The Revival (?) of Studio Gonzo

Kaleido Star: One of Gonzo’s Best

One of the persistent problems in TV anime production is the tendency for shows to start off strong and end disappointingly. Frequent culprits include inconclusive or unsatisfying endings, visible decline in animation quality as a series reaches its conclusion, or a lack of clear direction after a certain point (usually midway). Once upon a time, there was one studio particularly emblematic of this trend, and its name was Gonzo. To my surprise, Gonzo appeared in the news in 2016 because of its purchase by Japanese ad agency Asatsu-DK.

The path for Gonzo back to stability and relative prominence is an interesting one, and while I don’t have the inner details of just how Gonzo accomplished this, I want to discuss from my own fan perspective the ups and downs of Gonzo over the past 15+ years.

Back in the early 2000s, Gonzo shows would hit the ground running. Series such as Kiddy Grade, Vandread, and Last Exile, were full of attractive and memorable characters, and their action scenes were rife with flash and pizazz. Gonzo had two main strengths. First, was the quality of their animation. Second, was that their shows often looked visually “cutting edge.” Just as the turn of the 21st century carried with it the last vestiges of the 20th century hope for a world of flying cars and such, so too did Gonzo shows have a futuristic feel. In my own view, no studio embodied the essence of the period’s anime more than Gonzo, especially when factoring in their prominence on American store shelves, and their work on Afro Samurai.

Unfortunately, they would often start to meander around the halfway mark before barely sputtering towards the finish line. It was such a common problem for their works that terms such as “Gonzo ending” and “Gonzo show” were used among fans to describe such troubled productions. Even the Gonzo shows that people praised, especially science fiction/fantasy action works like Bokurano and Strike Witches, were often only considered good enough in that their positives would outweigh the notorious Gonzo negatives. Only a couple of shows, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, and Kaleido Star (about an aspiring circus acrobat) ended up with none of the common problems plaguing Gonzo. With the rest, it was often said among online fans that sticking with a Gonzo show came at your own peril. Fool me once…

A quick glance at their releases shows just what was fundamentally wrong with Gonzo: they bit off more than they could possibly chew. For years, multiple shows of theirs came out practically every season, and each time they all but repeated the same mistake of starting strong and ending weak. Just about every series clearly went over both time and monetary budgets for the sake of style. Perhaps the lowest point of Gonzo’s existence came in 2009, when Gonzo began animating the yuri mahjong series Saki. About two-thirds of the way through, they could no longer keep up production, and they were replaced by a studio called Picture Magic. From there, they began to fade into obscurity, working only on smaller projects usually at the behest of other companies.

However, this might have well been what saved them from the brink. Gonzo’s problem was that they were always good at micro elements such as action scenes, but faltered with macro elements like overall story and pacing. But when they could serve the role of just helping others with action, they could shine. Notably, when the Street Fighter IV expansion Super Street Fighter IV came out in 2010, they replaced the more artsy and avant garde Studio 4ºC as the provider of 2D-animated cut scenes for the famous fighting game series. Studio 4ºC has many strengths, mostly in terms of its creativity and willingness to push the boundaries of abstraction in animated works, but conventional portrayal of fight scenes was not in their wheelhouse and it showed. For Gonzo, on the other hand, it was a perfect fit.

Since then, they’ve come back to directly producing works, such as Last Exile: Fam the Silver Wing in 2011 and the Bayonetta anime in 2013. When you look at Gonzo’s output now, it’s clear that their approach has changed. Where once they tried to cram six or seven shows into a single year, now it’s generally one or two. If they’re working on more shows, it’s usually in conjunction with other studios, such as with Thermae Romae in 2012. For better or worse, they’re not even as focused on action, as their recent works tend to be more comedic, most notably the recent 2015 show Seiyu‘s Life. All the while, they still assist other studios. Perhaps what Gonzo needed was experience, going from the wild abandon of their proverbial youth to something much more reserved.

In some ways, I miss aspects of the old Gonzo. In particular, I was fond of how they often strove to be ahead of their time, even if it didn’t bear any fruit and also tanked their earnings in the process. Back when Strike Witches first aired, obtaining anime was very different. There was no Crunchyroll for legal streaming. DVDs were much more expensive than blu-rays are today. Torrents dominated, but even sharing over IRC and DC++ still happened to a small degree. In this environment, Gonzo said that they would distribute Strike Witches, episode by episode, DRM-free, and at a fairly decent video quality.

Gonzo tried to legitimize online anime viewing at a time when it was seen as impractical or even impossible, and were among the first to jump on board with the revamped Crunchyroll—a site that had gone from piracy central to forging legitimate relationships with Japan. But if it’s the difference between going out in a blaze of glory and charred bills or keeping their heads above water and slowly paddling along, then I think it’s better for Gonzo’s sake that they’ve changed. Maybe once they find themselves on terra firma, they can unleash the passion of their youth once again.

Kiddy Grade, Kiddy Girl-and, Memories of the Future

Recently, I was compelled to watch the Kiddy Grade opening, followed by the opening to its sequel, Kiddy Girl-and. For those of you who have never seen either show, I can best sum up the series as being a “girls with guns, maybe” show in a futuristic science fictional setting, and probably one of the shows that sticks out in people’s minds when you say “Studio Gonzo.”

Actually, the shows can probably best be summed up by watching the openings, which I invite you to do. Don’t worry about it, I’ll wait.

The original was fairly popular back in 2002, and seven years later out came its sequel, which I heard was not that well-received even by the typical diehard Japanese anime fan. Regardless of success or lack thereof however, when I watch those openings back to back, I can feel the flow of seven years of anime history, more than I can with other comparable methods. I can watch all of the Cutie Honey and Gegege no Kitarou openings and perceive the changes that have occurred over decades, but I can’t feel quite as much as with Kiddy Grade. I think the reason this difference exists in me is because this past decade was the time when I as an anime fan (and many others) could watch new shows within days or week of Japan, a dream at best for most people prior to the advent of the internet. I was there, man. It was intense (no it wasn’t).

But I don’t think it’s just the fact that I lived in this period that gives me the sensation of time flowing. It’s a definite factor, no doubt about it, but I think there’s also something different about the qualities of each opening, not just the fact that they feature different characters with different personalities, but also the way they introduce their content. Thus, though I’ve seen both shows either in part or in whole, I’m going to be thinking about them purely from what their openings have to stay about them (though I will be using their names for convenience’s sake).

The Kiddy Grade opening aims to give a sense of intrigue while introducing its main characters as two mysterious and attractive ladies. Eclair, the brown-haired one, is leggy and busty and is portrayed as the “muscle.” The “brains,” Lumiere, is decidedly younger in appearance, and seems to be taken from the same quiet, blue-haired mold as Evangelion‘s Ayanami Rei and Nadesico‘s Hoshino Ruri, though with significantly more smiling. Every scene has them contrasted with each other in some ways, whether it’s Eclair shooting a gun vs. Lumiere throwing a wine bottle, Eclair standing on one side with her lipstick whip with Lumiere and her “data trails” on the other, or the “kiss” scene, again, to create intrigue, sexual or otherwise.

The Kiddy Girl-and opening on the other hand is anything but mysterious in its presentation. It seems to want to convey an everyday sense of fun, and the two main girls are decidedly sillier in the intro compared to Eclair and Lumiere. They also are less different from one another compared to their Kiddy Grade counterparts, with Ascoeur (the pink-haired one) and Q-Feuille (the purple-haired one) having closer body types, though it’s clear that the former is bubblier than the latter. Rather than being presented as enigmas, Ascoeur and Q-Feuille are up-close. Personal, even.

Of course I can’t ignore the music itself either. Music isn’t my specialty, but I can tell you that Kiddy Girl-and‘s song is clearly sung by the voice actors of the heroines, whereas Kiddy Grade‘s with its mellow tones is not, and both songs lend themselves to the descriptions I gave. While having the seiyuu sing the opening was nothing new in anime even before 2002 (Slayers, Sakura Wars, to name a couple), I’d say that they’re supposed to be singing as the characters in the Kiddy Girl-and opening.

So then what are the big changes that this transition between openings represents? Well I don’t know if I’d call them “big” per se, but I feel that the Kiddy Grade opening exemplifies what was typical of its time, and the same goes for the Kiddy Girl-and opening. The much more “futuristic” vibe of the Kiddy Grade opening leads to the future-as-typical feel of its sequel’s intro, in a sense representing an increase in slice-of-life/”the everyday,” as well as a move away showing narrative-type elements as a prominent reason to watch. I wouldn’t go as far to say that this is an example of Azuma Hiroki-esque breakdown of the anime “Grand Narrative” though, as that’s a lot more complicated than just “less plot in anime.” Of course, there’s also the feeling that “moe” has changed as well, as I think that all four girls are supposed to be “moe” to certain extents, and seeing how their “moe” is conveyed in those openings is probably more indicative of that seven-year gap than anything else.

Neither of the shows are particularly amazing or special, and are probably best described as “the median” or “mediocre” anime, depending on how kind you want to be. However, that’s exactly why I think their contrast shows the path anime has taken so well, because while it’s great to see how the really pioneering, experimental, and enormously popular works operate, looking at the middle of the road gives a good idea of how anime as a whole moves.

GONZO on Super Street Fighter IV, I Think They’ll Be All Right

In creating the same-numbered sequel to Street Fighter IV known as Super Street Fighter IV, Capcom has opted to ditch acclaimed animation studio 4C in favor of GONZO to do the anime accompaniment to the game.

“Wait, GONZO? You mean those guys who ran out of money and weren’t even allowed to do Strike Witches Season 2?” Yes, those guys, but when you think about it they’re a really good fit for Street Fighter IV. Production IG would’ve been better, but you can’t have it all.

Let’s first get out of the way the fact that the Studio 4C Street Fighter IV anime was pretty terrible, and much less than what we’d expect out of a studio which prides itself on its creative animation. Looking back, it’s easy to see that it was simply the wrong studio for the job. Illustrating muscley men (and women!) beating each other up is not really 4C’s thing. GONZO on the other hand is quite good at it.

GONZO utilizes a certain style when animating for international audiences, one that combines the basic aesthetics of “anime” with a very American and masculine idea of “cool,” with the most prominent example being Afro Samurai, and that style just so happens to mesh well with Street Fighter IV ‘s. Looking at it relative to the rest of the series, SFIV looks the least like anime out of any of the games ever, and it’s a style that appeals to an audience that also consists of people who don’t like anime (or their image of anime) too much. It’s 3D, it’s “realistic” in an American comic book sort of way even if we’ve got some weird character designs, and it’s close to how GONZO rolls and vice-versa. If you don’t believe me, check out the trailer.

GONZO’s weakness as a studio has generally been utilizing money poorly and mediocre to poor direction on their shows leading to bad endings. But give GONZO enough money for the job and they’ll turn out something pretty-looking for sure. That’s why I predict that this GONZO SSFIV animation will turn out well. First, this is game industry money after all, and even if it’s feeling the effects of the recession it’s still faring better than the anime industry, and they’d be able to at least fund a one-shot bonus feature. Second, this anime will probably be a mere setup for the game itself, so there’s no need for an ending and thus no conclusion to sabotage. And even if there was an ending, it’s not too hard to predict. In fact, I’ll spoil the ending for you: Ryu punches Seth, everybody wins.

All in all, I don’t think it’s going to be the pinnacle of Japanese animation, but it’ll definitely get the job done.

What Could Afro Samurai’s Emmy Nomination Mean For GONZO?

In case you haven’t heard, the GONZO-produced, Samuel L. Jackson-backed made-for-tv animated movie, Afro Samurai: Resurrection, has been nominated for an Emmy in the category of “Outstanding Animated Program (for programming one hour or more.” Granted, there isn’t a lot of competition in the first place (the Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends movie is the only other show nominated) so Afro Samurai may have simply gotten in by default, but that doesn’t make the MARKETING potential Afro Samurai and by extension GONZO may have now any less significant. After all, the legendary 100% viewership of Goldorak (Grendizer) in France had much to do with how boring the rest of TV was at that time. Even if it doesn’t win, it can still plaster EMMY-NOMINATED on the cover and GONZO will forever have something of official merit.

GONZO, as you might know, is in dire straits at the moment, having cut its staff by about 70% and being removed from the commander’s chair for the mahjong anime Saki. I don’t think GONZO is quite dead though, and I believe that if they utilize this sort of thing correctly they can gain sponsorship from companies they didn’t have previously, companies you might not even expect to sponsor anime.

If I had it my way, I’d have GONZO produce an animated soap opera for the daytime Emmys. Who the hell is going to compete with that?

Let’s Play a Game Using GONZO’s Woes

The animation studio GONZO, unable to make up for much of its losses over the past few yaers, recently cut most of its staff and is planning on reducing their output by 50%, down to four shows a year instead of eight. As GONZO marches forward, trying to do what it can to survive (which includes big steps into streaming video online), I feel it might be fun to figure out who these remaining creative staff members are.

I haven’t done any work on it at this point, but I figure there’s only 30 of them left, down from 130. By cross-checking the names that appear at the end of all of their shows, a comprehensive list could be formed.

That said, I wonder if any cut staff members are perhaps planning on forming their own companies.

Complete Linebarrels Episodes on Youtube

Actually, they’re divided into half-episode chunks, but this is certainly an improvement over when they decided to only release half-episodes on Youtube.

You can view them here.

Mind you, I’m not actually recommending the show; I’m just saying it’s available on a legitimate site that doesn’t have the unpleasant taste of Crunchyroll. I know that’s at least why I avoided watching the show past episode 1, despite easy access to rips and fansubs and what-have-you. Still, if you want to check it out, and then stop watching it once you realize the main character is aggravating in a way that only the hero of Toaru Majutsu no Index can match out of this season’s shows, here’s your opportunity.

Seriously, the main character is like if you took a 4chan poster, made him into Superboy Prime, and then gave him a giant robot.

Thanks, Anime

It’s an interesting time in anime, and there’s plenty of stuff to be grateful for.

Thanks, Anime, for providing affordable DVDS of series loved by all types of otaku, from Gurren-Lagann to Ouran High School Host Club to Aria and beyond.

Thanks, Anime, for making strides to becoming more accessible. Strike Witches isn’t what I’d call a show I’d recommend to others, but I commend GONZO for putting itself out there. And while some of you may have made a few missteps, like Sony with your super-expensive PS3 episodes of Xam’d, I’ll still be there to buy the DVDs.

Thanks, Anime, for having an incredible season this year with something for everyone, with fine work in practically every genre and sub-genre. With this, I have no regrets.

Thanks, Anime, for your plans to give us an Ultimate Crossover Pretty Cure Movie that we’ve been waiting for since Max Heart ended. I look forward to the 11-girl Ultimate Crossover Pretty Cure Finisher. It’s also thanks to this image that I realize that the more athletic Precure girls have tanner skin. You learn something everyday.

Thanks, Anime, for slating a Professor Layton Animated Movie scheduled for 2010. I’m not even kidding.

And finally, Thank You for an incredible year of Ogiue, JAM Project, good friends, good opportunities, and so much more.

Buy Strike Witches: You Can Call this a GONZO Editorial

GONZO’s new tv series Strike Witches has begun airing, and GONZO, as it did with Blassreiter and Druaga, is putting the show online with a good translation for the enjoyment of English-speaking anime fans. It’s an mp4 file, approximately 200mb, with hard-encoded subtitles. It’s even free of Digital Rights Management shenanigans, which is a big plus in my book.

Unfortunately, what I’ve heard is that someone has put the episode on bittorrent.

I will acknowledge that it’s iffy to put money into a series you haven’t watched yet, but GONZO is trying hard to reach out to us in the English-speaking anime fandom, and to piss away their good will just makes us look terrible.

If you don’t like Strike Witches, or are afraid of watching yet another GONZO series, then feel free to ignore it. I’m not expecting people to buy something they don’t have any interest in, but if you think you’re going to enjoy it, I ask that you at least try it out.

One thing to keep in mind is that you have 14 days to download each episode so you can’t really wait until the series finishes. That said, this also means you can perform a 3-episode test. I’d also normally say that you could possibly wait for the DVDs if you want to support them with your wallet, but there’s a high probability that Strike Witches DVDs will never see the light of day.

You can purchase episodes of Strike Witches via Bost TV for approximately $3.00 US. Keep in mind you have to spend a minimum of $10 in order to buy the points necessary, which is kind of annoying, but that has less to do with GONZO itself and everything to do with Bost.

Episode 1 Review
Strike Witches
is the story of a squad of young and powerful soldiers augmented with technologically advanced armored weaponry in order to combat the alien menace known as Neuroi. Its protagonist is Yoshika, a girl with a strong dislike of war whose father died during the conflict. However, a chance meeting with an old friend of her father’s puts Yoshika in a position she never expected.

All in all, Strike Witches is very cute, awfully fanservicey, and  well-animated. The main appeal is that its important characters are basically Mecha Musume. It’s a simple show that is clearly targeted towards otaku, so don’t expect it to be any more than what it tries to be.

Are the releases we want going to be the releases we get?

One complaint always leveled at anime companies is that they charge too much for anime. It’s something I’ve criticized in the past myself. Well, companies are finally listening and we’re seeing a variety of attempts to lower the cost of watching anime.

Gonzo plans on continuing its free online subtitled broadcasts with a continuation of Strike Witches.

Gainax and Bandai Entertainment have made it possible to watch the smash hit Gurren-Lagann on network cable via the Sci-Fi Network. Not only that, Bandai is planning a blitzkrieg release with 9 episodes per disc with a release of 1 disc per month. That’s 3 months for ALL of Gurren-Lagann.

Maria-sama ga Miteru, officially titled now as Maria is Watching Over Us, has an upcoming release of the entire first season at once. That’s 13 episodes from the get-go. No waiting, no nothing.

Media Blasters is releasing the second half of Gaogaigar all at once for practically nothing as well. This has less to do with plans and more to do with the fact that GGG did not do so well in the US, but it’s there.

And finally, Toei Animation has given the courtesy of releasing episodes of Hokuto no Ken and Slam Dunk online at $2 per episode. Granted, there’s some Digital Rights Management crap that we have to deal with, but they at least figured out that this is a better way of giving exposure to older series such as these.

So the anime industry has finally stepped up their game, and made it easier than ever to obtain anime from legitimate sources for affordable prices. It is now up to us as fans to support them, to tell these companies that, yes, we are willing to give you money directly provided you make it possible for us without sacrificing an arm and a leg when we do not have the fortune of being Edward Elric.

I don’t expect people to buy every single example I list here, and of course people’s income situations vary greatly, but I think it’s important that the anime fandom show that we are supportive of new attempts to get anime in our hands.