Old-School Anime Lives (and Dies) Again at Netflix

Remember OVAs? They're back, in streaming form.

Maybe you’ve heard them whispered about in hushed tones, part of some diatribe about the way things used to be: the anime OVA, for “original video animation.” OVAs can be (and have been) just about anything, from cyberpunk action to horror-tinged porn to historical epic. We associate them with a certain kind of 80s/90s storytelling extremity that dominated their most fruitful period. They could be however long they needed to be, with plots that took wild and uncommercial swings with little apparent oversight. Most of all, though, they reveled in violence and nudity otherwise too hot for TV.

OVAs are, in other words, distinct enough to carry a heavy sense of nostalgia with them. And it comes as little surprise to find that their sensibilities have seen something of a renaissance lately, in a culture fixated on reboots and continuations of recognizable properties. It’s most visible when you scrutinize the library of Netflix original anime (which you’ll see classified on various sites as ONAs for “original net animation”). 2022 alone has brought new takes on of-the-era properties like Bastard!! and Spriggan, but their accumulated library speaks to a broader, cohesive ethos absent from the rest of the service.

Ornate Visual Artistry

The six Spriggan episodes clock in at a TV-unfriendly 40+ minutes apiece, allowing for a sort of “adventure of the week” format. Though updated for a more modern setting and art style, the storytelling remains unmistakably grounded in its time. Like an anime Indiana Jones by way of the Cold War, the series follows high schooler Yu Ominae and his secret operations for ARCAM, an organization policing the worldwide arms race. Nations scour the globe for ancient relics, which are all mystical alien devices with powers that far outstrip even the augmented supersoldiers sent to retrieve them. Better still, the relics are all tied to some religion or urban legend — the show’s best line comes from a psychic boy colonel that the U.S.A. sends to commandeer Noah’s Ark: “The Pentagon gave me the power of God.”

Previously, the Noah’s Ark story was covered in a 1998 film supervised by Akira‘s Katsuhiro Otomo. But the extended format lets the series pace its info dumps a bit better than the overstuffed film, able to dole out information across multiple episodes. It’s a fun, familiar sort of pseudoscientific just-roll-with-it storytelling, with odd detours into haunted forests and werewolves that supply all the squashed heads and dismemberment that comes with the territory. It’s hard not to see the fingerprints of Spriggan‘s super-science black ops on Metal Gear Solid.

Bastard!!: Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy feels similarly pulled from the lineage of pre-2000 extremity, following an antihero wizard with attacks named after metal bands and albums. (His name, Dark Schneider, and the name of the kingdom, Metallicana, are references, too). Beyond the requisite violence, with problems often solved in showers of gore, it also embraces a lot of the era’s brazenly questionable sexual politics, with Dark Schneider collecting a parade of balloon-chested women whose distaste for him tends to melt away in his arms.

The series stops short of cloaking this stuff in ironic remove, but occasional fourth wall breaks declare at least some awareness of being a simplistic, silly story targeted at hormone-addled teens. It has a curiously juvenile attitude toward sex, as if reflecting that its manly antihero is trapped within the body of Lucien, a young boy of comical innocence and minimal personality. And it revels in contriving awkward situations, like requiring that the seal to release Dark Schneider be broken by the kiss of a virgin girl, which tends to mean Lucien’s adopted sister (and although she’s horrified, it’s certainly not for the reasons you’d expect).

Spriggan Netflix
Spriggan

Observed Value Assessment

It’s a little tough to imagine either of these shows being made to capitalize on current trends besides nostalgia. And it seems only natural for that sort of throwback storytelling to flourish on a streaming service, because basic recognition is everything when you’re inundated with choice. The biggest services are all poorly organized, vomiting image tiles organized according to vague genres and topics. We gravitate toward the things we recognize, and we feel better about spending our money on it.

This is the operating procedure for a lot of other services, as streaming competition has spawned a glut of remakes and belated revivals for familiar brands. But it’s especially the case with a service like Netflix, which has started making its own originals just recently when compared to the legacy catalogs of other, older companies. They’ve produced documentaries called things like “the toys that made us” and “the movies that made us,” and their anime offerings seem pitched along similar lines: the illicit video store rentals that made us.

But much as I enjoy picturing some guy working at Netflix HQ who lovingly tucks his VHS copies of Angel Cop into bed every night, I hesitate to label this a specific and intentional strategy. Perhaps it’s only natural that, in working to acquire recognizable brands and styles, the thing that resurfaces is work specifically from this era, a time when video distribution of anime OVAs and movies helped the format gain more traction worldwide. And after all, violent action plays more universally than comedy does.

Where anime is concerned, Netflix has tried (and is still trying) multiple approaches. For a while, they pushed color-averse CGI anime from Polygon Pictures before moving on to other studios. They favor adaptations of brands that we recognize but don’t typically associate with animation: there’s the various video game shows made in the wake of Castlevania, and there’s Godzilla animation like the Singular Point TV series and the CGI movie trilogy from Polygon. They’re also still pushing live-action versions, in hopes that brand recognition might bring a wider live-action audience — the Cowboy Bebop series emphatically did not pan out, but they’re plowing on ahead with their own production of One Piece and also airing a Japan-made live-action Yu Yu Hakusho.

Bastard Netflix
Bastard!!: Heavy Metal, Dark Fantasy

Obfuscated Nostalgia Algorithm

When we talk about the hallmarks of a Netflix show, we tend to discuss them in the terms of their unflattering quirks: shows that feel bloated in length, that have crummy lighting, that get canceled real fast. So intentional or not, the embrace of classic anime is by far the most distinct and successful calling card the service can claim, and it’s built up over time. The first show to really get people to take notice of Netflix anime was Masaaki Yuasa’s new take on Go Nagai’s 70s manga Devilman, while one of the service’s most quietly enduring series is an ongoing adaptation of the musclebound fightin’ series Baki the Grappler. One Castlevania producer has spoken about being inspired by this era of anime, and similar animated incarnations have sprung up tied to properties like The Witcher and Bright.

And yet, the approximations of this era are never quite right. Modern production processes leave shows feeling a little too smooth and polished for stories that otherwise call back to media defined by the handcrafted attention lavished upon strange, lurid details. The glossy, modern sheen of Bastard!! clashes with its sleazy aspirations, and while Spriggan has its moments, its bits of dodgy CGI are a far cry from the movie’s exceptional animation, which depicts things like a gun being dismantled and cleaned just to show off. Baki, too, often falls back on CGI bodies for certain sequences.

On some level, that’s the nature of technology. But it gets more than a little distressing once you consider the lack of easy and official access to the forerunners of these various reboots and continuations. The Spriggan movie isn’t streaming anywhere, and for things like the old Devilman OVAs you pretty much have to search around for user uploads. Even as anime grows in visibility to the point where it’s a pillar of one of modern media’s most visible distributors, access remains spotty at best. Streaming was supposed to make this sort of thing easier, but the people inclined to seek out the older material have to rely on file sharing and YouTube uploads just like they always did.

It’s nostalgia with a dose of the ephemeral, an awareness of how momentary and fleeting Streaming Content can be in the clamor for our attention. The story of Baki picks up after prior anime adaptations that are no longer available, and Netflix no longer streams the older Godzilla movies since they’ve ensured that we have Godzilla at home. As a microcosm of streaming service strategy, anime demonstrates the wider disinterest in the old once it’s made into the new, and you wonder what will be left once the strip-mining of nostalgia runs its course.