Friday, December 28, 2018

Harmagedon Outta Here

So recently we went out on a snowy November night through accident-choked streets to Toronto’s Hudson's Bay Center, where the Japan Foundation was hosting a screening of the 1983 film Genma Taisen / Harmagedon. We promptly got lost in the men’s department of the Bay, got ourselves turned around, onto the elevator, and into the Japan Foundation's screening room, just as the film opened with shards of destroyed planet sailing past the Moon. 

By the time most Western anime fans were able to see 1983’s Genma Taisen, or Harmagedon as the English language text would have us call it, they'd already ingested most of the anime Harmagedon would inspire. They'd seen Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and similiarly apocalyptic Rintaro works like X. They'd probably even watched Project A-Ko use KFC pitchman Colonel Sanders to spoof Harmagedon without knowing what Harmagedon was. They'd seen a thousand psychic teenagers glowing red or green or blue or yellow, battling ultimate evils with flashing mental beams. Harmagedon was old news, stodgy, unfashionable, not nearly edgy or bloody or violent enough for anime fans circa 2003.

And you know what, if you take Harmagedon out of the context of 1983, they just might have a point. It's a long, indulgent, prog-rock concept album of a film that makes you feel every minute of its two-hour-plus running time, the latest in an interminable odyssey of Japanese animated science-fiction epics that meandered their way through Youths in Arcadia and strolled past the Legends Of The Super Galaxy (130 minutes each), wandered over Towards The Terra (a relatively terse two hours), and poked their way through all one hundred and forty-five spine-destroying minutes of the aptly-titled Be Forever Yamato. What I'm trying to say is that anime films in the early 1980s were long, baby, and if your attention span has been destroyed by three-second Adult Swim interstitial bumpers, you’re going to find the early 1980s anime film aesthetic paralyzingly dull. 

But slide Harmagedon back in that 1983 context. Put it up against the space robots, the Matsumoto blondes, and everything else that was happening in the contemporaneous anime world, and you've got something special, a New Age epic fantasy of Earth’s psychic warriors recruited by the universal love consciousness to do battle with the forces of chaos and evil that infect the outermost galaxy and our innermost selves. 

a few of Harmagedon's Psionics Fighters

This film is director Rintaro's cinematic coming out party, filled with terrific bursts of color swooping and bubbling and popping out of the darkness whenever psychic powers are emanating or lava is bursting or flames are leaping. Parts of Harmagedon are perfect pieces of film-making - where alien cyborg Bega and psychic princess Luna try to scare-start Joe's ESP by freezing Shinjuku and smashing a construction site, where the intangible, roller-skating Sonny and his gang loot a ruined New York and are machine-gunned by the NYPD, where every authority figure is possessed by monsters from beyond space, including amiable, elderly doctors, and the smiling old man just stands there amidst the molten rock of an erupting Mt. Fuji to tell us he's in charge of destroying the Earth. 

three faces of Genma

Harmagedon was Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime debut, smashing the audience with his aggressively realistic characters, all frantically struggling to survive the disintegrating urban cityscapes they’d been dropped into, Tokyo and NYC ruined and chaotic, the familiar landmarks drowned in dust or the East River. It’s a film that feels like a trial run for Akira, because it is, and anime hadn’t seen anything like it, certainly nothing like the cyborg survivor Bega. A symphony of excellence in mechanical design, Bega is all rounded shapes and interlocking parts, his armor shifting and molding itself into new shapes to counter every threat, a mecha aesthetic so far removed from the typical super robot/real robot anime tropes that it might as well actually be from another planet. 

All this is on top of art direction by the five-time Anime Grand Prix award winner Takamura Mukuo. If you watched Galaxy Express or Adieu 999 or his later Dagger Of Kamui or that Devilman OVA or, say, Stop! Hibari-kun, or any number of other anime productions, you'll recognize his stunning background work; his sweeping landscapes, his operatic, lushly lit clouds, his gigantic architectural structures looming against ominous skies, all crimson and azure and emerald and oily grey browns, a perfect accompaniment to the Madhouse animation. Madhouse is, of course, Madhouse, delivering stunning scenes of big-screen animation that no one in Japan or anywhere else on Earth was doing that year.

Harmagedon's post-Genma Tokyo 

Adding the international cherry on top of this confection of talent is legendary prog rock keyboardist Keith Emerson, whose work with The Nice and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had moved the synthesizer from a electronic gimmick to a stadium-pleasing weapon of mass rock entertainment, and whose score for Harmagedon capably moves from profound to whimsical, with the occasional visit from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. 

Without flamboyant producer/publishing empire heir Haruki Kadokawa and his aggressive film production schedule, Harmagedon might never have been made. Kadokawa had flipped a stodgy publishing house into a pop-fiction juggernaut, turning his mass appeal fiction into crowd pleasing cinema blockbusters. Harmagedon was Kadokawa’s first animated film, to be followed by Dagger Of Kamui, the sadly neglected Time Stranger, Manie Manie/Neo Tokyo, Five Star Stories, and Silent Mobieus before Haruki found himself doing a stretch in Shizoka Prison on a cocaine smuggling conviction. It’s a helluva drug, kids. As a paperback bestseller turned motion picture extravaganza, Kadokawa’s Harmagedon resembles the bloated, baroque, literary-pretentious middlebrow epics Hollywood spent decades shoving into America’s long-suffering eyeballs; even when these movies succeed, they remain emblematic of an era of lavish excess. When we say anime is "a medium not a genre," this is what we're talking about, that Japanese animation can give us both cheap exploitative genre trash and crowd-pleasing mainstream spectacle.

we heard you liked Hamagedon so we advertised Harmagedon during Harmagedon

If you’ve seen a Japanese cartoon in the past thirty years you know what Harmagedon’s about: a Japanese teen's awakening ESP power drafts him into the front lines of the Ultimate Battle Between Good And Evil. Our mopey hero Joe Azuma won’t try out for the baseball team, is dumped by his girlfriend, and generally has a case of the teen angst. Then he meets Luna and Bega and he’s suddenly having visions of cosmic love entities millions of light years distant, manifesting his latent psychic powers against the forces of Genma, seen here as shape-changing devils that can take the place of your classmates or your friends or your local beat cop. Joined by an international crew of psionic warriors, Joe struggles through a world demolished by cataclysms and overturned by chaos, towards the final psychic showdown with Genma. 

Harmagedon had a long road to the screen: the original early 60s manga ran in Weekly Shonen Sunday with a script by former 8 Man author Kasumasu Hirai and art by future Kamen Rider creator and record-breaking manga-ka Shotaro Ishinomori. Hirai, one of Japan’s SF giants, would go on to author the “Wolf Guy” series (itself the basis for a Sonny Chiba film), the Japanese Spider-Man manga, and a slew of other fantastical works. He’d adapt the ‘67 Genma Taisen manga into a series of Genma Taisen novels that would continue for decades in 2008, and he’d write the Ishinomori-drawn Genma Wars Rebirth manga for Tokuma Shoten's Monthly Comic Ryu for five years beginning in 1979. This would become the basis for that ‘02 Genma Taisen anime series that people don’t talk about much. 

Harmagedon, 1960s style. Trigger warning: cartoon stereotypes

After destroying his hand writing all those Genma Taisen novels in longhand, Hirai was an early adopter of the word processor. He was also an early and influential member of Shinji Takahashi's God Light Association, a syncretic, New Age precursor to today's Happy Science. The more overtly religious overtones of Harmagedon begin to make sense when you learn the author probably believed wholeheartedly in a universal super-consciousness striving to enlighten all sentient beings to their innate spiritual and psychical nature. 

Ultimately, in spite of its all-star creative talent, its thirsty-for-international-blockbusters producer, and its occasional bursts of cinematic energy, Harmagedon spends a lot of time spinning its new-agey wheels. The film has the pieces and the pedigree to be great, but all the ingredients never quite come together. In between Harmagedon’s discrete moments of visual excitement, there's a lot of quiet filler, the film moving in little funhouse-ride bumps from one scene of blank-faced characters silently staring at each other, to another scene where blank-faced characters silently stare at each other. Himself a jazz musician, Rin Taro knows it's what's in between the notes that counts, but in Harmagedon he is still finding his tempo. 

we all knew the NYC real estate bubble would pop eventually

Speaking of music, with Harmagedon's soundtrack Keith Emerson is never allowed to deliver the kind of prodigious electronic synthesizer freakout he’s famous for - and if you aren’t going to let him go nuts, why hire him? Go on, look up footage of Keith playing keyboards while suspended upside down forty feet in the air before an audience of twenty thousand cheering fans. You don’t hire that guy to *not* freak out. 

The cast of characters is a Cyborg 009-style parade of tokens and stereotypes, from the Indian mystic to the big Native American, from the Middle Eastern Turban Guy to the Chinese girl who practices kung-fu in her little Chinese outfit. The American Sonny made the jump from what was even for 1967 Japan a dated and offensive black-kid stereotype to a very 1980s African-American NYC teen, decked out with baseball cap, track suit, sunglasses, roller skates, and Walkman. Harmagedon’s Sonny is a welcome flash of style, but the audience goodwill vanishes immediately at the sight of his white-flight stereotype gang, a racist suburbanite’s nightmare fantasy of ignorant, heavily armed black looters. It’s a shame, too, because that scene is one of the best-directed of the film, a Sergio Leone ambush in the deserted streets of Fifth Avenue.

Harmagedon attempts to address racism head-on when Luna’s prejudice-induced failure to psychically connect with Sonny is called out by Bega. “Is it because he’s black?” he rebukes. That’s right; her racism is so obvious that even 4,000 year old cyborgs from other galaxies can pick up on it. Luna, herself a Transylvanian princess (?) isn’t given a whole lot to do other than to bounce exposition off Bega and, in the fashion of Ishinomori’s Cyborg 003, act as an ESP switchboard operator keeping everybody in touch. In between these duties she’s allowed a few costume changes and makeovers, eventually winding up in what appears to be one of Pat Benatar’s outfits. 

1980s style icon Luna

Meanwhile our hero Joe gets a realistic and satisfying character arc from self-obsessed depressed teen to responsible young adult, only slightly marred by the weird sister complex that probably seemed charming and heartfelt to Japanese audiences, but not to that crowd at the Japan Foundation, palpably cringing at the scene where Joe’s erstwhile girlfriend realizes every other woman in Joe’s life will always play second fiddle to Joe’s sister. 

Joe wanders into a Smokey The Bear fire prevention film

By the time our heroes are levitating above Mt. Fuji, directing scintillating rays of sheer mental force towards the fiery dragon form of beyond-space-and-time evil, somewhere past the two hour mark, that Japan Foundation audience was ready to wrap this up and go home. We’d seen the destruction of Bega’s home planet, we’d watched Luna escape a destroyed 747 and greet the awakened Bega. We’d witnessed Joe move out of self-obsessed sister-complex teenhood, and we’d seen every one of Joe’s friends possessed and/or murdered by Genma’s demons. We’d taken the extended tour of important story beats from five or six Genma Taisen novels and sometimes they fit into the larger narrative and sometimes they just made the hard Japan Foundation seats even harder. Yes there are cushions, but mine was on the floor and I didn’t see it because we showed up late and it was dark, so I guess that one’s my fault. 

Not that I didn’t know what I was getting into. My first glimpse of Harmagedon was during the back end of Reagan’s first administration, in the sorely missed Turtles Records & Tapes at Belmont Hills Shopping Center in Smyrna GA - once one of the largest shopping centers in the Southeast, now long demolished. I was a 14 year old prog rock nerd flipping through the ELP section, trying to decide between “Tarkus” or “Brain Salad Surgery,” distracted by a Keith Emerson record with Japanese anime characters on the sleeve, surely a match made in heaven as far as I was concerned. I still have that record. 

remember to save your Turtles Saving Stamps!

Then again, this was the 1980s and Japanese pop culture was infiltrating wherever it could, meaning the bleeping and blooping heard from your local arcade or pizza palace may have been inspired by a Japanese cartoon. This certainly was the case with the 1983 Data East / Nihon Bussan (you may know them as Nichibutsu, the guys who gave us “Crazy Climber” and the strip mah jong video game) laser-disc videogame Bega’s Battle, which used footage and characters from Harmagedon. You may hear “laser-disc videogame” and think of Dragon’s Lair or Cliff Hanger in which gameplay involved joystick movements timed to filmed elements, but Bega’s Battle merely used footage from Harmagedon as background and interstitial elements. Playing Bega’s Battle meant more traditional raster graphics as you controlled Bega in his top-down shooter quest to protect Luna and gather the Psychic Warriors for the ultimate battle with Genma. Did I first see Bega’s Battle in the no-name arcade tucked discreetly behind Turtles in Belmont Hills? Or was it rocking the 2001 arcade in the mall that became the convention center that now hosts our local anime con? Or was it in that weird arcade with the bootleg “Crazy Kong” cabinet, over next to the Japanese grocery store that had the rental VHS tapes, the place where I rented and saw Harmagedon for the first time? Fun fact: a 130 minute film will not fit on an SP-recorded 120 minute tape. But we watched it regardless, clawing meaning from the images in that untranslated Japanese movie, inspired by the glowing colors and the demolished Tokyo and the promise of anime as a cinematic force above and beyond kid-vid TV robots. 

Central Park Media would acquire Harmagedon and release it as an English-dubbed VHS and as a dual-language DVD, which is how most 00-era anime fans (and that November Japan Foundation audience) would see it, a seventeen year old archaeological missing link between the 80s overlong SF epic and the more accessible, more action-oriented post-Akira spectacle years. Harmagedon would become a fashionable sneer target for gangs of self-described ‘experts,’ unthinkingly echo-chambering the received “this movie is trash” opinion. And sure, entertainment is a subjective thing, and you can’t expect the 2003 or 2013 cohort to have the same artificially-lengthened attention span we’re cursed with, or to appreciate the shock of the new for something that they didn’t get to see “new” in the first place. But casually dismissing or judging a film out of context, well, that’s foolish. I suggest Harmagedon detractors treat themselves to Haruki Kadokawa’s next animated feature Kenya Boy - you know, the one about the Japanese boy lost in Kenya who is befriended by a benevolent tribesman, becomes a wilderness warrior, rescues the blonde White Jungle Goddess, and defeats the Nazi atomic bomb factory with the help of a giant snake god - and then re-examine their Harmagedon feels. 

admittedly, shelling out $39.95 might color my perceptions a bit

I believe they’ll find, as the Japan Foundation found, that even though the film at times stumbles with clunky updates of very 1960s characters and concepts, perhaps is a little too forceful in delivering its channeling the ascended masters New Religion backstory, and maybe is overlong and indulgent in the very specific way that only a free-spending and possibly substance-addled producer can deliver, even with all this baggage the power of Harmagedon cannot be contained by fire or ice or the ruins of several solar systems worth of civilization, that when this movie works, it works exceedingly well, and that to abandon those moments is to deprive ourselves of everything we watch these cartoons for in the first place. That’s what Genma wants, and we can’t let the Challenge of the Psionics Fighters go unanswered. Can we?

-Dave Merrill

Tao says "fight the power!"

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Friday, November 30, 2018

1978: Anime's Greatest Year?

(portions of this column were originally presented early Sunday morning at AWA 2018. Thanks to all who battled through their hangovers to attend.)

So, 1978. Let me tell you about 1978. First off, it was still the 1950s sometimes, thanks to Sha Na Na, Grease and Happy Days. On the other hand, we had three Popes that year! Jimmy Carter brokered Mideast peace and signed the Panama Canal treaty. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl, the Yankees took the World Series, and M.A.S.H. and Little House On The Prairie weren't even half over. Me, I was eight years old, and if there was one thing I loved more than pestering anyone with a car to take me to see Star Wars again, it was watching cartoons on TV. Sadly, apart from Bugs Bunny re-runs, that Fantastic Four show starring Herbie the Robot, and of course, Super Friends, our network cartoons were all dreck like Fangface, Web Woman, and Galaxy Goof-Ups.

Meanwhile in Japan, lucky shoujos and shonens were literally wallowing in an ocean of colorful, wild, and occasionally ridiculous pop culture, as Japan's entertainment machine kicked into overdrive spewing out Pink Ladys and Ultramen, Chogokin super robots and Micromen and Space Invaders, all part of a nation's creative output... including an anime industry that just might have hit its peak in 1978. 

Seriously? 1978? Japanese animation as we know it has been a thing for more than fifty years. Why would I do something so silly as to pick a year and claim it's the greatest? Well, okay. I freely admit this is a foolish, subjective endeavor designed primarily to let me cheerlead for some of my favorites, using forty years of hindsight as leverage. But even skeptics have to admit 1978 brought new works by some of Japanese animation's greatest talents and sequels to some of anime's greatest properties. Japan's class of '78 cartoons proved popular around the world and many of these shows are still watched today. We're still feeling their impact forty years after the fact.

1977 hadn't quite stopped yet

The year started out with an advantage thanks to all the terrific anime that carried over from '77. The Leiji Matsumoto-created super robot series Danguard Ace continued to show Ichimonji Takuma and Captain Mask battle Leader Doppler and his army of monster robots. Candace White Adley struggled from heartbreak to heartbreak in the landmark shoujo anime Candy Candy. The "Robot Romance" series of Tadao Nagahama began with Voltes V, which we'll be seeing released here on DVD soon from Discotek Media.

In Japan's movie theaters, Space Battleship Yamato came cruising back with the July release of the film Farewell To Space Battleship Yamato: Soldiers Of Love, or, as the English-language text on the promotional material dubbed it, Arrivederci Yamato. After 1974's tepidly-received Yamato TV series and a vastly more successful 1977 release of a compiled Yamato movie, the question was, could producer Nishizaki turn Yamato into what today we call a "franchise?" He could, and did. Farewell To Space Battleship Yamato: Soldiers Of Love was a hugely successful epic gotterdammerung of a film in which the revived planet Earth is menaced by the Comet Empire and the crew of the Yamato must defy orders, save Teresa of Telezart, and make the ultimate sacrifice. Produced at breakneck speed by top tier Japanese animation talent like designer and collaborator Leiji Matsumoto, director Noboru Ishiguro, and character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Farewell is a terrific film that delivers an entire new civilization's worth of space vehicles to threaten our heroes, gives the Comet Empire that monumental, shuddering Hiroshi Miyagawa pipe organ theme, and still delivers Yamato style outer space romantic mysticism in a 151-minute epic that makes every minute count. North America received Voyager Entertainment VHS and DVD releases of this film, but as of now it's out of print.

Sure, we all wept at the (spoiler!) climactic sacrifice of the Yamato and her crew at the end of Arrivederci Yamato. However the Yamato would return in October's TV version of the Comet Empire story, Space Battleship Yamato 2. In this series the Yamato's tragic end isn't quite so tragic or final, as we see an expanded version of the film that gives more screentime to our crew, allows space dictator Desslar a chance at redemption, and finally standardizes the Yamato's formerly lackadaisical mechanical design. This show and the first Yamato TV series would be packaged in foreign markets as "Star Blazers" and air in US markets in 1979, a crucial series for many a North American anime fan (like me). Available on DVD as part of Star Blazers and currently out of print.

Harlock, Herlock, whichever

Japanese audiences were experiencing Leiji Matsumoto overload in 1978. Danguard Ace was still on the air, the Yamato was battling the Comet Empire in theaters and on TV, and March would see the first episode of one of Matsumoto's most iconic series, Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Harlock and his forty fellow space pirates defy the evil plant women of the Mazone, who return to Earth after millions of years to lay claim to their ancient-astronaut home. As we mentioned before, this terrific TV series is currently available on streaming video and in a Discotek DVD release, and Harlock would go on to star and co-star in feature films and TV series for decades to come. 

Not enough Leiji? Enjoy his April '78 science-fiction Journey To The West pastiche SF Saiyuki Starzinger – localized here as Jim Terry's Spaceketeers - or settle in for a ride on the Galaxy Express 999. Leiji Matsumoto's wistful meditation on life, death, and everything in between as seen through the eyes of a young boy travelling to Andromeda to get an immortal machine body, Toei's Galaxy Express 999 TV series first aired in September of 1978 and ran for 113 episodes. As we discussed earlier, this series is currently streaming and soon to be available on DVD from Discotek.

Harlock wasn't the only space captain zipping around '78; Golden Age SF writer Edmond Hamilton's 1940s hero Captain Future launched in November for 52 episodes of Toei-produced interplanetary adventure. These reasonably faithful pulp adaptations were thankfully updated with 70s era mechanical design and starred the titular Captain Future, Curtis Newton, and his shipmates the android Otho, the robot Grag, Simon "The Brain" Wright, and Space Girlfriend Joan Randall as they battle the evil forces that threaten to wreck the solar system. A big hit in Japan and Europe, the series has seen home video releases in almost every format and almost every region, with the exception of (sigh) North America.

Gatchaman II

Tatsunoko's Science Ninja Team Gatchaman series first aired in '72 – the cast's giant flared jeans are a dead giveaway - for 105 episodes of science ninja vs international criminal action. One of creator Ippei Kuri's most iconic creations, Gatchaman would get a theatrical compilation film in July, just in time to get audiences ready for the October start of the sequel to Gatchaman, Gatchaman II. The missing Condor Joe (spoilers!) returns early on, and the new show wastes no time getting back to battling robot monsters and evil Galactors. 1978 would also be the year that the '72 Gatchaman series would be edited, rewritten, dubbed by an all-star cast of American voice talent including Alan "Wilbur" Young and Casey "American Top 40" Kasem, and reach syndication in America as Battle of The Planets. Packed with action, great characters, and stunning mechanical mayhem, BOTP grabbed Americans by the eyeballs and turned them into what we now call 'anime fans.' Both BOTP and Gatchaman have had several iterations of home video release in North America, and the entire mythic Gatchaman cycle of Gatchaman, Gatchaman II, and Gatchaman F is available on DVD from Sentai, right now for the bargain price of eighty dollars.

it's kid-tested

Lupin III, hands down the world's greatest second-story man, safecracker, confidence trickster, and all around thief, made the jump from Monkey Punch's manga and a few hundred TMS produced TV episodes to the big movie screen in his 1978 feature film debut, directed by Mushi Pro vet Soji Yoshikawa and released by Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Known in some circles as "Mystery Of Mamo," this very 70s film is a wild roller coaster ride around the world as Lupin battles the possibly immortal Mamo past sight gags, 2001 references, spaghetti western homages, Clark Bar comic book ads, and the kinds of sleazy, lustful TV Lupin behavior that Hayao Miyazaki would totally abandon when directing the next Lupin III film. Mamo's long-lost English dub is now available on the Discotek DVD along with four (!) other English dubs.

The title can be literally translated into English as "Here Comes Miss Modern", "Here Comes Miss High-Collar" ("haikara" a Japanese portmanteau of "high collar"), or "Fashionable Girl Passing By," but in Japan they call this series Haikara-san ga Toru. In 1977, Waki Yamato's original Shoujo Friend manga series won the first Kodansha Manga Award. The Nippon Animation adaptation of Haikara-san ga Toru began airing in March of 1978, taking us all the way back to Tokyo in 1920, where teenager tomboy Benio Hanamura is always getting in trouble and advocating for new-fangled modern ways. 

here comes miss modern tree-climber
Though opposed to arranged marriages, she's engaged to the dreamy young Army captain Shinobu. Benio tries to sabotage the engagement but finds herself falling in love in spite of herself. Can their romance survive war in Manchuria, amnesia, and the Great Kanto Earthquake? A new anime film of Haikara-san was released earlier this year and Eleven Arts licenced it for North America, so look out, here she comes!

Hiromi Oka leaps from the pages of the sports shoujo manga classic Aim For The Ace by Suzumu Yamamoto, joins her high school tennis club and finds the tennis superstar inside that only the challenge of Ochofujin and the Demon Coach can bring out. This October '78 remake of the amazing 1972 Aim For The Ace series didn't feature 1972's Osamu Dezaki direction or Akio Sugino's character designs, but that's OK, they were working on the terrific 1979 Aim For The Ace movie. None of Aim For The Ace is commercially available in English in any form. Why is this? Somebody make it happen.

New Aim For The Ace

April 1978: Tadao Nagahama and an all-star cast of anime geniuses (Masaki Tsuji, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Yuki Hijiri, etc.) continues his "Robot Romance" series with Fighting General Daimos. Kazuya Ryuuzaki, a young karate champ/astronaut, returns from deep space along with his sword-slinging Afro-sporting copilot Kyoushirou to find Earth under attack from space aliens fleeing the destroyed planet Baam. As befits the star of an anime show, only Kazuya can pilot the transforming truck-robot Daimos to battle the invaders. His thirst for vengeance is derailed slightly when he falls in love with the Baam princess Erika. Can their romance survive the struggle between two worlds? Animated by Sunrise under contract to Toei, this show packs a one-two punch of super robot destruction and soapy love story melodrama that totally satisfies. Daimos eventually aired in the Philippines, Italy, Poland, and even in an edited compilation video titled "Star Birds" that was released on home video and a few airings on Pat Robertson's CBN cable network.

from a Fighting General Daimos children's storybook

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island has enjoyed many cinematic adaptations, and the world of anime is no exception. There have been one, two, at least three separate Japanese cartoon versions of this seminal pirate adventure story. Unquestionably the best Japanese anime iteration – the one without talking animals, anyway - is the October '78 TMS Treasure Island series, directed by genius Osamu Dezaki. This is what he was doing instead of remaking Aim For The Ace, I guess. Treasure Island aired in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Columbia, Taiwan, the Arabic world, and after circumnavigating the globe, finally reached the English language audience via YouTube with TMS subtitles.

Treasure Island never looked so great

1978 started its journey with the New Years Day premiere of Perrine Story, the 1978 Nippon Animation series based on the Hector Malot novel Sans Familie. Young Perrine struggles to make her way from one end of Europe to another to find her estranged grandfather and experience the clash of class and race at the tail end of the 19th century. Nothing explains the power of Japanese animation quite like its ability to entertain regardless of viewer demographics, and it's when you are on the edge of your seat hoping Perrine and her weakening mother and their long-suffering donkey Polikare can muscle their wagon up the muddy 19th century roads through the Alps, well, that's when you realize the true power of anime. I defy anyone to fail to be moved when that donkey makes a reappearance later in the show, which sadly is unavailable commercially in English.

Perrine, Baron, and Polikare, the donkey who drank too much

Sanrio, the Hello Kitty people, spent the 1970s branching out into other media, including the shoujo manga magazine Lyrica and a series of animated films, including 1978's Ringing Bell, a 47 minute film based on a children's book about a cute little lamb named Chirin. Devastated when his mother is killed by a wolf, Chirin swears eternal vengeance, and ironically is taught to be a violent survivor by the very same momicide-committing wolf. Chirin grows to learn the world is a terrifying nightmare of unending conflict. You know, for kids! Released on American VHS by Columbia in the 1980s and recently revived on DVD by Discotek, Ringing Bell is a beautifully animated film that illustrates perfectly how even the most talented of artists can completely misjudge their audience.

don't be fooled by that Ringing Bell box art

Between April and October of 1978, viewers were treated to what many believe is the best Japanese anime series ever made, Future Boy Conan. Based on Alexander Key's 1970 dystopian YA SF novel "The Incredible Tide" – yes, he's the guy that wrote "Escape To Witch Mountain" - this Nippon Animation series was produced by the anime dream team of Yasuo Otsuka, Isao Takahata, and Hayao Miyazaki. Remember that world war we had back in July 2008, the one that saw the use of super powerful magnetic weapons more powerful than atom bombs? After the world is thrown off its axis, the survivors of a flooded Earth struggle to rebuild civilization, represented by the polar opposites of the techno-fascist Industria and the peaceful, agricultural High Harbor. We first meet our hero, the titular Conan, living a bucolic, shark-fighting life with his grandfather alone on Lonely Island. The world, or what's left of it, intrudes when the girl Lana washes up on shore, with soldiers from Industria in hot pursuit. To protect Lana, Conan leaves Lonely Island and finds both friends and enemies in a world still reeling from the great disaster. Future Boy Conan is filled with adventure, action, humor, intrigue, disaster, and redemption; it's the kind of broad-appeal anime property that's made its creators famous the world over, and of course is commercially unavailable in English.

my Conan frame-tray puzzle

Naturally, being on the other side of the world, I had no idea these cartoons even existed. But it wasn't so terrible, back in 1978. For instance, one summer night our whole neighborhood kid gang were dropped off at Cobb Center Mall to see a movie. This was back in the day when parents felt perfectly confident in leaving their 8 and 9 and 10 year olds unsupervised at movie theaters. We all got out alive, so I guess it was OK. Anyway the movie was a rollicking sci-fi actioner titled Message From Space, and we all agreed it was pretty awesome, almost as good as, if not as good as, that other space movie with the Death Stars and the light sabers. I spent years looking for Message From Space, back when my only hope was to catch a late-night UHF TV broadcast. I'd find out it was directed by the guy who made Battle Royale, and that it starred faded Hollywood royalty and top-of-the-line Japanese movie stars, that Shotaro Ishinomori was one of the writers, that it was a sci-fi updating of the Hakkenden legend, and that there was a followup TV show starring a space ape. You can judge for yourself with the DVD from Shout Factory

So was 1978 anime's greatest year? I think I've presented a pretty solid case, and I didn't even mention Invincible Superman Daitarn 3 or that Pink Lady anime series. But to be honest, who's to say 1977 or 1979 or any other year might not be just as great? In a field that continues to produce amazing work year after year, who knows what classics lie ahead? All I know is, I'll probably be watching.

-Dave Merrill

1978 says "So long!"

Thanks for reading Let's Anime! If you enjoyed it and want to show your appreciation for what we do here as part of the Mister Kitty Dot Org world, please consider joining our Patreon!

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Rise And Fall Of the Roman Album Empire

Recently I came across a Laputa Roman Album at one of those anime con swap meets that have become all the rage as anime fans realize they have too much stuff and not enough shelves. The Roman Album was in good shape and was reasonably priced. During the purchase I remarked to the vendor, "it's not often I see Roman Albums for sale these days." The reply I received was enlightening.

"What's a Roman Album?"

And at first I'm dumbstruck by the passage of time, that here in 2018 we can be two or three iterations down the line of Western anime fandom from when Tokuma Shoten's Roman Albums weren't just ubiquitous, but absolutely crucial references that were sometimes the only primary sources we had for solid information on anime TV shows and films. And then I took a step back and flipped that question around on myself. What IS a Roman Album? How many of them were there? Why were they published and when did they go out of print? And why were they called "Roman Albums," anyway?

Roman Albums 1-4

For anime nerds of my generation they were always just there; solid, dust-jacketed bastions of anime knowledge either shelved comfortably at home or gleaming proudly in the exhibitor hall lights at local fantasy-fair dealers tables or stocked in the "Japanimation" section of our neighborhood comic shops next to Robotech Art Book I or that big Macross Perfect Memory book we regret not buying. We never gave much thought to why, exactly, there was a color illustrated guide to Minky Momo or My Youth In Arcadia, in much the same way we accepted the existence of "anime comics," Animage, Animec, and Animedia magazines and whatever a "mook" was supposed to be when it wasn't being an insult. What we did know was that these artifacts, like the cartoons themselves, were evidence of a vast ecosystem of Japanese animation interest that lay somewhere beyond the horizon, a universe of cartoons we desperately wanted to immerse ourselves in.

Roman Albums 5-7
Roman Albums 8-10

Roman Album publisher Tokuma Shoten began as the book arm of Asahi Performing Arts Publishing back in 1961. By 1978 Tokuma Shoten, already having success with the children's magazine "TV Land", realized the anime boom was in effect and jumped on that bandwagon with both feet, rolling out what would become the longest running anime magazine Animage in July of that year. Tokuma Shoten later bankrolled the anime productions Nausicaa (you might have read Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga in the back of Animage) and Legend Of The Galactic Heroes, they financed a studio you might know as Ghibli and the Streamline Pictures dub of Laputa and Castle Of Cagliostro, and they partnered with Disney to get Ghibli films into American theaters and home video outlets.

Roman Albums 11-14

"TV Land," however, would be the genesis ofロマンアルバム. The first Roman Album was a 1977 TV Land "Special Edition" all about current anime blockbuster Space Battleship Yamato. Selling 400,000 copies, the Space Battleship Yamato Roman Album not only inspired Tokuma Shoten to start publishing Animage, but to continue with a whole series of Roman Albums. Tokuma Shoten would eventually lose the "TV Land Special" cover text, replacing it with "Animage special" branding, because cross promotional marketing is where it's at.

Roman Albums 15-17
Roman Albums 18-21

Occupying a strange, liminal publishing space between books and magazines, Roman Albums carried a mix of B&W and color illustrations, scene-by-scene episode guides, color poster and sticker inserts, and the occasional flexi-disc. Interviews with the creative staff were mixed with character and mechanical designs at every stage of the process, and rest assured if the anime series featured a shower scene or a panty shot, Roman Album was there to capture it for posterity, because home video wasn't a thing yet. Theme songs would be presented as sheet music and voice talent would get biographical pieces, interviews and photo spreads. 

Roman Album 27 (Babel 2) with flexi-disc

 A healthy use of English text as design elements offered a tantalizing bit of comprehension for Western readers. Early Roman Albums carried the "magazine" aspect so far as to feature advertising on the back cover, but later editions were more book-like with dust jackets illustrated front and back. Page sizes varied but eventually standardized at the A4 size (8.27 x 11.69) with page counts that could swell to over 200 pages for some shows.

Roman Albums 22-24

Roman Albums 25-28

To our 1980s anime nerd eyes, Roman Albums were the authoritative final word on the whole world of what we then called "Japanimation," that if it wasn't in a Roman Album (or, say, a This Is Animation book or an Animec special) then it simply didn't exist. The unbelievable truth, however, is that there are vast empty spaces in the Roman Album history of anime, whole fields of anime research that Tokuma Shoten just didn't feel like talking about. There isn't a Macross Roman Album. There aren't Roman Albums for Lupin III or Gatchaman. BrygarJ9-I and Baxingar J9-II get Roman Albums while Sasuraigar J9-III is ignored. Early 80s hits like Orguss, Cobra and Cat's Eye are neglected and the absence of later 80s hits like Fist Of The North Star and Saint Seiya is downright odd. Dirty Pair? No. Crusher Joe? No. There are Roman Albums for the 1979 Gundam TV series and films but past that, Roman Album is silent. There's a Minky Momo Roman Album, but not a Creamy Mami or Magical Emi or Pastel Yumi. Heck, there isn't even one Urusei Yatsura Roman Album, one of the larger holes in the Roman Album's far from complete coverage of the field.

Roman Albums 29-32

Roman Albums 33-36

On the other hand, Tokuma Shoten did spend valuable Roman Album pages on deep cuts like Prehistoric Misbehaving Boy Kum Kum, the Tezuka telefilms Marine Express and Bander's Book, and the wonderfully named "Poems Of Baseball Madness: North Wolf South Tiger." Rights issues, personality clashes, a determination on the part of Tokuma Shoten to promote Tokuma Shoten-connected properties, who knows how these publishing decisions were made? Even with a whimsical and possibly biased publication strategy, the Roman Album library remains a vital resource. And yes, they're still publishing the occasional Roman Album, mostly covering Ghibli films, because Tokuma Shoten looks out for Tokuma Shoten, baby.

Roman Albums 37-39
Roman Albums 40-43
And why WERE they called "Roman Albums?" Well, an album, of course, is a collection of text, musical compositions, or images, like a record album or a photo album. The "Roman" part is supposedly shorthand for "Romance Adventure", the "romance" part being used in the literary sense of "a narrative genre that includes a mysterious, adventurous, or spiritual storyline involving bravery and strong values." Tadao Nagahama's Voltes V, Daimos, and Combattler V would similarly be described as a "Robot Romance Trilogy", with only Daimos featuring "romance" in the "boy meets girl" sense. All three of these series would, of course, receive Roman Albums.

Roman Albums 44-47

Roman Albums 48-50

The growing Western interest in anime, and the 1980s comic con/comic shop distribution networks built to sell us comics, model kits, and other fannish merchandise, meant Roman Albums could and did find homes with American anime fans. And sure, you might never see a Horus, Prince Of The Sun or a Getter Robo or a Tekkaman over here, but Be Forever Yamato Roman Album number 36 was seemingly available everywhere to anime fandom circa 1986. Was there a glut of Be Forever Yamato Roman Albums in somebody's Jinbucho warehouse? Did Tokuma Shoten overestimate the Japanese public's demand for this particular symbol of the anime boom's high water mark, and pass the overstock on to a North America suddenly hungry for big-eyed Japanese cartoon characters? Did someone mistakenly add a zero to an overseas shipping invoice? Who knows. BFY RA 36 went from prized to pedestrian fairly quickly as Star Blazers became unfashionable compared to Bubblegum Crisis and other icons of the OVA age. You can still find Roman Albums from Be Forever Yamato and other anime films and TV shows cheap – in Japan. Or perhaps at the occasional anime convention swap meet... if I don't find them first!

-Dave Merrill

Roman Albums 51-54

Roman Albums 55-58

Roman Albums 1-70:
1. Space Battleship Yamato
2. Cyborg 009
3. Rainbow Soldier Robin
4. Devilman
5. Tiger Mask
6. Super Jetter
7. Astro Boy
8. Raideen
9. Mazinger Z
10. Kamui
11. Arrivederci Yamato
12. Bander's Book
13. Tomorrow's Joe
14. Voltes V

Roman Albums 59-62

15. UFO Robo Grandizer
16. Combattler V
17. Eight Man
18. Danguard Ace
19. Heidi
20. Fighting General Daimos
21. Zanbot 3
22. Treasure Island
23. Triton
24. Galaxy Express 999 film
25. Marine Express
26. Adventure Of Gamba
27. Babel II
28. Shotaro Ishinomori Works
29. Daitarn 3
30. Captain Harlock
31. Space Battleship Yamato 2
32. Getter Robo / G
33. Poems Of Baseball Madness: North Wolf South Tiger
34. Hurricane Polimar
35. Mobile Suit Gundam
36. Be Forever Yamato
37. Tekkaman

Roman Albums 63-66
38. Marco Polo
39. Cyborg 009 Legend Of Super Galaxy
40. Cutey Honey
41. Kum Kum
42. Mobile Suit Gundam I
43. Space Battleship Yamato III
44. Mobile Suit Gundam II
45. Adieu Galaxy Express
46. Future Boy Conan
47. Baldios
48. Ideon TV
49. Queen Millenia film
50. Mobile Suit Gundam III
51. A Contract Be Invoked The Ideon
52. My Youth In Arcadia
53. Yamato Perfect Manual 1
54. Yamato Perfect Manual 2
55. God Mars tv/movie
56. Final Yamato
57. Xabungle
58. Minky Momo

Roman Albums 67-70
59. Bryger/Brygar/Braiger 
60. Horus Prince Of The Sun
61. Nausicaa
62. Dunbine
63. Votoms
64. Baxingar
65. Goshogun Etranger
66. Arion
67. SPT Layzner
68. Laputa
69. Totoro
70. Kiki's Delivery Service

Roman Album 43's Special Area