Thursday, February 7, 2013

1975: Super Robot Invasion

Mike Toole (@michaeltoole) saw episode 3 of Battle of the Planets, “The Space Mummy,” on TV in the autumn of 1980. He was 4 years old. He didn’t know it was from Japan, but he did know he dug the hell out of it! More than 30 years later, he’s still digging the hell out of Japanese animation. He’s written for Animerica, Otaku USA, and Sci-Fi Magazine, and currently writes The Mike Toole Show, a biweekly column for Anime News Network. (Full disclosure: Mike's one of my closest anime chums. Friendship is magic, guys. - Ed.)

I don’t remember 1975 too well, because I hadn’t shown up yet. I did show up in March of ‘76, so I guess I existed for the last few months of ‘75, at least nominally. There’s something fascinating about studying events from before you were born, isn’t there? In some ways, looking at the pop culture landscape makes it all seem closer and more real, so let’s check out Japan’s animated pop culture landscape of that fiftieth year of the Showa period.

1975 would start off right with a wonderful, painterly, heartbreaking TV adaptation of Ouida’s novel Nello Dies at the End, better known to us folks as The Dog of Flanders. What we’ve got here isn’t just a beloved adaptation of a famous story—it’s the first of Zuiyo Eizo’s numerous animated works (we know ‘em as World Masterpiece Theatre) to feature the contributions of animator Yasuji Mori. Mori-sensei’s one of those guys whose obscurity among younger fans is a little frustrating—I’d describe him as Miyazaki before Miyazaki, although he didn’t boast the Ghibli co-founder’s scriptwriting talents.

What he did do was build, from the ground up, the animation aesthetic of Toei Doga itself, starting right with their first feature film, Hakuja-den, for which he provided storyboarding and key animation duties. 1975 started with one of Mori’s best and most well-remembered works, and after the studio changed its name to the somewhat more memorable Nippon Animation later in the year, Mori would work on another adaptation of a famous novel, Prairie Girl Laura, which we westerns would more immediately recognize under the story’s original title, Little House on the Prairie.

1975 wasn’t really the year of animated classics of children’s literature, though. Yasuji Mori did great stuff in that field, but if I had to point to a single creator whose work dominated the mindshare of Japanese cartoon dorks in 1975, I could really only point to Go Nagai and his seemingly limitless army of super robots. The super robot occupation started in March with theatrical screenings of Great Mazinger vs Getter Robo, a short feature film that began with the titular titans squaring off and ended with them teaming up to face an even greater threat. This, of course, wasn’t merely a chance to set little kids’ minds afire with the spectacle of two awesome robots in the same cartoon-- it was a prelude to the TV debut of Getter Robo G in May.

Much like Great Mazinger before it, Getter Robo G was a sequel to an earlier series. The original Getter Robo, Ken Ishikawa and Go Nagai’s heady, violently primal saga of super-science and mysterious alien energy sources being employed to wage war against a usurping dinosaur army, had been a hit; not only was the titular robot the first-ever super robot that used a full-on transformation sequence, combining three separate vehicles to realize its robotic form (“Getter” is a play on the term gattai or “combine,” geddit? Or should I say, “gettit”?), the series climaxed in grandly dramatic fashion, with portly comic relief character Musashi self-destructing the original Getter Robo and heroically sacrificing himself to win the final battle,in a scene that would be aped, parodied, and paid homage to relentlessly in decades to come. However, Toei and their nefarious allies at the toy companies weren’t content to rest on their laurels, so a completely new set of Getter Robots with awesome new attacks and transformations, plus a new third pilot, were cooked up. This time, the bad guys were even weirder and scarier, a race of demons led by the fearsome Great Burai and his flunky, Marshal Hidler, who, you know, just happened to look exactly like Adolf Hitler. Yes, folks, they actually made a silly robot cartoon where the bad guy was Hitler. 7pm on Thursday nights, kids!

While Getter Robo G was great fun, another interesting story was developing behind the scenes up the road at Sunrise. Star director Yoshiyuki Tomino was lending his considerable talent to not one but two projects: the shôjo-riffic Star of the Seine, a fanciful tale of a masked heroine in Revolution-era France, and the super robot-tastic Brave Reideen. Yeah, when he got tired of the girls’ adventure cartoon, Tomino would literally stroll down the hall to draw storyboards chronicling the resurrection of an ancient, semi-sentient magical robot and its pal/pilot, Akira. These two shows both debuted in April and aired concurrently! In fairness, Tomino wasn’t directing Star of the Seine alone—Masaaki Osumi ran the show when he was doing Reideen stuff. Incredibly, Tomino wasn’t the only one pulling double-duty, either! Screenwriter and storyboard artist Sôji Yoshikawa was also turning in work on both shows. Midway through both productions, Tomino would shift his full directorial weight to Star of the Seine and leave Reideen in the hands of a fiery young animator named Tadao Nagahama—hopefully you’ll be reading more about him in subsequent entries.

Then, before you could say “IN July?!” in an incredulous Orson Welles voice, it was July of 1975, and Toei took up one of their great traditions of the day, the "Manga Matsuri", to unleash yet more super robot adventures on an unsuspecting Japanese public. Toei’s "Manga Matsuri" programs, which happened a couple of times per year between the '60s and the '80s, were typically a few shorts or repackaged TV episodes arranged around a longer feature. The summer ‘75 Manga Matsuri featured a dubbed, digest-length version of the British film Born Free, but it was bookended by traditional Japanese entertainment like Kamen Rider Stronger, Goranger, Great Mazinger vs. Getter Robo G (yes!), and something called Uchû Enban Dai-Sensô, "The Great War of the Flying Saucers".

Great War of the Flying Saucers had plenty going for it—it featured a story and new robot, the flying saucer-borne Gattaiger, from Go Nagai (kids got to read Nagai’s manga in TV Magazine before heading to theatres to check out the animated version), and was directed by battle-hardened Toei field general Yugo Serikawa, who’d directed Toei’s first TV cartoon, Ken the Wolf Boy. The short feature film told the story of Duke Freed, last scion of a dead planet, using a stolen prototype weapon, a neat hybrid of flying saucer and killer super robot, to defend earth from the nefarious Yaban empire. What sets this film apart, however, is that it was a test-drive—a prototype for a brand new TV anime series, UFO Robot Grendizer!

Maybe some of you guys remember Grendizer or know it by reputation. It never quite dug itself into the Japanese cartoon nerd psyche the way that its predecessors, Getter Robo and Mazinger Z, had; the latter two enjoy sequels and remakes to this day, but not poor ol' Grendizer. But Grendizer still had plenty to offer; directed by the great Tomoharu Katsumata, who’d superbly craft hits like Captain Future and Be Forever Yamato in later years, it gave us a cool hero who was simultaneously a prince, an alien, and a goddamn cowboy (hey, he worked on a ranch, OK?). Actually, one of the things I appreciate the most about the Grendizer TV anime is the way that its character designer, Shingo Araki, took one look at Go Nagai’s rude, strictly functional Duke Freed character artwork and tossed it out in favor of giving the show’s fiery, charismatic hero palpable visual appeal.

Looks a bit like Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High, doesn’t he? Yep, that steely gaze and saucy grin would launch a thousand dôjinshi; you can find cute “are they MORE than friends?!” fan art of Freed and similarly macho sidekick Koji Kabuto on pixiv to this day. That’s another piece of Grendizer’s mystique; it’s a sort of sequel to the Mazinger family, with original hero Koji returning as part of the main cast. It’s a bit disappointing at first, actually, seeing the guy who saved the world play second banana to Duke, but this Koji is a little more seasoned, having gone to America, presented a paper on space travel and aliens at NASA, and even developed his own spacecraft, the TFO (Terrestrial Flying Object). Yeah, Grendizer is so cool that I’ve been talking for two paragraphs and haven’t even gotten into the robot.

It’s really pretty simple; Grendizer is a flying saucer that launches out of a secret waterfall base, with neat wings that launch razor-tipped spinning disks and lasers and stuff. Good old greasy kids’ stuff, right? But when the heat is on and it’s time to unleash a can of whoopass on the invading Vegans (who happen to be guys from the Vega system and not extremely strict vegetarians), the Grendizer robot launches straight out of its UFO carrier (after an awesome conversion sequence during which Duke’s control chair slides down a chute, spins around for no discernible reason, and settles in Grendizer’s head) and pulls out even more special attacks, including a nifty rocket punch variant and a flying double-headed scythe. Stuff like this is the perfect thing when you’re a kid, and Grendizer ceaselessly ups the ante with scarier aliens, better weapons, and hugely dramatic deaths late in the series. Maybe it’s the only Go Nagai robot series that hasn’t yet gotten a remake or sequel, but its impact is still felt.

Amazingly, Grendizer wasn’t the last word in robot anime in 1975. It wasn’t even the last word in Toei robot anime in 1975, or Go Nagai robot anime in 1975. October also brought us Kotetsu Jeeg, in which boy hero Hiroshi is rebuilt as an android who can transform into the head of mighty robot Kotetsu Jeeg (the rest of the robot parts are launched out of a goddamn flying cannon by his girlfriend, Miwa), the better to fight against Queen Himika and the Yamatai Empire. Like the rest of these great robot cartoons, Jeeg’s big reason for existing was to sell toys, but the main Jeeg toy, a die-cast figure that snapped together with magnetic joints, was awesome enough to be repackaged and sold as the Micronaut Baron Karza around these parts. Like every goddamn super robot cartoon except Grendizer, Jeeg would get a modern re-imagining, Kotetsushin Jeeg, in 2007.

As we can see, ‘75 was a big year for Toei and their robots, and for the toy companies that sold these robots, like Popy and Takara. But it wasn’t all about Toei—Tatsunoko, who’d scored big in previous years with hits like Speed Racer and Gatchaman, were hard at work on their next hit. See, they had their own high-tech robot hero, a good guy who donned a cyborg suit and soared into battle standing astride an even bigger robot—the space knight, Tekkaman! Tekkaman got a quite decent remake in the '90s, but the '70s Tekkaman? Yeah, it flopped pretty hard; the whole thing actually got canceled. How would the restless, endlessly creative Yoshida brothers and their famous studio recover from this setback? With Time Bokan, that’s how. 

Time Bokan’s conceit isn’t that fancy; a pair of irascible kids discover that their mad-scientist mentor not only succeeded in creating a time machine, he was a little too successful in testing it, and the machine returned to the present without him. Obviously, there’s nothing for the kids to do but jump into the machine and take off after him, but they’re pursued in turn by a pretty but vain villainess and her two stupid sidekicks, setting the wacky bad guy template that would be used for generations in fare like Nadia and Pokemon. Time Bokan is neat and funny and unabashedly weird, but while it was really popular in its day, it’s mostly known for serving as the launch pad for Tatsunoko’s larger Time Bokan franchise—a franchise that would eventually be defined by Yattaman, which would come a bit farther down the road. Time Bokan’s still cool, though!


That’s most of the good stuff, right there. Of course, there’s even more good stuff—in 1975, Osamu Dezaki was doing a kids’ funny animal cartoon called Adventures of Gamba. Earlier in the year Kimio Yabuki would turn in two historical cartoons, The Young Tokugawa Ieyasu Adventures—a reflection of Japan’s seemingly endless fascination with the Warring States period—and Ikkyu-san, a long-running cartoon about the exploits of the famous Buddhist monk. A character designer and manga artist named Yoshikazu Yasuhiko worked on the above-mentioned Brave Reideen, but he’d return in the fall with his own project, a silly cartoon about a naughty prehistoric boy called Kum Kum.

In the end, that’s what 1975 was all about for anime—it was about robots, sure, but mostly it was about the medium’s greatest talents honing their craft. Nippon Animation was raising an army of animation craftsmen and women, led by Yasuji Mori. At Sunrise, Yoshiyuki Tomino led by example and raised up artists like Tadao Nagahama and Akio Sugino. Toei’s finely-tuned army of animators concealed gems like Yoshinori Kanada, and even the silly Time Bokan was helmed by emerging creative geniuses like Koichi Mashimo and Yoshitaka Amano. 1975 was full of great cartoons, really wonderful stuff, but in a lot of ways it was just a prelude.

Beyond animation, there was one really interesting innovation in 1975: Sony introduced their brand-new home video technology, Betamax, to the market. They really bet the farm on Betamax, man—it was gonna change everything! And home video did change everything—but not for a while.

(Next time: 1977! We have to skip a year, but the robot rampage doesn't end!)

1 comment:

  1. Awesome article. Gotta love that 70's animation. Especially when there's robots involved!

    I also happened across your Leijiverse article on ANN earlier today when I was looking for some helpful information on it. Informative and fun.

    You produce some great stuff, man. Keep it up!