Monday, January 21, 2013

1969: Small Steps, Giant Leaps

Former con chair for Anime Weekend Atlanta and occasional cartoonist Dave Merrill writes about classic Japanese animation at Let's Anime, highlights stupid comics at Mister Kitty, and produces “Anime Hell” events in his home town of Atlanta and his adopted city of Toronto. His work has appeared in the anthologies DRUNK TANK and JUKU, as well as the annual publication for the FLUKE minicomics festival. Follow him on Twitter at @terebifunhouse.

As Iggy would say, "Well, it’s 1969, okay."

Nixon lurches through his first heady year in the White House. The gay community finds its street-fighting heart at the Stonewall riots. Youth writhes in the mud to Sha Na Na at Woodstock while the Rolling Stones finish their set at Altamont with "Sympathy For The Devil" and a body count of four. In Vietnam, the NVA tries for a second Tet offensive, Hill 937 gets renamed "Hamburger Hill", and the Australians pummel a combined NVA/VC force in Binh Ba. A more peaceful impulse of humanity sends Neil Armstrong to salute America (and the enigmatic "Mr. Gorsky") from Tranquility Base on the surface of the Moon. Ominously, Action For Children’s Television consolidates its power as it seeks to remove everything that makes children’s television interesting, fun and violent.

In Japan, radical students disrupt Tokyo University with protest against America's growing Asian military presence. Japan's fourth attempt at an orbital satellite fails with the third stage of L-4S-4 (5th time's the charm; 1970's launch of OHSUMI is a success), and Japanese animation—soon to become one of the nation’s primary cultural exports—continues to gain influence and significance. Did they suspect that the next decade would see European TVs filled nothing but Grandizer and Captain Harlock, and that their super robot diecast toys would excite children around the world?

But wait. Let’s deal with 1969 first.

The Magical

The TV anime year dawned with a solid lineup of holdouts from the ‘68 season: Tezuka's Vampire lurched its live/anime hybrid monster story through March, and baseball legend Kyojin no Hoshi ("Star Of The Giants") would steal bases straight through until 1971. The first of many anime iterations of Shigeru Mizuki's GeGeGe no Kitarô ended in March, as would Yôkai Ningen Bemu and the kid-monster comedy Kaibutsu-kun. Shôtarô Ishinomori's feudal film noir Sabu to Ichi would hone Rin Taro's directorial skills until September. Ishinomori’s influence was also seen steaming up the airwaves in Toei’s live-action “babe-u-satsu” TV series 009/1.

On television, the Anime New Year started with NHK’s 20 minute Space Journey: Wonder-kun's First Dream. Based on the Tezuka story and animated by his Mushi Productions, this anime/live-action color short stars Taro, who is shown the wonders of outer space by the mysterious Mr. Wonder. This obscure bit of history is, judging from the Winky-Dink look of Mr. Wonder, a throwback to the UPA-inspired minimalism of the early 60s, and not at all indicative of what’s to come.

What’s to come is going to look a lot more like Himitsu no Akko-chan. Atsuko “Akko-chan” Kagami has a secret. Her pocket mirror transforms her into anything she wants! Naturally this power must always be used for mischievous fun involving her family, teachers, and classmates. Based on the 1962 manga by Fujio Akatsuka, Akko-chan was the first in a long line of magical girl characters whose transformative abilities would allow them, and viewers, to vicariously experience adult roles and responsibilities. Akko-chan’s 94 episodes, airing until October of 1970, would find fans around the world and would inspire sequels in 1988 and 1998, as well as a 2012 live-action film.

1969 was a good TV year for Akatsuka: his Môretsu Atarô ("Furious Atarô") also started this year and would last almost as long as Akko-chan. Atarô and his hillbilly friend Dekoppachi find themselves running a grocery store and getting hassled by the local toughs. Luckily they’re helped by the ghost of Atarô’s father and the never-say-die fighting spirit of one of Akatsuka’s greatest creations: Nyarome, a bug-eyed, chubby-cheeked talking cat.

The Adventurous

The international future of Japanese animation swam onward with Tele-Cartoons Japan’s Kaitei Shônen Mariin ("Undersea Boy Marine"), an expanded version of the 3-episode black and white 1965 experiment Dolphin Prince and the abortive, color-update 13-episode series from ’66 titled Ganbare! Mariin Kiddo ("Hang on! Marine Kid"). Not until Seven Arts in America expressed interest in the show did it appear in a fully-realized 78 episode series known here as “Marine Boy”. Its Japanese TV premiere actually post-dated American broadcasts, a rare turn of events. Marine Boy, the spunky kid with the super diving suit, the jet boots, and the Oxy-Gum which allows him to breathe underwater, would thrill children around the world.

(Safety Note for Children: Scrawling “Oxy Gum” on a piece of Wrigley’s does NOT turn it into a substitute for breathing.)

Speaking of unsafe for children, Kurenai Sanshiro ("Scarlet Sanshiro") is jam-packed with everything good parents dislike about cartoons; martial arts, revenge, and unsafe motorcycle use in the pursuit of martial arts revenge. Fresh from their Mahha GoGoGo triumph, Tatsunoko’s fearsome Yoshida clan of Ippei “Toyoharu Yoshida” Kuri and Tatsuo Yoshida would give us this story of raw martial-arts vengeance set to a haunting Mitsuko Horie soundtrack. Sanshiro’s judo-master father is murdered—the only clue being a glass eye—and Sanshiro lets nothing stand in the way of finding the killer and administering judo justice to the deserving. Popular in Brazil, Italy, Spain, and France, watching Sanshiro is like uncovering the evolutionary missing link between Mahha GoGoGo and Gatchaman, which I suppose it is.

The traditional martial arts of Japan play a significant role in our next significant series: Ninpû Kamui Gaiden. On the heels of last season’s adaptation of Sanpei Shirato’s Sasuke, Tele-Cartoons Japan returned to the genre with Shirato’s Kamui, the story of a ninja rebelling against his class and his clan. TCJ’s gutsy, gekiga-inspired animation takes its cue from Shirato’s manga, with broad ink strokes, unusual camera techniques, and a liberal use of violence and mayhem making the series a real standout in 1969’s airwaves. An English-dubbed videocassette of a Kamui episode would appear in America in the mid-1980s under the title Search Of The Ninja, and a live-action Kamui film premiered in 2009.

Mushi Productions also spent some time in feudal Japan with their version of Tezuka’s mystical martial arts drama Dororo. Directed by future anime stars like Osamu Dezaki and Yoshiyuki Tomino, Dororo follows the story of Hyakkimaru, the hapless infant whose body parts were promised to 48 demons in exchange for his father’s political success. Given artificial parts by a kind-hearted doctor, Hyakkimaru tracks down the various hideous demons and reclaims his humanity in a story that plays like Pinocchio as a monster-movie spaghetti-western featuring Richard Nixon. As a black and white series Dororo traded its future in a color TV world for a grim, film-noir authenticity little seen in Tezuka’s anime works. The live-action Dororo film would beat the Kamui movie by two years. Take that, Shirato!

The Recreational

October saw the debut of one of 1969’s enduring anime pop-culture classics, Tiger Mask. Naoto Date drives a gigantic muscle car through the opening credits, slips on his form-fitting Tiger Mask, hops into the ring, and delivers raw, sweaty, bloody, muscular beat-downs on any heel that dares to challenge him. Once a villainous wrestler under the control of the evil Tiger’s Cave gang, Tiger Mask broke with the organization and now wrestles on behalf of, rather than against, the poor orphans. Author Ikki Kajiwara also wrote seminal boxing manga Ashita no Joe (see 1970’s anime season) and you know artist Naoki Tsuji from Shônen King’s WWII Zero Fighter manga Zero Sen Hayato. Toei’s ’69 anime series surges with a sketchy, sinewy athleticism; Tiger Mask echoes the craft-tint, conte-crayon look of American newspaper sports cartoons even as big-eyed Japanese orphans watch Tiger Mask demolish opponents in the ring. Scores of real human wrestlers would assume the Tiger Mask throughout the years, proving that life can occasionally imitate animated art.

Sports also took center stage with TMS’s production of Attack No. 1. Chikaku Urano’s Margaret-serialized volleyball manga is the story of Kozue Ayuhara, a new transfer student at rural Fujimi High. Ayuhara dreams of playing on the Japanese national volleyball team and will fight her way to that goal, through opposing teams, rival teammates, cruel coaches, personal tragedy, and her own dinner-plate-sized eyeballs. The anime series lasted through 1971 and would spawn live-action and animated sequels and remakes, the most recent being in 2005. While the limitations of TV anime failed to capture the manga’s delicacy, the show succeeds with the raw power of Ayuhara’s blood, sweat, and tears as the show’s dramatic theme song reminds us “Of course I cry; after all, I’m a woman.” Millions of viewers agreed as Attack No. 1 scored success in the ratings, yielded four compilation films, and inspired countless future shôjo-stories. Next for TMS would be ‘72’s Aim for the Ace.

The Comical

Perhaps less melodramatic, but no less popular, Tove Jansson’s trollfest Moomin received its first Japanese anime outing in 1969, in between a German puppet version and a Finnish suit-actor edition. The Moomin trolls—squat, hippopotamus-looking creatures—inhabit an idyllic if slightly off-kilter fantasy world. The first half of the series was produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha, and the liberties TMS took with the character designs and story elements (Hayao Miyazaki couldn’t resist putting some tanks in there) were far enough removed from Jansson’s vision that TMS’s contract was canceled and the remaining half of the series was produced by Mushi Productions. It too failed to meet Jansson’s expectations and she withdrew the license. A later Mushi Moomin series in 1972 was more to Jansson’s liking, and a 1990 anime series became very popular indeed.

You might only know him from the recent “Tatsunoko Vs Capcom” video game, but the truth of the matter is that genie Hakushon Daimaô and his daughter Akubi live where all genies live, in a bottle. One day they wind up in the home of Kan-chan, your typical Japanese boy, who proceeds to unleash Hakushon by the power of sneezing. Will crazy genie-related hijinx ensue? You bet! A worldwide hit for Tatsunoko, this 52-episode series made it into English on Canadian cable channel YTV under the title “Bob in A Bottle.”

The 1969 anime season wasn’t all worldwide hits and massively influential crowd-pleasers, though. Sobakasu Pucchi ("Freckled Pucchi") was about a boy named Pucchi—not a dog, as has previously been reported in English-language media—who, together with a duck and some sort of dinosaur, romped through 160 five-minute episodes in a time slot that once belonged to the classic lame anime “Johnny Cypher In Dimension Zero”. Just before premiering Doraemon, creators Fujio-Fujiko gave us Umeboshi Denka, which featured, in lieu of a robot cat, a zany royal family of space aliens wreaking comedic havoc on hapless Earthicans. Roppô Yabure-kun, or “Six Broken Laws”, wrung 110 5-minute shorts from the misadventures of an earnest young salaryman caught in a comedic web of deceit involving obscure or surprising legal facts.

Meanwhile, Otoko Ippiki Gaki Taishô ("The Ideal Man Boy's Gang Leader"), based on Hiroshi Motomiya’s Shônen Jump serial, made the jump to TV anime, courtesy NTV and TV Tokyo Video. Directed by future Gundam star Yoshiyuki Tomino, Otoko Ippiki is the story of Mankichi Togawa, the fightingest gang fighter in a Japan filled with fighting gang fighters. Largely forgotten today, it had a powerful influence on creators like Masami (Saint Seiya) Kurumada. Less influential was Pinch & Punch, a gag comedy starring Pinch and Punch, "The Worst Twins In The World". It ran for 156 5-minute episodes.

The Traditional

But you know, I’m stalling. There is only one giant of 1969’s TV anime, and its name is Sazae-san. Sazae-san stands not only as a Japanese icon of idealized family life bringing together three and four and maybe five generations, but also as testament to the tunnel-visioned blindness of so-called “anime fans” who have steadfastly ignored this series for decades. There likely isn’t a Japanese person alive who doesn’t know Sazae-san as a cheerful yet absent-minded housewife guiding her herd of children, husband, and parents through good times and bad.

Eiken’s Sazae-san anime has been on the air since 1969, week in and week out, delivering the goods for forty-three, count ‘em, FORTY THREE years. That’s right—the longest-running TV cartoon in the world, twenty years up on The Simpsons and a damn sight longer lasting than Dragonball or any iteration of Gundam. Machiko Hasegawa’s original Sazae-san newspaper strip started in 1946 and ran for nearly 30 years, making Hasegawa one of Japan’s first female star mangaka and enabling her to, among other things, build an art museum featuring works by Picasso and Chagall.

Of course, the lack of psychic powers, blasts of martial arts energy, panty-flashing fetish maids, space battleships or ninjas means Sazae-san might as well not exist as far as American “anime fandom” is concerned, but it's not that Sazae-san cares. She knows a housewife with a sunny disposition (and a Toshiba sponsorship) beats them all.

(Next time: We leave the experimental 1960s and enter the industrial 1970s.)


  1. Incidentally, here's the 60's opening for Himitsu no Akko-chan..

  2. Sorry to tell you, but the "Mr. Gorsky" story is a myth.

  3. Even after 45 years, Sazae-san is STILL the highest rated anime on Japanese television, AND is one of Japan's most watched programs, in general. The December 21, 2014 episode brought in a 15.4 household rating, 3.6 points ahead of the second place finisher (Chibi Maruko-chan, its lead-in on Sundays, at 11.8).