Time was, I used to live and breathe anime. I would get through at least 26 episodes a week. Sundays would be devoted to the fastidious practice of the art of sitting in a chair and reading subtitles. Then, around the time I turned 21, I lost the habit.
I was able to watch a fair bit in the intervening years, but never at the same volume or with the same passion. This time it was a good nine months between drinks, when I gave up on Boys Be…, having graduated with a degree in boredom and bad character design.
I return, baptised by fire! After a few episodes, it was like being back home and finding forgotten treasures in drawers long closed. I may never be manic again, but I taught myself the laws of the OVA form anew in watching El-Hazard: The Magnificent World. Like many OVAs of old, it wastes a lot of time before it decides to start kicking some serious arse − which, most assuredly, is what it does.
Ancient ruins are discovered in the basement of Shinonome High School. Mizuhara Motoko accidentally awakens a blue haired girl, who has been waiting for him for 10,000 years. With the last of her strength, she sends him and three others to the Magnificent World of El-Hazard.
Motoko arrives with his teacher, Mr. Fujisawa, and is taken into the Alliance. His self-proclaimed rival, Jinnai Katsuhiko, becomes the leader of the Bugrom army and vows to rule El-Hazard alongside Queen Diva. Jinnai’s sister, Nanami, is stranded in the desert and has to make it for herself.
Of course, there are bigger political machinations at play, including forced transvestism, elemental priestesses and reluctantly nomadic heretics.
It takes a while for El-Hazard: The Magnificent World to become worthwhile, and it makes me wonder how the OVA form was able to flourish in the nineties. We’re still feeling the reverberations of Evangelion, but the likes of The Magnificent World, at least in this style of incarnation, are all but lost to this world. The OVA form confounds because it was like a subscription model: you had to buy each episode, sight unseen, on the off chance that it would be good. It would tell part of a story, and if it didn’t sell well enough, well, the story would never continue.
With a lot of OVA series, the first episode really isn’t enough to provoke the viewer to continue. With the way I buy anime, I have the whole thing on hand and am generally duty bound to finish it. The Magnificent World is a seven episode series that could have comfortably been six at the most: the first episode isn’t particularly gripping, either, but it is essential: a little snappier and funnier and it would have been in better standing; and episodes two and three could have easily been combined, as very little of any significance occurs in them.
Episode four is when the whole affair begins paying off, as we’re introduced to the blue haired girl in a different and, to the characters, confusing context. Suddenly the story that has been simmering lightly and almost irrelevantly in the background comes to a boil: gathering of important characters, something that has always taken a mystifying amount of time in OVA form, ceases and proper and involving story begins.
The Magnificent World is the sort of OVA where the characters are very broad, basically separated by their magical power and their hair colours, but it somehow works. This is admittedly in part because the series started pressing some of my buttons – ruins of the future, time travel, latent powers awakened by dimensional travel and sobriety, armies of bugs – but if something doesn’t touch at least a part of your interests there’s no real point in pursuing it.
Makoto is one of those bloodless protagonists that I’m assuming are still prevalent in modern anime, and it’s only partly reasonable that any of the girls should fall in love with him – and that’s largely because the number of interested girls is kept realistically low (still, Shayla-Shayla and Nanami are idiots). Plus there’s the whole destiny thing, which is actually plausible for once.
Nanami has a character trait that is forgotten after the first episode, Mr. Fujisawa is a substance abuser with a heart of gold – and amusing for it – Alielle is pointless and voracious, and the priestesses are basically a series of magical powers with base characteristics to match their base elements.
It’s when the characters go deliberately over the deep end of broad that they work to the best advantage: Jinnai and the Bugrom are easily the best characters, an uneasy blend of sheer egomania and actual city conquering results. In Jinnai, an actually competent comic relief villain has been created. He can never hope to win the ultimate victory, surely, but he can knock over a few cities on the way. In the final episode I realised that he legitimately liked his minions and his Queen, and they responded in turn. I look forward to seeing more of him in later incarnations.
Which of course brings us to the lynchpin character: Ifurita is a mysterious girl from before mysterious girls were in vogue, and better than a proto-tsundere in every way. She provides the dramatic core and the heart of The Magnificent World. She’s deliberately empty, having seen too much in her time. It is her visions that totally sold the series to me, perfectly melding SF and fantasy in a way that speaks directly to my soul. She is the salvation of the overall story, and directly creates the great run of the final three episodes.
People say and used to say that anime sucks at endings, but when they get them right they get them freakishly right. Besides which, it’s an argument that never made any sense or carried any water because do you know how many different people there are making anime? Some things are symptomatic of industries, but crappy endings are not one of them – except in the case of ongoing manga a lot of the time.
The OP was obviously animated before they knew the precise weight of each of the characters, so Rune Venus is featured prominently when, in practise, she turns out to be largely irrelevant. Similarly, the whole cross dressing thing is made into a big deal, but Makoto basically forgets he’s wearing a dress for large swathes of time (also, the series is predicated on the idea that Makoto looks identical to Princess Fatora – but when she’s introduced I didn’t actually recognise her). Still, the tone is set and is upheld fairly well across the board. Character designs and the general aesthetic are very much classic AIC, pressing more of my buttons. The only real issue is with the stupid Ryo-Ohki clone Ura, and there’s not enough substance there to warrant a genuine complaint. Little cat-armour bastard is endearing enough not to care.
The DVD itself isn’t that great: Madman Entertainment’s 2005 release of Pioneer’s original release, sans overlays. The subtitles are occasionally out of synch and the Jinnai family members’ full names run together. Lacking overlays is good but, on the odd occasion where there is Japanese text on screen, no English translation is provided in any form. This is of course largely academic now, because Pioneer/Geneon are essentially dead and Nozomi Entertainment has claimed the licence for themselves. Still, I just call it as I saw it – and I’ve seen better DVDs in my time.
They made more of El-Hazard: a direct follow up to the The Magnificent World, then the TV series The Alternate World, and the alternate telling of The Magnificent World, The Wanderers, a sort of Tenchi Universe (or Tenchi Muyo! TV, if you will) for the franchise that actually began airing a good three months before The Magnificent World was finished. The best thing about El-Hazard is that all of this seems like something of a good idea: the characters are types, but they’re the sort of types that I would like to see extrapolated upon. It’s strange to think that a seven episode series wasted so much time but could have afforded to give its characters so much more depth.
Combine that with a nice setting that demands exploration and a more than talented staff and I’m okay with continuing to explore the El-Hazard items in my collection, some of which I’ve had for years, some for mere weeks. I might be able to make this anime thing work for me again.