Saturday, November 24, 2007

Anime, Pat Robertson, Mazinger Z, and... YOU!

Cable TV in the 80s was kinda strange. Lots of national channels + not a lot of programming = strangeness. USA Network was running the bizarro hippy punker clip-show extravaganza Night Flight, Discovery Channel would occasionally show entire days worth of Russian television, and everything was liable to be interrupted by local ads shoehorned in by your mom & pop cable TV service. And of course everywhere there was Japanese animation! If you weren’t watching 90 minute compliations of Force Five episodes or Thunderbirds 2086 episodes on Showtime, you were catching Belle & Sebastian or Mysterious Cities Of Gold in between Tomorrow People marathons on Nickelodeon. And if you were particularly hard core you would watch Superbook and Flying House - the Japanese anime Bible cartoons – on Pat “700 Club” Robertson’s CBN network.

To be honest, CBN got a lot of mileage out of anime. Screening the two Christian cartoons is a natural, but they also ran the compilation films for Voltes V and Starbirds (the English dub of Fighting General Daimos). And if you were alert or un-hung-over enough to be watching TV at noon on Sunday, you might catch two of my favorites – Honey Honey and Leo The Lion.

Both dubbed by some Florida outfit called “Sonic International”, they seem to be odd choices to run on cable in the 80s – a shojo comedy set in 1910 and a violent talking-animal cartoon from the late 60s? – but trying to figure out the actions of television executives is a fruitless task. The important thing is that Honey Honey, based on the manga by shojo manga-ka pioneer Hideko Mizuno (who would later go on to pen the groundbreaking rock’n’roll manga FIRE) is a charming and frequently wacky series that is a minor gem. The original 1966 manga by Hideko Mizuno was published in RIBON (“Princess”) MAGAZINE, but the anime series would not air until 1981. What’s up with that?

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Young teenage orphan Honey Honey, making ends meet in Austria in the early part of the last century, befriends a small white cat named Lily. As a result of this friendship Honey Honey finds herself pursued literally around the world by Princess Flora of Austria, Flora's four ethnic-stereotype suitors, and the mysterious thief Phoenix. And Phoenix’s cat.

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Turns out Lily swallowed the famous gem the Star Of The Amazon, the possession thereof being the one condition pursuant to marrying Princess Flora. Over the next 25 episodes we see auto chases, UFOs, sultans, samurai, Viking warriors, spies, crooks, Robin Hood, circuses, storms at sea, ninjas, King Kong, you name it. It’s a whirlwind of a show that mixes slapstick with romance, and the English dub is amateurish but spirited. The animation by Kokusei Eiga varies from mediocre to amazing – there’s one episode that rivals anything else on TV at the time - but mostly the show is typical television quality.

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Six episodes of the show were released on home video by Sony in various formats including Beta and 8mm. VHS copies occasionally show up on eBay and local video stores, so keep your eyes open. Honey Honey’s rights are currently owned by Enoki Films – one of our farsighted American outfits should contact them, release the show on DVD, and make us all happy.

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CBN’s other Sunday anime powerhouse is Leo The Lion, which of course is Tezuka’s sequel to Jungle Emperor/Kimba The White Lion, based on Tezuka’s classic manga series from the late 1950s. After he produced the first 1965 series (Japan’s first color TV cartoon!) under NBC’s guidelines, Tezuka went on to produce Leo (original title “Susume Leo”) staying closer to his original manga. This means continuing storylines, darker themes, and lots of animal-on-animal action complete with defenestrations, impalings, contusions, beheadings, shotgunnings, etc.

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Leo (you may remember this white lion under his childhood name of “Kimba”) and his wife Leia (“Kitty”) defend the jungle and raise their two children Runi and Ruki . There are the occasional episodes of whimsical comedy – the James Bond spoof episode in particular – but for the most part this series is a lot darker and less “fun” than Kimba. It’s not surprising NBC would take a pass on this one, I can’t see it getting past the watchdog moms of 60s America. Of course 20 years later CBN either has no problem with it, or what’s more likely, has no idea they’re running a cartoon show in which a blind Masai warrior has his arm ripped off by a tribe of evil leopards.

Leo has been released on cheap public-domain home video several times, mostly in shoddy EP VHS tapes that contain edited versions of the episodes. Buyer beware! This is another series that deserves a decent DVD set as a companion to Right Stuf’s Kimba release.

And the CBN anime story doesn’t end there! Before Honey Honey and Leo, CBN ran the weekly Japanese current affairs news program Beyond The Horizon. Occasionally overstepping the boundaries of traditionally defined “news”, Beyond The Horizon would fill up its airtime with 12-minute half-episodes of the 1972 Toei giant robot show Mazinger Z. This mysteriously-dubbed version of the super robot classic featured the infamous English-language theme songs sung phonetically by Isao Sasaki.

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Luckily anime fan seneschal Steve Harrison taped the things with his top-loading mono wired-remote VHS deck, capturing this artifact for posterity. But why would a news program run a children’s robot cartoon? Cultural background? Entertainment industry context? Time-filler for slow news days? Only Pat Robertson knows, and he ain’t tellin’.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

anime comics

Back before filesharing, before DVDs, even before cheap VHS tapes, anime fans had it tough. How could we experience Japanese cartoons beyond the once-weekly television schedule? The problem was solved in Japan by several different means - Roman Albums about Yamato or Harlock or Gundam, the five or six monthly magazines like Animage devoted to anime movies and TV shows, and of course comics and toys and stationery and t-shirts and menko cards and the rest of the gigantic merchandising industry that churned out colorful junk that we in the States could only wish for. They also had these things called "animation comics".

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Anime Comics were squarebound paperback books with color pages and glossy dust covers. They were comic photo-novels with artwork shot directly from the cel art and dialog added later by underpaid Kodansha employees. For American fans without access to these TV shows or movies, this was almost as good as having the show on videotape. For budding translators the simplified dialog (with "ruby" style kanji aids) was a godsend. Plus you could take them to school and mystify classmates because you had some kind of book that seemed to be full of pictures from that Cliff Hanger videogame from down at the arcade.

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Of course we never thought we'd see anything like this available in English. So when we saw this ad in the Comics Buyers Guide sometime in 1982, we were pretty excited.

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Star Blazers animation comics?? Since the local UHF station was being remarkably unhelpful in re-running the show to allow those of us with VCRs to tape it, this was great news! Books Nippan, the LA outfit supplying anime product to a hungry North America, promoted the release with a full color flyer that featured typos corrected in ball point pen.

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I recall a frustrating delay in the actual arrival of the books. Once they apppeared, they quickly became a staple item on the bookshelf of every anime fan. The artwork was right from the TV series, arranged manga-style with sound effects and dialog set in type. Extras included Yamato production artwork, diagrams, the big cutaway Yamato blueprint illustration... all the stuff we'd pored over in Roman Albums. The dialog was taken directly from the Star Blazers shooting script, odd for a book produced and printed in Japan, but then again West Cape always stood firmly behind their American version of Yamato. They may have not known exactly what to do with it, but behind it they were.

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Nowadays of course with the advent of cheap home video, laserdiscs and especially DVD box sets, the need for photo-novel versions of cartoons has passed. However, back in 1982 these books were the high point of my Star Blazers fandom, at least until I saw this flyer....

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about which more, later.

Friday, November 9, 2007

your scientific ninja team gatchaman update

If you're like me, you grew up watching Battle of The Planets. Well, actually, I preferred Star Blazers. It took a while for me to really understand what was going on with those 5 bird ninjas and their struggle against Galactor. Actually what it took was seeing the original Tatsunoko Japanese version; TV producer Sandy Frank's BOTP was chopped, channelled, rewritten, repainted, lowered, and had a new, vastly inferior transmission installed. And that's as far as I'm going with that car metaphor.

At any rate it's a terrific titan of 70s anime, featuring super monsters, colorful heroes, lots of kids-action-anime drama, and muscular, fairly realistic character designs. Not to mention a great musical score. As bad as the BOTP dub is, the greatness of the original show still shines through.

Once 1978's Battle of The Planets had run its syndication course, the entire series was re-dubbed by Fred "Astro Boy" Ladd for Turner, under the new title G-Force. This new, uncut version of the series (1986) featured goofy character names and new background music that never went away. The series was shown a few times on the various channels of the Turner cable network before vanishing mysteriously.

In the 1990s Saban (you know, the Power Rangers people) took the second and third Gatchaman series (Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter) and dubbed them under the title "Eagle Riders". This fairly nonsensical dub worked its way into syndication and vanished opposite a late-decade wave of anime imports like Sailor Moon.

Once DVDs made their appearance, Rhino Video produced six volumes of Battle Of The Planets - each release featuring two BOTP episodes, two subtitled Gatchaman episodes, and one G-Force episode.

A little later ADV released the entire 105-episode Gatchaman series, with new, accurate dubs AND subtitles, in DVD box sets with extras. I feel we've reached some kind of turning point in anime fandom; panellists can spend an hour discussing a show at an anime con panel, and then go to the dealers room and purchase an offically licensed, uncut, super-high-quality edition of the actual show under discussion.

Gatchaman was one of the first American anime releases to have a substantial fandom built around it; when I got into anime fandom in the 1980s, Gatchaman fans were there already, publishing APAs and writing fan fiction and drawing fan artwork and swapping 13th generation copies of the last 5 episodes of Gatchaman F. It's an enthusiasm that's mirrored in the culture at large; Battle of The Planets inspired two completely separate American comic book releases and continues to be a minor cultural touchstone among former 70s cartoon kids. And in the rest of the world it's even more popular.

Tatsunoko continues to milk its most famous cash cow; apart from an abortive, crazy-looking 1990s OVA series, a new computer-animated film AND a new live-action film, thank you Wendy, is in the works. The Science Ninjas are not going anywhere.

Monday, November 5, 2007

you know the game of King Kong

A few years back when the Peter Jackson remake of the famous giant ape movie King Kong was released, anime fans got a little bonus in the shape of a DVD release of the 1966 King Kong cartoon. Why anime fans, you say? Because the 1966 King Kong cartoon was a co-production between Toei Animation Company (you know, Sailor Moon, Dragonball, Captain Harlock, Mazinger Z, etc) and Rankin/Bass(you know, the Hobbit, those stop-motion Christmas specials, etc). If you didn't catch the show on ABC in 1967, you might have seen it in syndication on your local UHF station in the afternoons, as I did, along with episodes of Mighty Heroes and Journey To The Center Of The Earth.

At the time of the discs' release I reviewed them for (the now defunct) Anime Jump. This review is now back online here at Let's Anime. What I DIDN'T have at the time was the King Kong board game. Yes, a Milton Bradley board game based on the 1966 cartoon, thanks to a 60s cartoon licensing boom that I missed out on having not yet been born. I'd sighted the game once years before in an antique mall in Georgia and it was stupidly overpriced, so I didn't buy it. Well, yesterday I saw it again and it was NOT stupidly overpriced, so buy it I did.

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The board art features characters from the show - Professor Bond, his children Bobby and Susan, steamer skipper Captain Englehorn, and of course King Kong and that dinosaur he's always fighting. Not pictured is the series' nemesis, the evil Doctor Who. I love that jazzy King Kong logo that never seems to be in the same exact typeface twice. One might surmise it was created by someone for whom English was not their first language, but I'm guessing. But what about the game itself?

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Well, you roll a die and move your Milton Bradley plastic marker around the board, avoiding dangers. Not exactly setting new standards in game play, no.

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Still, the board has some great jazzy 60s graphics of ships and islands and birds and the Various Moods Of King Kong, which can't help but captivate the monster-infatuated youngsters of the 60s. Anyway, the important thing is that I have the game now, and one more example of obsessive-compulsive behavior can be safely put behind me. A double victory!