Zeoraima: Project Hades Review
Going back to anime in the 80’s, Japan wasn’t short on apocalyptic or socially relevant science fiction stories; with many an OAV depicting moral messages and dark imagery, death and destruction and battles between the various superpowers that be, whether they’re human or alien. In 1988 Zeoraima: Project Hades was just coming off the back-end of Akira‘s cinematic success and while pre-dating Neon Genesis Evangelion (not to mention a slew of others) it comes somewhere in-between the two to provide an interesting yet flawed concept. Of course one should be hesitant when taking anyone’s word for how much it later inspired the series that would go on to crush all that stood in its way. What we have here is something that bares a few similarities - story elements that had been far better developed in later years; a blueprint if you will for some of the shows that dominated the 90’s.
Akitsu Masato is a middle-school student who finds himself being kidnapped by a mysterious organisation and thrown into a dark cell, with no idea as to what they want. Here he meets a young woman by the name of Himuro Miku who informs him that he is Zeoraima’s Pilot. Naturally Akitsu is confused by this and his many questions go unanswered.
Meanwhile, somewhere else in Japan, the secret sect known as the “Steel Dragon Society” is preparing for an assault, using their Hakkeshu: giant mechanical beasts whose powers derive from nature’s various elements. Fifteen years ago their most powerful machine was stolen, that machine was Zeoraima, and now they want it back! As Akitsu learns more about his destiny he becomes ridden with angst, soon developing a second personality as he confronts the enemy Hakkeshu. Mankind faces its darkest hour; can Akitsu save the world from destruction, or will his actions only help it come sooner?
Zeoraima: Project Hades is certainly an ambitious tale, that had it been made today it would likely have been given a longer run. As it stands it suffers from having too many ideas and not enough time to do a great deal with them. Its emphasis is placed on several factors, whereby each is meant to represent something of great importance. Director, Toshihiro Hirano (who later went onto success with Vampire Princess Miyu and has provided animation for Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and Macross: Do You Remember Love?) wants to bring us deeply rooted characters, from both sides of the tale. Akitsu and Himuro - who we learn are working for the Japanese government - each have their own unresolved past, and likewise the members of the “Steel Dragon Society” have their own inner problems to deal with as they bicker amongst themselves. Relationships are heavily played out, with love triangles to boot, as well as outwardly appearances and issues of frustration dominating the side of the bad guys. On the other side of the scale we have a young man who is slowly being torn apart as he’s thrust into battle, with little knowledge as to why. Over the course of this OAV these reasons become clear, but they’re parts that feel tacked on. It’s as if greater things were intended for the series but at the end of the day they just had to be hurried along. By the time the story reaches its inevitable and all the more predictable conclusion we’ve grown to understand certain actions, but fail to sympathise with any of the characters. To put things simply there’s no real reason to care. In addition this is by large a depressing tale, coming from a time when many Sci-Fi OAV productions were more than a little dark. That’s not to say that we don’t get them anymore but with shows like Genocyber and A.D. Police (being part of the cyberpunk boom) knocking around at the same time it becomes one of those shows that simply belongs. By today’s standards its ideas still hold place, but their execution is minimal.
If we look at these ideas we can see that it’s very much an underdeveloped piece of work, both morally and politically. There’s a plot about cloning, which in itself would usually take up far more time than it’s given here, not to mention the continuing referral to Japan being a ground for destruction, while its government tries to acquire the strongest weapons in the world for its own defence. These issues have been looked at in far greater details in other features and TV series and quite frankly they can easily go over the heads of viewers for this feature, if not for one or two slight nods. As a commentary piece this series is light, merely showing potential.
While character motives are fleeting throughout, Zeoraima: Project Hades then relies on a series of action sequences to grab the attention of anyone who might have begun to grow a little tired of its up and down plot. This is where the Mech-warriors come into play, to smash up as much of Japan as possible before confronting their enemy. Hideki Kakinuma (Genesis Climber Mospeda, Bubblegum Crisis) and Kimitoshi Yamane (Escaflowne, Gundam, Cowboy Bebop) have come up with some attractive designs, which is a good thing too as the rest of series doesn’t quite manage to show us much else of interest. The Hakkeshu each have powers that represent Earth’s resources: we have mountain, fire, water, earth, wind, moon and thunder, with Zeoraima representing the heavens. Hideki and Kimitoshi then bring us appropriate designs to help separate each robot, with relevant colours making them instantly recognisable while elsewhere they’re given individual mechanical specialities. The attention to detail is impressive, particularly when each robot gets ready for a super attack by shifting a few of its body parts. Kimitoshi’s work is practically unmistakable. Looking back today his designs bare striking similarities to one another; it becomes easy to compare designs from his work since.
When these machines do finally get into a little one on one action the interest levels drop. Animation wise there aren’t any complaints, it looks as good as any other OAV from its time, but the director foregoes any kind of intense fisty-cuffs in favour of big lighting effects. These sequences become blurred as robots fire huge laser bombs at each other, after lengthy set ups, making the pay off something of an anti-climax. Where a longer running series might have come up with a villainous bot of the week, this short creation tries to cram in as many as it can for each chapter, which considerably messes with the show’s pacing.
Which leaves us with very little else to look at. Michitaka Kikuchi’s character designs are functional if not original; they don’t have any kind of unique identity (except for silly blobs of paint on their faces) which makes them throwaway creations, while the various locations that are restricted to facilities are dull affairs. Studio AIC have done a decent job in producing the animation but sadly Noboru Aikawa’s script is a little off kilt; it’s a shame too, coming from the man who wrote the screenplays for Urotsukidoji and later the well received Vampire Princess Miyu.
The series was originally a four part tale that was released in Japan between 1988 and 1990. For its UK DVD release, Manga Entertainment have edited together two episodes for each part. The break in these episodes is noticeable due to the series narration. While it would have been preferable to have the four individual episodes on disc it’s not too much of a hindrance.
The series is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Coming from Manga Entertainment and being not much more than a re-issue you can expect little beyond VHS quality. This is tape sourced, complete with a few noticeable lines and some Edge Enhancement thrown in. Colours are dark throughout but are also a reflection of the period when it was made. Many of these OAVs looked similar and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see them looking any better, which is still no excuse as extra effort could have been made to find original masters as a basis for comparison. The transfer is sharp enough and there isn’t too much in the way of noticeable compression faults.
As for sound I’m curious as to why Manga have gone to the trouble of presenting a DTS option for both language options. We have both English (too awful to mention) and Japanese audio in 2.0, 5.1 and DTS. I have to say that usually 2.0 would take priority as the track of choice, but there are times when it can be a little difficult to make out so the 5.1 tracks serve some purpose. The series was never designed for surround usage and this is evident upon playing it in 5.1 channel surround. Most of the action and dialogue are all centre based and so I see no real reason for the additional tracks. The DTS mode is a waste of time and nigh on identical to the former track. A better job in presenting the 2.0 track would have sufficed but for fans who just love their DTS way too much I’m sure this will come as a deciding factor.
At least Manga bring us an older series that has a choice of both languages with optional subtitles. The English subs are easy to read and well timed, posing no grammatical errors as far as I can tell.
Zip, except for a 7-minute trailer reel for other Manga products.
Zeoraima: Project Hades is average at best. It has some promising ideas but little care has been put in to further developing them. For a series totalling a little over 90-minutes there just isn’t enough time to win us over, and it doesn’t help when there are so many characters that could do with fleshing out a bit more. Fans of Mech action may well be swayed to part with their cash, but no doubt the series will understandably stay overlooked by many.