The Standard Dunbine MG (Shou’s lavender mech) can be ordered from HobbyLink Japan: http://hlj.com/product/BAN77173/Sci
On a Wing and a Prayer…
Nagoya Broadcasting Network (NBN) in the 1970s and 80s was not one of the largest of Japan’s broadcasting concerns and, in hindsight it might not be seen as the place where anime came of age. However, if one considers the programs which they back in those decades, it becomes increasingly obvious that the management of the company had something of a fondness for animation. Beginning with the insight of head of procurement in 1976, Amemiya Norihito, into the anime boom that was developing in Japan, NBN commissioned (often together with allied model/toy companies) a number of series which are now considered among the Gold Standard for classic anime, and mech anime especially.
Among the series which NBN sold to the national networks, along with all the merchandise which went with them are Mobile Suit Gundam, Ulysses 31, Zambot 3, Xabungle, L-Gaim and Dragonar, though there were over three dozen by the time the boom had ended.
Looking back it does indeed seem odd that a regional company might spend so much time and effort on anime in the age that larger companies (such as NHK, NTV and TBS) were pouring huge resources into live action historical projects (such as NHK’s Taiga Drama), fantasy series (such as ‘Monkey‘) and especially tokusatsu programming. However, in the ’70s and ’80s animation was, on a minute for minute basis, far cheaper to make – and far more profitable from a merchandising perspective – than live action series, and allowed the smaller company to turn a healthy profit when their series were picked up nationally by other networks.
It makes sense, of course…
The larger networks regularly picked up programming from regional stations, and shared their own in return, thus ensuring a better spread of programming for the nation as a whole, without having to pour excessive funds into filling up the rapidly expanding schedules.
That is not to say that every series was a sure-fire hit, especially after the paradigm-changing Mobile Suit Gundam was released, but the general success of anime for NBN allowed the company to take calculated risks with their commissions, something which was absolutely necessary when trying to find that ‘next big thing’ in an age of seemingly unlimited scope – a thing which is still critical, though increasingly rare in programming throughout the world. Even Mobile Suit Gundam itself had been something of a risk, and a compromise on the part of everyone involved (Sunrise, NBN, Bandai and so on), but its payoff had been impressive enough that the station bosses began to look at Tomino Yoshiyuku as a safe pair of hands.
Thus, when in ’82 he came to NBN with the outline of a light novel he proposed to publish, named ‘The Wings of Rean,’ the company considered that its high concept tech-fantasy approach would be something of a switch from the increasingly common and complex mech anime series which by then were the norm.
There was only one problem…
The story, as laid out by Tomino to NBN, lacked the very giant mechs which the company rather perversely needed to make this ‘different’ potential series stand out.
However, this was a simple matter for the man who had been behind Mobile Suit Gundam and having re-written the story to include some appropriate mechanical designs (the creation of which would be handed over to wunderkind Izubuchi Yutaka), NBN gave the go-ahead for the creation of one of the most unusual anime series of the ’80s… Aura Battler Dunbine.
The Other Eden: Byston Well…
As reworked from the the original draft (which was itself released as a series of novels to run alongside the main series) the story of ‘Aura Battler Dunbine’ focuses around that staple of many of Tomino’s works, the monomyth and the Hero’s Journey. Drawn from the writings of Joseph Campbell, Tomino gives us a story centered on the transition and transformation of a young man into a warrior in a world not his own.
In this case, the Motocross rider Shou Zama is catapulted from Japan into the semi medieval fantasy realm of Byston Well, owing to the collapse of the boundaries between the worlds at a critical point…
As an aside, this is common conceit in much folklore, not just in Japanese. Places (and times) which mark the boundary of one environment into another are often considered liminal because they are marginal spaces which have no absolute identity of their own. In Japan for example, the sea-shore, riverbanks, eaves of forests, caves, and mountains are such spaces – God-haunted, dangerous and inhabited by spirits of great potency who are said to be able to spirit away the unwary.
In the case of Dunbine this is literally the case, as an innate power resident in Shou, known as ‘aura’ in Byston Well, is complicit in him crossing over into the Other Realm during an incident on the road. (Drawn through by the power of a Selkie, one of the Feaurin*.) Once there, it is revealed that those blessed with such an aura have an important role to play in an ongoing war between the Bystonian Lord, Drake Luft, and a resistance movement opposed to his rule. Drake acknowledges the power of the newcomer and entrusts to him one of the potent Dunbine Aura Battlers – who draw their power directly from the potential of their pilots to tap their inner reserves of aura.
* The Feaurin are small, sprite-like creatures who inhabit Byston Well, which further adds to the beautiful atmosphere of the whole. I’ve often heard the setting described as having an Old Norse aesthetic, but for myself it feels more like a ‘Celtic Twilight’ setting, especially considering the nature of the creatures which inhabit the world. The struggle between Drake Luft and the rebels is more like Irish Fey Lore – the struggle between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts.
As is often the case with Tomino’s writing, things are not all as they seem – and, as with Gundam the regal nobility of the forces of Order in Byston Well are soon revealed to Shou as tyrannical and cruel, whilst the brutish, rough renegades of the hinterlands are increasingly portrayed as the underdogs.
Thus, the troubled, individualistic Shou switches sides, taking with him his beloved Dunbine to fight for a world which is not his own, but to which he knows he belongs far more surely than than the Japan he has left behind.
This, of course upsets Drake Luft to no end…
A Gathering of Souls
Shou is not the only person who has been drawn to Byston Well, though.
Indeed, at the time he came over Todd Guinness did, too, and took charge of one of the Dunbines. However, in contrast to Shou’s more determined attitude, Todd takes the role of the Dreamer/Shapeshifter in the monomyth and rather pays the price for his unwillingness to engage – one way or another – with the dream-like realities of Byston Well. His fluid morality reflects Shou’s dedication.
Relevant to this review we have the poor soul of Tokamak Rovsky, a Ukrainian drawn into the Otherworld with Todd and Shou, who fills the role of the Sacrifice in Tomino’s version of the monomyth. Gifted a Dark Green Dunbine, this young man, unlike Todd, has a clear idea of what the nature of Byston Well is, and throws himself into the fight with the gusto of a former military figure. However, unlike Shou, whose eyes are open to the subtexts of the war, Rovsky’s are directed only on the things he understands from his former life, and he is symbolically ‘rewarded’ with an ignominious defeat at the hands of the rebellion’s ace pilots (though I am not sure if it’s Marvel Frozen or Dana O’Shay who downs him).
I’ve always had a soft spot for poor old Mr. Rovsky…
I know, from a narrative position its always necessary to have one character close to the character dealt a swift deathblow early on, in order to establish the pathos of the events to follow, but why could they not have given that sweet green dunbine to Shou? 😀
RIP, Tokamak Rovsky. We will never forget!
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