This Week: The Legend of Black Heaven
Guilty Gear may be my favorite fighting game franchise, but even in that wild party of lethal hair and electric guitars nobody uses the power of rock music quite like this.
The Legend of Black Heaven (Kachou Ouji: Hard Rock Save the Space)
You know how productions like Taken fundamentally exist as a sort of “I’ve still got it” kind of heroic fantasy for the over the hill crowd? Not that this is anything new in media, or even a bad thing. Indeed, growing old is a scary notion, the idea that you might not be as capable as you once were, and there is a definite market for allaying that. Black Heaven takes this idea down the path of rock, a baby boomer nobody salaryman named Oji Tanaka with a wife and child living out of the company dorm complex where the biggest concerns are if there are enough vegetables for dinner tonight or do some need to be picked up on the way back home. In his younger heyday though, he was the lead guitarist of “Black Heaven,” and life was exciting and grand.
So when a blond haired green eyed representative of an alien armada shows up requesting his guitar skills to power their ultimate Death Star-like laser weapon in an intergalactic war, you better believe he jumps at the opportunity, and his middle aged life begins to take a number of turns.
Right from the opening credits, it is rapidly apparent Black Heaven fundamentally gets the subject matter it wants to be dealing in.
Heck, it is performed by John Sykes, who is probably most famous for co-writing and doing guitars on most of the songs on Whitesnake’s self titled album. The opening has the sketchy DIY aesthetic, the sex, drugs, glamor, etc, of those younger days of being in a crazy band all wrapped up into one compressed little package. This was the band as it was all those years go, as our lead character remembers it, maybe indeed even idealizing it warts and all. It is the core of what, in many respects, he spends the entire series attempting to recapture or is hung up on while powering an interstellar death ray. I think it is a really great opening, to be able to showcase those feelings so succinctly.
Likewise, I doubly appreciated how the family dynamic played out in this series. Oji’s been in such a day in day out company job haze he barely even knows the interests of his own son, for instance. Even better, I appreciated how his wife Yoshiko was given ample screen time and the multifaceted personal struggles that she goes through while this whole guitar space war thing plays out that she is completely in the dark over. So there is the information she knows (her husband being out late, the other housewives talking, etc), and what it could mean (maybe an affair, and so on). And I felt the series gave their relationship a number of understandable up and down moments as things went on, so it wasn’t just her going along unaware all easy peasy nor was she some sort of rampaging onerous “Wives, am I right?” caricature. It was sweet and sour in pretty equal measure, and made for good moments on both counts.
I also felt the English dub of the series was generally pretty alright. Oji himself is voiced by Beau Billingslea (he was Jet in Cowboy Bebop, so if you’re reading this you have very likely heard his voice), so he puts in a fun shift as our aging guitarist. None of the roles really felt miscast or out of place, and Brianne Siddall as the very young son stood out as well. I’m used to hearing her more in a teenage boy role, which usually sounds a little off for me, but as a grade school kid who is very excited about his favorite Super Sentai knockoff TV show she gives him a good energy. It probably also helps she was a voice actress for several characters on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, so there was that great connection for her to play off of and throw herself into as a character.
A structural problem with the program in either language that weighed it down quite a bit for me however is the comic trio of Kotoko, Eriko and Rinko as intergalactic special agents. All three characters are essentially the exact same variety of empty-headed otaku pandering to jack up the number of women in the show and have cannon fodder for the ending credits sequence to show them cooing over each other naked, but virtually every scene they are in is rather jarring given the rest of the show. They have zero comic chemistry because they are all the same type of character, so they can’t play off of each others personality quirks or the like.
In all seriousness, I made it to the end of Black Heaven without committing their names to memory; I had to look them up for this writeup, and I sure as hell would be unable to tell you which one is which.
They did have one genuinely good gag in the whole show, but that was because the extended bit was already making an homage to a very well known American television series from the 1990’s, and they had a single line during it. These characters get a lot of screen time and in every way feel like a production committee order, a hedge due to not wanting to alienate the younger otaku market with the over the hill rock guitarist narrative.
While only thirteen episodes, I think the series would have benefited from being just a little shorter. The comic trio drag things out a lot, we never really get to know much about the enemy or allied space forces, and after a while the smoke and mirrors game of the guitar playing battles starts to wear off. The series copiously uses a lot of its own stock footage in this department, which is understandable given the difficulty of musical animation and what I’m assuming what not a very deep budget to pull from in the first place (and I’m sure John Sykes needed a chunk of that as well).
While they use some tricks to cover it up, the more times you see Oji playing the guitar in the auditorium to power up the giant laser ultimate death ray weapon the more you notice you are essentially watching something like a very extended magical girl transformation sequence. Which on the one hand that very much has a narrative hook, as he is certainly putting himself into a different mindset and trying to be the galactic hero in his older age. But on the other his guitar playing is a combination transformation sequence, full battle with the enemy, and finishing move. So it stands out a lot more when you are seeing the same thing all the time, as opposed to having a fresh unique enemy and full dynamic encounter in between.
When the series is on the ball though, I found it rather enjoyable. I feel it very much comprehensively understands the personal struggles of an aging musician who didn’t end up as a multimillionaire, it has a solid dynamic going with his family and friends, manages to work a science fiction angle on it, and there are some really good scenes scattered in here.
Other times, it is like being at a concert and you wonder if this is a good time to head to the concessions really quick because the non-headliner band is just utterly dying on stage and you want to be ready when the real show starts again. But, Oji’s story is a real rarity to see told in animation, and I think it manages to give the series more positives to walk away with than not on the overall.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime series I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.