The Aura Road is open, once again
When it comes to the question, “what’s the worst anime you’ve ever seen?” I’m always at a loss. It’s not that dozens of titles don’t spring to mind immediately. I love creative train wrecks, ambition gone haywire, and all the many quote-unquote negative qualities we associate with disaster art, of which I consider myself a seasoned patron. It’s that whenever something truly impresses with a failure to hit its mark or misjudge its messaging, it becomes fascinating to me. So the question, which typically seeks to arrange things in a reductive hierarchical order has essentially become a moot exercise to my personal experience, but it’s a popular one. And a go-to answer has been Yoshiyuki Tomino’s 1996-1997 OVA for years. If you already know what it is, one of the many highly quotable lines or the looping “hwaaaaaaaa” that loudly greets owners of the DVD upon loading the main menu has already sprung to mind. And for the uninitiated, you don’t have to scroll far on a Google search before hitting articles, blog posts, and mugging Youtube videos offering Garzey’s Wing typically right there in the title. Perhaps older American anime fans unwittingly picking it up on VHS or DVD courtesy of Central Park Media in the early 2000s, lured by the enthusiastic “from the creator of Gundam!” line on the cover, turned initial bewilderment into active Mystery Science Theater 3000 style commentary. I cannot say, nor speak to its legacy in Japan, where it also appears long out of print. Though ground zero for Garzey’s Wing as a “so bad it’s good” classic on the English-speaking internet at large has to be Justin Sevakis’ much-circulated 2007 Buried Garbage column and accompanying highlight video. It has been making the rounds ever since.
When asked if I wanted to talk about it on the Dude, You Remember Macross? podcast in early July, my first thought was, “is there really anything left to say here?” So I quickly suggested Tomino’s far less discussed The Wings of Rean ONA, another permutation of his European inspired swords and sorcery fantasy concept set in the realm of Byston Well that he’s been kicking around since the early 1980s. And then later that month, Beyond Electric Sheep’s Rex Nabours III’s excellently researched Anime Lockdown panel—which you should definitely check out for background information on its production—only seemed to confirm further that we’ve hit the limit on things to say and angles to approach Garzey’s Wing. The Byston Well had run dry, you might say. Yet after the process of marinating my brain in Rean and talking about it for 3 hours, along with the 25th anniversary of the first episode approaching, my head is full of thoughts on Tomino’s second effort, of currently three, to bring his motorcycle teen isekai concept to animation. It’s such a curiosity, at once an inert hunk of junk that definitively misses its mark so hard, it can only be appreciated by most despite its best efforts and almost a confession letter of an artist’s worst tendencies run amok.
This is not a Garzey’s Wing rehabilitation. It has earned its status as a dumpster fire that would make other notable dumpster fires blush. Everything that could go wrong does, with panache. The breakneck momentum of the first episode sees Chris, a laidback 19-year-old, having his soul suddenly rent asunder by the mysterious forces of a giant magic duck and the forever unseen real-world mythological figure, Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, within the first minute. With one half left to continue his summer vacation visiting his town for a class reunion pool party, only somewhat annoyed by all this, and the other thrown into the world of Byston Well, stated by the underused text at the beginning of each episode to be between heaven and hell. Inside of 10 minutes, Chris is already in the middle of his second bloody battle after being forcibly drafted into a slave revolt led by the Metomeus against the Ashigaba tribe as the newest incarnation legendary wing-footed savior, the Holy Warrior Garzey’s Wing. All of this is communicated in the most unideal way possible through a script that embracing Tomino’s most idiosyncratic tendencies chooses to essentially throw you into moving traffic and assume you’ll make it to where you need to go one way or another. Proper nouns like Barju Tree and Gabujuju tumble clumsily out of characters’ mouths to an arcane rhythm, leaving the work to figure out who and what they connect to and actually mean to the story at hand, to the audience.
To less experienced Tomino viewers or people simply looking for straightforward “good” entertainment, this is too much for too little, because past the presentation quirks, the OVA is by and large just not that interesting. It is uncompromisingly brown, and the animation is at the best of times nothing to write home about when it’s not cutting corners. Shiro Sagisu’s score is all but ignored, giving the impression of a similar situation that went down with Yoko Kanno not long after. There is such a breathless rush to hit you with moment to moment plot, no time taken to lay any cohesive thematic groundwork. Given that most writing you’ll find about it tends to focus on the nitty-gritty of the action, I don’t feel the need to linger. At almost exactly 90 minutes to take in the three-episode run, it’s better experienced first hand than through any attempts at recap, as they will fail to capture the ride accurately.
But as a piece of Tomino’s larger body of work and as a particularly flawed one, Garzey’s Wing is a deep well of interest. All by itself, without any other context, the frequency that his name appears in the credits—as director, sole scriptwriter, storyboard artist, original creator, and adapting from his own novels—reads as a clear intimidation display by an artist who has been in the anime industry since earliest days of Astro Boy. First appearing in animation in his Aura Battler Dunbine television series (1983–1984), itself based on his own The Wings of Rean novels (1983–1986), Byston Well is there said to be “between the sea and shore” and “the birthplace of the human soul” and presents itself as fairly typical by today’s standards high fantasy space. Castles and medieval villages dot the land. Fairies, called Fellario, and unicorns are commonplace parts of everyday life. Dark forests hide danger, and the arcane forces of magic hold great sway over the world. His other, better-known multimedia franchise is similarly composed of animation, video games, toys, dozens of novels, manga, and a reoccurring spot on the Super Robot Wars lineup, but what makes the Byston Well Saga special is that this kind of fantasy was not that big of a deal in Japan the early 1980s. You can’t talk about the isekai (literally “other world”) subgenre, currently something of a big deal, without bringing up Dunbine’s place in its early modern history. Outside of earlier limited takes on the genre with titles like The Guin Saga, Western fantasy would begin to gain a more significant foothold in Japanese pop culture as the 1980s progressed with imported Hollywood cinema, Dungeons and Dragons translated in ’85, video games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and books like Berserk and Record of the Lodoss War. Tomino’s influence on science fiction with Mobile Suit Gundam will doubtlessly dominate any discussion of his creative legacy. However, his other sprawling years-long effort—which at least one official source likened to his life’s work—was just as or even farther ahead of the curve.
Unlike the settled and tamer visions seen in Dunbine and Rean, itself a modern retooling of the original novels, this iteration of Byston Well is wilder and more dangerous than any seen on-screen before or since, coming closest to Yoshiyuki Takani’s evocative Dunbine illustrations. Greed, ambition, and callousness are common themes running throughout, but there is a quiet acknowledgment here that while the darkness lurking in humanity’s heart is ripe for exploration, it can be a bit of a slow burn. Garzey’s Wing’s answer to this is metal as hell demon-eyed, razor-toothed, stock animal sound effect spewing dinosaurs and copious shlock violence not three minutes into the first episode. Bodies are casually torn into by screaming monsters or beheaded by explosions, Fallout Bloody Mess perk style. There’s a goopy sound heard every time an arrow or three unceremoniously pierces someone’s neck. Chris and the Byston Weller’s (Wellians?) spend most of their time working with the limited tools are their disposal trying not to die from complications arising from being alive in Byston Well.
Like Dunbine before it and the 2006 Rean ONA after, Garzey’s Wing once again features a motorcycle-loving, multiracial lad thrown into the violent affairs of another world. He picks up a shouty Fellario sidekick, and there are probably wing feet involved. These are very specific ideas that have clearly stuck around Tomino’s head throughout the years, and I have no doubt had Garzey’s continued, the fight would have spilled into Upper Earth, and we would have seen Chris at least partially responsible for the destruction of recognizable, location scouted Japanese urban centers. Mass death in real-world locations caused by the forces of Byston Well as they bumble around is just how these things seem to go. We can only wonder how much death and destruction he’d have to wade through to finally find the resolve to ace that college entrance exam if a proper ending had ever materialized. Often noted is that the original Rean novels did not feature any of the iconic Aura Battlers, a notable turn in itself as Tomino was already cemented as The Robot Guy by the early 1980s. Then Dunbine, at the request of sponsors, centered itself around the insectoid biomechanical machines, with the Rean ONA advancing them even further, using then-new CGI techniques for questionable results and presenting them as more organic than ever. As an aside, if you for some reason know your Daragaus from your Dragorols and why how the lighting of Kustanga Hill relates to amniotic fluid, or really any of those words, but have not seen Escaflowne (also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year) or its excellent movie iteration, it’s time to fix your life. They pretty much perfected the isekai adventure featuring robot knights dueling with a medieval castle in the background thing with that one. But Garzey’s Wing sidesteps their inclusion as if to say, “this is Byston Well on my terms,” standing out all the more for it and feeling like a reclamation of a past compromise. And it’s why more so than any other Byston Well animation project, this one strikes me as a more personal endeavor.
As with any great piece of media that unintentionally soars on its failures, Garzey’s Wing does not lack passion. Maybe the answer to the worst anime ever questions is some boring show no one involved had any enthusiasm for that slumped over the finish line with a dull whimper. But what’s the fun in remembering that? You can’t fly off the rails without the necessary energy. The sheer density of world-building and character relationships the cast trips over themselves to holler at the audience certainly speaks to no small amount of gusto to get these ideas out into the world. A favorite moment is the Metomeus tribe finding time to discuss land resettlement and yell racist remarks about Fellario while most of them appear to be drowning on a sinking raft. It’s one of Tomino’s few directorial pieces done outside of his usual home base at Sunrise, and as the credits make clear, he outright owns the copyright. You can see the same mind for detail that gave us the thought-out world of Gundam in the scenes of Chris learning to use explosive gada powder and substance used to calm the war beasts during long marches. It’s the same level of thinking that fleshed out not just the giant robots, but the circumstances around them having to make sense; just this time it’s about jacked, plate armor-wearing dinosaurs.
As someone who “gets” Tomino’s stylistic choices, or at least has more patience for them than many, I can’t see the mood or abstract ideas hovering above it all in the way I can with Zeta Gundam, Ideon, or Brain Powerd. Still, I can see the struggle to articulate and empathize with the resulting painful fumble as it just is not coming out in the way it sounded in your head. It tinges the whole thing, particularly that abrupt “we’re done here, everybody out,” ending in frustration. Garzey’s Wing doesn’t show up very often in interviews, and when it does, he clams up. Even the lengthy discussions in the booklets included with the Rean DVDs treat it as a footnote. This one probably still stings. I can only hope that one day, Tomino can get enough distance to join the rest of us in smiling about it all.
I often joke that Tomino’s characterization can seem so utterly alien. His characters are simultaneously preternaturally in touch with the script that guides their words (“I must somehow make sense of our convoluted situations!”) and adrift from any guiding throughline, hopelessly lost at sea. The infamous English dub, the selling point for many, manages to, quite accidentally tune into this exact frequency of Tomino’s trademark awkward stop and start, missed connections conversations. I will go to my grave knowing it is the most accurate in spirit to date. Yeah, there’s a lot of weird misplaced energy, Chris’ girlfriend Rumiko is already at a ten just seconds into the first episode when she notes how easygoing he is, to herself. I’m a big fan of that extra little oomph Rick Nagel gives Chris’ many “damns.” Everyone is either mad, confused, or placidly neutral in cadence, and it almost never fits the scene. They play their roles seemingly under direction to act like indignant children. But it makes a sort cosmic, disorienting sense that the chaos that reigns supreme in Garzey’s Wing would bleed into their deliveries. So many conversations in fiction play out with all parties hitting all the right notes, saying the correct thing at the ideal time to form a cohesive moment to be served up to an outside audience. I always envision them like nailing a perfect score in a rhythm game, but so few play out like that in reality, at least not for very long. For decades, Tomino’s work has consciously rejected this false veneer, highlighting those little fraught and embarrassing moments in our everyday lives with missed handshakes, bumping into tables, mixed signals, and unflattering exits. I say alien because this goes against what you expect to see in narrative fiction or anything edited for clarity, but it truly strikes me as painfully observed humanity. “Humans,” as one of the Metomeus tribe members notes following the gruesome battle that takes up the entire third episode and serves as the climax of the series, “are just human.” He delivers it with a goofy cartoon gruffness, the obviousness of the statement given the air of sage wisdom, and the intended somber moment is made hilarious. This line comes back to me the most now and is steadily becoming an overarching mantra when I think of Tomino.
Garzey’s Wing is many things to me, far more than the sum of its equally frustrating, hilarious, and banal parts. The undercooked split soul, two bodies situation is downright Lynchian, somewhere between Mulholland Dr. and Twin Peaks: The Return. That it doesn’t show up again in his work only interests me more. At this year’s Otakon, I found the LaserDisc collection and immediately snapped it up with zero hesitation. I don’t own a LaserDisc and still have no idea where I’m going to display the thing, but I knew I had to have it in my bones. On my most recent viewing, my brain lit up with a lightning bolt of clarity. The ending scene, which has Chris and Rumiko flying off into the sky on his motorcycle, evokes the moment where the Victory Gundam‘s toughest biker revivalist, Duker Iq, similarly ascends to heaven. How could I ever reductively dismiss Garzey’s Wing as bad when it slots so comfortably in Tomino’s output? The questions left by the script’s negligence draw me in far more than any straightforward contextualizing world-building or character writing ever could. “Why are these things happening, like this, and in this order?” Like the DVD tagline, hate click harvester CBR similarly played up the connection just last year, though with an implied “how could he of all people be responsible for this?” pearl-clutching shock. Wildly and hilariously misrepresenting the shades of weird Gundam has taken on under his direction and Yoshiyuki Tomino himself. He’s the only person who could have made it, and it exists as part of a body of work still going strong to this day. You can see the same steely-eyed resolve in his utterly unique voice in the theatrical second pass on Gundam: Reconguista in G, with the third of five planned films having just recently screened in Japanese theaters this past summer. Maybe there’s an alternate universe where Garzey’s Wing stuck the landing, ticking off the boxes on a “good” criteria checklist with a calm competence, but would we remember it 25 years later? Or would it pass out of memory like so many perfectly acceptable but less willful series? It might not be a classic on its own terms, but the farce of it all is captivating. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way, for as Dunbine tells us, “fortunate are those that remember the tale of Byston Well, for surely their souls are rich.”
Garzey’s Wing is long out of print and is not currently licensed. The most recent DVD edition, including the unforgettable menu that only enhances the experience, was released in 2005. So while copies are still floating around the internet for under $20, they do appear to be dwindling.