Area '88: Dragon's Heaven
by Sean - June 2 2009

In 1988 the interests of hardcore otaku were far different than they are today—instead of moé and girl figures, they obsessed over giant robots and garage kits. During this heady era of resin fumes, scratch-built designs and World War II German camouflage patterns, Makoto Kobayashi achieved cult status among the dedicated readers of model kit magazines like B-Club and Hobby Japan. Made famous by his incredibly detailed scratch-built model kits, Kobayashi was also a talented manga artist and mecha designer who designed robots for titles like ZZ Gundam and Venus Wars. Kobayashi utilized each of these talents for the production of ARTMIC’s Dragon’s Heaven, an OAV based on his manga of the same name, directed by him and featuring huge animatronic models used in an opening sequence that is best described as… unique.

These days Dragon’s Heaven has faded into obscurity on both sides of the Pacific, and is almost completely unknown in the West, never having received an official release in English. Despite its obscurity, Dragon’s Heaven is one of the most unique OAV titles of the 1980s and yet another reason why 1988 was an amazing year for Japanimation.

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If you have any familiarity with comics outside of the Marvel/DC superhero spectrum, you’ve probably heard the name Jean “Moebius” Giraud. The iconic French artist helped define modern European comics through his work in the Metal Hurlant anthology (known as Heavy Metal in the US) and has done design work for numerous films. He’s relevant here because the best description of Dragon’s Heaven’s unique art style is that of Moebius’ artwork turned into anime, with some big robots thrown in for good measure.

While Kobayashi’s mechanical designs are organic and bulbous enough to stand apart from typical Japanese designs, it’s the line-style throughout Dragon’s Heaven that really sets it apart, at least visually, from any other Japtoon out there. It looks entirely unlike any other anime title I’ve ever seen, and save for the the anime-style faces, you could almost be tricked into believing it wasn’t even produced in Japan. It’s a testament to the freedoms of the era that such a title could be produced, for such a niché audience, with this kind of visual deviation from the norm.

The aesthetics alone make Dragon’s Heaven recommended watching, but there’s also a surprisingly competent storyline that fits nicely into its 30-minute running time. Consider that nearly all one-shot OAVs based on manga produced in this era were a total mess story wise; the result of trying to shoehorn a long story into a short running time. The end product was usually something only dedicated fans of the manga could appreciate, let alone understand. Such is not the case with Dragon’s Heaven, which presents a short, concise plot that won’t leave you scratching your head or throwing your shoe at the TV.

The first six minutes of the OAV actually features no animation at all; the story background and credits play over video of highly detailed scratch build kits of the primary mecha designs. The most impressive of which are two very large models of the antagonist and protagonist robots. There’s a lot of smoke and ridiculous camera work, but the models feature some impressive details like lighting and limited animatronics, although ILM this is not. It comes off a little cheesy and by modern standards it’s not that impressive, but when you consider that most of the target audience for Dragon’s Heaven built models or at least were interested in them, it makes sense.

The story follows a young adventurer named Icool, who discovers an ancient cydroid named Shaian who’s been buried for 1000 years following an epic battle with the evil cydroid general Elmedine. Upon being reawakened by Icool and learning that Elemedine is still around being a jerk, Shaian decides to get ready and fight him one last time. The catch is that Shaian isn’t entirely autonomous and can’t fight without a human operator, a job Icool readily accepts. Thus they set off to settle Shaian’s 1000-year old robo grudge. What follows is a big battle, a big explosion and then the credits roll (which incidentally plays over behind the scenes footage of the construction of the giant model kits from the intro).

Dragon’s Heaven is a cool little OAV that’s worth watching for its unique art style and decent story. It won’t go down in history as the best OAV ever made, but it stands as a worthwhile example of when the freedoms of the 80s boom were used to good effect to make an interesting cartoon. It doesn’t have ultra violence, it doesn’t have fanservice and it’s not total crap. Not a lot of OAVs can say that.

5 comments

Comment from: ben [Member]

Yeah, this shit is VERY Moebius. Everyone apes him and I love them for it. Loving the scratchy shading in the dark cityscape; kinda reminds me of the Trial segment from The Wall.

The character designs really recall the Nausicaa manga to me. I really hate that this old “scratchy” style a la Bakshi, Heavy Metal, etc. has fallen out of fashion, it always seemed so much more intense to me than the plasticky shading of modern anime. If these films and Ghibli works have proved anything to me, it’s that fluidity will always trump definition in terms of making a 2D-animated work engage the eye.

Too bad fluidity isn’t something that Sunrise can still-pan across a static background.

06/02/09 @ 17:17

Comment from: Nima [Visitor]

I absolutely love Dragon’s Heaven and own a range of Makoto Kobayashi’s books. I highly recommend getting the two Dragon’s Heaven manga, even though they are in Japanese.

I agree with Ben that it is unfortunately people are no longer interested in what he dubs ‘fluidity’ but i reckon people will eventually get tired of this overproduced, overly slick CGI artwork and look for alternatives.

I urge people that dig Dragon’s Heaven to check out some more of Kobayashi’s Mecha designs, they are truly unique.

This is my favourite anime related blog and i love that anime classics from such an important era are being covered in Area 88. Look forward to the next installment!

06/02/09 @ 21:20

Comment from: sean [Member]

Kobayashi’s Moebius influence becomes even more apparent when you see his comic work, I think. The pacing and style of his comics feel very European, and don’t seem to display the typical traits of Japanese comics.

06/03/09 @ 02:25

Comment from: Lawrence Eng [Visitor] · http://www.cjas.org/~leng/lainspotting/

Thanks for the review! I’ve been a fan of Dragon’s Heaven since I first saw it in the mid-90s. (VHS bootleg from NYC Chinatown)

08/08/09 @ 00:14

Comment from: Helen McCarthy [Visitor] · http://helenmccarthy.org

Steve (my OH) and I first saw Dragon’s Heaven in 1989. He’s a mecha freak so of course he fell in love with it - how could anyone with an imagination not love something where form is in such headlong flight from function, and yet works so convincingly in design terms? I really loved the story, and that aura of barren light and desolate, empty land that it captured so well.

Kobayashi actually cited Moebius as one of his influences at the time. Moebius visited Japan to promote the release of his and Rene Laloux’ 1988 movie Time Masters, and Osamu Tezuka took him on a tour of cultural hotspots in Kyoto and Nara. I don’t know if he met Kobayashi, though.

There doesn’t seem to have been a French, Italian or Spanish release, so it’s not widely known in Europe or South America, where many 80s anime showed up on TV and then on video. I wrote about it in my second book in 1996, but it remains, like many pre-Internet anime, massively under-appreciated. Thanks for highlighting it.

08/08/09 @ 01:09

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