Friday, March 1, 2013

1980, Part 1: Anime’s “Golden Age” Was Built on Content Otaku Overlook

A writer for Otaku USA Magazine and co-host of the Anime World Order podcast, Daryl Surat spent his formative years acquiring outlandish media and trivial information instead of learning the basic tenets of human interaction. Now that everything he knows and more can be instantly acquired online with no sacrifice required, the joke’s on him. Isolated from human contact, missing basic fundamental parts of his mind with no possibility of remedial rehabilitation, and being gradually unmade by entropy Daryl can be found screaming with his fingers on Twitter at @DarylSurat until his impending existential expiration.



They say that most people don’t like to read more than a few hundred words at a time on a screen, and certainly not several paragraphs without even pictures or videos to break things up, especially not in this era of mobile Internet access by way of smartphones and other handheld devices. The average Internet user will read an article’s headline, skim the body of a text to zero in on any keywords, look at the pictures, and then leave it at that even if they’re planning to comment. (Perhaps I should say “ESPECIALLY if they’re planning to comment.”) There are, after all, many other links to check.

If that describes you, go ahead and close the window now because it takes me forever to start talking about what I’m supposed to be talking about.

The very first time I ever used the Internet was around 1992-1994, and the very first thing I did was look up information about anime. It wasn’t until the late 2000s, long after everyone had left the party, that I made my first post to Usenet. So it is that despite all my overly wordy message board posts, articles, and the like…this is actually the first time I’ve ever “blogged” about anime (or, for that matter, used the word “blog” as a verb; eww, gross!) Most of my writing is intended for print, and even my web articles on the Otaku USA website aren’t crafted with considerations of “how to ensure this will be shared on the Internet” in mind.

When it comes to blog posting, confirmation bias rules the day. It’s no surprise that the initial flood of volunteers for this project were for the nostalgic, formative years for fans most likely to currently be writing anime blogs: the 1990s and 2000s. The more analytically-minded fans zeroed in on the years where classic series that are still remembered in 2013 first began. So it goes that if I didn’t take 1980, nobody else would’ve. I myself have no childhood memory or nostalgia for the year in question since well, it was the year I was born. Words like “manga” and “anime” weren’t commonly known to Japanese animation fans in the US at this time, such that the Japanese origins of many of these titles were deliberately obscured when it came to English-language export. In the annals of anime history, the year 1980 itself is not typically remembered as any sort of milestone marker, particularly among us English-speaking fans. “The 1980s” as an overall decade is, and in part that’s because we are of a certain bias.

In 2013, there are two types of anime: those distinctly made and targeted for young children/families and those explicitly created by and for hardcore fans. For ease of this discussion, if you’re reading this then you’re probably in that second group with me. There’s some crossover, sure, but if something’s purely for Japanese families or little kids we simply don’t give a crap. My knowledge of Sazae-san is just enough to know it as the answer to a trivia question, but I’ve certainly never SEEN it.

No doubt this is why holistically speaking, “the 1980s” are commonly referred to (by non-Japanese fans, at least) as “the golden age of sci-fi anime” if not just “anime” overall: a time when Japan’s economic prosperity combined with the advent of home video resulted in the creation of a wide variety of animation much of which would later be deemed “for otaku.” Anime would offer action, sci-fi, space opera, violence, idealized romance, cute girls, naked breasts, sex, or perhaps some combination of the above (“sci-fi violent sex involving idealized cute girls who violently fight as we see their naked breasts”) for which no other form of available media could compare.

But this is 1980. The Original Video Animation hasn’t been invented to give rise to all of that just yet. Now I could take the easy way out and tell you all about the action and science fiction shows that you, the sort of person liable to be reading this website in the first place, no doubt already know about, but you know how the Internet works. You can pull up the same lists from the same online encyclopedias and databases as I can. So here’s the deal: before I write about Ideon and Be Forever Yamato and all that jazz, let’s stretch ourselves a bit first. Let’s do a few extra copy-paste operations such that for once we can make mention of all those children’s cartoons and Japanese family-oriented anime that by and large go ignored by contemporary commercial and fan endeavors alike.

I’m splitting this up into two sections, such that in the second part we’ll talk of the sort of things liable to be re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the collector’s market. So do me a favor and wait until then to comment about how I “forgot” to mention how Space Warrior Baldios gave rise to the “Heika” meme on 2chan despite the fact that I TOTALLY JUST DID, at which point I’ll give you the Internet finger.

THE SHORT STUFF

January 1st of 1980 marked something of a new spin on the Otogi Manga Calendar formula. That’s a show which is known in America solely as a trivia answer / pedantic nitpick to bring up when someone says “Astro Boy was the first anime on Japanese TV” at a large anime convention. When this happens, there is a very real chance that someone will chime in with “well, what about Three Tales and Otogi Manga Calendar?!” then lean back with a smug smile on their face while the person speaking must then clarify, “Astro Boy was the first full-length TV anime” or…whatever. In any case, this new calendar series for 1980 was Kirin Tomorrow’s Calendar, in which a cute tabby cat and a pink mouse act out “this day in history” in a short, 5-minute animated segment. It’s fun and educational for the entire Japanese nuclear…uh, post-nuclear NUCLEAR family, which is why in the opening credits the cat’s dressed up in a bunch of fun historical getups LIKE JAPAN’S ALLY, ADOLF HITLER:


Why the “Kirin,” you may wonder? Is Kirin the name of the Hitler cat, coming soon to an “ironic” Etsy shop / Artist’s Alley table near you (PS: I want my 15% cut)? Nope. The show’s named that because it was brought to you by THAT Kirin: the beer brewery! They’d run the shorts and include ads for Kirin merchandise (with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse!), as well as Kirin Lemon and Kirin Orange soda…sold in bottles not unlike beer bottles! YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS. I can only guess why this cartoon was never exported…the per-episode running time was too short!

It hasn’t been until somewhat recently that we’ve started seeing English releases of anime series with episodes that run for only a few minutes. Certainly the 1980 release of Come On! Gonbe was off our radar. These short vignettes about a monkey descended from Journey to the West’s Son Goku causing mischief along with two boys were adapted from a Japanese daily comic strip that had been running since the 1950s! That wasn’t even the only bit of monkey business Japan was into circa 1980, as there was also Monchhichi Twins: a tie-in for the Monchhichi line of weird-looking toy monkey dolls. 130 short episodes showcasing the playful adventures of the brother and sister duo of Monchhichi-kun and Monchhichi-chan were made in 1980 alone! The characters were popular throughout Europe, South America, and South Africa, but when Mattel tried selling the toys here in the mid-80s, it didn’t work out so well.

I’ll go out on a limb and attribute this to the fact that rather than simply stitch together enough episodes of the anime to fill a half-hour block, Mattel saw fit to produce an American-made Monchhichis cartoon instead. It was made by Hanna-Barbera, or as I like to refer to them, “the makers of all those American cartoons that sucked so badly, it inspired me to seek out anime instead.” Like Troll dolls and slap bracelets, Monchhichis actually came back into fashion not too long ago; you could even go buy them at Target!

Taking the short episodes and sticking them together to fill up a block was the preferred course of action for 1980’s Manga Proverb Encyclopedia. I highly doubt this was released in any other countries, as it’s another one of those things like Sazae-san which was so thoroughly Japanese that it wouldn’t really appeal to anybody else in the world. It too is a lighthearted comedy centered around one big happy extended multi-generational cartoon family, but the basis of each episode is to teach people about a particular idiomatic Japanese proverb for which other languages probably wouldn’t have a situational equivalent anyway.

It wasn’t even the only one from 1980. Ojamanga Yamada-kun was adapted from the 4-koma manga by Hisachi Ishii that—let’s face it—I’ve never read. It’s another Japanese comedy centered on a multi-generational extended family that ran for over 100 episodes, but despite its comic strip roots these were full-length TV installments and the humor was a lot more (then) topical and biting by comparison. Still, it’s a little hard to conceal the origins of this for global export and it’s not like it ever got as raw as Crayon Shin-chan:


LITERARY ADAPTATIONS

Before “otaku” were the alpha and omega of the anime industry, Japanese animated adaptations of famous works of literature were a staple of the medium. Much of what I’m about to discuss was released and localized throughout Europe, South America, and the Middle East. Only a few ever made it to the United States, and most of what did come out here was dubbed into English at Intersound, the now-defunct California studio that was so prolific that a portion of my brain seems devoted to spotting their voice actors whenever they turn up. Many are still working to this day, so you too can follow my lead and mentally match voices to the parts people played on Robotech or whatever.

Intersound did jobs for various home video distributors, which is how at least a few of the 49 episodes of 1980’s World Masterpiece Theater incarnation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer came to see the light of day in the US. The antics of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher, and the gang in 1800s Missouri are pretty close to the original book, Here’s a picture of good ol’ Tom here, with what I can only assume is Mark Twain in dog form (disguised himself to hide from splinter remnants of Tenkai’s ninja…?):


The most trustworthy sites on the Internet (Youtube comments and Wikipedia) allege that Tom Sawyer aired on HBO alongside one of the MANY anime versions of Little Women…such as Toei’s TV movie version of Little Women, itself produced in 1980! I must confess, however, to not knowing for certain WHICH version of Little Women aired on HBO because I never read the book and the only thing I was checking out on HBO in the 80s were the movies with boobies and swearing in them. I’m pretty sure it was the 1980 movie version, but it’s hard to tell just from clips and screenshots since the character designs were reused and—okay look, if you REALLY want to know your Louisa May Alcott anime adaptations apart from one another better than I, “Dangerous” Dave Merrill has what you need over at Let’s Anime.

Another literary adaptation brought stateside by way of Intersound was the talking animals (and humanoid girls) version of Don Quixote de la Mancha made by Toei Animation. Putting aside how Don Quixote is now some sort of mustachioed talking dog, this one deviates from its source material a lot more than most of what I’ve discussed thus far since the opening credits show him off in outer space and there are all sorts of high-tech contemporary gadgetry in the world…by 1980 standards, anyway!


There were so many of these fly-by-night operations that you have to dedicate a large portion of your life to discovering if English dubs of this stuff exists. I myself only learned a few years ago courtesy of The Internet’s Mike Toole that an English version of the 1980 animated film Twelve Months existed. A coproduction with Russia, this fairy tale play by Russian author Samuil Marshak features character designs by none other than the “God of Anime and Manga” himself, Osamu Tezuka. No need to spend years tracking it down, for the whole thing’s been on Youtube for years now.

1980 also gave us an NHK adaptation of the Swedish children’s book The Wonderful Adventures of Nils that was originally written in the early 1900s. This tale of a boy that finds himself miniaturized as he travels all across Sweden on a flying goose may be completely unknown in America, but Nils is so famous in Sweden that they put him on their money! In addition to being broadcast all throughout Europe, Nils was the very first anime production made by Studio Pierrot, the animation studio that nowadays is probably best known for working on both Naruto and Bleach. And before he directed Dallos, before Urusei Yatsura, one of the directors of was a guy by the name of Mamoru Oshii! You’ll be hearing more of him in later years, I’m sure.


There’s actually one and only one thing I think of immediately whenever I read or hear the name “Nils,” and that’s this. 1980 also brought us the anime version of Maurice Maeterlinck's 1908 play Blue Bird, where a brother and sister seek out the blue bird of happiness with the help of a magical fairy. The original tale was in French, so naturally this played throughout Europe. Featuring the talents of many a Space Battleship Yamato alumni both in terms of voice cast and animation staff, it’s a miracle these guys didn’t drop dead from exhaustion this year because we’ll certainly be hearing more about what Leiji Matsumoto and Yoshinobu Nishizaki were up to in the next part of this writeup:


Some embellishment is expected for these anime adaptations, but with the exception of that Don Quixote one they’ve been pretty faithful so far. Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s The White Whale of Mu (aka Moby Dick 5) was a bit more of what we’d expect “anime” to do with classic literature, as it’s a sci-fi retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Directed by Satoshi Dezaki, best known as being the brother of (and fall guy for) legendary director Osamu Dezaki, this one involves double your lost underwater cities: the peaceful Mu Kingdom AND the warfarers of Atlantis! Find out the truth about Easter Island, its connection to inter-dimensional beings with advanced technology, lost subterranean kingdoms, and the viability of whales as spaceships. Somehow I feel like the plot of Final Fantasy IV owes a lot to this one. 17 years later, Osamu Dezaki would put his own spin on the matter, resulting in the rather uneven and relatively forgettable Hakugei: Legend of the Moby Dick.

Of everything I’ve mentioned, perhaps the one literary-based anime adaptation from 1980 that modern anime fans might actually be curious about seeing is the second season of Toei Animation’s King Arthur: Prince on a White Horse. As you may infer from the title, it’s a rather loose, slightly anachronistic interpretation on the Arthurian legend. Mallory was going crazy in that jail cell, but I don’t think he had any kids on skateboards! Shown throughout much of Europe and South America as The Sword of King Arthur, the show itself is nothing mind-blowing. But these adventures of the Knights of the Round Table feature a theme song by Ichiro Mizuki, a now-legendary voice cast such as Akira Kamiya as Arthur, and key animation by none other than Yoshinori Kanada!


If there’s one anime literary adaptation from 1980 that I’d most want to check out for myself, it’s got to be the anime version of Sakae Tsuboi’s Twenty-Four Eyes. That’s right. There’s an anime version of her 1952 novel “Nijushi no Hitomi,” for which the 1954 black-and-white live-action film adaptation is part of the Criterion Collection. Twenty-Four Eyes is the tale of a teacher on a small rural island and the twelve first-grade students she inspires, and as Japan is swept up in cultural imperialism and the Second World War we see the lives (and deaths) of these kids unfold from the late 1920s to the 1940s. Given that it’s a made-for-TV movie that’s about an hour and fifteen minutes long, I’m sure that Tokyo Movie Shinsha’s anime adaptation isn’t nearly as hard-hitting as the movie (which is not to be confused with the later in-color remake), but this epitomizes the type of anime that would just NEVER, E-E-EVER be made, AGAYN, despite once being fairly commonplace. I mean, look how many I mentioned for just this year!

(And Daryl's not done mentioning! Part 2 of 1980 comes tomorrow! - Ed.)

3 comments:

  1. A pal passed this to me so I'll pass it to you!

    Yamada-kun was aired Sunday 7PM. his other 4-frame manga, Ganbare Tabuchi- kun were picturized for theatres. he was a real professional baseball player in those days.

    I'll be back some other thoughts later!

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  2. I read all 3 parts (2 and a half?) . And No I didn't skim it. I don't really know what to say, you've covered so much. But interesting points Daryl. I enjoyed reading all three parts, heh. Some interesting titles you mention that I'll have to look more deeply into now.

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  3. Fuji-TV in Hawai'i aired subtitled Yamada-kun episodes in the early 80's, under the English title, "Cartoon Yamada", which I guess is a better localization than "Yamada-kun: The Manga Which Bothers You". Great article!

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