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Friday, March 29, 2019

Retrospect in Retrograde: Clockwork Fighters: Hiwou's War

Before co-founding anime studio Bones in 1998, the late Hiroshi Osaka worked on a bunch of mech anime, like Armored Trooper VOTOMS, Panzer World Galient, Blue Comet SPT Layzner, Jushin Liger, both Victory Gundam & G Gundam, & The Vision of Escalfowne. During the last nine years of his life with Bones, he continued to work with mech anime, like RahXephon & The Mars Daybreak. Therefore, it's not all that surprising that the first anime Bones would lead production on was a mech anime... Kind of.

"Wah, wa wa wau"... "Degaregeda, degaregadou!"... "Jam Jam!!"

Working with Noboru "Sho" Aikawa, who would become a reliable & stalwart companion to the studio to this very day, Karakuri Kiden Hiwou Senki debuted in late 2000, running until mid-2001 after 26 episodes, & was actually only the second original concept Aikawa ever put to animation, following 1998's Neo Ranga. Not just that, but it's also the only anime Bones ever did using hand-drawn cels, i.e. the "traditional" way. Apparently, Aikawa originally envisioned the story for older audiences, & a manga version drawn by Hajime Jinguji did run in Magazine Z, a seinen magazine, from mid-1999 to 2001 for four volumes, eventually going in its own direction. Instead, the anime wound up being reformatted as a family program, airing in the same "Satellite Anime Theater" time slot on NHK that would later air anime like Gakuen Senki Muryou/Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars & Kakutou Ryouri Densetsu Bistro Recipe/Fighting Foodons (one of these things is not like the others). After the anime finished airing, Bones would slowly earn more recognition via shows like Angelic Layer & RahXephon, before truly hitting it big with Fullmetal Alchemist in 2003. Meanwhile, Bones' first series would stay in the shadows, until Bandai Entertainment finally picked it up for English release in the mid-00s, using the name Clockwork Fighters: Hiwou's War, which honestly was for the better, as the actual translation is more like Fantastical Clockwork Tale: Record of Hiwou's War. While Bandai did hope to get the entire series out across three double-disc DVD singles throughout the second half of 2006, production & replication problems resulted in it taking close to two years to finish the release, ending in early 2008; former Bandai rep Robert Napton even called the release "cursed". Because of this, & the sheer obscurity of the series, it kind of became slightly infamous for a time, as FYE was selling brand new, sealed copies of Volume 1 for literally just $1.99! Even today, you can get all three volumes for super cheap, & there's next to nothing regarding the anime online, aside from the few reviews of the Bandai release, which tended to not like the show.

I originally reviewed this anime back in August of 2011, going completely off of memory, and I've always had the urge to rewatch it, seeing as it's now been a little over a decade since I last saw it. Is Clockwork Fighters: Hiwou's War still "proof that kids' anime can be good for everyone", or will all these years of new learning, like now knowing that Sho Aikawa was not the "creator" of Angel Cop (he only co-wrote the first episode), make me see this series with new eyes, & will it be for better or worse?

It's the Bakumatsu period, eight years since Commodore Perry's "Black Ships" opened Japan back up to the world, & Hiwou is a young boy in Mikawa Province who lives in a small village of "Machine People", who have used clockwork dolls of all sorts to help out with life & perform at festivals, with their one rule being to never use their works in battle. Hiwou's more impetuous attitude gets him in trouble often, especially after his father Masurao left the village not long ago & his mother passed away. After getting reprimanded for protecting a young boy from harassers with his doll, Hiwou runs off with his friends Shishi & Machi to the old temple, where a giant clockwork float named Homura has resided ever since it was created by the village's ancestors; not even Masurao could get it to move. Meanwhile, the village is attacked by the Wind Gang, a group of Machine People who use clockworks for battle, & everything is burned to the ground; Hiwou & the others manage to escape after finding out how to move Homura. Now, with nowhere left to go other than a letter from Masurao coming from Hida Takayama, & being chased by the Wind Gang, Hiwou, his older brother Sai, older sister Mayu, little brother Tetsu, baby brother Jyoubu, Machi, & Shishi head off in search of Masurao. Along the way, they're joined by Hana & Yuki, twin sisters who are witnesses to a plot to overthrow the government & are also being chased after by the Wind Gang, as well as Saitani Umetaro, who had met Masurao years ago & promised to protect his family. Luckily, should things get too hairy, Homura can actually transform into a humanoid form, with Hiwou & Shishi being able to control it directly.

Being a period piece taking place primarily from 1861 to 1863, with the final episode taking place in 1867, Clockwork Fighters can also act as a bit of a history lesson for viewers, as the start of each episode details some part of history, either during that period or more related to clockwork dolls. Such events include the folktale of the very first clockwork ever made, the death of Ii Naosuke, Katsu Kaishu helping teach Japanese sailors about Western methods, the departure of the future founders of the Shinsengumi from the anti-Western group lead by Kiyokawa Hachiro, the Namamugi Incident, Fukuzawa Yukichi joining Japan's first international envoy, & (naturally) the arrival of the Black Ships. The cast also interact with various historical figures, like future 10th captain of the Shinsengumi Harada Sanosuke, Hattori Masayoshi (the 12th man to use the Hattori Hanzo name), future Sekihotai leader Sozo Sagara, & "Lion King" Prince Asahiko Kuni, among others. Obviously, these events & interactions play around with actual history, usually taking advantage of lack of proper detailed records in some cases to allow for creative license, but they help ground the story in a strong sense of realism, even though the clockworks themselves are obviously exaggerated, with the Wind Gang's in particular relying on things like steam power & metal bodies in ways that just weren't doable in real life at the time. These also double nicely as a way to help detail some bits of Japanese history, which is part of where the "good for everyone" idea I used in the original review comes from.

The story itself is split up across four real "arcs", if you will: The trip to Hida Takayama, followed by the journey & events at then-capital Kyoto, finding Masurao with the Wind Gang at the Shingetsu Clan's castle in Echizen, & a final encounter one year later with Wind Gang in Choshu during an attempt to start war with Westerners; the final episode is a "four years later" epilogue. At the start of each arc, once the goal is established, you get a few episodic stories where Hiwou & the gang meet with various people & find either some sort of physical conflict they have to get around via Homura, or some sort of interpersonal issue that they're simply finding themselves a part of. Because of the time period the story takes place in, these stories tend to be based around the new Western influences Japan was going through due to the forced opening of the country's borders, with the characters meeting Westerners, having to deal with new ideas, various prejudices from their fellow Japanese, and the clash between the old, traditional samurai sense of honor & the new, more open sense of wonder that some in the country felt uncomfortable with. In particular, the story does slowly put more & more of a focus on the Jyoui movement pushed by various Shishi (no relation to the character in the anime) that eventually lead to the Boshin War in 1868, and though this is traditionally meant to be an anime for the whole family to watch, the writing does show its political hand more & more as you get further into it. Make no mistake, though this anime stars children of various ages & shows little actual death or bloodshed (though they are shown), this is not a show meant solely for children, because it gets rather complicated for younger audiences, due to the history & political aspects; the "13 Up" age rating Bandai gave it is warranted.

Sho Aikawa is known for his penchant for including his views on various political issues, & Clockwork Fighters isn't much different, though obviously toned down, due to it being more of a family-oriented program. Essentially, the conflict between Hiwou's group & the Wind Gang mirrors that of the Shogunate & the Jyoui movement that was happening at the time. With Japan opening itself back up to Western influence after roughly 220 years of self-imposed isolationism, there were those who did not agree with the sudden influx of new ideas & traditions that were not of Japanese origin. While the actual decree wasn't done until 1863 by Emperor Komei, which is the impetus for the Choshu Clan's attacks in the anime's last arc, it was the culmination of years of bubbling tension, and this matches the main conflict of the anime, to an extent. While the majority of Machine People agreed ages ago to not use clockworks for conflict, one small group differed, eventually growing into the Wind Gang, and now they feel that the time is right to finally eliminate all other Machine People & eventually rule over Japan itself. Really, Aikawa portrays them as a radical type of Shishi, taking extreme measures like murder to make sure their goals are met, while Hiwou's side prefers peace & finds the new ideas of Westerners interesting. Masurao is the linchpin here, as he's quickly shown in a start-of-episode history lesson as being the one responsible for killing Ii Naosuke for the Wind Gang, though he detests using clockworks for such purposes. Really, Aikawa pushes primarily towards pacifism here, along with generally criticizing anti-Western beliefs & isolationism in general.

Moving on to the characters themselves, naturally the main character is Hiwou, a teenage boy who tends to have the usual traits that you'd expect: Energetic, mischievous, & having a bit of a short fuse. That being said, though, he's also not dimwitted by any means, as he does have a good knack at figuring things out just by seeing something & without needing to be given direction. Hiwou's the one who figures out how Homura can transform & operate, figures out that water submersion can be a major flaw of steam machinery, & tends to stick to his ideal of not following the principal of "eye for an eye", instead wanting people to come together. As for the rest of his friends & family, they all follow pretty standard ideas: Shishi is more bullish & quick to action than even Hiwou, like considering siding with Harada when it comes to killing for revenge, but obviously comes from good intentions; Machi straddles the line between being a tomboy & a more girlish character, siding with either side depending on the situation; Sai is the de facto leader, having to make the important decisions when it comes to what to do next or where to go; Mayu takes the spot of "team mom", usually being able to keep Hiwou & Shishi in line when they start getting more rambunctious; & Tetsu & Jyoubu are the youngest of the lot, with baby Jyoubu literally being used as a counterweight when Homura transforms into humanoid form (hey, he's having fun swinging around, so I won't complain), while Tetsu helps out in various ways. As for Hana & Yuki, they start off pretty stiff, with Hana doing all of the talking for both of them, but eventually they loosen up & start becoming their own individuals, with Hiwou & Hana eventually showing signs of affection for each, but neither are really sure how to show it. Finally, Saitani is easy-going but highly reliable, giving an instant likability to Saitani. This portrayal follows the general trend of having Sakamoto Ryoma be more loose & nontraditional than your usual stoic samurai & ronin, sort of a Bakumatsu equivalent to the Sengoku period's Maeda Keiji.

As for the Wind Gang, the main focus is on Arashi, the son of the Gang's leader. Initially saved by Hiwou when he gets into trouble with some local gamblers, Arashi becomes obsessed with fighting Hiwou one-on-one & defeating Homura on his own terms, refusing to head back home when ordered to & even helping save the gang from another group in at least one instance. In stark contrast is Aka, Arashi's second-in-command who follows the Wind Gang's orders exactly, & sometimes tries to plead to Arashi to follow his father's commands; his real identity, though not an important aspect, does make him a semi-historical figure, too. Still, Aka being a young adult gives him a more "take no prisoners" aspect, which matches the Wind Gang's general motto. This is all the more true for Kurogane, the leader of the Gang who shows no hesitation to stop whatever gets in his way, even ordering Aka to attack Arashi once he's shown to be acting of his own accord. As for Masurao himself, he's only seen in quick bits & pieces until the third arc, and rather than being distinctly good or evil, he's strictly in the middle. Obsessed with expanding his knowledge & expertise with clockworks, Masurao works with the Wind Gang, as it's the only group in Japan that will let him do as he pleases, even though Kurogane takes advantage of that very laser-focused obsession for his own purposes, even keeping the fact that Masurao's village was attacked secret to keep the great clockwork maker oblivious; you can even guess Masurao being involved in Ii Naosuke's death was explained away by Kurogane. Masurao truly means well with his intentions & goals, and knows that his obsession is his alone, like when seeing Homura & tries selling Hiwou on upgrading to a steam engine; Hiwou tells him he prefers Homura being spring-controlled, & Masurao relents. Really, the entire third arc is a very good examination of Masurao, showing that he knows he's too far into his obsession to just go back with his kids, but still wants to be a proper father figure for them one last time.

Oh, yeah, I said that this was technically a mech anime, right? So what about the giant clockwork "robot" itself? While Homura itself doesn't get into your usual giant robot battles throughout the anime, it is still a really awesome part of the show, mainly because of how multipurpose it is. For example, while it's primarily in either float form or humanoid form, there are some instances where it enters a halfway form (humanoid top, float bottom), reminding one of the Gerwalk form the Valkyries can take in the Macross franchise. It also gains some upgrades as the story goes on, like grappling hooks that can be thrown to help it traverse tougher areas, a hand-crank generator in the hat to allow Homura a basic form of control over electricity, & even a giant sword. Finally, while float form is either pulled by horses or controlled by a giant bamboo reign, humanoid form takes inspiration from the likes of Tosho Daimos & G Gundam, i.e. Hiwou & Shishi don a drop-down suit & control it directly with their movements! Also, in place of more "traditional" energy sources to power Homura, like gas, electricity, photon power, Getter Rays, or Minovsky particles, it instead runs off of mainsprings that have to be wound up beforehand & placed in various areas of the giant clockwork in order to move around. While the gang is usually good at having some pre-wound springs just in case, the idea of running out of power (i.e. having no more springs ready to go) is a common enough of an occurrence to make it more than simply a hand-wave excuse to explain how Homura works.

Understandably, Homura is a bit of unstoppable force in the first half whenever Hiwou gets it to transform, as the villains have nothing but traditional weaponry or clockworks that only get so big, but right at the half way point things change when Arashi get hold of his own steam-powered giant clockwork, a literal combining giant called Mikoto, partially designed by Masurao himself. In fact, the Wind Gang side of things is where the designs get really inventive (& stretch the realism of the show's concept). Steam power is kind of shown as a miracle power source, allowing for seemingly self-operating robot dogs, or clockworks that only require a single pull of a string or few to execute complex maneuvers. We see other animal-influenced contraptions, too, like whale ships, plus what are effectively early torpedoes, & giant rideable mizugumo.. Still, the old-fashioned ways are also given some cool attention, like Arashi initially using an adult-sized suit that's solely string-controlled & can even go into a spider-like form for quick escape. Without a doubt, Junya Ishigaki (Xenogears, Xenosaga) is one of the stars of the staff behind this anime, showing off tons of imagination in designing all of these various clockwork "mechs", while still making them feel semi-plausible (if still impractical) for the time period.

The anime was directed by Tetsuro Amino (Macross 7, Iria - Zeiram the Animation), a veteran of the industry who's lead all sorts of anime, both in the mecha genre as well as children's fare. The end result shows Amino's knack for both genres, with the parts of the show focusing on the characters' familial bonds & friendships hitting all of the right notes, while the battles involving Homura look very much like how you'd imagine a medieval-ish giant robot that ran off of mainsprings would operate, i.e. stiff & heavy. The writing headed up by Sho Aikawa is generally really good, with the characters sounding rather natural when talking to each other, and their general confusion when it comes to new, Western concepts is written well. When it comes to the implementation of the more political aspects, though, things can get a little overdone at times, though maybe Aikawa meant for the viewer to feel like Hiwou & the gang, i.e. being pulled in multiple directions, unsure of why everyone's against each other. The character designs are credited to both Hajime Jinguji & Hiroshi Osaka, and while some aren't a fan of them, I actually rather enjoy them, giving the show a nice bit of a youthful feeling. There's even some nice attention to detail, like giving Tetsu & Jyoubu slightly updated designs for the last arc, due to the one year time skip. Also, each episode of the anime ends with a trio of stills that look to be hand-drawn, as shown above, and since they don't quite match the look of the manga covers, I really believe that these were drawn by Osaka himself. If so, then it gives Clockwork Fighters more of a personal attachment to appreciate, and the fact that some of them just look rather beautiful only adds to the feeling that Osaka himself drew these.

As for the music, it was done by Hiroshi Yamaguchi, frontman, lead gutiar, & vocalist for Japanese rock band Heatwave, which has been performing ever since 1979; not to be confused with the anime screenwriter of the same name (different kanji for "Hiroshi"). In the original review, I only gave credit to the theme song, "Hiwou no Theme", which is an infectious earworm of a song, but the entire soundtrack is just outstanding. Due to Yamaguchi's literal decades of music history, there's a heavy focus on guitar work, but not in a traditional "studio" sense. Instead, the soundtrack here is heavy on acoustic instruments, complete with some quick accompanying vocals here & there, and while high-energy rock is definitely a focus on many songs, there are just as many that are slower & focus more on winds & more period-appropriate instruments. In comparison, the ED theme, "Crossroad" by Kumiko Endou, is your more standard & bubbly pop song meant for younger audiences, but it's still a very solid song that fits the show well. I truly can't believe that I forgot just how amazing Clockwork Fighters' soundtrack is, aside from "Hiwou no Theme", and it makes me so sad that the two-part OST goes for so much now on; literally, the general asking price now ranges from ~$60 to $100, per OST. Someone did upload some of it as a video over at YouTube, but it's only a scant few songs across both OSTs, but at least it makes for a decent sampler.

The Japanese cast for the show is a relatively strong one, to be quite honest, but since it's so large I'll focus on those I felt were the best. Leading everyone is Houko Kuwashima (Tomoyo in Clannad, Sango in InuYasha), who gives Hiwou a ton of energy, great emotion, and plenty of fitting youth. Matching up best against Kuwashima would be the venerable Shinichiro Miki, who actually gives his generally deeper voice a high enough of a pitch so as to actually sound believable enough to be the voice of a child; I seriously didn't think he could mask his trademark deeper tone. Sai is voiced by Nobuo Tobita (Kamille Bidan in Zeta Gundam, Ulube Ishikawa in G Gundam), who similarly ups the pitch of his voice to sound like an honest teenager, but not so much that you just hear Kamille the entire time. Saitani is performed by Kazuhiko Inoue, who plays this role more along the lines of Naruto's Kakashi than Tekkaman Blade's D-Boy, i.e. calm & aloof, but also serious, instead of stern & hot-blooded. Playing Masurao is Shinya Ohtaki (Jiron Amos in Xabungle, Blue Jet in Machine Robo), and here he's allowed to perform with more of his natural voice than his more heroic & lighthearted major roles, giving the runaway father a fittingly hardened & slightly tired feel. The rest of the notable cast include Yuji Takada (Aka), Masako Ebisu (the Narrator), Kaori Mizuhashi (Machi), Rikako Aikawa (Shishi), Haruna Ikezawa (Hana), Yoko Teppouzuka (Tetsu), Akiko Yajima (Mayu), & Yasunori Matsumoto (Kurogane), who all deliver good performances, too. Finally, the show also has one-off & secondary characters voiced by all-stars like Kazuki Yao, Masashi Ebara, Bin Shimada, Tomokazu Seki, Ryotaro Okiayu, Keiji Fujiwara, & Kappei Yamaguchi, helping give Bones' "first anime" an overall strong cast behind it.

As for the English dub, which I (unfairly) only gave a passing mention to in the old review... It's okay, I guess? During the mid-00s, both Bandai & Geneon decided to outsource dubs for their smaller name releases to Odex Private Ltd. over in Singapore, as an effort to still offer dual-audio DVDs for titles that likely won't be major sellers, while still saving money in some fashion. Unfortunately, this can also be called "cheapening out", with the end result of this effort generally being lackluster dubs done by people who obviously don't speak English as their native tongue, and this anime was one of the releases given such treatment. That being said, the dub for Clockwork Fighters isn't out-&-out terrible, but that's not saying much. You can tell that some of the cast do try, but at the same time there's just an unnatural feel to some of the performances, not to mention some downright odd delivery choices; Nicholas Kreston's Arashi, in particular, doesn't sound anything like a child at all. To be fair, this might be one of the stronger Odex dubs from this experiment Bandai & Geneon did, the cast here is also seen in likes of Fantastic Children, Karin, & Shonen Onmyouji, but it's still the equivalent of getting 4th place in a 6-man race, but it's a race where the only real "fight" is for 1st; this dub, while not the worst, isn't even good enough to get 3rd.

As I said at the start, Clockwork Fighters: Hiwou's War is "kind of" a mech anime, mainly in that there is a giant "robot" of some sort, and the plot involves a larger conflict of some sort, but at the same time Sho Aikawa seemingly made sure not to follow that genre's trappings completely. Sure, I'd imagine that the original vision that aimed more towards older audiences than as something for the whole family would have certainly been interesting to see (in that case, then look for the manga, I guess), but overall I'd say that this is definitely an strong "first anime production" for Bones. I still feel that the reviews given towards it back when Bandai released it were a bit harsh on it, judging it more as a "kids anime" than a "family program", as there is just an innate charm to it that keeps me interested in it, and for an anime that touts how it's about "clockworks", it nails that element down excellently; the political & war elements can be a mixed big, though. Is it one of the studio's finest works? No, of course not, but you can definitely tell that everyone involved aimed to make something different in order to help showcase their abilities as a newer anime studio, and I think Bones did succeed, in that regard. It also shows that the studio did have a knack for cel animation, and it's kind of sad that this wound up being the only show that showcased that talent; Angelic Layer debuted while this was airing, marking Bones' permanent move to digital. Is it "the epitome of anime itself", as my original review's sole comment stated it to be? I don't think so, but it's definitely not a show that deserves to be forgotten by anime fans, and it certainly didn't deserve a "cursed" released in North America.

Thankfully, it's not like Bones has completely forgotten about Clockwork Fighters. First, a younger Masurao would appear in a three-episode story in 2006's Ghost Slayers Ayashi, a Sho Aikawa creation that took place 18 years before Hiwou's story, though it was vague on if the two shows took place in the same world, seeing as Ayashi dealt with supernatural creatures, whereas Hiwou was more steeped in actual history. Second, when asked in 2012 about what Bones properties he'd like to see a sequel of, president Masahiko Minami first answered with Clockwork Fighters: Hiwou's War. Without a doubt, Bones' first anime means a lot to the people that founded the company, and you never know when Minami's wish for a sequel may actually happen; the anime does actually end with Hiwou & the others heading to Edo, possibly to stop the upcoming Boshin War. At the very least, & for the time being, I'd love to see this anime be given a proper HD remaster, seeing as it's the only Bones anime that can actually be given that kind of treatment, rather than the simple upscales that other titles have received; it'd be a great way to honor Hiroshi Osaka one last time.

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