article imageAs a long-time reader of this site, I've noticed there's not much content here that talks about classic anime or manga. Well, I thought I would rectify that by talking about some classic series that either are not that well known, or don't get a lot of attention. If this article is successful, I will of course also cover other subjects outside of Japanese animation.

And so, with that out of the way, I thought I would devote my first article to a series very close to my fan heart, and one that recently ended in Japan, with the final issue of the manga hitting on April 25th after a nearly 26 year run. That series is "Aa! Megami-sama!", or Oh My Goddess as it is commonly known in America.


BACKGROUND:
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The man himself.

The series is the brainchild of artist Kosuke Fujishima, who is perhaps best known in America for doing the artwork and character designs for a lot of the "Tales of..." video game RPGs, such as Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Symphonia. Oh My Goddess made its debut as a comic, with the first issue hitting Japan back in September 1988. It proved to be a big success, thanks to its beautiful artwork, likable characters and a sweet romantic comedy plot that could be enjoyed by just about anyone. As its popularity grew, the comic was adapted into a variety of anime (including a theatrical film), video games, and a wide variety of merchandised toys and model kits of the characters.
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His first drawing of a "goddess"

What's interesting is that the series came about due to a promotional contest tied into another series that Mr. Fujishima was working on at the time. His first major series before Oh My Goddess was You're Under Arrest, a light comedy series about a pair of female traffic cops and their adventures on and off the job. At one point, there was a contest tied into You're Under Arrest, where fans could win T-shirts based on the comic. To help promote the contest, Fujishima drew a short comic where one of the main characters was praying to a goddess that she herself would win the contest. Apparently, he liked the drawing of the goddess so much, it inspired the idea for what would become Oh My Goddess.
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The first volume of the Oh My Goddess manga. Currently, 46 volumes of the comic are available in English from Dark Horse Comics.

In 1994, "Aa! Megami-sama!" came to America as Oh My Goddess, with Dark Horse Comics buying the American rights to the comic, and Animeigo buying the rights to the 5-part made for video animated series that had recently been released in Japan. Because both the video series and comic rights were sold around the same time, both companies did a tie-in promotion. Unfortunately, this meant that in order to keep up with the video series and the characters that were being introduced, Dark Horse had to cut out some of the early issues of the comic, and skip around chronologically. It was kind of a mess early on, with issues and continuity being largely out of sync due to the issues being released in a different order than intended. Fortunately, Dark Horse would go back and fix this issue, by not only translating and releasing the issues they were forced to skip over in the past, but also re-inserting them in the correct order, and releasing the comic the way it was meant to be read in future paperback collection books.

As of this writing, the US translation of the Oh My Goddess comic is the longest running translation of a manga. When Dark Horse releases the final paperback collection sometime next year, it will have run for 21 consecutive years. And while the series never quite became the hit over here that it was in Japan, it still has a very loyal following, including myself, as I have been reading the comic regularly since discovering it back in 1996.


GENERAL OVERVIEW:

So, what is the secret behind the success of Oh My Goddess? Well, for one thing, the basic premise is not far removed from classic American sitcoms like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, in which an ordinary man is living with or in love with a woman with fantastic magical powers, and the trouble those powers usually create for the man. The familiar yet likable premise is easy to identify and relate to.
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Keiichi Morisato and Belldandy

In this case, the ordinary man is Keiichi Morisato, a lonely college student who doesn't have a lot of confidence in himself, due to the fact he's shorter than just about everyone else on the campus, and is not very popular with the women at his school. One night, as he is forced to stay alone in his dorm while his friends have gone off to party without him, Keiichi picks up the phone to make a call, and ends up dialing a wrong number that will change his life forever. Instead of the person he was expecting on the other end of the line, he hears the voice of a woman thanking him for calling the Goddess Helpline, and that she will be there momentarily to grant his wish. Before the poor guy can say anything or figure out what's going on, a beautiful woman literally materializes out of the mirror on his wall, and appears before him.

The woman introduces herself as Belldandy, and claims that she is a goddess from Heaven who has come before Keiichi to grant his heart's desire. He only gets one wish, but she can supply anything he could want - from riches, to even destroying the Earth. Keiichi initially brushes this off as an elaborate prank that his friends are playing on him. But, as he spends time talking to her, he grows attached to Belldandy and her sweet personality. Still thinking this is all a joke, and figuring that nothing will come of it, he decides to make his wish - He wishes that he could have a goddess like her by his side forever. Within moments, Keiichi's wish has been granted, and Belldandy is now fated to be by his side forever.
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Keiichi's wish: "I want a goddess like you to be with me always"

The series starts out as a situation romantic comedy, with Keiichi and Belldandy figuring out how to live together, as well as them slowly getting closer emotionally as they spend time together. It also deals a lot with Belldandy learning to live amongst the mortals, as she is somewhat naive about their ways. Over time, the tone of the series changed somewhat. While the relationship between the two main characters was still central, it became less about their life together, and more about them going on adventures across Heaven and the Underworld. The series became much more of a light fantasy adventure, with more goddesses and even demons (the villains in the series) being introduced as regular characters.

Through it all, however, it was the sweet relationship between the two main characters that remained the heart of the series from its simple beginnings, all the way to its recent end. There are a lot of great characters that make up the world of Oh My Goddess, but to keep it somewhat simple, I'll focus on a few of the major ones...


MAIN CHARACTERS:


KEIICHI MORISATO
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Keiichi is your "everyman" sort of hero. He loves to work on custom vehicles, especially motorcycles, and dreams of one day opening his own custom motorcycle shop. Keiichi starts the series out as a nice guy, but also afraid of a lot of things, including admitting his true feelings to Belldandy. But, as his love for the goddess grows, he becomes a lot braver when it comes to showing his feelings, as well as protecting her. He's the kind of guy who's willing to (literally) go to hell and back for the woman he loves.

BELLDANDY
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Goddess First Class, Type 2, Unlimited - What this basically means is that Belldandy is a goddess with incredible powers, and no limits on how to use them, although she chooses to wear special earrings that limit her powers somewhat while she is on Earth. She is incredibly beautiful, sweet, patient and kind, which makes her very popular amongst the guys at Keiichi's college campus. However, her heart belongs only to him. This can be wonderful in a lot of ways, but her feelings for Keiichi have led to some strong jealousy or anger whenever she sees another woman hitting on him, or his life in danger. When this happens, her eyes go blank, and she unleashes her powers uncontrollably in a fit of rage. Despite this occasional setback, Belldandy is the perfect embodiment of a goddess, with unlimited love for all creatures, and a singing voice that is yet to be rivaled. This is actually very important, as Goddesses cast spells by singing magical songs.

URD
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Urd is Belldandy's older sister, who moves into Keiichi's house after she is temporarily banned from Heaven for leaving her post up there, so she could go down to Earth and meddle in her sister's relationship. Urd means well, but she has a tendency to go too far or interfere too much. She is very sexy, and not afraid to use her body or her looks in order to get what she wants. Even though she is a goddess, Urd is known to occasionally lie, or play pranks on others. This is most likely due to the fact that Urd is technically only a half-goddess, as her mother was a demon and her father was a god. So, she is only a half-sister to Belldandy, as they only share the same father. Despite this, and her somewhat devilish nature, Belldandy and Urd have a very tight bond.

SKULD
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The youngest of the three goddess sisters. She moves in with Keiichi and Belldandy, because she was lonely being up in Heaven without her sister. Because Skuld is the youngest and still a child, she does not really have any magical powers when she first enters the story, other than the basic ability to teleport. Skuld makes up for her lack of power with her genius inventing skills. She is a mechanical prodigy, who can create complex robotics and powerful weapons out of common household objects. As the series goes on, she does eventually develop some magical powers as she grows from being a child to a preteen. Skuld is fiercely loyal and protective of Belldandy, and often is jealous of all the time her sister spends around Keiichi. As she gets older, however, she does begin to understand Belldandy's feelings for the human, and even falls in love herself with a local boy.

HILD AND MARLLER
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Hild's on the left, Marller's on the right.
The two central antagonists of the series. Both are demons from the Underworld, who are bent on getting the goddesses out of Earth, and back to Heaven where they belong. Marller is the first to appear, and becomes the main returning villain for a lot of the series, causing chaos on Earth, and coming up with various schemes to cause trouble for Keiichi and the goddesses. Eventually, Hild enters the story, and since she is the Queen of the Demons, she takes over as the main villain, with Marller becoming her bungling lackey. If Hild happens to look a lot like Urd, that's because she is her mother. She was upset when her daughter decided to follow the path of a goddess instead of a demon, and often tries to come up with ways to force Urd to switch sides and return to her. She even once managed to transform Belldandy into a demon, however briefly. Despite the fact that they are villains, they do occasionally help out or team up with the goddesses if it also happens to aid their own cause.


THE ANIME:

In 1993, five years after the comic started, Oh My Goddess became animated for the first time in a five-part video series. For many American anime fans, this was the first introduction to the series and characters, as Dark Horse's English translation of the manga came about a few months after the videos were brought over to the U.S.
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The women behind the goddesses! From left - Aya Hisakawa (Skuld), Kikuko Inoue (Belldandy), and Yumi Toma (Urd).

While there have been a wide variety of anime based on the series over the years, the central staff and actors have remained the same since 1993. The director of every major anime project has been Hiroaki Goda, best known for his work on series such as Bubblegum Crisis and Evangelion. The main cast also includes some fairly big voice actors in Japan, including Masami Kikuchi (Tenchi in Tenchi Muyo) as Keiichi, Kikuko Inoue (Kasumi in Ranma 1/2) as Belldandy, Yumi Toma (Cowboy Bebop) as Urd, and Aya Hisakawa (Ami/Sailor Mercury in the 1992-1997 Sailor Moon anime) as Skuld. These actors have played the roles in just about every incarnation of the series, from anime to video games, and even audio dramas.
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The original video series was more or less a loose adaptation of the early part of the manga. The first three episodes focus on an individual goddess being introduced to the story, while the last two episodes are a two-part story that brings all the characters together. This video series is a mixed bag, with a lot to recommend, but also some problems. On the positive side, the animation is absolutely gorgeous, and does a great job of mimicking Fujishima's detailed character designs. This is also pretty much a high quality production in just about every category. The voice acting is top notch, with the main characters perfectly cast. Also of note is the soundtrack, which is not only beautiful, but features a very catchy theme song that was sung by the three actresses who play the goddesses. They actually formed a small music group after this video came out, calling themselves Goddess Family Club, and even released a CD of music.
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Keiichi and Belldandy meet for the first time - as depicted in the original video.

On the downside, since the video series was only five episodes, the pacing is very rushed, with characters being introduced, but not really developed very well. It's not so much a problem with Keiichi and Belldandy, since they get plenty of time together, but Urd and Skuld, as well as some of the supporting characters, never get to be quite as interesting as they are in the manga. Still, given the limitations the filmmakers were working with, they did a good job, and it works as a wonderful introduction to the series.

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The goddesses, in the handy petite size. Aren't they cute??

Around 1998, we got our second animation based on the series. This time, it was The Adventures of the Mini Goddesses - In the Handy Petite Size. (And yes, that is the full title.) This was a series of 4 minute cartoons based on some gag comic strips that Fujishima would sometimes put at the end of his stories. The cartoons are not cannon to the actual series. They are gag cartoons that were inspired by the old Looney Tunes shorts.
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"Oh no! It is Gabira, the radioactive rat! We must flee!!"

The main gimmick of this cartoon is that the goddesses are now mini or "chibi" as it is known in Japan. Instead of focusing on the relationship between the two main characters (Keiichi actually never appears in the show), Mini Urd and Mini Skuld are the stars here. The show more or less follows them either having fun or making trouble around the house while Keiichi is away at school. They are joined in a lot of their adventures by a rat who lives in the house named Gan-chan. The rat more or less serves as a comic foil for the goddesses, as they try to help him out with his problems (usually ending in disastrous results), or he gets wrapped up in whatever game or adventure they are playing. It's a cute series, and can be quite funny at times - my favorite being the episodes where Gan-chan turns into a giant radioactive Godzilla monster named Gabira, and the goddesses must find a way to turn him back. But since it's not cannon to the series, it's not essential viewing for fans.

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The original release poster for the Oh My Goddess movie.

On Saturday, October 21st, 2000, the event that all the fans were waiting for finally happened, as the Oh My Goddess movie hit theaters in Japan, and was released on DVD in the U.S. one year later. The movie was actually announced back in 1996, and was due to be released in 98. However, due to numerous delays and production problems, the movie took around four years to complete.
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Belldandy's face after she has used her powers to kill is similar to that of many fans seeing this the first time...

At least the wait was worth it, as this is probably my favorite piece of animation that the comic inspired. A lot of fans are actually surprised when they watch the film, as this is a much darker and more serious story than what had previously been attempted in the animation. There's even some violence and blood displayed, including a shocking scene where the usually gentle Belldandy is forced to use her powers to kill in order to protect someone. Still, it's a beautiful film, wonderfully drawn, and with a very dramatic original story dreamed up by the director, Hiroaki Goda.
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A goddess is reunited with her former teacher...

In the film, Belldandy is reunited with Celestin, the god who trained and taught her how to be a goddess. However, it is revealed that Celestin's return has ulterior motives, as he erases her memories, causing Belldandy to forget about Keiichi and her time on Earth. Fortunately, Urd knows the truth of what is happening - Celestin was banished from Heaven years ago after he tried to stage a coup and create a new order amongst the gods. In the past, he used Belldandy and her great powers in order to achieve this goal, but he was stopped, and Belldandy's memories of what happened were erased. Now, Celestin has somehow been freed from his prison, and he is trying to bring his powerful student back to his side.

The film is a must see if you are into animation, as there are some beautiful and well-drawn sequences throughout the film. My only complaint? When the movie came out on DVD in Japan, they got a 2 disc set with a ton of extras talking about the making of the film, and a lot of the problems it went through during the production. There are even a bunch of deleted scenes, including stuff from an earlier version of the film that was completely different from the one we finally got. Unfortunately, when the movie came out in America, none of these bonus features were carried over. I would love it if someone would someday translate the original extra features into English.

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In 2005, we got the last major animation from Oh My Goddess - a TV series that would adapt the major events of the manga in full. Not only did we get to see some of the storylines from the comic adapted into animation for the first time, but characters who had never appeared in the previous anime would finally show up. And thanks to the fact that it was going to be a full TV series instead of a five-part video or a 100 minute movie, the characters could be as fully developed as they were in the manga.
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Urd fully giving in to her demonic nature was one of the storylines from the comic that got to be animated in the TV series.

Once again, the same team that had worked on the video series and movie had reunited for the show. The end result was a series that perfectly captured the romantic comedy and light fantasy adventure that had made the story a long-time favorite. My personal favorite aspect of the show is how it finally gives us some background detail on the supporting characters, not just Keiichi and Belldandy. For the first time in the animation, Urd's background of being half-goddess and half-demon was dealt with. This struggle between the two sides within the character was always one of my favorite aspects of the comic, and I was happy to see how well it was dealt with in the TV shows, especially during the climax of the first season, when Urd decides to surrender completely to her demonic side, since there are no rules or regulations to her powers like there is on the side of the gods. The show also dealt more with Skuld, giving the youngest goddess some episodes that explores her growing up, gaining new abilities and powers, and generally learning how to rely on herself, not just on her machines and inventions.

The show was successful both in Japan and America, but unfortunately only ran for two seasons, due to the fact that director Hiroaki Goda had other commitments. He has talked about going back to the show, as he would ultimately like to animate the entire comic. Considering that there's 26 years of material to work from with the comic, that's going to be some feat if he ever pulls it off.
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After the TV series' end, there were some small anime projects that have popped up now and then. There was a 2-part TV special that was used to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the manga, which was based on the storyline where Hild succeeds in turning Belldandy into a demon. More recently, some of the paperback collection books of the manga have come with special DVDs that would include an original animated episode exclusively made for the comic. These episodes, unfortunately, have remained in Japan, and most likely will remain there.


THE NOVEL:
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The cover of the English version of the novel, published by Dark Horse.
There has obviously been a ton of merchandise related to Oh My Goddess over the years, including toys, dolls, video games and posters. But my personal favorite piece of merchandise was a novel that served as an unofficial ending to the series. It was more or less an officially licensed piece of fan fiction, but what made it interesting is that the book was written by Yumi Toma, the actress who plays Urd in the anime. The novel was titled First End, and was translated into English for fans back in 2007.

Much like the movie, a lot of fans are initially surprised by the dark and serious tone this book takes. How dark is it? Well, let's just say that one of the lead characters dies within the first few pages! The remainder of the novel deals with the goddesses having to turn back time, trying to correct the mistake that not only kills the character, but also sets the Earth and Heaven itself on a path for ruin. The novel deals with a lot of tricky issues that fans have brought up with the premise over the years, such as the nature of a relationship between a goddess and a mortal. What happens when Keiichi starts to age and become old, while Belldandy would remain immortal and forever young? This is a surprisingly somber and heartfelt story that really goes to the core of the very relationship of the two main characters. Like I said, this novel served as an unofficial ending to the entire series itself. And the ending that the author reaches may not be the one that fans expect.

What's great about this book is the obvious care and understanding that the author has for these characters. Even though she plays Urd in the anime, she obviously is a big fan of the series in general, and does a great job getting into the minds of all the characters, not just her own. There is also some beautiful artwork and illustrations to go with the story, all of which were drawn by the series creator, Kosuke Fujishima. Now that the comic has actually concluded, it will be interesting to see how the true ending compares to this "fan" ending.

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Farewell, Belldandy...

Well, I know that this article has been very long, especially for a first attempt. A lot of this really is the thoughts of a fan who wanted to chronicle his ideas on the series as it draws to a close. I hope you at least enjoyed reading it, or maybe discovered an interest or an appreciation for Oh My Goddess. Both the comic and anime are readily available in the U.S., and are well worth checking out.

Thank you, Kosuke Fujishima, for your wonderful characters and art over the past 26 years.