Monday, February 11, 2013

1977: Conventions and Innovations

A blogger turned academic scholar, Carl writes about a variety of topics concerning anime and manga new and old in order to encourage and foster greater thinking about the way fans interact with their media. Comfortable with just about any genre of anime and manga but particularly fond of giant robots and magical girls, you can read his blog over at Ogiue Maniax and follow him on Twitter @sdshamshel.

The year 1977 is something of a contradictory time in anime. Although the industry at this point was at the beginning of an animation boom and had been firmly established for over a decade, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact level of experimentation vs. continuation of formulaic trends, simply because in many cases the individual works of 1977 featured both.

The '70s were the golden age of giant robot anime, and with six super robot-themed anime debuting (as well as five holdovers from the previous year) 1977 was no exception to that trend. Somewhat unfortunately for the robot anime of that year, the legendary arrival of Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979 tends to overshadow them as a whole, but while nothing in 1977 broke the mold as Gundam would, there were a few series which pushed that mold to its very limits. These shows managed to convey new and interesting ideas while working well within established convention, an impressive feat in its own right.

The Limits of the Super Robot

To first understand the strength of the more daring robot anime of 1977, it’s important to get an idea of the heights of mediocrity the genre reached as well. Combining Squadron Mechander Robo is a near-inexplicable mishmash of thin story and toy functionality with the worst weakness for a giant robot ever [Footnote 1]. Superhuman Squadron Barattack is a goofy show whose most enduring legacy is an attractive female character. As for Super Uniting Magic Robo Ginguiser, well, take a look for yourself.

Initially, Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V (pronounced “Five”) appears to be more of the same, and even aesthetically it looks like a re-tread of the previous year’s Super Electromagnetic Robo Combattler V (actually pronounced “V”), but its sense of drama and its weighty subject matter prove otherwise. The second in director Tadao Nagahama’s “Romance Robot Trilogy” after Combattler V, Voltes V’s narrative begins with your typical alien invasion and ends tackling themes such as racism, slavery, and revolution. The series is all the more impressive because of the way it frames these ideas in the personal stories of its characters, most notably through the charismatic enemy commander Heinel and his desire to prove himself in light of his father’s betrayal to their empire. The blond Heinel, himself the successor to Reideen the Brave’s Prince Sharkin and Combattler V’s Garuda, would along with 1978’s Brave Leader Daimos set the stage for the iconic Gundam antagonist Char Aznable. Interestingly, the series would eventually be translated and broadcasted in the Philippines, where its reputation as a masterpiece is arguably even stronger than in Japan.

If Voltes V showed the positive power of a united people to overcome oppression, then The Invincible Zambot 3 was a super robot anime which displayed the uglier side of humanity. The first non-subcontracted work of Nihon Sunrise, the studio that would go on to create Mobile Suit Gundam, Zambot 3 is a predecessor to Gundam also in the sense that it was directed by eventual Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino. Like Voltes V, Zambot 3 is about fending off an alien invasion one monster at a time, but Zambot 3 takes a darker angle, most infamously in how the enemy turns civilians into unwitting suicide bombers [Footnote 2], but also evident in just the way the series handles the collateral damage of fight scenes. Often times acting as mere window dressing for the excitement of battle in other action-based anime, Zambot 3 transforms the ever-mounting civilian casualties into a powerful story element as the people of Japan turn against the young pilots of Zambot 3 for what they see as unjustified deaths. If it wasn’t enough that the heroes have the unenviable position of defending the very people who want them dead, the show also kills off a huge portion of its cast (Zambot 3 is one of the shows which cemented the reputation of “Kill-‘Em-All Tomino”) while also finishing with the open-ended suggestion that humanity is perhaps inherently evil.

Of course, when it comes to combining drama and science fiction, anime was no stranger at this point, and it is perhaps all the more appropriate that Leiji Matsumoto, the artist behind Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock, and Space Battleship Yamato, would in 1977 create his first and only entry into the giant robot genre. Planet Robo Danguard A (pronounced “Ace”) is not quite as daring as Voltes V or Zambot 3, but it is more consistently animated and does have its own fair share of quirks, including the fact that the robot gradually loses importance over the course of the series while (somewhat unsurprisingly) a massive spaceship becomes increasingly prominent. Matsumoto actually disliked having a giant robot in the series in the first place, and the result is a super robot anime which mixes in the moral lessons of 999, the tough heroics of Harlock, and the plot of Yamato (spaceship must reach a distant planet to save the Earth while fighting the caped villain Lord Desslar Doppler) with varying degrees of success. Notoriously, the giant robot doesn’t even fight until episode 13, though it does create a unique story where the pilot is shown earning his right to use the titular robot through Spartan training and dedication. At 56 episodes, Danguard A was also the longest-running giant-robot show from 1977.

Short-term Trends and Enduring Franchises

Although robots were the biggest part of anime in 1977, there were a number of other notable currents and curiosities as well. Banking on the popularity of the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix, the second biggest theme of the year was the high-speed exotic car, as 1977 saw four anime about race cars, super-powered or otherwise, in Ultra Supercar Gattiger, Fierce Race! Rubenkaiser, Fly! Machine Hiryû, and Arrow Emblem: Hawk of the Grand Prix, up from just the one in 1976 (Machine Hayabusa). Even Mechander Robo saw its heroes get motor vehicles part-way through, as if to capitalize on the trend. While there are clear precedents and successors such as Mach GoGoGo (Speed Racer) and Initial D, this particular brand of car fever in anime would turn out to be mainly limited to 1977.

In a couple of cases 1977 actually introduced sequels which would go on to define their franchises as a whole. At this time, the second TV series of Lupin the Third, Monkey Punch’s famous expert thief, debuted to great success. Running for a whopping 155 episodes, the title successfully combines a light-hearted and comedic tone with more violent and action-packed elements, making it a solid middle point between the extremes of other Lupin adaptations. Established as the definitive Lupin anime, its reputation as the most well-known animated version is only really challenged by Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro.

Similarly, Yatterman, the second anime in the Time Bokan series, has largely outstripped its predecessor (simply titled Time Bokan) in popularity and presence in the public consciousness. Featuring a heroic couple who uses modified toys (and a giant robot dog) to fight the “Dorombo Gang,” a Boris-and-Natasha/Team-Rocket-esque trio, the show’s absurd sense of humor and memorable characters garnered Yatterman a popularity which continues even to this day, as is apparent from its highly successful 2008 remake, its 2009 live-action film, and the inclusion of multiple characters in the Tatsunoko vs. Capcom fighting game series.

Visual Experimentation

With all of the metal flying about, the anime of 1977 can give off a rather masculine impression, but there were also a few shôjo series. The volleyball-themed Attack on Tomorrow tried to draw on the popularity of the 1977 Volleyball World Cup in Japan, while Charlotte of the Young Grass went for a Candy Candy-style dramatic angle. Probably the most impressive shôjo of the year, however, would be the Victorian-themed anime Her Majesty’s Petite Angie.

Remarkably, unlike so many other shôjo works past and present which incorporate love into their narratives on at least a tertiary level, Petite Angie ignores romance on all scales. Instead, the series primarily focuses on its heroine Angie Irington’s fine-tuned detective skills, working to demonstrate her as more intelligent, observant, and resourceful than any adult around her. Angie so loves to solve crimes that when Queen Victoria herself offers Angie a reward for helping to recover the queen’s jewels, Angie insists that her payment be more cases from Scotland Yard. Another notable feature of Petite Angie is its opening animation, which, along with the aforementioned Rubenkaiser, is one of the earliest openings by the legendary animator Yoshinori Kanada (though un-credited in either case). The opening for Petite Angie, a little of which can be seen left, shows the beginnings of what would become Kanada’s highly influential “extreme pose” style of conveying movement which would influence other animators such as Masami Ôbari (Dancougar, Fatal Fury) and Hiroyuki Imaishi (Gurren-Lagann, FLCL).

When it comes to impressive visuals, however, the honor for most gorgeous anime of 1977 might have to go to Homeless Child, a.k.a. Nobody’s Boy Remi. Based on the French novel Sans Famille by Hector Malot, this sad tale about a poor boy’s endless suffering features not only extremely fluid animation but some of the most gorgeous backgrounds in the history of anime courtesy of another great animator, Manabu Ôhashi. Utilizing a sense of color and texture few even today can match, Ôhashi would go on to create the highly artistic and experimental Cloud for 1987’s animated compilation Robot Carnival.

The last anime to discuss is by far the most unusual anime of 1977, aesthetically or otherwise, to the extent that people might even technically disqualify it as anime. Great Dinosaur War Izenborg was a collaboration between animation industry veteran studio Toei (which worked on shows such as Voltes V) and Tsuburaya, the studio behind the Ultraman series. The resulting product portrays humans through the use of cel animation, while fight sequences utilize a combination of model cities, miniatures, and live people in spandex and rubber suits. Although at first Izenborg simply switches between the two as necessary, it eventually achieves a small degree of Roger Rabbit-style integration.


1977 was a time of experimentation and evolution within well-defined boundaries, where the most significant changes involved subtle degrees of innovation. The level of ideas, sophistication, and experimentation of the time feel like they were just on the cusp of something greater. While we benefit from hindsight, when taken as a whole the anime of 1977 creates the impression that big changes were right on the horizon.


[Footnote 1:] Whenever the heroes docked into Mechander Robo, an enemy missile capable of destroying it in one shot would automatically launch from space and home in on the robot. The heroes had to defeat the enemy robot(s) within 3 minutes and then eject from the robot, which would for some reason foil the missile’s tracking system and cause it to malfunction.

[Footnote 2:] In my experience, whenever you mention Zambot 3 to a Japanese person with a passing familiarity towards it, the first thing they say is, “Oh, the one with the human bombs.”

Next Time: Whoops! We missed one (on purpose), but we're heading back! Sherman, set the machine for 1972!

1 comment:

  1. Terribad watched the Izenborg movie cut (known as Attack of the Super-Monsters) about a month ago and it was AMAZING. Izenborg actually was the 2nd Sunrise-Tsuburuya coproduction I know of. Kyouryuu Tankentai Born Free (recut as Return of the Dinosaurs) aired a year before, with an almost identical premise and unique visual style, though Izenborg trumps Born Free on sheer corny excess.