Sunday, December 11, 2016

God And/Or Tatsunoko Don't Make No Junk


It's the 1980s. You're bored in front of the TV, punching buttons on that weird multiplex cable TV channel box with all the buttons and three levers, and you come across a Japanese cartoon that you've never seen, and it's about two kids, and a robot, and Jesus. Yeah, THAT Jesus. And you ask youself, how did I get here? 

high-tech 1980s channel-changing device
The liberating influence of the Reformation put religion in the hands of anybody who could shout the Gospel and stir up a crowd, taking salvation out of the hands of a centralized bureaucracy and allowing a million tent revivals to bloom. Heir to the traditions of mass-media evangelists like Billy Sunday, Father Joe Coughlin, and Aimee Semple McPherson, Southern Baptist minister Pat Robertson founded the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960 with the purchase of a small UHF station in Portsmouth Virginia. CBN's early days were financed via a telethon requesting 700 volunteers each giving $10, this "700 Club" becoming the genesis of Robertson's flagship current events/prayer series. Amidst the growth of cable television in the late 1970s, Robertson bought a cable TV channel in the area and soon CBN was a basic-cable fixture on TV sets, reaching 10 million homes by 1981. 


In the late 70s, CBN hired ad agency giant Young & Rubicam to promote sales of Christian literature in Japan. This is Japan in the late 1970s we're talking about here, in the midst of an unprecendented animation boom fueled by hits like Yamato, Gundam, Gatchaman, and others. Anyone with two eyes could see that animation was the way to go. Hooking up with Japan's Yomiko Advertising Agency and perhaps emboldened by the prior ad agency/animation studio success of former SCDP exec Lou Avery's partnership with Tatsunoko to produce Scout's Honor, CBN would contract Tatsunoko to produce a Bible-themed cartoon for young people. 

The resulting cartoon, Anime Oyako Gekijo, or "Anime Mother & Child Playhouse", would be directed by veteran Masakazu Higuchi (Vickie The Viking, Urikupen Rescue Team, The Real Ghostbusters) and would premiere Oct. 9, 1981 across the spectrum of Japanese broadcast television, on Fuji TV, TV Tokyo, Asahi TV, and TBS. 

Chris, Joy and Gizmo
The story stars young Chris Peeper (Sho Azuka), his friend Joy (Azusa Yamato) and toy robot Gizmo (Zenmaijikake) as they discover a mysterious old book in the attic of Chris' father, Professor Peeper. Opening up, the book transports them back in time to experience many of the stories of the Bible's Old Testament, with a few New Testament stories thrown in for good measure, but always returns them to the Peeper house at the end of the adventure in time for snacks. There's a very Tatsunoko look to the characters, particularly Professor Peeper, thanks to the work of veteran Muteking/Temple The Balloonist character designer Akiko Shimamoto. 

Chris, Joy, Gizmo, and the Peeper parents 
CBN was reportedly unsure about localizing the series for America, but let's get real, they did own a cable network and you always gotta have something to show on your cable network. The dub cast featured veterans of anime classics Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion, including Billie Lou Watt, Ray "Aquaman" Owens as Jesus, Gilbert Mack, Peter Fernandez, Hal Studer, and others. Owens had been featured in CBN's Christian soap opera "Another Life", which is where he got wind of the upcoming cartoon-voice gig. The series was given the title Superbook and in 1982 it premiered on CBN and became available to other broadcasters through CBN Continental Syndication. 

Superbook wasn't CBN's only big-eyed Japanese cartoon; other anime appearing on CBN included the Sonic International dubs of Honey Honey and Leo The Lion, and 3B Productions' compilation films of Voltes V, Fighting General Daimos (as "Starbirds") and Tatsunoko's 1979 "Daddy Longlegs" telefilm (directed by Superbook's Masakazu Higuchi). 

Anime Oyako Gekijo was followed immediately by "Adventure Of Tondera House", or as we'd know it, Flying House. While playing in the woods, youngsters Justin Casey (Gen Adachi) and his pal Angie (Kanna Natsuyama) and Angie's even-younger brother Corky (Tsukubo Natsuyama) are caught in a storm and seek shelter in a mysterious house where they meet an astonishing robot. This mysterious house and its robot inhabitant belong to Professor Bumble (Dr. Tokio Taimu – "time" – get it?), who has created an amazing time machine built into the house itself, like those great intercom systems you see in mid-century suburban tract homes. A lightning strike reboots the robot S.I.R. into its combat mode and his flailing robot attacks send the house flying back through the ages to New Testament times. During an amazing series of 52 adventures our lost travellers witness the birth of Jesus and the early days of the Christian religion. Airing in Japan from April '82 until March of 1983, the series was also localized by the same cast and distributed by CBN. 



While both Flying House and Superbook use the same basic structure of "modern kids in Bible times", Flying House embedded those kids in the stories themselves, like AP stringers with the 3rd Infantry Division in Anbar Province. Justin, Angie and Corky visibly struggle alongside their new scriptural pals as the timeline asserts itself and the stories come to their King James-decreed conclusions. This distinguishes Flying House from Superbook, where characters having vague memories of these seemingly immortal kids is just a running gag, and any attempts by Chris or Joy at direct involvement unsupported by Leviticus, or Exodus, or whatever, see them yanked out of the past with an abrupt, unsettling counterclockwise sequence. The two shows feature very different kinds of involvement: enmeshment vs active observation.

the gospel according to Superbook

In the tumbling wake of the Flying House came the third part of Tatsunoko's Bible Trilogy. We know the further adventures of Chris, Joy, Gizmo as Superbook II, but in Japan the title is Pasocon Travel Tanteidan, or Personal Computer Travel Detectives, or PC Travel Detective Group, take your pick. As you may remember, the early 1980s were a boom time for personal computers both here and in Japan. When the Superbook and a PC team up, it means new Bible adventures for our Superbook kids, joined here by Chris's dog Ruffles and his cousin Uriah (in Japan, Sho's brother Yuu). Character designs are softened a little to reflect mid-80s aesthetics and the ravages of time, the show being set two years after the events of the first Superbook. PC Travel Tanteidan aired 4-4-83 to 9-26-83, adding 26 episodes to the Superbook canon. 

Superbook II cast and the exciting Atari 2600 Superbook II game

Scriptural fidelity is probably too much to expect from a series that involves different sets of children travelling through time and witnessing different iterations of the same Biblical events, and each series handles interaction with religious events and characters differently, Superbook's kids being passive observers and Flying House's Justin and Angie doing their best to mess with history. Both shows take dramatic liberty with the Gospels; for instance, Flying House has Justin, Angie and Corky being tempted by Satan alongside Jesus, and the show reinterprets the dance of Salome into a children's talent show and involves the kids in an ethical capital-punishment quandary with the son of Barabbas (the murderer set free instead of Jesus).

The Dance Of Salome, as interpreted by Flying House
Tatsunoko's utilitarian animation lacks both the tricky special effects we'd see in their more fantastical series and the props or gadgets typically inserted into shows for the toy market. Since Tatsunoko already had CBN financing, they didn't need Takatoku. The second series of Superbook improves slightly, but lacks visual excitement when compared to concurrent series like Orguss, Dunbine, Mospeada, and Vifam

Jesus and the Flying House kids are tempted by Satan via animation reference from "Little Norse Prince"

In 1985 CBN produced a Spanish language version of Superbook. Eventually the series would reach fifty nations, including a Soviet Union in the throes of Glasnost and Perestroika. Superbook on Soviet Central TV was immensely popular in the twilight days of the USSR and when party bigwigs threatened cancellation, the series sparked a revolt among the Children's Television Department. At one point the show was receiving 30,000 letters from viewers every day. In 1990 CBN rebranded as the Family Channel, which was sold and became Fox Family, which was sold and became ABC Family. Superbook and Flying House relocated to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, run by the televangelist Crouch couple. As streaming video became a thing CBN began streaming Flying House for free while keeping most of Superbook behind a paywall, and building an online interactive children's experience around a Superbook reboot. 

TV ad for Superbook VHS only $24.95 each, a bargain
In spite of the interest in Japanese animation, most self-professed "otaku" would be hesitant to list Superbook as being an influential anime import. And yet, the worldwide reach of this franchise rivals or surpasses titles like Robotech, Sailor Moon or Star Blazers. Superbook/Flying House has been shown continuously for decades in dozens of languages, impacting millions and millions of viewers. Few TV shows of any sort can boast that kind of reach. Of course, Superbook has built-in educational and religious advantages attractive to parents desperate for wholesome family entertainment that their kids will actually sit still for. Prior to Superbook, seekers of scriptural kids TV had to rely on Davey & Goliath or Jot, or the occasional Moody Institute of Science short.

rare "Flying House" edition of The Bible

Superbook/Flying House videos were available in retail and Christian specialty stores and advertised on TV, unheard of in the anime field at the time. Among its target audience of easily impressed children with limited access to TV remote controls, Superbook has remained surprisingly resilient. The series continues to entertain with the original series and with a new, computer-animated Superbook update currently in vogue among the Sunday School set around the world, starring an updated Gizmo and Chris Quantum, who is reportedly "an awesome skate-boarder." The new Superbook is featured on websites, DVD purchasing clubs, online games, and broadcast and streaming video, while the neglected Flying House has yet to receive any updates or reboots at all.

Superbook Club is in the house
We may have Eastern Europe's love of Superbook to thank for the show's longevity; Ukraine's Emmaneuil TV started airing the children's show Superbook Club in 1996, based on a Superbook-themed youth group initiative. The live-action series stars lots of kids and a long-suffering suit actor in a Gizmo costume – over there he's known as Robik, and yes, he did upgrade to the new CG Superbook look - and kids 6-14 can write or email Robik with any question they may have, and can even call him on his toll-free Robik Hot Line. Meanwhile, the kids of the Superbook Club are ready 24/7 to sing, dance, and have low-key adventures across the CIS states of Europe and Western Asia.

Sure, Superbook and Flying House are simplistic children's cartoons selling a watered-down Gospel ultimately for the benefit of multi-millionaire Gospel grifter Pat Robertson. But nothing illustrates the global reach of Japanese animation like Virginian televangelists hiring Asian studios to animate the Middle Eastern cultural traditions that formed the religions of the Western world. Perhaps anime does indeed, as the song says, have the whole world in its hands.

-Dave Merrill


Special thanks to William J. Brown and Benson P. Fraser for their scholarly and informative "The Diffusion of Superbook: One of the World's Most Popular Entertainment-Education Television Series", and a big super Let's Anime thanks to fellow recreational Christianity researcher Wednesday White for her invaluable insight into the world of Superbook and Flying House! 

Happy Holidays from Superbook Club & Let's Anime!










6 comments:

Wendy said...

I so did not know this. Thanks for the article!

Unknown said...

Wow... what a coincidence. I was just watching the "Samson" episode of Superbook I on YouTube this evening (there are episodes posted for free view there, but if you're interested in seeing them get there quickly because CBN is pretty good at hunting them down and removing them), and then I cruise over to Let's Anime and find this article.

Superbook I was the first anime I ever saw back in the mid-'80s, and it immediately grabbed my attention - not so much because it was Bible stories, but because the animation style was so different from Disney, Looney Tunes and the other Western animation I'd been exposed to. The animation wasn't as smooth, but the character designs were attractive (especially the big eyes) and the colors seemed more vivid. Not long afterward I saw other works of animation drawn in the same style on Nickelodeon, and it was the credit given to NHK in the end credits for "Mysterious Cities of Gold" that clued me in that Japan was the country responsible for this exciting, new (to me) style of animation. So I may have been one of the few elementary-school age viewers at the time who knew, or cared, that this was Japanese animation I was watching, although the word "anime" or even "Japanimation" weren't yet on my radar. Watching them again as adults, although I certainly see now how simplistic they are and how slight (especially in the first Superbook series) the "frame" storylines taking place in modern times were, I'm surprised by how good the English dubbing was by 1982 standards. Also, come to find out Kazuo Yamazaki of Urusei Yatsura/Maison Ikkoku/Slayers fame was involved in the first series as an episode director, and future Ranma/Sailor Moon scriptwriter Shigeru Yanagawa was the series planner (having been a mainstay at Tatsunoko during the '70s and very early '80s).

Not long ago a young Japanese man who often travels to the States for business was in my church choir, and he told me he had seen Tondera (Flying) House in his own Sunday school class or church youth group in Japan growing up there. He'd never seen the English version before, so it was neat discussing these series with someone who'd seen them in Japanese. I'm holding out hope that one day there will be a way for U.S. fans to see the original Japanese episodes (preferably legally and short of importing the Japanese DVD releases). These were shows that were formative in my development of appreciation for anime and it would be terrific to see them as Japanese viewers did.

wizard55 said...

Great article. even though the biblical stories tend to turn most anime enthusiasts away it definitely is a fun series to check out even just for the anime history behind it. I immensely prefer Flying House over Superbook just because the Sci-Fi elements are more prominent and the japanese theme is catchy. besides these three anime series there is technically another one that I'm familiar with, called In The Beginning. I do not recall who animated it off the top of my head. Nippon? Toei?

Mario500 said...

I wonder how the author of the article had access to "The Diffusion of Superbook: One of the World's Most Popular Entertainment-Education Television Series"?

d merrill said...

the author of the article - that's me - achieved access to "The Diffusion Of Superbook: One of the World's Most Popular Entertainment-Education Television Series" through the miracle of what we now know as "the internet."

Mario500 said...

I believe I had found a copy of the composition you had cited as "The Diffusion of Superbook" at the following address:

http://api.ning.com/files/njQF58QyPMoTU1m5*xfdiYu2wtwEZABLcJn0PG1UAJoSHrOOMiLb-VWFQgFzci-rH55CUeZ-k68QGwN0gXXMh74pkFlIgQYF/Superbook_ACaseStudy.doc