Sunday, December 1, 2013

PlaWres Sanshiro, King Of Robot Wrestlers

Let's say your name is Sugata Sanshiro.  No, not THAT Sugata Sanshiro, quasi-fictional judo-master star of Kurosawa's first feature film and later parodied in a series of ads for the Sega Saturn - you're the OTHER Sugata Sanshiro, star of PlaWres Sanshiro!  Yes, Plastic Model Wrestling Sanshiro, the 1983 anime series based on the Shonen Champion manga by Jiro Gyu and (future Yu Yu Hakusho character?) Minoru Kamiya. 

We in the States would first get a glimpse of this show courtesy one of those compilation VHS tapes of anime opening credits that were passed around like Bibles in Soviet Russia, an hour or two of blaring rock guitars, crashing super robots and inexplicable kanji that filled many a TV screen during late-night gatherings in hotel rooms hidden away from the prying eyes of KGB thugs and/or convention security. PlaWres Sanshiro stood out even among the Daitarn 3s and the Acrobunches; visually, the spectacle of tiny muscular robots battling each other while drifting through an airbrushed landscape of computer diagrams and geometric shapes stood out, and the rockin' opening included amusing if inexplicable English lyrics like "P.M.P. Fight", "Super Heavyweight", and what sounded like "Survivor Communication."

Brought to TV by Asatsu DK, Kaname Production, and Toho, the anime series ran for 37 episodes from June of '83 until February 1984. Kaname would work on OAV titles like Bavi Stock, Birth, Leda and The Humanoid along with TV shows like Kimagure Orange Road and Sasuga No Sarutobi, while Asatsu-DK is an advertising agency that has been intimately involved with the Japanese animation industry since the 1950s, owning outright the production studio NAS and the animation studio Eiken, and being involved with a few really obscure anime shows you probably never heard of like One Piece, Doraemon, and Mobile Suit Gundam.  Finished and in-between animation came from a bevy of suppliers including Studio DEEN, AIC, Dragon Production, and Miyuki Pro.

PlaWres Sanshiro posits a future where hundreds of thousands of ostensibly normal Japanese people fill a futuristic Budokan stadium, not to see a futuristic Cheap Trick, but to watch foot-high robots pitted against each other in gladiatorial combat. Controlled mostly by spirited hobbyists who combine the nerd disciplines of RC vehicles, computer programming, and model-kit building, the sport of PlaWrestling attracts huge crowds with its combination of brutal mechanical action, ritualistic sumo-style tradition, and theatrical pro wrestling melodrama.

This sort of proxy-tournament battle has been a staple of Asian kids’ entertainment since they found out horned beetles like to fight each other, and the theme has surfaced in anime as varied as Pokemon, Angelic Layer, and the recent Gundam Build Fighters.  If you want to cast your thematic net larger and encompass things like the original remote-control robot hero Tetsujiin-28, sure, why not. However, Prowes Sanshiro has its own thing going on.
Burning with the challenge of PlaWrestling, our titular Sanshiro turns his back on his family's judo heritage and instead enters the PlaWres world with his custom-built PlaWrestler Juohmaru and a pit crew of goofs, geeks, and girls. Diminutive loudmouth Shota keeps cool behind his shades working the angles for inside information, and mini-skirted Kyoko, a scooter-riding, fashionable assistant judo instructor, provides the necessary maybe-Sanshiro’s-girlfriend tension. Giant Tetsuya, Juohmaru's mechanic, has one minute between rounds to repair any damage, while lanky Shinji programs the luggable "MEC 6000" portable computer that Sanshiro uses to guide Juohmaru. Bratty kid sister Machiko delivers comic relief. Behind Juohmaru and Sanshiro is the scientist Dr. Warmer, who, along with Sanshiro’s deceased father, developed new and exciting man-machine interface technology that just might give Juohmaru the edge in a crowded field of tough JPWA competitors.

As the show opens, Gengo Kurosaki's muscular PlaWrestler Mad Hurricane is the undisputed champion. Kurosaki is the lead proponent of the "Fighting-Type" PlaWrestlers, a school of PlaWrestling that focuses on destructive power and winning at all costs. Alternatively, competitors like Shingoku Narita and his Icarus Wing PlaWrestler encourage the Hobby-Type PlaWrestling philosophy of skill and sportsmanship. Watching the tournaments from behind the scenes is Sheila Misty, the mysterious beauty who may be involved with the evil Jose Garcia, who manipulates the World PlaWres Association and uses it as a testing ground for military technology. Will all this great, crowd-sourced PlaWrestling technology be used for war and destruction, or will Dr. Warmer’s brain-wave induction biochip help the little crippled children walk again? Could the technological work of computer hobbyists have real-world tactical value? I think history says "yes". 
Coming a few months after the anime debut of Toei's wrestling superhero Kinnikuman, the pro wrestling action is front and center in PlaWres Sanshiro; a colorful cast of rival robot wrestlers parade through the ring every week- Great Simba, Red Arrow, Western Buffalo, Great America, Big Bang, Pretty Rosa, Iron Killer, Blue Hawaii, El Matador, and others challenge Juohmaru and Sanshiro. Matches proceed with lots of imitation wireframe animations and DOS commands furiously keyboarded by the speed-typing PlaWrestler controllers, who send their robot proxies into the ring to battle with every fighting trick, mechanical contrivance, and scientific gimmick allowed by the deliberately vague regulations of the JPWA.

The show fairly pops with the bright, bouncy character designs of Mutsumi Inomata, whose charming illustrations would give PlaWres Sanshiro a cute 1980s feel right in the middle of the cute 1980s.  An Ashi Pro veteran who gave GoShogun and Acrobunch that extra kicky visual punch, she moved to Kaname Productions in '82 just in time to take what could have been a cold, mechanical, boy-centric series and instead make PlaWres Sanshiro fun and appealing.  Inomata would later work on Urusei Yatsura, City Hunter, Brain Powerd, and Namco's "Tales Of..." series, as well as quintessential 1980s anime icon Leda The Fantastic Adventures Of Yohko.

PlaWres Sanshiro is one of those only-in-Japan, only-in-the-80s hybrid series that crosses boundaries and defies description. Sports show? Robot action? Teen comedy? Tournament-style fighting but with a technological edge crossed with pro-wrestling gimmickry and given a rich candy coating of Mutsumi Inomata?  It may actually be all these things at once, and TV screens around the world - well, okay, Greece, the Arab world, Hong Kong, and Japan -  were the better for it. PlaWres Sanshiro’s original run of 14 volumes of manga received a sequel in the 2009 manga PlaWrestler Van, serialized in Champion Red, but the anime series has yet to be revived. Luckily for English-speaking fans, much of the series is available for viewing with subtitles on YouTube.

PlaWres Sanshiro's moderate showing in the toy arena didn’t match Juohmaru’s ring achievements; newer Revoltech and Figma toys have made an appearance in recent years, including a fascinating manga-style Juohmaru (he's got hair). The original solitary line of Bandai vinyl figures from the 80s now command prices well in excess of what most would consider reasonable, especially Juohmaru’s opponent robots. But if you absolutely must stage your own JPWA matches in the privacy of your bedroom, they are essential.

In today’s world where custom-built robot battles are prime-time television and remotely piloted drones allow worldwide military might to be directed by bored airmen in Nevada, the future of PlaWres Sanshiro might only differ from our reality only slightly, in that things aren’t nearly as colorful or as bouncy without Mutsumi Inomata drawing everything.  Let’s get to work on that, shall we?

Juohmaru mask found in Ohio antique mall. Yes, Ohio

--Dave Merrill

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Top Ten Least Essential OVA Of The 80s

The internet is filled with sequentially numbered, attention-getting listsicles all claiming to be the authoritative judgment on the top fifteen party schools to visit after you master your five best workouts or the twenty-five movies you must not fail to see with the ten people you meet when you die. And here at Let’s Anime we’re just as lame, even though our focus is classic Japanese cartoons. So here’s an exhaustively researched, completely subjective and arbitrary list of the Top Ten Least Essential OVAs That Honestly, You Don’t Need To Watch.  You can safely go on about your life without ever having wasted your time watching these 1980s Japanese anime OVAs; other than filling the shelves of neighborhood video rental shops, they are inconsequential in every sense of the word.  Some of them are bad, some of them are boring, and others make no sense whatsoever, their only common denominator being their total uselessness. And remember, like every other stupid list you find on the internets, this is completely arbitrary, subject only to the reviewer’s whimsical notions, and may not reflect your personal taste or reality in any way whatsoever. 

Headbands are an essential part of your 1980s fashion
 Cosmos Pink Shock - 7-21-1986 This one’s a lightweight and knows it, but the great Toshiki “Iczer One” Hirano is here at the height of his powers, giving us the story of Michi, a space leotard girl who blasts across a goofy universe in her ship, the Pink Shock,  in pursuit of her boyfriend.  It’s got good AIC animation, some gags – not great gags, but gags nonetheless – and cultural references that we didn’t get in the 80s because our knowledge of Japan was limited to Robotech, ninja movies and metal robot toys. It’s the OVA equivalent of a 12” remix by Bananarama or the Mary Jane Girls – a perfect artifact of its time whose greatest virtue is being a perfect artifact of its time.
Dead Heat - 8-7-1987 In the future, auto racing is known as ‘FX’ and the drivers don’t drive cars, they drive car-robot hybrid vehicles, and they don’t just race, they grapple with each other as they go around the track. Seems like a lot of mechanical engineering simply to replicate roller derby, but who am I to argue with the future?  This Sunrise OVA is of interest mostly to people who for some reason are unable to watch either roller derby or auto racing, and who wonder if our hero Makoto will win the big race so he can take his surprisingly male-looking girlfriend to a love hotel. If you had a dedicated 3D compatible VHD player with 3D glasses,  you could watch Dead Heat in thrilling 3D, with the exciting bonus of witnessing an extra character who was only visible in 3D. Legend has it this character holds up a sign marked with the Japanese characters for “sucker”. 

Makoto and "girlfriend"

Elf 17 - 1-4-1987  Based on the manga by Atsuji Yamamoto, Elf 17 is a cutesy lightweight romp through the galaxy as our title character, the strongest little teenage girl elf in the universe, teams up with the eccentric zillionaire prince Mascot Tyler and the battle-suit otaku K.K. as they battle their way through the pro-wrestling areas of outer space. This airy trifle comes complete with giant walking tanuki statues and a Mitokomon reference, and it completely misrepresents Yamamoto’s manga work, which started off kinda lurid and just got more lurid with time. Later Yamamoto works include “Battle Goddess” and the super bloody, ultra lurid “Arnis In Sword Land.”  Yamamoto also provided the story for another completely non-essential OVA, Ultimate Teacher.

Ruu, aka Elf 17, will kick your ass
 Phantom Gentleman aka Dream Detective Gentleman (Mugen Shinshi: Boken Katsugeki Hen) - 2-21-1987 Mamiya Mugen is a famous detective, a famous, kinda girly-looking kid detective, who works in a weird retro 1930s Japan.  Strange kidnappers target club dancer Atsuko “Akko” Fukune - but Mugen is on the case to protect Tokyo’s exotic dancers! This 49 minute video mixes cutesy character designs with what you’re led to believe is going to be some kind of detective story but instead detours into magical relics, mythical monsters, and Indiana Jones-style adventure, but all the busty dancing girls or archeological destruction can’t help make this inexplicable film any more explicable. If we were Japanese we’d be familiar with the popular Mugen Shinshi manga by Yosuke Takahashi, but his eerily sensual pen line failed utterly to make the transition to this anime.  
underage drinkin', underage detectin'
Roots Search - 9-10-1986 This one is bad and it should feel bad.  Roots Search, aka “Life Devourer X”, is like something a dollar store or a truck stop chain would produce to cash in on what they heard was the exciting new “Japanimation” fad, like something you find hundreds of dumped at a Goodwill for a tax loss; poorly animated, badly designed characters wander through various spaceships having ESP visions and dodging a horrifying vagina dentata alien that murders astronauts. And then it just ends, denying the remaining few viewers any sort of closure.  This one is by some of the same people that brought us Crystal Triangle, another really terrible OVA that at least has an ending.

Good Morning Althea - 12-16-1987 This might be the exact point where Japan just gave up and decided to just throw mechanical designs at their OVA projects in the hope that the resulting confusion would resolve itself into some kind of interesting pattern. This is the sort of OVA you watch without subtitles and naturally assume that what’s going on makes sense and is in some way purposeful and of interest, and then later somebody fansubs it and you find out that the pattern your brain attempted to impose upon it actually made more sense than what was originally intended. There’s a spaceship, there are robots, there are people in robots fighting other people in robots from another spaceship. Somebody wakes up.

rise and shine Althea
The Humanoid - 3-5-1986 If you spent any time in the 1980s you’ll recognize his work: the shiny airbrush work of Hajime Sorayama appeared on the covers of Playboy and Heavy Metal and on album covers for bands like The Cars and Aerosmith. And if you find the idea of a shiny metal woman interesting enough to support a 40-minute animated video, then The Humanoid is for you! Antoinette, the sexy robot in question, was built by Dr. Watson on the planet Lazeria, which is about to be destroyed by the evil Governor Proud, right when Dr. Watson’s daughter Sheri and her hunky fiancĂ© Alan arrive. Terrible timing!  Luckily, this all happens when Antoinette’s sexy robot heart starts to have robot feelings of love, and she uses her sexy robot power to save the day. This 40-minute time-waster has lackluster character designs, cheesy 80s ballads, and an inexplicable obsession with coffee. 

Digital Devil Story (Megami Tensei) - 1987 Based on the Japanese horror novel series by Aya Nishitani, this one’s about a student computer genius, who’s also the reincarnation of an ancient Japanese deity, who uses his giant clunky 80s mainframe to summon up some horrifying devils. This involves some not-bad animation of a well-endowed teacher’s frilly brassiere heaving up and down as she becomes the conduit for horrifying monsters from another dimension to invade our world. Then giant piles of red goop start crushing students and a big blue hairy devil named Loki fights our student computer genius hero, who fights back with his reincarnated girlfriend and his magic sword and his pet devil animal throughout several alternate universes.  If you want lots of mid 1980s computer technology and lots of scenes of people staring intently at old-fashioned CRT monitors, followed by hairy devils and magic swords, this is the one for you! The Hiroyuki Kitazume character designs aren’t bad, if you’re into that sort of thing.  Apparently there are a lot of video games based on this novel, and I suspect they aren’t very essential either. 

Chojiku Romanesque Samy – Missing 99 - 7-5-1986  Let’s see, what we have here is your typical everyday story of a typical anime schoolgirl who finds out she actually has amazing mystical powers that not only transport her into an amazing fantasy world but give her amazing super battle armor that doubles as a bikini. Raise your hands if you’ve seen this all before. Can she survive the attack of the reconstructed demon beast warriors in time to reveal her true Bodhisattva nature? 

Girls Detective Club (Katsugeki Shoujo Tanteidan) - 11-25-1986  You’d think that a video starring three high school girls armed with automatic weapons battling an evil girl-genius with a giant flying battleship would be jam packed with the same sort of excitement and flash that made Project A-Ko such a success, but you’d be wrong. This stunningly boring piece of junk – from TMS, shockingly enough - limps from nonsensical setup to nonsensical setup, never explaining who these girls are, why they have a detective club, why one of them lives in a mansion filled with machine guns, or why this was animated in the first place. It feels like a Cream Lemon with all the sex removed, like an episode of Urusei Yatsura without gags, fun characters, or pleasant design, like a half hour of your life without anything productive or fulfilling accomplished. What purpose Girls Detective Club served other than clogging shelves down at Tsutaya Video is a mystery which I suppose we’ll need to hire a Girls Detective Club to solve. 

get detecting, you
 What’s that? I didn’t mention The Wanna-Bes or Twilight Q or Twinkle Heart or even Twinkle Rock Me Nora? Didn’t see your favorite least essential OVA listed here? Ready to take this to social media and tell the world how Let’s Anime arbitrarily ignored your favorite least essential OVA in its totally subjective list? Sure, why not. Make sure to let us know what YOUR time-wastingest OVA is, or was; maybe we can get another column out of ‘em.

-Dave Merrill

Thanks for reading Let's Anime! If you enjoyed it and want to show your appreciation for what we do here as part of the Mister Kitty Dot Org world, please consider joining our Patreon!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

you know, for kids

Here's a fun thing, a translation of a children's book from the 1982-83 Nippon Sunrise anime series SENTO MECHA XABUNGLE.  Let your children drift off to dreamland with this tale of one man's search for bloody outer-space wild-west vengeance! Translations by, and many thanks to, Ric Zerrano.

(Click on images to do an enlarging Mecha-Change)


Sunday, September 22, 2013

that time of year again

Yes, it's September, and that means I go down to Anime Weekend Atlanta and spend three days immersed in that sea of costumers, anime fanatics, lost children, hucksters, and confused parents known as an "anime convention". Lots of great stuff happening this year - star voice talent, cybernetic musical acts, key video game designers, and me!  What am I up to?

Thursday night at 7 - before the convention even starts, really -  we host a yard-sale garage-sale swap-meet event we like to call the "SuperHappyFunSell". 

Then at 9 I take whoever's still hanging around on a fun trip through the world of TCJ, the studio that brought us Gigantor, Eighth Man, Prince Planet, and Kamui, and is still going strong as Eiken!

On Friday at 3:30pm I've been dragooned into the Mega 80s Panel where we'll talk about what it was like to be an anime fan in the 80s!  This will contain substandard fan art, so look out.

Then at 10pm it is time for all of us to go to hell. Anime Hell, that is! 

On Saturday at 11:30 I will be exploring the world of Knack, the studio responsible for Ninja The Wonder Boy, Chargeman Ken, Cybot "Robby The Rascal" Robotchi, and more (or less)! 

Then on Sunday at 11am I'll be joining reps from the various Atlanta anime conventions and from anime cons around the country and beyond to discuss matters of vital importance to the furtherance of our goals. And gossip.  And at 3 Neil Nadelman, Elizabeth Christian Smith and myself will be discussing what anime we'd take with us to keep us sane if we were trapped on a desert island! 

That will pretty much take us up until the end of the convention, at which point it's time to pack everything away and see ya next year. If you're in the Atlanta area I highly suggest you drop by, it's gonna be a great show!  You can find a full schedule for AWA here!

Saturday, August 17, 2013


Two new old-media offerings deliver the classic anime goods in the so-unfashionable-they're-fashionable print medium, available not from whatever local business in your area still sells zines or from a begrudgingly-given “fan table” at a nearby anime con, but from the convenience of your own easy chair, thanks to modern electronic technology. 

Colony Drop, the opinionated collective enfant terrible of the anime blog scene, has been outraging the easily outraged and Telling It Like It Is on their blog since 2008; and as testament to their love of the traditional, so far they've released two print-on-demand anime fanzines. The second, THE LAST AMERICAN FANZINE #2, recently appeared and is both larger and pinker than the first; 74 perfect-bound pages of full color Japanese animation culture data. Contributors include Benjamin "Anipages" Ettinger, Patrick Macias, me, Mike Toole, and Daryl Surat, a veritable who's who of the charmingly obsessed, all discoursing on topics like VHS worship and basic-cable OAV appearances in the 1980s, the eye-opening adults-only Pop Chaser, and the real-life background to Patlabor.  The zine also features an enlightening discussion between two Japanese anime journalists, a behind-the-scenes look at animecon scandal with the mysterious "Director X”, and a sad photo essay of the otaku ghetto at New York Comic Con.

As a Kinko's-scarred veteran of the fanzine heyday, I've read a lot of anime zines, and it's my opinion that these CD zines are state of the art. The writing is confident and knowledgeable, the artwork is classy, the layout is uncluttered. It's as close to the Platonic ideal of 'anime zine' as you're ever going to get. 

Meanwhile a few fathoms down, Marine Boy is bravely and freely fighting evil beneath the sea, as he's done in various forms since 1967. If you watched Marine Boy as a boy or girl or if you only came across him on the UHF dial in hotel rooms in far-off cities, you need MARINE BOY: UNDERWATER ADVENTURE, the new book from Xenorama aka David McRobie.  Xenorama has been assembling this comprehensive guide to Marine Boy together for years, and his 40-page book features full episode guides to both the English and Japanese versions of the series, as well as an interview with the late Peter Fernandez, who produced the English version.  With the recent release of the first season on DVD by Warner Archive, interest in Marine Boy is at high tide, and dismay at the horrible pun I made there is also pretty high. Sorry. The UNDERSEA ADVENTURE trade paperback is produced by Amazon's print-on-demand service and can be yours with just a few splashes of your swim fins, or clicks, if you prefer