Having recently been to Anime Blues Con it spurred me to go back and start digging through some old boxes, some old drawers and such, and found that I still had quite a few of the old VHS and DVD’s of some of the first anime I’d ever seen. I’m going to get nostalgic for a moment. For many of those who probably don’t know, I’m going on 31. I had my first introduction to anime as early as 6 or 7 when I’d watch reruns of Gatchaman (Battle of the Planets here in the states), Speed Racer, Voltron, Robotech, and Mazinger Z (Tanzor Z here in the states) and you’re probably wondering – “Well this article must be over because he just named off five classic anime?” Pump your brakes. Those were not the droids (or anime) we were looking for. Sure those are classics. Sure those particular shows are the forefathers of what we know today as anime. Yes, these are all great in their own right and should be raised on high as works of art, BUT these are shows I honestly believe anyone in my generation have probably seen (whether they realize/remember it or not).
No, we’re here for something else! These are some anime features and series that I feel get overlooked when people talk about the classics. The old days. The all or nothing days. Why am I quoting Sin City? These entries are the gems that I had to dig deep for. The ones that weren’t readily available at your local video store or rental place back before DVD was an upstart media format and VHS was how the otakus liked their anime! Without further adieu… Ikuzo!
Demon City Shinjuku (1988)
First up is an OVA (original animated video) by famed anime director Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust) and its main claim to fame is having it’s opening fight scene featured in the 1995 cyberpunk film, Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves.
The Genres: Horror, Action, Supernatural
The Gist: An evil guy (Rebi Ra) allows himself to be possessed by an evil entity and wants to use his new-found power to conquer the world and invade it with demons. Enter Kyoya Izayoi (the reluctant hero) and Sayaka Rama (the World President’s daughter) who fight their way through a demon infested city, encounter strange friends and foes, and must figure out how to save the world from a demon invasion.
Why You Should Care: For the time this anime had strikingly superb animation that was leaps and bounds ahead of anything we were doing here stateside. The voice acting ranges from good to laughable, but they manage to get the point across in the performances and sometimes even the bad voice acting helps instead of hurts this movie. The action is also pretty damn entertaining, and if you’re a fan of Kawajiri’s later work (like Ninja Scroll) you’ll see some of his signature styles as they begin to take form. As anime classics go this one has chops, and is indicative of the allure old school anime had and how it attracted an entire generation.
Next up is an anime with an unconventional story for the genre at the time. This particular anime is Venus Wars that crept out of the vault of publisher U.S. Manga Corps back in the early 90’s. It’s one and only claim to fame was that it was featured in heavy rotation on the then Sci Fi Channel’s (now Syfy) “Saturday Anime” movie block.
The Genres: Adventure, Science Fiction
The Gist: The movie takes place during 2089 on Venus. Thanks to a comet hitting the planet back in 2003 (odd, right?) it caused an unlikely yet scientifically sound situation where the planet could be terraformed and populated by Earth’s people by 2012 (even odder, right?). The population reaches into the millions and the populace divides into two separate factions and inevitably war breaks out. The Killer Commandos, a local bike racing team led by hotshot monobiker Hiro Seno, gets caught in the crossfire alongside a bubbly reporter from Earth. Lives get sacrificed, tough choices must be made, and they have to do what they must to survive.
Why You Should Care: Back during the late 80’s and early 90’s it was uncommon to anime on this side of the pond that focused on things that weren’t demons trying to take over, sex, ultra violence, giant robots, fast cars, ninjas, or in some cases – ALL of the above. It’s a bit more common to find anime that focuses on real world issues, or at the very least fictional world issues, but even then that’s now saying very much. In this story you get to see how war affects a group of teenagers who are just caught in the middle. Better yet, you get to see how it affects a woman from Earth who is too short-sighted and selfish to care about other people’s problems. Each of these characters copes with it in their own way, or has their own opinion about how it should be handled and whether or not they should do anything about it. It’s really riveting. At the time when I saw this I wasn’t all that impressed (I was 14, if even that old), but as I got older and more mature I really latched on to it. The animation is impressive, even more so than Demon City Shinjuku, AND it has a really catchy soundtrack. The monobikes were the most original thing I’d seen in any type of media before, and the voice acting is pretty damned good. This is an anime that will make you think, as well as, entertain you.
Where You Can Find It: There have been some reports that you can get this on Blu-ray, but the links I’ve seen seem sketchy at best, even on Amazon. You can still get the DVD here. You can also watch it in its entirety on YouTube.
This next is anime that fell into relative obscurity after its release due to being out of print, but is well-known in most underground circles. It’s considered somewhat of a cult classic. 8 Man was a manga and anime superhero created in 1963 by science fiction writer Kazumasa Hirai and manga artist Jiro Kuwata. It’s claim to fame is that it’s considered Japan’s earliest cyborg superhero, predating Kamen Rider AND was supposedly the inspiration for Robocop.
The Genres: Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Drama
The Gist: In this anime sequel to live action 8 Man movie, a hard-nosed, no bullshit detective named Hazama Itsuru becomes fatally wounded during an investigation and to save his life he is turned into the 8 Man. A half human, half cyborg being with superhuman capabilities. He uses his new form to fight crime in his city which is filled to the brim with cyborg thugs and killers. To make matters worse he must contend with some mysterious kingpin, Mister Halloween, who has control over all the cyber criminals in town.
Why You Should Care: Honestly, this one is a hard sell. Not because it is bad, but because as far as American audiences go we’ve seen this story quite a few times already so what they do here may come off as unoriginal to some viewers. The movie is overflowing with action either, but it does have a lot of entertaining moments during the downtime. The character of Hazama is pretty funny and sometimes you might even forget the 8 Man is in the movie, because Hazama is just that good. When 8 Man does show up he does kick some major metallic ass, but that particular persona is pretty wooden compared to the Hazama alter ego. It does tackle some hard issues like drug abuse (in its own way) and offers up some solid animation. Of most of the old school anime during the time it has the best voice acting you’ll hope to here. The reoccurring villain, Tony Gleck, is also a show stealer and is constantly a thorn in 8 Man’s side (like Clarence Boddicker in Robocop). It’s a solid outing and if you are a fan of Super Sentai and Tokusatsu this is more than worth checking out. Even if you aren’t a fan of such genres, but you can relate to Robocop then this is up your alley.
Where You Can Find It: Like I said before, sadly 8 Man After is out of print since Streamline Pictures folded. It was one of the many anime that lost a home when that studio closed down. However, you can find it in limited quantities online at Amazon through re-sellers and the like, but some seem to be selling it for exorbitant prices. If Amazon has it in stock you can get it for a fair price. You can also watch it in its entirety on YouTube.
Yoshiaki Kawajiri returns on this list yet again with another entry called Cyber City Oedo 808. I had to fight with this one because Kawajiri had several obscure anime under his belt at the time that were amazing pieces of work, and it was either this, Goku Midnight Eye, or Wicked City. I thought long and hard about it, and ultimately Cyber City won. It’s claim to fame? Nothing really. Well unless you count the fact that (for the time) it is full of so much vulgar language and violence that you’d have a hard time arguing anime is an “art form” back in the 90’s.
The Genres: Cyberpunk, Action, Neo-Noir, Science Fiction
The Gist: We follow 3 cyber criminals (Sengoku, Gogol and Benten) who are each serving a 300-or-more year sentences in an orbital prison until the Cyber Police unit of the future Japanese city of Oedo has restarted the feudal practice of hōmen – allowing criminals with experience in cyber crimes, murder, and trafficking to become “deputized” as officers of the law – in return for their services they get to deduct a little time off their overall prison sentence for each cyber criminal they take down. The story is broken up into three parts with each focusing on one particular member of the squad.
Why You Should Care: Let’s be honest with ourselves. This is a very vulgar anime. As vulgar as they come to be completely honest with you. This is one of those particular anime that isn’t “higher art”. It is just good all around fun. The things they say in the English dub are just ridiculous. They almost remind me of the type of vulgarities you’d find in the video game Bulletstorm. The action is pretty solid, each character is voice acted decently for the most part, the animation is what you’d expect from Kawajiri and company (stunning), and each segment really does a great job of fleshing out each individual member of the trio. I’d even go as far as to say they get better and better as each segment passes with Benten’s being the best. They fight everything from undead hackers to cybernetic hulks, to supernatural criminals. Once again, it’s not higher art… it’s just fun to watch.
Where You Can Find It: Truthfully? It’s funny that this one is more readily available than some other obscure anime. This one stays in stock at Amazon more often than not. You can also catch all three parts on YouTube, as well. Here’s the Episode One.
This, to me, is the creme de la creme on this list. This mini series was probably responsible for most of my geeky tendencies from middle school going onward. Record of Lodoss War’s claim to fame is simple. It was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Need I say more? Well I will just in case that wasn’t enough… it was a Dungeons & Dragons “replay” (transcripts of pen & paper RPG sessions) that became so popular it became an anime/manga series.
The Genres: Fantasy, Medieval
The Gist: Of the coast of the continent of Alacrast lies an accursed island called Lodoss where people live in relative peace. Out of the shadows a dark army calling themselves the Marmo arises and threatens the safety of the people by promising world domination and the resurrection of the ancient dragons. Meanwhile a young and untested warrior named Parn seeks to become a true knight and is accompanied by a mage, a dwarf, an elf, a cleric, and a thief. Together they seek out to stop the Marmo and save the world.
Why You Should Care: Easy. If you love Dungeons & Dragons you will love this series. It’s that simple. If you could care less about Dungeons & Dragons… I still think you’ll walk aways enjoying this one. I’ve rarely met an anime fan (enthusiast or casual) who didn’t at least think the series was “OK”. Most I know adore this series. It has all the classic D&D tropes. The hero is a “Fighter”. His companions are the classic D&D classes/races. He has several bad ass antagonists over the series’ run. And the dragons are pretty damned awesome. The art and animation of this series is absolutely breathtaking from start to finish and has one of the best voice acting performances for an entire cast you’ll find (even against today’s standards). I could continue to gush about the soundtrack and score, the nods to other role-playing games and character types, and what not. I won’t, but just know they are there! This series has been an inspiration to many anime artists and directors, and is considered one of the greatest of all time. You’d be hard pressed to find a better medieval fantasy anime.
Where You Can Find It: Well… there’s the rub. You can’t really. Well you can, but Amazon doesn’t keep it in stock and the only way to get through them is “re-sellers” and there you’re kind of buying at your own risk. I’ve had good experiences with it, but you’ll either pay an exorbitant fee or possibly get a defective product. Who knows. I typically don’t condone “illegally” downloading things , but this is one of the few times I’d say “get it the best way you can” and right now due to it being out of print and Media Blasters dropping their plans for a DVD/Blu-ray release… I can only shrug and say do what you must…
Check these obscure classics out! Next time I’ll give a few more I think are worth your time and money. Let me know what you think about my picks. Sound off in the comments section!