Wednesday, June 24, 2015

pledge your support

As many of you know, when I'm not writing about classic anime here at Let's Anime (which, admittedly, is most of the time), I'm usually working on something at Mister Kitty, which is the website myself and my wife Shain Minuk set up some years back to host our own original comics and to feature attractions like our popular "Stupid Comics" page.  Well, the big news is that Shain has taken the big 21st century crowdfunding step and has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a deluxe, 268 page collection of her webcomic, The Element of Surprise.  

Described by the comic’s creator as “similar to Starsky and Hutch, only a little less gay”, The Element of Surprise details the relationship between two men, Mark and Ben, in a nameless but crime-ridden city somewhere in America’s “rust belt”.

The Kickstarter campaign has a variety of rewards for pledges that range from $1 to $200. Readers of the webcomic, which updates weekly, have been hoping for a print version for quite some time, and Mister Kitty and Friends have finally responded.

With the help of crowd funding by Kickstarter, Minuk intends to publish the first two story arcs of The Element of Surprise, while a third arc is currently running in weekly updates on the Mister Kitty website. The collected volume of the webcomic will detail the two men in the early stages of their relationship, struggling with their own internal conflicts while facing up against corrupt politicians and various violent miscreants, in a story providing plenty of action and romance.

The Element of Surprise Kickstarter campaign is on until July 17th 2015.  We're hoping to get the word out as far and as wide as possible, and hopefully if this project succeeds it'll be the first of many Mister Kitty print projects, including, who knows? Maybe a print Let's Anime. So check out the Kickstarter, tell your pals, spread the word, and if you can, why not drop a few bucks to help make independent print comics happen?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Ride With Captain Ken

Six-guns and space ships! Cowboys and aliens! Gunfights at the OK Corral on Mars! It’s all happening in Digital Manga’s release of Captain Ken, a tremendously entertaining Osamu Tezuka manga that mixes classic Western action with classic pulp sci-fi. Captain Ken delivers a satisfying space chuckwagon full of the best of both worlds, as the mysterious Japanese space-cowboy Ken’s mission of mercy puts him in the middle of Martian range-wars, a genocidal extermination plot, and the political corruption of two planets.

The juxtaposition of Wild West and Outer Space wasn't a new motif when Captain Ken first appeared in a December 1960 issue of Shonen Sunday. Years before JFK invoked "New Frontier" imagery for his 1960 presidential campaign, the idea that space travel would be our next frontier was commonplace. The crude SF of the "golden age" was often criticized as merely retooled Westerns, with Martians replacing Indians, spaceships swapped with horses or trains, and atom-guns instead of six-shooters. The space-western motif would headline Charlton’s abortive 1952 "Space Western Comics", featuring hero Spurs Jackson and his Space Vigilantes battling saucer-men, Venusians, and, of course, Hitler. Mixing space opera and horse opera might have been old (cowboy) hat even in 1960, but with Captain Ken, the godlike talent of master manga-ka Osamu Tezuka took those two clichés and spun them into rock-solid manga entertainment for the rocket-ship rancher in us all.

It’s the Wild West Future! Mars has been colonized into a simulacrum of the 19th century Old West by Earth settlers who have nearly wiped out the native Martians. Destruction for the last native Martians looms as they gather strength for a last revolt while the Earth government plans their final solution. The Earthling girl Kenn Murakami arrives on Mars to live with her cousin Mamoru at the Hoshino ranch in the Mars town of Hedes, just as the last Martian tribe, the Moro, begin their guerilla war. Battling Moro braves in the midst of a sandstorm, Mamoru Hoshino meets the mysterious Ken, a sharpshooting cowboy with a fantastic robot horse.  Is the demure Kenn actually cowboy Ken in disguise? If not, why are their features so similar?  The early part of the story is taken up with this is-he-or-isn’t-he business, sandwiched between sweeping Martian vistas, robot horse stampedes, craven mayors, and Martian-style shootouts. 

Plenty of Tezuka’s signature sight gags leaven the rivalry between Mamoru and Captain Ken as they both defend the Hoshino ranch and Kenn from vengeful Moros and corrupt Earthling officials alike.  Captured by the corrupt, treasure-hoarding mayor and sent to a Martian labor camp, Ken befriends Papillon, a Moro girl who also has an amazing secret.  The evil President Slurry executes his master plan – the detonation of a Solar Bomb to exterminate the native Martians once and for all. Can Ken and Mamoru stop the destruction? What is Captain Ken’s true relation to Kenn and how does it tie into his astonishing true identity? Will he master the Martian gunfighting style and defeat the evil black-clad gunslinger Lamp, and will Ken and Papillon together meet their destiny?

Captain Ken is well stocked with secret treasure hoards, low-gravity Mars-orbit swordfighting, giant-wheeled Martian prairie schooners, lonely hermits who are secret masters of “Martian-style gunfighting”, and the evil Napoleon, crime-lord of all Mars, whose real identity is but one more switcheroo in the polymorphously perverse Tezuka parade of dual characters, shape-shifting Martian monsters, implied cross-species romances, and gender-bending disguises that make up a curiously large part of his body of work. Tezuka-brand social commentary is front and center, spotlighting Manifest (Space) Destiny’s affect on indigenous peoples; whether Indians or Martians, the people who were there first always seem to get the short end of the stick. It’s no coincidence that the last remaining Martian tribe is the Moro, deliberately echoing the Muslim Moro tribes of the Philippines, who fought both Spanish and American soldiers during the Philippines’ days as a colony of both nations (Japan has its own colonialist history in that neighborhood, but such things are at this time beyond the scope of Tezuka’s thesis or that of his editorial staff, sorry).

Though not as successful as his previous Shonen Sunday serial, the proto-furry Cold War allegory Zero Men, Captain Ken was popular enough to garner a deluge of responses to a “Guess Captain Ken’s Real Identity” contest. Coincidentally, one of the two winners later went on to animate at Tezuka’s Mushi Productions.  Captain Ken would remain on the Tezuka midlist dude-ranch, being neither as iconic or as merchandise-friendly as Tezuka’s earlier Mighty Atom or Jungle Emperor, nor as challenging or as experimental as his later works. Yet Captain Ken utterly nails that late 50s-early 60s pulp science-fiction action/adventure vibe – the kind of story every mid-century cheap paperback cover, movie poster, or lunchbox illustration promises us and yet never delivers. Ken is a beautifully rendered tale of adventure, excitement, and mystery, shot through with thoughtful science-fiction concepts and a time paradox reveal that poses more questions than it answers.  It’s the kind of satisfying juvenile SF that would be a crowning achievement for other creators, yet for one as protean as Tezuka, it’s merely Tuesday.

There’s a lot to unpack in the 440 pages of Captain Ken’s two volumes, but the story never bogs down or gets sidetracked by info-dumps. Even the third-act temporal displacement is delivered with finesse, a twist that would echo similar hooks in later SF and itself was admittedly inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1959 story “All You Zombies” (Heinlein and Tezuka would meet in 1982 at Go Nagai’s wedding). The clarity of Tezuka’s pen work matches his story; both the rugged Martian landscape and the cartoony characters that inhabit it are confidently drawn, and breeze through the story with all the vitality and movement Tezuka’s comics were famous for.

Digital Manga has released Captain Ken in a fine 2-volume softcover set, crowdfunded by Kickstarter, as is the case with most of their Tezuka releases. Depending on their donation level, backers could receive Captain Ken in print or digital or both, along with goodies like decals, bandannas, messenger bags, etc. For those who missed the campaign, the books are available through more traditional methods, as well. Captain Ken delivers two-gun space western action that fits neatly in your robot horse saddlebags and should appeal to fans of anime, of manga, of science-fiction, of westerns, of pop-culture mashups and adventure in general, in short, pretty much everybody. It may be one of Osamu Tezuka’s minor works, but Captain Ken is major manga entertainment.   

Monday, May 11, 2015

your anime north 2015 schedule

It's that time of year again and it means I've been spending important anime-blogging time working on presentations for Anime North! If you're in the area and had the forethought to pick up your admission before they all sold out - yeah, they cap the membership, and they need to because this con is huge - then why not drop my one of these events I'm involved in eventing?

Friday night is the traditional Anime Hell Night In Canada, full of shorts and clips and assorted assembled Frankensteinian non-contextural oddities that make it a delight to the eyes and other senses.

On Saturday at noon join myself and Shaindle Minuk and whoever else we can grab who's been to Japan recently as we discuss the tourist experience in Tokyo and beyond.

At 1pm on Saturday Helen "Anime Encyclopedia" McCarthy and Mike "Anime Jump" Toole will discuss their entertaining and profitable anime-journalistic careers!

At 2pm noted anime translator Neil Nadelman will tell you all about a classic anime series he's been localizing - the Tatsunoko future-police comedy Urashiman!

When 3pm rolls around that means it's time for Mister Kitty's Stupid Comics, as Shaindle Minuk and myself take you on a trip through our crumbly, yellowing archive of six decades of terrible comic books. Prepare to have your intelligence insulted!

It's 8pm at Anime North and that can only mean one thing - we open up the International Ballroom and Neil Nadelman brings out the most totally lame anime that ever lurched out into the public eye!

Not to be outdone, at 10pm Mike Toole unlocks the landfill of terrible with the Worst Anime Ever!

at 1pm on Sunday, Mike Toole and Dave Merrill dig deep and uncover some dubbed anime that history has forgotten, sometimes rightfully so.

And at 3pm on Sunday, Dave, Neil, and a cast of old-timey anime fan veterans tell you what it was like to be an anime fan back in the 1980s, in the days of tube TVs, VHS, and print fanzines!

It's gonna be a wild weekend at Anime North so if you're anywhere in the southern part of Ontario or the northern parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Michigan, you ought to come on over!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Prince Of The Sun

The movie starts. The Toei logo fades to a windswept landscape and a wordless struggle between a boy and a pack of wolves; no soundtrack, no dialogue, just panting and grunts and the whistle of a thrown hatchet whirling around on its thong, knocking wolves for a loop, an orchestrated piece of desperate, synchronized violence that immediately tells the audience they aren’t in fairytale land. This land belongs to the Prince Of the Sun, Horus. 

太陽の王子 ホルスの大冒険, "Taiyou no Ōji Horusuno Daibōken" aka Little Norse Prince aka Horus, Prince Of the Sun is not only a great film and a groundbreaking piece of animation involving darn near everybody who ever made a Japanese cartoon you liked, it’s also a prehistorical race-memory flashback from a time when civilization was nothing more than scattered villages of hunter-gatherers, iron the wonder technology of the age, and agriculture the disruptive new startup; when the forces of nature itself are the enemies mankind must unite and conquer.  This is a movie about killing winter and bringing back spring, and if that’s not something we can all get behind (especially after last winter!) I don’t know what is.

Horus is also the source, the Rosetta Stone, the Ur-text for what would make Japanese animation an international phenomenon, moving past storybooks and toy ads to become appealing, boundary-pushing films striving against the medium’s stereotypes. Most of what made Japanese animation tops for the next forty years - the yodelly pleasures of Heidi and other World Masterpieces, the dashing Lupin III of Cagliostro, the global, Oscar-winning brand that Ghibli would become, and a raft of Pokemon designers and super robot animators and Rocky Chuck supervisors –they all passed through the eye of Horus

The on-screen drama reflected the behind-the-scenes struggles of Toei animators battling their own studio, which would bury the finished product after only ten days in the cinema.  Rescued from obscurity by a generation of devoted fans, the film would reach a worldwide audience almost in spite of its parent corporation. And now, after decades of scratchy prints and pan & scan dubs, Horus is finally a legit North American DVD release in a package that presents a terrific movie in tandem with enlightening amounts of context and background.

But back to 1000 BC. Our heroic hatchet-boy Horus – we’re pretty sure what the screenwriters and the voice actors were going for was “Hols”, but “Horus” is what Toei wants to run with, so “Horus” it is – Horus here is the Mk 1 version of the Anime Boy Hero we’ll later see piloting giant robots, rescuing girls from flying castles, and surviving both tsunamis and industrial fascist plots with a strong right arm and a gleam in his eye.  His struggle with the wolves is interrupted by the film’s sharp left turn into fantasy; the awakening of the rock giant Maug, from whose rocky shoulder Horus pulls a rusty but impressive sword, Aesop’s Fables style. Reforged, sharpened, and wielded properly, Maug tells Horus this sword will make him the Prince Of The Sun. Cue title.

The next ninety minutes deliver the full, unchanging panoply of human experience; tragedy, desire, friendship, deceit, betrayal, bravery, regret, heartbreak, perseverance, vengeance, fellowship. An orphaned Horus sets sail to leave his solitary life and enter the world his father abandoned; to battle the winter elemental Grunwald himself with his axe and, if he can reforge it, the Sword.  Along the way he’ll fight wolves, rats, and a giant monster pike, confront trickery and self-doubt, and learn that only the strength of an entire community can enable mankind to survive the elements and perhaps finish an exhaustingly ambitious animated film.

Found wandering in ruins, the cursed Hilda and her beautiful songs distract the village and serve the venal purposes of the egg-stealing Drago, who has the ear of the weak-willed headman. Will the village survive bearing the full force of the Grunwald’s divide-and-conquer attempt to destroy humanity? His rats are coming; his wolves are already here. Crippled by her pain and cursed by her fear, Hilda fights her own internal battle; and her scornful remark to Horus, trapped in his own forest of doubt, may instead the key that frees them all. We learn through struggle and fire that working together, men can fight monsters,  and that even the damned can find humanity through acts of mercy. The film climaxes with an astounding sequence involving ice mastodons, flaming towers, and the white-hot reforged Sword Of The Sun sliding onto the ice, ready for Horus, soaring skyward on a ghost-wolf to do battle with the Grunwald himself, a stirring moment of cinema that may just transcend culture, language, space and time itself.

A sprawling, bold work, Horus is nothing less than a masterpiece. Pop anthropology aside, the film is an artistic triumph; but cinematic victory would prove Pyrrhic. Visually, Horus transformed Japan’s animation aesthetic, moving from the 50s superflat commercial-art style of earlier Yasuji Mori/ Yoichi Kotabe joints like Gulliver’s Space Journey or Little Prince & The Eight Headed Dragon, towards the more naturalistic, expressive characters we’d see everywhere later. Traditional cartoon kids and talking animal friends mingle with rough-hewn warriors and rock men while the Grunwald’s simpler design marks him as heir to Disney’s “Night On Bald Mountain”.  Horus features technical callbacks to films as disparate as Walt’s Pinocchio and Grimault’s The King And The Mockingbird, and also reflects earlier Toei works including the offbeat Jack & The Witch, as loners with only animals for friends are intrigued & betrayed by girls in thrall to evil powers, finding themselves trapped in weird psychoanalytical dimensions.

The screenplay for Horus was taken from Kazuo Fukazawa’s puppet play “Chikisani No Taiyo”, in turn based on “Okikurumi To Akuma No Ko”, a song-poem epic from the Yukar, the oral tradition of the vanishing Ainu peoples of Hokkaido.  This deep-cut ethnicity would be blurred and vaguely Nordicized for a potential international audience. Admittedly, the culture of Horus could be of any early Iron Age village within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle; the landscape becomes a character in its own right, filled with desolate, almost post-apocalyptic vistas and abandoned, overgrown settlements. However, echoes of the Ainu can be seen in many places in the film, particularly in Hilda’s costume design. The film’s underlying themes of strength through unity are universal enough, and laid over almost primal myths of seasonal change and rebirth, Horus becomes a story as old as man itself.

Production of Horus began in fall of 1965, marched past deadlines and cost overruns, and finally wrapped in spring of ’68. In the meantime, Toei completed two Cyborg 009 films, Jack & The Witch, and a Hans Christian Andersen film. Clearly Little Norse Prince was a fractious beast, driven hard by a determined crew spearheaded by future Oscar nominee Isao Takahata. Toei, ambitiously striving to be the Walt Disney of the Orient, would match The Mouse in both animation and labor disputes, having survived one round of strikes in ’61. More unrest would follow. Hayao Miyazaki (Poli Sci, Gakushuin University, ’63) after working less than a year at Toei, was already Chief Secretary of Toei Doga’s labor union, and he, union vice-chair Takahata, and director Yasuo Otsuka pledged to take as long as necessary to complete Horus, which they feared to be the last gasp of real film animation in Japan. Labor and management struggled to come to terms in a late 60s atmosphere of rebellion and confrontation, as Toei proposed replacing salaried veterans with a staff of contract freelancers - a move rejected at the time, but now almost universal. Horus was greenlit with a 100 million yen budget, negotiated upwards from 70, at a time when most animated films ran fifty to 80. The ambitious, uncompromising plans of novice director Takahata and his close-knit staff added 30 million yen and two years to the film’s completion. Animation director Yasuo Otsuka would later detail the production in his memoir, luridly titled “Cels Covered In Sweat.”

let us vigorously confront the struggle of collective action in the worker's paradise
Director Takahata paid for the labor disputes, the cost, and the late delivery of Horus with a demotion from the feature film department. He, Miyazaki and other Horus veterans would leave Toei entirely in ’71, but Toei’s loss was the animation world’s gain. The key collaborative team for Horus was an all-star anime team, including first-time direction by Isao “Grave Of The Fireflies” Takahata, Yasuo Puss In Boots” Otsuka as animation director, key animation by some guy named Hayao Miyazaki and Yasuji “Future Boy Conan” Mori, Reiko “Taro The Dragon Boy, Belladonna” Okuyama, and Yoichi “30,000 Leagues In Search Of Mother” Kotabe. These remarkable talents would go on to produce masterpieces for studios like Zuiyo Eizo, Nippon Animation, Top Craft, and eventually Ghibli.

Was Toei chastened by the collectivist pro-labor subtext of Horus? Weirded out by the scene where Horus flies around Grunwald on a ghost wolf while a giant rock-man battles an ice elephant? Who knows. All we know is after Toei buried Horus with a mere 10-day theatrical release, the movie achieved certifiable cult status, living on in the hearts of nascent otaku who’d champion it for years to come in fanzines and magazine articles.  Internationally the film was a slow starter, hampered by Toei’s official disinterest and confusing insistence in giving the film the English title “Little Norse Prince Valiant”, which conflates this film with the Hal Foster Arthurian-legend comic strip. American International would license the film for American television in 1971, titled “Little Norse Prince”.  The Fred Ladd-directed dub features an all-star 60s anime cast including Billie Lou “Kimba” Watt, Corinne “Trixie” Orr, Gilbert “Superbook” Mack, and Ray “Gigantor” Owens. 

Italian DVD cover art. 

American fans made do with off-air copies of the AIP pan & scan television print until a Japan-only LD release in 1995. British media firm Optimum released a R2 DVD of the film in 2010, with English subs only. In contrast, Discotek’s current Horus DVD release is all-inclusive and essential. The print is flawless and includes the original Japanese soundtrack and the AIP dub. Special features abound; Mike“Anime Jump” Toole’s commentary includes interesting details about the Disney-like ambitions of Hiroshi Okawa and a great story of the time Miyazaki and Takahata danced together.  Daniel Thomas Macinnes aptly praises Horus as “the Citizen Kane of anime.” There’s footage of a fascinating French TV interview with Takahata from 1995, a production art gallery, the original Japanese trailer, a Yoichi Kotabe interview detailing their real-life research, and a slideshow feature demonstrating both the inspiration Horus took from earlier films and later works that would be influenced by Horus. The invaluable Benjamin Ettinger delivers an essay about Reiko Okuyama, pioneering female Horus key animator who key-animated her husband’s directorial debut, Flying Phantom Ship.

Everyone should own Horus, Prince Of The Sun, and I say that without reservation or qualification. The reason we’re even watching Japanese animation on this side of the Pacific is its ability to transcend national borders and to speak to people on a basic human level, and Horus is one of the best examples of the medium’s universal appeal. Japanese animation of this vintage isn’t often awarded this degree of respect here in North America, and as anime fans we should support these efforts. But beyond mere fandom or even the appeal of animation in general, Horus succeeds as a work of cinema that should be celebrated by all who love film for its own sake. Toei would never again be as bold as it was with Horus, Prince Of The Sun, and even decades later, the sweat and struggle of Takahata, Otsuka, Miyazaki, and their comrades continue to reward us all.

Thanks to Mike Toole and Rockor for their assistance

Saturday, February 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 26, 2015

a look at Gigantor's new adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks to Fred Ladd and Daniel Vucci for their assistance.