It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So what is it called when you work to illustrate somebody's novels, only to rip off the core characters and plot of one of them and pass it off as your own? One could say that of Yoshitaka Amano, the man credited as the original creator and original character designer for Amon Saga, a fantasy epic released back in 1986. Amano provided the illustrations for Hideyuki Kikuchi's series of Vampire Hunter D novels, and the whole of Amon Saga is surprisingly similar to the 1985 Vampire Hunter D OVA. Truthfully, this isn't saying much, since both of them are riffs on very common themes in their respective genres. But while Vampire Hunter D made up for its shortcomings with strong characters and pacing, Amon Saga is too vanilla to be very interesting.
Amon is a warrior who's been dreaming of revenge since he was a very small boy. His mother was killed by the evil Valhiss, and he's determined to extract vengeance. He responds to a cattle call where Valhiss is recruiting warriors to serve his dastardly empire, and Amon gets to the top of the heap with a few buddies he makes in a local bar fight. Valhiss is planning to plunder an ancient city of gold, and he has kidnapped Princess Lichia to secure the map to the city from her father, King Darai-Sem. To finally avenge his mother, Amon will have to save the princess, battle a bunch of beasties, get past Valhiss' henchmen and sorcerer, and stop Valhiss from claiming the treasure and, thus, the world.
Amon Saga's pedigree is obvious when you watch it. It's neither the best nor the worst OVA to come out of the mid-80s. The character designs are strongly simplified from Amano's work, but this is standard for most of the anime inspired by his illustrations. A few of the players look very serious while others look goofy, so consistency isn't the key. But then again, Amano also designed characters for the silly Time Bokan, and so seeing both styles juxtaposed isn't that surprising. While Amano's artwork is uniquely beautiful on its on, that's not particuarly reflected in Amon Saga.
Amon Saga is a color-by-numbers fantasy. At first, the story appeared promising; a tale about a young man who was compromised by what he had to do for an evil enemy organization while he was infiltrating it could be fascinating. It might not be wholly new, but it could be done well. But Amon Saga instead ops for every cliche along the way, from the helpless princess to the rogue with a heart of gold becoming the hero's friend. After the first fifteen minutes or so, there really isn't a moment you can't predict in some fashion.
But what struck me over and over again during Amon Saga was just how much it wanted to be the fantasy film version of Vampire Hunter D. There's no doubt that it's what the creative team was striving for. I mean, how many blood-red moons obscured by clouds against a castle/hill backdrop can you do? The darkly forboding synth score is mirrored from D, as are the battles against various hellish creatures. But there are still more parallels. Amon is obviously D, both of them loners on a quest. Valhiss looks, acts, and sounds like the Count, and Lichia is an easy fill-in for Doris. Both bad guys have mystical sorcerers and evil henchmen waiting to get a piece of the action. When you compare the two, the similarities are striking enough to make you go, "Hmm."
But the difference between them is still night and day. Vampire Hunter D is by no means universally beloved, especially not 25 years after its initial appearance, but in its time it was fun and certainly memorable. It's a B-movie at its core, but one that goes all out in its B-gradeness. It has buckets and buckets of gore and far more action than any horror movie before Aliens. It was a horror movie that appealed to people who didn't really love horror, including myself. And what made it work was its memorable characters. The stoic D was countered by his manic symbiotic hand, an internal conflict paid homage recently by Afro Samurai. Doris, for being the Count's victim, knew her way around a blaster rifle. And who would forget Rei Ginsei, the psycho baddie who could shift space around his sharpened boomerang? Perfect it wasn't, but if you understood the era in which it was animated, it was pretty great.
Amon Saga has none of that spark. There is little forward motion to the show; it took me three times just to get through its 70-odd minutes. The characters have no outstanding characteristics to make them interesting. Without an interesting plot and boring personalities, Amon Saga just kind of sits there waiting to be loved. And it just doesn't work. I don't think it worked back in 1986, and it certainly doesn't now.
Despite the similarities between their creations, Amon Saga obviously didn't dent the friendship between Amano and Kikuchi, since they are still working together over twenty years later. It could have been simply a matter of money; it's not like animators and character designers are paid all that well, and perhaps they were both striking while the proverbial iron was hot. But this story had no need of being told, and there's no reason to try and find a copy today. It's not ridiculously bad, just woefully average at best.
Amon Saga -- graphic violence, suggested brief nudity -- C-