Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kokusai Eiga-sha Part Two: International Movies

(Where were we…let’s see.  BRYGER, yes, HONEY HONEY, all right,  ACROBUNCH, sure, NANAKO SOS... okay... BAXINGER!

1982 would see the return of the J9 in GINGA REPPU BAXINGER or “Galactic Gale Baxinger” as the toy helpfully puts it. 600 years after the climax of BRYGER, the fragile peace of the fifty-planet Solar System is being disrupted by revolutionaries who may be in league with invaders from another star. To defend the government, aristocrat Diego “Don Condor” Kondo invokes the spirit of the first J9 team and sets up the Galactic Whirlwind Baxinger, a 250-man team of outer space biker commandos ready to troubleshoot disaster wherever it may appear. Together with Shtekken Radcliffe, firearms expert Mahoroba “Billy the Shot” Shiro, melee weapon stylist Lily “the Butterfly” Mineri, and supercool samurai Samanosuke “Slugger Sama” Dodii, they pit the expanding-plasma combination super robot Baxinger against all comers.  The story of BAXINGER loosely follows Japan’s late Tokugawa era, when civil war erupted between factions who wanted to see the Emperor restored to full power and those who supported the Tokugawa government, which recruited an army of wandering samurai to defend the capital. Known as the Shinsengumi, their exploits would inspire novels, films, TV drama, manga, video games, and the occasional anime series (GINTAMA, RURONI KENSHIN). 

BAXINGER doujinshi circa 1983

The fate of the Shinsengumi looms over BAXINGER; obviously the Tokugawa shogunate no longer rules Japan, so you already know this one isn’t going to end well for our heroes. The conflicts between different factions within the Solar System become increasingly Byzantine and self-serving, the Bakufu government finds it harder to maintain any authority, and J9-II is caught in the middle. Like BRYGER they find themselves overwhelmed by events, but their honor as 28th-century samurai keeps BAXINGER’s heroes from fleeing the Solar System, instead choosing to meet their fate head-on.  Reflecting the show’s feudal roots, the costume design and general look of the show is colorful, ornate, almost Byzantine; the K. Kazuo character designs are typically classy, and we’re given a great theme song and what may be the best ED song of all time, Naomi Masuda’s “Asteroid Blues”.  The Baxinger robot itself is almost Art Nouveau in its impracticality; buy one of the Takatoku toys and then see for yourself how the chest plate prevents arm movement.  BAXINGER ran from July ’82 until March of ’83, and it would be April before the next incarnation of J9. In the meantime Kokusai Eiga filled the gap with a mission to outer space. 

Farewell, BAXINGER!

MISSION OUTER SPACE: SRUNGLE (“Akudaisakusen Srungle”) ran for a full year as a sort of combination A-TEAM and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. The Srungle team is known as “The Gorilla Force”; they’re a gang of specialist operatives piloting what could charitably be called the least attractive super robot machines ever designed, in order to battle the evil criminal organization known helpfully as “Crime”. This all takes place in what’s called “Outer Space Zone”, a giant stretch of the cosmos that’s been given gravity and atmosphere. Humans have colonized a large city and several asteroids within the Zone, which is governed by “Galac Space”. Civilization itself hangs in the balance as the Gorilla Force – Captain Chance, Jet, Super Star, Sexy, Baby Face, and Bill Bixby as The Magician – battle the machinations of Crime. 

SRUNGLE somehow overcomes its difficulties and delivers 50 episodes of a complex plot, nutty cameos (Pac-Man, Gundam, Edvard Munch’s THE SCREAM), and increasingly unattractive robots to conclude via showdown with the Emperor Of Darkness and a giant space brain. A more detailed overview of SRUNGLE can be found at the Roketto Panchii blog , well worth a read to flesh out the SRUNGLE universe.  American audiences were treated to a “Robotech” style mashup of SRUNGLE and Ashi Pro series GOSHOGUN, dubbed and broadcast by Saban as “Macron 1”, in which characters from one show did their thing, characters from another show did their completely separate thing, and occasionally they spoke to each other via cross-dimensional television.  Merchandise-wise, SRUNGLE toys were made by Clover (who also had the Gundam license for about ten minutes) and Poplar, who specialized in cheap dime-store stuff. Both companies went out of business after attempting to merchandise SRUNGLE. 


Next up at bat for MIC was the third J9 series, GINGA SHIPPU SASURAIGER. “Sasuraiger” comes from the Japanese “sasurai” or “wander”, and that’s just what the heroes of J9-III do – wander through the Solar System in their giant robot/space locomotive to fulfill the conditions of a cosmic wager. A century or so after the events of BAXINGER, disowned rich kid/computer genius Bruce Carl Bernstein – aka “IC Blues” – finds himself on the pleasure asteroid J9-Land making a gentleman’s wager with Max Girth, head of the “Bloody Syndicate”.  If Blues can travel to all fifty planets of the Solar System in one years’ time, he’ll get everything Max owns – but if he fails, all Blues gets is a bullet in the head.  Luckily Blues has an ace up his sleeve – the 23 meter tall transforming giant robot “Sasuraiger” and a crew to pilot her on this crazy gamble. Harmonica-playing gunslinger Rock “Straight-shooting” Anrock,  mechanical genius Beat “Otoboke” Mackenzie, sexy secret agent turned super thief Birdie “Kimagure” Show, and young lovers Jimmy Kenzo and Suzie Chan join IC on his wild ride around the planets, leaving Blues’ signature on prominent planetary landmarks while dodging the efforts of an increasingly desperate Bloody God.  Refereed by Joanna Carlisle, who owns the largest news syndication service in the System, the outrageous bet also catches the attention of Detective Chief Orlen, whose duty demands he track down IC Blues but whose personal feelings about the case may differ.

SASURAIGER’s light-hearted tone, evident from the first bars of the cheery theme song, sung by MOTCHIN aka groupsounds guru Ai Takano, is a real change after the sturm und drang of BAXINGER’s climax.  There is, however, excitement aplenty as Blues and company challenge Bloody God’s thugs across the System, and is that our old friend Khamen Khamen over there enjoying godhood? It just might be! Reports vary as to whether or not it was dubbed into English as “Wonder Six” and/or shown in Indonesia, but no direct English-language evidence has surfaced other than Enoki Films’ promotional material. Takatoku marketed a whole line of Sasuraiger toys including a train-to-robot transforming Sasuraiger confusingly labeled “Batrain”.  SASURAIGER would wrap up in January ’84 and MIC would start planning their next J9 series – “Ginga Ninpu Onsengar” – but subsequent events would prevent its production.

Kokusai Eiga would produce one more SF robot anime – not another J9, but a completely new show that broke with tradition both visually and thematically. CHO KOSOKU (“Super High Speed”) GALVION wasn’t anything like MIC’s previous series –less aliens, less emphasis on cosmic storylines, as far as I know, no attempted godhood – just two hard-luck ex-convicts pressed into service as drivers of a super sportscar that can turn on a dime AND turn into a fighting robot. A couple hundred years from now, sexy billionaire Midoriyama Rei realizes the best way to fight the nefarious SHADOW conspiracy is with her own secret organization called CIRCUS. She recruits Mu and Maya right out of federal prison for two reasons: they’re excellent drivers, and they’re really desperate to get their sentences reduced.  GALVION escaped the J9 space-opera style with up to date mechanical design by Koichi “Gunbuster” Ohata and character designs by manga artist Yoshihisa “Yu” Tagami, whose work we’d later see in DIGITAL TARGET GREY.  Today the look of the show is patently 80s, but it’s the first MIC show that didn’t rely on capes, swords, elaborate headgear, “expanding plasma”, or any of the other fantasy trappings of their previous SF series, and the “Lonely Chaser” OP theme sung by Riyuko Tanaka positively vibrates with mid-80s drum-machine beats and ersatz Eddie Van Halen guitar licks. 

Mu and Maya from GALVION

GALVION held promise, but its February-to-June, 22 episode run was cut short by the bankruptcy of MIC’s chief sponsor, Takatoku Toys. You’d think with the license to produce toys for a hit like MACROSS, Takatoku would have been in good financial health, but subsequent licensing decisions – among them DORVACK, ORGUSS, and the J9 series – were not popular enough to keep the company afloat. When the money ran out GALVION’s story wasn’t anywhere near finished.  Episode 22 wrapped the show up with a 35-second bit of narration and that would be the last we’d see of Mu and Maya and the Circus-1. The show has never been released on any home-video format – not VHS, not Beta, not Laserdisc, certainly not DVD. The physical whereabouts of the original film may be a mystery, so episodes taped off-air and passed from otaku to otaku may be all we ever see of GALVION. And that’s a shame. It’s a fun show with an interesting character mix and lots of noisy, transforming-robot action. 

Futari Daka pops the clutch and tells the world to eat its dust

One last MIC series remained on air after GALVION’s premature end - FUTARI DAKA or ‘Twin Hawks’. This motorcycle racing drama was based on the Shonen Sunday manga of the same name by Kaoru “Yattaman” Shintani, who earlier had provided character designs for 1980’s GOD SIGMA and would later bring us PHANTOM BURAI (script by Buronson), QUEEN 1313, and something called AREA88. Sunday’s publisher Shogakukan was a sponsor of the anime series, which may explain its survival in a post-Kokusai Eiga world. FUTARI DAKA deals with bikers Taka Tojo and Taka Sawatari, who share a first name and a bitter rivalry both on the course and off.  The OP mixed live motorcycle race footage in with its anime, was set to the catchy “Heartbreak Crossin’” by Takanori Jinnai, and though it failed to save MIC from oblivion, the show found new life on French TV five years past its cancellation date, which was June of ‘85.

the titular Twin Hawks of FUTARI DAKA

The ultimate fate of MIC – laid low by lack of a toy sponsor – serves to highlight an uncomfortable truth about Japanese cartoons. Most of these anime shows we obsess about are, let’s face it, 25-minute infomercials designed to sell toys, model kits, stationery, games and other licensed product. The product licenses keep the money flowing; without money, you don’t have your anime shows. The increasing value of the yen versus the dollar, spurred by the Plaza Accord of 1985, meant that exports from Japan got more expensive. Overseas markets were hit by sticker shock for Japanese goods and products like consumer electronics, cars, and most importantly anime TV series and toys from same.  1985 saw a contraction in the number of anime TV shows (34 in 1984, 20 in 1985), a revenue-hungry industry moved into the burgeoning home video market with direct-to-video OVAs independent from toy license financing, and the kids who grew up with super robots, science ninjas and space battleships aged out of the cartoon-watching demographic and into dating, college, and watching the bubble economy pop.

MIC’s exit from the anime production world was but one element in a larger drama; a drama that would have echoes 25 years later as another cash crisis rocked the industry. Crowded by larger studios even in the best of times, ultimately laid low by market forces beyond its control, through it all Kokusai Eiga-sha produced series that were unique and entertaining and that still have fans around the world, fulfilling their mission statement with a truly international legacy. The license for many MIC series is currently held by Enoki Films.  Hey fellas, let’s get some ACROBUNCH or HONEY HONEY DVD action going on here, I’m just saying, hint hint. 

-Dave Merrill

Thanks to Jane E. McGuire and C/FO MAGAZINE VOL. 2 NO. 10 for their assistance with the J9 portions of this article.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Kokusai Movie International Eiga-Sha Corp. 1

Movie International Corporation theme song CD

It’s hard to say when I first encountered Kokusai Eiga-sha, or Movie International Co., Ltd.  It might have been a Sunday afternoon cartoon in a non-peak time slot on a niche cable network. Or it might have been a super robot toy incongruously racked in a tacky mall gift shop.  As an anime studio, Kokusai Eiga-sha (or “MIC") produced a lot of mid-level stuff and a few cult favorites, never getting that big breakout hit but never descending to the level of, say, a Knack Studio.  With something like sixteen different anime TV series produced in the midst of the “anime boom”, MIC impacted both the Japanese anime scene and the nascent American anime fandom – maybe in an indirect, roundabout way, but their shows still resonate with fans.

Movie International letterhead courtesy Anime Nikansya

Like many things, you could blame America’s initial MIC exposure on evangelist and 700 Club host Pat Robertson. His CBN Cable network broadcast several anime series in the early 1980s, among them a weirdly-dubbed version of MIC’s HONEY HONEY. On the other hand, and at the complete opposite end of the moral spectrum, perhaps my first MIC glimpse was this GINGA REPPU BAXINGER toy purchased at the local Spencer’s Gifts with precious allowance money and a desperate hunger to learn more of the culture that brought us SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO and BATTLE OF THE PLANETS.

thank you, toy buyer for Spencer's Gifts

But what was this Movie International Corporation, this Kokusai Eiga-Sha?  MIC was an animation production house formed in 1979 by former Nikkatsu exec Shigeo Tsubota. MIC’s business strategy was to handle production and planning, license anime titles, outsource the actual animation production to other studios and subcontractors, and reap the benefits of providing content to an anime-starved Japanese and international public.   Their rise and fall coincided almost exactly with the fortunes of the anime industry as a whole, buoyed by the “anime boom” of the late 1970s and then laid low by that same boom’s subsequent bust.

some kind of drug metaphor I think

MIC’s first TV series were coproductions with Ashi Production (later Production Reed). KUJIRA NO JOSEPHINA, or “Josephina the Whale”, was a 1979 version of the children’s story by Jose Maria Sanchez Silva about a young boy who uses his imagination to bring his toy whale to life and help him be less insecure. Works as well as a blanket, I guess. This was followed in 1980 by their goofy comedy version of Don Quixote, ZUKKOKE KNIGHT DON DE LA MANCHA, followed by an anime version of the popular MONCHICHI toys, the comedy robot-kid MECHAKKO DOTAKON,  and SPACE WARRIOR BALDIOS, a very 1980 ecological disaster co-produced super robot series. MIC also produced their own version of LITTLE WOMEN, calling theirs FOUR SISTERS OF YOUNG GRASS. 

watching this won't get you out of having to write that book report

In 1981 MIC would serve up their own special take on the super robot genre with a distinctive show that became their first fan favorite. GINGA SENPU BRYGER (aka Galaxy Cyclone Braiger, Cosmo Whirlwind Brygar, Cosmo Ranger J-9, etc) wasn’t your little brother’s space robot anime series – it starred desperate outlaws, living by their own code in a corrupt solar system full of crime and vice. Creator Yu Yamamoto combined the antihero aesthetic of Peckinpah’s WILD BUNCH with the brand name of the top-of-the-line Sony VCR (J-9), got K. Kazuo to design our heroes, gave it an amazing OP sequence animated by Yoshinori “You” Kanada, and set it all to a driving rock beat by Masayuki Yamamoto. 

Equal parts Western, SF space opera, and biker movie, BRYGER is set in the year 2111 where a colonized Solar System and a weak central government are paralyzed by criminal Mafias known as “Connections. In the J-west section of the Asteroid Belt, Issac “the Razor” Godonov has used both his immense wealth and his amazing scientific knowledge to create a secret asteroid base for his J9 Cosmo Rangers team of mercenaries – Kido “Blaster Kid” Jotaro, Steve “Speedy” Bowie, and Machiko “Angel Omachi” Valencia. For a price they’ll solve any problem you might have, and if it requires the use of their combining spaceship-car-super robot Bryger, so much the better!

BRYGER easily found a small but devoted audience. The lack of kid sidekicks, funny animals, or most of the other super robot tropes left plenty of room for BRYGER’s cast to act like adults; drinking, smoking, gambling, fistfighting, enjoying casual sex, and generally not giving a rat’s ass about most of the societal pressures that would plague the younger, less experienced heroes in its robot anime contemporaries like, say, GUNDAM or GOD MARS.

the Cosmo Rangers

But here’s the thing with BRYGER and other MIC series. Once the episode starts, you realize that as great as the opening credits look and as kick-ass as the theme song is, the show itself fails to live up to the promise, that BRYGER’s animation reach exceeds its animation grasp. And that’s OK, Kanada has to sleep sometime, but the show’s stiff animation and simplistic mechanical design make it feel like a holdover from the 70s, like the J-9 team invaded a much cheaper show. However, by the time BRYGER’s climax rolls around and Khamen Khamen’s evil plan to blow up Jupiter has been dealt with, you’ve become acclimated to poorly-animated thugs on space scooters and the goofy, dashed-off look of the Connection robots Bryger casually destroys.  You’re left with fond memories of the J-9 team and that “Khamen Khamen” song echoing throughout the ruins of the Solar System.

the charming Honey Honey

The show spawned a decent amount of toyage from sponsor Takatoku Toys, and on the whole was successful enough for MIC to get right to work on their next J-9 series.  But first they’d take a shoujo manga detour with THE WONDERFUL ADVENTURES OF HONEY HONEY (Honey Honey no Suteki na Bouken). This 29 episode series followed the adventures of orphan Honey Honey and her cat Lily as they are chased through Europe and around the world by Princess Flora of Austria and her four suitors while the mysterious thief Phoenix plots and plans. Set in the early part of the 20th century, HONEY HONEY is based on the 60s shoujo manga by Hideko “Fire” Mizuno, former resident of Tezuka’s “Tokiwa” apartment house and pioneering manga artist. Broadcast on CBN cable a few years later, HONEY HONEY caught the eye of many an American anime fan, and its foreign broadcasts put the “International” in MIC at last.  

that is one scared kitty

Based on a 60s manga, the show has a definite 60s feel, particularly in the early episodes, and the clunky MIC-farmed animation doesn’t help things. Episode 22 (“Snowbound Castle”) is memorable with its slicked-up frame rates and fleshed out character designs, but it’s the exception, not the rule.  Luckily, HONEY HONEY’s charm gets us past the stiff animation. It’s hard to nitpick a show that has characters rescued by UFOs, drops Honey Honey into feudal Japan via flying carpet, and ends with a King Kong riff complete with World Trade Center. 

MIC would return to the super robot well in 1982 with MAKYOUDENSETSU ACROBUNCH, or “Legend Of Hidden Places Acrobunch”, another well-designed, offbeat SF robot drama that sold a few toys, got a few fans, failed to get past 24 episodes. The story? It was explained to me back in the day as “In the future, Indiana Jones has a family and a giant robot, and they travel the world seeking archeological treasure and battling monsters”, which as a synopsis works as well as anything I guess. 

The Rando family versus Emperor Delos

Tatsuya Rando, millionaire sea farmer and archeologist, retires to spend the rest of his life seeking the hidden treasure of “Quashica”, the fantastic legacy of an ancient super civilization that existed on Earth millions of years ago. To this end he’s built the Acrobunch, a mobile complete living environment with sleeping quarters, medical facilities, and all the comforts of home that happens to transform into a super combination fighting robot.  Unwilling to take over the family business, his children Hiro (the cool one), Ryu (the boring one), Jun (the kid), and the twin girls Miki (girly-girl) and Reika (tomboy) come along for the ride.  Trouble is, the underground Goblin empire wants Quashica too. Can Acrobunch find the treasure and save the world?

Reika and Hiro, the two stars of this show. No I don't care what anybody else says

With a great theme song sung by Yukio Yamagata and a typically terrific Kanada-animated OP full of Stonehenge, Nasca, and other Von Daniken ancient astronaut kook-science landmarks, ACROBUNCH promises great things. This time the show lives up to the hype and delivers zippy, action-packed episodes as dreamy megane-otoko Hiro’s doomed romance with Goblin princess Shiira colors their showdown with Delos, the Goblin King, whose beard and devil horns and shepherd’s crook make him disturbingly close to various medieval horned depictions of Moses. Kanada protégé Mutsumi “Leda Fantastic Adventure Of Yohko” Inomata keeps things zippy right up until the series climax, which defies description. No, seriously.

MIC would take a different mythological tack with LITTLE POLLON (Ochamegami Monogatari Korokoro Poron), the charming tale of the daughter of Sun God Apollo and her wacky adventures among the Greek pantheon. The original manga, “Pollon Of Olympus,” ran in PRINCESS and was one of many by Hideo Azuma, who’s known for being the, uh, “father of lolicon”. 

little Pollon and friend

 His manga career ranges from gag detective (“Eito Bito”) to quintuplet comedy (“Futari Go Nin”) to sex comedy (“Scrap Student”, “Night Angel”) to autobiographical manga about abandoning his punishing workload for alcoholism, homelessness, and employment as a gas pipe fitter (“Disappearance Diary”), but POLLON’s cutesy fun belies her creator’s darker side. From May of ’82 until March of ’83, 46 episodes of goofy god adventures – Apollo is a lazy drunk, Eros is an ugly kid, Poseidon can’t swim – were a hit on Fuji-TV in Japan and in foreign markets also, particularly Italy.  The simple, cute style was clearly a success for MIC and their followup was another Azuma manga, NANAKO SOS.

it's Supergirl, I mean Nanako! I'll tell you what's super-crazy, is Yotsuya's hair

Nanako was a normal high school girl until an experiment by fellow high school student and part-time mad scientist Yotsuya gives her super powers.  Unfortunately it also gives her amnesia!  Never one to pass up a profitable opportunity, Yotsuya makes a deal with Nanako – if she’ll help him with his detective agency, he’ll use all his scientific knowledge to bring her memory back!  Aided by assistant Iidabashi and robots Convenience Angel 7 and Convenience Angel 11, Yotsuya gets Nanako involved in one crazy scheme after another. However, through it all, Nanako retains her sunny personality and can-do attitude. NANAKO SOS lasted a respectable 39 episodes from April to December of 1983.

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