Film Torments: Garzey’s Wing (1996)

THIS TIME on Torments, Dan examines an anime disaster.

In the world of anime, Original Video Animations (OVAs) are straight-to-video releases usually made to serve as a sidebar for an ongoing series. They often take the form of supplemental or non-canonical side stories and explore previously unseen perspectives or play with genre conventions. This is, of course, an oversimplification, since the term is an incredibly broad umbrella to describe a diverse array of media. Legend of the Galactic Heroes, for instance, is a 110-episode epic that may as well be considered its own distinct series; others will last 23 minutes. In any case, on the whole, the lack of syndication provides the makers of OVA with higher budgets and thus more time to craft higher-quality animation than their television peers.

While direct-to-video in the West tends to be associated with lesser-quality products, the overwhelming demand for anime in the economic boom of 1980s Japan necessitated the practice, with OVAs leading the charge as consumers flocked to their local VHS stores to snap them up. As a consequence of their separation from more stringent television censorship laws, OVAs of this period were often more graphic in nature, which further attracted adult audiences. As the 90s rolled in and the economy began to falter, the rise of cable networks facilitated a new wave of broadcast anime that could be just as graphic, violent and fan-servicey as the 80s OVAs; consequently, 90s OVAs were comparatively few and usually based on existing properties.

Garzey’s Wing entered this fecund landscape in the summer of 1996. Written, directed and storyboarded by Yoshiyuki Tomino, the legendary creator of Mobile Suit Gundam, and produced by the prolific J.C. Staff Studio, the three-episode OVA had everything going for it and every reason to succeed. Over the course of six months and three episodes, it crashed and burned in such spectacular fashion that the outspoken Tomino refuses to even talk about it. An incomprehensible muddle of unexplained terms, undefined powers and enormous space ducks, Garzey’s Wing is a disastrous example of the dangers of total creative freedom on its own (lack of) merit, but that’s before the notorious English dub enters the fray.

Without the dub, Garzey’s Wing would be just another low-quality OVA, albeit one with pedigree, but the dub is so unbelievably awful that it has transcended its mediocre trappings and entered the halls of cult. No one would remember Garzey’s Wing if not for the singularly atrocious English translation, which has been suitably excoriated ever since its 2000 western release. Produced by Audioworks Producers Group, a mostly-adult-oriented subsidiary of Central Park Media, the dub is plagued by an intensely literal translation, run-on sentences and inexperienced actors trying to wrap their tongues around distinctly Japanese terms like Yamato Takeru no Mikoto.

Granted, any attempt to translate the OVA’s endless reams of pseudo-spiritual nonsense would be an undertaking in any language, and then there’s the actual plot to consider. Here’s the gist: College hopeful Chris is heading to the “class reunion pool party” when his necklace rattles. He concludes it must be the Shirotori Shrine, where Yamato Takeru no Mikoto came down from the sky. “Whoa, what the heck is this now!” he cries, and a mystical duck transports his spirit(?) to Byston’s Well, a medieval land under the oppressive rule of the Ashigaba Army. Chris, now bollock naked with wings in his feet, joins up with the Metomeus Tribe, a band of rebels, and is quickly proclaimed the Holy Warrior. For context, this occurs in the opening three minutes. The full OVA is around 90 minutes long.

While every scene in the Garzey’s Wing dub is a textbook example of how not to translate a foreign property, there’s one scene in particular that captures this essence perfectly. In the real world, Chris wakes up with bruises all over his body. Using their telepathic link, Spirit Chris informs Body Chris that he has bruises because he “had to fight naked”. “Even dinosaurs are here!” Spirit Chris says, adding: “They use bows and arrows. My sword is unbelievably dull! 12th and 13th Century foreigners surround me!” Here’s another section of their riveting exchange:

“I must do Chi: spiritual unification, and practice Zen –”
“Huh? I know. I will do that here.”
“Please do so!”

The text alone conveys the baffling nature of most dialogue in Garzey’s Wing, but matching it with the hysterical voice acting and the thoroughly mundane visuals elevates it exponentially. The script is, without exception, yelled or half-yelled by its cast, imbuing most lines with a strangely aggressive tone that’s completely absent in the original release. The likelihood is that the dub was simply rushed through production to make a quick buck, but that doesn’t really explain why the actors have recorded their lines like they’re on the verge of pissing themselves.

It’s difficult to be bored by Garzey’s Wing because of how quickly it passes, but it’s natural to be overwhelmed by the information it presents. Characters seem incapable of conveying information that isn’t absolutely critical to what is occurring at that precise moment, providing us with zero insight into their personality and denying them any opportunity to grow. If scenes didn’t proceed at 1000 miles per hour, the viewer would be lulled into a stupor by both the repetition and the animation, which never rises above decent and often relies on shorthand like speedlines and lingering close-ups of a character’s unmoving face.

There’s also a palpable lack of creativity in both the visuals and the presentation of the story. There’s nothing to distinguish Garzey’s Wing from the litany of isekai (li. ‘different world’) stories that proliferate Japanese media; moreover, it has no conclusion. Garzey’s Wing simply ends after a big battle, with no resolution or growth or, frankly, anything. Was the OVA the first salvo of a television deal that never materialised, or is its abrupt denouement simply down to the fact that Tomino was adapting five (!) of his own novels into 90 minutes of animation and ran out of time, patience or money? We’ll probably never know, given Tomino’s refusal to discuss the subject and his self-professed hatred of anime in general, but it’s always fun to speculate.

In any case, Garzey’s Wing remains a fascinating relic of the dark years of western anime releases. Without that legendarily awful dub, it’s easy to imagine the OVA fading into obscurity, much like Tomino’s similarly lacklustre (and notably undubbed) Wings of Rean did. Is it better to be remembered as a disaster or forgotten entirely? Tomino’s work speaks for itself, but it’s a little reassuring to know that even legends can stumble. When the stumble is as unintentionally hilarious as this, I’d take the cult option any day.

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