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Monday, July 22, 2019

Demo Disc Vol. 15: Jump Juku

Two years ago, I covered some anime pilots that went nowhere for Volume 9 of Demo Disc. Last year, Volume 13 covered what I called "precursors", as they weren't all "pilots", that did see later productions made. So, this year, it's time to check out some of what are probably the most synonymous of them all: The Jump Pilots. Most anime & manga fans are probably at least somewhat familiar with Shueisha's annual end-year Jump Festa, which has been going on ever since 1999, as it's where new anime announcements related to Shonen Jump (& the occasional other Jump magazines) are essentially guaranteed. In the past there was also Jump Super Anime Tour, a travelling road show where anime pilots for popular newer manga got showcased to the public to gauge interest in potentially making them into full-blown anime series; in turn, they usually become available to purchase for a short time at the later Jump Festa. While not a truly annual occurrence, and there hasn't been one since 2013, it has resulted in many pilots to Jump anime that, to this day, have not seen official release outside of Japan, even if their later anime productions have seen some sort of official release. Usually, this is due to licensing complications, as these pilots can have completely different companies involved (& Shueisha is the primary producing company here), and this has even resulted in most of these being without any sort of re-release in Japan.

So let's take a look at four Jump pilots for series that have all seen an official English release at some point, in some form... And where better to start than one of the very first Jump pilots?

Kimagure Orange Road: Shonen Jump Special
About a decade before the Jump Super Anime Tour ever became a thing, Shueisha's first actual road show was the Jump Special Anime Daikoushin/Big March in 1985, which appeared in 22 cities around the country. At this travelling event, Shueisha showed off its first two anime pilots: One for Kochikame, animated by Tatsunoko, & the other for Kimagure Orange Road, animated by Pierrot. While the former wouldn't actually see a TV anime adaptation for a little over a decade, the latter saw its own 48-episode TV anime adaptation in less than two years, debuting in 1987 & even featuring some of the same staff as the pilot, like director Osamu Kobayashi; Pierrot even returned to animate. These two pilots were then re-shown in 1988 as part of the Jump Anime Carnival, alongside an OVA conceived by Akira Toriyama titled Kousuke-sama Rikimaru-sama: Konpei-tou no Ryu, which also offered VHS copies of both pilots as prizes in a contest. Since then, neither pilot has ever been re-released, but while Kochikame's pilot has effectively become a "lost anime", as there isn't even a photo of the cover art anywhere online, Orange Road's pilot has since been discovered, ripped, & even fansubbed. Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, Discotek has so far been unable to license the pilot as part of its recent rescue of the anime franchise, but at least it's out there, somewhere, so might as well see how things started out.

Kyosuke Kasuga is hanging out with his little cousin Kazuya at the drink bar where his friend Madoka Ayukawa (who he has a massive crush on) works, when Kyosuke & Madoka's friend Hikaru Hiyama (who has a massive crush on Kyosuke) comes in. Kazuya messes with Kyosuke by telling Hikaru that he wants to go to the beach with her, which Hikaru naturally is excited to hear. So Kyosuke, Hikaru, Kazuya, Madoka (who Hikaru asked to come with them), & classmate Yusaku Hino, who has a massive crush on Hikaru & heard about the trip, all take a plane to the beach, where they all get into windsurfing fun, Yusaku & Kazuya try to get Kyosuke into hot (shower) water with Madoka & Hikaru, & Kyosuke & Madoka get into trouble while scuba diving at night, as they get stuck in a small cave.

Kimagure Orange Road is generally looked at as one of the most influential love-triangle romantic comedies, so it's not really that surprising to see that the anime pilot is a beach episode. Now, to be fair, the fanservice is rather tame here, with the most you get being a semi-chibi Madoka in the shower, though she is covering up with her arms & legs. As for the content itself, it's more or less what you get on the tin: Hikaru is all about wanting to be with Kyosuke (much to Madoka's quiet consternation), Yusaku is jealous of Kyosuke & tries to concoct a silly plan to embarrass to get him made out to be a pervert (only for it to fail), and Madoka & Kyosuke have some alone time during the scuba dive, only for the situation to prevent them from truly advancing their relationship in any real way (... or does it?). Another aspect of the series is that Kyosuke & his family are all secretly ESPers with psychic powers, but in this pilot that aspect doesn't play much of a factor, outside of Kazuya using it to create the situation to embarrass Kyosuke & Kyosuke trying to psychically communicate with Kazuya when he & Madoka are stuck in the cave. While I do seem to sound rather bland about this pilot, I will say that it is well done & very enjoyable; it's just that, after 34 years, it does feel rather simple & generic. Still, it's very easy to see why a proper TV anime got made two years after this pilot, because the characters are relatable, the ESP can add a little something extra to it, & the comedy is fun. It is a shame that this pilot has never been re-released & given a remaster, especially since the later anime productions have since been given Blu-Ray releases, but that's more often than not the breaks when it comes to these pilots.

Ninku: The Gravemarking Knife
Following the Jump Anime Carnival, Shueisha wouldn't do another road show until 1994, when the very first Jump Super Anime Tour happened. Similar to the 1985 event, the very first JSAT only featured two anime productions: Captain Tsubasa: Saidai no Teki/The Greatest Enemy! Holland Youth, a new short for the popular soccer series, & Ninku: Knife no Bohyou, a pilot based on the popular new ninja manga by Koji Kiriyama (which itself would help inspire the creation of Naruto). Unlike most Jump pilots, though, the Ninku pilot is notable for two reasons. First, the successive TV anime series would feature not only nearly the same exact anime studio & staff as the pilot, only a few positions would be changed, but the voice cast from the pilot would reprise their roles in the TV series; seeing as the TV anime debuted just a few months after the pilot was shown, this makes sense. Second, this pilot was actually remastered in HD from the original negative for the anime's Blu-Ray boxset release in 2015! This was obviously only possible due to the pilot having the same overall production as the TV series & theatrical movie (the latter of which is the only piece of Ninku to ever see English release), not to mention likely the same licensing situation, but considering how most Jump pilots of this time only have VHS to rely on today, it's amazing to see such care given to Ninku's pilot. Therefore, let's see if it was even worth rescuing.

It's the Edo Era, four years following the end of a 50-year long war that ravaged the land. Fusuke, Aicho, & Toji are flying their way to Amahara Village, so that they can give a girl named Makoto the knife that once belonged to her brother, who fought alongside the three in the war. They crash land & walk the rest of the way. only to find a nearly-abandoned village, & they locate Makoto, who is disguising herself as a man. She tells the three that the village has been attacked numerous times by pirates lead by Rasenryu, who kidnap the men to force them to build a fortress on a nearby island, & do who-knows-what to the women; Makoto wants to fight back, but no one in the village is willing to do so. After Makoto is kidnapped in a new raid, though, the trio chase after them to the trap-laden island, only to find out that Rasenryu is a former sub-captain of a squad in the legendary Ninku force, which fought in the war, who betrayed the group & abandoned them; the Ninku no longer exist, having lost the war. This especially angers Fusuke, Aicho, & Toji, as they're all captains of the Ninku, and despise those who use their skills for evil.

He's a dangerous ninja captain, I swear!

As mentioned, the Ninku pilot differs from most others that would come after it in that it wasn't really made to gauge interest in a potential larger anime production, but rather was made to pretty much promote the upcoming TV anime adaptation that was already in production. That being said, it's an extremely strong promotional product, telling a simple but entertaining story that gives you just enough characterization to enjoy the trio of the aloof Fusuke, straight-man Aicho, & perverted and easy-going Toji, but still leaving the overall backstory unrevealed so that you'll want to watch the TV anime to get the full story; for example, the Ninku aren't mentioned at all until the climax, and aren't really explained in any way. Still, the banter between the three leads is amusing, their mostly relaxed way of taking things that come at them (until things require them to get serious) is fun, & even Makoto works well as a one-off character who's obviously never seen again; Rasenryu is rather generic, but does his job well. Still, it is fun to see this in a post-Naruto world, because you do see the little details here & there that Masashi Kishimoto obviously took influence from for his later work; Fusuke's Kuatsuken, where he gathers a ball of air pressure at his palm, is the obvious predecessor to the Rasengan. Overall, though, the Ninku pilot is definitely well worth watching, and one can only hope that the series might, one day, see an official English release beyond the later anime movie (which really only happened because it was part of a double-bill with a Yu Yu Hakusho movie), and if that happens then this pilot can hopefully be included, as well.

Also, it's just outstanding to be able to see this pilot remastered in HD, because it looks absolutely beautiful. Aside from just having some really nice moments of smooth & fluid animation, the entire thing just has a really great use of color, and being able to see it in a way that hasn't been possible since the original JSAT roadshow (& likely even better) is amazing. If only Shueisha would bother to do this for every Jump pilot it ever produced...

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee - Light & Blue Night Fantasy
The 2008 Jump Super Anime Tour, subtitled Jump Hero Daishuuketsu/Great Gathering, was pretty notable for two of the anime shown during its run. First was One Piece: Romance Dawn Story, which adapts one of the original two Romance Dawn one-shots that Eiichiro Oda made before he debuted One Piece, with the other one-shot actually being made into its own special that will air in Japan this October to celebrate the One Piece anime's 20th Anniversary. The other was Dragon Ball: Yo! The Return of Son Goku & His Friends, which was the first full-length Dragon Ball anime produced in the decade since Dragon Ball GT ended back in 1997. In comparison, the pilot anime for Jump Square manga Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee kind of seems like small potatoes, but at least it did seem to attract enough interest to warrant producing two seasons of TV anime from 2009 to 2011, and even the same studio (Pierrot, once again), voice cast, music composer, & head writer returned for the TV series; the pilot was adapted into a novel in late 2008 & later re-imagined as Episode 17 of the TV series. Jump's monthly sibling, in general, rarely receives even a fraction of the love & attention that Weekly Jump always gets, so I think it's only fair to give this pilot the attention it deserves, and see if it successfully delivers the package housed within.

Amberground is a land of eternal night, one where giant bio-mechanical insects called Gaichuu roam about, making travelling from city to city dangerous. Still, letters & packages have to be transported, and those who do such a job are called Letter Bees. Lag Seeing is a young rookie Bee, and has been given a job by his boss Largo Lloyd to deliver two items to the Bran siblings in Silencio: Two pendants for older sister Elena, and a letter for younger brother Bart. To assist Lag & his "Dingo" Niche (plus her dog Steak), Largo tells the two to find a guide named Darwin... Which just happens to be a dog so old, it'd be over 100 in human years. Unknown to Lag & Niche, though, is that Darwin is actually the "package" to be delivered, as the dog is too stubborn to leave if he knew he was the package, is Elena's Dingo, so lying to him wouldn't work (as he'd see right through the ruse), & that Elena died 10 years ago, falling to her death at Walrus Cliff, the same place Lag & Niche have to go through to get to Silencio.

The best pilots are the ones that you go into without any previous knowledge, only to come out of it wanting to see more of it, which I'm sure is exactly the point of Shueisha producing these pilots in the first place. That's how I feel about the Letter Bee: Hikari to Ao no Gensou Yawa, because it does a great job at setting up the world of Amberground, the purpose of the Letter Bees, Lag's basic backstory as to why he became a Letter Bee & the mysterious power he holds in his (normally covered) left eye, and showing how a standard Letter Bee delivery works. Obviously, not everything is fully explained, like how Niche is a Dingo instead of Steak, as every other Dingo shown during the pilot is an animal, or how exactly Lag met Gauche, the Letter Bee that inspired him to become one, but that's where you go to the original manga, or the later TV series, to get more info. As for the story told here, it's a good one, with Darwin being a cool variant on Hachiko, which is a classic that never gets old. The cast is all good, while the direction by Mamoru Kanbe (Elfen Lied, You & Me.) results in a well-paced & sweet little pilot; Kanbe would be replaced by Akira Iwanaga (The Morose Mononokean) for the TV anime. But, yeah, nothing much else to say other than the Letter Bee pilot is a damn good one, and it's gotten me interested in checking out the manga & later anime adaptation at some point in the future.

By 2009, the JSAT looked to be losing its appeal & relevance, as this year featured literally only one real "pilot", and there would only be two more JSATs after this one (2010 & 2013). Still, at least that sole pilot was a notable one. Following his arrest & conviction of soliciting a minor for sexual acts in 2002, Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro was effectively persona non grata for at least six years, with the only manga he was allowed to publish during that time being the 3-volume Ring & a quick & dirty finale for his cancelled hit manga, Seikimatsu Leader-den Takeshi!, both of which happened in the adult-oriented Super Jump magazine. According to legend, it took the good word of his friend Eiichiro Oda for Shimabukuro to even be allowed a second chance with Shonen Jump, & in 2008 he debuted Toriko, which wound up being a notable hit for the magazine, ending in 2016 after 43 volumes. Also, there's been no word of Shimabukuro regressing back to his old vice, so hopefully he's a changed man; compare all of that to what Nobuhiro Watsuki got, & you can see why I'm willing to forgive Shimabukuro. Anyway, JSAT 2009 was home to a pilot for Toriko, this one produced by ufotable, a studio which wouldn't lead production on another Jump anime until this year's Demon Slayer: Kinmetsu no Yaiba. The pilot would eventually lead to a TV anime adaptation produced by Toei from 2011 to 2014 that would run alongside both Dragon Ball Kai & One Piece, with there even being crossovers between the three series. Still, considering the sheer difference between studios, most people to this day still prefer what ufotable brought to the, uh.... dinner table(?).

It is the world of Gourmet Age, where delicious food can be found anywhere by people. Those who do so for a living are known as Gourmet Hunters, and the ultimate goal for any Gourmet Hunter is the concoct their Ultimate Full Course Menu, which would be comprised of the absolute greatest cuisines they have ever come across in their life. Toriko is a super-muscular Hunter who is hired by Komatsu, a lowly chef from the Hotel Gourmet, to capture a Galala Crocodile from the Baron Archipelago so that it can be cooked for an upcoming event. While the two are at the archipelago, they notice that the natural order of things is messed up, with animals normally living further inland being closer to the shore. They soon realize that it's because of the Galala, which isn't your normal old crocodile, but rather is over 300 years old & has become an invasive predator of the habitat that, if left untouched, could cause all manner of harm to the archipelago.

At the same time, though, 300 years of age means that the meat on that Galala Crocodile should be absolutely aged & delicious...

The brightness had to be fixed,
because you literally couldn't see a thing before.

All of the previous pilots mentioned in this Demo Disc all went on to see TV productions made by the same studio, director, staff, etc., but ufotable's Toriko is more along the lines of something like Production I.G.'s One Piece pilot from 1998. It's a look at a "What if" scenario, one that allows people to think about how things would have turned out had a different studio had made the later production in the vein of the original pilot. In this case, ufotable's take on Shimabukuro's introduction to Toriko & Komatsu is an absolute knock out, & it's very easy to see why some people were instantly soured when it was announced that Toei would be doing the later TV series. ufotable is known for having an excellent knack when it comes to visual spectacle, and that lies true when it comes to Toriko, with the various animals of the Baron Archipelago looking either unique or downright scary, & Toriko's immense strength being given a downright demonic feel to it. Also, being an OVA, something like blood is much more pronounced here than it would be in the Toei anime, giving the Galala's evisceration by Toriko's 3-Hit Nail Punch a viscerality that befits the violent nature of the move; that being said, it is a bit too dark of a scene, hence why the image above is artificially brightened. That being said, I don't hate the Toei adaptation simply because it's not what ufotable brought to the table. In that alternate universe where ufotable possibly went on to make the TV series, it obviously wouldn't have run in a morning time slot, alongside One Piece, & wouldn't have lasted 147 episodes, plus two movies & three crossovers with One Piece & Dragon Ball. Instead, it would have likely aired in a late-night slot & only would have lasted a season or two. Sure it would have looked nicer & been more visceral, but it also would be more than an otaku-focused product, one that would have likely been lost in the shuffle.

Doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the Toriko pilot for what it is, however, because this is easily one of the very best Jump pilots ever made, right up there with the One Piece pilot. I fully understand if you don't care for Toriko due to Shimabukuro's past, and that's perfectly fine, but it's hard to deny how well done ufotable's pilot is.
This brings an end to yet another volume of Demo Disc, and it's honestly getting tougher & tougher to do these multi-series entries. When I started this series back in December of 2014, there were all sorts of one-off fansubs of single episodes & "raw", unsubbed portions of anime that I had found throughout the years, all of which gave me a ton of content that I couldn't normally write about as a proper review, but felt were still worth bringing up, in some way. That's what prompted the creation of Demo Disc, and it's been so much fun to do these entries, but in the nearly five years since I started this series, things have changed greatly. A lot of the shows I once had listed as potential Demo Disc volumes, both multi-series & single series, have either since been fully fansubbed in English (seemingly out of nowhere) or have had actual complete releases in their "raw" form, which in turn disqualifies them from Demo Disc contention; the idea was that I couldn't theoretically cover them in full, hence why they're given this treatment.

That's partially why, half way through, I switched multi-series entries over to more unique concepts, like "banned" episodes & pilots, but even here I'll soon run out of content, it seems. I'm not saying that Demo Disc is coming to an end anytime soon, as I still have enough titles to keep this series going for a few more years, especially with Retrospect in Retrograde reducing it from quarterly to semi-annually, but do know that, eventually, I may have to put an end to the series. I can only hope that I can hold that off until I've used every letter in the English alphabet in the titles, because that's one of my personal goals for Demo Disc, which should mean that I have another 12 volumes to do (since I doubled up on "S" early on, by accident); I still have to use E, H, K, L, N, T, U, V, W, X, Y, & Z, after all!

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