Battle Arena Toshinden managed to achieve some modicum of success in the mid-1990s by the simple virtue of being one of the first of its kind in the video game world. A 3D, weapon-based fighting game was a big deal in 1995, and it was one of the most popular titles during the launch of Sony’s Playstation game console. The lackluster gameplay was eclipsed by the novelty of a fully-polygonal fighter, and the brand acquired a level of popularity far beyond what the actual quality of the game deserved. Despite being mostly forgotten today, the Toshinden franchise went on to spawn some three sequels and a handful of spin-off games (not to mention a recently released installment for the Nintendo Wii).
In the wake of the successful Street Fighter II animated film, any Japanimation producer worth his shoyu would be remiss not to try and cash in on any moderately-successful fighting game franchise and thus we have the downright terrible, two-part Battle Arena Toshinden Oriental Animation Video.
I’m going to be entirely straightforward and mention the most note-worthy aspect of Toshinden right now: It was the first dual-language DVD released in the United States, way back in 1997. It was a terrible, ugly DVD release, but it has the honor of being the first of its kind. With that out of the way, it’s all down hill from here, folks.
As fellow Colony Drop writer Mark put it, it’s a bad sign when an anime is considered Masami Ohbari’s worst work, but Toshinden is completely deserving of that distinction. The storyline is a jumbled mess of sputtering incoherency, the fighting scenes (the obvious lure of any of these types of tie-ins) are lackluster at best and boring or non-existent at worst, and the animation is downright ugly, with character designs so hideous they’re almost insulting. What blood and nudity exists is in such minimal quantities to be rendered utterly useless.
It took two people to write the screenplay for Toshinden, which is amazing because you would have thought that at least one of them would have made a slight effort. Instead, we have a poorly focused tale of Toshinden (that’s a battle tournament— I think) fighters being followed by robotic imitations to learn their special moves. The reasoning behind this is that having robotic clones that know these moves will somehow allow a shadowy organization, cleverly called “The Organization,” to take over the world.
The first episode starts off on the right track, with at least four different battles taking place in the first ten minutes, but things slow down once the feeble attempts at a plot are brought into play. Twenty minutes in, I became as confused as the stupid characters I was watching on screen, who are of such MENSA-caliber that they’re forced to yell out the names of their special attacks every time they perform them just to remember what they’re trying to do. (Surely this makes it easier for The Organization’s robot spies to spy on them.) There’s an early battle sequence that seems to be based off the storyboards of the Ohbari-directed Bubblegum Crisis episode, “Moonlight Rambler,” but the originality doesn’t stop there! Nearly every cliched anime shot is brought out in full force, starting with the classic silhouette of a dude on a motorcycle against a glittery background and going from there.
It’s worth mentioning that the visual design in episode one is absolutely terrible. The characters are ugly and universally unattractive, though this may partially be the fault of the designs from the game, which were also awful. The color scheme is bland and washed out, in a way that brings to mind the under-saturated tones of today’s repulsive digital animation. The upside is that there’s some decent animation and it’s clear the episode had something of a budget, if sadly misappropriated for this ugly mess.
The second episode’s animation style takes a turn towards something more akin to American Saturday morning cartoons, with unexplainable plot developments to fit. Rather than any sort of logical conclusion, the Toshinden fighters decide to assault The Organization’s base head on, a course of action that causes lots of other Toshinden fighters (who had yet to make an appearance thus far) to show up without warning or explanation.
They must have used up whatever budget they had in the first episode, as full movement is replaced by lots of panning shots over still images and a complete lack of blood or nudity. Episode two’s single redeeming quality may be the absolutely atrocious dubbing performance provided by live-action anime girl Apollo Smile. While the rest of the dub is tolerable, or at least as tolerable as a Central Park Media dub could be, Smile delivers a performance that would make even most Youtube fandubbers cringe.
Episode two ends without much resolution, seemingly leaving the door open for further sequels that thankfully never materialized. While the producers behind Toshinden may have been smart enough to stop at only two episodes, I’d recommend you never start at all. There’s nothing redeeming in Toshinden, and I can’t think of a single reason to even half-heartedly suggest watching it. It resides in that awkward place between being legitimately good, or so bad it’s good, and instead it’s simply boring, poorly made and uninteresting.