#158 : Crusher Joe (OVA series)

CJOVA_1Joe is back and our favorite Crushers have a couple more stories to tell! Two to be exact: The Ice Prison and The Final Weapon Ash (These titles have a few translated variations). The 1983 Crusher Joe movie was an enjoyable ride of a great time, but this 1989 OVA set may even be better. With shorter run times, fluid animation, great pacing and lots more fun, fun, fun, both episodes (I prefer to call them mini movies) of the Crusher Joe OVA series may be some of the best (if not the best?) sci-fi action anime produced in the decade of the 1980s. While Haruka Takachiho’s other creation, The Dirty Pair, may get more attention, those of us in the know really love Joe.

CJOVA_2The joy of Crusher Joe has always been there are no strings attached. You don’t have to have to learn a lot of back story, or get fully involved into the property. Much like a well made platformer, or an arcade title (in regards to video games), or a classic board game like Monopoly, all you have to do is just play it. This is the process of getting oneself into the game and learn the rules as you go, or as the old saying goes, “it’s easy to pickup, but can take a lifetime to master.” This is true of any craft, or hobby as well and I only point out games because Crusher Joe is all about fun and pure enjoyment. Crusher Joe is often quoted as a prototype, or influence for Cowboy Bebop, so it is easily accessible in terms of hitting a chord towards a common denominator for sci-fi action. While the Crusher Joe movie does this well, the OVA does this even better as it gets you into the mode and feel of what Crusher Joe is all about faster. From my own opinion, watch the OVAs first and then watch the movie.

CJOVA_3Both The Ice Prison and The Final Weapon Ash are stories about rescue operations. I hope Crushers get paid well, because it seems like they always get hired to do the dirtiest of work and it ruins one’s vacations on the shortest of notice. The Ice Prison has Joe, Alfin, Talos and Ricky hired by a corrupt government looking to change the course of an asteroid that has gone into free fall towards their planet. This asteroid also happens to house political prisoners as well who mine it for natural resources. An added bonus for this job is the fact that the Crushers are asked to make an attempt, and I use this word wisely, at rescuing these prisoners. Once the job starts the truth becomes apparent that all is not what it appears to be. Why does the government want to rescue rival political dissidents? My gut senses something is not right here.

CJOVA_4For many fans, including myself, The Final Weapon Ash is the crown jewel of the two episodes if not the cream of the crop for all that is Crusher Joe. An ultimate weapon, the Ash (named because it can turn everything to… ash), is under the care of a female officer who is captured by a rival political faction wanting to harness it’s ultimate power. Hijacking a ship and committing mutiny, the rebel faction with the female officer crash onto a planet known to have a nasty population of killer robots, the Cloakers. Our favorite Crushers are thus hired and brought in to rescue her and return the Ash to safe hands. A twist of irony is that with all the power the Ash has and represents, it is compactly contained into a mere briefcase. Talk about a big punch in a very small package! Do you want a great MacGuffin device story?

Could Crusher Joe represent sci-fi anime from the 1980s as a whole? The movie and this OVA bookend a time for most of us that defined outer space oriented sci-fi and adventure. And why I chose Crusher Joe out of the many options is because it remains in the 1980s since no remakes, or other sequels have been created past these two productions (as of the writing of this entry). Crusher Joe will forever live on as an unspoiled archetype of fun, friends, flying spaceships, having cool hair and rocking colorful jumpsuits… who could as for anything more! One final question will always remain, “Can I get a drink of water?” (watch The Final Weapon Ash to find out)

#157 : A Journey Through Fairyland / Fairy Florence

AJTFL_1May I present the love child between Disney’s Fantasia and the Isao Takahata directed Gauche the Cellist. Classical music framed around animation is nothing new, but how many can fall under the banner of Sanrio? The quintessential company of cute is so much more than Hello Kitty and for a time Sanrio released full length animated features. Released in 1985 A Journey Through Fairyland, originally titled Fairy Florence, would be the final film of the original lineage of Sanrio produced cinema treasures and it would go out in grand style and cement a legacy that is often over looked in anime. Join us as we celebrate a true ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ under this ‘Moonlight Sonata’.

AJTFL_2Our protagonist Michael is an aspiring oboe player and attends a very posh conservatory. Fancy! Music is very much Michael’s passion… yet not his only joy. It seems he also has a way with plants, a true green thumb. Music and botany… an interesting combination, just don’t forget about occasional allergies. This balancing act of interests has Michael in the green house caring for the flora and fauna often, so he is often late for rehearsals and may not be practicing enough to keep up with the rest of the orchestra. His teacher seems to agree and is concerned as the boy has a great talent that may be going to waste. After one particular practice Michael finds an abandoned flower in the campus courtyard and rescues it by taking it back to the nursery. Saving the flower’s life he discovers the flower fairy Florence who invites him on a journey he will never forget.

AJTFL_3As Michael’s quest begins we can start to see the similarities to the two films mentioned previously, Fantasia and Gauche the Cellist. My my, you look so much like your parents! Fantasia’s open visual interpretations are very obvious when Michael begins his quest with Florence. With wild colors, crazy creatures and a little dancing, I think we have ourselves a party! The basic story however is akin to Gauche the Cellist. Hmm, sounds familiar… a musician having trouble playing their instrument and needing some encouragement and support in getting their groove back… sure sounds similar to Gauche the Cellist. Except where is the tanuki this time round, or Indian Tiger Hunting? As for both films influencing A Journey Through Fairyland, I don’t consider it cheating or stealing. Maybe more like ‘borrowing‘ these ideas? “It isn’t stolen, merely rented without the benefit of paperwork.” (Thank you GoShogunThe Time Étranger)

AJTFL_4While light and easy in plot development, A Journey Through Fairyland more than makes up for this in terms of visual presentation. It’s just pretty… no wait… purrty. And with a fine cross section of western compositional classics from Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and Tchaikovsky (wait a minute… no Satie!) to color one’s ear drums, the pastel visuals become the frosting on the cake for your auditory and ocular pleasures; its easy to get lost in these unfolding visuals. Can one have a visual version of a sweet tooth? Perhaps A Journey Through Fairyland could be considered psychedelic to a certain degree? Or better yet, A Journey Through Fairyland is like being wrapped up a big fluffy oversized warm blanket that makes you feel all safe, warm and super cozy. Very soft, gentle and easy to relax with so just breath in and chill out. A Journey Through Fairyland, a meditative family film. Or, perhaps the anime equivalent to microfiber, or memory foam?

A Journey Through Fairyland is unequivocally true fantasy with no need for boundaries. Limitations… yeah they can be checked in at the door, but they are not allowed in. There is no gravity here to tie down ones’s imagination, or creativity so sit back, get comfy and enjoy the ride. A Journey Through Fairyland is a pure example of what I call an animator’s playhouse where anything goes. This movie helps us remember that there is magic in the world and all around us. See that tree, magic… see that flower, magic… hearing the distant sounds of music, magic… and even watching classic anime… now that’s definitely a special kind of magic, but you already knew that. 🙂

#156 : Godmars

GM_1GOD… MARS! ROKUSHIN GATTAI! I get chills every time I hear that when our hero Takeru Myojin prepares to bring together the six robots that make up the ultra cool Godmars mech. Released in 1981 during the space opera and mecha high times in the anime world, Godmars is a fine mix of the two. It’s far from a perfect mech show, or anime in general. So many anime fall into this pit trap, yet we still attach to them anyway because we found some redeeming qualities that end up resonating with us. Now strap in and get ready for one of my favorite super robot tales from way back when. This is Rokushin Gattai Godmars, often shortened to Godmars.

Godmars holds a special place in my heart in that this was the first super robot show I tackled to completion beyond the ‘Voltron’ universe (be it GoLion, Diarugger, or Voltron itself). The time had come to grow up and move beyond the usual pastures and venture forth into the lands where alternate antiquated robot shows lived. Pictures and articles at first fulfilled speculation, next came the process of tracking down media. Godmars would present itself via a VHS tape of the 1982 compilation movie. Soon the film and the entire TV show became available on the fansub circuit and became the avenue that I digested the missing parts of the Godmars storylines. … Now disc based media exists as well, an eventual purchase on the horizon… maybe?

GM_2Loosely based on an original manga (Mars) by the legendary Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Godmars turned into an epic space drama; a huge departure from it’s more Babel II-like roots. Takeru Myojin, our protagonist, is a 17 year old member of the Cosmo Crasher squad, a group dedicated to Earth’s protection during humanity’s age of heavy space exploration. This all takes places in the far off future of 1999, which for 1981 made sense, but nowadays seems a little… dated? It is 2019 when I am writing this entry and where is all the cool space travel and super hi-end technology? Back to what 1999 could have been… it seems that the Earth has encountered a race of aliens, hostile of course… why not friendly ones? An emperor named Zul, along with his Gishin empire, are determined to conquest the universe and Earth is the next stop.

GM_3It turns out Takeru is not an Earthling and is in fact originally from Gishin. He was found as a baby by his adopted father and raised on Earth… hmm… sounds like Superman. Takeru learns his true identity is Mars and that he also has ESP abilities. So he is an esper?… yet another late 70s/early 80s trope. That and he soon learns he has a guardian robot which he can pilot as well, Gaia. OK then, I wonder if he has any surviving family on Gishin? Turns out he has a twin brother, Marg. Wow, talk about a lot of elements for a run of the mill mecha series! Plus let’s not forget the big bot of Godmars as well. Takeru while piloting Gaia combines with five other robots to create this nicely designed piece of engineering. The only thing that is missing here is a romantic element… and Godmars has that as well, via the conflicted character of Rosee (pronounced Ro-zay). Lots and lots of ingredients in this stew of a series… and this is only the first of three story arcs.

GM_4It is Takeru Myojin for me that makes Godmars special. He is not the usual mecha/shonen archetypal character. Neither the funny goof ball, nor the hotshot masculine tough guy, or even the bratty complainer, Takeru is at the other end of the spectrum being more sensitive and gentle. A nice change of pace and a great way to show masculinity can have a tender side. On the other side of the fence, my only real issue with the show was that the romantic elements and sparks between Takeru and Rosee are never really flushed out. and even though this is a shonen action show, I really wanted to see at least one kiss between these two… just one! Not the end of the world, but I am a sucker for anime couples… maybe there is some fan fiction somewhere?

While it was not a gateway drug, Godmars became for me a crucial next step into my journeys into classic mecha anime. The heavy melodrama and space opera were key elements I needed at that time of my fandom as this was just the answer to my many questions needing a solution. The only thing is that from one would come many more series to watch, yet I never forgot what Godmars showed me in the beginning and I still enjoy a watch from time to time.

#155 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Space Chapter

YSC_1The distances between stars or planets can be compared to some of the relationships we have with the closest people we see on a daily basis; many times it can be vast and wide. How well do we really know each other by way of how each of us truly feels about each other? A more intriguing thought, what secrets do we conceal, or what elements from our past do we struggle with that haunt us and affect our current relationships? The final production of Madhouse’s adaptations of Osamu Tezuka’s collective Phoenix manga, The Space Chapter, would leave historic Japan behind for the far future and outer space and would deal with these issues of inner space head on. The lessons of karma, duty and fate are yet again front and center stage.

YSC_2Bias here, this is my personal favorite of the three as this is the most psychological, the darkest and the most passionate in terms of relationship dynamics. As an OVA set in the far future, in deep outer space and with highly advanced technology you would think the clothes of science fiction would overtake the content of the the story’s relationship dynamics with spectacle and fantasy. The Space Chapter is a great example of science fiction done very well by integrating both and pushing the intensity even higher. Outer space can be a place where much contemplation can be observed and where isolation, or being alone, can bring out the best and worst in all of us. If Ingmar Bergman borrowed the set from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to make a movie, I think this would be the product… except in this case it is animated and not live action.

YSC_3Four passengers on an interstellar spaceship are suddenly awoken from stasis to realize that the ship they are traveling on has been hit by a meteor, or something similar. In haste they rush to find their fifth comrade who was piloting and watching over the ship had mysteriously died during their sleep. Realizing the damage is beyond repair, they all decide to all abandon ship in separate escape capsules. Now adrift in space alone with limited air and food, the situation becomes one of survival and opening up about their mysterious fifth crew member. Everyone had a different story to tell. He was rumored to be immortal and forever young. He also seemed to be an android from medical examinations. There were even romantic feelings between him and the lone female crew member. His last words left in the ships log struck a note of fear in the others, someone was out to kill him. Who could it be?

YSC_4To add more drama to our story a mysterious fifth capsule appears and catches up with the other four belonging to the fallen mystery man, including signs of a passenger. One by one the original four members would be reduced to two leaving the remaining duo to land on a mysterious planet. From here the story’s mysteries begin to twist even more with the ultimate truths coming out. … and what of our friend the phoenix? She is most definitely here and is a very integral part of the story as she has a very special relationship with our mysterious crew member. The lessons of karma and balance abound with his past as we see the corruption of what was a good innocent man showing a side of evil that we wish did not exist in humanity.

Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Wicked City, Ninja Scroll), the inclusion of his personal touch is seen throughout the OVA, minus the super heavy action he is often noted for. The stylized character designs add a layer of maturity to Tezuka’s originals and mixed with Madhouse’s signature heavy use of limited color (blue for this OVA) in the capsule scenes and stark lighting add to this production’s intensity. While this may have been the final outing for Phoenix in the 1980s it would not be the last overall (the 13 episode TV series from the early 2000s is great!). Osamu Tezuka’s work is key and essential for all of us who regard ourselves as fans of Japanese animation. This trilogy as a whole (Karma Chapter and Yamato Chapter) is one of the best examples of the output from the 1980s and is finally now a part of the Classic Anime Museum. It has been a long time coming.

#154 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Yamato Chapter

PYC_1We continue our journey through the Phoenix trilogy from the 1980s with the second part, an adaptation of the Yamato Chapter. Debuting as a followup to the previous year’s film Karma Chapter, 1987 would bring the Yamato Chapter as a direct to home video OVA release. The issues of karma, fate and destiny would be told once again in another historic era from Japan’s history. And riding along side for the ride to make sure that order and fate are in good hands is that beautiful bird of fire herself, that avian goddess, the hi no tori, the firebird, the phoenix.

PYC_2From some quick guerilla research, the Yamato Chapter is loosely based (very loosely) on the famous traditional legend of Yamato Takeru, a name not known very well to us in the west. From time to time and from watching various anime, we may come across and hear this very name… Yamato Takeru No Mikoto… Oh lord not Garzey’s Wing. Yet beyond the experiences we have may hearing this name from oddly dubbed projects we come to learn about the Arthurian qualities of this mythological tale and figure and it’s importance to Japan. … reason #1 to watch anime: you subtly learn more about Japanese culture!… How ironic that historically both king Arthur and Yamato Takeru are from very similar eras in time and even though a great distance existed between both heroes in terms of worldly distance, they arrived concurrently in time. Could this be the work of our friend the phoenix? Hmm… Onward now and back to the Yamato Chapter

PYC_3Tezuka’s reimagined version begins with a pastoral scene featuring a traveling youth, Oguna. While walking along one day he gets shot in the arm by the bow of a beautiful young maiden, Kajika. Too bad this was not cupid’s arrow instead, because from the beginning these two had sparks in their eyes; love at first sight defined. This developing relationship will become the cornerstone, the pillar, the axis, from which the entire story centers itself. Star crossed lovers who share a common destiny. While treating Oguna’s wound, Kajika would introduce her brother, Takeru, leading to a moment of hesitation in the eyes of Oguna. This is a familiar name, but why? Soon Oguna begins to enjoy his stay with the rustic Kumaso tribe and begins to have strong feelings about wanting to join their ranks and marry Kajika. Except there is something that is biting at him. Oguna is actually part of the rival Yamato clan and he has a particular vendetta towards Takeru.

PYC_4A tale of love vs. duty, fate vs. freewill and justice vs. mercy, the Yamato Chapter can be likened to a drama where at the beginning we begin in ignorance and slowly as the plot progresses we move into clarity and truth. Each layer slowly reveals itself to twist the plot in a slightly different direction that finally concludes with a slow tragic tale of love, sacrifice and redemption. The Yamato Chapter becomes at the end of the movie a romance that shows the power of humanity, compassion and trust. The legacy that Oguna and Kajika share together at the end shakes the established order and calls for change, yet it must come in the face of martyrdom; such was their fates. Never think one small step, or sacrifice, towards progress and bringing clarity to all of us is too small as we all have our parts to play in this game of life. Only the phoenix knows what and when our roles have been fulfilled, so keep giving it your best attempt.

Adapting Osamu Tezuka’s original manga was again Madhouse. A double combination of high quality presenting a rare gem of mature genius. As I have said before in regards to any of Tezuka’s Phoenix adaptations, I view these anime productions as one of my sources for spiritual pondering. How many times do we turn to a religion, or spiritual philosophy to find answers to the complexities of life? I know I have and still do yet there is ironically an alternate source via Japanese animation from the pen of anime’s ultimate grandfather. To Osamu Tezuka… I greatly thank you for sharing these stories with us and I hope I can be one source of I don’t know how many to continue your legacy. Peace be with you my friend.

#153 : Phoenix/Hi no Tori: Karma Chapter

PKC_1The Vedas, The Popul Vuh, The Bible, Hesiod’s Theogony… cultures from around the world have created texts and mythologies explaining the sacred within our universe. All point to similar conclusions since universal order, structure and the balance of harmony are at an essence both in terms of our lives as humans, but also, the grand scope of the cosmos itself. Anime has in my opinion an epic collection of stories as well that show the greater answers to questions we often ponder as we live within the cycles of time and nature. Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix saga is considered his magmum opus, his life’s work and perhaps his most important creation. Several adaptations have been created, but a trilogy made in the mid 1980s will be the focus of this session. In particular, the 1986 film of Hi no Tori: Houou-hen/Phoenix: Karma Chapter.

PKC_2Karma can at times be a difficult subject to fully grasp. We often think the actions put out into the universe will come back to us or others as either good or bad depending on the circumstances. We think also that we control the scheduling of karma and the precise payment for any particular action. In truth… not exactly. We think there is equal justice, divine retribution and free will, but what of predestined fate, or unsuspected surprises? The more I delve into Buddhist philosophies and The Law of Attraction, the more I begin to see that self and other, good and bad, fate and free will are interconnected. The more I see that what I do and what happens to me are in essence one and the same. Tezuka’s Phoenix stories are all about these heavy themes, but for the Karma Chapter, this is played out between the lives of two men, who at two points in their lives meet and share a fate that seems predetermined.

PKC_3One man, Akanemaru, is a sculptor who has a passion for finding a legendary bird to grant him immortal life, the Phoenix. He hopes someday to be recognized for his talents to the point that the need for success and status blinds his humanity. The other man named Gao, is a one armed mass killer with no real goal except to enact his rage. He thinks nothing of causing harm, except for one brief instance where he saves the life of a ladybug. One particular victim would eventually change his perceptions and lead Gao to find a way to atone for his sins. He is a man who is trying to redeem his humanity. Twists of fate for both men as they try on the roles that feed lustful power and compassion. Who is the villain here? Neither as this is a story that draws the line to show that as humans we are both good and evil. All who are good have an essence of evil and the most vile and evil individual also has somewhere a heart that is wounded and wanting love.

PKC_4A grand sculpting competition will eventually settle the fates of both of these men for better or worse and watching alongside is that beautiful bird herself, the phoenix. Is she the great deity of the universe, or a messenger for the gods? We may never know, much like most of the magic of what is life and the totality of the universe. More like a peacock than the usual flaming avian many of us are used to in the west, Tezuka’s phoenix exudes an element of grace and beauty not seen in too many characters of the anime world. Her appearances in every adaptation of Tezuka’s mega epic including the other two chapters of this trilogy (Yamato and Space Chapters), the 1980 film Phoenix 2772 and the 2004 Phoenix TV series are paramount towards the plots for each particular chapter. (I recommend them all if you can find them!)

Telling Tezuka’s grand myth was accomplished via the help of Studio Madhouse along with the directing talent of Rintaro. Adding up three heavyweights should yield a high quality product and without question Phoenix: Karma Chapter is just that. On par with the likes of early Studio Ghibli, Tezuka’s original vision would have a proper presentation in the flashy and colorful 1980s. For many of us, anime titles often become favorites of ours, or fun excursions from reality, but how many become spiritual guidance posts? Tezuka created many classic characters, shows and movies, but for me anything that rings of Phoenix is a holy book deserved to be read and studied.

#152 : Salamander

Salamander_1Not very often one sees the Konami logo making an entrance before the start of an anime. Video games most definitely as Konami created many a classic for early consoles during the 1980s and 1990s, but an anime… what’s the catch? Could it be an anime based on a video game in Konami’s library? Obviously. Anime as a promotional tie in is nothing new and with Konami’s Salamander (Life Force for the NES) a three episode OVA would be commissioned to begin release in 1988. So we have an anime based off of a space ship shooter? A schmup? Work with your strengths here add some heroic characters, space opera and a little character development and you get a production that is actually pretty good.

Salamander_2While the video game of Salamander lays down the foundation of this anime with attacking an alien threat while piloting the ever well designed Vic Viper space craft, other influences would also color the anime into a more flushed out production. Why not add in references to Salamander’s fellow siblings Gradius  and Gradius II: GOFER no Yabou as well. Plus lets include veteran director Hisayuki Toriumi and Studio Pierrot for production and character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto (nice choice!) to polish off this package. Salamander is solid 1980s space opera complete with the look and feel one would expect from the era and best of all you don’t have to be a fan of video games. Now let’s see how this plot unfolds!

Salamander_3Much like 2001: A Space Odyssey we begin with mysterious black monoliths, except these look like the giant stone statues found on Easter Island. Legend states that these protect the planet Latis from a sleeping fire dragon. This dragon has ties with an invading power, the Bacterian of the planet Salamander and recently on the planet Gradius, three young heroes defeated this power. Latis’ prince Lord British (nice name) calls forth these three fighters even though the relations between Latis and Gradius are difficult at best. Arriving in Vic Vipers, our heroes Dan, Eddie and Stephanie make their entrance in front of the regal Lord British. Sounds fairly ordinary at first except Eddie and Stephanie have some baggage from the past which become major plot points. Eddie’s family has ties to the planet Latis and Stephanie mourns the loss of her father from the invasion on their home world of Gradius. Instead of being just a flash and dazzle showing of aerial acrobatics and dogfighting, we get character drama, which I can be sure was not part of the original video gaming experience.

The following two episodes bookend the opener. Episode two acts as a prequel, tying up unfinished business that was hinted at previously, and episode three delivers a subsequent sequel and finale. Being based on space ship shooters it is nice to sit back and relax for once instead of being in intense in the moment. Let the pros handle this one! And maybe it is just me, but Salamander does feel a little slow. Watching the first episode alone is enough of a story in and of itself and then adding in the final two gives more depth, but kind of repeats similar themes, characters and stories already. Maybe I am being a little too critical since I have seen my fair share and a half of space opera anime and know many of the tropes familiar with the genre. That being said, Salamander is still well above the upper end of average.

Salamander_4Cast in the same era as other space opera OVAs like Gunbuster and Dangaioh, Salamander is a worthy recommendation if you can get a hold of it. My initial draw to Salamander were the Mikimoto character designs. As a fan of his work I do my best to track down all that I can to see those tried and true sparkling eyes again and again that he is known for. I won’t lie, this OVA for me is all about the visual appeal. Ironically this anime also led me to later give Gradius a try on the NES; a fun game. As of this writing I have not tried Salamander/Life Force, maybe in the future. And just in case you are wondering… the famous ‘Konami Code’ will not work with this OVA. No free power ups, or 30 extra lives this time round.