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Old Skool Anime: The Three Faces of The Guyver

If I was to tell you that Yoshiki Takaya’s manga, Bio-Booster Armor Guyver, is one of the most adapted manga works in history, your first thought might be “oh, you mean those Power Rangers-style monster movies with Mark Hamill and the guy that used to voice Solid Snake?”. You wouldn’t be wrong of course, but those 1990’s B-movie efforts were both preceded and succeeded by no less than three anime adaption attempts of the same work; a single OVA Guyver: Out of Control, a 12-episode OVA series The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor and the 26-episode anime Guyver: The Bio-Boosted Armor. 

Following the original manga more closely in turn, each adaption follows high school student Sho Fukamachi who, along with his friends and family, are thrust into a world of danger after stumbling across a Guyver unit; a genetically enhanced alien battle suit that can be called upon when needed, with Sho its unfortunate and unwilling host. What follows is an ever-escalating battle against the Cronos corporation, the original keepers of the Guyver units, who use humans to manufacture Zoanoids, grotesque yet superhumanly powerful monsters in a bid to achieve world domination.

Each adaption delves deeper into the manga than the one before it, but none explore the 32-volume to its full extent which is also sadly now long out of print in the west. While the origin of Sho’s transformation is largely the same, each of the adaptions take their own directions, but nevertheless, believe this: THE GUYVER is anything but Power Rangers. 

Guyver: Out of Control (1986) 

One of the very first OVA productions in Japan, as well as one of the very first anime to be dubbed and released on VHS in the US, Guyver: Out of Control has the darkest tone of all Guyver anime. Produced in line with the manga barely off the ground, Out of Control comes from Hiroshi Watanabe, future director of the fantasy manga/anime series Slayers, with the screenplay coming from Toyoo Ashida, fresh off the back of his work on Fist of the North Star. Straight off the bat, it is apparent at how aged it was even when released in the west in 1993, just seven years later. 

The opening scenes are almost page for page from the manga; Sho accidentally triggers one of three alien units stolen from the Chronos corporation, which then forcefully bonds with him. Following a subsequent attack from minions of Chronos, who can transform at will into horrific monsters called Zoanoids, Sho’s own metamorphic suit takes over, tearing off the limbs of its attackers in spectacularly violent fashion. You could say the Guyver is OUT OF CONTROL…. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was some trashy yet entertaining obscure animation from the US instead of its Japanese origins. Both this and the later OVA contain classic Hollywood horror hallmarks and action cues (rainstorms when a big fight’s brewing, timely lightning bolts), but here the Sci-Fi elements are purely secondary. This iteration of The Guyver goes even further with the dark stormy nights, gruesome fights, complete with a damsel in distress, but very little of that science fiction anchor that grounds the later adaptions. 

There are however some reservations; in true 1980’s anime fashion, the inclusion of a female antagonist in Chronos special agent Valcuria is purely for sexual gratification of the worst kind. Valcuria’s introduction is one of grace, intelligence, athletic, even beauty, only for her own Guyver transformation to be an inexplicable and nonsensical tentacle rape sequence that has no bearing whatsoever. You’d be forgiven for switching over at this point, but that would mean missing out on an ending fight that is fantastic fun, aided by a great backing track that is so delightfully eighties you can’t not enjoy it. 

It may be a little rough around the edges in places, but Guyver Out of Control certainly has its moments. Mostly bad ones, yet somehow when strung together (tentacle rape aside) this first Guyver adaption pulls off an enjoyable yet equally forgettable B-Movie slice of anime. Given there has never been a physical or digital release since the VHS/Laserdisc days, don’t expect Out of Control to rear its head in any official capacity anytime soon. This is a shame as it serves as a perfect snapshot of the early days of the OVA. But there is little doubt that Guyver: Out of Control’s most endearingly quality of all is its weird-video-nasty-you-caught-at-1am-as-a-teenager feel. 

The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor (1989-1992) 

If you were to ask me broadly “Have you seen The Guyver?” then this would be the incarnation that immediately comes to mind. As a twelve-year-old growing up in the 1990s, on the verge of puberty and on a voyage of discovery, everything about Manga Video, the UK arm of Manga Entertainment at the time had me hooked. Having only seen the odd anime feature (mostly Akira on repeat), I soon stumbled across advertisements in the video game publication Super Play magazine for a new monthly VHS series, The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor. It would soon become a series that played a major part in discovering the love for anime I have over twenty-five years on. 

The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor opens with a thumping sci-fi-driven rock theme, a Manga Video-produced replacement for the Japanese original. But as the title hits the screen with an impending god-like announcement of “THE GUYVER” ill admit 12-year-old me had a Keanu Reeves “WOAH” moment. Visuals of a biologically transformed Sho literally ripping monster after monster apart, gore and guts spilling, with momentary glimpses of a supporting cast of characters you simply cannot wait to see more of. That may be just the 60 second or so introduction sequence, yet for better or worse it encapsulates this iteration of The Guyver perfectly: a teenage-driven mishmash of monsters, malevolence and murderousness that also struggles to fit into a particular target market. And yet is such a silly and fun series that successfully dodges the video nasty tag of its predecessor.

 Bio-Booster Armor’s twelve episodes is two series bundled together. Both have separate production origins and staff; Koichi Ishiguro, one-time production manager on the hit 1980’s French/Japanese collaboration M.A.S.K. directed the series’ superior first half. Released from the rushed running time constraints of Out of Control, time is taken to explore both Sho’s Guyver origin, his friends and of course, Chronos’ intentions other than that just “beat the Guyver”. The pacing quickens considerably following Sho and Chronos’ initial confrontations, swiftly adapting chapters of the Manga almost too quickly for comfort in places. The violence also ramps up at an alarming pace, which oddly has become harder to fathom as an adult than as a starry-eyed teenager who should know better. 

Many of the fight sequences remain spectacular, and not just for their level of violence, either. Yoshiki Takaya’s manga declares open season on violence given the antagonists are malevolent monsters. Sho discovers more and more abilities since becoming *pause* The Guyver (one the dub fans will know), but most are simply more ways to spill monster gore in more visually spectacular ways. Sho is no protector but also no coward and must quickly come to terms with the responsibility placed upon him, as well as the power. In less graceful terms, after chapter two he is pretty much zipping around, brandishing built-in arm swords and laser cannons from his head and chest, destroying everything in sight. Episode five, curiously titled ‘Death of the Guyver’, is easily the most violent chapter, and it is clear from here the series also isn’t pulling its punches in the plot department. Betrayals, bereavement, and yet more big-bastard monsters. With its endless catalogue of baddies and more widespread popularity The Guyver could have been a great Streets of Rage-style videogame. 

The remaining episodes mark many wholesale changes, new locations, new allies, and of course, new monsters. These episodes are also of a markedly less quality of animation in places, which falls in line with the series’ production changes. Two directors, Masahiro Ōtani and Naoto Hashimoto took the series forward to the battle against the head division of Chronos. Situated within a mountain and led by  Dr Balcus, Chronos' lead scientist. 

Despite the changes in direction, Bio-Booster Armor commands some chasm-size plot jumps well, and never loses sight that this is a show about Sho and the love of his life, Mizuki. Considering the amount of injected narrative around the existence of Chronos, the Guyver units, and even humanity, the focus remains on Sho. However, just another six episodes would have done wonders for the pacing. Instead, we’re left with hints of both Guyver and Chronos lore that is left wanting long after Sho’s final battle of the series. 

Speaking of the final episode itself, it remains the OVA’s biggest mystery and infamous oddity. Lasting memories of The Guyver: Bio-Booster Armor are mostly attributed to its violence, fixed in time as perfect teenage taboo television. The final episode is no exception, with more visibly human harm on show than the rest of the show put together. Despite a mixture of sale certifications at the time, ranging from PG through to 15, a key moment of nudity is shoddily removed at a key juncture of the final instalment. Nudity isn’t necessary of course, in a series with none before it, but this unnecessary cutting room decision removes any intended context, compounded by the fact that we see said naked person a few shots later anyway. The ending, or lack thereof after six hours of slaughter, screams and some hilariously schlocky dialogue (seriously, the Scotsman Chronos agent is just brilliant), is disappointingly inconclusive. Comparatively speaking other OVA’s of the same era, notably Devilman and 3 x 3 Eyes, suffered the same, only adapting a portion of the original manga. Such practice today is far more uncommon. Could you imagine a part-adaption of Attack on Titan

Anyone lucky enough to obtain the US DVD release will have their satisfaction somewhat restored with the inclusion of the original uncut subbed episode as an extra. The UK was not so lucky; the series fell victim to Manga’s poor transition to DVD media, failing to meet its once targeted release date of twenty years ago. Since that time the licenses have expired, never to be seen again in the west. The series lives on through YouTube uploads, including the Japanese-only uncut final episode, but as an OVA that helped put Anime onto the western map, particularly in the UK, it deserves a wider audience beyond those drawn back through nostalgia. 

The Guyver: Bio-Boosted Armor (2006) 

If you like your anime adaptions source-material friendly, then this, the most recent adaption, trumps all previous Guyver efforts. With the boat firmly sailed on any potential OVA sequel, AD Vision provided this fresh 26-episode adaption, complete with yet another Sho-Guyver origin re-tread. The inception of this series, especially from a UK perspective, is important given its failure to receive a DVD release in that region plunged the 1989 OVA into anime obscurity frighteningly quickly. Even more frightening is, despite Guyver: Bio-Boosted Armor still being available streaming on Funimation or with a superb Blu-Ray cut fifteen years on, its OVA brethren holds up better in both hearts and minds of many and on-screen. 

Katsuhito Akiyama is at the directorial helm this time, whose early work as an animator on 80’s classic Thundercats would then lead onto directing Bubblegum Crisis, Gall Force and more recently Beyblade Burst. Visually Sho’s almost pointy young adult features evoke memories of Sousuke Sagara (Full Metal Panic!), although the standard square-shouldered, stand-up-collared school uniform deserves a shoutout for a big visual assist. As a result, this incarnation of Sho is more emo than the more emotional, innocent Sho of both the OVA and, more importantly, the original manga. There is always pressure to naturally progress characters in the right way from page to screen, and naturally, the adaptor of such characters like to tweak here and there for their own vision. The problem is this vision, particularly Sho, is completely devoid of character. Like many of the supporting cast, Sho is very much hero by numbers; an accidental saviour-comes-good, with trusty sidekick Tetsuro there to merely chew everyone’s ears off as he keeps the background narrative afloat for the viewer. The use of current technology for research and communication activities throughout is a nice touch. 

As touched on before, Akiyama’s Guyver series is certainly the most comprehensive one of the three attempts. And although it doesn’t cover the whole manga series, it strides into Chronos-lore confidently where others barely tread. Instead of a certain one-liner (“A Zoalord – Impossible!”) near the end of the OVA leaving everyone hanging forever, we see some interesting personal dynamics within Chronos, going beyond the generic “there’s the Guyver, let's get him!” routine. Then there’s the action sequences, otherwise known as the budget suckers. If you’re looking for action there’s plenty of it, and just like its distant cousins, the fights get more frequent, flashier, and gorier as they progress. Yoshiki Takaya clearly loved drawing monsters, given the growing absurdity of appearance and abilities, and once again the use of humans as vessels for Zoanoids grounds them somewhat with uncomfortable reality.

Unfortunately for all its flagrant-yet-fun violence, flashy monsters and, er, cardboard protagonists, Guyver: Bio-Boosted Armor came fifteen years too late even in 2005-6. Takaya’s concept for a good vs evil science-fiction tragedy lost its cutting edge by the mid-1990s, and with plenty of western concepts hitting the scene since, only core Guyver fans seemed to care. A completed version of the OVA is the easy pick for fan service, but even with its lack of character Bio-Boosted Armor, had the series completed beyond the adaption of volume nine, could still have reigned supreme as the definitive anime adaption. Instead, it serves as the odd one out amongst important snapshots in time that helped chart the western direction of the anime industry.