Thursday, February 29, 2024

Jitsuroku! Shinwakai: Forget the Greek Pantheon, THIS is the Real Deal!

No one should be too proud of themselves, and by that I mean everyone should be able to poke fun at themselves, to some extent. Ego is a natural thing to have, it's just basic human behavior, but having too much of an ego can make one look pompous & arrogant, to the point where it can be seen as abrasive & uncouth to others. Therefore, I think it's important that people should be able to take the piss out of themselves every once in a while, so as to show humility or (at the very least) give off the image that they don't take themselves too seriously. I bring this up because it can relate to mangaka Masami Kurumada, someone who's generally known for his intense, action-filled manga about "real men" proving themselves to not just their foes, but to the world at large, and while there is sometimes comedy here & there in his works it's all still told in a very serious & dramatic fashion.

However, when it comes to portraying himself & his assistants... Kurumada loves taking the Mick, for those who speak the Queen's English.

While I'm not sure when exactly it came about, though I imagine it was in part due to the ongoing success of Ring ni Kakero, Masami Kurumada eventually hired on a group of assistants, comprised of some combination of Jun Tomizawa, Toukichi Ishiyama, Tokumi Kawajiri, Takashi Urakawa, Masayuki Fujimoto, Chuutaro Numoto, Masashi Yamaguchi, & Ken Shiratori over the years. Kurumada would name this group "Shinwakai/The Gathering of Gods", and even listed Shinwakai alongside him for new chapters as they originally ran in Weekly Shonen Jump (as seen via the Ultimate Final Edition of Fuma no Kojirou); at the very least, he did this for both Ring ni Kakero & Fuma no Kojirou. While the concept of assistants that help a main mangaka out getting a collective name can arguably date back to Tokiwa-sou, the Tokyo apartment building that in the 1950s housed Osamu Tezuka & other legendary mangaka (some of which even initially worked as assistants to Tezuka, introducing the very concept), Shinwakai can be seen as the precursor to arguably the most well-known named group of assistants in Jump history: The Watsuki-gumi from the 90s who assisted Nobuhiro Watsuki on Rurouni Kenshin, which was comprised of Eiichiro Oda (One Piece), Hiroyuki Takei (Shaman King), Shin'ya Suzuki (Mr. Fullswing), the late Gin Shinga (who passed away in 2002 at only age 29), & Mikio Itou (who's probably most known for cameoing in his fellow Watsuki-gumi's works, like One Piece, as a travelling merchant).

However, as legendary/notorious as the Watsuki-gumi were back then, & (some) still are now, they never got to star in their own manga!

Monday, February 19, 2024

30 Years of Neo Mechanical Romance: Why B't X Might Be Masami Kurumada's Strongest Overall Narrative

Even as someone who proclaims Masami Kurumada as his all-time favorite mangaka, there's no denying one thing: The man isn't always the strongest storyteller. From an overall perspective his best works are powerful, both in the force of the blows dealt between combatants in his various action manga as well as the strong, Romantic-styled themes & plot progression. It's also easy to consider the various story arcs seen in many of his manga & think of how damn good they each can be, overall. However, there's no doubt that, when you dig into the weeds, you can easily find some notable & undeniable flaws, from a storytelling perspective, and even some story arcs might not be as good as others. Not just that, but I don't think it's unfair to say that most of Kurumada's longer works tend to have slow starts, and while that's not inherently a bad thing (slow burn storytelling can be outstanding, after all) it does mean that titles like Ring ni Kakero, Fuma no Kojirou, & Saint Seiya (especially if you're watching the Seiya TV anime) can also be described with a line that can make some shirk at the thought of starting them: "Just stick with it; it gets better!"

B't X, in my opinion, doesn't suffer from most of these situations. In fact, it might just be Masami Kurumada's strongest overall narrative.

This remains one of the coolest logos I've ever seen.

Running from (roughly) late 1994 to early 2000 for 16 volumes, B't X (pronounced "Beat X") was the first manga Masami Kurumada ever made outside of Shueisha, after more or less getting tired with the harsh & competitive grind of making manga for Weekly Shonen Jump; it also (just barely) managed to count as Masami Kurumada's 20th Anniversary work. Instead, B't X ran in the then-brand new Monthly Shonen Ace by Kadokawa Shoten (it even got the cover for the very first issue), a magazine focused more on serializing manga based on anime & video games, like Gundam, Macross, The King of Fighters, Martian Successor Nadesico, Record of Lodoss War, & Neon Genesis Evangelion, though there has also been the occasional original property throughout its history (MPD Psycho, Sgt. Frog, Eden's Bowy, Nyankees, Guyver, etc.). While Ring ni Kakero & Saint Seiya more or less defined Masami Kurumada during the (late) 70s & 80s, respectively, B't X was what defined him during the 90s, receiving a TV anime adaptation by TMS in 1996, followed by an OVA continuation titled B't X Neo in 1997, & altogether the anime adapted the first half of the manga before heading into its own original ending, as the manga was still running; that said, Neo & the manga both feature similar final acts, in numerous ways. It's a series that I have reviewed in the past, both in its original manga form as well as for both halves of the anime. However, I feel specific focus should be given to the narrative of B't X itself, both in its overall structure as well as specific details, because when compared to his other works I do feel that it succeeds in ways that none of the others do and, because of that, it actually might be a far better starting point for newcomers to Kurumada than the more obvious (& overwhelming) Saint Seiya.

Trust me, my first Kurumada series ever was the B't X anime.

[Note: This will naturally go into spoilers to explain some details, and I fully recommend that you read either review for B't X, manga or anime, as linked above first, as I will not be giving a traditional introduction for the series this time around.]

Monday, February 12, 2024

Obscusion B-Side: Takara's Legacy of "Fierce Fighting" on Game Boy: The Nettou "Deadheat Fighters" Series, 30 Years Later

Today, "handheld gaming" more or less means "console (or even PC) hardware, but on the go", and that was also true to some extent back in the 2010s & even 2000s. However, back in the 90s handheld gaming was mostly defined by the likes of Nintendo's Game Boy or Sega's Game Gear; there was also the Atari Lynx, but that was a distant third. Because of that the kinds of experiences that people would come to expect on handhelds were ones that made the most sense for the hardware, i.e. puzzle games, RPGs, platformers, etc. One genre that tended to feel a bit awkward for handhelds was fighting games, and by that I mean "post-Street Fighter II" (i.e. what some would call a "tournament fighter"), because they had that extra depth that made them work from a competitive point of view. However, handhelds at the time had literally just two face buttons (not including Start and/or Select), so proper fighting games weren't really what these devices were designed around. That sure didn't stop companies from trying though, as handheld ports of games like Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Hiryu no Ken, Virtua FighterPit-Fighter, & even Rise of the Robots were attempted throughout the decade, while original titles like Konami's Raging Fighter & Toei's Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of Universe tried to make experiences more tailor made for the hardware; general reception towards these ranged from "a decent attempt was at least made" to "kill it with fire". Eventually very good handheld fighting games started becoming more & more common, especially once the Game Boy Color & (especially) SNK's Neo Geo Pocket [Color] hit the scene, but throughout the mid-90s one publisher in Japan seemingly made it a mission to deliver good (if not great) fighting game experiences on the lowly Game Boy... and it was a toy company, of all places.

Each game has its own unique Nettou/Deadheat Fighters logo,
so I just went with the one with the least relation to its game.

While founded solely as a toy company in 1955, come the mid-90s Takara had also found footing in the video game industry as a publisher of various titles, mostly (but not all) that were either adapting a licensed IP (like an anime) or were a home port of an arcade title. In particular, Takara managed to ink a deal with SNK that resulted in Takara hiring various for-hire development studios to produce console versions of Neo Geo games, starting with Fatal Fury in 1992 & 1993, which was a success. With the fighting game genre seeing a massive surge in popularity during that time, Takara seemingly decided to take full advantage of that momentum by releasing portable versions of various fighting games on the Game Boy, all of which would also take advantage of the then-incoming Super Game Boy, a peripheral by Nintendo that allowed people to play GB games on a Super Famicom/SNES, by allowing two players to fight each other via the console & a single cartridge (though, naturally, traditional link cable play was also an option), and Takara managed to leverage its relationship with SNK by having all but one of these releases be based on Neo Geo games.

Tying all of these releases together would be a shared start to their titles: "熱闘/Nettou", or "Fierce Fighting", though Takara would offer its own English name on the covers, "Deadheat Fighters"; ironically enough, that English name would never appear on any of these games outside of Japan. From mid-1994 to early 1998 Takara would release eight Nettou "Deadheat Fighters" games on the Game Boy, though only five would see release outside of Japan (one of which was only in Europe), and today they are generally considered some of the absolute best fighting games ever released on the handheld. With 2024 marking the 30th Anniversary of this series of Game Boy fighting games, let's go over each one in chronological order, see the evolution of the Nettou Series, and figure out which one still reigns supreme over them all.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Demo Disc Vol. 23: Yester Yardsticks

While I had initially conceived of Demo Disc to be a way for me to cover anime that I normally wouldn't be able to properly review in full, one idea wound up being a decent alternate definition of this column: Pilots. Starting with Volume 9 in 2017, I've occasionally returned to the idea of using Demo Disc to cover initial pilot versions of various anime, namely Volume 13 in 2018, Volume 15 in 2019, & Volume 19 in 2021. While not exactly making anywhere near a majority (or even a plurality), with this fifth pilot-focused volume of Demo Disc that you're now reading, that now means that a little over 1/5 of Demo Disc has been dedicated to this subject and once things finish up with Volume 27 (whenever that happens...) it'll only be slightly less than that fraction. Now, sure, there are technically other pilots I could one day return to, but I think five sets of anime pilots, totaling 20 different pilots, is more than enough of these to have covered for Demo Disc.

Also, fittingly enough, while the majority of the pilots covered for Demo Disc originated from shonen manga, this time around they're mostly originated from shojo manga!

The Vengeful Sorceress
Running from 1993 to 1996 in Kodansha's Nakayoshi magazine for six volumes, Magic Knight Rayearth is often cited as one of the most iconic creations of the mangaka collective known as CLAMP, alongside the likes of X & Cardcaptor Sakura. Unsurprisingly, this would lead to not just one anime adaptation, but two. The first was a TV anime that ran for 49 episodes (split into two seasons) from 1994 to 1995, while in the second half of 1997 a three-episode OVA reimagining was made, both of which were animated by TMS & directed by Toshihiro "Toshiki" Hirano. TMS felt that the TV anime had tons of potential outside of Japan, so some time in the 90s (1995 seems to come up the most often) the studio teamed with The Ocean Group in Canada to produce an English dub test pilot for Magic Knight Rayearth, with apparently hopes of getting it aired on Fox Kids. This dub pilot wouldn't go anywhere, and a second attempt with Summit Media Group had an ambiguous result (there's word that 13 episodes were dubbed this time around, but no proof of the dub itself seems to exist anymore), but eventually Rayearth would finally receive a complete English dub via Media Blasters' release of the series, this time being dubbed by Bang Zoom! Entertainment; technically, there's a fourth dub for this version of Rayearth, but that was solely for Working Designs' release of the Sega Saturn video game. For the longest time it was thought that both of the old dubs for Magic Knight Rayearth TV were lost with time, but when Discotek Media license rescued the series for release on DVD & Blu-Ray in early 2017 it actually managed to find a copy of TMS & Ocean's original dub pilot & included it as an extra, so let's see how the earliest attempt to dub this iconic CLAMP series holds up, just in time for the anime's 20th Anniversary this year.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Ring ni Kakero, in Masami Kurumada & Others' Words: The Author's Notes & Afterwords (feat. shumpulations) Part 1: Volumes 1-9

As part of this overall celebration of Masami Kurumada for his 50th Anniversary I figured that I'd try to include as many of his biggest hits in some way or another, but that brought about a problem: I've long covered more or less everything I really can when it comes to Ring ni Kakero. As it's my favorite manga from Kurumada I kind of exhausted every real aspect of it that I can think of, whether it's reviewing the manga, reviewing the anime (twice, in full, at that!), reviewing the video game, reviewing the next-gen sequel, reviewing the Manga DVD, reviewing the image album (primarily composed by a pre-Nausicaä Joe Hisaishi!), creating a fun little "trivia track", covering what I felt were the "best bouts", covering my personal favorite superblows, doing a four-part recap of the early portion of the manga that the anime (mostly) skipped over, & even buying the original tankouban version of the manga so that I could see what exactly the "Deluxe Edition" re-release in 2001 & 2002 changed up. However, seeing as I still own those 25 tankouban (yes, it's technically "tankoubon/standalone book" in Japanese, but it's not as though "standalone edition" is exactly wrong, either), there is one last aspect of Ring ni Kakero that I can cover, & truly bring an end to my ability to cover this series that I absolute love: The Author's Notes & Afterwords.

I got nothing better to use for an intro image, so here's the
rarely seen English logo from Déclic Images' old DVD release of Season 1.

If you've read a manga before, especially those from Shonen Jump, then you know what these two things are, especially the first. At the start of each volume of a manga there's usually a short paragraph (at most) from the mangaka, either discussing some aspect of the content seen in that volume of the story or simply bringing up whatever random thought came to mind at that moment. Meanwhile, sometimes at the end of a volume there can be a message from the mangaka in regards to the series itself, though this is usually most often seen at the end of the final volume, where the mangaka can reminisce on the creation & serialization of the manga & what the advancement of that time meant to them. These would be the author's note & afterword, respectively, and while the original 25-volume tankouban release of Ring ni Kakero naturally has the former, it also has the latter... in each & every volume. You see, when Shueisha started releasing the RnK tankouban it decided to have a guest write a two-page afterword at the end of each volume, and while professional boxers initially handled the honors, since it's technically a boxing manga, as the series went into a more spectacle-focused execution & became a massive hit Shueisha decided to change focus & have other mangaka then working for Jump write the afterwords, & they focused more on Masami Kurumada himself & what he meant to them. Of these there is one that is actually a little well known now online, Akira Toriyama's afterword in Volume 23, but there are 24 other volumes of RnK & I was curious to see what these all said. However, while I can do a little minor translation for myself when in a pinch, the amount of work needed for these are well beyond my abilities.

Therefore, I wound up hiring shmupulations, the "repository of Japanese game developer translations", to translate each author's note & afterword found in all 25 volumes of Ring ni Kakero's original tankouban release, as they've never been included in any other release of the manga (bunkoban, wideban, or the RnK1 Deluxe Edition), & let's see for our own eyes what Masami Kurumada & others had to say about RnK (& Kurumada) as the manga itself was coming out back in the late 70s & early 80s. Since this is a lot of content this will be spread out across three parts throughout the year, & let's start with Volumes 1 to 9.