Sunday, July 29, 2018

cosmic corsairs and galactic railroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Harlock And The Questionable Typeface Choice

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

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

old-school broadcast TV subtitles

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

DVDs of both series for your DVD watching entertainment

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

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

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

-Dave Merrill

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

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Beyond The Valley Of Further Under The Western Influence II: The Return

Almost ten years back I had an idea for a panel I could present at anime conventions; I'd talk about Japanese cartoons that were based on Western intellectual properties. You know, things like the Zuiyo Eizo Heidi anime or the various Little Women anime series or “license me in English” poster boy Future Boy Conan, fairy tale adaptations like Twelve Months, the various Wizard Of Oz versions, and iterations of science fiction icons like Captain Future, Lensman, and Frankenstein. I figured I could fill an hour with clips and discussion, maybe get a Let's Anime column out of the deal, and that would be the end of it. 

Was I wrong! The audience discussion, the myriad comments on the Let's Anime post, and my own research all pointed to one inescapable conclusion – that there are many, many more of these adaptations out there than I thought. I learned this field is seemingly inexhaustible – the more I look, the more of these things I find. There is what appears to be a never ending supply of Japanese cartoons based on American, European, and Middle Eastern sources. And sure, everybody knows about the cross-pollination of artistic styles between East and West, how Tezuka was inspired by Walt Disney cartoons and stacks of American comic books abandoned by G.I.s in Osaka rec centers, but the impact of generations of Japanese anime professionals immersing themselves in the canon of Western literature? That doesn't get a lot of discussion. 

So let this column, and the AnimeNEXT panel that inspired it, be a sequel to my 2009 piece, let me expand on the topic and cover some more anime that was created, as I like to say, under the Western influence. 

Thanks to fansubs I caught up with Perrine Story, the 1978 Nippon Animation series based on the Hector Malot novel about Perrine, who 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 transcend genre and it's when you are on the edge of your seat hoping Perrine and her weakening mother and the long-suffering donkey Polikare can muscle their wagon up the muddy 19th century roads through the Alps, that's when you ask yourself, didn't I just watch an anime where an entire solar system was destroyed? - 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. 

Children's literature in the 19th century was gloomy disaster porn aimed at keeping the kids grateful for their fifteen mile walks uphill both ways to school in the snow, and Dog Of Flanders is no exception, but you wouldn't know it from the opening credits of this '75 Nippon Animation series, which makes the life of Nello and his dog Patrasche seem like swell times. Which they are not. 

Nobody's Boy became a 1970 Toei film and a 1977 TMS television series, another Hector Malot property about an abandoned child struggling to survive. The Toei film is a 60s throwback but the '77 series is pure Osamu Dezaki bringing his A-game to this tale of Remy, who gets sold into carnival slavery, more or less. 

You've read the book, you've seen the musical, and you’ve watched the movie, now enjoy the anime of Les Miserables! Toei's 1979 TV special eschews the big-eye "anime" visual cliche and delivers a more period accurate Jean Valjean struggling to do the right thing in mid 19th century France while Inspector Javert tracks him down. 

the various Treasure Islands
Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island has enjoyed many cinematic adaptations, and the world of anime is no exception. If you want the best, you need to hit the '78 TMS series directed by Dezaki, it's terrific and on YouTube with TMS subtitles. If you want the fun, see Toei's '71 Animal Treasure Island, a cheerful Miyazaki/Takahata/Otsuka romp. If you want the weird, why not visit the 1966 New Treasure Island, a Mushi Productions TV special directed by Gisaburo Sugii, colorized in the early 70s and released to the 16mm rental market by Fred "Gigantor" Ladd? Well, because apart from a partial VHS copy ripped and uploaded to YouTube, you probably can't see it anywhere, that's why. 

I wrote about the Yearling anime earlier and at the time I assumed it was one more WMT series. Well, I was wrong. This show's an MK Company production, and MK stands for Kaneko Mitsuru, an animator who worked on revolutionary French hot pants heroine La Seine No Hoshi, who walked away from the anime world in the 70s and went to USC film school, and who later returned to Japan determined to drag the anime industry kicking and screaming into the modern world via computer technology. He founded the first commercial CG studio in Japan and his Yearling cartoon was the first Japanese TV anime to be colored digitally. MK went on to work on Lensman, which makes sense. His Yearling anime was licensed by MGM/UA and pitched to American broadcasters as “The Yearling” but if it aired in any US markets I have not seen any evidence. The series, as "Fortunate Fawn," is on YouTube with what appears to be Turkish subtitles, and a few public domain DVDs of the show have turned up in the dollar stores. 

watch the show, read the book, buy the merchandise for 40 years

I got through 1500 words on co-productions last time and barely mentioned Rascal The Raccoon, can you believe it? This trash panda's 1977 Nippon Animation cartoon is hands down the king of licensed raccoon character-based marketing - forty years on and they're still cranking out Rascal stuff. Sterling North's 1963 book about a Wisconsin boy growing up during the First World War who rescues a baby raccoon who in turn helps him through a difficult adolescence seems to have struck a responsive note with Japan; the show was responsible for at least 1500 raccoons being imported into Japan as pets, and they're now found in 42 of Japan's 47 prefectures. Sure, there was a 1969 Disney Rascal movie starring Billy "Lost In Space" Mumy, but did it inspire raccoon importation or its own store in Tokyo Station? No. 

Marge’s Little Lulu was a success from her first appearance in the Saturday Evening Post, inspiring Paramount cartoons, licensing deals, and a host of imitators, but it was the smart, loopy Dell Little Lulu comics by Irving Tripp and John Stanley that made the character one of the icons of mid 1950s comic art. Lulu had already inspired a generation of new cartoonists by the time this 1976 Nippon Animation series delivered 26 episodes to Japanese TV, and subsequently to a ZIV International dub and a home video release. I like me some Japanese cartoons but in this case the Stanley/Tripp comics are superior, have been in print consistently for decades, and are well worth your time. 

Little House On The Prairie fans are likely waiting for the Pete Bagge Rose Wilder Lane bio coming soon, but what they’re also waiting for, even though they might not have known it existed, is some kind of acknowledgement from the Wilder estate that the ‘75 Nippon Animation Little House anime is a thing that exists. And it is! “Laura The Prairie Girl” ran for 26 whole episodes, covering the early parts of the Little House saga and giving Anime Laura fun times with Jack and the whole Little House family, including the mighty beard of Pa Ingalls. The show lines up neatly with the original text, including the family surviving their bout with malaria with the help of pioneering African-American Dr. Tann. Sadly the show totally whiffs the opportunity to let Laura enter adolescence challenged by what we can only assume would be the ojosama laugh of “prairie bitch” Nellie Oleson. If you are curious about this iteration of Little House, the whole thing is streaming on YouTube en Espanol. 

In 1968 Toei produced a “World of Hans Christian Anderson” movie, in 1971 Mushi Pro made a 26 episode TV series with the same fairy-tale premise, and in 1975 Toei released their film of what might be Anderson’s most enduring work, The Little Mermaid. In this version, now available from Discotek, her little porpoise chum uses starfish as ninja throwing stars to defeat undersea monsters. 

The 1992 Thumbelina TV series ran 26 episodes and was produced by TV Tokyo/Victor/Enoki Films, and survived to be edited into a 90 minute compilation feature released on home video in North America. 

the many faces of non-Disney Pinocchio
Pinocchio, the venerable Carlo Collodi folktale, has two anime iterations, a 1972 Tatsunoko TV series and a 1976 Nippon Animation series. The Tatsunoko series made it into a dubbed compilation film, look for it in your local thrift store! 

I’d been all about the 1980 Toei Dracula Sovereign Of The Damned and the 1981 Frankenstein, particularly the faithful way the Dracula special follows the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan comics, and the absolute off-the-rails crazy and the expressive Toyoo Ashida designs on Frankenstein. But what I never thought I’d get to see was the 1981 Tatsunoko TV special 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This oddity put Captain Nemo and his Nautilus into the 22nd century, gives him an evil empire to battle, and we see it all through the eyes of Ricky, the young Jacques Cousteau type who finds himself and his fellow explorers suddenly shanghaied into the Nautilus crew roster. This odd duck of a TV special – including a scuba-diving pet parrot – was dubbed into English by Harmony Gold and released somewhere – South Africa? The UK? - as “Undersea Encounter.” There’s a dub of it on YouTube with Russian expository narration on top of the English dialogue, which makes for a singular viewing experience. 

Like most nerds my age I had Bob Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” handed to me at age 12 or so, just the right age to enjoy the outer space military action while taking the questionable sociopolitical themes at face value. Paul Verhoeven’s film would ditch the mobile suits and frontload the militaristic authoritarianism to a comical degree. However, the 1988 Bandai Visual/Sunrise six-part OVA series would deliver, as nature intended, a Starship Troopers heavy on Mobile Infantry powered combat suit combat and utilizing exact scenes and dialogue from the novel. Yet the anime Starship Troopers remains uninspired, pedestrian, and frankly, kinda dull, which is some kind of accomplishment in itself, I guess. Perhaps Japan had worked on one too many powered fighting armor stories and all the fresh new takes were used up. 

Thanks to everyone who came to my panels at AnimeNEXT and if you're coming to Anime North next year there's a pretty good chance I'll be hauling this one out next May, so stay tuned.  s I said earlier, this field is wide open. After years of poking around looking for these things, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. Turn over a rock, look at the stacks of VHS in the thrift stores, do a casual internet search and you’ll likely come across still more Japanese cartoons based on Western literature. 

-Dave Merrill

so long, Captain Nemo

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Anime North in Toronto, Anime Next in Atlantic City

It's that time again, Anime North returns to the Delta International Hotel and the Toronto Congress Center out by Pearson Airport in lovely Toronto Ontario Canada this weekend - May 25-27 2018! It's a weekend full of anime guests, videos, cosplayers, panels, dances, vendors, and hopefully the weather gods will smile upon us and waft some gentle spring breezes our way. What am I up to this year? 

Well, in defiance of good sense and common decency Anime Hell is back Friday night at 10 for all your short-form amusing Japanese video needs. Often imitated, never equaled, it's Anime Hell. This year Hell is back in the North Ballroom of the TCC, so look for the water tower and head to that end of the parking lot. 

Saturday morning Shaindle Minuk and myself will be screening a choice selection of the kinds of cartoons we as 60s and 70s kids would fill our Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons with - theatrical shorts from the 30s and 40s and 50s, giving us a background in the history of animation that today's kids sadly may be lacking. 

At 4pm I'll be wandering through the 1970-1990 works of manga master Go Nagai as they translate to film and television. Demons, robots, puppets, android girls, weird failures, secret successes, they're all there in this man's Protean output. 

Sunday at noon myself, Ashley Hakker, and Nicholas Terwood will be exploring what anime fandom looked like in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s, and we've only got an hour so we're gonna talk fast! 

And on Sunday afternoon Neil Nadelman and myself will be taking you through the craziest anime not yet licensed for official viewing here in North America.  What weird gems will we uncover? Will the forces that decide such things take pity upon our alchemy and see fit to release some of these titles over here? Let's find out!

And let's not forget Dubs Time Forgot, Space Battleship Yamato, South Korean Bootleg Anime, and Totally Lame Anime, panels brought to you by Mike Toole, Neil Nadelman, and Tim Eldred that I may or may not be sitting in on.  It's all happening at Anime North this year, for more information consult the schedule available online or investigate your program book when you arrive! 

If that wasn't enough convention goodness, a few weeks later Shaindle Minuk and myself will be at Anime Next in Atlantic City, NJ, bringing more panels and events to the excited New Jerseyians and fans from around the tri-state area! We'll be doing Anime Hell, Mister Kitty's Stupid Comics, the anime fandom history event Class of '85, investigating anime based on Western sources in Under The Western Influence, and repeating The Devilman Made Me Do It for an American audience! Anime Next happens June 8-10 - see you on the boardwalk! 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

(Oh My) God Mazinger

God Mazinger (Aira Mu no Densetsu) vol. 4 was the first un-translated, un-adapted, non-footnoted Japanese-language manga I ever held in my non-Japanese-reading hands and tried like hell to figure out. Okay, so this is a Japanese comic. It's larger than a paperback, but smaller than a trade. There's a color dust jacket – a dust jacket on a paperback? - with two bug-eyed anime people and a giant airbrushed explosion and I guess that's God Mazinger up there growling. Otherwise it's in black and white and hey, that woman on page 1 isn't wearing any clothes. Best keep this away from the folks.

well, apart from that, how was your day?

It's what, late 1984, early 1985. I'm 15, I've read Schodt’s "Manga Manga" and wasted countless hours watching Japanese cartoons on TV, I have a fair idea of who Mazinger Z is; this thing here pretty obviously has something to do with Mazinger, right? But it's some kind of sword and sorcery story involving armies on horseback fighting legions of dinosaur robots. Bikini-clad snake-cult women are cut in half, giant robots crush and flame-broil and impale legions of horsemen, there are spaceships and cosmic ultra-dimensions and what appears to be time travel mixing up modern Japan and the Time Of Legends.

In short, this didn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense to my teenage self. God Mazinger vol. 4 wound up in my confused hands courtesy some friends of my parents, who were involved in some sort of cultural exchange program and who visited Japan regularly and who likely paused at the bookstore at Narita and grabbed a stack of comics for their friends’ Japan-obsessed kids. This God Mazinger tankubon was one of those comics (another was the Murano Lensman manga).

you think YOUR boss is a monster? 

God Mazinger went way beyond the comics I was into at the time, which included a smattering of Marvel superhero titles and a heaping helping of what was then called 'groundlevel' or 'alternative' stuff like Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot, Ms. Tree, Cerebus The Aardvark, Scott McCloud's Zot, and Wendy Pini's Elfquest. Both Zot and Elfquest made no secret of their Japanese animation influence; anime and manga were seeping in through the cracks, Voltron and Robotech were on TV every day and nerds like me wanted more. A slew of licensed anime-property comics would be followed by actual translated manga, which would get its foot in America's mid 80s door and never take it out.

(heavy metal guitar wailing intensifies)

Speaking of comics, in Japan the God Mazinger manga would run in Shogakkukan's Shonen Sunday from May until December 1984, incongruously appearing alongside the less apocalyptic Urusei Yatsura, super chicken Gu Gu Ganmo, and Mitsuru Adachi's baseball romance Touch. To complete the media trifecta, God Mazinger was also a Kadokawa Bunko novel series written in part by Go Nagai’s brother that made its way into print prior to both its manga and TV cartoon iterations.

So what’s happening in this Mazinger Of The Gods? Yamato Hino, a young modern clean-living rugby-playing Japanese lad, finds himself blasted back 20,000 years through the portal of time at the request of Princess Aira of the Mu Empire – not the Mu Empire seen attempting world conquest in Atragon nor the Mu Empire attempting world conquest in Brave Raideen, but a completely different, more benevolent Mu, now under assault from the Dragonia Empire. The Dragonians and their dinosaur attack brigade have driven the Mu Empire back to one solitary redoubt, where their god, the giant stone statue Mazinger, waits for the prophecy to bring him to life.
Daiei's Daimajin

If Mazinger Z ever reminded you of those Daimajin movies that Daiei made in the 60s, you know, the movies about the giant stone-god statue that comes to life to punish evil, well, God Mazinger cuts out the middleman and gives us a Mazinger that is, for all intents and purposes, a Giant Majin. When Yamato shows up in 20,000 BC he finds literally every atom of his being mashed together with the supernatural force of God Mazinger, and the composite Yamato/God Mazinger, no longer stone but some kind of ultra-technological cyber-golem, is now able to wreak terrible vengeance on King Dorado, his Dragonians and their resurrected-dinosaur cavalry.

If you'll bear with 15 year old me, I'm still trying to dope out this God Mazinger manga. I understand Yamato merges with God Mazinger and uncorks a giant prehistoric urn's worth of prehistoric whup-ass on an army of sinister robot monsters. Heck, I even get that his name is Yamato, because when you grew up watching Star Blazers, Yamato is gonna be the first katakana you learn. The manga shows the awesome power of God Mazinger roaring out of his God Mazinger mouth, destroying robots and floating star destroyers and vaporizing the entire Lost Continent of Mu in a super-atomic explosion that causes earthquakes as far away as Japan 1984 AD, wiping out good guys, bad guys, everybody. And then Yamato vanishes into a sparkly Steve Ditko dimension where he hollers at God, or God Mazinger, for a while, and then Princess Aira shows up in her birthday suit and then, while the world is gettin’ destroyed, they start gettin' it on. Because, after all, this is a Go Nagai manga. And yes, it is all blowing my 15 year old mind. Years later I’d find out about the God Mazinger anime series, which would only raise more questions.

skyrockets in flight, apocalypse delight
aaa, aaa, aaaa-pocalypse delight

Bearing little resemblance to the 70s Toei-branded super robot parade or Go Nagai's 80s works involving psychic teens, space puppets, and Violence Jacks, the Tokyo Movie Shinsha God Mazinger anime aired April to September 1984 on Nippon Television. Sure, it kept the bones of Go Nagai's manga – Yamato goes forward into the past, fades into God Mazinger, and so on and so forth. But the TMS show sands down the rough edges of Nagai's manga, dials back the mayhem, takes some of the oomph out of Princess Aira's figure, and ditches the universe-destroying climax entirely in favor of a vastly less cataclysmic finale in which Yamato and God Mazinger re-enact the end of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie and stop the evil-yet-handsome Prince Eldon from marrying Princess Aira.

Manga Princess Aira vs Anime Princess Aira

As the TV show ends, we see Yamato and Aira surrounded by their friends in a non-destroyed Mu and freeze-framing with- I'm not making this up – actual cartoon hearts floating in the air. A less Go Nagai ending is hard to contemplate. Heck, Yamato’s little sister even makes a time travel trip just to make everything a little more kid-friendly. Hey Mu, if you’re so threatened, why not bring some JSDF forces through that time portal and get GATE started a few decades early?

Audiences demanded more subtlety in their anime entertainments and TMS Entertainment, what with their Lupins, their Cobras and their Cat’s Eyes, was the go-to outfit for the go-go 80s. TMS took a cautious approach to the scary Go Nagai world, beginning with an opening credit sequence definitely not the wailing blood & thunder we might associate with giant stone vengeance gods versus screaming barbarian dinosaur armies. God Mazinger’s serene, lyrical Shouko Suda-sung OP may have confused millions of Japanese kids, who might have been tantalized by the prospect of experiencing their own Mazinger anime, but instead got two toga teens and a digital clock with nary a Rocket Punch or a Thunder Break in sight.

God (anime) Mazinger’s style lacks the broad strokes and in-your-face heavy metal attitude of the manga. The colors are quieter, the Satoshi "Glass Mask" Hirayama character designs are softer, the soundtrack isn't all blasting brass and belted-out lyrics. Is this a good thing? I dunno. There's definitely a place for classy updates of Go Nagai properties – we only had to wait a few years for Devilman: Evil New Birth for proof – but when splitting the difference between the sacred and the profane, God Mazinger may have landed in the uncanny valley rather than the sweet spot.

Yamato, hasshin!

That’s not to say the show’s not without its charms; the clean, colorful animation style TMS used to good effect in God Mars and Tetsujin-28 is in full effect. Yamato is understandably not at all interested in fusing with a god-warrior at first and the show gives us a chance to see him mature and rise to meet challenges. The knights sworn to protect Aira aren’t sold on Yamato at first, either. And if you enjoy the kind of swordfighting TMS brought us in Rose Of Versailles, well, God Mazinger's fantasy setting gives us plenty of that.

Today the Western anime intelligentsia is/are finally waking up to the psychic world of Go Nagai, what with your Cutey Honey Universes and your Devilman Crybabies (there's a trivia team name for you). The old schoolers salute Mazinger Z and Getter Robo, the exponents of hyper-masculine blood frenzy tout Violence Jack, and everybody else side-eyes Kekko Kamen. But whenever Go Nagaiheads gather to talk Dynamic (get it?) anime, God Mazinger is left out of the picture. Why is that?

Well, first off, barely anybody saw the thing. The show only lasted 23 episodes. One episode was ditched entirely in favor of the 1984 Summer Olympics TV broadcast. The episodes of God Mazinger that did air were ignored by viewers in favor of Fist Of The North Star. 1984 simply had better things to watch. Perhaps some toys would have helped to attract viewers, but God Mazinger was barely merchandised; only a few toys by bargain-bin toymaker Mark, some LP records, and a few storybooks were licensed.

also starring the Next-To-Last Unicorn

TMS has a great track record with international sales of its anime series... if you don’t count God Mazinger. 23 episodes weren’t enough for American syndication, and any cartoon featuring women in tiny bikinis being knifed through the sternum was definitely too much for American syndication. Perhaps European or South American markets might have been a better bet, but evidence of this is nonexistent; maybe a show called “God Mazinger” was perhaps a little too close to impiety for the former domains of the Roman Catholic Church. TMS's localized English-language title, 'The Deity," isn't much better -are we supposed to watch this, or worship it?

kiss those American syndication dollars- and your sternum- goodbye

God Mazinger hasn’t been entirely forgotten. In Japan the show was released on VHS, LD and DVD twice, the manga’s been released in e-book format, and the old stone face even makes an appearance in the Super Robots Taisen video game, while Princess Aira pops up in the all-girl Mazinger Angels manga from 2004. As the subsequent iterations of Go Nagai’s Mazinger become more powerful, more earth-shaking, and more apocalyptic, the then-extreme destructive power of God Mazinger seems less and less impressive. Will the complex forces of science, the supernatural, intellectual property licenses, and time itself ever align to bring God Mazinger roaring back to life? Only Princess Aira knows!

-Dave Merrill