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One of the classics of the golden age of OVAs is Black Magic M-66 from 1987. It was one of my favorites back when I was getting into anime, with its violent, exciting action and hard-boiled, no-nonsense story. It was a superb high-quality one-off - exactly what I wanted to see in an anime OVA - although in the end it felt a little slight and undeveloped.
I just re-watched it for the first time in many years, and the quality was far better than I'd remembered, probably because I didn't have the ability to appreciate good animation back then. The animation has impressive tension and energy.
As a film it's a bit problematic. It seems like it would make a strong film in theory, and it maintains interest at every moment due to the cinematic pacing and high-quality animation, but something about it feels off overall. But in the end it's a nice OVA with some uniquely detailed directing and animation, and is well worth re-visiting.
The film was co-directed by the author of the original manga, Shirow Masamune, and Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Shirow Masamune drew the storyboard himself, so this is probably the highest-grade Shirow Masamune anime. Later films like Ghost in the Shell bear the heavy imprint of their director.
I'm not sure exactly how the work was divided between the two directors apart from this, but perhaps Kitakubo was something of a line director on the project, Shirow Masamune providing the skeleton and details and Kitakubo putting them together, i.e. handling the technical matters of anime production about which the manga creator would have been ignorant. From Blood: The Last Vampire to Rojin Z, Kitakubo is unsurpassed at making highly dense short entertainment packages, and this film is no exception.
This was Shirow Masamune's first time ever drawing a storyboard, so he used the recently published storyboard for Miyazaki's Nausicaa as a reference on how to draw the storyboard. This certainly accounts for the film's unique feeling. His storyboard is extremely detailed, like his manga (see some examples here), so very little in the final product was left up to chance. No person acquainted with anime production would have storyboarded the film in the way he did; they would certainly have taken an easier way out, according to what they understood by experience could be achieved within the given deadline. The film apparently wound up many months over schedule, presumably due to the demands of the storyboard, resulting in its release being delayed by almost a year. The Gundress debacle is testament to how much of a generous concession this was on the part of the production company. But Masamune Shirow's direct input was simultaneously the film's liability and its greatest asset, because he brought an outsider's approach untainted by conventional anime thinking to the task of presenting the story.
But what was bad for the production company is good for us, as in the end it's because they were able to lavish such detail on the animation that the film still holds up after all these years. This unusually long production period resulted in a tight film in which each shot is highly worked, there is no wasted moment, and the action and effects animation is truly impressive. At around 45 minutes, it has the pacing and atmosphere of a film, but the length of a slightly longer-than-usual direct-to-video release. In that respect it's reminiscent of Hiroyuki Kitakubo's later Blood: The Last Vampire.
The narrative is satisfying because it's driven by visual storytelling rather than wordy explanations. They do an impressive job of visually conveying a future (yet familiar) world of believable cybernetic military sci-fi trappings. The storytelling is lean, the script is pleasingly serious and no-nonsense, consisting mostly of authentic-sounding terse and cryptic military exchanges. The action scenes are long and meaty, with each physical action depicted in convincing detail. The coloring palette of the film is toned down in a way that helps make it feel more realistic.
That's not to say it's dead serious. The films balances seriousness with fan-service. The film opens (predictably for an AIC production) with a nude scene that is saved from being in poor taste only by the fact that it's quite funny and isn't played up for lurid fetishism. The shot where Sibelle picks the sheet from the bottom of the pile and the pile topples over but she doesn't even notice because she's so intent gives the scene a pleasingly tongue-in-cheek tone. Kitakubo's only previous directing credit was Cream Lemon: Pop Chaser, which despite being the pioneering adult anime was more funny and exciting than titillating. Kitakubo also gives the film an edge of cleverness through directing tricks, for example when he cuts from a photo of the professor in the newspaper to the headlights of a vehicle where his eyes were. Rintaro did a similar gag in Download.
Despite the effort put into the details, the cumulative effect of the film is underwhelming for some reason. It feels sluggish and lacking in tension. But the serious-minded story, detail-oriented directing and powerful action scenes more than make up for this, and in the end, it may not be a Great Film, but it's closer to being one than most OVAs. At the very least, it's a damn sight better than the boring Appleseed OVA that came out one year later. It's a satisfying and entertaining little action film.
The quality of the film is strangely uneven. The animation is very high quality, but the backgrounds are not very good overall, and flat-out bad in some shots. Even the animation, which is quite strong, feels somehow rough. It feels in essence like highly polished TV animation, rather than the movie-caliber animation of Akira from the next year, for example. Despite striving for cinematic feeling, the film's layouts are fairly standard, without the careful simulation of camera lens focal length that is one of the subtle but important ways Akira and other films achieve a feeling of reality. To be fair, there aren't many OVAs that top this one in terms of animation quality. And most importantly, the animation is very satisfying. The action is good, and the drawings feel good at every moment.
Hiroyuki Okiua, Toru Yoshida and the other animators of Osaka subcontractor Anime R are to thank for the quality of the animation. Hiroyuki Okiura oversaw the characters and Toru Yoshida oversaw the mecha. This was Okiura's first job as sakkan. He had just debuted a few years before, mostly drawing impressive mecha animation on a few Sunrise shows like SPT Layzner (1985-1986), and very quickly made a name for himself at a very young age. Astoundingly, he turned 20 during production of Black Magic M-66. Toru Yoshida, meanwhile, had debuted not long before Okiura, first coming to prominence on Armor Trooper Votoms (1983-1984), on which Okiura worked as an inbetweener. Okiura drew what is one of his first genga in the last episode, uncredited, while Yoshida was still being credited as an inbetweener early on in the series despite the fact that he was drawing genga, so they debuted very close together.
The character animation is strong throughout thanks to Okiura's laborious work as sakkan. Despite having been pegged a mecha animator in his first few years, Okiura didn't view himself as such. He just wanted to draw detailed animation like one of his idols Takashi Nakamura, and in anime at the time the mecha animation was one of the places where there were fewer restrictions on the number of drawings you were allowed to use. That's the reason many 'mover' type animators like Okiura - and Shinya Ohira - started out as mecha animators. This was Okiura's first step towards becoming a character animator. Even at this early stage, you can sense Okiura's uncommon skills. The character animation feels unusually rich, even in throwaway shots like the shot at the beginning where Sibelle is writing something down, although this is no doubt also in part thanks to Shirow Masamune's detailed storyboard and Kitakubo's detail-oriented style of directing.
The key animation credits are divided between Anime R, Atelier Giga and AIC/freelance animators. I wrote about Atelier Giga before in my post on Cool Cool Bye and Relic Armor Legaciam. It was an informal gathering of ex-Bebow animators. Although Atelier Giga did not survive long past 1987, many of its animators stayed on at AIC for years to come. The impressive names in the AIC/freelance grouping are Shinya Ohira and Satoru Utsunomiya. I suspect Utsunomiya handled the scene in the restaurant, though I'm not positive.
Anime R receives a prominent spot in the credits, and its animators were responsible for many of the best parts in the film. This is in essence an Anime R film in terms of the actual drawings, although the production company was AIC/Animate. The big battle that is the highlight of the first half of the film was animated by Hiroyuki Okiura, Toru Yoshida and Kazuaki Mouri of Anime R. Okiura handled the beginning in the forest up until the impressive turning shot where the robot hurls the vehicle (pic 3 at top), and the rest was animated by Yoshida and Mouri. Mouri in particular did the impressive shots where the robot wields the metal pipe in beautiful acrobatic action (pic 4). Okiura also drew the climactic scene on the rooftop (pic 1). Shinya Ohira helped Okiura out with this section by animating a few shots where the building crumbles (pic 2). This is the same year that Ohira worked on the effects extravaganza that is the Captain Power home shooter game, and Toru Yoshida was the other big figure behind the animation of Captain Power, so Toru Yoshida may have been an influence on Ohira's development into an effects animator. This scene in Black Magic M-66 is also presumably what led to Ohira animating the smoke and building crumbling in Akira. Amusingly enough, right after Akira, Ohira animated another crumbling building in an episode of Peter Pan sakkan'd by Okiura. Ohira was an animator in Okiura's sakkan debut, and he is an animator in Okiura's latest film.
Black Magic M-66 came out a year before Akira, and in fact it feels reminiscent of Akira in various subtle ways. It almost feels like a dry run for Akira. The basic elements are similar - gruff general and crazy scientist after a rogue experimental subject with superhuman powers on a killing spree - and the military elements are depicted (visually and by the script) very realistically and methodically, and even the gestures sometimes feel similar. It's presumably seeing Okiura's work on Black Magic M-66 that prompted Katsuhiro Otomo to invite Hiroyuki Okiura to work on Akira. After working under Nakamura on Akira, Okiura went on to provide great animation under Nakamura again in Peter Pan and Catnapped, not to mention becoming one of the key figures behind the two Ghost in the Shell films alongside fellow (ex-)Anime R animator Kazuchika Kise, who is also present as an animator here (though he was technically at Anime R sister studio Mu).
Incidentally, the impressively nuanced animation in the elevator just before the climax was animated by two animators who aren't credited. It was animated by Yoshiyuki Ichikawa 市川吉幸 based on roughs by Yuji Moriyama 森山ゆうじ. Both were members of Studio MIN, formed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo himself in 1982. MIN was one of the many artist collectives euphemistically known as a studio that were formed in the 1980s. MIN disbanded in 1991, immediately after production of Kitakubo's Rojin Z.
Black Magic M-66 ブラックマジックM-66 (Animate Film/AIC, OVA, 1987, 47 mins)
|Created by:||士郎正宗||Masamune Shirow|
|Director/Structure/Character Design:||北久保弘之||Hiroyuki Kitakubo|
|Animation Director:||沖浦啓之||Hiroyuki Okiura|
|Mechanic Animation Director:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Art Director:||本田修||Osamu Honda|
|Key Animation:||アニメアール Anime R|
|吉田徹||Toru Yoshida||黄瀬和哉||Kazuchika Kise|
|浜川修二郎||Shujiro Hamakawa||谷口守泰||Moriyasu Taniguchi|
|貴志夫美子||Fumiko Kishi||毛利和昭||Kazuaki Mouri|
|柳沢まさひで||Masahide Yanagisawa||寺田浩之||Hiroyuki Terada|
|逢坂浩司||Hiroshi Ousaka||沖浦啓之||Hiroyuki Okiura|
|アトリエ戯雅 Atelier Giga|
|林宏樹 Hiroki Hayashi|
|田中正弘 Masahiro Tanaka|
|宇都宮智 Satoru Utsunimiya|
|橋本浩一 Koichi Hashimoto|
|清水義治 Yoshiharu Shimizu|
|大平晋也 Shinya Ohira|