REVIEW: Dragon’s Heaven (1988)

An Anime OVA

Makoto Kobayashi is a very prolific mechanical designer since the 1980s, working such shows as Zeta Gundam, ZZ Gundam, Birth and Urotsukidōji. He is still working today and has helped produce some surprising things. Truthfully, until today I had never seen Dragon’s Heaven, and I’m not even certain it was ever officially released in the US aside from tape traders. I came across the video on YouTube of all things, and immediately fell in love with the look of it. It came out at a pivotal time in the Japanese “Bubble Economy”, a time when all manner of weird experimental films were being produced to fill shelves in the burgeoning VHS and Laserdisk markets. After Japan was hit with a recession that arguably is still happening, anime shifted to more “safe” things which is a real shame. In today’s market something like this would never be made.

“In the year 3195, there was a war between an army of robots and the humans. When Shaian, a sentient combat armor, lost his companion in battle, he shut down until his internal systems spotted a new human. It’s now almost a 1000 years later, and Shaian’s greatest enemy is still alive and doing battle in Brazil. With a new friend`s help, Shaian may be able to stop this evil force before another war rages over the continent.”

One way one can tell just how off-the-wall this film is, is by watching the literal beginning of the film. The first time we see the huge battling robot Shaian and his nemesis Elmedine they are not animated. In fact, they have been re-created as huge animatronic models and filmed in “live action”. According to online sources, this intro sequence was VERY expensive and was apparently paid for entirely out of Kobayashi’s own pocket.

I can’t say I’ve seen too many bigger budget anime titles have that sort of mixed-media production unless it’s a variety show or some such, so seeing it here was pretty cool. The film itself is only thirty minutes long, with a ten minute “making of” featurette at the end that shows the laborious filming of the live action models along with an interview. you can tell this was the focal point, at least by Kobayashi’s standard, of the whole film.

The 2-D animated portion of Dragon’s Heaven is a fantasy sci-fi action story full of intense desert mecha fighting. A desert junk scavenger named Icool (or Ikuru?) discovers a freshly awakened Shaian in the desert after an apparent one thousand year sleep. He has no idea if the legendary war between humans and robots is still raging, nor if the leader of the robot uprising is still around. Bad news – he is, and he’s gearing up to start some more trouble. Shaian and Icool join forces to fight Elmedine, that very same robot officer in the Brazil Empire. Shaian himself is not a normal robot, but a sentient battle armor of sorts. The key to battling the robots was to interface humans and robots together like Shaian.

The mecha designs are the highlight of the film, with interesting robots that really look nothing like anything I’ve seen before. The robots have almost an organic crustacean appearance, Elmedine especially looks crazy. When you get so used to everything looking vaguely like a Gundam in robot anime, something off the wall really stands out. On a similar note, what the film lacks in plot, it makes up for in the visual presentation in just about every way. The artwork itself looks to be a faithful recreation of the original manga this is inspired by, and in a weird way it looks a lot like something from a European comic book. I got some definite Heavy Metal vibes as well as the 1977 film Wizards by Ralph Bakshi.

I stated above that the plot in this was somewhat thin, which shouldn’t be surprising due to the fact that this was just 30 minutes long. It’s basically a showcase for awesome mechanical designs and world-building and not much else. I will try to find the manga, and perhaps review that as well as discuss the differences, but for right now this is all we have. Basically, we just have enough time for Icool to meet Saian, volunteer to be the new pilot, then start fighting the Brazil Empire that seems to be VERY irritated that a sentient battle suit is around. The final battle is somewhat anticlimactic, but it never feels like you wasted time considering how gorgeous everything was.

I really wish this would have been made into something longer, but perhaps the short length adds to the charm here – if you are clamoring for more, you aren’t left looking at the clock wondering when it will end I guess. It somewhat reminds me of the aforementioned Heavy Metal comics or film, or perhaps MTV’s Liquid Television. Kobayashi appears to have been able to create his dream project here, and you can tell he pout his soul into it, and for that, it’s an instant classic for me.

If you ever wondered what it would look like if Moebius produced an anime, you would probably get something akin to Dragon’s Heaven. It has crazy mechanical designs, looks like o other anime I’ve ever seen, and has a cool “live action” intro that you can tell was expensive as the day is long. If you have 30 minutes to burn, this is easily found on YouTube, and will definitely put you in the mood for more old school anime.

3 comments

  1. Dragon’s Heaven was a fun short Mecha video, like you mentioned it was mostly a chance for Makoto Kobayashi to showcase his great designs. I had watched Zeta Gundam first so imagine my surprise when I saw the Baund Doc reincarnated as the Gampe. Short as it was I enjoyed it, but I tend to enjoy most post-apocalyptic stories.

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