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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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

12:03:00 am , 1233 words, 2813 views     Categories: Animation, OVA, post-Akira

Explorer Woman Ray

Another noteworthy OVA relic from the post-Akira period of 1989 to the early 90s is Explorer Woman Ray from 1989, which I just picked up out of curiosity. I'd seen it often on the shelves of video stores 15 years ago when I rented anime regularly, but the package failed to impress me, so I'd never seen it until today.

Like the best OVAs from this period, the range of quality in these two 30-minute OVAs is all over the place. This applies mainly to the first OVA; the second OVA features an admirably even level of execrable quality. It's not worth wasting any further words on. The first OVA, though, is an interesting little companion piece to the best OVAs from this period like Green Legend Ran and Hakkenden, with which it shares its unevenness of tone, overweening ambition, and handful of notable animators. Ran is similarly of interest mainly for its first episode.

The film is actually rather fun to watch. It's got that feeling of expansive adventure that was done so well in the OVAs of this period like 3x3 Eyes, although in this case it's not very successful. And the quality is fairly high overall, although it alternates randomly between very strong work and very weak work, presumably because of shortness of schedule. What's good here is quite good, and it feels like if they'd had more time it might have been better. But the source material is a major problem, so I'm dubious on that point. Overall it's a terrible film, a grab bag of cliches from adventure films like Indiana Jones, each poorly developed and carelessly integrated.

And yet, I actually really enjoyed the film. The opening sequence seems exemplary of why that is. The opening sequence alone is a must-see. The animation is excellent, the drawings are awesome, and the choreography of the action is superb. If the entire film had been made at this level of quality, it would be a masterpiece. I'm guessing it was animated by Tatsuyuki Tanaka, because this would have been the first thing he did after Akira, and being a young animator it wouldn't surprise me that he was still under the influence of the drawings in that film. But influence can't possibly account for how ridiculously Akira-esque the drawings here are. I'm inclined to suspect he was doing it on purpose and having fun with it, drawing everything Otomo-style for laughs. In any case, it's an awesome scene, like the opening gunfight in Green Legend Ran 1, and one of the great action scenes of this period of OVA history.

It's talent like this that accounts for what makes great animation interesting, and I'm guessing it's mostly the presence of talent like him in the production that accounts for why this otherwise irredeemable story and directing work to an extent. Toshiaki Hontani was co-storyboarder along with director Yasuo Hasegawa, and there were actually three dedicated layout men (line director Hiroki Hayashi, Atsushi Okuda and Hideaki Matsuoka) which was more the exception than the rule at this time, and I'm guessing helped with the quality. And there were six sakkans (animation directors).

This is the only thing Toshiaki Hontani ever storyboarded apart from Rojin Z, so it's something of a precious film for a Hontani fan like me. In my post on Crimson Wolf I wondered aloud where else Hontani might have done some good effects work like the dragon climax in that film. Well, that place turns out to be Explorer Woman Ray. There are some spectacular effects sequences in the film, mostly in the second half, involving a hydrofoil skimming across the water outrunning a giant tidal wave crashing behind it, which I'm presuming he storyboarded. I'm not sure who animated the sequences, although I've heard that Mitsuo Iso (who isn't credited) may have been responsible, which wouldn't surprise me. The water here is truly among the best of the period. And it's not just well animated; it's well choreographed. The great animation is the tool that drives the action sequence forward and gives it its impact, for which reason it's among the better I've ever seen.

Kazuyoshi Yaginuma was also involved in the film as an animator, and I suspect he may have done some of the action sequences involving the hovercraft being chased by some of the bad guys due to the highly detailed and fluid animation and very peculiar feeling to the movement. Yaginuma, like Tanaka, had just come from working on Akira, and the influence of that film is palpable in this animation as well as many little elements of Explorer Woman Ray, be it a piece of animation here or a drawing or layout there. In Akira Yaginuma animated the sequence where Tetsuo walks supported by Kaori, right before the arm transformation sequence by Tatsuyuki Tanaka. The latter bit is my favorite shot by him. I love how much work he puts into making the two bodies move in a delicately nuanced manner in this seemingly throwaway shot. He also animated the scene in the kitchen in Shinya Ohira's Antique Shop (again right before the bit by Tanaka - apparently they were close friends), as well as the part where Ran wakes up in the clinic in Ran, so he's one of the key figures of what you might call the 'realistic group' of this period.

Though there are six animation directors, it still feels like you're seeing the animators' work in the raw apart from the close-ups of the main characters. Tanaka's scene is obviously uncorrected, as is presumably Yaginuma's. Even the badly animated scenes don't feel corrected. So it's a representative piece of the trends of this period in that sense, in that it's a film steeped in animator personality.

The designs of the characters are a mixed bag of sharply defined, appealing simplicity on the one hand, and offensive, badly drawn 'westerner' stereotypes on the other. One of the things I like about animation of this period is the character drawn with very few lines like Ran in Ran and the twins here in Explorer Woman Ray. There's the feeling that these designs were made with animation in mind. They're cute, but that's not their entire raison d'etre. It's a good example of the aesthetic appeal of a functional design. There's a certain beauty and elegance borne of simplicity - when it's handled right. Some of the liveliest character drawing and animation I've seen in anime is from OVAs from this period. The character designer and chief animation director is Hiroyuki Ochi, yet another Bebow alumni. A lot of ex-Bebow staff seem to have moved to AIC after leaving Bebow. A number of spots felt like they looked like Naoyuki Onda or Hiroyuki Kitazume, but their names weren't in the credits, so I guess it was my imagination.

Overall, despite logically knowing it's a terrible film in any number of ways, there's still something I find appealing about this OVA's combination of simple designs that move in a lively and inventively choreographed way, and fun and quick-tempo adventure story. Along with the other OVAs from this period that I've mentioned, it's got an atmosphere, animated energy and broadly appealing content that stands apart from that of any other age and that seems to have been lost these days. I would have not only liked to see it done better, but to see more films like this.

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6 comments

Muffin
Muffin [Visitor]

The title of this piece reminded me of another old OAV, Ruin Explorers, that I’m somewhat curious about and wonder if you’ve seen? What little I’ve seen from it looks kind of fun and appealing.

On the topic of these classic OAVs, one of my recent favourite items I’ve discovered is the obscure 1992 4-part fantasy epic “Ys II: Castle in the Heavens", based on a popular computer RPG series. It’s quite a terrific piece of archetypical(and I mean that in the best possible sense here) anime. A dark and somber but also expressive and fast-moving fantasy adventure carried by tight direction and lovely character-drawings. The art has a wonderful rough and unpredictable looseness while also managing some very elegant and nuanced expressions. It’s difficult for me to imagine seeing it done today.

I also liked how it managed to make its sword-and-magic universe somehow feel very fresh and unique.

I actually finally got around to seeking it out recently as I remember seeing a image from the anime in a Gaming Magazine over a decade ago that made a very favourable impression on me…
And I was really pleased to find that not only was it worthwhile for the art, but also managed to be a truly solid film with compelling characters and a genuine dramatic backbone.

I’m not too familiar with the staff though the director is a veteran of many jobs and the chara designer has notably done key animation for Hakkenden eps 10 as well as stuff like the Ouran High school OP and Mind Game. Kazuto Nakazawa also pops up as episode director.

It actually follows an original OAV(by a different staff) based on the first game of the series, which unfortunately doesn’t look half as compelling.

09/16/09 @ 13:51
Ben [Member]  

Fam and Ihrie, was it? I’ve wanted to see that for years but never have managed to find it. Masaaki Yuasa was even involved in episode 3.

I saw an episode of Y’s II at an anime club screening 15-some years ago, though it’s been a while so I don’t remember much about what I saw that night. I vaguely recall some interesting visuals, but something didn’t convince me to rent the tape and watch the whole thing. I’m curious to see it again now, though, on your recommendation. I’ve been going through lists of old OVAs and stuff and found a number of other interesting sounding older items I’d like to get the chance to see sometime. I’ve heard of a lot of them, but I was surprised how many of them I’d never even heard of until looking into it.

09/16/09 @ 23:55
tim merks
tim merks [Visitor]  

thanks for bringing up all these old shows Ben. I LOVED “Take the X Train” the character design was amazing! I’m definately going to check this one out and “Green Legend Ran” if i can find it

09/17/09 @ 04:35
drmecha
drmecha [Visitor]  

Yes, Hiroyuki Ochi passes to AIC with Hiroyuki Kitazume and Naoyuki Onda in 1988 after the rupture of the short lived Kitazume’s “Atelier Giga” studio. Other members of Atelier giga are Atsushi Yamagata and Keiji gotoh (!!). I love the first persecution sequence of the Explorer woman Ray OVA 1. Takeshi Okazaki are asistant of Michitaka Kikuchi/Kia Asamiya and are animation of AIC. I love Takeshi Okazaki’s OVA Elementalors animated by AIC!!

09/17/09 @ 06:55
drmecha
drmecha [Visitor]  

Takeshi Okazaki, author of Explorer Woman Ray and Elementalors are animator of AIC.
He is key animator in:
-Megazone 2 3 III OVA 2 (1989)
-Explorer Woman Ray!! (1989)
-Bubblegum Crisis OVA 8 (1990)
-Sol Bianca 2 (1991)
-and conceptual of El-Hazard firts OVAs
-Elementalors!!

but Kitazume and Onda not are animators in Explorer Woman Ray OVAs. I viewed the staff o f these OVAs but yes on much other AIC’s OVAs…

09/17/09 @ 07:37
willag
willag [Visitor]  

Hello. I’ve come onto your page to ask a strange question. I was wondering if you’d be able to distinguish between the two twins for me in “Explorer Woman Ray"? I know one twin wears a pink shirt during the show and has shoulder-length hair and the other twin wears a blue shirt with shorter hair. I realize that you might not remember, but I’m hoping you do.

As for why I need this info… I don’t know if you’ve seen the Anime Expo ‘96 Poster, but on it are hundreds of characters from different anime… you can look at it here: http://img3.imageshack.us/img3/6726/ax96post.jpg. I’m attempting to name all of the characters on the poster. And, as you can guess, these two characters show up next to Dr. Ray Kazuki… bottom row last quarter. I’ve searched on the internet, but I haven’t found anything that distinguishes between Mai and Mami. I’m also unable to find any means available for me to watch this myself. So, I’m hoping you’re able to help me out here. Thank you!

11/15/09 @ 21:11