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 and 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)
Considering the Gainax connection, it's no surprise to me really that there's a lot of references to past works and inspirations, especially the Daicon girl.
Thanks for covering this show.. I think I'll check it out.
There isn't any sort of conclusive "ending" to speak of, as the OAVs seem to really just be a couple of (early) episodes in a much longer saga.
In some senses I actually think of Zeorymer as a better anti-mecha anime than Evangelion – it's got a more consistent setting, a tighter story and a more satisfying (if tragic) resolution – though I accept the world at large tends to disagree.
And while it didn't make it into the anime, the Zeorymer manga also has the girl co-pilot turn out to be a clone of the mecha creator's dead lover, which seems to be an oddly specific plot point that all three of these series share between them.
Gainax tends to reuse a lot of design and thematic elements in their shows, like how bits of Gunbuster were copy-pasted wholesale for Gurren Lagann. It's interesting to see what carried over/what they reused, but god forbid if you point that out to a diehard Gainax fan.
I don't want to deny that the similarities are interesting. Especially the power cut-off is similar. But many of them are trivial. Anno always wear his influences on his sleeves and his work is filled with this type of quoting from plot points to designs to specific lines(like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8WBV5oBazA&feature=player_detailpage#t=200s). Sometimes they're simply references with the same meaning while other times the meaning is completely transformed. You wont ever find "the" thing Anno rips off because there's simply too many of them and the end result is something completely different. Anno and the rest of the Eva team have always been honest about this. Before either of them were translated many people "knew" that Eva was nothing but a rip-off of Ideon and Devilman...information they probably got from an interview with Sadamoto. And it's because of these people I decided to comment and add some more context before I read an /m/ post saying that Eva is just a rip-off of Ideon, Devilman and ARIEL. If it's an influence at all it's just a small piece of a large puzzle.
And as a Eva fan I also want to thank you for uncovering this obscurity which I've would have missed otherwise.
The moral is that more often than not, a device's so-called "inventor" is not the first person to develop it on his own, but the last. That person will be able to learn from his predecessors' missteps as well as their successes, and concentrate more in making the thing practical than solving the fundamental technical problems. Those who follow will be more interested in applications, and will have no quarrels with calling "inventor" the person who gave them that complete solution.
Perhaps that's also the case in the arts – that a new idea is at first approached by different people from different angles, and only after enough takes on it are available can someone produce a really satisfactory version, and thus become its "creator"? In that case every "creator" is to a certain degree a plagiarist, much as pretty much every "inventor" is at some point accused of ripping off some predecessor's work.
(Yes, I'm the same Helio who called EVA "a big Zeorymer rip-off" a few posts above. Sorry for trying to be a little more balanced.)
Seriously, screw that show. Eva was the worst thing to happen to Gainax and anime as a whole.
You make it sound like its bad for a company to whore out a product that has been their lifeblood since it was created like its a bad thing thing or something, am I right?
I mean, no other company does that, amirite?
This site has brought together the last of the M.D. Geist fans (including myself), so its safe to say, if there are Orgun fans, they will come.
A layperson would look at a scene from Eva and IMMEDIATELY think of Godzilla or Ultraman, because visually it's exactly the same!
Yet for some reason a U.S. Eva fan will NEVER admit this. I assume it's because monster movies are kid's stuff and Japanese Cartoons are Serious Business. "See?! It showed boobs! In Japan all adults watch cartoons!!!!"
Of course 'those people' have also forgotten that one of the intentional desires from Anno and company was that the Eva units were designed so as to be 'impossible' to make as 'mass produced' toys by one of the Majors and only 'superior' garage kits would ever be done because only the garage kit would properly capture the true spirit of the Eva unit.
*cough cough* Yeah, that truth lasted like a year. :)
ARIEL is really quite fun - nothing special but I did find myself enjoying it more than many obscure OVAs and liking the Valsione-like design. To be honest, I'd be vaguely interested in seeing the books it's based on just for the curiosity of a super robot light novel series.
Evangelion is pretty much a homage to all of the stuff Anno watched and enjoyed. And he has publicly admitted this. I guess homages are pure evil, right?
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