Saturday, October 31, 2015

10th anniversary of 15th anniversary of Metal Skin Panic Madox-01

This review of AnimEigo’s Madox-01 15th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition first appeared in 2005. Since then, I’ve learned a few more things about Madox-01, namely that Hideaki “Evangelion” Anno did some key animation for it, and that my DVD of this title has mysteriously vanished. Did I loan it to you?

Notable for being AnimEigo’s first release, Metal Skin Panic Madox-01 led the way for uncut, subtitled Japanese animation to the American market.  Before this release, anime in the States was available either as chopped-and-dubbed kidvid for the afterschool UHF audience, or as cheaply designed videotapes in the “Family” section of your local video rental. After AnimEigo and Madox, America would see an invasion of unadulterated, sometimes adults-only anime aimed directly at the shelves of your local Blockbuster, and things would never be the same again.

Apart from this note of historical interest, Madox is otherwise unremarkable except to serve as an example of several things: of the mid-1980s Original Video Animation boom, of the persistence of abnormal hair color in Japanese anime characters, and of just how obsessive and nitpicky a design team can get when it comes to military hardware.

The OVA era of the 1980s is an important time in Japanese animation; creative teams raised on groundbreaking animation like Gundam and Yamato seized the means of production and started producing direct-to-video animation. Titles like Vampire Hunter D, Bubblegum Crisis, and M.D. Geist would become legends, while others like Digital Devil Story and Cosmos Pink Shock would vanish into sometimes well-deserved obscurity.  Unrestrained by the mores of television broadcasters or the financial obligations of theatrical release, OVA productions used their freedom to produce groundbreaking, artistically challenging works that were too risky for traditional release, animation that reflected more personal visions, rather than the needs of the toy company sponsors.  Plus, they were easier for American fans to get, since you didn’t have to know somebody in Japan to tape anime from television broadcasts- you could just buy the damned things and have done with it. 

Lack of toy company sponsorship is kind of a shame in the case of Madox-01, since the mechanical hardware on display in this video cries out for a highly detailed toy.  This 1988 release is the story of the MADOX, a self-contained personal armored combat machine; in other words, a very plausible looking, technically feasible version of that hoary old staple of Japanese animation, the giant robot.  Developed by Japanese heavy industry under contract with the US Army and the Japanese Self Defense Forces, we first see the MADOX in action as it defeats three heavy tanks in fierce combat. The American tank commander Kilgore wants a rematch, but MADOX’s test pilot Kusomoto, who is naturally a sexy Japanese woman with orange hair and a tight combat suit, isn’t interested.  The MADOX is crated up and put on a truck to be sent to the US HQ in Tokyo

After Tokyo’s bad drivers cause the truck to crash, the crated-up MADOX winds up in an auto repair shop.  Teenage greasemonkey Kouji takes it home to spend the afternoon messing with the whatever-it-is before he meets his girlfriend that night.  So he puts the MADOX on, which by the way was shipped while in “scramble mode”, and before he knows it the thing is rocketing through the Tokyo streets, out of control, with the JSDF and the US Army in hot pursuit.

Now Kouji has to dodge Kusomoto who’s in MADOX-02, he’s under attack from Col. Kilgore riding a cute little articulated tank, the skies are full of Apache attack helicopters – and he’s got to meet his girlfriend atop the NSR Building before she leaves forever!!  What’s a Japanese teenager to do?

What follows is standard-issue anime-style urban property destruction, replete with authentic otaku-approved guns & ammo and a mysterious lack of civilian casualties.  You remember what high-tech war is like – lots of expensive precision machinery operated by skilled, highly trained professional technicians, waged far away from noncombatants, and not much at all like the real thing.  For all its fetishization of military hardware, Madox-01 is as much of a fantasy as the dumbest, most outlandish transforming robot cartoon. Which, by the way, is UFO Diapollon. Or maybe Magnetic Robo Ga-Keen.

The theme of military action destroying an unwitting civilian Tokyo has been visited in the world of anime many times, most notably by Hayao Miyazaki in Lupin III episode #155, “Farewell Lovely Lupin”, where the spectacle of tanks and artillery blasting away at Tokyo landmarks was shown to have terrible consequences. There’s no such moralizing here in Madox, where the full panoply of warfare is unleashed with total casualties being, um, one.

Of course, expecting any kind of editorial position from a 40-minute OVA is probably asking too much, but jeez, the guys who made this video lived within a subway ride of some of the heaviest firepower on that side of the globe, and you’d think they had some sort of opinion about it other than, “boy, isn’t this stuff cool.”  Then again, this was the 1980s; destruction without context was just the way things were done back then.

Giant shoulders, suspenders, and a wimped-out synthesizer soundtrack constantly remind the viewer that he is back in the days of Max Headroom and New Coke.  Tamura Hideki’s character designs reach a nadir of sorts in Kusomoto; her giant forehead and weirdly angled chin resemble nothing so much as the specter of perennial TV game show guest Dorothy Kilgallen.  ARTMIC’s  animation is naturally obsessive and detailed in scenes containing military ordinance, and surprisingly inept with the human figure; there are some rather basic animation errors towards the end of Madox-01 that show us exactly where the studio’s mind was.

The English dub, by Swirl, isn’t really anything special; there’s not a lot of dialog in this OVA to begin with, and what we do get is rendered competently but without flash. Subtitles include details on what “N.B.C.” warfare means, and suffice to say we’re not talking Leno versus Letterman. There are two Japanese language tracks, one with English subtitles and another with minimal subtitles, a nice touch for those conversant with the language.

Further evidence as to what floats Madox-01’s boat is evident in the ten-minute accompanying featurette, a live-action documentary look at the JSDF’s heavy hitters circa 1988.  Apache helicopters, tanks, howitzers, rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, and other crowd-pleasers are shown at the Mt. Fuji proving grounds, blasting helpless paper targets into oblivion as we’re shown the real-life versions of all those models in Godzilla films. It’s an interesting look at Japan’s defense-only military during the height of cold-war bubble-economy budgets.

Madox-01’s place in AnimEigo history is confirmed with another extra, a Q&A session with CEO Robert Woodhead that reveals, among other things, that for their first release he chose Madox over Project A-Ko. Another Q&A with audio director Eric Tomosunas of Swirl Recordings & Film isn’t quite as interesting.  The commentary track features Eric and several of the lead Madox voice talent.  Early on diverges from commenting on Madox to a round-table discussion on what it’s like to dub Japanese cartoons in general;  interesting, but not anything that hasn’t happened at every anime convention ever.

As an historical artifact, this 15th anniversary edition of Madox-01 is about as classy a package as you’re going to get for a 40-minute, otherwise forgotten OVA.  It’s a relic from the early days of direct-to-video animation, and much like its counterparts from those days, isn’t a bad piece of anime for an evening’s rental.  There’s something to be said for a short, self-contained story with enough action and suspense to keep itself going for 40 minutes.  You’re not asked for a long investment of time, there aren’t legions of characters to keep track of or a backstory to research; just put it on the TV and enjoy watching the stuff blow up. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Class Of '85

In September I presented this piece at Anime Weekend Atlanta. Thirty years back (!!), I was part of Atlanta’s local anime club, making library meeting rooms a welcoming place for anime fans. I was a teenager at the time; no, I’m not THAT old.

Thirty years ago Japanese anime fandom in the United States was a liminal beast, in transition from a centralized fan club model to a loosely connected clutch of fiefdoms, waiting for technology to catch up with our ideas.  For many, 1985 was the pivotal year.

 Who was part of this “Class Of ’85?”  Where did they come from, what did they do? Their childhood was spent watching Speed Racer or Battle Of the Planets or Star Blazers. Teen years found them in comic-con dealers rooms or in the back row at the local Star Trek or Dr Who clubs, asking questions about Japanese animation. They’d find other interested fans, they’d learn about anime clubs in far-away places like California or Texas or Ohio, and finally they’d start their own.

They were the latest in a series of anime fan surges that had been washing over North America repeatedly since the early 1960s, each fed in turn by syndication of Astro Boy, Kimba, Gigantor, Marine Boy, Prince Planet, Tobor The Eighth Man, and Speed Racer, sometimes Princess Knight or a UHF television broadcast of Jack And the Witch. All this foreign TV input coalesced into fandom in the late 70s, when Japanese-language UHF began broadcasting superrobots and when home video technology reached the point where such broadcasts could be replayed over and over again to audiences of fans. These “Japanimation” fans would gather in LA, SF and NYC to watch poorly subtitled TV cartoons and 16mm prints of Astro Boy episodes; and they’d form the first Japanese animation fan group, the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (C/FO).

Sandy Frank’s iteration of Tatsunoko’s Gatchaman, Battle Of The Planets, began syndication in September of 1978. BOTP fans would shortly start the second national anime group to come to any sort of prominence, the Battle Of The Planets Fan Club. Organized in early 1979 by Ohio’s Joey Buchanan, the BOTP FC would be active through the mid 1980s, with outreach via classified ads in Starlog. 

BOTP Fan Club newsletters (thanks to G.)
Star Blazers, the American version of Space Battleship Yamato, would air in September of 1979; it inspired still more fans, clubs, newsletters, and even the first Star Blazers-themed anime conventions. For those hooked at home or converted via anime screenings at local comic & Star Trek shows,  the BOTP, the Star Blazers club and the C/FO became the next stop for learning more about “Japanimation.”

Our Class Of ’85 spent 1984 taping episodes of Voltron from local TV, wishing for Star Blazers re-runs, waiting to hear back from that anime club they contacted after they found their flyer at the local comic con, and finally taking matters into their own hands. They’d find a few fellow fans with enough Japanese animation on videotape to reasonably entertain an audience for five or six hours and were crazy enough to volunteer to do all the work of hauling televisions and VCRs and boxes of tapes, and somebody would find a space they could meet once a month. Repeat in cities across the US and Canada: anime club.

C/FO Magazine, the national club's publication
When Robotech - Harmony Gold’s localization of Tatsunoko’s Macross, Southern Cross and Mospeada - made its syndicated TV debut in the fall of 1985, “Japanimation” fandom was already in place and ready for its close-up, Mr DeMille.  Newly minted anime fans would learn of the Macross feature film, they’d find out that their favorite arcade game “Cliff Hanger” was assembled from a couple of Lupin III feature films, that there was an entire slew of Japanese cartoons about alien high school students and vampire hunters and mercenary fighter pilots and teenage trouble consultants and ESP policemen, that there was already two and a half decades of Japanese animation to get caught up on and more happening all the time.

(I’m using “class of 85” here as glib shorthand for the whole 1984-1987 time frame. 1985 was when our local anime fans got together but meetings didn’t get regular until ‘86. 1987 was our busiest year and the winter of 1988-89 was when our club, like many other C/FO affiliated clubs, fractured beyond repair. Anyway my high school yearbook with Julia Roberts’ photo is from 1985, so “Class Of 1985” it becomes. )
now showing at your local anime club meeting
Get comfortable. Anime club meetings lasted for hours, with a mix of films, TV episodes, and OVAs showing on the main television for as long as possible. Titles screened would typically be in Japanese without benefit of subtitles, though there was a thriving market in photocopied English synopsis guides describing who was doing what to whom. Occasionally a more fluent (or delusional) member would appoint himself facilitator and provide running commentary, which would degenerate into a crowd of people attempting to top each other’s humorous pre-MST3K commentary. Members would socialize in the back of the room or in the hall, play RPG games, draw fan artwork, sell each other anime merchandise they’d picked up and didn’t want, build model kits, and generally display future anime-con behavior.

It was a golden age for home video retailers. The dust was still settling from the Format Wars and Sony’s Beta was sinking fast, mortally wounded by VHS in the marketplaces of North America. Early VCR adopters paid $1000-$1500 for the privilege, but 1985 consumers saw top of the line machines retailing for less than $600, with bargain models at around $150 - prices anime fans could afford even on their part-time after-school K-mart salary. The technology itself had progressed from top-loading, wired remote, mono decks to 4-head stereo machines capable of crystal-clear freeze frame images, all the better to view bootlegged Japanese cartoons with.

Print advertising for VCRs circa 1985
Maximizing our AV experience was a must, and this might involve splitting the RF signal to two or more TVs, giving the whole crowd a decent shot at enjoying Fight! Iczer One. Thrift-store receivers and speakers would delight and/or annoy the patrons with a rough approximation of stereo sound. The Class Of ’85 learned that no anime club meeting was complete without a daisy chain of VCRs wired together in the back of the room, distributing that newly acquired tape of Vampire Hunter D down the whirring line of VHS decks with the end of the chain getting the worst of the deal. 

Where did those tapes come from? A thriving Japanese home video market put direct-to video anime releases, feature anime films and the occasional TV collection on the shelves of Tsutaya video rental outlets. Japanese fandom, just beginning to call itself “otaku”, was taping anime off-air, as seen in the fine documentary film “1985 Graffiti Of Otaku Generation”, later exchanging copies of these tapes with US pen pals. Servicemen stationed in Japan spent their garrison pay on blank videotape while fans in American cities with Japanese minorities were learning to haunt the local Japanese neighborhoods in search of video rental stores.

your choice: kidvid or homebrew
America’s own home video boom had even put some licensed releases of Japanese animation into our own video rental stores. Most were aimed at the children’s market, and even the less-kiddified releases would feature annoying English dubbing and the occasional edit for time or objectionable content. Once anime fans had seen uncut anime straight from Japan, kid-vid substitutes would not satisfy. 

Promoting their new anime clubs was also a struggle. Using the internet for wide promotion and informational purposes was still in its infancy; anime clubs had to get the word out using old-fashioned print. Just as cheap home video technology enabled videotape-based TV fandom, cheap photocopy technology was causing a fanzine explosion, and fans would take full advantage of Kinko’s and related outlets.  Xeroxed flyers would promote the club in comic book stores and at fan conventions. Members would be informed of upcoming meetings via a monthly newsletter assembled out of whatever fan art could be harvested and whatever anime news could be gleaned from magazines, the news media, and the wishful thinking of fellow fans. Assembling these newsletters meant an extra day or so of work every month for the club officers, all published without benefit of scanners or graphic design software, just typewriters, white-out, scissors, and glue. Copied, collated, stapled, addressed and stamped, the final product would then be subject to the mercies of the United States Post Office.

getting the word out about Bubblegum Crisis
1985’s anime fans would also suffer the burdens of international economic policy. The Plaza Accords meant a rising yen vs the US dollar. This, and natural supply and demand dynamics, inflated the US prices of anime goods. In Japan, the anime market shrank from the “anime boom” years of 1982-84 even as their “Bubble Economy” swelled preparatory to bursting. 

Happily ignorant of the larger economic forces, the Class Of ‘85’s local clubs kept meeting at its libraries and community centers, publishing its newsletters, screening anime at comic cons and Fantasy Fairs to appreciative crowds and grumbling con organizers, swapping tapes and making road trips and generally living the 80s anime fan lifestyle of pizza, Coca-Cola, and late nights spent copying Project A-Ko over and over. What they lacked in data or tech they made up for in brotherhood; a typical anime club meeting might include a potluck junk-food smorgasbord, a surprise birthday celebration or a post-meeting dinner, with fans from three or four states turning anime club meetings into impromptu anime family reunions.

the Atlanta club in its natural environment
As a chapter of a national organization, the local club had certain obligations to the parent body. In practice these obligations were vaguely defined and generally involved swapping newsletters, tapes and gossip with other chapters. At one point the national C/FO was sending a Yawata-Uma horse (a gaily painted hand carved wooden horse given as a gift on special occasions) from chapter to chapter to be decorated with signatures and mascot illustrations; this arrived, was duly scrawled upon, and delivered to the next link in the chain, perhaps the pinnacle of cooperative achievement for any national anime club. Photos of this horse eventually wound up in the March 1987 issue of Animage, along with pictures of American cosplayers and members of Atlanta’s local club.

Yawata-Uma & fans captured on home video in somebody's basement
What finally happened to the Class of ’85 after the ‘80s ended? The Battle Of The Planets club had long since vanished, while the national Star Blazers club leveraged its reach and became Project A-Kon. The national leadership of the C/FO used parliamentary procedure to reduce what had been 30+ chapters in three nations to a few local Southern California clubs. Former C/FO chapters became sovereign anime-club states charting their own anime club destinies, while other clubs that never bothered with the C/FO kept right on doing what they’d been doing all along. For example; the Anime Hasshin club, by virtue of a lively and regularly-published newsletter, a tape-trading group, and a total lack of interest in hosting meetings or chapters, became a leader in the 90s anime fan community.

join a local anime club today
1990 saw the start of the direct-to-video, uncut, English subtitled localization industry with AnimEigo’s Madox-01. Films like Akira would put Japanese animation into the art-house cinema circuit and finally, into the cultural lexicon as something other than Speed Racer. Local anime clubs began their long slide into irrelevance, faced with Blockbuster’s anime shelves and Genie or Compuserve’s dedicated anime boards. University anime groups, with giant lecture halls, professional video presentation equipment, and a captive audience of bored nerds, sprang up wholly independently of any extant fan networks. The anime club officers of the 1980s were growing up, graduating college, getting married, moving on to careers and lives beyond a monthly appointment to deliver Japanese cartoons to a roomful of fans, some of whom hadn’t bathed or been to the Laundromat in a while. 

They’re still around, that Class Of ’85. You can probably find a few survivors at your local anime con holding forth behind a panel table or on a couch in the hotel lobby, spinning tales of what fandom was like in the days of laser discs and Beta tapes. Some are no longer with us, living on in photographs, the dot matrix print of club newsletters, and in the fond memories of their fellow anime fans.  Others have moved on to the far corners of the Earth or across town, in a world that now recognizes the truth of what they were trying to say three decades ago. Turns out this Japanese animation thing is pretty cool after all.  

so long, Bill.