Thursday, April 4, 2013

1985: The OVA Boom Begins

Michael, a.k.a. Prede (@Predederva), contributes to where he reviews classics and lesser-known anime series for the site. He also has a blog, Prede's Anime Reviews, where he writes about rare gems of anime that people may have missed. When he's not blogging about some anime you probably never heard of, he's shouting his head off on Twitter.

I choose the year 1985 because that is when one of my favorite shows, Megazone 23 Part 1, was made. Another reason I decided upon this year is I tend to focus on classics and older shows (many from the 1980's) in my reviews, so it was very fitting. However, the most important reason is that I am a self-professed super fan of the 80's. It is without a doubt my favorite decade, and I hope to show some reasons why that is by taking a look in on the year 1985 in anime. Most of my favorite Hollywood movies came out during the 80's, I usually have 80's music blasted (it's like the soundtrack of my life), and the crazy clothing and hairstyles were so cool. I'm also a fan of the optimism, the neon lights, and the leggings!

However, the best thing to happen in the 80's was, of course, my birth. I have a strange nostalgia for a decade I never truly lived through or experienced, which I blame on watching a metric ton of 80's movies, old MTV videos, and plenty of 80's TV show re-runs, all during the '90s. (I don't think I have the strength to turn on MTV today, but VH1 is still watchable. I'm always game for "I Love the 80's" re-runs). I instantly noticed that watching this stuff was so different than the era I was growing up in. It was like another world, and I was glued to the tube, taking it all in as a child. 1985, the dead center of my favorite decade, just rocks!

1985 was an incredibly influential and important year for anime. It saw the first successful OVA release, setting off an OVA boom that lasted well into the 1990's. This boom jolted people way down the totem pole in the industry to critical positions and giving them near free range to develop their stories, create their worlds, and design their characters. Many of these talents became famous because of their fresh perspectives, large creative control, and new ideas. Since the anime was to be seen on home video, not in theaters or on TV, the content could be much more extreme, violent, and sexual. Given the short running times--times varied, depending on the show, but were usually around 30 to 60 minutes an OVA--different types of stories were developed. Instead of grand epic tales that would span at least 26 episodes or a full movie length, you got a short story that dropped you in, got to the point, and hopefully concluded in one sitting. These OVAs were usually much more focused on action rather than plot development and much less talky (an important fact that lead to them being easier to follow by early US fans with no translations readily available).

Area 88

The OVA series Area 88 is about a star pilot trainee Shin Kazama, tricked by his best friend into signing up for some remote country's foreign legion air force. The country is caught up in a civil war, and needs all the pilots it can get, relying mainly on mercenaries. Shin must either kill enough people, or serve out his full two-year contract to get home. Waiting for him at home is his beautiful girlfriend who is the heiress to a huge Japanese commercial airline company, and his best friend who betrayed him in an attempt to steal everything that Shin had. The story is wisely told with flashbacks revealing why Shin is in this war and his previous life in Japan, while cutting back to his fighting in the foreign legion. This cutting back and forth works to its advantage and manages to make you interested in the plot and where it's all going.

The OVA series is not as deep as the other anime on my list, but it is a powerful and action packed story that is always fun to watch. It's not completely shallow, as there is plenty talk about the problems returning soldiers face when coming back to the civilian life. The entire concept of killing others to save yourself is an interesting one, as while it is not dealt with too deeply, Shin must kill in order to live. If he doesn't fight he'll never be let go, and if he deserts he can be shot on sight. What's the morality on that? It cuts even deeper when you learn exactly how Shin got tricked into this deployment--considering he never wanted to pilot fighter jets, he was aiming for flying civilian jetliners.

The action scenes are incredible, some of the best, most exciting dogfights ever animated in anime. The series depicts real fighter jets from the 70's and 80's (when the story takes place), the F-5E Tiger II getting much of the attention. The series tries to stay pretty realistic, never straying into science fiction, fantasy, or the supernatural. It's more akin to Top Gun than the more recent Last Exile. It's always tense when the pilots go out, because one is never sure who will return, and the life expectancy of these foreign legion pilots is incredibly short. They always manage to get the more dangerous missions.

However, at the center of the story is an emotional tale of a brave man trying to get back to his old life and girlfriend. The person he trusted the most completely has betrayed him, trying to smooth his way into his girlfriend's life and attempt a hostile takeover of her father's company. It is this emotional conflict that pulls the whole thing together and makes it worth watching. It also has an interesting set of characters, from the commander,who has joined this war only to fight his father, to the army supply salesmen trying to make a quick buck. Together they're a bunch of characters that make sure this OVA is never boring.

The anime was based off of Kaoru Shintani's long-running manga series, so it has a unique look to it. I'd describe the art style as late-70's shoujo mixed with 80's OVA manliness. However, it's a style that works and really gives the show a feeling all of its own. The animation is top-notch stuff, especially during the dogfights. The music is breathtaking, with some excellent 80's pop tunes that I could listen to over and over again. The anime was re-made into a TV series in 2004, which is also worth checking out, although it is arguably a little too drawn out and used some modern euro-beat soundtrack that wasn’t a good replacement for the 80's music.

Night on the Galactic Railroad

Night on the Galactic Railroad is an anime movie adaptation of the classic Japanese novel of the same name by Kenji Miyazawa, although the anime wisely turns the characters into anthropomorphic cats. The film was one of the earlier things Kouichi Mashimo worked on, before he started directing anime (the .hack franchise, Dominion: Tank Police, Noir) and eventually opened his own animation studio (Bee Train).

The film starts with a small cat named Giovanni being made fun of by his classmates. He seems to have no real friends besides a quiet friend named Campanella, and his father is away on an expedition to the north. One day after school Giovanni, overwhelmed with his chores, after-school job, and school work (not to mention being teased by his classmates), takes a nap out in a field. He is awakened by a train coming from the sky, and before Giovanni can figure out what's going on, he's transported inside the train and Campanella is sitting across from him. The two friends ride the train, not quite sure what is going on, but they intend to enjoy the ride as much as possible. At each stop the train makes on this journey, things get weirder and weirder, the two befriending the strange people who get on and off. Each new group of people or event happening outside the train helps us to slowly figure out what is going on, while also doling out some very deep themes.

Night on the Galactic Railroad is a movie about loss, particularly dealing with the death of others, regret, and moving on. It brings up the idea of how we all can benefit off each other, but that our selfishness during the most dramatic and scary times of our lives can be disastrous. Sometimes it's better to accept one's fate, than to try and sail against the prevailing winds and harm others in the process. The movie is also about spending time with those who matter most to us, because we'll never know when they'll be gone forever. The idea of happiness and being able to find it are both important aspects explored in the movie. Finally the film brings up the idea of being useful to others, making the point that one should live their life to try and make a difference, make things better than they were before you came into this world. Although the movie is sad at times, it's much more a spiritual experience than a depressing one.

The artwork is simple, but incredibly beautiful and poetic. The anime almost looks like it was colored with pastel sticks, very dark but colorful and just a joy to look at. The animation is quite fluid and a wonder to behold at times. It has an otherworldly look with Italian-esque villages, turn-of-the-century technology, and cats walking freely with humans. The film is comfortable with silence, although when music shows up it has an elegiac tone to it. The Christian hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee" is played during my favorite part of the movie and adds a much needed touch to that scene.

Megazone 23 Part 1

Megazone 23 Part 1 began as a 26-episode series, but midway in the production the TV sponsors pulled out. The anime production team had already spent a significant amount of time and money on the show, so they decided to change the show to a 90-minute direct-to-video release. While Megazone 23 was not the first OVA released, it was arguably the first profitable one. Mamoru Oshii’s Dallos, released in 1983 as the first OVA, barely made its money back, but Megazone was a huge hit and started the OVA boom.

Megazone 23 is a brilliant show that comments on how the world may not be exactly what you think it is. The OVA starts off with motorcycle-enthusiast Shogo Yahagi living his life and working at a fast-food restaurant. The show is clearly set in Tokyo in the 1980's, a prosperous and wonderful time to live in Japan. Shogo meets up with one of his motorcycle pals to look at some new prototype bike he "borrowed" from his company, when all of a sudden some thugs from the company show up and brutally murder Shogo's friend right in front of him. A bit of quick thinking saves Shogo's life as he jumps on the new bike and floors it, barely getting out alive.

It turns out this bike is no ordinary motorcycle. Besides having a top speed of over 200 miles per hour, it can transform into a mecha! This is only the start of the conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. These company thugs are now after Shogo, and feeling like he needs revenge for his fallen friend he tries to expose the company for what they are on a popular TV show that features his favorite pop idol, only to be intercepted by the equally-involved government. Left with nowhere to go, Shogo has to rely on his friends for protection and safety, unwillingly helping them create a student film while hiding, and the plot of the film slowly morphs with that of the anime itself. It turns out nothing outside the city is real, as a company program is running everything trying to keep people in the dark about the reality of the situation. The government and media are aware of this and are trying to keep people from discovering the truth, but they themselves don't have the full story either.

Megazone 23 is a show that makes you think, bringing up the classic brain-in-a-vat thought experiment with a twist--what if nothing but your city existed? This is a similar concept to The Matrix, but Megazone 23 easily beat out that film by over a decade. The computer program controlling society wisely chose the 1980's for a setting, due to the national success that Japan had been experiencing. The country was at the height of its economic power before the bubble's burst and the lost decade of the 90's.

Megazone 23 asks some classic sci-fi questions--Are we all living in reality? Does it truly matter what is real and what is not? How far can conspiracies really go? However, these questions it also makes us think about more down to earth stuff about hypocrisy in our personal lives, the concept of societal ineptitude, and what "facts" are just paraded around as truth. It's not all philosophy, as the show is thoroughly entertaining and exciting from start to finish with great action scenes, featuring flawed but realistic characters and great music.

In fact it is the music that could be considered the best part of the show. The soundtrack is chock-full of great 80's pop songs, all sung by the show's pop idol Eve. Every insert song is catchy, upbeat, and optimistic in tone. The entire feeling and atmosphere of the OVA is dripping in 80's style, from the wild hairstyles to the neon-color clothing, adopting the look of movies of its time such as Flashdance, Streets of Fire, and The Terminator.

Much of what Megazone 23 did also went on to inspire anime for the rest of the decade and beyond, arguably a link to Bubblegum Crisis and much of Masamune Shirow's works (Dominion: Tank Police, Appleseed, Black Magic M66). Compared to everything before it, Megazone 23 also had a much more radical main female lead in the show, a young woman not afraid to live her life how she wants, more than willing to sleep her way to the top and not about to even pretend to be innocent. Also it has that whole motorcycles-turning-into-robots thing going on, still cool even if it was done before in Genesis Climber Mospeada, bound to join the ranks of anime shows (Dirty Pair, Iczer-1) that focused more on smaller mecha, flashier outfits, and sexier characters.

Next time: The rift between television and video cassette deepens with our trip to 1986!


  1. Kaze no Lullaby by Eve ( Megazone 23 ) is a great song

  2. Really felt the love in this post, especially the Megazone 23 part 1 part.

  3. Not even a mention for Touch? This is an outrage! :P

  4. Why hasn't anyone rescued Night on the Galactic Railroad!?

    1. We all wish we knew. It seems right up the alleys of a few companies left these days or any new potential distributors willing to take a shot with it.

    2. It is far too good a movie to go unseen and unsaved. I wish someone out there (hi Discotek!) woud save it. Can't imagine it would sell too well, but it needs a rescue. The price some people want for it is crazy.

  5. very nice, well written article. I actually learned quite a bit from this thank you.

  6. Area 88's one of my favorite anime, I'm glad the OVA boom really took with with great works in 1985 like some you mentioned, but also with VOTOMS' Last Red Shoulder, Dirty Pair's Affair of Nolandia, Iczer 1, and Genmu Senki Leda. I know the OVA began more or less with Dallos, but it really took hold in this year.

  7. Mamoru Oshii's Angel's Egg (Tenshi no tamago) was also released in '85, and thanks to Yoshitaka Amano's distinctive designs, it has aged quite well.