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.