A Look at the 1980’s Anime OVA Legacy
In the anime video distribution realm, there is one particular model that has either died out already or is on its last breath in the iron lung ward, and that is the market for direct-to-video Japanese animation. If the term “OVA” doesn’t ring a bell, or if you never really knew which anime are categorized as OVAs, chances are you’ve seen those titles first-hand at some point in your anime collecting hobby. You can go to any local pawn shop, flea market, or mom-and-pop video store and you can eight times out of ten pick up an anime that was considered a direct to video release in Japan before that title was licensed in the states… to be also sold as direct to video.
The 1980’s had a landfill of OVA’s that people mostly rented from their local video stores and took home their evening entertainment in the company of themselves or with a group of like minded anime fanatic individuals. All they had to do was press play and the creative force of an animation studios hard (or cheap) works will fill the eyes and ears of its audience for a mere hours worth of enjoyment (or pain, depending). Now, granted in America, they have a direct to video market also, but it has had no where close to the same impact that it had in Japan during the 1980s. The testament to this market came down to an individual in Japan who had the use of a VCR to watch their anime, and VCRs over the years became just as standard to households like an oven is to the kitchen, as well as a TV is to the living room.
The term OVA means “Original Video Animation,” and some will debate that it could be OAV for “Original Animation Video.” It’s the same kind of debate as when people talk about how to say caramel, or potato, or tomato, it all serves the same purpose in the end. OVA titles were the first to be commercially available in the states through American anime publishers like AD Vision, AnimEigo, Central Park Media, Streamline Pictures, US Renditions, and Manga Entertainment. Before companies licensed from Japanese companies, tape trading happened in local comic, science fiction and early anime cons. People would go to their local convention to find fansub anime on VHS tapes through multiple generations of tape copying and trading, which most of those titles would be OVA’s in some form or fashion.
Some of the first companies to license and distribute OVAs in America are still around, or have faded away into obscurity. One company in particular that is still around is AnimEigo, which released in 1988 Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01 and Vampire Princess Miyu in the same year. There, users can pay for the Blu-ray releases of AnimEigo’s current licensed properties. So far Bubblegum Crisis and Otaku no Video have been funded successfully, with the latter title to be shipped out to its backers early this year. On the other hand, some distributors have faded away into obscurity. In the 90s, Book Nippan shut down the U.S Renditions’ label in America. U.S Renditions released Gunbuster and Dangaioh in March 1990 as their first titles. These were not complete releases, but the first OVA episodes of each series to be put out in the American market. As much as I would love to talk about anime companies and their history in publishing their anime titles, I shall save that story for a future upcoming post in due time.
Across the Pacific, Japanese video stores were popping up left and right to meet the demand of the tape rental business during those years. Sadly the market popped when the Japanese economy did, which lead to the steady downfall of video stores going out of business. You would be surprised however that video, video games and music renting are still available in Japan these days, almost in comparison to America. Across the Pacific, stores like GEO are still in business and are able too cater to all three forms of media. There are however a large amount of OVA’s out there that some anime fans are still tracking down. Fansubbers are still trying to catalog, acquire, and translate OVAs for other fans to watch over the internet.
The first account of anime being made for direct to market purposes goes back to anime director Mamoru Oshii with titles such as Dallos (1983) and Angel’s Egg (1985). Traditionally, since anime became a medium in Japan in the early 1960’s with Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28 appearing on television, it seemed to be that, unless you made shows for Toei or Sunrise, the only way anime could get your shows approved was for committees to financially back them. With the help of smaller anime studios getting the funding they needed thanks to the huge economic bubble Japan was gloriously living under at the time, the OVA market flourished into a creator’s paradise. Anyone could make whatever they wanted to, which resulted with the good, the bad, and the bizarre. Regardless of the OVA’s that hold up and are remembered today, or are lost through the piles of obscurity, anime fans must owe a great deal of attention to this time period on how anime has changed from then to now.
The Good, The Bad, and the Bizarre…
Bubblegum Crisis – If I had to make a solid list of my favorite anime that will last to the end of time, this 8 part OVA series will be right at the time. Bubblegum Crisis came out in 1987 by studio ARTMIC that despite the issues that it has in terms of plot holes and the occasional Engrish showing up, Bubblegum Crisis remains one of the anime titles that has the 80’s written all over it. When digging around while watching Bubblegum Crisis, you can see American pop culture and film icons throughout the OVA. It centers around 4 females and their desire to fight the Megacorproation GENOM in their state-of-the-art armored bodysuits (dubbed “hardsuits” in the show).Bubblegum Crisis might not be the perfect girlfriend, but she does one thing very well for herself when you spend an evening with her, and that’s to be a whole lot of fun! I will let this GaGa Communications trailer tell you all about this OVA (but only to a point, since it’s not about “a rock singer and her 3 girlfriends”). Currently Licensed by AnimEigo.
Megazone 23 – If Bubblegum Crisis is considered the pinnacle of the 80s blended into animation, then what if an anime made during the 80s was set in the actual 1980s… or so you thought! Although Megazone 23 did come before Bubblegum Crisis, its setting and tone is a straight mirror of Japan’s love for 80s pop culture. This 3 part OVA by Noboru Ishiguro takes you on a wild ride with motorcycle gangs, transforming robots, fighting with the man, teenage angst, and romance all bundled up in one package. Part 1 was first released by Streamline Pictures in 1994, and it wasn’t until years later that ADV acquired the license for all 3 parts to be made available in the states with a brand new dub included on the ADV DVD release in 2007.
Metal Skin Panic Madox 01 – Being one of AnimEigo’s first releases, Madox 01 is just a fun little OVA that will give you a evenings worth of entertainment. This features a boy (portrayed by a junior college mechanic) and his robot (a highly top secret bi-pedal machine that falls into said boy’s apartment from the interstate… just see this for yourself) that must do everything he can to hold off an American tank commander named Kilgore. Kilgore plans on stopping our protagonist from reaching his ultimate goal, to stop his girlfriend from leaving Japan to study abroad. That is literally the plot of this anime, and can be summed up in one song by the guys behind Fast Karate for the Gentleman. I told you it was a fun little OVA to checkout. Currently licensed by AnimEigo.
To-Y – This was an OVA that was never licensed in the states, but if you are a musically talented person to the level of once being in a local garage band in your neighborhood, then this is worth a look (this did come on American television once in the late 1980’s according to Mike Toole entry in Colony Drop). To-Y is about the 1980’s Japanese music business, with a scrap-together band trying not to get undercut by their music producers pop star heartthrob. This also has some fun visuals when the music starts going, so it’s very remenicant of 80’s MTV music videos during that era. You can easily find it on YouTube these days.
Gunbuster – This 6 episode OVA comes from the creative staff of studio GAINAX. This involved a lot of great talent from character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto, mechanical designers Koichi “M.D. Geist” Ohata with Kazutaka Miyatake and was one of Hideaki Anno first directorial roles. It’s considered to be in some ways the predecessor to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and if you are a fan of Evangelion you can spot some of the references in the characters especially. This basically involves a young girl named Noriko who must save the universe and get over her own personal issues to pilot the giant Gunbuster robot IN SPACE!!! U.S. Renditions originally put out the OVA in the 1990s, but Bandai released the DVD set in 2007. Currently it’s out of print in America.
Otaku No Video – Speaking of studio GAINAX productions, this 2 part OVA is a comedic “mockumentary” about studio GAINAX origins, which is filled with an interesting outlook at anime fandom in the 1980’s. This also includes live action interview segments with “otaku” as they are asked a variety of questions that most nerds in general already know and identify with. This OVA is soon to be re-released by AnimEigo on Blu-Ray earlier this year.
Area 88 – This 3 part OVA centers around a manga adaptation about the protagonist Shin Kazama survival with a Middle East mercenary group at the airbase “Area 88.” The story goes that Shin Kazama is betrayed by his best friend into being enlisted into the mercenary flight group stationed at Area 88, and must fulfill his contract with them without dying in order to be reunited with his sweetheart. This originally came out by Central Park Media in the 1990’s, then later was licensed and distributed by ADV on DVD in the mid 2000’s.
Bobby’s Girl – This one shot OVA by studio Madhouse tells the story of Bobby, a late teen boy who loves nothing more than to ride his blue motorcycle. It’s a story about our prtagonist Bobby journey into becoming an adult and what it means to be a man over time. What makes Bobby’s Girl stand out is its visuals, which are a testament to studio Madhouse for 1985 animation standards. For fans of Marcie Blane, this anime title is the same as her hit song, and a different rendition of the song was done for the credits at the end. This is found fansubbed online and there is no telling when this will see a release in America.
Black Lion – It’s hard to say if Black Lion is the best one shot OVA from Go Nagai or one of the worst, but despite Black Lion having a goofy plot and below subpar voice acting, it does one thing well that it was meant to do, and that is to entertain the audience. If you watch Black Lion, go in to it like you would a Fast and Furious movie, by checking your brain at the door. If you don’t, you won’t experience the grand masterpiece that is Go Nagai true talent at work. The plot is simple, ninjas try to stop an unstoppable other ninja guy, and it keeps getting more ridiculous from there. If you really want to know what’s in Black Lion, then here is a video about it(warning: this spoils the anime in case you were wanting to check it out with fresh eyes. NSFW due to violent content).
MD Geist – It’s hard to name the worst anime ever made, but many may agree that M.D. Geist is in the top three on that chart. This anime seems to get the automatic notion of being the “worst anime ever” by the online anime community, but these are accusations made by those who hear it’s bad, but have never seen it themselves. I can assure you M.D. Geist is not the worst anime I have ever seen, and may actually be the best anime ever created, just as those who also say Plan 9 from Outer Space is the greatest film ever made. All you need to know is that M.D. Geist is the MOST DANGEROUS anime ever made, and you will witness that for yourself first-hand. If you want a plot, here it is: blonde guy in a mullet shoots the hell out of things, and brings such hell with him. It’s also 2 OVA’s, one made a decade later thanks to the funding efforts of one John O’Donnell of Centeral Park Media.
Angel Cop – Part of the “Manga (UK) Holy Trinity of Suck” anime line (as quoted from Anime World Order). I will say without a doubt that Angel Cop is one of my favorite anime ever, and I will say with great doubt that it is not that great. But, God willing, this baby tries so hard to be. This is the ultimate “check your brain at the door and do not care about what you are seeing” anime you will ever see, and I cannot say too much because I want you reader to witness the shear amazing effort of blending violence and creative swearing into one 6 episode OVA package.
Mad Bull 34 – If Angel Cop is the equivilant of anime being an elegant dining experience, than Mad Bull is the force of frat boys rushing in to a 5 star restaraunt with pizza, hookers and beer ready to wreck stuff up and have a hell of a time doing it. Continuing the “Manga Holy Trinity of Suck,” Mad Bull is an anime that just doesn’t care one bit on having a blast and taking you for a ride in the process. I’d say get ready to be more offended than Angel Cop with this 4 part OVA fun fest, with out your neighbors knowing. You can get this from Discotek Media on DVD.
Violence Jack – To make up the last of the Manga Holy Trinity of Suck, I have an anime you may have to cleanse yourself of your sins after watching, and to never speak of its horrors. In this 3 part OVA (one of them being the worst offender to the senses thanks to the directorial efforts of Ichiro Itano, who also directed Angel Cop/Megazone 23 Part 2), get ready to see hell in its most literal form in anime. This may be for some their personal “worst anime ever,” and they would have a good right to say that over the likes of M.D. Geist. Currently available on DVD from Discotek Media.
Angel’s Egg – Over 30 years since its first release, it is still an anime that people who have seen it still want to talk about. Directed by Mamoru Oshii, this depicts a young girl holding an egg precious to her, in a world of underlying biblical themes and analogies. Many have written thesis and dissertation over this anime, with Brian Run being the most academic one when he published his thoughts on the OVA in his Stray Dog of Anime book. To an anime that will seem confusing to the first time viewer, you can still see how very unique the visuals look for its time. Oshii is a director who that adds purpose to every shot in his anime, despite the fact he can’t remember why he put it there years later. The only English commercial release for Angel’s Egg is spliced through a live action movie called In The Aftermath, but even watching it through that version will not make it any better to watch, so fansubs are your best bet.
Dragon’s Heaven – This OVA hails from the mind of mechanical designer Makoto Kobayashi, who is better known for his mechanical designs in the Mobile Suit Zeta and Double Zeta Gundam series, and is all about that Gundam in general. Dragon’s Heaven is a unique looking anime that is full of odd looking design works that seem to be disproportionate and non-functional to how anime fans have seen robots look in anime. Kobayashi mechanical designs seem to be more organic looking than the fine lined, straight-edged robots fans have been seeing for almost 30 years at this point. Despite the odd mechanical designs, the story is as solid as you can get in about 30 minutes before a 15 minute live action “making of” video is tacked on at the end to show off Kobayashi designs being modeled by the staff of the anime. This is again one of those titles that is fansubbed online and may or may not ever make here in America.
California Crisis: Gun Salvo – This was only one of the few titles released by a small “fly-by-night” studio Unicorn that didn’t seem to stay around to make its big mark in anime, but managed to make something unique that anime fans still mention today. California Crisis is clearly a romanticist’s look at American (or Californian) culture in the 1980’s. It’s also an anime that with everything you see on screen, never seems to stop moving between action scenes, the thick black lines on people and objects, and the musical soundtrack by Miho Fujiwara. California Crisis is something interesting look at once as a fan of anime and animation, and to see if its charm will stick with you long after you see it. California Crisis shows it’s a product of the OVA boom in the 1980’s, and fans are not sure when something like this to be made ever again again in today’s anime market. There is no telling if California Crisis will ever get released in the states, and it may be left to the fansub community to keep it alive, so your best bet to see this is through the internet.
What I have listed before you is what I consider a good start into anime OVA’s that are quick and easy to enjoy (or maybe hate, depending on the person who watches them). There are so many more OVA’s out there I would love to list, and the 1990’s has even better quality ones to add that I won’t in the post in order to keep it to the point. Yet at the same time, there are some even more god awful OVA’s from the 1980’s and 1990’s that should maybe or maybe not be known to the public. If you as an anime fan have never seen an anime OVA before and were not sure where to start, I hope this post can help you get started with what I have recommended. The only thing close to an equivalent to anime today that 80’s OVA’s did are the shorter anime shows that last but a couple of minutes but give you an entire story in that time frame that can easily entertain you. If you can find a physical copy to buy of any of the titles I mentioned to show to other people you know, then do it! Most of these titles should be affordable for anime fans to get ahold of, so don’t resort to piracy to watch them if you can help it.
What do you think? Leave a comment.