Friday, March 31, 2023

A Time Slip Of Forty Years: 1983 In Anime Film

Let's look at the numbers. In 1982 there were 21 animated movies released in Japanese cinemas with a total running time of 1881 minutes. The next year saw slightly fewer films-  only 19 - and a concomitant shrinkage of total length down to a mere sixteen hundred sixty-five minutes. You could marathon that in less than a day! But when you look at the actual films themselves forty years ago, a different story emerges, a story of Crushers, Fantastic Trips, long-distance murder professionals, magic islands, time slips, Final Yamatos, and horrific disasters both real and imaginary. 1983 was a year of Japanese animation pulling away from its terebi manga roots and finally becoming real, slightly overstuffed roadshow capital-c Cinema in brand new ways. Let's take a look at the anime films in the order in which they were released forty years back!

Urusei Yatsura: Only You planted its tiger-striped-booted feet firmly into February 1983 and said, this is what it's gonna look like for the next few years, anime is going to be an outer space carnival of pop music, cute girls, interstellar hijinks, and frustrated romance. Based on the popular Shonen Sunday manga by Rumiko Takahashi, Urusei Yatsura, or "Those Obnoxious Aliens" as we used to call it, ostensibly is the story of Lum the invader gal and her hapless boyfriend, the dopey, skirt-chasing Ataru. Quickly overwhelmed by its equally obnoxious cast and a creative team that included Mamoru Oshii and Akemi Takada, the series became an ensemble comedy that bent the laws of time, space, propriety and gender. Only You is the first of six feature films that together with with 194 episodes of the Urusei Yatsura TV series would go a long way towards defining the 80s anime style.


One month later would be the premiere of Crusher Joe, a film directed by Yoshikazu "Yas" Yasuhiko, produced by Studio Nue and Nippon Sunrise, their first non-TV compilation film. Crusher Joe is based on the SF novels by Haruka Takachiho, who would go on to create the similarly-motifed and possibly canonically connected Dirty Pair. The far-future galactic troubleshooters known as Crushers operate throughout the galaxy, and the number one team is known as Crusher Joe after its leader Joe. His teammates the pretty princess Alfin, the cyborg Talos, engineering genius Ricky, and the 'droid Drongo uncover a conspiracy that threatens the galaxy while dodging both the murder plots of the space-pirate guild and the red tape of the United Planets. Pulpy science-fiction adventure in the classic style, Crusher Joe would get two more OVA sequels and this film would be gifted a terrible English dub that features new songs from "Bullets." Fret not, the Blu-Ray is subtitled.

The short feature Dr Slump HoYoyo! The Race Around The World premiered March 13, 1983 and the movie is just what it says on the tin. Indeed, this film is a wacky race as Akira Toriyama's zany Arale and the rest of the goofy Penguin Village gang pop the clutch and tell the world to eat their respective dusts. It's part of Dr. Slump's only American video release!

March 12 saw the release of Harmagedon, the first anime feature by publisher-turned-film-producer Haruki Kadokawa. This expensive, overstuffed epic features music from prog rock legend Keith Emerson and character designs by future prog manga legend Katsuhiro Otomo. Harmagedon, or Genma Taisen if we're going by the kanji, is based on the 1960s manga drawn by Shotaro Ishinomori and written by Kasumasu Hirai, who wrote manga classic 8-Man, pulp novel/Sonny Chiba vehicle Wolf Guy and a lengthy series of Harmagedon sequel novels. Hirai's interest in syncretic New Age religions is no surprise considering Harmagedon's script, filled with the vast darkness of Entropy fought across time and space by psychic warriors empowered by universal love consciousnesses. Harmagedon was released on VHS in the US in the 1990s, but earlier in the 80s you may have seen the laserdisk videogame it inspired, Bega's Battle.

The Space Battleship Yamato faces its ultimate challenge in Uchuu Senkan Yamato Kanketsu-hen, Space Battleship Yamato the Final Chapter (or as the English language text in the promotional material likes to call it, simply Final Yamato) as the evil Denguils, outer space legions descended from Mesopotamians rescued from the Biblical flood of Noah by the actual Satan, send the water planet Aquarius to literally drown the planet Earth again. Only the Yamato - captained by a surprisingly alive Captain Okita - can save us all. This epic spectacle's extended version clocks in at 163 minutes, which includes scenes producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki added into a 70mm re-release nine months after its initial March 19 premiere. Perhaps this film's butt-demolishing length helped Yamato fans weather the full decade before they'd see another Yamato project (the ill-fated Yamato 2520).


Noel embarked on her Fantastic Trip on April 29 1983. This movie feels like a vanity project for producer and Noel's voice actor Iruka, a Japanese folk singer who since 1970 has released 26 LPs, three books, four childrens' books, 8 radio shows, and acted in a medical TV drama. Iruka is really Toshie Hosaka, and she got the Iruka nickname in high school when she saw a crowd of music students carrying their guitar cases and said "it looks like a school of dolphins (iruka in Japanese)." So this particular Fantastic Trip of Noel's is a loosely plotted string of vignettes that allow the film to express simple concepts about pollution or friendship while delivering various Iruka songs. Noel lives on an island in space with her friend Pup and a bunch of animal friends. One day after singing a song about wanting to be a country girl, she decides the sun's too hot and would like some ice cream. So Noel and Pup take off in her airplane to give the Sun some ice cream. They stop at Planet Gaudy where she convinces everyone to become nudists. 

Meet The Beatles (And Noel)

After giving the Sun ice cream, they sing a few songs with the Yellow Submarine-era Beatles on the bottom of the ocean. Then smog attacks, but they are rescued by the super whale Super Zoomer. The source of the smog is an urbanized industrial planet, and the immediate threat is stopped by Super Zoomer and then there's an extended sequence involving babies on tricycles and a song about pollution controls. The end. Noel is voiced by Iruka in the original and by Corinne Orr in the American version, which aired on cable TV and was released on home video to a confused and bewildered nation.

First he was portrayed by Ken Takakura. Then Sonny Chiba took on the role. But the definitive Golgo 13 may be the 1983 anime film directed by certified genius Osamu Dezaki. The first animation production starring Takao Saito's legendary assassin Golgo 13 was this eponymous TMS film, released May 28. Known in the West as "The Professional," Golgo 13 is jam packed with slow-motion murder, mayhem, early computer animation, and the "postcard memories" Dezaki became famous for, as Duke Togo weathers a series of increasingly bizarre attempts on his life, which, let's be honest, is itself a series of increasingly bizarre attempts to take the lives of others.


Jiron Amos saddles up his Walker Machine and rides out on the vengance trail in the July 9 release Xabungle Graffiti, a theatrical compilation of the Xabungle TV series from Nippon Sunrise that was released in a double bill with Sunrise's Dougram film. Will Jiron and the crew of the gigantic transforming land-battleship mecha Irongear defy both the traditions of their violent land and its mysterious ruling class? You'll say "yes" by the time the new MIO song starts. Available as part of Sentai's Xabungle Blu-Ray set, this Tomino series lacks the seriousness and the death toll of his other works.


On July 9, the compilation film of the Nippon Sunrise Fang Of The Sun Dougram TV series was distributed by Shochiku with the title "Document Dougram". Created by Votoms helmer Ryousuke Takahashi, the film is a condensed retelling of the struggle of guerrilla fighters battling to free the planet Deloyer from the oppressive Earth occupation forces, and is one of the few series we're discussing today that has yet to get any sort of English language release. Come on fellas, let's get it together here. Document Dougram was released along with the super deformed comedy short "Choro Q Dougram," a combination of Dougram sponsor Takara's popular deformed minature spring-powered car toy Choro Q with characters from Dougram.

Another not-available-in-America title, Maya Mineo's serio-comic gagfest manga Patalliro first appeared in Hana to Yume in 1978, switched to Bessatsu Hana to Yume in 1991 and is still going strong. Bratty boy-genius Patalliro is both king of Malynera and heir to a diamond fortune and lives to confuse and irritate everyone around him, including his dreamy bodyguard Bancoran, who attracts a variety of beautiful boy admirers. The Patalliro Toei anime series ran for 49 episodes while this film, Stardust Keikaku (Keikaku means "plan") was released on July 10 and clocks in a mere 48 minutes.

Unico In the Island Of Magic was a July 16 release. Osamu Tezuka's Unico was created for the Sanrio magazine Lyrica, a lost little unicorn propelled through worlds of magic and legend on the whims of the Wind Goddess. Here in Unico's second movie he finds himself on the Island of Magic as a succession of increasingly disturbing Madhouse-animated creations threaten him and his friends, and the enigmatic wizard Torby must decide whether to defy his master, or turn us all into lifeless dolls. Both Unico films received English dubs and home video releases, frightening entire generations of 80s kids on both sides of the Pacific.

Based on the semiautobiographical manga by Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa, Barefoot Gen / Hadashi no Gen, a July release, was directed by Mori Masaki and produced by animation powerhouse Madhouse. This film, the first of two Barefoot Gen movies, details the life of an ordinary Japanese family struggling to survive in a militarized total-war Japan and the aftermath of that war's cataclysmic conclusion. Barefoot Gen's manga was one of the first Japanese comics to be translated and published in America (by Leonard Rifas' Educomics) and the film received a 1992 American release with a subsequent dub and release by Streamline Pictures in 1995.

Prime Rose: A Time Slip Of 10000 Years was broadcast August 21 as part of Nippon TV's 24 hour "Love Saves The Earth" telethon. The demon Bazusu sends both Kujukuri City in Chiba and Dallas in Texas ten thousand years in the future and makes them battle for his amusement. Tanbara Gai of the Time Patrol fights to stop this fighting along with the barely-dressed Emiya Tachi/Prime Rose in this Tezuka Pro/Magic Bus production.

Wrapping up the year, September and December would see two Nine movies from Gisaburo Sugii and Group TAC, based on Mitsuru Adachi's popular baseball manga about Aohide High School's center fielder Katsuya and the team manager, the mysterious beauty Yuri Nakao.  Adachi would keep working that baseball angle in his next 80s series Touch, perhaps his biggest manga hit in a career that is woefully underrepresented in the West.

And that's what 1983 looked like if you spent your year in Japanese theaters watching cartoons. If you ask me to pick a favorite, well, that's a tough question. Urusei Yatsura Only You might not be as critically acclaimed as the next UY film Beautiful Dreamer, but I think Only You is a rock-solid 90 minutes that takes the Urusei Yatsura cast out of Tomobiki and into the kind of big-screen science-fiction nonsense that movies were made for.

I'm always going to have a soft spot for Harmagedon, as maligned as the film may sometimes be. It's a movie made up of some terrific, fantastically realized pieces of animated cinema, separated by long stretches of not much at all. Not to generalize, but Japanese film is, well, we might say sometimes it's deliberately paced. Discursive. Meandering. Tends to wander. That's Harmagedon in a nutshell, it's all over the map.


And as meandering as Harmagedon might be, at least it's forty minutes shorter than the long version of Final Yamato, a film that hopes you're as excited as Nishizaki is about This Being The Last Yamato Film Ever Swear To God. If you're on board with this, fine, and if you aren't, if everything isn't as epic and as majestic and as awe-inspiring as it possibly can be, well then you might think this movie's too long. And it probably is. But as the Japanese iteration of those bloated Cinemascope studio-destroying historical epics midcentury Hollywood was throwing its cash at - your Liz Taylor Cleopatras, your How The West Was Wons, your Fall Of The Roman Empires, your Lawrence Of Arabias, your Spartacuses - as one of those overbudgeted overture-preceded pray-for-intermission endurance contests, Final Yamato fits right in.

As a big fan of Saito's Golgo 13 manga it's interesting to see various G13 stories turn up in the script of the TMS Golgo 13 film, but at times the connecting threads of plot stitching them all together are overwhelmed by the sheer hallucinogenic power of Dezaki's visuals. Not that this is a bad thing, you understand. Similarly, Crusher Joe from Yas and Sunrise looks great and is filled with terrific science fiction action sequences, and those sequences pile on top of each other until the film's had what feels like one or two climaxes too many.

Pound for pound, frame for frame, perhaps 1983's most enduring animated film is Madhouse's Unico In The Island Of Magic, a movie that throws goggle-eyed witches in our faces, fills the screen with nothing but the blue of Torby's cloak, and forces Unico to flee, scared to death through an island made entirely of the petrified remains of Torby's victims. A film that feels as fresh today as it did on that hand-me-down in the kids' mid-1980s playroom, Island Of Magic holds up today against everything forty years has thrown at it, and that's not something a lot of movies - let alone people, even - can say.

-Dave Merrill

March 1983 issue of OUT

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