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.


moeris said...

Wow after reading this I realized that crazy plastic and diecast robot toy my Grandmother gave me for Christmas sometime back in the 80s was from Makyou Densetsu Acrobunch!

Unknown said...

Somehow I missed out on TBN's broadcast of Honey Honey (I did watch a few episodes of Leo the Lion and their bible-rific shows like Superbook and Flying House).

I think my first exposure to Kokusai must have been that superb article in the C/FO newsletter about the J9 shows, which presented them in an even more favorable light than the Bryger opening titles. (I love Bryger of course, but it's hard to live up to that OP sequence, and downright impossible to live up to how good they sounded in the C/FO article).

I always get a chuckle whenever your articles compare something unfavorably with anime from the 1970s or 1960s, since my enjoyment of any anime series tends to be directly proportional with how old and clunky said series is. Anyway, thanks for another great article, I'm looking forward to reading part 2!

Unknown said...

Oops, typo: obviously I meant CBN.

In the Wikipedia disambiguation page for CBN, Pat Robertson's fine cable network shares space with Cannabinol and Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Warfare.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting note! I really liked your appreciation about Kokusai Eigasha!
While I did not see all the mecha works of Kokusai, I quite enjoyed them.
Baldios I saw the movie (which I enjoyed greatly the) and chapters of Goshogun (Version "Macron 1"). I also saw most of the series Srungle ("Gorilla Force" version). And some chapters Baxinger ("Space Gladiators" version). In recent years I have downloaded RAWs of the series I had not seen. But I have not seen much. I'm looking for a moment to see especially Bryger (where he worked Iko veteran Kanada) and Galvion (I've seen quite well animated scenes).
I always found it interesting production, precisely because they were highly valued their experiments. Even so I find myself, from time to time when, in a later work, meeting some detail influenced by some of their series
Finally: I've always liked the music from his works.

Thank you very much!
PS: I want to ask permission to put a link to this article on my blog.

d.merrill said...

Please feel free to link to Let's Anime, Drmecha.

drmecha said...

Thank you d.merril!

Ty said...

>Hideo Azuma, who’s known for being the, uh, “father of lolicon”.

How did he earn this title? What work puts him above others?

d.merrill said...

Ty, Azuma wasn't the only artist working in the field, but he was the focus around which many of the artists congregated, and arguably he was the most popular. His lolicon manga "White Cybele" (1979) was the first of its kind, and he edited the doujinshi "Shiberu" which published many artists who worked in the style, and appeared at Comiket as a reaction to the yaoi manga which was then in vogue. (see his terrific "Disappearance Diary" for more info on Azuma)

d.merrill said...

also, there's this:

jual mesin las said...

nice info, thanks

Anonymous said...

And now Acrobunch has gotten a license courtesy of Discotek. Here's hoping for the J9 series to follow.