Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Thursday, March 8, 2012

06:19:00 pm , 1663 words, 3244 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, Anime R, post-Akira, Studio Curtain

Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes

I wrote about Toei's fantasy adventure OVA Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu (1988) before. It was a slight outing redeemed by early work from Koichi Arai and ex-Bebow animators.

Well, a few years later, a two-episode OVA with a confusingly similar title was released: Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes (1992). It never seems to have made it over to the west like other good OVAs of the period, and you'd be forgiven for assuming that to have been because it was a crummy video game tie-in. But despite its obscurity, it's an impressively well-made action piece with a unique style. It might be the best fantasy/action OVA of the period that nobody has ever heard of.

A Wizardry OVA was released one year earlier in 1991 as a tie-in with the popular dungeoner video games, but it was boring and uninspired. Despite the talent at TMS's disposal, and despite TMS staple Kenji Kodama's storyboard, it was nothing more than a walk through a dungeon straight out of the game, with disappointingly staid animation.

Dragon Slayer bears little resemblance to the latter. It doesn't even feel like conventional fantasy anime. The fantasy plot seem like merely an excuse for the director to string together a series of action scenes of hair-raising intensity. With its frenetic pacing and expressionistic drawings, its post-Akira pedigree is obvious. The animation is lively and intense and highly worked. If anything, it feels closer in spirit to the manic Crimson Wolf (1993), with its speedy and dynamic animation and breakneck momentum. Another reference point is Sukeban Deka (1991), which featured thrilling, wildly deformed action animation by Masayuki Kobayashi. The action in Dragon Slayer is similar in style to Kobayashi's animation in Sukeban Deka - the timing ultra-fast and the drawings laden with deformed insertions to heighten the impact of the movement.

The film actually has had something of a cult reputation among Japanese fans due to its unusually fast pacing and animation. The animation at times seems excessively fast, as if the timing on the animation sheet had actually been kicked up a notch at the processing stage to give it more punch. Even the overall directing is unexpectedly fast. Scenes proceed at such a breakneck pace that dramatic moments like the boy's separation from his mother at the beginning border on the comical. That said, it's not badly done. It actually works. Sure, the budget is obviously not extremely high, and the drawings have a rough edge, but this isn't one of those shows that you would watch to laugh at it. The action sequences are creatively and excitingly choreographed, and the lightning-fast pacing of the narrative makes the otherwise generic fantasy plot far more entertaining than it rightfully should be.

The OVA was apparently not well received by fans of the game because the story was extensively overhauled for the anime. But who outside of a handful of Japanese fans from 1992 remembers (much less still plays) the game? They did the right thing to make the anime stand on its own two legs rather than make a faithful but impotent anime adaptation like Wizardry. As a result, twenty years on, Dragon Slayer still holds up pretty well.

Adding to the film's atmosphere are the character designs, which have a nice 'angry' feeling to them courtesy of onetime Nagai Go associate Ken Ishikawa, who also gave us the delightfully fierce and bloody Majuu Sensen AKA Beast Fighter. Yes indeed, this is anime as the lord intended it: fast, dynamic, and brutal.

Stretch and squash indeed

The Curtain-R-Nakamura connection

So, what studio produced this OVA? You'd be hard-pressed to say going by the credits. A variety of big corporate entities like King Records and Amuse Video are cited in production roles, but none of them are actual animation production studios. It takes some knowledge of the staff to extrapolate that informal artist gathering Studio Curtain was probably the 'brain' behind the show, and animation subcontractor Nakamura Production was probably the main production floor of the show's animation. One other subcontractor was also involved: Anime R. (The earlier comparison with Sukeban Deka is even more apt because Anime R was behind Sukeban Deka.)

What ties all of these together seems to be the old Sunrise cooking anime Mister Ajikko, which aired from 1987 to 1989. Most of the main staff of Dragon Slayer worked on (and presumably met one another working on) Mister Ajikko. The style of Dragon Slayer may even be indebted to the directing style of Mister Ajikko.

Dragon Slayer director Noriyuki Nakamura (no relation to Nakamura Production) may not be very well known, but he's a veteran who has been directing since at least 1980 and who continues to be very active on the front line storyboarding TV episodes.

Noriyuki Nakamura was the chief episode director of Mister Ajikko. By the time of Dragon Slayer in 1992, Noriyuki Nakamura was part of an informal animation studio called Studio Curtain, run by Masahiro Kase. Studio Curtain receives a "Special Thanks" credit in Dragon Slayer. Masahiro Kase, an animator in Dragon Slayer, was the chief animation director of the first 3/4 of Mister Ajikko. Masahiro Kase was at Osaka subcontractor Anime R at the time. Kazuaki Mouri, one of Anime R's hotshot animators, was the chief animation director of the last 1/4. Mouri is co-storyboarder and combat sequence supervisor of Dragon Slayer.

Perhaps the most recognizable name in Dragon Slayer is Tadashi Hiramatsu. He co-storyboarded and animated. I already wrote a bit about his early years in my post on Sukeban Deka: He started out at Nakamura Pro and eventually moved to Studio Curtain. Hiramatsu met Kase while working on Mister Ajikko. It's during Hiramatsu's period at Kase's Curtain that Dragon Slayer was produced. Hiramatsu relates that he learned a lot about directing from Noriyuki Nakamura.

The Nakamura Pro team of Tadashi Hiramatsu, Hiroyuki Okuno, Hisashi Hirai and Tetsuya Yanagisawa is credited together in Mister Ajikko episodes 38, 43, 48, 53. These four animators are present in Dragon Slayer. Hiroyuki Okuno is an animator, Tetsuya Yanagisawa is the monster character designer, and Hisashi Hirai is the character designer and animation director.

There's even a tangential Nippon Animation connection. Noriyuki Nakamura and Masahiro Kase both started out at Nippon Animation in the early 1980s, so it's possible they met there or at least recognized one another from that period. Meanwhile, Tadashi Hiramatsu wound up working on several Nippon Animation productions in the early 1990s after he joined Noriyuki Nakamura and Masahiro Kase at Studio Curtain.

Nakamura Pro

As I wrote in my post on Dirty Pair (1985), Sunrise has always made heavy use of subcontractors for their animation, ever since their founding in the early 1970s. Several other subcontractors helped with the animation side of Mister Ajikko, including Studio Live and Animaru-ya. But Nakamura Pro has always had a particularly close relationship with Sunrise, due to their shared origins.

Nakamura Pro was founded in 1974 by Kazuo Nakamura, who had started out at Mushi Pro. His studio was one of many, like Sunrise, founded in the aftermath of Mushi Pro's failure in what I've referred to as the Mushi Pro diaspora. It's ironic to think that Mushi Pro inadvertently influenced the course of anime history in probably exactly the opposite way they intended: Sunrise learned from Mushi Pro's mistake and did not let the artists run the studio. They instead turned to toy tie-ups as a way to ensure the studio's continued prosperity. This resulted in their becoming a robot anime studio. Nakamura Pro did most of its work for the robot shows of Sunrise and Toei in the early days, resulting in a whole generation of animators trained there and elsewhere becoming specialists in a sub-genre of animation that is unique to Japan. Some of the more famous animators turned out by Nakamura Pro include Ken Otsuka, Eiji Nakata, Shuko Murase and Hiroyuki Kitakubo.

Nakamura Pro has its own official web site, where they say they are hiring. Both Nakamura and Anime R are still alive and well doing subcontract animation work on today's TV shows.

It's all very complicated, but here is a basic breakdown of the studios and their animators in Dragon Slayer:
Curtain: Noriyuki Nakamura, Masahiro Kase, Tadashi Hiramatsu
Nakamura Pro: Hisashi Hirai, Michinori Chiba, Ken Otsuka, Hiroyuki Okuno, Shuko Murase, Yasuhiro Irie, Akira Nakamura, Tetsuya Yanagisawa, Kazuhiro Itakura
Anime R: Kazuaki Mouri, Masahide Yanagisawa, Takahiro Kimura, Takahiro Komori

Aside: Although Noriyuki Nakamura bears no relation to Nakamura Pro, the other Nakamura credited in the show - Akira Nakamura, who is credited as enemy character designer - is the younger brother of Nakamura Pro founder Kazuo Nakamura.

Just to further confuse you, I'll close by briefly evoking another of the artist collectives that were so popular in the early 1990s - Gabo Miyabi (画房雅). It was founded by Masahide Yanagisawa after he left Anime R and moved to Tokyo. I don't know whether or not the group existed at the time of Dragon Slayer, but four animators credited in Dragon Slayer were part of the group: Masahide Yanagisawa, Shinya Takahashi, Takahiro Komori, and Yasuhiro Irie. The Sukeban Deka animator I mentioned before, Masayuki Kobayashi, was also part of the group. Other animators involved in the group include Kenichiro Katsura and Tatsuya Tomaru.

Other notable names in the credits include Masami Obari and Masashi Ishihama.


Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes ドラゴンスレイヤー英雄伝説 (1992, OVA, 2x25 mins, dir. Noriyuki Nakamura)

Director & Story Framework:中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura
Script:松崎健一 Kenichi Matsuzaki
Art Director:脇威志 Takeshi Waki
Original Character Design:石川賢 Ken Ishikawa
Animation C.D. & Animation Director:平井久司 Hisashi Hirai
Storyboards:中村憲由 Noriyuki Nakamura
難波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri
平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu
Combat Supervisor:毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri
Enemy Character Design:中村明 Akira Nakamura
Monster Character Design:柳沢哲也 Tetsuya Yanagisawa

Key Animation:中村プロ Nakamura Pro:
柳沢哲也 Tetsuya Yanagisawa
板倉和弘 Kazuhiro Itakura
2nd Key Animation:千葉道徳 Michinori Chiba
大塚健 Ken Otsuka
石塚貴之 Takayuki Ishizuka
Key Animation:加瀬政広 Masahiro Kase
平松禎史 Tadashi Hiramatsu
奥野浩行 Hiroyuki Okuno
竹内昭 Akira Takeuchi
柳沢まさひで Masahide Yanagisawa
高橋しんや Shinya Takahashi
大張正己 Masami Obari
村瀬修功 Shuko Murase
毛利和明 Kazuaki Mouri
山川瑞恵 Mizue Yamakawa
入江泰浩 Yasuhiro Irie
工藤裕加 Yuka Kudo
数井浩子 Hiroko Kazui
青木哲郎 Tetsuro Aoki
灘波日登志 Hitoshi Namba
清水健一 Kenichi Shimizu
木村貴宏 Takahiro Kimura
重田智 Satoshi Shigeta
石浜真史 Masashi Ishihama
小森高博 Takahiro Komori
亀井隆 Takashi Kamei

Cover of LD Vol. 1
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3 comments

inactive
inactive [Visitor]  

No, it was released dubbed/subbed on VHS, unlike first one. And don’t forget there was a third Legend of Heroes OVA last year.

03/10/12 @ 17:39
Ben [Member]  

Oh, I didn’t know about the latest one. I’ll have to look that up.

04/07/12 @ 16:56
drmecha
drmecha [Member]  

Not bad at the mention of Gabo Miyabi.
I think it was one of the most interesting groups of the first half of the 90s.
In fact, was one of the groups that most haunted me for years but less data.
As for the foundation, not sure. It could have been 1990 or 1991. Although according to some websites was 1990. I do not know what the original source. But it could be a book of Steam Boy?
as the president, is likely to be Tatsuya tomaru, I think. Because it is the first to be freed and working as a freelance in 1990. and also in various staffs listed first. But, I can be wrong.
In 1991 I saw them Madara, Silent Mobius 1, and, as you know, Sukeban Deka. And I think the last works where I saw them together was in 1996
I also knew him because several of its members worked in Anime R (Yanagizawa, Komori, Itojima, etc). Other members are ex-Jungle Gym (T.Hashimoto). Great animators.
Surely you have noticed that several members pass Bones.

07/02/12 @ 16:58