Saturday, 25 February 2012

Codex Hermetica
Chapter 1: The Samurai

Welcome to the first of a (hopefully) regular installment: Codex Hermetica, where I will take a look at old and forgotten anime OVAs and movies. It is said that people die twice, once when they stop breathing and a second time when somebody says their name for the last time. When do anime titles die? I don't know, but I want to do what little I can to keep their memory alive. So in the Codex, I plan to write quasi-reviews of these series, and breathe some new life into these old bones. I strongly believe in the importance of history, and these are foundations that the modern industry was built on. It is only appropriate that someone pays homage to them. And for my first chapter, I shall write a little OVA called The Samurai.

The Samurai – Technical Specs:
Year Released: 1987
Running Time: 1 episode, 45 minutes
AniDB rating (at time of writing): 110 votes with average grade of 4.80
ANN rating (at time of writing): 57 votes with average grade of 6.405
My rating: 6.2

The Samurai is a bit of an oddity. In 2003, it received a US release and dub, by the prolific ADV. In retrospect, this was one of ADV's more bizarre choices, but the anime market was experiencing a bubble at the time, and ADV had a shotgun approach to titles, releasing anything they could and hoping one big success would pay for the rest of the failures. The Samurai must have been one of those failures, given that I had never heard of this show before a week ago (and I am not alone in this, as the number of rating votes suggests). The sportswriter Bill Simmons has made several persuasive arguments for professional sports teams to have a VP of Common Sense, a regular Joe plucked from the streets and given a veto power over management decisions, someone that might say, perhaps trading our best young pitcher to the Yankees for a handful on untested prospects mightn't be the best choice, especially given that Yankee prospects have historically been highly overrated (I'm looking at you, Seattle). ADV really could have used a VP of Common Sense throughout the mid aughts, some one that could have said the costs of this license will run over 300k and we're not going to push 1000 copies, why are we doing this? It doesn't take an expert to know that you're not going to recoup your losses on an one-shot OVA with no manga tie-in that was made 16 years before. But I digress.

The Samurai does not have an auspicious start. Not even thirty seconds in, we are treated to a shot of man-ass as the hero frantically ties his fundoshi. Now, I consider myself an enlightened man without prejudice, and I have no qualms about catching 'the gay', but given the later content and the target audience, this is completely the wrong way to start your show. Lets face it, The Samurai is not going to win any awards for it's sensitivity on sexual relations, this is a ecchi-comedy for a predominantly male audience, an audience known for it's struggles with the fairer sex. It is a rather baffling way to start the OVA, especially since there is no real plot point here (One could make the argument that the fundoshi firmly sets the hero as a man living about four centuries too late, but I believe that point is already enforced with in the first five minutes, and as such, is extraneous). 
Look upon his gloriously firm cheeks and despair!
 The animation here at the start is rather solid, there are some good camera movements as the our hero runs through the house, but it doesn't keep that high level of quality for long. What follows is the most confusing part of the story, and it is particularly strange, since for most of the rest of the show, everything is telegraphed to the viewer with the utmost lack of subtlety. Basically, a pair of criminal scum hold up the hero's classroom for cash, and our hero saves the day by being totally leet. But the whole arc is completely incomprehensible at first light. Basically, the scene exists to establish the characters, we have our hero living in the Meiji Era and the love interest, who is a modern girl, firmly in the present. And the scene is then split right at the climax by the OP, which instead of being cool, just helps to overwhelm the viewer. (A quick note on the OP – apparently the budget was blown on the 'run through the house' scene, since the OP is horribly cheap. It's really bad). But back to the robber bit. First, why are there robbers in a high school to begin with? It's not like schools are known for having plies of cash at hand. And secondly, the scene is concluded around twenty seconds after the OP. Splitting the scene like that has only a detrimental effect on the show.

Now that the male and female leads have been introduced, it's time for the main antagonists to make their appearance. We have twin girl ninja to battle our sole samurai dude. Sometimes, when watching old shows, it can be hard to remember that tropes I've seen a dozens of times before might be fresh and new when this aired. But I think the female ninja vs. male samurai has been around for awhile. Anyway, these twins are night and day, one is a total slut that introduces herself by stripping down and inviting multiple boys to sleep with her, and the other is a violent harridan who's default reaction to men is to put her fist through their face. Again, you can't but help to think that originally isn't Director Yamazaki Kazuo's specialty (looking through his catalog, I see he was the director for a lot of Urusei Yatsura (not a series known for innovation) and also the sole creative force behind the Slayers Motion Picture, which while not a bad movie, completely misses the whole point of the franchise and I believe was disowned by Kanzaka Hajime, the original creator (although I may be mistaken).). Anyway, it turns out that our hero, like so many other Japanese teenagers, gets massive nosebleeds when seeing girls naked. 
Figure 1: A Naked Girl
After learning of this weakness, the ninja girls decide to use this method to defeat him, which in turn has our hero 'training' to resist this, mostly by using porn mags. There is some great comedy here, especially when the love interest decides to help out and gives her mother a few gray hairs.
This subarc also introduces Sister A, who spends the majority of her sparse screen time in transparent underwear. She serves no real purpose other than another girl to ogle, but her screen time is so limited she really should have been cut altogether, or at least merged with Sister B, which gets even less screen time. The results of the 'special training' work as bout as well as would be expected, but this battle in the unending war between the ninja and the samurai ends in a draw, as the teacher defeats both sides.
Getting naked for great justice!
The second subarc is more of the same, as the students go on a field trip and the twins are hosted on their own petard again. We see more flashbacks to the past, but learn nothing new that we didn't the first time. Again, there are some moments of comedic brilliance—the rabbit hunting scene in particular—but it is mostly more nudity jokes. The plot was set up to give some time for the male sidekick to shine, but he can't really advance beyond being a total skeeve. The final arc again fails to surprise—the love interest is kidnapped and our hero must rush in to save her. The animation really starts to suffer, a chase scene through a cityscape turns into two characters running behind a flashing pattern of circles, an abstract representation of city lights that I have always despised.
Figure 2: Shitty animation

And, in case if you were playing too much attention to the tits and not enough to story, the writers give up on the ham-fisted allegory and tell the viewer right out.  Again, there is some great comedy here, I really enjoyed the scene with the parents running down the tunnel with our hero, but this subarc really loses all control. I think it was an attempt to give a crowning moment of awesome to the story, but it suffers from a complete lack of logical progression. It feels forced and uncomfortably awkward. The whole reason why Grandma wants the sword is so pathetically sad that it drops a wet blanket over the show. It is something to be said that in a show where girls strip at the drop of a hat, this most misogynistic part of the story. There is also the problem that the story never really hits the climax. There is long, involved scene of the tower being destroyed, and then a long, anti-climatic scene where everyone sits around eating riceballs and getting a good laugh out of the situation, despite the fact half a dozen people were nearly killed out of sheer stupidity, but we never get to see the conflict between the twins and the samurai resolved. In fact, the samurai doesn't even meet the twins face to face for the last six minutes. Another discrepancy is the complete lack of ecchi in the last subarc. The first two arcs are defined by the ecchi, but in the last, everyone remains fully clothed throughout. Without the tits, The Samurai can't really stand on it own, and the whole ending remains unsatisfying. The show closes out with an ED devoted to the love interest, which would have been somewhat romantic, if their relationship had been developed in the slightest.
Thank you for stating the obvious.

If The Samurai has any value, it is as a prototype, or a blueprint, for the ecchi-comedy genre to come. It is the earliest anime that I have seen that has a character getting a nosebleed when aroused, and while in modern anime this is excepted as normal, here the characters lampshade it by calling it a 'allergy to naked women'. I don't know when the whole nosebleed thing started, but this is clearly an early iteration of the idea. You can also see a proto-tsundere character in the female lead. To be clear, she is not one, but she has certain characteristics that would later be exaggerated into the basis of the tsundere trope. Since The Samurai hails from the time before the Database reigned supreme, you don't see the cheap stereotypes and tropes that monopolize so much of modern ecchi. It is almost worth watching just for the release from that yoke. Almost.

The Samurai is not a good show. But it is not wholly bad either. It has it's moments of comedy, and there is a good thirty minutes of bountiful ecchi, and for those first two-thirds, I was entertained enough to forgive the flaws. Sadly, the lax finale that sours the rest of the show. The idea of The Samurai is not in itself flawed, but it is unable to execute those ideas with any real success. If there is any value to The Samurai, it is that it captures a moment in time where the tropes of the ecchi and ero comedies are being formed, and this anime sets the ground work for a lot of what would follow after. The biggest failing of this show is it's inability to make me care about it's world. Characters aren't adequately defined, relationship aren't built, and plot points are left unexplored. I know it is difficult to do within 45 minutes, but it has been done before. The Samurai has a lot of energy, but it remains unfocused and mostly wasted.

The Boxscore:
Art: 6
Sound: 7
Overall: 6.2
Grade: C+

Recommendation: I almost hate to say this, since there are moments of quality humour, but you can get the functional equivalent out of Urusei Yatsura. Sit this one, and watch Labyrinth of Flames instead.

Side Note:
I borrowed the name for this segment from the “Corpus Hermeticum”, a collection of alchemical wisdom texts. And knowledge is half the battle:

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