Makoto Kobayashi’s Dragon’s Heaven

While many early original video animation (OVA) projects were little more than uninspired cash grabs or low-budget pornography, the format shined brightest when bubble era funding fell into the hands of talented artists and animators, enabling them to create video animation that wasn’t feasible for TV or film. Dragon’s Heaven, released in February of 1988, was one of the best examples of this experimental, unusual video animation.

The breakout hit of the format was Megazone 23 (1985) an original sci-fi story from design studio ARTMIC and animation studio Artland. Megazone 23 had started development as a TV show but sponsor difficulties caused production to shift towards a video release instead. It would go on to become one of the best-selling videos of 1985. After some moderate success with TV shows like Genesis Climber MOSPEADA and Super High Speed Galvion, ARTMIC began focusing almost exclusively on OVAs and went on to create videos like Bubblegum Crisis, Gall Force, and Dangaioh. Much of ARTMIC’s output reflected the style of the creators they worked with — think Kenichi Sonoda’s Riding Bean or Shinji Aramaki’s MADOX-01. But none of ARTMIC’s OVAs brought its creator’s style to life on CRT quite like Makoto Kobayashi’s Dragon’s Heaven.

While Kobayashi made his professional debut as a mecha designer on the early OVA Birth (which, like Megazone 23, began development as a TV show), he had earlier been in talks with Bandai to develop a project based on his Dragon’s Heaven doujinshi. While Bandai showed interest and asked Kobayashi to produce a 3D mockup, they soon told him that the mecha needed to be redesigned to transform. Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) was a hit and had inspired a wave of transforming mecha to which even the juggernaut of Gundam wasn’t. The Dragon’s Heaven project with Bandai stalled.

Kobayashi soon worked on Gundam Zeta as part of a cadre of young up-and-coming mecha designers that included Mamoru Nagano (Five Star Stories) and Kazumi Fujita (VOTOMS Blue Knight Berserga, Macross II) designing new mobile suits for the much-anticipated sequel. Kobayashi later moved on to Gundam ZZ, where he designed the transforming ZZ Gundam. Around this time the hobby magazine Model Graphix approached Kobayashi about creating a comic to fill in for an injured Motofumi Kobayashi (Cat Shit One), a prolific manga artist known for his historical military manga.

With a looming deadline, Kobayashi blew the dust off his earlier Dragon’s Heaven project and turned it into a manga that appeared in the February 1986 issue of Model Graphix. Coincidentally, a year earlier the same magazine had begun publishing a photonovel featuring scratch built kits called Gall Force Star Front, the precursor to one of ARTMIC’s most successful OVA series. A few months after it debuted in Model Graphix, the first Dragon’s Heaven comic was reprinted in the second issue of a new manga anthology called Battle Machine, from the same publisher. New Dragon’s Heaven stories appeared in subsequent issues. The following year, three stand-alone games were included in issues of Model Graphix’s short-lived tabletop-focused sister magazine, Game Graphix.

Despite his later reputation for creating elaborately detailed models, Kobayashi admitted in an interview with Forbes, “At the beginning I wasn’t all that interested in kits but when I started the project Dragon’s Heaven I submitted my planning ideas to Bandai. They then asked me if I could make an actual kit with it, like a 3D model to show what it looked like and that’s how I got started in kits.” Within a few years his models were appearing in magazines like Model Graphix, Hobby Japan, and B-Club — later they’d inspire one of the most memorable aspects of the Dragon’s Heaven OVA.

February 25, 1988

Released on February 25, 1988, Dragon’s Heaven was a 40-minute video that seemed to encapsulate much of Kobayashi’s style and influences. It was, like many of its OVA peers, heavy on style and design while light on plot and character (I’m looking at you, California Crisis), but that doesn’t detract from the experience. It’s safe to say that there’s nothing else out there that looks quite like Dragon’s Heaven.

Makoto Kobayashi on set with the full-sized Shaian model.

Viewers are first introduced to the robot Shaian and his nemesis Elmedine not in animation, but as two-meter tall radio-controlled models. The elaborate live-action intro sequence, arguably the most memorable part of the video, was apparently paid for entirely out of Kobayashi’s own pocket. But he didn’t get to keep the models — they were simply too big to store.

The animated portion of Dragon’s Heaven is a straight-forward sci-fi action story. A desert scavenger named Icool discovers a long-hibernating Shaian in the desert and the two of them join forces to fight Elmedine, a robot officer in the Brazil Empire (a nod to Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, reportedly one of Kobayashi’s favorite movies). While there wasn’t much to it, the OVA was carried by its unique style and a rocking soundtrack courtesy of Takanobu Masuda, Keiji Katayama, and Yuiko Tsubokura. More often than not, though, what people remember about Dragon’s Heaven is its aesthetic, reflecting Kobayashi’s own style but in practice looking very much like European comics of the time — imagine Heavy Metal (1981) by way of Japan. Not coincidentally, the name Jean “Moebius” Giraud is thrown around a lot when describing the look of it, too.


In the ‘80s, both Masuda and Katayama were in a band called Bluew. Today it might be best remembered by old-school anime fans as the group behind the ending theme to the first episode of Bubblegum Crisis, Mr. Dandy. The connection between Bluew and ARTMIC? Youmex, a subsidiary of Toshiba EMI that produced numerous anime projects in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

At the time, Kobayashi’s manga tended to alternate between two styles: one featured delicate lines with copious amounts of grey wash for shading and texture, the other was simple pen and ink that made use of extensive hatching. Both of these styles imparted a significant degree of texture to his illustrations, a trait also seen in his model work. Dragon’s Heaven hewed close to the second style and embraced simple, flat colors that ran counter to the contemporary trend in contemporary video animation that emphasized excessive shading and detail.

That Dragon’s Heaven is so representative of Kobayashi’s work and remembered so fondly for its unique style is a testament to the staff that worked on it. While Kobayashi oversaw things as supervisory director, long-time veteran Kiyoshi Fukumoto served as technical director, manga artist and designer Osamu Kobayashi (BECK) served as mechanical director and designer, and Toshihiro Hirano (Megazone 23, Fight!! Iczer-1) took care of character design.

While the early OVA market was crowded with uninspired attempts to muscle in on fan’s wallets, Dragon’s Heaven feels very different from all of that. Ditching giant robot cliches and then-contemporary video animation trends, it’s still fresh and evocative thirty years later. While digital fansubs gave it a second life among English-speaking fans, its legacy has lived on in other places, from the design of Deep Space 9 to new garage kits that continue to pop up at Wonder Festival every year.

It’s very good. You should watch it.

Special thanks to Ollie Barder and his interview with Makoto Kobayashi that informed much of this article.

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