Friday, 20 May 2011

M.D. Geist - An overview

I am probably the biggest M.D. Geist fan in the world.

I own a Japanese poster that was packaged with its original soundtrack release on vinyl, the US release of the sequel's soundtrack, an autographed version of the graphic novel by artist Tim Eldred, the US and UK DVD releases, a Japanese book that "comic-fies" screens from the OVA, the original Japanese making-of book, and a drawing of Geist signed by its creator, Koichi Ohata himself. Now I am writing an article on it.

I am probably very much obsessed, and my love for the series is probably second only to John O'Donnell, the man who made M.D. Geist known (I am still convinced he is the only owner of the unreleased Geist resign statue). To those entirely new to the name "M.D. Geist", it has been long considered the worst anime ever, but let me explain that.

To the uninitiated, Sokihei M.D. Geist/装鬼兵M.D.ガ イスト ("Soldier-Garbed Demon") was a prominent title in the OVA boom in both Japan and America, the latter more so than the former. When it was being introduced to the west, “Japanimation” kicked the doors down upon entry and shoved animated nudity and violence in your face, to a lot of people it was fairly new stuff. For better or for worse though, Akira set the standard for anime to westeners, meaning that most titles following in its wake fell very, very short, M.D. Geist being one of many in an eager catalogue by now-defunct Central Park Media.
M.D. Geist was originally released in Japan in 1986, other than perhaps kicking off Hironobu Kageyama's singing career, it wasn't too special, being the directorial debut of Koichi Ohata, it was essentially just a vehicle for him to show off his mechanical designs with a story sewn in (as it was with almost every OVA). Even though I am a big Geist fan, I will admit that this original version is very poorly made; the animation lacks revision in some areas and some of the sound effects feel off (a metal pole falls to the ground and makes a sound like a pencil), and the music (while KICK-ASS) just about misses the mark with some faulty cue timings. To release it five years on in the west, which had already seen Akira by this point, was a bit of a recipe for disaster, regardless, M.D. Geist sold as CPM's flagship title. The reception was polarized however, with the negative slowly outweighing the positive as time went on, yet M.D. Geist was one of the most popular-selling videos in the US.
Many of the arguments against Geist nitpicked the animation, the lack of characterization and the wafer-thin story that was made up of trimmings of what felt like a bigger plot. For the most part, they have a reason to be angry, but they took it to the heights of anime elitism, which is overly a bit annoying and anally retentive. M.D. Geist's conistency for being the worst-reviewed anime seems to stem from how heavily the title was promoted, as many far worse 80s OVAs were released but never got the same amount of attention at all. It probably didn't help that Geist's presence was a bit force-fed, appearing as CPM's mascot everywhere.

John O'Donnell was the head of CPM, and his love for the title is probably what made and broke it at the same time. If it wasn't for his US release, Geist would have remained an obscurity, possibly appearing as something cool to only those digging deep enough for rare, internationally-unreleased OVAs. O'Donnell pretty much raised it to appear as if it was more than a 40-minute showcasing of violence made for the home format market; in 1995, he got the funds together to produce a tidied-up version of the original title, as well as produce a sequel. A prequel comic was created with illustrations by Tim Eldred, expanding the world of M.D. Geist just a tiny bit, along with a comic adaptation of the original OVA, that served to refine the story a bit more. They're mostly overlooked, and are fun reads with decent artwork, nothing outstanding in either areas though. The revised edition of the original, known as the Director's Cut internationally and as the Perfect Edition in Japan, contained a new prologue and epilogue, tweaked animation, as well as some entirely new minor scenes, as well as more realistic sound effects and some improved music cues. The results are technically-speaking much, much better than anything in the 1986 version, and it looks like Geist may have gotten away with a better reception.

Perhaps if O'Donnell did not commission a dub of it, because no matter his love for the title, it wasn't enough to make this dub good. Really at this point he should have just avoided making Geist seem like high art.

The Japanese re-dub that was actually done for this edition was actually terrific, with its new voice actors putting in a lot more effort for their roles, while the only good thing to really come out of the US dub was Jason Beck's awesomely deep voice. The dub uses the same script as the translated Japanese one, and therefore sounds extremely awkward. They were better off doing a whole re-write, just as long as they were getting the same message across. It also doesn't help that many of the lines are mismatched and none of the voice actors were actually conversing with the dialogue, so it just feels uneven. That said, the dub is terrible, Manga Entertainment should have really turned out something for it.

The dub only got worse however, in the sequel; M.D. Geist II: Death Force. Along with some bad casting, it uses the same directly-translated script, so all the dialogue just sounds strange coming out of an English-speaking character's mouth; there's too much emphasis on the demonization of Geist that it all sounds like old-fashioned Japanese talk, along with how the odd utterance-structure only adds to this. Whereas the original is stupidly fun, the sequel's dub is actually painful to listen to.

Death Force itself is a completely different can of worms than the original, it is usually regarded as worse, because it is mixed between Ohata's grindhouse stylings and some total pretension brought on CPM's marketing. Death Force actually has a good concept, but suffers because of its run time; it feels as if the story it is trying to tell is too big for forty-five minutes. There's a lot of characterization and plot development to be had here, but none of it really gets off the ground, and the end of it feels very rushed. At the least, Death Force visually looks brilliant throughout, with fine backgrounds along with character and mechanical designs that bring the series into a new world, and in still shots, it looks really damn good. The biggest problem with Death Force is that it was funded on scraps, and the animation really suffers from it, to the point it's almost non-existant.

Why do I like M.D. Geist so much though? I went into watching the first one expecting the very worst, but never got it, and even though I still found it to be quite poor, many of its elements were so cool. Because it was largely victim to many anime critics and there was so little over information on it, I chose to research it as much as possible. Primarily, I liked it because of the imagery it's steeped with; looking at certain promotional artwork is like looking at heavy metal album covers, Geist is an armoured bringer of death, armed with brutal weaponry and ready to send anything to hell. I wouldn't call M.D. Geist so bad it's good, because the bad elements I actually dislike, but I like it because it's so ridiculous, so atypical of anime and because its title character is so damn cool.

Furthermore, I absolutely love all the designs in this entire series, be them character or mechanical, all look good. It has to be mentioned too how the first OVA's mechanical designs appear to be a mix of different themes in a sci-fi setting; Geist's customized armour is reiminscent of a knight's suit, with a look that fully embodies Geist's barbaric nature as someone who wears the armour exclusively to celebrate battle. The Nexrum battle mechs are also worth mentioning, for how functional they appear, almost like massively heavy versions of the Scopedogs from VOTOMS. Leaving industrial territory are the likes of the robots guarding the Brain Palace, being very streamlined and looking a bit more alien in comparison to previous designs, and being overly bird-like, and the final guardian robot's three forms all look radically different, going from ornate and imperial-like to appearing alien and finally appearing skeletal, with some unique features in each form. It has to be said too that both OVAs have brilliant music; the original is fueled by blood-pumping rock that is so damn good to hear, and features two fantastic songs by Hironobu Kageyama, the mysterious-sounding and mellow "Merciless Soldier" and the crazy, hot-blooded "Violence of the Flame", a song that perfectly glamorises Geist's battlefield habitat. Death Force on the other hand feels welcomingly new, with certain tracks feeling more animalistic and its songs contributed by Yoshiaki Ohuchi fit excellently with the mood and imagery of the OVA.

M.D. Geist is far from perfect though, but it's still far from being the worst anime ever, and it does make me wish Koichi Ohata and Riku Sanjo spent a lot more time when they originally working on it to produce something much more memorable; with enough refinement, both OVAs could have probably been very good stories. Recently though, the character has seen a slight popularity resurgence, notably with him being used as a counter against the likes of K-ON and moé anime. As pretentious as CPM's promotion for the title was, it's still cool that it was the first anime to have motorbike shows advertising, along with being the first anime in the US to have phone cards produced for it. It is awesome that they also released one of the best DVDs ever because of it, but they really could have laid off of making Ohata seem like a genius auteur, realistically he was just a good artist with a penchant for making things spray blood exotically.

That said, CPM's DVD is easily the most complete source of M.D. Geist, packaged with an overwhelming amount of special features, and containing an incredibly entertaining and insightful commentary by Ohata and Sanjo themselves. ADV's DVD re-release toned down the pretension given to it by its former US distributor (their blurb is a hoot) but unfortunately, it's a very barebones release, so just get yourself the old CPM disc. It's funny that ADV picked it up anyway, as if the character has become too prominent to be allowed death yet, and now Manga Entertainment seem to hold the rights to it (even if all they've done is just host both OVAs on YouTube in their awful dubbed forms).

M.D. Geist is a charmingly memorable piece of OVA trash, but its prominence has really been a double-edged sword.

-James, 08 August 2009 (original date)

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