Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Welcome To GPress

I'm pretty sure I picked this up at the second Project A-Kon, which was held in May of 1991 at a Radisson off I-35 in Dallas. The first A-Kon was an achievement, but the real test of a convention is coming back for that second year, keeping your momentum up and building on your success. That's what the second A-Kon did, with a guest list of pretty much everybody who was anybody in the nascent American anime industry, and a glimpse of both what was to come and what was about to collapse, in the form of this document. Which document? This document. 

Gainax, the studio we'd know for Evangelion, Kare Kano, and Gurren Lagann, was in 1991 already famous for Gunbuster, Wings Of Honneamise, and Nadia: Secret Of Blue Water. But as befits their origins as a circle of model-kit bashing, amateur tokusatsu filming, Daicon-video animating nerds, in '91 they still had one foot in the land of otaku. When Yasuhiro Takeda, Toshio Okada, Hideaki Anno, Takami Akai and Hiroyuki Yamaga staged the marathon 1981 Daicon opening animation production sequence which would later be immortalized in the Kazuhiko Shimamoto live-action drama Blue Blazes, the subsequent success would lead them to form the production house Daicon Film, and the success of their garage kit sales in the Daicon vendors hall would lead them to also form the General Products company to sell licensed kits and other anime-character merchandise. While Daicon Film would continue to produce ever-more ambitious filmmaking projects (changing their name to Gainax in 1985), General Products would help start Wonderfest and bring garage kits into the legitimate world by getting official licenses for their kits. In 1990 the two companies would merge, becoming simply Gainax.

GPress was General Products/Gainax's combination house organ/fan club newsletter, and as a result of a few prominent American fans spending quality time in Japan making cameos in Gainax productions, Gainax went all in on expanding their General Products brand to the American anime fan market. Hence, this English-language version of GPress. 

Recent anime fans might be surprised to learn how widespread the "Daicon 3 & 4" openings were, but even back in the early 90s we were ruining our eyes staring at freeze-frame images trying to figure out all the cameos. Owing to music licensing issues it likely will never get any sort of professional release in North America, but if you know where to look you can find a copy here and there. General Products organized a members club early on, and soon the "Known Space Club" changed its name to "General Products Club," keeping Japanese fans up to date on the latest anime-culture stuff to spend their bubble-economy allowances on. With General Products moving into the US market, bringing the buyers' club and its newsletter across the Pacific is an obvious move.

Joining the G.P.C. means a ten percent discount on everything you buy from G.P.C.! It's like the loyalty card you use at the grocery store, only for anime girl garage kits instead of bananas.

When they get that backlog of prior commitments cleared up they're going to have a bargain sale. This sort of happened, but not at Christmas. More on this later. 

Oh good, just what the anime fandom of 1991 needed, more rules! From what I understand, for $25 a year you get 4 issues of their newsletter and a ten percent discount. And a card to keep in your wallet to impress people with every time you whip it out and use it, which was once, or maybe twice.  

Here we get to the "News You Can Use" portion of our newsletter, the interview with Hideaki Anno, who in 1991 was super busy and in a super crisis. I hate to tell you this Anno, but it doesn't get any easier from here on out.

Sexy sculpting and superb facial expressions abound on the tables of Wonderfest 90 where legions of lonely Japanese men create their dream girlfriends out of resin and polystyrene. Is this issue of GPress the only time an anime merchandise newsletter hits on a model kit? Sadly, probably not.

Comic Market 38 drew 220,000 attendees to the Makuhari Messe in Chiba. Compare that to the 130,000 that Comic Con International did in 2017 and you can see that what the crowds really want are X-rated Nadia comics. Get with it, San Diego!

Some 1989 interviews with Gainax staff are quite revealing. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto met a Korean animator against his will, Haruhiko Mikimoto was in a car accident, and somehow Takami Akai made a computer strip tease game. 

This fascinating research of General Products Club members proves that the overwhelming majority of club members are (unsurprisingly) male, that they buy New Type magazine, and that they aren't happy with the General Products retail locations closing and the irregular publication of the GPress newsletter. You and me both, guys. 

Here sharp-eyed readers notice the various influences that shaped the production of Nadia: Secret Of Blue Water. Relax Gainax, give it a few years and Nadia will impress a whole new audience that is completely ignorant of Blue Noah or Latitude Zero.

The meat of this GPress newsletter is a rare English-language interview with Leiji Matsumoto. This had happened before - a 1988 interview in Animag might be the most widely known -  but at the time this sort of thing was still uncommon. The interview comes at an interesting time for the popularity of his works in the US - Star Blazers was long off the air, the Viz VHS releases of the Galaxy Express films were almost a decade away, and generally his work wasn't catching the eye of American fandom the way say, Dirty Pair or Iczer One or Bubblegum Crisis was, in spite of the best efforts of die-hard Harlock fan subtitlers and cosplayers. Note the end of the interview where he's asked about the upcoming AnimeCon convention. We'll come back to that later.

If you're interested in girls or robots or girls who pilot robots, well, General Products has you covered! 

Guys, it's the 1990s and that means the digital world of computers is taking over. General Products is giving the PC universe the same painstaking attention to detail that they give all their projects, which means most of these games are about cute girls in various stages of undress, drawing computer games fans throughout Japan into a whirlpool of excitement. 

Meanwhile in the anime world, the hot-blooded ridiculous high school battle manga Hono no Tenkosei aka Blazing Transfer Student is heading straight to laserdisc courtesy Gainax! Based on the manga by Kazuhiko Shimamoto, we were still years away from Shimamoto detailing his time in Osaka with Anno and the rest of the Daicon crew in his semi-autobiographical manga later turned live-action comedy Aoi Hono ("Blue Blazes"), but according to this GPress article Shimamoto was already mining his own Blazing Transfer Student creation experiences for a strip in Young Club. Blazing Transfer Student is a great, over-the-top high school manga parody, and sadly the anime didn't do well, so we never got a Part 3 or a legit North American release. I can confirm, however, that it will entertain crowds of anime fans in late-night video rooms.

Blazing Transfer Student manga
Blazing Transfer Student anime

And if you'd forgotten about Nadia, well, here is GPress to remind you about Nadia coming on home video and there's a behind the scenes video and a limited edition "Nautilus Story" video and a computer game. And a feature film that Gainax is in no way involved with, which is a good point for them to stress, because that movie is awful.

Here Gainax artist Takeshi Honda expresses his wonder and admiration for the heaving bosoms of Gainax's female characters. This kind of thinking goes a long way towards explaining why, as noted earlier, most General Products Club members are men.

And coming Labor Day weekend in San Jose, it's AnimeCon '91, the convention voted most likely to be named "the first American anime con" even though it was not. And no, there wasn't an AnimeCon '92. After the show the con staff immediately split into two factions, and I feel you, fellas, I know what the tensions around putting on a convention can be like.

Cosponsored by Gainax, AnimeCon was a Big Deal - with guests like Haruhiko Mikimoto and Leiji Matsumoto, how could it not be? And even though Matsumoto cancelled, the convention was a total success. Except for the General Products part, which was basically a going out of business sale. Turns out General Products was maybe a few years ahead of its time; the difficulties of delivering the desired product into the hands of the American fans - a market perhaps not as developed or as educated as the customer base General Products was used to supplying - proved insurmountable. By the summer of 1991, General Products USA was circling the drain. And that's a shame, because apart from the shameless Gainax product placement, a regularly published English-language newsletter of Japanese anime news direct from Japan would have been a game changer in the confused landscape of the early 1990s, when we didn't know our Macross IIs from our Giant Robos. 

There are indeed many benefits to a newsletter written by a crew of Japanese nerds eager to inculcate the rest of the world with Japanese nerd culture. One such benefit are instructional articles like this one, bringing Japanese TV presenter etiquette to an audience of American anime nerds who will probably take this to heart and start greeting everybody at their high school as if they were an Asian TV broadcaster. One only hopes Americans were in Tokyo teaching Japanese nerds all of Ed McMahon's mannerisms.

You need to pay careful attention to this page in the next issue because this is where the business-like information will be collected. If you don't read carefully maybe trouble will occur, and once a problem gets started, it's too late, so be careful! This is not exactly filling me with confidence in regards to doing business with General Products.

And now a charming Kiki's Delivery Service by Kimiko Akai, who not only draws comics, but is a character in Gunbuster!

Finally, a word from the editor, up late in Tokyo putting the finishing touches on this magazine, hoping that the General Products dream can come true in America the way it did in Japan. And I guess it kind of did, it just took a little longer than anyone thought it would, it involved technology we didn't yet know existed, and for better or for worse it wouldn't include General Products  selling garage kits of Blaster Mary.   

-Dave Merrill

Thursday, January 24, 2019

2019: the 1960s show

Gang, I don't know if I mentioned this before here, but last year I started doing Anime Hell presentations at Eyesore Cinema here in Toronto. Eyesore is one of the few remaining video rental stores in the city, and they happen to have a screening room in the back that's perfect for schlocky horror festivals, bone-smashing Asian martial arts action, and celebrations of everything obscure and/or poorly-thought-out in the world of film. 

This Saturday I'll be presenting Anime Hell presenting The 60s Show, a two hour look at some of the Japanese animation that made the 1960s a landmark the world over. I'll be screening clips from TV shows like Astro Boy, 8th Man, Gigantor, Kimba The White Lion, Golden Bat, Sasuke, Princess Knight, and Marine Boy, showing selected scenes from films like Little Prince And the Eight Headed Dragon, Gulliver's Travels Beyond The Moon, and Jack And The Witch. I'll also be showing entire episodes of Prince Planet and Speed Racer as well as our feature presentation, the 1969 film Flying Phantom Ship. 

I've been doing Anime Hell for a while and I've learned it's pretty easy to entertain an audience with short-form funny clips. But this is the first time I've really opened up and let my 60s freak flag fly, really been honest about the kinds of things I want to make sure people get a chance to see, and as it turns out the kinds of things I want to make sure people get to see involve space boys with Metalyzers, high-stakes auto racing, and worldwide soft drink conspiracies opposed by flying battleships. Will this version of Anime Hell get the same standing room only crowds my previous shows did? Or will I be showing these cartoons to an audience of myself? We'll know on Saturday. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Harmagedon Outta Here

So recently we went out on a snowy November night through accident-choked streets to Toronto’s Hudson's Bay Center, where the Japan Foundation was hosting a screening of the 1983 film Genma Taisen / Harmagedon. We promptly got lost in the men’s department of the Bay, got ourselves turned around, onto the elevator, and into the Japan Foundation's screening room, just as the film opened with shards of destroyed planet sailing past the Moon. 

By the time most Western anime fans were able to see 1983’s Genma Taisen, or Harmagedon as the English language text would have us call it, they'd already ingested most of the anime Harmagedon would inspire. They'd seen Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and similiarly apocalyptic Rintaro works like X. They'd probably even watched Project A-Ko use KFC pitchman Colonel Sanders to spoof Harmagedon without knowing what Harmagedon was. They'd seen a thousand psychic teenagers glowing red or green or blue or yellow, battling ultimate evils with flashing mental beams. Harmagedon was old news, stodgy, unfashionable, not nearly edgy or bloody or violent enough for anime fans circa 2003.

And you know what, if you take Harmagedon out of the context of 1983, they just might have a point. It's a long, indulgent, prog-rock concept album of a film that makes you feel every minute of its two-hour-plus running time, the latest in an interminable odyssey of Japanese animated science-fiction epics that meandered their way through Youths in Arcadia and strolled past the Legends Of The Super Galaxy (130 minutes each), wandered over Towards The Terra (a relatively terse two hours), and poked their way through all one hundred and forty-five spine-destroying minutes of the aptly-titled Be Forever Yamato. What I'm trying to say is that anime films in the early 1980s were long, baby, and if your attention span has been destroyed by three-second Adult Swim interstitial bumpers, you’re going to find the early 1980s anime film aesthetic paralyzingly dull. 

But slide Harmagedon back in that 1983 context. Put it up against the space robots, the Matsumoto blondes, and everything else that was happening in the contemporaneous anime world, and you've got something special, a New Age epic fantasy of Earth’s psychic warriors recruited by the universal love consciousness to do battle with the forces of chaos and evil that infect the outermost galaxy and our innermost selves. 

a few of Harmagedon's Psionics Fighters

This film is director Rintaro's cinematic coming out party, filled with terrific bursts of color swooping and bubbling and popping out of the darkness whenever psychic powers are emanating or lava is bursting or flames are leaping. Parts of Harmagedon are perfect pieces of film-making - where alien cyborg Bega and psychic princess Luna try to scare-start Joe's ESP by freezing Shinjuku and smashing a construction site, where the intangible, roller-skating Sonny and his gang loot a ruined New York and are machine-gunned by the NYPD, where every authority figure is possessed by monsters from beyond space, including amiable, elderly doctors, and the smiling old man just stands there amidst the molten rock of an erupting Mt. Fuji to tell us he's in charge of destroying the Earth. 

three faces of Genma

Harmagedon was Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime debut, smashing the audience with his aggressively realistic characters, all frantically struggling to survive the disintegrating urban cityscapes they’d been dropped into, Tokyo and NYC ruined and chaotic, the familiar landmarks drowned in dust or the East River. It’s a film that feels like a trial run for Akira, because it is, and anime hadn’t seen anything like it, certainly nothing like the cyborg survivor Bega. A symphony of excellence in mechanical design, Bega is all rounded shapes and interlocking parts, his armor shifting and molding itself into new shapes to counter every threat, a mecha aesthetic so far removed from the typical super robot/real robot anime tropes that it might as well actually be from another planet. 

All this is on top of art direction by the five-time Anime Grand Prix award winner Takamura Mukuo. If you watched Galaxy Express or Adieu 999 or his later Dagger Of Kamui or that Devilman OVA or, say, Stop! Hibari-kun, or any number of other anime productions, you'll recognize his stunning background work; his sweeping landscapes, his operatic, lushly lit clouds, his gigantic architectural structures looming against ominous skies, all crimson and azure and emerald and oily grey browns, a perfect accompaniment to the Madhouse animation. Madhouse is, of course, Madhouse, delivering stunning scenes of big-screen animation that no one in Japan or anywhere else on Earth was doing that year.

Harmagedon's post-Genma Tokyo 

Adding the international cherry on top of this confection of talent is legendary prog rock keyboardist Keith Emerson, whose work with The Nice and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had moved the synthesizer from a electronic gimmick to a stadium-pleasing weapon of mass rock entertainment, and whose score for Harmagedon capably moves from profound to whimsical, with the occasional visit from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. 

Without flamboyant producer/publishing empire heir Haruki Kadokawa and his aggressive film production schedule, Harmagedon might never have been made. Kadokawa had flipped a stodgy publishing house into a pop-fiction juggernaut, turning his mass appeal fiction into crowd pleasing cinema blockbusters. Harmagedon was Kadokawa’s first animated film, to be followed by Dagger Of Kamui, the sadly neglected Time Stranger, Manie Manie/Neo Tokyo, Five Star Stories, and Silent Mobieus before Haruki found himself doing a stretch in Shizoka Prison on a cocaine smuggling conviction. It’s a helluva drug, kids. As a paperback bestseller turned motion picture extravaganza, Kadokawa’s Harmagedon resembles the bloated, baroque, literary-pretentious middlebrow epics Hollywood spent decades shoving into America’s long-suffering eyeballs; even when these movies succeed, they remain emblematic of an era of lavish excess. When we say anime is "a medium not a genre," this is what we're talking about, that Japanese animation can give us both cheap exploitative genre trash and crowd-pleasing mainstream spectacle.

we heard you liked Hamagedon so we advertised Harmagedon during Harmagedon

If you’ve seen a Japanese cartoon in the past thirty years you know what Harmagedon’s about: a Japanese teen's awakening ESP power drafts him into the front lines of the Ultimate Battle Between Good And Evil. Our mopey hero Joe Azuma won’t try out for the baseball team, is dumped by his girlfriend, and generally has a case of the teen angst. Then he meets Luna and Bega and he’s suddenly having visions of cosmic love entities millions of light years distant, manifesting his latent psychic powers against the forces of Genma, seen here as shape-changing devils that can take the place of your classmates or your friends or your local beat cop. Joined by an international crew of psionic warriors, Joe struggles through a world demolished by cataclysms and overturned by chaos, towards the final psychic showdown with Genma. 

Harmagedon had a long road to the screen: the original early 60s manga ran in Weekly Shonen Sunday with a script by former 8 Man author Kasumasu Hirai and art by future Kamen Rider creator and record-breaking manga-ka Shotaro Ishinomori. Hirai, one of Japan’s SF giants, would go on to author the “Wolf Guy” series (itself the basis for a Sonny Chiba film), the Japanese Spider-Man manga, and a slew of other fantastical works. He’d adapt the ‘67 Genma Taisen manga into a series of Genma Taisen novels that would continue for decades in 2008, and he’d write the Ishinomori-drawn Genma Wars Rebirth manga for Tokuma Shoten's Monthly Comic Ryu for five years beginning in 1979. This would become the basis for that ‘02 Genma Taisen anime series that people don’t talk about much. 

Harmagedon, 1960s style. Trigger warning: cartoon stereotypes

After destroying his hand writing all those Genma Taisen novels in longhand, Hirai was an early adopter of the word processor. He was also an early and influential member of Shinji Takahashi's God Light Association, a syncretic, New Age precursor to today's Happy Science. The more overtly religious overtones of Harmagedon begin to make sense when you learn the author probably believed wholeheartedly in a universal super-consciousness striving to enlighten all sentient beings to their innate spiritual and psychical nature. 

Ultimately, in spite of its all-star creative talent, its thirsty-for-international-blockbusters producer, and its occasional bursts of cinematic energy, Harmagedon spends a lot of time spinning its new-agey wheels. The film has the pieces and the pedigree to be great, but all the ingredients never quite come together. In between Harmagedon’s discrete moments of visual excitement, there's a lot of quiet filler, the film moving in little funhouse-ride bumps from one scene of blank-faced characters silently staring at each other, to another scene where blank-faced characters silently stare at each other. Himself a jazz musician, Rin Taro knows it's what's in between the notes that counts, but in Harmagedon he is still finding his tempo. 

we all knew the NYC real estate bubble would pop eventually

Speaking of music, with Harmagedon's soundtrack Keith Emerson is never allowed to deliver the kind of prodigious electronic synthesizer freakout he’s famous for - and if you aren’t going to let him go nuts, why hire him? Go on, look up footage of Keith playing keyboards while suspended upside down forty feet in the air before an audience of twenty thousand cheering fans. You don’t hire that guy to *not* freak out. 

The cast of characters is a Cyborg 009-style parade of tokens and stereotypes, from the Indian mystic to the big Native American, from the Middle Eastern Turban Guy to the Chinese girl who practices kung-fu in her little Chinese outfit. The American Sonny made the jump from what was even for 1967 Japan a dated and offensive black-kid stereotype to a very 1980s African-American NYC teen, decked out with baseball cap, track suit, sunglasses, roller skates, and Walkman. Harmagedon’s Sonny is a welcome flash of style, but the audience goodwill vanishes immediately at the sight of his white-flight stereotype gang, a racist suburbanite’s nightmare fantasy of ignorant, heavily armed black looters. It’s a shame, too, because that scene is one of the best-directed of the film, a Sergio Leone ambush in the deserted streets of Fifth Avenue.

Harmagedon attempts to address racism head-on when Luna’s prejudice-induced failure to psychically connect with Sonny is called out by Bega. “Is it because he’s black?” he rebukes. That’s right; her racism is so obvious that even 4,000 year old cyborgs from other galaxies can pick up on it. Luna, herself a Transylvanian princess (?) isn’t given a whole lot to do other than to bounce exposition off Bega and, in the fashion of Ishinomori’s Cyborg 003, act as an ESP switchboard operator keeping everybody in touch. In between these duties she’s allowed a few costume changes and makeovers, eventually winding up in what appears to be one of Pat Benatar’s outfits. 

1980s style icon Luna

Meanwhile our hero Joe gets a realistic and satisfying character arc from self-obsessed depressed teen to responsible young adult, only slightly marred by the weird sister complex that probably seemed charming and heartfelt to Japanese audiences, but not to that crowd at the Japan Foundation, palpably cringing at the scene where Joe’s erstwhile girlfriend realizes every other woman in Joe’s life will always play second fiddle to Joe’s sister. 

Joe wanders into a Smokey The Bear fire prevention film

By the time our heroes are levitating above Mt. Fuji, directing scintillating rays of sheer mental force towards the fiery dragon form of beyond-space-and-time evil, somewhere past the two hour mark, that Japan Foundation audience was ready to wrap this up and go home. We’d seen the destruction of Bega’s home planet, we’d watched Luna escape a destroyed 747 and greet the awakened Bega. We’d witnessed Joe move out of self-obsessed sister-complex teenhood, and we’d seen every one of Joe’s friends possessed and/or murdered by Genma’s demons. We’d taken the extended tour of important story beats from five or six Genma Taisen novels and sometimes they fit into the larger narrative and sometimes they just made the hard Japan Foundation seats even harder. Yes there are cushions, but mine was on the floor and I didn’t see it because we showed up late and it was dark, so I guess that one’s my fault. 

Not that I didn’t know what I was getting into. My first glimpse of Harmagedon was during the back end of Reagan’s first administration, in the sorely missed Turtles Records & Tapes at Belmont Hills Shopping Center in Smyrna GA - once one of the largest shopping centers in the Southeast, now long demolished. I was a 14 year old prog rock nerd flipping through the ELP section, trying to decide between “Tarkus” or “Brain Salad Surgery,” distracted by a Keith Emerson record with Japanese anime characters on the sleeve, surely a match made in heaven as far as I was concerned. I still have that record. 

remember to save your Turtles Saving Stamps!

Then again, this was the 1980s and Japanese pop culture was infiltrating wherever it could, meaning the bleeping and blooping heard from your local arcade or pizza palace may have been inspired by a Japanese cartoon. This certainly was the case with the 1983 Data East / Nihon Bussan (you may know them as Nichibutsu, the guys who gave us “Crazy Climber” and the strip mah jong video game) laser-disc videogame Bega’s Battle, which used footage and characters from Harmagedon. You may hear “laser-disc videogame” and think of Dragon’s Lair or Cliff Hanger in which gameplay involved joystick movements timed to filmed elements, but Bega’s Battle merely used footage from Harmagedon as background and interstitial elements. Playing Bega’s Battle meant more traditional raster graphics as you controlled Bega in his top-down shooter quest to protect Luna and gather the Psychic Warriors for the ultimate battle with Genma. Did I first see Bega’s Battle in the no-name arcade tucked discreetly behind Turtles in Belmont Hills? Or was it rocking the 2001 arcade in the mall that became the convention center that now hosts our local anime con? Or was it in that weird arcade with the bootleg “Crazy Kong” cabinet, over next to the Japanese grocery store that had the rental VHS tapes, the place where I rented and saw Harmagedon for the first time? Fun fact: a 130 minute film will not fit on an SP-recorded 120 minute tape. But we watched it regardless, clawing meaning from the images in that untranslated Japanese movie, inspired by the glowing colors and the demolished Tokyo and the promise of anime as a cinematic force above and beyond kid-vid TV robots. 

Central Park Media would acquire Harmagedon and release it as an English-dubbed VHS and as a dual-language DVD, which is how most 00-era anime fans (and that November Japan Foundation audience) would see it, a seventeen year old archaeological missing link between the 80s overlong SF epic and the more accessible, more action-oriented post-Akira spectacle years. Harmagedon would become a fashionable sneer target for gangs of self-described ‘experts,’ unthinkingly echo-chambering the received “this movie is trash” opinion. And sure, entertainment is a subjective thing, and you can’t expect the 2003 or 2013 cohort to have the same artificially-lengthened attention span we’re cursed with, or to appreciate the shock of the new for something that they didn’t get to see “new” in the first place. But casually dismissing or judging a film out of context, well, that’s foolish. I suggest Harmagedon detractors treat themselves to Haruki Kadokawa’s next animated feature Kenya Boy - you know, the one about the Japanese boy lost in Kenya who is befriended by a benevolent tribesman, becomes a wilderness warrior, rescues the blonde White Jungle Goddess, and defeats the Nazi atomic bomb factory with the help of a giant snake god - and then re-examine their Harmagedon feels. 

admittedly, shelling out $39.95 might color my perceptions a bit

I believe they’ll find, as the Japan Foundation found, that even though the film at times stumbles with clunky updates of very 1960s characters and concepts, perhaps is a little too forceful in delivering its channeling the ascended masters New Religion backstory, and maybe is overlong and indulgent in the very specific way that only a free-spending and possibly substance-addled producer can deliver, even with all this baggage the power of Harmagedon cannot be contained by fire or ice or the ruins of several solar systems worth of civilization, that when this movie works, it works exceedingly well, and that to abandon those moments is to deprive ourselves of everything we watch these cartoons for in the first place. That’s what Genma wants, and we can’t let the Challenge of the Psionics Fighters go unanswered. Can we?

-Dave Merrill

Tao says "fight the power!"

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!"