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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Night Head Genesis: Carry On, My Psychic Sons... Wear Your Weary Minds to Rest...

Previously on the Sci-Fi Harry Review:
"Watching this show definitely makes me interested in watching Night Head Genesis, so that might just be a future review one day... There's always next Halloween, right?"

Five years later is "next Halloween"... Right? Oh well, better late than never. Happy Halloween!

Back in 2013, I celebrated All Hallows' Eve by putting out a review of Sci-Fi Harry (you can put the lead character's name in all caps, if you prefer), which was the creation of Joji "George" Iida. Today, the man is known as a master of supernatural movies, like Rasen (the original sequel to The Ring), Another Heaven (based on one of Iida's own books), & Dragon Head (based on the manga). Before all of those, though, there was the series that made Iida a name in Japan, Night Head. Airing from October 1992 to March 1993, Night Head was a supernatural live-action drama series featuring psychics & the like that ran for 21 episodes via late-night, because the producers felt that stories featuring espers weren't as appealing at the moment. Luckily for Iida, the series became a surprise hit, especially with women, so it received a side-story TV special, Night Head: The Other Side, half way through the show's run, and in November 1994 there was a theatrical film, Night Head: The Movie, which told a new story that took place after the TV series.

Being a writer, Iida also wrote various novels based on Night Head, either retelling the series, retelling the movie (NH: The Trial), telling another side-story (NH: Deep Forest), & even telling a brand new sequel story (NH: Inducer). There were also a few manga adaptations during the 90s & early 00s, a PS1 game (NH: The Labyrinth), & even a cell phone app for i-mode-compatible phones (NH: The Gods of Misofagata)! As for where 2000's Sci-Fi Harry fits into all of this, the only explanation I can find indicates that it's the original concept that Iida thought of back in the day before refining it into Night Head, kind of like how Go Nagai's Devilman was a refinement of Demon Lord Dante before it; admittedly, Harry's US-based storytelling would have been impossible to make in Japan. Anyway, Iida would make one last return to his breakout hit in 2006 with Night Head Genesis, a TV anime remake of the original series, where he'd handle the writing. The anime ran for 24 episodes throughout the second half of 2006, & like its originator also aired in late-night, and from 2008 to 2009 Media Blasters released the anime on sub-only DVD; there was also a three-volume manga version that Del Rey licensed, but only two saw release. So, to close another loose thread I've left open for years, it's time to finally check out Night Head Genesis.

It's been said that human beings only normally access as much as 30% of the actual capability of their brains. A small amount of people can access that remaining 70% to achieve supernatural powers, however, and that has since gone on to become a phenomenon referred to as "Night Head". Two of these special people are Naoto & Naoya Kirihara, whose respective psychokinetic & telepathy powers were discovered at an early age & feared by their parents. Therefore, one evening, the boys were drugged & abandoned by their parents, & then given to a research lab run by Dr. Kyojiro Mikuriya that monitor their powers & growth. Fifteen years later, following the death of Elder Misaki, who erected the psychic barrier that kept the Kirihara brothers contained in the complex, Naoto & Naoya take advantage of the chance to finally break free of their prison & see the world for themselves, even if they do nothing but attract "negative" energy towards them. Still, what do the Brothers Kirihara have to do with a high-school psychic named Shouko Futami, who disappeared the same day the brothers escaped, & the mysterious Ark Corporation?

Yes, George Iida conceived of Night Head by way of that common myth that we don't use anywhere near the full abilities of our minds, which has been made defunct for years by now; Luc Besson even got flak for using it as the basis for his 2014 movie Lucy. To be fair, though, Iida gave humanity more credit back in 1992 than the myth does in general, since he said that we use 30%, rather than the usual low-ball of 10-20%. As for how exactly Night Head Genesis acts as a remake, I can't properly assess that, since the original series has no English translation, official or otherwise. That being said, someone actually put the entire original series up on YouTube back in 2016, and has yet to be copyright-claimed, so I decided to check out the first episode before starting the anime. What I wound up seeing was that Episode 1 of Night Head, where the brothers get into some trouble at a restaurant, was mostly remade accurately into Episode 2 of Night Head Genesis, with Episode 1 being set up for the main story; apparently, the anime debuted as a one-hour special, so that would explain the added episode. While there were some changes here & there, like having the brothers stop at the restaurant because of a flat tire instead of simply for food, the anime's version of the incident hit the same general beats as the original, so if this episode is anything to go off of, then I'm sure the anime is mostly accurate to the original TV series. The only other notable change is that it takes place in the mid-00s instead of the early 90s, since we see devices like cell phones in use. There is some indication that the anime is technically based more on Iida's novel retelling, though, which could be where the changes came from. Anyway, with that aspect out of the way, how does Night Head Genesis work on its own merits?

Unlike Sci-Fi Harry, which was a very linear & focused storyline from start to finish, Night Head Genesis operates more on a serialized track, i.e. the brothers deal with various situations that they come across, all the while trying to figure out their own dilemma. For the first half, the show follows a pretty reliable pattern of a multi-part mystery that the brothers have to solve, pretty much two or three episodes long, followed by a single episode to advance the brothers' personal storyline. Within the first 11 episodes, this results in four stories: The aforementioned breakout & restaurant incident; having to find a murderous woman, who psychotically thinks women dressed in purple are assassins out to kill her, before she kills again; solving the mystery behind a series of daily suicides done by a group of friends, who otherwise have no reason to kill themselves; & trying to stop a female scientist from accidentally unleashing a viral apocalypse on humanity. To be perfectly honest, this focus on self-contained stories, with there being an overall relation to the main story, actually reminds me of Supernatural, which initially started off with a similar concept of two brothers getting involved in various stories involving something normal people wouldn't normally be able to handle. Of course, this is likely just sheer coincidence, because I'm sure Eric Kripke had never even heard of the original Night Head, or even George Iida in general, when he conceived of Supernatural, but I think it does give a good, basic idea of the execution.

In between each of these stories we get more tidbits on the Kirihara brothers, with the end result usually being more questions to wonder about. For example, they decide to return to their childhood home, only to find a vacant lot that the neighbors claim has been empty for decades, with the only immediately successive indication being that Naoto & Naoya have unknowingly messed with their own timeline, i.e. their memories with their parents may not have happened in the first place anymore. After that first half, the anime moves into being solely about the underlying story, especially the stewing battle between the Kirihara brothers & the Ark Corporation, which has its own assortment of psychics looking to stop the leads from finding out their place in destiny. The major characters from Ark are Michio Sonezaki, who's so potent with mind controlling that he can control entire masses of people on a casual whim; Mikumo, who uses his knack for illusion to mess with Naoto; Sakaguchi, who has the ability to suppress other psychic's powers when used against him (though he's not seen much); & Akiko Okuhara, the CEO of Ark whose ability of foresight drives the whole purpose of the group. By the end, the major theme of the show is about whether humanity can be trusted on its own to move on from the materialism that it obsesses with, which the Kirihara brothers think it can, or does it need to be brought about those who can see the future that awaits them, which is Ark's goal, even if the forceful method requires killing those who can stop Ark before they even realize that they become obstacles. In fact, when a powerful empath is found by both sides, she becomes the catalyst for the final confrontation.

But what of Shouko? Interestingly enough, & yet another example of Iida coincidentally doing what others would do decades earlier, she's best compared to the titular character of Lucy, i.e. an idea of what could happen if someone could actually access 100% of their mind's capability. Her involvement in actually rather subdued, mainly acting not too unlike Marvel's Uatu the Watcher, who generally monitors what happens, only getting directly involved when she feels it's truly necessary. She does make her presence felt, but in the end she's more an example of human evolution when it comes to the Night Head phenomenon itself. In fact, there's an interesting feeling of transience with a lot of the supporting cast. Mikuriya is another example, with the Kiriharas usually being given leads by him when it comes to the various mysteries in the first half, and Naoto having to accept his help while still harboring resentment towards him for the past is played up well when needed. That being said, when Mikuriya's importance in the story is done with he pretty much just leaves the story with little fanfare; though he returns for the final story (which I imagine adapts the movie's plot). More than likely, this was originally due to the lower budget of the live-action series, i.e. the actors for characters like Shouko & Mikuriya were written out like this because the production may not have been able to pay them for much longer, but the way Iida handles their departures results in a feeling of isolation for Naoto & Naoya. They want to do what's best for others, but at the same time they give off this lingering feeling of wanting to be left alone, so those who are there for them only seem to do so for a transient amount of time, before they leave, whether it's because they necessarily wanted to or not. This also helps explain why their history with their parents is seemingly altered when they try to go back home; they subconsciously wanted that to happen. Likewise, the brothers also fear their own powers to an extent, Naoto because he's afraid of just how powerful his psychokinesis can be, & Naoya because of how any little touch with another person can set off his touch-telepathy, similar to Rogue from the X-Men.

Speaking of production budget, I have no idea what the original 1992 series had to work with, but I doubt it was much, mainly due to it being shoved into a late-night slot; 98% of the first episode took place in a single room, after all. While I doubt this was intentional, Night Head Genesis more or less follows in the original's lead, because those who love anime for the visuals won't find much of note here. It's a very barebones & limited production when it comes to animation, & even I could notice times when the drawings got a little wonky. Checking the end credits here & there while watching, I saw that some episodes were animated entirely, key & in-between, in Korea, and those tended to be the ones with the most easily-noticeable problems. That's not to say the the anime looks completely unwatchable, and I don't think it's worth the "D" that Carl Kimlinger's reviews over at ANN gave the animation back in 2009, but it can't be ignored here; I'd give it a C, with the worst moments being a C-. Another note of Kimlinger's old reviews was that he felt that the pacing was much too slow, and while I do agree that it isn't a fast-moving show by any means, I don't think of that as a negative. Rather, it feels more like George Iida deliberately paced the show the way it is, so as to allow to the generally somber & mysterious mood to build up properly; not once did I ever feel that the show was simply spinning its wheels & doing nothing worthy. Could the story have been told in half the amount of episodes, or even given a more non-traditional amount of episodes, like Sci-Fi Harry's 20? Yes, there's no doubt about that, but at the same time I think speeding up the pace would have felt too much like it was rushing through its plot, instead of allowing it to breathe & establish mood. There's a fine line that Night Head Genesis has to walk with its deliberately slow pacing, & I think it managed to nail it; maybe not ideally, but not to any detriment, either.

I don't know why, but this shot of Okuhara freaking out appeals to me.

While George Iida handled the writing, the actual directing itself was left to Yoshio Takeuchi (Cat's Eye, Space Adventure Cobra), and while I did bring up the problems with the animation itself earlier, they're really the only problems with the series when it comes to visual execution, because Takeuchi likely made sure that everything else was done in a way to minimize any errors brought about from outsourced animation. The character designs were originally done by You Higuri (Gakuen Heaven, Seimaden), who also did the manga adaptation, which were then adapted for use in the anime by animation director Noboru Furuse (Initial D, New Dominion Tank Police), and they definitely go for a strong shonen-ai aesthetic meant to appeal to fujoshi & the like; again, the original series earned a strong female following because the actors were cute guys. Finally, the music was done by Shigeru Umebayashi, who is probably best known for composing the scores to films like House of Flying DaggersCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny; this is his only anime soundtrack. Taking that into consideration, it's no surprise that Umebayashi doesn't deliver a more "standard" anime score, instead making something that would better fit a J-Drama; even the excellent instrumental opening theme sounds more like it'd be for a live-action series than anime. As for the ending themes, we get two: 1st ED "Kotoba" by Under Graph is okay, but otherwise nothing special, while 2nd ED "Nemutte Ita Kimochi, Nemutte Ita Kokoro" by Aya Kamiki is more enjoyable, if a little too rock/pop for the subject matter.

As for the cast, it pretty much starts & ends with Toshiyuki Morikawa & Akira Ishida, who voice Naoto & Naoya, respectively. The brothers themselves are like opposite ends of the same coin, and their seiyuu deliver on that excellently, with Morikawa bringing out Naoto's blunt & dedicated nature, with a touch of fear regarding his own potential, & Ishida delivering Naoya's hesitant but caring demeanor, with a tinge of always wanting to maintain his pacifist nature. After them there are only a handful of notably recurring characters/actors, with Hiedotshi Nakamura probably being appearing the most as Mikuriya, which he does well; while he debuts as an antagonist, he's actually extremely friendly & helpful, & the performance matches that. Then there's Akeno Watanabe, who voices Shouko in an appropriately caring & even slightly benevolent way. Beyond those two the only other notable names would be those who voice the members of Ark. Tomoko Miyadera, who traditionally does voice-over for Hollywood actors in Japanese dubs, voices Okuhara, and in general it is interesting to see a handicapped, older woman be utilized as a villain. Miyadera, in turn, gives her a feeling that she knows what's she doing is wrong, but realizes that it's the only option she has left. Then there are Hiroshi Yanaka & Junichi Suwabe, who voice Shiozaki & Mikumo, and they both do a good job at showing their different ends of ego, one who's driven insane by it, while the other is more suave & calm about it. Finally, the anime features a really neat cameo in the form of Shinji Takeda, the original Naoya Kirihara, doing the narration you hear at the end of the opening sequence in every episode; it's not something casual viewers would notice, but it's a nice nod to the original Night Head.

It's imperative that you go into Night Head Genesis with the mindset that it's a direct adaptation of a live-action TV series that aired in Japan back in the early 90s, plus its movie sequel. I bring up the movie precisely because it becomes blatantly obvious when the movie is covered, because the main storyline with Ark ends with Episode 22, with the last two episodes having absolutely nothing to do with it; without knowing that, you'll wonder why the anime ends with the way it does. Also, this feels very much like a slow-paced dramatic series, with next to no real "anime flair" to it, and the execution has next to no action to it, whatsoever; this is simply Night Head done via animation, simple as that. All that being said, there is worth in seeing Night Head Genesis, if mainly because of how different it can be when compared to other anime revolving around psychic phenomena. This isn't a story about psychics battling each other directly, but rather it's a battle of ideologies, one which trusts in the hope that humanity can become better, while the other believes that humanity has to be forced into that better future, even if the means to do so are known to be horrible, even by those who wish to do so. In fact, even though George Iida apparently considered Sci-Fi Harry the original concept that Night Head built off of, these two series are very different from each other, which makes both well worth checking out if you want something different from the norm.

I'm also now curious about how the original Night Head holds up today, but considering that there is no English translation out there, & the rips that are on YouTube aren't exactly the greatest, I guess that'll have to remain a bit of an untapped potential... Just like "the other 70%" of our brains.

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