Here’s an anime that I encourage everyone to check out, although not everyone might like it.

TO-Y is a 50-minute OVA released in 1987. It’s about music — specifically, a portion of the music scene in Tokyo’s late 80s. Probably by accident, it has become a time capsule, a snapshot of the age in which the characters flourish as musicians. Among them are the punk-ish counterculture band GASP (a possible reference to GISM, real band of similar reputation) and its singer TO-Y, scouted by managers to go mainstream and “sell out” like J-Pop singer Yoji Aikawa or TO-Y’s cousin and friend Sonoko, also mainstream TV idol.

TO-Y, however, is not so much about its characters as it is about the world they’re part of. Though there is a conflict in the story (mainstream vs counterculture), the OVA takes no side, rather portraying the music scene neutrally, emphasising the general silliness, alienness and greatness of its age rather than the endeavours of its characters. While the show focuses on GASP’s side, they are portrayed no more sympathetic than idol and friend of TO-Y Sonoko or pop singer Aikawa, shown to have his own respectable code regarding the music industry.

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The OST is a mix of acts comprising rock bands ZELDA, Barbee Boys and The Street Sliders and pop bands GONTITI (Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou) and PSY-S (City Hunter 2). Furthering the OVA’s neutrality, the (eclectic) selection leans neither too much towards GASP’s side nor towards Aikawa’s; in fact, it’s farther from TO-Y, the protagonist. Regular insert songs pace the anime, meaning that one’s enjoyment of TO-Y relies much on one’s enjoyment of its soundtrack. However, the way TO-Y’s soundtrack is used can enhance enjoyment. The live scenes featuring Aikawa or TO-Y use insert songs with female singers, not in in sync with the images, reinforcing the notion that TO-Y is less about its characters than music in general. The climactic final gig features GASP and Aikawa singing almost side-by-side, each oozing with enthusiasm and showcasing the power of music with no regard for the characters’ rivalry — this scene also picks up the opening insert song where it left off, adding a climactic sense of of closure to the OVA.

(Adding to that sense of closure, I would note, is the nostalgic shot of TO-Y’s girlfriend in a school uniform in the credits, hinting that the events of the OVA were a summer adventure, a taste of the fantastic before the return to mundane life.)

Most tracks sound dated, typical of 80s Japan in different ways. They add to the time-capsule charm of the OVA, while the same time-capsule charm of the OVA adds to the nostalgia of these 80s songs. Adding to the music and the depiction of the music industry in Tokyo, the crowds’ outfits range from charmingly old to the amazingly outlandish subculture fashions. The realistic depictions of popular locations like the Shinjuku Loft or the Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo contribute to the vibrancy of the world depicted by TO-Y.

Though the backgrounds are at least realistic enough, the character animation is mostly unremarkable. The live scenes make use of various gimmicks like light effects, filter and occasional stills, with just enough variety to last the OVA’s 50 minutes without burning out. It works — even though TO-Y’s production values are obviously low. But where TO-Y is a remarkable feat that I recommend everyone to give a try, is what it achieves despite its limited means. It’s a 50-minute adaptation of a long-running manga, but managed to be entirely self-contained by removing the focus from the characters and conflict. Its team couldn’t offer great animation, but makes up for it with clever use of gimmicks. The producers probably couldn’t find suitable singers to act Aikawa and TO-Y’s much-praised singing, and probably didn’t have the animators and time to synchronise image with audio, so the OVA used unrelated songs, going for something entirely different but just as effective.

So, go ahead and check it out! All the better if you end up enjoying the music, or know that you like 80s J-Pop and J-Rock already.

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