Tuesday, October 25, 2011

GET THE KNACK

Back in the feral prehistory of anime fandom, seekers would brave the darkest recesses of that most foetid pit of darkness- the children’s section of the video store. There, amongst the clamshelled remains of Walt Disney, would reside the sole representatives of the Japanese anime industry deemed worthy to compete in the American home video market. These were the days before AnimEigo would pioneer the field of uncut direct-to-video anime releases, so our choices were Jim Terry’s FORCE FIVE series of giant robot slugfests, maybe a few Family Home Entertainment’s abortive ROBOTECH releases, and a scattering of Z.I.V. versions of shows that deserved better treatment, like CAPTAIN HARLOCK or CANDY CANDY.

And of course we had NINJA THE WONDER BOY. Ah, NINJA THE WONDER BOY. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? This remarkably inept piece of junk found its way into the tape collections of most Reagan-era anime fans. Not because it was good - far from it – but because by God, it was an anime title, and we were anime fans, and therefore we had to embrace it like a recently paroled cousin. Apart from providing fodder for Corn Pone Flicks documentary series BAD AMERICAN DUBBING, NINJA THE WONDER BOY served only as a Ninja The Whipping Boy for the sarcastic amusement of jaded anime fans seeking what we’d later term “totally lame anime”.

But confusion lingered around NINJA THE WONDER BOY. Sure, it was dubbed by legendary kidvid localizer Jim Terry Productions, who gave us not only the FORCE FIVE family of super-robots like GRANDIZER and DANGUARD ACE, but also voiced Tatsunoko’s TIME BOKAN as TIMEFIGHTERS, produced a very edited English CRUSHERS dub of the CRUSHER JOE movie, and brought forth the dub of Toei’s KING ARTHUR. Dubbing is, however, only half the story. Who animated this piece of ninja junk anyway? Was it in fact one of those crazy Korean knockoffs like GOLDWING or DEFENDERS OF THE SPACE? Or was it an honest-to God Japanese cartoon from Japan? Careful examination of the Jim Terry credits led me to the production company - Knack Studio.

As it turns out Knack has the dubious honor of being the driving force behind some of the worst Japanese cartoons ever produced. If they weren’t ruining Japan’s martial heritage with NINJA THE WONDER BOY (MANGA SARUTOBI SASUKE), they were cluttering up the giant robot field with turkeys like ASTROGANGER and GROIZER X or diluting the children’s comedy anime market with CYBOT ROBOTCHI (American title ROBBY THE RASCAL). Not to mention despoiling the memory of beloved live-action heroes with their versions of MITOKOMON and GEKKO KAMEN (“Moonlight Mask”, not the naked Go Nagai one). Most of their productions share the Knack hallmarks of shoddy, barely-there animation and characters, themes, and mechanical designs suspiciously similar to other, more popular shows. That’s not to say that everything they did was terrible, but the Japanese animation field is a big one and somebody’s got to be near the bottom, that’s just how things shake out.


artwork by Knack staffer Seiichi Hayashi

Knack (now called Ichi Corporation) was started in 1967 by former Mushi Productions and Toei staff, including talented, award-winning illustrator Seiichi Hayashi. As a studio they might have had more misses than hits but there was real potential in their lineup. Knack’s earliest show was 1972’s GRIMALKIN, aka “Granny Mischief”, a gag show based on the comic strip by Machiko “Sazae-San” Hasegawa. SAZAE-SAN’s still on the air, while GRIMALKIN is a misty memory. Do the math. It wouldn’t be long before high-profile licenses would give way to more original, less coherent shows.


Astroganger and friend

1972’s ASTROGANGER is a particular favorite; and by “favorite” I mean “favorite to laugh at”. When danger threatens the Earth in the form of sequentially-numbered aliens in flying saucers, our young hero Kantaro brandishes his medallion, instantly changes into a superhero outfit, and is sucked via energy beam into the guts of the clunky-looking robot Astroganger, who then proceeds to smash the aliens. Astroganger talks, feels pain, and makes the audience wonder what the benefit of having a giant robot is if he’s grunting every time some monster takes a swipe at him. Naturally there’s a requisite science center, managed by what appears to be Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders. ASTROGANGER creatively strip-mined earlier, vastly superior shows like BABEL 2 and TETSUJIN 28, while the rest of the industry was moving on the slightly more sophisticated entertainment of MAZINGER Z style robot action. Character design and key animation for ASTROGANGAR was courtesy Tama Productions’ Eiji Tanaka, who also subcontracted for Tatsunoko Productions, and who also worked on Knack’s 1973 series CHARGE MAN KEN.


Charge Man Ken

As a CASSHAN or a HURRICANE POLIMAR for the preschool set, CHARGE MAN KEN wears its Tatsunoko hero pedigree on its weirdly colored sleeve. But as a piece of cartoon television it carves out its own wildly incomprehensible space, as legions of YouTube viewers have come to know. The show’s inexplicable DVD release sparked an online viewing frenzy as dumbstruck fans shared their newly uncovered, forever lame gem with their friends. Parody subtitles, fan videos, and the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for, you know, actual entertainment have all appeared in the mighty wake of CHARGE MAN KEN.


Groizer X, Joe, Rita

Knack would return to the super robot field with a disgruntled-with-Toei Go Nagai and 1976’s GROIZER X. When a mysterious girl flying a super space vehicle crashlands on Earth, it’s time for science center layabout hero Joe to take the wheel of her super space vehicle and battle the Gaira aliens. The Groizer X transforms into a super robot with rocket fists and jets of flame, but easily transforms back into jet-airliner configuration to enable it to land safely at any major metropolitan airport. GROIZER X inspired some boss 70s diecast toy action that even saw a brief US release, and the show was a major hit in Brazil.


Cybot Robotichi aka Robby The Rascal

Go Nagai’s frequent collaborator Ken Ishikawa would work on Knack’s CYBOT ROBOTCHI, the tale of an absentminded, lecherous inventor who builds himself a little robot buddy who gets into trouble a lot. Though this is a DR SLUMP ripoff crossed with a ROBOCON swipe, it’s nowhere near as shameless as the American sitcom SMALL WONDER. Fact is, ROBOTCHI gets downright wacky; there’s an entire village of wacky small-town type robots who struggle against the machinations of a spoiled zillionaire and his sexy henchmen. Released in America as ROBBY THE RASCAL, it’s a definite curiosity.


Robby and girlfriend, evil Horatio Horton III and his sexy sidekicks

When KAMEN RIDER was heating up the small screen Knack had to cash in. So they did the next best thing, they licensed Kamen Rider’s spiritual predecessor, GEKKO KAMEN or MOONLIGHT MASK, for a 1972 anime series. Unfortunately capturing the zip and panache of Japan’s tokusatsu heroes in animated form has never been easy, and it’s got to be even more difficult when your studio is Knack and therefore sucks. I saw this show in Spanish on Univision, and unlike fellow Univision series EL NINO DEL FUTURO (FUTURE BOY) CONAN, MOONLIGHT MASK is inept and clumsy, dated even as it aired.


in the name of the moon I will punish you

1979’s NINJA THE WONDER BOY (Manga Sarutobi Sasuke) itself is no prize. Forget contemporary, successful ninja anime series like KAMUI and NINJA SASUKE, with their drama and their expressionistic, gekiga inspired visuals – NINJA THE WONDER BOY looks like Astro Boy in feudal drag. The show’s cartoony designs and kiddy-grade stories are nowhere near Real Ultimate Power when it comes to ninja animation, and while there’s lip service paid to the feudal setting and the historical reality behind the characters, this show also features evil witches, giant dragons, and betting on horse races.


he's a wonder!

In spite of its more questionable creative decisions, Knack managed to knock out a few quality shows and score some international success. Go Nagai returned to Knack for 1983’s PSYCHO ARMOR GOVARIAN, an outerspace super-robot show with an ESP twist; pilot Isamu controls his Psycho Armor with his own psychic power and battles invaders from another dimension. Though similar in appearance to MAZINGER Z, there isn’t any connection between GOVARIAN and the more successful MAZINGER, except in South Korea where GOVARIAN and GROIZER X were released as part of MAZINGER Z.


Psycho Armor Govarian


Don Chuck and friends

Children around the world in 1975 watched and enjoyed DON CHUCK STORIES, a long-running series about a beaver who wears overalls. Germany, Italy, the Arabian world, Russia; they all went nuts for this overall-sporting, strangely yellow beaver and his more than 100 episodes of woodland fun. A more sophisticated anthropomorphisized Knack series was SUE CAT, the story of a cat girl who finds her family and a musical career AND life as a line of character goods.

The 1984 volleyball drama ATTACKER YOU managed to overcome a derivative title with unique and, for Knack, classy character designs. Tomboy You Hazuki arrives at a new school, finds herself on the volleyball team, and struggles with her coach and the hostility of the team’s captain on her way to the Olympics! This series was a big hit in Europe where it was packaged as a sequel to ATTACK NO. 1, even though the two shows had nothing to do with each other. ATTACKER YOU was even popular enough for a 2008 Chinese/Japanese co-produced sequel that starred a kung-fu fighting volleyball girl and went straight to video in Japan.

And when Knack produced THE LITTLE PRINCE in 1978, based on the children’s books by French aviator Antoine St. Expury, they managed to score both domestically and around the world. Early adopters of NICKELODEON will remember THE LITTLE PRINCE fondly along with BELLE AND SEBASTIAN and MYSTERIOUS CITIES OF GOLD, not to mention YOU CAN’T DO THAT ON TELEVISION and the show where they would simply read comic books out loud. What was up with that? At any rate I wrote a whole thing on THE LITTLE PRINCE already so go read that now.


Oh! Family

Knack’s situation-comedy family division would be represented by several different series over the years. 1984’s OH! FAMILY was based on the manga by Taeko Watanabe. OH! FAMILY is the delicate, pastel-colored and very 80s slice-of-life story of Anderson family of Los Angeles, California, whose idyllic family life is disrupted when young Johnathan shows up, claiming to be Dad’s illegitimate child. It’s a far cry from 1974’s NO-GOOD DADDY (Dame Oyaji), the biting, irreverent story of the saddest dad in Japan, disrespected by wife and children alike. Though toned down from the original manga’s bleak cynicism, the show still managed to shock audiences unwilling to look past the icon of the all-powerful Japanese father.

As the anime book of the 80s wound down Knack diversified into live-action films and direct-to-video live productions with titles like Assassin Girl Battle Road, Path Of Shura, New Gangster Kingdom, and something called “Peanuts”. Their animation business continued as they assisted in the production of END OF EVANGELION and their bandwagon-jumping continued as they produced a whole slew of adult-oriented anime videos with titles like SPONGE HEAVEN, TIME FOR ADVENTURE, and SLIGHT FEVER SYNDROME.

But as the internet success of CHARGE MAN KEN shows, their true legacy may very well be that of a studio that solidly filled out the middle-to-lower ranks of the anime world, producing adequate if uninspiring sports and children’s anime along with what-were-they-thinking oddities. So whether you’re a sarcastic mocker of lame anime or a nostalgic basic cable viewer with a fond memory of little princes in outer space, you have only one studio to thank, and that’s Knack.

Monday, October 17, 2011

spooky classic anime

At AWA this year, I did a panel about spooky anime of the 60s and 70s. You know, ghosts, scary monsters, supernatural elements, all the things we were promised but didn’t really get here with “Casper The Friendly Ghost”. You see bits and pieces of these shows out of the corner of your eye as you dig through old This Is Animation books and back issues of Animage, but most of them are ignored on this side of the pond by commercial localizers and cosplaying fans alike. I figured it would be a good way to kill an hour at this past AWA, what with the convention being back in October and all, but in researching the topic I learned about shows I’d never heard of, which is always a pleasant surprise. The crowded panel room seemed to agree and most of the comments I got were things like “wow, I had no idea this kind of thing existed”. And that’s why we’re here!

There's only one way to begin a discussion about classic supernatural anime, and that's with Shigeru Mizuki. After a childhood spent drawing comics and listening to ghost stories, Mizuki was drafted into the Imperial Army and sent off to New Britain where he suffered malaria, was listed as KIA, and lost his left arm in an air raid. His wartime experiences would inform his later non-fiction manga that bluntly confronted Japan’s role in the Pacific War, including the unflinchingly brutal semi-autobiography ONWARD TOWARDS OUR NOBLE DEATHS. After a stint working in the kamishibai field, Mizuki broke into manga in 1959 and has kept going ever since.



Available now from Drawn & Quarterly

His most popular series is GEGEGE NO KITARO, the story of a boy in a striped vest who walks the line between the “normal” world and that of the yokai, traditional Japanese spirits who roam the countryside, inhabit various objects or geographical features, and whose interactions with humans can be playful or deadly. Based on ancient Japanese folklore, tales of yokai were widely regarded as embarrassing hillbilly superstition, but Mizuki’s work highlighted their cultural significance and brought these stories to entire new generations of youngsters to boot.

A bewitching combination of simplistic characters and highly detailed, tightly rendered backgrounds, Mizuki’s artwork is as appealing as any of his monsters or adventures. There’s a classical, hand-tooled look to his work that defies, hell, obliterates the cliché of manga as being slick commercial fad-driven hackwork.

Kitaro, wanting peace between the yokai world and the humans, is always getting into trouble. Luckily his incredible mystic powers get him out of most scrapes, and his father, reincarnated as an eyeball with legs and arms, is always there to help. Not so helpful is Kitaro’s friend Nezumi Otoko AKA ‘Rat Man’, a wily schemer whose plans usually wind up going awry. A supporting cast of cat-girls, demon umbrellas, and haints & spirits of every description round out the series.

Mizuki’s KITARO is ridiculously popular in Japan. The original manga ran for ten years in Weekly Shonen, and it was animated for television in 1968, 1971, 1985, 1996, and 2007. There was also a live-action film in 2007. As a manga/anime property KITARO was merchandised like crazy, with all kinds of products like toys, stationery, video games, and utensils; in fact the whole panoply of anime marketing benefited from these creepy folktale characters. There’s even KITARO toilet paper.



Oh, you thought I was kidding?

This was purchased at a KITARO-themed shop in Asakusa, Tokyo, where you could outfit yourself head to toe in KITARO gear and go out to bring peace between yokai and human. Naturally a show of such significant pop-cultural importance was completely ignored by the American “anime industry”.

For all your Kitaro needs. Near a rickety old amusement park, too!

But that’s not the only spooky manga Mizuki ever created; his other supernatural manga hit was AKUMA-KUN. First appearing in pay-library manga in 1963, the series was rebooted for Shonen Magazine in ’66, the pay library version was rewritten in 1970, and the character was revived in 1987 and again in 1993.



Double-page spread of AKUMA-KUN awesomeness

AKUMA-KUN has a more Western feel in its approach to demons and monsters but still has that great Mizuki look. The story is about Shingo Yamada, ostensibly a normal boy, but one day when he follows an old man into a cave he finds out that he has the power to control demons, namely Mephisto. Because Shingo is a good boy, he forces Mephisto to help him fight evil demons and monsters! AKUMA-KUN didn’t get animated until 1989 but in 1966 Toei made a live-action series out of the manga starring the kid who played Johnny Sokko in JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT.



AKUMA-KUN color anime from 1989

In the United States, it took the mid 1960s TV horror hosts and a whole spate of sold-to-TV monster movies to create a “horror boom” that led to things like THE MUNSTERS, Famous Monsters Of Filmland, and “The Monster Mash”. But in Japan Mizuki’s KITARO and AKUMA-KUN manga helped spur a Japan-only “yokai boom” that led to scary kids’ entertainment of all stripes.

And if you want shows that would scare the hell out of childhood me, you need look no further than YOKAI NINGEN BEM. This 1968 color anime series from studio Dai-ichi Doga (who also produced the GOLDEN BAT anime) is about three yōkai, Bem, Bera and Berro, who arrive at a large coastal city and find evil caused by both “immoral humans” and yokai, which they must of course battle. A live-action remake of this series is currently on the air! The anime has a great chunky late 60s feel that evokes JOHNNY QUEST, but with more fangs, drool, and horror.

Manga-ka duo Fujiko-Fujio created the worldwide success DOREAMON, but their boundless creative energy had many manifestations; before the blue robot cat conquered the world in 1970 they created KAIBUTSU-KUN. Wouldn’t you like to have monsters for pals? Kaibutsu-kun does! His friends Dracula, Wolfman, and Franken make every day Halloween! They travel from Monster Land to the Human Realm, where they keep mankind safe from the monsters of the demon group Demonish. And fight over who has the better breakfast cereal. The 1968 anime series was from TMS and Studio Zero, the animation studio that Fujio-Fujiko was a part of along with Shotaro Ishinomori and others. KAIBUTSU-KUN joined the ranks of live-action series in April 2010. Is Japan in the grip of another monster boom?



Fujiko-Fujio didn’t stop with KAIBUTSU-KUN – another supernatural manga from the prolific duo is OBAKE Q-TARO. Attaching himself to the Ohara family, Q-taro is a “obake”, a ghostly Japanese spirit who comes in many frightening and disturbing forms, none weirder than Q-Taro himself, who resembles one of those targets you knock down with baseballs at the county fair, only with feet and giant comedy lips. Q-taro loves to cause trouble and steal food, but he’s deathly afraid of dogs, so sleep soundly, pet owners. The anime series was produced on 3 separate occasions – 1965, 1971, and 1985, and the Nintendo game was released here as “Chubby Cherub”. No, seriously.



Obake Q-Taro is scared of dogs.

Speaking of manga legends, Osamu Tezuka’s 1967 manga serial VAMPIRE, though not dealing with the traditional blood-sucking freaks of legend, did star monsters and werewolves! The vampires of the title are beasts who, disguised as humans, walk among us regarding normal people as prey. It’s the law of the jungle when they transform into their animal shapes and hunt humans! Their long term plan is to overthrow civilization and bring us all back to our savage natures. However, young Toppei, a wolf-man, abandons the animal life and moves to Tokyo where he gets a job at Mushi Productions working for Osamu Tezuka, who starred as himself in the TV series. When did that guy sleep? And will the vampires let Toppei escape? Meanwhile stock Tezuka character Rock Home, this time a master-of-disguise criminal genius, seeks nothing less than the domination of the entire world. Can he force the vampires to do his bidding? In 1969 the series was turned into a live-action show that, even without the live-action actors interacting with the animated monsters, is a pleasure to watch just for the crazy new-wave camera work.



Toppei as a human, Toppei as a cartoon wolf, Tezuka as himself. Workaholic much?



Kazuo Umezu's work is SPOOOOOOOOOKY.

Kazuo Umezu has a giant body of horror manga, including SCARY BOOK, CAT EYED BOY and THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM. His immensely disturbing work never quite made the jump to children’s TV anime, which is probably a good thing for the mental health of Japan. However there was a pilot film made for CAT EYED BOY, which I’ve never seen. Though I bet it’s disturbing. The 1990 anime “The Curse Of Kazuo Umezu” certainly is. And of course live-action versions of his manga abound, but make sure the kids are in bed.



Parents kill children in short horrific Go Nagai story.

Manga legend Go Nagai is mostly known here for the animated versions of his popular works like MAZINGER Z, GRANDIZER, DEVILMAN, CUTEY HONEY, and KEKKO KAMEN. However, his manga work has yet to really make any kind of headway in the States. Which is a shame because hey, he’s Go Nagai! Along with his more science-fictional or naked-girl themed manga he’s produced lots of spooky supernatural themed comics, of which DEVILMAN is probably the best known.



Thanks for reading kids! Sleep tight now!

DEVILMAN became more of a super hero kind of thing when it made the transition to television, but another Go Nagai concept, DORORON ENMA-KUN, kept its spooky yokai spirit intact! Enma-kun, our hot-headed, lustful teenage boy protagonist, has eyebrows that can detect spirits and a staff which turns into a giant hammer. Enma-Kun is sent by his uncle, The Great King Enma, the Buddhist King of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, to straighten things out here on Earth. Aided by ice demoness Yukiko-Hime, the kappa demon Kapperu, and his talking hat Chapeauji, Enma-Kun battles the demons that infest every inch of Japan! The 1973 TV anime was from Toei, but the 2011 remake DORORON ENMA-KUN MEERA MEERA was by Brain’s Base and will be released in North America next year!



Meera meera meera meera meera meera.

So happy Halloween everybody, and when you’re shivering in your bed afraid of spooks, remember that GeGeGe no Kitaro and Dororon Enma-Kun are on their way.