From the mid-80s to the mid- to late 90s the anime scene was awash in OVA (‘original video animation’ but sometimes referred to as OVAs), straight to home video productions. Unlike western and live-action works where ‘straight to video’ often implies a B-level experience at best, these series were a happy medium between TV anime and film anime, touching on the best of both worlds.
Most OVA today are one-off anime episodes of established or currently airing TV series that may be bundled in with a deluxe edition of a game or manga, but back in their heyday, they were often self-contained 4 to 6ish episode series, or singular 40-70 minute films, that took their viewer for a ride.
Partially because of being a product of their time, but also because there were high-budget efforts targeting niche audiences, the OVA brought with them unique character, background, mech, and monster designs coupled with directorial styles that simply no longer exist in anime.
Anime OVA Had Inspired Visuals
Let’s jump right into the notorious MD Geist.
It was once the cutting edge of anime, followed by a second life being an essential ‘so bad it’s good’ show, but these days anyone who even remembers this old OVA would probably just say it’s pretty good. This stunning though extremely SD shot (never remastered, unfortunately) comes from the end of the first episode as Geist unleashes these gorgeous monstrosities upon the world for kicks!
Look at that thing in the image above! Cthulhu with a different aesthetic, this lowercase godlike half-mech half-beast creature came eons before Evangelion, Berserk, and all esoteric SNES and PS1 JRPGs. When’s the last time you saw something so over the top yet still majestic? Not even Berserk 2016 could pull it off and it all the material in the world to work from.
Just to clarify, MD Geist is much more well known for its gratuitous violence, something common to the late 80s early 90s straight-to-video anime output than it is for its beautiful design… but these visuals were inspired, dammit!
OVA Had Designs Most Modern Anime Would Kill for
Look at this gorgeous shot! What could it be from? Simultaneously sci-fi and gothic, someone worked hard for this to look good. It would have to be from some legacy series like Legend of the Galactic Heroes or Gunbuster right? No!
This magnificent hall from the inside of an ancient spaceship (oxymoron?) comes from none other than Tenchi Muyo! Yes, the show is most well known for kickstarting the harem genre by having a bunch of beautiful alien ladies fall in love with some nerd. Before its many spin-offs, the original Tenchi Muyo! Ryo-Ohki was an early 90s OVA and despite how dopey it was, it’s absolutely gorgeous in retrospect. The animation’s fluid, the backgrounds have consistent themeing and design, animation studio at AIC was throwing money at this borderline softcore work to make it look good.
Tenchi Muyo! OVAs come out to this day, but almost as if to prove our point, they’re devoid of the charm and style it had almost 30 years ago.
80s and 90s OVA Were Very Violent
Any oldheads tempted by the OVA-promised land of yesteryear who are reading this, if they’re not already shaking their heads, might get mad that I’m citing this particularly pleasant image from Bubblegum Crisis instead of any of the badass ladies who would stomp us into the dirt.
Not having to worry about TV broadcast standards, original video anime were allowed to get ugly. This manifested in a lot of ultraviolence, but these animators strived to get creative with their body horror. Surely inspired by Terminator to some degree, Bubblegum Crisis served up a bevy of aesthetically pleasing anime girls with these absolute freakshow creations called Boomers (lol, little did they know) that blended flesh and machine as well as David Cronenberg ever has.
Even the concoctions found in Devilman Crybaby, itself an adaptation of 60s manga which had its own ultraviolent 90s OVA, are tame compared to the stuff that used to make it to the VHS section in 1993.
It’s worth stressing, though, that as wanton as the violence was, it was often presented in some artistically satisfying way that made it impossible to look away.
OVA Had Character Designs That Still Shine
When it comes to character designs, anime OVAs were certainly influenced by their time. Mid-80s anime look like mid-80s anime, regardless of how much budget polish you can dress it up with.
However! These OVA lived and died by their budget polish and works like Megazone 23 were stunning because of it. With Haruhiko Mikimoto providing the character designs, best known for his classic Macross work though he’s still active to this day having worked on Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Eve and Shogo could’ve just blended into their era, but that OVA money took this golden age of anime character design and added more life to these figures than you could see elsewhere. As any future-funk compilation video can tell you, tons of anime from these eras had their necessary cheesy dance segments, but Megazone’s particularly popped.
The OVA boom hit its full stride in the late 80s through the early 90s, just as Japan’s bubble economy did, and that influenced the entire sub-medium. Since the sky was the limit and excess was the game, many of these works delved into the sci-fi and/or featured glorious overt sexuality as softcore segments abound. Maybe the hidden violent streak in these works was softly predicting the fact that the bubble economy wouldn’t last forever, confessing that Japan did in fact have its problems.
OVAs survived past the bubble years, but by the 2000s they were reduced to a small shell of their once former glory. Was the excess money floating around really the only thing that separated OVA from TV animation? The reason we don’t have these extremely enjoyable and provocative pieces anymore?
While bubble cash played a huge role and arguably was the biggest distinction in the creations of these series, I’d like to point to one last work.
The Last Great OVA?
Enter Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still, an OVA that came out entirely after Japan’s bubble collapse. High in concept, heartfelt not just in the story but in how much care and detail there is to the animation, Giant Robo remains perhaps the pinnacle of what the Original Video Animation could be.
Interestingly enough, not only did it come out over a 6-year period after Japan’s economic collapse in 1991, the entire series was a love-letter to a 1960s manga and live-action tokusatsu series. It wasn’t rampant with calls to late 80s bubble economy excess culture nor was it influenced by the popular illustration style of the period, instead opting to only slightly modernize 60s anime design.
While this show deserves its own OTAQUEST Selects article to go into why it was so good, what it does share with earlier OVAs was creative freedom and not being forced to put out an episode week to week.
The Future of OVA
By the early 2000s, the OVA had faded. We got FLCL at the turn of the Millenium, but since then it’s been slim pickings. Of course, there have been a lot of great TV anime and anime movies since. We’re not on an anti-modern anime crusade.
As time moves on, what’s popular in any field of media will derive from the stories and designs they opt for. However, not only were OVA designs and direction ‘more 80s’, but they were often more extravagant, detailed, and ambitious. From how these series depicted spandex-clad women breaking it down on the dance floor to how intensely detailed flesh rendering into mush, OVA were simply more.
They only had to sell to the hardcore otaku who would buy them so they could afford to be visually and conceptually ambitious in a way the TV anime couldn’t due to budget and film anime couldn’t due to needing broad appeal. We don’t need to see the return of VHS, but now with more Original Net Anime on Netflix, I hope we can enter another gilded age of visual creativity in anime.