Saturday, August 5, 2017

Mushi Production Best Series

As an anime fan in the late 1980s I felt a certain complacency; I'd seen Robotech and Captain Harlock, Space Battleship Yamato and Bubblegum Crisis and Dirty Pair. I'd spent all night copying VHS fansubs of Ranma 1/2 episodes and the Patlabor movie and showing the Daicon III-IV videos to packed rooms at comic cons. Everybody wanted to see Akira or Project A-Ko or the Macross movie over and over again. Anime fandom was becoming... dull.

the fateful Maxell

Around that time my pal Meg sent me a Maxell T-120, and sandwiched between an episode of Babel II and an insane 1934 Buck Rogers short (produced for the 1933-34 Chicago Worlds Fair!) was something that took my preconceived notions of "Japanese animation" and kicked them to the curb. That something was a copy of a mid-80s Japanese videotape titled "Mushi Pro Best Series," and not only was it the first time I'd see Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion in their original Japanese, it was also the first time I'd see Princess Knight and Tomorrow's Joe and Dororo. It was my first glimpse of back-catalog oldies like Boys' Detective Team and Animal 1, it was stunning proof that the live-action/anime hybrid Vampire really existed, and proof somewhere out there was an English-language version of the 1969 Animerama feature A Thousand And One Nights. This tape took my complacent seen-it-all anime snob world and blasted it out of existence, filling the void with twenty five or thirty years of cartoons I'd never heard of, that nobody I knew had ever heard of, and that I was going to spend the rest of my time finding out about. Decades later my pal Ryan would find the original VHS in an eBay auction and he'd send it my way, and now I'm sharing it with you.

Mushi Production, as you'll know if you read the book we reviewed last time, was Osamu Tezuka's animation studio. Eventually Tezuka would divide his corporate holdings into Tezuka Productions for his manga and intellectual copyrights, Mushi Production for animation, and Mushi Pro Shoji as a licensing company handling character goods, toys, and other merchandise. As one of Japan's powerhouses of "terebi manga", as it was called at the time, the studio hired a staff full of future animation legends like Osamu Dezaki, Rin Taro, Gisaburo Sugii, and Ryosuke Takahashi, and its hit series are still popular Japanese cultural icons. Mushi Pro and Mushi Pro Shoji both took a big hit in the early 1970s, and while Shoji didn't make it, Mushi Pro lived to animate another day. After a few years of inactivity, Satoshi Ito revived the studio with a smaller staff and a more fiscally responsible focus on films and specials rather than TV series.

Mushi's latter-day productions include firefly fairy tale "The Adventures of Pipi", disaster film "Typhoon In Ise Bay", civil engineering drama "Pattai Lai - Water On The South Island", the taxation information film "I Will Show You Another World", and the wonderfully titled foreign travel safety short "Gentleman Thief Gary's Japanese Capture Strategy!" But this VHS is Mushi's Best Series from '63 until '84. And what are those best series?

Astro Boy has machine guns in his butt
Astro Boy How could a Mushi Pro Best Series Collection begin without Astro Boy? Tetsuwan Atom, or Mighty Atom, or Astro Boy as we knew him, was the ten-thousand horsepower robot boy created by Dr. Tenma as an android memorial to his dead son. As a 21st century Pinocchio, Astro Boy battled evil, went to school, dealt with a bratty robot sister, travelled through time and space, and fought the greatest robot in the world! Based on the popular Osamu Tezuka manga, the '63 to '66 Astro Boy series would become Tezuka's signature creation.

spacemen with a mission, they must make a very big decision
Wonder Three Everyone who saw "The Day The Earth Stood Still" knows the score: Galactic Command representatives visit Earth to see how dangerous we are with our atom bombs. Maybe they'll squash us like bugs before we cause any trouble. This time the Space Brothers don't send Michael Rennie and a giant clunky robot; our current spacemen with a mission are three aliens who, to better blend in with Earth society, are changed into a bunny, a duck, and a horse. Befriended by Earth boy Shinichi Hoshi, whose older brother is a super spy for the secret Phoenix agency, the Wonder Three find themselves involved in adventures around the world! Wonder Three aired from June '65 until June '66 and would get an American TV release as "The Amazing Three" that would vanish from the airwaves in the mid 70s.

Jungle Emperor Tezuka's Jungle Emperor became Japan's first color TV animation in this internationally successful '65-'66 series about Leo, a talking white lion who becomes ruler of his jungle home deep in "deepest darkest" Africa. Developed with an eye towards foreign sales, it aired on NBC as Kimba The White Lion. NBC passed on Tezuka's more episodic sequel, however. Jungle Emperor's vibrant colors, dramatic storylines, and powerful Isao Tomita score made this series an instant classic that would be seen on American TV for decades and eventually make its way to VHS and DVD.

not to be confused with the Disney film
Go Ahead Leo The '66-'67 continuation of Jungle Emperor featured an adult Leo and his family as they struggle to defend the peace of the jungle. Less cartoony, more violent, and at times experimental, Leo was exactly what NBC did NOT want in a cartoon show, and the series would not air in America for nearly twenty years, finally winding up on Pat Robertson's CBN network and a series of cheap public domain home video releases.

that's one crazy monkey king
Son Goku's Great Adventure This TV series is based on Tezuka's 1950s adventure-gag manga, in turn based on the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en entitled Saiyu-Ki or "Journey To The West," itself the basis for a 1959 Toei film that Tezuka was a part of and that was screened in America as "Alakazam The Great." This particular great adventure aired from January until September '67 and is all about Son Goku, the monkey who gains amazing powers and uses them to get into all kinds of trouble along with his pals Genjo Sanzo, Hakkai, Sagojo, and Son Goku's bratty girlfriend Tatsuko. This animated series abandoned all pretense of logic or historical accuracy and instead series director Gisaburo "Jack And The Beanstalk" Sugii ran rampant with cartoony gags, crazy techniques, and breaking the fourth wall to comment to the audience. Other talent included Osamu "Golgo 13" Dezaki and Ryosuke "Votoms" Takahashi.

honey, the horse can tell
Princess Knight A girl born with a boy's spirit, Princess Sapphire must masquerade as a Prince and defeat the evil schemes of her rebellious courtiers to stay on the throne of her kingdom. Princess Knight, airing in Japan from April 1967 until April of 1968, was pitched to US television as both "Choppy And The Princess" and "Princess Knight." The show aired in a few US markets as "Princess Knight" in the 70s, and a "Choppy" compilation film made it to home video. The TV series finally appeared on North American DVD recently.  The original manga and its sequel Twin Knights are also available in English.

Boys & One Girl Detective Team
Boys Detective Team / Wanpaku Detectives This show, based on pioneering Japanese mystery author Edogawa Rampo's "Boys Detective Team" stories, would be the first anime directed by Rin Taro. Boys Detective Team starred, yes, the Boys Detective Team, sort of a Japanese Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew gang of juvenile sleuths, battling the evil schemes of the mysterious Twenty-Face Phantom, from February until September of '68. The Boys Detective Team would reappear or be rebooted or updated or whatever in the 2016 anime "Trickster".

he's an animal
Animal 1 High schooler Ichirou Azuma is the oldest of seven kids, a freestyle featherweight wrestler, and star of this series that aired from April to September of 1968. Nicknamed "Animal 1," he battles towards the '68 Mexico City Olympic Games. Loosely based on the career of Olympic wrestler Osamu Watanabe – who won every one of the several hundred matches in his entire career without ever giving up a single point!! – the original manga was by Noboru "Star Of The Giants" Kawasaki.

vampire (a show about werewolves)
Vampire Hidden among us are humans who can turn into animals; the scheming criminal Makube plots to use their power to conquer the world. Can Toppei the werewolf defeat Makube's plans? This October '68- March '69 live-action series starred Tezuka in a cameo role (Toppei comes to Tokyo to work at Mushi Pro) and some scenes were shot in Tezuka's front yard. The scenes with animals and monsters were animated, leading to jarring and unearthly effects, particularly when combined with writing/directing talent like Hiro "Female Prisoner Scorpion 701" Matsuda. Equal parts Universal horror, French New Wave, and Japanese cartoon, there's nothing like Vampire.

the titular Dororo, with stick
Dororo Future anime-world stars like Osamu Dezaki, Yoshiyuki Tomino, and Gisaburo Sugii worked on this April-September '69 adaptation of Tezuka's swordsman vs yokai revenge manga, the story of Hyakkimaru, the boy who must kill 48 demons to undo his father's curse and become whole again. Both the Dororo anime and manga would eventually find their way to North American release.

A Thousand And One Nights Released on June 12, 1969, this ambitious adult animated film was a big budget retelling of what over the centuries became an accretion of Arabic legend, the earliest iteration of which dates back to the 9th century. Tezuka and Eichi Yamamoto directed this widescreen epic, the first "Animerama" film, in a herculean effort to drag the medium of animation into the adult world. Did this film ever screen in English? We're still looking for evidence.

Tomorrow's Joe
Tomorrow's Joe Tetsuya Chiba's monumental boxing manga epic became Osamu Dezaki's signature animated TV series, as every hallmark of Dezaki's animation career – the freeze frames, the multiple cameras, the slow motion – bursts forth to tell the story of Joe Yabuki, orphan prizefighter, who battles in and out of the ring for his own destiny. Mushi's most successful non-Astro Boy television series, Tomorrow's Joe aired from April 1970 until September of '71 and remains a touchstone of Showa-era Japanese popular culture. This one was pitched to American TV as "Rocky Joe", but nobody bought it.

hail, Caesar

Cleopatra The second Animerama feature, this ambitious, schizophrenic, anachronistic historical epic features a blue Caesar, time travel, cameos from Sazae-San, and a live action framing sequence starring human actors with cartoon heads. You can literally see Mushi Production going bankrupt with every frame of this indulgent mess. Cleopatra's Japan release was September 1970, and the film would screen a few years later in America with a self-imposed X rating and a harsh NYT review.

she's playing the Lee Marvin song "I Was Born Under A Wandering Star"
Wandering Sun / Nozomi In the Sun Switched at birth, Nozomi and Miki grow up in different families but both become singers and their paths cross as they compete in the entertainment world for success and romance. Wandering Sun aired from April to September '71 and the animation staff included Yoshiyuki "Gundam" Tomino and Yoshikazu "also Gundam" Yasuhiko. This series was the first cartoon to depict the entertainment world ("The Archies" don't count) and the first shojo series to deal with realistic teenagers as opposed to magical girls or princesses. Wandering Sun was based on the manga by Keisuke Fujikawa (writer) and Mayumi Suzuki (artist), originally serialized in Shogakukan's "Weekly Shojo", and which in turn was inspired by the real life singer Fuji Keiko.

rock you like a hurricane
Hurricane Kunimatsu Blazing transfer student Ishida Kunimatsu arrives at a new school and his boisterous fighting spirit causes all kinds of trouble. However, the school principal wisely channels Kunimatsu's youthful energy into various school sports teams by promising Kunimatsu all-you-can-eat lunches! This remake of P Productions' "Harris's Whirlwind" – yes, the same P Productions behind Space Giants and Spectreman - got a name change because the sponsor Kanebo Harris dropped out, and aired October '71 until September 1972, and was based on the original Tetsuya Chiba manga. A Hurricane Kunimatsu short film appeared in 72's Manga Matsuri film festival alongside Hellhound Liner 0011!

Belladonna Of Sadness People have been using the phrase "animation for grownups" since Akira first hit Blockbuster shelves, but Belladonna Of Sadness was Japan's first truly adult animated film, a challenging, hallucinogenic watercolor nightmare unlike anything seen before, or since. Belladonna Of Sadness is based on French historian Jules Michelet's La Sorciere (1862), a seminal work portraying medieval witchcraft practices as rebellion against church and state. Today La Sorciere is seen as historically inaccurate, but on the other hand Michelet is the guy who invented the term 'Renaissance' so he must have had something going on somewhere. Largely abandoned after its June 1973 release, Belladonna of Sadness resurfaced recently with a 4K re-release to disturb a whole new audience.

those cute polar bears
Adventures of The Polar Cubs After a long interregnum, Mushi returned with more practical management and started delivering more socially acceptable animation, like this kid-friendly film about two polar bear cubs (July '79 release) and their adventures among their animal friends up north. Because polar bears have friends, right? With a few songs, some celebrity voices, and stop-motion animation, this one might as well be one of the Rankin/Bass specials Mushi helped out on, but on its own it's fairly undistinguished. A clearance-bin VHS release in the States placed it in front of a lot of American kid eyeballs, though.

Yuki says "peace, man"
Yuki Released in August of 1981, Yuki was directed by Tadashi Imai, based on a story by Ryusuke Saito, and featured character designs by Tetsuya Chiba. In the Muromachi Era (1336-1573), Yuki the snow goddess comes to a small village and challenges the evil that lives both in men's hearts and also in the volcano next door, which houses a giant Majin-style lava monster.

Star Of Cottonland Watch Mushi's director Shinichi Tsuji and original manga artist Yumiko Oshima invent "moe" in this 1984 film of a sad little kitten adopted by a handsome young man – the twist being the sad little kitten is shown as a doll-like cat-human hybrid in frilly Victorian dress. Will Chibi-neko ever become a real girl and marry her "husband", or will she instead become a real cat and pee on the couch? Will legions of gothic lolita fashion designers take their visual cues from this production? And didn't 2001's Magical Meow Meow Taruto shamelessly steal everything from this?

Of course, this videotape doesn't cover everything Mushi Pro ever produced. Both pre and post bankruptcy they worked on a wide variety of domestic and international animation, including Lensman, Rayearth, Initial D, Pokemon, Moomin, Panzer World Galient, Robot Carnival, Princess Nine, Sgt. Frog, Vickie the Viking, Trigun, Wansa-kun, Barefoot Gen, and a host of international co-productions, including the videogame tie-in Pole Position and lots of 60s-'70s TV for Rankin/Bass, including a bizarre special starring the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, and Flip Wilson called "The Mad Mad Mad Comedians."

that time Osamu Dezaki animated Flip Wilson
We'd still be talking about Mushi today if only for their hit '60s TV shows. But as this VHS time capsule shows, Mushi was much more than Astro Boy and Kimba and Princess Knight, much more than a Tezuka-only production team; Mushi was a studio that embraced the vision of other manga artists and worked hard to push the boundaries of what animation could do and where animation could go. Even in failure Mushi fascinates, and as the 4K restoration of Belladonna Of Sadness proves, one generation's supposed misstep is another generation's lost masterpiece.

Thanks again to Meg E. and Ryan J. for putting this tape in my hands, and to Osamu Tezuka and Mushi Pro for making this all happen in the first place.

-Dave Merrill

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Osamu Tezuka Story

The Osamu Tezuka Story
Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions
translated by Frederik L. Schodt
Stone Bridge Press, 2016

The Osamu Tezuka Story is, like Tezuka's body of work, a gigantic, awe-inspiring thing that both stuns and entertains. Part corporate/pop cultural history, part struggle of the artist as a young, middle-aged, and older manga-ka, the book delivers four decades of the manga publishing world and the life of its most popular creator, whose work impacted Japan and the world. As a bonus this book and its 900 pages also deliver a great upper body workout. Because... it's big.

Anyone interested in Japanese comics or animation knows Tezuka's name. Convenient Western shorthand casts him as Japan's Walt Disney, a protean creator of world-renowned characters who dragged an artform into a licenseable, immensely profitable future; but he combined Disney's innate grasp of public taste with an inhuman work ethic and a fiercely competitive drive to excel. English-language material about manga's early days is rare, apart from Ryan Holmberg's deep-dive work at TCJ, and Western fans rely on getting bits and pieces of history sideways through old fanzine articles and questionable anime blogs informed by half-remembered nerd conversations. Discussions about Tezuka usually involve some self-appointed expert claiming Tezuka invented manga (he did not), or Tezuka invented anime (he did not) or that Astro Boy was the first animated TV show in Japan (it was not) or that the first shoujo manga was Tezuka's Princess Knight (nope). Hopefully this book will nip future tall-tale-tellers in the bud, because the truth behind Osamu Tezuka's genius is vastly more interesting than any fakey list of 'firsts.'

color Astro Boy/Tetsuwan Atomu splash page from Sept. 1965 Shonen

Readers already familiar with Tezuka's exports like Astro Boy, Kimba The White Lion, Black Jack, Adolf, and Phoenix will enjoy seeing the creative struggles behind their favorites, and if they weren't already aware of the punishing demands of a professional manga artist, Tezuka's tireless pace and unstoppable mania for creation will dumbfound. The Osamu Tezuka Story details how habits of hard work were fostered early in Tezuka's life. The Osaka-born Tezuka found inspiration in the discipline of long distance running, a lifelong passion for music, movies, and insect collecting, and a love of cartooning encouraged by the adults in his life. The demands of Japan's wartime culture would, in Tezuka, result in an amazing ability to focus on tasks and maximize his own effectiveness, to juggle several different challenges at the same time, and to deliver results in widely disparate fields – talents that would serve him well in surviving the rigors of the immediate postwar period, breaking into the children's manga field and, at the same time, interning as a medical doctor. Try it sometime, kids.

#oneperfectshot | Night Call Nurses | 1972 | dir. Jonathan Kaplan | prod. Roger Corman
Choosing comics, Tezuka found himself in the center of a postwar children's magazine boom. Tezuka's Shin Takarajima, or "New Treasure Island", created with Shichima Sakai, would be a breakout hit for Tezuka. The 50s manga explosion produced an entire generation of young manga artists, battling their punishing schedules and occasionally relieving stress with three-day blowouts. Future manga stars like Shotaro Ishinomori, Fujiko-Fujio, Fujio Akatsuka, and Leiji Matsumoto appear in Tezuka's orbit as young hopefuls. Did Tezuka give his young manga acolytes aphrodisiacs to fuel their late-night manga sessions? Read the book and find out!

A popular talent feeding the pop culture needs of millions of Japanese children, Tezuka would find himself working on eight stories for eight different publishers simultaneously. Editors would haunt Tezuka's foyer fighting for priority, sometimes confining him to a hotel or, failing that, forced to track him down from place to place to beg for pages. Tezuka's organizational skills allowed him to direct production teams, with Tezuka outworking even his most dedicated assistants, and he developed a complex system to indicate to assistants the kinds of crosshatching, shading, backgrounds or environmental effects for each panel. He could direct the composition of manga pages from another room or, as communications technology improved, from another city entirely.

The late 1950s appearance of more adult "gekiga" manga challenged the competitive Tezuka to create works with more adult themes and a more realistic art style. At the same time he was working with Toei Animation on the feature length Son Goku film Saiyuki ("Journey To The West", known in America as "Alakazam The Great"). Soon Tezuka was pouring his manga profits into his other love, animation.

By 1960 Tezuka had developed a production system for working with assistants and editors, had completed his doctoral thesis, had written a live-action TV show, and was embarking on his own animation production, with facilities purpose-built into his new home. Showa-era anime buffs will be interested in the production details of Astro Boy and early shorts like "Drop" and "Pictures At An Exhibition", and fascinated by Tezuka's cost-cutting animation choices, choices that are still felt today. Tezuka's obsessive filmgoing paid dividends as he utilized cinematic techniques like montage and cross-cutting to inexpensively and quickly emphasize drama. His already overstuffed work schedule became even more hectic; story conferences would be informal, Stan Lee-style verbal exchanges where Tezuka would describe the plot and the main visuals, leaving the layout & genga for staff artists to complete. This would expand to a shift system that worked around the clock. His corporate structure split and split again, with one company handling his TV animation, one company handling his licencing, and one for his manga publishing.

early 1960s hardback "White Pilot"

Tezuka's kingdom would, like the rest of us, be battered by the shocks of the 70s. The decade would see his animation studio go bankrupt and Tezuka struggle for creative relevance in the face of personal and professional crisis, leading him to innovate new manga for children and adults and make global connections that will take him to China, Europe, and Los Angeles' nascent Cartoon/Fantasy Organization. Tezuka's animation would rebound, inaugurating a series of yearly TV specials for NHK and production on experimental, artistic works. Sequestering himself in a private studio, the decade saw Tezuka working harder than ever, inspired by deadlines and pressure yet never abandoning his painstaking attention to detail. Anime fans will appreciate the research and technical challenges he and animator Junji Kobayashi faced in creating the opening scene from his film Phoenix 2772, a dramatic "one-take" shot of differing camera angles and perspectives that took two full months. Kobayashi would later be instrumental in creating Tezuka's award-winning 1984 masterpiece, "Jumping."

Phoenix 2772's transforming robot love interest, Olga

Throughout the 1980s Tezuka continued his Phoenix manga, pushed ahead with new manga like Adolph, Neo-Faust, and Ludwig B, visited France and Brazil, produced a new color Astro Boy TV series, achieved animation awards and manga awards, and continued his all-nighters and his deadline struggles up to and through his increasing health problems. Osamu Tezuka would pass away in 1989 at the age of 60, an age that these days seems far too young. However, in those sixty years he filled every day to the fullest, leaving a life's work unmatched in any field, a life's work the 900 pages of The Osamu Tezuka Story can only begin to describe.

Toshio Ban's artwork is friendly, clean, photo-referenced to the hilt (some of the original photos can be seen in Helen McCarthy's excellent The Art Of Osamu Tezuka), and close to Tezuka's own style but not so close that the bits of Tezuka's own work seen occasionally don't stand out as wildly individualistic. The Osamu Tezuka Story proves Tezuka's own thesis of the universality of cartooning as a visual language, reminding us all of the vast market for educational, vocational, historical, and otherwise informational comics, a market that Japan has embraced wholeheartedly while the rest of the world makes do with Ikea assembly guides and comics about military courtesy or Dagwood's mental health problems.

Frederik Schodt's adaptation grapples with entire lifetimes and cultures, world wars, Japanese educational and medical institutions, the ins and outs of the manga industry, right down to specific animation techniques and obscure Japanese insects, yet never fails to keep the material relevant, interesting, and accessible to the general reader. Schodt served as Tezuka's translator on some of his American visits, giving us the unique situation where a translator is translating scenes of himself translating. Time really is a flat circle, I guess.

Every once in awhile the book feels the need to emphasize Tezuka's genius by describing his otherworldly excellence in fields unrelated to manga; astounding onlookers by mastering "extremely difficult scores" without any formal piano training, memorizing phone numbers, dictating telegrams, comprehending highly specialized texts, and caricaturing classmates from memory. Listing these prosaic "achievements" only adds a hagiographic tone to the text, and anyway, they're completely overshadowed by the tremendous achievements Tezuka actually did achieve in his actual recorded career.

Published as it is by Tezuka Productions, The Osamu Tezuka Story has a definite focus on the positive. The bankruptcies of Mushi Productions and Mushi Pro Shoji in the 1970s are mentioned but explanations are vague; the copyright disputes that kept Astro Boy out of the public eye for years are only touched on briefly, and some misfires - like the 1950s live action Astro Boy TV series that Tezuka later briefly pretended didn't exist - are not mentioned at all. And while some readers may at times want a franker, more candid account of Tezuka's life, let's face it, that isn't what corporate biographies are about; "Tokiwaso Babylon" this ain't.

What The Osamu Tezuka Story is, is a comprehensive look at the life of someone who always worked harder, who always thought he could do better, who was surrounded by amazing talent and used that rivalry to spur himself to greater efforts. It's the life of a man who survived war and occupation and disease and who lived to create, every minute of every day. A man who built studios and empires and tore them down and built them up again, because he never stopped creating. A man who could tell you the names of the stars in the sky and the names of the bugs in the dirt, and then stay up for three days drawing comics, because that was what he was, a creator.

28 years after his passing, his work remains popular and influential as reissues, remakes, and new visions bring his characters back to life. Western audiences have enjoyed their own Tezuka boom with his manga appearing here in ever increasing numbers. And with The Osamu Tezuka Story in English, we can more fully understand every part of Tezuka's boundless genius.

-Dave Merrill

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Slight Anime North 2017 Delay

Well, it's that time of year again, when the flowers bloom and the trees start greening and the anime fans descend on Toronto for Anime North 2017. Shain and Dave (of Mister Kitty and Let's Anime fame) will be there as well, holding forth on a wide range of topics for the entertainment of all, and that includes you if you're anywhere near Toronto! Please come by the con and enjoy these, our events!

Our Stupid Comics panel returns Sunday with crazy new live descriptions of some of the stupidest comics ever made, some you've seen on the Stupid Comics site and some brand-new to your horrified eyes! Again, free stupid comics will be given away/hurled at the audience!

Dave's popular Anime Hell event returns in its long-running Friday night engagement of confusing witnesses for two solid late-night hours. 

and on Saturday Shain and Dave take you through all the great cartoon shorts of the 40s that we grew watching on broadcast TV Saturday mornings, which is not even a thing any more!

and on Saturday afternoon Dave takes you through a trip back in time to what it was like to be obsessed with Japanese cartoons in the 60s and 70s and 80s. 

Neil Nadelman's Totally Lame Anime returns to smash your preconceived notions of "competence" and "good taste" as the worst anime in Asia is paraded before your uncomprehending eyes, Saturday night. 

This is followed by expert Mike Toole's exploration of the goofy, quasi-legal world of bootleg Korean animation, starring knock-offs of some of your favorite characters!

Speaking of goofy, here's Chargeman Ken, one of the goofiest anime characters to ever goof his way through his own TV series. Is it the absolute worst anime of all time? Let's get with Neil and Dave and find out!

And if you were trapped on a desert island, what anime would you take with you? An anime you could fashion into a radio or a boat? Sure. Get with Neil and Dave and discuss this vital philosophical issue as they display examples of cartoons they'd like to be marooned with. 

Mike Toole is also doing GHIBLI BEFORE GHIBLI Friday at 8pm, the ANIME ARCADE Saturday at 11am, SHORT CUTS at 3pm, and DUBS TIME FORGOT Sunday at 2pm!  

You can check the full Anime North schedule here (PDF link) and then you can start packing your cosplay and getting ready for the big show! See you there!

Monday, April 24, 2017

your bird ninja update

If you're like me, you grew up watching Battle of The Planets. Well, actually, I preferred Star Blazers. It took a while for me to really understand what was going on with those 5 bird ninjas and their struggle against Galactor. Actually, what it took was finally catching the original 1972 Tatsunoko Japanese version, the tremendously popular Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Created by manga pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida, Gatchaman was a wild, colorful SF reimagining of his early 60s adventure series "Phantom Agents," remixed with space aliens, supercars, giant mechanical monsters, and all the bell bottom jeans the 1970s could provide. Gatchaman would return in the 1978 sequel Gatchaman II and its followup, 1979's Gatchaman Fighter

The success of Star Wars brought science fiction to the attention of every media executive in America, and Tatsunoko's earlier export Speed Racer had given the studio a beachhead in America. However, since the 1960s, new standards for children's television had prevailed in the US, so TV producer Sandy Frank's Gatchaman iteration Battle Of The Planets was chopped, channeled, rewritten, repainted, lowered, and had a new, vastly inferior transmission installed. And that's as far as I'm going with that car metaphor.

industry ad pitching BOTP to US TV markets

At any rate it's a terrific titan of 70s anime, featuring super monsters, colorful heroes, lots of kid-friendly action, anime melodrama, muscular, fairly realistic character designs, and a great Hoyt Curtin musical score. As dated and clumsy as the BOTP dub can be at times, the greatness of the original show still shines through. The series inspired a wide range of American merchandise, including model kits, lunchboxes, Gold Key comics that are not worth $20 each, sorry, and various magic slate and frame tray puzzle toys.  

Once 1978's Battle of The Planets had run its syndication course, the entire series was re-dubbed by Fred "Astro Boy" Ladd for Turner, under the new title G-Force. This new, uncut version of the series (1986) featured goofy character names ("Ace Goodheart") and new, synthesized, incessant, maddening background music. The series was shown a few times on the various channels of the Turner cable network before vanishing mysteriously.

In the 1990s Saban (you know, the Power Rangers people) took the second and third Gatchaman series (Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter) and dubbed them under the title "Eagle Riders". This fairly nonsensical dub worked its way into syndication and vanished opposite a late-decade wave of newer, more popular anime imports like Sailor Moon.

Once DVDs made their appearance, Rhino Video produced six volumes of Battle Of The Planets - each release featuring two BOTP episodes, two subtitled Gatchaman episodes, and one G-Force episode.

Four years later,  anime localizer A.D.Vision released the entire 105-episode Gatchaman series, with new, accurate dubs AND subtitles, in DVD box sets with extras. Suddenly anime fans could not only enjoy the entire Gatchaman series as it was intended to be seen, but anime con panelists could spend an hour discussing the show, and then go to the dealers room and purchase an officially licensed, uncut, super-high-quality edition of the actual show under discussion, in order to demonstrate that the original series, while more violent than typical American cartoons of the period, was not the blood-drenched gore-fest popular imaginations would have you believe. The series continues to live on in the American video market: ADV's successor Sentai Filmworks has released the TV series and its compilation film on Blu-Ray and DVD. The 1990s OVA remake, the abortive CG film, the live-action film, the Zip! "Good Morning Gatchaman" shorts,  and kinda-sorta-sequels like Gatchaman Crowds remind us all that the bird ninjas continue to thrive in the Japanese cultural landscape. 

Chinese-language Gatchaman II book

Gatchaman was one of the first American anime releases to have a substantial fandom built around it; when I got into anime fandom in the 1980s, Gatchaman fans were there already, publishing APAs and writing fan fiction, cosplaying and drawing fan artwork and swapping 13th generation copies of the last 5 episodes of Gatchaman F. It's an enthusiasm that's mirrored in the culture at large; Battle of The Planets inspired two completely separate American comic book releases and continues to be a minor cultural touchstone among former 70s cartoon kids, wide-eyed with wonder at a future that gives us both Battle Of The Planets and Gatchaman and Gatchaman II and soon, Gatchaman F

-Dave Merrill

(this post has been modified from its original 2007 form to fix links and include updates circa 2017)

Monday, April 10, 2017

Worldcon '84: The Anime Room Experience

Since 1939, the World Science Fiction Society has held a Worldcon every year. Well, they took a few years off for WWII. Anyway, each annual Worldcon happens in a city at least 500 miles away from the site of the previous Worldcon, because reasons. As the pre-eminent gathering of science fiction fans and pros, it's the go-to destination for every sci-fi junkie and fantasy nerd who can scrape up plane fare, jam themselves fifteen deep into hotel rooms, and endure three hours of stern Bob Heinlein lectures on American freedom (Kansas City, '76). And as part and parcel of that swirling stew of propeller-beanie-sporting poindexters, anime fans have found themselves thrust into the heart of Worldcon on more than one occasion. 

1984's Worldcon -  "L.A. Con II" - took place August 30 all the way to September 3 - that's right, these things are FIVE DAYS LONG - at the Anaheim Hilton and Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from Disneyland and also the future site of 1998 and 1999's Anime Expo. Guest of Honor was Gordon "Dorsai!" Dickson, with Robert "Psycho" Bloch and Jerry "Janissaries" Pournelle MCing and hosting awards ceremonies. L.A. Con II had almost 8400 members, an impressive number for the time. Even for fans of "Japanimation", as it was then called, the convention was truly a magical gathering. Visiting Gundam guru Yoshiyuki Tomino revealed here for the first time that Mobile Suit Gundam was getting a sequel. A 35mm print of the Lensman anime film received its American premiere. Carl Macek screened Harmony Gold's direct-to-video Macross, the precursor to next year's Robotech. And over in the Santa Monica Salon on the 4th floor of the Hilton, the LA chapter of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization was rocking the house with a full slate of that Japanimation thing, all weekend long!

Recently uncovered in the voluminous files of Dr. Steve Harrison - who was there! - we now have definite proof of the schedule of the 1984 Worldcon's anime room.  And what a schedule it was, with a mix of the old and the new, the English and the Japanese, future franchises and lost relics waiting to be forgotten. 

always open with Star Blazers

Thursday kicked things off with Star Blazers, next straight into Tatsunoko's robot-fighting Casshan, followed by some Galaxy Express 999 TV episodes, and then dropped unsuspecting audiences into Toei's 1973's risque Go Nagai adventure series Cutey Honey.

Next up, a jarring change of pace with the considerably classier Sherlock Hound - you know, the Sherlock Holmes adventures animated by TMS starring the Famous Detective Holmes, who's now a dog living in a dog London? Sure you do. Then, back to outer space with Tatsunoko's Macross, the English dub of their Dashing Warrior Muteking, some more Star Blazers for your afternoon, and then back to Tatsunoko land for an episode of their then-new SF series Southern Cross. That was followed by an English language episode of the TMS series Adventures Of Gamba, the world-famous tale of the sailing mouse battling to defend the mouse island, popular all over the world except in the United States. 

Southern Cross and Muteking; two tastes that taste great together

This was followed by the magical girl Minky Momo, and then the always-popular "dinner break".  The rest of the evening? Galaxy Express, Lupin III, Star Blazers, Gold Lightan, a early subtitled version of Lupin III Castle Of Cagliostro, the first episode of TMS's robot anime Orguss followed by another TMS robot anime God Mars, and the wee hours would see more Star Blazers and Macross

TMS covers all the bases with mice and Mars

Friday started bright and early with Tatsunoko's 1975 outer space knight Space Knight Tekkaman, soon to be released to home video in an English-dubbed version with the C/FO's own Fred Patten on staff. The daytime's schedule of the familiar Star Blazers, Macross, Galaxy Express and Cutey Honey would be enlivened by what might have been the North American premiere of the world-famous Daicon III and IV opening animations, produced by what would become Gainax.

take that, Eleking

Take a break for some fresh air as they re-run last year's Worldcon costume contest, but be back at 5:30 for the Space Adventure Cobra film, Osamu Dezaki's love letter to the splitscreen psychedelic psycho-gun world of outer space adventure, and settle back for more Star Blazers, Macross, 999, and Orguss, with a side of art-thief coffee-shop proprietors Cat's Eye.  Oh yeah, and GI Joe

Saturday? Get there bright and early for more Star Blazers! Some Space Cobra! A little Galaxy Express, some more Cutey Honey, future-cop adventures with Tatsunoko's Urashiman, highlights of CostumeCon II, and then Carl Macek himself will introduce the American feature-length adaptation of Super Space Fortress Macross! Singing along with the theme song is not only suggested, it is strongly encouraged. 

Macross Vs Urashiman
Then get ready for vintage Miyazaki with Lupin III #155 - "Farewell Lovely Lupin" - some more Southern Cross, what appears to be the English pilot dub of Tatsunoko's Mospeada, more Macross and Galaxy Express, a special presentation of the live-action Japanese SF film Sayonara Jupiter, the English pilot for Space Adventure Cobra, and more Star Blazers, Orguss, and Cat's Eye, at which point it's 2:00 in the morning and you stagger back to the room you're sharing with a bunch of strangers to try to claim a spot on the floor, stunned with the realization that you still have two more full days of Worldcon ahead of you. 

Lupin III and Cat's Eye setting a good example for the nation's youth by stealing stuff
A few questions still remain: did the anime room continue for Sunday and Monday? And why no Gatchaman? Why no Captain Harlock or Raideen? How did Tomino feel about the complete lack of Mobile Suit Gundam on the anime room schedule? 

Tomino joins the Mickey Mouse Club; photo by Steve Harrison

Worldcons future and past would deliver Japanese animation firsts to American audiences: the 1983 Worldcon featured rooftop cosplayers and a screening of a 35mm print of Arrivederchi Yamato (it was supposed to be Final Yamato, but something got lost in translation), and the '88 New Orleans Worldcon, "Nolacon", would see both a 35mm print of Wings Of Honneamise and the premiere of Gainax's Gunbuster, and as a video room staffer, the opportunity to make VHS copies of the anime opening credits tape brought over by Japanese visitors was priceless. But in 1988, we were ready; we knew what "anime" was and were hungry for more. In 1984, not so much. For sheer impactful power of an artistic medium upon a nation unprepared for its awesomeness, 1984 was a singular year. 

Special thanks to Steve Harrison for unearthing these schedules and to L.A. Con II and the C/FO for making it all happen in 1984!