Thursday, April 18, 2013

1989: The Year Anime (Sorta) Broke

Evan Jones is a writer and a communications analyst working in Hollywood. He regularly attends and speaks at anime events in the LA area, and he wrote this article while sitting next to framed cells from Patlabor and City Hunter. Find him on Twitter via @CrusherJones (for anime content) or via @EvanRJones (for non-anime content).

"1989! The number...another summer..." - Public Enemy

Retrospective pieces are a real challenge.

There's a lot of pressure about what to include, what to exclude, what to emphasize, and what to just blithely mention in a parenthetical. There's also a big threat of retroactive awareness coloring things in an odd light, especially after 20 plus years of time passing between back then(tm) and now(tm). It's a whole new game these days: our viewing habits, purchasing options, and information exchange processes have undergone a drastic evolution and are now light years ahead of the "good luck!" approach that characterized old-school fandom.

("Up-to-date streaming anime? Forgetta-bout-it. Back in those days we had import laser-disks, Xeroxed scripts, and comics printed on third-rate papyrus. 80 miles to school barefoot in the snow with nothing to eat but old stacks of Shonen Jump!")

But the long and short of it is simple; 1989 was a great year for televised anime. It was an adventurous and ambitious year that held something of interest for everybody regardless of taste. It was also a heady time where Gods of Manga, Super Saiyans, mechanized war machines, conflicted judoka, and gigantic belligerent pandas all vied for our eyeballs, our pocket money, and our hearts.

And we as fans were better for it.

Tezuka Leaves Us

Seeing as how the Golden Ani-versary is a celebration of 50 years of televised anime, I would be greatly remiss if I didn't mention the passing of anime and manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka in the February of 1989. The famously productive Tezuka left us with a massive body of work, which included 1989 productions like his final show Aoi Blink, which was a science fiction re-telling of the classic animated Russian film (Konjok-gorbunok) that was itself based on a play. Aoi Blink debuted in April and ran until March 1990. Reportedly completed according to plans prepared by Tezuka previous to this death, it was the tale of Kakeru, a boy searching for his kidnapped father with the help of a magical blue pony named Blink. (And yes, I'm very excited that I got to work the phrase "magical blue pony" into this piece.)

Fans of classic Tezuka productions may want to investigate the series Jungle Taitei, (aka The New Adventures of Kimba The White Lion) which was, of course, a re-working of Tezuka's Kimba The White Lion. The show lasted 52 episodes and ran from October 1989 until October 1990. Of course, four or so years later we would get all the Lion King Kimba / Simba drama that you could handle, but such conflagrations weren't even remotely plausible to most of the fans who were watching Kimba roar his way around the jungle back in those days.

One of the cool things about the Internet is that it allows you to dig up neat information on slightly more obscure TV specials and the like that might have otherwise passed under the radar. The part Tezuka biography / part monkey king space adventure(!) I Am Son Goku (no, not THAT one...we'll get to him soon...) is one such example. It features direction from not only the sometimes-awesome Rintaro, but also from Masami Hata, who was fresh from directing the Japanese-American co-production of Little Nemo. The special is online with subtitles at Technology, eh? Such modern-day convenience could be seen as a great posthumous tribute to Tezuka, who labored tirelessly for years to get his work out there for everybody to enjoy.

Of course, that's not the only Son Goku that made waves that year...

Manga Maestros, Big Haired Battles, and Kung Fu Treachery

Martial arts anime, be they realistic or fantastic, were certainly "a thing" in 1989. Legacy-wise, they were probably the thing from that time period, and leading the way were three titles from some of manga's biggest names.

I'm pretty sure that a lot of speculative bubble housing was purchased with the proceeds from shows such as Dragonball, an endearing and in my own opinion oddly-underrated epic re-visioning of the Monkey King tale based on the Akira Toriyama manga which ended in 1989 after 153 episodes. I'm also pretty sure those same houses got nicer decks thanks to the behemoth that was Dragonball Z, an even wilder and sometimes hilariously bloviated series, which premiered two weeks after the original DB saga ended and ran for a whopping 291 episodes. (Due to its non-ceasing ubiquity, I sometimes wonder if the show should carry the alternate title "Permit to Print Money".) Hey, even Harmony Gold took a stab at licensing and airing a DBZ dub back in 1989 on the American side of the fence.

Toriyama was joined in the 1989 big name manga-ka anime race by Rumiko Takahashi. After achieving monster successes with Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku, Takahashi's genre-busting series Ranma 1/2 hit the airwaves in its animated form during April via Fuji TV. Oddly enough, the first incarnation of the series only ran for 18 episodes before being cancelled in September. A "re-tooled" (read: new directors) edition entitled Ranma 1/2 Nettōhen began airing in October, which makes the conspiracy theorist in me think that they knew they had problems early on, in light of the quick turn-around time.

Part "sex-as-in-gender" sit-com and part "what the hell did I just watch?", Ranma 1/2's mix of "this-kind-of-water-turns-me-into-x" shenanigans, obstreperous characters, and now hilariously-dated yet fun music eventually led the second series to rack up 143 more episodes. I still remember trying to explain to my friends what the term "martial arts sex comedy" meant back in those days, and if anybody reading this ever came up with a succinct explanation, please don't hesitate to send it to me. Regardless of classification issues, Ranma 1/2 was indeed the go-to impromptu sex change kung fu comedy / goofy romance show of 1989.

(Yes, I know.)

Another martial arts manga adaptation came to us by way of the now omni-present Naoki Urasawa, whose early work Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl got its anime make-over in October of 1989. Sprightly and fun, Yawara! is the story of a young girl trying to find herself in the context of mid-1980's Japan, a period of goofy sweaters, societal pressure, pre-bubble decadence, and in our eponymous heroine's case, an over-bearing, over-eating grandfather who is obsessed with her being the next legendary judoka in the family. Throw in a love-and-obsession rectangle and Yawara's own brilliant skills at tossing people around like rag-dolls, and you had a recipe for a martial arts dramedy hit that ran for 124 episodes on NTV.

(Some fun facts about the series: Kitty Film produced both Yawara! and Ranma 1/2, and Yawara! used the same sound studio–APU Meguro–and some of the same FX sounds as Sunrise's 1989 City Hunter 2 and City Hunter 3 series which featured voice actor Akira Kamiya...who also had a prominent role in Yawara! Oddly enough the same FX sounds were often featured in Sunrise's popular mecha shows. Paul Harvey moments...)

In addition to the aforementioned big guns, there were also other notable series concerned with the way of the whoopin' out and about at the time. Yoroiden Samurai Troopers (a.k.a. Ronin Warriors) finished its run in '89, and manga legend / sideburns enthusiast Go Nagai burst through the doors (as he is wont to do) with his own ass-kick-a-riffic demonic battle series named Jushin Lyger, from which a Japanese wrestler took his name. Shurato, another fantasy-armor battle show that has been somewhat obscured by time, also made its way to the airwaves in 1989. It took influence from both Buddhist and Hindu sources and featured some really rad attack sequences.

There was also another "dragon" show that year with an Akira Toriyama connection. Far less fistfight-oriented than DBZ, Dragon Quest: Legend of the Hero Abel was based on the popular fantasy RPG that featured designs from Toriyama. The first 32 episodes of the series ran from December 1989 until September 1990 and were directed by Rintaro (a busy man!); another 11 episodes directed by Katsuhisa Yamada later aired in 1991.

Not Your Father's Mecha Beat-Down

For the longest time, mentions of Japanese animation were often met with an eye-roll and a dismissive reply about the preponderance of shows that focused upon giant robots. Being a fan of giant robots (which, technically, are not robots because if they're being piloted...oh God, I'll stop here...), I was slightly incredulous, but I knew what people meant; even for super-fans, mecha was getting a bit tired by 1989 after running through the collective consciousness of anime fans for 10, if not 15 years.

The genre needed something inventive, something new. Enter a Sunrise joint called Mobile Police Patlabor.

Birthed by the production team Headgear (check out the lineup of talent!), Patlabor told the every-day stories of the beleaguered, maligned, and perpetually perplexed Special Vehicles Section II division of the Tokyo Police. Charged with countering an increase in construction machine (a.k.a. "Labor") crime, the SV2 were a team of outcast cops, pilots, and support staff that were always outmanned, under-funded, hungry, and most-importantly, human.

Despite impressive mechanical designs by Yutaka Izubuchi and the "big police robot with a gun" opening animation, Patlabor would often eschew the easy requisite over-blown mecha action that was de rigueur throughout the 1980's and focus on the relationships between its characters. Sure, they had awesome Patrol Labors to stomp around in, but they were people too, and they acted like it. The result was something that could best be described as a series that amalgamated the moods of both a well-written police drama and a nuanced slice-of-life comedy which just happened to be set in the near-future, which of course is now a somewhat distant and alternate past.

Office politics, ennui, and the odd adjustment years of your 20's were all mined as a source for drama through the course of the show. However, Patlabor is not all staid and sullen, as there are indeed moments of really big, broad comedy in the series in addition to, yes, some raucous mecha action sequences. The variety is part of the charm; Patlabor covered a lot of narrative bases in a number of ways, and that meant different interpretations and opinions would surface from amongst its viewers. In my personal opinion, I feel that this was a good thing for both the show and its legacy.

But why so much emphasis on this one series, you ask? Welllllll...

The fact that Patlabor even existed as a TV show spoke to the maturity and flexibility of televised anime in 1989; it wasn't exactly high-concept and was pretty variegated on an episode-by-episode basis, yet it had a good budget, a strong staff, several novel ideas, and has aged quite well for a TV series that's now 24 years old. Speaking to the point of the Ani-versary, it was notable due to, and not in spite of, its ability to differentiate itself from the increasingly tired but still financially viable money-making genre formulas of the time. This is all the more impressive considering that it came out of a major studio and was looking for its place in the market alongside cultural powerhouses like DBZ and other slam-dunk "ka-ching!" shows like Transformers Victory. It could, in a way, be seen as a show that was representative of an exciting and confident period of creativity in TV anime history.

Originating first as a manga and an OVA series, Patlabor premiered in October of 1989, ran for 47 episodes, and was recently relicensed for US release by MaidenJapan. A new live-action production of some kind is now in the works as well. I don't think I'm the only blogger here who would recommend it wholeheartedly. It's pretty damned fine for 1989.

In Closing

As you could tell, 1989 was a big year for anime, and not just on TV. In addition to the large variety of televised animated series and one-offs like the aforementioned I Am Son Goku or the two Lupin the 3rd special broadcasts that aired in '89, there were also blockbuster films like Kiki's Delivery Service. On the video front, the OVA was still a great option for both creators who couldn't muster up the prohibitive budget required to produce a film or TV show as well as for those who wanted to try something different. (Prime example: Gundam 0080, the first Gundam series not directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino.) There were also darker delights lurking around as well, such as the endlessly-discussed NSFW epic Urotsukidoji.

Not only was Japanese fandom flush with that much-missed and now legendary bubble money, but enterprising fans from elsewhere were looking, listening, and watching as well as the potential market for anime expanded. The proof is in the clamshell-case: a large number of productions dating from the eight-nine later made their way over to the States as licensed commercial products available from the likes of U.S. Renditions, U.S. Manga Corps, Animeigo, Bandai, and AD Vision. The process often took several years–yes, you read it right–but it takes time to crack a frontier, and back then patience was important because it wasn't like your modem was that great anyway.

In short: 1989 brought a lot to the table, and it did so in more ways than one. Whether we got in the game for daughter-vs.-bear martial-arts brawls, big-haired "Over 9000!" scream-athons, or horrible theme songs that just wouldn't leave our heads, I have the distinct feeling that a lot of us wouldn't be reading this blog right now if it wasn't for the class of '89. And is there any greater praise that we can offer 24 years later?

Next time: Goodbye, Awesome Eighties! Hello, 1990!

1 comment:

  1. A pal of mine chimed in to add that Streamline Pictures started this year too. Just passing it along!