Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oh My Goddess (OAV) (1993)


Introduction:
This series was part of Animeigo’s one-two punch to show the North American anime market that Japanese animation was more than exploding heads, naughty tentacles, super powered robots and guys swinging swords the size of Chicago.  How would a romantic comedy with fantasy elements play to an audience that loved Akira?

Summary:
Keiichi Morisato (Scott Simpson) is a college freshman at the bottom of his dorm food chain. So while everyone else is out having a good time, Keiichi has to stay behind to answer the phone and take messages. Lamenting his fate and also getting hungry for dinner, he phones for some delivery. Instead he dials The Goddess Helpline. Within seconds a beautiful young woman climbs out of a mirror and says she can grant him a single wish. Keiichi figures this is part of an elaborate joke, so he jokes back, “I want you to be my girlfriend forever.” And his wish is granted.

Now Keiichi finds himself in the company of Belldandy (Juliet Cesario), a super sweet and super cute goddess, with mystical powers. Any time circumstances occur that may separate them, the holy contract that binds the two kicks in, and all kinds of magical shenanigans ensue. Things get even more fun when Belldandy’s older sexy sister Urd (Lanelle Markgraf) and younger bratty sister Skuld (Pamela Weidner) show up to help or hinder the relationship. What Keiichi doesn’t know is that a promise made in the past may end up taking Belldandy away from him on Christmas Day.

Good Points:

  • A fun set of characters and situations
  • The final two episodes handle the melodrama very well
  • The English voice cast is very good (for this era)
Bad Points:

  • If you’re not into romance in your anime, then keep away
  • Some of the characters may drive viewers up the wall
  • Fans of the manga may not like the changes for the OAV
Overall:
Based loosely on the manga, but with enough changes to take it into a new direction, this OAV series starts out as cute romantic fun. But the final two episodes take it into dramatic territory as the characters you’ve grown to like are put to the test (romantically of course). The English voice cast does a fine job with the material. Even if the animation isn’t as polished as it could be, the end result is a very entertaining show that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total: 4

In Depth Review
Keiichi makes a great first impression.
If Kosusuke Fujishima has an enduring legacy in anime and manga, then it has to be Oh My Goddess (or Ah My Goddess as it is also known). The comic series has been running since 1989 and is still going strong. It inspired this original animated video (OAV) series, a couple of television series and a full length feature film. All this from a one off joke in Fujishima's other manga series You’re Under Arrest. The Goddess Belldandy appeared in one issue and Fujishima just took the idea and ran with it.

One of the things I like about the OAV is that is manages to capture all the major elements from the manga, sticking very closely to key storylines. But it is also different enough to not feel like a rehash. I love how it goes into a new direction in the final two episodes, but stays true to the characters. The ending is actually poignant and even though a happy ending is never in doubt, our two leads are put through quite a bit.

Now for those who are not familiar with anime genres, there is a whole set of shows that revolve around the "magical girlfriend". Sometimes she's from space, or a witch, or maybe just appearing out of a VHS tape like the creepy ghost in Ringu, but cuter and with less death. Anyway, this genre usually revolves around a hapless and hopeless young man who meets the "magical girlfriend" and falls for her. Of course all kinds of wacky, magical things happen. There's usually a love triangle or rectangle in there, or maybe it turns into a harem show (were a bunch of magical girls show up and fall for the protagonist). Oh My Goddess falls neatly into this genre, and is probably one of the most popular behind Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura featuring everyone's favorite space demon/babe Lum. 

Kei and Bell share a quite moment. The lighting
in the park gives this scene of soft glow.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Oh My Goddess uses Fujishima’s character designs to start with, but since the animation company is AIC (of Tenchi Muyo  fame), and this was made in the 1990s, the characters end up with a mix of that AIC look with the original character designs. It actually reminds me a bit of what happened with Gunsmith Cats. It’s a shame, because Fujishima’s style is pretty unique and very attractive. That’s not to say that the characters are hideous in their animated form, but they are a bit blander looking than in the manga.

In addition it looks like some cost saving animation was used in several places. The third episode features a motorcycle drag race. Fujishima is a motorhead of the highest degree and the manga is filled with car and motorcycle races and road trips. Keiichi is even part of the college motor club and several series plot points revolve around him dealing with the rival club and racers. So you expect a bit of that in the anime series. Unfortunately the racing montage uses a lot of still frames, empty backgrounds and tight shots of only the helmets of the racers filling the screen. Compared to the fully animated race scenes in You’re Under Arrest it’s a bit of a let down. I’ve also noticed that the character animation is inconsistent, especially from episode to episode.

Belldandy makes a startling discovery. I love
the way they capture the sunset in this sequence.
However the animation crew for Oh My Goddess does end up giving us plenty of animation for the magic spells, mystical encounters and decrees from heaven that frequently occur in the show. One of the most impressive occurs in the first episode, where Belldandy uses her powers to restore a ruined Buddhist temple to its former glory. But the most impressive visuals are the wonderful atmosphere and mood created by the backgrounds and lighting. There is a real romance to the entire series. The soft backgrounds, and colorful lighting help create this feeling. One of my favorite uses of lighting is during the second episode where Belldandy and Keiichi go to the beach (and Urd does her best to help them connect, only to fail spectacularly each time). There are some great scenes with the sunlight dancing on the ocean, sunset casting a burning orange light everywhere and a finale by moonlight. Great stuff, and it mirrors the conflicted emotions that Keiichi is dealing with.

Belldandy: so sweet that if you may need to brush
your teeth after each episode to avoid tooth decay.
This type of show doesn’t have a lot creative sound effects. Even the magical spells sound like they came from a standard library. It’s not bad work, but it doesn’t pop. The music is simple stuff, a bit over the top at times. It actually made me laugh when it started to sound like it came from a corny soap opera. Where the series does offer some musical highlights are in the songs featured in the series. The Japanese voice actresses who play the goddess perform these songs. All three ladies sing very well. Kikuko Inoue, who played Belldandy, has an especially sweet voice. These songs often fit the show well, and the opening and ending credits use songs from “the Goddess Family Club”. They are both very catchy and you might find yourself humming or singing along.

With a total of five episodes, each running about a half hour Oh My Goddess does a great job introducing the characters and giving them an entertaining series of adventures to experience. The first episode introduces us to Keiichi and his dorm mates. When Belldandy arrives on the scene and grants his wish things go badly very quickly. He lives in a men’s only dorm, and is kicked out for sneaking a girl inside. The rest of the episode deals with the two trying to find a place to stay and bonding as friends. Keiichi obviously hasn’t had a girlfriend before and is very awkward around Belldandy. While it isn’t spelled out so much in the OAV, in the manga it is very clear that Keiichi is very Japanese and Belldandy is very Western (most likely Scandinavian). So Keiichi is dealing with a foreign Goddess. But Belldandy is true to her word; she stays with him and becomes his best friend.

Urd: once described as being a few fries short
of a happy meal.
Episode two introduces the sexy goddess Urd, Belldandy’s older sister. She is sick of Keiichi’s pathetic attempts to woo Belldandy, and wants the two to hook up faster. So she offers to help. Belldandy is a domestic goddess (literally), who loves cooking, taking care of the home (or temple in this case) and spending time with Keiichi. Urd is into magic potions, alchemy and generally getting into trouble. She loves teasing Keiichi, often getting him to blush at her provocative behavior. But she isn’t interested in him. She is protective of her younger sister and just wants to see her happy. But she tends to act before thinking and it gets everyone in trouble. Urd also is probably the wittiest of the characters in the show, and has plenty of scene stealing lines.

Skuld: Left alone in heaven with a bunch of bugs,
she's going to make things difficult for Kei and Bell.
The third episode of Oh My Goddess deals with the youngest sister, Skuld. After the events of episode two, she is left behind in heaven and is lonely. When she finds out that Belldandy is in contract to a mortal. She’s annoyed. When she actually meets Keiichi and finds out that he’s a bit of a nerd, she loses it. Skuld wants her sister back and she’s going to stop at nothing to do it. Meanwhile Keiichi is selected by his Motor Club to participate in a motorcycle drag race. He has to construct the bike from scratch. In addition the upper classmen have made a bet with the rival motor club. The stakes are simple. If the rivals win, Belldandy joins their club. If Keiichi’s club wins, the rivals disband their club. Keiichi can’t let this happen, but Skuld sees the perfect opportunity to separate the two of them, and prove how big of a loser Keiichi is.

Skuld uses special glasses to see the dimensional rift.
The fourth and fifth episodes comprise one storyline. It all starts with a snowy day at the temple. When Keiichi goes down the hill to check the roads, he discovers that the snow is only on the temple. The rest of the city is snow free! Obviously some magic is at work. The goddesses determine that a system bug is loose in our world and is causing havoc. They destroy the bug, but more keep appearing. Skuld determines that a dimensional rift has opened up allowing the bugs to cross into the mortal world. What is causing the rift? It opens any time Belldandy and Keiichi get close. Once this news gets back to heaven, they cancel Belldandy’s contract with Keiichi and give her three days to put her affairs in order and return to heaven.

What is cuter than Belldandy? A flashback to Belldandy
as a little kid. Diabetics should not watch these scenes.
Keiichi can’t believe it and teams up with Urd and Skuld to find another solution. Meanwhile Belldandy, being the dutiful one, prepares for her departure. This includes erasing all evidence that she was ever in Keiichi’s life, including erasing his memories of her. But Belldandy is hiding something. As a child she made a promise, one that she broke. Even though she was only a child she is still a goddess. This means the promise is a holy vow. This broken promise has torn a hole in reality and is causing the rift. Belldandy can’t do anything to repair it without hurting Keiichi. Meanwhile Keiichi struggles with a series of odd jobs to buy something special for Belldandy for Christmas. Skuld and Urd end up bickering more than planning their scheme to keep Belldandy on earth.

Belldandy tries to explain to Skuld why she has
to stay on earth with that "loser" Keiichi.
I decided to give a summary of each episode because it plays into my discussion of the characters, acting and overall construction of the series. One of the most fun aspects of Oh My Goddess is the mix of Norse mythology with sci-fi futuristic technology. The supernatural aspect of this series is based on the idea that the entire universe is essentially one giant computer system. Belldandy and her sisters are high-level operators in that system. They are goddesses to us mortals, but still part of technological and bureaucratic system. In the manga they go into more detail with this, but the anime series does a good job by providing some shorthand scenes. One of my favorites is Skuld de-bugging the system. Basically she runs around with a giant hammer and squishes the rabbit-like bugs. Urd calls into the network to find out what is going on in heaven, and is put on hold. Talks of binding contracts, and the “ultimate force system” mix the computer and mythological concepts. Then there are the goddesses themselves, named after The Norns from Viking mythology. These three sisters drew and cut the lifelines of mortals and gods. They are often tied into time: Urd to the past, Belldandy to the present and Skuld to the future. While those powers don’t come specifically into play, they obviously affect the age of the girls.

Keiichi is normally a mellow guy, but when Belldandy
is recalled to heaven, he demands an explanation.
The English dub cast does a very good job. This was an early dub from Animiego and those dubs could be hit or miss. Simpson gives a solid performance as Keiichi, balancing the awkward nature of the character with a nice gentle demeanor. However, when things start getting darker in the final two episodes Simpson meets the challenge giving Keiichi more determination. He won’t accept Belldandy’s return to heave lying down. He has a great scene in the fourth episode where his frustration bubbles over and confronts Belldandy about the broken vow.

All three actresses who play the leads in Oh My Goddess are also very good. Cesario may have the toughest part, because Belldandy is so sweet, so kind and so loving, that she’s a bit bland. She also cries at least once in each episode, but Cesario is able to make each of those moments different. The warmth in her performance really sells the character and her vocal chemistry with Simpson makes the romance work well. Belldandy is one of those characters that will either annoy the heck out of viewers or become completely endearing to them. She's so gentle and kind, that she can be a bit of a doormat. I think Cesario's real challenge was making Belldandy more relatable and less simpering than the character ends up appearing at times. It was a tough job, because Cesario only had her voice to use to pull it off. But she does it well. She adds some conflict to the performances where Belldandy breaks down in tears. She's not just sad, but struggling with an inner dilemma. We don't understand what this might be until the final episode, but this nuance keeps Belldandy from becoming a 2D character (something that happens in the manga series surprisingly). 

"You're nothing but a mean old fungus head, and
I hate you! Bleeeehhhhh!"
Markgraf as Urd and Weidner as Skuld get the flashier parts. Markgraf has the steamy, sexy voice down pat, and matches Urd's alluring animation. But she also captures the impatient and a reckless side of the character too. The second episode gives her the most screen time to work with. But she also has plenty of humorous interplay in the last two episodes. Urd has all the great lines in the series and Markgraf delivers them perfectly. Weidner nails the bratty little sister role as well. She keeps it from getting too annoying. She interacts really well with both her sister characters. At the time of the recording, the actress' two kids were around Skuld's age. So she used some of their put-downs in the actual dialogue, giving the lines the feel of something only a kid could come up with. 

Keiichi and the gals find themselves in a bit of a
dilemma. 
The way the Oh My Goddess OAV is constructed gives the viewer a brief introduction to each goddess: one episode per goddess. Then it dives into a solid threat to the romantic leads, that not only will tear them apart from each other, but also threatens to taint their relationship in an unusual way. It’s a twist that I never saw coming and one that I think will come as a bit of a surprise to anyone watching the series for the first time (although there is foreshadowing of this issue in the third episode). What I like is that this twist is not your typical rom-com complication: a love triangle or misunderstanding or stupid interference from other characters. It grows out of the story and concepts of the mythic/technological hybrid that Fujishima created in his comic series. It plays by it’s own rules and makes this world more interesting and less predictable. We root for Keiichi, a mere mortal who is up against the bureaucratic and heavenly machine. But his love and Belldandy’s love must win through. This is primarily a romance after all.

Keiichi struggles to give Belldandy her Christmas
gift, but the gate to heaven is already open.
The final two episodes are heavy on the drama (some of it very much melodrama) and lighter on the comedy, but there are still some funny moments, mostly involving Urd and Skuld attempting to find a loophole in the system. But here Keiichi rises above some of the other guys in this genre of “Magical Girlfriend” anime. He takes an active role in trying to keep her. From the first episode we see that Keiichi has a low self esteem. He’s picked on by his senior classmates. He is short and tells Belldandy that is why he doesn’t have a girlfriend. But by the time the fourth episode rolls around Keiichi has grown in confidence. He loves Belldandy and he won’t let them be torn apart without showing her how much he cares. And then you have Belldandy tied up on the red tape of the heavenly laws and forced to literally erase all of Keiichi’s memories of her (a heartbreaking scene for romance fans). This final stuggle that literally pits the two lovers against each other works wonderfully and pushes this series up from being an average rom-com/magical girlfriend series and into something that is touching.

A first kiss on a moonlight beach.
With the finale happening around Christmas, you’ve got another anime that is perfect for holiday viewing. It also makes for a nice bit of alternate viewing for anyone who doesn’t mind a dash of romance in their sci-fi anime. Oh My Goddess was one of the first anime series I shared with my wife and it became one of her favorites. She even got into collecting the manga series for several years. So yes, nostalgia plays a part in my grading, I’m sure. But I was surprised with this viewing how the story structure does such a good job buiding up to the finale, and how it still manages to get to me, even though I know Kei and Bell have to end up together happily ever after. I’m an old softy after all. I guess this means I'd better watch Ninja Scroll again.

10 comments:

  1. All that ever comes out of my mirror is an image of an old dude who bears little resemblance to my mental image of myself.

    I don't suppose we get to see the number Keiichi dialed.

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    1. You comment about the mirror is something my wife and I were just talking about. So strange how that happens. And how those routine looks in the mirror never stick in your mind, when you imagine yourself. I think it helps to preserve sanity. ;)

      No we never see the number Keiichi dials. You see the first few digits (he makes several calls to restaurants before he gets frustrated and accidently dials the Goddess Help Line). When Darkhorse comics released the manga series in the late 1990s, the first collection was called 1-555-Goddess.Could that be a hint?

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  2. Will there be a 3rd season of AMG?

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    1. That's a good question. I haven't heard anything about that. But stranger things have happened.

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  3. someone wrote in fanfiction site a followup of AMG(OVA) that I didn't much care for since the fanfic author took the storyline after OVA on a dark, sad grim side journey that turn AMG from "cheerful humor, adventure, romance" into more of a "twilight/harrypotter" dark love tragedy storyline direction. When you stray from the given formula of each of the main AMG characters from both the menga/anime/movie style that the original author/creator of AMG had designed, you're not staying true to what makes it over 2 decade+ popular.
    I really enjoy reading those fanfics that stayed true to what AMG was about without turning it sad and grim to call it 'their own version'. It's like making the crew/cast of SW and ST/STNG characters OUT of characters.
    I gotta tell ya, it seems pretty sad to me that the generations of fans that love the "romance/comedy" style sitcoms like "Bewitched", "I Dream of Genie", "The Nanny" and wonderful romance/comedy anime like "AMG(all versions)" are fading away for the generations that love dark romance shows/movies like "Twilight", "HungerGame", "Continuum", etc etc.. or "Clannad". More and more grim, and sadness about the world in todays shows/animes than the positive types like the first set of shows/animes I mentioned. Anyone agree to this? If not, what's your perspective of why the generations of shows/anime fans since from say about 2009 and onward to the present time seems more into darker shows/animes?

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    1. I agree the entrainment in general (anime, movies, television series, etc.) seems to be moving in a more serious, grim and "realistic" tone. But to me this seems to be a cycle that all entertainment goes through. In the 1970s, there was a similar trend to for the more downbeat and realistic. Sci-fi films like "Silent Running", "Soylant Green" and even "Logan's Run" all focused on the dark side of humanity and had downbeat or ambiguous endings. "Star Wars" changed all that, and things swung more toward the colorful, humorous and positive side of humanity. That's why films like "E.T." and "Back to the Future" were so popular in the 1980s.

      I agree with you that AMG should remain grounded in the world that Fujishima created. It's a fun world. Yes sometimes bad things happen, but it all turns out Ok in the end. The heart of the series is comedy and romance. To go into tragic romance seems counter to everything the show was meant to be.

      Still I can see a reboot of the series with a more tragic feel, but it would have to start from scratch to have that work. To try to carry one from the established stories, well that just doesn't make too much sense in my book.

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  4. Thanks for reminding me of those old movies that made me remember it was a dark decade for us in the 70's, but it didn't register to me to remember because the way I was brought up was to look for the good and not hold the bad in other people. We were brought up to deal with the life "punches" like Keiichii did in handling his pre-belldandy life. Never saw the complete movie of “Soylent Green” because once I found out what was happening to those people I remember I got disgusted and stop watching it. The other two mentioned movies I liked it, despite it's not my nature to seek the dark side in things of life.
    As for AMG, Fujishima was one of the master story tellers in his creation of making two people of such different cultures/religion and dimentional backgrounds to come and meet and recognized their 'other halfs' of each other despite their very different origins. Without thoughts, they recognized their similarity in their very core beings. Their self-sacrifice before hurting others cornerstone of their heart and soul nature is what draws some of us to this very endearing fairy tales in an anime/manga formats.

    You're right, the cycles has gone downhill again towards the dark and grim realities of the current bleak outlooks of the world, but I don't much care for the “half empty” future outlook in today societies. I prefer the “half full” and make the best of it if not try to fill it up....

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    1. Well, I think this cycle will pass eventually. Folks will want to see some hope at in their stories again. Heck, I don't mind a dark story now and again, but I usually enjoy some humor in there too. Even if the humor gets dark I think it is important to be able to laugh at life's absurdities. Lots of stuff these days takes itself way to seriously.

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  5. What attracts and bond these two main characters together was their gifted inner shared qualities of loving, respecting, showing kindness towards other people despite the difficult circumstances in their personal life struggles. The female lead is very heavenly skilled and trained as 1st class goddess to have many exceptional talents, while the earth male lead is a short, average looking fellow that fits the somewhat clumsy, goofy personas bill of your every day regular bumbling-nerd type, perhaps.
    But the very main core of their beings are identical int that both love and respect other and are kindhearted towards other by their inert, humble nature. That's too rare in todays world, at any centuries. She was his very first real childhood friend, and what a friend he proven to be by his initiating his willingness to have their wonderful time and experience meetings together to be 'erase' because he did not want his dear first friend to suffer such severe heavenly punishment. That scene ALWAYS tugged at my heart every time I watch it, and it never fails to do so despite the facts that the artworks was not as well done as the AMG tv series of the 1st and 2nd seasons and it being an anime/animation works and not real actors. Fujishama is a gifted, clever hearted man for writing such in my humble, honest opinion.

    I truly want to see more of this kind of 'good message' entertainment in any venues, not necessarily from AMG alone, but I do hope someone in the right position as well as appreciation for AMG to bring a revival and continuation of where AMG series was left off at and finish Season 3. I mean for example, “I Dream of Genie” and “The Nanny” finish their shows with the main characters being married, so I would like to see that aspect of these two main characters in AMG having that shown as well to allow another side of their relationship developments shown. Would be fun, funny, romantic, and very entertaining to complete such for a trilogy style run. I hope that's not asking too much from one of many long time fan of AMG? I don't think it is 'cause I'm sure like many fans my heart wants MORE of “Belldandy+KeiiChi” animated stories to be told! Why leave the AMG-fans with the “Sighs..what if... and what could've been if...” like tearing off the last few chapters of a very good book/novel and not letting readers to fullfill their heart desires and wish!?

    Oh well, anyway...here's wishing for more AMGs in the near future, and I hope there's many folks out there wishing the same!

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    1. Yeah that scene where she erases his memories is very touching. Such a conflict for those two characters in those final two episodes. Very good writing. We still get a happy ending, but it feels like the characters really earn it.

      Oh I don't think you're alone. I'm sure lots of folks are hoping for a Season 3 for AMG.

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