Wednesday, February 3, 2016

show me your space

The theme song asks us to show it our space, a mighty jungle call echoes as a hero swings from vine to vine, and a beautiful space traveler escapes evil robots! Is it Tarzan or Star Wars - or both? This is Tatsunoko’s 1984 series OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S, a goofy romp through two continents’ worth of pop culture, delivering comedy, action, and romance. Mostly comedy. Fondly remembered by viewers who were too few to keep this series alive, the show was cancelled early and vanished utterly. What is the mystery of Starzan S?

Somewhere in the galaxy the planet Kirakira is troubled. The Senobi tribe wants to be left alone in their forests, but the Robot tribe of, naturally, robots, are desperate for natural resources to fuel their robot lifestyle. Only one thing protects the Senobi- our hero, the OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S who defeats the schemes of Robot leader Darth Bellow and his mechanical monsters with equal doses of Tarzan vine-swinging, Magnus Robot Fighter robot punching, and various transforming mechanical devices that coincidentally make great toys.

Starzan Yell, Starzan Kick
Into this quaint pop culture remix crash-lands Jun Yagami. Armed only with some blurry photos, a mini-skirt, and a collapsible ray-gun, this beautiful teenage space traveler is searching for her missing father, who vanished while tracking down a legendary space utopia named “Paratopia.”

Hot on Jun’s space-booted heels come the Maneko clan in their garish candelabra of a starship. Mama Maneko, convinced Paratopia holds the secret to eternal youth, is the matriarch of a toilet-paper dynasty. Her daughter Leeds is a haughty would-be beauty, and Leeds’ henpecked husband Hachiro takes abuse from them both. Meanwhile, their son Ebirusu, a comedy version of Vegas-era Elvis Presley, has only one goal in mind, the hand of the lovely Jun. Disabled in a great cosmic storm, both parties crash-land on Kirakira. Sides are quickly chosen; the Manekos wind up with the Robots while Jun is rescued by the God Of The Jungle, Starzan!

the Maneko family album
Yes, Starzan, who oscillates between being a dashing warrior or a short goof, who can defeat robots with his mighty blows yet occasionally trip over his own feet, and whose first glimpse of Jun begins a teenage space romance that will shake the very foundations of Kirakira, and perhaps the galaxy itself! 

OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S aired in Urashiman’s old Fuji-TV timeslot, Saturdays at 6:30pm, from January to August 1984. Starzan underperformed in the ratings and the show was replaced by an even more obscure Tatsunoko series, the auto-mechanic adventure Yoroshiku Mechadoc. But for 34 weeks viewers would thrill to Starzan, his little Ewokish buddy Mutan, and the friendly Senobi tribe’s struggle to protect Jun from the rampaging Robots and whatever nutty scheme Ma Maneko and her dopey clan were pushing. The theme song “Show Me Your Space” was sung by Poplar, aka Sumiko Fukuda, who’d later sing tunes for Dream Warrior Wingman and Disney’s Beauty And The Beast. Yoshitaka Amano is credited as Starzan S character designer, but the rounded, soft features betray the hand of Takayuki Goto, who'd work on other Tatsunoko projects like Zillion and features as varied as the chicken comedy Gu Gu Ganmo and the cyborg non-comedy Appleseed.  The animation is fluid, the music is great, the characters and colors are bouncy and 80s, and Jun takes a lot of baths and shows a lot of her space. To be fair, so does Starzan; equal opportunity fanservice in action.

the course of outer space teenage romance never runs smooth
An SF comedy, Starzan S has plenty of monsters, aliens, spaceships, dimensional warps, and other genre staples. Starzan’s main mecha, the transforming gorilla-bird-plesiosaur-buffalo Mecha Starzan S, provides much of the show’s required 1980s anime show transforming-mecha footage. But Starzan S unabashedly ditches the sci-fi for comedy, never hesitating to abandon its lead in favor of whatever crazy scheme or sad character defect of the Manekos is driving that week’s script (any resemblance to Tatsunoko’s earlier bad-guy focused Time Bokan series is purely intentional).

Hachiro in an unusual mood, Leeds and Maneko are not impressed
Grandma Maneko’s character was based on singer, arts patron, and industrialist Masako “Pink Billionairess” Ohya, who reportedly owned 3600 pink dresses and six golf courses. Rumor has it her daughter Leeds was based on screen legend Elizabeth Taylor. Leeds in turn dominates her diminutive, frilly-collared husband Hachiro (modeled on boxer-turned comedian Octopus Hachiro), and everybody indulges Ebirusu in what is described as his “illicit love” for Jun Yagami, herself a take on the real-life singer Junko Yagami, who recorded songs for Final Yamato, a pile of hit singles and albums, and now lives in the United States. 
obligatory Mojo Nixon reference

The heavy lifting in these harebrained Maneko stratagems is usually carried out by hapless Robot tribesbots. The Robots are led by Darth Bellow, a diminutive Darth Vader (voiced by Darth Vader’s Japanese voice actor Toru “Dr. Nambu” Ohira), but their ultimate ruler is a maniacal Barbie doll named “Mother” who resides in a giant rice cooker, and their battle leader is Tetsujin Ultra Z, a dopey cross between Tetsujin-28 and Ultraman. In peaceful contrast, the diminutive Senobi people live an idyllic existence under the gentle guidance of their leader, the kindly… wait for it… Obi-Wan Senobi.

Darth Bellow, Tetsujin Ultra Z in super pose
The pieces of Starzan S fall into place early and the show settles into its Jun-capturing, Starzan-rescuing, Paratopia-questing groove. Starzan’s face gets stuck in goofy mode and he becomes a masked tokusatsu hero. An amnesia-causing tidal wave isolates Jun and Ebirusu – is this his big chance for love?  Starzan shows Jun his secret jungle home, an upside-down wrecked spaceship now home to weird nightclubbing aliens, complete with a Sex Pistols needle drop. Ma Maneko has the Robots construct a giant angry Buddha Maneko statue robot; what could go wrong? There’s a visit Mutan’s home planet, a dead ringer for the Ewok-infested moon of Endor, and we learn how he and Starzan met. Jun and Starzan and the rest of the cast travel to Earth where the mystery of Starzan’s heritage is revealed, and the bankrupt Maneko family’s possessions are traumatically auctioned off. On their return to Kirakira, the evidence all points to one conclusion – that the show is almost over and they’d better wrap things up! Paratopia’s secret is revealed partly through the viewing of hundreds of Beta videotapes, the dark mystery behind Darth Bellow is solved, the Robot and Senobi tribes bury the robot hatchet, and peace finally returns to the beautiful planet Kirakira, where the triumphant jungle yell of Starzan still echoes through the forest.

Starzan S records, books, toys
So the big question is, what the heck does “Okawari Boy” mean, anyway?  Well, “okawari” is a Japanese expression  used when requesting a second helping of food or another drink, the “kawari” meaning “instead of something” or “replacement”. So in the context of Starzan being a replacement for Tarzan, it makes sense. I guess. Sure. Why not.  The other big question is, what happened to Starzan S?

The show never even had the courtesy of a home video release; all that survive are home-taped TV broadcasts. Tatsunoko shamelessly mines its own back catalog for concepts and characters, yet no reboot for Starzan S. Why no revival? Some theories: perhaps a show starring characters based on real people (Maneko, Ebirusu, Jun) and thinly disguised parodies of extant, copyrighted fictional characters (Darth Bellow, Starzan) is bound to attract the attention of somebody’s legal department somewhere, attention the notoriously lawsuit-averse Japanese are loath to attract. Add Starzan’s weak TV reception to the mix, and it’s safe to assume Tatsunoko was/is reluctant to throw good money after bad.

Starzan S, Mutan, and Ebiten, Ojinbo, and Kakasan of the Senobi
Starzan S was heavy on the cultural Japanese gags so it’s unsurprising that international markets were also slow to warm to the series, though Starzan S did make it to Spain and Korea and two reported VHS releases in Poland. Without any sort of (non-Polish) home video release, Starzan S vanished, and like other obscure Tatsunoko series "Animentary Ketsudan" and "Meiyo no Sukouto", the series was only able to make a dent among Western anime fans through international tape-trading; an already tenuous link dependent upon a select, obsessive-compulsive group of Japanese fans.

Still, let’s not be too maudlin. The viewing public’s gestalt mind probably made the right call; OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S is manifestly a 1984 artifact, a product of that final pop of the anime boom, a cute 34 episode SF comedy. Wackier than Urashiman, not as wacky as Ippatsuman, smart (or lucky) enough to not overstay its welcome, leaving behind nothing more than some toys, some fond memories, a giant wrecked Buddha Maneko robot, and the echoing call of the God Of The Jungle.  Will we ever find our own Paratopia of a Starzan S re-release on DVD or BD or streaming or some new, heretofore unheard of technology? Will we, once again, be able to show OKAWARI-BOY Starzan S all our spaces?