Thursday, March 7, 2013

1981: Fart Jokes, Fighting Robots, and the Far-Flung Reaches of Space

Joseph Luster (@Moldilox) contributes to Otaku USA Magazine—where he writes articles, edits the video games section, and handles website content—and Crunchyroll News, where he serves as Assistant Editor and Pro Roustabout. He also writes about games for Sci Fi. Joseph got his start writing unprofessionally about Asian cinema at the now-defunct Kung Fu Cult Cinema site, and went on to get his pro start during the final era of Animerica Magazine.  Sometimes he finds a moment to post on his personal blog.

Ask someone what 1981 means to them and you'll get a vast array of divergent answers. For many it will forever be known as the year I was born. For fans of anime, 1981 is exemplified by a steady stream of Super Robot series. Or perhaps manga adaptations like Toei Animation's second take on Ikki Kajiwara's pro wrasslin' Tiger Mask; or, from the same fine folks, the bottomless gag reel cobbled together from Akira Toriyama's legitimately hilarious Dr. Slump. Or perhaps Urusei Yatsura? Anyone?

While we're asking questions, a recent personal inquiry helped attach a nice booster rocket to this period of far-reaching reflection. When a friend asked, "What made you start writing about all this Japanese stuff in the first place?" I was suddenly faced with a sprawling, seemingly-endless hall of mirrors. What made me start writing about all this Japanese stuff in the first place? If it had taken me longer than half a second to answer, I probably would have entered a long phase of deep, dark self-reflection, but I had it in the bag.

I grew up watching so many cartoons and playing so many games, without any idea where they all originated from. Once I found out the majority of the stuff that kept my face planted in front of a TV set came from Japan, my fate was sealed. While I look at some of the shows I actually grew up on fondly, so much of it has aged poorly, sporting the pallor of a faded black Suncoast t-shirt someone wears way past its expiry, keeping a tight grip on their tits out of nostalgic obligation.

The anime of 1981, however, is home to a bunch of the stuff I wish I had grown up on.

Mecha Madness

A cursory overview of anime in 1981 reveals a decent amount of variety, along with robots. Lots and lots of robots. Mecha as far as the eye can see. Just thinking about how closely some of these shows debuted to one another is enough to make you go back in time and soil your shortpants. March saw the start of Beast King GoLion and Golden Warrior Gold Lightan, with the former coming from Toei Animation and the latter out of Tatsunoko Production. Of course, it was Toei's that ended up catching on in the United States, chopped and screwed as Voltron: Defender of the Universe.

Voltron is one of the few series in this era I can actually say I grew up on. It was one of those shows I watched constantly, ignorant of its origins as I played with what was at the time a prohibitively expensive set of toys. Being that we live in a grand era of media consumption, one can actually watch both Voltron and the original GoLion versions of the series, and doing so should help shed some light on just why we got such a heavily edited version of the anime over here.

While GoLion would go on to capture the imagination of kids across the globe in some form—most recently, and to lesser effect, in the 2011-2012 Nicktoons series Voltron Force—there aren't many series from its debut year that held a similar grip in the United States. Thankfully, the legacy of shows like French-Japanese sci-fi production Ulysses 31 live on through insane fan projects like the live-action intro redux below.

(For the record, Ulysses 31 did exist, and the original looked like this. - Ed.)

As Yoshiyuki Tomino's first two Mobile Suit Gundam anime films stormed theaters, less grounded robots continued to stomp around on Japanese television. Sengoku Majin GoShōgun—the director of which, Kunihiko Yuyama, would go on to helm a plethora of Pokémon projects—kicked off its run in July, and would later combine with Akū Daisakusen Srungle like a super robot comprised entirely of anime footage to form Macron 1 in the US.

The chill of October managed to produce some heat with the arrival of a towering triple-whammy. Galaxy Cyclone Braiger, Taiyou no Kiba Dougram, and the incredibly titled Rokushin Gattai God Mars ("Six God Combination God Mars") all stormed screens that month, but one of these things is not like the other. While Braiger's transforming Brai-Thunder and God Mars's combining robots served as more fantastical additions to Japan's ever-expanding catalog of fightin' robots, Dougram stayed closer to the Real-Robot route, boasting one of Japan's most renowned mecha creators behind the wheel.

Ryôsuke Takahashi would go on to more famously create and direct Armored Trooper Votoms, which hit airwaves in Japan about a year and a half after Dougram. Takahashi followed Votoms up with Aoki Ryūsei SPT Layzner in 1985, and, to assist in the "things you might have actually seen more recently" department, delivered Gasaraki in 1998. In the midst of day-glo transforming robots and goofier fare like Tatsunoko's Yattodetaman, the work of Ryôsuke Takahashi really stands out.

From Page to Screen

In a year that had its fair share of original animated series, plenty of manga were also making the transition to television, some more familiar than others. These adaptations covered a wide range of genres, from the wildly popular Dash Kappei out of Tatsunoko Production—based on the Weekly Shônen Sunday basketball manga by Noboru Rokuda—to the adaptation of Etsumi Haruki's comedy manga Jarinko Chie, which featured direction from Studio Ghibli's Isao Takahata (Pom Poko, Only Yesterday).

 In fact, it's kind of amazing how many long-running series made their way to TV in 1981. An anime based on Motoo Abiko's Ninja Hattori-kun kicked off in September and ended up running for a staggering 694 episodes. The aforementioned Tiger Mask by Ikki Kajiwara—which spanned 14 volumes from 1968-1971—got another shot at animation with a sequel series that aired from April of '81 to January of the following year. Directed by Kozo Morishita (Saint Seiya: Evil Goddess Eris, UFO Robo Grendizer), Tiger Mask II introduced a new hero, but he wouldn't come close to matching the original series' bold 105-episode run.

Other series that leapt into the world of animation include Hideki Mizuno's Honey Honey no Suteki na Bōken, Takeshi Ebihara's Maicching Machiko-sensei, and Shun'ichi Yukimuro and Shizue Takanashi's Ohayo! Spank. Adaptations weren't just limited to manga, either. Classic books made their way to the screen in series like Kazuya Miyazaki's take on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the World Masterpiece Theater production of Swiss Family Robinson by Yoshio Kuroda, director of The Dog of Flanders, and even the doggone Bible. Yes, the book of all books adds a robot and a couple of squirts to become… Superbook. Now that's a Combination God Mars if I've ever seen one. If you, too, want to dive into the world of Gizmo, Chris, and Joy, look no further than the official fan site!

But forget all that stuff. Throw it in the trash, ok? Light it on fire, because if 1981 is going to be known for any manga adaptations, it's gotta be Urusei Yatsura. One could argue for Dr. Slump, which kicked off in April and ran for a butt-nutty 243 episodes, but we've only got an edited version of Akira Toriyama's original manga to go by over here. Thus, the Heavyweight Championship Belt of 1981 must go to Studio DEEN and Studio Pierrot's production of Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura. Even if all the series had to its name was the eventual creation of Mamoru Oshii's 1984 film Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer, it would still be worthy of the crown. Ataru Moroboshi's unintentional marriage to bikini-clad alien-princess Lum is an essential piece of anime history, and it also stands out because you like, y'know, kind of had a chance to own the whole series in English. Hey, if you're not pulling your pockets out and shrugging like a cartoon bum, you can still probably find the DVDs somewhere!

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about Queen Millennia, which represents one of the many times the work of the legendary Leiji Matsumoto (Space Battleship Yamato, Galaxy Express 999, you might not even need this parenthetical but whatever) has been animated. Truth be told, I'm taking this series hostage and using it as a totally jarring segue, because...

The Sea of Stars

Despite the focus on TV anime, I'd be forced to disembowel myself—my guts weaving themselves into ethereal train tracks pointing toward the Milky Way and beyond—if I didn't mention that one of the greatest anime movies of all time premiered in 1981: Adieu Galaxy Express 999. Rintaro (Metropolis, Harmagedon) followed up 1979's Galaxy Express 999 feature with something even more stunning, and while its predecessor condensed events told in the original manga and the subsequent TV anime adaptation, Adieu spun an enticing new yarn. In my eyes, these flicks are the ultimate representation of Matsumoto's sublime, planet-spanning vision.

All things considered, 1981 had its ups and downs. It wasn't exactly loaded with memorable shows, but the stuff that stood out really stood out. It served as a nice thematic bridge from the '70s to the '80s, and it has a fine aftertaste worth more than a few lingering lip smacks.

Next time: The second decade of anime winds to a close at 1982!

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