Friday, November 30, 2018

1978: Anime's Greatest Year?

(portions of this column were originally presented early Sunday morning at AWA 2018. Thanks to all who battled through their hangovers to attend.)

So, 1978. Let me tell you about 1978. First off, it was still the 1950s sometimes, thanks to Sha Na Na, Grease and Happy Days. On the other hand, we had three Popes that year! Jimmy Carter brokered Mideast peace and signed the Panama Canal treaty. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl, the Yankees took the World Series, and M.A.S.H. and Little House On The Prairie weren't even half over. Me, I was eight years old, and if there was one thing I loved more than pestering anyone with a car to take me to see Star Wars again, it was watching cartoons on TV. Sadly, apart from Bugs Bunny re-runs, that Fantastic Four show starring Herbie the Robot, and of course, Super Friends, our network cartoons were all dreck like Fangface, Web Woman, and Galaxy Goof-Ups.

Meanwhile in Japan, lucky shoujos and shonens were literally wallowing in an ocean of colorful, wild, and occasionally ridiculous pop culture, as Japan's entertainment machine kicked into overdrive spewing out Pink Ladys and Ultramen, Chogokin super robots and Micromen and Space Invaders, all part of a nation's creative output... including an anime industry that just might have hit its peak in 1978. 

Seriously? 1978? Japanese animation as we know it has been a thing for more than fifty years. Why would I do something so silly as to pick a year and claim it's the greatest? Well, okay. I freely admit this is a foolish, subjective endeavor designed primarily to let me cheerlead for some of my favorites, using forty years of hindsight as leverage. But even skeptics have to admit 1978 brought new works by some of Japanese animation's greatest talents and sequels to some of anime's greatest properties. Japan's class of '78 cartoons proved popular around the world and many of these shows are still watched today. We're still feeling their impact forty years after the fact.

1977 hadn't quite stopped yet

The year started out with an advantage thanks to all the terrific anime that carried over from '77. The Leiji Matsumoto-created super robot series Danguard Ace continued to show Ichimonji Takuma and Captain Mask battle Leader Doppler and his army of monster robots. Candace White Adley struggled from heartbreak to heartbreak in the landmark shoujo anime Candy Candy. The "Robot Romance" series of Tadao Nagahama began with Voltes V, which we'll be seeing released here on DVD soon from Discotek Media.

In Japan's movie theaters, Space Battleship Yamato came cruising back with the July release of the film Farewell To Space Battleship Yamato: Soldiers Of Love, or, as the English-language text on the promotional material dubbed it, Arrivederci Yamato. After 1974's tepidly-received Yamato TV series and a vastly more successful 1977 release of a compiled Yamato movie, the question was, could producer Nishizaki turn Yamato into what today we call a "franchise?" He could, and did. Farewell To Space Battleship Yamato: Soldiers Of Love was a hugely successful epic gotterdammerung of a film in which the revived planet Earth is menaced by the Comet Empire and the crew of the Yamato must defy orders, save Teresa of Telezart, and make the ultimate sacrifice. Produced at breakneck speed by top tier Japanese animation talent like designer and collaborator Leiji Matsumoto, director Noboru Ishiguro, and character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Farewell is a terrific film that delivers an entire new civilization's worth of space vehicles to threaten our heroes, gives the Comet Empire that monumental, shuddering Hiroshi Miyagawa pipe organ theme, and still delivers Yamato style outer space romantic mysticism in a 151-minute epic that makes every minute count. North America received Voyager Entertainment VHS and DVD releases of this film, but as of now it's out of print.

Sure, we all wept at the (spoiler!) climactic sacrifice of the Yamato and her crew at the end of Arrivederci Yamato. However the Yamato would return in October's TV version of the Comet Empire story, Space Battleship Yamato 2. In this series the Yamato's tragic end isn't quite so tragic or final, as we see an expanded version of the film that gives more screentime to our crew, allows space dictator Desslar a chance at redemption, and finally standardizes the Yamato's formerly lackadaisical mechanical design. This show and the first Yamato TV series would be packaged in foreign markets as "Star Blazers" and air in US markets in 1979, a crucial series for many a North American anime fan (like me). Available on DVD as part of Star Blazers and currently out of print.

Harlock, Herlock, whichever

Japanese audiences were experiencing Leiji Matsumoto overload in 1978. Danguard Ace was still on the air, the Yamato was battling the Comet Empire in theaters and on TV, and March would see the first episode of one of Matsumoto's most iconic series, Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Harlock and his forty fellow space pirates defy the evil plant women of the Mazone, who return to Earth after millions of years to lay claim to their ancient-astronaut home. As we mentioned before, this terrific TV series is currently available on streaming video and in a Discotek DVD release, and Harlock would go on to star and co-star in feature films and TV series for decades to come. 

Not enough Leiji? Enjoy his April '78 science-fiction Journey To The West pastiche SF Saiyuki Starzinger – localized here as Jim Terry's Spaceketeers - or settle in for a ride on the Galaxy Express 999. Leiji Matsumoto's wistful meditation on life, death, and everything in between as seen through the eyes of a young boy travelling to Andromeda to get an immortal machine body, Toei's Galaxy Express 999 TV series first aired in September of 1978 and ran for 113 episodes. As we discussed earlier, this series is currently streaming and soon to be available on DVD from Discotek.

Harlock wasn't the only space captain zipping around '78; Golden Age SF writer Edmond Hamilton's 1940s hero Captain Future launched in November for 52 episodes of Toei-produced interplanetary adventure. These reasonably faithful pulp adaptations were thankfully updated with 70s era mechanical design and starred the titular Captain Future, Curtis Newton, and his shipmates the android Otho, the robot Grag, Simon "The Brain" Wright, and Space Girlfriend Joan Randall as they battle the evil forces that threaten to wreck the solar system. A big hit in Japan and Europe, the series has seen home video releases in almost every format and almost every region, with the exception of (sigh) North America.

Gatchaman II

Tatsunoko's Science Ninja Team Gatchaman series first aired in '72 – the cast's giant flared jeans are a dead giveaway - for 105 episodes of science ninja vs international criminal action. One of creator Ippei Kuri's most iconic creations, Gatchaman would get a theatrical compilation film in July, just in time to get audiences ready for the October start of the sequel to Gatchaman, Gatchaman II. The missing Condor Joe (spoilers!) returns early on, and the new show wastes no time getting back to battling robot monsters and evil Galactors. 1978 would also be the year that the '72 Gatchaman series would be edited, rewritten, dubbed by an all-star cast of American voice talent including Alan "Wilbur" Young and Casey "American Top 40" Kasem, and reach syndication in America as Battle of The Planets. Packed with action, great characters, and stunning mechanical mayhem, BOTP grabbed Americans by the eyeballs and turned them into what we now call 'anime fans.' Both BOTP and Gatchaman have had several iterations of home video release in North America, and the entire mythic Gatchaman cycle of Gatchaman, Gatchaman II, and Gatchaman F is available on DVD from Sentai, right now for the bargain price of eighty dollars.

it's kid-tested

Lupin III, hands down the world's greatest second-story man, safecracker, confidence trickster, and all around thief, made the jump from Monkey Punch's manga and a few hundred TMS produced TV episodes to the big movie screen in his 1978 feature film debut, directed by Mushi Pro vet Soji Yoshikawa and released by Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Known in some circles as "Mystery Of Mamo," this very 70s film is a wild roller coaster ride around the world as Lupin battles the possibly immortal Mamo past sight gags, 2001 references, spaghetti western homages, Clark Bar comic book ads, and the kinds of sleazy, lustful TV Lupin behavior that Hayao Miyazaki would totally abandon when directing the next Lupin III film. Mamo's long-lost English dub is now available on the Discotek DVD along with four (!) other English dubs.

The title can be literally translated into English as "Here Comes Miss Modern", "Here Comes Miss High-Collar" ("haikara" a Japanese portmanteau of "high collar"), or "Fashionable Girl Passing By," but in Japan they call this series Haikara-san ga Toru. In 1977, Waki Yamato's original Shoujo Friend manga series won the first Kodansha Manga Award. The Nippon Animation adaptation of Haikara-san ga Toru began airing in March of 1978, taking us all the way back to Tokyo in 1920, where teenager tomboy Benio Hanamura is always getting in trouble and advocating for new-fangled modern ways. 

here comes miss modern tree-climber
Though opposed to arranged marriages, she's engaged to the dreamy young Army captain Shinobu. Benio tries to sabotage the engagement but finds herself falling in love in spite of herself. Can their romance survive war in Manchuria, amnesia, and the Great Kanto Earthquake? A new anime film of Haikara-san was released earlier this year and Eleven Arts licenced it for North America, so look out, here she comes!

Hiromi Oka leaps from the pages of the sports shoujo manga classic Aim For The Ace by Suzumu Yamamoto, joins her high school tennis club and finds the tennis superstar inside that only the challenge of Ochofujin and the Demon Coach can bring out. This October '78 remake of the amazing 1972 Aim For The Ace series didn't feature 1972's Osamu Dezaki direction or Akio Sugino's character designs, but that's OK, they were working on the terrific 1979 Aim For The Ace movie. None of Aim For The Ace is commercially available in English in any form. Why is this? Somebody make it happen.

New Aim For The Ace

April 1978: Tadao Nagahama and an all-star cast of anime geniuses (Masaki Tsuji, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Yuki Hijiri, etc.) continues his "Robot Romance" series with Fighting General Daimos. Kazuya Ryuuzaki, a young karate champ/astronaut, returns from deep space along with his sword-slinging Afro-sporting copilot Kyoushirou to find Earth under attack from space aliens fleeing the destroyed planet Baam. As befits the star of an anime show, only Kazuya can pilot the transforming truck-robot Daimos to battle the invaders. His thirst for vengeance is derailed slightly when he falls in love with the Baam princess Erika. Can their romance survive the struggle between two worlds? Animated by Sunrise under contract to Toei, this show packs a one-two punch of super robot destruction and soapy love story melodrama that totally satisfies. Daimos eventually aired in the Philippines, Italy, Poland, and even in an edited compilation video titled "Star Birds" that was released on home video and a few airings on Pat Robertson's CBN cable network.

from a Fighting General Daimos children's storybook

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island has enjoyed many cinematic adaptations, and the world of anime is no exception. There have been one, two, at least three separate Japanese cartoon versions of this seminal pirate adventure story. Unquestionably the best Japanese anime iteration – the one without talking animals, anyway - is the October '78 TMS Treasure Island series, directed by genius Osamu Dezaki. This is what he was doing instead of remaking Aim For The Ace, I guess. Treasure Island aired in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Columbia, Taiwan, the Arabic world, and after circumnavigating the globe, finally reached the English language audience via YouTube with TMS subtitles.

Treasure Island never looked so great

1978 started its journey with the New Years Day premiere of Perrine Story, the 1978 Nippon Animation series based on the Hector Malot novel Sans Familie. Young Perrine struggles to make her way from one end of Europe to another to find her estranged grandfather and experience the clash of class and race at the tail end of the 19th century. Nothing explains the power of Japanese animation quite like its ability to entertain regardless of viewer demographics, and it's when you are on the edge of your seat hoping Perrine and her weakening mother and their long-suffering donkey Polikare can muscle their wagon up the muddy 19th century roads through the Alps, well, that's when you realize the true power of anime. I defy anyone to fail to be moved when that donkey makes a reappearance later in the show, which sadly is unavailable commercially in English.

Perrine, Baron, and Polikare, the donkey who drank too much

Sanrio, the Hello Kitty people, spent the 1970s branching out into other media, including the shoujo manga magazine Lyrica and a series of animated films, including 1978's Ringing Bell, a 47 minute film based on a children's book about a cute little lamb named Chirin. Devastated when his mother is killed by a wolf, Chirin swears eternal vengeance, and ironically is taught to be a violent survivor by the very same momicide-committing wolf. Chirin grows to learn the world is a terrifying nightmare of unending conflict. You know, for kids! Released on American VHS by Columbia in the 1980s and recently revived on DVD by Discotek, Ringing Bell is a beautifully animated film that illustrates perfectly how even the most talented of artists can completely misjudge their audience.

don't be fooled by that Ringing Bell box art

Between April and October of 1978, viewers were treated to what many believe is the best Japanese anime series ever made, Future Boy Conan. Based on Alexander Key's 1970 dystopian YA SF novel "The Incredible Tide" – yes, he's the guy that wrote "Escape To Witch Mountain" - this Nippon Animation series was produced by the anime dream team of Yasuo Otsuka, Isao Takahata, and Hayao Miyazaki. Remember that world war we had back in July 2008, the one that saw the use of super powerful magnetic weapons more powerful than atom bombs? After the world is thrown off its axis, the survivors of a flooded Earth struggle to rebuild civilization, represented by the polar opposites of the techno-fascist Industria and the peaceful, agricultural High Harbor. We first meet our hero, the titular Conan, living a bucolic, shark-fighting life with his grandfather alone on Lonely Island. The world, or what's left of it, intrudes when the girl Lana washes up on shore, with soldiers from Industria in hot pursuit. To protect Lana, Conan leaves Lonely Island and finds both friends and enemies in a world still reeling from the great disaster. Future Boy Conan is filled with adventure, action, humor, intrigue, disaster, and redemption; it's the kind of broad-appeal anime property that's made its creators famous the world over, and of course is commercially unavailable in English.

my Conan frame-tray puzzle

Naturally, being on the other side of the world, I had no idea these cartoons even existed. But it wasn't so terrible, back in 1978. For instance, one summer night our whole neighborhood kid gang were dropped off at Cobb Center Mall to see a movie. This was back in the day when parents felt perfectly confident in leaving their 8 and 9 and 10 year olds unsupervised at movie theaters. We all got out alive, so I guess it was OK. Anyway the movie was a rollicking sci-fi actioner titled Message From Space, and we all agreed it was pretty awesome, almost as good as, if not as good as, that other space movie with the Death Stars and the light sabers. I spent years looking for Message From Space, back when my only hope was to catch a late-night UHF TV broadcast. I'd find out it was directed by the guy who made Battle Royale, and that it starred faded Hollywood royalty and top-of-the-line Japanese movie stars, that Shotaro Ishinomori was one of the writers, that it was a sci-fi updating of the Hakkenden legend, and that there was a followup TV show starring a space ape. You can judge for yourself with the DVD from Shout Factory

So was 1978 anime's greatest year? I think I've presented a pretty solid case, and I didn't even mention Invincible Superman Daitarn 3 or that Pink Lady anime series. But to be honest, who's to say 1977 or 1979 or any other year might not be just as great? In a field that continues to produce amazing work year after year, who knows what classics lie ahead? All I know is, I'll probably be watching.

-Dave Merrill

1978 says "So long!"

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Rise And Fall Of the Roman Album Empire

Recently I came across a Laputa Roman Album at one of those anime con swap meets that have become all the rage as anime fans realize they have too much stuff and not enough shelves. The Roman Album was in good shape and was reasonably priced. During the purchase I remarked to the vendor, "it's not often I see Roman Albums for sale these days." The reply I received was enlightening.

"What's a Roman Album?"

And at first I'm dumbstruck by the passage of time, that here in 2018 we can be two or three iterations down the line of Western anime fandom from when Tokuma Shoten's Roman Albums weren't just ubiquitous, but absolutely crucial references that were sometimes the only primary sources we had for solid information on anime TV shows and films. And then I took a step back and flipped that question around on myself. What IS a Roman Album? How many of them were there? Why were they published and when did they go out of print? And why were they called "Roman Albums," anyway?

Roman Albums 1-4

For anime nerds of my generation they were always just there; solid, dust-jacketed bastions of anime knowledge either shelved comfortably at home or gleaming proudly in the exhibitor hall lights at local fantasy-fair dealers tables or stocked in the "Japanimation" section of our neighborhood comic shops next to Robotech Art Book I or that big Macross Perfect Memory book we regret not buying. We never gave much thought to why, exactly, there was a color illustrated guide to Minky Momo or My Youth In Arcadia, in much the same way we accepted the existence of "anime comics," Animage, Animec, and Animedia magazines and whatever a "mook" was supposed to be when it wasn't being an insult. What we did know was that these artifacts, like the cartoons themselves, were evidence of a vast ecosystem of Japanese animation interest that lay somewhere beyond the horizon, a universe of cartoons we desperately wanted to immerse ourselves in.

Roman Albums 5-7
Roman Albums 8-10

Roman Album publisher Tokuma Shoten began as the book arm of Asahi Performing Arts Publishing back in 1961. By 1978 Tokuma Shoten, already having success with the children's magazine "TV Land", realized the anime boom was in effect and jumped on that bandwagon with both feet, rolling out what would become the longest running anime magazine Animage in July of that year. Tokuma Shoten later bankrolled the anime productions Nausicaa (you might have read Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga in the back of Animage) and Legend Of The Galactic Heroes, they financed a studio you might know as Ghibli and the Streamline Pictures dub of Laputa and Castle Of Cagliostro, and they partnered with Disney to get Ghibli films into American theaters and home video outlets.

Roman Albums 11-14

"TV Land," however, would be the genesis ofロマンアルバム. The first Roman Album was a 1977 TV Land "Special Edition" all about current anime blockbuster Space Battleship Yamato. Selling 400,000 copies, the Space Battleship Yamato Roman Album not only inspired Tokuma Shoten to start publishing Animage, but to continue with a whole series of Roman Albums. Tokuma Shoten would eventually lose the "TV Land Special" cover text, replacing it with "Animage special" branding, because cross promotional marketing is where it's at.

Roman Albums 15-17
Roman Albums 18-21

Occupying a strange, liminal publishing space between books and magazines, Roman Albums carried a mix of B&W and color illustrations, scene-by-scene episode guides, color poster and sticker inserts, and the occasional flexi-disc. Interviews with the creative staff were mixed with character and mechanical designs at every stage of the process, and rest assured if the anime series featured a shower scene or a panty shot, Roman Album was there to capture it for posterity, because home video wasn't a thing yet. Theme songs would be presented as sheet music and voice talent would get biographical pieces, interviews and photo spreads. 

Roman Album 27 (Babel 2) with flexi-disc

 A healthy use of English text as design elements offered a tantalizing bit of comprehension for Western readers. Early Roman Albums carried the "magazine" aspect so far as to feature advertising on the back cover, but later editions were more book-like with dust jackets illustrated front and back. Page sizes varied but eventually standardized at the A4 size (8.27 x 11.69) with page counts that could swell to over 200 pages for some shows.

Roman Albums 22-24

Roman Albums 25-28

To our 1980s anime nerd eyes, Roman Albums were the authoritative final word on the whole world of what we then called "Japanimation," that if it wasn't in a Roman Album (or, say, a This Is Animation book or an Animec special) then it simply didn't exist. The unbelievable truth, however, is that there are vast empty spaces in the Roman Album history of anime, whole fields of anime research that Tokuma Shoten just didn't feel like talking about. There isn't a Macross Roman Album. There aren't Roman Albums for Lupin III or Gatchaman. BrygarJ9-I and Baxingar J9-II get Roman Albums while Sasuraigar J9-III is ignored. Early 80s hits like Orguss, Cobra and Cat's Eye are neglected and the absence of later 80s hits like Fist Of The North Star and Saint Seiya is downright odd. Dirty Pair? No. Crusher Joe? No. There are Roman Albums for the 1979 Gundam TV series and films but past that, Roman Album is silent. There's a Minky Momo Roman Album, but not a Creamy Mami or Magical Emi or Pastel Yumi. Heck, there isn't even one Urusei Yatsura Roman Album, one of the larger holes in the Roman Album's far from complete coverage of the field.

Roman Albums 29-32

Roman Albums 33-36

On the other hand, Tokuma Shoten did spend valuable Roman Album pages on deep cuts like Prehistoric Misbehaving Boy Kum Kum, the Tezuka telefilms Marine Express and Bander's Book, and the wonderfully named "Poems Of Baseball Madness: North Wolf South Tiger." Rights issues, personality clashes, a determination on the part of Tokuma Shoten to promote Tokuma Shoten-connected properties, who knows how these publishing decisions were made? Even with a whimsical and possibly biased publication strategy, the Roman Album library remains a vital resource. And yes, they're still publishing the occasional Roman Album, mostly covering Ghibli films, because Tokuma Shoten looks out for Tokuma Shoten, baby.

Roman Albums 37-39
Roman Albums 40-43
And why WERE they called "Roman Albums?" Well, an album, of course, is a collection of text, musical compositions, or images, like a record album or a photo album. The "Roman" part is supposedly shorthand for "Romance Adventure", the "romance" part being used in the literary sense of "a narrative genre that includes a mysterious, adventurous, or spiritual storyline involving bravery and strong values." Tadao Nagahama's Voltes V, Daimos, and Combattler V would similarly be described as a "Robot Romance Trilogy", with only Daimos featuring "romance" in the "boy meets girl" sense. All three of these series would, of course, receive Roman Albums.

Roman Albums 44-47

Roman Albums 48-50

The growing Western interest in anime, and the 1980s comic con/comic shop distribution networks built to sell us comics, model kits, and other fannish merchandise, meant Roman Albums could and did find homes with American anime fans. And sure, you might never see a Horus, Prince Of The Sun or a Getter Robo or a Tekkaman over here, but Be Forever Yamato Roman Album number 36 was seemingly available everywhere to anime fandom circa 1986. Was there a glut of Be Forever Yamato Roman Albums in somebody's Jinbucho warehouse? Did Tokuma Shoten overestimate the Japanese public's demand for this particular symbol of the anime boom's high water mark, and pass the overstock on to a North America suddenly hungry for big-eyed Japanese cartoon characters? Did someone mistakenly add a zero to an overseas shipping invoice? Who knows. BFY RA 36 went from prized to pedestrian fairly quickly as Star Blazers became unfashionable compared to Bubblegum Crisis and other icons of the OVA age. You can still find Roman Albums from Be Forever Yamato and other anime films and TV shows cheap – in Japan. Or perhaps at the occasional anime convention swap meet... if I don't find them first!

-Dave Merrill

Roman Albums 51-54

Roman Albums 55-58

Roman Albums 1-70:
1. Space Battleship Yamato
2. Cyborg 009
3. Rainbow Soldier Robin
4. Devilman
5. Tiger Mask
6. Super Jetter
7. Astro Boy
8. Raideen
9. Mazinger Z
10. Kamui
11. Arrivederci Yamato
12. Bander's Book
13. Tomorrow's Joe
14. Voltes V

Roman Albums 59-62

15. UFO Robo Grandizer
16. Combattler V
17. Eight Man
18. Danguard Ace
19. Heidi
20. Fighting General Daimos
21. Zanbot 3
22. Treasure Island
23. Triton
24. Galaxy Express 999 film
25. Marine Express
26. Adventure Of Gamba
27. Babel II
28. Shotaro Ishinomori Works
29. Daitarn 3
30. Captain Harlock
31. Space Battleship Yamato 2
32. Getter Robo / G
33. Poems Of Baseball Madness: North Wolf South Tiger
34. Hurricane Polimar
35. Mobile Suit Gundam
36. Be Forever Yamato
37. Tekkaman

Roman Albums 63-66
38. Marco Polo
39. Cyborg 009 Legend Of Super Galaxy
40. Cutey Honey
41. Kum Kum
42. Mobile Suit Gundam I
43. Space Battleship Yamato III
44. Mobile Suit Gundam II
45. Adieu Galaxy Express
46. Future Boy Conan
47. Baldios
48. Ideon TV
49. Queen Millenia film
50. Mobile Suit Gundam III
51. A Contract Be Invoked The Ideon
52. My Youth In Arcadia
53. Yamato Perfect Manual 1
54. Yamato Perfect Manual 2
55. God Mars tv/movie
56. Final Yamato
57. Xabungle
58. Minky Momo

Roman Albums 67-70
59. Bryger/Brygar/Braiger 
60. Horus Prince Of The Sun
61. Nausicaa
62. Dunbine
63. Votoms
64. Baxingar
65. Goshogun Etranger
66. Arion
67. SPT Layzner
68. Laputa
69. Totoro
70. Kiki's Delivery Service

Roman Album 43's Special Area

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Anime Weekend Atlanta 2018

23 years ago our forefathers, well, okay, me and a bunch of my pals, we got together and put on a Japanese animation convention in Atlanta. It seemed like people had a good time so we figured we'd keep doing it, and so we did. In less than two weeks we'll be getting together again at the Cobb Galleria Convention Center and the Renaissance Waverly to hold Anime Weekend Atlanta 2018. 

I'm still a part of the show, and that means the last weeks of my summer are spent getting panels in order and sending lots of emails to lots of people to try and get things squared away before the show. The more prep you do, the less stressful the convention is. So what will I be up to at AWA? 

AWA's SUPERHAPPYFUNSELL continues to be a signature event for everyone looking to clean out their closets of unwanted anime stuff, and also for people looking to score deals and fill their own closets, crawlspaces, basements, attics, spare rooms, storage units, and warehouses full of anime stuff that at one point will likely become unwanted and find itself back at the SHFS. 

Friday night I'm bringing back my famous kooky clip show full of short subjects and entertaining nonsense that I like to call Anime Hell. It's a little later in the night and as always it's part of a triple-threat late-night lineup of unauthorized video funtime,  and you shouldn't miss it.

Saturday morning at 10 I'm taking a short trip through the Psychic World Of Go Nagai, at least as represented in movies and TV anime from 1970-1990. Yes, it's "The Devilman Went Down To Georgia!" 

Later Saturday, professional translator Neil Nadelman and myself will be investigating some anime that's fallen out of North American license and really deserves to be rescued! 

Then early Sunday morning I will hop into the time machine and take us all back to 1978 where we'll ask each other the eternal question - was 1978 Anime's Greatest Year? 

If you're reading this blog you probably already have strong opinions on this issue, and I welcome everyone who can get up early enough to make it to this panel. Pajamas are OK.  And that, apart, from wandering the vendor room halls, catching up with old friends, and probably eating too much BBQ, is what I'll be up to this year at AWA!  See you there! 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

cosmic corsairs and galactic railroads

A thousand years from now and forty years after the fact, Americans can finally enjoy Leiji Matsumoto's Toei Animation space-fantasies Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999.  Now you at home can join the millions enthralled by anachronistic SF tales of commuter rail between galaxies and/or the pillaging of outer space in a switchblade-equipped space battleship. Once only available through underground fansub or kiddie VHS release, now both series are available on domestic DVD and on streaming video services, with English subtitles. But can modern American audiences enjoy Japanese TV cartoons from decades past - especially cartoons that casually defy category and genre? 

Both series began in early 1977 as simultaneous manga serializations - the Captain Harlock manga, by the way, is now available in English from Seven Seas.  By 1978, in the midst of a Star Wars inspired SF boom, the Matsumoto-directed Farewell To Space Battleship Yamato: Soldiers Of Love drove film audiences to romantic tears. On television Leiji's touch was evident in Office Academy's Yamato 2, and two Matsumoto-created Toei series SF Saiyuki Starzinger and Danguard Ace displayed his talent for expressive space opera. It was time for Space Pirate Captain Harlock

Decked out in eyepatch and cloak, festooned with Jolly Rogers, Captain Harlock proves clothes make the man. Or the pirate. Harlock defies the corrupt and confused Earth of 2977 A.D. at the helm of the pirate ship Arcadia, the only starship with both faster-than-light drive and delicate filigreed woodworking. When our planet's original leaseholders, the green-skinned vegetable women empire of Mazone, return to take possession in a city-destroying, Von Daniken-style ancient astronaut assault, only Harlock and his forty fellow space pirates can save us all. 

Harlock, the Arcadia, Mayu, Miimay, Tadashi, Kei Yuki, Gen. Kiruta, The President, Yattaran, The Professor, and Mary Ann
Alongside 70s anime classics like Future Boy Conan, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman II, Fighting General Daimos and Daitarn 3, Space Pirate Captain Harlock debuted in March of 1978 and ran 42 episodes Thursdays at 7 on your local TV Asahi affiliate. Staffed by anime all-stars including Chief Director Rin Taro and character designs by the great Kazuo Komatsubara, Harlock would become an instant legend. 

The series opens as the crew of the Arcadia, consisting of teenage rebel girl Kei Yuki, alcoholic Doctor Zero, mystery alien woman Miimay, Yattaran the plamodel-otaku first mate, and other assorted pirates, cats, and birds, are joined by Tadashi Daiba, a hot-headed youth determined to avenge the death of his astronomer father at the hands of the Mazone. Led by the beautiful Queen Lafresia, the Mazone attack Earth via ultra-modern starship invasion and from ancient tombs long hidden in Earth's depths. 

Yet for all its super science and pirate vengeance, the linchpin of Captain Harlock is the little girl Mayu, the orphaned daughter of the Arcadia's designer, Harlock's friend Tochiro Oyama. Harlock must honor his pledge and defend Mayu from both the conniving of Earth's security director General Kiruta and from evil plans of the Mazone, and that means defending Earth itself, not for the lazy wastrels currently infesting it, but for the future Mayu represents. 

Idiosyncratic and expressionistic, Harlock's moody style stems not only from Matsumoto's characters but from Rin Taro's bold directorial hand. Who else would stop the narrative dead to show Harlock moping in his cabin while Miimay, "the woman who gave her life to Harlock", strums her lyre and matches him drink for drink? Rin Taro's melodramatic split-screen cosmo-gun showdowns are illuminated by lightning, and the depths of outer space roil and surge like the ocean. It's a quirky show that one minute gives you the tear-jerking trials of an orphaned child and the next shows masked vigilantes racing through metropolitan streets intent on vaporizing beautiful women. 

The animation visibly struggles with some of the more elaborate outer-space scenarios, but the occasional Rin Taro or Shoken Ikuyo-directed episode comes to life with flashing bursts of movement and creativity. Is there another SF show that would interrupt a tale of interplanetary betrayal and vengeance with a shamisen solo? Matched by Seiji Yokoyama's stirring, breathless orchestral score, the series is unapologetically melodramatic. 

English-language Harlock LP
Like its namesake, Space Pirate Captain Harlock wanders freely through the universe, paying lip service to its story arc but frequently detouring to highlight the backstories of Arcadia's crew or remind us of the treachery inherent in beautiful plant-women. The series reaches a satisfying space-opera climax amidst the wreckage of a gigantic space battle as Queen Lafresia and Harlock duel hand to hand for, you guessed it, the fate of the Earth. 

Harlock and the Arcadia would vanish into space at series' end, but would return in the 1981 film Arcadia Of My Youth, which features a WWII flashback and a contradictory origin story for Harlock. This film would in turn be followed by Arcadia's television sequel, Endless Orbit SSX. Harlock and the Arcadia would also guest-star in another Leiji Matsumoto anime series now available online, the second topic of this column, Galaxy Express 999

Galaxy Express 999 shares Harlock's retro-future motifs, but fundamentally is a different viewing experience - a philosophical science-fiction fairy tale celebrating human life, shot through with surprising amount of melancholy and regret. Thousands of years from now humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, but human nature hasn't changed much. The wealthy are embracing transhumanism and switching to eternal machine bodies that never wear out, while the less fortunate live and die as second-class citizens. 

After his mother is killed by a human-hunting machine man, young Tetsuro Hoshino vows to travel on the Galaxy Express 999 and get his own immortal machine body. That's when he meets the mysterious beauty Maetel, a long-legged vision in black sable who offers Tetsuro what he wants most in the world, an unlimited pass on the 999. What is Maetel's true purpose? Will a machine body bring Tetsuro happiness? The answer lies on the 999. 

Galaxy Express 999's trip began on Fuji TV in the fall of 1978. Under the workmanlike Chief Direction of Nobutaka Nishizawa (Dragon Quest, Silver-Fang Ginga, Mazinger Z) with character setup by the versatile Shingo Araki (Devilman, Glass Mask, Mapletown, Saint Seiya, Rose Of Versailles), Galaxy Express's look is more consistent than Harlock, but at the expense of some of the earlier show's dash and sparkle. Eschewing Harlock's action-adventure milieu, 999 instead embraces its fairy tale ethos with fantastical worlds populated by the bizarre and the homely, the beautiful and the whimsical.

Tomonori "Ideon" Kogawa 999 illustration from "My Anime"

Planets are literally carved in half between technology and primitivism, there are hollow worlds where fat, globular cattle are corralled in mid-air by fat, globular cowboys, we visit a foundry planet where it rains screws and we see a manga library planet stuffed with the works of Leiji Matsumoto, and on every world the melancholy of Tetsuro's loss is referred to again and again, giving the show a unique emotional depth. 

Just as Space Battleship Yamato drew upon previously existing "flying battleship" concepts, Galaxy Express 999 can trace its genesis to Kenji Miyazawa's 1927 novel Night On The Galactic Railroad, a meditative, allegorical tale of children traveling through the stars on a steam train (itself adapted into an anime film with an all-cat cast in 1985). 999 itself is a thoughtful series that asks big questions in between scenes of Tetsuro vaporizing evil machine men with his Cosmo-Gun. As the train whistle-stops its way through the galaxy, planet by planet Tetsuro begins to see the emptiness of a never-ending mechanical life. 

112 episodes later Tetsuro and Maetel arrive at Planet Promecium, the home of the mechanized empire, the planet where eternal machine bodies are handed out to all comers no questions asked. Will Tetsuro abandon his limited life? What secret shame does Maetel hide? Did they really meet Captain Harlock in episode 83? All will be revealed as the 999 reaches its final destination! 

Of course, the 999 never really reaches the end of the line. Fresh from Harlock, Rin Taro would direct a 1979 Toei theatrical version of Galaxy Express. This lushly backgrounded and tightly animated film has remained a classic, and was followed by an equally lush  yet perhaps completely superfluous 1981 sequel, Adieu Galaxy Express 999: Andromeda Terminal

Neither series received a proper contemporaneous English-language North American release. Of coure Quebec went crazy for their own Francophone Harlock, retitled "Albator," while the United States had to make do with a mere 4 episodes of Captain Harlock whimsically dubbed for home video in the early 80s. 

Captain Harlock And The Questionable Typeface Choice

Television producer Harmony Gold's next project after their mid-80s success with Robotech was an edited-together mashup of Harlock and another Matsumoto series, 1981's Queen Millenia, syndicated on American TV with the unwieldy title Captain Harlock And The Queen Of 1000 Years. Harmony Gold would also dub two of the Galaxy Express television specials for worldwide distribution, changing Maetel's name to "Catherine" in the process. 

Both Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 also aired on American television in the 1970s and 1980s as subtitled programs seen on various Japanese-language UHF and cable TV stations, that is until Fuji-TV noticed and pulled the plug.

old-school broadcast TV subtitles

Of course, here in the 21st century the availability of television programs is vastly improved, and you can look at Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express for proof. Both shows can be streamed on your PC or media device from Crunchyroll or Tubi TV, and they both received DVD releases, Harlock in a handsome 2013 set from the fine people at Discotek Media, and Galaxy Express the previous year in a not-so-handsome set from bargain-bin licencors S'More Entertainment. 

DVDs of both series for your DVD watching entertainment

Though domestically unavailable for years, the influence of both Galaxy Express and Captain Harlock as old-school figureheads was always felt in American otaku circles, from the ubiquitous Harlock cosplayers seen at anime conventions from California to Baltimore, mistakenly licensed Malibu comic book reimaginings of Harlock, Viz's 1990s release of the rebooted Galaxy Express 999 manga, and of course the inevitable Japanese remakes and re-imaginings of both series produced by an idea-hungry anime industry. Revisiting the originals, we may find the 1970s animation a little ragged, the scripts maybe a little bare-facedly melodramatic or philosophical; and yet Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 may turn out to be worth waiting decades for. It's easier than ever for us in the West to enjoy these series, and I hope you all give them a chance on your device of choice. 

to be continued, somewhere in the sea of stars....

If you're curious to find out what classic anime streaming options are out there for you, I encourage you to check out the handy list provided by the Anime Nostalgia Tumblr!

-Dave Merrill

(an earlier version of this article appeared in the June 2009 issue of Otaku USA.)