Friday, August 20, 2010

Anime Review: Legend of the Mystical Ninja

Ganbare Goemon.  If you’re reading this without having it translated, you probably don’t know what it is.  Long story short, it’s a video game franchise that’s been around longer than Metal Gear.  Most of the games revolve around the medieval Japanese exploits of our hero Goemon, decked out in  blue hair, kabuki face paint, and armed with… a pipe.  His friends include the chubby Ebisumaru, girl Yae, and robot Sasuke.  And if you think they’re weird, wait until you see the villains.  A Catholic priestess Ebisumaru lookalike, a parody of Commodore Matthew Perry, you get the idea.

In Japan, the Ganbare Goemon franchise is big – unbelievably big.  Like, don’t be surprised if a Goemon cosplayer shows up at your gym class to promote the next game.  Although it’s cooled off in recent years, this series has got over twenty games and spinoffs to its name – only four of which have crossed the Pacific Ocean.  So, given how huge this thing is, it’s only natural for an animated series of some form to have been produced.  And in 1997, the inevitable came into being.

Anime Ganbare Goemon, as it is officially called, was broadcast on the Japanese network TBS, Tokyo Broadcasting System, from October 1997 to March 1998, for a 23-episode run.  But even though it started just months after one of the games was released – and one of the most popular ones at that – the plot of this show isn’t just a retelling of one of the games.  That would have been too easy.  No, what we get is Goemon jumping into the real world to fight his enemies in an assault on the fourth wall like you’ve never seen!  …At least, it would have been that awesome if I wrote it.

As it is, Goemon and allies… somehow… make the jump from the Game World into the human world and join forces with Tsukasa, this dippy ten-year-old.  (What is it with ten-year-old heroes these days?  All I know is it would make a kick-awesome episode of Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?.)  Together, they must fight the forces of evil who invariably cause chaos to summon a giant monster to attempt to cause even more chaos.  All this is done so that the demon lord Makuamuuge may enter the human world and conquer it for himself.  The only countermeasure they have against these threats is the giant robot Goemon Impact, who in this show must be summoned by Goemon eating a super-powered ohagi (bean cake) and blowing on a conch-shell trumpet.  And in case you're wondering, he only has to do that second step in the games, and then only when the plot lets him.  Here, the whole process eats up thirty seconds or more of valuable screen time each and every episode.  (Except for the one episode where they conveniently forgot to show him eating the ohagi and it wasn't so much as lampshaded...  Good times.)

The game-based characters are interesting enough, if only because that's how they were created for the games, in some cases over a decade earlier.  Goemon, our hammy, card-carrying hero, is just too good at being... good.  Ebisumaru, the Little John to Goemon's Robin Hood, is pretty much only a little more enjoyable than how much you like fat jokes.  Yae, the team's sole female member, is the "straight guy" and looks more awesome than she is.  And Sasuke - not that one, Narutards - is a little robot.  In this incarnation, he is used by his creator, the Wise Ol' Man Monoshiri to take pictures of pretty girls while being none the wiser.  Yeah, he's a perv.  Finally, Omitsu is Goemon's girlfriend/wife (it's never explained; I like to assume the latter), whose jobs are to provide him with the super ohagi and to get jealous over every girl with whom she misinterprets Goemon making a romantic advance towards.  That's about it.

Now onto the villains.  Seppukumaru, who was drawn from the fourth Super Famicom game, dresses in a blue bodysuit that bares his off-model midriff, wears one-ton bracelets (but doesn't do anything else with his super strength), and has a habit of attempting suicide after each of his failed plots.  Tagging along are the four Tsujigiri, these dumpling-like monsters who pretty much have no distinct personalities among them.  They do serve as decent matches to Goemon and company until the fight inevitably shifts to Impact and the monster of the day.  Halfway through the series, lord Makuamuuge swaps him out for Dr. Mudanashi and his android Protein.  Dr. Mudanashi's schtick is that he's obsessed with not wasting anything, least of all time, which almost comes off as amusing.  And protein's outfits and mannerisms not only manage to out-effeminate Seppukumaru, but he has a brief flash of love with Sasuke, a boy robot.  Yes, it's safe to say it: he's literally gay.  But this is soon forgotten in favor of Mudanashi crushing over Tsukasa's mom.

Meanwhile, Tsukasa’s involved in a constant love triangle with two other students in his class: Asuka, a girl, and Noboru, a rich snobby boy.  Noboru tries to use his resources to woo Asuka, but it always backfires, with her turning to the simple advances of Tsukasa.  These B-plots almost never intersect with the main stories, and mainly serve to provide some kind of moral to the viewers.

Now, believe it or not, this show has an all-star cast picked out for the English dub.  Well, as A-list as you can be in the anime dubbing industry, which is kind of like C-list overall.  It turns out that Goemon is voiced by none other than Vic Mignogna.  That’s right: Vic “Who are you calling a bean-sprout midget mon ami” Mignogna.  Also, Tsukasa is voiced by Tiffany “What are you, stupid?” Grant.  Oh how the mighty have fallen.  Vic's performance as Goemon is on the hammy side, with such tics as pronouncing his own name "Goy-mon".  Oy vey.  (Note that Vic did this job before Fullmetal Alchemist, the role that made him famous.)  Then again, the dialogues for both the English and subtitled Japanese have their own annoying habits, too.  In English, for example, the heroes' lines portray them as your average Saturday-morning defenders of justice (e.g. "For all that's good, Goemon Impact!"), whereas the original Japanese dialogue is a different shade of hammy (same scene: "Astonish the world, Goemon Impact!")

Legend of the Mystical Ninja may not do anything especially awful, but that's just it - it doesn't do anything especially at all.  Every episode follows the same structure: the villains start trouble, the heroes find out about it and rush to stop it, the fight evolves into a giant robot stock-footage fest, and once again the day is saved, or something.  Even genre-founders like Super Sentai/Power Rangers would mix it up by not using the Megazords once in a while, for example, but here you get no such luxury.  This show gets boring and forgettable fast.  There is certainly potential in bringing such a huge universe to the realm of anime, but so much of its potential remains utterly untapped.  I wouldn't always advise this, but maybe tying the plot directly to that of one of the video games would have been the smarter course of action.

The Call: 40% (F)

And now for another installment of "Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking".  The theme songs to the games take on the campy route I mentioned earlier, with one of them having been performed by Hironobu Kageyama, whose work includes some of the Japanese theme songs to Dragon Ball Z.  No, they didn't get carried over for this show, either; the intro and ending songs are just boring ol' J-pop.  But there's something in the ending song, "OK! OK!", that strikes me as familiar...  The last few notes in the song sound just like the title screen jingle from Contra!  Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go input the Konami code...

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