Saturday, November 28, 2015

at the movies

Movies! Everybody loves 'em.  And if you're reading this blog, chances are the kind of movies you like come from Japan and are animated! And chances are also that if you were a kid in the 60s or even the 70s or the 80s, you might have had the chance to see a Japanese animated film in your local drive-in or at a kiddy matinee, long before Akira and Totoro would tag-team the arthouse cinemas of North America and turn "cartoons" into "animation.” We’re talking back in the day here, long before Japanese animation was seen as a viable entertainment medium, way before anyone realized that “Annie May” was anything other than maybe the name of the big-haired lady selling tickets in the box office.
Magic Boy
And like all great journeys this one begins with a ninja. Magic Boy (Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, 1959) would be the first Japanese animated film to get North American theatrical release, screening in June of ‘61 courtesy MGM. The ninja magic of Magic Boy was followed very closely by Globe Pictures’ American release of Toei’s Panda And The Magic Serpent (Hakujaden). This movie premiered in Japan a year before Magic Boy, making it the first color Japanese animated film. Panda, directed by Taiji Jack & The Witch Yabushita, at one point was widely available via poorly transferred public domain VHS. 60s America was filled with Japanese imports; not just transistor radios playing Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki", but anime feature films like Alakazam The Great, The Littlest Warrior,  Little Prince & The Eight Headed Dragon, and Gulliver's Travels Beyond The Moon would enthrall kids at matinees and in the playgrounds of drive-in theaters.

lobby cards, print ads, & LPs for Alakazam, Panda, and others

Once the 1970s got moving, Japan's hunger for big-budgeted children's animation features would be replaced by hunger for TV shows starring easily marketable toy robots, Ultramen, and Masked Riders. Fewer animated films were made in Japan, and consequently fewer made their way across the pond to entertain and mystify us.

poster and lobby cards for Nobody's Boy
One of these stragglers was Yugo Serikawa's Chibikko Remi to Meiken Kapi (Little Remi and Capi, The Famous Dog), the first anime adaptation of Hector "Perrine Story" Malot's novel Sans Famille. This 1970 Toei release affects a jarring, very dated 1960 visual style.  Under the title Nobody’s Boy, the film wouldn’t make it into American theaters until the early 1980s, courtesy "Malijack Productions" and an English dub starring Jim "Thurston Howell III" Backus. Nobody's Boy would later appear on cable TV and in the children's video sections of video rental stores in the US and UK.

The fairy tale Jack And The Beanstalk may be an old story, but when you put a director like Gisaburo Sugii in charge, things are bound to get surreal, and that’s exactly what happens in this 1974 feature. Nippon Herald’s Jack didn't have to wait a decade but made it to US cinemas in the year of its release via Columbia Pictures. Mixing European and Japanese animation styles, it sidesteps cliches and winds up a thoughtful, slightly eerie film, fully storybook-enabled for the kids, yet unearthly and visually dynamic enough to entertain adults.

newspaper ad from Seattle Times, June 1980
1980 would be an almost unheralded turning point in the world of anime localization; Roger Corman's New World Pictures would release Toei's 1979 Galaxy Express 999 film in theaters across America. For the first time,  a popular Japanese property would be brought to the States a few months after its Japanese release and marketed not as a children's picture but a science-fiction adventure on the level of Star Wars. This is the kind of simultaneous, professional, serious anime release we’ve come to take for granted here in the modern world, but in 1980 this approach simply hadn’t happened before.

Reviews are kinda harsh
Don't confuse "Galaxy Express" with
"Midnight Express." Trust me.
Of course the New World version of Galaxy Express would be problematic; edits for time would chop half an hour out of Tetsuro Hoshino’s journey to the Mechanized Planet, and celebrity impersonation voice acting made Captain Harlock's appearance less impressive than it might otherwise have been. It was 1980, people still didn't take Japanese animation very seriously. But, and this is the important part, they were taking it more seriously than they had been. Galaxy Express would screen across America, with trailers, radio spots, posters and TV ads advertising Leiji Matsumoto's Rin Taro-directed space fantasy to a nation just awakening to the potential of Japanese space cartoons. The film would appear post-cinema on cable TV and finish its life cycle in the shelves of home video stores with a VHS release, lodging deep in the memories of young viewers who would struggle years later to recall the name of "that cartoon with the train in space."

Five years later, in the midst of releasing gems like Space Raiders, Deathstalker, and C.H.U.D., New World snagged another prestigious Japanese anime release, Tokuma Shoten/Top Craft's Nausicaa, directed by some guy named Hayao Miyazaki. A singular science-fantasy vision of ecological destruction, the film was an instant classic and put Miyazaki on the map as Japan's top anime director. New World would waste no time in again cutting thirty minutes, dumbing down the dialogue, and creating new poster art that split the difference between Mad Max, Dune, and Star Trek. Still, we have to take the bad with the good, and Warriors would, like Galaxy Express before it, be seen on screens across the United States and Canada.

Miyazaki’s Nausicaa was powerful enough to withstand any amount of shoddy localization. Theater patrons and later those who saw the film on cable television or rental VHS couldn’t help but be impressed by the film, even if the main character was now named "Zandra", and its clear refusal to be a "children's film" makes it a milestone on American movie screens.

Toronto Star movie listing and VHS box art for "Warriors"
But was it?  Were there earlier attempts at releasing Japanese anime films aimed at grownups in America? Well, there was one. Maybe two. Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions, responsible for internationally successful shows about robot boys and talking white lions, took a chance on feature animation for older audiences in the late 60s. Their 1969 "Animerama" feature A Thousand And One Nights, based on Sir Richard Burton's translation of the bawdy Arabic folk tales, is a who's who of anime talent like Osamu Dezaki and Eichi Yamamoto, resulting in a reasonably entertaining if meandering film. Purportedly an English-dubbed version received a very limited theatrical release in America, but the only surviving evidence is the dubbed trailer.

from the English trailer for "A Thousand And One Nights"
Mushi's next feature, 1970s Cleopatra, was an indulgent mess, a hodgepodge of sight gags, anachronisms, and Dame Oyaji and Sazae-San cameos crammed into the story of Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar, all bookended by a bizarre live-action/cartoon-head science-fiction subplot. A massive flop in Japan, this film was a crippling blow to Mushi's finances; desperately they licensed the movie to an American distributor, who released it with a self-imposed X rating under the title "Cleopatra Queen Of Sex." Unlike A Thousand And One Nights, evidence of Cleopatra's American release does exist; at least one screening of a subtitled print took place at New York City's Bijou in April of 1972. Variety's review is not kind, referencing a "disconcerting clash of styles in the animation" and "an overabundance of bawdy blue grossness",  remarking "it is difficult to imagine anyone being aroused by the naked breasts of a cartoon character," a sentiment no doubt shocking to today's waifu-worshipping 2D love slaves.

"Cleopatra, Queen Of Sex"
The failure of Cleopatra and of its followup Belladonna Of Sadness (which after critical re-evaluation is getting a remastered theatrical release) would leave animated films for grownups in the hands of Ralph "Wizards" Bakshi and whatever Europeans were thinking when they made Tarzoon, Shame Of The Jungle. After Warriors Of The Wind blew away, there would be a long, dark movie-house anime interregnum; sure, the stitched-together Robotech The Movie would briefly appear, only to be hurriedly whisked away to a hazardous waste containment facility.  It would be late 1989 before Streamline Pictures delivered Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira to American cinemas, making Japanese animation a force to be reckoned with wherever on the Venn diagram film snobs and animation nerds meet. Nowadays new releases of films by Mamoru Oshii or Mamoru Hosoda, Isao Takahata or Hayao “Gone Fishing” Miyazaki are a safe bet to show up in towns with hip, with-it theaters.

However, the decline of  the neighborhood video rental, difficult times for movie theater owners,  the collapse of physical media, and the whimsical unreliability of streaming video all herald a new and unsatisfying era for the seeker of slightly nontraditional cinema.  Will the local theater once again become our window into the world of non-Disney animation for adults and kids and adults who think like kids? Can we ever return to the days of the double feature, the all-night shockathon, the kiddy matinee, the hunger of an industry desperate to fill its screens with darn near anything that will fit through the projector’s shining gate? Probably not.  Still, as long as popcorn pops in a lobby somewhere, as long as our feet still stick to the floors of our neighborhood movie house, we’ll always have hope.

let's all go to the lobby

Special thanks to Chris Hill and the Toronto Public Library for their assistance.