Black Heaven

Have you ever once seen the power of music destroy an enemy civilization in American media? I can't think of any shows that have done so, but anime has a huge catalog of titles that involve music being the driving force behind a culture's power. Although you'd be hard pressed to track the phenomenon back before Macross, you can certainly see it in a variety of shows from the Megazone 23 series to Yohko: Adventure of Leda and more. Black Heaven is unique despite its well-used formula because despite the emphasis on sonic displays of prowess and virtuoso guitar feats, it's a human story that plums areas in which few anime dare to tread. The show has some significant flaws, but at the most basic emotional level, it rocks.

Oji is a salaryman, a working stiff who toils in an essentially mindless job that keeps his mind off the fact that he was once an incredible guitarist with a short-lived but extremely popular metal band. He's got a young son and a nagging wife; he loves both but can't really express much emotion towards them. One day, he finds that his beloved Flying V guitar has been pitched in the garbage by his spouse, who figured it just wasn't worth keeping around. Distraught, he tries to vain to find comfort in his work...but strange things are afoot. A mysterious, beautiful stranger named Yuki comes to work for his company, and Oji discovers in a drunken stupor that Yuki actually needs him to play guitar for her. She's actually from another world, and for reasons unexplained, his unique musical sound powers the weapon that can save the earth from alien invasion and destruction. Chaos ensues as Oji's wife and child grow more and more aware of his strange behavior and the time he's spending with Yuki...can he keep his home life from crumbling, save the universe, and still keep shredding?

Although it's unclear whether or not this was late-evening television programming, since there are no real eyecatches on the DVD release, it would seem to be by all other appearances. The animation is functional but not impressive, and the relatively new technique of digital panning is used frequently. If you've not seen it before, you'll notice it immediately; it is about the most annoying thing I've seen in anime in a long time. You eventually get over it, but it really limits the feeling of actual movement. That being said, this show is not about animation, it's about music and (surprisingly) about relationships, and so it's not such a distraction. Also, if you've seen the opening credit sequence, don't take it as representative of the series--it's very unique, but not very anime-esque and not at all attractive. The rest of the show, despite its animation faults, doesn't look like this. However, if you skip the credits, you miss the immensely enjoyable "Cautionary Warning", a great metal tune by John Sykes. A welcome relief from J-Pop, I must admit.

And that leads into the heart of the show, which is the music. There are lots of riffs throughout the series, as well as some nice solos and instrumentals placed appropriately through the episodes. All of it is enjoyable, and most of it fits perfectly in matching the tone of the sequences involved. Those who can't stand 80s metal music or any of the culture around it might find it annoying, but I really grooved on the sound. This is a soundtrack I could easily buy, which is a rarity for me. (However, I would skip the end credits--the song they chose must have been to reach a different audience than the rest of the show, and it is unbearable.)

Meanwhile, the music is nothing without the actual show being good, and it largely succeeds. Frankly, so far the alien invasion bit is merely a catch--it's been woefully underdeveloped to the point that we don't even know who the two opposing sides are, and it becomes more and more weak the more you think about it. The show wisely sidesteps this problem by being funny and touching, keeping the focus on Oji and how he is starting to break out of his self-imposed shell and not on the war out in space somewhere. With each episode, we start to care more and more about who Oji is and why he is that way, and we even develop a soft spot for his haggard wife Yohko. I cannot think of another single anime that's been released in the US whose main character is an utterly normal, relatively boring guy with a family and a "real" life. This isn't to say that anime of this type doesn't exist, merely that it's extremely unique. As such, it reaches places other anime just don't go into. What guy in his 30s doesn't remember the rock band he played with, the girl that was almost his, the job that was just out of reach? Black Heaven discusses the concept of loss and regret, but never descends into nostalgia; it goes for the heart while being remarkably funny at the same time.

If you like (or can at least tolerate) loud music and an anime that is outside of the mainstream, give the first volume of Black Heaven a try. For its relatively weak animation and thin overlying plot, this is a rock and roll dream seldom seen. I also imagine slightly older audiences will appreciate this one even more--though there's nothing unacceptable for teenagers, ultimately adults really will appreciate Oji's transformation from a sorry little man with forgotten hopes to a hero with life left in his Gibson six-string.

Black Heaven Vol. 1 -- very brief (stylized) nudity, mild language -- A-