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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