As remarked before the 1960s were a time of firsts for television anime, and that's certainly no different when it comes to 1968. In January, GeGeGe no Kitarô popularized the yôkai anime genre, introducing the world to all of the unique supernatural monsters of Japan and paving the path for other pseudo-horror successes in the same year (Kaibutsu-kun, Yôkai Ningen Bemu). In March, Star of the Giants (Kyojin no Hoshi), the popular baseball manga from Ikki Kajiwara and Noboru Kawasaki, became the first sports anime to hit TV and presented four years of surreal baseball drama.
Since the advent of the Astro Boy series in 1963, 1968 was the first year to see no new adaptations from Osamu Tezuka's body of work. However, the preeminent anime of this year is undoubtedly the work of his one-time protege and one of the most influential manga creators of all time: Shôtarô Ishinomori, who got his big break in the 1950s working on the Astro Boy manga as Tezuka's assistant.
While Kazumasa Hirai's 8 Man precedes Ishinomori's work, it's no exaggeration to say that Ishinomori did more than anyone to embrace the concept of the cybernetic superhero and make it big; most notably, all generations of Tokusatsu fans everywhere owe him tremendous gratitude for his 1971 manga Kamen Rider and for the pioneering of the Super Sentai phenomenon with Himitsu Sentai Gorenger. As for anime, after making two hour-long films in 1966 and 1967, Toei Doga picked up Ishinomori's 1964 manga Cyborg 009 for a 26-episode animated series.
The first Cyborg 009 series ran only from April through September in 1968 (although two more would follow in 1979 and 2001). The comic, which lasted an impressively-long seventeen years until 1981, tells the story of nine people from across the world that are abducted by the nefarious global organization Black Ghost. The organization is the ultimate merchant of death, committed to developing ever more destructive weapons and playing all sides of the escalating arms race that it orchestrates and manipulates as it pleases. Black Ghost decides that weaponizing humans is the next frontier and irrevocably changes our unfortunate heroes forever, granting each of them unique abilities. Fortunately, a timely betrayal by the conscientious Dr. Isaac Gilmore allows the Cyborgs to turn against their would-be masters, win their freedom, and commit to fighting for peace in the world instead.
This science-fiction action adventure is most obviously unique and distinguished for introducing the first superhero team in anime, but it would be selling the uniqueness of Cyborg 009 criminally short to simply think of it as the forerunner to Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. As we know, the combination of man and machine had been done before, but I submit to you that Cyborg 009 didn't settle for mimicking 8 Man or Astro Boy on the subject. Both the robot and android might not have had a say in the matter, but at least, when they were created by men of science, it was with the intent of saving a person who had been lost.
Whereas the forward-looking Astro Boy took great interest in mankind's relationship with technology in a postwar world, in the 60s Cyborg 009 seemed to be acutely sensitive to the tensions of the Cold War. Villains of the TV series would include villains such as evil scientists up to no good or a warlord looking to misuse an inventor's creation. The opening pages of Ishinomori's manga recounted the end of World War II and the ensuing buildup of nuclear weapons and ICBM's, and in Black Ghost there was an organization that was basically pursuing world domination by accelerating weapon proliferation as quickly as possible. Recall that the creation of the Cyborg 009 manga and anime occurred right in between the "Cuban Missile Crisis" (1962) and the beginning of Détente in 1971.
The Cyborgs have bodies drastically altered by cybernetics, but they obviously have feelings, and their autonomy cannot be in question since rebellion is part of their very origin. As bleak as their back story is, the portrayal of their adventures is strikingly optimistic; for the Cyborgs their abilities are not a curse but something they can use to fight for a better tomorrow. Getting back to the deeper theme of man and machine—while it is light fare much of the time, the way the 1968 series explores the subject makes it an interesting point of comparison with its peers.
It is also not taken for granted that any part of their humanity has been sacrificed to technology—in one episode Dr. Gilmore chooses to describe them as humans who have gained superhuman powers by borrowing the strength of machines. On another occasion, Joe has to take on "Cyborg X", a man restored by a wicked scientist and conditioned to think of himself as a callous machine and no longer human. Despite this and the fact he can be penalized by his creator with severe shocks for thinking the "wrong" way, his kindheartedness still shows itself in subtle ways and he still carries a torch for his sweetheart. Alas, she pays the ultimate price trying to stop him from fighting Joe, prompting him to take out the evil scientist and die along with her.
All terribly tragic, but throughout the adventure, human thought and feeling trumps what is artificial just as what brought the tragic couple together mattered more than what estranged them. The body may change, but the humanity endures. As Dr. Gilmore eulogizes, in heaven there are no humans or cyborgs. Only souls.
(Next time: 1969! Man lands on the moon, and anime aims for the stars!)