Monday, July 20, 2020

Scoopers Redux

One of the great things about anime blogging is that I can take a column I wrote way back at the start of Let's Anime and basically rebuild it from scratch. That's what I'm doing here, dusting off an old column that had broken links, sentence fragments and dead image files and giving it new life for a new era of talking about old cartoons. Enjoy! 

Can intrepid journalists outwit gangsters, corrupt politicos, android monsters, and an evil genius with a destructive master plan? That's the story of Scoopers, an original Japanese anime video released in December 1987 on both the VHS and VHD formats. Best known for boasting an original story and character designs by Monkey "Lupin III" Punch, our titular Scoopers are Yoko, a 22nd century reporter for Shambala City's Private Eyes Magazine - yes, they still have magazines, newspapers, and corded telephones in the 22nd century - and her cameraman partner Beat who is, by the way, an android. Sometimes Beat is a typical sassy, leering, gropey Monkey Punch character, and sometimes Yoko takes out her remote control and Beat is no longer in charge of Beat, which puts their relationship in a weirdly nonconsensual light. Anyway, the mysterious Mister X has been blowing up space shuttles and murdering anyone who dares to reveal his secrets and Yoko and Beat are on the beat tracking him down. Before he's murdered by goons in powered exo-suits, their informant clues the Scoopers into investigating Technoland, a futuristic amusement park Mister X runs as a sideline when he's not trying to take over the world. So basically what we're dealing with here is Westworld crossed with The Terminator and a little bit of Tron thrown in, as executed by Generic Japanese Animation Studio Of The 1980s, namely ACC, who's worked on everything from Hellsing to One Piece

Scoopers creator Kazuhiko Katō, aka Monkey Punch, passed away in 2019 (and doesn't that seem like a million years ago?) and is famed for creating Lupin III, which is understandable considering the, let's see, five decades of anime and manga success the character has enjoyed around the world. 

Monkey Punch's Ginza Whirlwind & Time Agent
But Katō, a protean creator, never rested on his laurels, letting his Mort Drucker-inspired style lend itself to works as varied as Gun Hustler, Playboy School, The Ginza Whirlwind Child, Mysterious Jaguarman, Time Agent, Transparent Gentleman, the personality-switching future detective comedy Cinderella Boy, the almost-anime Space Adventure Team Mechadventure, and TMS's early 90s international rescue team Saver Kids. Like Saver Kids, Scoopers was written for animation without a preliminary manga stage, therefore becoming peak bubble-era anime; bright colors, 80s fashions, big office buildings, and clunky robot-suited henchmen adventure for the rental markets of Tsutaya Video.

let's go on a space mechadventure
A scoop of extra 80s Scoopers cheese is provided by a completely inept sequence involving "cyberspace" as our heroes go "inside the computer" which where everything is rendered as "wireframes" and animated by "cheap video effects". Think of the kind of instantly dated, late night informercial kitsch Video Toaster effects as seen on MTV videos and "Captain Power", that's what we're talking about here. Admittedly, the spectacle of the floating, rotating, sometimes snowflake-embedded head of Mister X is admittedly entertaining, in a Zardoz kind of way.

quote cyberspace unquote
Mister X is the kind of evil genius who wears a giant puffy half-face mask that reveals his giant mustache. He sports an enormous overcoat with a collar the size of a manhole cover. This ensemble is accentuated with gigantic medals and epaulets. Since all his henchmen are robots, one wonders why he bothers to wear anything more than a T-shirt, but who cares? It's the 80s! Anyway, it's not as if Mister X's true identity is of any importance - Scoopers never gives us a big unmasking scene. Mister X isn't really Old Man Johnson in disguise, there's no reason for him to even wear a mask. 

please scream inside your hearts
A forgettable Casio keyboard soundtrack and off-the-shelf character designs featuring a remarkable array of balding middle-aged men make Scoopers a perfect example of what Japanese cartoons looked like in the late 1980s - all shiny cities, high-tech robot weapons, aviator shades, and phone booths. Nothing dates a SF cartoon like phone booths. There are a few bloody killings and some bare-breasted killer android monster Valkyries to remind viewers that this isn't some kiddy cartoon, this is serious entertainment for mature adults who want to sit down and relax with this mature adult tale of android cameramen battling android beast women on super rollercoasters of the future. I do kind of like the cleaned up character design of Beat and Yoko - they look recognizably like Monkey Punch characters while at the same time avoiding any resemblance to Lupin or Fujiko, and that's a tough needle to thread right there. 

Scoopers was pitched to the export market via the infamous "GAGA Communications" pilot reel - you know, the one that retitled Project A-Ko as "Super Nova" and Bubblegum Crisis as "Futurescape." A-Ko and BGC eventually found their way to America, but nobody bit on Scoopers, which is not surprising. If you owned JVC's VHD player and their Scoopers VHD release, you could enjoy Yoko and Beat's adventures in 3D courtesy the VHD's LCS glasses. Does this experience improve what's basically a forgettable, less than essential 1980s anime OVA? We may never know.

-Dave Merrill

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Anime North Online

Well, right now we're past the hundred day mark of COVID-19 and its assault upon the health, sanity, pocketbook, and general good order of Planet Earth. If you're an anime fan- and if you aren't then why are you reading this? - you've watched anime convention after anime convention fall by the wayside, felled by the force of force majeure and the good sense of organizers and attendees unwilling to cram themselves into densely packed groups with poor social skills and sketchy hygiene. 

Right around March they started to fall: Kigacon, Naka-Con, Fubukicon, Keikencon, Animatic Con, Colorado Anime Fest, Triad Anime Con, Zenkaikon, Toracon, Anime Japan 2020, Tekko, Anime Detour, Anime Boston, MTAC, Sakuracon, Anime St. Louis, Castle Point Anime Convention, Anime Frontier, Anime Central, Kawaii Kon, A-Kon, Animazement, Anime North, AniMinneapolis, Fanime, Mizucon, Anime NEXT, Anime Festival Orlando, Animaritime, Anime Festival Wichita, JAFAX, Anime Expo, Anime Midwest, Anime Matsuri, something called Animanga in Pomona CA, Anime-zing!, Anime Iowa, Otakon, Animethon, Otakuthon, Animefest, the Crunchyroll Expo and San Japan are just SOME of the anime conventions in North America that have postponed or cancelled. One thing is clear. There were a LOT of anime conventions happening this year. There are still a lot on the schedule, but let's face facts. More cancellations are coming. 

In the meantime, conventions are working to keep themselves busy and keep their fans entertained by moving into the online space and hosting "virtual conventions" on streaming platforms like Twitch. One of the first of these, Anime Lockdown, attracted hundreds to its streaming panels and was generally viewed as a success, and others have invariably followed, like this weekend's Kurocon

Right now I'm spending my COVID lockdown free time - which I really haven't had that much of since I've been working in an essential industry this whole time - I've been spending my time getting ready for Anime North's virtual convention, which is titled Momiji's Online Experience after Anime North's mascot Hoppouno Momiji. The MOE happens July 24-26 and features cosplay, a fashion show, game shows, tournaments, panels, appearances by special guests, and pretty much everything else that can survive the transmogrification from a live convention held in a convention event room to being captured on camera and streamed across the internets. I'm working on three events myself! 

ANIME NORTH: THE HISTORY OF A CONVENTION is a deep dive into the first two decades of Anime North, from its early years at the Michener Institute to hotels at varying locations and of varying degrees of sketchy, from a few hundred fans to the thirty thousand Anime North attendees that make it the convention it is today, or at least the convention it would have been had the world's infectious diseases not interrupted things.

ANIME 1980 turns the clock back forty years for a look at what Japanese anime was up to - and what it was up to was anime, and lots of it. Cyborgs, wandering children, interstellar ESPers, Space Firebirds, fly fishermen, and Warp Dimensions were the order of the day as the anime medium rode the SF boom out of the 1970s and into the 80s. 

ANIME HELL'S HALF HOUR is a very special thirty minute version of Anime Hell designed to deliver the maximum impact in the shortest possible time. Don't blink or you'll miss exciting short features, confusing advertisements, helpful public education films, amateur movies, and edited highlights of some of Japanese animation's weirdest and wildest. 

It's all happening July 24-26 at a computer near you, so plan your weekend around a good wi-fi signal and get ready for what will either be a vague approximation of an anime convention - or perhaps the start of an entirely new breed of event! 

And as always, I hope everybody is washing their hands! Wearing a mask outside! Staying six feet away from other people! Avoiding unnecessary travel! This thing isn't done with us yet. Let's stay safe and get through this. 

-Dave M

Friday, May 29, 2020

Ask The Con Nazi

There aren't any anime cons happening this summer, so anime fans across America are forced to reminisce about all the great times had at anime cons of the past. Others reminisce about how one fan's "great time" is another fan's "annoying nonsense", and still others think back to when every attempt to rein in jerky behavior was met with defiance and disbelief, when anyone who supported the kind of guidelines necessary to keep ten or twenty or fifty thousand people all moving around safely was slandered as a "Con Nazi." That's why we wrote the following Anime Jump column back in the first boom time of anime conventions, the middle 2000s, when legions of overgrown children decided Japanese animation gatherings were their place to engage in binge drinking, shoplifting, stalking, and vandalism -and that was just the staffers! The attendees? Don't even ask! So, keep all this in mind as you enjoy this completely fictional column that is intended for entertainment purposes only and does not involve any ACTUAL fascists. 

Want to know why anime cons do the things they do? Does con security piss you off? Do they not understand that this is your happening and it freaks you out? Our expert RUDOLF P. SCHWEINHUND left a remarkable career in Europe to act as an advisor to many American anime conventions and has provided assistance to some of our largest and most well-regimented organizations. He's received many questions over the years from various fandom groups and war crimes tribunals, and here he's happy to share these queries and his thoughts with anime fandom at large.

Dear Con Nazi,
Why was I thrown out of (NAME OF CON DELETED)? All I did was follow (NAME OF GUEST DELETED) around all weekend long. And I camped outside her hotel room door. And I took 150 pictures of her for use on my web shrine. And I bought three giant stuffed animals for her, and one time she looked thirsty so I brought her bottled water, and some other people wanted to talk to her but I made sure they were really true fans of (NAME OF GUEST DELETED) and not just trying to be cool. And (NAME OF GUEST DELETED) seemed kind of disturbed and freaked out, and I didn't know why, but I told her that I'd do anything to make her feel better! Except leave her alone! And then Con Security asked me to leave her alone, and I said that it was a free country and I could stalk anybody I wanted to! And then they threw me out! Why are people so cruel? Especially police?

People are cruel because of the thin veneer of humanity separating man from beast. Forget your celebrity obsessions and concentrate on the dark depths of your own soul. Also learn some boundaries, stupid.

actual anime fans circa 1997

Dear Con Nazi,
I'm a dealer, and I have a lot of merchandise that some people, like the FBI, would characterize as "bootleg", because they're just big meanies. I was at (NAME OF CON DELETED) and I was selling my stuff as usual, and the con staff asked me to quit selling "bootlegs", because when I paid for the table I apparently had signed a contract saying I wouldn't sell "bootlegs". So I took my "bootlegs" off the table, and then ten minutes I put them back on the table, and the con staff nailed me again, and I took them off the table for ten minutes, and then put them back on the table, and then do you know what this con did? They made me take EVERYTHING off my table and go home! My question is not whether or not they can legally do this, since they obviously can. My question is... well, I really don't have a question. I just wanted to make sure people knew that I can read and sign contracts, and yet I still think I don't have to follow them.

Yes, the rules are for suckers. I bet smart guys like you really get a kick out of seeing your non-refundable tables stand empty for two days because you couldn't read or wouldn't follow a contract. You're too important to follow those rules! Or run a successful business!

Dear Con Nazi,
I was at (NAME OF CON DELETED) and I saw an artists alley table that was empty late at night. So me and my pals sat down there, and took the artists' name card and wrote on it, and I was doing some REALLY AWESOME sketches of Goku and stuff, and then the actual artist showed up, and when she told me to leave I was all like, "what are you gonna do, call teh cops?" and then she ACTUALLY WENT AND GOT THE COPS! So when I saw the cops I ran, and when they caught me I told them I didn't speak English. Which is more or less true. What I want to know is, what kind of world is it where COOL, AWESOME GUYS LIKE ME can't just steal things and get away with it?

What kind of world is it? Planet Earth, that's what kind of world it is.

actual anime fans circa 2006

Dear Con Nazi,
I went to a con, and I really liked it, and yet me and my friends felt that we should show that con how knowledgeable we are about the con business. Because we've actually staffed conventions ourselves! So we wrote a three-page email detailing everything that went wrong with that convention, and we didn't sign our names, and we sent it to the convention, and THEY DIDN'T TAKE ANY OF OUR SUGGESTIONS SERIOUSLY! Why weren't our recommendations given the respect they deserved?

Oh, but they WERE.

Dear Con Nazi,
There's a rule at some conventions that REALLY PISSES ME OFF. I don't want to say what the rule is, but it involves me writing really stupid things on pieces of cardboard and then wearing the cardboard on my shirt like a sign. Sometimes I'll write pathetic pleas for attention, and other times I'll write pathetic pleas for cash. Either way it's sure to get lots of people to look at me and it's a lot easier than actually meeting people by introducing myself and speaking to them. It's also easier than actually working for my own money. So anyway, SOME CONVENTIONS THAT I WILL NOT NAME have made up these terrible Nazi rules that are totally infringing on our freedom of speech and not allowing us to be free to express ourselves! As good Americans what should we do to combat this assault upon our God-given freedoms?

You are fully guaranteed the free exercise of all of the Constitutional freedoms that you have as American citizens, and you're free to exercise these freedoms on your God-given American sidewalks, outside of the convention center in the God-given American sunshine and the God-given American fresh air. Inside the convention, however, you have to obey the convention rules, so, as we say in Germany, tough titty.

actual anime fans circa 2000

Dear Con Nazi,
I was at a convention, and the con staff was really on a power trip. I don't want to say how exactly, but it was if they were trying to control a crowd of a few thousand people! I mean, as if! Oh, it burned me up. So I got onto the convention message board after the convention, and I spent two solid weeks complaining, and how this completely ruined the entire weekend for me, and how the convention staff was all (EXPLETIVE DELETED) morons who obviously are (EXPLETIVE DELETED) and couldn't run a successful convention ever! So they banned me from the message board! This of course proves I'm right and they're wrong. Right?


Yes, you are "right." "Right" in the sense of "complete asshat."

Dear Con Nazi,
Me and my friends really like a certain Japanese cultural phenomenon. Even though this phenomenon doesn't have a lot to do with Japanese animation, the only place we can get together and enjoy this certain phenomenon with fellow fans is at Japanese animation conventions. My question is, is it wrong to whine and complain and endlessly bitch and moan until every Japanese animation convention has devoted itself entirely to pleasing our small minority of obsessed fans?


actual anime fans circa 1997

Dear Con Nazi,
I was working staff at an anime con, and one time I showed up to work and I started messing around with the cash box that had a few thousand dollars in it, and the staff director told me to knock it off, and I told him he couldn't tell me what to do, and he told me that yeah, as long as I was on staff, he certainly COULD tell me what to do, and then I said that I was gonna kick his ass, and he said oh really, and before I knew it I was thrown off staff!


The CON NAZI's column appears every week in 87 newspapers worldwide. He is eager to resist the onslaught of any and all questions sent his way. If you have questions or commentary, feel free to contact him at: Con Nazi, Der Adlerhorst, Neu Berchtesgaden, Argentina.

Monday, April 27, 2020

No Elvis, Beatles, or Clove Cigarettes In 1997 Addison: My A-Kon 8 Story

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months (and if you HAVE been living under a rock for the past few months, congratulations! Turns out that was a really smart choice!) then you’ve noticed that the world is currently struggling through the COVID-19 global pandemic. As we social distance in an effort to stop the spread of this virus, we’re having to cancel pretty much everything, including anime conventions. Among the 2020 cancellations are Anime North, Animazement, Anime Central, Sakuracon, Kawaii Kon, Anime Expo, Otakon,and the oldest continually operating anime convention in the United States, Project A-Kon

I was there for the first ten A-Kons. The convention became a yearly ritual for our Atlanta gang, a revolving crew of which would pile into a few cars and drive twelve hours through Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Meridian, Jackson, Vicksburg, Monroe, Shreveport, Longview, and Tyler, finally reaching the Dallas/Fort Worth “Metroplex.” For most of us it was our first road trip without parents or credit cards or proper vehicle maintenance or even AC on a few trips, and to this day I marvel we got there and back so many times without more disasters than we had. 

You know what anime cons are like these days. They’re overcrowded, there’s a line for everything, lots of events you don’t care about are sucking up con time and space, and you can’t walk five feet without a con staffer telling you to go somewhere else or a con photog complaining you’re ruining their shot? That last A-Kon I went to was just starting to edge into that territory, a lot of fans taking up a lot of space and me in the middle, wondering why I’d come a long way to not have much fun. 

You see it all start to happen in a Let’s Anime column I wrote in 1997, one of the few times I’d sit down and detail an entire A-Kon journey. Since 2020 is going to be the first year since 1990 without an A-Kon, I thought it was time to drag this 1997 piece out, give it a going over, and present it as a historical, entirely subjective, possibly clinically narcissistic document of what it was like to visit one of the few anime cons in America at the time. 

early Project A-Kon program books

First the facts: Project: A-Kon 1997 was held May 30-June 1 at the Harvey Hotel Addison in Addison Texas, just north of Dallas proper. Guests included Amanda Winn, Steve Bennett, Kuni Kimura, Neil Nadelman, and James “Big Trouble In Little China” Hong, along with Hiroyuki Kitakubo, who worked on Mobile Suit Gundam, Pop Chaser, Robot Carnival, and Golden Boy, though none of his extensive animation credits are mentioned in A-Kon’s program book. 

Events at the show included opening ceremonies, karaoke, the costume contest (simply titled “The Cos-Play”), RPG gaming including Battletech, Stellar Horizons, Ani-Mayhem, and Japanimayhem, the Vampire The Masquerade LARP, the Hyper Fighting Challenge video gaming event, Cyberpunk RPG, Bullet Scenarios LARP, a Writing Fan Fiction panel, a cel painting workshop, a scavenger hunt, Anime Jeopardy, a water gun fight, Name That Tune, an Anime Video Contest, a dance, a model and miniature painting contest, an art show, a digital painting demonstration, an acting panel hosted by James Hong, a panel by a gaming lobbying group, and a panel about publishing fiction on the internet. One thing missing: panels about Japanese animation. If you’re noticing a trend, you aren’t mistaken; anime programming was getting thin on the ground at the longest-running anime con in America. 

But don’t take my 2020 word for it, let 1997 Dave tell you the story. 

1. Beer Me 

So you want to know about A-Kon 8? Let me tell you about A-Kon 8. First off we were an hour late even getting started on our 12-hour road trip. Every year the number willing to make this hellish journey shrinks. We’re down to two cars. Pretty soon it’ll be one guy on a motorcycle and the rest of us will get brains and fly. Anyway, 12 hours, bad food, lots of pee breaks, and four state lines later, we arrived in Dallas, checked in, met pals Ed, Neil, Anna, Max, etc., and proceeded to split for buffalo fajitas at a nearby upscale Mexican restaurant. Had the first beer of the con, a Corona. More to follow. The hotel is jammed with people checking in, looking lost, asking where the heck other people are. 

roadside monsters seen on the way to Dallas

Friday morning we get up late, trundle some crap downstairs to set up our fan table, split with Ed to buy liquor and food and get his cooler from his house in Euless (a solid 20 miles away), pet his pets, and return. The dealers room is kinda average and most of the dealers are pissed off because A-Kon decided not to allow SM CDs, which are some sort of Taiwanese-Korean-HK-Malay knockoff pirate brand that come ten bucks cheaper than the genuine article. Most of the day’s liquor run consists of Lone Star, Corona, and some Molson as a nod to our Canadian guests, who don’t drink anyway. Lone Star is one of those beers that respectable beer drinkers (meaning, “snobs”) turn their noses up at. Well, screw ‘em, that means more for me. Plus, shove a lime wedge down the longneck and it ain’t half bad. The prize of the day is Sailor Moon party plates and napkins found at the local Wal-Mart. This gives you an idea of what kind of con this was – I remember more about the liquor stores and the Wal-Mart than I do about the con itself. The fan table work was slow… not many people are interested in fanzines and comics when they can buy lesbian furry zines and anime character cheesecake pin-ups. I know sex sells, but here it seems sex is all that sells. 

the most Sailor Moon we found at this convention

2. The Ballad Of The One-Legged Cigarette Bandit Of A-Kon 8 

Anyway, a friend in Atlanta had arranged with A-Kon that we, the Atlanta crew, would host a “20th anniversary Captain Harlock Party” in the fan video room, ignoring my desperate cries that 1997 is, in fact, the 19th anniversary of the Harlock TV series. It doesn’t matter much, because said friend didn’t actually attend the party and people didn’t seem to care one way or another about Harlock in general. Instead we showed new Corn Pone Flicks stuff and some shorts while I passed out beers and snacks in the back of the room. I had a good time performing vital lime-installation surgery on long-suffering longneck beers, but as it turned out, I missed what has become the second most violent event ever to occur at an A-Kon – the attack of the one-legged cigarette bandit of A-Kon 8! 

The Ballad Of The One-Legged Cigarette Bandit Of A-Kon 8 (as told to Dave Merrill) 

Well, there were a bunch of what looked like middle-aged construction workers hanging out in the hotel bar on Friday night. Along about eleven PM, one of them - bald, obese, sweaty– goes to buy cigarettes. The cigarette machine doesn’t work (explanatory note for 2020 – a “cigarette machine” was a vending machine, found in bars, restaurants, and hotel lobbies, that sold packs of cigarettes. Smokers would insert coins or bills – a pack of smokes was $5 in 1997 – and then pull a knob to select their brand. These machines were once a ubiquitous part of the American landscape). Mister Baldy gets angry and starts whacking it with his cane. He’s got a cane for some reason. I guess he limps. That explains the “one-legged” part. The A-Kon security guys see this guy whacking away at the machine, so they approach him cautiously. Mr. Baldy sees ‘em coming and starts walking away fast. He starts trying doors. They’re all locked. Door after door is locked. The con security is closing in. Things are looking grim for our construction worker pal. Suddenly, a door opens, and Fatty shoots inside. It’s a convention video room – dark, smelly, and full of tubby disheveled guys. He fits right in. Except that the con security guys come right in after him and hit the lights. Busted! This time the hotel security is in on the game as well, and even though Sweaty starts laying about with his cane like Custer at Little Big Horn, he goes down. John Law arrives and Fatty is about to be inserted into the patrol car (a tricky business in and of itself) while a con security guy gives his version of the story to the cop. As the tale ends, Fatty speaks up. 

“Officer, there are a few objections I have to that story...” 

Addison’s Finest turns to Bald, Fat, and Stinky. 

“Aw, shut the FUCK UP!” 

Score one for the Addison Texas Police Department! 

3. I Feel Pretty Drunk 

Anyway I missed the whole thing and had to console myself with another smoking adventure involving my acquaintance “A.” During the video room party I wandered over to the Karaoke event which Ed Hill was running; meaning, Ed had to pay for the karaoke machine himself. I saw the bill. Come on, cheapskate conventions, pony up. Anyway, I sat in the hotel bar and watched non-singers painfully attempt to sing. My pal “A” drunkenly wandered over, and we started talking. He was talking a blue streak about something or other, and when he’s drinking he’s gotta smoke, and it being the 90s he’s gotta smoke clove cigarettes, which I normally hate but I’ll tolerate because, hey, A-Kon only comes once a year. Well, what happens is some con security person comes over and tells him to put the clove out, because smoking anything except cigarettes is illegal in Addison. Pipes, cigars, hookahs, and cloves are all forbidden! It’s even in the con program book. I’m sure there’s a funny story behind that law, but in the meantime, “A” sadly snuffs his clove and we part. An hour later I see “A” again, disturbed, agitated, bouncing off the walls, babbling incoherently, obviously in a clove cigarette withdrawal downward spiral. Don’t start, kids. I wander over and do my part to help out. “Hey man,” I say in my calmest, most down-to-earth tone, “it’s time to call it a night. Hit the sack, huh?” My duty done, I move away from this accident waiting to happen. The scene ends when A-Kon security forcibly puts him to bed in an A-Kon staff room. I guess he was on staff? Or did they just kidnap a guy? 

4. Con In Security 

So the video room party thing ended. A whole multi-state crew of us assembled and proceeded to find somewhere we could plant our beer-soaked carcasses and talk all night, as multi-state assemblages of friends tend to do. We sat in the hall, and security told us to move to the mezzanine. We sat in the mezzanine, and security showed up again and told us to move. “What the f*** is going on?” we howled indignantly. “What kinda f***ing con is this where we can’t f***ing sit out in the con area and f**ing talk? I mean, what the f***?!” Our command of English was noticeably hampered by our liquor intake, nevertheless our point was made, delivered, and comprehended by the hapless security thug, visions of an inebriate-fueled pummeling visibly contorting his features. Finally after consultation with the higher-ups, they deigned to let us sit in an empty panel room. We trooped in and occupied our territory, taking control of our destinies until about four in the morning, at which point I staggered to my hotel room in a desperate race against the rising sun and my own falling consciousness. 

the A-Kon "artists alley" / "fan table" area

5. Let’s Dance 

Saturday saw me rise before noon, eager to accompany Ed and assorted pals on a mystical journey deep into the heart of Dallas in search of liquor, paychecks, and Dealey Plaza. Ed’s new car performed magnificently, Dave III enjoyed seeing where JFK was perforated by a crazed lone gunman, and booze was found. Plus, we got to play with Ed’s dog; nothing takes one’s mind off a convention like trucking on home for pet time. Upon our return we found it 5pm; we’d missed most of the entire day’s worth of convention activities. With fanzines and merch retrieved we again set up our fan table, and were immediately informed, by yet another self-important security jerk, that we were not allowed to sell fan stuff outside of normal dealers room hours. I ask you again, what kinda f***ing con is this? We helped Carl Horn set up his Evangelion-themed martini party, we put on some snazzy duds for Saturday night party hopping, and I handed out souvenir promotional AWA foam-rubber handguns to those waiting in line outside the costume contest. This year the contest had moved from last year’s too-small banquet facility into a too-small con function room. I attempted entrance, was rebuffed by security, entered through another door, stood on a chair in the back of the room to try to see what was going on, and was halted by yet another security goon. Then I tried – okay, get this; sometimes conventions will patch a video feed of popular events to another location, preferably a video room with seating, to provide alternate event viewing options. What A-Kon did here was to patch a video signal to a TV that was placed in a hallway. So if you attempted to watch the costume contest on the TV that was placed specifically for the purposes of watching the costume contest, yet one more security staffer would make you move along because you were blocking traffic… by trying to do the very thing they put the TV there for. 

rare photo of Carl Horn without a tie

Okay, anyway, the rest of the evening included more drinking, more wandering, the Eva party, and some late-night hot tubbing. We did visit the dance, which was a not-great selection of desperately random tunes that failed to inspire the crowd to do anything other than roll their eyes. We left when they started playing “My Sharona.” Okay, it’s a power pop classic, but not exactly a groove-shaking dance floor tune. So we missed the low point of the evening when all present were driven from the room by – what else? The Macarena. Why does God punish us so? What crime have we committed, what offense have we made? Tell me, O Lord! 

The point is, the con was dying a painful Saturday night death, suffocated by bad music, lack of seating at the costume contest, and few parties. We therefore found ourselves back in our hotel suite, bitchin’ and moanin’ with Alec and Neil and the rest, when suddenly we found ourselves blasted into what turned out to be the most interesting thing that happened the entire weekend!! 

6. The Rumble 

Basically, this involved three friends of mine. Friend One (let’s call him Riff) was at the dance, hitting on a chick on the dance floor. Friends Two and Three, Tony and Bernardo, were also at the dance, sitting on the sidelines. The target of Riff’s attention disengaged herself from Riff, prompting derisive comment from Tony. Riff responded with a rude hand gesture, and Bernardo countered with an even ruder comment concerning said hand gesture. Riff riposted by attempting to yank Bernardo over the railing separating them, and failing this, biffed and baffed Bernardo a few times about the head and face. Riff then left the dance, followed closely by an agitated Bernardo. Riff entered our hotel room, where we were all smashed to the gills, and he explained the preceding events to us just in time for Bernardo to bang on the door, demanding to “talk” to Riff. 

At this point I, drunk as a lord, took action. Drunk action. I knew that if I let these two attempt to settle their differences mano y mano, nothing good would come of it. The days are past when men could fight each other to a decision and then shake hands and thereafter be friends. Any combat between these two would result in a lifelong feud and the shattering of a circle of friends that had only recently learned to work together. This situation needed resolving, and only drunk me could do it. So I told them both that Bernardo wasn’t gonna get anywhere near Riff, that Riff wasn’t gonna get anywhere near Bernardo, that what Riff did was wrong and he should feel bad about it, and that my friends weren’t gonna fight each other as long as I could help it. Or words to that effect. Memory is hazy. Like I said, I was blitzed. 

Anyway it seemed to work. Bernardo left, Riff calmed down, and the story was told and re-told to everyone else who came in. The rest of the evening was uneventful, if slightly marred by a little cookie tossing and some technicolor yawning, but again, that’s what happens when you get drunk. Don’t start, kids! 

7. Sunday Morning Coming Down 

Sunday? I sold some zines, finally. Spent some table time sketching some of Dallas’ more distinctive examples of fascinating fandom facial physiognomy (there are some really… interesting looking fans with some interesting fashion choices in the DFW scene. Bad skin, unwashed hair, trucker caps, black trenchcoats in June, poorly fitting t-shirts decorated with airbrush renderings of explicit lesbian furry art). Closed down the table, did some pool volleyball action, and then a large group of us decamped to Planet Hollywood Dallas, which deserves its own review – let’s just say it closed in 2001 and is not missed. 

actual anime fans in their natural habitat
Sunday night we settled up the hotel bill. The “Bernardo/Tony” half the gang left for home in the middle of the night. The rest of us woke up Monday morning, packed everything, said our goodbyes, and started the long drive Atlanta bound. 

Sometime late Saturday night, in between the fistfights and the vomit, Alec and I compared notes about that year’s show. At one point I mentioned “next year” with the caveat “if I DO wind up coming back.” Alec laughed and replied “you’ll be back, Dave. You’re hooked.” And I guess I am, because the thought of returning to Dallas actually does appeal to me, if only for the chance to throw an even better party, to wallpaper the con with flyers for our show and hand out more foam rubber guns. 

But the fact is that A-Kon ‘97 was not a good con. The negatives far outweighed the positives, especially considering the distance traveled and the money spent. The con was over-run with jerky gamers, vampires, Klingons, and other assorted non-anime persons, so gaming-crazed that they felt the need to execute an A-Kon leaflet campaign warning fans to “hang onto their Magic cards because they might get stolen!” The dealers’ room was a clone of last year’s less than stellar dealers room. Video programming was lackluster; better titles were being fansubbed in the hotel rooms. Con guests were only scheduled for one panel, and if you missed it, too bad! The con security staff treated attendees like inmates to be herded and controlled, not like, say, fellow fans. It seems A-Kon’s evolved from a small, fun anime-centered show into a larger, jerkier, gamer-focused convention that happens to have an anime room and some VHS tapes and toys in the dealers room. The plain truth is the convention wasn’t fun for me this year. 

Project A-Kon 8 registration

In A-Kon’s defense, it bears mentioning that two of the organizers had health issues this year and weren’t able to fine tune the con as well as theymight have. Like every show, some things fell through the cracks, for instance like crediting the person that provided the 8th Man artwork seen throughout the program book (that was me, by the way). Since the death of the Dallas Fantasy Fair, there really hasn’t been a convention for the local weenies other than A-Kon, so I imagine A-Kon has to change somewhat to meet the needs of its constituency. And sure, I enjoyed the hot tub, and I enjoyed seeing my friends, and A-Kon did hand out little flashlights as a memory of a previous A-Kon when the power was knocked out for half of the con, that was neat. 

Next year? Will we return to Dallas ready to renew our campaign to force Japanese animation back into the maw of this ostensible Japanese animation convention? Time will tell! 


With a couple decades’ hindsight it’s easy to see where things were headed with A-Kon; more gaming, more SF, more media guests, less “anime”. Or you could say “anime” muscled its way into the mainstream of nerd entertainment and became one more hook to hang a general media pop culture convention onto. Whichever. I attended the 1998 and 1999 Project A-Kons and by the end I was wandering around the DFW Hilton, once more being hassled by security, asking myself why I was bothering coming to Dallas, I had my own convention to worry about! 

anime t-shirt selection circa 1995

But still, 2020 will be the first year since 1990 without a Project A-Kon, and that’s a loss. In spite of whatever grumpy issues I had with the show, A-Kon has entertained thousands and thousands of fans over three decades and the world is poorer without it. 

One more takeaway from 1997 is the brutal truth, reconfirmed during years of event organization, that a successful con is dependent on a bewildering variety of variables. Some of these elements you can control, and others you can’t. Whether or not any particular attendee has a good time – in my book that’s the only yardstick of “success” - is tied up with things like the weather, the attendee’s health, the state of their relationships with their at-con friends, the size of the attendee’s bank account, and whether their expectations were in line with the convention’s goals, or whether the attendee had his or her own hierarchy of needs that might not have anything to do with the convention at all. It comes down to the question, that metric I mentioned earlier: did the attendee have a good time? It’s a roll of the dice for every single badge sold. It turns out in '97 much of A-Kon was interested in rolling the dice for saving throws during RPG gaming, which is not at all what I drove 12 hours for. 

And yet, even if my own 1997 experiences don’t accurately reflect the entire panoply of A-Kon totality, I wasn’t alone in feeling miffed that the first place we’d found to carve out our own territory away from the sneers of the Trekkies and the gamers and the general sci-fi nerds had been turned right back over to them. What had briefly been our own special place was now just like every other convention. Did this experience affect our decisions once as we went home and started our own anime conventions? It sure did. 23 years later, we’re still seeing the effects of those decisions.

Or we will, once we start having conventions again. Stay safe out there everybody! Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home, see you in 2021!

-Dave Merrill

Sunday, March 22, 2020

let's rate the anime dubs

Recently in the wake of Oscar success for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite – the first best picture nod for a subtitled foreign-language film – the old “subs vs dubs” debate erupted anew, and Hollywood’s cognoscenti found itself behind the curve of an eternal anime-nerd argument. Namely, what’s better, watching them there Japanese cartoons with English subtitles, or watching them dubbed into English? I submit that today this is a meaningless debate, as modern technology means we can enjoy both as we choose. Anime titles are delivered more or less intact and many DVDs or streaming titles come with subtitles and English language dub tracks. Gone are the days of haphazard editing or the dumbing-down of complex plot points, and the medium’s Asian roots aren’t disguised but are now a selling point. 

the internet has opinions 

But this was not always the case. For the first thirty years or so, badly edited dubs were all we got! And let’s face it, the UHF TV stations, kiddie matinees, and video rental family sections of America weren’t seeking to advance the cinematic art form, they were interested in selling popcorn, Hot Wheels, and rentals. If that meant goofily-dubbed cartoons from Asia, well, goofily-dubbed cartoons from Asia is what we got. 

But what was it like, watching these primitive, problematic, sometimes culturally insensitive localizations? Can we, from our 21st century perspective, arbitrarily assign our own subjective values to these different English language releases? Well, I sure hope so. Otherwise this column is going to be mighty short. 

Panda And The Magic Serpent is pretty indicative of where these things were headed – the panda is incidental to the story, which in Japan is Hakujaden or “Legend Of The White Serpent”, the first color Japanese animated feature and an adaptation of a Song Dynasty legend about a boy, and a girl, and a snake, who is also the girl. This movie fits perfectly what Americans would think of if they heard the term “Japanese animation” in the late 50s – it’s perhaps the most visually and culturally “Asian” anime film of the period. If you want the cinematic version of a kitschy Chinese restaurant, this is it. Order me the Mu Shu Pork, will you? 

RATING: number one exotic pagoda oriental magic palace and cocktail lounge 

Alakazam The Great might be the first anime film to really impact the West, not only due to repeated TV screenings in the 70s and 80s, but it was also the first localization to fill roles with popular stars of the day, “the day” being 1960. You can nitpick the dub all you want – the Buddhism is removed entirely from this Buddhist folk tale formerly known as “Journey To The West” – but casting Jonathan Winters and Arnold Stang gives this one a unique midcentury comedy vibe that draws us in like a magnet. Can you imagine what kind of nonsense Winters got up to in the outtakes? Somebody find those tapes. 

RATING: Great 

Fred Ladd’s 1964 Gigantor version of TCJ’s Tetsujin-28 is chunky, funky and clunky, just like Tetsujin himself. In the Americanized version produced for Trans-Lux, Jimmy Sparks has never sounded more pre-pubescent and Inspector Blooper channels Gale Gordon at all times. Gale Gordon, he was in The Lucy Show with Lucille Ball, you’ve seen Simpsons characters make fun of him, read a book sometime kids. And that theme song! Half Calypso novelty song, half football chant, it’ll stick in your head long after you’ve forgotten what happens in every single episode of Gigantor

RATING: Ten Thousand Gigantors 

ABC Films’ 8th Man didn’t stray too far from TCJ’s cartoon version of Kazumasa “Harmagedon” Hirai and Jiro Kuwata’s cyborg detective manga. Dubbed in Copri International’s Miami studio, which was sometimes used for CIA propaganda broadcasts aimed at Castro’s Cuba, the hardboiled nature of the show came through in bellowing, stentorian Dragnet-style narration and an unshakable conviction to whitewash everything Asian about the show. In practice this meant describing all the Japanese signage as being part of “The Museum Of Oriental Art.” 

RATING: Making those signs Oriental sure doesn’t help find your way! 

Making those signs Oriental sure doesn’t help find your way

Jungle Emperor VHS release

Kimba The White Lion is always said to be the first color Japanese animated TV show, but you know what, I’ve had so many of these stupid factoids shoved into my eyeballs that turned out to be wrong that I can’t even any more. Who knows. It’s a show, it’s in color, it’s been dubbed twice, the first time by Fred Ladd’s radio-drama-veteran crew fresh from Astro Boy, and in the 90s for bubble-gum giveaway DVDs. Billie Lou Watt gives Kimba some jungle gravitas and Ray Owens earns a paycheck shamelessly ripping off Walter Brennan for his Dan’l Baboon voice. You know, Walter Brennan, he was Grandpa on “The Real McCoys” and an entire filmography worth of movies including the terrific “Bad Day At Black Rock” and the stunningly terrible “The Oscar.” 

RATING: Jungle Love 

cursed image #749
The Amazing Three

Amazing Three is one of those lost TV cartoons where the 16mm prints of the English dub are sitting in somebody’s basement while he tries to get $30K for them on eBay. Why won’t one of those Silicon Valley tech-bros pony up the cash and rescue this show from sweet oblivion? You know the story – Galactic Command sends three agents to Earth with a mission to decide whether or not to blow us all to hell, and these three agents transform themselves into Zero the duck, Ronny the horse, and Bonnie the bunny, because Tezuka had a thing for transformations. The localization is by the Prince Planet Copri Productions team, what’s it like? It’s kooky. Our heroes, their human being pal Kenny, Kenny’s Secret Agent Man brother, and a parade of international villains and local goofs bellow, shout, holler, stutter, and smirk their way through the dialogue. Zero, the duck with the Beatle haircut, growls at everyone and everything, all the time. It hurts just to listen. 

RATING: it’s a wonder 

Little does Speed realize that Racer X is actually his older brother
Speed Racer, on the other hand, moves like a lubed-up 500 horsepower engine, blasting through 52 episodes of Tatsunoko auto-racing action. Speed and Trixie and Pops and Racer X and Spritle and Inspector Detector are apparently paid by the word and on a mission to jam as many syllables as possible into every mouth movement, whether they match or not. Peter Fernandez makes it work with a brazen disregard for logic and a breakneck pace that never lets us think how silly it is that a teenage race driver is involved in international espionage or how he wins races in loafers and red socks. There’s a reason everybody remembers this Trans-Lux show, and that’s because it’s great. 

RATING: go speed go 

Fables Of The Green Forest is one of those shows you see on kiddie-shelf Blockbuster rentals and it really challenges your commitment to rent everything that looks Japanese, and you rent it, and that commitment is challenged further. Based on a series of American children’s books from the early 20th century, produced by an early 70s team of Japanese animators that would go on to work on world-famous productions, and dubbed by people recruited from AA meetings and shopping mall hallways, this localization is positively jet-lagged. Entire story arcs are devoted to intensely irritating characters like Chatterer The Squirrel, his speech impediment challenged only by the confusing, almost stream-of-consciousness script, almost Burroughsian in its impenetrability. 

RATING: “oohhh. Ahhhh. Ooohhhh.” 

oohhh. Ahhhh. Ooohhhh

Lupin vs Clone
Lupin III Mystery Of Mamo – this legendary 1978 film has been dubbed into English four or five times, but the first attempt is the best, a jazzy take that fits Lupin like a glove that helps him walk up walls. Sure, some of the names get changed, but TMS was gonna do that anyway. Maybe you saw this one as part of the Cliff Hanger laserdisc video game, maybe you saw a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, or maybe you bought the recent Discotek DVD release, which you should do. Monster trucks, immortal geniuses, and Pop Rocks make this the finest Lupin movie! 

RATING: compared to him we’re stumble-bums 

Starvengers – Jim Terry Productions released five different Toei anime series as part of their Force Five package and this one, their version of Getter Robo G, is emblematic of how Americans dubbed Japanese cartoons in the 70s and 80s. Their method: take the source material, throw out all the names, keep as much of the story as the visuals force you to keep, and then go wild on it. Starvengers has bad British accents, poor production values, cheap video titles, the occasional celebrity impersonation, and a cheerful energy that keeps the whole thing moving in spite of having to start where the first Getter Robo series ends. This was shown on Atlanta’s WANX-46 in an hour time slot – we got an episode of Star Blazers, and then two of Force Five, either Starvengers and Grandizer or Gaiking and Dangard Ace, or Spaceketeers and something else. Maybe Starvengers again. Somebody at 46 didn’t think this one through. 

RATING: Foul Tip 

Captain Harlock & The Queen of A Thousand Years – this awkwardly named series lives up to its awkward name. The series comprises two completely unrelated TV series, produced five years apart by completely different creative teams, and edited together like a first-year film student’s poorly thought out final project. This hamfistedly made video Frankenstein mystifies viewers, repels fans of Captain Harlock and Queen Millennia, and surely infuriated the typesetters at the newspaper’s TV section trying to cram this title into their layouts. All of Carl Macek’s overwritten pomposity is in full effect here, overworked to the point of incomprehension thanks to an impossible mission. Sample of actual narration: “Across the immensity of deep space, the incalculably powerful Mazone armada pushes relentlessly onward, swallowing everything in its path, sweeping across worlds beyond number. Like a tidal wave of terror, the bulk of the fleet crashes across the surface of planet after planet, drenching world after world in an irresistible tide of subjugation. But as the Mazone snake twists and turns, its constricting coils fail to find the artificial asteroid that now hides Captain Harlock, his ship, and his crew.” 

RATING: tidal wave of terror 

WATL 36's famous "find the unicorn" contest

Dagger of Kamui, the 1984 Rin Taro film animated by Madhouse and produced by notorious producer Haruki Kadokawa, is a hallucinogenic, sprawling epic of gangs of ninjas battling over an immense treasure hoard that can either save or destroy the Tokugawa Shogunate. Caught in the middle, the half-Ainu boy Jiro grows to ninja manhood in a journey that takes him across the Pacific to California and back to confront his ultimate destiny. As an 80s film starring ninjas, this one was pre-sold for export, and America was not slow to glom onto it. Along with Macross, Phoenix 2772, Locke The Superman and others, Kamui was part of the Peregrine Films “Dynamagic" package that was later released to home video in the States under the Just For Kids label. Dagger Of Kamui became “Revenge Of The Ninja Warrior,” got forty minutes hacked out, and received a utilitarian dub that tried at times to match the otherworldly cadence of the Japanese dialogue, but let’s face it, hearing three otherworldly ninja shrilly announce their presence works better in Japanese. 


Vampire Hunter D, and his friend, D(oris)

Vampire Hunter D was an early star of the OVA world, a keystone in the struggle of 80s anime nerds to show the world that Japanese animation was a Serious Art Form For Adults, Man, and also important in the strategy of Streamline Pictures, the distribution company set up by former Harmony Gold Robotech czar Carl Macek to release Japanese animation outside the constraints of syndicated television. Vampire Hunter D fit the bill as an edgy, violent animated film with enough supernatural shock and the occasional shower scene to clearly define it away from TV kidvid. But Streamline’s less than stellar dub, which features comical, vanishing and reappearing accents, stiff line readings, and bad takes that somehow made it into the final cut – somehow undercuts the seriousness of the endeavor. 

RATING: I won’t return the castle 

In The Aftermath is what happens when you have some army surplus hazmat suits, a permit to shoot at an abandoned power station, and the rights to the Mamoru Oshii / Yoshitaka Amano art film Angel’s Egg. That is to say, you take the dreamlike visuals of what may be Japanese animation’s most arthousey film and tack them into a cheap post-apocalyptic bunker movie. The result is a mess, a boring mess; imagine a world where Angel’s Egg beat Akira to the rep cinemas and wowed the critics, paving the way for an explosion of visionary expression beyond the edgy cyberpunk boob ninja tentacle rape we got in the 90s? But no; this is why we can’t have nice things. 

RATING: rotten 

sure, why not
he's a shock
Fist Of The North Star has been an amazing success. The original Buronson/Tetsuo Hara manga was ridiculously popular, spawning side stories and sequels and prequels, a long-running anime series, nine different spin-off manga stories, four theatrical films, five OVAs, novels, video games, pachinko games, a dedicated e-reader preloaded with the manga, a live-action American direct-to-video movie, and a possibly unlicensed Taiwanese live action film, making it one of the most lucrative media franchises of all time. Of course you wouldn’t know it here in North America, where Fist Fever Failed to Finalize in spite of every attempt. Is this wasteland Mad Max/Bruce Lee fantasy too peculiar for Western tastes, the way the franchise mixes deadpan seriousness with outrageous camp too jarring for our palates? Maybe. All I know Streamline Pictures’ early 90s dub of the 1986 Fist Of The North Star film punched its way into theaters and home video only to be met with viewer apathy. Some of the blame lies with America simply not knowing they should be awed by the amazing martial arts wizardry of Kenshiro and the rest. But the localization didn’t help. A soft-spoken Kenshiro, attempts to mitigate the ridiculous ultra-violence with quips, and a sad under-mixing of the heavy metal soundtrack muted the impact and left viewers confused and unimpressed. 

RATING: I’ve got a splitting headache 

Ninja Robots? You never saw ‘em, unless you lived in Australia, Pakistan, India, or the Philippines, where the English localization of the very 1985 Studio Pierrot series Ninja Senshi Tobikage aired. Was this show dubbed in LA, or in Miami? Sources vary. What we DO know is that this very 80s show got a very 80s theme song, keeping the original Tobikage theme and adding English lyrics about “fighting Zaboom” and “the power’s in you, you’re in the machine” all wrapped around a stirring refrain of “Ninja Robots, Ninja Robots!” It’s all very ‘2001 A New Wave Godyssey’ if you catch the Mr. Show reference. Ninja Robots is a perfectly reasonable localization of one of those anime series that looks amazing and enigmatic when all you’ve seen is the opening credits, but the actual show itself gets rolling and the story of teenage Martian colonists using the titular ninja robots to protect an alien princess from the aliens who seek to conquer the galaxy, well, it’s both overly complex and played-out at the same time, if that’s possible. 

RATING: zaboom 

they could use a Ninja Spellcheck, is what they could use

More successful was the Graz Entertainment version of Sunrise’s Samurai Troopers, known here as Ronin Warriors. Instead of hiding its Japanese roots, this show embraced the very Shinto concept of reverence for the spirits of departed, in this case ancient samurai warriors whose mystical powers enable five good-looking young Japanese men to don primary-colored armor and do battle with the forces of evil. The Ocean-produced dub was earnest, took the more fantastical material seriously, and even had the guts to leave the kid sidekick’s name as “Yulie” which, let me tell you, is a name that had a lot of us checking and re-checking our Japanese to English dictionaries back in the day. 

RATING: Samur-riffic

It was the mid 90s when Ronin Warriors appeared, and North America had been smacked by a one-two punch of (a) films like Akira wowing the critics and forcing us to take Japanese animation seriously as an art form, and (b) shows like Power Rangers making Megazord-sized piles of cash. The twin jackhammer-strength finishing blows of Pokemon and Sailor Moon were just around the corner, and the attitude of the outfits localizing these cartoons had changed entirely. The contempt and disregard of producers who saw anime as a blank slate with which to fulfill their frustrated literary ambitions was replaced with either a refreshingly professional disinterest, or, in the case of companies like AD Vision and AnimEigo, an earnest, fan-driven desire to do right by the source material. 

As always, the final solution to any sub vs dub debate is for you, the viewer, to get off his or her caboose and learn Japanese, thereby opening up an entire world of entertainment no longer gate-kept by professional or amateur translationists. Or, you can simply tell yourself it’s just a show, and you should really just relax.

-Dave Merrill