Thursday, February 25, 2021

spacemen with a mission

By all logic, this should not work. A juvenile delinquent with a secret agent big brother who moonlights as a manga artist? A secret world war over a planet-destroying Anti-Proton Bomb? A detour into small-town school board politicking? A time-travel twist ending? And as the main characters, three space aliens turned into what appear to be inflatable pool toy animals? These ingredients don’t seem to add up to anything but obscurity. Yet Wonder 3 became one of Osamu Tezuka’s many popular manga serials and an early success for his Mushi Production animation studio. In a mid ‘60s field crowded with amazing robots, jet boys, and Planet Princes, Wonder 3 carved out its own transformative space, inspiring decades of fans. And now more than fifty years later, English readers finally get to enjoy the original Wonder 3 manga that inspired the Amazing 3 television series.

Taking a page from the 1951 20th Century Fox film The Day The Earth Stood Still, the theme of a union of advanced alien races observing & judging our terrible Earthling behavior isn't new, even for Japanese pop culture - Shintoho’s 1957-58 "Super Giant" films used similar story beats. Tezuka himself would utilize the plot point in manga like Next World and Zero Men, but Wonder 3 may perhaps be peak Tezuka; a wild mix of action, SF, human interest, Big Philosophical Issues, and the polymorphously perverse ability of every character to transmogrify almost at will that runs through his entire amorphous body of work. Serialized in Shonen Sunday from May 1965 until May 1966, the Wonder 3 manga was being produced concurrently with several other Tezuka works, because let’s face it, the guy was a workaholic. Wonder 3 shared manga rack space with the similarly transformation-themed Ambassador Magma (itself to become a 1966 live-action P Production teleseries), the transforming cyborg Big X (which would become TMS’s first anime series), and the folktale-inspired Dove! Fly Up To Heaven, which would finish its run in Tezuka’s magazine COM. Tezuka’s manga factory was running at top speed as does Wonder 3, zooming from outer space to Kanto region farmland to secret Pacific military bases to the center of the Earth and back again, never stopping to catch its breath.


Wonder 3 begins as the Milky Way League appoints three agents to observe the Earth. Enter our titular W3, Bokko, Nokko and Pukko, who arrive on Earth in their transforming flying saucer-robot, right in the middle of a brutal throwdown between ace Phoenix Agency counterspy Koichi Hoshi and various nefarious secret agents. Using their ultra-science, the three aliens obey the command of the theme song lyrics and change into animal forms, in order to better observe the humans. The warm-hearted Commander Bokko becomes a rabbit, engineering specialist Corporal Nokko becomes a horse, and cranky Lieutenant Pukko becomes a duck with what appears to be a Beatle haircut. Hey, it was 1965. 
The animal disguises are great for Galactic Patrol espionage purposes, but this leaves our heroes vulnerable to typical Earthling animal mistreatment. Rescued by Koichi’s brother, local juvenile hot-head Shinichi Hoshi, the three reveal their true mission and he becomes their willing, if at times reluctant, assistant. In the course of a few days Shinichi learns his three new animal friends are actually space aliens sent to destroy the Earth, and his brother is actually a secret agent for Phoenix; each a mind-blowing revelation that would ruin any kid’s life. But Shinichi is tough, and when he’s not getting into fistfights with the locals he and the rest of the cast are off on world-spanning adventures.

The story has barely begun before Pukko gets pissed off and tries to fast-track that whole Earth demolition thing ahead of schedule. That bullet dodged, he tags along with Koichi on a Phoenix mission to destroy Nation A’s Skeleton Satellite while Shinichi begins to learn impulse control through judo. Koichi is framed as an international gangster and assassinated on live TV - or is he? A typhoon exposes the hidden antiproton bomb, which has an amazing journey all its own before becoming a literal international hot potato that’s also a literal ticking time bomb. 

Shinichi and hundreds of local kids survive fires, floods, and the evil landlord’s plan to demolish the school. Nokko’s high-speed engineering skill comes in handy as he builds everything from remote spaceship controls to fleets of pickup trucks to advanced medical equipment to the W3’s iconic “Big Wheel” vehicle, all expressed in lots of speed lines, clouds of dust, and a galloping cartoon horse. Pukko grinds his teeth at the stupid minds of Earthlings while Bokko is forced to confront her troubling feelings of interspecies attraction. 

The 1960s espionage mixes freely with YA and SF, the result being a furious, panicky climax as Shinichi races to rescue the Wonder 3 and Earth itself from the runaway antiproton bomb. And after all that, those jerks on the Galactic Council vote against Earth! Spoiler, the Wonder 3 disobey their orders to destroy our planet, even though this means memory erase, exile, and transformation into a lower life form. What will they choose? Where will they go? Read the comic and find out!

The W3 manga is pulpy fun that jams high-concept ideas next to kid-gang adventures and trademark Tezuka comedy bits, filled with great characters and big set-piece action that never forgets the emotional beats. The comic has lots of memorable characters. Shinichi’s mom is a powerful Ma Hunkel-esque force of nature, Tezuka’s Lamp appears as an evil spymaster with his own code of ethics, and the Wonder 3 themselves are complex, motivated individuals who carve out their own destiny against everything the Earth or the Galactic Patrol can muster, leading to a time-travel paradox conclusion that bears a certain resemblance to Tezuka’s earlier Captain Ken.

The ink was barely dry on Wonder 3 before Tezuka began to move away from science fiction with his next works, the political/monster thriller Vampire and the historical revenge fantasy Dororo. But while W3 was still in Shonen Sunday, across the aisle Tezuka’s animation studio Mushi Production was hard at work on the Wonder 3 TV anime series. Sponsored by candy manufacturer Lotte, Wonder 3 aired on Fuji TV from June 1965 until June the next year, Sundays at 7pm until episode 35, when it switched to Mondays at 7:30. Wonder 3 did well in the ratings until Tsubaraya’s Ultra Q premiered in January of ‘66, which pulled viewers, including Tezuka’s own kids, away from W3

Big Wheel Keep On Rollin'

Opening with the W3’s arrival on Earth, the antiproton bomb threat is set aside for most of the show, allowing Shinichi and the W3 to adventure around the world in the Big Wheel while Koichi engages in the kind of spy adventures that were ubiquitous in film and TV of the era. Occasionally scripts will drop in an episode with environmental themes, and there are a few mentions of the “new airport” ruining farmland and uprooting locals, referencing the mid-1960s battle between landowners and the construction of Narita Airport, which was making headlines at the time.

Though Mushi was then producing animation for big-deal American distributors like NBC Films, Wonder 3’s American license was picked up by an obscure outfit doing business as Erika Film Productions. Erika doesn’t seem to have produced anything before or since. Their version, retitled The Amazing 3, was dubbed by the same Copri International crew that localized Prince Planet, with biker film idol Bobbie Byers voicing Bokko, now “Bonnie”. The show is deeply weird in a way that only translated children's cartoons were allowed to be at the time; the big messages of conflict, hatred, and greed merging with Tezuka’s penchant for comedic non sequiturs, punctuated by the angry ranting of Beatle-wigged cartoon duck Zero, a rabbit clearly thirsty for 12 year old Kenny, and a horse now named Ronnie that builds everything out of literal garbage. 

there's so much wrong with this

Copri’s dubbing is like radio drama, overacted and overly descriptive, yet at the same time content to leave big chunks of the show completely silent. The dub occasionally delivers bursts of unintentional comedy (“Democracy is stupid!”), and the American show begins and ends with a theme song that sounds like the college glee club is humoring some drunken alumnus who brought his accordion to the homecoming cookout. Mushi’s animation on W3 is fine; not as cinematic as what they were doing on the contemporaneous Jungle Emperor, but certainly not as clunky as some of the stuff TCJ was cranking out across town. There’s an interesting UPA-ish thick-line character design seen in the show that gives W3 its own style.

Viewed today, the fuzzy black and white images and hissy, warbly soundtrack give the show a real late-night cult-movie feel. The Amazing 3 aired on UHF television across America, until the mid 1970s turned black and white TV into a quaint novelty. As far as we can tell, the show last aired in the United States in 1976 on KCOP channel 13 in Los Angeles, right before Peter Potamus. Then the series vanished forever. Somebody on eBay was selling 16mm prints of the whole series for $24,000 back in 2008; if you picked them up, drop me a line!


That last KCOP rerun was the last America would see of Bonnie, Ronnie, Zero, and their friend Kenny Carter. Sure, fuzzy 13th generation VHS copies were kicking around at the swap meets and on the mailing lists of cartoon nerds, but unlike contemporaries Kimba The White Lion, Marine Boy, and Gigantor, the Amazing Three failed to grab that valuable late-boomer cartoon mindshare.

Until now, that is. Digital Manga's Wonder 3 is an absolute chonky brick; three solid pounds of W3 manga in English for the first time ever, with a solid translation, sharp production values, and an afterword by Tezuka himself. It’s a must-have for fans of Tezuka’s work or manga in general, and anyone interested in midcentury pop SF adventure will get a solid kick out of W3. However, as with some of their other properties, Digital Manga can’t seem to get out of its own way, making publishing decisions that here seem almost counterintuitive. Wonder 3’s advertising and promotion were, apart from Kickstarter updates, almost nonexistent. The jacket design for the book itself is obtuse and confusing; it’s unclear on the shelf or in the hand what exactly this thing is. The manga’s back cover copy and DMP’s marketing for Wonder 3, instead of mentioning that Wonder 3 is the manga version of a TV show readers might have seen as a child, bizarrely insists upon explaining what “sentai” is, Millions of Americans watched The Amazing 3; wedging a Power Rangers mention into this series’ description makes zero sense. Potential American readers are pointedly ignored, if not deliberately avoided, and it’s a shame because this wonderfully entertaining block o’ comics deserves a wide readership.

Wonder 3 toy bus image from World Mook Figure King no. 11

Wonder 3 never achieved the kind of iconic cultural status reached by other Tezuka creations like Astro Boy or Black Jack. Among the parade of Tezuka reboots, remasters, sequels, and adaptations, W3 is noticeably absent. Sure, the characters make appearances every once in a while, like in the 1980 Astro Boy series, but with a few exceptions they’ve vanished. One of these exceptions was the fascinating July 2017 stage performance "Amazing Performance W3 (Wonder Three)," a silent theatrical piece that involved modern dance, pantomime, acrobatics, and images projected onto the stage. 

I don’t think the world of Japanese animation will ever entirely forget Wonder 3, with that Big Wheel zooming across oceans, the space rabbit with the hypno dynamism, and that cranky duck voting to blow up the Earth. The series might be the peak of Tezuka’s science fiction mythos; from here on out his works would focus more on adventures of the past and issues of the present. Absent our outer space saviors, mankind will have to find salvation on its own. Anybody got $24,000?

-Dave Merrill


JeanFranco Torres said...

Hi! I know that I seen all the episodes of Wonder 3 not english subtitles but sometimes I understand it. But I wonder if there were any recordings of the rerun of the mid 70's of KCOP 13 and I wonder if you want to talk more about this I would be happy to chat about it? heh

d.merrill said...

The first episodes of Amazing Three I saw were copies of copies of copies that had been taped off that mid 1970s KCOP broadcast. Just enough of the commercial bumpers survived for station identification. The mid 70s is pretty late for a black and white cartoon to be broadcast in the US, to be honest, but I'm glad they did.

JeanFranco Torres said...

Does it actually show up on the old TV guide for the channels that has “The Amazing 3” on the list during the mid 70’s cause idk but don’t wanna spoil it haha. Unless some are recorded and dunno which episodes came from it on YouTube that were found before.

d.merrill said...

The Amazing 3 does appear in TV Guide listings during its air dates, yes. And yes, recordings do exist of the Amazing 3 from its run on KCOP. Some screencaps from one of those recordings are here:

JeanFranco Torres said...

Wow I’m surprised to see that! That is good! Hey would you like to chat on a different platform more about this I would be gladly to! Either on google hangouts or Skype or discord? I’m enjoying wonder 3 stuff like a scavenger hunt haha!

If if you want to use google hangouts just copy my gmail and go onto that to the search bar on google hangouts to invite me there!

If you want Skype same thing to enter my gmail in there!

For Discord this is my username and number to invite in: madbum#3117

Ernie said...

Back in summer of 1967 I watched The Amazing 3 religiously on KCOP 13 in San Bernardino, Calif. I was 11, going on 12. The show was on weekday afternoons, and I was very much hooked by the stories and characters. I had a crush on Captain Bonnie.

At this time I had become acquainted with the idea of TV shows being made into novelizations, so I decided to take a stab at writing my own book version. The result was a 112-page, cursive longhand, manuscript complete with illustrations I’d done in crayon. I put the whole thing into a 3-ring binder. I watched the show often so that I could learn to accurately draw the characters. I should mention that, at this point in time, I had no idea that this show originated in Japan, although I sometimes wondered why views of the earth from outer space showed the “wrong” side of the planet.

Fast forward to the present day (2022) and I still have that book. I’m glad I managed to hang onto it. I am a part-time artist (doing realistic art) and I’ve recently begun to dabble in sketching the W3 characters (especially Bonnie), even though between 1967 and now, I’ve never really picked up an interest in cartooning or simplistic illustration.

Oh… I am also a part-time musician. At age 11 I was already playing the Amazing 3 theme song on the piano!