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In this day and age when every other anime is fantasy anime, it's hard to conceive of a time when there was no fantasy anime. But such was the case around the time of Aura Battler Dunbine in 1983.
Created and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino at Sunrise in 1983, Dunbine was one of the pioneer fantasy anime. Tomino pumped out one classic show after another during these years when he came unto his own as a creator and director. Just the year before in 1982, he directed the classic Xabungle TV series and Ideon: Be Invoked movie. His work prior to Dunbine was basically sci-fi robot anime, but with Dunbine he went in a new direction.
Largely influenced by Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga (the movie wasn't released until the year after), Dunbine was one of the groundbreaking fantasy anime, made at a time when audiences weren't used to fantasy anime, and the show paid the price for it. With its daring insectoid mecha designs, kids hated the toys. This placed pressures on the show's toy sponsor, Clover, that appear to have led to Clover shortly going out of business. The show was forced to switch the setting from the fantasy world of Byson Well to modern-day Tokyo in the second half.
Despite this shaky start, Dunbine continued to live on in various media, most notably the novel format. The 1980s were the auteur boom in anime, and Tomino attempted to blossom into an auteur. He penned novels to flesh out the world of Byston Well, two of which eventually got adapted into anime: Garzey's Wing (3 eps, 1996) and The Wings of Rean (6 eps, 2005-2006).
But the very first anime continuation actually came just a few years after the TV show: the 3-episode New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine. Tomino had a habit of releasing compilations of every TV show he directed, and Dunbine was no exception. A novel approach explored with the Dunbine collection was to include a new 30-minute OVA with each compilation.
New Story takes place 700 years after the events of the TV series, and tells the story of a young boy and girl who fight a group of so-called "Black Knights" seeking to recover a legendary Aura Battler to conquer the land of Byston Well. The characters are mostly new, but apparently the boy and girl are a resurrection of the protagonists of the TV series, and the evil mummy who seeks to re-open the door connecting Byston Well to our world is a character who was doomed to eternal life at the end of the TV show. It's actually all rather confusing because you are just plunged right into the action without any explanation. A basic knowledge of the premise of the Aura Battler mecha is obviously assumed, since these OVAs appended compilations of the TV show.
The story progresses quite quickly and without any undue exposition, not wasting a minute of its meager three episode allotment. The fantasy world is richly expressed, with many colorful creatures and settings. The whole story evolves over one quick arc of action, with the tables turning several times leading up to the cataclysmic denouement that you expect of a Tomino production. The influence of Nausicaa is quite palpable in the overall world view, style, and monster designs. A millipede-like underground monster immediately reminds of the flying millipede monster that attacked Nausicaa underground. For good or ill, however, the story avoids the thematic complexity of Nausicaa, opting instead for stock heroism and nonstop battle.
Directed by erstwhile Tomino associate Toshifumi Takizawa, New Story is a visually unique and intense fantasy that for all its cacophany of constant action comes across as underwhelming somehow. What New Story has going for it is that it's a tautly directed sprint across the land of Byston Well, with far more of a focus on the hardcore fantasy elements than the original TV series. Cramming in so much story into three episodes is a risky endeavor that I can't say pays off completely, but it's an intense ride that grips you from start to finish. Tomino regretted not having started the TV show out with more of a bang, and felt the show never recovered from starting on the wrong foot, so perhaps this is what led to the peremptory dash of New Story.
By 1988 Takizawa was a great talent in his own right, but he never had pretensions of auteur-dom like Tomino, so he didn't have the sort of identifiable traits that help make such directors popular, but rather remained a pliable craftsman, adapting himself to whatever he worked on to invest it with his own brand of taut cinematic storytelling. In New Story, Takizawa does a good job of emulating a Tomino-esque style of directing. The show has all of the breakneck pacing and manic cutting that are staples of Tomino's work - the cinematic framing with characters engaging in actions while talking rather than straight shots of talking heads, the sequences of pans and zooms to maintain a feeling of forward narrative momentum. The presentation is so determinedly oblique and frenetic, in fact, that it renders the story somewhat hard to follow at times, true to the Tomino aesthetic.
What sets the series apart and makes it notable is its production style: The mecha are mostly drawn with background drawings rather than animation drawings. Typically in anime you have the animation drawings, drawn on cels with flat colors, overlaid over the backgrounds drawn by the art department. Sometimes if you need a bush or something "in front of" a character, you will have something called a "book" - basically a piece of background art drawn by the art department, but with its outline cut out so that it can be placed on top of the animation drawing. This makes it seem like the background surrounds the characters.
What seems to be happening in New Story is that they've drawn all the mecha as books. Either this, or they invented some new technique to allow them to paint on cels the way Tadanari Okamodo did in The Soba Flower of Mt. Oni (which I obviously doubt). So you basically have the mecha drawn as background art in the midst of a shot in which all of the rest of the character and effect animation is drawn on cels, which have a completely different color scheme that makes the difference quite stark. It actually contributes well to giving the OVA a more fantastical atmosphere befitting the material. We're accustomed to seeing mecha in the simplified forms and flat colors of cel animation, so it feels sumptuous to see the mecha rendered this way. Rather than a toy advertisement, it actually feels like a fantasy world. The monolithic, plodding movement that results from having to use a single drawing also contributes to imparting a feeling of the vast size of the mecha.
Above you can see some examples of the art mecha drawings interacting with the cel drawings. It makes for a slightly unsettling experience, as it upturns how we've been trained through experience to parse the animation screen. Normally the cel drawings can affect the backgrounds, but not vice-versa. Here, the background drawings are affecting the background drawings. For example, in the left drawing, the art mecha crashes into the art wall, producing cel bricks and dust.
This is an unusual choice for a mecha show, since the whole point of using animated drawings is so that you can simplify the drawings to complete the animation in a shorter time. It's not unprecedented, though. Nausicaa was the show's big influence in many ways, so it's possible that the Ohmu were the inspiration behind this technique. It also brings to mind the way the castle in Howl was animated with patches of background art to give it that special look. Coincidentally or not, the photography director of most of the great Sunrise OVAs of this period, including New Story, was Atsushi Okui, the guy who went on to come up with that special way of animating the castle in Howl.
This technique must have been adopted in order to bring alive the unique mecha art drawn by Yutaka Izubuchi. The original mecha designer of the TV show was Miyatake Kazutaka, and he is the one who pioneered the more daring, organic, non-linear designs that make Dunbine unique, but Izubuchi gradually wound up taking over as designer on the TV show. A book of his artwork called Aura Fhantasm pushed this design aesthetic even further, featuring far more organic and daring drawings than the original TV show, really bringing out the insectoid nature of the designs.
Above is an example showing the contrast. The only way to bring these drawings alive would be to draw them as background art, and I assume that is what led to this approach being adopted for this OVA series. This would have been impossible in a TV show, but perhaps the OVA format allowed them more liberties. I'm curious whether this would have had the effect of lengthening or shortening the production process, since it cuts down on the number of drawings but conversely requires more complicated drawings.
There are actually some shots where the mecha are drawn as usual on cels, which is confusing. I'm guessing that rather than this being a time constraint thing, there were simply occasional shots that required actual movement to convey the action, which wouldn't be possible with a single art drawing panning across the screen. Apparently the stylistic mismatch didn't bother them - it's actually confusing when suddenly, from one shot to the next, the mecha look completely different, with the flat colors of cel shading. This highlights the fact that, although visually sumptuous, the downside of this technique of using bg art for the mecha is that it is somewhat static and lacking in dynamism. No sprightly mecha fights when the mecha are art drawings - only looming pans.
The staff side of things is fairly different from the TV series, which contributes to making the OVA feel distinct. The character designer is Takehiko Ito (under the pen name Hiroyuki Hataike) rather than Bebow's Tomonori Kogawa, and the mecha designer is Yutaka Izubuchi rather than Miyatake Kazutaka. The music is by Reijiro Koroku rather than Tsubonou Katsuhiro. (Koroku was a student of Koichi Sugiyama, who did the music for Ideon) And of course, the storyboarder/director is Takizawa Toshifumi rather than Tomino. I'm rather fond of the music, which has a stridently modernist sound that reminds of a contemporary composer like Wolfgang Rihm.
The animation is the product of the same studios I talked about last time: Anime R and Dove. Not surprising given how constant a presence they are in (non-Tomino) Sunrise productions of this era. Anime R basically sakkans Dove's animation. Moriyasu Taniguchi is the sakkan and Toru Yoshida is the mecha sakkan, while the animators are the main Dove animators in Mellowlink: Hiroshi Koizumi, Nobuyoshi Nishimura, Misao Nakano and Shinichi Sakuma. Mellowlink was produced by this same team immediately after New Story. Of course, due to the nature of the production, that doesn't leave Toru Yoshida much to do, but perhaps the mecha animation wasn't entirely handled by the background department, but rather done like a Dezaki 'harmony' shot, in which they key animator draws a drawing, and this is painted over by the art department. Perhaps Yutaka Izubuchi himself even helped with the mecha drawings. The credits are unhelpful in this regard.
The annoying thing is that something went wrong with the animation and the character drawings are not up to the level that they should be in view of this staffing. There is some decent animation, but much of it is marred by sub-par drawings in which the proportions seems to be wavering dangerously close to falling apart. The drawings are wobbly and weak in a way that reminds me of Good Morning Althea, which leads me to suspect that the inbetweens are the problem. But the inbetweens are by Dove, so I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, this is not nearly as good a showcase of Anime R and Dove as their next project Mellowlink.
New Story of Aura Battler Dunbine (OVA, 3 eps, 1988, Sunrise)
|Creator & Supervisor:||富野由悠季||Yoshiyuki Tomino|
|Director & Storyboard:||滝沢敏文||Toshifumi Takizawa|
|Line Director:||篠幸裕||Yukihiro Shino|
|Character Design:||幡池裕行||Hiroyuki Hataike|
|Mechanical Design & Special Advisor:||出渕裕||Yutaka Izubuchi|
|Animation Director:||谷口守泰||Moriyasu Taniguchi|
|Mecha Animation Director:||吉田徹||Toru Yoshida|
|Key Animation:||(ep 1)||スタジオ・ダブ||Studio Dove|
|(ep 2)||スタジオ・ダブ||Studio Dove|
|(ep 3)||スタジオ・ダブ||Studio Dove|
I had an all red (I think) Dunbine toy when I was a kid in the ’80s. I barely remember the cool box in came in, but I’m pretty sure it said Dunbine. My famiy may have bought it in the Philippines and then we brought it home back to the states. It had wings and that vented back pack and the gnarly tri-talon feet below the bell-bottom mecha legs. Might have to finally watch a few episodes in remembrance of that toy. Pretty sure I never saw the show as a kid. All I remember watching before VHS & Robotech was Battle of the Planets, Voltes5 & Grendizer.