Monday, April 27, 2020

No Elvis, Beatles, or Clove Cigarettes In 1997 Addison: My A-Kon 8 Story

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months (and if you HAVE been living under a rock for the past few months, congratulations! Turns out that was a really smart choice!) then you’ve noticed that the world is currently struggling through the COVID-19 global pandemic. As we social distance in an effort to stop the spread of this virus, we’re having to cancel pretty much everything, including anime conventions. Among the 2020 cancellations are Anime North, Animazement, Anime Central, Sakuracon, Kawaii Kon, Anime Expo, Otakon,and the oldest continually operating anime convention in the United States, Project A-Kon

I was there for the first ten A-Kons. The convention became a yearly ritual for our Atlanta gang, a revolving crew of which would pile into a few cars and drive twelve hours through Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Meridian, Jackson, Vicksburg, Monroe, Shreveport, Longview, and Tyler, finally reaching the Dallas/Fort Worth “Metroplex.” For most of us it was our first road trip without parents or credit cards or proper vehicle maintenance or even AC on a few trips, and to this day I marvel we got there and back so many times without more disasters than we had. 

You know what anime cons are like these days. They’re overcrowded, there’s a line for everything, lots of events you don’t care about are sucking up con time and space, and you can’t walk five feet without a con staffer telling you to go somewhere else or a con photog complaining you’re ruining their shot? That last A-Kon I went to was just starting to edge into that territory, a lot of fans taking up a lot of space and me in the middle, wondering why I’d come a long way to not have much fun. 

You see it all start to happen in a Let’s Anime column I wrote in 1997, one of the few times I’d sit down and detail an entire A-Kon journey. Since 2020 is going to be the first year since 1990 without an A-Kon, I thought it was time to drag this 1997 piece out, give it a going over, and present it as a historical, entirely subjective, possibly clinically narcissistic document of what it was like to visit one of the few anime cons in America at the time. 

early Project A-Kon program books

First the facts: Project: A-Kon 1997 was held May 30-June 1 at the Harvey Hotel Addison in Addison Texas, just north of Dallas proper. Guests included Amanda Winn, Steve Bennett, Kuni Kimura, Neil Nadelman, and James “Big Trouble In Little China” Hong, along with Hiroyuki Kitakubo, who worked on Mobile Suit Gundam, Pop Chaser, Robot Carnival, and Golden Boy, though none of his extensive animation credits are mentioned in A-Kon’s program book. 

Events at the show included opening ceremonies, karaoke, the costume contest (simply titled “The Cos-Play”), RPG gaming including Battletech, Stellar Horizons, Ani-Mayhem, and Japanimayhem, the Vampire The Masquerade LARP, the Hyper Fighting Challenge video gaming event, Cyberpunk RPG, Bullet Scenarios LARP, a Writing Fan Fiction panel, a cel painting workshop, a scavenger hunt, Anime Jeopardy, a water gun fight, Name That Tune, an Anime Video Contest, a dance, a model and miniature painting contest, an art show, a digital painting demonstration, an acting panel hosted by James Hong, a panel by a gaming lobbying group, and a panel about publishing fiction on the internet. One thing missing: panels about Japanese animation. If you’re noticing a trend, you aren’t mistaken; anime programming was getting thin on the ground at the longest-running anime con in America. 

But don’t take my 2020 word for it, let 1997 Dave tell you the story. 

1. Beer Me 

So you want to know about A-Kon 8? Let me tell you about A-Kon 8. First off we were an hour late even getting started on our 12-hour road trip. Every year the number willing to make this hellish journey shrinks. We’re down to two cars. Pretty soon it’ll be one guy on a motorcycle and the rest of us will get brains and fly. Anyway, 12 hours, bad food, lots of pee breaks, and four state lines later, we arrived in Dallas, checked in, met pals Ed, Neil, Anna, Max, etc., and proceeded to split for buffalo fajitas at a nearby upscale Mexican restaurant. Had the first beer of the con, a Corona. More to follow. The hotel is jammed with people checking in, looking lost, asking where the heck other people are. 

roadside monsters seen on the way to Dallas

Friday morning we get up late, trundle some crap downstairs to set up our fan table, split with Ed to buy liquor and food and get his cooler from his house in Euless (a solid 20 miles away), pet his pets, and return. The dealers room is kinda average and most of the dealers are pissed off because A-Kon decided not to allow SM CDs, which are some sort of Taiwanese-Korean-HK-Malay knockoff pirate brand that come ten bucks cheaper than the genuine article. Most of the day’s liquor run consists of Lone Star, Corona, and some Molson as a nod to our Canadian guests, who don’t drink anyway. Lone Star is one of those beers that respectable beer drinkers (meaning, “snobs”) turn their noses up at. Well, screw ‘em, that means more for me. Plus, shove a lime wedge down the longneck and it ain’t half bad. The prize of the day is Sailor Moon party plates and napkins found at the local Wal-Mart. This gives you an idea of what kind of con this was – I remember more about the liquor stores and the Wal-Mart than I do about the con itself. The fan table work was slow… not many people are interested in fanzines and comics when they can buy lesbian furry zines and anime character cheesecake pin-ups. I know sex sells, but here it seems sex is all that sells. 

the most Sailor Moon we found at this convention

2. The Ballad Of The One-Legged Cigarette Bandit Of A-Kon 8 

Anyway, a friend in Atlanta had arranged with A-Kon that we, the Atlanta crew, would host a “20th anniversary Captain Harlock Party” in the fan video room, ignoring my desperate cries that 1997 is, in fact, the 19th anniversary of the Harlock TV series. It doesn’t matter much, because said friend didn’t actually attend the party and people didn’t seem to care one way or another about Harlock in general. Instead we showed new Corn Pone Flicks stuff and some shorts while I passed out beers and snacks in the back of the room. I had a good time performing vital lime-installation surgery on long-suffering longneck beers, but as it turned out, I missed what has become the second most violent event ever to occur at an A-Kon – the attack of the one-legged cigarette bandit of A-Kon 8! 

The Ballad Of The One-Legged Cigarette Bandit Of A-Kon 8 (as told to Dave Merrill) 

Well, there were a bunch of what looked like middle-aged construction workers hanging out in the hotel bar on Friday night. Along about eleven PM, one of them - bald, obese, sweaty– goes to buy cigarettes. The cigarette machine doesn’t work (explanatory note for 2020 – a “cigarette machine” was a vending machine, found in bars, restaurants, and hotel lobbies, that sold packs of cigarettes. Smokers would insert coins or bills – a pack of smokes was $5 in 1997 – and then pull a knob to select their brand. These machines were once a ubiquitous part of the American landscape). Mister Baldy gets angry and starts whacking it with his cane. He’s got a cane for some reason. I guess he limps. That explains the “one-legged” part. The A-Kon security guys see this guy whacking away at the machine, so they approach him cautiously. Mr. Baldy sees ‘em coming and starts walking away fast. He starts trying doors. They’re all locked. Door after door is locked. The con security is closing in. Things are looking grim for our construction worker pal. Suddenly, a door opens, and Fatty shoots inside. It’s a convention video room – dark, smelly, and full of tubby disheveled guys. He fits right in. Except that the con security guys come right in after him and hit the lights. Busted! This time the hotel security is in on the game as well, and even though Sweaty starts laying about with his cane like Custer at Little Big Horn, he goes down. John Law arrives and Fatty is about to be inserted into the patrol car (a tricky business in and of itself) while a con security guy gives his version of the story to the cop. As the tale ends, Fatty speaks up. 

“Officer, there are a few objections I have to that story...” 

Addison’s Finest turns to Bald, Fat, and Stinky. 

“Aw, shut the FUCK UP!” 

Score one for the Addison Texas Police Department! 

3. I Feel Pretty Drunk 

Anyway I missed the whole thing and had to console myself with another smoking adventure involving my acquaintance “A.” During the video room party I wandered over to the Karaoke event which Ed Hill was running; meaning, Ed had to pay for the karaoke machine himself. I saw the bill. Come on, cheapskate conventions, pony up. Anyway, I sat in the hotel bar and watched non-singers painfully attempt to sing. My pal “A” drunkenly wandered over, and we started talking. He was talking a blue streak about something or other, and when he’s drinking he’s gotta smoke, and it being the 90s he’s gotta smoke clove cigarettes, which I normally hate but I’ll tolerate because, hey, A-Kon only comes once a year. Well, what happens is some con security person comes over and tells him to put the clove out, because smoking anything except cigarettes is illegal in Addison. Pipes, cigars, hookahs, and cloves are all forbidden! It’s even in the con program book. I’m sure there’s a funny story behind that law, but in the meantime, “A” sadly snuffs his clove and we part. An hour later I see “A” again, disturbed, agitated, bouncing off the walls, babbling incoherently, obviously in a clove cigarette withdrawal downward spiral. Don’t start, kids. I wander over and do my part to help out. “Hey man,” I say in my calmest, most down-to-earth tone, “it’s time to call it a night. Hit the sack, huh?” My duty done, I move away from this accident waiting to happen. The scene ends when A-Kon security forcibly puts him to bed in an A-Kon staff room. I guess he was on staff? Or did they just kidnap a guy? 

4. Con In Security 

So the video room party thing ended. A whole multi-state crew of us assembled and proceeded to find somewhere we could plant our beer-soaked carcasses and talk all night, as multi-state assemblages of friends tend to do. We sat in the hall, and security told us to move to the mezzanine. We sat in the mezzanine, and security showed up again and told us to move. “What the f*** is going on?” we howled indignantly. “What kinda f***ing con is this where we can’t f***ing sit out in the con area and f**ing talk? I mean, what the f***?!” Our command of English was noticeably hampered by our liquor intake, nevertheless our point was made, delivered, and comprehended by the hapless security thug, visions of an inebriate-fueled pummeling visibly contorting his features. Finally after consultation with the higher-ups, they deigned to let us sit in an empty panel room. We trooped in and occupied our territory, taking control of our destinies until about four in the morning, at which point I staggered to my hotel room in a desperate race against the rising sun and my own falling consciousness. 

the A-Kon "artists alley" / "fan table" area

5. Let’s Dance 

Saturday saw me rise before noon, eager to accompany Ed and assorted pals on a mystical journey deep into the heart of Dallas in search of liquor, paychecks, and Dealey Plaza. Ed’s new car performed magnificently, Dave III enjoyed seeing where JFK was perforated by a crazed lone gunman, and booze was found. Plus, we got to play with Ed’s dog; nothing takes one’s mind off a convention like trucking on home for pet time. Upon our return we found it 5pm; we’d missed most of the entire day’s worth of convention activities. With fanzines and merch retrieved we again set up our fan table, and were immediately informed, by yet another self-important security jerk, that we were not allowed to sell fan stuff outside of normal dealers room hours. I ask you again, what kinda f***ing con is this? We helped Carl Horn set up his Evangelion-themed martini party, we put on some snazzy duds for Saturday night party hopping, and I handed out souvenir promotional AWA foam-rubber handguns to those waiting in line outside the costume contest. This year the contest had moved from last year’s too-small banquet facility into a too-small con function room. I attempted entrance, was rebuffed by security, entered through another door, stood on a chair in the back of the room to try to see what was going on, and was halted by yet another security goon. Then I tried – okay, get this; sometimes conventions will patch a video feed of popular events to another location, preferably a video room with seating, to provide alternate event viewing options. What A-Kon did here was to patch a video signal to a TV that was placed in a hallway. So if you attempted to watch the costume contest on the TV that was placed specifically for the purposes of watching the costume contest, yet one more security staffer would make you move along because you were blocking traffic… by trying to do the very thing they put the TV there for. 

rare photo of Carl Horn without a tie

Okay, anyway, the rest of the evening included more drinking, more wandering, the Eva party, and some late-night hot tubbing. We did visit the dance, which was a not-great selection of desperately random tunes that failed to inspire the crowd to do anything other than roll their eyes. We left when they started playing “My Sharona.” Okay, it’s a power pop classic, but not exactly a groove-shaking dance floor tune. So we missed the low point of the evening when all present were driven from the room by – what else? The Macarena. Why does God punish us so? What crime have we committed, what offense have we made? Tell me, O Lord! 

The point is, the con was dying a painful Saturday night death, suffocated by bad music, lack of seating at the costume contest, and few parties. We therefore found ourselves back in our hotel suite, bitchin’ and moanin’ with Alec and Neil and the rest, when suddenly we found ourselves blasted into what turned out to be the most interesting thing that happened the entire weekend!! 

6. The Rumble 

Basically, this involved three friends of mine. Friend One (let’s call him Riff) was at the dance, hitting on a chick on the dance floor. Friends Two and Three, Tony and Bernardo, were also at the dance, sitting on the sidelines. The target of Riff’s attention disengaged herself from Riff, prompting derisive comment from Tony. Riff responded with a rude hand gesture, and Bernardo countered with an even ruder comment concerning said hand gesture. Riff riposted by attempting to yank Bernardo over the railing separating them, and failing this, biffed and baffed Bernardo a few times about the head and face. Riff then left the dance, followed closely by an agitated Bernardo. Riff entered our hotel room, where we were all smashed to the gills, and he explained the preceding events to us just in time for Bernardo to bang on the door, demanding to “talk” to Riff. 

At this point I, drunk as a lord, took action. Drunk action. I knew that if I let these two attempt to settle their differences mano y mano, nothing good would come of it. The days are past when men could fight each other to a decision and then shake hands and thereafter be friends. Any combat between these two would result in a lifelong feud and the shattering of a circle of friends that had only recently learned to work together. This situation needed resolving, and only drunk me could do it. So I told them both that Bernardo wasn’t gonna get anywhere near Riff, that Riff wasn’t gonna get anywhere near Bernardo, that what Riff did was wrong and he should feel bad about it, and that my friends weren’t gonna fight each other as long as I could help it. Or words to that effect. Memory is hazy. Like I said, I was blitzed. 

Anyway it seemed to work. Bernardo left, Riff calmed down, and the story was told and re-told to everyone else who came in. The rest of the evening was uneventful, if slightly marred by a little cookie tossing and some technicolor yawning, but again, that’s what happens when you get drunk. Don’t start, kids! 

7. Sunday Morning Coming Down 

Sunday? I sold some zines, finally. Spent some table time sketching some of Dallas’ more distinctive examples of fascinating fandom facial physiognomy (there are some really… interesting looking fans with some interesting fashion choices in the DFW scene. Bad skin, unwashed hair, trucker caps, black trenchcoats in June, poorly fitting t-shirts decorated with airbrush renderings of explicit lesbian furry art). Closed down the table, did some pool volleyball action, and then a large group of us decamped to Planet Hollywood Dallas, which deserves its own review – let’s just say it closed in 2001 and is not missed. 

actual anime fans in their natural habitat
Sunday night we settled up the hotel bill. The “Bernardo/Tony” half the gang left for home in the middle of the night. The rest of us woke up Monday morning, packed everything, said our goodbyes, and started the long drive Atlanta bound. 

Sometime late Saturday night, in between the fistfights and the vomit, Alec and I compared notes about that year’s show. At one point I mentioned “next year” with the caveat “if I DO wind up coming back.” Alec laughed and replied “you’ll be back, Dave. You’re hooked.” And I guess I am, because the thought of returning to Dallas actually does appeal to me, if only for the chance to throw an even better party, to wallpaper the con with flyers for our show and hand out more foam rubber guns. 

But the fact is that A-Kon ‘97 was not a good con. The negatives far outweighed the positives, especially considering the distance traveled and the money spent. The con was over-run with jerky gamers, vampires, Klingons, and other assorted non-anime persons, so gaming-crazed that they felt the need to execute an A-Kon leaflet campaign warning fans to “hang onto their Magic cards because they might get stolen!” The dealers’ room was a clone of last year’s less than stellar dealers room. Video programming was lackluster; better titles were being fansubbed in the hotel rooms. Con guests were only scheduled for one panel, and if you missed it, too bad! The con security staff treated attendees like inmates to be herded and controlled, not like, say, fellow fans. It seems A-Kon’s evolved from a small, fun anime-centered show into a larger, jerkier, gamer-focused convention that happens to have an anime room and some VHS tapes and toys in the dealers room. The plain truth is the convention wasn’t fun for me this year. 

Project A-Kon 8 registration

In A-Kon’s defense, it bears mentioning that two of the organizers had health issues this year and weren’t able to fine tune the con as well as theymight have. Like every show, some things fell through the cracks, for instance like crediting the person that provided the 8th Man artwork seen throughout the program book (that was me, by the way). Since the death of the Dallas Fantasy Fair, there really hasn’t been a convention for the local weenies other than A-Kon, so I imagine A-Kon has to change somewhat to meet the needs of its constituency. And sure, I enjoyed the hot tub, and I enjoyed seeing my friends, and A-Kon did hand out little flashlights as a memory of a previous A-Kon when the power was knocked out for half of the con, that was neat. 

Next year? Will we return to Dallas ready to renew our campaign to force Japanese animation back into the maw of this ostensible Japanese animation convention? Time will tell! 


With a couple decades’ hindsight it’s easy to see where things were headed with A-Kon; more gaming, more SF, more media guests, less “anime”. Or you could say “anime” muscled its way into the mainstream of nerd entertainment and became one more hook to hang a general media pop culture convention onto. Whichever. I attended the 1998 and 1999 Project A-Kons and by the end I was wandering around the DFW Hilton, once more being hassled by security, asking myself why I was bothering coming to Dallas, I had my own convention to worry about! 

anime t-shirt selection circa 1995

But still, 2020 will be the first year since 1990 without a Project A-Kon, and that’s a loss. In spite of whatever grumpy issues I had with the show, A-Kon has entertained thousands and thousands of fans over three decades and the world is poorer without it. 

One more takeaway from 1997 is the brutal truth, reconfirmed during years of event organization, that a successful con is dependent on a bewildering variety of variables. Some of these elements you can control, and others you can’t. Whether or not any particular attendee has a good time – in my book that’s the only yardstick of “success” - is tied up with things like the weather, the attendee’s health, the state of their relationships with their at-con friends, the size of the attendee’s bank account, and whether their expectations were in line with the convention’s goals, or whether the attendee had his or her own hierarchy of needs that might not have anything to do with the convention at all. It comes down to the question, that metric I mentioned earlier: did the attendee have a good time? It’s a roll of the dice for every single badge sold. It turns out in '97 much of A-Kon was interested in rolling the dice for saving throws during RPG gaming, which is not at all what I drove 12 hours for. 

And yet, even if my own 1997 experiences don’t accurately reflect the entire panoply of A-Kon totality, I wasn’t alone in feeling miffed that the first place we’d found to carve out our own territory away from the sneers of the Trekkies and the gamers and the general sci-fi nerds had been turned right back over to them. What had briefly been our own special place was now just like every other convention. Did this experience affect our decisions once as we went home and started our own anime conventions? It sure did. 23 years later, we’re still seeing the effects of those decisions.

Or we will, once we start having conventions again. Stay safe out there everybody! Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home, see you in 2021!

-Dave Merrill

Sunday, March 22, 2020

let's rate the anime dubs

Recently in the wake of Oscar success for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite – the first best picture nod for a subtitled foreign-language film – the old “subs vs dubs” debate erupted anew, and Hollywood’s cognoscenti found itself behind the curve of an eternal anime-nerd argument. Namely, what’s better, watching them there Japanese cartoons with English subtitles, or watching them dubbed into English? I submit that today this is a meaningless debate, as modern technology means we can enjoy both as we choose. Anime titles are delivered more or less intact and many DVDs or streaming titles come with subtitles and English language dub tracks. Gone are the days of haphazard editing or the dumbing-down of complex plot points, and the medium’s Asian roots aren’t disguised but are now a selling point. 

the internet has opinions 

But this was not always the case. For the first thirty years or so, badly edited dubs were all we got! And let’s face it, the UHF TV stations, kiddie matinees, and video rental family sections of America weren’t seeking to advance the cinematic art form, they were interested in selling popcorn, Hot Wheels, and rentals. If that meant goofily-dubbed cartoons from Asia, well, goofily-dubbed cartoons from Asia is what we got. 

But what was it like, watching these primitive, problematic, sometimes culturally insensitive localizations? Can we, from our 21st century perspective, arbitrarily assign our own subjective values to these different English language releases? Well, I sure hope so. Otherwise this column is going to be mighty short. 

Panda And The Magic Serpent is pretty indicative of where these things were headed – the panda is incidental to the story, which in Japan is Hakujaden or “Legend Of The White Serpent”, the first color Japanese animated feature and an adaptation of a Song Dynasty legend about a boy, and a girl, and a snake, who is also the girl. This movie fits perfectly what Americans would think of if they heard the term “Japanese animation” in the late 50s – it’s perhaps the most visually and culturally “Asian” anime film of the period. If you want the cinematic version of a kitschy Chinese restaurant, this is it. Order me the Mu Shu Pork, will you? 

RATING: number one exotic pagoda oriental magic palace and cocktail lounge 

Alakazam The Great might be the first anime film to really impact the West, not only due to repeated TV screenings in the 70s and 80s, but it was also the first localization to fill roles with popular stars of the day, “the day” being 1960. You can nitpick the dub all you want – the Buddhism is removed entirely from this Buddhist folk tale formerly known as “Journey To The West” – but casting Jonathan Winters and Arnold Stang gives this one a unique midcentury comedy vibe that draws us in like a magnet. Can you imagine what kind of nonsense Winters got up to in the outtakes? Somebody find those tapes. 

RATING: Great 

Fred Ladd’s 1964 Gigantor version of TCJ’s Tetsujin-28 is chunky, funky and clunky, just like Tetsujin himself. In the Americanized version produced for Trans-Lux, Jimmy Sparks has never sounded more pre-pubescent and Inspector Blooper channels Gale Gordon at all times. Gale Gordon, he was in The Lucy Show with Lucille Ball, you’ve seen Simpsons characters make fun of him, read a book sometime kids. And that theme song! Half Calypso novelty song, half football chant, it’ll stick in your head long after you’ve forgotten what happens in every single episode of Gigantor

RATING: Ten Thousand Gigantors 

ABC Films’ 8th Man didn’t stray too far from TCJ’s cartoon version of Kazumasa “Harmagedon” Hirai and Jiro Kuwata’s cyborg detective manga. Dubbed in Copri International’s Miami studio, which was sometimes used for CIA propaganda broadcasts aimed at Castro’s Cuba, the hardboiled nature of the show came through in bellowing, stentorian Dragnet-style narration and an unshakable conviction to whitewash everything Asian about the show. In practice this meant describing all the Japanese signage as being part of “The Museum Of Oriental Art.” 

RATING: Making those signs Oriental sure doesn’t help find your way! 

Making those signs Oriental sure doesn’t help find your way

Jungle Emperor VHS release

Kimba The White Lion is always said to be the first color Japanese animated TV show, but you know what, I’ve had so many of these stupid factoids shoved into my eyeballs that turned out to be wrong that I can’t even any more. Who knows. It’s a show, it’s in color, it’s been dubbed twice, the first time by Fred Ladd’s radio-drama-veteran crew fresh from Astro Boy, and in the 90s for bubble-gum giveaway DVDs. Billie Lou Watt gives Kimba some jungle gravitas and Ray Owens earns a paycheck shamelessly ripping off Walter Brennan for his Dan’l Baboon voice. You know, Walter Brennan, he was Grandpa on “The Real McCoys” and an entire filmography worth of movies including the terrific “Bad Day At Black Rock” and the stunningly terrible “The Oscar.” 

RATING: Jungle Love 

cursed image #749
The Amazing Three

Amazing Three is one of those lost TV cartoons where the 16mm prints of the English dub are sitting in somebody’s basement while he tries to get $30K for them on eBay. Why won’t one of those Silicon Valley tech-bros pony up the cash and rescue this show from sweet oblivion? You know the story – Galactic Command sends three agents to Earth with a mission to decide whether or not to blow us all to hell, and these three agents transform themselves into Zero the duck, Ronny the horse, and Bonnie the bunny, because Tezuka had a thing for transformations. The localization is by the Prince Planet Copri Productions team, what’s it like? It’s kooky. Our heroes, their human being pal Kenny, Kenny’s Secret Agent Man brother, and a parade of international villains and local goofs bellow, shout, holler, stutter, and smirk their way through the dialogue. Zero, the duck with the Beatle haircut, growls at everyone and everything, all the time. It hurts just to listen. 

RATING: it’s a wonder 

Little does Speed realize that Racer X is actually his older brother
Speed Racer, on the other hand, moves like a lubed-up 500 horsepower engine, blasting through 52 episodes of Tatsunoko auto-racing action. Speed and Trixie and Pops and Racer X and Spritle and Inspector Detector are apparently paid by the word and on a mission to jam as many syllables as possible into every mouth movement, whether they match or not. Peter Fernandez makes it work with a brazen disregard for logic and a breakneck pace that never lets us think how silly it is that a teenage race driver is involved in international espionage or how he wins races in loafers and red socks. There’s a reason everybody remembers this Trans-Lux show, and that’s because it’s great. 

RATING: go speed go 

Fables Of The Green Forest is one of those shows you see on kiddie-shelf Blockbuster rentals and it really challenges your commitment to rent everything that looks Japanese, and you rent it, and that commitment is challenged further. Based on a series of American children’s books from the early 20th century, produced by an early 70s team of Japanese animators that would go on to work on world-famous productions, and dubbed by people recruited from AA meetings and shopping mall hallways, this localization is positively jet-lagged. Entire story arcs are devoted to intensely irritating characters like Chatterer The Squirrel, his speech impediment challenged only by the confusing, almost stream-of-consciousness script, almost Burroughsian in its impenetrability. 

RATING: “oohhh. Ahhhh. Ooohhhh.” 

oohhh. Ahhhh. Ooohhhh

Lupin vs Clone
Lupin III Mystery Of Mamo – this legendary 1978 film has been dubbed into English four or five times, but the first attempt is the best, a jazzy take that fits Lupin like a glove that helps him walk up walls. Sure, some of the names get changed, but TMS was gonna do that anyway. Maybe you saw this one as part of the Cliff Hanger laserdisc video game, maybe you saw a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, or maybe you bought the recent Discotek DVD release, which you should do. Monster trucks, immortal geniuses, and Pop Rocks make this the finest Lupin movie! 

RATING: compared to him we’re stumble-bums 

Starvengers – Jim Terry Productions released five different Toei anime series as part of their Force Five package and this one, their version of Getter Robo G, is emblematic of how Americans dubbed Japanese cartoons in the 70s and 80s. Their method: take the source material, throw out all the names, keep as much of the story as the visuals force you to keep, and then go wild on it. Starvengers has bad British accents, poor production values, cheap video titles, the occasional celebrity impersonation, and a cheerful energy that keeps the whole thing moving in spite of having to start where the first Getter Robo series ends. This was shown on Atlanta’s WANX-46 in an hour time slot – we got an episode of Star Blazers, and then two of Force Five, either Starvengers and Grandizer or Gaiking and Dangard Ace, or Spaceketeers and something else. Maybe Starvengers again. Somebody at 46 didn’t think this one through. 

RATING: Foul Tip 

Captain Harlock & The Queen of A Thousand Years – this awkwardly named series lives up to its awkward name. The series comprises two completely unrelated TV series, produced five years apart by completely different creative teams, and edited together like a first-year film student’s poorly thought out final project. This hamfistedly made video Frankenstein mystifies viewers, repels fans of Captain Harlock and Queen Millennia, and surely infuriated the typesetters at the newspaper’s TV section trying to cram this title into their layouts. All of Carl Macek’s overwritten pomposity is in full effect here, overworked to the point of incomprehension thanks to an impossible mission. Sample of actual narration: “Across the immensity of deep space, the incalculably powerful Mazone armada pushes relentlessly onward, swallowing everything in its path, sweeping across worlds beyond number. Like a tidal wave of terror, the bulk of the fleet crashes across the surface of planet after planet, drenching world after world in an irresistible tide of subjugation. But as the Mazone snake twists and turns, its constricting coils fail to find the artificial asteroid that now hides Captain Harlock, his ship, and his crew.” 

RATING: tidal wave of terror 

WATL 36's famous "find the unicorn" contest

Dagger of Kamui, the 1984 Rin Taro film animated by Madhouse and produced by notorious producer Haruki Kadokawa, is a hallucinogenic, sprawling epic of gangs of ninjas battling over an immense treasure hoard that can either save or destroy the Tokugawa Shogunate. Caught in the middle, the half-Ainu boy Jiro grows to ninja manhood in a journey that takes him across the Pacific to California and back to confront his ultimate destiny. As an 80s film starring ninjas, this one was pre-sold for export, and America was not slow to glom onto it. Along with Macross, Phoenix 2772, Locke The Superman and others, Kamui was part of the Peregrine Films “Dynamagic" package that was later released to home video in the States under the Just For Kids label. Dagger Of Kamui became “Revenge Of The Ninja Warrior,” got forty minutes hacked out, and received a utilitarian dub that tried at times to match the otherworldly cadence of the Japanese dialogue, but let’s face it, hearing three otherworldly ninja shrilly announce their presence works better in Japanese. 


Vampire Hunter D, and his friend, D(oris)

Vampire Hunter D was an early star of the OVA world, a keystone in the struggle of 80s anime nerds to show the world that Japanese animation was a Serious Art Form For Adults, Man, and also important in the strategy of Streamline Pictures, the distribution company set up by former Harmony Gold Robotech czar Carl Macek to release Japanese animation outside the constraints of syndicated television. Vampire Hunter D fit the bill as an edgy, violent animated film with enough supernatural shock and the occasional shower scene to clearly define it away from TV kidvid. But Streamline’s less than stellar dub, which features comical, vanishing and reappearing accents, stiff line readings, and bad takes that somehow made it into the final cut – somehow undercuts the seriousness of the endeavor. 

RATING: I won’t return the castle 

In The Aftermath is what happens when you have some army surplus hazmat suits, a permit to shoot at an abandoned power station, and the rights to the Mamoru Oshii / Yoshitaka Amano art film Angel’s Egg. That is to say, you take the dreamlike visuals of what may be Japanese animation’s most arthousey film and tack them into a cheap post-apocalyptic bunker movie. The result is a mess, a boring mess; imagine a world where Angel’s Egg beat Akira to the rep cinemas and wowed the critics, paving the way for an explosion of visionary expression beyond the edgy cyberpunk boob ninja tentacle rape we got in the 90s? But no; this is why we can’t have nice things. 

RATING: rotten 

sure, why not
he's a shock
Fist Of The North Star has been an amazing success. The original Buronson/Tetsuo Hara manga was ridiculously popular, spawning side stories and sequels and prequels, a long-running anime series, nine different spin-off manga stories, four theatrical films, five OVAs, novels, video games, pachinko games, a dedicated e-reader preloaded with the manga, a live-action American direct-to-video movie, and a possibly unlicensed Taiwanese live action film, making it one of the most lucrative media franchises of all time. Of course you wouldn’t know it here in North America, where Fist Fever Failed to Finalize in spite of every attempt. Is this wasteland Mad Max/Bruce Lee fantasy too peculiar for Western tastes, the way the franchise mixes deadpan seriousness with outrageous camp too jarring for our palates? Maybe. All I know Streamline Pictures’ early 90s dub of the 1986 Fist Of The North Star film punched its way into theaters and home video only to be met with viewer apathy. Some of the blame lies with America simply not knowing they should be awed by the amazing martial arts wizardry of Kenshiro and the rest. But the localization didn’t help. A soft-spoken Kenshiro, attempts to mitigate the ridiculous ultra-violence with quips, and a sad under-mixing of the heavy metal soundtrack muted the impact and left viewers confused and unimpressed. 

RATING: I’ve got a splitting headache 

Ninja Robots? You never saw ‘em, unless you lived in Australia, Pakistan, India, or the Philippines, where the English localization of the very 1985 Studio Pierrot series Ninja Senshi Tobikage aired. Was this show dubbed in LA, or in Miami? Sources vary. What we DO know is that this very 80s show got a very 80s theme song, keeping the original Tobikage theme and adding English lyrics about “fighting Zaboom” and “the power’s in you, you’re in the machine” all wrapped around a stirring refrain of “Ninja Robots, Ninja Robots!” It’s all very ‘2001 A New Wave Godyssey’ if you catch the Mr. Show reference. Ninja Robots is a perfectly reasonable localization of one of those anime series that looks amazing and enigmatic when all you’ve seen is the opening credits, but the actual show itself gets rolling and the story of teenage Martian colonists using the titular ninja robots to protect an alien princess from the aliens who seek to conquer the galaxy, well, it’s both overly complex and played-out at the same time, if that’s possible. 

RATING: zaboom 

they could use a Ninja Spellcheck, is what they could use

More successful was the Graz Entertainment version of Sunrise’s Samurai Troopers, known here as Ronin Warriors. Instead of hiding its Japanese roots, this show embraced the very Shinto concept of reverence for the spirits of departed, in this case ancient samurai warriors whose mystical powers enable five good-looking young Japanese men to don primary-colored armor and do battle with the forces of evil. The Ocean-produced dub was earnest, took the more fantastical material seriously, and even had the guts to leave the kid sidekick’s name as “Yulie” which, let me tell you, is a name that had a lot of us checking and re-checking our Japanese to English dictionaries back in the day. 

RATING: Samur-riffic

It was the mid 90s when Ronin Warriors appeared, and North America had been smacked by a one-two punch of (a) films like Akira wowing the critics and forcing us to take Japanese animation seriously as an art form, and (b) shows like Power Rangers making Megazord-sized piles of cash. The twin jackhammer-strength finishing blows of Pokemon and Sailor Moon were just around the corner, and the attitude of the outfits localizing these cartoons had changed entirely. The contempt and disregard of producers who saw anime as a blank slate with which to fulfill their frustrated literary ambitions was replaced with either a refreshingly professional disinterest, or, in the case of companies like AD Vision and AnimEigo, an earnest, fan-driven desire to do right by the source material. 

As always, the final solution to any sub vs dub debate is for you, the viewer, to get off his or her caboose and learn Japanese, thereby opening up an entire world of entertainment no longer gate-kept by professional or amateur translationists. Or, you can simply tell yourself it’s just a show, and you should really just relax.

-Dave Merrill 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Anime Hell Presents: That 70s Show

Gang, I am super excited about next week's Anime Hell screening at Eyesore Cinema! It's an all 1970s presentation of Manga Matsuri films and TV episodes and commercials and OPs and some special surprises, too. Most everything is in Japanese with English subtitles! 

It's an evening of super robots, tragic orphans, and international thievery as the Japanese animation of the 1970 explodes across the Eyesore Cinema screen at 8pm on February 22! Doors open at 7:30, admission is only $5.00! 

Eyesore Cinema, of course, is one of the last remaining video rental shops in North America, with thousands of films for rent, movies for sale on DVD and VHS, and some records and zines for good measure. Their screening room has quickly become Toronto's home for offbeat screenings, art sales, swap meets, and badfilm uprisings. If you're ever in town you should wander in and spend some money! 

And of course, if you're in town next Saturday you should wander into Eyesore around 8pm, for ANIME HELL PRESENTS: THAT 70s SHOW! See you there!

Saturday, January 25, 2020

the persistence of the vision of anime info packets

BROTHERS and SISTERS, FRIENDS of the REVOLUTION, I come before you today to TESTIFY! We have COME THROUGH THE VALLEY of the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY, my friends! We have SCREEN-CAPPED and we have PHOTOSHOPPED and we have even MEMED, my friends, we've been adopted into today's digital world where our LIVES are turned into JPEGs and PDFs and GIFs and put onto CD-ROMs and emailed as ATTACHMENTS, my brethren, we've been TWEETED AT and FACEBOOKED and INSTAGRAMMED until Impact Fonts and Hazy Sunset Filters are part of our DAILY LIVES! They're INESCAPABLE, my friends, we carry 'em in our POCKETS and on our TVs and in our CARS and we act like it's always been this way and it's gonna be this way FOREVER, AMEN. Well I am here to TESTIFY that all our DIGITAL EVERYTHING is just DIGITS IN THE WIND, dear friends. They're PHANTOMS that COME AND GO with the breeze! Dearly beloved, that server gonna CRASH! That streaming service gonna go BANKRUPT! That hard drive gonna give you the CLICK O' DEATH, can I get an AMEN? Photobucket and Flickr and Imgur will one day go the way of the DINOSAURS and you'll NEVER get those photos back! Twitter will FAILWHALE and Facebook gonna get DDOS'd and Tumblr gonna STUMBLE, brothers and sisters. And I ask you WHERE WILL YOU BE? WHERE WILL YOU BE ON THAT DAY?

My friends I'll TELL you where you gonna be on that day. You gonna be looking at something PRINTED on PAPER because, my friends, PRINT IS KING. That's right! No power outage gonna erase that paperback book! Ain't no batteries in your daily newspaper! Nobody gonna be DRM'ing your Rand McNally Atlas you keep in the trunk of your car just in case! Do this for me, friends, get a SHOVEL and go on down to the TOWN DUMP and start DIGGIN' brothers and sisters, and what are you gonna find? You're gonna find PRINT, is what you're gonna find. Newspapers, magazines, TPS reports, grocery lists, Sears catalogs, junk mail, and books, books, books, because when you LAY something down on PAPER that SOMETHING is gonna STAY THERE until somebody SETS FIRE TO IT or puts it through an INDUSTRIAL SHREDDER, and ain't many of those around, and nobody got time for that anyways. 

Let me assure you, dear friends, I'm DEADLY SERIOUS about this, print is gonna last. Don't take MY word for it! Oh no. I have proof and everything, and that proof is the sheer weight of paper that the North American anime nerds of the 1980s had to generate just to keep themselves informed on what the hell it was they were watching! Sure, everybody knows there was a big secret network of hidden "tape traders" copying Japanese cartoons onto glitchy 1980s VHS tape and swapping them with friends and strangers across the land. And everybody knows that most of those cartoons were in regular old Japanese without so much as a subtitle or a bad American dub. But what might not be apparent to the interested parties thirty and forty years later is that alongside those Scotch and TDK brand VHS and Beta cassettes, alongside that magnetic tape was good old fashioned print on paper explaining these TV cartoons and movies for viewers who might not speak Japanese. Yes, these copy paper Rosetta Stones were circulated amongst the faithful, copied, re-copied, and re-re-re-copied just like the VHS tapes themselves, sourced from fanzines and APAs and round-robin letters and the occasional industry publication or newspaper, collated and packaged and mailed out to keep America's anime nerds reasonably informed about who was killing whom in the giant robot epic they were currently confusing anime-club audiences with. 

Many of these synopses were reprinted right out of the anime club newsletters, that tiny dot-matrix print blurring into something resembling readability. One of the most common handouts would be overviews of entire anime TV series covering broad plot points, characters, key pieces of machinery, air dates, and if you were lucky, some vintage fan artwork, as in this Pat Munson-Siter Science Ninja Team Gatchaman piece hijacked from the C/FO San Antonio newsletter.

Here Brother Steve Harrison walks us through the characters of the Captain Harlock TV series Eternal Orbit (or, as we were calling it, "Endless Road") SSX, complete with illustrations of the characters cut and pasted from the gospel of My Anime Endless Road SSX Preview Dec.'82. With data like this, an anime fan could (and would!) watch an entire TV series and be kinda sorta able to follow the story reasonably well, even without Japanese language skills.

A simple list of film release dates, as seen here, proved invaluable when writing about anime theatrical releases. The run times were absolutely vital when trying to figure out if Mobile Suit Gundam II was going to fit on a T-120 VHS tape (not at SP speed, it won't). Thirty four years later we in the West are able to watch a surprising chunk of this list, with the glaring exception of Arion, Future War 198X, and of course Gu Gu Chicken. Get with it, licensors! 

Here's a piece about Metal Armor Dragonar, the only Mobile Suit Gundam series that was NEVER a Mobile Suit Gundam series. It's notable for the green paper, for being about all the attention this show would ever get in the West, and again for being a prime example of that fuzzy dot-matrix printing combined with the smallest possible font size. Yeah I wear glasses now, THANK YOU

Many of these anime synopses were reprinted from anime fandom Amateur Press Associations (or A.P.A.s), the self-published collective magazines that were the primary source of fan drama in those more innocent pre-internet days. This guide to Dream Hunter Rem first saw light in C/FO Santa Monica's program book and then was appropriated for use in "Out Of Chaos," which was the title for someone's personal section of whatever A.P.A. they were a part of - maybe Sasha, or Final Stop Andromeda, or APA Hasshin, or another of the myriad of anime-focused A.P.A.s that clogged mailboxes and inspired flame wars. 

This synopsis of the Galaxy Express TV special "Eternal Wanderer Emeraldas" was reprinted exclusively for the Books Nippan Animation Fan Club, courtesy the Japanese Animation Archives, open to the public by appointment only. "Petuniacon" was, interestingly enough, a Bay Area indy comics convention built around an appearance by Cerebus creator Dave Sim. Note the spelling of "Emeraldus," and keep in mind this is how we spelled it back then and that's why occasionally we still spell it like that. Come at us, bro!

Sometimes they'd just cram four or five short synopses onto one page, giving readers a cheat sheet of 80s Japanese animated film, typed on what appears to be the same equipment used to produce much of the early C/FO's printed output, an IBM Selectric with a nice clean typeface, thank goodness.

Popular series like Urusei Yatsura would receive comprehensive coverage in these packets, like this extensive piece from the "Final Stop Andromeda" APA.

This particular UY guide had been copied, stapled, copied again, stapled again, copied and stapled a third time. People really needed to know about Urusei Yatsura!

And once you managed to actually get a few Urusei Yatsura episodes on videotape, well, you needed to know which episodes they were, so that you could label your random assortment of Urusei Yatsura episodes correctly. 

desperately random selection of Urusei Yatsura episodes

You may ask, how did these information packets reach the fans? What were their distribution channels? Well, one way you'd get them is by joining an anime club - Anime Hasshin made them available to members. Other fans took it upon themselves to compile all the information they could possibly grab and assemble them into sets, which would be copied and sent out to fans everywhere! 

Yes, years before Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements would edit their Anime Encyclopedia, Houston's Lynn Johnson (not the cartoonist Lynn Johnston, mind you) was doing the Lord's work packaging vital anime information one packet at a time, sending 'em out to anyone with a few bucks to spare and a three ring binder to keep 'em in. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of amateur linguists were ferreting out the hidden meanings of all that katakana and kanji keeping us from knowing what was really going on in our favorite anime titles. 

An entire galaxy of teasingly unavailable anime titles were detailed in various magazines and books, and while today fans may recognize Area 88 and Laputa (starring "Pazoo" and "Cedar"), and hope one day Kenritsu Chikyu Boeigun (Prefectural Earth Defense Force) returns to home video availability, we might still wonder about "Love 30S Chuhai Lemon." Wonder no more, dear friends! Love 30S Chuhai Lemon was produced by Wonder Kids in 1985, it's based on a manga about a hard boiled detective and his clumsy romance, it featured the song "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," and Wonder Kids went bankrupt immediately after releasing it.

Meanwhile Hiro Media Associates was planning to dominate the nascent Original Video Animation market, both with animation from Kaname Productions and with their anime magazine "Globian," which would cover the whole world of direct-to-video animation. And, when Bruce Eimon finished translating their video guide, we'd all get a taste of what we'd be watching 4th generation VHS copies of at our next club meeting. Thank you Bruce!

Occasionally a little bit of editorial bias would wriggle its way into their reviews. 

"...a big spoof with nonsense animation..." - there's your pull quote right there!

Occasionally the American mass media would take notice of Japanese animation. America's "Japanimation" fans would dutifully clip those press clippings and distribute them widely as proof to the world that Japanese animation was a legitimate art form and not just a bunch of weirdos sitting in a dark room waiting for some cartoon character to flash her panties. Even though I'm not gonna lie, that's pretty much what it was most of the time.

And occasionally anime-adjacent properties would make their way into the info packets- like Kow Yokoyama's post-apocalypse model kit diorama-saga Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000 aka "SF 3D," and the subsequent role playing game based on the series, and its English translation courtesy Space Battleship Yamato model kit importers TCI. 

But for the most part, the contents of these anime info packets were as advertised, information about Japanese animation titles, some of which wouldn't get licensed releases for decades. 

And some of which STILL haven't received licensed releases. 

Seriously, I can see Touch not making it over here, sports anime is a hard sell, but Cosmo Police Justy had its own American comic book! And SPT Layzner, well, that one actually made it to the "licensed" stage, but never actually came out. Sure, the masters Bandai provided were flawed, but so what? Nothing's perfect!

At this point you're probably thinking, "Sure, this is interesting. But how exactly were groups of anime fans reproducing these info packets? What were the technological and economic circumstances that came together in the 80s to make photocopying cheap and easy? Well, I can tell you in one word, and that word is KINKO'S.

vintage 80s Kinko's ads

The first Kinko's opened in 1970 near UC Santa Barbara and grew to 1200 24-hour copy centers across ten different countries, a place where every struggling rock band, glue-stick fevered zinester, ink-stained cartoonist, aspiring entrepreneur, and Japanese cartoon synopsis distributor could roll up to at 1am and start making copies. Kinko's facilitiated the distribution of raw, genuine information on a scale never before seen, putting the power of print in the hands of anyone with four cents and something that would lie flat on the platen glass. Enabling collage artists, early desktop publishers, and an entire world of Factsheet Five-reading small press publishing mail art aficionados, Kinko's was instrumental in driving the visual culture of the last quarter of the 20th century. 

These are a few of my favorite zines

And sure, here in the 21st century, the zine culture that once crowded racks at Tower Records is gone. And Tower Records is also gone. Both were replaced with the internet, from which we download our music and with which we share information about Japanese cartoons. It's convenient and fast, and nobody's asking four cents a copy or what's the difference between 20# and 60# paper. But there are downsides to this convenience. Digital media, well, it's ones and zeros stored on somebody's hard drive or optical disc or server somewhere, and that's not nearly as permanent as paper. The zines we made in the 1980s and 1990s? Well, unless you took steps to get rid of 'em, they're still around somewhere in a box in your closet. But websites? If you stop paying for that hosting that website is going bye-bye. If your web host goes out of business and you didn't keep a backup, well, so long to all your work. YouTube can delete all your content, Facebook can delete all your content, hell, even Google here can delete all MY content. Let's Anime could vanish forever in an instant! Except, of course, for the print version from the 90s, which is, of course, safe in a box in my closet!

pasteups from Let's Anime #4

My friends, that's why we're still looking at these info packets twenty and thirty and thirty five years later. They're a snapshot of the anime we were watching, the anime we wished we could watch, and in some cases the anime we had no idea even existed. These things are desire itself, manifested upon paper, a magical spell hoping to bring forth Amon Saga and Roots Search and Votoms. These info packets are physical evidence of the work of a generation of fans that didn't know someday we'd be watching this stuff in English on our phones that we keep in our pockets everywhere. They only knew that they had to secure that information, they had to reproduce that information, and they had to keep it moving to the next group of fans, because information is always essential... except for whatever was going on with this Five Star Stories synopsis.

Remember dear friends, print is FOREVER! Can I get an amen? 

--Dave Merrill