Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sufficiently Directed: Insufficient Direction

Insufficient Direction by Moyoco Anno, published in the United States by Vertical Inc., $14.95 US/$16.95 CND  

Moyoco Anno is a manga artist whose body of work stars everything from cutesy magical girls to red-light district courtesans to modern corporate women, and who happens to be married to fellow creative Hideaki Anno.  Anno the filmmaker is not only the postmodernist director of, among many other things, GAINAX’s Evangelion, but is also wholly committed to the full otaku lifestyle. Dominated by his obsession with the colorful, childish, giant-monster-infested Showa-era end of the entertainment spectrum, Hideaki Anno’s all-consuming otaku immersion has arguably led to a successful entertainment career, but has also has rendered him incapable of interacting with the “straight” world. Dragging him kicking and screaming into the real-life situations of marriage, home ownership, and other real-life grownup adult details is a daunting task for anyone. Especially when you’re inexplicably drawing yourself as a crazy-eyed toddler in footy PJs.

This is the premise of Moyoco Anno’s Insufficient Direction, a collection of short, sharp stories detailing the trials and tribulations of “Rompers”- Moyoco’s toddler stand-in- and her life together with “Director” as their differing lifestyle choices meet and clash.

As a guy roughly in the same age range and sharing a lot of predilections as “Director”, it’s downright appalling to see him tooling along in the car singing along to the X-Bomber theme song. Because… I do that.  I too was obsessed with Ultraman as a child and know way too much about super-robot cartoons and who directed what World Masterpiece Theater production of which juvenile literary classic, and it is profoundly unsettling watching my life unfold in a manga written and drawn by complete strangers who, so far as I know, are not spying on me.  Still, the parallels are ominous. “Rompers” and “Director” were married, as my cartoonist wife and I were, in 2002 – and while neither groom sported a Kamen Rider costume, as shown in the manga, they DID distribute their own doujinshi to the guests (why didn’t we think of that?).  The couple faces the same questions many of us face today; what to do with the piles of DVDs and LDs? How best to handle the pot belly that results from the sedentary otaku lifestyle?  Where in their tiny apartment will the Kamen Rider figures go? How should a faithful wife react when – again, ominously paralleling my own life – she first sees her husband’s goofy amateur films? Thankfully for my own sanity, every time Insufficient Direction hits too close to home we come across a sequence where “Rompers” tries to convince “Director” that changing underwear and showering every day is critical, which I assure you is NOT an issue around HERE.

 “Rompers”, a successful josei/seinen manga artist prior to her relationship with “Director”, is fascinatingly distant from the otaku lifestyle. In the West, comics have been the realm of fanboys-turned-pro for so long that the idea of comics professionals un-obsessed with fandom trivia is a novelty, but “Rompers” could care less about tokusatsu shows or quotable Char Aznable quotes… at first, anyways.  Creative couples producing tag-team autobiographical comics are rare whatever hemisphere you’re in; the closest you’ll find to this work are perhaps the jam comics of Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Insufficient Direction thankfully steers clear of Crumb & The Bunch’s more confessional tendencies. In the manga-artist autobio field, Insufficient Direction’s nearest sibling available here may be Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary, which deals with altogether heavier subjects like alcoholism and depression while sidestepping any discussion of its effects on Azuma’s relationship.

As Insufficient Direction and the couple’s relationship progresses, “Rompers” succumbs to some kind of otaku version of Stockholm Syndrome and starts peppering her speech with references to Akage no Anne while joining “Director” in belting out the Hurricane Polymar theme song. Will she become, finally, an Ota-Wife? Is this even a thing? How far should a spouse go in adopting the quirks of their partner?  Can a manga really deal with the mysteries of the human heart and at the same time explain what an Ultra Bracelet is and why somebody would spend 140000 yen on one?

 For those not completely consumed by the otaku world, Insufficient Direction comes fully annotated with vital stats about Battle Fever J, Moomin, Super Girl Asuka, Xabungle, various Ultramen, the J-9 series, and otaku cultural icons like BIC Camera and Kourakuen Amusement Park. The book also does a pretty good job selling us on the “Smarty” infrared sauna. “Director” is given a lengthy postscript that hands us a lengthy, unflattering description of “otaku” and compliments his wife on nailing the subculture without giving the readers any mercy. Of course, as it says in the beginning of Insufficient Direction, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”  So don’t take it personally, otaku.

Moyoco Anno’s direct linework carries a lot of information and her expressive characters are able to communicate every emotion in spite of being drawn as swirly-eyed babies or hidden behind Director-san’s glasses.  Their Felix-and-Oscar relationship makes for entertaining reading no matter which side of the Otaku Divide you’re on, and this semi-autobiographical roller-coaster ride is just getting started; the anime version of Insufficient Direction premiered April 3 2014. We can only hope a new generation of obsessives will devote valuable brain cells to memorizing every detail of the life of “Rompers” and “Director”. 

Moyoco Anno will be appearing at the Toronto Comics Arts Festival May 10-11, 2014.  Attendance is free. See you there!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

world's most wanted

(this review of Pioneer's 2003 DVD release "Lupin The 3rd: The World's Most Wanted" originally appeared in 2003.  Pioneer's no longer in business and this DVD is out of print, but I had a lot of fun writing this review and am glad to present it again.)


I am saddened to report that once again the entertainment industry has demonstrated its contempt for the rule of law with the release of yet another in a long line of animated serials dealing with the notorious criminal, Lupin the 3rd.

This latest DVD release even has the audacity to poke fun at Lupin’s criminal status with its title “The World’s Most Wanted”.   I am shocked at the lack of respect for law that Pioneer, once a highly-regarded entertainment conglomerate, has demonstrated with this video.  It was bad enough that these supposedly comical cartoon “adventures” of that reprobate Lupin had been transmitted across the public airwaves during the mid 1970s, but to dredge these accounts of larcenous and immoral behavior from whatever pit of depravity they had been confined to is almost a crime in itself.

All of Lupin’s accomplices are fully implicated in the crimes this video depicts.  The gangster Jigen, the mercenary swordsman Goemon, and that curvaceous grifter Fujiko are all explicitly shown engaged in violations of the criminal codes of dozens of nations.  I am, as always, deeply embarrassed that the corrupt and malicious producers of these animated films have seen fit to include a painfully inept caricature of myself as a character in these shameful episodes.  It is a known fact that Lupin III has eluded capture so far - but not for lack of effort on my part, I am proud to say.  I only wish the same was true for some of our “brethren in blue”, who seem to regard this brigand as a harmless and entertaining thief rather than a menace to public safety and morals.

The six “escapades” contained in this DVD are fanciful recreations of some of Lupin’s most heinous offenses, as produced for Japanese television by the Tokyo Movie Shinsha animation studio.  “The Revenge Of Lupin The 3rd” features the destruction of an entire luxury liner, prompted by a madman driven to revenge after becoming the victim of one of Lupin’s previous schemes.  In the luridly titled “Buns, Guns, And Fun In The Sun”,  Lupin and his gang demonstrate what may be new heights of contempt for civilized society, as they not only rob the box office of Rio’s soccer stadium and make a mockery of the Brazilian penal system (here my opinion of the Rio police matches Lupin’s - I fear the tropical climate and moral lassitude of the inhabitants has contributed to the decline of this law enforcement unit) - but a priceless national landmark is perhaps irreparably damaged by Lupin’s unthinking greed.  “50 Ways To Leave Your 50-Foot Lover” is a fanciful tale of the supposed Loch Ness Monster, reportedly tamed by Fujiko’s singing voice.  “Gold Smuggling 101” is a primer in perfidy for anyone who wishes to embark on a life of crime.  I must say it was ingenious of Lupin to utilize a scheme straight out of the film Goldfinger, but then again, he IS a thief.  What disturbs me the most about this episode may be the depiction of the corruption of what was once a respected bank manager;  or perhaps it may be the depiction of myself, which literally portrays the author as a myopic crank from whom Lupin is able to escape without effort.  I assure you, my failure to permanently apprehend Lupin is a result of the criminal’s inhuman cunning and dexterity, not a lapse of attention from this detective.“Shaky Pisa” is remarkable not only for the earthquake-device that nearly destroys Pisa, but also for expecting the viewer to believe that Lupin the 3rd will retire from the scene while leaving millions of lire un-stolen.  In the “Cursed Case Scenario”, the ancient sands of Egypt are befouled by Lupin’s perfidious footsteps.  Not even national treasures are safe from his larcenous grasp!  Luckily his ill-gotten swag seems to be more trouble than it is worth.  
The animation of these criminal adventures is of the standard seen on broadcast television in Japan in the mid 1970s; adequate without devolving into primitivism, though bereft of the occasional flashes of artistry seen in other “cartoons” of the period.  The depiction of Lupin and his accomplices are realistic enough, though exaggerated for supposedly comic purposes.  Other than a garish series title in English, the opening credits are as originally presented, and the end credits are similar to the Japanese, with a rather weak instrumental replacing the original Japanese vocals.   Rendering these photoplays into English was obviously an attempt on Pioneer’s part to corrupt the morals of the children of the Western world, already known to be in a precarious state. 

Lupin’s English voice is remarkably similar to his Japanese.  This new Anglophone version, however, is closest of all to the rendition heard in the long-suppressed “Mystery of Mamo” film (though Lupin’s voice was the only point of accuracy in that otherwise scandalously erroneous production. “Ed Scott”, indeed).  Both Lupin and his crew of malcontents spout dialog that positively reeks of the disrespectful, flippant attitude that would lead one to a life of crime;  puns, insults, and innuendos of a leering nature abound in their speech.   I am positive that the intended audience for this low-class banter will find it quite amusing, however disturbing it may be to those of more refined tastes.

Seemingly tireless in its mania to promote lawlessness and crime, Pioneer has released this DVD with options of both English and Japanese language tracks.  A detailed section of line drawings of characters, devices, and locales acts as a veritable university education in wrongdoing for the interested viewer.  Previews for other of Pioneer’s perhaps more law-abiding productions fill the remainder of this digital video disc.

In conclusion, let me exhort Interpol to use every means at its disposal to prevent this latest affront to the public dignity.  How much longer will law-abiding citizens be forced to endure the glorification of criminality?  Is Lupin the 3rd the kind of figure we want held up to our children as a figure to be emulated?  Already reports are coming in about a new Lupin comic book in America, and the new year will see Lupin’s duplicitous face plastered across the television screens of that already criminal-infested country.  I urge you, sirs, to wait no longer.  For my part, I have just received information about Lupin’s latest target, and I must end this communication posthaste.  Rest assured, gentlemen, that this time I will DEFINITELY bring Lupin the 3rd to long-delayed justice.

Inspector Zenigata, ICPO

(transcription by correspondent Dave Merrill)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Dr. Zen And the Magic And Poorly Animated Machine

We like to think of Japanese animation as brilliant world-class entertainment, able to hold its own against the cartoon arts from around the globe.  Occasionally that’s the case. But often what we see from Japan is, like the TV cartoons from anywhere else, hastily-assembled, produced on a punishing deadline by stressed-out minimum wage employees, and aimed only at filling a few minutes of broadcast airtime and selling a few ads for toys or candy. It’s this ‘makin’ the donuts’ attitude that’s allowed Japan to produce a prodigious amount of TV animation in the past fifty years, and like anything else, there are flashes of brilliance, stunning failures, and a lot of in-between (and a lot of in-betweening, that’s an animation reference.) Every once in a while, the surging tides of production come up against the shoals of ineptitude, the rocks of budget constraints, and the pillars of “just get it done already”, and we’re served up something that by its very awfulness has mutated into a singular viewing experience that becomes interesting in spite of itself. Something like Mysterious Thief Pride, or as we’d call it, Dr. Zen. 
Dr Zen is the world’s greatest thief, and as befitting his criminal status, he dresses like a stage magician in top hat and tails, with a giant mustache flanking his bulbous nose. He flies around in a rocket ship, like all great thieves do, with his assistant Walter, who is a dog. Together they plan the most incredible crimes ever devised, like stealing toys from children and using an enlarging machine to enlarge, say, a toy car, into a real-size car. Because you couldn't steal a regular car, apparently. Opposing these dastardly crimes is the young detective Doublecheck, his giant pal Gabby, and their friend Honey, who is a bee with a woman’s head, a horrific nightmare right out of a Vincent Price movie. Meanwhile, the “official” detective Supersnooper bumbles around getting in the way and occasionally having his clothes ripped off. Thus the amazing adventures of Mysterious Thief Pride enthralled Japanese youth in the mid 1960s.
Doublecheck and Gabby and kids

105 5-minute segments of Kaito Pride aka Mysterious Thief Pride were produced by Japan Tele-Cartoons aka Terebi Doga aka TV Films in 1965, perhaps designed to fill that important “rain delay” or “technical difficulties” programming segment of any TV station. Created by Kazuhiko “Panda And The Magic Serpent” Okabe, future stars like Noboru Ishiguro would hone their anime skills on this series. Kaito Pride would likely have remained as unknown to us as many other short-subject anime TV programs like Pinch & Punch or Shadar, but TV Doga knew of America’s hunger for cartoons and thought our good mysterious thief might be a good export.
Doublecheck and Honeybee the Woman-Headed Bee
Returned for re-grooving, Kaito Pride emerged in color as Dr. Zen, ready for the American market. But was the American market ready for Dr. Zen?  Apparently not; only a few segments of Dr. Zen were produced and it’s unknown if they ever made it to broadcast television. Turns out American syndication, which cheerfully aired drek like Super President, Spunky & Tadpole, and Clutch Cargo, finally found a cartoon they couldn’t use. And I don’t blame them, because Dr. Zen is one hundred percent terrible.

The animation is barely there, the character designs seem like they were taken directly from elementary-school sidewalk chalk drawing, and the slow pace of what little story there is makes a five-minute segment feel like that Andy Warhol film of the Empire State Building - and that movie is eight hours long!  The narration and voice work hit all the marks - squeaky, raspy, inaudible, comically low, and mumbly.  Animation, design, story, and sound, all bad, assemble to make Dr. Zen a difficult viewing experience that pummels the forebrain into submission, a hypnotic, consciousness-lowering ritual that lowers the IQ and suffocates higher mental functions beneath staticky fuzz. This is anime on downers, the cartoon version of a hangover. I cannot imagine the damage this show would inflict upon impressionable young people, and I applaud the good sense of America’s broadcasters in keeping it from our children. 

some of  Dr. Zen's quality animation  

a giant turtle laughs at Dr. Zen. No, you're not on drugs.
So if it never aired, how did we see it?  That’s thanks to Something Weird Video. This cult video distributor is a champion of the forgotten, the sleazy, and the otherwise unmarketable, and is single-handedly responsible not only for keeping the films of Harry Novak and Doris Wishman accessible to the public, but also in releasing compilations of movie trailers, educational films, commercials, and shorts that would otherwise have never seen the light of day. It’s on one of Something Weird’s compilation videos that I first found Dr. Zen, and it is Something Weird we must thank for this, and so much more. It’s with sadness that we note the recent passing of Mike Vraney, Something Weird’s founder, a pioneer in preserving and showcasing the legacy of the offbeat and the exploitative in film. Perhaps giving Dr. Zen to America was one of Something Weird’s lesser accomplishments, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless.

It is Something Weird we must thank for shedding light on one of the mustier corners of Japan’s anime legacy, unleashing Dr. Zen from his 16mm film-can prison and allowing him to run free stealing toys and punishing viewers. Thanks, Something Weird, for proving the low end of Japanese animation can always get a little lower.

Dr. Zen will return? I sure hope not.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

TCJ Part Two

Hisamatsu’s manga work would inspire another TCJ series that premiered in April of ’67- Boken Gaboten Jima aka Adventure On The Gaboten Island. This “Swiss Family Robinson/Robinson Crusoe” style story involves a lost island full of strange animals and the story of five teenagers who wash up on its shores.  Tomato and Ryuga sneak onboard a submarine at an amusement park late at night, joining Gabo, Cucumber and Igao who were already there. Launched accidentally, the sub drifts on the ocean until beaching on Gaboten Island, where the five must survive as castaways. They build treehouses, make friends with the animals, explore the hidden tunnels and caves of the island, discover ancient relics, build irrigation canals, a waterwheel, indoor plumbing, a little island train, meet local islanders,  and hold a boxing match between a gorilla and a baby dinosaur. As fun as all this is, they know eventually the volcano is going to erupt, so they must find a way off Gaboten Island! A great mambo-style theme song and interesting use of live-action footage make the opening credits fun.I’d love to see more of this series.

Hit me, dealer
Falcon Taro’s mom and sister were killed by the Ghost. He volunteers to join the Japan International Secret Police to battle the Ghost for revenge. And thus begins the saga of TCJ’s Skyers 5! Speaking of great theme songs, the crashing, machine-gun riddled OP for Skyers 5 promises lots of James Bond style spy action, and this show delivers as the Skyers team - S5 Falcon Taro, S4 Samson, S3 Lily, S2 Polka, and S1 Captain - dressed inexplicably as casino blackjack dealers, foil the evil plots of The Ghost around the world through the careful application of lots of gunfire.  The 1967 series was black and white, but a 1971 revival was in color.

It’s around this time that the international future of Japanese animation swam onward with Japan Tele-Cartoons’ Kaitei Shonen Marine(Undersea Boy Marine, or “Marine, The Sea-Bottom Boy” if you prefer), an expanded version of an abortive 13-episode series from ’66 titled Ganbare! Marine Kid (Hang on! Marine Kid), in turn a color update of a 3-episode black and white 1965 experiment titled Dolphin Prince. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts in America expressed interest in the show, and the infusion of American capital led to the concept being fully realized in a 78 episode series known here as Marine Boy. America got to see this Japanese show first, which is still kind of rare. Marine Boy, whose father calls him ‘Marine Boy’, is a spunky kid with a super diving suit, an electric boomerang, jet boots, and Oxy-Gum which allows him to breathe underwater. His adventures with the Ocean Patrol and his mermaid girlfriend would thrill children around the world and provide, among other things, one of England’s earliest tastes of Japanese anime.

Marine Boy’s opening credits clearly list “Japan Tele-Cartoons”, and reasonable investigators such as myself would spend decades assuming that “Japan Tele-Cartoons” and TCJ were one and the same. This assumption would be totally wrong. Japan Tele-Cartoons was a separate company, known alternatively as “Nihon Doga” or “TV Video” or “TV Films” or “Terebi Doga.” Take your pick.

Nihon Doga/TV Video/whatever would also produce Kaito Pride AKA Dr. Zen, a primitive series of brain-damagedly simple shorts starring the mysterious thief Pride (or Dr. Zen) and his attempts to steal all the children’s toys. Opposing this criminality is the boy detective Doublecheck and his pals Gabby and Honeybee, who is a little talking bee with a woman’s face. Time to quit drinking.

Terebi Doga would also have their fingers in the world-class ridiculousness of Johnny Cypher In Dimension Zero, hands down one of the worst cartoons ever made, but not without its own Ed Woodsian so-bad-its-good charms.
in the future we'll wear helmets with little wings 

For my own part, I apologize for decades’ worth of disseminating false information about TCJ and Japan Tele-Cartoons or Nihon Doga or TV Films or whatever they’re calling themselves this week, and can only ask for the forgiveness of anime fans everywhere.  Remember kids, when you assume it makes an ASS out of, well, just me.

Meanwhile, back in the non “Tele-Cartoons” world of TCJ, in the Sengoku Era/Warring States period of Japan (16th century) – or 1968, if you like - the remnants of Sanada Daisuke’s men were hunted by Tokugawa’s ninja led by Hattori Hanzo, and among these survivors was the ninja Sasuke Sarutobi. Sasuke has made pop-culture appearances for years, but in Sanpei “Ninja Bugeicho” Shirato’s 1961 Sasuke manga (based in turn on a novel by Kazuo Den), Sasuke is a young boy struggling to survive in a ninja-infested Japan crazy for his young ninja blood. TCJ’s 1968 Sasuke series did a decent job replicating Shirato’s amazing brushwork and idiosyncratic character design, and delivered the first of a very few “gekiga” anime series. Sasuke ran for 29 episodes and would eventually find its way to American markets as a one-episode dub titled “Kiko – Boy Ninja.” 

date night, Kamui style
The deadly medieval Japanese assassins known as “ninja” would be front and center for TCJ’s next series, Nimpu Kamui Gaiden (Kamui: Stories Other Than The Legend), which would air from April until September of 1969 on Fuji TV with sponsorship by electronics manufacturer Toshiba. Kamui would appear in a short theatrical feature, as well. Shirato’s “Kamui Den”manga ran in Garo from ’65 to ’71 while his “Kamui Gaiden” strips ran in Weekly Shonen Sunday from ’65 until ‘67. Kamui is a ninja from the Edo period who rose up from the oppressed peasant class, but has decided to leave his clan. Of course, nobody leaves the family, Kamui, and his former clan curse him as a traitor and vow to kill him, ninja-style if possible.  Wandering feudal Japan, Kamui must use all his intelligence and super ninja skills to survive as he witnesses the struggle of the common people in an era of grinding poverty and unjust feudal rule.  Eventually the life of a hunted man wears on Kamui’s mind and he becomes paranoiac, convinced everyone’s his enemy. The Kamui manga would be one of the first Japanese comics to beprofessionally published in America, and the anime would have a one-episode VHS dub as “Search Of The Ninja”.

It’s around this time that TCJ underwent a transformation into Eiken, a move that would see it through the end of the 20th century and beyond. Spearheading this bold new direction is none other than the cheerful housewife Sazae-San, whose TV adventures started in October of 1969 and ended… let’s see. Sazae-San is STILL ON THE AIR.  That makes Sazae-San the longest-running TV cartoon of all time, anywhere.  Based on the Machiko Hasegawa comic strip which started in 1946 and took Sazae and her family through Japan’s occupation up into the 1970s, the success of Sazae-San made Hasegawa one of Japan’s pre-eminent female manga-ka and allowed her to, among other things, start her own art museum.  Although the strip was controversial at first for its portrayal of Sazae as a modern, independent woman capable of making her own decisions, the series is now seen as a light family comedy (see also The Simpsons, which were once controversial enough to be condemned from the White House. I know, right?) enjoyed by generations of Japanese young and old, and ignored completely by so-called “anime fans” in the West. Get with it, people.

Today Eiken, or Kabushiki Kaisha Eiken, is a subsidiary of Asatsu-DK, which is involved in many different interests including the production studio NAS, publishing company Nihon Bungeisha, TV commercial house Prime Pictures, and the Tokyo Ad Party. Eiken’s later successes would include Cooking Papa, shojo classic Glass Mask, super robot hero UFO Daiapolon, the comedy Kobo-Chan, and new versions of both Tetsujin-28 and 8 Man. Does the future hold revivals for Yusei Kamen, Super Jetter, or dare I ask, Yusei Shonen Papi?  Will another anime series burrow its way into the brains of children yet unborn, to complete the cycle of obsession and confusion? Glico is ready when you are, Eiken!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

TCJ, part one

Somebody - St. Francis Xavier, I think - said “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man”. That’s what happened to me with Japanese cartoons. My young brain endured years of ultra-high-frequency TV exposure to Japanese animation, and the result was an inevitable and otherwise inexplicable love for pop culture from the other side of the world. Speed Racer, Ultraman, and Prince Planet burrowed into my skull and never left. Years later I’d find out the studio behind Prince Planet, or Yusei Shonen Papi as it would be known in Japan, was a pioneering outfit responsible for many of the firsts of the industry, and would go on to premiere, among other things, the longest-running TV cartoon in the world.  Recently at AWA, I conducted a research seminar into this studio, known then as TCJ . The following are my findings. 
TCJ started as “Television Corporation Of Japan,” an advertising agency specializing in TV animation. This was way back in 1953 when TVs were still blasting Rikidozan matches to crowds in bars. TCJ’s president H. Murata had a relationship with the giant ad agency Dentsu, who had licensed lots of popular manga characters for potential animated series in the new medium. When the “terebi manga” phenomena finally struck in the early 1960s with the success of Tetsuwan Atomu/Astro Boy, the Television Corporation changed its name to simply 'TCJ' and got into what we’d later call the anime business.

Their first TV series was Sennin Buraku, aka “Hermit Village”, a fall ’63 late-night show for the grownups. It’s based on the long-running manga series by Ko Kojima – and when I say “long running” I mean it’s been running since 1956, making it Japan’s comic strip long distance champ.  Sennin Buraku’s anime incarnation lacks Kojima’s sketchy look, but the peace of  Hermit Village Taoyuan’s strict Taoist ascetism is still interrupted by lazy, lustful hijinks and nonsensical action as disciple Zhi Huang follows his own Tao by chasing girls.

October of 1963 would usher in the future of anime courtesy giant robots battling for world supremacy. Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin-28 burst forth onto the small screen as Shotaro uses his late father’s invention, the super robot Tetsujin-28, to defeat criminals, villains, and would-be world conquerors. Yokoyama’s 1956 manga, already the subject of a comical live-action TV show, was a perfect fit for a nascent anime industry hungry for science-fictional heroes that could be marketed like crazy. TCJ’s Tetsujin-28 ran for 97 episodes on Fuji TV and would be revived; let’s see, five times so far. When Fred Ladd, the American TV producer responsible for bringing Astro Boy to America, caught sight of Tetsujin-28, it was robot love at first sight. His Delphi Associates would dub and syndicate 52 of the best-looking Tetsujin-28 episodes for the American market as Gigantor.

Robot action would continue with TCJ’s next series; 8 Man. The Jiro “Batman” Kuwata/Kazumasa Hirai manga leapt from Shonen Magazine with its Dick Tracyesque story of a tough detective killed by gangsters but resurrected as the invincible, shape-shifting cyborg 8 Man, whose adventures thrilled children across Japan and whose popularity drove an overworked Kuwata to the brink of suicide. TCJ’s 56-episode series was produced at breakneck speed by a TCJ staff already overworked at producing Tetsujin-28, setting the pace for an overworked, underpaid anime industry that remains so even in the 21st century.  In America, ABC’s syndication arm licensed the series, and after a pilot film dubbed by Peter “Speed Racer” Fernandez, went with Copri International Films in Miami for the localization of the full series. Copri, staffed by Cuban expatriates, dubbed a huge number of American shows into Spanish for the Latin American market, and also did work for the CIA and the Voice Of America propaganda radio service, as well as Standard Oil and Pan Am.  Voice talent for 8-Man came from the local Miami radio and theater scene and a new opening title sequence was animated, probably by Oriolo “Mighty Hercules” Studios. Interestingly, the Japanese theme song was sung by Katsumi Shigeru, a rockabilly singer with the band “Rock Messengers”.  In 1976 got a 10 year prison sentence for murder; he’d killed his girlfriend and stuffed her body into the trunk of his car.

SF marched on in TCJ’s output – their next series, 1965’s Super Jetter, is the story of Time Patrolman 723567 who flies from the future in his time-ship Ryusei-go (“Shooting Star”) in pursuit of the criminal Jaguar. Trapped in the 20th century, Super Jetter finds himself using his future powers to battle for justice. Super Jetter was created by Fumio Hisamatsu, an assistant to Osamu Tezuka, and his other manga work included adaptations of Godzilla Vs Mothra, Ultra Seven, Mighty Jack, and Mirrorman. Broadcast on TBS, the show achieved enough foreign popularity to warrant a second color series.

The world of Outer Space would remain a theme for TCJ with their next show, 1965’s Uchuu Shounen Soran, which would run 96 episodes through ‘67. Dr. Tachibana invents the anti-proton bomb, and despairing of its use as a weapon, flees into outer space with his wife and children. After a crash landing on the planet Soran, his young son is raised by space aliens and returns to Earth years later with super powers and a sidekick, Chappy the Space Squirrel. While righting wrongs and defending justice, Soran also searches for his long-lost sister. Space Boy Soran would, along with Cyborg 009, Space Ace, and Princess Knight, be broadcast in Portuguese on the pioneering South American TV network TV Tupi.

Next for TCJ was a personal favorite, Yusei Shonen Papi. Premiering in June of ’65, the series would run for 52 episodes on Fuji TV with the sponsorship of candy giant Glico, who would render the form of Papii in various sugary incarnations. The story? Armed with the Metalyzer, Papii is sent to Earth from the planet Clifton to fight for justice. Along with his friends Riko, Strong, and Ajababa, they battle the evil Kiritobi and the mastermind of galactic misery, Gorem.  The series was created by a committee and the original Shonen Magazine manga was by Hideoki Inoue.  American International would pick the series for American distribution and Copri Internation would again provide localization as Prince Planet, a dub that would also be shown to great success in Australia. It’s currently available for viewing on many streaming platforms.

June of ’66 would see the premiere of another TCJ space epic, Yusei Kamen, aka “Planetary Mask” or “Asteroid Mask” as we used to call it. Based on the manga by Jiro Kuwata assistant Kusonoki Kochi, it turns out that in 2001 we discover the planet Pineron, a counter-Earth always on the opposite side of the sun. Relations between the two planets are friendly enough so that Johansen of Pineron and Maria of Earth fall in love, are married, and raise a son, Peter. 15 years later, a nuclear accident allows a dictator to seize control of Pineron and start a war with Earth. Pineronians on Earth are interned and things look bleak for the solar system. Suddenly a mysterious figure appears to fight for justice – people call him Yusei Kamen! The identity of this masked hero, an outer space Zorro, is always a secret, even in the show’s credits. 39 episodes of this series would air on Fuji TV and in Spanish and Portuguese-speaking markets. 

NEXT: Castaways, ninjas, Marine Boys, confusion, and housewives!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

PlaWres Sanshiro, King Of Robot Wrestlers

Let's say your name is Sugata Sanshiro.  No, not THAT Sugata Sanshiro, quasi-fictional judo-master star of Kurosawa's first feature film and later parodied in a series of ads for the Sega Saturn - you're the OTHER Sugata Sanshiro, star of PlaWres Sanshiro!  Yes, Plastic Model Wrestling Sanshiro, the 1983 anime series based on the Shonen Champion manga by Jiro Gyu and (future Yu Yu Hakusho character?) Minoru Kamiya. 

We in the States would first get a glimpse of this show courtesy one of those compilation VHS tapes of anime opening credits that were passed around like Bibles in Soviet Russia, an hour or two of blaring rock guitars, crashing super robots and inexplicable kanji that filled many a TV screen during late-night gatherings in hotel rooms hidden away from the prying eyes of KGB thugs and/or convention security. PlaWres Sanshiro stood out even among the Daitarn 3s and the Acrobunches; visually, the spectacle of tiny muscular robots battling each other while drifting through an airbrushed landscape of computer diagrams and geometric shapes stood out, and the rockin' opening included amusing if inexplicable English lyrics like "P.M.P. Fight", "Super Heavyweight", and what sounded like "Survivor Communication."

Brought to TV by Asatsu DK, Kaname Production, and Toho, the anime series ran for 37 episodes from June of '83 until February 1984. Kaname would work on OAV titles like Bavi Stock, Birth, Leda and The Humanoid along with TV shows like Kimagure Orange Road and Sasuga No Sarutobi, while Asatsu-DK is an advertising agency that has been intimately involved with the Japanese animation industry since the 1950s, owning outright the production studio NAS and the animation studio Eiken, and being involved with a few really obscure anime shows you probably never heard of like One Piece, Doraemon, and Mobile Suit Gundam.  Finished and in-between animation came from a bevy of suppliers including Studio DEEN, AIC, Dragon Production, and Miyuki Pro.

PlaWres Sanshiro posits a future where hundreds of thousands of ostensibly normal Japanese people fill a futuristic Budokan stadium, not to see a futuristic Cheap Trick, but to watch foot-high robots pitted against each other in gladiatorial combat. Controlled mostly by spirited hobbyists who combine the nerd disciplines of RC vehicles, computer programming, and model-kit building, the sport of PlaWrestling attracts huge crowds with its combination of brutal mechanical action, ritualistic sumo-style tradition, and theatrical pro wrestling melodrama.

This sort of proxy-tournament battle has been a staple of Asian kids’ entertainment since they found out horned beetles like to fight each other, and the theme has surfaced in anime as varied as Pokemon, Angelic Layer, and the recent Gundam Build Fighters.  If you want to cast your thematic net larger and encompass things like the original remote-control robot hero Tetsujiin-28, sure, why not. However, Prowes Sanshiro has its own thing going on.
Burning with the challenge of PlaWrestling, our titular Sanshiro turns his back on his family's judo heritage and instead enters the PlaWres world with his custom-built PlaWrestler Juohmaru and a pit crew of goofs, geeks, and girls. Diminutive loudmouth Shota keeps cool behind his shades working the angles for inside information, and mini-skirted Kyoko, a scooter-riding, fashionable assistant judo instructor, provides the necessary maybe-Sanshiro’s-girlfriend tension. Giant Tetsuya, Juohmaru's mechanic, has one minute between rounds to repair any damage, while lanky Shinji programs the luggable "MEC 6000" portable computer that Sanshiro uses to guide Juohmaru. Bratty kid sister Machiko delivers comic relief. Behind Juohmaru and Sanshiro is the scientist Dr. Warmer, who, along with Sanshiro’s deceased father, developed new and exciting man-machine interface technology that just might give Juohmaru the edge in a crowded field of tough JPWA competitors.

As the show opens, Gengo Kurosaki's muscular PlaWrestler Mad Hurricane is the undisputed champion. Kurosaki is the lead proponent of the "Fighting-Type" PlaWrestlers, a school of PlaWrestling that focuses on destructive power and winning at all costs. Alternatively, competitors like Shingoku Narita and his Icarus Wing PlaWrestler encourage the Hobby-Type PlaWrestling philosophy of skill and sportsmanship. Watching the tournaments from behind the scenes is Sheila Misty, the mysterious beauty who may be involved with the evil Jose Garcia, who manipulates the World PlaWres Association and uses it as a testing ground for military technology. Will all this great, crowd-sourced PlaWrestling technology be used for war and destruction, or will Dr. Warmer’s brain-wave induction biochip help the little crippled children walk again? Could the technological work of computer hobbyists have real-world tactical value? I think history says "yes". 
Coming a few months after the anime debut of Toei's wrestling superhero Kinnikuman, the pro wrestling action is front and center in PlaWres Sanshiro; a colorful cast of rival robot wrestlers parade through the ring every week- Great Simba, Red Arrow, Western Buffalo, Great America, Big Bang, Pretty Rosa, Iron Killer, Blue Hawaii, El Matador, and others challenge Juohmaru and Sanshiro. Matches proceed with lots of imitation wireframe animations and DOS commands furiously keyboarded by the speed-typing PlaWrestler controllers, who send their robot proxies into the ring to battle with every fighting trick, mechanical contrivance, and scientific gimmick allowed by the deliberately vague regulations of the JPWA.

The show fairly pops with the bright, bouncy character designs of Mutsumi Inomata, whose charming illustrations would give PlaWres Sanshiro a cute 1980s feel right in the middle of the cute 1980s.  An Ashi Pro veteran who gave GoShogun and Acrobunch that extra kicky visual punch, she moved to Kaname Productions in '82 just in time to take what could have been a cold, mechanical, boy-centric series and instead make PlaWres Sanshiro fun and appealing.  Inomata would later work on Urusei Yatsura, City Hunter, Brain Powerd, and Namco's "Tales Of..." series, as well as quintessential 1980s anime icon Leda The Fantastic Adventures Of Yohko.

PlaWres Sanshiro is one of those only-in-Japan, only-in-the-80s hybrid series that crosses boundaries and defies description. Sports show? Robot action? Teen comedy? Tournament-style fighting but with a technological edge crossed with pro-wrestling gimmickry and given a rich candy coating of Mutsumi Inomata?  It may actually be all these things at once, and TV screens around the world - well, okay, Greece, the Arab world, Hong Kong, and Japan -  were the better for it. PlaWres Sanshiro’s original run of 14 volumes of manga received a sequel in the 2009 manga PlaWrestler Van, serialized in Champion Red, but the anime series has yet to be revived. Luckily for English-speaking fans, much of the series is available for viewing with subtitles on YouTube.

PlaWres Sanshiro's moderate showing in the toy arena didn’t match Juohmaru’s ring achievements; newer Revoltech and Figma toys have made an appearance in recent years, including a fascinating manga-style Juohmaru (he's got hair). The original solitary line of Bandai vinyl figures from the 80s now command prices well in excess of what most would consider reasonable, especially Juohmaru’s opponent robots. But if you absolutely must stage your own JPWA matches in the privacy of your bedroom, they are essential.

In today’s world where custom-built robot battles are prime-time television and remotely piloted drones allow worldwide military might to be directed by bored airmen in Nevada, the future of PlaWres Sanshiro might only differ from our reality only slightly, in that things aren’t nearly as colorful or as bouncy without Mutsumi Inomata drawing everything.  Let’s get to work on that, shall we?

Juohmaru mask found in Ohio antique mall. Yes, Ohio

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Top Ten Least Essential OVA Of The 80s

The internet is filled with sequentially numbered, attention-getting listsicles all claiming to be the authoritative judgment on the top fifteen party schools to visit after you master your five best workouts or the twenty-five movies you must not fail to see with the ten people you meet when you die. And here at Let’s Anime we’re just as lame, even though our focus is classic Japanese cartoons. So here’s an exhaustively researched, completely subjective and arbitrary list of the Top Ten Least Essential OVAs That Honestly, You Don’t Need To Watch.  You can safely go on about your life without ever having wasted your time watching these 1980s Japanese anime OVAs; other than filling the shelves of neighborhood video rental shops, they are inconsequential in every sense of the word.  Some of them are bad, some of them are boring, and others make no sense whatsoever, their only common denominator being their total uselessness. And remember, like every other stupid list you find on the internets, this is completely arbitrary, subject only to the reviewer’s whimsical notions, and may not reflect your personal taste or reality in any way whatsoever. 

Headbands are an essential part of your 1980s fashion
 Cosmos Pink Shock - 7-21-1986 This one’s a lightweight and knows it, but the great Toshiki “Iczer One” Hirano is here at the height of his powers, giving us the story of Michi, a space leotard girl who blasts across a goofy universe in her ship, the Pink Shock,  in pursuit of her boyfriend.  It’s got good AIC animation, some gags – not great gags, but gags nonetheless – and cultural references that we didn’t get in the 80s because our knowledge of Japan was limited to Robotech, ninja movies and metal robot toys. It’s the OVA equivalent of a 12” remix by Bananarama or the Mary Jane Girls – a perfect artifact of its time whose greatest virtue is being a perfect artifact of its time.
Dead Heat - 8-7-1987 In the future, auto racing is known as ‘FX’ and the drivers don’t drive cars, they drive car-robot hybrid vehicles, and they don’t just race, they grapple with each other as they go around the track. Seems like a lot of mechanical engineering simply to replicate roller derby, but who am I to argue with the future?  This Sunrise OVA is of interest mostly to people who for some reason are unable to watch either roller derby or auto racing, and who wonder if our hero Makoto will win the big race so he can take his surprisingly male-looking girlfriend to a love hotel. If you had a dedicated 3D compatible VHD player with 3D glasses,  you could watch Dead Heat in thrilling 3D, with the exciting bonus of witnessing an extra character who was only visible in 3D. Legend has it this character holds up a sign marked with the Japanese characters for “sucker”. 

Makoto and "girlfriend"

Elf 17 - 1-4-1987  Based on the manga by Atsuji Yamamoto, Elf 17 is a cutesy lightweight romp through the galaxy as our title character, the strongest little teenage girl elf in the universe, teams up with the eccentric zillionaire prince Mascot Tyler and the battle-suit otaku K.K. as they battle their way through the pro-wrestling areas of outer space. This airy trifle comes complete with giant walking tanuki statues and a Mitokomon reference, and it completely misrepresents Yamamoto’s manga work, which started off kinda lurid and just got more lurid with time. Later Yamamoto works include “Battle Goddess” and the super bloody, ultra lurid “Arnis In Sword Land.”  Yamamoto also provided the story for another completely non-essential OVA, Ultimate Teacher.

Ruu, aka Elf 17, will kick your ass
 Phantom Gentleman aka Dream Detective Gentleman (Mugen Shinshi: Boken Katsugeki Hen) - 2-21-1987 Mamiya Mugen is a famous detective, a famous, kinda girly-looking kid detective, who works in a weird retro 1930s Japan.  Strange kidnappers target club dancer Atsuko “Akko” Fukune - but Mugen is on the case to protect Tokyo’s exotic dancers! This 49 minute video mixes cutesy character designs with what you’re led to believe is going to be some kind of detective story but instead detours into magical relics, mythical monsters, and Indiana Jones-style adventure, but all the busty dancing girls or archeological destruction can’t help make this inexplicable film any more explicable. If we were Japanese we’d be familiar with the popular Mugen Shinshi manga by Yosuke Takahashi, but his eerily sensual pen line failed utterly to make the transition to this anime.  
underage drinkin', underage detectin'
Roots Search - 9-10-1986 This one is bad and it should feel bad.  Roots Search, aka “Life Devourer X”, is like something a dollar store or a truck stop chain would produce to cash in on what they heard was the exciting new “Japanimation” fad, like something you find hundreds of dumped at a Goodwill for a tax loss; poorly animated, badly designed characters wander through various spaceships having ESP visions and dodging a horrifying vagina dentata alien that murders astronauts. And then it just ends, denying the remaining few viewers any sort of closure.  This one is by some of the same people that brought us Crystal Triangle, another really terrible OVA that at least has an ending.

Good Morning Althea - 12-16-1987 This might be the exact point where Japan just gave up and decided to just throw mechanical designs at their OVA projects in the hope that the resulting confusion would resolve itself into some kind of interesting pattern. This is the sort of OVA you watch without subtitles and naturally assume that what’s going on makes sense and is in some way purposeful and of interest, and then later somebody fansubs it and you find out that the pattern your brain attempted to impose upon it actually made more sense than what was originally intended. There’s a spaceship, there are robots, there are people in robots fighting other people in robots from another spaceship. Somebody wakes up.

rise and shine Althea
The Humanoid - 3-5-1986 If you spent any time in the 1980s you’ll recognize his work: the shiny airbrush work of Hajime Sorayama appeared on the covers of Playboy and Heavy Metal and on album covers for bands like The Cars and Aerosmith. And if you find the idea of a shiny metal woman interesting enough to support a 40-minute animated video, then The Humanoid is for you! Antoinette, the sexy robot in question, was built by Dr. Watson on the planet Lazeria, which is about to be destroyed by the evil Governor Proud, right when Dr. Watson’s daughter Sheri and her hunky fiancĂ© Alan arrive. Terrible timing!  Luckily, this all happens when Antoinette’s sexy robot heart starts to have robot feelings of love, and she uses her sexy robot power to save the day. This 40-minute time-waster has lackluster character designs, cheesy 80s ballads, and an inexplicable obsession with coffee. 

Digital Devil Story (Megami Tensei) - 1987 Based on the Japanese horror novel series by Aya Nishitani, this one’s about a student computer genius, who’s also the reincarnation of an ancient Japanese deity, who uses his giant clunky 80s mainframe to summon up some horrifying devils. This involves some not-bad animation of a well-endowed teacher’s frilly brassiere heaving up and down as she becomes the conduit for horrifying monsters from another dimension to invade our world. Then giant piles of red goop start crushing students and a big blue hairy devil named Loki fights our student computer genius hero, who fights back with his reincarnated girlfriend and his magic sword and his pet devil animal throughout several alternate universes.  If you want lots of mid 1980s computer technology and lots of scenes of people staring intently at old-fashioned CRT monitors, followed by hairy devils and magic swords, this is the one for you! The Hiroyuki Kitazume character designs aren’t bad, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Apparently there are a lot of video games based on this novel, and I suspect they aren’t very essential either. 

Chojiku Romanesque Samy – Missing 99 - 7-5-1986  Let’s see, what we have here is your typical everyday story of a typical anime schoolgirl who finds out she actually has amazing mystical powers that not only transport her into an amazing fantasy world but give her amazing super battle armor that doubles as a bikini. Raise your hands if you’ve seen this all before. Can she survive the attack of the reconstructed demon beast warriors in time to reveal her true Bodhisattva nature? 

Girls Detective Club (Katsugeki Shoujo Tanteidan) - 11-25-1986  You’d think that a video starring three high school girls armed with automatic weapons battling an evil girl-genius with a giant flying battleship would be jam packed with the same sort of excitement and flash that made Project A-Ko such a success, but you’d be wrong. This stunningly boring piece of junk – from TMS, shockingly enough - limps from nonsensical setup to nonsensical setup, never explaining who these girls are, why they have a detective club, why one of them lives in a mansion filled with machine guns, or why this was animated in the first place. It feels like a Cream Lemon with all the sex removed, like an episode of Urusei Yatsura without gags, fun characters, or pleasant design, like a half hour of your life without anything productive or fulfilling accomplished. What purpose Girls Detective Club served other than clogging shelves down at Tsutaya Video is a mystery which I suppose we’ll need to hire a Girls Detective Club to solve. 

get detecting, you
 What’s that? I didn’t mention The Wanna-Bes or Twilight Q or Twinkle Heart or even Twinkle Rock Me Nora? Didn’t see your favorite least essential OVA listed here? Ready to take this to social media and tell the world how Let’s Anime arbitrarily ignored your favorite least essential OVA in its totally subjective list? Sure, why not. Make sure to let us know what YOUR time-wastingest OVA is, or was; maybe we can get another column out of ‘em.