Sunday, December 11, 2016

God And/Or Tatsunoko Don't Make No Junk

It's the 1980s. You're bored in front of the TV, punching buttons on that weird multiplex cable TV channel box with all the buttons and three levers, and you come across a Japanese cartoon that you've never seen, and it's about two kids, and a robot, and Jesus. Yeah, THAT Jesus. And you ask youself, how did I get here? 

high-tech 1980s channel-changing device
The liberating influence of the Reformation put religion in the hands of anybody who could shout the Gospel and stir up a crowd, taking salvation out of the hands of a centralized bureaucracy and allowing a million tent revivals to bloom. Heir to the traditions of mass-media evangelists like Billy Sunday, Father Joe Coughlin, and Aimee Semple McPherson, Southern Baptist minister Pat Robertson founded the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960 with the purchase of a small UHF station in Portsmouth Virginia. CBN's early days were financed via a telethon requesting 700 volunteers each giving $10, this "700 Club" becoming the genesis of Robertson's flagship current events/prayer series. Amidst the growth of cable television in the late 1970s, Robertson bought a cable TV channel in the area and soon CBN was a basic-cable fixture on TV sets, reaching 10 million homes by 1981. 

In the late 70s, CBN hired ad agency giant Young & Rubicam to promote sales of Christian literature in Japan. This is Japan in the late 1970s we're talking about here, in the midst of an unprecendented animation boom fueled by hits like Yamato, Gundam, Gatchaman, and others. Anyone with two eyes could see that animation was the way to go. Hooking up with Japan's Yomiko Advertising Agency and perhaps emboldened by the prior ad agency/animation studio success of former SCDP exec Lou Avery's partnership with Tatsunoko to produce Scout's Honor, CBN would contract Tatsunoko to produce a Bible-themed cartoon for young people. 

The resulting cartoon, Anime Oyako Gekijo, or "Anime Mother & Child Playhouse", would be directed by veteran Masakazu Higuchi (Vickie The Viking, Urikupen Rescue Team, The Real Ghostbusters) and would premiere Oct. 9, 1981 across the spectrum of Japanese broadcast television, on Fuji TV, TV Tokyo, Asahi TV, and TBS. 

Chris, Joy and Gizmo
The story stars young Chris Peeper (Sho Azuka), his friend Joy (Azusa Yamato) and toy robot Gizmo (Zenmaijikake) as they discover a mysterious old book in the attic of Chris' father, Professor Peeper. Opening up, the book transports them back in time to experience many of the stories of the Bible's Old Testament, with a few New Testament stories thrown in for good measure, but always returns them to the Peeper house at the end of the adventure in time for snacks. There's a very Tatsunoko look to the characters, particularly Professor Peeper, thanks to the work of veteran Muteking/Temple The Balloonist character designer Akiko Shimamoto. 

Chris, Joy, Gizmo, and the Peeper parents 
CBN was reportedly unsure about localizing the series for America, but let's get real, they did own a cable network and you always gotta have something to show on your cable network. The dub cast featured veterans of anime classics Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion, including Billie Lou Watt, Ray "Aquaman" Owens as Jesus, Gilbert Mack, Peter Fernandez, Hal Studer, and others. Owens had been featured in CBN's Christian soap opera "Another Life", which is where he got wind of the upcoming cartoon-voice gig. The series was given the title Superbook and in 1982 it premiered on CBN and became available to other broadcasters through CBN Continental Syndication. 

Superbook wasn't CBN's only big-eyed Japanese cartoon; other anime appearing on CBN included the Sonic International dubs of Honey Honey and Leo The Lion, and 3B Productions' compilation films of Voltes V, Fighting General Daimos (as "Starbirds") and Tatsunoko's 1979 "Daddy Longlegs" telefilm (directed by Superbook's Masakazu Higuchi). 

Anime Oyako Gekijo was followed immediately by "Adventure Of Tondera House", or as we'd know it, Flying House. While playing in the woods, youngsters Justin Casey (Gen Adachi) and his pal Angie (Kanna Natsuyama) and Angie's even-younger brother Corky (Tsukubo Natsuyama) are caught in a storm and seek shelter in a mysterious house where they meet an astonishing robot. This mysterious house and its robot inhabitant belong to Professor Bumble (Dr. Tokio Taimu – "time" – get it?), who has created an amazing time machine built into the house itself, like those great intercom systems you see in mid-century suburban tract homes. A lightning strike reboots the robot S.I.R. into its combat mode and his flailing robot attacks send the house flying back through the ages to New Testament times. During an amazing series of 52 adventures our lost travellers witness the birth of Jesus and the early days of the Christian religion. Airing in Japan from April '82 until March of 1983, the series was also localized by the same cast and distributed by CBN. 

While both Flying House and Superbook use the same basic structure of "modern kids in Bible times", Flying House embedded those kids in the stories themselves, like AP stringers with the 3rd Infantry Division in Anbar Province. Justin, Angie and Corky visibly struggle alongside their new scriptural pals as the timeline asserts itself and the stories come to their King James-decreed conclusions. This distinguishes Flying House from Superbook, where characters having vague memories of these seemingly immortal kids is just a running gag, and any attempts by Chris or Joy at direct involvement unsupported by Leviticus, or Exodus, or whatever, see them yanked out of the past with an abrupt, unsettling counterclockwise sequence. The two shows feature very different kinds of involvement: enmeshment vs active observation.

the gospel according to Superbook

In the tumbling wake of the Flying House came the third part of Tatsunoko's Bible Trilogy. We know the further adventures of Chris, Joy, Gizmo as Superbook II, but in Japan the title is Pasocon Travel Tanteidan, or Personal Computer Travel Detectives, or PC Travel Detective Group, take your pick. As you may remember, the early 1980s were a boom time for personal computers both here and in Japan. When the Superbook and a PC team up, it means new Bible adventures for our Superbook kids, joined here by Chris's dog Ruffles and his cousin Uriah (in Japan, Sho's brother Yuu). Character designs are softened a little to reflect mid-80s aesthetics and the ravages of time, the show being set two years after the events of the first Superbook. PC Travel Tanteidan aired 4-4-83 to 9-26-83, adding 26 episodes to the Superbook canon. 

Superbook II cast and the exciting Atari 2600 Superbook II game

Scriptural fidelity is probably too much to expect from a series that involves different sets of children travelling through time and witnessing different iterations of the same Biblical events, and each series handles interaction with religious events and characters differently, Superbook's kids being passive observers and Flying House's Justin and Angie doing their best to mess with history. Both shows take dramatic liberty with the Gospels; for instance, Flying House has Justin, Angie and Corky being tempted by Satan alongside Jesus, and the show reinterprets the dance of Salome into a children's talent show and involves the kids in an ethical capital-punishment quandary with the son of Barabbas (the murderer set free instead of Jesus).

The Dance Of Salome, as interpreted by Flying House
Tatsunoko's utilitarian animation lacks both the tricky special effects we'd see in their more fantastical series and the props or gadgets typically inserted into shows for the toy market. Since Tatsunoko already had CBN financing, they didn't need Takatoku. The second series of Superbook improves slightly, but lacks visual excitement when compared to concurrent series like Orguss, Dunbine, Mospeada, and Vifam

Jesus and the Flying House kids are tempted by Satan via animation reference from "Little Norse Prince"

In 1985 CBN produced a Spanish language version of Superbook. Eventually the series would reach fifty nations, including a Soviet Union in the throes of Glasnost and Perestroika. Superbook on Soviet Central TV was immensely popular in the twilight days of the USSR and when party bigwigs threatened cancellation, the series sparked a revolt among the Children's Television Department. At one point the show was receiving 30,000 letters from viewers every day. In 1990 CBN rebranded as the Family Channel, which was sold and became Fox Family, which was sold and became ABC Family. Superbook and Flying House relocated to the Trinity Broadcasting Network, run by the televangelist Crouch couple. As streaming video became a thing CBN began streaming Flying House for free while keeping most of Superbook behind a paywall, and building an online interactive children's experience around a Superbook reboot. 

TV ad for Superbook VHS only $24.95 each, a bargain
In spite of the interest in Japanese animation, most self-professed "otaku" would be hesitant to list Superbook as being an influential anime import. And yet, the worldwide reach of this franchise rivals or surpasses titles like Robotech, Sailor Moon or Star Blazers. Superbook/Flying House has been shown continuously for decades in dozens of languages, impacting millions and millions of viewers. Few TV shows of any sort can boast that kind of reach. Of course, Superbook has built-in educational and religious advantages attractive to parents desperate for wholesome family entertainment that their kids will actually sit still for. Prior to Superbook, seekers of scriptural kids TV had to rely on Davey & Goliath or Jot, or the occasional Moody Institute of Science short.

rare "Flying House" edition of The Bible

Superbook/Flying House videos were available in retail and Christian specialty stores and advertised on TV, unheard of in the anime field at the time. Among its target audience of easily impressed children with limited access to TV remote controls, Superbook has remained surprisingly resilient. The series continues to entertain with the original series and with a new, computer-animated Superbook update currently in vogue among the Sunday School set around the world, starring an updated Gizmo and Chris Quantum, who is reportedly "an awesome skate-boarder." The new Superbook is featured on websites, DVD purchasing clubs, online games, and broadcast and streaming video, while the neglected Flying House has yet to receive any updates or reboots at all.

Superbook Club is in the house
We may have Eastern Europe's love of Superbook to thank for the show's longevity; Ukraine's Emmaneuil TV started airing the children's show Superbook Club in 1996, based on a Superbook-themed youth group initiative. The live-action series stars lots of kids and a long-suffering suit actor in a Gizmo costume – over there he's known as Robik, and yes, he did upgrade to the new CG Superbook look - and kids 6-14 can write or email Robik with any question they may have, and can even call him on his toll-free Robik Hot Line. Meanwhile, the kids of the Superbook Club are ready 24/7 to sing, dance, and have low-key adventures across the CIS states of Europe and Western Asia.

Sure, Superbook and Flying House are simplistic children's cartoons selling a watered-down Gospel ultimately for the benefit of multi-millionaire Gospel grifter Pat Robertson. But nothing illustrates the global reach of Japanese animation like Virginian televangelists hiring Asian studios to animate the Middle Eastern cultural traditions that formed the religions of the Western world. Perhaps anime does indeed, as the song says, have the whole world in its hands.

-Dave Merrill

Special thanks to William J. Brown and Benson P. Fraser for their scholarly and informative "The Diffusion of Superbook: One of the World's Most Popular Entertainment-Education Television Series", and a big super Let's Anime thanks to fellow recreational Christianity researcher Wednesday White for her invaluable insight into the world of Superbook and Flying House! 

Happy Holidays from Superbook Club & Let's Anime!

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Prince Planet At Fifty

Fifty years ago a Japanese candy company, a Tokyo cartoon studio, an American production outfit, a future biker-movie star, and TV stations across America would join forces to bring us adventures that crossed the boundaries of time and space and bent both logic and common sense. Soon these stories would vanish from television, living on only as fuzzy memories and fuzzier bootleg VHS tapes, returning only with the advent of streaming video and digital broadcast television.

Join us, won't you, as we take a look at fifty years in the life of Prince Planet.

1939: future Yusei Shonen Papi manga artist Hideoki Inoue is born in Hokkaido. He will enter the manga field as an assistant to Osamu Tezuka, and his professional manga debut will be at age 20 with the feature "TV Boy" in the magazine "Omoshiroi Book."

September 4, 1963 – Tokyo-based animation studio TCJ’s first anime series Sennin Buraku premieres late on a Wednesday night. Sennin Buraku is based on the Edo-period gag manga by Ko Kojima which has been continuously published since 1956.

Space Patrol Hopper
October 20, 1963 – TCJ’s animated Tetsujin-28 series airs on Fuji-TV. Based on the Shonen Magazine manga by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Tetsujin-28 is the first giant robot anime and will later be localized as Gigantor and syndicated across America by Trans-Lux.

November 1964- Hideoki Inoue illustrates Space Patrol Hopper manga for Bokura Magazine. Space Patrol Hopper will be a Toei Animation TV series from February to November, 1965.

1965- "Yoshikura Shouichirou" – a pseudonym for Higake Takeichi, Okura Sato, Yamamura Masao, Kano Ichiro, and Futaba Juzaburo – create Yusei Shonen Papi for TCJ, with financing by Japan's top ad agency Dentsu and data gathered from a survey of 10,000 Japanese boys and girls. Using a combination pen name as creator of an anime series will also be a hallmark of Toei ("Saburo Yatsude") and Nippon Sunrise ("Hajime Yatate") productions. Yusei Shonen Papi manga will first appear in Kobunsha's Shonen in November 1964, drawn by Hideoki Inoue, and the TCJ-produced animation will premiere in June of 1965. Sponsor Glico will market a full line of Yusei Shonen Papi tie-in candy and merchandise.

Papi and Riko-chan
June 3, 1965- after a galactic council chooses to help the people of Earth, the advanced civilization of the hidden tenth planet Clifton sends a young member of the Galactic Peace Force named Papi to Earth to defend peace and justice. A genius with an IQ of over 300, Papi is able to utilize the mysterious Metalyzer, a pendant powered by a generator on Clifton that allows Papi to change the molecular structure of any object, as well as fly, perform feats of strength, survive underwater and in outer space, emit destructive rays, and do anything else the script requires. Every 168 hours (one Earth week) new energy is sent from Clifton to power the Metalyzer. En route to Earth, Papi's ship is struck by asteroids, and aware of the danger, Papi requests that HQ on Clifton erase part of his memory so he won't be tempted to return and abandon his mission. The damage to his ship results in a crash on Earth and Papi's memory is almost totally erased. Landing on Riko-chan's family farm, he remembers enough of the Metalizer to chase oil-speculating gangsters away. Soon Papi is joined by new friends Strong the wrestler and Ajababa the Arabian wizard. He'll spend the next 52 episodes battling crime and robots, armies and monsters, flying saucers and space demons. After a year on Earth Papi is recalled to Clifton, and must say farewell to all his friends on Earth. Yusei Shonen Papi will be broadcast on Japanese television and released on VHS and DVD in Japan.

Ajababa and Strong
June 3, 1965– Yusei Shonen Papi premieres on Fuji TV at 7pm, and will air 52 episodes until May 27, 1966. It will be replaced in its Thursday time slot by the live-action Kokusaihoei adventure series Phantom Agents, created by Tatsuo Yoshida, while Papi moved to 7pm Fridays. When Papi ends, its replacement will be TCJ animated series Yusei Kamen ("Asteroid Mask"). Both Yusei Shonen Papi and Phantom Agents will be packaged for overseas license by Kazuhiko Fujita and his K. Fujita Associates. K. Fujita will be instrumental in the early days of Japanese TV animation for his work securing financing from advertising agencies for Japanese animation (as he did with Dentsu and Yusei Shonen Papi), as well as licensing Japanese cartoons for export. K. Fujita’s other series include Gigantor, Eighth Man, Marine Boy, Speed Racer, and films like Terror Beneath The Sea.

the mark of K. Fujita
1966- Copri International Films, a Miami-based dubbing house partially owned by a former Havana casino manager with ties to mob boss Meyer Lansky, hires Florida actress Catherine "Bobbie" Byers to voice the character of Prince Planet. Other cast members include Kurt Nagel as Aja Baba and future "Santa Claus" actor Jeff Gillen as Pop Worthy. English-language scripts for Prince Planet will be written by Reuben "Ruby" Guberman, erstwhile screenwriter for Florida trash-film king K. Gordon Murray. Copri also dubbed TCJ series Eighth Man, and did Spanish-language work for many clients including the CIA.

AIP trade periodical advertisement for Prince Planet and other series

1964-1966- Yusei Shonen Papi manga by Hideoki Inoue is published in Kobunsha's weekly Shonen magazine, along with Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin-28, Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu, Hisashi Sekiya's Stop! Nii-chan, and Fujio Akatsuka’s Leave It To Chiyota.

Yusei Shonen Papi manga in Kobunsha's Shonen

1965-66 – children across Japan enjoy both Yusei Shonen Papi on TV and the many Glico candies and candy premiums produced in conjunction with the series. Papi is featured on Papi gum, Papi chocolate, Papi stamps, Papi yo-yos, Papi whistles, Papi biscuits, Papi lenticular moving pictures, Papi finger puppets, Papi boomerangs, Papi bubble gum, Papi parachutes, Papi balancing toys, and what may be the most complex cartoon-character candy premium ever, the Papi Panoramascope. Riko gets her own line of candy and toys marketed at girls, with Riko hair charms and Riko pendants and a replica of Riko's ladybug ring. Glico even produced replicas of Papi's Metalyzer and a Papi costume sized for children. American kids got none of this, and we still feel kind of cheated. Glico's chocolate pretzel snack Pocky will, however, make great inroads into the North American snack food market.

a few Glico Yusei Shonen Papi products
Riko-chan toys are for girls only

June 10 1965- Television wrestler Strong is unable to control his immense strength, and loses his TV wrestling job. Forced into a life of crime, he is given a second chance by Yusei Shonen Papi, and aids Papi in his fight for justice (episode 2, "The Strength of Strong")

Strong is strong
June 17 1965– Prince Planet's enemy, the Martian magician Warlock, first appears (as Kiritobi) in episode #3 of Yusei Shonen Papi ("Ultra Ninja Kiritobi")

Kiritobi the Ultra Ninja & Master Of Martian Mischief 

July 1 1965– the Octopus Gang, led by Madame Whiplash, uses flying robot jellyfish to execute mid-air hijackings of jet airplanes carrying gold bullion (episode 5, “The Flying Jellyfish”)

more Papi toys

December 23 1965– the Master Of Misery, Krag of Kragmire (aka Golem) makes his entrance in episode 30 of Yusei Shonen Papi, and will menace Prince Planet throughout the remainder of the series with his bat wings, his funeral director's demeanor, and his saw-blade pocket watch.

the evil Krag, or Golem if you prefer
February 18 1966– Riko finds a pair of gloves that she believes renders her immune to harm, forcing Papi to spend the rest of the episode protecting her from the harm she knowingly exposes herself to (episode 38, "The Magic Gloves").

Riko-chan in Paris

1966- the Planet Radion sends young Universal Peace Corps member Prince Planet to Earth to defend decency and justice. Using his Pendant of Power, Prince Planet can change the molecular structure of objects, fire powerful rays, and is given flight and super strength. Crash landing on the ranch of "Pop" Worthy, he is befriended by Worthy's daughter Diana. Soon he meets out-of-work studio wrestler Dan Dynamo, Ajababa the wizard from Abadon, and occasional supporting character Kevin Kirby, who is both a hydro-electric power station engineer and Diana’s uncle. Together they face crime and robots, gangsters and space aliens, invading armies and destructive plants. After a year on Earth, Prince Planet leaves his new friends and returns to Radion. From 1966 until the mid 1970s, Prince Planet will be seen on American syndicated UHF television and will also become a popular series in Australia. The series is never released on licensed home video in North America. MGM will make the Prince Planet series available on streaming video and digital TV in the 2000s.

the "Papy Stamp"

1965-66– the Galactic Peace Force chooses perhaps the laziest, most forgetful officer on Clifton to be responsible for ensuring Papi’s Metalyzer is fully charged. Rest assured whenever Papi’s in trouble and needs a fresh burst of Metalyzer recharging, this doofus will be asleep at the literal switch.

those idiots on Radion
1966– the Carol Lombard Singers perform the theme song to Prince Planet. Carol Lombard worked with legends like Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, and Elvis Presley, and her singing group also did the theme to Flipper and many AIP musicals produced by Prince Planet musical director Al Simms.

May 20 1966- Kiritobi (Warlock) is destroyed in a fierce battle with Ajababa (episode 51, "Ajababa's Grandchildren")

May 27 1966- Golem (Krag) is finally defeated in battle with Yusei Shonen Papi, and Papi returns to his home planet, leaving behind all his Earth friends, in the final episode of Prince Planet, "Distant Home Planet."

1967- Prince Planet voice actor Bobbie Byers stars as Linda, "too much woman for any one man", in the 1967 Crown International biker film Wild Rebels, directed by Florida auteur filmmaker William "Death Curse Of Tartu" Grefe, who would later direct William Shatner in Impulse.

Wild Rebels star Bobbie Byers

1968– Manga artist Hideoki Inoue spends his Yusei Shonen Papi profits on high living and entertainment, and is soon broke and in trouble for nonpayment of taxes. His post-Papi work includes licensed character manga based on Ultraman, Ultra Seven, Ultra Q, and Thunderbirds, as well as non-licensed manga series Thunder Seven, Crazy Planet, and Dogma 3.

Inoue's Thunderbirds and Thunder Seven

1968– Prince Planet voice actor Bobbie Byers stars in the motorcycle gang movie Savages From Hell (aka "Big Enough 'n Old Enough"), also starring Sidney Poitier's brother Cyril. The film is directed by Joseph P. Mawra, who also directed "Chained Girls" and "Shanty Tramp", the latter screenwritten by Prince Planet writer Ruben Guberman.

Savages From Hell

1973- Future Let’s Anime blogger Dave Merrill watches Prince Planet for the first time on Chicago's WSNS Channel 44. The program is hosted by ventriloquist Steve Hart and sponsored by KAYO Chocolate Drink. The memories of Prince Planet will spark a lifelong interest in Japanese animation for Merrill and many others.

1977– the first national Japanese fan group, the Cartoon Fantasy Organization or C/FO, begins in Los Angeles California. Eventually it will have chapters in most major American cities, including Atlanta.

1985– future Let’s Anime writer Dave Merrill helps found a C/FO chapter in Atlanta GA and assists in hosting regular screenings of old and new Japanese animation in libraries, community centers, comic book and SF conventions, and anywhere else with a TV and a VCR.

August 1986- Yusei Shonen Papi manga artist Hideoki Inoue passes away in his apartment in Japan. He had avoided payment of income tax on his Yusei Shonen Papi profits, which by now had all been squandered. Estranged from his wife and family, Inoue died alone.

1986- Membership in the C/FO facilitates contact with anime fans across the country, some of whom have Prince Planet episodes and are willing to trade. Tape trading with C/FO members allows many, including this author, to see Prince Planet again for the first time in 13 years.

Prince Planet Foundation promotional mailing

1988-  The national C/FO self-destructs, the local anime club becomes a chore, and future Let’s Anime blogger Dave Merrill decides to concentrate on his core interests, the Japanese cartoons of the 1960s. He will start an organization called the Prince Planet Foundation, in an attempt to gather together 60s anime fans. The Prince Planet Foundation will publish a newsletter, “Ten Thousand Gigantors”, featuring articles and fan artwork and fiction, and will connect fans of classic anime across America.

cartoon by Prince Planet Foundation member Meg Evans
1993- the print version of Let’s Anime publishes an extensive article about Prince Planet.

Let's Anime #4, artwork by Paul Young

1995- The new digital technology of “the internet” results in Prince Planet Foundation founder David Merrill receiving plaintive emails from total strangers, asking if there was any way they could ever see this cartoon they grew up with. Merrill spends the next few years copying Prince Planet episodes for total strangers.

October 1995 - The Japanese animation festival Anime Weekend Atlanta holds its first annual convention, and the badges for staff and attendees feature YSP/Prince Planet artwork designed by convention graphics specialist CB Smith.

AWA director's badge

1999- Enough is enough, says Prince Planet Foundation organizer Dave Merrill. He stops responding to queries about Prince Planet episodes.

July 2007 - Classic anime blog Let’s Anime begins online publication.

November 2009 – MGM announces more than 45 episodes of Prince Planet will be made available on streaming video sites Hulu and YouTube. The 47 episodes available on YouTube will eventually vanish, but the Hulu access will remain for years.

November 2009 - Let's Anime readers participate in a Prince Planet art contest to celebrate the release of Prince Planet on Hulu and YouTube. The blog receives a lot of great artwork and everybody gets a T-shirt, courtesy MGM.

winners of the Prince Planet Fan Art contest

January 16 2012 – Let’s Anime posts the first of a 3-part English translation of Yusei Shonen Papi manga, partially scanned directly from a crumbling 1965 issue of Shonen Magazine.

February 18, 2012 – Manga Shop Series 445 is released, the first volume of collected Yusei Shonen Papi manga. This 288 page black and white digest-sized book collects the first half of the YSP manga as it appeared in Shonen Magazine, as well as reproductions of illustrations from the Asasi Sonorama Papi storybook single. Manga Shop Series 446 completes their YSP reprint.

Manga Shop 445 and 446
April 2014 - digital broadcast TV network The Works, a channel owned by MGM Television, begins airing Prince Planet as part of its schedule.

May 2014 - TGG Direct, Inc announces the release of Prince Planet on DVD in North America, and the DVD set is listed on Amazon. May comes and goes with no release, and the listing is removed from Amazon. Queries to TGG go unanswered.

November 2016 - Classic anime blog Let's Anime celebrates fifty years of Prince Planet with a celebratory blog post filled with information on both Yusei Shonen Papi and Prince Planet, which you are now reading. Will there be more excitement ahead for YSP/Prince Planet fans? Will Prince Planet return from Radion, or MGM’s vaults, to battle for truth and justice again? Only time will tell!

thanks to Meg Evans, James Sternberg, the people of Radion, MGM, Rick Zerrano, AIP-TV, and "Yoshikura Shouichirou" for their YSP/Prince Planet assistance. 

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

gravity sabers at 10 parsecs: Queen Emeraldas

If you're familiar with Leiji Matsumoto's Captain Harlock or Galaxy Express 999, you're likely familiar with Emeraldas, the lady cosmo-pirate with the giant space blimp who's prone to surprise appearances whenever plots need advancing or machine planets need blowing up. Here in Kodansha's Queen Emeraldas Vol. 1, space-fantasy manga fans here in the West are finally able to enjoy her solo adventures; and rest easy, Leijiverse fans, Matsumoto's signature style of sci-fi romanticism is in full mid 1970s effect here, a handwavey future-fantasy idiom where SF motifs mix freely with Wild West tropes and the high-tech trappings of gravity waves and space drives serve only to highlight the greater struggles of the human spirit as Emeraldas haunts the spacelanes, a mystery woman with little patience for fools or cowards.

Queen Emeraldas appeared in Weekly Shonen during what must have been one of Matsumoto's busiest periods, 1978-'79. Smack dab in the middle of helping promote the Yamato boom, Leiji was also producing Danguard Ace for Adventure King, the Galaxy Express 999 manga in Shonen King, and Captain Harlock for Akita Shoten's Play Comic. Queen Emeraldas is 100% Matsumoto; the flowing scarves and cloaks and hair, the vast sky/starscapes, and the stately panels filled with elaborate space machinery covered in meaningless dials all let the reader know exactly whose comics he's reading. Manga is thought of as filmic, kinetic and fast-paced, but Matsumoto's work is a different kind of cinematic, slow and contemplative, and Queen Emeraldas is no exception, filled with long shots of windswept asteroids, double-page spreads of deep space, and tableaus heavy with impending doom.

Matsumoto's atmospheric, engaging, all-natural brush line picks out every board on dilapidated Martian towns and every swirl of dust in the thin atmosphere, and his cartoonish, exaggerated characters contrast nicely with the slick mechanical renderings (perhaps courtesy Matsumoto assistant Kaoru "Area 88" Shintani) of vehicles, weapons, space stations, futuristic cities, and the other super-constructions they utilize or inhabit. Emeraldas and other characters loom in and out of rich, inky darkness, visible in the light of endless rows of analog dials and meters and screens set against highly polished fittings. There's been a lot of animation based on Matsumoto's work, but what we see on the TV never quite seems to capture the cold metallic elegance of his manga-style brand of outer space.

Queen Emeraldas opens as young Hiroshi Umino's patchwork spaceship augers into the rock of Martian satellite Deimos, a signature Matsumoto western-frontier space boomtown. Stranded with nothing but his pride, young Umino's True Grit touches the heart of Emeraldas, who is introduced to the reader in awestruck tones cut short as grizzled barflies shut their pieholes rather than offend the mysterious bounty hunter. Stubborn Hiroshi would die before accepting help, but help he gets anyway, and soon he's odd-jobbing his way across an unfriendly solar system where the harsh code of the West – I mean, Space – is superseded by the harsher laws of gravitational physics. Want a meditative spaghetti-western gunfight set in a spaceship's control room? Well, why not. No point in mixing genres halfheartedly.

Hiroshi's poverty, potato-head physique, and casual betrayal by beautiful women bear strong parallels to the adventures of another Matsumoto manga star, Ooyama of "Otoko Oidon", the poor but proud wandering-ronin college student trying to make good on his vow to make it on his own in the big city. Or outer space, as is the case here. Eschewing help from others, Hiroshi swears to build his dream spaceship by himself; a libertarian fantasy if ever there was one, considering the vast teams of engineers and scientists required to put even the smallest satellite into the most temporary Earth orbit. At least here the text throws us a reference or two to 'construction droids,' a step up from Tochiro Oyama's bespoke hand-built space battleship seen in 1982's "My Youth In Arcadia."

Matsumoto's iconic characters might perhaps be best used sparingly, as a dash of inspiring color at the edges of more direct narratives involving people who actually have things to do, and here in her own book Emeraldas is no exception. At times she almost assumes the maternal Maetel role as she watches Hiroshi's struggle from afar, only occasionally dropping in to shoot someone or make financial arrangements, or sometimes both.  Emeraldas comes close to being a secondary character in her own comic, but she takes center stage when necessary to give us glimpses of her own backstory. She too fled to outer space but made it further than Hiroshi did, all the way to the planet Jura in the Ammonite solar system (that's where Harlock's Miimay is from, kinda), and we see how she receives her amazing spaceship Queen Emeraldas and how she is taught the inflexible law of survival in outer space, which involves the unbreakable rule to never ever show mercy to your enemies or allow the guilty to escape punishment no matter the cost.

Emeraldas as star of her own Galaxy Express 999 special

We'll travel to the Sargasso Of Space – every pulp SF series has a Sargasso Of Space – and see her kickstart a revolt on a planet where the non-beautiful are imprisoned, and we'll see Hiroshi labor in the mines of Ganymede and the run down frontier towns littering the badlands of the solar system. All the while we'll be lectured about what it means to be a man, about how much mercy to show our enemies (spoiler: none), and of the greatness of making our own way in the universe. Characters major and minor emote at length on flying freely without let or hindrance in their own space ships, but we're never told what it is about outer space that makes them want to go there so badly. Hiroshi Umino, and to a certain extent Emeraldas herself, aren't interested in marveling at the awesome spectacle of the universe. They aren't on a quest to save the Earth or find a space treasure or solve a space mystery. The reader looks hopefully for a plot development that at least pretends to matter to society as a whole, but our heroes are steadfast in their earnest desire to simply tool around the universe riding their machines without being hassled by "the man."

Filled with characters taking extreme positions on focus-tested shonen manga ideals, sometimes these stories resemble a more lyrical version of Steve Ditko's "Mister A." However, the aggressive self-reliance of the characters is subverted by the text; for every proud declamatory speech about doing it yourself by your own bootstraps, there's a helping hand behind the scenes keeping Hiroshi (and occasionally Emeraldas) afloat. Maybe it really does take a village to launch a spaceship. Ending as it does with Emeraldas encountering a huge armada of perhaps village-launched spaceships that may be able to help her on her enigmatic quest, we can only wait for Volume 2 to witness the culmination of all this interstellar self-actualization.

Kodansha's Queen Emeraldas vol. 1 is a classy, heavy hardback printed on nice paper, a professional package representative of comics today, which is to say, $30 books rather than $3 pamphlets. It's an impressive format with the downside of limiting exactly how many comics the average reader can bring home in a month – both the arm muscles and the pocketbook give out after a few of these things. I do feel with the $25 price point ($32 in Canada) they could throw in a few interior color pages, but that's me. Emeraldas has a beautifully printed hard cover and well-bound interior stock that justifies the sticker price and holds up nicely to the enormous swaths of inky space blackness haunting every other page. Zack Davisson's translation manages to throw in an Oscar Wilde quote and never gets lost in Queen Emeraldas' storm of SF adjectives, giving the reader both the cold formality of Emeraldas dialogue and the seedy slang of hard-bitten spacemen and derelict space-drunks.

Classic Showa-era Matsumoto manga is thin on the ground this side of the Pacific; the arrival of Kodansha's Queen Emeraldas is like welcoming a long-lost cousin who should have been here a lot earlier, warranting both "at last" and "it's about time." A manga creator as prolific and as influential as Leiji Matsumoto deserves more representation in the bookstores of America; if they can handle endless volumes of One Piece, Dragonball, and Naruto, they can surely deal with an Emeraldas or two. I look forward to continuing the journey of Hiroshi Umino and Queen Emeraldas, wherever in space they take us.

-Dave Merrill

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