Makoto Mizuhara is a Japanese schoolboy with an unremarkable life. Unfortunately he's to become the obligatory personality-free hero in a harem anime, as he and his friends get sucked into a wild and exotic alternate dimension with giant bugs, magic-wielding priestesses and ancient technology that long ago wiped out all life there and may yet do so again. Fortunately Makoto and his friends will also be given superpowers. Can he save the world? Maybe, but it'll require some cross-dressing.
El Hazard is an anime franchise that was rather big for a few years, created by Hiroki Hayashi and anime studio AIC, the makers of Tenchi Muyo. It all began with some highly successful 1995 OVAs, the story of which continued in some more OVAs in 1997 and then a 1998 TV series. (The 1995 TV series is a remake rather than a sequel.) Overall... it's a laugh. It's modest fun in fantasyland, with gentle action that doesn't even have the depth you'll find in Tenchi Muyo. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it is. I kinda enjoyed El Hazard, but it's barely deep enough to stand up to a single watching, let alone return visits. The OVAs are okay. The less said the better about the TV series.
The characters are at best passable, depending on which version of the franchise you're watching. Only one (1) person has any depth and she's a misguided semi-villain who only appears in The Alternate World and never visits El Hazard at all. There's also a shocking twist for anime-watchers in that the men are more interesting than the girls! You know, I'm sure there's a law against that. Nevertheless here we have the booze fiend Fujisawa-sensei and the totally batshit Katsuhito Jinnai. The latter in particular surprised me by being quite an efficient villain (in the OVAs), despite also being the Deranged Rival who blames everything on Makoto and wouldn't recognise reality if it came up and clonked him on the nose. He gets things done, which you wouldn't think to look at him. It's almost a twist for such a comedy character to also be threatening.
Hell, even Makoto is more memorable than the women. Apart from Jinnai's money-crazed sister Nanami, they're all princesses and priestesses and thus much of a muchness. Everyone's on the side of righteousness and justice, even the lesbians whose buffoonish girl-chasing makes them look like dogs on heat. Regarding those two idiots, incidentally, they're in a carnal relationship with each other despite the fact that one of them is an adult but the other can hardly be more than twelve years old. Somehow this manages to be inoffensive since they're only ever played for dumb laughs. This should tell you everything you need to know about El-Hazard.
Shayla-Shayla wears some terrifyingly short skirts, though. It also seems that even travelling to an alternate dimension won't save you from the Anime Hot Springs Episode.
The original OVA series is the franchise's best-regarded entry. It's a wildly ambitious B-movie, never letting little things like depth or character development detract from its epic quest through doomsday weapons, long-dead civilisations and a warlike insect empire. For these first seven episodes, El-Hazard feels huge. The production team are obviously having a ball evoking this fantasy world, which is genuinely worth your time. It's the OVA's biggest selling point. The worldbuilding is both detailed and flamboyant, while there are some beautiful painted backgrounds. There's also a rich profusion of flora, fauna and casually weird technology, as you'd expect from the creator of Photon and Tenchi Muyo. Nevertheless it feels more epic than them, despite being confined to a single world instead of a whole universe. El-Hazard never again recaptured that sense of scale, but here it's astonishing.
What's more, it tells a complete story. There's time-twisting in episode one to which we return at the end, while incredibly all the relationships are resolved! This is surprising if only for not being sequel-friendly, as is shown by Makoto's predestined girl being sidelined in all subsequent instalments of the franchise. The original OVA was an all-action visual extravaganza rather than a harem anime, but that would soon change.
El Hazard 2 is merely okay, although that makes it better than both TV series. It's too obviously a retread with nothing new to show us. The nearest it gets to being original is to create analogues of characters and situations from the original OVA, but with a twist. I see I've dismissed this thing in a mere couple of lines, which says it all, really.
That OVA sequel isn't bad, though. That would be The Alternate World. There's some interesting backstory and a worthwhile character in this franchise-killing TV series, but unfortunately it's all wrapped up in a parallel universe. Imagine my joy. That's particularly unfortunate here since the world in question is a dreary police state ruled from an industrial hellhole. They even dress up a bit like Judge Dredd. Uh, guys? There's a reason the franchise is called El Hazard, you know? There's this world called, um, El Hazard and it looks pretty. That may not be a particularly intellectual virtue, but it's the best you had. The Alternate World improves slightly at the end, but we still end up with ancient technology that's going to destroy everything. Y'know. Again. I'm starting to notice design flaws in all these ancient relics. Didn't they have product testers back then or something?
The Alternate World also showcases the worst of the harem nonsense, with the regulars becoming idiots. Too many people think with their groins. It all ends with a pointless hot springs episode, which is blatantly a tacked-on video special since the plot was resolved in part twelve. You'd think an OVA episode could avoid the horror of Scary Nippleless Women, but no.
This is still better than The Wanderers.
The Alternate World is merely dull. The Wanderers is a kiddified remake that actively annoyed me. You'd expect a 26-part adaptation to expand on a 7-part original instead of simplifying it, but you'd be wrong. It's riddled with pointless and wrong-headed changes, hacking out anything interesting from the plot in favour of anime cliches. A few lucky characters don't even appear. Miz gets some funny scenes, but Nanami is annoying and Jinnai's Scooby-Doo schemes and comeuppances turn him from a competent villain into a joke. Alielle is no longer even noticeably a lesbian. I can't pretend I particularly liked her earlier version either, but at least it wasn't bland. Makoto gets different motivations and a different girlfriend, while Ifurita has become an airhead with theoretically terrifying powers but in practice is such a bimbo that she can't manage to be threatening no matter how dutifully she tries. This sounds funnier than it is.
If I hadn't seen the original this might have merely seemed poor. Nevertheless I'd have still been grouching about the annoying relationship bollocks and the world's most laughable "eek, a man is seeing me bathing" scene. Oh, and watching Nanami episodes was like having acid injected into my eyeballs with a horse syringe. I used to like Nanami.
As an aside, Tenchi Muyo and El Hazard are considered sister series and have occasionally had crossover cameos with each other. Fujisawa-sensei can be spotted in Tenchi in Tokyo. Ryoko and Tenchi are on a magazine cover in The Wanderers, Jinnai and Diva pop up in Magical Project S and there's Magical Girl Pretty Sammy stuff in almost every El Hazard series. The difference of course is that I like Tenchi Muyo, except obviously for GXP. Basically, don't watch this. The original OVA series is impressive in its own shallow way, but it's not worth the risk that you might eventually find yourself watching The Alternate World or even (shudder) The Wanderers. The original's worth renting. I wouldn't even say that much of the remainder.