#6 : Combat Mecha Xabungle

Xabungle4During an era when mecha shows on television were beginning to grow into a new form of sophistication through serious science fiction epics, which feature the titular named robot. Shows like the Xambot 3, Voltes 5, the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Ideon and Baldios showed the way into future. But, with all this taking everything completely seriously, there were moments when these studios and creators decided to do things a little more silly and spastic. Combat Mecha Xabungle would fit this alternate idea perfectly.

Xabungle2Ask many fans to say if they have heard of Yoshiyuki Tomino and usually two responses comes out: one, he is the guy who created Gundam and/or he is the guy who made horrid garbage like Garvey’s Wing. Of course there is middle ground in his career and Xabungle fits in quite nicely towards the better quality end. Known for his dark serious stories, which usually entail a large scale of character deaths. Now, would it surprise you that Mr. Tomino and staff can actually have a sense of humor? It goes to show that his popular reputation may not be completely true, though it is true he can be a bit of a cranky old man like Miyazaki (Hey kids get off my lawn!).

Xabungle is set in the future on the planet Zola, but this future takes it’s cues from the American Wild West. Though I would say it is not completely is this subject as there are themes that do not match up to the western genre, but the attitude is there. You do have cowboys, can-can dancers and towns in the desert, but you also have large land gunships, a caste system where the ruling class live in domed cities and other sci-fi concepts like brainwashing and large robots (yeah for giant robots). Also, on this planet there is basically one law, if you wish to seek revenge you have three days to accomplish your task. After that you should forgive what has been done and for our hero Jiron Amos, this is a law worth breaking. After all Timp Sharon, a guy who looks a lot like Clint Eastwood, murdered his parents. And would you take that standing down? No, but of course in the spirit of this show you have to trip, hover in the air, try to run back and fall down in the process.

Xabungle3I was surprised how well the comedy actually fit into the story. It is possible there may have been influence from the currently running Urusei Yatsura, famous for it’s hijinks, and maybe even the previous year’s parody filled GoShogun. I am sure this may have been partial to the fact as well to attract younger viewers, as this show was based on toys and not a model kit line, like that of Gundam. And in the tradition of Tomino character naming, we get some odd ones like Rag, Elchi, Blume and Chill (who has to be one of the best kid sidekick characters I have every seen) to name a few. But nothing tops Fatman, yeah Fat-o-man is more the appropriate pronunciation, but he is a muscle hulking quiet guy, not so much a fat man (still nothing tops Shot Weapon from Dunbine). But certain times there is some crafty writing such as Jiron saying, ‘I am the main character here’, or the comment when five of the characters end up in the Xabungle (by the way, it was built for two) and the comment came up, ‘hey why are there five in the Xabungle?’ ‘Well thats what you usually do in mech shows.’ EXACTLY! Let’s form Voltron, right?

Also, how many mecha series do you know where the robots, or should I say “Walker Machines”, run on ordinary pump gasoline, the same stuff you put into your car? The Xabungle does this, even the controls are a car’s steering wheel. And as for the titular blue bot, it’s not a bad design and it grew on me, but it’s replacement the Gallier never excited me. But the crown and glory is the Iron Gear, the heroes main land ship that turns into a giant robot (but no where near as impressive as the mighty Macross).

Xabungle1Xabungle never blew my mind, but I was not expecting a masterpiece. This show is a fun, silly time. It’s good, not great and I can’t call  it a classic, but it is one of those buried oddities that gets forgotten each passing year. In some ways I almost feel this show kind of harkens back to the simpler robot shows of the 1970s, though having a more complex plot structure without taking itself too seriously. If you have seen Xabungle, I salute you.

#4 : Birth

I have seen many opinions in regards to this one off. Some like it, some think it’s too weird, some think it’s garbage. I LOVE this OVA and I am out and proud of it. True it is an acquired taste, but I think I may know what turns off some, but also what turn’s me on to this oddity. What is it? Well that little ol’ production from 1984… Birth.

birth1Birth was a title I was lucky to come across very cheaply. Remember when you could get a brand new title off of Amazon for under $4.00? I believe I spent around $3.50 (the glory days of $2.99 shipping). I see it as one of the best return on investments I have ever put into any DVD, because I have watched Birth time after time after time and loved it more each time. And just what is it about Birth that I love so much? I mean it is basically a long chase scene and treasure hunt that ends with the whole universe… whoa wait, don’t want to spoil the ending now. Now… I present my reasons, so read on.

An animator’s playhouse: As someone who has a background, education and interest in art and design I often view certain anime a little differently. In this case I see this property as a fun time for all the animators and staff who worked on it. Very creative, but not serious and artsy fartsy (if you want to go that route try Angel’s Egg). If I could get a gig like this, I would say yes in a heartbeat.  Plus Yoshinori Kaneda had a big hand in it’s conception (see recommendations below). So expect lots and lots of motion. Plus, it was animated by one of my favorite, now defunct, smaller animation houses, Kaname Production. Also, Hideaki Anno (Mr. Evangelion) had a hand as well as an up and coming animator.

birth2Characters and their design: The design and animation of Birth is very much in contrast to almost a majority of what came out in Japan in the 1980s. The characters are very organic and blob like, maybe a touch liquidy. Is that is why the planet is called Aqualoid? Plus our main cast is a rag tag group. Our main duo, Rasa and Nam, are either brother and sister or boyfriend/girlfriend, in any case they are close and watch out for each other. Boa is a goof ball space trader who has a lolita complex for Rasa. His business partner, Kim, is often the voice of reason in their partnership. Plus you have your array of minor character including the Inorganics, other humans and these blob type things, one of whom belongs to Rasa and is named Monga. MONGA! MONGA!!!

birth4Humor: I find Birth to be amazingly funny. True some of the humor is ridiculous, but it works well for my tastes. I mean you have the scenes where Rasa is called out as a jiggly-butt by the Inorganic bikers or they have the comment “Just because a woman is smart does not mean she can sell a cow.” Or, the kid Inorganic hitting on Rasa and after rejection he has a scene at a beach. Or Bao just being Bao. All in all it is weird, spastic and goofy.

birth3A higher reason: Now how can Birth be deep? Well, the notion of the spirit like Arlia (hey she’s a pretty ghost according to Nam) explaining the universe is made up of several levels and that the Organics and Inorganics are both a product of the same source makes you think twice, what am I really watching here? Even goofy cartoons can add a like mind bend. Plus at the ending… oh yeah can’t spoil it if you have not seen it.

Music: And finally… the soundtrack… composed by the one and only… Mr. Joe Hisashi. Oh yeah, Miyazaki’s favorite composer did this one too. It has a similar vibe to what he did on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Genesis Climber Mospeada. Not very orchestral and more synthesizer and pop/rock in it’s approach.

This is one that I think needs to be viewed in order to have a proper frame of reference. Or having the option of viewing it with someone who is familiar to the property to point things out or hear them chuckle at certain times. As I mentioned above this is an acquired taste, so take what you will from it. If anything this showed the freedom of the era it was produced because we just don’t see this kind of odd ball stuff being released as often anymore, unless there is a huge marketing campaign behind it. As for me if I need to make a top 10 of 80s anime, this is one I would include (honest).

#3 : Blue Comet SPT Layzner (TV series)

I love, I really do love Blue Comet SPT Layzner. Despite it’s odd break in the so-called middle of the running that changed the show’s direction, there will always be a soft spot for it in my heart. It’s sad that when most people think of mecha and the studio Sunrise, only word comes out… Gundam. I shake my head. You have to dig deeper, because several years ago Sunrise was known for many shows, many different ideas, many that have gone off into the abyss of legend. SPT Layzner is one such series.

Layznerspt1I see SPT Layzner as a tale of two souls in one body, or perhaps two different, the first part kind of like the original Gundam, kind of, while the second is a mech show that takes many design cues from Fist of the North Star (showing the popularity of this Shonen Jump series). But at it’s genesis, SPT Layzner is a sci-fi mecha series that is told in the ‘future’, the ‘future’ of 1996. Well 1996 was the ‘future’ when the show aired in 1985. Not only that, but the Soviet Union never fell either and the Cold War continued well into the 1990s. If none of this rings a bell I suggest a quick run to your local library’s history section (we are here to talk anime my people). With high political and military tension in the air, what would be more perfect than to have an alien human race come to our solar system and attempt a take-over during all this? And guess what? We get just that.

Layznerspt2Just before this maelstrom, we begin our story with a group of students and their teacher making there way to Mars as part of an effort to foster the peace of the Earth. These students get caught up into the upcoming hell of the Gradosian invasion losing  a majority of their classmates and friends. Upon seeing so much death and destruction these kids catch a glimpse of a blue robot fighting against these invaders not really sure who this lone fighter is. And it is from this robot we meet it’s pilot, a terrified, confused, but bravely determined young man Eiji Asuka (Null Alberto) voiced by one of my fav seiyu, Kazuhiko Inoue. His warning of this invasion is met with caution and hatred as he is one of them, a Gradosian. How can he prove his authenticity and trust? Only time will tell as these students struggle to survive with this new ally.

spt-lz-00xNow I will be very, very biased here, but I think the SPT-LZ-OOX is perhaps the best mecha design ever (by the way SPT stands for Super Powered Tracer). It’s small, sleek and sexy, but very functional. Almost like a great sports car or rally racer. And it’s BLUE, beautiful blue. A Gundam, Ingram, Scopedog, Valkyrie, or your odd assortment of super robots also have their merits and are great, but the Layzner for me is personal. That is what I am looking for on the showroom floor. I wonder if you can downhill it like in Initial D? Hey… wasn’t there a guy in Initial D named Ryosuke Takahashi (Layzner’s director if you didn’t know)? Makes you wonder?

Despite a rushed ending on aired television, a second chance would come the way of releasing direct to video. A three volume OVA would retell the backstory of the two separate arcs, episodes one and two, and a third volume finished off what remained with more breathing room. So now it all comes full circle, but I will say this to you SPT Layzner… You may not be perfect and I don’t care, but I love you anyway. Now is it worth a watch despite it’s minor flaws? Oh hell yes. Plus the opening song, Melos no Lonely Way by the band Airmail over Nagasaki… awesome.

#1 : Megazone 23 (part 1)

Megazone 23 could be my favorite one off OVA of all time. True there are two other parts, well three since part three is a two-parter. Megazone 23, the first one, the original, is in my mind enough of a self contained story in and of itself. After all “there can be only one!” It is a quintessential time capsule of the era (1985). Plus, to me, the open ended ending is priceless. If ever there was a production that had everything, and I mean pretty close to everything I look for in an anime, this is one of a select few I draw from my collection without a second glance.

Megazone 23 is far from the first anime I was exposed to, but I can say for sure it was the first that solidified me as an otaku. Before Megazone 23 I had a good working knowledge of well known titles at the time and that I was aware of: Robotech, Gundam Wing, Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Record of Lodoss War… you get the picture. Mostly well known popular stuff, quasi-casual may be a better term. I needed to locate more niche material. So I landed on Megazone 23 and Area 88, not a bad combination if I say so.

grab018277.pngBegun as a so called follow-up to a show most Robotech fans should be familiar with, Genesis Climber Mospeada, Megazone 23 had an interesting start. I often consider this show to be the true sequel to Macross (another nod to Robotech), if not in name, as it shares a majority of it’s key staff including director Noboru Ishiguro and character designers Toshihiro/Toshiki Hirano and Haruhiko Mikimoto (three men I have the highest of respect for). I won’t get into the historic details too much, but the production started off as a TV series with various working titles until the main sponsor pulled the plug. No money, big problem, what to do? Release it direct to video since that is a growing market and thankfully, that is what happened. Who knows how much of the plot was cut to fit it into an approximate 80 minute running time? But in the end who cares, it worked.

As for the story we have a young man (Shogo) who loves motorcycles, living in the world on his own who meets a girl (Yui) and then ends up meeting the mecha (Garland) and then a nemesis (B.D.) and then a 1980s equivalent to Hatsune Miku (Eve, Kumi Miyasato’s songs are great). Then all hell breaks loose as things begin to unravel much like a peeling onion. I often think of Megazone 23 as the ultimate growing up story where everything you have learned about life and reality is ripped from right under your feet.

6a7abe908923891d76f7a1ac5c7596c81436012095_fullBeing the fact that this production was released direct to video, it gave those who grew up with mecha as their preferred genre an even more “realistic” grown up story following the growing sophistication of epics like Gundam, Macross and Votoms. Of course the growing popularity of the fighting genre (Fist of the North Star, Dragon Ball and Saint Seiya) signaled an end to the television dominance of mecha. Zeta Gundam, also a 1985 release, is in my mind the capstone to an era in television where mecha grew in sophistication and serious subject matter that did not come back again until possibly Evangelion. Many of those who grew up in the 70s/early 80s now needed a new avenue to find material and in many cases material to match their growing maturity. Megazone 23 was in the perfect place at the perfect time.

And as for release in North America, there would be three attempts. First as part of Robotech: the Movie, which did not last long (even Carl Macek disowned it). Then came Streamline Pictures (Carl’s official release and a solid one) and finally ADV (the dub is totally rad man, hear it to believe it, but it is also a good effort). Both the Streamline and ADV release saw DVD releases, but are out of print.

Also is in some ways Megazone 23 can be considered an early cyber-punk release. Of course American cinema like Blade Runner and Streets of Fire were the bigger influences, but from Megazone 23 we would grow into the likes of Bubblegum Crisis, Akira and the early Masamune Shirow adaptations (Black Magic M-66Appleseed, Dominion Tank Police) later in the decade. Speaking of Streets of Fire, released in 1984, the cast see it in the cinema during the story, talk about paying homage.

If there is one thing that bothers me about Megazone 23, it is how much another “Hollywood” property gets a lot of the credit for the concept of living in a manufactured society run by a computer, even though Megazone 23 told the story first, sort of. Director Noburo Ishiguro has mentioned how the concept is very similar to a couple of Robert Heinlein’s short stories, so Megazone 23 may not have been the first either. All told The Matrix may have sold the idea in a large scale both culturally and financially, but Megazone 23 will always be my tale for a controlled manufactured society.