Saturday, June 30, 2018

Beyond The Valley Of Further Under The Western Influence II: The Return

Almost ten years back I had an idea for a panel I could present at anime conventions; I'd talk about Japanese cartoons that were based on Western intellectual properties. You know, things like the Zuiyo Eizo Heidi anime or the various Little Women anime series or “license me in English” poster boy Future Boy Conan, fairy tale adaptations like Twelve Months, the various Wizard Of Oz versions, and iterations of science fiction icons like Captain Future, Lensman, and Frankenstein. I figured I could fill an hour with clips and discussion, maybe get a Let's Anime column out of the deal, and that would be the end of it. 

Was I wrong! The audience discussion, the myriad comments on the Let's Anime post, and my own research all pointed to one inescapable conclusion – that there are many, many more of these adaptations out there than I thought. I learned this field is seemingly inexhaustible – the more I look, the more of these things I find. There is what appears to be a never ending supply of Japanese cartoons based on American, European, and Middle Eastern sources. And sure, everybody knows about the cross-pollination of artistic styles between East and West, how Tezuka was inspired by Walt Disney cartoons and stacks of American comic books abandoned by G.I.s in Osaka rec centers, but the impact of generations of Japanese anime professionals immersing themselves in the canon of Western literature? That doesn't get a lot of discussion. 

So let this column, and the AnimeNEXT panel that inspired it, be a sequel to my 2009 piece, let me expand on the topic and cover some more anime that was created, as I like to say, under the Western influence. 

Thanks to fansubs I caught up with Perrine Story, the 1978 Nippon Animation series based on the Hector Malot novel about Perrine, who 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 transcend genre and it's when you are on the edge of your seat hoping Perrine and her weakening mother and the long-suffering donkey Polikare can muscle their wagon up the muddy 19th century roads through the Alps, that's when you ask yourself, didn't I just watch an anime where an entire solar system was destroyed? - 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. 

Children's literature in the 19th century was gloomy disaster porn aimed at keeping the kids grateful for their fifteen mile walks uphill both ways to school in the snow, and Dog Of Flanders is no exception, but you wouldn't know it from the opening credits of this '75 Nippon Animation series, which makes the life of Nello and his dog Patrasche seem like swell times. Which they are not. 

Nobody's Boy became a 1970 Toei film and a 1977 TMS television series, another Hector Malot property about an abandoned child struggling to survive. The Toei film is a 60s throwback but the '77 series is pure Osamu Dezaki bringing his A-game to this tale of Remy, who gets sold into carnival slavery, more or less. 

You've read the book, you've seen the musical, and you’ve watched the movie, now enjoy the anime of Les Miserables! Toei's 1979 TV special eschews the big-eye "anime" visual cliche and delivers a more period accurate Jean Valjean struggling to do the right thing in mid 19th century France while Inspector Javert tracks him down. 

the various Treasure Islands
Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island has enjoyed many cinematic adaptations, and the world of anime is no exception. If you want the best, you need to hit the '78 TMS series directed by Dezaki, it's terrific and on YouTube with TMS subtitles. If you want the fun, see Toei's '71 Animal Treasure Island, a cheerful Miyazaki/Takahata/Otsuka romp. If you want the weird, why not visit the 1966 New Treasure Island, a Mushi Productions TV special directed by Gisaburo Sugii, colorized in the early 70s and released to the 16mm rental market by Fred "Gigantor" Ladd? Well, because apart from a partial VHS copy ripped and uploaded to YouTube, you probably can't see it anywhere, that's why. 

I wrote about the Yearling anime earlier and at the time I assumed it was one more WMT series. Well, I was wrong. This show's an MK Company production, and MK stands for Kaneko Mitsuru, an animator who worked on revolutionary French hot pants heroine La Seine No Hoshi, who walked away from the anime world in the 70s and went to USC film school, and who later returned to Japan determined to drag the anime industry kicking and screaming into the modern world via computer technology. He founded the first commercial CG studio in Japan and his Yearling cartoon was the first Japanese TV anime to be colored digitally. MK went on to work on Lensman, which makes sense. His Yearling anime was licensed by MGM/UA and pitched to American broadcasters as “The Yearling” but if it aired in any US markets I have not seen any evidence. The series, as "Fortunate Fawn," is on YouTube with what appears to be Turkish subtitles, and a few public domain DVDs of the show have turned up in the dollar stores. 

watch the show, read the book, buy the merchandise for 40 years

I got through 1500 words on co-productions last time and barely mentioned Rascal The Raccoon, can you believe it? This trash panda's 1977 Nippon Animation cartoon is hands down the king of licensed raccoon character-based marketing - forty years on and they're still cranking out Rascal stuff. Sterling North's 1963 book about a Wisconsin boy growing up during the First World War who rescues a baby raccoon who in turn helps him through a difficult adolescence seems to have struck a responsive note with Japan; the show was responsible for at least 1500 raccoons being imported into Japan as pets, and they're now found in 42 of Japan's 47 prefectures. Sure, there was a 1969 Disney Rascal movie starring Billy "Lost In Space" Mumy, but did it inspire raccoon importation or its own store in Tokyo Station? No. 

Marge’s Little Lulu was a success from her first appearance in the Saturday Evening Post, inspiring Paramount cartoons, licensing deals, and a host of imitators, but it was the smart, loopy Dell Little Lulu comics by Irving Tripp and John Stanley that made the character one of the icons of mid 1950s comic art. Lulu had already inspired a generation of new cartoonists by the time this 1976 Nippon Animation series delivered 26 episodes to Japanese TV, and subsequently to a ZIV International dub and a home video release. I like me some Japanese cartoons but in this case the Stanley/Tripp comics are superior, have been in print consistently for decades, and are well worth your time. 

Little House On The Prairie fans are likely waiting for the Pete Bagge Rose Wilder Lane bio coming soon, but what they’re also waiting for, even though they might not have known it existed, is some kind of acknowledgement from the Wilder estate that the ‘75 Nippon Animation Little House anime is a thing that exists. And it is! “Laura The Prairie Girl” ran for 26 whole episodes, covering the early parts of the Little House saga and giving Anime Laura fun times with Jack and the whole Little House family, including the mighty beard of Pa Ingalls. The show lines up neatly with the original text, including the family surviving their bout with malaria with the help of pioneering African-American Dr. Tann. Sadly the show totally whiffs the opportunity to let Laura enter adolescence challenged by what we can only assume would be the ojosama laugh of “prairie bitch” Nellie Oleson. If you are curious about this iteration of Little House, the whole thing is streaming on YouTube en Espanol. 

In 1968 Toei produced a “World of Hans Christian Anderson” movie, in 1971 Mushi Pro made a 26 episode TV series with the same fairy-tale premise, and in 1975 Toei released their film of what might be Anderson’s most enduring work, The Little Mermaid. In this version, now available from Discotek, her little porpoise chum uses starfish as ninja throwing stars to defeat undersea monsters. 

The 1992 Thumbelina TV series ran 26 episodes and was produced by TV Tokyo/Victor/Enoki Films, and survived to be edited into a 90 minute compilation feature released on home video in North America. 

the many faces of non-Disney Pinocchio
Pinocchio, the venerable Carlo Collodi folktale, has two anime iterations, a 1972 Tatsunoko TV series and a 1976 Nippon Animation series. The Tatsunoko series made it into a dubbed compilation film, look for it in your local thrift store! 

I’d been all about the 1980 Toei Dracula Sovereign Of The Damned and the 1981 Frankenstein, particularly the faithful way the Dracula special follows the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan comics, and the absolute off-the-rails crazy and the expressive Toyoo Ashida designs on Frankenstein. But what I never thought I’d get to see was the 1981 Tatsunoko TV special 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This oddity put Captain Nemo and his Nautilus into the 22nd century, gives him an evil empire to battle, and we see it all through the eyes of Ricky, the young Jacques Cousteau type who finds himself and his fellow explorers suddenly shanghaied into the Nautilus crew roster. This odd duck of a TV special – including a scuba-diving pet parrot – was dubbed into English by Harmony Gold and released somewhere – South Africa? The UK? - as “Undersea Encounter.” There’s a dub of it on YouTube with Russian expository narration on top of the English dialogue, which makes for a singular viewing experience. 

Like most nerds my age I had Bob Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” handed to me at age 12 or so, just the right age to enjoy the outer space military action while taking the questionable sociopolitical themes at face value. Paul Verhoeven’s film would ditch the mobile suits and frontload the militaristic authoritarianism to a comical degree. However, the 1988 Bandai Visual/Sunrise six-part OVA series would deliver, as nature intended, a Starship Troopers heavy on Mobile Infantry powered combat suit combat and utilizing exact scenes and dialogue from the novel. Yet the anime Starship Troopers remains uninspired, pedestrian, and frankly, kinda dull, which is some kind of accomplishment in itself, I guess. Perhaps Japan had worked on one too many powered fighting armor stories and all the fresh new takes were used up. 

Thanks to everyone who came to my panels at AnimeNEXT and if you're coming to Anime North next year there's a pretty good chance I'll be hauling this one out next May, so stay tuned.  s I said earlier, this field is wide open. After years of poking around looking for these things, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. Turn over a rock, look at the stacks of VHS in the thrift stores, do a casual internet search and you’ll likely come across still more Japanese cartoons based on Western literature. 

-Dave Merrill

so long, Captain Nemo