Friday, July 24, 2009

Spaced-Out Japanimation, Man

Back in the misty ages of the past - we're talking the 1990's- when the twin trip-hammer blows of POKEMON and SAILOR MOON had blasted an American pop consciousness already reeling from the art-house opus AKIRA and the cries of disbelief as entire divisions of college sophomores entertained their dateless peers with sensual, late-night screenings of LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND and NINJA SCROLL... there came a time when the Eighth Seal was opened and THE TRUTH was revealed to America's home video marketing executives.

This TRUTH was, of course, that we'd now reached a point in Western civilization where people would buy DAMN NEAR ANYTHING that had a Japanese cartoon character on it. I'm talking skateboards. "Hook-Ups" T-shirts. Comics drawn in the "manga style" by Americans. And, of course, videos! Videos of new anime releases, videos of anime movies, and videos of anime TV shows from twenty years ago that have been through the "public domain" mill so many times that the "public" is looking desperately around for somebody to take over the copyright just to get it out of the "$1.99 Movies" bin at the Wal-Mart to make way for Dorf golfing videos and remaindered copies of "Batman Forever".

But how to sell goofily-dubbed primitive Toei super robot cartoons to the sophisticated American retailer? One word - packaging.

And that's how Parade Video (distributor of, among other things, the incredible Peter Sellers film THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) came to unleash SPACED-OUT JAPANIMATION on the world! Yes, SPACED-OUT JAPANIMATION, the amazing 4-tape set that satisfies ALL your Japanimation needs,as long as your Japanimation needs include "buying a Christmas present for that nephew who will NOT SHUT UP about something called "Japanimation". How many kids asked Santa for, say, GUNDAM WING or ESCAFLOWNE videos, and instead found SPACED OUT JAPANIMATION under the tree? Many a forced grin and a stammered "Thanks, Grandpa!" would be heard on Christmas morning that year, I can tell you!

Sold through your snappier mall video outlets like the late, lamented Suncoast Video, SPACED-OUT JAPANIMATION stands as a testament both to the staying power of cheap, public domain video AND to a public's brief but intense love affair with those big-eyed Japa-heeno cartoons. Not to mention the "throw it all up there and slap a gradiated logo on it" design aesthetic of the 1990s, where minimalism and taste were abandoned in favor of FLAMES!!! and METALLIC SHEEN!!! If there isn't a van out there with this artwork airbrushed on the side, I can only ask "why not?"

And yet, SPACED-OUT JAPANIMATION is not without its charms. This 4-tape set devotes one tape each to the 1970s Toei series GRANDIZER, SPACEKETEERS, GAIKING, and STARVENGERS - all Jim Terry dubs from the seminal super robot TV package FORCE FIVE that entertained us all in the fall of 1980 when the world was young and we wanted nothing more than to climb into a flying saucer that jammed itself into a giant robot armed with "hydro-phasers" and "space thunder" like in GRANDIZER. Grandizer, or "UFO Robo Grendizer" as it is sometimes known, is of course the 1974 Go Nagai-created Toei anime series that picked up right where one of the MAZINGER series left off, as it stars MAZINGER's Koji Kabuto in a supporting role. Koji's well-known bad-assery is overshadowed by that of Grandizer's pilot, the even angrier and more destructive Duke Freed, whose entire planet was destroyed by aliens from Vega who have followed him to Earth to finish the job. Luckily, Duke Freed - or "Orion" as he's known in the West - has the super robot Grandizer with which to exact vengeance. 

Three pilots, three robots, no waiting: Starvengers
STARVENGERS, being a localization of the sequel to Go Nagai's GETTA ROBO, starts off confusingly as the damaged original Getta Robo is demolished and an unidentified fallen hero is mourned (GETTA's Musashi). But the series picks right up with a new super robot and enlightens us all to the possibility of 3 jet planes that combine to form three different super robots to battle the Pandemonium Empire, a horned race of devils, one of whom is apparently a Hitler cosplayer. Can't make this stuff up, kids. Well, somebody can. Just not me. 

Gaiking gets the "oriental restaurant" font for its title
GAIKING asks the anime question, what if an alien planet was destroyed by a black hole and the aliens attacked Earth which was defended by a giant robot space dragon that launched a horned super robot piloted by people dressed as baseball players? What if? What if the series was originally pitched to Toei by, yes, Go Nagai, who was to see it developed and broadcast without further input or approval or residuals, which would then sever his relationship with Toei for decades to come? And what if GAIKING managed to wring reasonably entertaining adventures starring the Space Dragon, the Gaiking robot, and his fellow dinosaur-mechas battling Zelons on Mt. St. Helens? What if, huh?

Hero, fat guy, mean guy, princess, Spaceketeers

SPACEKETEERS is the odd show out in this set, lacking the giant robots and legions of enemy mechanical brutes attacking Earth. A Leiji Matsumoto creation, under its original title SF SAIYUKI STARZINGER the series was yet another animated adaptation of the "Journey To The West" legend, dressed up with cyborg space warriors in well-armed space scooters, the impressive Cosmos Queen starship, and Princess Aurora, whose beauty entranced us all whether she was sporting her space miniskirt or her space prom dress.

Missing from the SPACED-OUT JAPANIMATION set is DANGUARD ACE, the series where Leiji Matsumoto really started working out his Velikovsky theories about tenth planets careening wildly through our solar system. But there's only room for 4 tapes in tha box; something had to go.

The benefit of a wide early 1980s home video release from Family Home Entertainment, the FORCE FIVE shows could be found in episodic and compilation-film versions in your neighborhood video rental shops. A few years later, incredibly cheap, poorly-transferred public-domain video releases of the same tapes, with new titles like "Robo-Formers" and "Zalo," began to appear in drugstores and discount shops across the land.

On first glance, SPACED OUT JAPANIMATION would appear to be just another cheap, 6-hour speed public domain copy of a copy of a copy release of our old Force Five favorites. But the surprising fact is that, even though these tapes are recorded in the penny-pinching SLP 6-hour mode, the transfers are actually pretty good. Better, in fact, than the video quality of the bootleg DVD sets that are floating around. When we consider that the FHE tapes are starting to disintegrate because of their age, SPACED OUT JAPANIMATION becomes a possible alternative to our other choice, which is the unthinkable possibility of never watching SPACEKETEERS ever again. And we can't let that happen.

SPACED OUT JAPANIMATION - exploitative bargain-basement video release? Signpost of a time when anime ruled the video stores? Or valuable part of your balanced Japanese cartoon collection? It's all these things... and more.

-Dave Merrill

(editor's note, 2017: The original Japanese Gaiking TV series has been released on DVD from Discotek Media. English-dubbed Gaiking, Spaceketeers and Danguard Ace compilation film DVD sets have been released by William Winckler. Grandizer and Starvengers remain spaced-out.)

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

challenge to remember the go-bots

Back in May at Anime North I sat in on the "classic anime" panel, where the topic of conversation sort of meandered amusingly, and we were rude to kids in the hall (not THE Kids In The Hall, just some actual kids in the actual hall) who were interrupting our important discussion with their tremendously annoying squeals. At one point, discussing the way Japanese toys made it over to North America in the 1980s sometimes without benefit of TV series support or any familiarity with the shows in question -a topic I've covered here before-, my befogged brain twitched and served up a tidbit of memory of a certain toy. Released as part of the "Go-Bots" line of transforming robot toys, this plaything was actually from SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA, the Buichi Terasawa manga turned into the TMS anime series all about Cobra and his Psycho-Gun and the various sexy ladies that help him on his sexy outer space adventures. Wow, I hadn't thought about that toy in a long time, not since I was in high school working part time at K-Mart and killing time wandering through the toy aisle marvelling at how K-Mart was selling Xabungle toys and Dunbine toys and who knows what else.

At any rate a couple of weeks later we were rooting through an antique mall and lo and behold, there it was, the "Go-Bot" in question. Five dollars and an inane conversation with the clerk about it being a "Transformer" later, and it was mine! Proof my brain is still the boss!

Given the name "Psycho", this space-age sports car was a proud addition to the mighty "Go-Bots" line of toys. But if the "Go-Bots" were all poorly-animated sentient robots who transformed into vehicles for the benefit of chortling, easily amused preschoolers, then why are there two human shaped people sitting in the passenger seats?

That's because this toy was originally known as the "Psychoroid", the passenger vehicle of the definitely-not-for-preschoolers Cobra, a freebooting space adventurer with a powerful laser gun built into his left arm, a sexy robot companion, and a taste for the full-figured gals that exist only in the mind of Buichi Terasawa.

Bandai licensed the toy out to Europe who took out the missile launchers, renamed it the "Future Machine", and happily passed it on to America, who were pleased to get yet another transforming robot toy to cram onto the overstuffed shelves of toy stores across the nation.

With a few clicks and turns this sporty speedster becomes an amazingly clumsy robot that barely looks as if it can stand on its own, let alone help Cobra or the "Go-Bots" battle in the far flung world of the future.

Cobra inspired an interesting line of toys, as seen here captured in photos from "My Anime" magazine.

Who wouldn't want a toy of Cobra's utilitarian spaceship "Turtle", as well as a toy Psychogun to wear on their very own arm? The schoolyard bullies will definitely respect you once you start waving that Psychogun around.

Also released as "Go-Bot" model kits were two mecha from the Tatsunoko series MOSPEADA. One was an Alpha Fighter relabeled as good "Go-Bot" leader "Leader One", and the other was a Mospeada Cyclone bike renamed as "Go-Bot" villain "Cy-Kill". You know, because he's a motorcycle, and he's evil. That's the kind of subtle understatement we've come to expect from American cartoons of the 1980s. And yes, I'm aware "Go-Bots" were based around a Japanese toy line called "Machine Robo", except for the ones that were from "Diaclone", and that some of the "Machine Robo" toys became "Go-Bots" and some became "Transformers". And I totally do not care. Toy lines that aren't based on cartoons about Psycho-Guns and/or sexy space ladies are of no interest to me.

So, farewell to the "Go-Bots"! So long suckers! Give my regards to the "Rock Lords!"

-Dave Merrill

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