Monday, May 23, 2016

your May '16 update

Hey gang!  Been a busy season here at Let's Anime - well, busy everywhere, to be honest -  and I wanted to drop a quick note and let you know what's going on.

First off, Let's Anime now has a Facebook group so as to facilitate our permeability with regards to social media buzzword infestation topicality. Feel free to join, comment on Let's Anime stuff, start a discussion that will shake the foundations of civilization itself, et cetera.

This weekend is the 20th Anime North and as such I'll be there with guest Shaindle Minuk hosting panels and entertaining the crowds. What exactly will we be up to?


Friday night the popular Anime Hell event will be rockin' the TCC North Main Ballroom, that's what.  And then on Saturday noon Shain and I will be bringing our Mister Kitty Stupid Comics show to the big screen in one of the International Ballrooms!


It's sure to be jam packed with 70 years worth of dumb comics, including a lot of American fake manga, everybody's favorite. Then afterwards I'll lead a crew of grizzled Anime North veterans down Memory Lane as we take a look at the first Anime North back in 1997!


On Sunday it's another trip back in time with a curated visit to Bad American Dubbing, Corn Pone Flicks' mid-1990s series of documentaries highlighting bad American dubbing (what else?)



Popular anime translator Neil Nadelman is also at Anime North this year and he's bringing his famous Totally Lame Anime on Saturday night!


Neil's also moderating panel talks on two favorites, Orguss and V Gundam!




If you aren't able to make it to Anime North - and you might not be able to, weekend and Saturday passes are sold out -  then you can console yourself with a listen to the Anime Nostalgia podcast, the recent one where myself and host Usamimi discuss one of my favorite Japanese animated films, Galaxy Express 999! (warning: contains Apollo Smile)



And if you want a lurid 70s pagan psychedelic freakout as only Eiichi Yamamoto can deliver, then you owe it to yourself to catch one of the many screenings of the 4K restoration of the Animerama classic Belladonna Of Sadness that's roadshowing its way across North America courtesy Cinelicious Pictures!



Hopefully this is enough input to keep you occupied until our next Let's Anime column, which should be appearing shortly. Watch this space!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Stronger Than Poop: The Cinema Of Dr. Slump

Akira Toriyama kickstarted the 80s with a one-two manga punch of (1) wonderfully round cartoony characters squirrelling around a fully realized universe of pint-sized automobiles, fat little sunglass-wearing pigs, and the simple yet busy landscape of the best Richard Scarry book ever, and (2) poop jokes. Premiering in January 1980's Jump, Dr. Slump was an instant hit, winning awards, making an ink-stained superstar out of Toriyama, being collected into 18 tankubon collections, and starring in 284 episodes of TV anime from Toei on FUJI-TV. Oh, and eleven films. 

As an 80s anime nerd I knew of Dr. Slump thanks to Ardith Carlton namechecking the show in her seminal Comics Collector piece (Summer 1984 issue); soon afterwards I spotted the first tankubon on sale at the local Japanese grocery store, at a nostalgia-inducing yen-to-dollar exchange rate. It got got before you could say "N'cha!" and even though I couldn't read enough Japanese to find a toilet, Dr. Slump featured plenty of toilets and toilet humor and lots of other goofy SF comedy, universal enough to get laughs around the world, and I was a Dr. Slump fan but good. Viz would later publish the Slump manga in fine English editions, but apart from subtitled Japanese-language TV broadcasts in North American cultural markets and an abortive Harmony Gold pilot, Dr. Slump's animated output wouldn't get a proper English release until 2014's Discotek Media release of the first five Slump films in a two DVD set. Which is what we're talking about here, Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump (Arale) The Movies.

These Dr. Slump films all feature our Dr. Slump heroes; the inept genius Doctor "Slump" Senbei, his creation the super-robot girl Arale, Arale's inhuman toddler pal Gatchan, Penguin Village juvenile delinquents Taro, Akane, and Peasuke, and their glamorous, slightly scatterbrained teacher Midori Yamabuki as they deal with making demons cry to create love potions (the secret ingredient is boogers), racing around the world with marriage as the prize, being kidnapped by the mecha-wonderland Mechapolis, escaping the clutches of the evil Black Dragon Society somewhere in the 1930s, and outwitting Senbei's arch-rival, the insane super genius Dr. Mashirito, as he bends time and space itself for the hand of the lovely Midori. Filled with secondary and tertiary characters, these Dr. Slump films swarm with cameos by Ultramen, kaiju, Star Wars stormtroopers, droids, and aliens, as well as more familiar faces like Soramame the Clint Eastwood inspired barber and the inept, hateful "superhero" Suppaman.



Produced for various seasonal Toei Manga Matsuri screenings, these short films were originally meant to be enjoyed by cinemas filled with noisy, popcorn-huffing Japanese schoolchildren. How entertaining are they for 21st century, non-Japanese-schoolchild audiences? Your mileage may vary. Let's run down these movies in order of their entertainment value:

Farewell To Space Battleship Slump: Soldiers Of Poop
Mashirito's star turn is in Space Adventure, the best film of the bunch, which brings the full power of Toei's SF animation department to bear on bringing this space opera to thrilling, laser-blasting, star-destroying life. Midori's secret life as alien royalty is revealed and Senbei launches his own outer space battleship into the galaxy to rescue her from a fate worse than death, which is to say life with galactic emperor Dr. Mashirito, voiced by Yasuo "Lupin III" Yamada, taking the insane space dictator / momma's boy role to new heights of glam rock weirdness.


Lampooning Star Wars and Arcadia Of My Youth in equal measure, Space Adventure is required viewing for anyone who's watched Be Forever Yamato, Towards The Terra or Queen Millennia and wondered what those movies would be like with more jokes. I know I have.



The Great Race Around The World is just as satisfying; yes, it's Wacky Races, Dr. Slump style as everybody takes to the open road in a wide variety of improbable vehicles, taking an erratic route around the globe with the hand of the beautiful Princess Front of the Radial Kingdom – who, strangely enough, bears a startling resemblance to Midori Yamabuki – as the prize! Will the evil Dr. Mashirito and his evil supercars defeat our heroes? Will Princess Front be forced to marry someone she can't stand? Will Dr. Slump's depressed kei-class minivan stave off crippling self-doubt long enough to carry Arale across the finish line?

Go Speed Kinoko Go
The City Of Dreams Mechapolis is a curiousity; light on plot, it screens like it was poured right out of the wishes of its ten year old target audience. Penguin Village's kids are all sucked into outer space to Mechapolis, a mechanized-planet wonderland Disney World even more  robot-filled than the actual Disney World, where everyone's dreams come true thanks to robots. Its hazy futurism recalls other dazed and confused anime masterpieces like, say, Noel's Fantastic Trip, and the addition of a painfully long scene involving closeups of Peasuke's prepubescent junk moves from comedy to cringedy with remarkable speed. 

the city of dreams and punching

Luckily, our peek into the childrens' id helps the film recover its humor and we're treated to all sorts of robot-enabled dream scenarios, including idol singing, riding on rollercoasters until you puke, eating lots of food, zapping spaceships, and cosplaying as Ken from fellow Toei anime series Fist Of The North Star. When the surprising ruler of Mechapolis decides to turn this wonderland into a nightmare, things backfire and are only made worse by the addition of that universal Dr. Slump ingredient, poop.

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Doom That Came To Mechapolis"

Hello Wonder Island is an expanded TV episode, itself an expanded manga chapter, in which Senbei journeys to Wonder Island to gather the ingredients for a love potion, the details of which are revealed to him on a videotape recorded by his late father, who knew Senbei would have trouble with girls. It's an earlier Slump story and you can see the characters settling into their roles and the show reaching its sweet spot in terms of crazy inventions and a sexually frustrated Senbei.

The Secret Of Nanaba Castle, on the other hand, is late-period Dr. Slump, with all the signifiers that entails – the Tsun family, two Gatchans, and storylines that begin to resemble the episodic adventures of Toriyama's next series Dragon Ball. The action starts to overpower the goof as Arane and Akane, embedded in a fantasy 30s' Indiana Jones setting as the Hoyoyo Gang of Robin Hood style ninjas, steal not only sweet potatoes (as seen in the original manga story) but an amazing wish-fulfilling gem called the Rainbow Eye from, who else, the dapper millionaire Senbei Norimaki. Their midnight theft is hijacked by the evil super genius and zeppelin enthusiast The Great Bisma of the Black Dragon society (of Count Dante fame, obvs). The Hoyoyo Gang, Police Detective Taro, and various Penguin Villagers endure aerial battles, submarine adventures, and a lava-filled confrontation with the Genie Of The Rainbow Eye in their quest to recover the gem and fill 45 minutes of a film that, in spite of its action trappings, feels longer.

ninjas and blimps; two tastes that taste great together
Discotek's two-disc set looks great, is only occasionally doing a little judicious zooming to turn some of the non-anamorphic films into HDTV-friendly widescreen, and you get all five films with English subtitles and trailers for each of the movies, perfect for dropping in before a screening of a more serious 80s anime film. Which was most of them. As an antidote to Japanese animation's 80s aesthetic, which, let's face it, was heavy on long, draggy films full of planetary destruction, brave sacrifices, and Kitaro music, these Dr. Slump shorts are guaranteed filled with laughs and pep. Not to mention poop.

buy her DVD or she'll destroy you, cutely

Thursday, March 31, 2016

"...I Promise Never To Lower The Standard Of The Galactic Patrol."

SF NEW CENTURY LENSMAN dazzled with state of the 1984 art techniques and a heroic pulp-fiction pedigree, but left behind only VHS tape and a few well-designed toys. In its wake Western SF readers were nonplussed with the film’s changes and Japanese animation fans looked at contemporaneous anime movies like Nausicaa and Macross: Do You Remember Love and found Lensman lacking. Six years later Lensman received a North American release and audiences found its computer animation dated, its quasi-Star Wars story thin, and compared with Akira, Ninja Scroll, or god help us, Legend Of The Overfiend, it was dismissed.



But can we just toss SF New Century Lensman onto the cartoon junkpile? Sure, it’s a wannabe Lucasfilm sprinkled with car-ad CG that freely adapts nickel-a-word pulp written back when “a computer” was a guy with an adding machine and a green eyeshade. But when the film’s allowed to give us a galaxy of minutely-detailed space-hoppers zipping around gorgeously detailed alien worlds, when Worsel, the dragon Velantian Lensman, blasts Kim Kinnison and Van Buskirk out of the terrible grip of the hideous Catlats, when Kim’s DeLameter ray-pistol flares with the scintillating force characteristic of the Galactic Patrol’s most powerful hand-weapon, when the Kawajiri direction overwhelms the plot holes or the big chunks of empty space left in the film for somebody in New York to finish via ‘computer animation’ – well, friends, it’s to Civilization’s benefit that the parts of Lensman that are good are very good indeed.



When Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith, PhD, introduced the Lensmen in “Galactic Patrol” as a six-part serial starting in September ‘37’s Astounding, he moved space opera beyond the interstellar stage of his previous “Skylark Of Space” and into realms galactic and eventually inter-galactic. Space drives, force fields, anti-matter spheres and thought-screens became brushstrokes on Smith’s canvas, using the Lensman stories to illuminate a sprawling, eons-spanning saga of two diametrically opposed cultures using entire civilizations as weapons. Smith’s epic continued through the serialized novels “Gray Lensman” (1939), “Second Stage Lensman” (1941) and climaxed in 1947’s “Children Of The Lens”, while a 1934 work, “Triplanetary” would be retrofitted into the Lensman continuity in ‘48 and 1950’s “First Lensman” would fill the gap between it and “Galactic Patrol”. His work would be in print for decades, and after his death several authors would continue the Lensman universe in companion novels of varying quality.

Japanese edition Lensman novels with wonderful cover art by Hiroshi Manabe
Lensman first appeared in Japan in 1969 with Kaiseisha’s “Masterpiece Animated Picture Story” series adaptation of Galactic Patrol. Subsequently, the full Lensman series would be published by in turn by Shueisha, Akane Shobo, Poplar, and Kodansha. As the 80s anime boom echoed across Asia, Kodansha/Toho/Towa might have seen adapting American SF had worked well for Toei’s Captain Future (originally by Edmond Hamilton) and in live-action for Tsubaraya with Hamilton’s Starwolf. It’s clear somebody in Japan was into the Lensman; apart from its extensive Japanese publishing history, the Lensman world had just been used as the basis for one of my all-time arcade favorites, Namco’s 1981 space-shooting video game Bosconian.

SF 新世紀 レンズマン SF New Century Lensman – or “SF New Wave Lensman” according to the toy boxes - was released by Toho-Towa in July of 1984. Produced by MK/Madhouse for Kodansha, the film was directed by future Ninja Scroll auteur Kawajiri and SSX/Baldios helmer Kazuyuki Hirokawa, and would be inescapable for the next few months in theaters, bookstores, toy stores, and TV screens as a stylish, shiny, computer driven media juggernaut that became, almost instantly, an artifact of 1980s aesthetics. How does this animated film stack up against its pulp-fictional ancestor, itself emblematic of its own era?

E.E. Smith wastes no time world building in 1937’s Galactic Patrol. Hell, he doesn’t even tell us what year it is. We’re dropped right into Galactic Patrol Graduation, as the best and brightest of the best and the brightest become unstoppable outer-space military policemen, known across the stars by their symbol of truth and justice, the Lens. As top of his class, our hero Kimball Kinnison is automatically volunteered for a dangerous mission; take the GP’s new supership Britannia and capture a space warship of the enemy, the piratical Boskone. 

Meanwhile in the 1984 anime version, Kim Kinnison is Luke Skywalkering it as a young farm boy on a backwards planet, enjoying a bucolic lifestyle with his dad and robot pal “Soll”, as his dad’s old friend, the bullish, bearded Van Buskirk, arrives in his junky spaceship to give him a lift to Space Academy (Saturdays on CBS).  This charming family scene is interrupted as the GP battleship Brittania (sp) crash lands in the middle of the soybean crop, straight out of the film’s opening sequence, itself an eruption of hideous Boskonian brain-vessels and shiny computer-generated Galactic Patrol ships.

Stumbling out of the Brittania is a Lensman, a character so important the film doesn’t bother to give him a name. In this nameless, mortally injured Lensman’s Lens is the secret to destroying the Boskone headquarters. Who can assume the Lens and deliver this vital data to Galactic Patrol Prime Base? Why, Kim Kinnison can. Kim’s given the Lens in a scene full of scintillating energy rays and exquisitely detailed CG that has infuriated fans of the literary Lensman ever since.  EVERYBODY, even the most brainless Zabriskan fontema, knows the Lens is ONLY bestowed upon the most worthy of sentient beings after a thorough mental investigation by Mentor of Arisia!

This sort of departure from the source material exasperated “Doc” Smith fans and Smith’s family/executors, which didn’t have script approval and weren’t and maybe still aren’t happy with the finished film. And sure, they have a point. However, for many fans of a certain age (myself included), the anime Lensman was their first exposure to the world; their doorway to a lifetime of enjoying Smith’s works from Lensman through Skylark and right on to his masterpiece, Spacehounds Of IPC.

Worsel, Clarrissa, Van Buskirk, Kim Kinnison (unattached)
The two Lensman works aren’t fundamentally at odds; many story beats from Galactic Patrol are given a workout in SF New Century Lensman. In both versions our heroes escape the doomed Britannia in space lifeboats, both feature Kim and Van Buskirk battling the horrifying tentacled Catlats and being rescued by their new pal Worsel, the dragonish Velantian Lensman. Our heroes face the snail-like and frankly disgusting Overlords Of Delgon in both iterations. In each, Kim faces grotesque alien menaces, is soundly beaten, and is nursed back to health by Clarrissa "Chris" MacDougall, top GP medico and inevitable Kinnison love interest – I say inevitable because she is the only woman to get any lines, in either the film or the book. 30s pulp fiction is kind of masculine, to say the least.



Sure, much in Galactic Patrol gets shifted around or ditched outright by the film. For instance thionite, the addictive drug sapping the vital strength of Civilization, is mined on Radelix in the film, but in Smith’s novel is harvested from plants grown in the bizarre environment of planet Trenco. The anime Radelix is a frontier mining planet where our heroes Kim, Chris, and Van Buskirk reunite after escaping the doomed Britannia. Radelix’s only entertainment is a zany disco populated by disco-dancing aliens and DJ’d by the diminutive, elderly, mohawked Wild Bill, dropped into the film without explanation to help hide Kim and Chris in enemy territory. Radelix Base, the narcotics linch-pin of Boskone’s vice campaign, is dealt a serious blow when Kinnison and Van Buskirk go on a high speed scooter bike chase through the planet’s thionite processing plants, leading to lots of the kinds of explosions we’ve come to expect from Japanese animation. Certainly a livelier Radelix than is seen in the novel.


Smith’s Galactic Patrol ignores Kim Kinnison's youth, home town, quirks, preferences, or idiosyncrasies - he's merely Kinnison of the Galactic Patrol, possessed of driving will and herculean strength, chain lightning with his ray-pistols, parenthetically endowed with whatever martial arts skill or science know-how required by any situation. SF New Century Lensman’s Kinnison is a sharp departure from this in pretty much every aspect. Inexperienced in the ways of outer space and The Lens, he is a fresh-faced hayseed tricked out in what appears to be a space onesie, a callow youth fumbling his way through traps and monsters a rougher, tougher literary Lensman would handle easily. On the other hand, the animated Kinnison displays human emotions and has a life beyond Galactic Patrolling, definitely something the textural Lensman lacks.

The Lens itself is, if not a wholly different beast, certainly introduced differently. In the novels the Lens is identifying badge and mental communicator, giving top-notch Galactic Patrolmen a unique, un-copyable symbol of office and allowing them to communicate instantly with any being anywhere in the Universe. Potential Lensmen must voyage to the mysterious planet Arisia, where the ancient, mentally omniscent Arisians bestow individual Lenses upon the worthy. Those not measuring up are prohibited from even approaching the planet. Use of the Lens allows Kinnison and other Lensmen to read minds and, after Second Stage training, mentally control the will of others, leading to an arms race of thought-screens and thought-screen-blockers and thought-screen-blocker-piercers throughout the novels. In the film, however, the Lens is a vaguely explained ESP amplifier/ USB drive capable of telepathy with aliens, parrying mental beams of force, and delivering vital military information to Galactic Patrol Headquarters. Not outside the boundaries of what we see in the novels, but a Lens passing from one Lensman to another is strictly contra regs, as Kinnison would say. One man, one Lens; that’s the rule.
the Overlords of Delgon, Wild Bill the Overlord of the Disco
The film's lumpy, chitinous, segmented monster Boskonians resemble the enemies seen in later Lensman novels; the Eich, the Ploorans, and other extra-galactic races of  poison-breathing monsters ruled by brutal each-against-all law of the strongest, all the way up to the Supreme All-Highest of the planet Eddore, whose mental powers are matched only by the Arisians. The struggle between Civilization and Boskone is just the latest in a series of proxy wars waged between Arisia and Eddore, each manipulating races, planets, and cultures. Backstory of this dimension is hard to cram into a film that clocks in under two hours and has a lot of computer animation to show off, and SF New Century Lensman sidesteps the whole business by never bothering to explain who Boskone is and why it's at war with Earth and/or Civilization.

What the film lacks in scriptural fidelity, it makes up for in visual spectacle and intricate, well-designed world building. Boskone’s alien confederation of segmented monsters contort, glow, and deliver a well-designed otherworldliness to the film. Worsel, the winged Lensman from planet Velantia, is wonderfully alien yet expressive, and Van Buskirk fills the novel’s requirements of a rough and ready Space Viking while also delivering needed comic-sidekick relief. The Radelix thionite factory hosts a tremendously destructive chase involving speeder bikes, bazookas, searchlights, hapless guards, ray guns, pipes, railings, spaceships, and explosions; lots of explosions. It's a viscerally satisfying sequence that overwhelms the remainder of the film.


The movie climaxes with Kim wandering through a computer-animation demo, rescuing Clarissa several times, and exchanging mental lightning blasts with the Boskonian big cheese Helmuth. The fleshy architecture of the Boskonian base melts away in Cronenbergian body-horror style and Galactic Patrol's space fleet zaps at Boskonian brain-ships in a tedious counter-example to the Radelix speeder-bike sequence. And that's a real missed opportunity; Smith's Lensman is full of sequences where fleets of starships blast each other with immensely powerful rays, defensive screens, zones of force, and penetrating helixes, all described in flowery “Doc” Smith terms. Seeing these pulp-fiction star-battle physics depicted on the big screen would be terrific - in spite of decades of Star Wars and Star Trek films, no Hollywood movie has approached it – but here Japan's Lensman drops the ball.

To its credit, the film nails Smith's conception of the command and control system necessary for fleet action on a cosmic scale - "the tank", socially the “Directrix”, technically the Z9M9Z, a giant visual real-time representation condensing the movements of countless units into understandable representative icons. This conception was unique in SF of the time, and would later be the basis for US Navy command-and-control systems during World War II. 

this is computer graphics in Lensman
And yes, there is a lot of computer animation in this film and no, it hasn’t aged very well. When delineating shiny, sleek GP warships escaping Boskone’s ugly cruisers via hyperspatial tube, or for trippy mindscape sequences illustrating the limitless potential of the Lens, the computer animation offsets the traditional animation to good effect. If our eyes hadn’t since been overwhelmed by decades of surrealistic computer animation inserted wherever possible, Lensman’s computer effects might still impress. The film's CG was by "Computer Graphics Laboratories, Inc", a pioneering production company created by the New York Institute of Technology's Computer Graphics Lab to produce purely commercial work for clients including Volkswagen, Lincoln Center, and Chevrolet. However, the shiny, slick, swooping-camera look of CG was already becoming a cliché when Lensman was in production and certainly by the time the film made it to America, the fad inspired shrugs rather than awe. That’s the price early adopters sometimes have to pay.    

SF New Century Lensman’s music has held up nicely, however; the film’s soundtrack perfectly matching the futuristic science-world of the visuals. Fusion composer (and Pink Lady keyboardist) Kan Inoue’s instrumentals are big, evocative and vibe-heavy, while folk-rock powerhouse The Alfee throws down a big chunk of ethereal, harmonic space-rock with the film’s theme “Starship”.  My personal favorite piece of Lensman music remains the TV show theme by Eri Kojima, “On The Wing”, which asks us to “give peace a chance tonight”.

just spell "Britannia" however you feel like spelling it, guys
Another outstanding element of the Japanese Lensman is the excellent mechanical design, which sponsor Tomy faithfully rendered into an engaging line of great toys. The Britannia II toy is especially prized; twelve inches of high-tech plastic with gun ports that flip open and fire missiles, a landing craft that itself launches smaller landing craft, and a Q-Gun that pops out of a secret hatch and fires a ball that rolls really, really far before you lose it. Remember to take your AA batteries out after playing with your Britannia II, or some terminal corrosion may occur. Tomy’s Lensman line included spaceships, model kits, blow-up Boskonians, and a toy Lens that fits on your wrist just like the real Lens that you don’t even have to go to Arisia for.

tales of a fourth grade Lensman
Lensman TV show OP
The SF New Century Lensman film was followed by a television series titled “Lensman: Galactic Patrol.” It begins, as most Lensman novels do, by describing the collision of galaxies that led to Arisia and Eddore. In many ways the TV show is closer to the novels; characters like the Rigellian Lensman Tregonsee, Commandant Hohendorff, Surgeon-General Lacey, and Arisia’s Mentor are seen for the first time. On the other hand, the show diverges from canon at will, giving Kim’s robot pal Soll a major sidekick role and portraying Kim as the first-ever Lensman. However, the series wins serious old-school credibility early on by throwing us a future-prediction plot point right out of the novel First Lensman.

The 1984 film received a limited American theatrical and home video release via Streamline Pictures in the early 90s.  Galactic Patrol Lensman ran on TV from October ’84 until August of ’85, and an episode compilation was dubbed by Harmony Gold for home video. HG’s global reach put Lensman video in markets around the world. The film’s visibility in America led to Eternity licensing the rights to publish its own Lensman comic book series, which did well enough for two further series. However, the Smith estate would only allow use of material seen in the animated film; Lensman elements that only appeared in the novels were out of bounds. As Eternity Lensman artist Tim Eldred said, “In other words, we couldn't do anything to make the comics more like the novels than the anime.” 
Eternity Lensman comic original art


Japan’s comic book Lensman adventures were a different, less constrained story.  Prolific manga artist and animator MoriBi Murano, whose work includes Unico,  puppy adventure “Hoero Bun Bun” and designing characters for Dagger Of Kamui , worked his sketchy, demonstrative pen line in a Lensman film-adaptation manga that was published in three volumes.  Murano was born in Manchuria when it was still Manchuko, was disabled in a childhood accident, and sadly passed away in 2011, leaving a legacy of hundreds of manga works. Subsequently the TV series received its own Weekly Shonen comic adaptation. Mitsuru Miura’s Lensman was based roughly on the television series but sparkled with Miura’s own wide-eyed charm. You may remember Miura from his popular romantic comedy The Pumpkin Wine, or his manga adaptation of the crazed 1977 horror-comedy Hausu(?!!).

MoriBi Murano's Lensman manga
Mitsuru Miura's Lensman manga. And HAUSU
Samurai Lensman (?!!)
In Japan the feature film and some of the TV series was released on VHS. The feature film appeared on LaserDisc. And then SF New Century Lensman was over. What happened? Was Kim Kinnison not as appealing as other anime ESPer prettyboys like Justy or Locke The Superman? Did the anime boom fizzle out at just the wrong moment? Were anime space-opera fans merely biding their time until the release of Legend Of Galactic Heroes? Was it merely one more summer anime movie meant to divert audiences and sell toys and be forgotten?  Lensman settled into comfortable retirement on the shelves of used bookstores everywhere, until 2008 when Ron “Opie” Howard’s Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures optioned Lensman for a feature film, with J. Michael “Babylon 5” Straczynski reportedly attached to write.  However, in 2014 Straczynski said Imagine/Universal had passed on the project and the rights had been allowed to revert to the Smith estate. Meanwhile in Japan, author Hideyuki Furuhashi continues the Smith tradition with his novel “Samurai Lensman”, the story of a sword-wielding Gray Lensman battling the rebirth of Boskone. 




We may never see another filmic adaptation of Lensman. But the one we have remains a film that entertains, whether you’re upholding the standard of the Galactic Patrol or whether you’re just looking for well-designed spaceships blasting the heck out of Radeligian thionite factories while The Alfee harmonizes and the mental waves of Second Stage Lensmen echo throughout the galaxy. It’s a film that deserves a 21st century high-definition rescue, not only for its own cinematic sake, but also for the universe of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s pulp-fiction adventure that this film drives readers towards, as inexorably as a full battery of cosmic-energy-powered tractor beams, as unstoppably as two inertialess planets smashed directly into the Boskonian base of Jarvenon, and with all the overwrought linguistic energy of a early 20th century writer envisioning all of macro-cosmic space, while still being paid by the word. 

Clear ether, Patrolmen!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

show me your space


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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