Saturday, February 21, 2015

Yuusha Raideen, UHF Subtitles & The Great Fuji-TV Freakout Of 1998

The FCC started licensing UHF TV stations back in the early 50s, it wasn’t until 1965 that all new televisions were required to receive UHF signals, and it was 1975 before Ted Turner turned his local Atlanta channel into a satellite “Superstation” to forge a media empire. But in UHF’s heyday every market had two or three or four struggling local stations competing for eyeballs with old reruns, cheap movies, weird local programming, cartoons, and shows aimed at the ethnic minorities underserved by local media; an anything-goes free for all where creatives could experiment (see: MST3K) and where a spin across the dial might bring you Jesus, Hercules, the Beaver, El Santo, Gilligan, or in the case of a few markets, translated and subtitled Japanese TV cartoons.

Unsuspecting American homes received uncut jolts of super robot action, space piracy, heartrending girly melodrama, football team UFO psychics, and combination-supercar races, airing in Japanese cultural blocks next to news shows, sumo scores, flower arranging how-tos and business reports. Cities with large Japanese populations like NYC, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay area found themselves lucky enough to get their anime fix straight without any Jim Terry or Sandy Frank cutting the dosage. Classic anime series like Raideen, Getter Robo G, Candy Candy, UFO Dai Apolon, Gattiger The Combo-Car, Cyborg 009 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock all made their Western debuts via these Japanese-language UHF transmissions.

These broadcasts would jumpstart American anime fandom in the dark interregnum between Speed Racer and Battle Of The Planets, and would be videotaped off-air on primitive wired-remote, top-loading VCRs and distributed throughout the country in conditions of extreme obscurity. As the 80s progressed, shows like Dr. Slump and Fist of the North Star would confuse cable TV-watching Americans until Fuji-TV realized what was going on and pulled the plug. 

KIKU-TV (13 on your dial) in Honolulu led the charge in the early 70s with programming aimed at Hawaii’s large Japanese-speaking population, hungry for terebi from home.  One particular KIKU success was Toei’s live-action Kikaida, sparking Hawaiian love of the character that continues to this day. KIKU would keep the Toei tokusatsu parade marching with shows like Kamen Rider V3RainbowmanGanbare!! Robocon Goranger and Battle Fever J. KIKU would phase out their Japanese programming in the early 1980s and another station would eventually take over the call sign, but in their 70s heyday they provided Japanese programming for stations across America, both subtitled and unsubbed, including, along with their robots and spaceships, some possible cultural significance with titles like ghost comedy Obake Q-Taro, Manga Folktales Of Japan and the Zen Buddhist monk sitcom Ikkyu-San.

In 1976 KIKU teamed up with the Marukai Trading Co. to bring the English-subtitled adventures of Brave Raideen to markets in California and New York. Marukai, the Osaka-based export company that would later open American price-club stores and the “98cent Plus” chain, sponsored Raideen to advertise the Raideen import toys they just happened to be distributing. Was this a case of Japan making an end run around Mattel, who’s Shogun Warriors toys were just starting to be sold in America without the marketing benefit of TV cartoon tie-ins? Only Prince Sharkin knows. One thing we do know: the New York/New Jersey station WNJU-47’s broadcast of Raideen in March of ’76 may well be the first ever American broadcast of a super robot cartoon.

In this late 70s-early 80s period, Japanese animation would air on a variety of stations.  Chicago’s Channel 26 WCIU, home of Mulqueen’s Kiddie A-Go-Go, Soul Train, and horror host Svengoolie, would screen untranslated films like Sanrio’s Ringing Bell in between ads for Kokuho Rose Brand Rice. The New York City area’s WNJU, which once aired Cool Ghoul Zacherle’s “Disc-O-Teen,” broadcast a full package of subbed anime hits including Cyborg 009, Galaxy Express, Raideen, and Harlock, and would later form Hispanic broadcaster Telemundo. Sunday nights in Sacramento CA, KMUV-31 showed Raideen with subs and Goranger without. The SF Bay Area would get anime via two stations, KTSF-26’s “Tokyo TV“ block and KEMO-20’s Sunday night “Fuji TV” package, confusing generations to come by sharing names with Japanese broadcasters TV Tokyo and Fuji TV (now FCI), which also further clouded the issue by providing Japanese programming to American audiences via the Nippon Golden Network cable TV station.
Demon Motor Co. chairman Bob Snakehead McMustache
Why, we may ask, were these shows subtitled in English to begin with?  To let third and fourth generation Japanese enjoy Getter Robo G along with Grandpa and Gramma-san? To help promote Japanese language facility via pop cultural means?  As a nod to the vast audiences of Anglos inadvertently exposed to the raw power of “Japanimation”, as it began to be called at the time?  Or did some marketing genius at Marukai realize they could sell more Raideen toys to an audience that knew who Raideen was and why Raideen was awesome?

Space Joe Incorporated:
 For All Your Space Joe Needs
KIKU-TV’s English localization was rudimentary at best, reducing dialog to the bare minimum and presenting the subtitles in a crudely character-generated all-caps font. Precise these were definitely not. However, for fans eager to experience uncut Japanese animation in its original language, these subtitled shows were an intoxicating look into a world usually denied viewers on this side of the Pacific.  For some fan subtitling groups, KIKU’s subs would provide a base for more comprehensive versions (for instance, CPF's Captain Harlock fansubs).  Copies of these shows were rare. This wasn’t merely taping Robotech off-air or spending a few hundred dollars on import VHS; you had to know someone who knew someone who happened to be operating a video recorder in a very specific place at a very specific time, and that someone had to owe you a favor, Godfather style. 
sorority girl mating call
For those intent upon distribution through fan networks, these subtitles pushed consumer-grade video-reproduction technology to their limits. Already weakened via whatever stone-age video processing system KIKU and Fuji TV were using to generate their subtitles, these episodes were recorded off-air by the primitive two-headed VCRs of the late 70s and early 80s.  By the time they were passed from fan to fan via daisy-chained, overheated VHS decks, the barely adequate signals were nearly unwatchable, forcing desperate viewers to hope for dark backgrounds during important plot points.

bending the envelope of illegibility via multiple VHS iterations
Fuji-TV HQ, Odaiba
KIKU would end their anime experiment in the early 80s but the Japanese-language cable station Nippon Golden Network would pick up the slack a few years later. Since 1981, NGN has brought Japanese TV, including news, J-drama, karaoke, and children’s programming, to markets in Hawaii, mainland United States, and Guam, and interestingly enough is now partially owned by Japanese telecom giant J-COM.  In the late 80s and early 90s NGN broadcast subtitled episodes of Galaxy Express 999, Dr. Slump, Dragonball, and Fist of the North Star, provided to them by Japan’s original broadcast network, Fuji TV.   At some point somebody somewhere inside the cavernous sci-fi Fuji-TV headquarters building on Odaiba in Tokyo – two blocks from where the life-size Gundam now stands guard – somebody there noticed that popular Japanese programs were airing on American television, possibly forestalling any future licensing of said popular Japanese programs to the wider American TV market.  This led to a fascinating press release from Fuji-TV; turns out some “entertainment programs… were briefly distributed to the US west coast via Hawaii, and inadvertently appeared with subtitles”.  The delicate and very Japanese wording of this piece presents the facts without assigning any actual blame to the seemingly accidental translation and subtitling of hundreds of TV episodes. Sorry, it was inadvertent, won’t happen again.
Fuji TV sets the record straight on that accidental subtitling, sorry about that
Fortunately for anime fandom, by 1998 there was not only a underground samizdat network of fan translators and subtitleists delivering anime in readable English, but also a sizeable and growing North American anime localizing industry releasing Japanese animation to the home video market. The day of the barely legible, barely translated UHF broadcast had passed. Only dust and piles of shedding VHS remained in its trail, a faint air of mystery and bewilderment drifting in the snow between the channels, taking us back to the time when UHF television was a frontier where anything was possible, even uncut Japanese animation with fuzzy, barely legible subtitles.

Thanks to August Ragone, Evan Chung, Patrick Drazen, Shaun Camp, Chet Brier, and Fred Patten 


Jonny said...

I love this kind of article! TV in Britain was run very differently to the US, so this sort of thing never happened here.
You might already know this, but though I haven't seen any uploads of anime recorded in this era, there is a torrent floating about of betamax rips of the entire tokusatsu series Battle Fever J recorded from Hawaiian TV with subtitles!

Chris Sobieniak said...

The day of the barely legible, barely translated UHF broadcast had passed. Only dust and piles of shedding VHS remained in its trail, a faint air of mystery and bewilderment drifting in the snow between the channels, taking us back to the time when UHF television was a frontier where anything was possible, even uncut Japanese animation with fuzzy, barely legible subtitles.

I wish those days would return (at least in the digital realm though I'm sure they won't be free the way they're auctioning off the frequency spectrum. They're digging their grave!

I love this kind of article! TV in Britain was run very differently to the US, so this sort of thing never happened here.

In most of Europe, TV was seen more as a public service and less a commercial entity. That all started to change in the 80's and 90's when new private networks and satellite channels took their stage over state-owned corporations (let alone the license fees people had or still pay for to this day, we Americans got off scot free thanks to capitalizing the airwaves as we did).

You might already know this, but though I haven't seen any uploads of anime recorded in this era, there is a torrent floating about of betamax rips of the entire tokusatsu series Battle Fever J recorded from Hawaiian TV with subtitles!

That's lucky, haven't to look for it then!

Chris Sobieniak said...

Bothered to check out this torrent of Battle Fever J and see there's no seeds, bummer (but I suppose that's to be expected for a torrent that's been around for nearly 7 years).

Thaddeus said...

Those were the days, I sort of miss the crazy days when you could find almost anything on UHF or the occasional independent local VHF station. It could be anything from cheesy horror movie hosts with punny names introducing B-movies, to reruns of vintage TV shows, to short films, obscurities, band contests, or two hour long blocs of Indian dance videos. As time went on quote a few your local UHF stations became affiliated with networks like FOX, the pre-CW UPN and WB Network, or the now defunct PAX. Which was one of the reasons there was less room for
ultra-low budget and quirky locally produced programs on these stations as years went by.

Public access was also a forum for questionable at best airing of anime, another something I feel a twinge of nostalgia for, public access TV being that alleyway in-between basic cable and local channels where at times almost anything could happen.
I do know there was at least a couple of airing of anime shows on Austin, TX public access during the early 1990s, like for instance someone showing the Nausicaa movie in half-hour segments.

Chris Sobieniak said...

"or the now defunct PAX"

It's still around as Ion today. They never really went away.

Anonymous said...

Getting copies of Corn Pone's Harlock episodes in the early to mid 90's was a huge task in itself alright. I remember a collaborative effort between me and a few friends to get the entire collection. We eventually succeeded, but I ended up never watching the tapes, except for the first four episodes...

Chris Sobieniak said...

That's how it always is.

discdolo said...

wow this was awesome post.. I was googling these shows as i never remember their names watching it on UHF as a kid.. I remmeber galaxy express and cyborg( although i didnt remember their names!!) . As a kid i would spend some summers in the Dominican Republic and catch more anime there (Festival of the Robots and Jet Marte ). I also would watch Thunderbirds 2086 on Showtime when my father had cable in the 80s. .thanks for the write up..

Anonymous said...

As someone who was born in the early 70's in Hawaii I really miss KIKU. My brother and I used to run around the yard with Kamen Rider helmets and belts. GoRangers were also a favorite. We used to get the chogokin toys from Shirokiya at Ala Moana. A friend had the 2 or 3 foot tall Zaboga figure that we coveted. Battle Fever J - I don't know why, but the egg monster episode has been burned into my memory. KIKU was also a great source of samurai programming. I can't remember a time when Abarenbo Shogun was not on. I wish I could go back. Growing up in Hawaii was a unique experience to say the least. The internet and fansubbing has made it possible to revisit a lot of my childhood favorites. By the way, dvd rips of all 52 fansubbed Battle Fever J episodes can be found as direct downloads. GoRangers are also available at least until episode 32. The rest are on torrents.

dougo13 said...

Ah, this clears something up for me...the reasons why DBZ stopped with the subs after episode #108 (I believe). I thought this was because Cartoon Network was running the show and protested but it may have come from Fuji TV itself. Of course, we may never know for sure. As well, who exactly was NGN? KIKU was an actual station. I had assumed KIKU morphed into NGN but apparently not. I still have all my NGN and KIKU tapes but haven't checked them out. I *should* transfer them as soon as possible to a digital format before they are lost forever. But what to do with the other 7,000 tapes that make up my collection? I was considering a blog to display many things but its complicated and I no longer have the time. Decisions, decisions...

Chris Sobieniak said...

NGN and KIKU are separate entities. KIKU was/is a broadcast station while NGN was offered on cable by Oceanic Cable (now Time Warner, unless it's now Charter's bitch).

wizard55 said...

This was a great article. Loved reading the history of these subtitled airings.

Videoranger007 said...

I have some Gattaiger episodes recorded from a network in NYC. I cherish them.