Monday, February 3, 2014

Dr. Zen And the Magic And Poorly Animated Machine

We like to think of Japanese animation as brilliant world-class entertainment, able to hold its own against the cartoon arts from around the globe.  Occasionally that’s the case. But often what we see from Japan is, like the TV cartoons from anywhere else, hastily-assembled, produced on a punishing deadline by stressed-out minimum wage employees, and aimed only at filling a few minutes of broadcast airtime and selling a few ads for toys or candy. It’s this ‘makin’ the donuts’ attitude that’s allowed Japan to produce a prodigious amount of TV animation in the past fifty years, and like anything else, there are flashes of brilliance, stunning failures, and a lot of in-between (and a lot of in-betweening, that’s an animation reference.) Every once in a while, the surging tides of production come up against the shoals of ineptitude, the rocks of budget constraints, and the pillars of “just get it done already”, and we’re served up something that by its very awfulness has mutated into a singular viewing experience that becomes interesting in spite of itself. Something like Mysterious Thief Pride, or as we’d call it, Dr. Zen. 
Dr Zen is the world’s greatest thief, and as befitting his criminal status, he dresses like a stage magician in top hat and tails, with a giant mustache flanking his bulbous nose. He flies around in a rocket ship, like all great thieves do, with his assistant Walter, who is a dog. Together they plan the most incredible crimes ever devised, like stealing toys from children and using an enlarging machine to enlarge, say, a toy car, into a real-size car. Because you couldn't steal a regular car, apparently. Opposing these dastardly crimes is the young detective Doublecheck, his giant pal Gabby, and their friend Honey, who is a bee with a woman’s head, a horrific nightmare right out of a Vincent Price movie. Meanwhile, the “official” detective Supersnooper bumbles around getting in the way and occasionally having his clothes ripped off. Thus the amazing adventures of Mysterious Thief Pride enthralled Japanese youth in the mid 1960s.
Doublecheck and Gabby and kids

105 5-minute segments of Kaito Pride aka Mysterious Thief Pride were produced by Japan Tele-Cartoons aka Terebi Doga aka TV Films in 1965, perhaps designed to fill that important “rain delay” or “technical difficulties” programming segment of any TV station. Created by Kazuhiko “Panda And The Magic Serpent” Okabe, future stars like Noboru Ishiguro would hone their anime skills on this series. Kaito Pride would likely have remained as unknown to us as many other short-subject anime TV programs like Pinch & Punch or Shadar, but TV Doga knew of America’s hunger for cartoons and thought our good mysterious thief might be a good export.
Doublecheck and Honeybee the Woman-Headed Bee
Returned for re-grooving, Kaito Pride emerged in color as Dr. Zen, ready for the American market. But was the American market ready for Dr. Zen?  Apparently not; only a few segments of Dr. Zen were produced and it’s unknown if they ever made it to broadcast television. Turns out American syndication, which cheerfully aired drek like Super President, Spunky & Tadpole, and Clutch Cargo, finally found a cartoon they couldn’t use. And I don’t blame them, because Dr. Zen is one hundred percent terrible.

The animation is barely there, the character designs seem like they were taken directly from elementary-school sidewalk chalk drawing, and the slow pace of what little story there is makes a five-minute segment feel like that Andy Warhol film of the Empire State Building - and that movie is eight hours long!  The narration and voice work hit all the marks - squeaky, raspy, inaudible, comically low, and mumbly.  Animation, design, story, and sound, all bad, assemble to make Dr. Zen a difficult viewing experience that pummels the forebrain into submission, a hypnotic, consciousness-lowering ritual that lowers the IQ and suffocates higher mental functions beneath staticky fuzz. This is anime on downers, the cartoon version of a hangover. I cannot imagine the damage this show would inflict upon impressionable young people, and I applaud the good sense of America’s broadcasters in keeping it from our children. 

some of  Dr. Zen's quality animation  

a giant turtle laughs at Dr. Zen. No, you're not on drugs.
So if it never aired, how did we see it?  That’s thanks to Something Weird Video. This cult video distributor is a champion of the forgotten, the sleazy, and the otherwise unmarketable, and is single-handedly responsible not only for keeping the films of Harry Novak and Doris Wishman accessible to the public, but also in releasing compilations of movie trailers, educational films, commercials, and shorts that would otherwise have never seen the light of day. It’s on one of Something Weird’s compilation videos that I first found Dr. Zen, and it is Something Weird we must thank for this, and so much more. It’s with sadness that we note the recent passing of Mike Vraney, Something Weird’s founder, a pioneer in preserving and showcasing the legacy of the offbeat and the exploitative in film. Perhaps giving Dr. Zen to America was one of Something Weird’s lesser accomplishments, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless.

It is Something Weird we must thank for shedding light on one of the mustier corners of Japan’s anime legacy, unleashing Dr. Zen from his 16mm film-can prison and allowing him to run free stealing toys and punishing viewers. Thanks, Something Weird, for proving the low end of Japanese animation can always get a little lower.

Dr. Zen will return? I sure hope not.

3 comments:

Christopher Sobieniak said...

"105 5-minute segments of Kaito Pride aka Mysterious Thief Pride were produced by Japan Tele-Cartoons aka Terebi Doga aka TV Films in 1965, perhaps designed to fill that important “rain delay” or “technical difficulties” programming segment of any TV station."

Or else, an easier excuse to copycat what Crusader Rabbit, Ruff & Reddy, Spunky & Tadpole and Col. Bleep did before.

"Kaito Pride would likely have remained as unknown to us as many other short-subject anime TV programs like Pinch & Punch or Shadar, but TV Doga knew of America’s hunger for cartoons and thought our good mysterious thief might be a good export.

Lord knows if Marine Boy alone gave them high hopes in that case.

"That’s thanks to Something Weird Video. This cult video distributor is a champion of the forgotten, the sleazy, and the otherwise unmarketable,"

Just like that episode of "Prince Planet" they snuck in on the Starman DVD, long before MGM knew what to do with it.

"Dr. Zen will return? I sure hope not."

Or how about this... (yes, this is not anime-related, but it was in the back of my head)?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkmPBkcBLgo

gritpipe said...

LOL, this is awful!

Anime Lovers said...

I want to travel in Japan!! I like Japanese culture and anime.