Scattered Thoughts – expanded universes of original anime shorts

     There have been many instances when a manga receives an OVA and only then (if everything goes well) is promoted to a full TV series, just like, say, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu or Mirai Nikki. To decide whether the source material is worthy of a longer adaptation in this case is rather easy since the story is already there. With original productions it’s a bit complicated because no one can really tell how everything will turn out to be and much more faith must be placed upon the creators. Nonetheless, some OVAs or shorts are lucky enough to become expanded. But then a question arises – is the new version able to deliver as well as the original did? Let’s take a look at some anime shorts (or OVAs) getting reworked into something bigger.

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     Death Billiards and its successor Death Parade might be the most well-known and widely appreciated case of the expansion of an OVA. As every year, in 2013 “Young Animator Training Project” funded 4 half an hour anime OVAs and as one of the participants, Madhouse gave the reins to Yuzuru Tachikawa, who before that had directed one episode of Steins;Gate, but later on contributed to various shows such as Kill la Kill, Shingeki no Kyojin, Zankyou no Terror, and, probably most importantly, was the director of Mob Psycho 100. The guy clearly has some talent, and it clearly shows in Death Billiards. The story follows a bartender and his assistant in a bar where people, usually paired, come after their deaths. Two of newcomers, still not knowing that they have already passed away, must play a game (this time, of course, billiards), which makes them remember their pasts and seriously compete against each other, because after the game both are judged by the bartender and directed to their appropriate afterlives. To see how people act when the stakes are incredibly high is always an interesting thing, and the OVA pushed the two participants to their extremes. The ending concerning the outcome of the game was left rather ambiguous, and that also remained an aspect of the TV anime that came 2 years later.

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     Death Parade chose to tell more episodic stories and most of times (excluding episode 6 that stood out like a sore thumb) they were as interesting, or even more complicated and powerful, as the bartender may not always make the right decision. Later on the story became focused on the bartender’s assistant, and it also worked out pretty well. Another huge positive was the OP “Flyers” by BRADIO that instantly became fan favorite. Even if at that time the old Madhouse was no more with MAPPA having already formed, the anime showed that the studio is still capable of amassing some great staff to make something beautiful. Everything wasn’t as rosy, though. The episode 6 felt incredibly out of tune compared to the rest of the series, other quirky and interesting colleagues of the bartender were introduced, but that lead nowhere. Next to the usual stories, there constantly was an undercurrent of something happening that might become even more enamoring compared to the stories of the attendants of the bar, but… I don’t know, maybe the creators were aiming to get a second season, but that plotline even at the very end felt nowhere near completed. Anyway, Death Parade still is an incredibly entertaining show, more times than not successfully trying to unravel human psychology when a person is at an extreme situation.

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     Little Witch Academia is another good example of a limited project that later on become something far huger. I have written a bit about the first OVA (and something about its the characters) that was also funded by the same “Young Animator Training Project” and also during the same year as Death Billiards. Some time later Trigger followed it with a longer film crowdfunded using Kickstarter, and finally now the TV anime is airing, even though its availability isn’t something to cheer about. It may not be the best idea to judge a show whose not even a third of all the episodes have already aired, but as we have almost passed that mark, there are some tendencies of the TV anime differing from the original project.

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     As the story of Death Billiards could be slipped somewhere between the episodes of Death Parade, TV LWA chose to completely reboot everything right from the start. There aren’t any huge changes, the characters and their motivations are the same, and some scenes are almost identical, albeit a bit differently shot or just expanded. There doesn’t seem to be any big problems with the show, but also I can’t say that it’s the most fantastic anime of all time. Sure, especially at the start there were scenes that only Trigger could do with all of their enthusiasm and skill, but essentially TV LWA is aiming to be more of a slice of life show. There’s nothing bad with it, only the original LWA was done in a way that it’s almost impossible to surpass it – fast pacing, lots of stuff to tell, simple but engaging storytelling and top-tier animation was certainly an achievement to look at with awe. The TV anime inevitably is more relaxed, having to spread the resources through all of the 25 (I’m still not sure if it’s a good idea) episodes, delving more into the inner worlds of the characters and just doing stuff rather than offering all-out action or a tight-knit story with clear objectives. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s charming, but sadly not really reaching the heights of the original LWA. So far.

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     The recent Ryuu no Haisha came into being from a completely different origin – a collection of unconnected and very diverse anime shorts known as Nihon Animator Mihonichi, probably best known for the episode 3 ME!ME!ME!. As the main person behind the series was Hideaki Anno with his studio Khara, it was inevitable that many of the shorts had at least partial ties with NGE. Nevertheless, the first episode didn’t start this trend and delivered quite a confusing story under a name Ryuu no Haisha. As with many other shorts, this one makes an impression that there definitely is a greater story thought out behind not even a 10 minute running length, but the format limited any more prominent developments. After all, the goal of the series is to showcase the abilities of different directors and animators, and because of that some of the shorts don’t even have a plot to begin with. Ryuu no Haisha certainly does, its director Kazuya Tsurumaki having been heavily involved with NGE reboots, KareKano and FLCL, not to mention that Hideaki Anno himself is also on board.

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     How did the expansion to one and a half hour length work? Well, for starters everything started making sense, as the story of the short was nicely incorporated into the new material. The short only glanced over a story of a girl who became a dragon dentist (as weird as it sounds) without providing any further explanations. But now there’s a lot of new material, but even as long as it is, Ryuu no Haisha would benefit from even more elaborations about the world and how everything works. The dragon (and of course the strange abilities of its teeth) itself remains a mystery – is it a living creature of flesh and bone, does it have some spiritual significance? The dragon’s body due to CG looks like it’s covered with carved metal, so even a hypothesis of a (partly) cyborgic nature of a dragon may not be as far off a target as it may seem at first. Speaking about the visuals, the character designs were upgraded to look more contemporary though the previous ruff look also wasn’t that bad. Ryuu no Haisha features lots of CG, and especially in the first episode it was handled very well – the mushi (definitely a reference to Mushishi) who harm the teeth look very surreal (as they should) and detailed, but as the second episode has many moving mechanical things such as planes and stuff, CG becomes more apparent, but certainly not as bad as, say, some recent shows about shaking hands. It’s probably no mystery that some scenes made me remember none other than End of Eva as well as ME!ME!ME!. Everything sounds very good, and most of time it really is, but nonetheless I think that the deeper themes were only touched but not explored as well as they could have been, the mechanics of the teeth doing strange things weren’t even glanced at as if it’s a natural thing (and in that world it may be so, but the viewers don’t think that way, though on the other hand no explanation might be a better choice compared to a bad one). Both of the villains fulfill their duties but doesn’t come close to being truly great. Especially the first one and her motivations left me scratching my head. Despite that Hideaki Anno and his pals definitely know how to make anime. I’d rather get the fourth NGE film sooner, but such a little side project with undeniable quality also deserves to be noticed.

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     Are there similarities between these three expansions of anime shorts? Yes, but not that many. Usually it’s not hard to tell whether a particular short has some potential and hides a grander story behind, but sadly not many shorts are lucky enough to get an opportunity to realize that potential. When such a project is green-lit, everything depends on the available resources – some anime may surpass its predecessor by far, some may struggle to retain the quality. Also, usually the longer a project is, the higher probability to mess it up somewhere. It’s not always the best choice to pursue an expansion in the first place when the resources are particularly limited or the story doesn’t respond to the stretching that well. Anyway, even if it’s probably more easy to make a great anime short than to elaborate it, it’s gratifying to know that there are special initiatives (though not as many as there could be) that let young directors and animators show their skills and in certain cases  get opportunities to evolve their ideas further, thus possibly starting successful careers.

     What are your thoughts about these 3 expanded universes? Do you know any other examples of such kind? Please share!

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