Wednesday, February 3, 2016

show me your space

The theme song asks us to show it our space, a mighty jungle call echoes as a hero swings from vine to vine, and a beautiful space traveler escapes evil robots! Is it Tarzan or Star Wars - or both? This is Tatsunoko’s 1984 series OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S, a goofy romp through two continents’ worth of pop culture, delivering comedy, action, and romance. Mostly comedy. Fondly remembered by viewers who were too few to keep this series alive, the show was cancelled early and vanished utterly. What is the mystery of Starzan S?

Somewhere in the galaxy the planet Kirakira is troubled. The Senobi tribe wants to be left alone in their forests, but the Robot tribe of, naturally, robots, are desperate for natural resources to fuel their robot lifestyle. Only one thing protects the Senobi- our hero, the OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S who defeats the schemes of Robot leader Darth Bellow and his mechanical monsters with equal doses of Tarzan vine-swinging, Magnus Robot Fighter robot punching, and various transforming mechanical devices that coincidentally make great toys.

Starzan Yell, Starzan Kick
Into this quaint pop culture remix crash-lands Jun Yagami. Armed only with some blurry photos, a mini-skirt, and a collapsible ray-gun, this beautiful teenage space traveler is searching for her missing father, who vanished while tracking down a legendary space utopia named “Paratopia.”

Hot on Jun’s space-booted heels come the Maneko clan in their garish candelabra of a starship. Mama Maneko, convinced Paratopia holds the secret to eternal youth, is the matriarch of a toilet-paper dynasty. Her daughter Leeds is a haughty would-be beauty, and Leeds’ henpecked husband Hachiro takes abuse from them both. Meanwhile, their son Ebirusu, a comedy version of Vegas-era Elvis Presley, has only one goal in mind, the hand of the lovely Jun. Disabled in a great cosmic storm, both parties crash-land on Kirakira. Sides are quickly chosen; the Manekos wind up with the Robots while Jun is rescued by the God Of The Jungle, Starzan!

the Maneko family album
Yes, Starzan, who oscillates between being a dashing warrior or a short goof, who can defeat robots with his mighty blows yet occasionally trip over his own feet, and whose first glimpse of Jun begins a teenage space romance that will shake the very foundations of Kirakira, and perhaps the galaxy itself! 

OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S aired in Urashiman’s old Fuji-TV timeslot, Saturdays at 6:30pm, from January to August 1984. Starzan underperformed in the ratings and the show was replaced by an even more obscure Tatsunoko series, the auto-mechanic adventure Yoroshiku Mechadoc. But for 34 weeks viewers would thrill to Starzan, his little Ewokish buddy Mutan, and the friendly Senobi tribe’s struggle to protect Jun from the rampaging Robots and whatever nutty scheme Ma Maneko and her dopey clan were pushing. The theme song “Show Me Your Space” was sung by Poplar, aka Sumiko Fukuda, who’d later sing tunes for Dream Warrior Wingman and Disney’s Beauty And The Beast. Yoshitaka Amano is credited as Starzan S character designer, but the rounded, soft features betray the hand of Takayuki Goto, who'd work on other Tatsunoko projects like Zillion and features as varied as the chicken comedy Gu Gu Ganmo and the cyborg non-comedy Appleseed.  The animation is fluid, the music is great, the characters and colors are bouncy and 80s, and Jun takes a lot of baths and shows a lot of her space. To be fair, so does Starzan; equal opportunity fanservice in action.

the course of outer space teenage romance never runs smooth
An SF comedy, Starzan S has plenty of monsters, aliens, spaceships, dimensional warps, and other genre staples. Starzan’s main mecha, the transforming gorilla-bird-plesiosaur-buffalo Mecha Starzan S, provides much of the show’s required 1980s anime show transforming-mecha footage. But Starzan S unabashedly ditches the sci-fi for comedy, never hesitating to abandon its lead in favor of whatever crazy scheme or sad character defect of the Manekos is driving that week’s script (any resemblance to Tatsunoko’s earlier bad-guy focused Time Bokan series is purely intentional).

Hachiro in an unusual mood, Leeds and Maneko are not impressed
Grandma Maneko’s character was based on singer, arts patron, and industrialist Masako “Pink Billionairess” Ohya, who reportedly owned 3600 pink dresses and six golf courses. Rumor has it her daughter Leeds was based on screen legend Elizabeth Taylor. Leeds in turn dominates her diminutive, frilly-collared husband Hachiro (modeled on boxer-turned comedian Octopus Hachiro), and everybody indulges Ebirusu in what is described as his “illicit love” for Jun Yagami, herself a take on the real-life singer Junko Yagami, who recorded songs for Final Yamato, a pile of hit singles and albums, and now lives in the United States. 
obligatory Mojo Nixon reference

The heavy lifting in these harebrained Maneko stratagems is usually carried out by hapless Robot tribesbots. The Robots are led by Darth Bellow, a diminutive Darth Vader (voiced by Darth Vader’s Japanese voice actor Toru “Dr. Nambu” Ohira), but their ultimate ruler is a maniacal Barbie doll named “Mother” who resides in a giant rice cooker, and their battle leader is Tetsujin Ultra Z, a dopey cross between Tetsujin-28 and Ultraman. In peaceful contrast, the diminutive Senobi people live an idyllic existence under the gentle guidance of their leader, the kindly… wait for it… Obi-Wan Senobi.

Darth Bellow, Tetsujin Ultra Z in super pose
The pieces of Starzan S fall into place early and the show settles into its Jun-capturing, Starzan-rescuing, Paratopia-questing groove. Starzan’s face gets stuck in goofy mode and he becomes a masked tokusatsu hero. An amnesia-causing tidal wave isolates Jun and Ebirusu – is this his big chance for love?  Starzan shows Jun his secret jungle home, an upside-down wrecked spaceship now home to weird nightclubbing aliens, complete with a Sex Pistols needle drop. Ma Maneko has the Robots construct a giant angry Buddha Maneko statue robot; what could go wrong? There’s a visit Mutan’s home planet, a dead ringer for the Ewok-infested moon of Endor, and we learn how he and Starzan met. Jun and Starzan and the rest of the cast travel to Earth where the mystery of Starzan’s heritage is revealed, and the bankrupt Maneko family’s possessions are traumatically auctioned off. On their return to Kirakira, the evidence all points to one conclusion – that the show is almost over and they’d better wrap things up! Paratopia’s secret is revealed partly through the viewing of hundreds of Beta videotapes, the dark mystery behind Darth Bellow is solved, the Robot and Senobi tribes bury the robot hatchet, and peace finally returns to the beautiful planet Kirakira, where the triumphant jungle yell of Starzan still echoes through the forest.

Starzan S records, books, toys
So the big question is, what the heck does “Okawari Boy” mean, anyway?  Well, “okawari” is a Japanese expression  used when requesting a second helping of food or another drink, the “kawari” meaning “instead of something” or “replacement”. So in the context of Starzan being a replacement for Tarzan, it makes sense. I guess. Sure. Why not.  The other big question is, what happened to Starzan S?

The show never even had the courtesy of a home video release; all that survive are home-taped TV broadcasts. Tatsunoko shamelessly mines its own back catalog for concepts and characters, yet no reboot for Starzan S. Why no revival? Some theories: perhaps a show starring characters based on real people (Maneko, Ebirusu, Jun) and thinly disguised parodies of extant, copyrighted fictional characters (Darth Bellow, Starzan) is bound to attract the attention of somebody’s legal department somewhere, attention the notoriously lawsuit-averse Japanese are loath to attract. Add Starzan’s weak TV reception to the mix, and it’s safe to assume Tatsunoko was/is reluctant to throw good money after bad.

Starzan S, Mutan, and Ebiten, Ojinbo, and Kakasan of the Senobi
Starzan S was heavy on the cultural Japanese gags so it’s unsurprising that international markets were also slow to warm to the series, though Starzan S did make it to Spain and Korea and two reported VHS releases in Poland. Without any sort of (non-Polish) home video release, Starzan S vanished, and like other obscure Tatsunoko series "Animentary Ketsudan" and "Meiyo no Sukouto", the series was only able to make a dent among Western anime fans through international tape-trading; an already tenuous link dependent upon a select, obsessive-compulsive group of Japanese fans.

Still, let’s not be too maudlin. The viewing public’s gestalt mind probably made the right call; OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S is manifestly a 1984 artifact, a product of that final pop of the anime boom, a cute 34 episode SF comedy. Wackier than Urashiman, not as wacky as Ippatsuman, smart (or lucky) enough to not overstay its welcome, leaving behind nothing more than some toys, some fond memories, a giant wrecked Buddha Maneko robot, and the echoing call of the God Of The Jungle.  Will we ever find our own Paratopia of a Starzan S re-release on DVD or BD or streaming or some new, heretofore unheard of technology? Will we, once again, be able to show OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S all our spaces?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

air quotes required; the story of "Japanimation" the magazine

The exciting thing about the independent comic boom of the 1980s is that pretty much anybody with 32 pages of content and a line of credit at a printer could be a comic book publisher, right up there with Stan Lee and Jenette Khan and the Goldwaters over at Archie. Alternatively, the depressing thing about the independent comic boom of the 80s is, again, pretty much anybody could be a comic book publisher, which led to comic shops being flooded with subliterate, non-returnable junk, which then inevitably led to the independent comic bust of the late 1980s.

Of course, for our purposes the 80s meant Robotech and a big new wave of anime fans bursting forth in an explosion of fan activity. The networks of clubs, newsletters and fanzines, of murky comic con video rooms and disreputable comic con dealers, of standing around the comic shop waiting for the next issue of Robotech Masters and for something called "Viz" to release something called "Area 88"  - all this interest congealed in a few professional, comic-shop distributed publications devoted to Japanese animation.  Protoculture Addicts, Animag, and Anime-Zine all vied for the late 1980s reader, but today we look at a singular example of the genre, simply titled "Japanimation". This portmanteau, once the hip, with-it term used by those "in the know"when describing Japanese animation, may very well have been coined by superfan and Desslok cosplayer Rob Fenelon, but its time in the sun was cut mercifully short; fandom soon settled on the sportier soubriquet "anime" and “Japanimation” was left as a newbie shibboleth.
From Detroit's Eclectic Press and edited by future independent filmmaker Joseph Doughrity, "Japanimation" is right out of a 1987 time capsule. There's the charmingly confusing katakana in the title, some muscular off-model Yamato fan art, and ads for Ninja High School and Comico’s Robotech comics. Setting type with a dot-matrix printer? Why not, it’s the 80s.

Robotech producer Harmony Gold’s litigious reputation shines brightly here in "Japanimation"'s editorial page, which explains how their previous issue's Robotech coverage offended HG's tender sensibilities. Hence this issue's focus on Star Blazers, a latchkey kid of a property its American corporate masters barely remembered they owned, let alone cared about.  Readers will also be happy to learn that "the cute boom" of Outlanders, Wanna-Bes, and something called "Dragonball" was then currently detonating over Japan. Better catch it while you can! Who knows how long a show like Dragonball will last?

"Japanimation" keeps us up to date on the latest news gleaned from other, more professional periodicals - Viz Comics will be publishing Area 88 and Mai The Psychic Girl, while Now Comics has the Speed Racer license and also hedges their Japanese cartoon bets with the home-grown "Dai Kamikaze", a really terrible all-American take on the giant robot.

"Japanimation" fans will be pleased to learn also that hobby kit importer Twentieth Century Imports will be releasing all of Votoms on VHS tape in the United States, news courtesy the Somebody Making Stuff Up News Network. This combination of press releases and wishful thinking was emblematic of anime-club newsletter writing of the period.

Meanwhile, Manga American Style delivers up to the minute reviews of the stuff on the racks down at Bob's Elf Dungeon & Comics World that the owner only carries because you and your two weird pals constantly bug him about it. Is this perhaps the earliest American Golgo 13 fan art?

But now it's on to the meat of "Japanimation" - their feature story on Space Cruiser Yamato, the Japanese SF anime hit that was yesterday's news in Japan but still garnering fan interest in America courtesy syndicated Star Blazers reruns.  Four pages synopsizing Yamato’s voyages may seem a bit much, but remember, many American fans might not even know half these Yamato adventures existed. In 1987, seeing Yamato films on home video in the States meant quasi-legally swapping fuzzy VHS tapes with strangers. Who’s got time for that?

If necessary, the enterprising anime magazine editor can also fill eight or nine pages with a Yamato character guide and a complete synopsis of every episode of the first Star Blazers series, simultaneously padding out their magazine and saving the Earth!

And if you still have two pages to kill, why not just print out the lyrics to the Star Blazers theme song? Why not indeed? Actually there are many, many good reasons as to why not. But let’s move on.

When you're all done be sure to list your sources - meaning, the Roman Albums you photocopied artwork from, and the Ardith Carlton and Fred Schodt articles that were the only available English-language resources at the time, unless you’re counting fan art of Derek Wildstar fighting Bruce Lee or the Star Blazers cast drawn as horses.

Rounding out this issue of "Japanimation" is a humorous fan cartoon from an uncredited Paul Sudlow (okay, he’s credited on the title page, just not here) and what would have been a fine advertisement for model kit outfit TCI, if "Japanimation" had remembered to actually place TCI's name on their ad. Oops. Anyway, it makes a great back cover illustration, and probably inspired years worth of conjecture among readers as to what exactly a "Galvion" was.

"Japanimation" would last one more issue under this title, would change to "Anime Journal" with issue #4, and then vanished into 25-cent longboxes in the back rooms of North American comic shops. Was this just one more semi-pro anime magazine? Or was its very name emblematic of the thrilled, slightly confused era of anime fandom from which it sprang? Is “Japanimation” evidence of the influence American comic book culture had on anime fandom’s development? And will the term “Japanimation” ever make a non-ironic comeback? (Yes, yes, yes, and hopefully not.)

thanks to Eclectic Press, Andrew Popp, Steve Harrison, Paul Sudlow, and the comic shops of America for making this article possible

Saturday, November 28, 2015

at the movies

Movies! Everybody loves 'em.  And if you're reading this blog, chances are the kind of movies you like come from Japan and are animated! And chances are also that if you were a kid in the 60s or even the 70s or the 80s, you might have had the chance to see a Japanese animated film in your local drive-in or at a kiddy matinee, long before Akira and Totoro would tag-team the arthouse cinemas of North America and turn "cartoons" into "animation.” We’re talking back in the day here, long before Japanese animation was seen as a viable entertainment medium, way before anyone realized that “Annie May” was anything other than maybe the name of the big-haired lady selling tickets in the box office.
Magic Boy
And like all great journeys this one begins with a ninja. Magic Boy (Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, 1959) would be the first Japanese animated film to get North American theatrical release, screening in June of ‘61 courtesy MGM. The ninja magic of Magic Boy was followed very closely by Globe Pictures’ American release of Toei’s Panda And The Magic Serpent (Hakujaden). This movie premiered in Japan a year before Magic Boy, making it the first color Japanese animated film. Panda, directed by Taiji Jack & The Witch Yabushita, at one point was widely available via poorly transferred public domain VHS. 60s America was filled with Japanese imports; not just transistor radios playing Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki", but anime feature films like Alakazam The Great, The Littlest Warrior,  Little Prince & The Eight Headed Dragon, and Gulliver's Travels Beyond The Moon would enthrall kids at matinees and in the playgrounds of drive-in theaters.

lobby cards, print ads, & LPs for Alakazam, Panda, and others

Once the 1970s got moving, Japan's hunger for big-budgeted children's animation features would be replaced by hunger for TV shows starring easily marketable toy robots, Ultramen, and Masked Riders. Fewer animated films were made in Japan, and consequently fewer made their way across the pond to entertain and mystify us.

poster and lobby cards for Nobody's Boy
One of these stragglers was Yugo Serikawa's Chibikko Remi to Meiken Kapi (Little Remi and Capi, The Famous Dog), the first anime adaptation of Hector "Perrine Story" Malot's novel Sans Famille. This 1970 Toei release affects a jarring, very dated 1960 visual style.  Under the title Nobody’s Boy, the film wouldn’t make it into American theaters until the early 1980s, courtesy "Malijack Productions" and an English dub starring Jim "Thurston Howell III" Backus. Nobody's Boy would later appear on cable TV and in the children's video sections of video rental stores in the US and UK.

The fairy tale Jack And The Beanstalk may be an old story, but when you put a director like Gisaburo Sugii in charge, things are bound to get surreal, and that’s exactly what happens in this 1974 feature. Nippon Herald’s Jack didn't have to wait a decade but made it to US cinemas in the year of its release via Columbia Pictures. Mixing European and Japanese animation styles, it sidesteps cliches and winds up a thoughtful, slightly eerie film, fully storybook-enabled for the kids, yet unearthly and visually dynamic enough to entertain adults.

newspaper ad from Seattle Times, June 1980
1980 would be an almost unheralded turning point in the world of anime localization; Roger Corman's New World Pictures would release Toei's 1979 Galaxy Express 999 film in theaters across America. For the first time,  a popular Japanese property would be brought to the States a few months after its Japanese release and marketed not as a children's picture but a science-fiction adventure on the level of Star Wars. This is the kind of simultaneous, professional, serious anime release we’ve come to take for granted here in the modern world, but in 1980 this approach simply hadn’t happened before.

Reviews are kinda harsh
Don't confuse "Galaxy Express" with
"Midnight Express." Trust me.
Of course the New World version of Galaxy Express would be problematic; edits for time would chop half an hour out of Tetsuro Hoshino’s journey to the Mechanized Planet, and celebrity impersonation voice acting made Captain Harlock's appearance less impressive than it might otherwise have been. It was 1980, people still didn't take Japanese animation very seriously. But, and this is the important part, they were taking it more seriously than they had been. Galaxy Express would screen across America, with trailers, radio spots, posters and TV ads advertising Leiji Matsumoto's Rin Taro-directed space fantasy to a nation just awakening to the potential of Japanese space cartoons. The film would appear post-cinema on cable TV and finish its life cycle in the shelves of home video stores with a VHS release, lodging deep in the memories of young viewers who would struggle years later to recall the name of "that cartoon with the train in space."

Five years later, in the midst of releasing gems like Space Raiders, Deathstalker, and C.H.U.D., New World snagged another prestigious Japanese anime release, Tokuma Shoten/Top Craft's Nausicaa, directed by some guy named Hayao Miyazaki. A singular science-fantasy vision of ecological destruction, the film was an instant classic and put Miyazaki on the map as Japan's top anime director. New World would waste no time in again cutting thirty minutes, dumbing down the dialogue, and creating new poster art that split the difference between Mad Max, Dune, and Star Trek. Still, we have to take the bad with the good, and Warriors would, like Galaxy Express before it, be seen on screens across the United States and Canada.

Miyazaki’s Nausicaa was powerful enough to withstand any amount of shoddy localization. Theater patrons and later those who saw the film on cable television or rental VHS couldn’t help but be impressed by the film, even if the main character was now named "Zandra", and its clear refusal to be a "children's film" makes it a milestone on American movie screens.

Toronto Star movie listing and VHS box art for "Warriors"
But was it?  Were there earlier attempts at releasing Japanese anime films aimed at grownups in America? Well, there was one. Maybe two. Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions, responsible for internationally successful shows about robot boys and talking white lions, took a chance on feature animation for older audiences in the late 60s. Their 1969 "Animerama" feature A Thousand And One Nights, based on Sir Richard Burton's translation of the bawdy Arabic folk tales, is a who's who of anime talent like Osamu Dezaki and Eichi Yamamoto, resulting in a reasonably entertaining if meandering film. Purportedly an English-dubbed version received a very limited theatrical release in America, but the only surviving evidence is the dubbed trailer.

from the English trailer for "A Thousand And One Nights"
Mushi's next feature, 1970s Cleopatra, was an indulgent mess, a hodgepodge of sight gags, anachronisms, and Dame Oyaji and Sazae-San cameos crammed into the story of Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar, all bookended by a bizarre live-action/cartoon-head science-fiction subplot. A massive flop in Japan, this film was a crippling blow to Mushi's finances; desperately they licensed the movie to an American distributor, who released it with a self-imposed X rating under the title "Cleopatra Queen Of Sex." Unlike A Thousand And One Nights, evidence of Cleopatra's American release does exist; at least one screening of a subtitled print took place at New York City's Bijou in April of 1972. Variety's review is not kind, referencing a "disconcerting clash of styles in the animation" and "an overabundance of bawdy blue grossness",  remarking "it is difficult to imagine anyone being aroused by the naked breasts of a cartoon character," a sentiment no doubt shocking to today's waifu-worshipping 2D love slaves.

"Cleopatra, Queen Of Sex"
The failure of Cleopatra and of its followup Belladonna Of Sadness (which after critical re-evaluation is getting a remastered theatrical release) would leave animated films for grownups in the hands of Ralph "Wizards" Bakshi and whatever Europeans were thinking when they made Tarzoon, Shame Of The Jungle. After Warriors Of The Wind blew away, there would be a long, dark movie-house anime interregnum; sure, the stitched-together Robotech The Movie would briefly appear, only to be hurriedly whisked away to a hazardous waste containment facility.  It would be late 1989 before Streamline Pictures delivered Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira to American cinemas, making Japanese animation a force to be reckoned with wherever on the Venn diagram film snobs and animation nerds meet. Nowadays new releases of films by Mamoru Oshii or Mamoru Hosoda, Isao Takahata or Hayao “Gone Fishing” Miyazaki are a safe bet to show up in towns with hip, with-it theaters.

However, the decline of  the neighborhood video rental, difficult times for movie theater owners,  the collapse of physical media, and the whimsical unreliability of streaming video all herald a new and unsatisfying era for the seeker of slightly nontraditional cinema.  Will the local theater once again become our window into the world of non-Disney animation for adults and kids and adults who think like kids? Can we ever return to the days of the double feature, the all-night shockathon, the kiddy matinee, the hunger of an industry desperate to fill its screens with darn near anything that will fit through the projector’s shining gate? Probably not.  Still, as long as popcorn pops in a lobby somewhere, as long as our feet still stick to the floors of our neighborhood movie house, we’ll always have hope.

let's all go to the lobby

Special thanks to Chris Hill and the Toronto Public Library for their assistance.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

10th anniversary of 15th anniversary of Metal Skin Panic Madox-01

This review of AnimEigo’s Madox-01 15th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition first appeared in 2005. Since then, I’ve learned a few more things about Madox-01, namely that Hideaki “Evangelion” Anno did some key animation for it, and that my DVD of this title has mysteriously vanished. Did I loan it to you?

Notable for being AnimEigo’s first release, Metal Skin Panic Madox-01 led the way for uncut, subtitled Japanese animation to the American market.  Before this release, anime in the States was available either as chopped-and-dubbed kidvid for the afterschool UHF audience, or as cheaply designed videotapes in the “Family” section of your local video rental. After AnimEigo and Madox, America would see an invasion of unadulterated, sometimes adults-only anime aimed directly at the shelves of your local Blockbuster, and things would never be the same again.

Apart from this note of historical interest, Madox is otherwise unremarkable except to serve as an example of several things: of the mid-1980s Original Video Animation boom, of the persistence of abnormal hair color in Japanese anime characters, and of just how obsessive and nitpicky a design team can get when it comes to military hardware.

The OVA era of the 1980s is an important time in Japanese animation; creative teams raised on groundbreaking animation like Gundam and Yamato seized the means of production and started producing direct-to-video animation. Titles like Vampire Hunter D, Bubblegum Crisis, and M.D. Geist would become legends, while others like Digital Devil Story and Cosmos Pink Shock would vanish into sometimes well-deserved obscurity.  Unrestrained by the mores of television broadcasters or the financial obligations of theatrical release, OVA productions used their freedom to produce groundbreaking, artistically challenging works that were too risky for traditional release, animation that reflected more personal visions, rather than the needs of the toy company sponsors.  Plus, they were easier for American fans to get, since you didn’t have to know somebody in Japan to tape anime from television broadcasts- you could just buy the damned things and have done with it. 

Lack of toy company sponsorship is kind of a shame in the case of Madox-01, since the mechanical hardware on display in this video cries out for a highly detailed toy.  This 1988 release is the story of the MADOX, a self-contained personal armored combat machine; in other words, a very plausible looking, technically feasible version of that hoary old staple of Japanese animation, the giant robot.  Developed by Japanese heavy industry under contract with the US Army and the Japanese Self Defense Forces, we first see the MADOX in action as it defeats three heavy tanks in fierce combat. The American tank commander Kilgore wants a rematch, but MADOX’s test pilot Kusomoto, who is naturally a sexy Japanese woman with orange hair and a tight combat suit, isn’t interested.  The MADOX is crated up and put on a truck to be sent to the US HQ in Tokyo

After Tokyo’s bad drivers cause the truck to crash, the crated-up MADOX winds up in an auto repair shop.  Teenage greasemonkey Kouji takes it home to spend the afternoon messing with the whatever-it-is before he meets his girlfriend that night.  So he puts the MADOX on, which by the way was shipped while in “scramble mode”, and before he knows it the thing is rocketing through the Tokyo streets, out of control, with the JSDF and the US Army in hot pursuit.

Now Kouji has to dodge Kusomoto who’s in MADOX-02, he’s under attack from Col. Kilgore riding a cute little articulated tank, the skies are full of Apache attack helicopters – and he’s got to meet his girlfriend atop the NSR Building before she leaves forever!!  What’s a Japanese teenager to do?

What follows is standard-issue anime-style urban property destruction, replete with authentic otaku-approved guns & ammo and a mysterious lack of civilian casualties.  You remember what high-tech war is like – lots of expensive precision machinery operated by skilled, highly trained professional technicians, waged far away from noncombatants, and not much at all like the real thing.  For all its fetishization of military hardware, Madox-01 is as much of a fantasy as the dumbest, most outlandish transforming robot cartoon. Which, by the way, is UFO Diapollon. Or maybe Magnetic Robo Ga-Keen.

The theme of military action destroying an unwitting civilian Tokyo has been visited in the world of anime many times, most notably by Hayao Miyazaki in Lupin III episode #155, “Farewell Lovely Lupin”, where the spectacle of tanks and artillery blasting away at Tokyo landmarks was shown to have terrible consequences. There’s no such moralizing here in Madox, where the full panoply of warfare is unleashed with total casualties being, um, one.

Of course, expecting any kind of editorial position from a 40-minute OVA is probably asking too much, but jeez, the guys who made this video lived within a subway ride of some of the heaviest firepower on that side of the globe, and you’d think they had some sort of opinion about it other than, “boy, isn’t this stuff cool.”  Then again, this was the 1980s; destruction without context was just the way things were done back then.

Giant shoulders, suspenders, and a wimped-out synthesizer soundtrack constantly remind the viewer that he is back in the days of Max Headroom and New Coke.  Tamura Hideki’s character designs reach a nadir of sorts in Kusomoto; her giant forehead and weirdly angled chin resemble nothing so much as the specter of perennial TV game show guest Dorothy Kilgallen.  ARTMIC’s  animation is naturally obsessive and detailed in scenes containing military ordinance, and surprisingly inept with the human figure; there are some rather basic animation errors towards the end of Madox-01 that show us exactly where the studio’s mind was.

The English dub, by Swirl, isn’t really anything special; there’s not a lot of dialog in this OVA to begin with, and what we do get is rendered competently but without flash. Subtitles include details on what “N.B.C.” warfare means, and suffice to say we’re not talking Leno versus Letterman. There are two Japanese language tracks, one with English subtitles and another with minimal subtitles, a nice touch for those conversant with the language.

Further evidence as to what floats Madox-01’s boat is evident in the ten-minute accompanying featurette, a live-action documentary look at the JSDF’s heavy hitters circa 1988.  Apache helicopters, tanks, howitzers, rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, and other crowd-pleasers are shown at the Mt. Fuji proving grounds, blasting helpless paper targets into oblivion as we’re shown the real-life versions of all those models in Godzilla films. It’s an interesting look at Japan’s defense-only military during the height of cold-war bubble-economy budgets.

Madox-01’s place in AnimEigo history is confirmed with another extra, a Q&A session with CEO Robert Woodhead that reveals, among other things, that for their first release he chose Madox over Project A-Ko. Another Q&A with audio director Eric Tomosunas of Swirl Recordings & Film isn’t quite as interesting.  The commentary track features Eric and several of the lead Madox voice talent.  Early on diverges from commenting on Madox to a round-table discussion on what it’s like to dub Japanese cartoons in general;  interesting, but not anything that hasn’t happened at every anime convention ever.

As an historical artifact, this 15th anniversary edition of Madox-01 is about as classy a package as you’re going to get for a 40-minute, otherwise forgotten OVA.  It’s a relic from the early days of direct-to-video animation, and much like its counterparts from those days, isn’t a bad piece of anime for an evening’s rental.  There’s something to be said for a short, self-contained story with enough action and suspense to keep itself going for 40 minutes.  You’re not asked for a long investment of time, there aren’t legions of characters to keep track of or a backstory to research; just put it on the TV and enjoy watching the stuff blow up. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Class Of '85

In September I presented this piece at Anime Weekend Atlanta. Thirty years back (!!), I was part of Atlanta’s local anime club, making library meeting rooms a welcoming place for anime fans. I was a teenager at the time; no, I’m not THAT old.

Thirty years ago Japanese anime fandom in the United States was a liminal beast, in transition from a centralized fan club model to a loosely connected clutch of fiefdoms, waiting for technology to catch up with our ideas.  For many, 1985 was the pivotal year.

 Who was part of this “Class Of ’85?”  Where did they come from, what did they do? Their childhood was spent watching Speed Racer or Battle Of the Planets or Star Blazers. Teen years found them in comic-con dealers rooms or in the back row at the local Star Trek or Dr Who clubs, asking questions about Japanese animation. They’d find other interested fans, they’d learn about anime clubs in far-away places like California or Texas or Ohio, and finally they’d start their own.

They were the latest in a series of anime fan surges that had been washing over North America repeatedly since the early 1960s, each fed in turn by syndication of Astro Boy, Kimba, Gigantor, Marine Boy, Prince Planet, Tobor The Eighth Man, and Speed Racer, sometimes Princess Knight or a UHF television broadcast of Jack And the Witch. All this foreign TV input coalesced into fandom in the late 70s, when Japanese-language UHF began broadcasting superrobots and when home video technology reached the point where such broadcasts could be replayed over and over again to audiences of fans. These “Japanimation” fans would gather in LA, SF and NYC to watch poorly subtitled TV cartoons and 16mm prints of Astro Boy episodes; and they’d form the first Japanese animation fan group, the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO).

Sandy Frank’s iteration of Tatsunoko’s Gatchaman, Battle Of The Planets, began syndication in September of 1978. BOTP fans would shortly start the second national anime group to come to any sort of prominence, the Battle Of The Planets Fan Club. Organized in early 1979 by Ohio’s Joey Buchanan, the BOTP FC would be active through the mid 1980s, with outreach via classified ads in Starlog. 

BOTP Fan Club newsletters (thanks to G.)
Star Blazers, the American version of Space Battleship Yamato, would air in September of 1979; it inspired still more fans, clubs, newsletters, and even the first Star Blazers-themed anime conventions. For those hooked at home or converted via anime screenings at local comic & Star Trek shows,  the BOTP, the Star Blazers club and the C/FO became the next stop for learning more about “Japanimation.”

Our Class Of ’85 spent 1984 taping episodes of Voltron from local TV, wishing for Star Blazers re-runs, waiting to hear back from that anime club they contacted after they found their flyer at the local comic con, and finally taking matters into their own hands. They’d find a few fellow fans with enough Japanese animation on videotape to reasonably entertain an audience for five or six hours and were crazy enough to volunteer to do all the work of hauling televisions and VCRs and boxes of tapes, and somebody would find a space they could meet once a month. Repeat in cities across the US and Canada: anime club.

C/FO Magazine, the national club's publication
When Robotech - Harmony Gold’s localization of Tatsunoko’s Macross, Southern Cross and Mospeada - made its syndicated TV debut in the fall of 1985, “Japanimation” fandom was already in place and ready for its close-up, Mr DeMille.  Newly minted anime fans would learn of the Macross feature film, they’d find out that their favorite arcade game “Cliff Hanger” was assembled from a couple of Lupin III feature films, that there was an entire slew of Japanese cartoons about alien high school students and vampire hunters and mercenary fighter pilots and teenage trouble consultants and ESP policemen, that there was already two and a half decades of Japanese animation to get caught up on and more happening all the time.

(I’m using “class of 85” here as glib shorthand for the whole 1984-1987 time frame. 1985 was when our local anime fans got together but meetings didn’t get regular until ‘86. 1987 was our busiest year and the winter of 1988-89 was when our club, like many other C/FO affiliated clubs, fractured beyond repair. Anyway my high school yearbook with Julia Roberts’ photo is from 1985, so “Class Of 1985” it becomes. )
now showing at your local anime club meeting
Get comfortable. Anime club meetings lasted for hours, with a mix of films, TV episodes, and OVAs showing on the main television for as long as possible. Titles screened would typically be in Japanese without benefit of subtitles, though there was a thriving market in photocopied English synopsis guides describing who was doing what to whom. Occasionally a more fluent (or delusional) member would appoint himself facilitator and provide running commentary, which would degenerate into a crowd of people attempting to top each other’s humorous pre-MST3K commentary. Members would socialize in the back of the room or in the hall, play RPG games, draw fan artwork, sell each other anime merchandise they’d picked up and didn’t want, build model kits, and generally display future anime-con behavior.

It was a golden age for home video retailers. The dust was still settling from the Format Wars and Sony’s Beta was sinking fast, mortally wounded by VHS in the marketplaces of North America. Early VCR adopters paid $1000-$1500 for the privilege, but 1985 consumers saw top of the line machines retailing for less than $600, with bargain models at around $150 - prices anime fans could afford even on their part-time after-school K-mart salary. The technology itself had progressed from top-loading, wired remote, mono decks to 4-head stereo machines capable of crystal-clear freeze frame images, all the better to view bootlegged Japanese cartoons with.

Print advertising for VCRs circa 1985
Maximizing our AV experience was a must, and this might involve splitting the RF signal to two or more TVs, giving the whole crowd a decent shot at enjoying Fight! Iczer One. Thrift-store receivers and speakers would delight and/or annoy the patrons with a rough approximation of stereo sound. The Class Of ’85 learned that no anime club meeting was complete without a daisy chain of VCRs wired together in the back of the room, distributing that newly acquired tape of Vampire Hunter D down the whirring line of VHS decks with the end of the chain getting the worst of the deal. 

Where did those tapes come from? A thriving Japanese home video market put direct-to video anime releases, feature anime films and the occasional TV collection on the shelves of Tsutaya video rental outlets. Japanese fandom, just beginning to call itself “otaku”, was taping anime off-air, as seen in the fine documentary film “1985 Graffiti Of Otaku Generation”, later exchanging copies of these tapes with US pen pals. Servicemen stationed in Japan spent their garrison pay on blank videotape while fans in American cities with Japanese minorities were learning to haunt the local Japanese neighborhoods in search of video rental stores.

your choice: kidvid or homebrew
America’s own home video boom had even put some licensed releases of Japanese animation into our own video rental stores. Most were aimed at the children’s market, and even the less-kiddified releases would feature annoying English dubbing and the occasional edit for time or objectionable content. Once anime fans had seen uncut anime straight from Japan, kid-vid substitutes would not satisfy. 

Promoting their new anime clubs was also a struggle. Using the internet for wide promotion and informational purposes was still in its infancy; anime clubs had to get the word out using old-fashioned print. Just as cheap home video technology enabled videotape-based TV fandom, cheap photocopy technology was causing a fanzine explosion, and fans would take full advantage of Kinko’s and related outlets.  Xeroxed flyers would promote the club in comic book stores and at fan conventions. Members would be informed of upcoming meetings via a monthly newsletter assembled out of whatever fan art could be harvested and whatever anime news could be gleaned from magazines, the news media, and the wishful thinking of fellow fans. Assembling these newsletters meant an extra day or so of work every month for the club officers, all published without benefit of scanners or graphic design software, just typewriters, white-out, scissors, and glue. Copied, collated, stapled, addressed and stamped, the final product would then be subject to the mercies of the United States Post Office.

getting the word out about Bubblegum Crisis
1985’s anime fans would also suffer the burdens of international economic policy. The Plaza Accords meant a rising yen vs the US dollar. This, and natural supply and demand dynamics, inflated the US prices of anime goods. In Japan, the anime market shrank from the “anime boom” years of 1982-84 even as their “Bubble Economy” swelled preparatory to bursting. 

Happily ignorant of the larger economic forces, the Class Of ‘85’s local clubs kept meeting at its libraries and community centers, publishing its newsletters, screening anime at comic cons and Fantasy Fairs to appreciative crowds and grumbling con organizers, swapping tapes and making road trips and generally living the 80s anime fan lifestyle of pizza, Coca-Cola, and late nights spent copying Project A-Ko over and over. What they lacked in data or tech they made up for in brotherhood; a typical anime club meeting might include a potluck junk-food smorgasbord, a surprise birthday celebration or a post-meeting dinner, with fans from three or four states turning anime club meetings into impromptu anime family reunions.

the Atlanta club in its natural environment
As a chapter of a national organization, the local club had certain obligations to the parent body. In practice these obligations were vaguely defined and generally involved swapping newsletters, tapes and gossip with other chapters. At one point the national C/FO was sending a Yawata-Uma horse (a gaily painted hand carved wooden horse given as a gift on special occasions) from chapter to chapter to be decorated with signatures and mascot illustrations; this arrived, was duly scrawled upon, and delivered to the next link in the chain, perhaps the pinnacle of cooperative achievement for any national anime club. Photos of this horse eventually wound up in the March 1987 issue of Animage, along with pictures of American cosplayers and members of Atlanta’s local club.

Yawata-Uma & fans captured on home video in somebody's basement
What finally happened to the Class of ’85 after the ‘80s ended? The Battle Of The Planets club had long since vanished, while the national Star Blazers club leveraged its reach and became Project A-Kon. The national leadership of the C/FO used parliamentary procedure to reduce what had been 30+ chapters in three nations to a few local Southern California clubs. Former C/FO chapters became sovereign anime-club states charting their own anime club destinies, while other clubs that never bothered with the C/FO kept right on doing what they’d been doing all along. For example; the Anime Hasshin club, by virtue of a lively and regularly-published newsletter, a tape-trading group, and a total lack of interest in hosting meetings or chapters, became a leader in the 90s anime fan community.

join a local anime club today
1990 saw the start of the direct-to-video, uncut, English subtitled localization industry with AnimEigo’s Madox-01. Films like Akira would put Japanese animation into the art-house cinema circuit and finally, into the cultural lexicon as something other than Speed Racer. Local anime clubs began their long slide into irrelevance, faced with Blockbuster’s anime shelves and Genie or Compuserve’s dedicated anime boards. University anime groups, with giant lecture halls, professional video presentation equipment, and a captive audience of bored nerds, sprang up wholly independently of any extant fan networks. The anime club officers of the 1980s were growing up, graduating college, getting married, moving on to careers and lives beyond a monthly appointment to deliver Japanese cartoons to a roomful of fans, some of whom hadn’t bathed or been to the Laundromat in a while. 

They’re still around, that Class Of ’85. You can probably find a few survivors at your local anime con holding forth behind a panel table or on a couch in the hotel lobby, spinning tales of what fandom was like in the days of laser discs and Beta tapes. Some are no longer with us, living on in photographs, the dot matrix print of club newsletters, and in the fond memories of their fellow anime fans.  Others have moved on to the far corners of the Earth or across town, in a world that now recognizes the truth of what they were trying to say three decades ago. Turns out this Japanese animation thing is pretty cool after all.  

so long, Bill.