Birth: a complete chronology

Birth is an infamous name in Yoshinori Kanada’s career: often considered to be one of the animator’s most personal projects, it is also criticized for its confusing plot and believed to have been both a critical and commercial failure. Kanada himself recognized these faults, and Birth’s failure no doubt represented a turning point in his career. However, there is something about Birth that most fans today fail to realize: that is Kanada’s actual level of involvement in the project. Indeed, Birth is not just a single, 80-minutes OVA that came out in 1984. Before that, it had been a picture book, a manga and a TV series project, as well as the source of multiple illustrations published across various media.

Retracing Birth’s history is therefore important on multiple levels. First, as we will see, there are a lot of contradictory elements, as well as misconceptions and misinformation about Birth, some of which I myself contributed to spread – such as the idea that the OVA was a commercial failure, which you’ll find discussed in more detail below. Then, discussing Birth beyond just the OVA allows us to discover different dimensions of Kanada’s work and genius beyond animation: as an illustrator, as a mangaka, as a storyteller… Finally, Birth is also one of the very first OVAs to have been released; understanding its production also opens new perspectives on the early history of this format.

In order to follow Birth’s full history, this article will adopt a peculiar format: that of a chronology. This way, I hope to make the development of things clearer and avoid any confusion on dates, persons and events; it also makes it easier to add a large number of illustrations, which you can see in full size by clicking on the thumbnails.

This piece wouldn’t be possible without the help of all the contributors to the Kanadarchive, notably Dragonhunter and Drake; all my thanks also go to Flo and Sébastien Decamps for the assistance relating to the Birth manga, and to Brian for the help on Kaname Pro.

Released on the anniversary of Yoshinori Kanada’s death, this article is, as always, dedicated to his memory and that of his works.

Prehistory (1980 – 09/1982)

20/05/1980 – Zukkoke Knight: Don de la Mancha #06 

Kanada’s third work as a storyboarder (following his two episodes on Josephina the Whale), this episode is central for a variety of reasons. First, it definitely established the contact between Kanada, producer Yoshiaki Aihara (producer of Don de la Mancha and previously of Josephina) and the future members of Kaname Pro, most notably Kunihiko Yuyama, Shigenori Kageyama and Mutsumi Inomata. Second, it features Kanada’s first original character designs: he had until now slipped many characters of his own invention as background figures in his episodes, but this is the first time that he had complete freedom on the design of all characters within a work. Among them, the most important is without any doubt the antagonist Kaponen, a loud, vulgar bandit embodying Kanada’s weird, off-beat sense of humor.

Kaponen from Don de la Mancha #06
Makiko Yoshimura (?) in Tiger Mask II #23

26/10/1981 – Tiger Mask II #23

On this episode, an uncredited Kanada animated the disco scene in the B part, in which he slipped a portrait/caricature of his girlfriend and future wife Makiko Yoshimura, which heavily resembles the character of Rasa in Birth.

01/01/1982 – Creation of Kaname Pro

Kaname Production was initially conceived as an informal collective of ex-Ashi Production staff as they went freelance. Its original members were animators Mutsumi Inomata, Shigenori Kageyama, producer Akihiro Nagao, mechanical designer Shôhei Kohara and scriptwriter Junki Takegami (and probably Yoshiaki Aihara as well). In April, Kaname became a studio proper, funded by anime merchandise seller Idol with the intent of producing both live-action and animated works. According to a production report published in The Anime in September 1984 and written by Nagao, it was around early 1982 that the idea for a Birth TV series started circulating: it was probably one of the first projects planned by Kaname. Still according to that report, the first drafts were produced between January and April, as Kanada regularly visited the apartment which housed the creators’ collective: Birth was born as the result of the conversations he had with Kaname’s members, and especially Takegami. 

05/05/1982 – Makyô Densetsu Acrobunch #01

This series, with character designs by Mutsumi Inomata and Shigenori Kageyama and multiple contributions from Kaname Pro, had its opening and ending storyboarded and animated by Kanada with assistance from his students (Osamu Nabeshima and Kazuhiro Ochi on the opening, and Shigenobu Nagasaki on the ending). It was Kanada’s first direct contribution to a Kaname Pro work (insofar as it was produced by Kokusai Eigasha with help from Kaname). In the opening, one of the main characters, Reika, appears riding a bike very similar to the one featured in Kanada’s first image boards for Birth and a choker reminiscent of the one sometimes worn by Rasa (the choker seems to be an addition by the animator Kazuhiro Ochi, as it does not appear in the storyboard). Similarly, some of the antagonists who briefly appear on screen share some similarities with Birth’s Inorganics. It should be noted that Kanada had apparently not received the character settei when he started working on the opening; he therefore probably had a lot of freedom in the details and background figures.

(Additionally, it should be noted that Kanada’s opening for Genesis Climber Mospeada, which started airing on 02/10/1983, ends with the mysterious apparition of a woman in a volcano which looks extremely close to Birth’s Arlia.)

01/07/1982 – Animedia #07

In a column titled “Anime Hotline” dedicated to upcoming anime projects, we find the earliest document attesting to the production of a Birth anime that I know of. It reads as follows:

“[Birth] is an SF anime currently in planning that Nobuyoshi Aihara and Yoshinori Kanada have been working on for a long time, planned to start this Autumn or next Spring. The main character goes from planet to planet in order to flee enemy attacks, and each planet will be the highlight of the episodes. There will be adventure and romance and it is planned to be a bit more mature than Mechavenger [see below]. If it is actually made, we should be able to enjoy plenty of Kanada’s character and mecha designs!!”

Besides the fact that it is the earliest document about Birth, this account is exceptional in many ways. First, it is accompanied by illustrations, one of which is not featured in the image boards that would be published later the same month (see below) – but would be directly reproduced in a later chapter of the manga. Second, it does not mention Junki Takegami at all, instead preferring to highlight Aihara’s role. Third, the brief plot summary differs both from the early chapters of the manga and picture book and from what are said to have been the earliest stages of the plot, inspired by the concept of “the birth of civilization” (see below). It also has nothing in common with one of Kanada’s later testimonies (published in the Yoshinori Kanada GREAT artbook in 1997) stating that he initially had in mind a “reincarnation story”. Here, the inspiration and interstellar adventure aspect seems to be closer to Galaxy Express 999. Moreover, while Rasa is named, Nam is not and only referred to as “the main character”. Finally, there is the timeline. Indeed, it is unclear whether by Birth “starting”, the article means production (the most likely) or the airing time that was initially aimed at.

31/07/1982 – Yoshinori Kanada Special

This is the first official artbook dedicated to Kanada’s work, and possibly one of the first animator artbooks in Japan (without considering fan publications). Its first section, titled “New Sketch Gallery”, contains original illustrations and opens with 10 pages grouped under the category of “Birth Image Boards”. It also contains “sketches” for other projects/stories, such as one titled Big Fight, another Off-Road, and finally Kapoko’s Adventure, which follows a young girl who looks like a child version of Rasa and is shown playing with Kaponen. Published by Tokuma Shôten, the book credits Tokuma’s Ryû magazine under the “cooperation” credit; there is no mention of Kaname Pro, but a brief paragraph by Kaname producer Yoshiaki Aihara opens the final section, titled “Message for Iko”. Aihara’s message is rather conventional and uninteresting, unlike that of the editor of Ryû, which clearly establishes that the Birth manga was already well in the works, and reads as follows:

“Just as gekiga artists such as Takao Saitô or Noboru Kawasaki have taken their place in shônen manga, so-called “motion comics”, which make full use of animation techniques, are about to arrive in the world of manga. A new star has been born in these motion comics: Yoshinori Kanada’s Birth is a work closer to animation in its use of dynamic deformations. I hope that it will become a shock not just for Kanada fans, but also for all manga fans.”

The Birth image boards contain initial designs for most of the main characters: Rasa, Nam, Kim (named Kimchi here) and Arlia. Bao does not seem to have been conceived yet, or at least does not appear. According to Akihiro Nagao, Birth is said to have originally been about “the birth of the universe”, and the Kanada-Takegami duo looked towards ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia: they were probably inspired by Acrobunch’s plot and concepts (Takegami didn’t work on Acrobunch, but he was most probably aware of it). At some point, the animator and writer turned towards Tibet: Rasa’s name was taken from the city of Lhasa, while Nam took inspiration from a lake of the same name (a great traveler, Kanada would later visit Tibet alongside director Rintarô during the production of Download: Namu Amida Butsu Wa Ai no Uta in order to research Buddhism; it doesn’t seem like he had gone there in 1982). One of the Rasa illustrations is accompanied by the handwritten inscription “Izumaki” (?), but it’s unclear whether that is the character’s name, a description or signature of some kind (at least, it doesn’t resemble Kanada’s signature in any way, although it is definitely his handwriting); in any case, the “maki” is too close to the name Makiko for it not to mean anything (the numbers 18-14 probably refer to the character’s age, which would be set on 15). Arlia seems to have been borrowed from the term “Aryan”, while Kimchi’s culinary inspirations are rather obvious. Monga is present, but doesn’t seem to have had a name yet. 

Most of the illustrations are action scenes, and the initial version of Rasa seems to be a fighter and quite independent. According to the illustrations, she rides either a bike or a floater. The sword Shed, which would become the key element of the plot, doesn’t appear in any of the illustrations. The basic Inorganic warrior design had also been finalized. All characters are notably thinner and taller than in the following versions. The variety of scenes showcased in the image board is very diverse, but was clearly meant to produce an action adventure story with SF elements. 

01/08/1982 – Monthly Betty #01

Monthly Betty was a project led and published by the animators’ association Anido, which notably organized screenings and various events for anime industry members. The magazine, which never went beyond the first issue, contained columns, illustrations and manga by animators but was marketed as a “new kind of bishôjo manga magazine”. This first issue notably featured an extensive coverage of Sherlock Hound by Hayao Miyazaki, Yoshifumi Kondô and Kazuhide Tomonaga. It also contained contributions by Jun Ishikawa, Hideo Azuma, Yasuji Mori, Yôichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama, Kazuo Komatsubara, Toshitsugu Saida and many more.

Most importantly for us, this issue contains a 15-pages manga by Yoshinori Kanada and Makiko Yoshimura titled Floresia of my Youth. It focuses on Kaponen and his daughter Kapoko, as they search for Floresia, Kaponen’s wife and Kapoko’s mother, who has been abducted by strange creatures. While they seem like a strange sort of bird-like animal, they are probably the initial version of what became Monga and the blobs of Birth. Floresia’s opening (?) chapter also seems to set the stage for an inter-planetary quest of the kind that would be visible in Birth.

In terms of style, Floresia contains some typical Kanada humor, with lots of anime easter eggs and references, such as Gundam, Yamato, and of course Arcadia of My Youth. The manga also references anime Kanada didn’t work on, such as Treasure Island and Rose of Versailles: they may have been series that Yoshimura worked on during her time in studio Z, and she may be the one to have slipped them in. While not being as bold as those of the Birth manga, the page compositions already fragment the action in a characteristic way. The style of the drawings varies a lot, possibly according to the person who drew them: for example, the flashback retracing Kaponen and Floresia’s youth is textbook shôjo manga style, and appears very close to Mutsumi Inomata’s drawings – it may therefore be Yoshimura’s work (though Kanada also seems to have appreciated shôjo manga). On the other hand, the beginning and end of the chapter feature far more irregular linework, and the backgrounds as well as mecha are without any doubt drawn by Kanada.

Picture book and manga (09/1982-12/1983)

01/09/1982 – Birth picture book

The credits of the picture book are: Illustrations: Yoshinori Kanada / Text: Junki Takegami, Kaname Planning / Publisher: Yoshiaki Aihara / Publishing house: Kaname Production / Distributor: Idol

As we’re going to see, the “Kaname Planning” credit would recur on many other versions of Birth. It is quite clearly a collective credit, probably encompassing all the earliest members of the studio, and at least Shigenori Kageyama and Yoshiaki Aihara.

The plot of the picture book is as follows:

On the planet Aqualoid, the young Rasa and Nam are the only descendants  of the heroic Zax clan. On Aqualoid lies a “sanctuary of the Inorganics” which opens only once every new moon but is taboo to the inhabitants of the planet – it is however regularly looted by space merchants. One night, Nam decides to sneak in to obtain the legendary sword Shed, which is said to provide infinite power. He is followed by Rasa, who waits for him outside the temple; she is joined by the space merchant Bao.

Inside the temple, Nam finds a hoard of weapons; he takes time to try them all out, and in the meanwhile, the doors close. But after playing around, Nam finally finds Shed – and, as soon as he takes it in his hand, he is attacked by 3 Inorganic warriors guarding the sanctuary. Unable to summon Shed’s power, Nam runs away to the top of the sanctuary, where Rasa and Bao can see him; Bao tries to convince Rasa to leave Nam there to die, but Rasa refuses. Finally, Nam manages to draw Shed and, using its power, defeats the Inorganics, also destroying the sanctuary in a big explosion. Rasa faints and dreams of Nam, but is woken up by Bao. They believe Nam dead, but still look for him and find him asleep holding Shed in the ruins of the temple.

In space, outside Aqualoid, a ship is approaching the planet: it is boarded by “the white woman”, Arlia, in cold sleep, who has an important message for Zax’s descendants that may change the future of the star system. Down on the planet, not long after the destruction of the sanctuary, Nam and Rasa see Arlia’s ship crashing down. Nam wants to go see what it is, but Rasa tries to dissuade him: the unknown object has fallen right inside the territory of the dangerous “Sand Eater”. Nam goes anyway, and Rasa decides to give him a lift on her floater bike. As they approach the crashed ship, the Sand Eater – a giant Inorganic sand worm – comes out. Nam tries to fight for a while but can’t defeat it, until Rasa is thrown off her floater by the Sand Eater’s attacks. Angry and despairing, Nam once again manages to summon Shed’s power, pierces the Sand Eater’s eye and kills it. After the fight, both Rasa and Nam go find Arlia, who’s just woken from her cold sleep…

Given the inconclusive ending, the lack of worldbuilding, the small cast and the complete absence of information on Arlia’s role and message, this version is clearly the earliest among all those that were published, and perhaps just something of a pilot or preview of what was to come. Although the contents of the events would considerably change over time, it is notable that the two-parts structure of the picture book’s plot would be kept even in the OVA. However, there are multiple differences with the image boards from the Kanada Special, that are not present in the manga: Kim and Monga do not appear (nor does the baby Inorganic, a latter addition of the manga), and the image boards only seem to illustrate the first part of the story – that is, around and inside the sanctuary. This is worth noting given that the Sand Eater’s design and Nam’s fight against it provide some of the most impressive illustrations/panels of the picture book and manga. The story is rather straightforward and focused on action – the fight between Nam and the Sand Eater takes up multiple pages. There are none of the pseudo-metaphysical or gag elements of the later versions: on the contrary, the tone is direct and dry, with a lot of technical SF linguo.

As discussed below, one of the major questions surrounding Birth is its origin: was it a collective creation by Kaname’s members (as mentioned above, following Nagao), a product of Kanada and Takegami’s collaboration, or an original story initially written by Takegami which Kanada decided to illustrate and adapt (which seems to be Kanada’s own version)? The fact that there are more similarities between the image boards and the manga than with the picture book tends to lend some credibility to the third option: the picture book would have represented Takegami’s original text, which Kanada closely followed in his illustrations. It would then be during the creation of the image boards (for the manga and possible anime, not for the picture book) that Birth truly became Kanada’s creation.

As for the illustrations, they are in color and black-and-white, made in pencil and watercolor – clearly Kanada’s strongest technique. Indeed, it was the best way for him to keep the spontaneity that makes his art so special: the lines seem to flow freely and unpredictably; the irregular tones and light shades created by watercolor allow the art to remain somewhat rough and to avoid sacrificing the unique linework for the sake of color. The specific format also allowed for variation: the designs aren’t consistent (Rasa wears a choker in half the illustrations, and doesn’t in the other half), and the colors sometimes vary wildly, as Rasa may be shown with green hair and orange skin in some of the most expressionist pictures. As in the Kanada Special, characters are extremely tall, thin and elegant – the contrast between the picture book and OVA versions of Rasa is impressive. Bao as well is a very different character: in the picture book (and manga), he is a threatening, dark figure and his weird, slender design only makes him more disturbing. Finally, it should be noted that the picture book’s illustrations focus far less on machines than later versions.

01/09/1982 – 01/09/1983 – Birth manga chapters #01 to #07 in the magazine Ryû

Ryû was launched in May 1979 as a quarterly magazine published by Tokuma Shôten alongside their anime magazine Animage, and was the first publication under the “Animage Comics” label. Taking its name from one of Shôtarô Ishinomori’s works, Ryû was a shônen magazine specialized in science fiction publishing works from the likes of Ishinomori and Leiji Matsumoto. By 1982, the magazine had become bimonthly and its full name had become SF & Fantasy Ryû. The most important works published were Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Arion, Monkey Punch’s Mechavenger, Hideo Azuma’s Maddo-kun and Naniwa Ai’s Sukoshi Dake Namida. The presence of those last two names illustrates that, beyond anime fans, Ryû was, just like Animage, targeting hardcore otaku and especially lolicon fans.

For the Birth manga specifically, the credits are more-or-less the same as in the picture book: Kanada is on drawings, while Takegami and Kaname Planning are on “original planning”. This seems to indicate that their input wasn’t as direct as on the picture book, and therefore raises one major question: how much of the manga’s original content and changes are Kanada’s own ideas? Some answer is provided by an interview published in The Anime in November 1982, where Kanada explicitly mentions that he is writing the dialogue himself (and that it is a particularly difficult task). The first part of the manga remains very close to the picture book’s narrative, only adding some worldbuilding and making structural changes. In other words, it did not fundamentally depart from Takegami’s original text. As the manga progresses and gets past the plot covered in the picture books, more Kanada-isms slip in, represented by the progressively less serious tone and the greater part taken by Monga and the Baby Inorganic. As Kanada himself formulated it in 1997, “as I was drawing, I became more and more attached to it, and at some point it completely became my own original work”.

The plot is as follows:

A single spaceship, pursued by Inorganics, crashes on the desert planet Aqualoid. Both Nam and Rasa, who are apart at that moment, notice it, but Rasa is the first to come into contact and is immediately attacked by an Inorganic who mistakes her for Arlia. Nam arrives to save her and tries to fight the Inorganic off but is defeated. Just as he’s about to be killed, the running spaceship appears and crushes the Inorganic. From inside the ship, Arlia establishes telepathic communication with Nam.

Later, Nam, who has fainted, is brought to his home village, the ruined Zax, by Rasa on her floater bike. When they’ve arrived, she begins to cure him, but Nam, frustrated by his defeat, rejects her comforting words and she leaves. Outside, she meets the merchant Bao who talks to her about Shed; later, Rasa goes to Nam and tells him to go find Shed in the sanctuary.

At night, Nam goes into the sanctuary. Rasa and Bao wait for him in front, and Bao tries to seduce Rasa but she rejects him. In the sanctuary Nam finds weapons and then Shed, and is attacked by Inorganics. Outside, Rasa and Bao are attacked as well and run away to find Nam, who defeats all the Inorganics with Shed. Bao leaves, after saying to Nam and Rasa that the fight against the Inorganics isn’t over and telling them to leave Aqualoid for the satellite Ido. As they’re hesitating, they find that Zax has been destroyed by the Sand Eater, woken up by the destruction of his fellow Inorganics. Rasa wants to leave for Ido immediately, but Nam decides to avenge the village and leaves on his own, guided by Arlia’s telepathy. He begins fighting the Sand Eater but is unable to awaken Shed’s power – the Sand Eater swallows him and then Nam destroys him from the inside, provoking the destruction of the entire planet. Rasa watches the fight from afar in a small ship/vehicle, the Pony 7 and, after the fight, she is the only one left alive alongside Nam, who’s been protected by Shed’s power.

Out in space, Rasa drives their small ship while Nam is unconscious. They’re found out by Inorganic ships, but Rasa runs away and manages to escape to another planet, Ido. There, Nam awakens and finds a beautiful “Organic warrior” welcoming him and claiming she’s been fighting the Inorganics for centuries. But Rasa comes up and says it’s a trap – and indeed it is as the beautiful lady turns into a monster. Nam starts fighting her, but Rasa warns him to not use Shed – it may destroy Ido like it destroyed Aqualoid. As they run away, they seem to fall through dimensions and end up in a hotel room directly copied from 2001: A Space Odyssey (it even contains a monolith) where an old man waits for them. He talks to them about the history of the planet and the fight against the Inorganics that went on centuries ago, but they’re interrupted by the sudden arrival of 3 Inorganics riding bikes. With the old man’s encouragement, Rasa and Nam run away to space once again in their Pony 7. There, Arlia appears to them and points to the next planet. Nam is eager to go, unlike Rasa, who just wants to hide someplace and live a quiet life… This marks the end of Birth, Part 1.

As this synopsis shows, the plot is more-or-less similar to the picture book until the point when Nam defeats the Sand Eater. As the later chapters of Birth make apparent (see below), the changes in structure, and notably of Arlia’s still indefinite role, entailed a completely different approach to the entire worldbuilding. Said worldbuilding is the manga’s highlight compared to other versions: Birth’s universe is a dying one, in which the war between Organic and Inorganic lifeforms has been going on for centuries, and which the Organics have already lost. The atmosphere is therefore much darker than in the picture book, but the manga also contains a lot more gags; in fact, their number only increases as the plot advances and Monga and the Baby Inorganic follow Rasa wherever she goes. Another notable difference is in Nam’s character: it is the most complex in all versions of Birth, but also the least appealing. Nam is proud, selfish, easy to deceive (especially when the deceiver is a beautiful woman) and holds grudges. Whereas, in the picture book, his relationship with Rasa is explicitly romantic and not really conflictual, in the manga, they fight most of the time. This complexity is progressively lost as the manga goes on and increasingly focuses on Rasa.

Visually, the manga is awe-inspiring. First, the amount of details of the drawings – especially of the backgrounds – is absolutely amazing, with an incredible number of lines and details and shading effects. This creates extremely dense panels, in which the characters sometimes completely disappear. As if that wasn’t enough, the page compositions contribute to this sense of density: Kanada fragments the action to the extreme, with some moments looking like they could easily be put to animation. However, this isn’t a storyboard comic: on the contrary, each composition is thought-out to create the most powerful impression. As a whole, compositions are rather easy to follow, but as soon as the reader takes the time to take in each page or panel, they soon get lost in the amount of visual information: the entire manga is crossed by the contradiction between dynamism and density. 

As in the picture book, impact matters more than consistency, as the style and design can completely vary from a chapter to another. But, in general terms, the design philosophy remains the same as in the picture book with slender, elegant characters and irregular, curved linework.

01/09/1982 – Animage n°51

Animage contained a section titled Animage Radar dedicated to promising future productions. In this September issue, there was a column dedicated to Kaname Pro and especially Birth. It announced that Kaname Pro had no less than 5 projects planned: Mechavenger, adapted from Monkey Punch’s manga of the same name (which was planned to “start” in April 1983, per the aforementioned July report of Animedia); Space Adventure Squad, an adaptation of the short story “Abandoned Spaceship” by SF novelist Sakyô Komatsu; Birth, and “two other original works”, one of which may already have been what would become Genmu Senki Leda. It seems that Takeshi Shudô would have been in charge of writing the first two projects, while Birth (and Leda, if this is it) was in Junki Takegami’s hands. At this point, Birth is described as an upcoming TV series, and the article also promotes both the manga and picture book. Before proceeding to summing up the main plot elements, a quote by producer Yoshiaki Aihara describes the project in the following words:

“The original work is by scenario writer Junki Takegami and Kaname Planning, but Yoshinori Kanada enthusiastically drew for it, and so it became Kanada’s Birth. If an anime version is approved, of course it will feature some of Kanada’s animation and work. This will be the first time that Kanada will do all the designs himself, but it will certainly open new opportunities for him.”

25/09/1982 – Birth event

Later reported in the December issue of My Anime, the event took place in Idol’s store in Kichijôji, Tokyo. It included an exhibition of Birth art (the original copies of Kanada’s illustrations for the picture book?) and was followed, in the afternoon, by a signing session held by Kanada and Kaname Pro’s Mutsumi Inomata and Shigenori Kageyama. According to My Anime’s report, around 700 fans were present.

01/11/1982 – Animage n°53

In this volume’s Animage Radar section, an entire page is dedicated to “Kaname Pro’s three current productions”: Mechavenger, Spaceship Gallop, (the new title for Space Adventure Squad, now announced for 1983), and finally Birth. As in the September issue, it is described as Takegami’s original novel, to which Kanada initially only contributed illustrations. It’s hard to tell whether things are put this way because it’s standard to consider the writer the “original author”, or if that actually describes Takegami’s precedence over the creation of Birth. The presentation is as follows:

“The original author, scenario writer Junki Takegami, says that “The main character isn’t the boy (Nam), but the girl Rasa.” What kind of girl is Rasa, to be able to control a character with such a unique personality as Nam? “If Nam symbolizes the body, Rasa symbolizes the intellect. Rasa controls Nam, who charges against the giant Inorganic enemy with his body. At first, she was a tough girl who would punch Nam. But in the manga, Yoshinori Kanada drew her in a cuter way, so she became a smart, brave and cute girl” is Takegami’s answer.”

01/12/1982 – Animage n°54

This volume contains a short column dedicated to Mutsumi Inomata, titled “the person who brings shôjo manga’s lines to life in animation”. It insists on her proximity with the lolicon style, and highlights her past (Acrobunch) and ongoing work: her episodes of Sasuga no Sarutobi and her character designs on Spaceship Gallop (Inomata’s illustrations for the upcoming series were making the rounds of anime magazines at the time). Finally, the column is complemented by a small insert by Kanada titled “Birth’s Yoshinori Kanada reviews Mutsumi Inomata” and accompanied by an illustration of Rasa and Monga. Rather conventional, Kanada’s “review” reads:

“Inomata’s sensibility is not the same as that of regular manga, she’s the kind of person who can create very animation-friendly characters. I really like Gallop’s characters.”

20/01/1983 – The Motion Comic n°1

The Motion Comic was a new magazine launched by Tokuma Shôten under its label “Animage Comics”; under the catchphrase “New comics with an anime feeling”, it almost exclusively featured content (manga, illustrations or columns) by animators. Looking at the magazine’s entire run, the pool of artists mostly came from 2 places: one was Kanada’s circles and included people like Shigenori Kageyama (who only contributed illustrations), Mutsumi Inomata and Kazuhiro Ochi. The other was studio Artland, with artists like Haruhiko Mikimoto, Ichirô Itano and Toshihiro Hirano. Then, more scattered, we find a group of Tatsunoko-related artists (Yoshitaka Amano, Tomonori Kogawa and Takashi Nakamura) and a few more diverse people, like Toyô Ashida, who held a column about studio Live, or anime parody artist Ai Naniwa. Surprisingly, except for Kanada, Tokuma’s two foremost manga/anime artists Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshikazu Yasuhiko never transferred to The Motion Comic: Yasuhiko only made a few Arion illustrations in the first issue, while Miyazaki himself never contributed. The artists closest to him that contributed illustrations would be Yôichi Kotabe, who made some beautiful illustrations in the second issue, and Kazuo Komatsubara, contributing a striking Nausicaä-inspired illustration in volume 3.

Kanada himself was the focus of the first issue, as he drew an original illustration for the cover and contributed a short manga in color titled Wish Upon A Star. It follows a young boy and girl trying to escape their cramped, oppressive world and a giant creature directly lifted from ET. It doesn’t seem like Kanada put a lot of effort into that work, as the story is extremely light and the manga is more-or-less just a series of illustrations without any backgrounds. Still, the dynamism of Kanada’s drawings jumps to the eye thanks to a constant use of vertical compositions.

22/04/1983 – The main staff of Kaname Pro’s first anime, Plawres Sanshirô, is announced

There isn’t much information about the preproduction and chronology of Plawres Sanshirô; Minoru Kamiya’s manga had started coming out in Shônen Champion in August 1982, and the anime adaptation was decided in the following months. Kaname probably agreed to make Sanshirô as a way to obtain money and credibility in order to produce their own TV anime, such as Birth. However, it remains unknown why or when Kaname’s other TV series projects, Spaceship Gallop and Mechavenger, were dropped.

01/05/1983 – Birth image album

Under both vinyl and cassette, this record contains 10 original tracks, 9 of which were composed by Joe Hisaishi and performed by a band named “The Birth”. From the description on the covers, the music was recorded between February 12 and 20, 1983 in the studios of Victor Music Company. If we account for the time spent searching for a composer and performers and the time spent composing, Victor had probably gotten involved as soon as the manga came out. Sadly, this record isn’t available on the net, making it impossible to know how the music sounds; but it is probably not that different from Hisaishi’s contemporary work on either Nausicaä or for the Birth OVA’s soundtrack.

05/06/1983 – Kaname Pro’s Plawres Sanshirô starts airing

Besides the fact that this adaptation of Minoru Kamiya’s manga is Kaname Pro’s first official production, Sanshirô is also linked to Kanada, who did animation on the first episode, and storyboarded and animated the eleventh. 

The June issue of Animage (n°60) contains a short column by Kanada about his upcoming storyboard for Sanshirô #11, alongside a beautiful watercolor with the characters from the series. In his text, Kanada explicitly states the nature of the link between him and Kaname Pro: “I decided to take the work [on Sanshirô] because the possibility of an animated version of Birth, which has been in planning for some time, has now become more concrete than before”. In other words, Kaname had become a full-fledged production company with Sanshirô; and, if it worked well enough, it might convince sponsors to follow it up with a Birth anime.

07/1983-12/1983 – Fantastic Kapoko #01-06 in the magazine Otomodachi

Otomodachi is a magazine for young children published by Kodansha, which started coming out in August 1972 and mostly contained picture books. While most of its contents were related to TV shows and/or anime, it’s hard to tell how often actual animators wrote or drew for it, and how exceptional is Kanada’s work for the magazine.

Kapoko’s credits are as follows: text by Shin’ya Sadamitsu, pictures by Yoshinori Kanada, background by Yukiko Ijima (an anime background artist and animator Hajime Kamegaki’s wife) and painting by Makiko Kanada (the illustrations were actually transferred to cel and she was in charge of their tracing and coloring). The only thing I know about this picture book series is what I could find on the net, but it seems to follow the daily adventures of Kapoko, the blob-like creature Munyo-Munyo and a robot named Gachanko (whose head looks fairly similar to Kaponen’s helmet). Kaponen doesn’t seem to appear.

After December 1983, no new Kapoko (or Kaponen-related) media was released. It is clear that its inception was parallel to Birth’s, but both works never really coincided – except in the character of Monga, a mascot very close to the blob creatures of the Kapoko-verse. In fact, according to settei of the OVA, the blob that chases Monga in the opening scene is called Munyo-Munyo (and does have a horn as in Kapoko). Both universes told different stories and aimed at different audiences: Kapoko progressively evolved towards a children’s story which set aside its original inspiration (Kaponen from Don de la Mancha) while Birth was initially a more serious space-adventure story. The difference in publications is also significant: just looking at Birth, it may seem like Kanada exclusively worked with Tokuma Shôten; but he somehow managed to work with their rival Kodansha on something completely different. It was apparently thanks to the company K-BOSS Planning, which had already been involved with the Kanada Special artbook where Kapoko first appeared. 

08/1983 – Animation work for Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind begins

Nausicaä has a lot of staff in common with Birth, and Kanada in particular made extensive contributions to it. The movie came out on March 11, 1984, and it seems that the animation work was not completed until February; except for Kanada, there would therefore be little overlap between the productions of Birth and Nausicaä.

30/09/1983-10/1984 – Birth: Part II #01-05 published in The Motion Comic

For unknown reasons, Birth was moved from Ryû to The Motion Comic and, while there doesn’t seem to be any narrative cut, the version in The Motion Comic was announced as “Part II”. However, something clearly changed as the manga went from one magazine to the other: the plot gets more confused and far more derivative (especially from the OVA), the amount of gags increases, and the drawing quality suddenly drops (especially in regard to the amount of detail on both characters and backgrounds). Moreover, Birth is the only manga published in The Motion Comic which went through such an irregular publishing schedule: after an announcement that a “color action manga” would come out in volume 2 (it didn’t), chapters 1 & 2 were published in The Motion Comic 3 & 4, then there was a pause between issues 5 & 6, followed by chapters 3 to 5 in issues 7, 8 and 9. The Motion Comic #9 announced that Birth would go on in the next issue, but the table of contents of #10 notified that the series would not continue. The magazine itself would stop publication after one last issue. It’s obvious that Kanada was too busy with the OVA to work on the manga during most of 1984, and that his involvement on the latter progressively decreased. Kanada’s decreasing investment is further supported by Kazuhiro Ochi’s testimony, which claims that it was Kanada himself who refused to have a second tankôbon volume of the manga published.

The plot of “Part II” is as follows:

Rasa and Nam arrive on a new planet, Sangreas. But they crash into the ocean and can’t get out of their vehicle. Their oxygen is running out and they are about to die, but are rescued by the queen of the planet, the mysterious Anianty Nuduk, who brings them to her futuristic base – a remnant of an ancient civilization. Rasa doesn’t seem to trust the queen, but Nam is immediately seduced by her beauty and he agrees to join her army, against Rasa’s protests. Rasa leaves alone, and is attacked by Monga-looking Inorganic Penguins accusing her of having destroyed Aqualoid, where they wanted to move in a few centuries, once its nature had been restored.

Rasa is saved by Kim, who comes dressed as a biker and riding a floater bike. Rasa tells him what’s been going on since the destruction of Aqualoid and the fact that Nam is now with Anianty. Kim vows to stay by Rasa’s side. Now with Nam alongside her, Anianty marches to war against the Inorganics and a battle begins. 2 giant Inorganics, the same as in the OVA, completely destroy Anianty’s ships and Nam asks the queen to let him fight them: he is sure that he can defeat them with Shed. However, Rasa and Kim are afraid that, if Nam uses the sword once more, the same thing will happen that happened to Aqualoid: the destruction of the planet. In order to stop Nam, they get in a WWII Zero fighter plane and try to interrupt the battle. 

I do not own the final chapter, but it seems that Nam does end up using Shed, and that it concludes with the fate of the planet unclear… 

While, as I already mentioned, the plot gets increasingly confused, elements of the lore slowly get clearer. Shed’s ambiguous nature as a destroyer of worlds is revealed, and with it the core philosophical theme driving the cosmic war between Organics and Inorganics: at the scale of the universe, Organics represent chaos, destruction and entropy, which is why Inorganics try to stop them.

20/12/1983 – The tankôbon version of the Birth manga is published

Birth was the first manga to be published in Tokuma’s “Motion Books” collection, which published the manga that had come out in The Motion Comic in a unique A5 format.

Only chapters 1 to 5 of the first part were included – that is only the section of the plot that takes place on Aqualoid proper. This edition also contains a few reproductions of image boards that were included in the Kanada Special artbook, although the character named Kimchi in the artbook is here named Nam – probably a mistake on the editors’ part. A close comparison between tankôbon and magazine versions reveals that small changes were made, either correcting certain lines or compositions, or reworking background details.

OVA production and aftermath (12/1983-11/1984)

12/1983 – The production of a Birth OVA is approved

By that point, the Birth animation project had been in planning for more than a year. Kaname Pro had found some sponsors (publisher Tokuma, music company Victor and their own supporter, Idol), but that was not enough to get a TV project greenlighted. It is unknown who took the decision to turn the Birth plan into a one-off video release. It seems that, around the same time, what would become Genmu Senki Leda entered its own planning stage, although actual pre-production wouldn’t begin before the end of Plawres Sanshirô’s run in February 1984.

For the decision to take place in December is significant: Bandai had created its video label Emotion earlier that year and, on December 12th, 1983, released under it the first OVA, Dallos.

It is only at this point, once the production had been approved, that Kanada contacted his friend Shin’ya Sadamitsu and asked him to direct Birth. If we consider the long time spent in planning, Sadamitsu arrived quite late in Birth’s development. The question therefore is: was another director supposed to take up the project if it became a TV series? At least, it doesn’t seem like Kanada was ever expected to direct Birth; but perhaps Kunihiko Yuyama had been selected, before he was diverted by his work on Plawres Sanshirô and then Leda.

20/01/1984 – The Motion Comic #05

In the absence of a Birth chapter, this issue contains a short interview of Kanada. He mostly discusses what manga he likes and what inspired him, but briefly mentions the manga in Monthly Betty and the animated version of Birth: “Next year [the interview was conducted in 1983], we’re going to to try to make a 60-minutes film, as a start… At least that’s what’s planned. I think it will be rather different from the manga.”

02/1984 – Junki Takegami submits his first draft for Genmu Senki Leda, Mutsumi Inomata and Takahiro Toyomasu start producing the first image boards and the title is decided

22/02/1984 – The first draft of the storyboard for Birth is completed

The storyboard was drawn by Shin’ya Sadamitsu and then most probably checked and corrected by Kanada, animation coordinator Shigenori Kageyama and Kaname producer Akihiro Nagao; they would further be modified by the animators themselves. In an interview published in September 1984 in OUT, Shigenori Kageyama commented on the extreme difficulty of the storyboarding: 

“Making the storyboards was dreadful. We’d spend an hour on each cut, just sitting there in silence. Neither Kanada nor Sadamitsu would concede anything, so we had to keep thinking until both were satisfied. We couldn’t just make a half-baked version that stood somewhere between both of their visions, so we spent a considerable amount of days holed up together just to make the storyboard. In the end, we decided to do something that would bring out the individuality of each animator, where the visuals would be more interesting than the story. These storyboards that draw out each person’s individuality are amazing. For instance, a cut that was planned to last for 2 seconds would end up lasting 20 seconds.”

08/03/1984 – A theatrical release for Birth is decided

The theatrical release was decided for promotional purposes, but it was the decision that doomed Birth. It set the release date 4 months ahead, in July, which was already a tight schedule for a 60-minutes long work. But, to fit better as a feature-length release, Birth was extended to 80 minutes. For some reason, the additional 20 minutes weren’t just sandwiched in the original storyboard, but a completely new version was made. According to the production report by Akihiro Nagao, everything had to be remade from the ground-up: 

“The first draft became a phantom storyboard, destined to disappear into darkness. From this point until the release, there was not one day when I didn’t suffer from stomach aches because of the pressure. The revised storyboard was made by Mr. Kanada, Mr. Sadamitsu, Mr. Kageyama and sometimes myself.”

It is unclear whether this happened at the stage of the first or the second storyboard, but the production was further troubled by Junki Takegami’s departure. Takegami had written his own script (probably in January 1984) but, for some unexplained reason, the storyboard completely disregarded it. It is possible that the first storyboard followed Takegami’s plot but that, under the pressure of delivering a completely new version, none of the storyboarders consulted Takegami and ended up writing their own story. However, it would also be likely that the original, 60-minutes storyboard didn’t follow the script, causing Takegami to leave. Then, when the OVA’s run was extended, the storyboarding team found itself without anyone there to fill in the additional 20 minutes and therefore had to improvise, making the probably confused first version even more muddled. As Kageyama’s quote above makes clear, there was no one to arbitrate whenever visions were in conflict, and Takegami’s absence as well as the lack of any definite script must not have helped. In any case, the result for Takegami was that he found out at one point that the completed storyboard had no resemblance whatsoever to what he had done. He therefore asked for his name to be taken off the credits, and only appears under “Original Concept Assistance”. 

It would be wise not to speculate too much on the content of Takegami’s script, but given all we know besides, it probably didn’t elaborate a lot on the plot’s two most important elements – the respective natures of Shed and Arlia. Shed’s function as a legendary weapon was a key element in both the manga and picture book, but somehow ended up being scrapped in the OVA where the sword just appears and then plays no significant role. As for Arlia, her exact identity was never made clear in any version prior to Takeshi Shudô’s novelization: perhaps neither Takegami nor Kanada were clear on that aspect, and they would never have the occasion to properly explain who or what that mysterious figure really is. At this point, however, it should be recalled that Sadamitsu was the only member of Birth‘s main staff who hadn’t been at least related to the project since the earliest stages of its inception. OVA-only elements, such as the underground city and the metaphysical/cosmological framework may therefore reasonably be attributed to him (as long as we presume they weren’t in Takegami’s original script). On the other hand, the stark change in tone compared to earlier versions and the many gags (no doubt added to fill up screentime) fit Kanada’s personal sense of humor very well.

??/1984 – Viva! Kaname #02

Viva! Kaname was a three-volume series of artbooks published by studio Kaname Pro which notably contained genga, illustrations, interviews and short manga. The second volume (date of publication unknown) contains two pages advertising the studio’s next two projects: Birth and Genmu Senki Leda. Given that they don’t appear, other projects such as Mechavenger and Gallop had probably been dropped. Birth’s release date is written to be mid-August 1984, while Leda’s scheduled completion date is late July 1984 (at this stage, Leda is said to be 30 minutes in length, but the brief plot synopsis closely matches the final OVA). The introduction also contains a presentation and synopsis:

“The new generation of the anime world, led by the standard-bearer of anime’s new wave Yoshinori Kanada, director Shin’ya Sadamitsu and writer Junki Takegami, has now gathered on Birth!!!

Across the galaxy, mankind is tortured by the Inorganics. Its last hope is a hero foretold by legend who will appear with the sword Shed in his hand – someone able to handle Shed, that is to obtain power without limit. Nam Shurgi, a young man from planet Aqualoid, has broken the taboo and obtained Shed. From that point on, he becomes the target of the Inorganic killer robots. To save the one she loves, Rasa Jupiter rides her floater bike and runs to Nam’s rescue!! In the skies of Aqualoid, in the mazes of Death Valley, in the huge underground ruins: a succession of super chase scenes that transcend the limits of visual representation!!”

What this synopsis describes is a perfect mid-point between the manga and final OVA: all the worldbuilding from the manga that would be taken off the OVA is still present here, and it is possible to guess that, just like in previous versions, Nam would have obtained Shed by going into the temple of the Inorganics instead of just getting it by chance. However, elements such as the “underground city” and a succession of chase scenes are not present in either the manga or picture book, and are rather closer to the final OVA. Junki Takegami is still credited under “script”, and the OVA’s duration is said to be 60 minutes. For Takegami’s name to be there does not necessarily indicate that he hadn’t already left the production (he was still credited, alongside Sadamitsu and Kaname Planning, in an ad published in June 1984 in OUT magazine). However, the synopsis clearly shows that there would be a lot in common between both versions of the storyboard and that the second one did not involve a complete reshaping of the plot and structure of the OVA. It also sheds light on what was changed during the storyboarding process: the worldbuilding elements. This appears like a completely irrational decision: why cut off the content that gave Birth most of its appeal when they had additional length?

Another notable element of that presentation is the staff list. Besides Takegami, most of the credits are identical to those of the OVA, except for one person: the three names given for the animation staff are Yoshinori Kanada, Osamu Nabeshima and… Takashi Nakamura, who didn’t work (or at least wasn’t credited) on the OVA. This isn’t an isolated event, as Nakamura is also credited in the main staff on multiple ads from around that period (like Takegami, he was still there in ads as late as June 1984). His presence on Birth would have made perfect sense: like most of the OVA’s animation staff, he had worked on Genma Taisen, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Macross: Do You Remember Love? His not appearing in Birth’s credits would mean that was expected to join the production but left it midway – or simply didn’t want to be credited for whatever reason.

03/1984-06/1984 – Genmu Senki Leda storyboarding

It seems that the process of Leda‘s extension was more progressive and natural than Birth‘s: first from 30 to 40 minutes, then to 60 and finally 70 minutes. Rather than an outside constraint, it probably naturally grew out of Kunihiko Yuyama’s storyboard. In any case, considering that the finished product is far more polished, it makes no doubt that the production conditions were better and that less counter-productive decisions were taken. Perhaps Leda somewhat benefited from Birth‘s poor schedule: the latter may have diverted all the time and energy of Kaname’s staff, making them unable to complete Leda in July as initially planned, and giving them more time to create a polished work in the end.

03/04/1984 – Birth’s production is officially announced

The announcement took place during an event called “Excite Kaname”, which was regularly held by Kaname Pro for its official fanclub alongside the publication of Viva! Kaname (it was perhaps there that issues of Viva! Kaname were sold). Were present most of Kaname’s artists, notably Inomata and Shigenori Kageyama, but also Kanada (who wasn’t a member of the studio). Multiple things happened during the event, such as a showing of two episodes from Plawres Sanshirô, a sign event, a concert…Three Birth-related things also took place: one was the cast and staff announcement, another is a Q&A, and the third one was the “screening of the film’s preview”. No report that I know of details the content of this preview, but given that the storyboard wasn’t even completed, it was probably a pre-animated video or just a series of production materials rather than a finished sequence from the OVA itself.

06/04/1984 – Birth’s storyboard is completed

06/1984 – Hideaki Anno joins Birth after his work on Macross: Do You Remember Love?: the animation is still not completed

07-08/1984 – The final versions of Leda‘s storyboard and script are completed. The animation work begins

The animation would be completed by late 1984 (November or December). The amount of time for the animation was therefore not much longer than Birth (though just one or two months more could mean a lot), but the difference in quality between the two is obvious. Yuyama’s storyboard was probably far more detailed and helpful and Inomata’s work as animation director more thorough. Generally speaking, Leda benefited from better planning and organization.

12-14/07/1984 – Voice recording sessions for Birth

19/07/1984 – Press preview of Birth at the Toho Seimei Hall, Tokyo

For this event, I am citing the description given in the September 1984 report of The Anime

“The preview was organized for magazines and people involved in the animation industry, and many people from various publishing and production companies were gathered: Macross director Noboru Ishiguro, Ken’ichi Matsuzaki [writer of multiple SF anime, notably on Gundam, Ideon and Macross], producers Tôru Hasegawa from Sunrise and Masayasu Sagisu from Eiken, and many other fan favorites. Director Ishiguro commented that “It moves very well. In a TV series, it would be very difficult to have that much movement. Anyways, there’s no time to catch a breath (laughs)”. Other journalists and producers looked like they were impressed by the movement and the tempo of the gags.”

It is of course difficult to estimate what was Birth‘s actual reception from such a brief report, especially since it is a promotional one. However, as will be seen below, the general impression given by Ishiguro’s comment does not seem to be that different from the reviews that would circulate in the following months. Moreover, this remark is particularly interesting in that it translates a very accurate awareness of the potential of the OVA as a format: the ability to do things that would be impossible on TV.

21/07/1984 – Birth premieres at the Shibuya Pantheon, Tokyo; the OST comes out

The showings would last until August 3. A report of the premiere is provided in The Anime:

“The show opened at 8:30 pm with a stage greeting by the staff and voice actors. The venue was Shibuya Pantheon. Fans lined up waiting for the show to start, and at 8:00 the doors of the theater opened. Everyone was excited to get in. Finally, the long-awaited Birth could be seen. The excitement reached its climax when Miina Tomonaga [Rasa’s actress], Yoshinori Kanada and Shin’ya Sadamitsu appeared on stage. And then, the screening! […] The theater was filled with laughs and applause.”

The line in front of the Shibuya Pantheon

Of course, it’s hard to tell how much of that account is accurate – it is meant to promote the OVA and not give a honest depiction of its reception. But, for people who had read the picture book and/or manga, it must have been quite disappointing. The plot and worldbuilding were transformed in one long chase scene only interrupted by absurd gags (though hardcore Kanada fans would have appreciated those) and concluding in a strange, pseudo-psychedelic ending. In fact, The Anime cites one viewer’s impression, which is rather positive but does show how much Birth surprised fans: “I expected serious SF, but instead I was laughing all the time. But the finale was scary.”

Had Birth come out a few years later, its faults would have been glossed over, as it remains a very entertaining piece; but anime fans in 1984 would have expected something more tightly-written, and perhaps closer to the previous versions: these were notable for their original setting and worldbuilding, that were completely set aside in the OVA. I have touched upon how and when these changes happened above, but the reason remains unclear. Clearly, the manga’s story, especially once characters left Aqualoid, would have been very suitable for an episodic TV show, and it was a good decision to keep things on the planet. But why did the storyboarding team decide to go in a completely different direction, preferring to pack the dialogue with gags rather than build on the manga’s strengths? This will probably forever remain a mystery.

In a 2009 text, Yuichirô Oguro made a scathing summary of fans’ impression of Birth:

“At the time, Yoshinori Kanada was like a god to us, and Birth was something on which he took the main role and was adapted from his own original work. Although he wasn’t credited as the original author or director, he had drawn the manga for it, and until the release, the Birth OVA was considered as the quintessential “Kanada anime”. […]

When it came out, I was confused. I’m sure other fans felt the same way. We were confused not just because we didn’t understand the plot, but because the original work, created by artists whom we admired and who had a lot of freedom, was impossible to enjoy. In other words, we had been thinking something along the lines of, “as long as we can see lots of Kanada’s animation, it’ll be fun!” But Birth, which contained so much of Kanada’s and Kanada-style animation, was not enjoyable. We couldn’t understand what this meant. […]

Nowadays, Birth is perceived and enjoyed as this cult work that has very cool movement even though the plot doesn’t make any sense. But we were unable to think like this back then. The fact that we couldn’t enjoy Birth, which we had had so many expectations for, was a sort of trauma for animation fans, a trauma that we’ve kept carrying ever since. At least, that was the case for me and the people around me.”

As Oguro somewhat acknowledges, Birth is not as bad as its initial reception made it to be. Although it has great, sometimes amazing, animation, it is simply inconsequential – the plot is not so much confusing as utterly lacking any kind of depth. This might have been forgiven in a later production, but for better or worse, Birth was the one to open a long line of OVAs which would be “all style and no substance”. However, it is important to distinguish Oguro’s own text, written long after the fact, from contemporary reviews: a quick look at anime magazines (notably OUT, Animage and The Motion Comic, which published a special “Motion Anime Report” on Birth) shows that reviews insisted on the constant, overwhelming amount of movement and action scenes, and on the gags; this was probably a way for reviewers to avoid directly touching on the non-existent plot, but the main tone of all the reviews is generally positive.

Still, knowledgeable fans such as Oguro should have been able to pick up the signs that their expectations were misguided and that the artists they admired did not work in good conditions and were not given a lot of “freedom”. The OVA never stopped moving, but the drawings were completely inconsistent: it is clear that whatever Kanada did as animation director fell short of an animation director’s basic function. Photography mistakes abound, the sound effects and voice acting are all over the place, and even Hisaishi’s soundtrack feels like it belongs to a different work. The causes for all this have been explained above: with such a schedule, Birth was doomed to fail. It is therefore impressive that it could move the way it did: even with all its faults, Birth‘s very existence is something of a miracle.

I don’t believe it necessary to discuss the plot of the OVA in much detail. However, it must be noted that, visually, this version represents a shift for Kanada. As I’ve already noted multiple times, until then, the characters were tall and slim: in that way, they weren’t that fundamentally different from Mutsumi Inomata’s style within Kaname Pro. In other words, while such designs wouldn’t necessarily have been easy to animate, they were something Kaname Pro’s artists were somewhat used to. But, perhaps to make the characters more animation-friendly, Kanada revised his approach for the OVA’s designs: they are much smaller and rounder. Some, especially Rasa, feel very childish, contributing to the big change in atmosphere between the OVA and previous versions.

21/08/1984 – Birth preorders open and sign event at the Anime Topia festival

As all promotional materials for the OVA attest to, Birth was initially planned to be released on video on August 21st. However, for unknown reasons, it was actually delayed to September. Given the short time length between the two dates and the fact that preorders had opened, it is unlikely that the delay was caused by an attempt to correct or rework the animation in any way: the most probable cause is simply a problem on the video production or delivery side.

05/09/1984 – Birth video and drama LP are released

The Birth video release included a small booklet with a transcription of the cast and staff credits, the lyrics of the ending theme, a summary of the plot and screenshots. It also contains a short text by Hayao Miyazaki, titled “About Kanada” which mostly sums up the longer text he had written in the Kanada Special 2 years earlier. However, by 1984, Miyazaki had had the opportunity to work with Kanada, and sums up his impression from Nausicaä: that of an “incredibly strong and powerful animator”. Sadly, Miyazaki says that they were both too intimidated by each other during the film’s production and never quite got an opportunity to bond; he then expresses his desire to work together again. Finally, Miyazaki had no comment to make on Birth, saying that he had not seen it yet.

Moreover, the release included, on a separate tape, 20-minutes long making-of documentary and 6 pages of illustrations in A3 format. To my knowledge, the drama LP that was released has not been made available anywhere, making it impossible to ascertain its content.

The Japanese Wikipedia entry for Birth claims that the sales target set by Idol and Victor was 30,000 units, but that Birth only reached a bit more than half with 18,000. There is no source for this, and the final sales number is almost certainly wrong: a 1985 document by the company Network recapping the sales of video releases estimates that Birth sold 7,000 copies; even if the numbers are inexact and go as high as 10,000, it’s still a far cry from 18,000. In any case, even if the 30,000 number was indeed the objective, it was itself unrealistic: the two best-selling OVAs of the mid-80s, Megazone 23 and Genmu Senki Leda (both sponsored by Idol) respectively sold 35,000 and 25,000 units.

This being said, the idea that Birth was a complete commercial failure seems misguided. It was indeed not a big hit, but not a complete failure – it is still much higher than the 2,000 copies of Nora or the 4,000 of Greed. Moreover, it seems that it was Birth’s relative success that led Idol and Victor to continue their relationship and produce another OVA with a different studio, Megazone 23. They temporarily broke off with Kaname Pro, whose following OVAs would be produced by other companies, but worked together once again on the movie Windaria in 1986. 

17/09/1984 – The production and staff of Genmu Senki Leda are officially announced

01/10/1984 – Animage N°76

This issue of Animage contains an infamous article reviewing Birth, extensively quoting Kanada and titled “If I had to give it a grade, it would only be half the points – Yoshinori Kanada gives his own review of the original video Birth”. In it, Kanada notably tries to explain the plot, and reformulates what little exposition there is in the OVA, comparing the Inorganics to a “cancer” destroying the universe and Shed as the embodiment of the Organics’ life energy, created to fight them. However, he notes that more detailed explanations were cut out from the ending, which ended up without dialogue because it would have been too “gloomy” otherwise. He also discusses how the extension from 60 to 80 minutes deteriorated the schedule and wishes he had had “3 months for the pre-production and at least half a year for the animation”. Not entirely negative, Kanada does state that the first half of the OVA is just as he had envisioned it: that is, a long, action-packed chase scene. The article’s author also ends on a positive note, stating that “if Kanada were to try once again to make an original video production, I’d have high hopes for it” – an occasion that would never happen.

28/11/1984 – Birth: Or, A Child’s Play

This novelization, which represents the last major piece of media related to Birth, is a major change from previous versions in at least two aspects. First, it was published in the “X Bunko” collection by editor Kodansha, which published many anime or movie-related books and novelizations. Until now, Birth had been a Tokuma Shoten property, and the change in editor is sudden and difficult to explain. The Motion Comic was still running when the book was published, and it’s hard to believe that the deal with Kodansha and writing were made in less than a month and a half, which was the time since the last chapter of the manga had been published. However, if there was a breaking down of some sorts with Tokuma, it might explain why a second tankôbon of the manga was never published – not a result of Kanada’s individual frustration or disappointment, but simply a publisher problem. The other major change is in the writer: not Junki Takegami, who had probably cut all his links with Birth following the strange turn of the storyboard, but his mentor Takeshi Shudô. Shudô tells that he was approached by Kodansha because he had taken part in the earliest stages of Birth’s planning, back when it was still meant to become a TV show; but he had absolutely not followed the project after that, and hadn’t seen the OVA before being approached for the novelization. Being given complete freedom, Shudô decided to write his story in such a way that the OVA would feel like the less complete work:

“I had no other choice than writing whatever I wanted: [in the OVA] there was truly nothing that resembled a story. In such a situation, I had no choice and had to make up my own story. I didn’t even read the original script. […] Therefore, I decided that the anime would just be a sample of the story that I’d write: in other words, the anime Birth would be just like a promotional video for my novel. If things were like that, then it wouldn’t matter if you couldn’t understand the story of the anime. And so, I wrote the novel in such a way that you could understand the story and themes.”

Shudô’s approach was certainly strange, but it explains why the novel borrows so heavily from the OVA’s tone and scenes rather than from the more interesting manga and picture book. But it further condemned the OVA to be just a “lesser version” of a story whose other forms were far more polished. The plot is as follows:

In the far future, on Earth, Arlia is a lonely, sickly girl who lives isolated with the computer friend she has herself created, Lerlia. Together, they spend their days playing a computer game that Arlia has still never completed: a game named Birth. The narration alternates between the events inside and outside the game. As the novel goes on, Arlia’s condition quickly deteriorates, but she insists on continuing the game.

The game narrative begins with a recap of the lore: the fight between Organics and Inorganics, and the legend surrounding Shed. Then, like the beginning of the OVA, we move on to Bao and Kim in their rundown spaceship, noticing Shed flying through space and deciding to go after it. They head for Aqualoid, the planet where Bao’s dear Rasa lives. On Aqualoid, Nam is the only one to notice that Shed has arrived, and immediately wants to obtain it. Rasa tries to dissuade him, to no avail, and they separate. However, Nam is still hesitating and decides to wait for Bao to pass by Aqualoid so that he can obtain weapons to infiltrate the sanctuary where Shed has landed. At the same time, three Inorganic bikers ride out of the sanctuary to eliminate whoever could obtain and use Shed.

The three bikers chance upon Rasa, and a chase scene ensues like in the OVA; Nam appears and tries to save Rasa but the Inorganics are too powerful. The two teenagers are only saved by the sudden arrival of Bao, whose ship lands on the Inorganics and crushes them. After a brief talk, Rasa and Nam go back to the village of Zax, where Nam spends multiple days frustrated by his own weakness. Rasa decides to go ask Bao for help, and comes back to Nam with weapons and the advice to go look for Shed in the sanctuary.

Nam’s infiltration of the sanctuary goes on much like in the picture book and manga: he goes through multiple traps and then arrives in a “forest of swords”; he can’t find Shed and is at some point attacked by Inorganic guards. Finally, Nam takes Shed and wins the fight; he tries to leave the temple but gets lost, ending up in the Inorganics’ guard room (they let him go because they’re on leave) and the (Inorganic) ladies’ bath. Finally, he meets an Inorganic tiger, which breaks his sword, revealing that it wasn’t Shed. Nam is close to giving up when giant Inorganics shouting random vegetable names appear: a vegetable-shouting fight ensues. In the confusion, Nam manages to find the true Shed. As he uses it, the temple explodes. Rasa, Bao and Kim, who have been waiting outside the temple, find him alive and well in the ruins.

Outside the game, Arlia collapses from exhaustion. She doesn’t come back for a few days, and then reappears on a rolling chair. Extremely worried about what seems to be her incoming death, she confesses her love to Lerlia (and describes the Baby Inorganic as “their child”). The game then resumes.

Nam wakes up in Bao’s ship, surrounded by the rest of the group. Arlia appears out of Shed and explains the swords’ purpose: it is the materialization of Organics’ life energy, made to fight the Inorganics which are like a cancer to the universe, which is about to die soon. She then disappears. At the same time, two giant Inorganics, Red and Blue Demon, appear in Zax and destroy the village. Nam and Rasa encounter them as they’re coming back and forced to run away when Nam can’t awaken Shed’s power. Bao crashes his spaceship on one of the Inorganics, to no avail. In Bao’s Jimny and the Pony 7, which he has given to Rasa, they all run away to the ruined underground city. As in the OVA, the Baby Inorganic appears during the chase and gets rejected by Rasa.

In the real world, Arlia disappears for 10 days. When she comes back, she’s almost unable to move. She reveals that the doctors around her haven’t tried to cure her, but have instead been experimenting on her; she locks her room and wants to complete the game before she dies.

The events in the underground city are as in the OVA: the group splits, and in a laboratory filled with skeletons, Nam finds a bazooka. Bao stops him from using it, as it is the ultimate weapon Dongemahar, which will destroy the universe if used. When the group leaves the city, an even bigger Inorganic – in fact, Aqualoid’s moon – appears. In the confusion, the Baby Inorganic appears, steals Dongemahar and fires it, thus destroying the universe.

The game has been completed. Arlia, now at the end of her life, is about to kill herself, but is suddenly interrupted by Rasa, Nam, Bao and Kim who have materialized in front of her. Arlia tells them they’re just her creation, but they protest and claim that they have an existence of their own. Lerlia then explains it all: the outside world has been polluted by wars, and humans have had to modify themselves to be able to live in it, becoming just like the Inorganics of the game. However, Arlia is one of the few who remain like the old humans and can’t live outside, so she created Arlia and the game to be able to live a life of her own in another world. Lerlia announces that, after Arlia’s death, she will self-destruct and take humanity with her. To avoid this, Nam suggests using Shed’s power, so Rasa and Arlia wield it. Later, when the doctors taking care of Arlia enter her room, they find it empty: the group has moved back in the universe of the game and merged with Shed, thus going through a new birth.

As this synopsis should make clear, Shudô’s version is ultimately just an attempt to put together scenes from previous versions and to restructure the OVA in a way that makes more sense, notably thanks to the “simulation” twist which enables him to justify some of the weirdest elements of the plot such as the Baby Inorganic. However, this attempt to “correct” the OVA ultimately fails for the simple reason that it was impossible to correct in the first place: the novel shows that the problem wasn’t so much one of narrative closure and absurdities, but more fundamentally that the story contradicted itself and couldn’t stand as it was because of its nonsensical structure. This is mainly because of one object: Shed.

The picture book and manga had made Shed the crux of the narrative, with the manga further developing its role and nature. Its indiscriminate destructive power made it and the Organics’ role  in the universe ambiguous: the fight between Organics and Inorganics appears as a less elaborate version of Gurren Lagann’s cosmological lore and its duality between Spirals and Anti-Spirals. In that version, Arlia’s role was left unclear at best, but this was ultimately not a major issue: she was just an occasional deus ex machina meant to drive the plot forward. The OVA completely destroyed that precarious balance by making Shed completely useless and transferring all of its destructive power onto Dongemahar; the sword now had no purpose, meaning that the first half of the OVA was narratively useless and that the entire worldbuilding of the manga was void. Without Takegami’s original script, it is impossible to know whether such a change had been intended from the start; but in any case, it was fatal to Birth’s narrative.

In his novelization, Shudô was trapped by the OVA’s structure and had to make do with Shed’s complete inutility. He therefore decided to develop Arlia’s role instead and almost literally adapted Kanada’s description of the Inorganics as a “cancer” for the universe. This certainly flattened some of the most egregious absurdities of the OVA’s plot but, as I noted, did not fundamentally change its imperfection or improve its narrative. In fact, Shudô’s writing made it completely impossible to consider the OVA seriously: extremely tongue-in-cheek and parodic, it constantly shows how much Birth relies on SF clichés and undermines its own narrative, as in a desperate attempt to save itself under the guise of irony.

The novel is accompanied by illustrations, which represent Kanada’s last work for Birth. There, too, he followed the OVA (and the last chapters of the manga) by depicting the characters as small, round and fleshy. It is as if his design philosophy had made a complete turn: the novel version of Rasa is sometimes closer to the main girl character of Download: Namu Amida Butsu wa Ai no Uta that Kanada would design a decade later than to the earliest versions of the same character.

As either a TV series or OVA, Birth could and should have been a major opportunity for Kanada, his accession to the title of original creator and designer. Its failure had the opposite effect, as Kanada’s stature within the industry instantly diminished past 1984. One could argue that this was rather related to his joining studio Ghibli upon its creation in 1985, but then the real question is: was Kanada’s decision to accept Miyazaki’s offer motivated by Birth’s failure? I doubt that a decisive answer may ever be found to this question, but it remains one of the most important to understand the evolution of Kanada’s career.

The above question was one I had before making this chronology; but the research made for it certainly opened new ones just as it answered others. The exact circumstances of Kaname’s attempts to produce not one, but multiple TV series and their failures; the contents of Birth’s earliest drafts, and of Junki Takegami’s original script for the OVA; what exactly happened during its storyboarding; more details on all the connections and links between various companies involved… Some of that information may be available in documents I don’t know about, but it most probably rather lies in the memory of those involved. Let us hope that it may one day be possible to ask them directly and obtain additional information on these topics.

However, besides my personal investment in Birth’s specific history, I hope that this chronology has shown the dynamic and profoundly complex context of the OVA format’s emergence: that is, one of constant imbalance in the relationships between artists, economic actors and media themselves. Through Birth, Kanada himself was not just an animator, however talented: he was also an illustrator, a manga artist, a star of sorts and the center of an entire, however brief and inconclusive, franchise. As all the OVAs that followed it, Birth was therefore not just an anime that happened to be distributed directly on video: it was a plural and complex object.

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