Beginner's Guide: El Hazard

Up to this point, Beginner's Guide has covered relatively recent series.  At most, the shows covered have only been a dozen years old.  I’ve decided to take this installment in a more old school direction by looking at one of my favorite OVAs and the franchise that spawned around it.

Most modern anime fans weren’t around at the time when “Original Video Animation” meant something other than an extra episode to tack on to a manga release or the end of an animated series.  Once upon a time it was the outpost for strange, outrageous new ideas as well as the training ground for many an anime professional.  It wasn’t a perfect art form by any means, though.  Often they were simply excuses to animate all the sex and violence than writers and animators couldn’t put on TV.  Other times OVAs were left incomplete due to budgetary reasons or because they were based on ongoing manga.  Still, there are many franchises that owe part, if not all, of their popularity to successful OVAs, and one of my personal favorites is El Hazard

Ironically enough, El Hazard owes its existence to the success of another popular OVA: Tenchi Muyo!.  El Hazard was the brainchild of director Hiroki Hayashi and writer Ryoe Tsukimura.  Both were looking for a new project to work on, and together they hammered out a story combining bits and pieces of science fiction and Arabian Nights-style fantasy with the comedic and harem elements that had proven so popular with Tenchi.  Eventually their idea came to fruition in 1995 with the release of the seven part OVA Shinpi no Sekai El Hazard, or El Hazard: The Magnificent World.  

It was the story of four Earthlings: Makoto Mizuhara, his friend Nanami, their alcoholic teacher Mr. Fujisawa, and Katsuhiko Jinnai, Nanami’s older brother.  They are transported to the world of El Hazard, where each gains a special power as they are scattered to the winds.  Eventually all of them find themselves caught up in a civil war between the forces of Roshtaria, the Bugrom, and the Phantom Tribe, spurred by a missing princess and Jinnai allying himself with the Bugrom in the name of personal glory. The remaining three must team up with three elemental priestesses if they are to save El Hazard from destruction, be it at the hands of an ancient weapon called the Eye of God or an unspeakable being known only as the Demon God Ifurita.

Even 20 years later, El Hazard: The Magnificent World is a delight to watch.  Part of the reason is that visually it has aged beautifully.  More than a fair bit of money and care went into the production, so the animation is smooth and attractive, the character designs are varied and appealing, and the musical score is appropriately stately and exotic.  Even the dub has aged beautifully; while the translation may take a few liberties with some of the jokes, the dub cast and direction are top-notch.  Clearly the cast and crew enjoyed working on it, as most of them would return for the various spin-offs and sequels.  Even the Japanese production crew was happy with it, as Hayashi himself considers the English dub to be the definitive version of the OVA.  It also has the advantage of a solid story at its core, one that truly does have a bit of something for every audience.  There’s action, romance, comedy, drama, even a bit of mild fanservice for ecchi fans.  The story itself isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but it’s got some nice twists and is full of fun and engaging characters.

Many would consider their favorite character to be the self-assured yet money-hungry Nanami or perhaps the noble yet chemically dependent Mr. Fujisawa.  While I love them both, my favorite will always be Jinnai.  He’s one of the best examples of a comic villain you’ll find in all of anime.  It’s a difficult task to create a villain that’s ruthless and cunning enough to be a true challenge to the heroes and yet flawed and silly enough to be genuinely funny, but Jinnai manages that perfect balance.  He steal scenes left and right through the whole OVA, topping it all off with a maniacal, high-pitched cackle that only gets funnier with each instance.  El Hazard even manages to handle the romantic elements in a relatively mature fashion.  It's not above throwing in some harem-esque elements, as Nanami and fire priestess Shayla-Shayla fight amongst themselves for Makoto, but  the romance that blossoms between Makoto and Ifurita is surprisingly touching for something that happens so late in the OVA.  It’s difficult to explain without getting into explicit spoilers, but involves not only the notion of free will and moving beyond the past, but time loops and a relatively novel twist on fated romances.  The ending is especially satisfying, as not only does the entire cast get to help stop the Eye of God, it brings the story full circle while leaving plenty of opportunities for more stories within this universe, and understandably fans were clamoring for more right away.

Hiroki Hayashi bowed out after the first OVA was done, believing that he had told all the story he had to tell and more than ready to tackle new projects.   That certainly wasn’t going to stop the production company, Studio AIC, from making more El Hazard.  After all, they had managed to turn Tenchi Muyo into a thriving franchise, so what worked there would surely work just as well for El Hazard!  They got to work right away on a TV-sized retelling of the original OVA, and less than a year later the 26 episode series El Hazard: The Wanderers premiered.  Right away, though, it ran into some major issues.  The first and most obvious one is the severe decrease in quality of the animation.  It's obvious that there wasn't much of a budget to work with, and the show runners employ every money- and animation-saving trick in the book. Secondly, there's no way to stretch roughly three-and-a-half hours of OVA into 26 episodes without some noticeable gaps, so the show writers added plenty of filler to cushion each plot point.  This onto itself wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that the series writers decided to turn up the comedic and harem elements to make it more marketable, just like Tenchi Muyo. In doing so, they managed to ruin just about everyone in the cast save for Makoto.

Jinnai’s turned into a goofy sort of Snidely Whiplash, the sort of guy who gloats over committing pointlessly evil deeds as he browbeats his incompetent lackeys.  Those lackeys now sadly include Ifurita, who has been transformed from a sad, distant, even spooky sort of woman into a bubbly ditz.  It’s the equivalent of taking Rei Ayanami and turning her into Mihoshi, and the result is just as annoying and unfunny as you would expect that to be.  Weirdly enough, this interpretation of Ifurita was popular enough with otaku that they commissioned audio dramas featuring both versions of the character.  Still, her treatment was more dignified than what happens to Rune Venus.  She was a fairly minor player in the original OVA, there to basically set our heroes on their way, but she was poised, regal, and gentle.  Here she’s aged down to a teen, so sheltered that her only friend is a hand puppet she speaks to in the bath, and so passive that she spends all her time praying and waiting for Makoto's help.  This is done not only to make her more acceptable as a love interest for Makoto, but also so that she can serve as an all-purpose damsel so the writers can try to turn Makoto into a more conventional sort of hero.  It's one of the many ways the show runners tried to make the story fit a more conventional narrative, and it's one of the many reasons this show is such a tedious pain to watch.  Thankfully, this misfire of an alternate retelling was ignored when they finally got around to making a proper sequel.  

Two years later the same studio brought us the oh-so-creatively titled El Hazard: The Magnificent World 2.  This OVA starts more or less where the last one ended.  The main cast are forced on another quest when the marriage between Mr. Fujisawa and water priestess Miz Mishtal is interrupted, which in turn leads them to a hidden paradise that ends up threatened by yet another hidden doomsday device and Kalia, who is yet another ancient weapon made in the form of a cute girl.  At first this OVA threatens to be little more than just fluff for the fans, but as it progresses it turns into a decent, if not redundant little story.  By this point you can see that the writers are starting to run out of original story ideas , so they simply reworked some of the old ones.  They even go so far as to bring out a second and separate Ifurita, which kind of undercuts the importance of the first one.  Worse still, it’s that only works because the cast completely lose all sense and willingly invite Jinnai and Kalia into their group willingly.  Ultimately it’s a rather disposable story, although compared with Wanderers and with what was the come, it’s the least awful spinoff of the lot.

The franchise came to a close with 1998’s Ijigen no Sekai El Hazard, or El Hazard: The Alternate World, and initially this series was meant to take the franchise in a new direction.  It starts shortly after the events of the second OVA, as the new water priestess Qawool is being initiated into service.  A combination of a mysterious artifact and an accident on the part of Shayla-Shayla sends the main cast into the world of Cretaria, ruled over by the mercurial emperor Dall Narciss.  While the others find themselves thrown everywhere from humble farming villages to distant snowy peaks, Makoto,
Nanami and Qawool find themselves caught up in the political intrigue surrounding the capital.  It seems both the emperor and Gilda, his commander and former fiancée, are caught in a personal struggle to control a mysterious power known as the Spring of Life, a dimensional power which could either make their land prosper or doom it to destruction, and only Makoto can decipher its secrets. 

This series starts ambitiously enough, setting up all sorts of side stories and mysteries for the cast to explore.  The only problem was that the series was originally conceived to be 26 episodes long, only to be cut down to 12.  That means most of the questions surrounding Qawool’s origins and powers as well as the side stories are barely touched upon, if not ignored entirely.  Meanwhile, the viewers are stuck with most of the main cast in a dingy, labyrinthine castle, caught up in a marital dispute turned coup d’état.  I couldn’t help but wish that Dall and Gilda’s story could have been saved for a far better anime, as the complicated relationship and bitter history between these two was by far the best thing about this series. The only thing that rivals it in quality is Steve Blum’s performance as Dall in the English dub.  He manages to take the character’s ill-explained mood shifts and turns them into a goofy delight.  Sadly, those bright spots aren’t enough to save the ending, which is rushed as hell and features many a theory from Makoto pulled straight out of his ass, all so everyone can be returned to El Hazard for no particular reason.  To add insult to injury, the thirteenth and final episode was a TV special that served no purpose beyond a lot of hot spring-based fanservice.  Alternative World aimed high with its story, but ultimately failed to deliver on any of them, making the last, sad turn for what had become a tired franchise.

El Hazard: The Magnificent World remains one of the best OVAs to come out of the 1990s, and it’s a great introductory title for anyone with an interest in anime, especially older anime.  It’s just a shame that the same cannot be said for the rest of the franchise, which squandered its storytelling potential to indulge in a lot of harem antics and refurbished plot points.  Unless you are a determined completionist, it’s best to leave those spin-offs alone and instead enjoy the simple joys of the first and best installment of the world of El Hazard.

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