Monday, February 17, 2020

Anime Hell Presents: That 70s Show

Gang, I am super excited about next week's Anime Hell screening at Eyesore Cinema! It's an all 1970s presentation of Manga Matsuri films and TV episodes and commercials and OPs and some special surprises, too. Most everything is in Japanese with English subtitles! 

It's an evening of super robots, tragic orphans, and international thievery as the Japanese animation of the 1970 explodes across the Eyesore Cinema screen at 8pm on February 22! Doors open at 7:30, admission is only $5.00! 

Eyesore Cinema, of course, is one of the last remaining video rental shops in North America, with thousands of films for rent, movies for sale on DVD and VHS, and some records and zines for good measure. Their screening room has quickly become Toronto's home for offbeat screenings, art sales, swap meets, and badfilm uprisings. If you're ever in town you should wander in and spend some money! 

And of course, if you're in town next Saturday you should wander into Eyesore around 8pm, for ANIME HELL PRESENTS: THAT 70s SHOW! See you there!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

the persistence of the vision of anime info packets

BROTHERS and SISTERS, FRIENDS of the REVOLUTION, I come before you today to TESTIFY! We have COME THROUGH THE VALLEY of the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY, my friends! We have SCREEN-CAPPED and we have PHOTOSHOPPED and we have even MEMED, my friends, we've been adopted into today's digital world where our LIVES are turned into JPEGs and PDFs and GIFs and put onto CD-ROMs and emailed as ATTACHMENTS, my brethren, we've been TWEETED AT and FACEBOOKED and INSTAGRAMMED until Impact Fonts and Hazy Sunset Filters are part of our DAILY LIVES! They're INESCAPABLE, my friends, we carry 'em in our POCKETS and on our TVs and in our CARS and we act like it's always been this way and it's gonna be this way FOREVER, AMEN. Well I am here to TESTIFY that all our DIGITAL EVERYTHING is just DIGITS IN THE WIND, dear friends. They're PHANTOMS that COME AND GO with the breeze! Dearly beloved, that server gonna CRASH! That streaming service gonna go BANKRUPT! That hard drive gonna give you the CLICK O' DEATH, can I get an AMEN? Photobucket and Flickr and Imgur will one day go the way of the DINOSAURS and you'll NEVER get those photos back! Twitter will FAILWHALE and Facebook gonna get DDOS'd and Tumblr gonna STUMBLE, brothers and sisters. And I ask you WHERE WILL YOU BE? WHERE WILL YOU BE ON THAT DAY?

My friends I'll TELL you where you gonna be on that day. You gonna be looking at something PRINTED on PAPER because, my friends, PRINT IS KING. That's right! No power outage gonna erase that paperback book! Ain't no batteries in your daily newspaper! Nobody gonna be DRM'ing your Rand McNally Atlas you keep in the trunk of your car just in case! Do this for me, friends, get a SHOVEL and go on down to the TOWN DUMP and start DIGGIN' brothers and sisters, and what are you gonna find? You're gonna find PRINT, is what you're gonna find. Newspapers, magazines, TPS reports, grocery lists, Sears catalogs, junk mail, and books, books, books, because when you LAY something down on PAPER that SOMETHING is gonna STAY THERE until somebody SETS FIRE TO IT or puts it through an INDUSTRIAL SHREDDER, and ain't many of those around, and nobody got time for that anyways. 

Let me assure you, dear friends, I'm DEADLY SERIOUS about this, print is gonna last. Don't take MY word for it! Oh no. I have proof and everything, and that proof is the sheer weight of paper that the North American anime nerds of the 1980s had to generate just to keep themselves informed on what the hell it was they were watching! Sure, everybody knows there was a big secret network of hidden "tape traders" copying Japanese cartoons onto glitchy 1980s VHS tape and swapping them with friends and strangers across the land. And everybody knows that most of those cartoons were in regular old Japanese without so much as a subtitle or a bad American dub. But what might not be apparent to the interested parties thirty and forty years later is that alongside those Scotch and TDK brand VHS and Beta cassettes, alongside that magnetic tape was good old fashioned print on paper explaining these TV cartoons and movies for viewers who might not speak Japanese. Yes, these copy paper Rosetta Stones were circulated amongst the faithful, copied, re-copied, and re-re-re-copied just like the VHS tapes themselves, sourced from fanzines and APAs and round-robin letters and the occasional industry publication or newspaper, collated and packaged and mailed out to keep America's anime nerds reasonably informed about who was killing whom in the giant robot epic they were currently confusing anime-club audiences with. 

Many of these synopses were reprinted right out of the anime club newsletters, that tiny dot-matrix print blurring into something resembling readability. One of the most common handouts would be overviews of entire anime TV series covering broad plot points, characters, key pieces of machinery, air dates, and if you were lucky, some vintage fan artwork, as in this Pat Munson-Siter Science Ninja Team Gatchaman piece hijacked from the C/FO San Antonio newsletter.

Here Brother Steve Harrison walks us through the characters of the Captain Harlock TV series Eternal Orbit (or, as we were calling it, "Endless Road") SSX, complete with illustrations of the characters cut and pasted from the gospel of My Anime Endless Road SSX Preview Dec.'82. With data like this, an anime fan could (and would!) watch an entire TV series and be kinda sorta able to follow the story reasonably well, even without Japanese language skills.

A simple list of film release dates, as seen here, proved invaluable when writing about anime theatrical releases. The run times were absolutely vital when trying to figure out if Mobile Suit Gundam II was going to fit on a T-120 VHS tape (not at SP speed, it won't). Thirty four years later we in the West are able to watch a surprising chunk of this list, with the glaring exception of Arion, Future War 198X, and of course Gu Gu Chicken. Get with it, licensors! 

Here's a piece about Metal Armor Dragonar, the only Mobile Suit Gundam series that was NEVER a Mobile Suit Gundam series. It's notable for the green paper, for being about all the attention this show would ever get in the West, and again for being a prime example of that fuzzy dot-matrix printing combined with the smallest possible font size. Yeah I wear glasses now, THANK YOU

Many of these anime synopses were reprinted from anime fandom Amateur Press Associations (or A.P.A.s), the self-published collective magazines that were the primary source of fan drama in those more innocent pre-internet days. This guide to Dream Hunter Rem first saw light in C/FO Santa Monica's program book and then was appropriated for use in "Out Of Chaos," which was the title for someone's personal section of whatever A.P.A. they were a part of - maybe Sasha, or Final Stop Andromeda, or APA Hasshin, or another of the myriad of anime-focused A.P.A.s that clogged mailboxes and inspired flame wars. 

This synopsis of the Galaxy Express TV special "Eternal Wanderer Emeraldas" was reprinted exclusively for the Books Nippan Animation Fan Club, courtesy the Japanese Animation Archives, open to the public by appointment only. "Petuniacon" was, interestingly enough, a Bay Area indy comics convention built around an appearance by Cerebus creator Dave Sim. Note the spelling of "Emeraldus," and keep in mind this is how we spelled it back then and that's why occasionally we still spell it like that. Come at us, bro!

Sometimes they'd just cram four or five short synopses onto one page, giving readers a cheat sheet of 80s Japanese animated film, typed on what appears to be the same equipment used to produce much of the early C/FO's printed output, an IBM Selectric with a nice clean typeface, thank goodness.

Popular series like Urusei Yatsura would receive comprehensive coverage in these packets, like this extensive piece from the "Final Stop Andromeda" APA.

This particular UY guide had been copied, stapled, copied again, stapled again, copied and stapled a third time. People really needed to know about Urusei Yatsura!

And once you managed to actually get a few Urusei Yatsura episodes on videotape, well, you needed to know which episodes they were, so that you could label your random assortment of Urusei Yatsura episodes correctly. 

desperately random selection of Urusei Yatsura episodes

You may ask, how did these information packets reach the fans? What were their distribution channels? Well, one way you'd get them is by joining an anime club - Anime Hasshin made them available to members. Other fans took it upon themselves to compile all the information they could possibly grab and assemble them into sets, which would be copied and sent out to fans everywhere! 

Yes, years before Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements would edit their Anime Encyclopedia, Houston's Lynn Johnson (not the cartoonist Lynn Johnston, mind you) was doing the Lord's work packaging vital anime information one packet at a time, sending 'em out to anyone with a few bucks to spare and a three ring binder to keep 'em in. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of amateur linguists were ferreting out the hidden meanings of all that katakana and kanji keeping us from knowing what was really going on in our favorite anime titles. 

An entire galaxy of teasingly unavailable anime titles were detailed in various magazines and books, and while today fans may recognize Area 88 and Laputa (starring "Pazoo" and "Cedar"), and hope one day Kenritsu Chikyu Boeigun (Prefectural Earth Defense Force) returns to home video availability, we might still wonder about "Love 30S Chuhai Lemon." Wonder no more, dear friends! Love 30S Chuhai Lemon was produced by Wonder Kids in 1985, it's based on a manga about a hard boiled detective and his clumsy romance, it featured the song "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," and Wonder Kids went bankrupt immediately after releasing it.

Meanwhile Hiro Media Associates was planning to dominate the nascent Original Video Animation market, both with animation from Kaname Productions and with their anime magazine "Globian," which would cover the whole world of direct-to-video animation. And, when Bruce Eimon finished translating their video guide, we'd all get a taste of what we'd be watching 4th generation VHS copies of at our next club meeting. Thank you Bruce!

Occasionally a little bit of editorial bias would wriggle its way into their reviews. 

"...a big spoof with nonsense animation..." - there's your pull quote right there!

Occasionally the American mass media would take notice of Japanese animation. America's "Japanimation" fans would dutifully clip those press clippings and distribute them widely as proof to the world that Japanese animation was a legitimate art form and not just a bunch of weirdos sitting in a dark room waiting for some cartoon character to flash her panties. Even though I'm not gonna lie, that's pretty much what it was most of the time.

And occasionally anime-adjacent properties would make their way into the info packets- like Kow Yokoyama's post-apocalypse model kit diorama-saga Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000 aka "SF 3D," and the subsequent role playing game based on the series, and its English translation courtesy Space Battleship Yamato model kit importers TCI. 

But for the most part, the contents of these anime info packets were as advertised, information about Japanese animation titles, some of which wouldn't get licensed releases for decades. 

And some of which STILL haven't received licensed releases. 

Seriously, I can see Touch not making it over here, sports anime is a hard sell, but Cosmo Police Justy had its own American comic book! And SPT Layzner, well, that one actually made it to the "licensed" stage, but never actually came out. Sure, the masters Bandai provided were flawed, but so what? Nothing's perfect!

At this point you're probably thinking, "Sure, this is interesting. But how exactly were groups of anime fans reproducing these info packets? What were the technological and economic circumstances that came together in the 80s to make photocopying cheap and easy? Well, I can tell you in one word, and that word is KINKO'S.

vintage 80s Kinko's ads

The first Kinko's opened in 1970 near UC Santa Barbara and grew to 1200 24-hour copy centers across ten different countries, a place where every struggling rock band, glue-stick fevered zinester, ink-stained cartoonist, aspiring entrepreneur, and Japanese cartoon synopsis distributor could roll up to at 1am and start making copies. Kinko's facilitiated the distribution of raw, genuine information on a scale never before seen, putting the power of print in the hands of anyone with four cents and something that would lie flat on the platen glass. Enabling collage artists, early desktop publishers, and an entire world of Factsheet Five-reading small press publishing mail art aficionados, Kinko's was instrumental in driving the visual culture of the last quarter of the 20th century. 

These are a few of my favorite zines

And sure, here in the 21st century, the zine culture that once crowded racks at Tower Records is gone. And Tower Records is also gone. Both were replaced with the internet, from which we download our music and with which we share information about Japanese cartoons. It's convenient and fast, and nobody's asking four cents a copy or what's the difference between 20# and 60# paper. But there are downsides to this convenience. Digital media, well, it's ones and zeros stored on somebody's hard drive or optical disc or server somewhere, and that's not nearly as permanent as paper. The zines we made in the 1980s and 1990s? Well, unless you took steps to get rid of 'em, they're still around somewhere in a box in your closet. But websites? If you stop paying for that hosting that website is going bye-bye. If your web host goes out of business and you didn't keep a backup, well, so long to all your work. YouTube can delete all your content, Facebook can delete all your content, hell, even Google here can delete all MY content. Let's Anime could vanish forever in an instant! Except, of course, for the print version from the 90s, which is, of course, safe in a box in my closet!

pasteups from Let's Anime #4

My friends, that's why we're still looking at these info packets twenty and thirty and thirty five years later. They're a snapshot of the anime we were watching, the anime we wished we could watch, and in some cases the anime we had no idea even existed. These things are desire itself, manifested upon paper, a magical spell hoping to bring forth Amon Saga and Roots Search and Votoms. These info packets are physical evidence of the work of a generation of fans that didn't know someday we'd be watching this stuff in English on our phones that we keep in our pockets everywhere. They only knew that they had to secure that information, they had to reproduce that information, and they had to keep it moving to the next group of fans, because information is always essential... except for whatever was going on with this Five Star Stories synopsis.

Remember dear friends, print is FOREVER! Can I get an amen? 

--Dave Merrill

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Making Of A Legendary Anime Documentary

This piece began in 2005 as a review of the then-just-released documentary "Space Battleship Yamato: The Making of an Anime Legend." It has been revised and expanded to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the premiere of Star Blazers.

If you’re like me, forty years ago you ran home every day from school just to catch the latest episode of Star Blazers, the seminal Japanese anime SF serial about the derelict WWII battleship resurrected from the seabed to save Earth in the year 2199. When you found out originally it was a Japanese TV show called ‘Space Battleship Yamato that had inspired films, comics, model kits, toys, and books, you vowed to do whatever it took to get your hands on those things. Soon you connected with others who shared your obsession and before you knew it, you had a fandom.

And here, forty years later, after several generations of North American anime fans dragged the medium into the spotlight, after premieres of Hollywood-optioned anime-inspired films and record-breaking anime convention attendances and international media corporations running former kitchen-table licensing operations, here now that anime is finally a thing, well, the kids that ran home from school to watch Star Blazers are asking, where’s the Star Blazers

These days just about every cartoon IP has been remastered for DVD and BD box sets, been rebooted as an edgy show for grownups, has at least one bad live action film adaptation, and has engendered rafts of licensed bobbleheads and keychains and Hot Topic knickknacks;  fodder for an always hungry maw of nostalgic marketing eager to sell us retro themed everything everywhere all the time. Again we ask, where’s the Star Blazers?

Talk to anyone that was 10 and anywhere near a TV in 1979 and they’ll speak fondly of that show with the outer-space battleship. But the ability of us nostalgic nerds to actually go out and spend money on this thing we’re nostalgic about is almost non-existent; the invisible hand of the marketplace is keeping very invisible indeed.

As a Gen Xer, I can file it away as one more grievance of our in-between generation, one more reason to be angry at the boomers and jealous of the millennials. Licensed by Westchester films and localized by Sunwagon Films for distribution by Claster Television, Star Blazers hit American airwaves in September 1979, catching that last burst of Star Wars fever among American children. Once Westchester’s sponsorship deal with toymaker Hasbro ended, the show vanished quickly from broadcast. After a second, faltering attempt at syndication with an extra 25 episodes of Yamato III added to the Star Blazers package, Westchester tried to capitalize on the growing home video market with what amounted to a vanity-press edition of poorly transferred VHS tapes under the Kidmark label. 

all three box sets for only $449.95!

As the 80s turned into the 90s, the Star Blazers license reverted to the American arm of Yamato producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s company Voyager. Though more active than Westchester, Voyager’s US branch was basically an entertainment lawyer’s office in New Jersey, and Voyager’s approach was also was a day late and a DVD short in keeping Star Blazers in the public eye. They released more Star Blazers VHS titles with confusing box art, and capriciously altered versions of the Yamato films, all priced for the serious collector rather than the average consumer.

When compared to the rollout of any other contemporary properties like, say, Sandy Frank’s release of Battle of The Planets, Star Blazers seems positively neglected.  BOTP aired across the country for years, was re-dubbed and broadcast on cable TV superstations as G-Force for several more seasons, received a wide home video release courtesy pop-culture label Rhino, was then licensed by ADV in both Japanese and English versions, and is now repped by Sentai in both physical and streaming media. That bird ninja show achieved a level of success that Star Blazers simply didn’t get, both in the 1970s and beyond. 

Japanese fans waiting forever to see Be Forever Yamato in WARP DIMENSION
Part of this is because Space Battleship Yamato wasn’t a Toei property or a Tatsunoko property or a Sunrise property, it was a sole proprietorship owned & operated by Yoshinobu Nishizaki Incorporated, a hand-crafted artisanal object that wouldn’t get bundled or packaged or promoted with anything else, a property without an engaged American office in the field trying to make things happen. Compare this to Harmony Gold, which for all their many and egregious faults, is always trying to keep Robotech The Trademark in the public eye, or with Speed Racer Enterprises, which spent the 1980s and 1990s selling Speed Racer magnets and coffee mugs and getting Speed Racer on MTV.

Nishizaki’s Voyager didn’t market Star Blazers with anywhere near this energy. Their initial VHS releases of the property were flawed, expensive, and poorly distributed, and later DVD releases were also flawed, expensive, and poorly distributed. For interested outsiders, getting licenses for other merch like the Star Blazers Role Playing Game or TCI’s model kits was like pulling teeth.

One exception? Star Blazers comics. In the mid and late 1980s, a creative team including Phil “Girl Genius” Foglio produced two decently-selling Star Blazers series for Robotech comics publisher Comico. A few years later, longtime Yamato fan Tim Eldred was working at then-ascendant Malibu Comics just as Voyager was seeking to promote their property. Malibu passed on the offer to publish Star Blazers comics, but Eldred sensed an opportunity. He convinced Voyager US president Barry Winston to publish Star Blazers comics under a new publishing line, Argo Press. Eldred would produce the actual comics as Studio Go, a licensed property comics production service. Alongside other anime-license titles like M.D. Geist, Gall Force, Project A-Ko and Votoms, Studio Go would publish 12 Star Blazers comic books as well as an actual honest to gosh official, licensed Star Blazers book, the now out-of-print “Star Blazers Perfect Album.”

Eldred's involvement with Voyager and the Star Blazers franchise would also lead to something unique in the annals of Japanese animation; the English-language anime series documentary Space Battleship Yamato: The Making of an Anime Legend. Today, every YouTube account with the ability to splash misleading Impact font headlines across screencaps considers themselves a documentarian, but in 2005, serious documentaries about Japanese animated films were rare to nonexistent.  As a Star Blazers fan Tim was unhappy with the decrepit look of previous Star Blazers DVD releases and he'd done the legwork sourcing high quality video for the DVD release of the show's little-seen third season, now titled "The Bolar Wars." He'd arranged the translation of a wealth of Yamato images, text, and video for the official Star Blazers website, and of course he’d produced hundreds of pages of Star Blazers graphic story himself. In hindsight it seems an obvious next step: he had the translations, he had the artwork, he had the music, he had the DVD rendering skills, and he had the blessing of the actual copyright holders. He could produce an honest-to-gosh Star Blazers documentary.

Nishizaki and Matsumoto in the 70s; an early Yamato design

The end result is unique. Not only is this DVD a comprehensive look at the work it took to animate the three Yamato TV series and the five Yamato films, but it places Yamato firmly in the context of both the Japanese and the American animation markets of the time. Yamato producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s career is detailed from his start with Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Production, and his tireless and sometimes outlandish efforts to promote Yamato are shown in detail. We see the roots of the series, first conceived as funky looking live-action SF involving a rocket-propelled asteroid. Yamato chief designer Leiji Matsumoto’s influence on the final product is shown through original design sketches and interviews. We see eccentric publicity stunts like a Yamato ocean cruise in a liner tricked out with deck turrets and a mystery Yamato train trip reportedly to the asteroid Icarus.

Many of the fan legends that surround the series are brought to light; the seldom-seen Yamato pilot film is on this DVD in its entirety, and there’s a comprehensive look at the English-language theatrical version of Yamato, titled “Space Cruiser,” that screened in Europe before Star Blazers even existed. This of course leads into a long-awaited explanation of the strange “ghost Starsha” variation of that first Yamato feature film. We also learn the stunning truth behind the cinematic innovation “Warp Dimension” that was unveiled with the premiere of the third Yamato theatrical film, Be Forever Yamato.

some of the Star Blazers voice cast

Narrated by original "Derek Wildstar" voice actor Ken Messeroll, this DVD also features interviews with other Star Blazers voice actors like Amy “Nova” Howard-Wilson, Tom “Venture” Tweedy, and Leader Desslok himself, Eddie Allen. Also throughout the DVD are transcribed interviews with the Japanese Yamato voice actors, director Noboru Ishiguro and Yamato composer Hiroshi Miyagawa, the designers of Yamato characters, costumes and mecha, rare footage from Yamato concerts, original theatrical trailers, material deleted from Star Blazers, and some amazing footage of the massive crowds that greeted each Yamato film as it opened in Japan. It may be difficult for Western audiences to grasp just how insanely popular this franchise was in Japan, but this DVD is itself incontrovertible evidence. Yamato spawned festivals, concerts, speaking tours, hundreds of fan clubs, a weekly radio show, and all-night radio dramas; the series went beyond mere popularity and became a pop culture phenomenon, further proven here by a fine selection of vintage toy TV ads, including the famous Yamato Bicycle commercial.

we just want to ride our machines without being hassled by the man

Those expecting a “warts and all” look at the scandals and convoluted legal issues facing both Yamato and producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki in the 90s and 00s will be disappointed, but remember; this documentary was produced by and for Yamato's corporate owner. A certain amount of discretion and some glossing over of uncomfortable subjects is to be expected. Yamato fans new to the franchise may be surprised the doc fails to mention the live-action Space Battleship Yamato film, or Yamato Resurrection, or the Yamato 2199 and 2202 reboots, but remember - all these had yet to happen in 2005. 

the offices of Nishizaki's production company Office Academy

2005, of course, marked the peak year of DVD sales in the United States market. From here on a glutted market, a consumer base choosing between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, and new options for home video would whittle the once-mighty market segment down to fragments. With a vanished Suncoast and Best Buy reducing their once-mighty anime section to a few shelves, there’s barely any room for any DVD titles, and without a strong marketing team and good distribution, a 25 year old cartoon about a space battleship is going to be lost in the clearance bin shuffle. Which explains why you may not have even known this documentary even existed. 

early Yamato character designs, early fan clubs

If you’re a lifelong Yamato or Star Blazers fan, or if you’re just finding out about the show, or have any interest at all in the creation, production and marketing of Japanese animation, you’ll find Yamato: The Making of an Anime Legend fascinating. I was impressed with this documentary in ‘05, and as the years pass it only gets more impressive, a testament to Eldred's ability to make things happen and to capitalize on opportunities. When was the last time you saw the main cast of Star Blazers make anime con appearances? There aren't many documentaries about anime TV this comprehensive or this well produced – actually, I think this one is it, this is all we get. Why we don't see something like this for Speed Racer or BOTP or Robotech or Sailor Moon is anyone’s guess. Apart from a third of Otaku Unite, the odd DVD extra, and myopic, click-baity YouTube videos, nobody even tries to gets close to the comprehensive scope of Making Of An Anime Legend. These days Tim is busy directing animation for Marvel Productions and producing another original SF webseries; he's done his part, he’s made his Star Blazers documentary. Now it’s time for someone else to pick up the torch, or the camera, and carry on to Iscandar, or YouTube, whichever is closer.

-Dave M

Thanks to Tim Eldred, Steve Harrison, and Mike Toole for their assistance.

indeed it was the final chapter, for a little while anyways