- Phoenix: Yamato (1987: Madhouse & Project Team Argos) 1/1 ep.
Phoenix is straight up one of the most important manga ever. This is due to the fact that it was Osamu Tezuka’s life’s work, he wrote it from the late 60’s until his death in the late 80s and in many ways encompasses all that he ever tried to say with his artistic output. It was also very experimental in how sequential art was presented and in some ways manga in general still hasn’t caught up to Phoenix yet. Sadly, he never got a chance to complete the manga but it is still worth reading as it is just fantastic. It has also had a large number of anime adaptations over the years but what we talking about today comes from a set of 1 film and 2 OAVs from the late 80s that were led by Rintaro. Rintaro is a legendary anime director who had his start right back with the Toei films of the 1950s! He directed the first entry in this 3 volume adaptation with a theatrical film based on the Karma Chapter, each story in Phoenix is fairly self-contained with thematic connections and some reoccurring/reincarnated characters. He then took a step back and was only a producer on the follow up OAVs. For the Yamato Chapter Toshio Hirata took the director’s chair. He is a fairly flexible director with a variety of works under his belt such as Bobby’s in Deep, Barefoot Gen 2, and Petshop of Horrors. It is important to note though that the same screenwriters were used in all three productions: Tomoko Konparu and Hideo Takayashiki. Both of their credits are super impressive so I’d recommend just reading them as me trying to list the highlights here would be a disservice.
The Yamato Chapter is set in ancient Japan where we follow Oguna, a prince in the Yamato Clan (the clan that would eventually end up ruling Japan). He is sent undercover to an opposing clan in order to kill their leader but instead ends up falling for the leader’s sister: Kajika. Over the course of the OAV he must balance his loyalties and react to an unfolding set of revelations. It is very much a mythic style of story and if you try to watch it literally or in a realistic manner then you are going to be disappointed. However, if you watch it with the understanding that it is myth then it is a very rich and emotional story in my eyes. As with all of Phoenix it is trying to delve into the greater truths about the human condition via myth, even if these greater myths are in fact quite simple at times. For example, this story’s main theme is about loyalty and love. I think there was an opportunity to dig a little deeper into these things, maybe a feature length run time would have allowed for that, but as it is it is still very good.
A highlight of the production was the visuals, in my opinion. The animation on the whole is pretty damn good, with some highlight sequences. There is also just something about how the movement is done that appeals to me, I can’t pin down what exactly it is to my annoyance though. I also, just love the way that light and dark are used in this OAV. I think blacks and shadows are such a powerful tool in cinema so to see it used well is always a treat. A scene like this fire dance just exemplifies what I love about animation and what strengths I think it has. These visuals are backed up with some pretty good audio with some great voice performances and some really good music at times. Though at other times a synth soundtrack is used that I’m not sure was the best choice, even if it does give a sense of continuity across all three productions as well as giving a notion that this story is timeless.
As you might be able to tell this is another one of those shows I’m struggling to write about. For me this is such an experiential and in many ways non-verbal work that I am struggling to find the word to describe it. It is the kind of show you feel rather than watch; as myth often is, especially when told by a good story teller. The characters and themes could have been dug into a little bit more but that might have clashed with the mythic style of the piece so it is not a huge issue for me. Overall, it isn’t without its flaws and it definitely isn’t for everyone but I would highly recommend you at least try the Yamato Chapter out as I think it is pretty cracking.
Final Score: 8B