Let's talk about clichés for a moment. Japanese clichés, to be specific. Not that I mean anything bad by the word "cliché" -- far from it! Giant monsters, probably from outer space, ravaging the surface of the Earth (and in particular, the surface of Tokyo, the quintessential location for all sorts of disasters natural and otherwise). How much better can it get? We all harbor a secret glee for the cheesy special effects, the obscure plots involving spectacular(-ly ineffective) military forces and small bands of scientists who think they have the key to averting calamity. Godzilla, Gamera, and the like: names legendary enough to permanently overshadow America's own King Kong. Why then did Nintendo, a Japanese company, choose Donkey Kong as the villain of the famous arcade game back when? Next question!
Giant monsters wrecking the Tokyo Tower and the Metropolitan Government Center are always fun at parties, but the marketing prospects only go so far. So what's a better alternative? You all know the answer. You've seen them everywhere, on your TV, in your fast-food restaurants, even on the bodies of our youth at Halloween. That's right: it's sentai! Teams of warriors for love and justice (or whatever) who seem to be the last, best hope for the world (or at least for such superpowers as the Force Which Is Called Bandai (tm)). The statistics are easy enough to list: five members, at least one of whom is usually a girl, flashy and impractically-colored armor donned before battle, strange group poses at odd moments. The best known sentai team to have crossed the Pacific, the Power Rangers, is only the tip of an iceberg large enough to kill Leonardo DiCaprio even on dry land (this has been experimentally verified).
So what's a "seisaku", you might be wondering at this point, and what does it have to do with the ultra-cheesy live-action martial arts and crazy helmets? "Seisaku" refers to the people who are in charge of a production (say, an anime) being made. What I'm talking about are five-person teams of overly-creative, overly-talented people who have come onto the anime scene and done their best to save it from the men in the rubber monster suits. Or something. In particular, I'm referring to two of the greatest collaborations of anime talent in recent history, Headgear and Be-PaPas.
Headgear was convened for a single purpose, the creation of a mecha series (ooh, another Japanese cliché!) that would be more plausible, more thought-provoking, more humorous, and less about the mecha than anything that had preceded it. Handling the comics end of things was Yuuki Masami, whose other works (Birdy the Mighty, Grooming Up, Aliens On Your Side, etc.) already had a substantial following. Mechanical designs were handled by Izubuchi Yutaka, a multifaceted artist who also served alongside Yuuki Nobuteru as character designer for the Record of Lodoss War OVAs and whose work graces the covers of the novels. Character designs were furnished by Takada Akemi, whose art has made such series as Kimagure Orange Road legendary. Screenplay was provided by Ito Kazunori, whose other works include, amazingly enough, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (that's why they call it a "cliché"). And as the overall director, Oshii Mamoru, the Basset hound enthusiast-turned-animator whose flair for philosophy and incredible imagery has given us every sort of anime from Urusei Yatsura to Angel's Egg.
Like every good sentai team, they had strong allies who contributed to their cause (such as Kawai Kenji, whose musical credits in animedom are too numerous to list, and Ogura Hiromasa, whose masterful art direction helped bring Wings of Honneamise into being). But it was the persistence of the five core members of Headgear that brought thousands of pages of Mobile Police Patlabor manga, 47 episodes of TV series, a total of 23 episodes of OVA, and 2 full-length feature movies into the light. And their collaboration didn't stop there: Oshii wasn't alone when he made the cinematic version of Ghost in the Shell, and Ito's screenplay for the upcoming XIII Patlabor movie won't be without assistance from some of the other Headgear members. Perhaps it is fitting, though, that their last work together (Patlabor 2 the movie, 1992) is still widely-regarded by the fan community (and even by Oshii himself at a panel at Anime Expo '96) as the pinnacle of their creative achievement.
What happens when a sentai team is forced to step down from the stage of events? Can the world ever truly be saved from the evils that imperil it? Or does "peace beget war", as Oshii poignantly argued in P2? Indeed, the flames of justice did not die out, they merely passed into the hands of a new generation. For while production was underway on P2, a maverick within Toei Douga (tied with Mushi Pro for being the most important animation studio in Japan) had already seen his vision for the future. That vision would help make Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon (which began broadcast around the same time as P2's theatrical release) a watershed series in shoujo anime and a turning point in fandom in Japan. That vision would also attract the likes of Hasegawa Shinya (animation supervisor for Neon Genesis Evangelion, among other things), Okuro Yuuichirou (producer and supervisor, and overseer of the forthcoming Gekiganger III OVA), Enokido Youji (scenario writer for Eva, Sailor Moon, and numerous other titles), and Saito Chiho, female mangaka whose works (Kanon, Kakan no Madonna, etc.) were published by Shogakukan. The vision belonged to Ikuhara Kunihiko, avant-gardesman and literati extraordinaire held in the same light by the anime industry as the now-legendary Anno Hideaki from Gainax. His team of talents has a title: Be-PaPas. And the name of his vision is Shoujo Kakumei Utena.
Like Headgear, Be-PaPas was not without strong allies. Much of the music in Utena is furnished by J.A. Seazar, an all-purpose member of the Japanese theatrical community who studied under the mythical Terayama Shuuji in his Theater Observatory "Ceiling Gallery". Anime production was handled through J.C. Staff, the same studio whose long list of credits is topped by Anno's currently-running Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou. But it was the vision of the core members of Be-PaPas that brought the Utena TV series into being, and it is still at work for the Utena movie scheduled for release next year. We have the aid of 20-20 hindsight to show us the fate of Headgear, but we can only wonder what will be in store for Be-PaPas. Will the Utena movie be their crowning achievement, only to see the collaboration slowly drift apart? Or will Ikuhara and his companions forge farther ahead in an industry that is "groping" for a new methodology with which to express itself (as he said in a recent article with Newtype)? Only time will tell.
It has been said that nothing succeeds like success. And yet, like all the other great sentai teams of myth, legend, and merchandising, the glory days of such collaborations as Headgear and Be-PaPas cannot last forever. We have no choice but to wait, eagerly watching and hoping that the next team of sentai heroes is already at work, in secret, on the next great masterwork of animation to make the world, or at least our perception of it, a little brighter.
Both Mobile Police Patlabor and Shoujo Kakumei Utena are now in the midst of release by Central Park Media. Both Patlabor movies are available through Manga Entertainment.