1983 was a surprising year in the transition of anime to a new medium. While televised anime was enjoying its golden age of super-team mecha shows (Vifam, Genesis Climer Mospeada, Galactic Whirlwind Sasuraiger, Armored Trooper Votoms, and Super Dimension Century Orguss, just to name a few vehicles), sports-centric shows (Captain, Captain Tsubasa, Kinnikuman), and the last of the obligatory Time Bokan shows until 2000 (Itadakiman), theaters were capitalizing on trips to the stars (Final Yamato, Crusher Joe) and global adventure (Urusei Yatsura: Only You, Dr. Slump and Arale-chan: Hoyoyo, The Great 'Round-the-World Race). However, that's not to say that there were alternatives to the norm.
The two theater-based features released in 1983 and highlighted here were polar opposites; one was a scary but lighthearted fantasy adventure intended for children, while the other was a harrowing and intensely graphic true story about human cruelty and a matching will to survive. Both were based on major works by mangaka and are known in the west mainly by reputation. The one TV series that stands out in 1983 anime is a marker for an entire genre but it, too, is seldom seen now. Thus passes the glories of “old-school” anime.
(Yuniko: Maho no Shima e)
Executive Producer: Shintaro Tsuji
Director: Moribi Murano
Based on a Story By: Osamu Tezuka
Note that the executive producer is Shintaro Tsuji, founder of Sanrio and creator of Hello Kitty. This is the second of two movie-feature anime based on the manga character Unico, a small magical unicorn created by Osamu Tezuka and commissioned by Sanrio originally for its attempt at a shoujo manga magazine, Lyrica. After running half a dozen stories, the editors at Lyrica decided that Unico was “too cute” and decided to send Unico to First Grader Magazine (Shogakko Ichinensei-ban). While the first Unico feature animated two of the Lyrica stories, this story is original and borrows one character: a baby sphinx (the child of the mythical beast slain by Oedipus after he answered her riddle).
Director Moribi Murano (1941-2011) had his name romanized as Norimi Murano on the western version of the films; he was in fact born under the name Mamoru Sato in Japan-occupied Manchuria. Although he also created manga usually featuring puppies, the best-known of which was Hoero! Bun Bun, Murano worked on anime based almost entirely on Tezuka manga, including Thousand and One Nights, Bandar Log, and the 1980 Astro Boy series. Murano also worked on Kamui no Ken and the film based on Jyoji Akiyama’s Haguregumo.
Unico, condemned to wander the earth, gets taken in by a kind-hearted girl named Cheri. She and her parents are visited by her older brother Toby, who has apprenticed himself to Lord Kuruku, an evil wizard. After Toby turns his parents into “building blocks” for Lord Kuruku’s castle, Cheri and Unico escape. Their flight takes them among woodland animals and young demons, but Toby is always one step behind them, turning living things into building blocks at his master’s orders. The baby sphinx guides them to the end of the earth, where castoff items are washed up to the shore. One item, the Trojan Horse, tells them that Kuruku was himself a marionette who was abused by his owners then cast aside. This inspired Kuruku’s hatred of humankind.
One brilliant aspect of the film is the “voice” of Kuruku. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when music synthesizers could only play one note at a time, several techniques were developed to get around these limitations. One device, called a ring modulator, played another tone, of a different pitch and timbre, against the synthesizer’s original tone. For this movie, Kuruku’s voice track was run through a ring modulator, creating a bizarre, chilling and unique echo effect. It’s one of the most memorable effects in the anime.
The 2012 DVD release of the film is a transfer of the Sony cassette from 1983, plus a rather low-resolution copy of a Unico pilot for a TV series—a hint of what might have been. I still have the Betamax cassette and showed clips of it on a panel once, with flawless visuals and true stereo sound; the audience applauded the Betamax.
(Hadashi no Gen)
Producers: Keiji Nakazawa, Takenori Yoshimoto & Yasuieru Iwase
Director: Mori Masaki
Based on a Manga By: Keiji Nakazawa
On December 19, 2012, Keiji Nakazawa died of cancer—a death he had anticipated for decades. He knew the likelihood of survivors of atomic bombing contracting cancer; he was a schoolboy in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 when the first atomic bomb was detonated over that city. He survived the blast only because the barrier wall of the schoolyard fell on him, protecting him from the immediate shock and firestorm. What he saw when he crawled out from under the wall became his lifework as a manga artist.
In 1983 Studio Madhouse created a feature film based on Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical manga Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen). It was the story of the Nakaoka family getting by in wartime Hiroshima, an era of food shortages and increasing grim news about the war. Because the elder Nakaoka was an outspoken pacifist, the family was harassed by officials and some of their neighbors; those who helped the family were other “outsiders” like Mr. Pak, a Korean.
Despite the war, the first half of the film focusing on the family is a cheerful look at domesticity, and even the small clouds threatening the family—malnutrition compromising the health of Gen’s pregnant mother—are easily dealt with. The focus on civilian life was deliberate: as a balance to the military propaganda that has dominated the debate on the bomb and the war.
The lone survivors of the Nakaoka family were Gen and his pregnant mother. The baby is born in the ruins and dies in infancy. The movie ends, however, on a positive note. Gen carves a battleship out of wood and uses it to send a candle down the river, joining with the light of a hundred other candles. This, after all, is Obon, Japan’s annual celebration of the return of the spirits of the dead to the land of the living, an event always held in high summer—when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. To mark the end of Obon, candles are set afloat to guide the spirits back to their realm for another year. It’s one marker among others that life was returning to normal, even in Hiroshima’s first year of Hell.
Hadashi no Gen is one of a kind; an apocalyptic anime set apart from the other future versions, such as Akira, Bubblegum Crisis and Neon Genesis Evangelion, by being based on a true story. The fact that it’s told in a cartoon does nothing to blunt the emotional impact. It’s a rare viewer who wouldn’t feel tears coming on at some point.
Produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha
Director: Yoshio Takeuchi
Based on a Manga By: Tsukasa Hojo
Because this is being written in early February and the decade between 1973 and 1983 isn’t available on this blog at the time of its production, I may be jumping the gun, but it’s interesting that the word “gekiga” hasn’t had reason to appear yet. The word was coined in 1957 by Yoshihiro Tatsumi noting works that strove for more realism and less cartoonishness. Sometimes it’s a judgment call: Ashita no Joe can be called gekiga, while shoujo manga works like Aim for the Ace! is still considered manga. However, one of the first clear gekiga comics appeared in Shonen Jump in 1981 and was animated in 1983: Cat’s Eye.
The masterwork of Tsukasa Hojo, this series gives us three sisters who run a coffee shop by day and are cat burglars with high-tech gizmos and Olympic abilities by night. They caught the eye of Jump readers, the manga running to 18 tankobon volumes. This inspired 73 TV episodes broadcast between 1983 and 1985.
Cat’s Eye takes the clownishness out of Lupin the 3rd and its parade of Bond babes at once, copying and parodying the 007 adventures. The focus is on the three Kisugi sisters: Rui, Hitomi and Ai. Their coffee shop is a front for their nighttime art raids; specifically, they target paintings formerly in the collection of their father, Michael Heinz, in hopes that he’ll get back in touch with them. Hitomi is engaged to (of course) a police detective, Toshio Utsumi, who wants to round up the Cat’s Eye gang, but has managed to miss that the coffee shop run by the Kisugi sisters is named "Cat’s Eye"! Furthermore, the burglars use his knowledge of security systems to plan their heists. If this sounds like an "old-school" version of Saint Tail or other heist manga/anime, that’s because it is. But Hojo’s gekiga style brings one benefit to the table: the Kisugi sisters look fine. Damned fine.
This is one of those series unavailable in English, even in subtitles. Its episodes are online, however—in French.
Editor's Note: While these movies and shows both mentioned and detailed cling to relevance, they were also included as punctuation in this period of anime. Up until 1983, televised anime and theatrical releases were the only ways fans could get a fix, but the advent of VHS recording soon led to a revolution in media consumption. While it is debatable which show was the first to be released as a VHS-only show (Tezuka's The Green Cat was produced first, but Mamoru Oshii's Dallos was the first to be sold as an "original video animation" or "OVA"), this led to a plateau in the number of TV anime shows that would not explode until the number of OVA shows fell in 1998.
Could 1983 have been the end of anime's first generation as the industry accelerated towards straight-to-video titles for specific fanbases and less television shows for the public? There's only one way to find out.
Next time: Japan turns an Orwellian eye on anime in 1984.