Saturday, February 21, 2015

Yuusha Raideen, UHF Subtitles & The Great Fuji-TV Freakout Of 1998

The FCC started licensing UHF TV stations back in the early 50s, it wasn’t until 1965 that all new televisions were required to receive UHF signals, and it was 1975 before Ted Turner turned his local Atlanta channel into a satellite “Superstation” to forge a media empire. But in UHF’s heyday every market had two or three or four struggling local stations competing for eyeballs with old reruns, cheap movies, weird local programming, cartoons, and shows aimed at the ethnic minorities underserved by local media; an anything-goes free for all where creatives could experiment (see: MST3K) and where a spin across the dial might bring you Jesus, Hercules, the Beaver, El Santo, Gilligan, or in the case of a few markets, translated and subtitled Japanese TV cartoons.

Unsuspecting American homes received uncut jolts of super robot action, space piracy, heartrending girly melodrama, football team UFO psychics, and combination-supercar races, airing in Japanese cultural blocks next to news shows, sumo scores, flower arranging how-tos and business reports. Cities with large Japanese populations like NYC, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay area found themselves lucky enough to get their anime fix straight without any Jim Terry or Sandy Frank cutting the dosage. Classic anime series like Raideen, Getter Robo G, Candy Candy, UFO Dai Apolon, Gattiger The Combo-Car, Cyborg 009 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock all made their Western debuts via these Japanese-language UHF transmissions.

These broadcasts would jumpstart American anime fandom in the dark interregnum between Speed Racer and Battle Of The Planets, and would be videotaped off-air on primitive wired-remote, top-loading VCRs and distributed throughout the country in conditions of extreme obscurity. As the 80s progressed, shows like Dr. Slump and Fist of the North Star would confuse cable TV-watching Americans until Fuji-TV realized what was going on and pulled the plug. 

KIKU-TV (13 on your dial) in Honolulu led the charge in the early 70s with programming aimed at Hawaii’s large Japanese-speaking population, hungry for terebi from home.  One particular KIKU success was Toei’s live-action Kikaida, sparking Hawaiian love of the character that continues to this day. KIKU would keep the Toei tokusatsu parade marching with shows like Kamen Rider V3RainbowmanGanbare!! Robocon Goranger and Battle Fever J. KIKU would phase out their Japanese programming in the early 1980s and another station would eventually take over the call sign, but in their 70s heyday they provided Japanese programming for stations across America, both subtitled and unsubbed, including, along with their robots and spaceships, some possible cultural significance with titles like ghost comedy Obake Q-Taro, Manga Folktales Of Japan and the Zen Buddhist monk sitcom Ikkyu-San.

In 1976 KIKU teamed up with the Marukai Trading Co. to bring the English-subtitled adventures of Brave Raideen to markets in California and New York. Marukai, the Osaka-based export company that would later open American price-club stores and the “98cent Plus” chain, sponsored Raideen to advertise the Raideen import toys they just happened to be distributing. Was this a case of Japan making an end run around Mattel, who’s Shogun Warriors toys were just starting to be sold in America without the marketing benefit of TV cartoon tie-ins? Only Prince Sharkin knows. One thing we do know: the New York/New Jersey station WNJU-47’s broadcast of Raideen in March of ’76 may well be the first ever American broadcast of a super robot cartoon.

In this late 70s-early 80s period, Japanese animation would air on a variety of stations.  Chicago’s Channel 26 WCIU, home of Mulqueen’s Kiddie A-Go-Go, Soul Train, and horror host Svengoolie, would screen untranslated films like Sanrio’s Ringing Bell in between ads for Kokuho Rose Brand Rice. The New York City area’s WNJU, which once aired Cool Ghoul Zacherle’s “Disc-O-Teen,” broadcast a full package of subbed anime hits including Cyborg 009, Galaxy Express, Raideen, and Harlock, and would later form Hispanic broadcaster Telemundo. Sunday nights in Sacramento CA, KMUV-31 showed Raideen with subs and Goranger without. The SF Bay Area would get anime via two stations, KTSF-26’s “Tokyo TV“ block and KEMO-20’s Sunday night “Fuji TV” package, confusing generations to come by sharing names with Japanese broadcasters TV Tokyo and Fuji TV (now FCI), which also further clouded the issue by providing Japanese programming to American audiences via the Nippon Golden Network cable TV station.
Demon Motor Co. chairman Bob Snakehead McMustache
Why, we may ask, were these shows subtitled in English to begin with?  To let third and fourth generation Japanese enjoy Getter Robo G along with Grandpa and Gramma-san? To help promote Japanese language facility via pop cultural means?  As a nod to the vast audiences of Anglos inadvertently exposed to the raw power of “Japanimation”, as it began to be called at the time?  Or did some marketing genius at Marukai realize they could sell more Raideen toys to an audience that knew who Raideen was and why Raideen was awesome?

Space Joe Incorporated:
 For All Your Space Joe Needs
KIKU-TV’s English localization was rudimentary at best, reducing dialog to the bare minimum and presenting the subtitles in a crudely character-generated all-caps font. Precise these were definitely not. However, for fans eager to experience uncut Japanese animation in its original language, these subtitled shows were an intoxicating look into a world usually denied viewers on this side of the Pacific.  For some fan subtitling groups, KIKU’s subs would provide a base for more comprehensive versions (for instance, CPF's Captain Harlock fansubs).  Copies of these shows were rare. This wasn’t merely taping Robotech off-air or spending a few hundred dollars on import VHS; you had to know someone who knew someone who happened to be operating a video recorder in a very specific place at a very specific time, and that someone had to owe you a favor, Godfather style. 
sorority girl mating call
For those intent upon distribution through fan networks, these subtitles pushed consumer-grade video-reproduction technology to their limits. Already weakened via whatever stone-age video processing system KIKU and Fuji TV were using to generate their subtitles, these episodes were recorded off-air by the primitive two-headed VCRs of the late 70s and early 80s.  By the time they were passed from fan to fan via daisy-chained, overheated VHS decks, the barely adequate signals were nearly unwatchable, forcing desperate viewers to hope for dark backgrounds during important plot points.

bending the envelope of illegibility via multiple VHS iterations
Fuji-TV HQ, Odaiba
KIKU would end their anime experiment in the early 80s but the Japanese-language cable station Nippon Golden Network would pick up the slack a few years later. Since 1981, NGN has brought Japanese TV, including news, J-drama, karaoke, and children’s programming, to markets in Hawaii, mainland United States, and Guam, and interestingly enough is now partially owned by Japanese telecom giant J-COM.  In the late 80s and early 90s NGN broadcast subtitled episodes of Galaxy Express 999, Dr. Slump, Dragonball, and Fist of the North Star, provided to them by Japan’s original broadcast network, Fuji TV.   At some point somebody somewhere inside the cavernous sci-fi Fuji-TV headquarters building on Odaiba in Tokyo – two blocks from where the life-size Gundam now stands guard – somebody there noticed that popular Japanese programs were airing on American television, possibly forestalling any future licensing of said popular Japanese programs to the wider American TV market.  This led to a fascinating press release from Fuji-TV; turns out some “entertainment programs… were briefly distributed to the US west coast via Hawaii, and inadvertently appeared with subtitles”.  The delicate and very Japanese wording of this piece presents the facts without assigning any actual blame to the seemingly accidental translation and subtitling of hundreds of TV episodes. Sorry, it was inadvertent, won’t happen again.
Fuji TV sets the record straight on that accidental subtitling, sorry about that
Fortunately for anime fandom, by 1998 there was not only a underground samizdat network of fan translators and subtitleists delivering anime in readable English, but also a sizeable and growing North American anime localizing industry releasing Japanese animation to the home video market. The day of the barely legible, barely translated UHF broadcast had passed. Only dust and piles of shedding VHS remained in its trail, a faint air of mystery and bewilderment drifting in the snow between the channels, taking us back to the time when UHF television was a frontier where anything was possible, even uncut Japanese animation with fuzzy, barely legible subtitles.

Thanks to August Ragone, Evan Chung, Patrick Drazen, Shaun Camp, Chet Brier, and Fred Patten 

Monday, January 26, 2015

a look at Gigantor's new adventures

The New Adventures of Gigantor! Sure, this 1980 remake of the popular 1963 boy-and-robot anime series (based on the Mitsuteru Yokoyama manga) didn’t make it to American TV until thirteen years after its Japanese premiere, and even then it ran in a weird time slot on a niche cable station best known for Twilight Zone marathons and later, a series of deliberately inane made-for-TV monster epics. And yeah, most anime fans ignored it; in 1993 they were binge-watching Ninja Scroll or Ranma ½ instead. Okay, so the company that released it has been bought and sold more times than I can count and the licensing rights are probably entangled in an unsolvable legal morass.  But all these caveats can’t erase 51 episodes of clean, colorful, very TMS, very 1980s giant robot remake that doesn’t rest on its legacy, but instead takes off running and never stops.
Part of a wave of color reboots that included Astro Boy and Cyborg 009,  1980’s Tetsujin 28 series is distinguished from the ’63-66 Tetsujin right from the show’s full title, which is Taiyo no Shisha Tetsujin nijuhachi-go, or "Solar Messenger Tetsujin-28". Originally the ’80 Tetsujin series was going to be a sequel, starring ’63 hero Shotaro’s son and featuring the first Tetsujin along with the updated model. This storyline was abandoned for the 1980 show, but would resurface in 1992’s Tetsujin-28 FX. Perhaps picking up on this fork not taken, original 60s Gigantor producer Fred Ladd brought over the 1980 Tetsujin series and merging the past with the (1980) present was exactly what he did.  These New Adventures Of Gigantor explicitly link the new with the old, starting with a colorized clip of the ’63 series and including needle drops of the original 60s theme song mixing incongruously with the surprisingly jazzy Japanese soundtrack.

questing for cartoons
Cable’s Sci-Fi Channel aired the show from Sept. ‘93 to June 1997 in a programming block known as "Cartoon Quest," remembered today mostly for having embarrassingly cheesy bumper segments. Viewers who made it past the bumpers were pleasantly entertained by the show's commitment to world-threatening giant robot action, and frequent use of animators like Yoshinori Kanada to liven things up in pursuit of said world-threatening giant robot action. The show is just as emblematic of its time period as the original black and white 60s series; while the 1963-66 show whizzed and bumped through its sepia-toned adventures with a whimsical mania, the 1980 series is smooth, colorful, well-designed, and filled with a sleek yet simple modernity that holds up 35 years later. 
Jimmy Sparks (Shotaro Kaneda), whose scientist father created 27 remote-controlled super robots along with Dr. Bob Brilliant (Dr. Shikishima) until finding success with #28, now looks a little less like a 50s advertising mascot and a little more like an actual tween. He’s old enough to pilot a giant robot, but young enough to not have to worry about pimples or embarrassing voice changes.  His companion throughout the show is Dr. Brillant’s daughter Bonnie (in Japan, Makiko Shikishma), a new character created just for the 1980 series.  As always, the forces of law and order are represented by Inspector Blooper (Chief Ohtsuka) of the International Police, a goofy, mustached policeman with a beautiful wife and an upcoming role in the next TMS robot anime.

1980’s Gigantor launches from an underground hangar hidden beneath a tennis court, a sports-related note that brings to mind both Mazinger Z’s swimming pool egress and TMS’s successful shojo sports series Aim For The Ace.  Jimmy’s natty blazer, tie, and short-shorts ensemble has been updated to a more casual short-sleeve high-collared IP shirt over a T-shirt. Relax; he’s still wearing shorts. And yes, Jimmy Sparks is still duly authorized to drive and carry a firearm. Let’s face it, you’re trusting a 12 year old to control a super robot capable of destroying cities; might as well let him drive.

As in the original, different criminal gangs dress up in various uniforms and use super robots of varying types to carry out evil schemes involving theft, destruction, war, and other bad things.  Recurring villain Professor Murkybottom is always after the secret of Gigantor’s solar energy converter, and even went as far as to kill Jimmy Sparks’ father in search of it.  However, it isn’t long before the show moves beyond the original series’ 60s motif of evil villains, henchmen legions, and secret Bond-villain lairs. We might love the kitschy, clunky charms of the black and white show, but this version is a little more coherent.

beautiful but deadly Marana
Gigantor faces Viking robots, Sphinx robots, space alien monsters, evil arms dealers, and monster Mediterranean octopi.  There’s an episode involving the Guinness Book Of World Records, and a three-part Horror Thriller series involving robot ghosts, vampires, and zombies. Yes, there is a Kung-Fu Robo.  The beautiful robot designer Marana visits from a different TMS show, maybe Cobra or Cat’s Eye, and makes two appearances to disturb Jimmy’s tween hormones AND use her super robot for crime.  An amusement park roller coaster turns into a giant robot and kidnaps children. A robot King Kong wreaks havoc. The Jolly Roger pits his flying pirate ship against Gigantor.  Murkybottom returns with a third, a fourth, a fifth, even a sixth super robot. The evil Doctor Doom hijacks bullet trains and threatens to send them into high-speed head-on collisions.  Professor Graybeard, whom viewers of “Giant Robo” may recognize as a certain Dr. Franken Von Vogler, creates Gigantor’s rival, the almost sentient Jackal (in Japan, “Black Ox”). Against these menaces Gigantor triumphs, usually using the Hammer Punch or his signature finishing move, the Flying Kick. 

evil master of darkest space Modark
Halfway through the run, the show takes a left turn into outer space with the appearance of Modark, the alien overlord who is always referred to as The Evil Master Of Darkest Space.  When his UFOs invade Earth and capture Prof. Murkybottom, an evil alliance is formed that will take our heroes into the void, wrestling Gigantor out of its robot crime roots and placing it firmly into Star Wars territory. Modark and Murkybottom together throw robots and space monsters and a cameo by vintage Gigantor foe “Brainy The Robot With The Dielectronic Brain” as Modarkian robot Antark against Sparks, Brilliant, Interpolice, and the Earth Defense Forces. Transformed into a far-flung space melodrama, the series pits Jimmy against Modark and forces Bonnie to cope with strange new feelings for the space prince Coldark. This hesitant outer space romance would blossom more fully in TMS’s next robot series, another Yokoyama adaptation about a young man’s super robot legacy, titled God Mars
Bonnie's space boyfriend
 Like many anime shows neglected here, Tetsujin-28’s new adventures would prove more popular in Europe (“Iron Man 28” in Spanish and “Super Robot 28” in Italy) and in the Arabic-speaking world, under the title “Thunder Giant.” However, The New Adventures Of Gigantor was a tough sell for the American mid 90s kidvid market, being not kitschy or retro enough for baby-boomer appeal and not cutesy enough for actual kids.  Anime fans accustomed to Robotech or Streamline’s more adult titles might have felt Gigantor lacked a certain sophistication, and after 1990s icons like Sailor Moon and Pokemon impacted North American popular culture, Jimmy Sparks and his space-age robot would become a footnote. Contemporaneous anime fans eager for their throwback Yokoyama robot anime would find that itch more than scratched with the Giant Robo series of OVAs.  

Neglected at its airing, the series has never been released on home video in the United States, and that’s a shame. It’s a solid show that deserved more attention than anime fandom gave it at the time. Apart from the colorized 60s inserts, the localization is well-done and unobtrusive; violent scenes that might have been edited out a few years earlier are left intact. The competent and frequently snappy dub includes longtime industry veteran Richard Epcar and avoids the staccato Peter Fernandez direction of the original in favor of more naturalistic dialog.  Mr. Ladd reports that the home video rights were held by LIVE Entertainment Inc., a production company formed out of the merger of home-video corporations Family Home Entertainment and International Video Entertainment, all under the corporate ownership of Carolco Pictures. According to Wikipedia, Carolco sold its shares in LIVE to Pioneer, which became Geneon, and which is now NBCUniversal Entertainment Japan. This tangled web of corporate ownership presents myriad complications to any potential English language release, the rights of which may involve one Japanese corporation and a completely different Japanese corporation both with a stake in an IP owned in part by the Mitsuteru Yokoyama estate.  Merely locating watchable episodes of The New Adventures Of Gigantor is a nostalgic exercise in fan networking, a throwback to the tape-trading days of its original broadcast. If Let's Anime's referrals are any indication, the interest for this series is definitely out there.


Who knows whether we’ll ever see this show in North American media again? Will it surface on a streaming video site, as its Japanese iteration currently is? Will some forward-thinking exec cut some red tape and release it on DVD? Perhaps Gigantor’s new adventures remain buried beneath a tennis court, waiting only for someone to take the remote controls in hand and command it to life. 

Thanks to Fred Ladd and Daniel Vucci for their assistance.

Monday, November 24, 2014

and now back to our long distance dedication

Hello, this is Casey Kasem, back from the beyond to count down the 10 biggest classic-anime hits in the 50 states. And now for our long distance dedication. Here's one we can all understand, whether we have kids or pets or neither. It's the top ten Western pop music songs that were either written about anime characters, or are covers of anime theme songs, or in some way became connected to classic anime. Does that make any sense, that Japanese cartoons were enough of a part of the pop culture landscape to inspire musicians for decades? It does to me. Is Don on the phone? And I also want to know what happened to the pictures I was supposed to see this week! I want someone to use his freaking brain to not come out of a gosh-darned record that is, uh, that is up-tempo and I gotta talk about a... um... uh... and now, on with the countdown. Here's number ten.

Modern power pop troubadour Matthew Sweet spent time in Athens GA playing in a band that also featured Michael Stipe's sister before recording his debut solo LP, which failed to impact the music scene. Its followup also fizzled. It took a rock retooling, an embrace of his inner fanboy, and a couple of eye-catching videos to put Sweet on the charts, and one of the hits from his third album 'Girlfriend' was this tune, "I've Been Waiting". The song was paired to visuals from the first Urusei Yatsura film "Only You" to create a unique music video experience, even among the outlandish landscape of music videos.

As The Buggles, new wave bad boys Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes inadvertently turned the world on its ear when the Russell Mulcahy-directed music video for their song "Video Killed The Radio Star" gained fame as the first ever video broadcast on the nascent cable channel MTV. They'd later be picked to form a short lived iteration of prog rock legends Yes, which in the early 80s would doom The Buggles as a creative entity. Horn would go on to produce ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and The Art Of Noise, while Downes would leave Yes to form prog-rock supergroup Asia with members of ELP and King Crimson. However we can look back fondly at The Buggles' first album, which featured sharp, tightly produced nervous New Wave hits like this song, "Astro Boy (And The Proles On Parade)" Does it have anything to do with the cartoon Astro Boy? You decide.

Moving on to number 8 in our countdown, SoCal punkers The Dickies gave the hardcore scene a swift, humorous kick in the pants with their speedy, goofy, un-serious brand of aggressive punk rock. This led to The Dickies being featured as the first punk band to make an appearance on American network television (on C.P.O. Sharkey) and the first punk band to have a top ten single that was a cover of the theme song to a TV show starring people in giant dog outfits (with their cover of "Tra-la-la The Banana Splits Song").  Here The Dickies regale us with their excellent cover version of the theme to everybody's favorite show about the young boy and the super robot whose power is in his hands, Gigantor.

Here at number seven, we have the odd yet strangely fitting combination of a 1972 hit single from an Irish singer-songwriter and a single episode of a 1986 anime series. What interesting alignment of cosmic forces placed the Gilbert O'Sullivan single "Alone Again (Naturally)" as the opening credits song for episode 24 of Maison Ikkoku? Was the new theme song - "Suki sa" by Anzen Chitai - simply not ready yet? Or was there a slip-up or a prankster at master control? O'Sullivan's song would spend six weeks at the top of the charts in 1972 but in '86 it would flash past our TV screens in ninety seconds, and would never make it onto American releases of the the Maison Ikkoku TV series, for obvious copyright reasons.

Coming in at number six we have the three or four nice girls who make up the self-styled "dyke rock" combo Two Nice Girls, bridging the gap between radical lesbian feminism and sarcastic punk rock, delivering an Austin-style twang to their cover of the theme song to everybody's favorite cartoon about the Greatest Race Car Driver In The World, young Speed Racer. Keep an ear out for the new lyrics!

At the other end of the musical Speed Racer spectrum, here at number five we have Alpha Team's techno-dance track "Speed Racer", which is pretty much the early 1990s condensed into one four minute headache full of drum machines and samples, promoted by what may be the worst music video ever made.

Meanwhile back in the 1980s, LA new wavers the Gleaming Spires ask the musical question, "Are You Ready For The Sex Girls?"  Almost members of Sparks, the Gleaming Spires would have a KROQ hit with this tune. "Sex Girls" would wind up in Hollywood films and as music in one of Pinesalad Productions' parody dubs of television episodes of seminal 80s action anime Dirty Pair, bringing the Gleaming Spires to an audience far beyond the reach of Rodney Bingenheimer. Also, the Spire's music video for this song is an all-time classic.

"We never had a manager. We never had a booking agent. We never had a lawyer. We never took an advance from a record company. We booked our own tours, paid our own bills, made our own mistakes and never had anybody shield us from either the truth or the consequences. The results of that methodology speak for themselves: Nobody ever told us what to do, and nobody took any of our money." Steve Albini; Nirvana engineer, outspoken rock industry gadfly, techno-brutalist noise innovator, and all around tough as nails music legend, brings us to number three on our countdown as he and his band Big Black deliver a 1984 tune about the coolest character to ever walk through a 1960s Japanese cartoon about auto racing. I'm talking about Racer X, of course. Find out where he keeps his speed!

From the industrial punk of Big Black to the orchestral glam of Queen, we come to Queen guitarist Brian May and HIS mid-80s EP flirtation with Japanese pop culture, Star Fleet Project. Enchanted by the sci-fi adventures then enthralling his young son, May found himself fascinated by the show Star Fleet, the English version of the Japanese puppet adventure X-Bomber. This 1978 series starred puppet characters designed by manga legend Go Nagai and a space-opera aesthetic that lay somewhere between Leiji Matsumoto star-romance and George Lucas pryotechnic adventure. What could be more natural than to recruit some accomplices, including Van Halen guitarist Eddie Van Halen, into the studio for some outer space puppet robot space cover-song action?  Nothing, that's what, and the result takes the number two slot our countdown- Brian May and the Star Fleet Project with "Star Fleet".

Of course, if you want to be like top animation director Hideaki Anno and sing along to the original Japanese X-Bomber theme song by BOWWOW, you're in good company.

And now we're down to the number one song in the United States, if the United States was one guy making an arbitrary list. The Number One song is... yes! It's Matthew Sweet back on the countdown with the title track from his 1991 album, Girlfriend. This driving, top-10 single brought Sweet to the
attention of the music industry, rock fans, and anime nerds alike with its brilliant production and clear power-pop alternative rock sound, which still plays as fresh as it did on college radio back in '91. Was the still-infant anime industry in North America boosted by seeing Space Adventure Cobra on MTV sixteen times a day, intriguing audiences with its mix of sexy ladies and Psycho Guns? I like to think so.

I'm Casey Kasem from Hollywood, and you've been listening to Classic Anime Top Ten. Join us each week at this same time as we count down the biggest hits in the classic anime world. Until next time, keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars!

Friday, November 7, 2014

The "Space Cruiser Yamato" Generation

This is an article from Japan Echo vol VI, No. 1, 1979, about the Space Cruiser Yamato phenomenon as seen by Mitsuru Yoshida, whose qualifications to speak on the subject are beyond dispute; he served on the actual battleship Yamato during World War Two. His memoir "Requiem For Battleship Yamato" should be required reading for anyone interested in the Pacific War in general, or super-battleships in particular.  I xeroxed this article from the bound periodicals section of my university library some years ago, and present it here as a public service.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shogakukan TV Picture Book: Psycho Armor Govarian

Psycho Armor Govarian (sometimes spelled “Govarion”), perhaps Knack Productions’ most visually appealing SF anime show, aired from July to December of 1983. One of several series whipped up by Go Nagai and his Dynamic Pro crew for Knack, Govarian stars young Isamu Napoto, who is recruited along with other psychic Earthlings by the alien scientist Zeku Alba to battle the evil Garadian space invaders, who attack Earth in their “Genocider” mecha. Luckily for Earth, Isamu and pals can use their psychokinetic powers to conjure up their own powerful super mecha Raid, Garom, and the titular Govarian. Rick Zerrano was kind enough to translate this Govarian children’s book for us, so now we can achieve the knowledge level of Japanese 8-year olds and join Govarian as he battles to save the Earth!

(please click on images to Psycho-Enlarge)

Enjoy more Shogakukan TV Picture Books today. Thanks for reading, and look out for Genociders!