Oji Tanaka has a wife, a child and a mundane job as a salary man in Tokyo's modern society. But life wasn't dull for him to begin with; 15 years ago, he was known as "Gabriel", leader of a short-lived heavy metal band called Black Heaven. Oji's life gets a sudden change in direction when he is invited by a mysterious blonde woman named Layla to pick up his Gibson Flying V and once again display his "legendary" guitar skills, not knowing that his music generates power for a massive weapon in an intergalactic war.
Rock 'n' Roll: the soundtrack of sexual liberation, youthful revolt and living in excess. Since its early induction in film and other media, this sub-genre of music has become synonymous with the "live-fast-die-young" lifestyle, almost becoming a checklist stereotype in the process. Whether it be used mockingly (This Is Spinal Tap) or genuinely embraced (Nana), rock 'n' roll has become a cornerstone in establishing tone and character. This correlative feature eventually made rock 'n' roll a quasi-literary device whenever it is brought up in any media that denotes the lifestyle mentioned.
Which brings us to the title in question, Kachou Ouji (Black Heaven), an anime
about a nine-to-five schmuck going through a midlife crisis, who, through a series of ridiculous events, is pleaded by a "blonde bombshell" from outer-space to save the world by picking back up his instrument, as his guitar playing is the only way to save the world from inhalation. This is the tale of a former rock-star who cut his blossoming career prematurely in order to raise his family, which leads him into the cubicle-space hive-mind, beating away at his keyboard day in and day out in order to bring bread to the table.
With nothing to look forward to but heaps of paperwork and business seminars, this otherworldly woman offers him an escape from his vapid lifestyle — a man past his prime given a second chance at what he loves. And in the process of playing his music to save humanity, he also — you guessed it — rekindle the fleeting youth of his glory days.
If you haven't guessed by now, the story and premise of Black Heaven is not just literal, but also metaphorical. It externalizes the inner turmoil that our protagonist is going through, creating a visual motif in the process. Its narrative structure and metaphors are similar to that of another abstract work, FLCL (Fooly Cooly). While being nowhere as bombastic or eccentric as FLCL, it handled the protagonist midlife crisis in a similar fashion to how FLCL handled its coming of age/puberty themes. With rock 'n' roll and the guitar used as motifs to embody that youthful spirit and unkempt sexuality, what is seen on the surface is only as important as what they truly represent in our protagonist's life. This lends itself to several innuendos, some subtly surfacing to the foreground and others shamelessly on-the-nose. Black Heaven is all about guided interpretation. Where some shows with this narrative structure have some semblance of ambiguity as to what they're alluding, Black Heaven is very upfront about what it represents, taking no detours to beat around the bush.
Black Heaven is far from your typical anime outing, but perhaps the defining feature that transitions the show away from the conventional is the targeted demographic itself. It should come at no surprise that a majority of anime are aimed at teens to young adults. Black Heaven's sense of humor and situational awareness is, first and foremost, directed towards adults (which should be a no-brainer given the subject matter being discussed).
It's not something that's trying to be gut-wrenchingly funny or instantaneously gratifying, rather it's intended to draw humor and intrigue from relatable, everyday troubles that come with adulthood and all that it entails. It's a show that approaches the routine norms through an obscure lens, never letting the irony slip pass. It's humorous because you "get it." You "get" the frustration that comes standard when dealing with an overbearing boss. You "get" how being caught up in the work environment could place distance in your social life, as well as your imitate relationships. You "get" how daily responsibilities can often strong-arm you into placing your hobbies on the back-burner. You "get" what our protagonist Oji Tanaka is going through, and in the process, chuckle at it, having experienced similar things yourself. And even if you haven't found yourself facing the same dilemmas first-hand, you've possibly seen this occur with your parent/guardian(s) in retrospect. If you're old enough to grasp these troubles, it's easy to appreciate the show's endearment and honesty in depicting the growing pains of being a worker-ant and family man.
While most of Oji's troubles were played up for comedic effect, there's still a general sense of pity draped over his situation. He's a man unsatisfied with the status quo of his home-life to such an extent that there's a rift forming between him and his love ones. With a son whom he feels alienated from and a marriage just going through the motions, Oji is at the end of his proverbial rope, dangling with nothing left but memories of his youth. And as surreal as the concept may get at times, the humanistic endeavors remain down to earth.
The mundane with surrealism, comedy with sobering reality — Black Heaven juggles them simultaneously, resulting in Oji's journey being a roller coaster ride of failure and triumph. At one minute you're snickering at his misfortune, and by the next you're rooting for his success. And while there are other named characters that occasionally get screen-time, the story remains Oji's, and Oji's alone. It's his woes, everyone else is just along for the ride.
And really, at the end of the day, that's all the show needed to be. There's just something inherently intriguing about a person's personal plight. We never want to be at the receiving end of these troubles, but seeing others work through theirs just commands viewers' attention.
Accompanying Oji is the aforementioned extraterrestrial-bombshell, Layla Yuki. Apart from our protagonist, Layla receives the most screen-time throughout the show. With a compelling mystique and sultry demeanor, it doesn't take much for her to honey-trap Oji into submitting to her requests. She encompasses an intrinsic desire, which makes her not only a character, but a symbolic presence, as well. Aside from her, we're also introduced to a ditzy comedic trio (names irrelevant) who basically operate in a similar fashion to that of The Three Stooges. They often lend their assistance, whether it was requested of them or not, and usually end up being more trouble than they're worth. Despite serving no further purpose beyond their hijinks as the comedic reliefs, they were a welcome addition to the show. This also extends to the other side characters. They don't demand your attention, but their inclusion was still well-received, breathing life into the situations they're a part of and contributing in their own little way to make Oji's expedition more wholesome.
Another aspect that adds to this journey is without question the music selection. Given that the show chronicles the life of a former rock-star, a proper opening theme was in order. And what better way to get each episode kicked-off than by having the intro song be performed by John Sykes; guitarist and writer for the rock band Whitesnake and former guitarist for Thin Lizzy. The song "Cautionary Warning" from Sykes's 1997 album, 20th Century, served just the right amount of spunk and bravado needed to get you pumped up for each new episode. With a snarling cadence that could be delivered only by a veteran with experience in his craft and a guitar riff that's toe-tappingly infectious, the opening song is a love-child delivered by Sykes, boasting all the tricks he's acquired over his luxurious 30+ years performing in the music industry.
Almost serving as a counterbalance to the electrifying opening, the closing track is a bubblegum pop number with hints of jazz and funk undertones. It's cute in a way that befits Black Heaven's warped sense of humor and style.
But even with all that was going for it, there are still many issues that plagued it. For one, despite the strength of the standout musical tracks, the actual musical selection was very limited; often reincorporating an instrumental version of the opening theme for whenever the protagonist picks up his guitar. While the gradual progression of the song along with Oji's own progression in the show was a nice touch, the sheer amount of times the song was used did nothing but lessen its "pizzazz" as it continued onward. There are a few other accompanying tracks sparsely scattered throughout the show's run-time, but they were mostly drowned out by the Cautionary Warning tune's repetition. Unfortunately, this cut-rate mentality didn't stop there, as it also affected the visual presentation for Black Heaven. It's below average, even by the standards of late 90s anime. Reused animation was often implemented whenever it was possible, and outside of a few key frames demonstrating some semblance of quality, still frames were often used to cut corners. On top of that, the character designs are widely inconsistent, or reduced to misshapen blobs if they're in the mid-ground or further away. "Shoe-string budget" is what immediately comes to mind when discussing Black Heaven's production value. This isn't one of those cases where you could make the counterargument of "it's suppose to look cheap." It doesn't take an astute viewer to see Black Heaven wasn't high on the Studio heads' priority list. Needless to say, you won't be finding any sakuga moments in here.
Outside of presentation issues, the show lacks some polish that could have been tightened up with a script revision. This doesn't come as much of a surprise, given the haphazard state of the presentation at times. Where it's forgiven is the fact that the premise doesn't go to waste despite the blemishes spotted upon initial viewing. Some things just needed to be trimmed down a little more to allow for a better flow in the narrative.
Despite these shortcomings, Black Heaven never felt completely bogged down by it; in fact, it could be argued (by some) that a few of these imperfections added to the show's charm. But that's more a matter of subjective preference than impartial assessment. It could have been assembled better but isn't handicapped by these drawbacks. What it lacked in pristine visuals, diverse sound mixing and a tighter script, it more than made up for with a sense of integrity and commitment to its narrative.
Black Heaven was born out of the need to tell one story, Tanaka Oji's story, and by extension, teach us to live life to the best of our capabilities; finding happiness regardless of the hand we were dealt.
Take the general storyboard of American Beauty, add a dash of the absurd allegorical stew of Fooly Cooly and filter it through the similar comedic lens of Welcome to the NHK, and you'd effectively get this humorous Japanese salaryman monstrosity. Black Heaven was quite the surprise for me. I didn't expect anything when I started it, and walked out with a memorable experience that I find myself reminiscing about. Despite its humble offerings, Oji and company never cease to keep me entertained, clicking on the next episode just so my time in their universe didn't end. And despite the fact that it played things out comically, the adult subject matter was still handled responsibly, which did nothing but make me love it even more. It left me with a genuine smile and a new personal favorite to revisit time again in the future.
Cheeky, charming, funny, and oddly enough, sobering. Black Heaven is a title that teaches us to find the silver lining, even during times when we find ourselves in a depressing slump.
It's not something that's going to blow your mind with groundbreaking revelations, nor is it a grandiose tale to defend earth, despite what the immediate premise alludes to. Where Black Heaven shines, however, is in its contentment with just telling a man's personal struggle with no need for party tricks to keep the attention of the viewer. It remains a small-scale identity crisis only inflated in relevance by the protagonist that's going through it. Its strength is in its simplicity. It treats its audience with respect, trusting that they understand its intentions. Not many shows have the fortitude to do that. And while a bit rough around the edges, its heart was in the right place, and for that reason alone, I think it deserves more attention and appraisal.
This is one of those Animes that will really throw you for a loop. It starts out pretty plain but by the end you are at the edge of your seat. The setting goes from a hapless salary man's every day life, to a battle that the fate of the universe rests on. The Legend of Black Heaven is a wild ride with some of, if not the best, music that you have ever heard in a Anime.
Story: I can honestly say that while the story is beyond a doubt a very original creation, it does lack some polish. Some events in the story take
place much to slowly (around the beginning especially) but by the end of it, the writers get it right and you're trying desperately to find the next episode to find out what happens. Don't worry if the first few are a little bland, you'll thank yourself by the end.
Art: Art is perhaps the one field where Black Heaven really falls short. Now don't get me wrong, some of the space scenes are done in a very impressive CG and they look amazing! Unfortunately the reason they do look so good is that most of the artwork is nothing more than average. You won't find anything really special in this department either, but it's not so bad as to distract from the fun.
Sound: AMAZING! <--- The one word that really describes the sound and the soundtrack for Black Heaven. The fact that the story centers around a band, and the fact that music is an extremely integral part of the Anime makes the sound even better. While character development and action may be the most important and cause some of the most heart wrenching moments in other Animes, Black Heaven's music will make you cry, laugh, and rock on! To put this into perspective, the first ever OST I downloaded was this one, and I love it.
Character: Both Oji and Layla are very memorable characters for me. I loved it whenever they were on screen, even more when they were both on. Oji (AKA Gabrielle) makes it possible to love this series; his transformation from depressed cubical dweller to rock god is shown amazingly.However most of the other characters, while either interesting or pleasant, didn't leave me with lasting memories of them.
Enjoyment: Again Black Heaven ranks very highly for enjoyment. This is a direct result of Oji and his great music. There will be times early on when it seems to drag, but these don't last very long. Layla's assistants also do a great job of putting in comic relief every time you see them. Personally, I enjoyed it even more the second time around.
Overall: I give it an 8/10. I was tempted to give it an even higher mark but I know I shouldn't. This Anime is not perfect, nor will you mistake it for being one. But despite all of it's flaws it has a little bit of magic to it. A magic that you will feel every time Gabrielle strums his guitar. Honestly the music in it makes it a must see, or at least a must hear. (I wanted to give sound a 11/10 but they wouldn't let me)
Legend of Black Heaven was made in 1999 and made by AIC back when they didn’t rely on shitty fanservice harems and could pump out stuff like Black Heaven and Now and Then, Here and There. It tells the story of Oji, a generic Tokyo salaryman going through a midlife crisis. After despairing when his wife throws out his favourite electric guitar, a sexy alien co-worker tells him that he is the one man with the ability to power an intergalactic super weapon using his guitar playing.
Not that the space opera plot really matters that much. The super weapon runs on roughly the same energy
that the robots in Gurren Lagann ran on, except this time it requires guitar playing to transform said spirit (which Black Heaven calls ‘groove’) into energy to run the weapon. We’re never given any reason why they’re fighting or who they’re fighting. One of my running theories throughout the series was that this was all in the main characters head. The anime itself kept to the theme that this was all a dream, never crossing the boundary between the real world and the space battles.
What purpose the space guitar playing battles really serve is a big metaphor for the lead characters mid life crisis. For everything that happens in the space battle zone, there’s a clear correlation between what’s going on in his head and the real world. The realisation that nobody really cared about the songs he was playing in the spaceships was a metaphor for how he had gotten so wrapped up in trying to create a spark in his mid life that he hadn’t realised how his head was totally in the clouds. The numerous sexual metaphors connected to escaping to play his guitar, while played for comedy pretty frequently, correlated to how he wanted to escape his whiny wife and unsatisfying home life.
Black Heavens greatest achievement is that it manages to keep both the general story and the metaphors great fun to watch throughout. Purely on the surface level, Black Heaven is still an incredibly fun anime. The characters all have clear personalities and flawed in their own ways. The failing marriage of Oji and his wife has no clear person you’re meant to side with. There’s a panic and fear surrounding the women when she realises that their marriage is failing and he might be off with another women, but she struggles so hard to understand his passion that it’s understandable how Oji wants to create a spark in his life with this metaphorical mistress of space guitar playing. Oji is a hugely flawed character himself, prone to frequent feelings of elation and depression. One of the parts I really liked about Black Heaven were how the most extreme moments in his emotions were set inside the ramen stall. It was the one place he could visit and be himself without the show ever actually saying that itself.
There’s so many little things I love about this anime. The growing relationship between Oji and his son, where at the beginning he knew nothing about him to Oji becoming the dads idol. The kids TV show Flying 5 constantly providing indirect commentary to what was going through Oji’s mind at the time. The way the show never lost its sense of humour, whether it be through the hilarious sight of middle aged office workers trying to fit a bass guitar over their ever-expanding bellies to the occasional yet rather liberal use of fanservice throughout the show (bunny girl press-ups spring to mind). It’s a story of identity crisis wrapped up in a Heavy Metal Macross package.
It’s far from perfect and I’m not so blind as to suggest otherwise. Made in 1999, the animation isn’t particularly good even for its time. The animation is pretty fluid but has a tendency to re-use frames a hell of a lot and far away shots of characters can often give them misshapen heads. The anime has a single utterly awesome theme song that it uses the entire way through the show. While this does add a lot when you hear how the song evolves throughout, it does start to get a bit much as it goes on. The comic relief trio don’t do an awful lot for the plot either and can sometimes take up time being not very funny.
My biggest complaint though is how I felt it started to lose sight of the balance it created between the real world and the space opera right at the end. I get what it was going for and how Oji had come to terms with this dream by the end, but I felt it didn’t quite get the balance right the same way the rest of the series did. Even so, Legend of Black Heaven is one of the greatest anime I have ever seen, just in case that big fat 10 mark hadn't given away that already ;)
For me this story has nothing to do with music, that's just accessory. The true jem about this anime is the story. With more money to avoid some scene repetition, this could have been one of the greatest anime i ever saw. This is definitly not for young people who are usually longing for strong,in rough emotions. When I saw this anime i took pleasure in seeing that the main character is an adult,simple, regular person. No fancy things just plain normal. He could have chosen a life to follow his dreams, but instead like a man, he took up his responsibilities, dedicated himself
to his family. Nobody had to die, no overreaction. By contrast to many predictable, and drama queens animes, in Black Heaven there is no big drama, it's just simply sad. There is no blood sacrifices, no impossible, platonic hyped love. It's the most realistic essay of the human condition i've seen in anime in a very long time. He doesn't have a special power, he just happens to know how to play a song. For some it may be very boring, due to the small amount of action that you observe in the anime, however it is this tranquillity that allows it to develop the so well the characters. It reminds me of the 70's & 80's movies. Very few special effects and more concentration/focus on the character/plot development. The sound may be a bit repetitive after a while, but nevermind that, the rest will compensate for it. It's a serious anime for serious people.
Sifting through the dark, forgotten recesses of My Anime List like some sort of anime hipster, our writers have brought you 15 of what they consider to be the most underrated anime out there. Under appreciated masterpiece or stinker that got the reception it deserved; you decide.