Orgusses Not Abandoned Shadily By ImaginAsia: Super Dimension Century Orguss 02

There isn’t a single thing about this six-episode Oriental Animation Video that isn’t goddamned weird: it’s a sequel with almost no recurring characters, a different studio and creative staff, an inimitable soundtrack by a German avant-garde composer and a “hero” mecha that doesn’t do much until a cameo in the final two episodes of the series.

Haters accuse us of covering nothing but obscuro products-of-their-time that influenced nothing and contribute nothing to the historical record of Japanamation, save for a cryptic reference in the margins. Well, hold onto your butts – it might not be obscure, but Hero/J.C. Staff’s Super Dimension Century Orguss 02 is the quintessential bizarre historical footnote.

(Orguss 02 is not “obscure,” OK? California Crisis is obscure, Ai City is obscure, Relic Armor Legaciam is obscure. None of those got a soundtrack by MEGA HIT COMPOSER Torsten Rasch.)

Everything about Orguss 02 is weird. One might initially mistake the pre-modern setting for yet another instance of the medieval-society-with-mecha template seen in old Sunrise warhorses Aura Battler Dunbine or Panzer World Galient. No, it’s more interesting than that. Here, you get a world set in the equivalent of the late 19th/early 20th century. A couple sources claim that Orguss 02 is an allegory for World War Two – if so, it’s a pretty bad one. If anything, the OAV is about the First one, with the cognitive dissonance between the brutal aspects of industrialized society and the fact that much of humanity was still at the mercy of a simpering, mentally incompetent and brutally inbred continental nobility.

At the heart of the story is an impending massive conflict between the feudal states of Rivilia and Zafrin, and the involvement of highly destructive robot weapons known as “Decimators”. These ancient artifacts so greatly prized that the kingdoms dig into mountains and trawl under the sea to find them.

There is a remarkable internal logic to all the technology depicted in Orguss 02. The Decimators move like no mecha you’ve ever seen in Japanese cartoons. That is to say, they move the way you’d expect of high robotic technology in the hands of half-comprehending Victorians: wooden, awkward and near-out-of-control. They have arms and grasping hands, but, having been dredged out of the bottom of the ocean, no blaster rifles or swords to brandish. The only weapons they have are integrated shoulder machineguns (think of the RX-78-2’s head-mounted Vulcan cannons). Mechanical designs were handled by one Kunihiro Abe, a guy whose vast majority of work credits are instead in animation directing (Armitage III, Moldiver) and key animation (Mobile Suit Gundam 00, Evangelion 1.0).

The swapped hats are prevalent throughout the entire staff. The OAV’s director, Fumihiko Takaya, had only two directing credits, for episode seven of Bubblegum Crisis and Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket under his belt before Orguss 02. Afterwards, he proceeded to disappear off the face of directing for several years until resurfacing for a one-off as director of Madhouse’s Patlabor: WXIII (no wonder it was a one-off). In all fairness, Takaya does a solid job on Orguss 02, though Noboru Ishiguro (director of the original Super Dimension Century Orguss) he is not. At times in the earlier episodes, he seems to forget there’s a world war going on and that the viewer would perhaps benefit from a few visual depictions, rather than merely verbal reports from royal ministers.

Ishiguro played no part in Orguss 02 at all. In fact, it seems like the only member of the original TV series staff to make a return is character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto. What’s stranger yet is that his designs are adapted by Toshihiro Kawamoto, the Sunrise polymath wunderkind whom Anime News Network credits associate with more excellent cartoons than the combined staffs of many major studios. He brings out the best in Mikimoto’s early-90s designs, retaining the dewy, sparkling eyes and stiff-collared military uniforms and augmenting them with silken 90s hair and those light arcs of hatch marks across the face. In case you’re not familiar with Kawamoto, he’s the guy who tripled up as character designer, animation director and key animator for Cowboy Bebop (but people mostly remember him for a profile photograph where he is erroneously credited as “Masamune Shirow”).

Viewers accustomed to the idea of Super Dimension soundtracks being ramshackle collections of saccharine Japanese-language pop rock will, depending on their taste (or lack thereof), be either pleasantly surprised or utterly horrified by the aural turn taken by Orguss 02. As mentioned parenthetically before, German experimental composer Torsten Rasch is responsible for all theme songs and background music. The result is a hybrid of synthesized and orchestral sounds stapled together in a way that frequently slips into the dissonant or atonal without losing sight of pop structures. It is awesome. Easily one of the best background soundtracks ever composed for an anime. One of strongest impressions conveyed by Orguss 02 in its short running time is the sense of a science-fiction world that is truly alien, yet unsettlingly original, and Rasch’s soundtrack fits the role perfectly. However, if your idea of quality is banal, repetitive orchestration or licensed J-pop from the latest yakuza-promoted idol, these sounds are probably not for you.

Actually, you know what Orguss 02 eerily resembles? It’s that other slightly bizarre, numerically branded OAV artifact, Macross II. Both are sequels to popular Super Dimension TV series of the 80s produced by completely unrelated staffs (with Mikimoto still hanging around) from completely different studios, creating continuity seemingly detached from the original product. Both came out in the early 90s, when the OAV as a medium for original, high-concept material was already in a steady decline. I don’t think Orguss 02 is on as explicitly shaky legal grounds as Macross II, but the uncanny similarities between the two make one wonder.

Like in Macross II, conventions are subtly flipped on their head or thrown out altogether. The aforementioned Decimator mecha are clunky and inefficient war machines. The “hero” mecha is more or less absent for most of the series, save a glimpse in the opening animation. The plucky male hero character, Lean, does not pilot the titular mecha until the very last episode of the series (and does so after being blinded).

That said, Orguss 02 stands up far better than its Macross cousin as a standalone, finished product. The kingdoms of Rivilia and Zafrin seemingly play no role in the events of the original TV series up until the very end. Even then, the big revelation of how the two properties tie together will not alienate any viewers who haven’t the slightest clue about what happened in the original Orguss.

An all-enveloping sense of the weird and alien existed in anime before Masaaki Yuasa. Give this one a try, even if it did influence nothing in the long run.

12 Comments

  1. I have fond memories of this, although (Japanese music geek alert) I’m pretty sure the opening and closing themes were actually by Japanese new wave legends Hikashu (ヒカシュー), unless this is a case of Manga Video deciding to mess around with the music for some arcane reason.

    There’s something very satisfying about seeing industrial-era people grappling with giant robot technology. Kishin Heidan was another fun example of this, with the added bonus of being yet another anime that desperately re-imagines the Second World War to show Japan in a more favourable light.

  2. I think it’s an important footnote in American fandom. It was one of the first videos put out by Manga Entertainment USA which you could find literally at all the CD shops and malls much like Pioneer Laserdiscs around the same time.

    I can’t believe it’s been 16 years since it was made.

  3. I suspect the music WAS swapped out. Recall, Alan Frain was part of the Virgin label, and the entire concept was getting the videos into music stores. See also New Dominion Tank Police.

  4. Superdeformed: It’s good to know I wasn’t the only one who was wondering why those DVDs with the kid with the spiky hair pointing a bolt action rifle at me were absolutely everywhere for years.

    The only music swapping I know of is Manga taking Hiroe Ueda’s OP for the last two episodes (a song which is absolutely impossible to find in uncut format, I’ve tried) and using it for the entire series. Switching to the Japanese language track on the DVDs turns the normal OP back. Of course, in a stroke of genius, Manga hardcoded the subtitles for the Ueda song onto the opening animation, regardless of the language track you choose.

    I’ve heard there are issues on the soundtrack album about certain tracks being rerecorded by a Japanese band instead of using the original tracks, but hell if I can find that soundtrack anyways.

  5. Have to disagree with you. Macross 2 helped pave the way for the “real world” approach to the series, as depicted in Macross Plus, while Orguss 2 is just a bigger-budget cash-in with some Verhoeven/Miller Robocop-wannabe violence added in for shock value.

  6. “Even then, the big revelation of how the two properties tie together will not alienate any viewers who haven’t the slightest clue about what happened in the original Orguss.”

    Which is certainly a good thing for most viewers but what I don’t like about Orguss 02 is, precisely, how its very existence misses the point of the original production’s ending.

    Sure, if you throw enough technobabble at it perhaps you can salvage something that ostensibly works, but from a storytelling perspective that doesn’t really sit well with me at all. Retcons aren’t usually my thing and Orguss 02 isn’t afraid of using them.

    However, if I throw away all those concerns and think of Orguss 02 as an independent product, then the show certainly remains quite an enjoyable ride. It’s a pretty good way to spend some time.

    In short, I prefer to treat it as the equivalent of an alternate universe Gundam series or, perhaps more appropriately in this context, as just another Macross II.

  7. Wow…again, you guys have pulled off another fine look back into the past. Great job on this one.

    Still have the VHS editions of this series tucked away somewhere…

    That said, count me in as someone who liked this series a lot. And as someone pointed out earlier, this was heavily promoted by Manga when it was released in the US, and what’s remarkable was the fact that it arrived on these shores not long after the release in Japan. This also came at a time when anime releases in the US were starting to increase and people were taking notice. Some, sadly, felt that it should remain an obscure, underground phenom…oh well.

    True, one can make the arguement that this series shouldn’t even exist, especially after the events of the last episode of the original ORGUSS, but 02 does attempt to give an explanation, albeit a brief one. It was also much more serious in tone and a lot harsher, darker.

    Totally agree on the music–it was fantastic, easily one of the best soundtracks for an anime. And no cheap J-pop nonsense either.

    Sixteen years since it came out, huh…jeez, we’re getting old.

  8. Orguss 2 is something you get when you cross Megazone 23 and Macross II.

  9. “In short, I prefer to treat it as the equivalent of an alternate universe Gundam series or, perhaps more appropriately in this context, as just another Macross II.”

    You make that sound like it’s *hard*.

    Seriously, it’s not like most nerds didn’t grow up on comic books and aren’t used to parsing out stories into multiverses populated by barely-different reiterations of the same damn concept over and over again, or anything.

  10. I’m not saying that’s too tough overall, but simply going over the process and how, at least in my case, it applies to this particular property.

    Though curiously enough, the very nature of the comic book business is one of the reasons I pretty much stopped reading mainstream comics after a certain point.

  11. This article demonstrates why Colony Drop is on the recommended reading list for my anime history evening class. Its main contribution to a proper consideration of anime history isn’t just the distinguished records of the contributors, or the number of titles listed here that they’ll never have seen, but the approach. History should be more concerned with analysis and critique than with hagiography: its back alleys are just as important as its broad boulevards. Our chief weapon is irony… and sarcasm …

  12. Man, I remember ordering this shit off of direct-tv’s anime movie selection when I was too cheap/lazy to grab stuff at blockbusters. Back then I really didn’t know all that much about the mecha genre so the whole different approach they took against genre norms really flew over my head. Still I remember being vaguely bothered by the fact that they had all these neat robots and were doing barely anything with them. Perhaps it was the fact that I had watched Escaflowne back then that sort of made me miss some of the disconnects. Not that Escaflowne’s mechs moved or looked similar, but just that the same dichotomy b/w the setting and the tech probably turned everything into a big haze of animu available in the states marketed towards me. I’m sure I’d be able to appreciate it more now, but I don’t remember it making a huge impact on me back then, so I doubt that would change. I don’t even remember the music they used on the version I watched, but damn, the op that got linked a couple times on IRC was so… uhh bad. I’m sure I would’ve remembered it if it used the same track, but then again I might have blocked it out of my memory, or just have not paid any attention to the OP or ED as I usually don’t.

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