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
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.
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
hunger for cartoons and thought our good mysterious thief might be a good
|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
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.|
It is Something Weird we must thank for shedding light on one of the mustier corners of
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.|