Sunday, June 20, 2010

NAUGHTY AND ANCIENT

KUM KUM THE PREHISTORIC MENACE

I’d seen stills from this show and some of Yas’ typically excellent artwork here and there for years, but I’d never thought it was anything more than some illustrations, maybe a children’s book or two. I certainly didn’t think it was a Nippon Sunrise series produced in 1975 that ran for 26 episodes, and was not only a success in most of Europe, but was dubbed into English by Paramount and became an integral part of the TV childhoods of kids in Australia and England. America, however, was bereft of KUM KUM. We had to satisfy our prehistoric desires with LAND OF THE LOST and KORG, 70,000 BC and VALLEY OF THE DINOSAURS and CAPTAIN CAVEMAN. Okay, that last one, not so much.



WANPAKU (“naughty”) OMUKASHI (“ancient”) KUM KUM is a fun little series, a prehistoric children’s adventure show that freely mixes comedy, action, myths and facts but remains firmly grounded in the day to day lives of the Mountain Folk, a tribal people just on the cusp of civilization. Kum Kum lives while mankind transitions from being hunter-gathering wanderers to becoming a agricultural, settled, animal-domesticating language-developing society. The Mountain Folk have learned to plow and plant, but still do a lot of gathering. The Wise One has writing, but only he can read it. Occasional travelers demonstrate things like wheels, wagons, and war; but the Mountain Folk still make do with hunting and fishing. A rudimentary religion is demonstrated by Dark Eyes, the resident fortune-teller and soothsayer, who also demonstrates that this level of civilization possesses sophisticated hairpiece technology.



Our hero Kum Kum isn’t a BAD kid, just curious, mischievous, impulsive, sometimes unthinking, occasionally vindictive. Sure, those ingredients sometimes add up to “bad”, but when he crosses the line, the Wood Cave is always waiting. That’s where we find Kum Kum when the show opens, waiting out yet another stretch of hard time as a result of yet another prehistoric escapade.



Kum Kum’s world is a fun place to be a kid; plenty of forests and mountains to roam through, animals to chase, fish to catch, and friends to tease. Kum Kum’s gang – Butterfly (Chiru Chiru) , Little Rock (Aaron), and Bumbles (Mochi Mochi) run roughshod through the little Mountain Folk tribe, causing no end of headaches to Kum Kum’s dad Strongarm ((Paru-Paru), mom Flora (Malu-Malu), toddler brother Tum Tum and teenage sister Wildflower (Furu). Wildflower is smitten with the Wise One’s son Roman who lives up to his name by roaming far and wide across the unknown prehistoric landscape. Roman roams because his home life is mostly occupied by arguing with his hairy, pipe-smoking father, whose original Japanese name is “Kuropedia.” In spite of courtship attempts made by Little Rock’s enormous, slightly slow brother Jumbo (Goron) and Roman’s temptation to join the Nomad tribe and marry Rose, - not to mention opposition from both Strongarm and the Wise One - true love triumphs and Wildflower and Roman are (SPOILER!) married in the final episode.


(Wildflower & Roman, Strongarm, Jumbo on guard)

Just a few things keep KUM KUM from being an animated, archeologically approved version of one of those natural history museum dioramas; one is the dinosaur that lives in the lake, and the other are the Cheeky-Squeakies.

Saurus is the dinosaur; this old and amiable Apatosaurus is possibly the last surviving dinosaur. He’s happy to chew his cud in the lake and occasionally act as a giant playmate for the children. Sure, we all know that dinosaurs and human beings were separated by a few million years, but here at KUM KUM scientific rigor takes a back seat to cartoon fun.


(let's play Catch The Cheeky Squeakies)

However, the Cheeky-Squeakies (“Pyonki” in Japanese) have no analog in the fossil record. These bouncy, big-eyed little mascots hop all over the countryside and give the children something to chase in idle moments. Occasionally they catch some, harness them up, and go skiing over the tall grass. We learn in a very special episode that the Cheeky-Squeakies are vastly older than man, have a language and a culture, and occasionally go to war with each other underground in ritualized combat that recalls the classic Uncle Scrooge story “The Land Beneath The Ground”, though unlike the struggle between the Terries and the Fermies, the Cheeky-Squeaky war does not cause earthquakes.

(The Wise One, Dark-Eyes predicting doom)

It’s pretty clear that this prehistoric land is supposed to be Japan. We’re treated to establishing shots of blossoming cherry trees, the volcanic nature of the land is remarked upon in several episodes, and we even get to see monkeys enjoying hot springs and an instance of the Japanese folk belief that fish can predict earthquakes. But the question of whether or not Kum Kum's people represent the Jomon culture will have to be answered by more knowledgeable archeologists.

(wish I owned this cel)


The English language dub firmly presents Bumbles as a male, but I’m not convinced that Mochi Mochi isn’t a girl, a gangly, Big Ethel sort of gal. The female Japanese voice actress and the hair bow may be circumstantial evidence, but it wouldn’t be the first time a character’s gender was switched in the localization. The English voice is a hoarse goofball intonation that could go either way. And let’s face it, these are six and seven year old kids, gender is pretty much academic at this point.


KUM KUM carves its own niche between the One Million BC melodrama of Ishinomori’s ’71 Toei anime RYU THE PRIMITIVE BOY and the 1974 TMS caveman gag comedy GIATRUS THE FIRST MAN- the laughs and life lessons are parceled out in equal doses. Kum Kum’s bad behavior has consequences beyond the Wood Cave and frequently the tribe is forced to struggle for their very survival against the elements, destructive animals, or even other tribes. Parents and children fight and things don’t always wrap up neatly before the end credits. Kum Kum – and by extension the young viewing audience - are forced to come to terms with rather adult concepts like, you know, death. But the Mountain Folk’s life isn’t particulary nasty, brutish, or short – sure, there’s hard work and primitive conditions, but there are also strong family and community bonds, festivals, friends, dinosaurs, and a whole world full of wonders without any schools or homework. It’s no wonder this show was appealing to an entire generation of kids around the world, including the relatives of Argentine footballer Sergio Aguero, who thought the young future soccer star resembled Kum Kum and dubbed him a mispronounced “El Kun.”

(I now pronounce you caveman and cavewife)

KUM KUM was produced by Banjiro Uemera, who would later produce the fine Star Wars ripoff MESSAGE FROM SPACE. In his capacity as head of ITC Japan, he was responsible for 1982’s sf actioner TECHNOVOYAGER, otherwise known as THUNDERBIRDS 2086. He also produced the When Animals Attack film ROAR, starring Tippi Hedren and her animal friends (and daughter Melanie Griffith). Interestingly enough the show is an early directorial attempt by Rin “Shigeyuki Hayashi” Taro, who would go on to work for Toei and direct SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK, the two GALAXY EXPRESS MOVIES, and from there to direct HARMAGEDDON, DAGGER OF KAMUI, METROPOLIS, X, DOOMED MEGALOPOLIS, PHOENIX, and other anime works. But the primary creator behind KUM KUM is obvious from even the most casual glance; the distinctive art style of Yoshikazu “Yas.” Yasuhiko. Yas.’ CV includes MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, BRAVE RAIDEEN, DIRTY PAIR, VENUS WARS, ARION, GIANT GORG – Yasuhiko’s classy linework and graceful characters are an unmistakable hallmark of the classic era of Japanese animation. KUM KUM’s Yas. character designs are front and center; Kum Kum and his pals wouldn’t be out of place roaming the corridors of White Base as refugees from Side Whatever, and the flowing robes, bearded giants, and vital natural landscape would return in works as diverse as GORG and ARION.

(detail from a all-chara Yas. poster circa 1990)

What makes KUM KUM so fascinating, for me anyway, is that I’m a guy who spends way too much time thinking about Japanese cartoons (obviously). Have been this way for years. And yet here’s a show with a pretty impressive pedigree (Yas, Rin Taro) that not only had I never heard of, but that had been dubbed into English and shown around the world, to boot! It just goes to show, the more you know, the more you realize there’s yet to learn.

(no-pants cave kids)

Why did KUM KUM never make the transition to American television? One reason leaps to mind: prehistoric children don’t wear pants. So the next time you’re thinking darkly of American exceptionalism, remember that sometimes Uncle Sam is, like Kum Kum, still trapped in the dark of the Wood Cave, waiting to be set free.

(bye bye Kum Kum!)

7 comments:

Chris Sobieniak said...

Reminded of seeing the first episode years ago from my 16mm film print and noticed the one or two moments of 'winky' shots in the show itself due to the pantless children. :-)

Technically the Japanese studio that produced Kum Kum was Nippon Sunrise, at least according to a few sources out there, but it still surprises me to see Rintaro on this production.

The dubbing of the show was handled by an Australian outfit for Paramount, using people who did their best to hide their accents in this production. Among the noted voice actors is Barbara Frawley, whom would go on to voice the character "Dot" in 1977's "Dot and the Kangaroo". I did wonder if Keith Scott mentioned in the credits was the same Keith Scott who would go on to voice Bullwinkle J. Moose and other characters in recent Rocky & Bullwinkle projects, but he's another famous Aussie VA too.

G said...

I've always wondered about this show so getting a chance to read about it was great, thanks. Good read.

A nitpick though... Side Three was the Principality of Zeon. It was Side Seven that the White Base docked at in First Gundam.

Chris Sobieniak said...

Some bit of info to share from a Canadian pal I know who remembers this as a 12-13 year old...

As I told you a few years ago (and you so nicely shared the opening with me) I remember little about this show except that I was a "sophisticated" 12 maybe even 13, they played this briefly on CITY TV in T.O. during when I went home for lunch, and that I really remember enjoying it. I remember a scene in which they are jumping up and dwon cheering and Kum Kum's animal skin flying up when he went down. He was an
anatomically correct cartoon.

valerie said...

Earlier this week I discovered that Yas did the character designs for the Little Prince anime as well, which I watched a lot of on Nickelodeon as a kid. I'm glad I hung onto that tape I found in the Goodwill now

Chris Sobieniak said...

Being reminded The Little Prince was released on R1 DVD some years ago. Another one of those shows I saw way back then, never knowing the guys behind it until much later when rediscovering anime's past.

Diego Berlanga said...

This show was dubbed to Latin American Spanish and broadcasted in Mexico and many other Latin countries in the late 70s and early 80s.

gumbo said...

I remember this used to be on British TV, early Saturday mornings, early 80's.
Brings back some memories.