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

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Spooks A'Poppin

Haints and ghostlies abound in Drawn And Quarterly’s new gigantic volume of Kitaro, the seminal yokai-busting horror-fantasy-folklore-adventure-comedy manga  by Japan’s one-armed manga master Shigeru Mizuki.  Kitaro started out as “Graveyard Kitaro”, but it wasn’t until a slight retooling as the less scary, more funny “Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro” that the series took off with a ten-year run in Weekly Shonen and five separate TV animated shows spread out over five decades, leaving an indelible mark on Japan’s popular culture landscape.  Supposedly manga-crazy North Americans spent most of the “manga boom” here in the West ignoring the hell out of Mizuki’s work – it’s more comforting to believe Japanese comics are nothing but high-tech adventures of sexy schoolgirl ninjas – but even the ignorance of Americans is no match for the spiritual power of Kitaro.

D+Q’s Kitaro collection is a big brick of  60s manga, nearly 400 pages of the best of Kitaro stories from 1967-69, with an enlightening introduction by yokai scholar Matt Alt, wonderful jacket design, and large pages - nearly twice the size of typical manga tankubon – to bring every bit of Mizuki’s yokai terror to life.

Kitaro, the mysterious one-eyed boy with the striped vest, comes out of nowhere to serve as diplomat between the human and the spirit world. When ignorant people tamper with forbidden mystical secrets, when yokai cross the line and menace humanity, Kitaro will keep the peace by any supernatural means necessary, whether it’s using his hair as yokai-detecting antennae, battling an army of possessed cats, or freezing himself to deal with the water monster lodged in his belly. Just wait ‘til you see how he deals with being turned into a tree! At first Kitaro wanders the earth dispensing lone justice, but bit by bit his world is fleshed out with supporting characters like the disreputable Nezumi Otoko and Kitaro’s eyeball father.  When you get to the part where Kitaro is injected with monster blood and becomes an enormous, hairy, Godzilla-sized whale monster that lumbers through Tokyo destroying landmarks, to be confronted by – what else?  - a giant robot, the off-kilter logic of Mizuki’s yokai world starts to make sense in its dreamlike matter-of-factness.

 Mizuki’s pen work combines the mundane and the terrifying with his technique – eerie pointillist dots bring glowing spirit meteors to life and an almost inhuman mastery of cross-hatching showcases every wrinkle and hair and giant eyeball of his more repulsive monsters. The overgrown mountains and creaky, crumbling shacks of rural Japan are the background for his cartoony, sketchy characters, whose comical simplicity highlights our insignificance in the face of ultimate cosmic horror.
Kitaro’s mid 60s success echoed the monster boom that had the United States in its grasp, and while we had the Munsters, Weird-Oh kits and decals, Ghoulardi and Famous Monsters magazines to satisfy our lust for weird horror heroes, single-handedly brought Japan’s folkloric terror titans out of the musty past and into modern Japan, starting a yokai boom that’s still reverberating throughout the nation. Rightly regarded as one of Japan’s masters of comic art, it is high time the Western world got its chance to go monster crazy for Shigeru Mizuki and Kitaro; the thanks of the manga-reading world, as well as the spirit realms, go to D+Q for making this possible.

everything is sprouting hair.

Monday, August 5, 2013

take you on a journey

I first saw Galaxy Express 999 on a bootleg VHS bought from one of Atlanta's hairier comic-con video pirates, sometime in the mid 1980s. The Kodak T-120, with the words "Galaxy Express" markered on its orange-yellow label, was a copy of the home video release of New World Pictures' version of the 999 film, which received an American theatrical release for about fifteen minutes before moving to HBO and video-rental shelves. I knew none of this. What I knew was that there was something called "Galaxy Express" that Leiji Matsumoto had created, and he was the guy behind Captain Harlock and half of Star Blazers and who knows what else? At that time, we knew Japanese animation as a weird neverland that existed only in the colorful hieroglyphs of Roman Album fold-out posters and My Anime cassette labels, glimpses caught on afternoon UHF stations between ads for Cookie Crisp and Fruit Roll-Ups, peering out at us in the form of model kits from something called "Gundam" that had suddenly appeared in the toy stores. 

Certainly Japanese animated films weren’t something you could just sit down and watch any old time you felt like it. Only now you could, provided you could get access to the family TV for a couple of hours. And in spite of the hacky dub, in spite of the comical name changes, in spite of the jarring edits (seriously, the New World version edits out all the cats), in spite of the fuzzy duplication of a copy of New World's less-than-stellar transfer, there's something about Galaxy Express 999 that shines. Recently, we got the chance to see the film, not on bootleg VHS or late night cable TV but as God and Rintaro intended, uncut and in a real theater.

There's a lot of good stuff in that late 70s-early 80s sweet spot of Japanese animation that some call the Yamato Boom and others refer to in terms of Gundam, when public interest, creative talent, and licensing cash all coincided to create a kaleidoscope of film and TV of every conceivable topic and level of quality. Out of that boom came many great projects, but I’ll always have a weakness for Galaxy Express 999.

999's pedigree is top-notch. It has Rintaro stretching his muscles in his first feature film and Yoshinori Kanada bringing his talent and his timing from dozens of the best TV animation. It has character designs by K. Kazuo and lush Tadao Kubota backgrounds featuring the crumbling, overbuilt Earth, the lurid jungles of Titan, the outer-space Wild West of Heavy Meldar, and the neon and black of the Mechanized Planet.

Thematically, the film works as space fantasy, as a childhood fairy tale, as a humanist polemic, as class-war fable. Sometimes, as when the giant death-skull of Harlock's Arcadia smashes the eternal-life headquarters on the Mechanized Planet, the film's subtext erupts out of theory and just sits there on the screen daring you to call its bluff. And as a condensation of a 113-episode TV series it gets us from Earth to the Andromeda Galaxy and back again in just over two hours, hitting the high notes, rearranging story elements but retaining the Bildungsroman of Tetsuro Hoshino, orphaned on a future world where the rich live forever in machine bodies while the poor scurry like rats to starve, freeze or be hunted. 

how many machine men will you see before you stop believing
To avenge the death of his mother at the hands of the feudal machine lord Count Mecha, Tetsuro finds himself on the Galaxy Express 999, the limited express space train that delivers people to the Mechanization Planet in Andromeda, where eternal machine bodies are distributed to the wealthy.  Accompanied by the mysterious beauty Maetel, Tetsuro meets his childhood heroes, satisfies his lust for revenge at Count Mecha’s Time Castle, and learns the terrible truth behind his traveling companion in a planet-destroying cataclysm that shakes the political and social structure of two galaxies.

For a while that bootleg Kodak was our only copy of 999.  Then somebody in the local anime club dug up an English-subtitled copy, not fansubs but typeset-on-the-35mm-print emulsion subtitles, and we found out about all the missing cats.  Later we’d pool our cash and get the Galaxy Express movie laserdisc set and fansub the sequel Adieu Galaxy Express, and then Viz released both films in subtitled and dubbed versions.  Now in the 21st century, Discotek has released both films – and the third 999 film, Eternal Fantasy -  on DVD.

There’s nothing like seeing a movie with a crowd of strangers to force an objective evaluation, and the recent screening highlighted what may be the film’s weakest point; how well it works with people who don’t already know who Harlock and Emeraldas and Tochiro are. Japanese audiences in 1979 were likely familiar with the Captain Harlock and 999 television anime, or they’d read the Harlock manga in Play Comic or the Shonen King 999 manga serial.  To be fair, the 999 movie is quick to educate us – not five minutes in, we get a loving zoom of Harlock’s wanted poster on a crumbling Megalopolis wall, and elementary adventure-movie macguffin-hunting brings the three characters into the film with reasonable logic. 

While it’s still not really clear who Emeraldas is or what she does, top marks for strangeness must go to Tochiro Oyama’s bachelor digs in the guts of a ruined space battleship, a beautiful if confusing sequence for audiences who hadn’t had months of Captain Harlock on TV preparing us. You can actually see otaku-nerd culture seeping into popular culture with this scene – the idea that vital script elements can come from completely separate media, and if the viewer is confused as to why the squat little dude is having lightning shot into his body and as to why this film seems to think it’s important, tough darts, pal. 

 This might explain why the backstory so meaningful to Japanese audiences failed to impress execs at New World when the pic was readied for American release in 1980. Apart from editing out all the cats, New World made extensive cuts to many sequences, downplayed the Matsumotoverse callbacks to Tochiro’s mom, and left out tragic 999 waitress Crystal Claire’s end-of-film sacrifice (which, to be honest, feels superfluous).  Taken in context, New World’s decision to give Harlock a comedy John Wayne voice almost (almost) makes sense – without the necessary pop-culture preparation, audiences don’t know or care who Captain Harlock is; but give Americans a recognizable cultural signifier and suddenly his archetype fits neatly into our mental picture, as a manly hero who is at home, as Wayne was, both on the open range and on the bridge of a warship. 

I saw this in action last week in Toronto; you can feel the audience starting to get antsy somewhere out near the orbit of Pluto, not quite buying into this whole space-train thing, and then suddenly we’re on Heavy Meldar, the space-western zeitgeist clicks into place, and the crowd relaxes with an audible sigh of familiarity, able to finally place this film in their mental filmic landscape, even if they’re still fuzzy on who Harlock, Tochiro, and Emeraldas are. The screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox was part of the TAAFI’s yearly Toronto animation festival, in conjunction with the Japan Foundation, who provided the 35mm print from their library. The theater was pleasantly filled – we were informed this event had the largest crowd of any TAAFI event – and I found myself explaining the plot of Adieu Galaxy Express afterwards to anyone who would listen, having fallen in love with this movie all over again. The film had always been on the shortlist of titles I’ve sought out on the big screen; we finally got to see an uncut Nausicaa in North American cinemas with the recent Ghibli retrospective, and if they can ever get the Macross rights cleared up maybe I can cross that one off my bucket list, too. However, a pass on the Galaxy Express 999 was always my anime-cinema dream, now realized thanks to TAAFI, the Japan Foundation, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the boundless generosity of mysterious beauties from space.

-Dave Merrill

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