Saturday, July 30, 2022

Anime North: Dateline 1997

1997 was the year Titanic broke box office records, Seinfeld and ER battled for the top TV ratings, and Japanese animation like Princess Mononoke and End Of Evangelion solidified the medium’s grip on an international audience starved for that brand of entertainment. Meanwhile in Toronto, a province-wide coalition of anime fans were gathering to start what would become Canada’s largest anime convention, and indeed, the largest not-for-profit fan event in the entire country, Anime North. 

 

Recently the convention held their first festival since 2019, coming back after two years of pandemic closure. The question of whether or not the show would survive was answered with a resounding YES, with record-breaking attendance numbers proving Anime North’s resilience.

Myself, I didn’t get up here until Anime North was well under way. So, I missed the first Anime North, which happened on August 9, 1997 at the Michener Institute of Education, a specialist post-secondary institution devoted to applied health sciences education, just north of Dundas and west of University, three blocks from the AGO, six blocks from where the Beguiling is now, and just around the corner from where the bus station used to be.

It’s been twenty-five years since the convention began, so I reached out and asked some of that Class Of ‘97 about their Anime North experiences. This is what they had to say.


Karl Zaryski (attendee of the first and every subsequent Anime North): In 1994 I got to university, and I immediately joined the anime club (CTRL-A - The Club That Really Likes Anime) and for the first time had internet access and was able to read things like the rec.arts.anime newsgroup. I devoured what information I could find, I downloaded anime scans from FTP sites and printed them on the university's colour laser printers for $1 per sheet, and I got into VHS fansub trading.

CTRL-A held (at the time) three shows per term, six hours per show. I got introduced to Ah, My Goddess! (which was playing when I arrived at my first ever show), Ranma ½, Appleseed, My Neighbour Totoro, Giant Robo, and all sorts of amazing new stuff. (I asked my parents to order a copy of the Totoro dub at Christmas 1994, and it came with a mail-in offer for a Totoro plushie. That plushie is on the shelf above my head as I type this.)

 

Greg Taylor (Attendee of the first and 20+ Anime Norths): I heard [about Anime North] through the local anime club... which I'm FAIRLY sure was the one in Ottawa (Club Anime) since I was on a work term there in Summer 1997. A bunch of us drove down to Toronto for it (someone rented a van). Though it's possible I heard about it at CTRL-A in Waterloo first (where I was at University in Winter 1997). 
 
Karl: In May 1995 I had a co-op term working at the Ministry of Transportation in Toronto, so I was living with my grandparents near Bathurst and Wilson. I posted a question into rec.arts.anime as to whether there were any anime clubs in Toronto, and got a response back that a new one was just about to hold its first show. So, I was at the first UTARPA (University of Toronto Anime and Role Playing Association) show, which I believe counts as the beginning of organized anime fandom in the city. I counted a total of 16 people in the audience.
 
There was a bit of other anime going on in Toronto in those early days. In June 1995 there was the Ad Astra science fiction convention, which had an anime video room. I remember watching Luna Varuga, Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko, and maybe Dragon Half and Vilgust.



In Fall 1995, the DIC Sailor Moon dub started to be broadcast on YTV, and it was being heavily promoted and put into premium timeslots which brought it, and anime at large, into the spotlight. This really added to UTARPA's numbers; I think they were getting a couple hundred people out to their shows by mid-1996. During that time, I was back in Waterloo (or at my parents') but I was able to get to a few of the monthly UTARPA shows by bus or car.

CTRL-A was at a peak of its membership; I know that in the Fall 1996 term we had 396 members, making us the second-largest club on the Waterloo campus behind the Chinese Students Association. This was back when anime was expensive and hard to locate, so getting three or four evenings of it in a term for $5 was a pretty good value.

In August 1995, I see that Don Simmons made this post in rec.arts.anime.fandom to advertise the beginning of the planning for what would become Anime North.
 
the Toronto fan convention scene in the 1990s

Donald Simmons (first chairman of Anime North): In the mid-90s there were five anime clubs in the Toronto area, three SF cons [Ad Astra and Toronto Trek joined by media convention Primedia] and anime cons were starting to become a thing in the US. I thought that there was certainly enough interest in the city now to support an anime con of our own. I had a few years working at Ad Astra as the Dealer's Room organizer, and several helping to run UTARPA [and] had been thinking of volunteering to join up in the major planning of Ad Astra, but decided instead on founding a new anime con.

 
I had a flyer made up (by Shaindle!) which I distributed around to the anime clubs suggesting we start an anime con in Toronto, and arranged a meeting of everyone who was interested in helping. I was the con chair, several of the UTARPA staff joined up, and we got volunteers from other clubs and fans at large. Some of us knew each other, some of us didn't. I think I met [Anime North Programming Director] Eileen McEvoy at a Primedia.

the first moments of Anime North 1997

 
Karl: I don't recall any major problems like overcrowding, but I think that everyone's expectations were moderate. It [the first Anime North] felt mostly like an extra-large, extra-long UTARPA show, plus a dealers room, some panels, and I think there was at least a modest cosplay contest.


 

Because [the Michener Institute] was an academic building, the spaces we were using were parts of the first two floors and then part of (I think) the ninth floor, which was a bit of an odd spreading out.

 

Anime North 1997 costume contest



Greg: No big expectations that I recall. I'd hoped to pick up some merchandise. (And I did get some CDs.) Possibly was interested in seeing fans and cosplay (certainly took some photos of that). And since it only ran on Saturday, it let me visit with my parents on Sunday (they live not far from Toronto) before heading back. 
 
I'd only been to one Toronto Trek previously. As I recall that [convention] was more about the guest stars (at least for me), whereas here it was more about the fan community. (It's not that Toronto Trek didn't have community, it's just with Voyager running as the 3rd Trek series of the 90s, Trek was more visible than anime. It was bigger, you didn't have to hunt for it.)

 

Anime North 1997 panel

 

Donald: That we were doing something new to a lot of us was one of the big reasons I wanted to start small with a one day event, which limited the amount of work required and the things that could go wrong. 
 
We based the con off of how fan-run SF cons ran, as that was what we were most familiar with. Panel rooms, video rooms, convention lounge for attendees (that got dropped after a few years), an Art Show rather than the Artist Alley that's popular now. I'd been to a Creation Con or two and didn't like them much, they were all about everyone sitting down and consuming content. I think something we've tried to emphasize over the years is making the con a fan participatory event, something with events people can take part in, rather than just sitting (and spending). 


Sailor Moons Over the Michener

Karl: I remember at one point there was a lineup for using the washrooms, and so I decided to sneak onto one of the floors which the con wasn't using to find a washroom there. As I was about to go into the men's room there I bumped into a girl dressed as Sailor Mercury who was just coming out of it... She was quite embarrassed, and asked me to wait until her (also female) friend inside finished changing into her costume.
 
I seem to remember Derwin Mak was presenting some (cosplay) awards, and was in what looked like a military dress uniform. He wore that uniform (or something similar) for many many years after... I have no idea if it's a real uniform or cosplay. 



 

Norm McEvoy (Anime North Video Programming director): Telling people the medical specimens in the lobby were an Evangelion display and they believed it. 
 
Greg: Partly amazed it's endured (particularly after the Regal Constellation issues, and now the pandemic). I think that's in part due to keeping up with the times. Sending out the passes in advance was huge when that started, since now that I live in Ottawa, Friday night became an impossibility for making the drive there in time to pick them up.

Anime North 1997 programming schedule

 

Attending also became more of a chance to meet up with old friends (like Karl) versus getting to see shows, buy merchandise, or even be on panels. But the latter was obviously still a draw, since I went for over 20 years straight, even with there being the local AC-Cubed convention in Ottawa for a few years in there. Oh, and I'm partly amused now that AN has shifted back into July.



 

Norm: [I remember] actually being on the very first Anime North panel [“Saturday Morning Fever”, 10am, Main Panel Room]. Lots of Sailor Moon stuff, because the show was then (and still is) popular with Canadian fans. The absolute sense of relief when it was over and it was a success.


Anime North 1997 staff badge

 

Donald: I don't really remember much about how the con ran that day, which I suppose means it ran pretty well. That again is the advantage of a one-day event. We certainly got more people than we thought we'd get, nearly 800 when i was hoping for maybe 500 (needed about 300 to break even), but the space was big enough to handle that. 


Anime North 1997 Programme Book

Karl: Oh, yeah, I should talk about "Convention Anime". A lot of this is vague recollections and second-hand information, so take its reliability with a grain of salt.
 
So, a fellow named (IIRC) Robert Wong had run an anime club at the University of Ottawa, called "Club Anime". Then he was running a club in Toronto under the same name. I only ever dealt with him briefly, but people I knew who knew him tended to speak negatively about him. *After* Anime North's date had already been announced for August 1997, Robert announced that he was going to be holding "Convention Anime" on a date in July 1997, presumably to be able to claim the title of the first anime convention in Canada. There's a usenet post about it here.

My recollection of it was that it was pretty small and disorganized. At one point Robert basically pointed at me and told me to make sure nobody went into one of the video rooms between shows. That was a bit odd since I wasn't a volunteer, but I spent a few minutes doing some crowd control to try to help out. Anyway, after that one event, "Convention Anime" seemed to disappear into oblivion pretty quickly.

Unlike “Convention Anime”, Anime North would survive and thrive. The festival spent two years in the Michener, a year at a Ramada by the airport (attendance 850), a year at a Ramada with “Airport” in its name but not actually near the airport which later hosted comic and card shows and then was leased by the government to house refugees and to quarantine COVID patients, a year at the Marriott by the airport, and then two years at legendary Toronto hotel the Regal Constellation (4900 attendees), which was demolished in 2012.


 In 2004 Anime North moved to its present home at the Toronto Congress Centre & the Delta Hotel. Guests over the years include such notables as CB Cebulski, Colleen Doran, Ben Dunn, Steve Bennett, Fred Ladd, Sailor JAMboree, Scott McNeil, Stan Sakai, Senno Knife, Tommy Yune, Peter Fernandez, Corinne Orr, Haruko Momoi, J. Michael Tatum, Kumiko Watanabe, Robert Axelrod, Noboyuki Hiyama, Helen McCarthy, Hidekatsu Shibata, Neil Nadelman, Yuu Asakawa, and Ed The Sock, and the convention has grown from merely videos and vendors to include doll programming, comedy improv, music and dance performances, late-night parking lot raves, a great food truck lineup, fashion shows, game shows, video gaming, board gaming, and cosplay, lots of cosplay. Paid attendance at Anime North in 2022 was over 30,000 and it definitely felt like it. 

a small part of Anime North 2022

 Anime North will next appear on May 26-28, 2023. See you there! 
 
A big Let’s Anime thanks to Karl Zaryski, Greg Taylor, Donald Simmons, and Norm McEvoy for their recollections and assistance! 
 
-Dave Merrill

 























Friday, July 1, 2022

Anime North is back!


Well, we're back. Anime North returns to the Toronto Congress Centre and the Delta Hotel on Dixon Rd. (you know, out by the airport) for its 25th year of Japanese animation convention fun! Cosplay! Guests! Vendors! Late-night dances! Events! Videos! Gaming! All the fun you missed in 2020 and 2021 is back and in full force this year at Anime North. What are some of the can't-miss events at the con this year? Wig dyeing! Ninja Weapons Of Death! Kingdom Hearts Trivia! The Nominoichi swap meet! The Strongest Trees In Anime! Gundam Trivia Gameshow! Steampunk Hacks For Thrift Store Finds! Guests like Aaron Dismuke, Kara Eberle, Richard Epcar, Caitlin Glass, Morgan Lauré, Ellyn Stern, Arryn Zech, and Neil Nadelman!
 
BUT you may ask, what am *I* up to in two weeks? Up to my usual nonsense, that's what. 


Friday night at 9:30pm I'll be in the TCC North Ballroom presenting two hours of what has become a must-see event - Anime Hell. This kooky clip show train has been chugging along for years and shows no sign of stopping, which is a little concerning.


Saturday at 2 I'm taking a trip back in time to check out what Toronto's fan convention scene looked like before Anime North was even a thing. Failed cons, fan feuds, and demolished hotels are all part of this journey. It's happening in International B in the Delta!


Saturday night at 8 in International C, Dr. Neil Nadelman, PhD (Pretty hilarious Doctor) unleashes the goofiest Japanese animation that Japan ever animated and then wished it hadn't as part of his Totally Lame Anime treatment!


And Sunday at 3:30 we erase forty years of time and visit 1982 to check out what the Japanese anime scene was screening on their TV and movie screens in that eventful year. It's happening in International B in 2022!

If YOU want more information on Anime North please visit us at Anime North in two weeks! Or, right now, point your web browser to www.animenorth.com!

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Blue Sonnet On It


When the five part Crimson Fang: Blue Sonnet original video series was released in 1989, American anime fans immediately thought of one thing - the margarine brand "Blue Bonnet." But even without any knowledge of Masahiro Shibata's original Crimson Fang manga, fans in the US immediately grasped familiar story beats, which include an evil organization bent on world conquest, innocent youngsters turned into fighting cyborgs, latent ESP awakened by stress or disaster, and the old standby, a Japanese high school where students secretly have amazing powers. Blue Sonnet’s story was digestible even without English translation. The terrific theme song by GO! helped seal the deal, and even if the anime doesn't quite live up to the promise of the OP, we felt it was worth at least a watch in 1989, and still do today.


Matsusaka City native son mangaka Masahiro Shibata debuted in 1973 with “The Sea Of White Roses” and spent some time as assistant to Sukeban Deka creator Shinji Wada before hitting it big with his most successful work, Crimson Fang: Blue Sonnet, a sprawling eight-part (19 volumes) shoujo-manga SF epic published from 1975-1986 in Hana to Yume, Deluxe Margaret and Bessatsu Margaret. The series focuses on the life of Ran Komatsuzaki, the titular Crimson Fang. Ran is that most stereotypical of Japanese pop culture characters, a super-powerful psychic girl whose immense abilities both prevent her from having a normal life and make her the target for those would use those powers for, say it with me, eeeEEEeevil. By the time the Blue Sonnet OVA appeared, Shibata had moved on to other projects, his next big series being the post-apocalyptic combat maid series Sarai, which ran in Shonen Gahosha’s Young King for a decade starting in 1998.


But let’s put some Blue Sonnet on it, shall we? Turns out the new student at Tokyo’s Osei High School is actually Sonnet, a super powerful ESPer girl rebuilt into a combat cyborg by Dr. Josef Merikus under orders of the evil world-domination conspiracy TALON (Directive No. 1, released July 16, 1989). Sonnet is enrolled at Osei to check up on student Ran Komatsuzaki, whom TALON suspects is also a powerful ESPer. And they're correct; not only was Ran orphaned in a plane crash and raised by wolves and later by her father’s friend Jin Kiryu, but it also turns out she’s harboring the immense psychic power of the entity known as Crimson Fang (Directive No. 2, released September 25, 1989). After a few arranged incidents Sonnet is convinced of Ran's power, but at the same time is confused by the friendship and warmth of normal human society (Directive No. 3, released November 25, 1989). Will Sonnet's loyalty to TALON and their world domination plans win out over her long-suppressed humanity? Is there a blooming romance between Ran and Shuichi “Bird” Torigai? What happens when the nurse at Osei High finds out Sonnet is a cyborg? Will Ran survive Sonnet’s attacks, and will her humanity endure possession by the Crimson Fang (Directive No. 4, released March 25, 1990)? Can Kiryu, Ran’s little brother Wataru and the esper Yuri invade the TALON fortress and rescue Ran? Will Ran’s romance with Bird – aka renegade Cyborg RX-606 – be allowed to flower, or end in tragedy (Directive No. 5, released June 25, 1990)?

Produced by several different studios including AIC, Mushi Production and Tatsunoko, the Blue Sonnet anime is very much a product of the late 1980s. The original manga’s story and characters are compressed severely, and we’re left with generic OVA-style characters staring into computer monitors, Bubble-Era Tokyo scenery being smashed, and square-faced middle-aged men with glasses hollering orders in high-tech laboratories, instead of the knock-down, drag-out Sonnet vs Ran fight the OP promised.

 

If you’ve seen a sci-fi OVA from the 80s you know what you’re going to be seeing in Blue Sonnet – lots of high-tech control rooms filled with data readouts, corporate office blocks headquartering the dastardly conglomerates bankrolling our conspiracy, and underground bases guarded by sensors, jumpsuited goon squads, and mechanical man-killing monsters.

 

The sketchy, zip-a-tone energy of manga is difficult to translate to the TV screen, and the dramatic freeze-frames and expressionistic background effects of shoujo manga seem to suffer most. Blue Sonnet is no exception, the melodramatic emotional beats of the story struggling to overcome pedestrian animation and generic late 1980s character design. Regarding the OVA series, Shibata himself commented “It was too bad to be talked about.” Director Takeyuki Kanda was a veteran of Mushi Pro and Sunrise – he directed Dougram, Galatt The Great, and his masterpiece Round Vernian Vifam – but translating years of manga story into five direct-to-video chapters might not have been the best opportunity for him to shine. The same could be said for Blue Sonnet producer Walker Company, which went bankrupt after the release of the 4th episode.


To American anime fans who weren’t familiar with the manga, Blue Sonnet seemed like just one more entry in a Blockbuster shelf full of big-eyed girls hollering while their latent psychic powers make everything explode. It’s no surprise the subtitled Central Park Media release failed to make much of an impact. The anime market of the early 1990s was still looking for the next Akira, and Blue Sonnet is definitely not that. But then again, what is? For all its faults, 30 years on we still have that kickin’ theme song in our head, and that’s proof Blue Sonnet still counts for something. The video is long out of print but you can find them on the YouTubes if you yourself want to watch Ran explode into Crimson Fang, see Sonnet recover her humanity, and perhaps find out, what is love? 

-Dave Merrill 

A version of this article originally ran in Patrick Ijima-Washburn's fanzine Mangaverse.


 



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