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I wrote a bit about Toei Doga's forays into the OVA market in my entry on Vampire Wars (1990). I just had the chance to see another outing from them from slightly earlier.
Xanadu: Dragon Slayer Densetsu (1988) is a light-hearted and half-hearted fantasy adventure in the same vein from Toei from a few years earlier. Both OVAs are mildly entertaining but forgettable fluff. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The saving grace of this generic outing is Koichi Arai. Xanadu is to Koichi Arai what Vampire Wars is to Hamasu Hideki - his first job as character designer and animation director. Both OVAs were one of the early stepping stones in these great animators' careers. They're one of the first places you can turn now to get a sense of the animator's style in these early years.
Koichi Arai is probably best remembered for his work on 3x3 Eyes (1991), which was another OVA foray from Toei, like Xanadu and Vampire Wars, but a somewhat better one. Not that he hasn't done outstanding work elsewhere. 3x3 Eyes was just his biggest gig. He's been a lone animator for the most part since then.
He's the reason I bothered watching this, and I was happy to find that even at this early stage his style is evident. Koichi Arai's drawings are more distinctive than Hideki Hamasu's. I could see a clear resemblance not only with 3x3 Eyes but even with the opening sequence Arai did for Kemonozume episode 8 in 2006.
It's kind of the nascent form of his style in 3x3 Eyes, as opposed to the more realistic style he showed himself capable of in Crying Freeman episode 1 (1988). He drew a unique and easily identifiable sequence in episode 5 of Shonan Bakusozoku in 1989, so I was expecting his style would probably already be identifiable a year earlier.
There were other animators drawing in a realistic style at Toei in the mid-80s when Koichi Arai was learning the ropes, for example Junichi Hayama. But Arai's work stands out as being particularly well observed - a new, more modern style of drawing. He seemed to represent a new generation emerging. It's probably not a coincidence that Arai worked as an animator on the baby room sequence in Akira around this time. He was one of the pioneer realistic animators of the day.
Even when he wasn't drawing realistic people like in Crying Freeman, the same basic approach seems to underpin his animation. Arai was able to combine more realistic timing and drawing with comical deformation and humor when necessary. His drawings were both more stylish and more real. You wouldn't necessarily call the designs of 3x3 Eyes realistic, per se, but somehow the movement was. He brought a new sensibility to the timing and conceptualization of a movement. Also, the faces of side-characters in the crowd were clearly stylized in a more realistic way. With just a few lines he managed to establish a unique facial form the communicated an individual - something I'd only seen from Katsuhiro Otomo before.
His realism wasn't the brute-force realism of the old guard of Toei, who pounded you with detailed drawings of muscle men. Just the opposite - he pared down the drawings to a minimum of lines and moved the body more three-dimensionally. He had a unique new way of making something seem real. Even if the design wasn't realistic, the movement would be, or a part of the drawing would be. For example, one of his trademarks is showing the teeth in detail and showing the gums, as in the shot below. It seems to have the effect of injecting a feeling of reality into an otherwise unrealistic drawing.
The thing I wasn't expecting is that this OVA isn't pure Toei. Many of the staff are ex-Bebow. The top five names listed in the animator credits (Naoyuki Onda, Tomokazu Tokoro, Keiichi Sato, Hiroyuki Ochi and Koichi Usami) are all prominent expatriates of Bebow. More specifically, they were all involved in Relic Armor Legaciam, which came out just a few months before Xanadu.
Legaciam was made by Atelier Giga. In fact, it was their only production. Atelier Giga was a short-lived studio founded in March 1987 that brought together the animators who had left Bebow in the fall of 1984 to form a studio called Studio Pack with those who left after Cool Cool Bye in 1986. The studio went belly-up after Legaciam, sending all the Bebow animators scattering to the four winds. (many went to AIC)
I don't know how these Bebow animators came to be working on Xanadu together, but clearly it must have been one of the first things they did after Atelier Giga broke up.
Two distinct styles dominate Xanadu: That of Koichi Arai, and that of Bebow. I'd even say that most of the animation feels like Bebow. Koichi Arai doesn't dominate the proceedings like he did in 3x3 Eyes. Naoyuki Onda in particular is a big presence. He seems to have animated the masked baddie and his wife, not to mention the blue-haired character. The blue-haired guy and the woman baddie's face his this distinctive broad, oval shape that's unique to Onda, while the baddie has a more photorealistic style. I was wondering if the baddie might in fact be the work of Hideki Hamasu, who was the assistant animation director, but I'm not sure enough of his style to be able to ID it whereas the eyes do seem to be in Onda's style.
Many of the other shots have a certain Bebow vibe - a particular layout, pose or expression that gives me deja vu, as if I'd seen something similar in Cool Cool Bye or an earlier Bebow production. I can't pin it down to a particular animator except to narrow it down to one of those four other than Onda.
I like the drawings of Arai and the Bebows. Arai's got his own unique style, and so does Onda. The masked baddie I presume to be by Onda has an appealing realistic look, with a well-defined nose and lips and realistically proportioned eyes (as opposed to huge balloons), unlike all of the other characters in the show, who have more stylized 'anime features'.
This was Arai's first time designing characters, and he managed to carve out a fairly unique style without being too radical. The protagonist's expressions are vivacious and pliable and fun to watch. It's definitely not as extreme or exciting as 3x3 Eyes or Crying Freeman episode 1, but still nice for a Koichi Arai fan. I wonder if he designed the baddies too, because they have a completely different style.
Apart from these guys, I guess the rest of the people are Toei folks. Junichi Hayama is the only name I recognize. Well, also Michio Fukuda, who has gone on to focus on directing. Junichi Hayama is one of the better Toei animators of this period. I'm not positive, but I think this part of Shonan Bakusozoku episode 5 was done by him, to give an example of his work.
The interesting thing about the 'realistic' movement in animation in Japan in the late 80s/early 90s was that it's multifarious. It's not just about Akira. You've got a certain style that developed at Toei under folks like Takaaki Yamashita and Koichi Arai, then you've got the Bebow folks like Naoyuki Onda, then you've got Akira and the people it influenced. But even among the ex-Akira animators there's a big difference between the realistic style of, say, Shinya Ohira and Hiroyuki Okiura.
One of my favorite bits in the ep not from a character drawing standpoint was the swivel shot at the beginning where the mecha zooms off past a big lizard monster. It's well executed and stylish. Then there's a shot where the baddie has his face up close next to the captured heroine and tentacles emerge from his face. It's successful at being disturbing due to the realistic way the guy's face is drawn and his calm expression.
As for the story, it's a hodgepodge of fantasy tropes, a halfhearted effort at best. The setting mixes sci-fi with fantasy - you've got wizards and flying machines - but nothing in the story uses the trappings whatsoever.
We start out in the future in the middle of a battle between ambulatory robots in Europe. Suddenly, a bright light engulfs the protagonist's machine and everyone blacks out. When they wake up, they're in D&D land. No explanation is ever provided as to why this happened. There's a cute girl with a flying squirrel mascot, an evil wizard wearing a Char Aznable helmet trying to use black magic to enslave the world, an army of lizard men, and even a legendary sword in a stone destined for the one true hero. It's all there.
Don't come here expecting anything original, or for it to make sense, or to find well-developed characters or epic storytelling like in Lodoss Wars or something. They clearly set out to make a lighthearted D&D romp to capitalize on the popularity of Nihon Falcom's dungeon crawler game of the same name, and that's all this is. It's actually surprisingly entertaining and innocent, and the quality of the drawings makes it easy to watch. It has something of the spunky, playful quality of Xabungle. It's not completely over-the-top comedy, but it's rarely serious for more than a few moments. Even when it's serious it doesn't feel that serious.
This was an OVA in the 80s, and that can only mean one thing: tentacles! Out of nowhere, we even get a nude tentacle scene in this OVA - nothing explicit, but suggestive. If it was AIC I'd understand, but coming from Toei Doga, it feels a little forced. Clearly, Nausicaa was influential in more ways than one.
Not to be confused with this Xanadu.
XANADU: DRAGON SLAYER DENSETSU
(dir. Atsutoshi Umezawa, 50 min, released March 1988)
|Character design & animation director:||Koichi Arai|
|Assistant animation director:||Hideki Hamasu|
|Key animators:||Naoyuki Onda|