Monday, April 24, 2017

your bird ninja update

If you're like me, you grew up watching Battle of The Planets. Well, actually, I preferred Star Blazers. It took a while for me to really understand what was going on with those 5 bird ninjas and their struggle against Galactor. Actually, what it took was finally catching the original 1972 Tatsunoko Japanese version, the tremendously popular Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Created by manga pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida, Gatchaman was a wild, colorful SF reimagining of his early 60s adventure series "Phantom Agents," remixed with space aliens, supercars, giant mechanical monsters, and all the bell bottom jeans the 1970s could provide. Gatchaman would return in the 1978 sequel Gatchaman II and its followup, 1979's Gatchaman Fighter

The success of Star Wars brought science fiction to the attention of every media executive in America, and Tatsunoko's earlier export Speed Racer had given the studio a beachhead in America. However, since the 1960s, new standards for children's television had prevailed in the US, so TV producer Sandy Frank's Gatchaman iteration Battle Of The Planets was chopped, channeled, rewritten, repainted, lowered, and had a new, vastly inferior transmission installed. And that's as far as I'm going with that car metaphor.

industry ad pitching BOTP to US TV markets

At any rate it's a terrific titan of 70s anime, featuring super monsters, colorful heroes, lots of kid-friendly action, anime melodrama, muscular, fairly realistic character designs, and a great Hoyt Curtin musical score. As dated and clumsy as the BOTP dub can be at times, the greatness of the original show still shines through. The series inspired a wide range of American merchandise, including model kits, lunchboxes, Gold Key comics that are not worth $20 each, sorry, and various magic slate and frame tray puzzle toys.  

Once 1978's Battle of The Planets had run its syndication course, the entire series was re-dubbed by Fred "Astro Boy" Ladd for Turner, under the new title G-Force. This new, uncut version of the series (1986) featured goofy character names ("Ace Goodheart") and new, synthesized, incessant, maddening background music. The series was shown a few times on the various channels of the Turner cable network before vanishing mysteriously.

In the 1990s Saban (you know, the Power Rangers people) took the second and third Gatchaman series (Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter) and dubbed them under the title "Eagle Riders". This fairly nonsensical dub worked its way into syndication and vanished opposite a late-decade wave of newer, more popular anime imports like Sailor Moon.

Once DVDs made their appearance, Rhino Video produced six volumes of Battle Of The Planets - each release featuring two BOTP episodes, two subtitled Gatchaman episodes, and one G-Force episode.

Four years later,  anime localizer A.D.Vision released the entire 105-episode Gatchaman series, with new, accurate dubs AND subtitles, in DVD box sets with extras. Suddenly anime fans could not only enjoy the entire Gatchaman series as it was intended to be seen, but anime con panelists could spend an hour discussing the show, and then go to the dealers room and purchase an officially licensed, uncut, super-high-quality edition of the actual show under discussion, in order to demonstrate that the original series, while more violent than typical American cartoons of the period, was not the blood-drenched gore-fest popular imaginations would have you believe. The series continues to live on in the American video market: ADV's successor Sentai Filmworks has released the TV series and its compilation film on Blu-Ray and DVD. The 1990s OVA remake, the abortive CG film, the live-action film, the Zip! "Good Morning Gatchaman" shorts,  and kinda-sorta-sequels like Gatchaman Crowds remind us all that the bird ninjas continue to thrive in the Japanese cultural landscape. 

Chinese-language Gatchaman II book

Gatchaman was one of the first American anime releases to have a substantial fandom built around it; when I got into anime fandom in the 1980s, Gatchaman fans were there already, publishing APAs and writing fan fiction, cosplaying and drawing fan artwork and swapping 13th generation copies of the last 5 episodes of Gatchaman F. It's an enthusiasm that's mirrored in the culture at large; Battle of The Planets inspired two completely separate American comic book releases and continues to be a minor cultural touchstone among former 70s cartoon kids, wide-eyed with wonder at a future that gives us both Battle Of The Planets and Gatchaman and Gatchaman II and soon, Gatchaman F

-Dave Merrill

(this post has been modified from its original 2007 form to fix links and include updates circa 2017)

Monday, April 10, 2017

Worldcon '84: The Anime Room Experience

Since 1939, the World Science Fiction Society has held a Worldcon every year. Well, they took a few years off for WWII. Anyway, each annual Worldcon happens in a city at least 500 miles away from the site of the previous Worldcon, because reasons. As the pre-eminent gathering of science fiction fans and pros, it's the go-to destination for every sci-fi junkie and fantasy nerd who can scrape up plane fare, jam themselves fifteen deep into hotel rooms, and endure three hours of stern Bob Heinlein lectures on American freedom (Kansas City, '76). And as part and parcel of that swirling stew of propeller-beanie-sporting poindexters, anime fans have found themselves thrust into the heart of Worldcon on more than one occasion. 

1984's Worldcon -  "L.A. Con II" - took place August 30 all the way to September 3 - that's right, these things are FIVE DAYS LONG - at the Anaheim Hilton and Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from Disneyland and also the future site of 1998 and 1999's Anime Expo. Guest of Honor was Gordon "Dorsai!" Dickson, with Robert "Psycho" Bloch and Jerry "Janissaries" Pournelle MCing and hosting awards ceremonies. L.A. Con II had almost 8400 members, an impressive number for the time. Even for fans of "Japanimation", as it was then called, the convention was truly a magical gathering. Visiting Gundam guru Yoshiyuki Tomino revealed here for the first time that Mobile Suit Gundam was getting a sequel. A 35mm print of the Lensman anime film received its American premiere. Carl Macek screened Harmony Gold's direct-to-video Macross, the precursor to next year's Robotech. And over in the Santa Monica Salon on the 4th floor of the Hilton, the LA chapter of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization was rocking the house with a full slate of that Japanimation thing, all weekend long!

Recently uncovered in the voluminous files of Dr. Steve Harrison - who was there! - we now have definite proof of the schedule of the 1984 Worldcon's anime room.  And what a schedule it was, with a mix of the old and the new, the English and the Japanese, future franchises and lost relics waiting to be forgotten. 

always open with Star Blazers

Thursday kicked things off with Star Blazers, next straight into Tatsunoko's robot-fighting Casshan, followed by some Galaxy Express 999 TV episodes, and then dropped unsuspecting audiences into Toei's 1973's risque Go Nagai adventure series Cutey Honey.

Next up, a jarring change of pace with the considerably classier Sherlock Hound - you know, the Sherlock Holmes adventures animated by TMS starring the Famous Detective Holmes, who's now a dog living in a dog London? Sure you do. Then, back to outer space with Tatsunoko's Macross, the English dub of their Dashing Warrior Muteking, some more Star Blazers for your afternoon, and then back to Tatsunoko land for an episode of their then-new SF series Southern Cross. That was followed by an English language episode of the TMS series Adventures Of Gamba, the world-famous tale of the sailing mouse battling to defend the mouse island, popular all over the world except in the United States. 

Southern Cross and Muteking; two tastes that taste great together

This was followed by the magical girl Minky Momo, and then the always-popular "dinner break".  The rest of the evening? Galaxy Express, Lupin III, Star Blazers, Gold Lightan, a early subtitled version of Lupin III Castle Of Cagliostro, the first episode of TMS's robot anime Orguss followed by another TMS robot anime God Mars, and the wee hours would see more Star Blazers and Macross

TMS covers all the bases with mice and Mars

Friday started bright and early with Tatsunoko's 1975 outer space knight Space Knight Tekkaman, soon to be released to home video in an English-dubbed version with the C/FO's own Fred Patten on staff. The daytime's schedule of the familiar Star Blazers, Macross, Galaxy Express and Cutey Honey would be enlivened by what might have been the North American premiere of the world-famous Daicon III and IV opening animations, produced by what would become Gainax.

take that, Eleking

Take a break for some fresh air as they re-run last year's Worldcon costume contest, but be back at 5:30 for the Space Adventure Cobra film, Osamu Dezaki's love letter to the splitscreen psychedelic psycho-gun world of outer space adventure, and settle back for more Star Blazers, Macross, 999, and Orguss, with a side of art-thief coffee-shop proprietors Cat's Eye.  Oh yeah, and GI Joe

Saturday? Get there bright and early for more Star Blazers! Some Space Cobra! A little Galaxy Express, some more Cutey Honey, future-cop adventures with Tatsunoko's Urashiman, highlights of CostumeCon II, and then Carl Macek himself will introduce the American feature-length adaptation of Super Space Fortress Macross! Singing along with the theme song is not only suggested, it is strongly encouraged. 

Macross Vs Urashiman
Then get ready for vintage Miyazaki with Lupin III #155 - "Farewell Lovely Lupin" - some more Southern Cross, what appears to be the English pilot dub of Tatsunoko's Mospeada, more Macross and Galaxy Express, a special presentation of the live-action Japanese SF film Sayonara Jupiter, the English pilot for Space Adventure Cobra, and more Star Blazers, Orguss, and Cat's Eye, at which point it's 2:00 in the morning and you stagger back to the room you're sharing with a bunch of strangers to try to claim a spot on the floor, stunned with the realization that you still have two more full days of Worldcon ahead of you. 

Lupin III and Cat's Eye setting a good example for the nation's youth by stealing stuff
A few questions still remain: did the anime room continue for Sunday and Monday? And why no Gatchaman? Why no Captain Harlock or Raideen? How did Tomino feel about the complete lack of Mobile Suit Gundam on the anime room schedule? 

Tomino joins the Mickey Mouse Club; photo by Steve Harrison

Worldcons future and past would deliver Japanese animation firsts to American audiences: the 1983 Worldcon featured rooftop cosplayers and a screening of a 35mm print of Arrivederchi Yamato (it was supposed to be Final Yamato, but something got lost in translation), and the '88 New Orleans Worldcon, "Nolacon", would see both a 35mm print of Wings Of Honneamise and the premiere of Gainax's Gunbuster, and as a video room staffer, the opportunity to make VHS copies of the anime opening credits tape brought over by Japanese visitors was priceless. But in 1988, we were ready; we knew what "anime" was and were hungry for more. In 1984, not so much. For sheer impactful power of an artistic medium upon a nation unprepared for its awesomeness, 1984 was a singular year. 

Special thanks to Steve Harrison for unearthing these schedules and to L.A. Con II and the C/FO for making it all happen in 1984!

Friday, March 17, 2017

In The Days Of Anime Hasshin

Starting in the '80s and lasting until the year 2001, one of America's largest national anime clubs began in America's smallest state. This club would last the longest, have the widest reach, and the largest membership of any national anime fan group... and you might not have ever heard of it. For fifteen years Anime Hasshin published a regular newsletter full of artwork and articles, connected fans with tape-trading volunteers spreading the VHS wealth, and even had a few meetings here and there. Stretching from the VHS days to the Bittorrent era, Anime Hasshin's influence on anime fandom has few equals and was largely the work of one person, founder Lorraine Savage. I caught up with Lorraine recently and she answered a few questions about the club.
In 1986 I discovered anime by watching Cat’s Eye episodes in straight Japanese at a local Boston convention. I had never seen anything like it. I also learned that the afterschool show Star Blazers that I liked so much was actually the translated version of Japan’s Space Cruiser Yamato. Through other fans I heard about the C/FO, and then I attended the 1986 Atlanta Fantasy Fair where I met the wonderful folks Dave Merrill, Lloyd Carter and Jeff Roe who helped me get information about anime and gave me the encouragement to start my own club in Rhode Island. At the Atlanta Fantasy Fair in the anime room, people filled out a mailing list if they wanted to join the anime club. After reading the list, Dave called out incredulously, “Who’s here from Rhode Island??”

In 1986, North American anime fandom was in transition. Small groups of anime fans met in cities throughout America with only the loosest of connections. The C/FO (Cartoon Fantasy Organization) was changing from its California based leadership and Florida based publications team to administration by Texas fans. The Star Blazers Fan Club had published its last newsletter in 1984. The Battle Of The Planets Fan Club had not published a newsletter since 1981. The Earth Defense Command in Dallas was actively publishing their fanzine NOVA, but it was appearing sporadically at the time (only one issue would appear in 1986). The anime fan organizers inspired by Astro Boy, Battle Of The Planets, and Star Blazers were becoming overwhelmed by the popularity of Robotech and the subsequent wave of new interest in Japanese animation this new show inspired.

In those days it was very difficult to get information about anime and manga because everything was in Japanese. There was very little in the way of translations and no fan subtitles yet. I couldn’t find what I was looking for so I started a club for people who could share the information they could get. I had a journalism degree so publishing a newsletter was an easy solution for me. Originally called Hasshin RI (for Rhode Island), the club began in January 1987 with The Rose #1 at 10 pages.

Hasshin RI would begin with local meetings and a newsletter. The Rose would start off as a bi-monthly but soon became quarterly. A typical issue would run around 36 pages and include manga reviews, translations of interviews with anime producers, news of upcoming comics releases from Viz, Eternity, Dark Horse, and Antarctic Press, what was coming up in future issues of Animerica, Mangajin, and Anime UK, news of upcoming anime TV series coming to the American market, Anime Hasshin anime poll results (favorite show as of April 1993 – Ranma 1/2), overviews of anime shows like Galaxy Express 999 or Heroic Legend Of Arslan, reviews of translated and Japanese-language manga, translated song lyrics, convention reports from various SF and anime conventions, and classified ads from Kimono My House, Stratus Pagoda, Trans Pacific Laser, Nikaku Animart, Laser Perceptions, and the Brain/Wash Network, as well as a yearly humor supplement called The Thorn. Found throughout every issue would be spot fan illustrations from artists like Widya Santoso, Johnathan Luce, Robert DeJesus, Dan Kellaway, Akito Tanemura, Lester Swint, Shaindle Minuk, and many many others. Convention coverage included Otakon, Dragoncon, Atlanta Fantasy Fair, Arisia, and the ill-fated Tezuka Awards handed out at Anime East's last convention.

Hasshin RI/Anime Hasshin came into being at a time when the leadership of several extant anime clubs were feuding with each other, and from the start Lorraine was adamant that Anime Hasshin would not be a chapter of any national organization, but it would be its own independent club. Subsequent attempts to involve AH in the fan politicking endemic to the scene failed, and Anime Hasshin outlasted most of these clubs by a fair margin.

The first meeting was in 1986 in my apartment with four local friends. We watched Queen Millennia, Endless Road SSX, and Lupin III Mystery of Mamo. When the local club in Rhode Island got bigger we had monthly meetings at a library and at a bank’s meeting room for a few years. It drew attendees from as far away as Boston, and we usually had about 4 to 8 people attend. Peak Anime Hasshin membership was 404 members from 14 countries on 6 continents, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Poland, Germany, and England.

An important part of Anime Hasshin was its Tape Traders List; the club maintained a list of volunteers who were willing to copy anime from their collection for other Anime Hasshin members. I believe the first iteration of the list even included people willing to copy Beta tapes and PAL format videos. In the 1980s many anime fans would only copy their tapes in exchange for copies of other shows, which left new fans without many options to acquire new Japanese animation. The Anime Hasshin tape traders list featured addresses of dozens of fans who volunteered to copy items from their own collection for anyone who sent a blank tape and return postage. There were dozens of people on the list, all with widely varying collections, so no one trader got overwhelmed with requests (as frequently happened with local clubs) and anime fans in out-of-the-way places, without local clubs or conventions, could experience Japanese animation.

list of synopsis packets available for the language-impaired
Another valuable print-media service AH provided was their synopsis packets. Translations, episode guides, film synopses, and character guides culled from APAs, convention guides, out of print zines, and official sources were available for the cost of photocopying; at least 10 different packets of information were available giving language-impaired nerds a chance to figure out what was going on in Orguss, SPT Layzner, Saint Seiya, Dangaio, Amon Saga, Dagger of Kamui, and dozens of other anime titles. The Rose itself was printed in black and white on standard 8.5 x 11 copy paper, with a colored sheet for the cover, and with two or three staples holding it all together.

Anime Hasshin highlights from The Rose #50
I used a desktop publishing program to lay out the newsletter and Kinko’s to print and collate it. I labeled and stuffed envelopes myself. I got a bulk mail account at the post office to save money on postage. I was fortunate that I never had to worry about getting enough contributions. For every issue, I had numerous members sending me articles, reviews, artwork, games, classified ads, etc. That’s why there was so much variety in the newsletter. I just let people send whatever they wanted; the only rules were it had to be anime/manga related and no X-rated stuff. People loved to see their work published in The Rose. The Roses page count reached a high of 44 pages. 
The Rose covers NASFIC & Otakon

In the late 1980s, Japanese animation fandom was venturing online with messaging systems like the newsgroup rec.arts.anime, a text-based platform accessed via university computer networks, volunteer-run BBS systems, or through services like GEnie, Compuserve, or AOL. The first webpage appeared in the early 1990s, inspiring fans to create pages about their favorite shows, and the Anime Web Turnpike went live in 1995, collecting links to these websites. Sailor Moon began airing on US television the same year, and in 1998 the Pokemon TV anime would have its American debut; both shows inspiring new generations of anime fans. By the late 90s anime fans could enjoy DVDs purchased at Best Buy or Suncoast, share anime via peer-to-peer computer networks, and get their anime news from the Anime News Network website. Anime conventions would pop up in every major American city by 1999, giving fans across the country somewhere to go to get their anime fix for at least one weekend. By the end of the decade anime fandom was thriving, above and beyond the 1980s fan club model. Throughout this entire period of growth, Anime Hasshin connected anime fans, covering the new anime conventions, detailing new shows, and giving fans an outlet for communication, reviews and artwork.

Interesting observation: In the 1980s, anime fans felt lucky when VCRs came into use. We could trade copies, and fans made subtitles. We had it made. Then later, when video stores started selling anime, we were astounded to see a whole section devoted to anime with rows and rows of videos. We felt we had paved the way, and that the professional production companies had discovered that there was a market for anime.

I think Nikaku Animart is still at the same location
The last issue of The Rose was #66 in October 2001 after 14 years of publication. It was a sad farewell as membership declined, but with a promise of Anime Hasshin still existing but moving to a website. However, I had been laid off from my job a year earlier and the club just ended. People were turning to the Internet to get more and faster information.

There was surprisingly little controversy over Anime Hasshin and The Rose (if there was, I didn’t hear about it). I always got the newsletter out on time, and people got what they paid for. I was very proud to accept awards on behalf of the club: Outstanding Fan Publication from ChibiCon 1993, Best Anime Fan Club from AnimEast 1994 & 1995, and Best Anime Newsletter from AnimEast 1994 & 1995.

I had a blast making the award-winning anime fan videos “My Euthanasia” and “What’s New Pussycat.” When someone saw the murder and mayhem in “My Euthanasia,” he said, “Sweet little Lorraine made that?!” to which someone else told him, “You don’t know her very well, do you?”

One of the funniest moments I can remember from fandom was at Otakon 1995 or ‘96. A bunch of us were sitting around tired late one night and we were just staring down at the hotel’s floor, and we happened to notice that the pattern in the carpeting looked exactly like the face and rabbit ears of Ryo-Ohki from Tenchi Muyo. We couldn’t stop laughing! I also remember how excited people were at the first AnimeCon in 1991 in San Jose. It felt like we hit the big time with a big convention with Japanese guests. Anime fans and pen pals got to meet each other face-to-face and cosplay and mingle. One of the geekiest moments for me was meeting the voice actors from Starblazers at I-Con on Long Island in 2010: Amy Howard (Nova), Eddie Allen (Desslok), and Tom Tweedy (Mark Venture). Just before Allen got up to speak on the panel, a bunch of us started chanting, “Desslok, Desslok, Desslok!”

I really enjoyed running Anime Hasshin and publishing The Rose. I met so many nice people who enjoyed sharing their love of anime and manga.

Thanks again to Lorraine for sharing the story of Anime Hasshin!

Friday, February 3, 2017

my advice? stay on the train

Previously at Let's Anime we discussed the English-language promotional book Toei used to sell their 1978 Captain Harlock television series to broadcasters worldwide. This time we're going to look at a similar publication, their Galaxy Express 999 pitch.

Galaxy Express 999, the popular Leiji Matsumoto space-fantasy manga series about a young boy and a mysterious beauty travelling through space on a mission of self-fulfillment and revenge, ran in Shogakukan's Manga-Kun (later Shonen Big Comic) and became the basis for Toei's TV anime series that aired from September of 1978 until March of 1981, for a total of 113 episodes. France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and southeastern Asia also saw the series on their respective television screens, but the series never aired on American television. Not really. We'll get to that. In the meantime, Toei spent the late 1970s pitching their then in-production series at various industry gatherings, and to that means produced an English-language booklet promoting the series.

More philosophical than the action-oriented Captain Harlock, 999 must have been a harder sell to worldwide markets. First, the potential buyer has to accept the series' odd juxtaposition of "old fashioned trains" and "super science fiction interstellar travel." That's enough of a hurdle. And then we're confronted with the larger themes of Galaxy Express, the emphasis the show places on "living and dying naturally," which might be a red flag to potential children's television markets that might not be ready for a show where somebody dies pretty much every episode.

Having lost his mother, who was murdered by the man-hunting Count Mecha, the young Tetsuro's only wish is to reach the Mechanized Planet in Andromeda. On the Mechanized Planet, eternal machine bodies are freely given to all who ask, and Tetsuro wants to become a machine man himself in the name of revenge. He is given an unlimited pass on the Galaxy Express 999 by Maeter, an aristocratic, enigmatic blonde who seems to have an agenda all her own. Together they ride the space-rails, stopping and visiting the various planets on the 999's schedule, where marvels and threats await at every station.

Produced before the series had even aired in Japan, this book features illustrations taken from Matsumoto's manga and early production art of the 999. We learn about Tetsuro's tragic past and the mysterious Maeter (or Maetel as her name would later be translated), and we meet a wide variety of Galaxy Express 999 characters who die tragically, or meet with a tragic death, or who are drunken Tarzans who live on a drunken monkey continent, or who are shot to death by our hero. Again I point out how unlikely it would have been for a show this melancholic, this filled with violent death, to make it anywhere near American cartoon television in 1978, a year of Galaxy Goof-Ups, Fangfaces, and SuperStretches and Microwomen.

America's broadcasters passed on Galaxy Express 999, but the 1979 feature film was picked up by New World Pictures and screened in theaters across the US in 1980 as "Galaxy Express". New World's infamous yet not entirely charmless localization features celebrity impersonation voice dubbing and unfortunate name changes. 

A few years later, international film & television production company Harmony Gold would package two television movies compiled from 999 episodes for sale to English-speaking markets around the world. These two 999 telefilms, "Can You Live Like A Warrior" and "Can You Love Like A Mother", feature Intersound voice work and enjoyed spotty (and possibly nonexistent) release.

that's some good proofreading there Harmony Gold

The Galaxy Express TV series would eventually find itself broadcast over the American airwaves on various Japanese-language UHF television stations, in the original Japanese but with English subtitles. This arrangement lasted until somebody at Fuji-TV headquarters in Tokyo realized that potentially valuable licensed properties were being broadcast without benefit of adequate licensing, royalties, or permission, and pulled the plug on everything.

999  would get a legitimate 2012 North American release on DVD from low-end media conglomerate S'more Entertainment in a box set that didn't quite meet expectations, being compressed badly and hard-subtitle encoded. The 999 films, on the other hand, would receive gentler DVD treatment from Discotek Media. Galaxy Express 999 the series would finally appear on Crunchyroll, where the entire show is currently streaming along with Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Fascinating, isn't it, how these shows started out together as hopeful English-language pamphlets, only to see their paths diverge, meander, circle back, and come together again? As the pitch book puts it, that's some "overflowing poetic sentiment" right there.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Assemble the Assemble Insert

Portions of this article originally appeared at the now-defunct Anime Jump.

A power-suit crime wave paralyzes Tokyo, and only one person can stop their reign of terror - a 13 year old girl with superhuman strength, an ultra-high-tech fighting suit, and an idol singing contest to win! That’s how we assemble Assemble Insert, one of those late 80s OVAs that spent a few years on the knowledgeable anime fan's dream release list alongside titles like the similarly themed Prefectural Earth Defense Force. Thankfully, both got North American releases, so nerds like us can quit complaining.

Insert is a 2-part original anime video story of Tokyo in the near future, where more and more crimes are being committed by miscreants using powered armored mechanical suits, confronted by a special division of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police specially set up to combat this menace. If this is all sounding a lot like Patlabor, there's a good reason. Both Assemble Insert and Patlabor share the same author/character designer, Masami Yuuki. So if you're a fan of eminently workable mecha designs and dazed-looking municipal slackers, you're in luck. Yuuki’s original 1985 Assemble Insert manga ran in AniParo Comics, which was published by Minori Shobo, who also published the seminal Japanese animation fan magazine OUT from 1977-1995, without which we might not even be wasting our time on this whole Japanese animation fandom thing, so there’s that.

Patlabor and Assemble Insert part ways, however, in their approach to combating mechanized crime; while Patlabor fights fire with fire, Assemble Insert takes a different approach, one that involves talent contests and idol singers. The Counter-Demon Seed Special Agent Bureau, the crew of fairly indistinguishable, fast-track-to-early-retirement police functionaries charged with stopping this power-suit crime wave, decides their best course of action is to sponsor talent-contest style auditions in the hopes of finding someone who can battle Demon Seed. Sure, Chief Hattori was drunk when he came up with the idea, but maybe the ancients were on to something when they said “in vino veritas.” Anyway, it’s nice to see police thinking about putting their best face forward to the public for a change, and the Counter-Demon Seed Special Agent Bureau wants to make sure their Demon Seed-fighting is done with maximum public appeal.

you're it
Enter Marin, a shy sub-deb who happens to be strong enough to bend steel in her bare hands. She's cute, she's innocent, she has all the doe-eyed naivete necessary for every Japanese idol, and she's just the size to wear Shimakobe's suit. But can Marin-chan overcome her stage fright long enough to pound Demon Seed's robot suits into scrap?

Similar to but less boisterous than the aforementioned Prefectural Earth Defense Force, Assemble Insert spoofs the pop-culture tropes of Japanese SF media – robot suits, super-gals, evil geniuses – but adds its own touches, like energy-drink product placement in the anime that smash-cuts to a live-action commercial break for the same energy drink, starring Assemble Insert voice talent. The opening scene mimics sentai legend Changeman (and stars characters from Yuuki’s Ultimate Superman R) and Assemble Insert’s staff makes numerous appearances as characters, along with a cameo by Patlabor’s Noa Izumi. Demon Seed’s leader Dr. Kyozaburo Demon is from the same mold as any one of the hundreds of evil scientists battling Gigantor or Prince Planet, while his henchmen wear giant eyeball masks in tribute to Kamen Rider Stronger’s Titan. And of course, comedically accidental destruction wrought by our well-meaning heroes is in full effect.

Maron vs Demon Seed
The Counter-Demon Seed Squad schedules Maron’s debut for maximum press attention. What appears to be the big Seibu department store at Ikebukuro Station is hosting a collection of rare artifacts, priceless artworks from the Mu Empire. This allows Assemble Insert to reference both old Toho SF movies and 70s super robot cartoons, and gives Demon Seed a target for pillage. When Demon Seed arrives right on time, Maron’s first public appearance is filled with both awkward stage-fright jitters and shocking damage to Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s busier neighborhoods and currently the site of several otaku-destination shopping experiences.

treasures of the Mu Empire
Flush with victory, the second episode sees our heroes become victims of their own success. Without Demon Seed around it’s tough to justify the expense of an Anti-Demon Seed Task Force, and Chief Hattori (based on Masami Yuuki’s editor) is now focused on the earning potentional of Maron’s idol career. Soon Maron is making the rounds of product endorsements and chat shows instead of battling for justice. It's up to Professor Shimakobe to secretly supply the enemy with the necessary trouble-making equipment and give his task force a reason for existence, and shortly Demon Seed announces an attack on the National Mint! Of course, this climactic battle coincides with Maron’s appearance at the Music Awards. Will the Counter Demon Seed Task Force put on their big-cop pants and fight Demon Seed single-handedly? Will Maron choose idoling over enforcing?

the Maron publicity machine rolls on

Just like its characters, the second episode suffers from a bit of the sophomore slump. Once our Assemble Insert world is assembled and Maron does her thing, there’s little left for anybody to do – heck, the episode fades out before Maron punches a single Demon Seed power suit, as if it’s bored with itself. Characters as thinly drawn as Insert’s aren’t going to drive much of a story; the only emotion Maron is allowed to verbalize about her singing super-cop status is “kind of embarrassed”, her handlers are phone-gabbing, note-taking nonentities, and Doctor Demon himself, though claiming to be “fair and square for evil”, limits his do-baddery to broad Batman ’66-type villainy. Still, as an airy OVA confection, Assemble Insert does its job well; which is to deliver manufactured-idol comedy robot-crime busting in 25 minutes or less.

Dr. Demon and pals

Released in Japan in late 1989/early 1990, both OVAs were released in North America by The Right Stuf in 2001, with a reissue in 2004. Directed by Del Power X veteran Ami Tomobuki, the staff included mecha design by Gundam/Patlabor designer (and future Yamato 2199 director) Yutaka Izubuchi and some animation by Studio DEEN, who have been involved in pretty much everything animated in Japan for the past three decades, go ahead, look it up. Dedicated Assemble-ologists can find a small but significant collection of merchandise that includes VHS and Laserdisc releases as well as model kits of Demon Seed’s mecha and figures and garage kits of Maron. The original manga has been released in tankubon form on a few occasions, and if Ikebukuro is still standing after Maron destroys Demon Seed, you can probably pick it up in their Book-Off location up the street from the Sunshine 60 building.

manga and model
The Right Stuf’s DVD was translated by C.B. Cebulski and the English subtitles feature formatting assistance from anime localization superstar Neil Nadelman. The English dubbing features a star turn by Jessica Calvello as Maron, and there are some interesting Muppet-voice impressions used for the Demon Seed henchmen, while one of the police is a dead ringer for SNL’s 70s stoner-comedy puppet Mr. Bill. There's not a whole bunch of extra stuff on the DVD, but hey - this is a 2-part OVA from decades ago, so relax.

Assemble Insert never goes as far as contemporaneous girl-power gagfests like Project A-Ko, Dirty Pair or Urusei Yatsura; destruction is never as total and gags aren't as extreme. But that’s okay; not everything needs to be cranked to 11. The reserved yet ridiculous nature of Yuuki's characters helps Assemble strike a middle ground between gonzo comedy and the grounded, humanistic SF of another, more popular Masami Yuuki creation, Ultimate Superman R... no, wait, I mean Patlabor.

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Editors’ note: fans of Yuuki and Patlabor may want to check out Colony Drop’s latest Last American Fanzine; this one’s devoted to Patlabor and features art and articles by a whole host of contributors, including yours truly! Get it today!

-Dave Merrill