Way back when translated manga was just beginning to take its first steps onto American shores, companies like Viz and Eternity Comics published a lot of titles that have been all but forgotten these twenty years later. One of the forgotten titles released in that era was Yoshihisa Tagami’s GREY, a post-apocalyptic adventure series with shades of The Terminator and 1984. It was a short series, running just three volumes in its Japanese release, but apparently popular enough to get picked up for an OAV adaption in 1986.
At the time companies were scrambling to cash in on the OAV market and releasing a lot of manga adaptions as short direct-to-video cartoons, most of which weren’t very good. They tended to suffer from a compressed storyline and poor production values, meaning that they weren’t of much interest to anybody except hardcore fans of said manga. GREY: Digital Target suffered some modifications in an attempt to fit it into an OAV format, but, surprisingly, comes out as an enjoyable OAV that might be worth watching even if you haven’t read the manga.
Hundreds of years in the future the Earth is scorched and dying. With most plant and animal life dead, humanity is forced to live in city states, known as Towns, and make do with the squalid slums therein. Each of these Towns is controlled by a computer mainframe called Little Mama, which offers a sinister way out for people unhappy with their miserable existence: become a so-called Trooper, fight against other Towns. If you make it to the highest rank you’ll be allowed to move to the Utopian metropolis called The City and live a much happier life.
Grey has no interest in risking his life as a Trooper until his girlfriend, Lips, signs up and, shortly thereafter, is killed in combat. Eventually he does sign up, becoming so adept at killing that he quickly rises through the ranks and earns the nickname “Death.” After disobeying orders to rescue an old friend, he begins to realize what the Trooper program offers might not be all that it seems; filled with anger and a desire to exact revenge for the death of Lips, he decides to destroy everything behind the computer-controlled society in which he lives.
Digital Target‘s strength lies in its simplicity, despite being a few steps above the typically terrible science fiction OAV, it’s an action title first and foremost. On that end you won’t find yourself disappointed. There’s a lot of grenade throwing, tank explosions and robot shooting crammed into the 70-minute running time, but with decent pacing it never gets boring or slow. There’s a coherency here that suggests that the people behind it kind of knew what they were doing, although I guess having a complete manga to work from doesn’t hurt either. For what it matters it was directed by Satoshi Dezaki–older brother of Osamu Dezaki–who has managed to work on a lot without having worked on anything, if you get my drift.
It’s worth pointing out that this was made in 1986, shortly before really over-the-top OAVs became commonplace. As a result, Digital Target might seem a bit subdued to viewers expecting ultra violence or adult sexual situations. There’s certainly no shying away from violence, as plenty of people are visibly decapitated or shot in the face, but it never feels like it’s being graphic just for the sake of being graphic. If anything, it feels more like an R-rated science fiction movie from the 80s than it does an 80s OAV.
Grey manages to avoid falling into the trap that most asshole protagonists suffer from, as he certainly isn’t unlikeable. While Digital Target doesn’t waste much time on character motivation, it does a particularly good job of using flashbacks to fill in gaps in the story without having to resort to lots of expository dialogue to make up for poor script writing. We are never implicitly told that Grey is an angry man because his girlfriend was killed for what later turn out to be bullshit reasons, we’re forced to figure it out for ourselves. High literature this is not, but there’s a subtlety that isn’t often found in OAVs of this era.
In my early days as an anime nerd, I made the acquaintance of a neighbor on my street who happened to be the godfather of one of my best friends. Hearing that I was into that crazy Japanimation stuff, he gave me a box full of old manga from the late 80s, stuff like Area 88, Xenon and GREY. If it hadn’t been for that random introduction, I likely never would have discovered the original GREY manga as its now been completely forgotten by American fans despite a few reissues in trade paperback form over the years.
Stylistically, Digital Target doesn’t do any justice to Tagami’s original art, but it gets the job done. One of his trademarks is unusually long noses, something that was removed in the process of giving the characters a generic anime makeover. Thankfully the entire OAV doesn’t suffer from this, as Tagami’s bizarre mechanical designs remain mostly untouched. Truthfully, it’s not the most attractive cartoon, a problem compounded with less than stellar animation.
While the visual changes make sense in the switch to cartoon form, some of the story modifications aren’t quite as understandable. The brevity of the original source material means that most of the plot managed remains intact aside from a much more upbeat ending. As a whole it’s much more positive and not nearly as depressing as the manga, thanks largely to the inclusion of a female sidekick named Nova. In the manga, Nova starts off hating Grey after he shoots her wounded friend in the head to put her out of her misery, but shortly thereafter has no qualms about taking him back to her apartment and getting naked. A few chapters later she winds up dead, as in the manga (spoilers?) everyone that Grey meets eventually dies.
This works well in the context of the manga, but must have been a little too depressing for mid-80s cartoons. Instead, Nova ends up not dying and accompanies Grey throughout the entire story. In her place, a couple of new characters were thrown in for the sole purpose of dying. Literally, they show up, talk about how much they’re in love and how they’re expecting a child and then two minutes later they die.
The rest of the plot changes are relatively minor, mostly just reworking certain points as a result of Nova still being around. They end up hitting all of the major parts of the manga, it’s just a bit… different, but not worse. For nearly everyone watching, it won’t even make a difference, but it’s worth pointing out.
I won’t lie and say that Digital Target is amazing, because it isn’t. Even among other titles released around the same time I don’t think this would be at the top of my recommendation list, but if you’re into old OAVs and want to see a manga adaption that isn’t complete ass, GREY: Digital Target is probably worth your time. Truth be told, I’d really recommend you track down the manga and read that first (because it’s awesome), then decide if the anime is worth your time.