Original Animated Vehicle: Thoughts Caused by Arslan That Are About More Than Arslan

Heroic Legend of Arslan Screencap 01

The Heroic Legend of Arslan (henceforth, just Arslan) is a six-episode fantasy OAV series made over the course of four years, from 1991-1995.  It is based on a set of ongoing  (actual, non-lite) novels by acclaimed author Yoshiki Tanaka who also wrote a little series called Legend of the Galactic Heroes.  In some ways, Arslan functions a lot like a low-fantasy version of LOGH but without the parts that apparently bother some people who are not me.

This post is not an Arslan review.

The above is meant as a little taste of background in case anyone wants to go out and catch some Arslan, which I’d advise everyone to do.  Rather than review this particular anime here, I want to discuss the larger, more general thoughts that Arslan led me to think.   The show represents some of the things I love most about anime, but it also foreshadows a current anime trend that I find troubling.  I will use a couple of the OAV’s prominent aspects as jumping-off points for this discussion.

arslan02

Something about Arslan that I can really appreciate is the fact that it exists in the medium it does.  If you really think about it, a detail-oriented story concerning the politics of a faux Persia doesn’t sound like the greatest fit for an animation.  Yet, someone animated it.  And it’s brilliant.

This notion of taking stories with premises, or, at the very least, key components, that seem too slow or mundane or complicated or otherwise unfit to be made into cartoons and making them into cartoons is something that has always kind of awed me about anime.   I have long admired the creative individual decisions made by Japanese animation studios concerning the green-lighting of this or that particular show, but this practice seems so pervasive that one cannot help but speculate that perhaps the cultural DNA of Japan contains an acceptance/enjoyment of a wider scope of visual story-telling than does our own.  Plus, they got Osamu Tezuka, so that helped steer the public consciousness.  But yeah, Arslan…this kinda slow, kinda ethereal, kinda political show set in pretend Persia actually got made.  Awesome.

A separate but germane point is that these kinds of works are often quite good!  If Japan continually attempted to push the boundaries of anime by trying to acclimate stories into the medium which didn’t quite work as anime, I think it would still be laudable from a creative point of view, if a bit sad from an economic one.   But not only do they try, they succeed.  Arslan is one such success.

Zac Bertschy referred to the first part of Arslan as a visual “feast.”  Quite true.  At least in the early going, Arslan is a lavish production, and, even though the standard of production values dips a bit in later episodes, the show remains a quality work.  The experienced Kazuchika Kise handles animation direction as well as some key animation, and he, along with series director Mamoru Hamatsu, do a phenomenal job with transporting the viewer into the world of the show.  I could go on about the aesthetic qualities of this series, but Justin Sevakis already did so.  And he is better at this than me.

Japan sure spends a lot of time and money making their animated projects look good.  This is the most obvious point I’m going to make in this post, but I do find interesting the contrast between how U.S.treats its non-theatrical animation versus how Japan used to treat it.   Arslan is an OAV, a straight-to-video production.  In America, the words “straight to video” are by and large equivalent to “shit on a disc.”  The approach taken by companies such as Disney and Dreamworks in the release of sequels (notoriously low(er) budget, corner-cutting cash grabs) for their animated franchises is basically the model as well as the reason direct-to-video as an avenue has a poor reputation.

By contrast, the acronym OAV does not have such negative connotations.  OK, so some OAVs are low(er) budget, corner-cutting cash grabs, but the OAV as a format has the same stigma as its American counterpart.  And rightly so, for during the OAV’s heyday (80s and 90s),  production quality of direct-to-video releases was often vastly superior to that of  anime television series.  Japanese studios have spent large amounts of money and time not simply making the sorts of anime projects referred to above (e.g. Arslan) but making them beautiful.   I love this about anime.  Unfortunately, the OAV market is pretty much dead today and sees very little in the way of productions not tied to television series.  Sadly these lavish, straight-to-video releases are a thing of the past.

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One of Arslans few drawbacks is its (non)ending.  It just sort of stops.  No one is in the middle of doing anything, but neither has anything really been accomplished.   Hanging plot threads abound.   Usually when this sort of thing happens,  my thwarted expectations and incredulity at the sheer egregiousness on the part of the animation studio combine (GATTAI!) to create a nasty mental scar.  The experience of watching the show retroactively, and a bit unfairly, becomes a negative one.  For some reason, though, I ain’t mad at Arslan; I’m just disappointed.  Perhaps the first cut is indeed the deepest.  Berserk, Nadesico; I’m looking at you guys.

Luckily for Japanese-speaking fans, in order to continue the heroic adventures of Arslan and company, they can just go out and pick up the novels.  Good for them…or is it?  Though I believe that the ideal way to tell a story is to use a single medium, I actually don’t have a huge problem with leaving things off in one format and picking them back up in another.  “Finished the movie and want more?  Read the books!”  This sort of thing is fine, as long as the latter form of entertainment is relatively cheap to acquire.

However, modern anime is not content to simply transition from film to novel or vice versa.  Stories spill across various different media formats including visual novels, video games, and audio and picture dramas, in addition to print and film.  These cross promotional tie-ins used to be mainly side stories or fan-servicey (in the pure sense of the term) ventures that weren’t necessary to enjoying the narrative as a whole.  Today’s anime fan, though, likely has to splash the cash on multiple expensive media in order to get the optimum experience of a story or set of character she likes.

And it’s not just the frugal fans who get shafted; the creators themselves get the short end of the stick.  How can this be, you may ask, when the niche market is willing to pony up the dough for any and all iterations of, say, the hottest Type Moon property?  If we can take a long-term view of anime and examine its prospects from an artistic as well as an economic perspective, then my answer will make (some degree of?) sense.

Let’s take the artistic long view first:  one creator or set of creators cannot possibly oversee their property’s various manifestations as manga, anime, VN, MMO, etc.  Thus, the creative vision that drives the original iteration of a property will surely be compromised during subsequent iterations of the property that are churned out under the eye of a different creative staff.  So, we’ll routinely get several instances of an IP that turn out to be totally different from each other in aesthetics, tone, target demographic, etc.  The plot may diverge from where it was originally going, yet that divergence is present in a canonical part of the franchise.  If you’re a creator who is emotionally invested in your work, even a little bit, this has got to be frustrating.  I also feel like we have become used to this state of affairs as fans, but we shouldn’t think that things necessarily have to be this way.

The economics of the situation are even more troubling.  Anime iterations of the sorts of IPs we are talking about rarely stand on their own as solid narratives.  You need the rest of the story, be it background on denouement.  It has been said that the current “crisis” in the Japaneses anime industry can be traced to the fact that the product is too reliant on tropes and otaku-only in-jokes.  I believe that a much greater threat to the viability of anime is that more and more of it is mired in continuity.  There may indeed be a small subset of people willing to invest financially in entire product lines that span multiple media platforms, but to rely upon this small group at the cost of lowering the barrier of entry to potential buyers is not a sound long term strategy.  Stay daring, anime, but don’t make it difficult for people to become fans.

I hope this post does not seem unfair on Arslan, as I spend more time generalizing about past and present trends in anime than talking about the OAV’s strengths.  I do recommend it, especially to fans of low fantasy.  However, thinking on it it reminded me both of the things I love about anime and those I’m not so crazy about.  I think that this kind of reflection is a worthwhile exercise, so, for that, thank you Arslan..

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Original Animated Vehicle: Thoughts Caused by Arslan That Are About More Than Arslan

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