The creative core at the center of ARTMIC—names like Kenichi Sonoda, Shinji Aramaki, and Hideki Kakinuma—were the driving force behind many of the design studio’s best-known work in the 1980s. Between the studio’s staff and the occasional pairing with outside creatives like Toshihiro Hirano (Hades Project Zeorymer, 1988) or Makoto Kobayashi (Dragon’s Heaven, 1988), ARTMIC found success creating original sci-fi OVAs in the early days of the direct-to-video anime market. However, in the more conservative, post-bubble 1990s when sponsorship money was harder to find, things went a little awry.
ARTMIC didn’t go out of business until 1997, but much of its output during that last decade was rough. That the last two OVAs ARTMIC worked on, Power Dolls  and Gall Force Revolution  were, respectively, based on a video game series and a franchise long past its prime, seems a particular indignity for a studio that had prided itself on creating original work. Released a few years before the studio shut down and not without its own faults, Genocyber  felt like the last “proper” ARTMIC series; an original sci-fi story backed by strong creatives behind the scenes with a vision that set itself apart from everything else on the market at the time. That it fell off the rails during its five-episode run was as indicative of its strange production history as it was of the waning fortunes of the design studio founded by producer Toshimichi Suzuki.
Released at a time when sponsors favored sequels, soft reboots, or anything else that called to mind familiar titles and Showa-era nostalgia, Genocyber at the outset felt like a relic. It was an excessive bio-mechanical sci-fi OVA with an abundance of body horror and violence based on an original concept—why, you’d almost be fooled into thinking that it was released in 1989.
Genocyber’s origins lay in a 1991 manga series by Tony Takezaki, an Osaka-based artist that worked with ARTMIC previously on the Bubblegum Crisis spin-off AD Police1 and may be best known amongst English-speaking fans today for his satirical Neon Genesis Evangelion comic. Takezaki’s Genocyber ran in a short-lived manga anthology called Comic Nova that proved to be almost impossible to research due as much to its obscurity as its generic name. Comic Nova didn’t seem to last more than a couple of issues but served as an interesting footnote in the history of ARTMIC as a publishing venture between the anime design studio and Hideki Kakinuma’s publishing studio DARTS. The comics inside were mostly related to ARTMIC properties; with stories from Detonator Orgun, Bubblegum Crash, Gall Force, a two-page advertisement for Genesis Surviver Gaiarth illustrated by Shinji Aramaki, and a color spread highlighting new OVAs.
Comic Nova was the result of that “media mix” approach that anime studios love and seemed to have been intended to serve double duty, supporting existing ARTMIC OVAs with side-stories while also serving up original manga that could be adapted for future anime. Genocyber’s presence in the first volume of Comic Nova certainly suggests it’s been earmarked for further development, as it occupied roughly 1/3 of the total page count and was the first manga featured. Despite this, about two years passed between the publication of Comic Nova and the release of the first volume of Genocyber, so what happened?
An old interview with ARTMIC founder Toshimichi Suzuki in the pages of Animerica2 published about a year before the OVA was released provides a bit of unexpected background. While much of the interview was focused on Bubblegum Crisis (because it was 1993, naturally), when asked if the idea for Genocyber was his, Suzuki stated: “One of our staff thought it up and then I fleshed it out on my own. Tony created the manga version based on that.” Suzuki was no stranger to telling stories via different mediums and trying out different types of platforms (Gall Force Star Front comes to mind), so this makes sense.
He went on:
“It’s a story that was thought up six or seven years ago [between 1985 and 1986, based on the date of the interview] when we were talking with Bandai about making live-action material for the U.S. We never really intended Genocyber as a project to be animated. But there were structural reorganizations going on for Bandai at the time, and the idea was shelved. As for myself, I thought it was an interesting idea so I wanted to do it. I even considered becoming a producer at Apollon in order to do it, but then Apollon and Bandai merged, so now we’re working with Bandai again.”3
This exchange explains, at least in part, two of Genocyber’s biggest quirks; the change in tone during later episodes and the use of practical props in the first episode.
Takezaki’s manga might have been a sort of test run for the Genocyber story, but it was never completed. Many of the manga’s visual and narrative elements were kept for the OVA, but the overall style and setting differed quite a bit. The lack of a proper ending to the manga seemed to give series director Kochi Ohata (MD Geist, Cybernetics Guardian) a bit of creative leeway and an opening for the direction that the OVA took in later episodes. Furthermore, an old comment on the Colony Drop blog by Jan Scott-Frazier suggested something else might have influenced the direction of the OVA.
Jan Scott-Frazier was one of the first foreigners who found success in the Japanese animation industry during the 1980s, and during the 1990s opened her own background art studio in Thailand that worked on a number of anime titles including Genocyber. In her comment, Jan mentioned that the departure from the manga was due in part to Ohata and art director Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) spending a month at the studio in Bangkok and coming up with a lot of new ideas during their visit.
Suzuki’s comments about the origins of Genocyber’s development deserve a bit of unpacking, too. With the excessive gore and violence of the OVA in mind, it’s a little challenging to imagine Genocyber as a live-action show intended for U.S. audiences4, but it also isn’t too hard to guess they may have had a Guyver-esque, tokusatsu show in mind. If Suzuki’s timeline is to be trusted this project would have predated The Guyver (1991) by at least five years and been roughly contemporary with Haim Saban’s proto-Power Rangers adaption of Super Electron Bioman in 1986, so it’s anyone’s guess if they intended it to be kids show or a more serious film for young adults.
The legacy of the live-action origins of Genocyber lies in the practical models used during the first volume of the OVA, an admittedly odd creative choice that Suzuki hyped as “live-action effects” during the aforementioned Animerica interview. Perhaps the most intriguing link between those practical models and the original live-action pitch is the copyright line on a collection of old photos of models I shared a few years ago. Those photos all carried a copyright notice “© 1993 Artmic/Plex,” implying that ARTMIC must have collaborated with the design studio Plex on those assets. Plex is a toy design studio that has worked closely with Bandai on some of its biggest tokusatsu series, like Kamen Rider.
The first episode of Genocyber also had a handful of shots that used actual photographs as backgrounds. Given the live-action origins of the series, it raises the question of whether or not these were simply director Ohata trying something different (or perhaps trying to capture a more “accurate” look of the setting of Hong Kong) or some sort of legacy of that original pitch. Whatever the reason, those backgrounds combined with the practical effects create an unsettling feeling that pairs well with the over-the-top gore.
ARTMIC OVAs didn’t always hit it out of the park, and sometimes struggled to even get on base, but could rarely be accused of not having the individual talents of the artists on staff shine through. As some of the most prominent creatives at ARTMIC moved on or took on less obvious roles, this aspect of an ARTMIC productions faded but at least some of that spirit and style comes through in Genocyber. It’s a show where the influences and style of the people who worked on it shine through proudly and uniquely, even if it is an uneven package.
- Genocyber: Anime’s Almost Classic Cyberpunk Horror, Ruined By A Critical Flaw
- Genocyber Genesis, an essay I wrote for the Discotek release of Genocyber
- Takezaki was also a classmate of ARTMIC alumnus Kenichi Sonoda and Ley Yumeno.
- Animerica Vol. 1, No. 3. May 1993.
- Apollon was apparently a music label founded in 1971 that entered a partnership with Bandai in 1987 before being taken over by the toy manufacturer and later renamed Bandai Music Entertainment in 1996. Employees from Apollon apparently formed Lantis, another music label that eventually became part of Bandai. Suzuki never really explains the reference in his interview, but during the 1980s music labels were major sponsors of direct-to-video products and he may have been in talks with them to help him get Genocyber produced.
- It’s worth mentioning that ARTMIC worked tangentially on merchandise for the live-action show Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future.