At the risk of sounding like a cantankerous old fart, I recently found myself wishing for the “good ol’ days” whilst perusing a schedule of upcoming anime titles. I’m under no illusions that the anime of decades past is intrinsically better or consistently more original than today’s titles. That being said… be it the concepts and storylines, the flat and uninteresting aesthetics, the ever-present CGI, or some ineffable “X factor” altogether, nearly every single title on that aforementioned schedule looked formulaic and blah.
Released in 1994 as an OVA — and intended as a prequel to the 1991 live-action sci-fi film Zeiram — Iria: Zeiram the Animation is plenty formulaic, too. The titular character is a young, spunky bounty hunter — the sort that only seems to exist in anime — who finds herself squaring off against the galaxy’s most dangerous life-form. As you might expect, there’s a corporate conspiracy lurking in the shadows. Oh, and there are some juvenile hijinks courtesy of Iria’s loudmouthed, spiky-haired sidekick (again, the sort that only seems to exist in anime).
What ultimately saves Iria and makes it a solid sci-fi action title, and sets it apart from many similar anime titles, is that it possesses a truly unique creative vision. That’s readily apparent in the amount of world-building that occurs in the OVA despite it being only six episodes long.
Though set in a sci-fi world replete with spaceships and teleportation devices — and unstoppable alien monstrosities, natch — Iria doesn’t boast the usual sci-fi anime style. Rather, its designs, from the weapons and vehicles (including one that looks like a hang glider crossed with a parasol) to Iria’s armor and hair beads, are guided by an aesthetic that feels indebted to the Middle East, feudal Japan, and/or tribal cultures as much as anything else. Which makes Iria look truly exotic, in the best sense possible.
Furthermore, like Star Wars, the world of Iria is an “imperfect future,” i.e., the technology, though incredibly advanced, has a weathered, lived in, and antiquated look to it. Quite the feat for an anime title, and one that’s nearly three decades old to boot.
All of the above, combined with Ashi Productions’ hand animation — remember, this was released in 1994 — give Iria: Zeiram the Animation a vibrancy and immediacy that really stands out compared to many modern anime titles. (The same goes for the violence. Although the OVA’s not overly graphic, let’s just say that Zeiram earns its reputation as an alien monstrosity thanks to a hefty body count and some ingenious killing methods.)
Directed by Tetsurō Amino (Broken Blade, City Hunter, Dirty Pair, Macross 7), Iria: Zeiram the Animation is a true gem that’s unfortunately been overshadowed by other titles from the early-to-mid ’90s (e.g., Ah! My Goddess!, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell). But if modern anime titles have left you feeling a bit underwhelmed these days, then perhaps watching Iria: Zeiram the Animation might be the fun diversion you need to remind you what original anime can look like.
Update (7/21/2023): Iria: Zeiram the Animation was recently remastered and reissued on Blu-ray by Discotek Media. Order your copy from Amazon.