Saturday, April 19, 2014

Anime Review No. 79 (Battle Athletes OVA)

“Winning at Friendship means Winning at Life”
Battle Athletes OVA (1997-98)

Studio-AIC, Director-Kazuhiro Ozawa, Writer-Hideyuki Kurata*
*-original concept derived by Hiroaki Hayashi (creator of Tenchi Muyo and El Hazard)

You know, sports can be quite fun and enjoyable. While I mostly walk or play fitness games on the Wii, back in the day I did do cross country during high school and tried out for track and field (in shot put) before becoming an equipment manager. I do also follow some sports as well (mainly college football and basketball) and find them entertaining.

Thus, sports do figure into anime but regrettably don’t sell well if at all. Efforts to do so stateside (Princess Nine, Ayane’s High Kick, Shootfighter Tekken and the 90s Ping Pong anime CPM released) have been fondly remembered or largely gone by the wayside. Of course, in that pile lies Battle Athletes, a OVA series from the late 90s that I find to be easily one of the better entries in the genre.

Of course, some background: In the far future (of 2015) a world war occurred but ended with the arrival of a global disaster. This united humanity, sort of the same way that Star Trek portrays the future. Flash-forward to AD 3045 and humanity colonized the whole of the solar system, but they engage in war with an alien race and it is very high tech warfare. It is a futile effort thus turned to tests of athletic prowess instead. The University Satellite Program, which would make the ISS look like Skylab, is founded and created. In AD 3996, the contest for the Cosmic Beauty is made in inspiration from that history but for female athletes only. Going forward to the present time of the story, which is 4999 AD.

Well Battle Athletes tells the story of one Akari Kanzaki and her journey to being the next Cosmic Beauty. She’s your standard main heroine: nice, kind, a bit naive but strong-willed candidate. Her mother Tomoe Midou won the contest years ago, so she strives to just not win, but also set a new record in process. In other words, Battle Athletes boils down to the classic underdog story that many sport stories use, like Rocky, Rudy, etc. That being said, Akari’s story is more interesting as the journey not the destination. Yeah, we as the audience know that she will end up winning in the end, but how she goes about it is more interesting.

In terms of conflict (besides the sports events which I will get to), Akari has more self-doubt and reluctance on her part then much of an external force. She is basically living beneath the shadow of her mom’s past success, which does put her in a bit of slump. Luckily she doesn’t mope around too much and seeks to improve. Of course, it isn’t just her doubt that plagues her.

If the series does have an antagonist, its Mylandah, but only through indirect sabotage. She is an A-grade psychotic given into her own highly misplaced regard for herself. She has her eyes on being able to beat the previous champion, Lahrri, herself to the point of pure obsession. Later, it is revealed that might be more than that, but I won’t spoil it here.

Fortunately, Akari is not alone. She got support from a few friends, be it the jungle girl Tanya, the quiet demure girl Anna Respighi, or Grant Oldman who I have to say is quite awesome. I mean, the dude surfboards in the upper atmosphere in one scene (trust me it makes more sense in context). Of course, Akari’s greatest pillar of support comes from well, one of my favorite characters in anime ever, Kris Christopher.

At first, she is a capable athlete but a bit of an oddball. She is from the Moon Beginners Colony, which are akin to lunar hippies, with their communal back to nature society and non-violent/pacifist philosophy. I would argue that the OVA is just enough about Kris as it is on Akari. Like her, Kris was inspired by Tomoe Midou as a child to go for the Cosmic Beauty. She is willing to give it her all, even against Akari. But more than anything, Kris strives not for victory, but self-improvement and seek spiritual peace in the process. Well, that and she’s a heavy spiritualist but thankfully it isn’t over-emphasized and she demonstrates this with both actions and words, which I have to admire.  Also, she’s an open lesbian or at least open to options perhaps, which makes some of the Akari and Kris scenes quite sweet and touching.

Of course, the sport events have their place in this. For once, these are given some degree of practicality to them. Of course, there is stuff like lacrosse in zero G or extreme High Jump with extra running start where physics much less standard human endurance are called into question, but yeah its sci-fi so I will let it slide. That and a lot of them look like a lot of fun and work to reinforce the character development and plot.

One of the things I adore about the show is how unbounded in its optimism and enthusiasm, much like other sports storylines with underdog protagonists. It is one of many Anime examples of the individual underdog going against all odds and obstacles in the process of getting it to the top.  It also has that good 90s old school charm which appeals to me greatly. Finally it is just so damn inspirational. It was so good that like many other AIC productions in the 90s, got a TV series named Battle Athletes Victory, which is a more expanded and light-hearted retelling of the story presented in the OVA and also gets a recommendation from yours truly.

Now, onto the animation. It is classic 90s AIC work here, very similar quality to El Hazard, Tenchi Muyo and Oh My Goddess in this regard. There are spots of CG work here and there but well done for the times. It is an overall gorgeous presentation and animation. It looks just fine on the DVD; of course, this came out in late 1998-early 1999, with the first US volume released within 6 months of the last episode release in the OVA in Japan.Though it would be nice if they would do a re-release in the future, especially the TV series since the only way to get it is through singles only at variable prices. I mean, come on, Princess Nine got a recent re-release, why can't this series?

The music is done by Takayuki Hattori who also did the Nadesico and Slayers OST among others. The OP song is  second best AIC OP besides the EL Hazard OVA 1 OP that I have listened to. It is phenomenally great, mainly being sweeping and grand orchestral music, though a lot of it sounds like battle theme music.

Lastly, the english dub. Now, this is late 90s LA dub done by the wonderful group at Animaze, the same group that brought us the dubs for Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, Outlaw Star, El Hazard etc. The dub does have a handful of well-known voice actors (Steve Blum, Dorothy Elias-Fahn, Julie Maddalena, Bridget Hoffman, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Wendee Lee, etc) in there, and they are doing quite a good job here. This would be an overall ‘great’ dub but the big BUT rests on whoever they got to voice Akari, Bambi Darro. She is doing her best, but its just not consistent as the rest of the cast_ Voice slippage, slight overacting in scenes, screeching, etc. Granted, that does improve a bit by the end so not too bad, just not as good in comparison.

Overall, Battle Athletes is a very good 90s OVA series showcasing a future with young women playing really cool sport events and watching Akari Kanzaki against all odds reach to the top.

Now, for my next review.....well who's ready for some tankery?

Til next time, dear readers.....
(It should be up around May 3-4)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Anime Review No. 78 (Campione)

aka Harem Primer 2014   

Studio-Diomedea, Director-Keizo Kusakawa
Writers: Jukki Hanada, Takamitsu Kouno, Hideaki Koyasu and Takashi Aoshima

“The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of
its magic. And it will outlive us all.”
Chris Vogler, A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1985)


Note: I took this Harem Primer format in part being inspired by Blogsuki’s similar article on Mahoraba (link: Mahoraba article).

I can’t believe it took me this long to actually get around to talk about a harem series in depth at least. For those not in the know, a harem series is where you got a male character surrounded by a bevy of beautiful/gorgeous/cute girls and any romantic/comical situations that occur. Of course, that’s a very simple distillation of the genre.

The harem genre can be divided in terms of genre and type of source material. For genre, they can first off be straight laced slice of life such as Clannad/Key adaptations, Ouran, Love Hina and ToHeart. Or perhaps they can be harems with other genre elements inserted into the story. Examples of this include Rosario Vampire, Is This A Zombie?, High School DxD, Tenchi Muyo, Monogatari series (somehow), TWGOK series and Infinite Stratos.

For source material, harem shows are adapted from a few common places. Usually, its from a Visual Novel (like Princess Lover and Walkure Romanze) and other eroge/otome games where the objective is get the right route so to speak. Manga (like Love Hina and Ranma ½) are another source of adapting. Though fairly recent, Light Novel series like Date A Live and Infinite Stratos have pervaded the scene for this genre.

Granted, the harem genre, much like shonen action, has gotten very overdone to the point where it has become stale. Fortunately, Campione is a good recent entry in the genre. Its a harem show with fantastical elements and based on a light novel series written by Joe Takatsuki, which has been running since Fall 2008. I did purchase this series more or less as a blind buy, though I did watch 1-2 episodes online before making that decision. It came out initially in Summer (July-September) 2012 before getting licensed by Sentai Filmworks for DVD/BD release back in October 2013.

Now, I get to the common elements of a harem show, using Campione as an example. Spoiler warning though there are nebulous at best.

The Hero-Goduo Kusanagi
A 15 year old student who in course of returning a relic that his grandfather had, runs into Erica and gets involved in some mystical affairs. In process, he ends up inheriting the powers of a Campione or God-slayer. He is of average intelligence, but quick to his feet on learning and can be quite confident. Granted, he is not too much of a spineless wimp like other harem leads and does take initiative in his own story. Of course, he knows when to be humble (i.e. even when he gets the Campione powers, he refuses to use them in ordinary life affairs). Generally speaking, he’s a nice guy and the moral counter of the group. However he ends meeting at first….

The Alpha Haremette: Erica Blandelli (The One the Hero Ends up with)
She’s a Blond Italian girl (as most Europeans are portrayed in anime). A Member of the Copper Black Cross, she is more of a magic warrior, using Hermetic magic, based on power of iron with her weapon of choice  being a sword. But at her core, Erica is a strong, proud and bold noble young lady. Goudo and Erica don’t really get it on initially but once they do they team up quite nicely. Erica and Godou act as a couple of equals, mutual partners. In addition, she is quite sexy and flaunts it quite openly. She might seem to be manipulative, having a cunning edge at moments, but there is a hinting that she does indeed care for Godou. Even seems to advocate polygamy (when Godou expresses interest in hanging out with Maria and the later harmettes, she’s totally fine with it so long as its clear she is the No. 1 girl in his eyes (always the strategist). Finally, she must have Charisma of over 100+ as she can get people to take her advice, whether or not they want to.

Wolf Whistle ~~
The Gimmick:
Like many harem series, Campione has a gimmick. But unlike a number of them, Campione has an interesting gimmick to go along with the stock standard harem elements, which is high concept battles against mythological beings (Rogue Gods) and other Campiones. The Rogue Gods are more akin to forces of nature, as the cause for natural disasters and the progenitors of conflict. The fights are a mix of armed combat and Godou’s spamming of the ‘Words of Power’ (literally talking his opponents to submission).

Buried deep within the mythic fight sequences, there is something worth taking note of, which I will call ‘Interconnective geography of human mythology’. Its an idea that I wish was explored a bit further, a rather Jungian notion that all human myth is linked together, primarily through word of mouth, you know the oral tradition. Of course, the scope of myth in this show is severely limited to Greek/Roman myth, with some Persian/Middle Eastern and Japanese mythos thrown in for good measure.

It also take beats from The Hero’s Journey. Godou, for instance, receives the call of the journey by Erica Blandelli. He is reluctant at first, but is encouraged by Erica and others. He next crosses the first threshold within the first 2 episodes as he gets used to Erica and the situation he has landed himself in. Godou goes through tests and gets helpers, in the form of harmettes and receive supernatural aid via the kiss of certain maidens, again word of mouth a tad literally.

Going along with this, the story structure is similar to a mythical epic, where mini-story arcs that tie development of the girls in the harem with mythic duels take place of a single narrative that thrusts throughout.
Story Arc I (E1-4) Prophecy of the Starless Night
Story Arc II (E5-7) Duke Voban and His Most Dangerous Game
Story Arc III (E8-10) Perseus, the False Hero
Final Story Arc (E11-13)

And they all want him...... xD

But it also uses tropes of harem shows, but at least with other fantasy/myth elements its not too grating or tired as in other harem series. Erica  goes to live with him and there’s some nice and humorous bits on how that impacts his home life. Godou bothered by the sexual advances of Erica, similar to other harem leads with their leading love interests. Once again, Godou develops friendships with the other charmettes, which I will get to now…

.Harmettes No. 2 and 3: Yuri Maria and Liliana Kranjcar (The Two Blushing Maidens)

Yuri Mariya

She’s the first Japanese haremette and classmate to Godou. She’s mainly a Yamato Nadeshiko: soft spoken, reserved yet nice and kind Hime-Miko (Shrine Maiden Princess). In line with that personality, Yuri seems very formal and traditionally Japanese.But she has some bad past history with the Campiones (tied into Story Arc II). She isn’t too pleased with Erica getting too cozy with Godou, so the two develop a rivalry that at times reminds me  of other rivalries. Like Erica is the leader/head warrior, Yuri is the the healer/support member of the party. Granted, she is not totally useless, as she has a sixth sense ability which enables her to dole out essential information when the story dictates. She is also very willingly to call out Godou on his harem antics, despite the fact he doesn’t have much control over that. Much of her focus is in Story Arc II where she has to get over her troubled past and joins the team thereafter.

Liliana Kranjcar

She is Croatian/Eastern European, given the silver hair. She starts off as a minion of one of the baddies, Duke Voban as well as a member of Bronze Black Cross, rival organization to Erica’s Copper Black Cross. She is a young woman of few words, seems a lone fox at first. A Secondary warrior who uses sword as well, but not as good/polished in combat as Erica. Nevertheless she is innocent and devoted, if a little naive. Though, she seems to be a secret pervert despite coming off as a pure maiden. She writes in her diary the equivalent of harlequin romance stories, but that’s not too surprising considering she’s a teenage girl. Next to Godou and Erica, she also seems to have something of a character arc throughout the series, going from being somewhat of a background character to joining the main cast and overcoming her anxiety.

Harmette No. 4-Erina Seishuin (and the Big Issue of this adaptation)

The final harmette introduced… episode 11.  She seems to be a hybrid of Erica and Mariya-shes a Hime-Miko as well, but is good with a sword though its cursed. She, however, introduces the biggest problem/issue of the Campione anime, which is...

Big Issue of Pacing

Most harem shows have an issue with pacing, that is its paced too slowly, they either waste time or the story is so plodding. Campione on the other hand has too quick a pacing, though at first its not really noticeable. It was, to me, noticeable slightly in episode 8, but especially by episode 11. For instance, Episode 7 ends with a preview of next episode (8), with the tag ‘oh beach episode’ and I was like ‘oh ok then, should be a nice break’ then halfway through ep 8, boom, next plot arc-agh what? The cold opener being the closest this show gets to having actual cheesecake, much less mizugi in the show.

One of the few mizugi pics I could find

But it goes far beyond that, such as leaving out a critical duel between Godou and Salvodore Doni another Campione at some point early in the story. We are told about it but we never get to see it, its ‘Show don’t tell” but luckily the only time this show pulls that trick. Also, the last three episodes are such a crammed mess of story and character parts that if given more time to develop alone, might have work out for the better. In fact, the only part that really works in the final arc is the climax (literal and figurative) of the Erica x Godou relationship, which is the emotional high point of the show. Episode 13 in the end is fitting as a season finale, but leaves on a freaking cliffhanger. This is due in part to the fact that the anime is an adaptation of 5 volumes of the light novels of the same name. They crammed in a lot of stuff to the series so then there’s no breathing room for the audience. Whether or not this was a direct decision on the part of the production staff or a dictate from the publisher who knows. Then again, its a good entry for those shows where ‘oh if you want to find out more, read the book!’ which regrettably are a dime a dozen these days.

Athena (the potential harmette)

A Rogue God who looks like a loli, you know since that’s a thing nowadays. She utters “Lethargy’ and is quite mysterious. She is the baddie of Story Arc I as she seeks to regain her full power. But that get thwarted by Godou and Erica and  yet gets spared by Godou because he is, in the end, a nice guy. She’s a potential harmette but not really as the ‘eek’ factor is a bit much, but overall a serviceable character.

There’s Erica and Liliana’s maids though they are mere side characters mainly for comic relief. There’s also Lucretia Zola, the High Witch of Sardinia who despite being in her 60s looks like a hot model in her 20s. Seriously, dayuum…. Also, there’s Pandora a mysterious goddess figure that comes in to give advice to Godou. There are some other characters, but mostly one-note so not much else to comment.
I only included this pic cus the meido is cat-faced, what a minx xD
Aplenty in this, not unexpected from the harem genre. In fact, its quite tame in comparison to similar harems shows (like High School DxD and Freezing). Aside from kissing with tongue (a lot) and one particular make-out session, its mainly sexual innuendo and implications.  

Heh, Erica's meido (girl on the right)'s swimsuit outfit is amusing

Animation and Music
This is a quite solid production from recent studio Diomedea, as in it doesn’t cut too many corners and looks good. It has a fairly even budget from the look of things. Granted they are some stock footage/repetitive sequences but there are quite nice looking. It doesn’t really excels much but then again doesn’t derp too much as well. Also, the music was done by Tatsuya Katou (The Horizon series, Needless, and recently Zvezda Plot) and it is in fitting with at least the mythic adventure aspects of the show. Leitmotifs abound, if you wish to listen for them as well as ‘EPIC’ choral music for the fight sequences. When it gets dramatic and emotional, it does quite well.The OP and ED are quite rocking.

Campione OP Campione ED

Dub and Sub
Perfectly serviceable in the original Japanese, though the original Japanese does butcher a bit of the Italian in places. Surprising, since they had ‘Italian Language Supervisor’ on staff.

But the fact that got me interested in this show was in who was helming the English dub, as it wasn’t by Steven Foster or Christopher Ayres, their more regular dub directors. ADR Director and script was done by Jason Grundy who has mostly done work as audio engineer on ADV/Sentai Filmworks dubs. This is the one and only dub crediting him in both directing and writing, though he has directed a few Funimation dubs (some eps of Funi’s One Piece dub, Sekirei, Rosario Vampire, Sands of Destruction and Master of Martial Hearts(!)).

Its certainly one of the better recent SF dubs not directed by Foster and/or Ayres. Writing is slightly rewritten or reworded dialogue that works to the advantage of the dub actors. Certainly makes it sound natural in English. As an experiment, I watched one episode with dub and subtitles on, which proved to be quite interesting. It seems to me to be almost like a Funimation dub, but with Houston acting cast.

In addition, its well-directed and well-casted as well, probably some of the cast’s better performances. Highlights of the dub for me include Monica Rial as Erica, who quite frankly gives one of her best recent performances, of course it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Blake Shepard is a good actor in this, though he didn’t really impress me before (The Sacred Blacksmith). Hilary Haag and most of the other cast (Genevieve Simmons, Carli Mosier, John Swasey, Chris Patton, etc) do a great job. Of course, the cherry on top for me was Chris Ayres doing the narration.

Final Thoughts
Aside from the harem elements which are very rote, Campione does have some neat ideas regarding myth and heroes. It has some neat action and characters are far more then just trope-based caricatures. It also has a fair amount of fanservice if you want some cheesecake. Granted, the pacing is very quick and it is open-ended in that way of ‘oh you want more, go check out the novels!’. However, I enjoyed it (unironically I must add), more so then other recent harem shows. Good harem show? Certainly, but there has been other great harem shows.. Great anime? Ehhh, not so much, it misses the mark too often to be great.

Well, what's next?
Its back to the '90s.....

Til next time, dear readers