joe's natural ability to fight, managing to convince Joe to let him train the ruffian, followed by Joe going into juvi after continuing his conning ways. The pilot finishes up by showing Joe's attempt at escaping via leading a hog revolt, only to get stopped by Tohru Rikiishi, a young professional boxer who's currently doing some time. Rikiishi beats down Joe with no trouble, which prompts Joe to earnestly take up boxing, if only so that he can get his revenge on Rikiishi. The Aoyama pilot follows after that, plot-wise, as it focuses on a point shortly afterwards, when Danpei convinces the juvi to hold a boxing tournament for the inmates, as Joe winds up being dumped by Danpei, who instead takes up a little guy named Aoyama to train; in reality, though, this is all a ploy by Danpei in order to make sure Joe is serious about training.

Is Rikiishi meant to be colored green here?
I don't know, but he does look pretty threatening, nonetheless.

Again, though, this is going off of the actual storyline of the manga, because there are some notable differences between the two pilots. The biggest is that the voice casts are different, even though these pilots were apparently "released" within a month or so of each other. Because of this, I feel that the Aoyama pilot technically came first, because Joe & Danpei (who both only say so much) have completely different actors behind their voices from who the Rikiishi pilot, which use the same cast as the eventual TV series, including the iconic duo of Teruhiko Aoi & Jukei Fujioka as Joe & Danpei, respectively; Sachi, one of the slum kids, is also obviously voiced by Fuyumi Shiraishi in the Rikiishi pilot, like in the TV series. At the same time, however, the video quality of these two pilots, likely taken from a recent DVD release in Japan, vary pretty wildly, with the Aoyama pilot look extremely well remastered, while the Rikiishi pilot obviously has seen better days; different pilots had different storage conditions, I guess.

In terms of the quality of the pilots, however, there's really not much more I can say that I haven't already said in my prior two reviews of this franchise. The reason for that is simply because these pilots were directed by Osamu-freaking-Dezaki, so they still hold up outstandingly well to this day, even 49 years later. As I said in my review of the first anime's compilation movie, there's just this gritty look to the original Joe anime that simply can't possibly be properly reproduced; many have tried over the decades, usually in homage, but none can quite match it. This also applies to these pilots, and since they were both shorter productions, there's actually very little limited animation shortcutting to be found here; seriously, there are some simply outstanding bits of animation in each pilot. I fully understand that Osamu Tezuka would have been hesitant about giving this anime the "go ahead", but I'm sure that he quickly changed his mind, once he saw what Dezaki was delivering. In fact, some of the footage in these pilots would get re-used in the TV anime, primarily in the opening & ending sequences, and the one music track heard in the Rikiishi pilot would become a bit of an iconic standard in the TV series. Overall, the Ashita no Joe pilots aren't all that much of a stark difference from the anime that would come about from them, outside of the Aoyama cast sounding notably different (Joe, in particular, sounds much too gruff), but they are important in the history of anime. Remember, had Osamu Dezaki & Masao Maruyama not produced these under the unknowing nose of Osamu Tezuka, then things would have been very, VERY different for the anime industry.

Locke the Superman "Pilot Film"
Okay, this is something I didn't even know of until about a year or two ago, and I love coming across stuff like this. When talk of the "longest-running manga of all time" comes up, there are usually two specific manga brought up: Kochikame & Golgo 13. Now, yes, those are two of the longest single series manga, but there are plenty of other half-century-plus-running manga out there that can be counted if you include sequel series. In fact, one of those multi-series longest manga, Dokaben, literally just had its final chapter published a scant few days ago on June 28 this year, ending a 46-year total run. Another longest-running multi-series manga is Locke the Superman, which Yuki Hijiri first debuted back in 1967 as a doujinshi published by Sakuga Group Planning. In 1978, Locke became a professionally published manga, and is still being serialized to this day, 51 years later, via various short series; even a combination of chronic sinus infection, cardiac arrest, surgery, & near-death earlier this year can't stop Hijiri. Outside of Japan, though, this series is probably most well known for its theatrical movie adaptation from 1984, sometimes subtitled Millennium of the Witch, but that is technically not the first anime adaptation of Locke. No, that title goes to a 10-minute independent short produced on 8mm film by then-student Takeshi Hirota back in 1979.

This is an abridged adaptation of the Millenium of the Witch story arc, which has Locke being hired by Colonel Ryu Yamaki to investigate what Lady Kahn has been doing, as she's been gathering together a cadre of espers for mysterious reasons. In terms of plot, the "pilot" sees Yamaki & Locke going over the mission, followed by them sneaking into Lady Kahn's base, being encountered by a group of female espers. Cornelia Prim & her forces then attempt a sneak attack, capturing Yamaki, while Locke escapes & finds out the secret behind what Kahn is truly doing. The pilot ends suddenly on a cliffhanger, with Locke downed & bleeding out.

Technically, this is pretty much a fan film, so normally I wouldn't really consider this a true "forerunner", but considering that Hirota would later work on the successive Locke OVAs professionally, & even later be "Chief Director" for the Hunter X Hunter G.I. Final OVA series, I think it does belong here. Also, when the Locke movie saw release onto DVD in Japan back in 2001, Shochiku went through the trouble of remastering this (retroactive) pilot film so that it could be included as an extra. Discotek's 2012 release of the movie does include this fan pilot, though it's not listed anywhere on the packaging, alongside the old English dub & even anamorphic widescreen for the movie, as the Japanese DVD was actually letterboxed 4:3. Since it's a fan film, it's honestly not all that surprising to see that there is no voice work, or even sound effects, to be found here; it's nothing more than animation set to a rather good musical score. Still, characters do feature full lip flaps, so maybe Hirota was planning on adding voice work at some point, only to never get the chance to do so.

All that being said, this is an excellently well made fan film, almost rivaling some TV animation that was around at the time. Everything is so smoothly animated, the characters designs look to match Hijiri's style perfectly, the pacing is super tight, and what little action is shown is well done. To compare, back in 2016 I reviewed Star Dust, a 30-minute OVA from 1992 that was directed by Ichiro Itano, but was primarily animated by students who were attending Yoyogi Animation Academy, i.e. it was effectively a commercially-released fan film. Even with around 300 animation credits to its name, though, Star Dust fares pretty poorly against Hirota's Locke the Superman film. Now, yes, though they are both pretty much fan films, they don't match up exactly against each other, as one could argue that Itano's work utilized way too many people, which in turn would make it hard to maintain consistent animation, while Hirota's work seems to have been a one-man production. Still, I think the fact that Hirota's film was retroactively deemed a true-blue "pilot film" 22 years later, while Star Dust is so obscure that I bet most Japanese fans of Itano barely know of its existence, speaks volumes. Takeshi Hirota made a very good & enjoyable film that has, deservingly, been preserved alongside the movie that would adapt the same story in a more detailed fashion, and his involvement in the later productions, which included even directing one of them, shows that he's a giant fan of Hijiri's work. Even someone who has little to no experience with Locke, such as me, has to celebrate its quality.

Now, will I actually cover all four of the Locke the Superman anime productions? Oh, definitely, but probably not this year... But there's always next year.

Although a "title splash", it doesn't appear until near the end...

Demonbane OVA
Nitroplus is a company based around producing visual novels, and one of its early hits was Zanma Taisei/Demon Slaying Great Sage Demonbane, which saw release on Windows PC back in early 2003; it would eventually see an English release by JAST USA in 2011 under the name Deus Machina/God Machine Demonbane. On July 1, 2004, Kadokawa Shoten would release a port of the game for the PlayStation 2, removing all of the hentai content, under the name Kishin Houkou/Roar of the Machine God Demonbane; it's this third title that the property would be most known as for the future. To go with this PS2 port, a 24-minute OVA was made, featuring animation by Group TAC, CG by View Works, & direction by Shintaro Inokawa (the 2003 Blame! ONA). Said OVA was included as part of the limited edition release of the PS2 game, but I can't quite tell if it was given an individual release. This is made all the harder to find out, since only two years later a 12-episode TV anime adaptation came out in Japan, with View Works heading up the animation this time around; this anime is actually still available legally via streaming over at CrunchyRoll. Still, how is this first anime take on Demonbane?

Arkham City is one that has quickly gone through advancements in the past number of years, mainly through the use of technology & alchemy. This, though, has also come at the expense of the city being more susceptible to forces from the "Dark World", like the mysterious group Black Lodge. Lily Bridge, a freelance photojournalist who joins the Daily Arkham newspaper in search of big scoops, finds all of this out quickly when she decides to make it her mission to found out & report on a mysterious giant robot named Demonbane, and if it has any relation to the powerful Hadou Concern that has made a destroyed area of Arkham quarantined to the general public. While looking for information, she meets Kuro Daijuji, an down-on-his-luck detective who definitely-positively-absolutely-indisputably has nothing to do with Demonbane whatsoever... Only for him to reveal his involvement when Lily decides to enter the quarantined area one night, only to be attack by Dr. West, a crazy scientist who works for Black Lodge.

Going into this OVA, my only experience with Demonbane is that it's something that exists, my friends saw the later TV series & really enjoyed it, and that (apparently) the Demonbane itself is one of the all-time most powerful mecha ever created. What I didn't know, & was pleasantly surprised with, is that, if this OVA is anything to go off of, Demonbane also knows to have fun with itself, because that's exactly what this OVA is. Right from the star, you see Dr. West hamming it up to true insanity levels, likely to match his concept as a "mad" scientist, and his giant drill-bearing robot has a ludicrously long name (& a Testujin 28 reference, natch), only to be thwarted rather quickly. Lily is quickly likable & enjoyable to watch, while her new boss at the Daily Arkham reminds one of Spider-Man's J.J. Jameson, right down to being more obsessed with pictures of Demonbane than he is with real investigative journalism. This is all backed up with a full-tilt pace throughout the entire OVA, with the story moving forward at a regular pace, though it never feels like it's the detriment of the story's introduction & development; it's fast & little bit wild at times, but not manic. I'd argue that this OVA actually does an excellent job setting things up & introducing many plot points & mysterious that the game itself would explain. What is Demonbane & the Black Lodge? How do Kuro & the Hadou Concern relate to each other (&, in that case, why is Kuro next-to-destitute)? Where does Lily fit into all of this? Writer Katsuhiko Takayama (Aldnoah.Zero, ef: a tale of memories & melodies) does an amazing job in keeping everything moving, but not at the expense of potentially losing the viewer in the process; fittingly, Takayama would be brought back to write some episodes of the later TV anime adaptation.

In terms of production quality, the Demonbane OVA is actually a perfect example of how limited animation is not an indicator of the actual quality of the animation itself. Lead by Shintaro Inokawa, who is normally a storyboarder & episode director, the OVA utilizes a lot of very blatant animation tricks, but at the same time utilizes them in ways that actually make some of them look more like stylistic decisions, more than anything. For example, there are a number of moments where the image shown on screen will shrink into a black void, but is usually done to put a cap on the scene, especially if there's some sense of mystery to everything. There are also some shots which would normally be rather static, but the camera spins around, giving the shot a sense of fake movement; again, though, this is done when there's a sense of panic, which makes it fit in the end. I always have tons of extra respect for an anime that takes advantage of the apparent dirty phrase of "limited animation" by doing something cool & special with it, and the Demonbane OVA is one of those examples. In fact, watching this OVA actually makes me want to finally watch the TV series one day. Not sure when exactly that will happen, but maybe I can hope for a home video release, so as to make it something that I can do on my own terms.

School Days ONA
Speaking of visual novels, possibly one of the most infamous examples is 2005's School Days. Originally developed by 0verflow for Windows PC, this VN quickly became notorious for its various bad endings, especially the ones where the girls who the player wound up not falling in love with either committed graphic suicide, or outright killed the girl who was chosen, right in front of the player character, all in full-motion video animation! The title would receive more notoriety in 2007, when it was adapted into a 12-episode TV anime, with animation by TNK, the studio that had originally redone the animation for the PS2 port (Stack & Golden Bell did the original PC animation), especially when the last episode's initial broadcast was replaced with footage of Norwegian scenery, due to news of a horrific axe killing the day prior; this would result in the "Nice Boat" meme. What most probably don't know, though, is that there is a School Days anime that predates the TV series; in fact, it looks to predate even the original game! Whereas the game first saw release on April 25, 2005 in Japan, there was a 22-minute ONA/Original Net Animation that came out on February 25, 2005, more than likely meant to help promote the game's upcoming release. This is actually how I first heard of School Days, but I've never seen this ONA, so I think it's time to rectify that.

Makoto Ito is a high school student who's made it a habit to sneak a peek at a girl who takes the same train to the same school as him. All he's learned is that her name is "Katsura", & he managed to covertly take a picture of her with his phone. After Makoto's classmate Sekai Saionji catches a glimpse of his picture, & he desperately asks that she not tell anyone about what he did, Sekai proposes a deal: She won't tell anyone, and in return she'll help him get into a relationship with Kotonoha Katsura. The plan eventually succeeds, and Kotonoha agrees to go on a date with Makoto, but while he waits for her to arrive, Sekai reveals that she only offered to help because she thought it'd be interesting, and when Makoto tells her that he owes her, Sekai responds by kissing him on the lips, right before she gets on her train home & wishes him well on his date.

The thing with School Days is that it's infamy comes mostly from its graphically bloody bad endings, though there are apparently indications that the various girls Makoto can romance do have their own "problems". Still, the fact that the infamy is effectively backloaded means that, if you were to watch this ONA, play the game, or watch the TV anime with absolutely no prior knowledge of this product, you would never guess how things could wind up. This is especially true for the ONA, as it simply is meant to be a promotional piece for the game, so all it does is introduce Makoto, Seikai, & Kotonoha, and the love triangle that spawns between them. None of the other love interests are showcased, giving this single "episode" a focused execution, and it does admittedly result in a solid introduction. If nothing else, I'd imagine that fans of visual novels who saw this ONA back when it came out likely became, at the very least, curious about how the plot would advance, resulting in them needing to buy the game. Admittedly, Makoto does start off as bit of a creeper when it comes to Kotonoha, but by the end you can tell that he more of an intensely hesitant guy who knew what he was getting into by sneaking a picture of the girl he has a crush on, and by the end you can tell that he is earnest in wanting to better know his potential new girlfriend, only for Sekai to throw a wrench into the works.

Unfortunately, especially when compared to the Demonbane OVA, the School Days ONA is a perfect example of utilizing limited animation in the absolute laziest ways possible. There are countless scenes where you see nothing more than a still image featuring the characters, usually Makoto & Sekai, and even when they speak to each other there are absolutely no lip flaps to be seen; in fact, some shots don't even features any on-screen characters while people are talking! The ONA tries to make up for this by utilizing cut-ins, but these are also rather lazy more often than not, rarely going beyond a horizontal or vertical bar featuring a character while they talk, and alternating them whenever another character talks. Sure, there's stuff like the jagged break shown above, or a neat moment where Sekai starts winning an argument, resulting in her split screen overtaking Makoto's, but those literally only appear no more than a handful of times. I've mentioned this before, but an anime like Zaizen Jotaro might have just as little animation as this ONA, but at least that show made up for it by taking advantage of its use of cut-ins, having them appear in a wide multitude of styles & executions. Sure, there's an obvious difference in a TV anime & an ONA, but I just think that something more could have been done here, especially since the animation director here, Junji Goto, has worked on numerous other anime, & would even return for the School Days TV adaptation. Overall, though, this ONA does its job, but not much else, and I don't think it's ever been given a re-release; I know Discotek's DVD release doesn't have it, and I don't think the later Blu-Ray release added anything.

On a final note, this ONA doesn't credit a director whatsoever, instead putting 0verflow's Mathers Numakichi at the top of the end credits for his work as scriptwriter & executive producer. Also, the seiyuu for Makoto, Sekai, & Kotonoha are the same people who voiced these characters in the TV anime, but for this ONA they use the pseudonyms they used for the original PC release, so it's Tatsuya Hirai for Daisuke Namikawa's Makoto, Kaname Yuzuki for Shiho Kawaragi's Sekai, & Soyogi Toono for Tae Okajima's Kotonoha. Why the name changes? Because the original School Days was a pornographic VN, & professional seiyuu don't want their actual names attached to hentai.
It's always interesting to take a look at "forerunners" like these, because you wind up with all sorts of experiences. Sometimes you wind up with something familiar, but with some differences to be found, while other times you can wind up with something completely different. Usually, productions like these aren't made with the direct intention to produce more anime, more often than not they're made more to promote something else (like a video game), but they wind up resulting in new, more elaborate productions. In fact, something like the Locke the Superman example is an interesting outlier, as it was effectively nothing more than a fan film, but since the man who made it wound up becoming so involved with the property, his fan work wound up be retroactively deemed a "pilot film". If anything, that's the kind of thing I look for whenever I watch a pilot, precursor, or forerunner, and I hope to return to this well again in the future for Demo Disc.

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