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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

King of the Braves GaoGaiGar Final Grand Glorious Gathering: I Won't Give in 'till I'm Victorious, I Will Defend, And I'll Do What I Must Until the End!

"The Year of Unfinished Business" here at The Land of Obscusion is nearing its end, and one part of it that I had planned but never actually had the chance to get to was knocking out those anime on my original "Want to Review... But Can't" list from 2011. Since then, seven of the twelve anime have actually been covered on this blog, either via full review or through single-series volumes of Demo Disc. That being said, out of the remaining five anime from that list, three of them are mech anime (four, if you count Kiss Dum), so how about I take advantage of yet another Mecha Month & get another two of those shows out of the way? First up is an alternate take of the sequel to one of the most iconic mech anime of the 90s!


In early 1990, Yusha/Brave Exkaiser debuted on Japanese television & marked the start of the Brave Series, a collaborative effort between Sunrise & toy maker Takara, as the latter wanted a spiritual successor to Transformers, which had lost interest in Japan come the new decade. The Brave Series would run until the start of 1998, totaling eight entries, with the last being 1997's Yusha-Oh/King of the Braves GaoGaiGar. By this point, interest in the Brave Series itself was waning, and this wound up being the final entry. A ninth show, Saint of the Braves Baan Gaan, was in pre-production, but never got made into an anime, though it would be included in crossover 1998 PS1 game Brave Saga, & elements of it would be re-purposed into 2000's Gear Fighter Dendoh. What's most interesting, though, is that while kids weren't really watching GaoGaiGar as much as hoped, the home video releases on VHS & laserdisc were surprisingly strong. In short, the anime found a notable otaku audience, and that resulted in the staff at Sunrise Studio 7 being given the greenlight to produce a sequel.

Now, to clarify, this was NOT the first Brave Series sequel, as prior series Brave Command Dagwon did receive the two-episode Boy with Crystal Eyes OVA while GaoGaiGar was airing. Still, King of the Braves GaoGaiGar Final, which came out across eight episodes from 2000 to 2003, has gone down as not just one of the greatest mech anime of the 00s, but is considered by many to be one of the best mech anime of all time. I am not reviewing the OVA, however, mainly because of how synonymous it has become. No, what I'll be reviewing is the retelling it received on late-night TV in the Spring of 2005 (the same year the original series took place in, coincidentally enough). You see, in between the TV series & Final OVA, a spin-off series called Betterman aired in 1999 that took place in the same world as GaoGaiGar, but otherwise was completely different, thematically. Still, the OVA did call back to Betterman, especially since a character from that series became a supporting cast member in the OVA, so Studio 7 wanted to more directly link the two productions, while also giving otaku who didn't buy the OVA a chance to experience the story. The end result was King of the Braves GaoGaiGar Final Grand Glorious Gathering, or just King of the Braves GaoGaiGar Gathering for short, which expanded the eight-episode OVA out into twelve episodes, but has otherwise been forgotten with time. So what better time than the year that marks the 20th Anniversary of the Brave Series' finale as a yearly production to check out the very last anime made for it?

[WARNING!! There will be some slight spoilers regarding the end of the original GaoGaiGar TV series, so you've been warned.]


After the final battle with the 31 Machine Primevils of the Zonderians, young Mamoru "Latio" Amami decides to head out into space with the lion robot Galeon in order to fulfill their final duties as part of the destroyed Green Planet of the Triple Star Solar System. Without the central robot that allowed the formation of the giant robot GaoGaiGar, the Gutsy Galaxy Guard creates the Phantom Gao that allows its pilot, Gai Shishio (a cyborg who has since become a new form of human called an Evolder), to form GaoFighGar so that the Earth could still be protected. Afterwards, GGG got involved in battles with the terrorist organization BioNet, both sides of which are looking to collect the mysterious Q-Parts, which were recently found on Earth. A year later, though, Mamoru makes a sudden return to gather the Q-Parts, even if it requires him to fight his friends at GGG, which marks the start of a new conflict against the 11 Planetary Masters of Sol, the pre-planned last resort of the Triple Star Solar System, in a battle in which the fate of the universe is at stake.

When the original GaoGaiGar debuted in 1997, the mech anime landscape had changed a bit, primarily due to the run of Neon Genesis Evangelion a couple of years prior. Because of Gainax's mega hit, many other shows tried imitating its more serious & somber style of storytelling. GaoGaiGar, however, was the complete opposite by being a giant love-letter to the optimistic & bombastic style of older mech anime, & the Brave Series in general, though the second half of the show did enter slightly darker & more serious storytelling, likely to appeal more to the otaku fans they now knew existed than for kids; some argue that GaoGaiGar was made in response to Evangelion, though the validity of that is tenuous. Still, when time came to make a sequel, Sunrise Studio 7 held nothing back, because this was being made for the direct-to-home-video market, i.e. adult otaku who had money to spend, and the end result is that GaoGaiGar Final is a much darker & serious story from the first episode. Whereas the original TV series was a pretty straightforward story about heroes fighting evil using the power of a stone that literally works off of courage, Final is more about questioning whether or not sheer courage is enough, and if there are any repercussions to wanting to go straight into action with little to no real reason. While GGG does move out to the Triple Star System to chase after the 11 Sol Masters (which I'll be using for simplicity's sake), there's really no immediate or even direct threat to Earth by these antagonists, which in turn makes it feel like our heroes are getting into a new battle simply because they want to. Deep down it's about saving the universe, but ostensibly feels more like it's simply because the Sol Masters messed with GGG, and they don't take kindly to people that mess with them. They don't really know who the Sol Masters are or even what they're capable of, but they feel that because they have courage & know that they fight for what's right it will guide them to victory, regardless. It's an interesting direction to go in, & there is an actual explanation given later on to warrant GGG's involvement, but it gives this sequel more to chew on, philosophically.

See what happens when you get
animated in widescreen, Betterman?

That's not to say that this darker tone is necessarily seen at the beginning of the story, though, as Episode 1 of Final (&, by extension, Gathering) behaves more like the prior TV series by showing off the final battle between GGG & BioNet, which feels similar to the Monster-of-the-Week nature of the original show. This allows the reintroduction of the main cast from GGG, as well as the introduction of some new characters who fight for Chassuer, a French partner of GGG. The major inclusion is Renais Kerdif-Shishioh, Gai's teenage cousin who was forcibly turned into a cyborg by BioNet before the original TV series, as she becomes a big part of the cast as the story goes on, especially when Gai's former ally Soldat J is fully brought into the picture. Alongside her are KouRyu & AnRyu, Chassuer's pair of transforming mechanoids, who act as the younger sisters of GGG's legendary giant robots: EnRyu, HyoRyu, RaiRyu, FuRyu, Volfogg, Goldymarg, & Mic Sounders the 13th. It's generally stated online that Renais was originally introduced in a side-story novel called GaoGaiGar: Leon Reine, which told Renais' backstory, but from what I can tell that novel wasn't fully published until 2003, so it's likely that the novel was serialized as the OVA was being made, so while the character gets a great showing in the Final storyline, her past with BioNet is sadly lost to non-Japanese speakers. This also applies to other notable new character Papillon Noir, the psychic girlfriend of GGG member Kousuke Etouji, who was initially introduced in a Betterman audio drama, not even the actual TV series, though her overall importance isn't realized until later. Alongside them are new members of GGG, but they wind up being left behind once the main GGG crew heads off after the Sol Masters, but at least they make their mark in the first third of the story they're focused in.

As for how exactly Gathering expands Final's eight episodes (though the finale was double-length, so it's effectively nine), it's mostly seen in the first half. With a consistent rate of two OVA episodes for every three TV episodes, Gathering adds in screen time mainly through the usage of pre-existing footage & still frames to go with new voice work to either help recap things from the original series, or to help link together GaoGaiGar & Betterman. Episode 5, "Animus", has easily what is both the best & worst example of the extra content, as it has Papillon explain what exactly Lamia, the titular Betterman, is & how he helped save an unknowing world from destruction by the virus Algernon, though it amazingly does so without directly stating what happens in Betterman, which is appreciated for those who haven't seen that anime. The new information here mainly comes in the form of Lamia, now in hibernation after the events of Betterman, revealing that he actually sensed the coming danger of the 11 Sol Masters, but since he's unable to fight (though he does sense what happens during the final battles) he told Papillon to go find Gai, as Lamia also senses the righteous power of Gai & the G-Stone; in short, it helps explain why Papillon is with GGG in the first place. It's cool, because it does give new information for those who wondered how exactly the two shows linked together (did you know that Mic's sound-based Disc X was based on research done on Lamia's sonic blasts?), and it's cool to see Takehito Koyasu return after six years to voice Lamia. At the same time, though, it's also terrible, because this segment of "new voices/old footage" runs for about 13 minutes; it's a bit rough when most of your episode is simply recap of a completely different show combined with reused footage. To be honest, these "new" portions are implemented with next to no subtlety & do result in the first half feeling a bit slow. The second six episodes cover effectively five episodes worth of content, so the show's pacing improves, but the first half definitely suffers a little from these additions; the great story still holds up, but it's slowed down a bit. Finally, due to TV restrictions, there is some censorship, as the OVA did feature more fanservice; it's nothing egregious, but I guess some will complain.


All that being said, though, the Final story in & of itself is a bit of a lopsided one. While stretching the first half out to six episodes for Gathering is a bit much, it was still originally four, and in that first half it really doesn't feel much like GaoGaiGar, minus the stuff with BioNet at the beginning. This first half is really nothing more than a giant setup for the "real" plot that happens in the second half. Sure, you do get a notable moment with the GaoGaiGar vs. GaoFighGar fight, and the first half ends with GaoFighGar's encounter with Palparepa Plus, but otherwise it's just lead-up with little else to chew on. If anything, this works conceptually better for a TV series, as it would be produced with a full run in mind, but when you consider that this was originally an OVA, it almost feels like a miracle that sales were consistent enough to have the story be fully told, because if otaku weren't liking what they saw at the start, then things could have gone horribly wrong. If anything, the OVA likely sold simply because of the promise of seeing something major at the end, and thankfully Final, & likewise Gathering, delivers on that end with the second half. J gets a great showing when Gai is out of the picture for a bit, Gai's girlfriend Mikoto becomes even more of a foundation that supports him in the deepest of pits, Renais shows off her take-no-nonsense attitude perfectly in a way that matches well with J, & the rest of GGG get their moments to shine in the final battles shown in the last three episodes.

Unfortunately, this kind of comes at the expense of the Sol Masters, who are mostly pretty undeveloped. Out of total eleven, you only really see five with any sort of consistency: Palparepa, a doctor-themed equivalent to Gai; Pillnus, a wasp-themed equivalent to Renais; Pia Decem, the counterpart to Soldat J; & Palus Abel and Pei La Cain, physical copies of the respective leaders of the old Red & Green Planets of the Triple Star System. The other six are mostly just there to give the rest of GGG's mechnoid "Braves" fights for the end, with the general concept being that each of them are perfect matches for each other, so Percurio fights Mic with sound waves, Volfogg's foe Polturn is ninja-like, etc. Of the primary five, though, only Palparepa & Abel really get any sort of notably important screen time & are given actual hints of real character, with Pillnus & Pia Decem having a good amount of screen time, but mainly doing nothing but being antagonistic to Renias & J; Cain is there mainly for shock value, to be honest. Really, the 11 Sol Masters, or at least the primary five, remind me of Masami Kurumada villains, specifically in how they may not be developed much, but still remain (mostly) memorable due to their overall designs, their actions against the heroes, & other factors. I wouldn't be surprised if this was purposefully done, either, since GaoGaiGar is notably influenced by both Saint Seiya & Ring ni Kakero.


It should go without saying that Gathering effectively has the same exact staff as the original Final OVAs, & it's more or less a complete return of all of the major positions from the TV series, with the only real omission being Ryosuke Takahashi, who helped produce & write. Leading everyone is director Yoshitomi Yonetani (Food Wars!, Vatican Miracle Examiner), under the "Kometani" last name, who established himself with the original TV series as a master of that old-school, hot-blooded style, and for Final he fine tunes everything to perfection. Every dramatic moment, every earnest emotion of both good & dark, & every feeling of having to top what happened prior is felt here with nothing but sincerity; it's hard to not find it endearing. Yonetani also brings back his staff of writers, which keeps the cast of characters consistent with their bombastic personalities that were established in the original TV series. The new characters, like new GGG staff Noriyuki Yaginuma & Ryosuke Takanohashi (I get it!), actually defy expectations by being very subdued in their attitudes (small, old, & slow Yaginuma is literally the complete opposite of the tall, young, & spirited Kotaroh Taiga), but they wind up being able to fit in perfectly with the old crew, and the short time the viewer spends with them feel like more, thanks to strong writing & characterization. Takahiro Kimura (Gun x Sword, Code Geass) comes back for more, and his extremely youthful style has become absolutely iconic for the series, though being able to see characters like Papillon & Lamia from the Betterman side of things also shows his ability to design in a different direction. The slightly greater emphasis on fanservice here is admittedly a bit awkward, especially since this is a sequel to an anime originally meant for children, but it never gets unsettling; the series simply aged up to match what it's "true" audience wound up being. For mech designs, the legendary Kunio Okawara returns, this time with Kazumi Fujita (best known for designing the Zeta Gundam), with the end results being outstanding from the very start, and Genesic GaoGaiGar is still one of Okawara's greatest mech designs in his entire career.

Finally, the similarly legendary Kohei Tanaka is back with his original TV series score, plus some new compositions. Quite frankly, Tanaka's GaoGaiGar score may go down as his greatest anime score ever, if not at least one of them, with too many memorable tracks to really name. A personal favorite, though, would have to be "Utsushiki Hikari no Tsubasa" by Osamu Takai (a stage actor best known in Japan for playing the Phantom of the Opera), which acts as J's personal theme. It works so well because it's the polar opposite of the rest of the score by being a slow, majestic, & operatic ballad, while the rest of the music is swelling, bombastic, & grandiose. As for the opening, we have "Yusha-Oh Tanjou! -Gathering Mythology Version-" by Masaaki Endoh & GGG2005, which I feel is the absolute greatest version of GaoGaiGar's iconic OP theme. Final in general used the same overall song as the TV series, but with new lyrics to match the new storyline, but what puts the Gathering Mythology Version over the top for me is GGG2005, which is simply a men's choir that backs up Endoh throughout it all. On paper, it sounds silly, as it features a bunch of grown men chanting "GaGa! GaGa! GaGa! GaGa!" or "GaaaGaGaGaGaGaGaGaGao!" during the chorus, but the actual execution of it all winds up making the song sound all the more, for lack of better words, grand & glorious; it's the absolute apex of this song. As for the ending themes & insert songs, there are just too many to mention, as Gathering has six EDs split across three songs, & seven INs, including "Utsushiki Hikari no Tsubasa". We have variations of the original TV ED, "Itsuka Hoshi no Umi de...", which is just an absolute classic, as well as three versions of new ED (& character song for Renais) "Leon Reine", all performed by different people, including anisong legend MIQ. Regardless, all of the music is simply outstanding, and helps elevate any form of GaoGaiGar to the highest of levels & accolades.


And, of course, we can't ignore the cast, which is similarly spectacular... and gigantic. Leading everyone is the always amazing Nobuyuki Hiyama, who's performance as Gai remains one of his most iconic & passionate. Maiko Itou's Mamoru is perfectly youthful but full of hope & dedication. Tomor Hanba's Mikoto has a boundless love to it. Kouji Ishii's Taiga is right up there with Hiyama in terms of instantly memorable passion. Mitsuo Iwata & Hisao Egawa pull double-duties voicing Stallion White & Geki Hyuma, respectively, plus the mechanoids based on their characters, Mic & Goldymarg. However, Shinichi Yamada does a mind-blowing job voicing EnRyu, HyoRyu, FuRyu, & RaiRyu, all with enough variance so that they don't sound too similar to each other; Yukari Tamura does a similar job with KouRyu & AnRyu. In terms of the new cast, Yumi Kakazu's Renais is an excellent mix of both being a loner & someone who wants to be able to relate to others; very quickly you come to understand her, which is essential. Mitsuaki Madono returns to voice Soldat J, but he also pulls double-duty by voicing Yaginuma, and anyone who says that they could tell that Madono voices both without looking at the credits is a liar, because it's amazing how different Madono sounds between them. Similarly, the ever-lovable narrative voice of Kiyoshi Kobayashi is actually given a character in the form of Takanohashi, but here he doesn't change his voice at all, which makes the performance amusing. Finally, Papillon is voiced by Ayano Kawasumi, who does a great job with the usually calm & confident Betterman expat, and her rapport with Tsutomu Kashiwakura's Entouji is very believable. Finally, for the villains, the only real notable ones are Kiyoyuki Yanada as Palparepa, Sayuri as Palus Abel, & Tomoe Hanba at Pillnus, and they're all great as well; Tamio Ohki is also there as Pei La Cain, but all he gets are grunts & the Hell & Heaven chant.

Seriously, to cover the entire GaoGaiGar cast is an entire article all its own, because it's just that amazing, and every single one of them continues to nail their roles perfectly here.


It really says something about GaoGaiGar that, even 21 years after its debut, it's still touted as one of the all-time great mech anime, and the Final OVA story, though not without some flaws in terms of divvying up plot & characterization, follows up on it just as well. That being said, the expansion into Grand Glorious Gathering is not the ideal way to experience this sequel story, simply because of the expansion itself. The recap in the first half, though not poorly done, just stretches out the story a little too much, while the expansion in actually linking Betterman with GaoGaiGar comes off a little half-baked, mainly due to the fact that there is no new animation to be found. It is amusing, however, that Lamia is inspired by Gai's passion to become a protector of Earth, by the end That's not to say that Gathering is "bad" by any means, simply because the original story itself is that solid, but if you really want to experience the Final story, then the original OVA is the way to go. In that case, then, why exactly was Gathering created in the first place? Simply put, it was an experiment to see if there was still enough interest in the property, as the later DVD boxset release included a bonus "Disc Z", which had the first signs of a new sequel, GaoGaiGar Final Project Z.

This new story would have featured Mamoru & Ikumi "Alma" Kaidou (the child partner for J) as teenagers who co-pilot a new "Super Neuromechanoid" named GaoGaiGo, which would be made by Akamatsu Heavy Industries, of Betterman fame. Unfortunately, the Gathering boxset didn't sell, & Project Z went nowhere... For a decade. As part of Sunrise's recent entry into the novel market, Yatate Bunko, the Project Z concept was dusted off and refit into Hakai-Oh/King of Destruction ~GaoGaiGar vs. Betterman~, which debuted in late 2016 & is still running, & just this past September saw a manga adaptation debut. Could we eventually see an anime adaptation of this new novel/manga storyline? Who knows, but at least we all know where this first started back in 2005, which is just... GLORIOUS!

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