Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Overfiend Reborn (Part 1)

UROTSUKIDŌJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND is one of those things tied so closely to my development as an individual that there probably aren't words to describe how important it was in creating the individual known as "Kentai" you know now. It had a profound effect on my appreciation of animation as a visual medium, introduced me to the wonderfully frustrating world of intentionally re-cutting a film for different markets, and more or less assured that well over a decade later I'd be unable to get a boner if she wasn't crying and covered in neon-colored sperm. So, let's do us all a favor and never ask how I plan to procreate.

Nostalgia is a dangerous weapon the past uses to convince us that it didn't really suck. Having been lucky enough to have literally grown up watching high quality not-necessarily-for-children Japanese animation from before the age of 10, I quickly abandoned American cartoons in favor of those wild Japanimatoons, devouring every poorly dubbed tape or multi-generational fansub dupe I could get my hands on for the next decade or so. While the internet and DVD (and now Blu-ray) may have changed how I devour my drug of choice, it never caused my appetite to wane. In much the same way that Italian horror of yesteryear essentially wiped away my desire to watch anything contemporary with a masked killer, the violent fantasy of nonsensical Japanese animators quickly washed away any interest I had in suffering through reruns of The Smurfs or He-Man and whatever other trash I probably ate up before I knew any better in a sea of blood, screaming teenage girls, and pointy haired protagonists fighting body-horrors personified or sentient mechanical beings gone haywire.

Fuck. I actually own this Cantonese dubbed VCD set.
It's cut and I don't speak Chinese, why did I even--

When you get down to it, tt was the emerging direct to video market - or "OVA", Original Video Animation - that would be the catalyst that created a generation of rabid otaku. Seen by production companies as a way to move video tapes and related hardware, or even cross-promote unrelated media (like video games), Sony Music Entertainment funded Vampire Hunter D, and Toshiba got the wheels spinning for Bubblegum Crisis. The aborted TV serial Megazone 23 was quickly dusted off for a feature length home video release, and fans of lesbian-alien-mecha Cthulhi were delighted to find that Fight!! ICZER-1 ticked off their every possible fetish box. I could go on - Gunbuster, Guyver Out Of Control, Demon City Shinjuku, - but we'd be here all night! This "Golden Period" reached its' peak at roughly the middle of the 1980s, with bizarre and decadently-produced epics literally popping out of the production staff's heads as a means to sell a few thousand copies at nearly $150 a piece. While the sheer scope and breadth of anime released between Dallos (1983) and Akira (1989) - arguably the bookends that both birthed and destroyed this culture of artist driven anime - it's fair to say that a number of incredible titles released in this period simply could never have been produced in the years before or since. Not everything was a classic, I admit - go ahead, make your M.D. Geist jokes so we can move - but with so much content and so much freedom alloted to it, it was still a damned good period to be into animation.

It was from that fertile soil of artist-driven Japanese animation that Playboy Video and JHV decided, in 1987, to produce an adaptation of MAEDA Toshio's erotic horror manga, Choujin Densetsu Urotsukidouji/超神伝説 うろつき童子. It was hardly the first pornographic anime sold in Japan, and even Nikkatsu tested the waters with the Uchiyama Aki Lolita Anime some four years prior. But this approach was... different. The original manga was as much driven by mythology and character interaction as it was graphic boning, and the inclusion of distorted hyper-sexualized monsters in the vein of the old EC Comics brought a unique Freudian layer to the distinctly Lovecraftian tale of a monstrous "Choujin" (übergod), who after slumbering for 3,000 years is preparing to  unite the realms of Heaven, Hell and Earth into a unified and eternal kingdom... but the ultimate salvation of the Choujin's legend may not be what the foolish mortals of the three realms had ever imaged.

--- oh yeah, I've still got this one, too.
Goddamn Germans and their bootlegged extras...

 A being from another world, Amano Jyaku, skulks around the Myojin Academy in search of a scent he's convinced can only be the God of Gods... but he can't quite pin down who it is. Odds are in the favor of school jock Ozaki, and in his search he blissfully ignores Nagumo, an awkward loser who jacks off peeking in the girl's dressing rooms and spends his time being bullied by the cool kids. It's not until Amano saves the school idol, Akemi, from a lustful Makaijin - and Akemi, not knowing any better, assumes that Nagumo is her hero - that things begin to change. Ozaki is super-powered all right, and upon being attacked by radicals who want the Choujin dead, Amano unleashes his full power, only to watch Ozaki fall dead. It's not until his sidekick Kuroko reminds him of a passing incident in which Ozaki teased Nagumo and swallowed a drop of his blood that he realizes the grave mistake he's made...

The 45 minute Urotsukidouji OVA was a hit. It strayed pretty far from Maeda's realistic character designs and comparatively humanoid monsters, but the adaptation arguably improved on the original's uneven tone, which can perhaps best be described as obscene-yet-juvenile. Maeda's core concept of the three worlds and the fascination of the Choujin's coming remained, but were expanded into a literal epic, with the first episode ending with the largely anti-heroic lead Nagumo literally absorbing the people around him with massive phallus shaped tendrils and becoming a Godzilla sized monstrosity that looks like Satan itself made from the bodies he's swallowed whole. With director Hideki Takayama having found a unique aesthetic that turned the title's "Wandering Kid" Amano Jyaku into a garish biker punk, and the demonic Makaijin were in turn inspired by the contemporary monsters featured in films like Aliens, The Fly and Basket Case. Masamichi Amano's synth-score fit this more contemporary vision like a glove, and audiences were so voracious that Playboy announced two more episodes to finish the anime's unique storyline, which essentially cameto the same ending as Maeda's original comics, but did so on a completely different path.

A-ha! I DON'T own this one.
I mean... not on DVD. Not YET.

When asked how he felt about the anime version, Maeda was quoted as saying it was "Cruel, repugnant, and sadistic... but still brilliant". Episodes 2 and (particularly) 3 would show an increase in production quality, with more detailed backgrounds and frames per second than the prior episodes. The first episode is really the runt of the litter, but it's no slouch in the scope of cheaply animated early 1980s porn anime; it's production values certainly eclipse any TV series of the period, and as the budget ramps up, so too does the wantonly graphic sex and violence. In full the whole original Urotsukidouji series runs about 142 minutes, and crammed in that nearly two and a half hour runtime are acts of rivalry, compassion, and utter annihilation. Sure it might not quite be Tolstoy, but the storyline splits off into two related subplots: One in which Nagumo is forced to go toe to toe with a jealous classmate who's sold his soul for demonic powers, and another in which Amano must face an old enemy who's sole mission in this world is to destroy the Choujin before the Eternal Kingdom prophecy can be fulfilled. Niki becomes a savage presence ready to tear Akemi away from Nagumo, while Suikakujuu wages a war in the skies over Osaka with Amano just so he'll have no further obstacles in removing the Choujin from the face of the Earth... but why is Suikakujuu ready to destroy millions of lives to prevent what seems inevitable?

Quickly notions of heroics and terrorism blur as characters from all three worlds battle for what they want, all with their own dedicated passion, but all for differing reasons... and some without fully understanding what their desires may lead to. It's a surprisingly complex and bittersweet piece of fantastic escapism, one that approaches - but doesn't ever eclipse - the nihilistic notion of humanity's own selfish destruction that becomes so central to another one of Japan's finest programs of the last 30 years, Neon Genesis Evangelion. For fans of horror and animation alike to write Urotsukidouji off as the anime version of Caligula, equating it to "Expensive Porn", are doing both themselves and the minds behind this grotesque masterpiece a grave disservice.

I own, what... 3 copies of this?
...yeah I might have a problem.

Even if Urotsukidouji had nothing else, it was a tour-de-force that assaulted the audience with villains who fought to save their entire universe and heroes who would sacrifice everything if it meant saving someone they initially thought was a walking joke. It saturates the viewer with acts of sex and violence, but does so in the confines of a universe in which sex and violence are, ultimately, the only way in which the characters communicate with one another. Love changes Nagumo, but in the end the only way he can protect Akemi is through violence. Suikakujuu's servants love him so dearly they literally offer the destruction of their bodies to him so that he may accomplish his one driving goal in life. In the end, talk is cheap; in the blood and sperm soaked universe of the Choujin, it's who you fuck and who you eat that ultimately matter, and those who can stand being splashed with both will find both an unusually rewarding narrative about largely Eastern concepts of renewal, and an expertly crafted piece of extreme entertainment besides.

When all is said and done Urotsukidouji was perhaps the closest thing to a perfect pornographic anime series ever created... and it was that realization that led distributors to announce "Urotsukidouji: The Movie". Yes, they literally cut the three episodes together into a feature film and toured around Japan with it. Unfortunately the original home video version was already more graphic than Japanese obscenity laws would allow without pixelation, so "The Movie" cut the most graphic moments and even went as far as to re-animate some of them, and even includes a few new scenes to smooth over some of the cuts... including a lengthy shot of the Warner Brothers-esque sidekick getting a teeny erection. (I'm sure Maeda approved.) One could argue that that the theatrical cut was the mass-marketed "R-rated" version of the original three part OVA, but the MPAA still slapped a big fat NC-17 on it when it premiered in the United States some 18 long years ago, so it's not as if all of that tentacle rape has been replaced with footage of puppies snuggling with kittens. The uncensored OVAs are without a doubt the definitive take on the animated material, but "The Movie" isn't without its' place in the title's infamous legacy. It's also the first piece of the Tentacle Rape Puzzle I ever saw, and as such it'll always remain special to me on that very personal level. And thank fuck my nostalgia doesn't further extend towards CPM's rotten vintage dub... I guess it's not quite Devilman bad, but that means it also isn't quite Devilman unintentionally-funny, which is just as damning.

This one doesn't even exist... and I still might own it!

Urotsukidoji's enduring popularity would spiral into a total of four sequels and one remake, with no less than 16 OVAs and five compilation movies plus a primitive PC game completing the massive franchise. Unfortunately, the second series (Legend of the Demon Womb) - which amusingly has the balls to start off with Hitler attending a meeting of the Vrill Association - would supplant it's bizarre creativity with a continually dwindling budget, and the third series (Return of the Overfiend) starts out strong as a fusion of medieval fantasy epic tropes in the guise of post-apocalyptic science fiction, but when the title's long-time script writer Shou Aikawa departed, the show takes a sudden dive into crazy town and doesn't ever get a chance to properly right itself. The fourth and final "proper" series (Inferno Road) starts as a moderately amusing experiment in unrelated horror tedium, but falls apart like so much wet dung in the final episode.

In fact, the ending was deemed so wretched by the show's producer that they made up a new one for the Inferno Road compilation movie, and used THAT ending to spring off into the show's aborted revival (The Final Chapter), which was never legally released outside of Japan... the less said of this confusing mish-mash that ends with the realization that the Choujin is a giant bio-mechanical spaceship pumping out androgynous hive-mind parasite warriors, the better. After a nearly decade long hiatus, a remake of the original OVA known in Japan as "The Urotsuki" (New Saga) proved that, oh yes, it could get worse than The Final Chapter...


So why the hell am I waxing poetic about a film series I've talked about so many times before? Because after nearly a year of delays... Media Blasters/Kitty Media have actually released Urotsukidoji: The Movie on BLU-RAY. I've been waiting for this ever since the original announcement, and even with Media Blasters' hit-or-miss quality control, I ordered a copy as soon as I realized it was available.

When this son of a bitch gets here I'm strictly going to talk about the quality of the release - how it looks and how it sounds and how it's subtitled, and anything else that seems relevant. Media Blasters probably didnn't know this, but this could forever change how I view them... they're dealing with something amazing here, something sacred. If they treat it right, odds are I'll blindly give them money for anything for the next decade solely out of respect for finally giving me an excuse to toss out my Japanese VHS, LD and CPM DVD copies of "The Movie". But I swear to the übergod, if they've pulled another stunt like they did with Versus, Zombie Holocaust,or even... *gulp* Ichi the Killer...

We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?


Greg M said...

Is it wrong of me that as soon as I saw that this was coming to Blu Ray I became tremendously excited... and then when I saw that Media Blasters were the folks putting it out I lost all interest? I seriously fucking hate them. Probably irrationally so.

Gurotaku said...

I don't think I will be more pissed at Sirabella for missing this opportunity for an outstanding release (and let's face it, he's already screwed that up when he decided that this be a bare-bones disc even though there'd be plenty of extras available and plenty more that should be created while the key staff is still alive) than I was when Happinet released those 3 neat looking R2J box sets of the entire series (including parts that had only ever been released on LD and VHS in Japan) and did so using ancient fugly transfers.

Greg M said...

In my heated bashing of Media Blasters I forgot to compliment you on the excellent review (not to mention overview of the franchise, which puts the clusterfuck on wikipedia to shame).

I have yet to see the original OVA in all of its uncut glory :(

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