Makoto Kobayashi isn’t a name known outside of the niche community of mecha and modeling devotees, and that’s a shame. While he may not have designed iconic mecha like Kunio Okawara’s RX-78 Gundam or Shoji Kawamori’s Valkyrie, he stands out from his more famed peers due to the utterly surreal originality of his work. In fact, Kobayashi may just be the most unique mechanical designer of all time.
Considering the sheer amount of amazing mecha that have come out of Japan in the last 30 years, that’s really saying something. His designs may not be a revered part of Japanese culture like the Gundam is, but his creations wear a stamp of originality in the same way that the works of a visionary like David Lynch do. Lynch is actually an apt name to use when describing Kobayashi’s work, as both explore the more surreal, ugly and strange aspects of their respective art.
The wonder of Kobayashi’s mechanical designs are how wrong they feel. Angular and ugly, his creations look unearthly, unfriendly and vaguely alien, as if not made by human hands. His singular aesthetic is an amalgamation of the insectile and the industrial, bearing resemblance to both bulbous crustaceans and rusted WWI era armor. Imagine a British Mark V tank mounted on lobster legs, covered in insectile antennae and protuberances and with crab claws as hands. His mecha are far from sleek and shiny, rather they feel used and forgotten, lumbering beasts on the verge of disrepair and collapse.
There’s a sinister feel to Kobayashi’s work as well, even in his renditions of bright and shiny mechs like the ZZ Gundam. In his hands even the most heroic of machines take on a twisted air, emerging from smoke filled battlefields like corpses risen from the ashen earth. Considering how singular his vision, it’s a wonder then that Kobayashi has had his hands in so many famed anime series. Nevertheless he’s lent his singular design sense to such series as Zeta and ZZ Gundam, the Venus Wars film, and the Giant Robo OAV.
Which brings us to Dragon’s Heaven, a 40 minute OAV derived from Kobayashi’s manga of the same name. Released in 1988 by Artmic, Dragon’s Heaven remains one of the most sadly obscure yet incredibly unique anime of all time.
Dragon’s Heaven begins with a short live-action segment featuring animatronic renditions of the series’ central mecha, Shaian and El Medine. It’s a nice nod to Kobayashi’s modeling roots, and, if you watch the 15 minute “making of” documentary that closes out the film, you’ll see how impressive these man-sized machinations really are. Cut to the year 3195 and humanity’s war against robotic rebels is at an end. Shaian’s human operator gets killed and he decides to take a nap… for a thousand years.
Time passes and he’s awaked by Ikuru, a feisty young Nausicaa-esque lass prone to hanging out in her birthday suit and kicking robot ass. The two quickly join forces to take on the villainous El Medine and his horde of robotic forces, and mayhem duly ensues. It’s all very simple and perfunctory – the OAV is only 40 minutes, including the documentary at the end – but it’s definitely not bad in any way, and you’ll get quite attached to the two leads within the short time you spend with them.
But its story is hardly what makes Dragon’s Heaven stand out. What really sets the film apart from the glut of 80’s mecha anime are Kobayash’s brilliant design work and art style. The film’s aesthetic is a stunning combination of influences. It borrows liberally from Jean Giraud Moebius and Hayao Miyazaki, which makes Dragon’s Heaven truly look like no other anime I’ve ever seen.
Giant airships made of rusted tubing and enormous canvas wings soaring through purple skies, WWI era tanks battling grotesque robots in a post apocalyptic desert wasteland, all rendered in the precise pen and ink style of Moebius’ sci-fi work, such as The Incal. It’s really something to behold. Almost every frame of ‘Dragon’s Heaven’ is worth pausing and poring over, worth hanging on your wall or getting inked on your skin. The sheer imagination on display is mind boggling, especially considering it’s all coming from one sole visionary.
If there’s anything negative about Dragon’s Heaven, it’s that it’s too damn short. You really wish this was a long running series or even a feature film, but I suppose we should be glad to at least have what is easily one of the coolest looking animated features ever made. It’s absolutely worth it if you can find it; for fans of anime, mecha, or just incredibly unique film, Dragon’s Heaven has it all.- Beach Coma