Well that’s one way to “promote” a manga in OVA form.
That IS pretty much the purpose of most of these OVAs: to act as a sort of commercial for the comic while also being a little bit of fan service for those who already dig it. They usually animate some portion of the original manga– often times the first few chapters/volumes in an abbreviated form. If that did well enough, or if they figured there was enough interest to do more beforehand, they’d do that for several key stories in the series’ run. Even major theatrical releases from this time like Akira worked that way.
Cipher’s based on a shoujo manga series that lasted 12 volumes. 1989 was pretty close to when it wrapped up (the manga ended in 1990, which given its VERY 80s nature is very appropriate), so this was likely made just as much as a sort of “thank you” to or cash-in on the fans as it was to promote the series. But instead of taking one part of the manga and adapting it straight-away, it chooses to turn it into this MTV style interview/music video collage.
It seem to hit some key points along the way. It introduces us to the main characters: teenager twins who work in the entertainment business and the girl one of them meets and befriends at school. We see them interacting, carrying out scenes from what I’m assuming are important chapters in the manga. It’s all set to a cover of Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.” Before that we get a New York montage set to a cover of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds,” which lets us know VERY OVERTLY that, yeah, this takes place in NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK, THE U S OF A. We get an actual interview segment with one of the twins, as he discusses the latest movie he’s working on: a teenage romcom about a nerd who wants to be a football star. That’s set to a cover of “Footloose.”
This is an outsider’s love letter to 80s Americana. Specifically, it’s an artifact of the sort of person who loves MTV, John Hughes, and that overall brand early-mid 80s teenager culture– all filtered through the lens of someone who not only hasn’t directly lived through any of that, but who is clearly not from the US. That makes Cipher very much a spiritual sibling to California Crisis. It may lack the latter’s artistic flair (although the character designs are decently shoujo), but Cipher’s use of Western pop tunes and honing in on specific traits of this era in pop culture are very much in the same spirit.
And I’m sure these particular songs were used because Victor Entertainment was one of the producers of the OVA, and they’re a big music distributor in Japan. I wouldn’t be surprised if this stuff is licensed by them in Japan.
The second half of the animated portion of the OVA becomes considerably more impressionistic. We get a genuinely haunting montage of New York at night set to “Kamikaze” by Thompson Twins, although the haunting parts have more to do with the way the Twin Towers are used. The peeps behind the OVA just used them as the most obvious landmark for the city, but NOW that sort of laser focus reads completely differently and lends the segment a vibe that’s totally unintentional but also pretty fascinating. It all wraps up with a segment that hints at the brothers sharing a far more intimate relationship than you’d otherwise expect, even from most shoujo manga.
The OVA wraps up with a fourth wall breaking making-of where one of the brothers narrates what’s going on in character as if he’s a real person, and as if the manga were based on his life.
The crux of the manga is that these brother switch places pretty often, very much in the vein of something like Dead Ringers, and the girl they befriend is challenged to determine who is who, which leads to her moving in with them. They swap out roles so often that they apparently find little difference between themselves– as if they’re one person inhabiting two bodies. Add in the fact that they call each other Shiva and Cipher and, well, there’s A LOT going on here with their identities. What that is isn’t REALLY hinted at in a way that’s obvious for someone like me who’s never read the manga and got all of this from wikis and a couple of other online reviews. But you don’t create characters who have interchangeable identities, are into acting, while one of them is named Cipher, without a reason.
Even without that knowledge, this is a pretty fascinating OVA. The music video approach, showing key scenes in an impressionistic way, is pretty clever. It covers a lot of ground in the video’s limited run time. Yeah, I’m not quite getting the who’s and why’s of it all, but I appreciate the tactic. But as is, I do like it more for WHAT it is rather than the actual meat of the thing, but I think that’s enough. That’s certainly more to like than most things.
Forgot to mention the bizarre commercial that plays right before the bit with the football movie. I’m assuming it was supposed to be an early role for the twins, with them doing the voice of the not-the-Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man cake mix mascot? Put it up there with the Cheddar Goblin commercial from Mandy for oddball fake commercials made for movies.
Also, those bits from the Halloween dance/parade thing are wild. You have plenty of things you’d see in an American Halloween celebration, but the overabundance of people dressed like kappa and a few other little visual quirks makes it all very strange in context.
And that flash of the main girl dressed as Peter Pan while she falls into the arms of one of the brothers while he’s wearing a dark trench coat is another likely unintentionally eerie image. The guy’s outfit wasn’t a perfect match to make the allusion REALLY work, but it made me think of John Lithgow stalking Nancy Allen in Blow Out.