Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a scientist builds a humanoid mecha that can only be controlled by his offspring, who it turns out have no interest in actually piloting it. This is a bit of a problem, as this giant robot is the only thing that can stop the destruction of Earth by a mysterious alien force. The show in question takes place in a version of Japan much like the present day, and the show proudly wears the influences of tokusatsu and giant robot anime.
Sound familiar? No, it’s not what you’re thinking of… it’s A.R.I.E.L.
Once in a while you stumble upon an old anime series that has largely escaped the notice of Western anime fans, even though it probably shouldn’t have. That’s not to say A.R.I.E.L is an amazing OAV worth revisiting by everyone, but it is a bizarre proto-Evangelion, based on a 20-volume novel series published between 1986 and 2004, and the few mentions of it that I’ve found in English have completely skipped over the Evangelion connection.
The novels, penned by Yuichi Sasamoto (creator of currently airing Bodacious Space Pirates), served as the basis for a series of comics published in Cyber Comic magazine in the 1980s by Gainax’s merchandising arm, General Products. These comics didn’t last long, but the first and second A.R.I.E.L OAV series, released in 1989 and 1991 respectively, featured animation by a long-time Gainax collaborator, Takeshi Honda. Honda would later go on to have a major hand in the animation for Evangelion, working on the series all the way from the show’s opening animation to the more recent Rebuild movies.
The similarities between the OAV and Evangelion are numerous, but it’s difficult to figure out how much of it was direct influence versus similarities from common inspiration. Beyond the obvious similarities of the unwilling pilots, a titular humanoid mecha operated by a non-governmental organization named SCEBAI (pronounced sukebe) and mysterious alien invaders, you’ve got some not-so-obvious similarities as well. There’s a lot of realistic, detailed but monochromatic military hardware to contrast to the more fantastic mecha and aliens. The pilots attend a regular high school. A number of the cars and motorcycles are rendered surprisingly accurately (most notably a Caterham 7). The fighting takes place in a futuristic city that has defense systems pop out from hidden locations in parks and buildings. Perhaps most damning is the revelation that the A.R.I.E.L is based on the likeness of the creator’s late wife.
It’s also worth mentioning that a rocket launch scene in the beginning of the second episode apes Gainax’s Wings of Honneamise‘s launch sequence, right down to the ice fragments and coloring.
I’m not going to point a finger here and accuse Hideaki Anno of ripping off A.R.I.E.L to make Evangelion, as the actual truth is probably a bit more nuanced and not quite as exciting. If anything, it’s likely the fault of a lot of shared influences and related staff working together. Considering how overly-analyzed Evangelion is in the West, it’s odd to see A.R.I.E.L completely ignored — then again, those fans are an obtuse bunch of over-analyzers who chose to pretend Anno’s Bible references actually mean something, and refuse to admit the importance of Ultraman on their beloved series.
While the 1989 OAV, titled A.R.I.E.L Visual, isn’t too remarkable aside from the Evangelion connections, it has some clever touches that make it worth a glance. The first episode begins with a recap segment similar to what you’d see in a regular TV show, except it’s covering episodes that weren’t actually animated, and the first and second episode are actually referred to as Episode IV in the title cards. It’s not a bad way to skip boring establishing episodes you wouldn’t need in a short OAV, and I expect it’s based directly on the 4th episode from the novel (not to mention a possible Star Wars reference). Three audio drama volumes were released, and one English-language source claims they covered the first three “episodes.” The novel series was broken up into 52 “episodes,” mimicking the pacing of a year-long mecha TV series.
The first episode doesn’t accomplish much, as it serves mostly to establish A.R.I.E.L’s creator, Dr. Kishida, his two grand daughters and his niece, whom he forces to pilot the thing. The girls complain about being forced to pilot it, aliens with elf ears and forehead antennae plot their invasion of Earth and nothing much really happens. Touches like Dr. Kishida getting a ride to work in a Harrier and one of the girls having a Totoro keychain are amusing, but they can’t save an otherwise dull episode.
It’s clear the budget was being saved for the second episode, which is largely comprised of one long battle. As you might expect, the girls are persuaded into piloting the A.R.I.E.L against the invading aliens, and we catch the first glimpse of the titular mecha outside the opening and video cover. The A.R.I.E.L itself is a bit goofy, with a perfectly normal human face (opposed to something vaguely humanoid, like Macross 7‘s VF-11MAXL) and a full head of hair that gets revealed when her helmet is knocked off. The three girls pilot A.R.I.E.L much like a Super Sentai robot, and are forced to coordinate their efforts to perform attacks. Despite decapitating a number of alien beasts, things go awry for the girls until a guy named Saber Starblast shows up and saves the day.
While clearly being part of a bigger story, A.R.I.E.L Visual does right by its limited run time by portraying itself as just a couple episodes of a bigger series. This works a lot better than trying to cover too much in two brief OAVs, although I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor otaku who paid 7,800yen in 1989 for the first episode.
The second OAV, 1991’s Deluxe A.R.I.E.L, is another two-parter and really just more of the same. It clearly has a better budget and some of the designs have been reworked to look a bit more modern, but with much of the staff returning it feels very familiar. The story picks up right where the first OAV left off, with yet another alien attempt at attacking Earth. The higher budget and better pacing makes for a more entertaining experience than A.R.I.E.L Visual, although it’s still hard to recommend.
There are even more Evangelion similarities to be found, most of which are a little bit too close to be pure coincidence. Both episodes start with a character running late to school with a piece of bread sticking out of her mouth. There’s an abundance of train imagery. The idea of limited fuel really sticks out, as a monster in the first episode stops fighting because its energy supply has run out, and the second episode takes it a bit further, with an energy barrier used to protect Tokyo requiring all power within the Yamanote Line be cut off.
And just to bring things full circle, there’s yet another reference to an earlier Gainax title: one of the girls shows up to pilot the A.R.I.E.L in a bunny suit straight out of the DAICON films.
For whatever weaknesses the A.R.I.E.L OAVs have, it’s hard to argue with the apparent popularity of a franchise which spanned nearly twenty years of novels. Around the time of the OAV’s production, a number of audio dramas were released, and a quick look on Yahoo! Japan Auctions turns up stuff like A.R.I.E.L stickers and pencils — a sign that this title was probably popular at one point in time. With that said, aside from its place as a curiosity stemming from its connections to Evangelion, it’s not a noteworthy title today.
There are plenty of other largely uninteresting, mediocre OAVs from the early days of the medium, but most don’t make you feel like you’re watching Evangelion.
(Special thanks to duckroll for helping me uncover the Gainax/Honda connection)