Sunday, February 18, 2018

Unsafe At Any Frame Rate

Speeding full throttle straight towards the bottom of the barrel, Gattiger was one of Japan's clunkier cartoons, yet achieved inexplicable European success and even burned rubber across a few American UHF stations, confusing viewers for years via the miracle of home video tape. Cho Supercar Gattiger - yes, that's "Super Supercar Gattiger," for that extra bit of super - is a firey car wreck of a show, part of a mid-1970s auto-racing anime fad that crashed and burned almost instantly, leaving shows like Super Grand Prix, Rugen Kaiser, and Tobidase! Machine Flying Dragon in the impound lot. 

Gattiger hits the sweet spot where low-rent robot faddism and combination super-car absurdity combine, leaving a primary colored junkpile of nonsense built of parts rejected from five or ten better shows and super-glued together seemingly at random. A barely watchable parade of sawblade-equipped bugmobiles and machine-gun firing crab-cars bumping around endless, shoddily painted backgrounds, we yawn as legions of stupidly costumed off-brand Galactor thugs man their dork-vettes to be destroyed in masse by our super super car hero Gattiger, which, when combined into its super super-car configuration, looks like that stupid neighbor kid took five of your Hot Wheels and stuck them together with globs of Play-Doh. Usually combination mecha tries for some sort of combination effect that results in something new and exciting, but Gattiger is satisfied to turn five cars into one heavier, slower, less efficient and more cumbersome car. 

A cooperative endeavour of the Eiwa and Nippon Keizai advertising agencies, Cho Supercar Gattiger aired on Tokyo 12 (now TV Tokyo) from October 1977 until March '78. Created by Hitoshi Chiaki, Gattiger's animation was produced by Wako Productions – not the Osaka based Wako that manages comedians and singers, but Wako Pro, founded in 1965 in Nerima, Tokyo. Wako did a little subcontracting out to Tatsunoko and Sunrise but also carved out its own niche, animating the odd cut-paper version of Kazuo Umezu's Cat Eyed Boy, the Euro-insect champ Maya The Bee, one of the many Moomin anime shows, the South American adventure series Pepero The Andes Boy, super-cheap super robot Mechander Robo, Moribi Murano's charming dog comedy Bark! Bun Bun, and Dutch-German-Japanese ducksploitation extravaganza Alfred J. Kwak. Wako Pro is now called "Teleimage" and their modern business is managing old properties, not creating new ones. 

Wako Pro galaxy of super stars

Gattiger's mechanical design was by Design Office Mechaman, who'd also work on masterpieces like Voltes V and turkeys like Ginguiser. The Gattiger manga, because of course there was a manga tie-in, was by Eiji Imamichi and appeared in Terebi-kun. Imamachi drew lots of licensed character comics including the 80s Tetsujin 28, Ultra Seven, Ironking, Transformers, the Red Hawk Yamato (no, not the space battleship, the OTHER space battleship) and the Tsubaraya CB-craze curiosity Emergency Directive 10-4 · 10-10. 

demon motors needs a bailout

Super Supercar Gattiger's plot is confused, gas-huffing nonsense about a Demon Car Company which is run by the slightly more deranged, insanely mustached Henry Ford type Black Demon. Not content with being a filthy-rich zillionaire, he leverages his auto-making expertise into, what else, a bid for world conquest. To do this he needs the top secret super powerful solar powered combo-super-car invented by top science man Dr. Tabuchi. Well, wouldn't you know it, Demon winds up killing Dr. Tabuchi, leading Tabuchi's son Joe to swear eternal vengeance by means of the selfsame solar powered super-combo-5-in-1 Gattiger. Helpfully titled "Center Machine", "Left Machine", "Right Machine", and so forth, this rolling Pick-A-Part lot is driven by the Tiger Team crew of Sachiyo (girl), Kotomi (girl's kid brother), Ken (the big guy), and Hayami (quiet guy), who subsequently pop their five individual clutches and tell the world to eat their five individual dusts. 

our super super car heroes

As the worldwide auto-race battle heats up we learn Black Demon's second in command, Queen Demon, is actually Joe Tabuchi's mother and that Black Demon Mustache himself is Queen Demon's father, which makes him Joe's grandfather, and which also means every once in awhile Queen Demon puts on a Racer X mask and races incognito to help Joe Tabuchi, because that's what mothers do. In a series of nonsensical auto races through rugged, desolate, easily drawn territory, the Gattiger team races and wins against the Black Demon Auto Racing Team, with the fate of the world, or at least several lucrative endorsement contracts, in the balance. 

And no, kids, let's not confuse Super Supercar Gattiger with the hero of Toei's 1975 short film Uchuu Enban Daisensou, or "Great Outer Space Flying Disc War", the proto-Grandizer film starring an outer space refugee who pilots a super robot known as Gattaiger. Because that would be silly. Sure, Uchuu Enban Daisensou is dopey robot nonsense, but at least it features a robot panther, a big-haired outer space Farrah Fawcett, and a mercifully short 20 minute run time. 

know your gattigers
Queen Demon and Eric share the same hairstylist

Our combo-super-car-super-Gattiger super story races to a furious climax as Black Demon general Eric murders his rival Queen Demon with radioactivity. Joe and the Tiger Team face off against Eric in a super car showdown that Eric loses, bringing justice to the galaxy of super-car auto racing. Stricken with the loss of both Eric and Queen Demon, Black Demon himself pilots the massive super attack... just kidding. Black Demon blows himself and his entire Demon Auto Company to smithereens. The end, drain the fluids, put the wheels up on blocks, throw a tarp over it, we're done. 

The show has a flat mid 70s look; you could easily be watching any number of boring Nippon Animation robot disasters (Blocker Gundan 4 Machine Blaster, Ginguiser) or clunky pre-Takahata Zuizo Eizo kidvid starring bears or woodchucks or raccoons or bluejays wearing hats and little ties. The animation is passable at best and that's a generous assessment. Lots of lugubrious male-vocalist songs exhort us to "hear our courage groan" and "get rid of the pain by stepping on the gas," while the audience looks at its watch and waits impatiently for another fuel shortage. 

So why are we even talking about this show? Sure,the show was a hit in Italy, a nation known for its enthusiastic disregard for auto safety, but why did San Francisco's Fuji-TV see fit to translate and subtitle Gattiger and broadcast it to an America that was clearly not ready? Why did the newly-minted Japanimation fans of that era roll tape on what must have, even back then, been seen as a fairly dopey show? How did it wind up tacked onto the end of a VHS of 1990's "Devilman : Evil Bird Sirene"? 

blatant false advertising for the Gattiger toy
To be perfectly frank, Gattiger exists in America for the same reason it existed in Japan – to sell toys. Takatoku produced a few versions of Gattiger rolling stock that must have seemed like a good bet for American retailers, as Fuji-TV's Gattiger broadcast includes a tremendously misleading ad for Gattiger toys and the address you can write down and hector your parents into driving you to. I found my Gattiger Center Machine at a comic shop in Massachusetts, which only goes to show you never know where these anime things are going to pop up next.  

still has that new super car smell

Sure, totally lame anime like Gattiger is always good for a chuckle, and the show is useful in keeping the anime conversation from getting too pretentious. Beyond that, in spite of its many design flaws, we can point to Super Super Car Gattiger as proof of the raw power of Japanese animation, that even the speed bumps and potholes of thin, derivative premises can't slow anime down.

-Dave Merrill

just one last look at that mustache

Sunday, January 28, 2018

looks like Lyrica

Sure, part of why my generation's nerds still obsess over classic Showa era (1926-1989) manga/anime is, of course, wanting to see the original versions of the shows we grew up watching, your Space Battleship Yamatos and your Gatchamans and your Macrosses. But what any reasonably diligent researcher discovers is that for every anime series exported to America, five or ten didn't make the trip. For every manga that we see in our local Barnes & Noble or Chapters, there are five hundred thousand million zillion that will never be localized. Because let's face it, there aren't enough trees in the world. 

Nostalgia notwithstanding, what keeps guys like me keeping on keeping on ranting about this stuff is that every time you turn around there's something new popping up to say "hey, look at me, you didn't even know I existed, here I am!" And that's what I'm ranting about today, Sanrio's Lyrica manga magazine. Yeah, you know, Sanrio, the Hello Kitty people. Sanrio, whose austere yet friendly graphics and cast of round-headed, simplistic characters pressed every button in every little girl brain from Albany to Buenos Aires, from Valdosta to Vladivostok. Although Sanrio head Shintaro Tsujii's first character Strawberry would debut in 1962, Sanrio mainstay Hello Kitty would arrive in 1974 to become the trademark of a company that already owned gift shops, restaurants, film production companies, and a US distribution headquarters. 

September 1976 is what we're talking about here, the next stage of Sanrio's world domination strategy, Lyrica's first issue. Best known today as the debut of Osamu Tezuka's Unico, Sanrio's Lyrica strategy wasn't just to crank out a first class manga mag full of Twinkle Little Stars candy ads and comics that would appeal to their core audience of girls 6-12, but to use that magazine as either a stepping stone towards, or a brick hurled through, the metaphorical window of the American comic book market. Hence Lyrica's extensive use of color printing and its Western-style left hand binding, which may be just as confusing to us as it no doubt was to Japanese audiences. 
art: Yuko Namura
"Time Jump" by Mami Komori

Wait, what? Flipped manga? Flipped manga published by the Japanese? In the 1970s? Yes sir, all part of Sanrio's attempt to slide into the American comics scene. Don't take my word for it, let Fred Patten tell you what happened. He was there. Long story short; Sanrio was determined to publish comics in America, in spite of the punch-drunk state of the American comic book industry at the time, and in spite of the total lack of a distribution deal or really anywhere to sell a fat, phone-book sized magazine that didn't fit on the comics rack at the drugstore and looked weird on the magazine rack next to Jack & Jill and Boy's Life. 

product placement

Me? I got wise to this whole enterprise forty years after the fact, when a stack of Lyricas were rescued from a middle Georgia estate sale by the quick work of the proprietor of the Athens GA comic shop Bizarro Wuxtry. Over the past holiday season these Lyricas were divvied up between myself and actual comic book professionals, proving once again if you're ever anywhere near Athens, Bizarro Wuxtry is worth a stop, that's Bizarro Wuxtry, 225 College Ave, Athens GA. 

art: Mari Hizuki

Anyway, above and beyond Sanrio's territorial ambitions, Lyrica is an absolute shoujo manga gold mine. Top artists like Keiko "Toward The Terra" Takemiya, Hideko "Honey Honey" Mizuno, Ryoko Yamagishi, Minori Kimura, Mamio Komori, Izumi Yoko, Akemi "Silver Lions" Matsunae, Terumi "Pooky My Love" Otani, Seika "Posy Pile's Wonderful Day" Nakayama and a host of others brought their "A" game to this magazine, while Osamu Tezuka was in there keeping up with the younger generation and Shotaro Ishinomori's "Fantasy World Jun" expanded consciousnesses for a few issues. 

Shotaro Ishinomori's "Fantasy World Jun"

In Lyrica, science fiction mingled with romantic comedy, adaptations of Little Women followed otherworldly fantasy and heart-rending melodrama rubbed girly shoulders with do-it-yourself fashion tips and cozy wintertime recipes, all peppered throughout with ads for various Sanrio character goods ready for this week's allowance. 

Hideko Mizuno's "Legend"

Sure, Lyrica exemplfies that peak 70s shoujo style, a stylish assemblage of dinner-plate girl eyes, mounds of tousled Pre-Raphaelite girl hair, and long elephant-flared girl limbs sending billowing clouds of flower petals to drift lazily through the no doubt beautifully scented air. Lyrica is also a bittersweet reminder of what could have been, a messenger from that alternate universe where 70s America got fat chunks of Japanese girl comics alongside their Japanese boy robot cartoons and their gender-neutral Japanese autos and Japanese electronics. Imagine what the success of Lyrica would have meant! Not only would Japanese manga have had an American beachhead a good ten years ahead of schedule, but the sad retreat of American comics away from female readers would have been reversed long before Sailor Moon was even born, even. 

"Pooky My Love" by Terumi Otani

Noriko Kasuya

It's a lovely thought, but the harsh truth is that importing Japanese manga may not have even been part of the Sanrio masterplan. Lyrica's American branch secured stacks of work from a score of American comics veterans for their aborted launch, and as the thing never, you know, actually happened, what would have been the final editorial mix is left to speculation. 

furry comics were invented in Ancient Greece! art by Don Morgan

Only one piece of Sanrio's proposed Western Lyrica ever saw print; Don Morgan's elegant fantasy Metamorphoses, based on Ovid's epic narrative poem from ancient Greece. Metamorphoses was to be Shintaro Tsujii's own version of Fantasia, a highbrow showcase of awe-inspiring animation and stirring music. Unfortunately, the finished product was none of those things. Metamorphoses would premiere in a disastrous LA test screening and be recut and re-scored for a home video release as Winds Of Change, part of Sanrio's more successful foray into the then booming US home video market. 

Secrets Behind The Comics 

yet another Japanese iteration of "Little Women"

None of the other commissioned American Lyrica work has surfaced in the subsequent decades, tantalizing researchers such as myself, fascinated at the prospect of an American girls comic. At the time, romance comics were being cancelled left and right, the mystery books were mysteriously dying, and only Harvey Comics, with their parade of simplistic, obsessive-compulsive Richie Riches and Little Dots, was doing anything that approached Sanrio's cutesy minimalism. I believe - and history has proven me right on this one - I believe that when American comics readers are given Japanese manga delivered in an accurate and faithful presentation, they'll read the holy heck out of it. 

fashion fads for fall femmes
I forgot to wish you all a nice day. Now buy a lamp

Nevermind the American ambitions, Lyrica only lasted a few years in Japan. The stress of monthly color-manga deadlines saw fewer color and more text pieces. Eventually Lyrica would vanish in March of 1979, one more manga dream extinguished, one less place for Sanrio to advertise Hello Kitty lampshades and Patty & Jimmy chocolates. 

But what if Lyrica had prospered in the West? Would we have spent the 80s and 90s surrounded by the anime and manga Europe and Asia enjoyed? Would decades of fan proselytizing, anime club meetups and comic-con video room screenings all have been rendered superfluous by the success of one magazine? Probably not. Let's face it; for all Sanrio's multimedia efforts, the end result was mere memories of magic unicorns and nihilistic rams rammed into the impressionable brains of America's children. Children who grew up surrounded by Hello Kitty and Tuxedo Sam and Kerokerokeroppi and My Melody, who were sometimes mildly obsessed with the weird cartoons their babysitters rented, children who grew to adulthood yet never knew how close they got to a Hello Kitty-powered shoujo manga magazine on their very own newsstands.

-Dave Merrill

Keiko Takemiya says 'the end'