Thursday, April 28, 2022

Knights Of The Seiya Zodiac

 
portions of this article originally appeared at Anime Jump.
 
Back in the 1980s – I know this is a cliché but it’s all I got here, so work with me - while the Gundam franchise was napping, before Nadia: The Secret Of Blue Water made Gainax stars, Knights Of The Zodiac was pretty much all we had. Of course we referred to it by the Japanese title, Saint Seiya, even if at the time we had no clue the show’s title was a pun on the Japanese word for “constellation,” which is “seiza,” get it? American 80s anime fans spent many a happy, pre-Internet hour watching fuzzy VHS copies of the show, translating dialog and writing synopses of episodes. Sure, the show’s blend of fighting tournaments, Jack Kirby-esque cosmic drama, and manly male bonding appealed to nerds here, but in short order Saint Seiya made waves around the world, especially in South America and Mexico, where Los Caballeros Del Zodiaco penetrated the popular culture to such an extent that bootleg Seiya toys could be seen hanging, like executed banditos, from the fixtures of Tijuana street vendors. Years later the series would finally arrive in the States in a truncated series of weirdly modified DVDs from DIC and ADV. However, that 2003 DVD series ended prematurely and it took the advent of streaming video before English-speaking audiences could fully feel their cosmos, Seiya-style.
 

But what is this Knights Of The Zodiac, this erstwhile Saint Seiya? What made it a hit around most of the world? Well, when the weekly manga powerhouse Shonen Jump began publication back in ‘68, the editors conducted a survey of their target audience, Japanese schoolboys. The editors asked their potential customers about their ideals and their dreams and what they valued most; the children said they believed in friendship, perseverance, and victory. Of the many manga serialized in Jump, none exemplifies these ideals more than Masami Kurumada’s Saint Seiya.
 
Born in 1953, Kurumada was a manga-drawing delinquent who answered his Shonen Jump rejection letter by showing up at the offices to ask why. He learned the trade as an assistant to Samurai Giants artist Ko Inoue, and his first Weekly Jump series was “Sukeban Storm,” to be followed by his first success, the 1974 boxing drama “Ring ni Kakero” (Put It All In The Ring). "Ring" would be the template Kurumada would follow for the rest of his career, adventures of a band of manly-virtue-extolling men battling anything and everything that stands in their manly way with guts and fortitude, drawn in a distinctive style that streamlines the rougher men’s sweat aesthetic of Hiroshi Motomiya/Naoki Tsuji/Tetsuya Chiba aesthetic. Kurumada’s characters feature well-defined musculature and flat, iconic faces, as if Tomorrow’s Joe fought wearing a Halloween mask, a look common to the Japanese comic world, but perhaps seems odd and unfinished to the unprepared Western eye. 
 
Kurumada Saint Seiya manga pages from Nov. 17 1986 Shonen Jump

 
Halfway through "Ring" the merely physical struggles became absurdly metaphysical as the spiritual power of our heroes erupted out of the subtext and right onto the page, as boxing blows began to smash windows and destroy real estate. This physical manifestation of fighting spirit would feature in Kurumada’s works from then on, from "Ring" to "Fuma no Kojiro" to "Bt’X", and most popularly in the series we’re talking about today, "Evil Crusher Maya". I mean, Saint Seiya
 
 
Kurumada’s original Saint Seiya manga ran in Shonen Jump from 1986 until 1990, a total of 28 compiled volumes. Toei’s anime TV series ran for 114 episodes from 1986 until 1989. The Hades OVA series had 31 installments released from 2002 until 2008. The 25th anniversary anime TV series Saint Seiya Omega ran for 97 episodes between 2012 and 2014. Saint Seiya: Soul Of Gold was a 13 part “Original Net Animation” broadcast on the internet in 2015 and 2016. Saint Seiya: Saintia Shō , a prequel story of Saori Kido’s all-girl Saint bodyguard squad, appeared in 2018. Knights Of The Zodiac: Saint Seiya was a CG Netflix series streaming 12 episodes in 2019/20. And of course there are the theatrical Saint Seiya movies; the 80s films “Evil Goddess Eris,” “Heated Battle Of The Gods,” “Legend Of Crimson Youth,” and “Warriors Of The Final Holy Battle,” with the films “Heaven Chapter- Overture” in 2004 and “Legend Of Sanctuary” in 2014. So if you want to settle in and binge-watch Saint Seiya, set aside about a hundred fifty hours or so - more if you watch the TMS series Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas, an alternate-universe story of 18th century Saints battling Hades. This is why I stopped reading Marvel comics, guys.
 
 
Saint Seiya, or Knights Of The Zodiac as various marketing departments would have us call it, is at its core a cosmic gumbo of gods and goddesses playing endless role-playing games, with human beings as their tiny lead figurines. Awesome, world-shattering forces are brought into play every time characters blink or twitch, and when battling each other, the very fabric of the universe itself shudders with the force of their blows. Our heroes struggle through this melodramatic world – five knights, each with their own fighting styles, tragic backstories, and rough-hewn friendships forged in the heat of battle. It’s the kind of thing that 12-year old males think is cool, and 17-year old females draw doujinshi of. Just ask CLAMP. Leaning into this almost-shoujo look are the TV anime character redesigns by Shingo “Rose Of Versailles” Araki, making Saint Seiya practically nonbinary in its cross-gender appeal.


The Seiya story is this: sometime in the near future, the entire world is absolutely crazy for a gigantic martial arts tournament. The GRAAD Foundation, chaired by beautiful, enigmatic Saori Kido, has established the Galaxian Wars, in which armored fighters battle each other for what appears to be the privilege of winning a different set of armor, or, in the Seiya mythos, “Cloth.” Our hero Seiya, an impulsive, brave, loyal, clean-living Japanese youth, has spent six years at the training center on Greece learning to focus his cosmic energy and use it to pound foes with lightning-fast blows. He didn’t enter the tournament simply to be the greatest – he’s looking for his missing sister, and like Sue Cat, felt that worldwide fame would help. He wins the final round of the qualifying tournament, and receives the Pegasus Cloth. Once in Tokyo, he meets the rest of his Zodiacal chums: Hyoga/Swan, who fights with the icy blasts of Cygnus; Shiryu/Dragon, a Chinese fellow with a helpful back tattoo that reveals his weak point; and Andromeda/Shun, a very pretty boy who fights with his Nebula Chains. All have varying hair colors, national origins, and different primary colored tights. As the series opens we’re looking forward to seeing them battle each other, but quickly the tournament aspect of the show is ditched for a much more satisfying storyline, giving us Dragon Ball in reverse.
 

 
As our heroes vie for the top slot, a new drama unfolds – Phoenix, who may be and in fact is Andromeda’s brother, shows up with an army of Phoenix disciples, and instead of fighting for the prize like everybody else, he just steals it outright in a shocking display of unsportsmanlike behavior.
As it all turns out, Saori is actually the goddess Athena, and the purpose of the tournament is to fine the warrior who can wear the golden, super powerful Sagittarius Cloth and return her to her rightful throne as Goddess of Wisdom. Aligned against Athena and her Saints, or Knights as DIC would like us to call them, are Ares, the God of War, who has his own legion of armored fighters. As the show progresses, we meet more and more Saints on both sides of the struggle, all with progressively bizarre armor based on zodiacal signs that might not even exist. New mythologies are strewn about the place as powerful objects are stolen and regained, armor is destroyed and rebuilt, and heroes die and are reborn, a cycle of death and rebirth that Seiya itself echoed in its on-again, off-again American release.
 
 

In the years since that first Knights Of The Zodiac DVD, the Jump style of supernatural martial arts champions battling for friendship and honor has become familiar to the West; Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure have all Adult Swimmed and Netflixed their way into our collective hearts. But what did this genre look like to Americans unprepared for this style of story? What was the marketing justification for selling a 1986 anime series to a 2003 audience without decades of sports-manga context to place Saint Seiya in, to viewers who might merely see this as some kind of gender-flipped Sailor Moon?
 

 
The pre-DVD 1980s American anime fan scene had its Saint Seiya devotees, enough to make the Seiya merchandise a staple at early anime conventions and to make Seiya fan art a part of every anime fan publication for the last half of the decade. Saint Seiya’s most prominent exponent was Pat Munson-Siter, whose research and fan artwork was powerful enough to fill 112 pages of her Saint Seiya Series Review. This was quite an accomplishment, considering the sum total of official English-language Seiya material at the time was... pretty much nothing. Munson-Siter’s work became the basis for the Saint Seiya Role-Playing Game, an unofficial RPG system by John Lash that gave late 80s gamers the chance to throw dice and battle as the Saints. How many other anime series inspired American fans to create role-playing games? (the answer is 2.) Pat sadly passed away in 2020 and is missed by anime fan friends and family alike. 
 
 
At heart Seiya is a simplistic show where every defeated villain leads to another defeated villain, where every hero’s power-up is trumped by another power-up, which is in turned trumped by yet another power-up. Toei’s mid-80s television animation is serviceable enough, and actually has more life and movement than much of the TV anime seen in 2003, thanks to existing before deadlines tightened, budgets shrunk, and primitive digital compositing made shows obsolescent right out of the gate. Seiya’s characters actually move, and while the movement may be clunky from time to time, it’s at least honest. 
 

 
 
Episode 5 in particular stands out, titled “Miracle of Rebirth! Friendship of the Cosmos.” Directed by Kaname Pro director Shinichi Masaki, episode 5 pops with a lot of the bouncy flash and punch of the OVAs Kaname was producing at the time with of anime legends like Yoshinori Kanada and Mutsumi Inomata. Ep. 5 looks great, with lots of zooms, close ups, figure animation that actually moves, characters that shake their heads and blink and sweat, and plenty of anime cameos in the crowd scenes. This is the one to watch if you can watch only one, and it's the only one with this creative team, sadly.
 
Minky Momo and Fandora guest star in episode 5

 
Kurumada’s angular style was softened somewhat for television, but it’s still a singularly flattened vision and one that’s a lot less “cute” than anime contemporaries like Dragon Ball, much less a 2000s industry overpowered by shoujo and bishoujo visuals. Saint Seiya’s seriously dated clothing and hairstyles aren’t as dire a handicap, but honestly, you can’t look at Andromeda’s jeans-and-suspenders combo or Seiya’s sleeveless T’s without having flashbacks to Swatch watches and Duran Duran.
 
 
Regardless of changing fashions, Saint Seiya’s most appealing visual aspect remains untouched; the way the entire universe trembles whenever characters fight. Seiya throws a punch and galaxies whirl in the background; Dragon smacks some hapless lackey while planets explode and stars collapse. Our heroes are tied into the very life force of the universe itself, and when they battle, the fabric of space-time itself begins to warp and buckle. It’s both inherently silly and awe-inspiring on a sub-adolescent, almost primal level.
 

America’s first licensed Seiya was the ADV/DIC Knights of The Zodiac release, which of course was dubbed. I’ll give the localization points for resisting funny accents (Hyoga was just begging for a few Minnesotan “you betchas”), but on the other hand, the aggressive sameness of the voice talent fails to distinguish any of our heroes. They’re all bursts of hyper extreme sports Mountain Dew commercial enthusiasm, punctuated with large doses of instantly dated slang. While that may very well appeal to the crazy kids of today with their hair and their clothes, it’s hard to get into seeing somebody unleash a punch that destroys entire buildings, while the script has them mouthing wisecracks. 
 


The dubbing was one of the least jarring creative changes to this version of Saint Seiya. All the punching and kicking and wrestling is left intact, but what used to be healthy all-natural red blood is now green, or blue, or sometimes white. What this is supposed to accomplish is anybody’s guess. Was cartoon blood a bridge too far for potential television syndication in the early oughts? DIC has also seen fit to add superfluous transitional elements between scenes, just to distract viewers from the fake blood colors, I guess. In practical terms this means a cheesy-looking Great Value Saint helmet zooms across the screen and is destroyed by Seiya’s fist. 
 
 
What’s sadly missing from the DIC version is the music. The original show had a powerful rock/orchestral soundtrack, with a theme song by glammy rock act Make-Up, all choruses, guitar solos and a driving beat that helped to sell the entire idea of young fighters with giant hair battling to feel their cosmos. Knights Of The Zodiac replaces this with Wichita Falls alt-rock act Bowling For Soup’s cover of the Flock Of Seagulls hit “I Ran”. Perhaps a nod to the show’s 80s roots, a warmup for Soup’s “Phineas And Ferb” theme song, or merely an attempt to force some kind of cultural relevance into the show, in practice the song elicits double-takes from the Gen-Xers and shrugs of indifference from everybody else. Meanwhile the show’s new incidental music is a fakey EDM beat more suited to late night TV commercials. The original music was and is perfectly fine, thank you.
 

 
Changes aside, I found myself entertained by the show all over again. The brave youths struggling against the odds in a downright nonsensical universe full of gods, semi-gods, and increasingly outlandish armor are all still there, in spite of dopey dubbing, off-color blood, and poor music choices. There’s definite charm in a show that willfully combines male-bonding melodrama with convoluted mythology in the service of having heroes punch out the fabric of space and time. None of it really makes much sense, but that’s part of the appeal, which didn’t quite make the grade in 2003; ADV/DIC’s release fizzled out before completion and North America wouldn’t get more Seiya for years. 
 
 
The world of Japanese animation, and in fact the world in general have definitely changed since Seiya and his gang first premiered. As Western anime fandom moved through clubs, conventions, Facebooks and Discords and its enthusiasms moved from Dragon Balls to Gundams, from Evangelions to Narutos, Saint Seiya was a constant, kept relevant by a dedicated European and Asian fanbase, by a parade of sequels and side stories and a mountain of Bandai merchandise. 
 

Here in the 2020s we in the West can enjoy Saint Seiya without having to Bowl For Soup or swap for VHS off-air copies rented from the local Japanese grocery store. Saint Seiya Omega and Saint Seiya: Saintia Shō are streaming on Crunchyroll. The four 1980s Seiya films are streaming on Retrocrush. The Lost Canvas series and the 1980s films are also available on disc from Discotek. Hades, Soul Of Gold, Saintia Sho, Lost Canvas, and the 80s films are also streaming on Tubi. However, the original series recently was cut from Netflix and its most recent 2014 DVD release is out of print. For now, we are sadly bereft of our 80s champions until the time, hopefully not far off, when new Saints of Hope rise to rock the heavens for justice, or at least let us stream a TV show.
 
-Dave Merrill

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Queen Of One Thousand And Forty Years

 

On September 9, 1999, at 9:09am (Japan Standard Time), disaster will strike the Earth! Speeding by on its thousand-year orbit, the giant planet Lar Metal will miss us by inches, but in its wake comes destruction on a vast scale. Professor Amamori of the Tsukuba Observatory struggles with the biggest astronomical news of the century, along with his orphaned nephew Hajime and Amamori’s assistant Yukino Yayoi, a mysterious beauty burdened with an awesome secret and a terrible decision that will affect the destiny of both planets.

This is the story of Queen Millennia (Japanese title 新竹取物語 1000年女王 or Shin Taketori Monogatari: Sennen Joō, or "The New Tale of the Bamboo Cutter: Millennium Queen,") Leiji Matsumoto’s followup to his popular Galaxy Express 999. Queen Millennia would appear as a manga series, a TV show, a radio drama, and a 1982 feature film, released just as the TV anime was reaching its climax. A blizzard of Queen Millennia ballyhoo buried print and broadcast media in a blanket of thousand-year hype, leading some wags to describe the property as "The Queen Of Promotions."


Ultimately this millennial juggernaut would have less horsepower than the 999; merch plans and a 52-episode run were both cut short, and decades later Queen Millennia is perhaps known more in the West as part of a confusing Harmony Gold adaptation, or as an LP in the New Age section of your local record store, a little-seen footnote alongside more popular Leiji Matsumoto properties like Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express. Forty years on, what’s the deal with this 1000-Year Queen’s film? It’s been decades since Yukino Yayoi & co. first appeared on movie screens, but even though Japanese animation has enjoyed unprecedented worldwide prominence, the Queen Millennia movie remains firmly absent from the North American anime market.

The North American anime fandom of the Club Era (1977-1995) knew of Queen Millennia thanks to Roman Albums, anime magazines, and the occasional 5th generation VHS copy. Unlike some other anime of the period, the Millennia film was mercifully spared an edited, weirdly-dubbed American release, and even the fan subtitle crowd hadn’t caught up with it. So it was up to our Atlanta-based Corn Pone Flicks fansub group to get the job done. We had our pal Sue's script and our pal Shaun's LaserDisc, and soon it was one more star in the CPF fan subtitle galaxy. 

script and final product

 

Expecting rock-em sock-em SF adventure from that Queen Millennia fansub? This film delivers its struggles on a more spiritual scale, opening with a closeup of Yayoi’s long-lashed brown eyes slowly receding into space, advising everyone to get comfortable and settle in. Queen Millennia spends a lot of its run time showing us slow-moving planets, leisurely floating continents, and Lar Metal’s space invasion armada gently manoeuvring into formation, all set to a Kitarō soundtrack that inspires restful contemplation rather than cinematic excitement. 


The movie covers the major plot points of the Queen Millennia mythos; Junior high schooler Hajime suffers the sudden loss of his parents and an uncomfortable new life with astronomer Uncle Amamori, while crushing hard on his math teacher Yayoi and worrying about, you know, that whole impending When Worlds Collide thing. Hajime escapes a meteor-smashed Tokyo to a hollow-Earth survival shelter and learns not only was his engineer father somehow involved with the Lar Metal, but that his dream gal is actually cosmic royalty in the final days of her thousand year term secretly ruling mankind. Yayoi, a space-age Princess Kaguya (there’s that “Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter” tagline) now doing business as Queen Millennia, finds herself forced to reconcile sister Selene’s rebellion with the Earth emigration plan of her Lar Metalian fiancée Dr. Fara, while at the same time dealing with the anti-Earthling prejudice and unwanted affections of her Captain Harlock lookalike subordinate Daisuke Yamori. Ultimately, Yayoi must choose between her home planet and the Earth she’s purportedly been in charge of. And I say “purportedly” because judging by the last thousand years it doesn’t look like anybody’s been in charge.

Yayoi in regulation astronomy leotard

It’s an occupational hazard of adapted media, but sometimes watching the cinematic Queen Millennia is an exercise in spotting things the TV show and the manga did better. Yayoi spends much of her TV time dressed down in denim, chilling with her adopted parents and her all-purpose Leiji Matsumoto cat in their mom & pop ramen shop, letting us know she honestly enjoys the low-fi Earthling lifestyle. TV’s Amamori gets to spend more time hectoring the military-industrial complex and their takeover of his observatory (Macek’s script for the Harmony Gold version literally names it “The Military Industrial Complex” in his version, a Boomer child’s callback to Eisenhower if ever there was one). Hajime is allowed time to grieve lost parents and mix with schoolyard friends and rivals to mix. Selene leans into her resistance fighter persona and gives the viewer a fun masked mystery character. 


 

The movie version abandons all this in favor of long, lingering shots of planets, spaceships, floating chunks of Japan, and Lar Metal’s airbrushed Roger Dean album cover landscape. On the other hand, the film ditches the manga scene where Yayoi goes to Venus in an Lar Metal insectoid spaceship controlled by her entire, jaybird-naked body, Iczer One style, and that’s probably OK. 

Leiji Matsumoto self-insert fanfic

That’s not to say the Queen Millennia film doesn’t have its own unique anime charms. There’s a sequence towards the climax where Prof. Amamori, Hajime, and a parade of creative staff caricatures loot the No More War Museum and use the suspiciously well preserved tanks, warplanes, and automatic weapons to counterattack the Lar Metal assault force in a well animated clash of cultures. The film regains some momentum again when Yayoi confronts the ultimate ruler of Lar Metal, Laarela the Holy Queen, who manifests as a blank-eyed moppet radiating murder power, the creepiest levitating girl seen in film since Linda Blair defied gravity in The Exorcist.


 

The film’s distinct visual style is almost a character in its own right. We think of the 80s as being neon grids, primary colors, and high-tech hairstyles, but every decade has echoes of its past and countercultures always flourish in the margins. The occult had spent the 1940s and 50s strictly for cult religions and professional Nightmare Alley spook-show grifters, but these and other alternative worldviews gained new energy from the upheaval of the 1960s, as disaffected youth sought meaning and purpose away from stupid, vulgar, greedy ugly American death-suckers. This hunger for alternative spiritual meaning became known as the New Age Movement in the 1970s, embracing everything from Tibetan shamanism, Ayahuasca-fueled mystery ceremonies, the Rev. Moon, the Hare Krishna, spirit channeling, UFO contactees from countless planets, and the untapped powers of an entire flea market full of crystals, rainbows, dream catchers, pewter angels, gazing balls, and incense. The entire patchouli-scented parade was still marching sandal-clad strong into and throughout the 1980s.


Queen Millennia is wall to wall carpeted with these baroque, rainbow-crystal-healing-vibration hallmarks of the New Age, where there's a seeker born every minute. We’d see this junk science permeate pulp fiction of the time and Leiji’s was no exception; for instance, the Erich von Däniken ancient astronaut underpinnings of his Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Interviewed before Queen Millennia’s release, Matsumoto went so far as to describe the film as “occult-like.”

Earth ruled by powerful hidden adepts? This is old-school Hollow Earth Shaver Mystery stuff crossed with Madame Blavatsky’s Ascended Masters trip. Unseen Tenth Planets causing Earthly cataclysm and disaster is the backbone of numerous mid-century kook-science theories, the granddaddy of which is Worlds In Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky, a NYT best seller (!!) that suggests the planet Venus erupted from Jupiter four thousand years ago, and whose wild orbital journey caused most of the miracles of the Old Testament before it settled down in its current position. The scene in Queen Millennia where Lar Metal approaches Earth and we see a giant spark as the electric potential of the two planets equalizes? Straight outta Velikovsky. As a wild wild planet bonus, the film even gives us its version of Von Daniken wannabe Zecharia Sitchin’s "dark star" Nibiru, the rogue planet that killed the dinosaurs and has us next on its hit list. Don’t trust those Zeta Reticuli brain implants, kids.

Queen Millennia Book Club reading list
 

Queen Millennia's aesthetic of misty, transparent palaces, hazy skies, and vast prehistoric underground worlds would make a great book cover for any number of paperbacks in the new age section of any Waldenbooks or B.Dalton at any local mall circa 1985, which, by the way, also had the Record Bar or Sound Warehouse where you could find Kitarō’s Queen Millennia soundtrack album, released in America as "Millennia" on Geffen Records (Geffen- GHS 24084).

Kitarō or Masanori Takahashi is, of course, the renowned Japanese electronic-instrumental composer, blending folk, classical, and electronic music into what millions of late-night public radio listeners know as New Age music. Coming into prominence with his score for the 1980 NHK documentary "The Silk Road," his albums first saw wide American release when he signed with Geffen, who packaged six earlier and one new LP for the US market. American anime nerds, their pop culture radar antennae already alert for any Asian content, were quick to spot Kitarō's records. As with Harmagedon, this gave us the opportunity to purchase the soundtrack for a film we couldn't yet see. 

Queen Millennia Record Club selections
 

Putting Kitarō on the Millennia soundtrack assignment is a strong signal that this movie isn't going to be a typical Matsumotoverse space-warship pass in review; the composer's new-age reputation amplifies the film's new age themes. Of course, even harmonic convergences aren’t immune to the power of pop music, and as a counterpoint to Kitaro's spacey harmonics, American singer Dara Sedaka, daughter of Neil "Believe In The Sign Of Zeta" Sedaka, delivers Queen Millennia’s end-title tune "Angel Queen" (Canyon – 7A0149c).

All these new-agey cultural highlights might make for fascinating cultural analysis, maybe, but they aren’t enough to elevate Queen Millennia, a film that dazedly unspools its slow-paced story with animation that plods and rarely soars. The big secret of who Yayoi is and what she’s up to is unwrapped in the first ten minutes, leaving the viewer to glean what excitement they can from duelling space fleets and potato-head Matsumoto characters firing giant prop crossbows at alien fighters, only to be confused and bemused when the retired Millennial Queens rise from their Millennial Tombs and transform themselves into space ships, Turbo Teen style. By the film’s end we’re watching an entire rogue galaxy rushing towards us at Einstein-defying speeds, a deus ex machina climax that feels less like universal destiny and more like last-minute writer’s room panic. 

 

On a more concrete level, there are lots of beauty shots of 1999 Tokyo being smashed to bits and raised up in the air like in the end of five or six Marvel movies. The film definitely delivers disaster footage worthy of any number of mid-70s earthquake, tidal wave, volcano, Japan Submersion flicks. And if you're into the whole connected-Matsumoto-universe Time Is A Flat Circle thing, Queen Millennia shows us where Queen Promethium and the machine empire come from. This leads us backwards to Rintaro’s 1979 Galaxy Express 999 movie, a film with a similar assignment (boil down a TV series) but a more successful final product.

Voice talent, creatives, and Kitaro at Queen Millennia event

 

Queen Millennia shares a lot of staff with a different Toei SF epic, 1980’s Cyborg 009 Legend Of The Super Galaxy. Character designer/animation director Yasuhiro Yamaguchi, literal cult director Masayuki Akehi, mechanical designer Koichi Tsunoda, and DP Tamio Hosoda worked on both films, each featuring impractical yet stylish spacecraft, scripts and running times that freely bend the laws of time and space, and blatant references to the debunked theories of human history being influenced by ancient astronautics. Queen Millennia screenwriter Keisuke Fujiwara has written for literally hundreds of films and TV episodes, including 55 episodes of GE 999 and 53 episodes of Mazinger Z, making him perhaps the hardest working writer in anime-show business.


 

The film has seen French, Spanish, Chinese and Italian releases, but so far North American licensors have yet to give Queen Millennia any sort of home video outing. I’ve no doubt the questionable performance of the mid 80s Harmony Gold series influenced decisions at some point, and the film’s then-groundbreaking production committee financing might make for complicated licensing rights. Acquiring rights to the Kitarō soundtrack can’t help but add an extra layer of licensing-lawyer billable hours to the whole mess. Even today in North America’s anime-saturated market here aren’t a lot of companies willing to go that extra Millennia mile, and this is a shame. Queen Millennia is like no other film inspired by Leiji Matsumoto works; it is first and foremost a tragedy, the desires and wishes and struggles of ordinary and even supernaturally advanced peoples meaningless against the immense, unstoppable power of the cosmos itself. Will fans of early 80s SF anime and fans of new age synthesizer soundscapes ever be able to come together in front of the TV and enjoy a film made just for them? Or will one of those rogue planets or out of control galaxies stumble out of outer space and smash us to bits first? I’d say odds are about even. See you in the underground caverns!

-Dave Merrill


 

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Star Blazers And The Start Of A Fannish Journey

Editor's note: So back in 1999, I was on an email mailing-list of Star Blazers fans we called "The Cosmolist". Seeing as how 1999 was the 20th anniversary of Star Blazers' first appearance on American TV, it seemed to me that we ought to put together a commemorative print fanzine, a "Cosmo-zine," if you will. Was it my idea? I can't remember. Fans on the list swapped ideas for articles - recipes, funny bumper stickers, a series of Troy McClure gags, and a lengthy piece by long time anime fan Walter Amos about experiencing Star Blazers for the first time. But the zine never came together, mostly because it was 1999 and everybody had more important things to do. Print fandom was being digitally replaced by websites, primitive social media, and the Cosmolist itself. Subsequently 1999 came and went without that Cosmozine, an unfulfilled promise that’s bothered me ever since, left me feeling like one of those Fans With Plans who talk a good game but never finish what they start. Sure, I’ve piled up a lot of completed projects, but one left undone always sticks up like a nail that needs hammering down.
Well at last, that nail is finally getting the hammer. Let's Anime now presents what would have been the centerpiece of 1999’s Cosmozine - Walter's memories of Star Blazers, a piece that not only details the experience of seeing the show for the first time, but also captures the zeitgeist of Star Blazers fandom at the turn of the century, a sentence I honestly never thought I'd write. Enjoy, and thanks for waiting these, uh, twenty-three years. -Dave Merrill 
 
 

Life in the Before Time: Star Blazers and The Start of a Fannish Journey
by Walter Amos 

1979. 

Twenty years ago.(Can it really be so long?) 

Jimmy Carter was President. The Shah of Iran was deposed, and Americans were introduced to a new political force: Islamic Fundamentalism. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, prompting us to boycott the 1980 Olympics. Margaret Thatcher was elected as Britain's first female Prime Minister. The first computer spreadsheet software, VisiCalc, began the process of convincing America that personal computers were more than mere toys. 

But none of that mattered to me. I was 12. What mattered to me was Star Blazers

Young fans discovering anime for the first time these days probably can't understand what it was like to be an anime fan back then, when most people (certainly my family) didn't even have VCRs, let alone laserdiscs or subtitles or all the other things that have made modern anime fandom possible. Journey back for a moment and hear one person's tale of a strange and wonderful Japanese TV show that changed the lives of a great many people. 

 Early in 1979, before Star Blazers aired for the first time (at least before I first saw it), I remember the other stuff I was into. I was always a science fiction fan, loving stuff like Star Trek (the Original Series, of course; the first Trek movie wouldn't come out for some months), as well as cartoons of all stripes. I suppose I've always had a certain predisposition toward animation in general, whether it was from Japan or not. I remember my parents finding it a little odd that I continued to watch Saturday morning cartoons well past the age at which they thought such things really "normal." 

Before Star Blazers first aired I was, oddly enough, into another Japanese import showing on weekday afternoon kidvid. A live action show. I doubt one person in fifty who reads this will remember the show Space Giants. And probably deservedly so. In retrospect the show was really pretty dorky. Space Giants was, I later learned, the U.S. adaptation of the live action Japanese TV version of a manga series titled "Ambassador Magma," created by the great "God of Manga" Dr. Osamu Tezuka. Its hero, the eponymous Magma (called "Goldar" in the US) was this giant metallic robot guy (who happened to be gold colored) who could transform into a giant golden space rocket and fly all over the place. Generally he spent most of his time flying to the places where the nefarious villain Rodak ("Goa" in Japanese) was attacking the helpless people of Earth in order to subjugate them under his iron-clad (or, well, at least foam-rubber-clad) heel. 

Now one major scene from the show involving Rodak really sticks in my mind (and is the main reason I am bringing this up at all in an article which is, after all, supposed to be about Star Blazers). In one of the early episodes we see Rodak (who is this curly-orange-haired devil sprouting little fangs and pointy ears and this ridiculous foam rubber body armor suit) briefing his faceless minions (literally! I mean all these guys were dressed in identical long black Supreme Court Justice robes and had black nylon panty hose over their faces. No, really.) on their plans to take over the Earth. While waving his arms dramatically back and forth he intones, "This is Earth, our next target. Our strategy shall be to send down giant monsters to destroy their cities. At first we shall concentrate our attacks in their Northern Hemisphere." 
 
 
Rodak: foam-rubber clad Space Giants villain

Now this is certainly a strategy destined to live in the annals of military history. Of course I don't know why he used the plural "monsters", because he only ever sent down one at a time. And usually to downtown Tokyo. I always wondered why he never saved up a few monsters and sent them to several cities at once. Or sent a bunch of them to gang up on Goldar who of course defeated the single monster he sent down every afternoon. Or maybe even sent the one somewhere else besides Tokyo. I mean, do you know how good the giant monster defenses must be in Tokyo considering they get hit with one at least once a month? I'd be willing to lay odds that Poughkeepsie, New York probably has no giant monster defenses of any kind whatsoever. 

"But what does this have to do with Star Blazers?" I hear you cry. I'm getting there. Some time later in the year Space Giants was replaced on WTAF TV Channel 29 in Philadelphia by another Japanese import. A cartoon this time. A cartoon about a really big battleship that flew out in space and had weapons like you would not believe. Now being a cartoon, in the American mindset it of course had to be for little kids, right? Well check out the basic premise of this cartoon for kids:

 Mankind is basically dead. The nefarious planet Gamilon has been dropping planet bombs on the Earth in an attempt to purge the planet of humanity so they can take over. The last remaining humans are cowering in under ground cities to escape the bombs and residual radiation, but within a year the radioactivity will seep deep enough into the surface to poison even these last redoubts so that humanity will be finished. 

Yup, comforting kiddie pablum. 

Now let's compare for a moment the basic badguy military strategies in these two shows. 

Space Giants: "We will send down monsters to destroy their cities." 

Star Blazers: "We will drop GIANT NUCLEAR BOMBS on them until everything on their planet is DEAD!" 

Can you understand why I and so many other people glommed on to this show as the greatest thing since sliced bread? This was something sui generis, totally unlike anything anyone on these shores had seen before.

Desslok Of Gamilon: More Style Than Rodak
 

But the Star Blazers cool factor didn't end there. It had: 

 • good guys - good guys mind you - flying around in a ship that had a gun that could kill planets. 

 • bad guys who could spend their days conquering the Universe looking cool all the while, and on the weekend could still get babes.  

• real human drama. My favorite example of this last one: As our heroes leave Earth's solar system in an attempt to retrieve a device from a distant planet which can remove the deadly radiation created by all those nasty nuclear bombs the bad guys were dropping on us, they begin to move outside the range of possible communication with Earth. Everyone on the ship is encouraged to say a last farewell to loved ones before moving out of range. At the end, the principal male hero, Derek Wildstar, is corralled by the ship's nurse, Nova, into the radio room to make his call. When she pokes her head into the room wondering why Wildstar has been avoiding making this call all day and is just sitting there not turning on the communicator, Wildstar shouts mournfully, 

"There's no one left for me to talk to on Earth!!" 

...whoa. 

if you wish to make a call please hang up and try again

 

And at the end of the same episode, as the last images of their home disappear off their viewscreen, being replaced by static and the blackness of space, the ship's radio operator intones,

 "We have now moved beyond communication range. From this point on communication with Earth will be impossible." 

...whoa. 

This was heavy stuff. Certainly unlike anything I'd ever seen on TV, and I couldn't get enough of it. 

Of course, the reason it was all so cool was because, unlike every other Japanese TV show imported to the US, the people who licensed this series made a remarkable and farsighted decision. They didn't screw with it. Again, this was something totally unheard of. These things almost always had to be "improved" for the American market. Compare Star Blazers to any other Japanese import of the time and you'll see what I mean. Take a few examples: 

• Music: Save for writing English lyrics to the opening and closing themes, all the music in Star Blazers is the original music heard in Japan. One would think this should be a natural thing to do, because NOT rewriting all the music would mean less work for the importing company. But no. More often than not when people decide to import popular Japanese TV shows, rather than stick with a proven popular score into which frequently great amounts of energy and creativity are invested, for some reason producers get the bright idea to have their cousin's kid's rock band do a score since it will be popular with the kiddies. And we end up with stuff like Reba West singing "Stage Fright" in Robotech and the incessant droning thumpa-thumpa-thumpa background music in G-Force. Ugh. Fortunately Westchester Films had the intelligence to realize that a theme song that could be popular enough to be referred to as "a second Japanese national anthem" probably had something going for it. 

• Story: Once again the good people at Westchester Films had the bright idea that a story that could catapult a show to record-breaking popularity in Japan from out of the morass of scores of run-of-the mill TV animation shows was probably something that didn't require a lot of "tweaking". Save for some fairly minor overall edits to bring the Japanese original in compliance with U.S. kid-TV broadcasting standards (can't show the kids that too many people die during a war after all) Star Blazers' storyline is in the main untouched. Compare this again with my favorite targets of derision, Robotech and Battle of the Planets. Robotech took three totally unrelated series and created a new hackneyed plot to try and glue these disparate things together.

Robotech and Battle Of The Planets

This required making action which takes place on alien planets appear to be taking place on Earth (including editing out all the footage of the multiple moons in the night sky). Battle of the Planets took the opposite approach, deciding to make action that all took place on Earth appear to be happening on other planets. There really is just no pleasing these people. 

• Episode Sequence: Like most Japanese animated drama series, the story in Yamato was told sequentially, developing from one episode to the next. This kind of story telling allows for much more sophisticated drama and the possibility that the characters may grow and change over the course of the show. And this is exactly why it couldn't be allowed to remain in most other imported shows. After all the idea that people can grow and change is probably too sophisticated for U.S. kids, right? 


 

Well, with all this and more going for it, I was certainly hooked, line and sinker, on the show back then in Junior High school. Ample testament to this fact can be found throughout most of my later Junior High and High school notebooks wherein the margins were festooned with little sketches of Gamilon space destroyers and guys in Desslok-style capes. But while I knew I was hooked, what was unknown to me for a few years was just how many other people were similarly hooked. 

The discovery of that fact would have to wait a few more years, until about 1981 or 82; because that was when I attended my first convention. Well I shouldn't really call it a convention, knowing better as I do now, but at the time I thought it had to be the most amazing happening ever. In New York in the late 70s and early 80s a sort of convention / dealer's show for Sci-fi fans had cropped up called "Creation Cons". Some of you may have heard of these. Basically they would usually get a guest or two from Star Trek to give a talk, show some movies, and have a large huckster's room where eager fans could buy all sorts of related merchandise. It is really these type of shows more than anything else that get lampooned in things like William Shatner's famous "Get a Life" sketch on Saturday Night Live. It was only later that I came to understand that these things were really not true conventions: nothing that ended at 7pm with no parties or fan-run programming could really be called a convention! But I didn't know any better yet. 

Anyway, round about '81 or '82, Creation decided to hold its first show in Philadelphia. To publicize it they sent out little cards to various people who would likely be interested in this sort of thing, including subscribers of Omni magazine, which I was at the time. So here I am with a little card indicating the big Star Trek con was coming to downtown Philly. After the requisite whining and pleading with the overprotective parental units to be permitted to take the train downtown by myself, I was able to go. Now as I recall the little card advertising this thing focused mainly on Star Trek, Star Wars, and other well known Sci-Fi shows of the time. This is of course what I was mainly expecting to see. 

Imagine then my shock and surprise when entering that magical dealers' room for the first time and finding that while, sure, there was some Trek stuff and so on, easily 75% of the dealer's tables seemed to be selling Star Blazers stuff! STAR BLAZERS STUFF!! I walked up and down the aisles like a kid in a candy store. Looking over the mysterious but beautiful color art books called "Roman Albums" (the meaning of that title not being explained to me until years later) I noticed something odd. By this point I had most of Star Blazers fairly well committed to memory, but looking over these books I saw numerous scenes obviously involving the characters from my favorite show, but not in any way resembling anything I could remember. Here was a picture of the generals in the throne room of the Comet Empire wearing uniforms unlike anything I could remember from the show. In fact the Generals themselves looked different too. And there was a picture of Leader Desslok sitting on a comfy couch having a friendly chat with . . . Derek Wildstar?!?! WHAT?? I turned to the dealer and pointed out some of these scenes and asked, "Hey what's the deal here? I have this show fairly well memorized but don't remember any of these scenes here." And I remember being told: 

"Oh, those are from one of the later movies." 

"What?" 

"Oh yeah, Yamato is like, bigger than Star Wars in Japan. They had a third series of the TV show and a bunch of full length movies."

 My young brain reeled. "Movies . . . There are Star Blazers movies . . . WHY AREN'T WE GETTING THESE OVER HERE?!?!" As I pondered this important question I continued to wander around spending all of my meager saved allowance on Roman Albums and art books, gleefully freeing myself from the need to continue photographing the TV screen. Oh I forgot to mention that did I? Ah let me backtrack for a moment. One of the other several things that attracted me to Star Blazers was that its spaceship and uniform designs were the coolest things since sliced bread. I simply had to learn how to draw things like that (hence the aforementioned notebook margin decorations.) Now at the time VCRs were available but they were still kind of expensive, and quite beyond my family's usual means. Not to mention that in my parents' view, anything that would allow me to watch more TV was probably evil to begin with. So with no VCR, I had to find some way of getting images of these cool ships and uniforms on record so that I could study how to draw them. I could think of no way to do this until one day, visiting a friend's house, I noticed on the table a Polaroid Instamatic photo taken of a TV screen showing another import anime series, Tranzor Z. The screen was only a 1-inch square in the middle of the photo and everything around it was black, but you could see what was on it! Inspired I began copiously wasting my father's Instamatic film attempting to preserve this remarkable show that I knew I would probably never see again. But now having found out that there were such things as Roman Albums, with wonderful full color and line art drawings of all the ships and characters in all kinds of perspectives all right there, the need for my father's camera disappeared. Hurrah! 


 

Even as I was blowing my allowance buying these books, I noticed also that there were books with characters in them that looked very much like those in Star Blazers but were in fact totally unrelated. Shows with names like Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. I began to learn that all these were the product of the creative genius of one man, Leiji Matsumoto. At the time I had no idea what these shows were about since there was no way I knew of to see them here in the USA, but I filed them away for future investigation. 

However I soon learned that I was wrong on that "no way to see them" point because, continuing to wander around the con, I noticed flyers around for a group of fans with an odd name called the "Cartoon/Fantasy Organization". Here were a bunch of people like me, who loved these weird Japanese cartoons, and who somehow could manage to get videotape copies of some of the aforementioned Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999, as well as the fabled Yamato movies I longed to see. And I later learned, people who thought very much like I did, people who also had stashes of Polaroid photos of TV screens and audio cassettes recorded off TV broadcasts in attempts to capture background music. Getting in touch with them and the nascent Star Blazers Fan Club, I was at least able to learn of the plot of some of these magical later Yamato shows. However the sad fact remained that my family was adamantly opposed to having one of those useless VCR machines in our home, so my ability to actually see these things for myself was stymied for a number of years, until I got to college. 


 

As my High School years progressed I continued to attend Creation Cons when I could (since these were the only conventions I had any means to get to.) As other new shows such as Britain's Dr. Who became popular I noticed that these Cons began to invite guests from these other shows as well. One of these was John Leeson, the man who played the voice of the Doctor's robotic dog, K-9. This set me thinking: "Why don't we try to invite the American voice actors who portrayed the characters in Star Blazers ?" Another of the features that set Star Blazers so far apart from the rest of the afternoon cartoon wasteland was that the voice acting was absolutely superb. These characters portrayed real emotions; despair, anger, joy. The strength of emotional scenes like the ones I mentioned earlier in this article could not have come across unless that actors dubbing the show took their job seriously, unlike so many other dub jobs where no matter what the nature or content of the show concerned, since it was a cartoon it was deemed to need "cartoony" voices. (Can you imagine what Star Blazers would have been if we had lines like "Hee-yuk! Guess it's time to fire that thar big ol' Wave Motion Gun, yesiree Bob!") 

Unfortunately such an appearance never took place, and I later learned that the American actors who had helped make Star Blazers a success had all sort of vanished off the face of the Earth, and the likelihood of ever finding most of them again was about as good as, oh, ever having an all anime convention where they would actually bring guests over from Japan. (Yeah right, like that was ever gonna happen!) 

Thanks to my new found contact with the Star Blazers Fan Club, I learned a year or two later that in fact the third season of Star Blazers had finally been dubbed and was available in the US! I wrote numerous letters to good old WTAF TV 29 in Philadelphia begging, pleading with them to pick up the show for broadcast, but to no avail. I later learned that, due to different licensing methods, this show was actually only ever shown in a tiny handful of cities around the country. Of course, I also later learned that not only could we fans not find the original voice actors to invite them to speak to us at a convention, but neither could the people at Westchester Films! They were forced to use a totally different voice cast and more importantly, different script writers as well, since there were a number of huge glaring continuity errors between the fondly remembered first two series and this third one. 

With the apparent failure to get Star Blazers season 3 on the air, there was little more I could do Japanese animation-wise for several years, at least until I got to college. Fortunately there I met numerous other likeminded people, people who had VCRs and cars with which we could travel to REAL conventions like Philcon in Philadelphia and Lunacon in New York. Conventions that didn't stop at 7pm. Conventions that had parties with booze! Conventions that had full-time anime screening rooms. And as a note to all you junior fans out there, these were called "Star Blazers rooms" for a number of years. It was at these cons in places like this that I finally got to see some of the other works by the amazing Mr. Matsumoto, as well as some other really mind blowing stuff like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Lupin III:Castle of Cagliostro by some guy named Hayao Miyazaki. 

With all these wonderful and shiny new things, and the Yamato franchise itself coming to an end in 1983 with the aptly named movie Final Yamato, Star Blazers gradually began to fade into the background. Anime fandom continued to grow and moved on to other things. For over a decade and half, despite the odd blip here and there, nothing much happened with Yamato and Star Blazers. So let's advance my anime time clock... 

past Saint Seiya... 

past Laputa: Castle in the Sky... 

past the invention of fan-subtitling (and all that did to broaden this fandom in which we find ourselves!)... 

past Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, past Wings of Honneamise, past Nadia of the Mysterious Sea, past Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Giant Robo... 

(and by the way, to those younger fans reading this, if you don't recognize any of the shows mentioned above, please CHECK THEM OUT! These things form some of the core of what made this fandom what it is today, and deserves to be recognized. There is more to anime after all than Dragonball, Sailor Moon, Ranma and Pokémon.) 

It is only within the last three or four years that some remarkable things have begun happening concerning Yamato fans once again. 

First, Japan is experiencing a wonderful resurgence in popularity of the works of Leiji Matsumoto. Several new anime productions based on his comics have been released in Japan and subsequently here, including The Cockpit and Queen Emeraldas. Viz Comics is publishing an English translation of his new Galaxy Express 999 comics (which features a cameo appearance by the Yamato itself!) and both dubs and subtitles of the Galaxy Express movies. The new Space Battleship Yamato Playstation game featuring new Matsumoto-style artwork has been a top seller in Japan for several months now and sequels are soon to be released. And perhaps best of all, a remake of the original Yamato story featuring snazzy new animation is slated for next year ("next year" meaning 2013- Dave). 

But for true old-time Star Blazers fans the biggest news has come thanks entirely to the growth of the Internet. As I mentioned earlier, it was nearly impossible to find any information about the American actors who played the voices in Star Blazers because few records were kept. The great dreams of Star Blazers fans - of locating these actors, meeting them at conventions, and maybe even creating that fannish holy grail: a dub of some of the later Yamato movies into English with the voices we knew and loved - it all seemed an unattainable fantasy. However, it was probably inevitable that with the explosive growth of the Internet, some highly motivated fans would create numerous Star Blazers web pages, and it was through one of these (specifically the superb Wave Motion Web Page) that the impossible happened. Webmaster Bud Cox received an e-mail about two years ago saying basically "Hi! I loved your web page. My brother found it on the Internet and said I should check it out, since I played Nova years ago!" 

Wowsers. Now you've gotta understand, after more than 15 years of hoping to locate any of these people with no success at all, to suddenly have "Nova" basically walk up and announce herself is like, say, being Sir Galahad and spending decades in search of the Holy Grail with no luck, and then one night to hear a knock on the door from a fellow who says, "Hi there, I'm Joseph of Arimathea. Would you mind holding this cup for me?" 

Being as excited as we were to find so much interest in her past work, Amy "Nova" Howard has been a guest at several regional anime conventions, to the delight of all who have had the chance to meet this vivacious lady. And better still, within just the past 8 months, with the help of Amy and further contact through the Wave Motion Web, we have also located Ken "Derek Wildstar" Meseroll and Tom "Mark Venture" Tweedy, both of whom will be making their first appearances in fandom at the upcoming Project A-Kon 10 convention. This amazing and totally unbelievable development, coupled with the resurgence of Leiji Matsumoto mentioned above and just in time for the 20th anniversary of Star Blazers, will make 1999 the most exciting time for Yamato fans since, well, since those glorious days in the early 80s when anime was new and its American fandom didn't even exist. And considering how far we have all come since those days in the "Before Time", I think that means some really amazing things are yet to come. 

I can't wait.

 


Thanks to Walter Amos for this article, and my apologies for the delay in publication. See you in 2029, Star Blazers fans!