Pile of Shame - Genesis Surviver Gaiarthby Justin Sevakis, Mar 6th 2013
Genesis Surviver Gaiarth
Anime nerds are often asked by non-fans what makes Japanese cartoons different from those of other countries. When I get asked this question I usually spout out something about the broad depth of storytelling, potential maturity in tone, and its use of filmic language. All of those things are true in a general sense, but there are lots of exceptions. Sure, some anime pays ridiculous attention to shot composition and lighting (Jin-Roh, for example), but then you have simple-looking TV comedies that look as flat as anything on Nick Jr. And as far as maturity goes... well, from an adult point of view plenty of anime still seems pretty juvenile.
So, is there one common thread that seems to define anime definitively, in a way that includes, if not everything, at least a vast majority of the stuff out there? This flood of thought occurred to me after watching the three-part OAV, Genesis Surviver Gaiarth, which left me deeply puzzled. Its story, filled with post-apocalyptic sci-fi tropes, was not anything special, but wasn't insufferable either. Instead it just seemed dull and flat in a way that even the worst anime usually isn't. It simply didn't FEEL like anime, in its most basic sense. The answer, as it turns out, had nothing to do with its manual artistry or the animation itself, but rather, its sense of timing.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Genesis Surviver Gaiarth is a 3-part Sci-fi OAV from AIC and ARTMIC dating from 1992 to 1993, and given an American release only a few months later on VHS by AnimEigo. Despite it being so available from such an early date, I had never watched more than a few minutes of it before getting bored and wandering off. Apparently I wasn't alone: AnimEigo never bothered to put out a DVD of the show, and today it languishes in obscurity, mostly forgotten. Which is interesting, since the show has quite a pedigree, having been helmed by no less than Shinji Aramaki and Hiroyuki Kitazume. The animation looks pretty cheap today, but some of the designs are nice.
The show is about the adventures of Ital, a brash, young hero with little personality, other than his being raised alone on an island by Randis, a warrior robot who apparently fought in a big war that nobody remembers. Randis is under the impression that the war is still going on, and teaches his "son" how to fight. One day a team of robot soldiers ("autosoldiers") discover their compound and ransack the place, looking for someone named Sakuya. Randis is destroyed, and Ital has to go it alone. On his voyage, Ital befriends another old war-roid named Zaxon (who has no memory of his past, but seems to be a great warrior), and a team of junk hunters, lead by obvious-90s anime-spunky-love-interest Sahari, who lead him to a big city. The world is being overrun with autosoldiers, who attack settlements constantly and are believed to be remote controlled by the Beast Master. Inevitably (predictably?) the Beast Master turns its sights to the city, and when the local ruler and guardian Warlock is killed in the most heroic manner possible, Ital and Zaxon are compelled to take on the fight. Long fighting scenes ensue, and characters yell each other's names a lot.
Now, take a step back for a minute and look at that premise. Ital's background is ripped off pretty much directly from Future Boy Conan, but any writer with even the dullest of wit could've worked up an interesting moment or two with that back story. After all, here is a kid who had never seen another human before, suddenly finding himself in a peaceful city, expecting a war to be happening. But the writing drops the ball completely. Nothing is made of his past or his background, or how out of place a guy like him would be in a city. It's as if everyone was imagined as J-RPG characters, destined to fight battles and fetch objects, but with no human interaction more meaningful than a few screens of expository text. Similar opportunities for social commentary and insight abound with a world full of now-useless war weaponry and machinery acting on its own, but Gaiarth would rather show us meaningless battles and explosions than give us any emotional core or tension.
Episodes two and three change out both directors and other staff; the characters look almost entirely different and the show itself feels like it's been downgraded to the "B-team". New directors Masayuki Oozeki (ep2) and Hideaki Oba (ep3) continue on the show's paint-by-numbers course towards its eventual battles and romance between Ital and Sahari. They re-use the same background music tracks, failing to inject any excitement into the proceedings, or even the slightest bit of doubt into how things will turn out. Even more than episode 1, the second two parts just sort of lay there, seemingly exhausted by the weight of their own cliché. Part two has the team fighting a dragon and discovering an "Elf" named Sakuya (a.k.a. mysterious plot point girl found sleeping naked in a pod), and part three has an evil General kidnapping her in an attempt to take over/destroy the world.
It's all so indescribably tired and boring. There is nothing here that couldn't be predicted or written by any 10-year-old who had ever played a fantasy RPG or seen a handful of movies, and there is no attempt to add even a shred of personality or twist on any of the tropes here. Adding insult to injury, the musical score seems to be just as bored as we are: action-packed battle scenes are scored with repetitive elevator music. It doesn't care about any of these characters, and neither do we.
A few years after its initial release AnimEigo started dubbing their catalog in earnest, and assigned Gaiarth to a local Willmington studio called In Tune Music Recording, which was owned by Eric Tomosunas (credited on this dub with script supervision). Directed by Zach Hanner, the English dub makes an already bland work taste like chalk. Characters talk in a pitched monotone based on their archetype, with no real regard for what's happening on screen or within the minds of the characters. The dub script is mostly a barely-reworked version of the subtitle translation, with no attempt to sharpen or smooth out awkward lines. Normally I'd be upset about a dub like this blandly painting over the show and missing its subtext and dramatic moments, but there aren't any to miss. For what it's worth, Tomosunas' later studio, Swirl Recording, was used primarily by Media Blasters for dubbing hentai and other stuff they considered low-end.
Throughout this dull 2 1/2 hour affair, my mind wandered to why anyone seemed to like this show at all back in the 90s. I could only guess that whoever enjoyed it did so because it fulfilled the expectations of a budding anime nerd of the era: it had mecha and fighting, had that unique Japanese sheen to its artwork, and told an easily digestible story that didn't seem too foreign. (And also, there couldn't have been TOO many Gaiarth fans, as AnimEigo never bothered with a DVD release, and nobody I've met ever complained about that.)
But as the minutes ticked by and I started to realize that the story was just as hackneyed as your average 80s saturday morning cartoon, I really started to ponder why anime gets separated in our minds from American cartoons, when so much of both are just dross, blandly made to be as unoriginal as possible and cynically marketed to an audience with low expectations. What made a mediocre anime different from a mediocre Western kids' cartoon, aside from an occasional panty shot?
I've thought about that a lot, but the answer didn't occur to me until a few weeks ago, while I was watching the TV show Community. For those unaware, the series was a favorite among comedy nerds (even if it was somewhat spotty in recent years), but for this season the head writer and executive producer was replaced, and the new episodes just seem dull and flat, like mediocre fan fiction -- despite having some of the same writers and some of the jokes being funny on paper.
The answer in both cases is one of timing. A large part of what made Community so great before was a sort of restraint: a knowledge that silence and patience was as important to both comedy and emotional breadth as the punchlines. (The new episodes breathlessly try to push out as many jokes and as much dialogue as fast as possible, and fails to engage.) And so it is with anime: even the lamest dude-falls-on-boob gags are delivered with awkward silence, a pregnant pause, and THEN a sight gag. At the other end of the spectrum, quiet moments of pathos are given space: they're unlikely to be filled with obviously emotional music queues or operatic gestures. A sad character in anime is more likely to just sit there silently in the rain for a few beats. Those quiet moments are essential to anime. They are truthful, and they connect us emotionally to content that might otherwise be just as lame as its most dire Western counterparts. I suspect that part of anime's youth appeal in the West comes from younger audiences' heightened sensitivity to these subtle emotional pokes.
But that restrained sense of timing is such a subtle thing that it's easy to miss. It's likely the result of Japanese students studying directors like Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse in film and animation school. It's what makes anime unique. That rhythm just seeps into the entire country's creative output, and after digesting a certain amount of it, we become numb to its effects. We only notice it when it's not there, and even then we can't tell what's wrong, exactly. Something just seems off. It seems pallid and bland.
And it's missing here. Gaiarth is the exception that proves the rule. Its dramatic moments are given no space to breathe. Its pace seems relentless and droning, without punctuation or interest by those telling the story. With most anime, there is at least the pacing and the sense of dramatic storytelling separating it from bad Western cartoons. With Gaiarth, there is not even that. And so it becomes as interesting as the drone of an engine: a little annoying at first, but so unremarkable that after a few minutes it blends into the background and we forget it's even there.
Japanese Name: 創世機士ガイアース (Sousei kishi Gaiarth)
Media Type: OAV series
Length: 50' X 3 episodes
Genres: Adventure, mecha, apocalyptic, action, sci-fi
Availability (Japan): A 2-disc DVD boxed set was released in 2004, and might be out of print. No English. Old VHS and LD releases are likely out there as well.
Availability (English): Subtitled and dubbed VHS, bilingual LD from AnimEigo (out of print)
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