ARIEL Anime Review
ARIEL (エリアル) SCEBAI最大の危機
ARIEL SCEBAI Saidai no Kiki
ARIEL The Greatest Crisis of SCEBAI
US Release By
Giant Robot Parody
2 30-minute episodes
Earth is being invaded! Fortunately, the aliens have a very limited budget, so their attacks are pretty sporadic and inconsistent. More fortunately still, Earth is defended by the ultimate weapon, ARIEL (All Round Intercept and Escort Lady), a giant, flying, heavily-armed, rather feminine-looking robot. Unfortunately, the pilots chosen for ARIEL by its designer, Dr. Kishida, are his granddaughters Aya and Kazumi, and his niece Mia Kawai, two of whom would rather deal with school work and personal issues than fight to defend the future of humanity. Good thing that Saber Starblast, as mysterious as he is powerful (which is to say very), has a habit of turning up to save the day at the last possible minute. He's not the only problem the alien commander has to deal with, though--an old acquaintance and rival for the affections of his accountant has been sent by the home office to find out why it's taking so long (and costing so much) to conquer this backwater little planet.
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This long-forgotten little OVA series has everything necessary for the sort of backhanded, when-you-think-about-it parody that made Shinesman a cult favorite, from a way-too-feminine giant robot to a corporate-sponsored alien invasion that's being thwarted more by budget issues than the Earth's defenses. It looks good, and there are a few reasonably funny bits. Sadly, the show is flat-out boring. The directing is particularly abysmal--calling it slow and awkwardly-paced is generous, and ARIEL wouldn't know comic timing if it walked up and handed it a business card. There isn't even much music to fill the dead air littering the show. If that weren't bad enough, you an add a in a start-in-the-middle plot that seems to assume you've already read the novels and editing that leaves the dialogue sounding halting, low-energy, and generally flat.
It's hard to call ARIEL anything but a spectacularly botched, could-have-been-great underhanded parody. It looks good enough, the concept is good enough, and some particular bits are funny enough that it might be worth watching out of curiosity, or if you have a thing for classic '80s-style giant robot shows. Otherwise a definite pass, though the Deluxe sequel is somewhat better.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
ARIEL is a long-forgotten little OAV series that had the potential to be so much more than the low-energy, miserably-directed disappointment it is. Sometimes things are forgotten for a reason.
Let's start with the strong points. Based on a long series of light novels, the concept has everything necessary for the sort of subtle, backhanded parody that made Shinesman a cult favorite. You've got a way-too-feminine giant robot, three pilots who on average don't want to be pilots, the mildly pervy mad scientist who arbitrarily decided to make his unwilling relatives drive his sexy earth-saving robot (among other not-much-more-sane plans), and a corporate-sponsored alien invasion that's being thwarted more by budget issues than the Earth's defenses.
It's played straight onscreen, leaving the door open for all manner of when-you-think-about-it hilarity. For example, a huge opening scramble scene in which the ARIEL robot ends up doing absolutely nothing. Or, anything to do with the beleaguered alien warship and its would-be-cool captain, who lives in fear of his accountant and the threat of a home-office audit. There's also uber-coolguy Saber Starblast (they never explain who he is or why he's the equivalent of Superman, sans personality), who is far more competent than either the nominal heroes or villains, yet does nothing but pose dramatically until the last minute when he shows up to save the day. Again, conceptually funny for the pure anti-climax of it.
There are also some very funny individual bits, like the great lengths the professor goes through to contact his unwilling pilots dramatically through ridiculous application of 1989-era high technology, or when he whips a gun out of his coat, revealing that it's stocked with heavy weaponry.
The budget is there, too--for an OAV born of the late-'80s, the animation is relatively good and the artwork is detailed. The execution is a bit rough--some of the character animation in particular is awkward--but no more so than most older productions. The giant robot prep scenes, on the other hand, are impressive--lots of detailed super hardware and launch pads and such, for fans of nice, meaty mechanical design. There's less than you'd expect in the way of battles, but when a fight does break out it's attractive and surprisingly gory, on account of the organic giant monsters the aliens use. Probably best are the scenes of massive collateral damage, with an extra humorous overtone due to how unnecessary it is. The character designs are also good-looking, if '80s stock.
That doesn't sound so bad, right? The problem is, ARIEL is boring.
In particular, something seems to have gone very wrong with the directing. There are long, awkward gaps everywhere, punchlines get stumbled over or left hanging, and the whole thing feels weirdly low-energy. Even allowing some leeway for the less-punchy style of the era (which I usually don't--I cite the Dirty Pair as evidence), calling it slow and awkwardly-paced is generous. Don't even think about comic timing, that thing subtle humor lives and dies by--ARIEL wouldn't know comic timing if it walked up and handed it a business card.
The general effect is like the series repeatedly dozes off at the wheel, then wakes up and remembers that there's a plot to be advanced. Some modest editing could probably have cut the two episodes down to a single one without removing anything, and it would have been better (if just as abbreviated) for it.
And abbreviated it is--you can tell it's based on a whole lot more book than made it to the screen. The story takes up somewhere in the middle (the title card even says "Episode IV"), well after the abortive invasion is already underway, forsaking any sort of setup or backstory past some brief opening narration. It then spends more time introducing a new, comparatively serious character from the alien commander and accountant's past than it does introducing the main cast, and finally shuffles its feet for a while to kill time before ending abruptly.
Set-up or logic are conspicuously absent--particularly why the teenaged pilots would be so dead-set on, you know, not saving their own lives. It could, I suppose, have been intended as a parody of similar illogically reluctant heroes, or backhanded commentary on how embarrassingly ineffective the invasion is. I didn't get the sense of either--it just seemed annoying and stupid. It says something that I can't tell whether it's botched drama or botched parody.
ARIEL also seems confused about how serious it's supposed to be--the concept is obviously silly, but the execution is so dry and straight it's almost like the production team didn't get the memo. Maybe they just had no idea how to make a comedy.
The almost complete lack of a soundtrack doesn't help, either. That's music and effects both--quiet at best. The lack of music is particularly painful, since a lively soundtrack could have at least filled some of the dead air littering the show. The underpowered sound effects also have that exaggerated, cartoony '80s sound, which seems particularly out of place (and cheap) when paired with the otherwise realistic mechanical design and straight-faced visual execution. There's no opening theme, and the end theme is bland '80s stuff.
The Japanese voice cast (USM never dubbed it) isn't bad, in that they have distinctive voices and match the roles well. Again, however--and I blame the directing and editing more than the actors--it sounds halting, low-energy, and generally flat. Dr. Kishida, played by Osamu Saka (Aramaki in Ghost in the Shell: SAC), probably comes across the best, but that's mostly because the editing screwed up his dialogue the least. Megumi Hayashibara fans might note this early role as spunky younger sister Kazumi, though she has almost no lines.
In the end it's hard to call ARIEL anything but a spectacularly botched could-have-been-great underhanded parody. It looks good enough, the concept is good enough, and some particular bits are funny enough that it might be worth watching out of curiosity, or if you have a thing for classic '80s-style giant robot shows. Otherwise a definite pass, though the Deluxe sequel is somewhat better.
Chainclaw has an even lower opinion than I do.
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The most obvious similar show is unquestionably the cult favorite Shinesman--it does the same sort of sly, underhanded comedic take on a sentai show, but unlike ARIEL pulls it off nearly perfectly. If you want a semi-parody of giant robot shows that goes in the exact opposite direction--outrageous and over-the-top--check out the flashy, fanservice-laden, solidly entertaining Godannar.
Notes and Trivia
ARIEL is based on an epic series of light novels by Yuuichi Sasamoto, with illustrations by Masahisa Suzuki. The huge series, which began in 1987 and is still ongoing as of 2010, consists of 29 main books and two books of side stories as of this writing. Sasamoto also co-wrote the non-parody sci-fi war story Venus Wars and scripted the second episode of the Dirty Pair OVA series.
In addition to the novels and the two short anime adaptations, there was also a fairly long (but generally forgotten) comic adaptation by Dr. Moro (never translated into in English as of this writing), a couple of manga side-stories, and three audio drama cassettes that serve as prequels to the anime.
The two episodes were originally sold in Japan as "ARIEL VISUAL1 SCEBAI最大の危機" and "ARIEL VISUAL2 SCEBAI最大の危機." The episode title screen additionally identifies the pair of OVAs as "Episode IV." This is partly a Star Wars nod, but is presumably also because the anime series was preceded by three audio drama tapes, which were titled ARIEL, ARIEL II, and ARIEL III. It also nicely captures how little set-up there is if you're not already familiar with the story.
The not-particularly-secret super-science organization that developed the ARIEL robot is SCEBAI, an acronym of the English "Science, Chemical, Electronics, Biochemical and Aerospace Industry." This is a pun; SCEBAI is pronounced like "sukebe," which means "perv." This presumably tells us something about its leader's thought process.
The alien superman's real name is Crest Saberhargen (not Frest, which USM used in the subtitles based I think on the fact that it sounds that way when he says it); Strablast Saber is, for no readily apparent reason, a nickname. On that note, his name could actually be Starblast Saver, which would make sense as a joke given his role in the plot, and indeed it was spelled "Saver" in at least the promo video for the anime.
The alien invaders' names are also something of a joke; many of them (only a few appear in the anime) are entirely bland European names. Captain Hauser's first name, for example, is Albert, and he has sisters named Diana and Cynthia. The invading Gedou Corporation is also a joke; "gedou" means "heretic" or, more generally, "bad guy."
While most of the voice cast was the same through both ARIEL and Deluxe ARIEL, as well as those three drama tapes, the three female leads had no less than seven different actresses, one of whom played two different characters. Aya was voiced (against type, at that) by Yuuko Mizutani (Mihoshi from the Tenchi franchise) throughout the anime and in the third audio tape, while in the first two audio tapes she was played by Naoko Watanabe. Kazumi was an early role for Megumi Hayashibara in both anime series, but was voiced by Michie Tomizawa in the first two audio tapes and Chisa Yokoyama (another Tenchi alum) in the third. Mia, confusingly enough, was voiced by Michie Tomizawa as well, in both the third audio tape and Deluxe ARIEL, while Mami Koyama played her in the first anime series, and (again, against type) Eriko Hara (Hikaru in KOR) in the first two audio tapes.
US DVD Review
USM's DVD release includes both this series and its Deluxe sequel on a single subtitled-only disc. They are soft subtitles, so you can turn them off if you're so inclined. The subtitles are also somewhat loose when it comes to accuracy. The video transfer is quite clean given the age of the production, and the stereo sound isn't too bad, either. The exception is the end credits, which leave the original credits and accompanying images intact with a few character credits added as hard subtitles, and no song subtitles; these appear to have come from USM's old VHS masters (the credit style matches their old releases), and are very fuzzy. Since there was barely any text added, it's odd that they didn't just re-do them with soft subtitles and video matching the rest of the production.
There are a few decent extras: Some character sketches, a short video with Dr. Kishida narrating ARIEL's specs over a video clip from the show, a karaoke version of the old-school opening theme from Deluxe (the text is in Japanese, but also includes both sing-along Romanized subtitles and a translation), and a promo video. That last one, for whatever reason, was done in English, and while they did at least get a native speaker to read the blurbs, it's embarrassingly (or hilariously, depending on taste) awkward. I got a good laugh out of Kishida's title (in English) being "the maddest scientist of this century," though.
There's also one of USM's DVD-ROM applications on the disc (Windows-only), which contains full scripts for all four episodes (nice), some art, and what they claim are the main voice actor credits... but are a complete mess, both spelling names wrong and, for some bizarre reason, crediting Dr. Kishida's voice actor with Kazumi's role in the fourth episode.
Somewhat ironically, USM's DVD release is the only one in existence--it never made it past LaserDisc in Japan.
US Manga Corps called it 3-up, but I'd say on account of relatively graphic giant monsters getting killed and superficially serious violence that the 7-up range is more appropriate, if not 10-up.
Violence: 2 - The only obvious casualties are giant alien monsters, but they get shot up in surprisingly graphic ways.
Nudity: 1 - Some incidental underwear exposure.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - No mature content to speak of.
Language: 1 - Nothing of note in the subtitles.
Was available in North America on bilingual DVD (which also includes the sequel series) from US Manga Corps, one of their last releases prior to declaring bankruptcy. They had previously released it on a single subtitled VHS volume.
The VHS version is easy to find; the DVD must've had an exceptionally small print run, as it's less common and relatively expensive.