As previously noted in the DEVILMAN OVA review, in the mid to late 80s, Japan had become a major economic force. They had completed their economic miracle in the late 60s, entered the electronics, and even the automotive field in the U.S. by the late 70s. They were commanding a decent market share. Not surprisingly, Japan found itself with a lot of money to burn.
This leads to film producer Haruki Kadokawa, who after taking over the publisher Kadokawa Shoten in 1975 began making blockbusters. Essentially making him the Japanese Don Simpson, (the producer of Beverly Hills Cop & Top Gun). Not surprisingly, Kadokawa wanted to make anime which was booming due to the glut of money coming in. He had produced Harmageddon in 1983, and The Dagger of Kamui in 1985.
So, it’s 1987, what now? Well, get Studio Madhouse on the phone and get them to adapt Osamu Tezuka’s seminal manga Phoenix. This resulted in the creation of a feature film and two OVAs released between 1986 and 1987. Yet before I go into the plots, I feel the need to explain Phoenix itself.
Phoenix is widely considered Tezuka’s life work, spanning 22 years from 1967 until Tezuka’s death in 1989. The manga doesn’t have a central storyline but instead focuses on the titular Phoenix (based off Stravinsky’s Firebird) and the various stories which occur when character’s lives cross the creature. Structure-wise, it’s more like American Horror Story, because each self-contained story is its own arc, than it is a traditional narrative structure.
So, with all this backdrop, let’s start with the first film: Phoenix: Karma Chapter, the film released in 1986, and directed by Rintaro (of Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, and Galaxy Express 999 fame).
The year is 720 A.D. Japan is in the middle of what is the Nara period, there’s very little money around, most of the money is being spent on the Buddha statue, (which is an actual statue: the Nara Daibutsu [or giant Buddha], inside the Todai-ji temple in Nara), and a woodcarver, Akanemaru was sent to help in its completion. To commemorate the completion of this statue; the emperor commissions two sculptures to best exemplify the Buddha. Thus, the emperor sets up this competition between Akanemaru and a former bandit-turned woodcarver: the one-armed Gaou. Both men have met each other and had their lives defined by tragedy: Akanemaru through a girl sidekick Bushi (voiced by Mami Koyama, or the original Japanese voice of Kycilia Zabi from Mobile Suit Gundam and Launch from the original Dragon Ball), Gaou’s tragedy involves a miscommunication and a wife who was a reincarnated ladybug. (It’s complicated).
I won’t spoil the rest of the story, because I would recommend this, I really would. I can’t explain why this film works, yet it does. Due to the solid animation, decent writing, and great voice-acting (I already mentioned Miss Koyami, or how about the fact: Akanemaru is voiced by Toshio Furukawa a.k.a. the original voice of Piccolo from Dragon Ball Z).
The second film is Phoenix: Yamato Chapter, and it’s probably the least substantial. The story focuses around Oguna, a land surveyor/spy for the Yamato family between 320-350 AD, who discovers he can use his magic flute to summon the Phoenix. All this, while he’s in love with a rival tribe’s princess, Kajka. This is problematic, because he must kill Kajka’s brother who’s the leader of the rival clan against the Yamatos. The Phoenix saves Oguna from certain death, but Oguna and Kajka still end up buried alive. Oguna’s flute music plays for a while and torments the Yamato family. If the plot sounds all over the place, it is. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have much of an interest in ancient Japanese history, but I just wasn’t drawn in by what was going on. In short, it was a boring slog of an OVA, which is a shame. The director of this OVA, the late Toshio Hirata would later direct something special with Pet Shop of Horrors in 1999.
The third and final film in this trilogy, Phoenix: Space Chapter is the best of the three. I’ll explain why.
The year is 2577, a crew of four is awoken from cryosleep when a meteor hits the side of their spaceship. They find out the officer on duty, Mikimura has died and with their spaceship in critical condition, the four remaining crew members leave via escape pod. However, an escape pod is following them: Mikimura’s. What follows is a murder-mystery setup about Mikimura, with a twist delivered near flawlessly, so when it occurs about 2/3rds through the OVA, it’s comes off as surprising.
When I watched this, at first, I was not interested in the slightest, but something happened. I became interested. The characterization, the crew’s interactions with Mikimura, it all became intriguing, which I can attribute to writers and the director.
There were two writers for all three episodes. One was Hideo Takayashiki, who would become the head writer of the Kaiji anime adaptation. The second was Tomoko Konparu, who later did the series composition (or Head Writer/Show Runner) of three of the four Uta no Prince Sama series, and the anime adaptation of NANA. The latter writer explains the strong female bent in this pseudo series, which works, because I found the female characters for the most part to be more interesting than the males.
The third film was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, the director of Wicked City & Ninja Scroll, and his strong directorial hand to this story, makes it work. I often viewed Kawajiri as the master of the 1980s OVA boom because the quantity and relative high quality of his work, in a ridiculously oversaturated field. In short, Phoenix: Space Chapter’s success is its simple story. I’ve always believed a solid story told right, can triumph over any other problems in the media.
In short, Madhouse’s adaptation of Tezuka’s Phoenix is a remarkable success by telling three stories remarkably well in relatively short periods of time. I’m surprised these weren’t picked up by a US distributor during the U.S. anime boom of the 90s or 2000s. Maybe Discotek can rectify this mistake.