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 it 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 musical instrument. With his guitar playing skills becoming the only way to protect mankind from annihilation, this man's life has been reinvigorated after decades of tedium. This is the tale of a former rock-star who ended up cutting his blossoming career prematurely to raise his family. A decision that led him into the cubicle-space hivemind, 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 allegorical. It externalizes the inner turmoil that our protagonist is going through, creating a metaphysical environment in the process. Its narrative structure and motifs are similar to that of other abstract works like FLCL (Fooly Cooly) and Abenobashi. While being nowhere as bombastic or eccentric as FLCL, it similarly handled the protagonist midlife crisis to how FLCL handled its coming-of-age themes. With rock 'n' roll and the guitar being used as a motif 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 may have some semblance of ambiguity as to what they're alluding to, 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 is aimed at teens to young adults. Black Heaven's sense of humor and situational awareness is, first and foremost, directed towards older adults (which should be a no-brainer given the subject matter). It's an anime that thematically has more in common with Oscar winner Crazy Heart than it does anything found in the medium's usual canon.
It's not something that's trying to be gut-wrenchingly funny or instantaneously gratifying either, as it instead decides to draw humor and intrigue from relatable, commonplace issues that come with adulthood and all that it entails. It's a show that approaches the ordinary through an obscure lens, never letting the growing pains of everyday life slip pass it. 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 firsthand, 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 problems were played up for comedic effect, there's still a general sense of pity draped over his situation. Here'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 loved 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 meet surrealism, comedy meet 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 other named characters 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 do. There's just something inherently intriguing about viewing someone else's plight. We never want to be at the receiving end of these troubles, but seeing others work through their's always manages to command viewer attention.
And to keep that attention, the show straddles our lead with a few companion characters. One of which is the extraterrestrial-bombshell mentioned earlier, Layla Yuki. Apart from our protagonist, Layla receives the most screen-presence 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 whims. She encompasses an innate desire, a type of sensuality that could only be birthed from unbound sexual freedom; which makes her not only a pivotal character but a symbolic presence as well. She's the embodiment of Oji's bachelor days, free of marriage, of parental duties, of responsibility. His desire for her is a desire for his former self, which ties into an unspoken real-life truth for a reason men of his age often cheat with women still at the prime of their youth. Yes, there's a sexual urge present, but the motivating agent on a subconscious level is often just wanting to feel "young" again.
Aside from her, we're also introduced to a ditzy comedic trio (names irrelevant) who operate similarly 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 as well. They don't demand your attention, but their inclusion was still well-received. They breathed life into the situations that they were a part of and contributed in their own little way to making Oji's expedition one that was far more wholesome than had it been a one-man show.
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 kickstarted than by having the intro song be performed by John Sykes, a 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 only be delivered by a veteran with experience in his craft and a guitar riff that's toe-tappingly infectious, the opening song is a love-letter provided 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 style and humor.
But even after factoring everything going for it, there are still many issues that plagued this anime. For one, despite the strength of the standout musical tracks, the actual musical selection was insufficient; 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 progress 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 animation. Reused sequences were often implemented whenever it was possible, and outside of a few keyframes 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. "Shoestring 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 supposed to look cheap." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see Black Heaven wasn't high on the Studio heads' priority list.
Outside of presentation issues, the show lacked screenplay polish that could have been tightened up with a script revision. This doesn't come as much of a surprise, given the chaotic 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 bogged down by any of 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 tale.
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're dealt.
If you take the general storyboarding of American Beauty, add a dash of absurd allegorical visuals of Fooly Cooly and filter it through a similar comedic lens of that of Welcome to the NHK, what you'd get is this humorous Japanese-salaryman monstrosity. Black Heaven was quite the surprise for me. Despite its humble offerings, Oji and company always manage to find a way to keep me entertained. And even when it played things out comically, the adult subject matter was always handled with a sense of responsibility.
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 is in its commitment to telling a man's intimate struggle with no need for party tricks to keep the attentiveness of the viewer. It remains a small-scale identity crisis only inflated in relevance by the protagonist that's going through it. Where other titles would topple over with such self-imposed constraints, Black Heaven uses this very limited range as the driving force behind its narrative. It treats its audience with respect, trusting that they're mature enough to understand the intentions. There are not that many shows out there that could dare to do the same, and while a bit rough around the edges, its heart was in the right place. And for if only for that reason alone, Black Heaven has effectively become a mainstay among my cherished favorites.
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 ;)
Kachou Ouji or Legend of Black Heaven does stand out quite a bit. It's a slice of life that features a middle aged salary man with a mid life crisis as a protagonist (not very common in anime) who also happens to be a former rock star and misses his glory days. He has a wife and kid who don't understand his obsession with the past and the show itself plays out like a black comedy filled with sexual innuendos and features themes such as the difficulty of aging, nostalgia and the hope for a happy life despite losing your youth and glory.
Sounds like a
great show right? Well, sadly it's hard for me to get on board with that even though I really wanted to.
Notice that this anime also has a sci fi tag attached to it, and sadly this ends up being the show's biggest weakness in my view. Not only because the sci fi genre doesn't integrate that well in to a slice of life about a middle aged man who desires to relive his youth, but it also ends up forcing the protagonist in to situations, making the story often take bullshit turns and by extension hampering its themes. Spoilers ahead.
The first episode opens with a space battle which is used to establish this work as a science fiction series right away. But this scene doesn't do a very good job since it really doesn't become relevant until episode 2, it has metal music played over it and is followed by an opening sequence filled with interesting trippy visuals and a metal song accompanying that. So that scene could've easily been brushed off as some kind of visual metaphor.
But sadly that scene becomes center stage later even though the 1st episode (which was the show at its best) focuses solely on the protagonist's mid life crisis and how all the color was sucked out of his life as an aging salary man.
In episode 2 the protagonist meets a hot chick who encourages him to play the guitar and relive his glory days.
She later turns out to be an alien who's just taking advantage of his unexplained guitar playing powers that somehow helps her and her allies shoot stronger lasers at their faceless and motivation-less enemies in space.
What happens in between episode 2 and 5 is that his wife is getting annoyed by the fact that this alien woman is taking up a lot of his spare time with his family (and suspects he's cheating on her) and so hi-jinks and misunderstandings ensue.
Up until the end of episode 5 The protagonist does not realize he's being taken advantage of and when it is revealed he does not take this revelation kindly (despite the fact that she explains this to his face in episode 2) and he mistankingly believed that she genuinely wants to hear his music.. which is followed by a very well paced episode with good characterization made up of the protagonist just contemplating thinking about where to go from there.
Episode 6 could've been a great turning point for our protagonist with him eventually realizing that he's better off living his boring but adequate life rather than living a lie or reliving your youth by becoming somebody's tool. but sadly the main character submits to his desires and becomes a tool for an alien war he knows nothing about.. Which would've been fine if he was punished for his actions but the show does NOT condemn him for it. In fact, he ends up rewarded for his behavior which included neglecting his wife and kid.
Thus for the rest of the series he keeps playing his guitar on the aliens' space ship assisting them in defeating their enemies
I should also mention that later in the series the protagonist tries to convince his old band members (who have families and moved on with their lives) to join him in playing music for this space war "to no avail"... only to magically appear on that space ship later with no explanation on how they got there.
The biggest insult for me is that near the end of the series earth is also at stake all of a sudden which leaves the band members no choice but to play more music and lend their powers which gives the characters even less agency. On top of that, the wife divorces the protagonist due to his neglect only to regret doing so a few minutes later (and also magically appears on the space ship somehow) when she realizes what's at stake.
To me, all of this reinforces what a lazy plot device this whole sci fi bullcrap was all along, it simply doesn't give the characters much of a choice and as a result of this, the protagonist receives no further development in the second half of the show. He just willingly becomes the aliens' tool and that's where his character arc ends.
Leaving all that aside, none of the characters stand out all that much but they're not bad either.
The protagonists' wife and kid are fleshed out decently and given enough screen time and comedic moments for you to care about them and understand their relationship with our protagonist. I even liked some of his old band members and the sexy alien lady. But aside from him, his wife and the alien lady, none of them really have much of a character arc to speak of and I personally feel that these three arcs are all kinda botched in the end.
Visually this show is pretty cheap looking. The animation is stiff, still frames are used fairly often and the characters look ugly and off model at times. On the other hand, the first episode had good cinematography with interesting camera angles and solid framing all around and so does the rest of the show but to a lesser extent.
I also liked The use of color, everything in the protagonists' mundane life seems to be washed out with boring colors to reinforce how the color was sucked out of his life, hell, he even wears a white suit. This contrasts nicely with a much more colorful pallet when he's reliving his glory days.
The music is very good but also a little disappointing since there really aren't that many songs. You have a fantastic metal opening theme that fits the series well and visually gives you a glimpse of the protagonist's former lifestyle but different versions of it are pretty overused throughout the show including when he himself plays the guitar.
The ending song is a weird pop song that you sorta get used to. Voice acting is fairly good for what is required and the voices do match each of the characters' personalities just fine.
Overall, this show isn't a complete waste of time, it does have its moments, the comedy wasn't too bad and it's somewhat recommendable but I personally don't think it lived up to its promise all that much and it just let me down with the way it handled its themes and characters.
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.