Megazone 23 should be on any shortlist of quintessential ‘80s anime. As the breakout hit of the direct-to-video OVA format it combined contemporary youth culture, real-world Tokyo hotspots, transforming motorcycles, and a sci-fi conspiracy. Originally conceptualized at the height of the real robot boom as a 26-episode TV series called Omega City 23, the project went through numerous changes and iterations before it became the cutting edge OVA known as Megazone 23.
Take Me Down to Omega City
Noboru Ishiguro was an anime director and founder of the animation studio Artland. Toshimichi Suzuki had come up through the ranks at Tatsunoko Production before founding design studio ARTMIC. In 1980 the explosive popularity Mobile Suit Gundam and its model kit merchandizing changed the landscape of TV animation, creating a surge of “real robot” TV shows featuring giant robots sponsored by toy and model kit companies. In these boom years, both Ishiguro and Suzuki found varying degrees of success.
Ishiguro, who had directed the wildly successful Space Battleship Yamato in the mid-‘70s, found success at the helm of Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) and its theatrical follow-up. Meanwhile, Suzuki worked with Macross creators Studio Nue on a floundering TV project called Techno Police 21C that was eventually released as a half-hearted film before finding some limited success with Genesis Climber MOSPEADA (1983).
Both Ishiguro and Suzuki worked on the original plan for Omega City 23, and what we know of the show suggests it was very much built on elements from both Macross and MOSPEADA. By combining a post-apocalyptic setting and a contemporary city, Omega City 23 looked to build off Macross’ success of combining integrating transforming robots into a modern setting and MOSPEADA’s war-ravaged Earth. Like MOSPEADA, Omega City 23’s primary mecha were transforming motorcycles — something its creators chose to set it apart from a glut of similar-looking robots dominating the airwaves and toy shelves. Macross had also found success in the novelty of including an idol singer and Omega City 23 looked to do the same with a popular radio DJ. MOSPEADA featured a band of rebels fighting against an oppressive alien force, while Omega City 23 featured a band of rebels fighting against an oppressive government. The list goes on.
If you’ve seen Megazone 23, much of this setup should sound familiar. The basic plot of Omega City 23 outlined by Ishiguro and Suzuki suggests that much of the early series was at it would be in the OVA — a story built around a young man given a top-secret military motorcycle by a friend and finding himself caught up in a government conspiracy as his friends start dying. Unlike Megazone 23, Omega City 23 took place on Earth after a global war, the contemporary urban setting maintained by being located in a walled city that escaped harm thanks to its sophisticated defense system. While the series proposal hints at both a government coverup and a later move into outer space as orbital colonies get involved, the show wasn’t going to take place on a ship designed to look like late-20th century Tokyo a la Megazone 23. In fact, while the city of Omega City was specifically called out as a contemporary-looking setting, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that it was going to be a replica of Tokyo.
Astute observers will notice one major piece of Megazone 23 missing in Omega City 23 — Eve Tokimatsuri. The AI singer was nowhere to be found in the original TV show draft, although there was a popular radio DJ named “The Nine O’Clock Woman” that presumably was going to serve a similar role in the story. It wasn’t until the second iteration of the project, now called “Vanity City,” that Eve appeared. What was to become Megazone 23 went through a third name change, this time to “Omega Zone 23,” before it was publicly announced in September of ’84. Unable to lock-in sponsorship for the series, it never entered production.
The direct-to-video distribution model offered up an alternative distribution system for anime, but when Megazone 23 was released in March of 1985 it was still an unproven format. Although the first OVA format release came in December of 1983 with Mamoru Oshii’s Dallos, by the time Megazone 23 hit shelves only 19 OVA titles had been released. For a little bit of context, 11 of those titles were porn. Among the eight titles that weren’t explicitly Not Kid’s Stuff you could find Birth (1984), Greed (1985), Fantastic Adventure Of Yohko: Leda (1985), and some Creamy Mami and Round Vernian Vifam spin-offs. Hardly a murderer’s row of great anime.
Things changed dramatically for OVAs in 1985, with total video releases more than doubling from 1984. Megazone 23 may have lead the charge, but that same year saw Vampire Hunter D, Dirty Pair: The Nolandia Affair, Angel’s Egg, and Fight!! Iczer One. It was also the first year the first VOTOMS OVA (The Last Red Shoulder) would be released, starting a tradition for that franchise that lasted literal decades. Oh, and that year saw the first title Gainax worked on in a professional capacity —The Chocolate Panic Picture Show— but I’ll leave that up to the reader to Google and decide if that was actually a positive event.
While it was in slightly better company by the end of the year, Megazone 23 still dominated the sales charts with 26,618 units sold1. If that doesn’t doesn’t sound like a huge number, then consider that not only was it an enormous jump up from the previous year’s best-selling OVA (Birth at 4,793 units), but it would be over a decade until another OVA even close to those kinds of numbers (1997’s Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz Episode 2 at 25,899 units). The arrival and success of Megazone 23 just as the OVA format was beginning to become legitimized no doubt catalyzed more than a few direct-to-video anime projects, but few would come close to Megazone’s sales.
Perhaps more important than sales (for us as fans, anyway) was that Megazone 23 helped create a blueprint for anime to come over the second half of the decade. It was a flagship title in an era when the industry was going through some enormous changes and the elements that defined it would come to define many of the OVAs that followed — sophisticated robots, banging music, cute girls, and densely-packed urban settings. Megazone 23 was noteworthy not just because it was a pioneering OVA but because it started off as a latecomer to the real robot room. It bridged the gap between TV anime for kids and video anime for maniacs. What started as a robot TV show that arrived a few years too late instead became a flagship OVA that set a new trend.
About the Omega City 23 New Television Program Project Plan
A copy of the 16-page series proposal document appeared on a Japanese auction site in August of this year. While understandably vague, the Omega City 23 proposal outlines the show’s early story arcs, characters, and mecha. It also includes a few rough sketches (most of which have been reproduced in better quality in various books) and a rough outline for a toy line that would have had a big focus on user customization. While various sources have outlined the early iterations of Megazone 23, to my knowledge this is the first time the actual Omega City 23 proposal has been shared online.
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