Sunday, September 1, 2019

Calling International Rescue - no, the OTHER International Rescue

I was born too late for Thunderbirds. The seminal 1965-66 Gerry Anderson Supermarionation adventure show was instead beloved by that late Boomer contingent of kids maybe too young for James Bond or the Rolling Stones, but just the right age for a show filled with model kits manned by big-headed puppets named after astronauts zooming through miniature sets while carefully placed explosions create disaster all around them. Those kids, and the genius of Gerry Anderson and crew, made Thunderbirds an instant icon and an early British TV export success, creating a wave of toyetic die-cast merchandising the likes of which Mom and Dad’s wallets and pocketbooks had never seen. But I missed all that. 





What I WAS old enough for was Thunderbirds 2086, the 1982 Japanese cartoon that took the International Rescue concept and dressed it out with big-eye anime characters, updated SF mecha design and a running time more suited for modern attention spans. And yet the sad truth is that the show was sort of a Derek Meddings misfire that only managed 24 episodes, six of which didn’t even air in Japan, all of which I missed on its first go-round. Airing in Japan as 科学救助隊テクノボイジャ or Kagaku Kyūjo Tai Tekunoboijā (Scientific Rescue Team Technoboyager to you and me), the series premiered on Japan's Fuji TV in April of 1982 and was gone a mere eighteen weeks later. 

the Technoboyagers, or Thunderbirds if you prefer


As a show about a high-tech rescue team using amazing vehicles to save lives and property amid terrible dangers, Thunderbirds 2086 is loosely based on the Thunderbirds template - so loosely, in fact, that some Thunderbirds purists don't consider it part of the Thunderbirds universe at all, which is kind of a weird attitude to take about a series called "Thunderbirds" about an International Rescue team that rescues people internationally in vehicles designated TB-1, TB-2, and so on. However, if there’s one thing I’ve never been accused of, it’s being a Thunderbirds purist. 

if you suspect you have T.B. Love, see your doctor

 


So why "Technoboyager" and not "Thunderbirds?" Well, there’s this guy, Banjiro Uemura, who founded Tohoku Shinsha, produced the Toei Star Wars homage Message From Space and financed the Tippi Hedren jungle cat fiasco Roar. Banjiro was fresh from a meeting with his pal Gerry Anderson and another meeting with puppet super-robot show X-Bomber producer Kimio Ikeda when he pitched a new Thunderbirds show to Japanese television execs. Well sir, it was not a good time for that particular pitch. Japan’s current rerun of the original Thunderbirds TV show was dying in the ratings. Toy sponsor Popy's sales of Thunderbirds toys were in a crash dive, and not the good kind of crash dive like on “Stingray.” Clearly kids did not want anything called "Thunderbirds." Hence a quick rebranding as Technoboyager, a portmanteau of "technology," "boy," and "voyager." Did this name change help, hinder, or merely confuse? Probably those last two. 


Meanwhile, UK based Thunderbirds distributor ITC Entertainment - you know, the guys that gave America The Muppet Show, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), and Secret Agent aka Danger Man - when ITC packaged this new series for international rescue, I mean broadcast, the Thunderbirds legacy was embraced wholeheartedly as a selling point to global TV markets that hadn't seen Gerry Anderson's original series in a while and might harbor some lingering nostalgia or at least name recognition for the 60s puppet adventure.
ITC trade ad pitching TB2086

Retitled Thunderbirds 2086, the English language version was brought to life by Thunderbirds In Outer Space producer Robert Mandell, localized by veteran anime localizer Peter Fernandez, edited for content not suitable for Western TV cartoon audiences, shown out of original broadcast order, and peppered with new and by now very dated computer graphic insert shots.



In spite of name changes, computer graphics and 60s nostalgia, our Technoboyagers fared only slightly better outside of Japan. The series came and went in the UK, Spain, Malaysia, Australia (perhaps part of Seven Network’s “Agro’s Cartoon Connection?”), Italy, Portugal, the Arabic world, Edmonton Canada's CITV (channel 13) and a few US television markets that sadly didn’t include my home town – but did include NYC powerhouse Channel 11 WPIX, home of the Yankees, “Captain Jack,” and the WPIX Yule Log. Thunderbirds 2086 was also edited into 90 minute compilation films that aired on Showtime cable TV, which my family didn't get. I had to content myself with one measly, static-filled VHS copy of one of those Showtime airings, just to reassure my cartoon-obsessed self the thing actually existed. Later I was able to find a few of the commercially released VHS tapes of the show, and I filled in the gaps with episodes recorded off TV acquired via tape-swapping with fans lucky enough to live in one of its broadcast areas. 


getting nothing but static on Channel Z

And if you're like me, an 80s lad hungry for science fiction TV animation, you’ll find TB2086 to be a refreshing dose of hard SF, conspicuous in a cartoon landscape full of magical elves, improbable lion based super robots, and Super Friend Challenges. Our Thunderbirds zoom into disasters involving decaying solar orbits, high-G boosts to Jupiter, genetically engineered killer plants, mutated viruses, and malfunctioning central computers, all with a pleasant lack of ro-beasts and galactic overlords. I don't mean to say the show slavishly obeys the laws of physics - our Thunderbirds still bank and turn in outer space like airplanes, instead of making controlled burns and watching their Delta-V like real space vehicles are forced to. But microgravity, explosive decompression, and the almost inconceivable distances between the planets of our solar system are dealt with realistically, without cheats like hyperspace, teleportation or artificial gravity. 

My Anime article on Technoboyager - note early Catherine character design

Thunderbirds 2086 jettisons the original series' Tracy family concept, along with the secret island and the spy elements. Instead, our new International Rescue Organization team is a multi-national crew operating under the auspices of what the show calls the Earth Federation and headquartered in a gigantic pyramidal mega structure, eponymously titled “The Arcology”. Under the command of Gerard Simpson, the Thunderbirds team leader is the gentle giant Gran Hanson, who pilots the tank-like TB-3. 

Commander Simpson, Gran Hansen

Hidaka and Catherine, or Dylan and Kallan, if you prefer
Our real stars are TB-1 pilot Hidaka Raiji (Dylan Beda in Thunderbirds 2086) and TB-4 sub commander Catherine Hayward / Kallan James. Hidaka is a karate-master Japanese equally competent with laser-pistol or interplanetary spacecraft so obviously he's gonna be our hero. Catherine breaks the anime girl character mold by failing to be some scientist’s daughter or a princess or somebody’s long-suffering girlfriend or any combination of the three – instead she’s a competent professional who knows her job and does it well and doesn’t take any static from anybody, who has a life and friends outside her IRO career and gets the show past the Bechdel test before the Bechdel test was even a thing. Are Catherine and Hidaka an item? The show’s pretty vague, but the 45 single cover tells the story. 



Rounding out our Technoboyager team is the TB-2 navigator/pilot crew of classy Brit Eric Jones and former NFL player Sammy Edkins Jr. As one of the few non stereotypical black characters in Japanese animation, Edkins also puts Technoboyager into new and progressive territory, especially when he’s at the disco. Because it might be 2086, but in some places it’s still very much 1982. For Thunderbirds 2086, Eric Jones would become the southern-dialect Jesse Rigel and Sammy Edkins would be localized as Jonathan Jordan Junior and get a mild but distinct Caribbean accent, which is not a thing I’ve heard in cartoon voice work before or since. American audiences used to more heterogeneous cartoon casts might not appreciate the international aspect of Technoboyager’s crew, but this was a rarity in Japanese animation at the time, usually content to crew its space cruisers and super robots with all-Japanese casts. 

TB-2's crew of Jesse and Jonathan

Audience identification is delivered via kid sidekick Paul, or Skipper as he’s known in English, an easily impressed tween with neglectful parents who spends all his free time hanging out with the Thunderbird team and occasionally hiding out in vehicles to go on missions because he saw Spritle do it on Speed Racer, or maybe he saw that TV movie where the kid stowed away on an Apollo mission. 

obligatory kid sidekick

I'm not generally a fan of American dubbing and usually prefer Japanese dialogue, but TB2086 is an exception, a Peter Fernandez-helmed localization that avoids Speed Racer style rapid-fire delivery in favor of more naturalistic pacing and relatively authentic characterization. The familiar voice of Earl "Hayata from Ultraman" Hammond lends a comforting authority to the professional voice cast. The script doesn't take itself too seriously and the inevitable technological jargon is leavened by pop culture references and celebrity sound-alikes. If you’re mortally offended by an English dub unafraid to quote Star Wars, 2001 and Monty Python while unabashedly mimicking the Honeymooners and Abbott & Costello, this dub might not be your thing.

TB2086 VHS box art

The animation, by Green Box and AIC, is workmanlike 1980s TV animation; Green Box worked on the tonally similar Yamato III, the nesting-robot adventure Gordian, and Invincible Superman Zanbot 3, and went bankrupt while producing Technoboyagers. Whoops. Meanwhile, AIC had a hand in every piece of 80s anime you loved, and I mean that sincerely. 

my Catherine cel
The show has that clean-line international look that says “let’s sell this to the West,” helped by the character design by Kazuhiko Udagawa, who worked on everything from Pelican Road to Pokemon, from Final Yamato to Future War 198X (fun fact: the unseen-until-the-Japanese DVD box Technoboyager pilot was animated by Japanese cartoon rock star Yoshinori Kanada). Considering the scripts take place everywhere from erupting volcanoes to undersea caverns, from collapsing mountains to mega-cities, the quality of the show’s visuals are pretty remarkable.

Anime fans will take particular note of episode 10 (15 in the TB2086 broadcast order), which was produced by Artland, directed by Noboru “Space Battleship Yamato” Ishiguro, and character-designed by Haruhiko “Megazone 23” Mikimoto. A seeming test run for the upcoming Super Space Fortress Macross, this particular Technoboyager episode stars I Can't Believe It's Not Misa Hayase as a dedicated scientist whose experimental plant turns into a sci-fi cliche plant monster. Thunderbirds 2086 dubs the killer vine "Kudzilla," referencing contemporaneous news reports about how once beneficial import vine Kudzu was at that time taking over vacant lots and back yards throughout the American south, including my backyard. The solution, BTW, is to yank it out of the ground by the roots. Sharp-eyed viewers may notice how certain characters who are rescued and reported “all right” in the TB2086 iteration aren’t quite so lucky in the Japanese version. 

stay tuned for "Macross" on these stations

A Thunderbirds show is going to live or die on its mechanical design, and Yasushi Ishizu’s designs live up to the challenge. Ishizu would go on to design for Mobile Suit Gundam 0083, Dirty Pair, Crusher Joe, and Space Battleship Yamato 2199, so you know he’s doing something right. Some of the 2086 vehicles stick close to the 60s designs, but others are wholly new creations. Let’s give these Thunderbirds mecha a quick rundown, shall we? Let’s. 

the TB 1-2-3 combo

TB-1 is a Space Shuttle type high-speed Earth orbital vehicle. TB-2 is a vertical-launch cargo-delivery vehicle that requires a booster to achieve Earth orbit. TB-3 is large transport and rescue tracked vehicle that’s heavily armored and can use JATO units to fly for short distances. TB 1, 2, and 3 combine into an integrated unit in a sequence we see in pretty much every episode, so get used to it. TB-4 is a search and rescue submarine which has various detachable vehicles including a combat submarine and a small one-operator sub. It can’t combine with the flying vehicles, but they arrive at the disaster areas at pretty much the same time, so that’s one fast submarine.

TB-5
TB-5 is that beloved of science-fiction vehicles, the “At The Earth’s Core” style drill vehicle. TB-6 is the orbital nerve center of IRO, 3.4 KM of space station crewed by hundreds of International Rescue team members, making everybody wonder exactly how many people work for the IRO. TB-7 is a high-speed jet interceptor launched from TB-1 and/or TB-2. TB-8 is a hover-bulldozer carried by TB-1. TB-9 is a one-man powered exoskeleton for outer space repair work. TB-10 is a high-speed space courier vehicle launched from TB-2, capable of speeds of up to Mach 176. TB-11 is for when the Thunderbirds need to head out on the highway, it’s a fast sports car carried in TB-3. TB-12 is a caterpillar-tread telescoping platform/bulldozer vehicle carried by TB-1 and/or TB-3. TB-13 is a solo-operator high-speed submarine.
TB-7, TB-9, TB-10, TB-12

TB-14 is a bathysphere for extreme ocean depths, and both are transported by TB-4. TB-15 is a wheeled reconnaissance/comm vehicle carried by TB-5 and TB-15 itself has a separate unmanned drone. TB-16 is another drill car, this one’s remote controlled and carried by TB-5. TB-17 is a massive high-boost plasma engine vehicle used for Thunderbirds operations outside Earth orbit. How massive? It can ferry *all* the other Thunderbirds vehicles at a maximum acceleration of 10Gs. 

TB-17
Technoboyager is a mechanical design wonderland, filled with high tech everything, from space ships, space stations, moon colonies, O’Neill style space habitats, and undersea research stations; the kind of SF world building that helps to sell us that this is the future and that the dangers of our advanced technology require dramatic survival resources mobilized at a moment’s notice. The series is filled with gargantuan super-constructions like the Arcology and the two mile long TB-6 space station, giving all the adventures an epic backdrop.

The Arcology


TB-6

This vast space-opera immensity is reinforced by the excellent orchestral soundtrack by Kentaro Haneda, whose scores include Final Yamato and Macrosses Frontier and Delta. Here his huge, bold, brassy themes are filled with the ominous wonder of the stars, bravely intoning Important Things Are Happening In Outer Space, Prepare For Blastoff. 


Most Thunderbirds 2086 episodes are self-contained adventures, but we catch glimpses of what might have developed into a story arc, if the show had lasted long enough. The Shadow Axis, a mysterious interplanetary terrorist organization that was “behind the rebellion in the Asteroid Colonies” (is this a Gundam side story?) are up to various solar system-conquering shenanigans, and in three episodes the Thunderbirds team find themselves mixed up in their schemes. But for the most part this show doesn’t bother with any sort of over-arching narrative, refreshing in this age of convoluted multi-season storylines. 

shadowy and not-so-shadowy agents of the Shadow Axis

Instead we see the IRO protecting a marine wildlife sanctuary from a mid-ocean chemical spill, rescuing a monorail full of schoolchildren trapped in an Alpine tunnel during an avalanche, rescuing a disabled space shuttle full of schoolchildren, rescuing two schoolchildren who accidentally launch TB-1 into the side of a building, rescuing an entire city
disaster strikes!
(which probably includes schoolchildren) from a deranged supercomputer, and saving Moonbase Omega from a deranged supercomputer who enjoys quoting the Control Voice from “Outer Limits.” The crew hops into acceleration pods to survive a three hour trip to Pluto (now that’s traveling, kids) and rescues a solar observatory from getting a lot closer than intended to the sun by the simple expedient of causing a solar flare. 

Let’s break it down; it’s a mid 1980s anime series filled with well-designed mecha, decent animation, great music and space adventure built on the foundation of a beloved 60s pop icon, bringing two fandoms together like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of Supermarionation and SF cartoons. What’s not to love, 80s audiences? What’s your problem? Why wasn’t this a hit? Why do we have to dig around for this one while other shows of the same vintage get Western home-video releases two, three, four times? Well, sometimes not even the high-speed plasma boost vehicles or the subterranean drill tanks of International Rescue can rescue a show from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, we can’t give up hope. Perhaps some streaming service or boutique DVD licensor of the future will rescue Thunderbirds 2086 from the no doubt high-tech multi-function dustbin it currently occupies, maybe using some sort of elaborate mechanical flying submarine or a hovercraft bulldozer. We can only hope. 

-Dave Merrill

they aren't fooling anybody



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Anime Hell 80s Night II: The Return

It's summertime and that means just one thing: I take over the screening room at one of North America's last remaining video stores and drop a few hours of ANIME HELL upon an audience of scenesters and cineastes. This Saturday night I'll be in the back of Eyesore Cinema here in Toronto showing three 80s anime classics, some of which were anime-fan must-haves, others virtually-unseen cult classics, and still others modern-day icons of outrageousness. 





Fight! Iczer One, the thrilling saga of lushly-illustrated space lesbians battling for the fate of Earth itself, was released in October 1985. Written, directed and character designed by 80s anime MVP Toshiki Hirano, Iczer One tells the story of an Earth under attack by alien invaders called "Cthulhu" who infiltrate and replace humans with parasites known as "Vedims". Mysterious fighter Iczer One must find a human with whom she can "synchronize" and control the Izcer Robo to defeat the aliens! Iczer One is based on the original manga that appeared in the magazine "Lemon People," portions of which are probably illegal in Canada. 




Flying Warped Boy Ranpou aired for 21 episodes in 1984, produced by the animation division of an ad agency and broadcast opposite major league baseball, not a great programming decision on somebody's part. Ranpou was a normal high school kid who was kidnapped by a flying saucer and returned to earth shorter and goofier and with a talking mouse companion who is also a genius inventor. When he's not harassing Coach Hiroshi or Miss Iwasaki, his teachers, he's harassing his girlfriend Mutsumi. This zany gag comedy series is based on a manga that ran for nearly ten years in Shonen Champion, and has never been released on any kind of home video anywhere. Without 80s anime nerds swapping VHS tapes through the mail we'd never be able to see this show. You're welcome!





Mad Bull 34 the anime was released in December 1990, which completely defeats my 1980s theme, but hey, it's based on the 1980s manga drawn by Noriyoshi Inoue and written by Kazuo Koike, who also gave us Lone Wolf And Cub and who passed away recently. So relax. This is the story of Daizaburo Ban, a New York City cop assigned to the tough 34th Precinct, where his partner is John "Sleepy" Estes, a giant monster of a policeman who is WAY OUTTA LINE, YOU'RE THROUGH, TURN IN YOUR BADGE! This ridiculously hardboiled piece of attempted grindhouse mixes cartoony slapstick with ultra-violence and is one of those "not for kids" Japanimations you're always hearing about. 



If you're in town, come on over Saturday! Doors open at 7:30, show starts at 8! That's Eyesore Cinema, 1176 Bloor West, Toronto Ontario Canada!

Monday, June 10, 2019

SSX, Eternally Orbiting

The 1980s! Not the sexy Miami Vice 1980s of pastel blazers, cocaine, and insider trading, but the nerdy suburban 1980s of cartoons, comic books, and computer clubs. Specifically the computer club in Conyers Georgia, where I'm off in the corner luring future Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses away from their Commodores and Apple II s with Eternal Orbit SSX on a 13 inch color TV. 



Eternal Orbit SSX was a TV sequel to a movie we'd never seen, itself the prequel to a TV show we'd also never seen, starring characters we didn't know in a language we didn't understand. But none of that mattered, because of Japanese animation's power to entertain across cultural boundaries in general, and specifically because SSX is all about Captain Harlock in black leather and scars and big stompy space boots, tooling around outer space in a giant battleship with a skull on the front, blowing things up in ways that nerdy 80s teens literally could not stop watching. 

Especially riveting for that computer club crowd was a scene in episode 4. Harlock's blasting his way through a space station crawling with faceless enemy-alien Illumidas soldiers. Suddenly he finds himself at bay, faced with a squad holding Kei Yuki and her space-journalist father hostage. They open fire. Harlock uses his cloak to mask his movements, Shadow style, and leaps from the ceiling to blast down the rest of the soldiers. Struck down, the Illumidas commander struggles to lift his pistol. Harlock stares as the gun barrel rises, pauses, falls. Then Harlock casually raises his own Cosmo-gun and blasts that Illumidas commander point blank in the skull. 



This is not the kind of cartoon hero behavior we expected in the 1980s. In fact I don't know if we expect this kind of behavior now. What I do know is that when screened for unsuspecting '80s audiences, this was surefire 100% entertainment. And yet, in spite of moments like this, Eternal Orbit SSX failed to find a TV audience in Japan, was cancelled after half a year, and took thirty-six (!!) years to legitimately reach English-language audiences. 

SSX wasn't popular in Japan and it wasn’t particularly popular with the Western anime fans that finally caught up with the show later in the decade. Raised on the transforming fighter planes of Macross and Mospeada, the space colony mecha warfare of Zeta Gundam, and the male-gaze girls' school battles of Project A-Ko, these 1980s-style anime nerds didn't have time for yet another trip with a very 70s space pirate. 



Were we experiencing Matsumoto burnout? After three series and four films worth of Space Battleship Yamato, after one Harlock TV series and a Harlock movie, after Galaxy Expresses and Danguard Aces and Starzingers, with a Queen Millenia looming on the horizon, maybe we'd had enough of Leiji Matsumoto for a while. SSX became a coda for that era, a winding down of a time when SF cartoons meant fleets of battleships, impossibly thin female leads, and supporting casts of squat dudes with crazy hair and thick glasses. All that would vanish with SSX



A sequel to the 1982 Toei feature Arcadia Of My Youth, Eternal Orbit SSX (airing October 13, 1982 – March 30, 1983) continued that film's narrative of an Earth defeated by the Illumidas Empire and how forcibly demobilized Solar Federation space battleship captain Harlock chases away those defeat blues by teaming up with his engineer pal Tochiro Oyama, donning a new set of sharp space pirate threads, and blasting off in the giant unstoppable space battleship Arcadia, conveniently built by Tochiro just in case some cosmic freebooting became necessary. Together with galactic free-trader Emeraldas (herself another satisfied space battleship owner) the trio seek freedom in the cosmos away from the quisling Earth Occupation Government and the ever expanding reach of the Illumidas. 

SSX literally starts before Arcadia Of My Youth ends. The film's final battle scene is recut for TV to include audience-identification character Tadashi Monono, a young wanna-be bounty hunter who splits the difference between 999’s Tetsuro and the 1978 Harlock’s Daiba - he’s too young to shave, but old enough to know he’s better suited cooking for the Arcadia’s crew than he is as a space gunslinger. In a Matsumotoverse that usually extols the never-flinching last-stand steadfastness of never ever backing down, Monono shines as one of the few characters allowed to change his mind, exhibit personal growth, and to royally screw up on occasion. 



The rest of SSX’s supporting cast also feels like slightly-off version of characters we’ve previously seen. Revi fills the “little girl” position Mayu will fill in 1978, while being a carbon copy of (and sharing a voice actor with) the doomed Mira we saw in the Arcadia movie. Dr. Ban is probaby the most professional and least alcoholic of any of the squat Matsumoto space doctors. Kei Yuki, here the daughter of a space journalist instead of a space scientist, is still rocking that red and blue outfit, but gets even less to do here than in 1978. The faceless lady alien quota is filled by Arcadia Of My Youth's La Mime, who is not the Miime we saw in '78, but that Miime’s sister, or so we would have learned, had SSX not gotten the axe. 

no ghosts or onions on the Arcadia, please

Emeraldas, the X in SSX, remains an enigmatic astral traveler, but spends most of this series absurdly unseen. She stars in a slew of her own easily adaptable manga adventures that could easily fill a third of the screen time, but SSX won't let her. Even episode 7, “X is Emeraldas”, is mostly people talking about Emeraldas, or Emeraldas seen in footage from Arcadia Of My Youth, or our Arcadia crew rescuing Emeraldas from an Illumidas trap. We'll see the same in the other Emeraldas-themed episode, “Save Emeraldas.” With only 22 episodes, this series shouldn't be repeating itself. 

Apologies to the gals but this is Captain Harlock's show and he's in just about every shot, whether he's looking stern at the wheel of the Arcadia, dodging Illumidas task forces, negotiating his way through a galaxy under occupation, or trying to tie together plot threads that dangle all the way from the Galaxy Express film to the '78 Harlock series, counting on his baked-in charisma to carry SSX past the rough patches of clunky animation, creaky sci fi-cliche stories, and a ponderous cosmic seriousness leavened only slightly by Tochiro Oyama's everyman lack of pretense. As a genius inventor Tochiro is always there to repair machines, act as comedy relief to Harlock's straight man, deliver useful expository dialogue to supporting characters, and pine after Emeraldas, whom he never really spends any time with at all. Aren't they supposed to have a kid together? 



Tochiro built the Arcadia, but his other technological triumph is the SSX. Not the SSX that stands for the Illumidas outlaw designations assigned to Harlock, Tochiro, and Emeraldas, but the SSX that's the codename for the orbiting fortress Tochiro built during the war as a secret supply and repair base. The Solar Federation's capitulation forestalled its deployment, but Harlock and crew find it indispensable. The SSX is a central unit with eight disc-shaped sections that can be deployed independently, is sometimes disguised as a comet, and the whole thing travels in an endless orbit (get it?). 



SSX the TV series also meanders a bit. The show coasts on the epic Wagnerian cosmic-opera momentum of the Arcadia film, but fails to generate its own Weltanschauung. SSX doesn't have charismatic arch-enemies or an evil master plan to thwart. We're never told exactly where the Illumidas came from or why they're hell-bent on conquering the galaxy. Give it a few episodes and we start to wonder exactly how the Illumidas conquered their empire in the first place. They seem to be a collection of incompetents and screwups run ragged by a one-eyed guy in a tacky green spaceship. The Illumidas don't have Desslars, Domels or Hakkens or any of those handsome Matsumoto bad boys you love to hate. Just faceless green goons, their storm troopers sleek and slim, a faint echo of the Mechanized Empire troopers from Adieu 999

Arcadia vs Deathshadow

The most memorable SSX enemies are all turncoat Earthmen forced by circumstance to fight for the Illumidas, who at least exercise commendable thrift in putting their conquered foes to work. Grounded space captain Bentselle signs on to fight Harlock in Harlock’s old ship the Deathshadow, last seen crashlanding in the Arcadia film.This tragic encounter leaves Bentselle a mechanized survivor, who, having apparently seen the Galaxy Express 999 film, eventually beaches the Deathshadow in its designated parking spot on planet Heavy Meldar. Former Solar Federation spaceship designer and 1850s riverboat gamber fashion victim Mr. Zone becomes the show's primary antagonist by default. Carrying out a prewar grudge against Harlock by wheedling ships and crews out of the Illumidas and using them up in one ill-fated scheme after another, Zone's obsession has its own hidden agenda, as we learn late in the show. Speaking of turncoats and quislings, the traitor Earth prime minster Triter briefly reprises his role from the Arcadia film. Triter shows up for two seconds early on and then vanishes completely from the narrative, depriving SSX of what might have been an enjoyable, thoroughly contemptible character. 

the hateful and stylish Mr. Zone

How does this hands-off management style work for the Illumidas? Poorly. The Arcadia flies rings around the junkyard of lame, non-souped-up wimpmobiles that creak out of the Illumidas’ outer-space shipyards. Their fleet includes cigar-shaped wuss-boxes, flattened shoebox deathtraps, and agglomerations of cylinders and cubes that seem like rejected mechanical designs from other, more successfully designed series. These are not space battleships anybody would want to build model kits of, perhaps another reason SSX didn’t last very long. 



The Illumidas were perhaps intended as filler; the original Eternal Orbit SSX plan was for the series to wedge itself firmly into the Galaxy Express 999 mythos. There's a hint of this in the first episode, in which 999's Maetel is listed as a wanted criminal alongside Harlock. Supposedly the machine people were to rise up as a menace, Toei would insert that sweet Harlock footage from the 999 films, eventually they'd battle the Black Knight as seen in Adieu 999, and then SSX would end right where the 1978 Harlock series starts. I'll give team SSX points for anticipating the current trend of prequels and sequels and timeline-jumping that replaces actual interesting writing in today's genre media, but we'll never know if SSX's version of the Mechanized Empire would have clicked with TV audiences or not, because those TV audiences had had quite enough of SSX, thank you. 

The series is Harlock with the weird edges filed down, minus all the meandering ancient astronaut stuff from 1978 and with the WWII metaphors dialed way, way back. SSX lacks Space Battleship Yamato's quasi-religious sense of the unknown galaxies and there’s none of the wistful romanticism of Galaxy Express 999. SSX is all business, and that business is watching the clock and waiting for quitting time. Contrast that to a show where cute girls fight for the love of a transforming robot fighter-plane pilot amidst 80s pop music, and you might see how viewers would change channels. 



It's late in the SSX game when the series finally starts delivering the baroque Greek ruins and recovered memories leading to the show's ostensible story arc, the search for the legendary lost planet Arcadia. We only see the SSX a few times in SSX as the Arcadia searches for the planet Arcadia and the audience gets vaguely irritated at having to keep track of all the different SSXs and Arcadias. Somewhere out there is Arcadia, the source of some sort of vague ultimate power that apparently can both power a galaxy and give plot momentum to a TV anime. If Harlock has a specific plan as what to do once he finds this mystery planet, this “Treasure Island in Space,” he’s keeping it close to his eyepatch. Meanwhile Mr. Zone has very precise ideas about what he’s going to do with Planet Arcadia's St. Valkyrie’s Fire. This space MacGuffin / particle energy force is controlled by SSX's last minute entry into the pantheon of Leiji Matsumoto Space Goddesses, the Queen of Arcadia, and she gives it away free of charge to anyone brave enough to travel to the end of space through many dangers, including that hoariest of SF cliches, the graveyard of lost spaceships. 



Eternal Orbit SSX races to its conclusion in a panicky rush. Tochiro bravely battles his incurable space disease long enough to repeat the consciousness-transference scene we saw in the Galaxy Express film. Mr. Zone reveals his plan all along was to (spoiler!) use the super energy from Arcadia to destroy the Illumidas and take over Earth for himself. We learn in one timely bit of dialog that he'd spent months executing his complicated scheme to secretly crew the Illumidas fleet with loyal Earthmen, who revolt at his command and smash their Earth occupation forces. That's right, it turns out Harlock has spent 22 episodes showing off and making big speeches in outer space while the ostensible villain has been the only character taking concrete steps to bring about actual change. Of course, the first thing Mr. Zone does with his new found authority is to send his fleet to attack Captain Harlock, which turns out pretty much the way you’d expect it to. The Illumidas are dispensed with by half a minute’s worth of deux ex machina handwaving, leaving Harlock free to blast off into obscurity after ditching Revi and Tadashi Monono on Earth with orders to fix the joint up. 



This isn't to say there aren't enjoyable moments in SSX. If you're a fan of Captain Harlock, Tochiro Oyama, Emeraldas, and Leiji Matsumoto's character and worldbuilding in general, you'll find enough happening in the show to keep you coming back. That's how strong these characters are. There are, of course, standout episodes where the animation and story rise to the challenge - Episode 17 (The Great Sandstorm: Communication Impossible) and 18 (Rescue Emeraldas) are some of the best. Shingo Araki, the guy who put Rose Of Versailles on the anime map, defined the magical girl anime style, and who, along with Michi Himeno, made Saint Seiya a worldwide hit, here continues his streak of designing characters for Matsumoto series (he’s the guy that slicked up Danguard Ace). With SSX, Araki brings his bold yet delicate touch to Harlock, Kei Yuki, Emeraldas, the Professor, Mary Ann, and the rest. Araki directed four episodes and they’re generally the best of the bunch, filled with goofy moments where Tochiro battles the newly-arrived cat Mii-kun and Kei Yuki actually gets to do something, where the series almost matches its potential. Instead, there's a lot of repurposed Arcadia Of My Youth animation, or static shots of people staring at things, or long shots of the Arcadia moving from one place to another, or a boring looking Illumidas spaceship moving from one place to another. Hardly the dynamic, innovative Japanese anime we’d been promised, and not nearly as interesting as the Eternal Orbit SSX pilot film. 

our first glimpse of the SSX Pilot Film, as seen in the Arcadia Of My Youth Roman Album


Included on Discotek Media's recent DVD release, the pilot is one of those legendary anime artifacts previously glimpsed tacked into the last few pages of the Arcadia Of My Youth Roman Album, a collection of tantalizing images teasing new and much stranger adventures for Harlock and his crew. Promising a SSX that's weirder, more colorful, and certainly more distinctive than the SSX we got, the pilot is a sizzle reel of the Arcadia blasting its way through spaceships lifted from other shows, while strange aliens lurk past six-guns, WWII tanks, and spaghetti western lynchings, altogether a lusty, violent, beer-drinking, and Dvorak's New World Symphony-filled (you can't have a Harlock anime pilot without the New World Symphony) anime that, sadly, the actual show failed to deliver. 

it's SSX pilot film beer o'clock 

Discotek’s SSX release is itself a pleasant surprise for a lot of us who never thought we’d see the show available in North America. The 22 episodes are on three standard DVDs, subtitled in English, and the set includes original TV commercials and the SSX pilot, which somehow looks sharper than the slightly fuzzy, less than optimal transfer of the actual SSX episodes in this set. My old SSX laserdiscs might be delivering better video, but of course, they aren’t subtitled. And try buying a LD player these days! Eternal Orbit SSX is also available for streaming on Crunchyroll, a veritable Arcadia of SSX content for the anime fans of today that can now access the show without risking the  wrath of the Illumidas, the dangers of the Sargasso Of Space, or the slight inconvenience of getting off the couch. 

TV ad for SSX sportwear

We might still feel nostalgic for the 1980s, but I think we've all moved on from 8th generation VHS tapes of sequels to prequels to TV shows in foreign languages without benefit of subtitles or even bad American dubbing. We might have lost a touch of our innocence now that we know what's actually happening in Eternal Orbit SSX, a show that might not have lived up to the dramatic space opera we conjured up thanks to youthful enthusiasm and bad language skills. And clearly, we can live without dragging our TVs and our VCRs through the Georgia heat to a computer club clear across town. But will we ever again feel that electric, slightly outrageous thrill at seeing Captain Harlock dispense brutal cosmic Dirty Harry-style space-frontier justice for the first time? Maybe we're all somehow chasing our own youth through the cosmos, with our own code numbers, in our own Eternal Orbits. 

-Dave Merrill