Japan is secretly controlled by a tyrannical group of ninjas called the Shinogara. Their finest assassin is a man named Hayate Kanuma, whose father leads the Shinogara.
Hayate, however, knows that the secret society's control over Japan is wrong. Sacrificing his own safety, Hayate kills his father. Now he's on the run, safe almost nowhere from his vengeful former comrades except perhaps for the one hiding place he decides upon: his sister. After possibly being fatally wounded, Hayate is able to transfer his soul into his sister's body, temporarily sharing it with her. His sister, Shiori, can awaken Hayate and call upon his ninja abilities when the Shinogara are close at hand but each time she does so, a little more of her true self is lost. This arrangement can't possibly go on forever, so how will Hayate finally defeat the Shinogara?
Both the unfortunate and misinformed creation of a sickly industry and a train-wreck of an anime in content, Akai Hayate is a work that should never have existed. It is one of four OVA's developed for Studio Pierrot's "Anime V Comic Rentaman". As the title suggests, this was an episodic anthology release of OVAs for the rental anime market, produced in 1991.
The plot or, what semblance there is of one, revolves around a ninja family with fantastical powers, battling with innumerable foes of whose existence is never explained, vying for control of the shogunate from the shadows. The story begins with an injured brother
accused of killing his father transferring his soul into his sister so he can possess her later. This synopsis is being a bit kind however, as the viewer is not given any semblance of a rational explanation of events. A fantasy period setting with superpowered ninjas doesn't really invoke the most aspirational of narratives on a normal day, but Akai Hayate proves to be not only underwhelming, but purely distasteful.
The explanation of how this anime came to be, and what that entails, is synonymous with its mediocrity. In 1984, Mamoru Oshii spearheaded the first OVA, 'Original Video Animation', with 'Dallos', made possible by VHS and Betamax. The OVA format signified was an ingenious innovation of systemology: with an OVA, the content of an anime can be more detailed to a target audience, giving relative freedom to creators. This is because television networks would not broadcast anything excessive in either risk or mature content. Previously it was almost impossible for a fan to watch any anime except on TV. An OVA usually would have a small number of episodes, with running times not tethered to television network demands. The ramifications of the industry adapting to OVA's would prove to have effects that were not only positive however.
Within a year of Dallos, the first Hentai had been released. Adding to the function of an OVA would be the production of small-budget small-run anime, which were 'testing the waters' so to speak, gauging the rental market to intuit whether a full anime would be economically successful, or whether a franchise was still popular. A yet further addition, but one of positive influence, would come a little later, that of full series of strings of movies being marketed in the OVA format, which actually enabled some very notable works like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Berserk. These are only practical actions for a studio to take, surely, but herein lies the problem.
The market becomes flooded with quickly produced anime with skimpy budgets and short durations. The choice becomes much greater, but the anime themselves are devalued by declining production values, limited access to quality staff, and en-shortened narratives that have very little chance at achieving anything great, especially those which are adaptations.
Akai Hayate is one of the keenest examples of the industry wide breakdown. Like the great majority of OVA at the time (now all anime of all varieties do this virtually) the project was subcontracted. Minamimachi Bugyosho would be the studio taking the reigns (remember this is supposed to be Studio Pierrot's "Anime V Comic Rentaman"!), a little-known studio of limited capacity. In fact, it is to be doubted they had more than 5 staff working on Akai Hayate. Osamu Yamasaki was the only major name pertaining to the production of Akai Hayate who worked for Minamimachi Bugyosho.
This subcontracting, for Akai Hayate and many many other OVA's, provides a generous lack of cohesive structure. People simply worked on their little splice, got it signed off, moved on. A huge amount of cynicism was almost visible on screen as each crew member trying to vye for recognition in an uncaring industry. The board that oversaw Akai Hayate would not have had more than 5 members, and it is certain those planners would have been involved in many other anime at the same time. No-one had any commitment to the project, and there was certainly no teamwork, no shared vision.
For these OVA, quick cheap and nasty as they were, big names rarely worked on them. They'd rather (rightly) do a movie or series. As such, OVAs were the chance for unproven young'uns to have their go. Not a single crew member involved in Akai Hayate had been working since before 1980. Indeed, Masahiro Sato, art designer, had started his career with Dallos.
Let's look at how massively they stuffed up with staff for a moment. Osamu Tsuruyama took direction for the first time, and has since been relegated to animating and storyboarding. Obari Masami, now the head of studio G-1 Neo, worked as a storyboarder instead. Chiharu Sato did the character design. She now exclusively works as an animation lackey. Kouichi Oohata, a now famed director and mechanical designer, was only allowed to work as a general design assistant. Takashi Kudou was responsible for music, which is not a pleasant fact. Having named some of the people who went on working in the industry who worked on Akai Hayate, contrastingly there are just as many who left. Working on this project was soul-destroying in many ways.
Resultant, Akai Hayate is dreadful, and not just a little bit sad. The art is poor, changing styles very often with none achieved well, and non-existent work on settings. Animation is rudimentary, perhaps most evident in conspicuously terrible techniques exploited to save money. No reputable voice actors, bad recording, bad acting (not that they had anything work with). Terrible narrative, illustrated not simply in plot but also choice of scene, pacing and chronicity. The characters are not worth anybody's time. Only the sound is solid; Junichi Sasaki, Tooru Nakano, and Fusinobu Fujiyama, who have all gone on to become consummate professionals in sound effects and production, exceed expectations in Akai Hayate, though sadly not affecting much as a whole.
With very often the wrong people doing the wrong jobs, most eminently the screenplay by Osamu Yamasaki that was a nightmare, Akai Hayate is a trainwreck. While it is not possible to say 'everything went wrong', it is simply that nothing went right. Nothing had the chance to go right.
Japan suffered a depression from 1989-1994, and never fully recovered. This depression actually led to more of these disgusting OVA projects at the cost of larger anime productions. Overseas, America was booming. Thus Japan was all too willing to try export its anime, and the U.S. had capital. The simple outlook of this is that there is actually a dub of Akai Hayate. What should have been an abortion is wrung out for all to see. Unsurprisingly, Akai Hayate did not fare well. It's virtually impossible to find now. As is the raw. Perhaps people burned the tapes in vehement disgust.
Akai Hayate is not a 'forgotten gem'. Rather it is purely awful and distasteful. Don't go looking for it unless you want to see the off-putting ooze of an anime industry in decline.