Tuesday, October 14, 2014


A few weeks back I had a chance to join nine special people on a fantastic trip to the outer reaches of the cosmos – and all I had to do was ditch work for a few hours!  The Revue on Roncesvalles is an older theater with comfortable seats; the perfect host for JFTOR/TAAFI’s screening of CYBORG 009 Gekijō Ban: Chō Ginga Densetsu aka Legend Of the Super Galaxy aka Ultra Galaxy Legend aka Defenders Of The Vortex.  The Cyborg 009 film was screened in Toronto as part of the Japan Foundation’s fall anime series, using a subtitled 35mm print from the Japan Foundation library.

The 1980 009 film is an interesting choice to program here in the 21st century.  Not only does it act as a coda to the never-aired-here 1979-1980 Cyborg 009 TV series, but it reflects the cinematic anime SF of that era; that is to say, voyages across the universe that bend the laws of time and space and last more than two hours, taking a generous approach to the patience of the audience and the limits of forward momentum in terms of storytelling.

Super Galaxy Legend takes place years after the Cyborgs have defeated their various enemies and returned to their normal pursuits of auto racing, ballet, cooking, entertaining, and floating around in sleepies. Dr. Gilmore has retired and putters around the International Space Center, built next door to his former Cliffside home. His pal Dr. Cosmo is all abuzz about discovering the energy source that caused the Big Bang and working out some kind of method of controlling it and ending that pesky energy crisis that we were all worried about in 1980.  It’s this energy source, “the vortex,” that our Super Galaxy Legend swirls around.  

From the destroyed planet Comada comes alien boy Saba in a wildly impractical space cruiser, seeking Earth’s aid against the evil Zoa and his Dagas Corps. Saba’s father Dr. Colvin was also researching the Vortex, until he was kidnapped by Zoa, who seeks to control the Vortex for universal domination. Will the Cyborgs aid Saba?  Sure they will, especially after Zoa kidnaps both Dr. Cosmo and Cyborg 001.  Pressed into action, our remaining cyborg soldiers suit up for one more battle against evil.  You'll feel every bit of the 400 light years past the galaxy as the 009 crew and Saba journey through the 2001-trip-sequence style Star Gate; Legend Of Super Galaxy dawdles past long pans of spaceships and landscapes and planets, and yes, there’s the mandated-by-law sequence where our spaceship passes every planet in the solar system in order as it leaves the solar system. How else would you know they were leaving the solar system, I ask you?

That’s the hallmark of this era’s anime movies. Instead of the slam-bang action of, say, Star Wars, they recall the pompous, ponderous Majesty Of Outer Space thoughtfulness of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The films are bloated and overlong, swelling with orchestral soundtracks and improbable mind-expanding sci-fi super-constructions, enough to overwhelm any viewer. However, they aren’t without their more prosaic charms; Phoenix 2772 never forgets cartoons should be funny sometimes, Be Forever Yamato leavens its Dark Nebulas and Double Proton Bombs with tragedy and temptation, and Queen Millennia’s clash of civilizations leaves no one untouched. However, Cyborg 009 Legend Of Super Galaxy loses the human touch somewhere out in the galactic wastes.

Director Masayuki Akehi was deep in a career that included Mazinger Z, Prehistoric Boy Ruy, Gakeen, King Arthur, Danguard Ace, SSX, Saint Seiya, and Yu-Gi-Oh, as well as films as disparate as the noisy, incoherent Grandizer-Getta Robo G- Great Mazinger Final Battle Ocean Beast and the thoughtful Queen Millennia. Here in the 009 film his reflective side gets a workout, without a whole lot in the way of drama or action. Not enough happens in this film, and what does happen is fairly standard SF cliché, giving us a cinematic experience that is all cosmic, dreamy, pastel colored sizzle without much steak.  Sure, there are some Star Wars-inspired outer space dogfights, and a pit stop on planet Fantarian for some standard-issue princess rescuing, and a climax aboard an evil, ultimate-weapon-equipped space station; but these typical SF film tropes were poor momentum builders even in 1980.
a helpful guide to the super galaxy
Audiences aren’t even given a lot of Cyborg. The gang gets more screen time here than they do in the recent RE: Cyborg, but just as in their latest outing, there simply isn't enough 008 fire or 007 shape-changing or 005 lifting or 001 crying.  Of course, 1980 audiences had just enjoyed fifty TV episodes of Cyborg 009 battling cyborgs and gods and evil triplets; perhaps the producers felt they could dispense with the frivolities and instead concentrate on blowing minds. Certainly this is where Ishinomori was going with the 009 manga, away from the action and towards philosophical pondering of Big Questions.

And let's make this very clear. This film works hard at being weird and alien. The ridiculous blown-glass-ornamentalism of Saba's space cruiser (with a whimsical name – call her “Ishmael”) is only the first step into a glossy, strangely colored film that takes us to Fantarian, a wild fake-Aztec freakout of degenerate tribesmen, lake monsters, eerie vegetation, and crumbling temples. The squat, hateful Dagas swarm through their ugly, brutalist space fortress, and a 2001-style trip through the Star Gate takes us an infinity beyond the usual nuts and bolts, engineerist milieu of a typical 009 adventure.

Even with their new, rounded character designs, the Cyborgs feel like guests stars in their own movie. The script doesn't give them a lot to do outside their defining characteristics of Heroic, Tragic, or Comedy Relief. 009 and 003 make goo-goo eyes at each other a few times, and the totally superfluous detour to planet Fantarian allows Queen Tamara to shamelessly throw herself at Joe in an attempt to give the film some sort of relationship-related tension. Perhaps there are some six-year-olds in the audience who really think 009 is going to ditch his cyborg pals for a purple space lady, but the rest of us know better. This is a woman in a Cyborg 009 cartoon who's making a play for Joe and that means her time is almost up. I'm not saying 003 is responsible; I'm just saying they all wind up dead. 

After a space journey filled with SF tropes, the film wraps with yet another cliché as Zoa is destroyed by the Real Ultimate Power that he himself wished for, the power that also allows Joe to wish everything OK again (which might sound a little pat, but be honest, it beats the heck out of whatever the hell happened at the end of RE: Cyborg).  Joe’s big tall wish also brings fallen Cyborg 004 back to life, in a scene edited out of Japanese TV versions of this film, for considerations of time and also because it is a goofily tacked-on piece of drama-ruining hackwork.  

The print was a bit scratchy, but still enjoyable – as was explained before the show, it was a library print that had literally been all over the world. I was curious how the surprisingly sizable audience would take this film, which is, to be fair, full of characters they don’t know on a mission to oddly named planets, protecting the universe from a poorly explained menace. This is where the movie could have benefited from spending a few of those one hundred and thirty five minutes on a bit of Cyborg exposition or Cyborg backstory.  However, the crowd seemed to laugh at the right parts (and a few of the hackier dramatic turns) and the gosh-wow SF material seemed to wow appropriately.  It’s tempting to say that there’s much about this movie that is too “1980” to really click with 2014’s audiences – but at the same time, last year’s RE: Cyborg left fans unsatisfied too. It may just be that single films are not the best way to use nine or ten characters to push boundaries and explore new thematic elements; the stories of a manga creator as ambitious as Ishinomori may after all be best suited for manga.

Other films in JFTOR’s Wednesday night series include the ninja historical drama Dagger Of Kamui, which is also punishingly long but sports ninjas and a Mark Twain cameo. Also appearing is the sold-out Akira and the 2009 autobiographical feature Mai Mai Miracle. If you’re free Wednesday nights, head for the Revue!  You can find out more about JFTOR here. See you in the Revue!
my favorite promotional photo from the premiere because why not

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