Tuesday, March 26, 2013

1983: Fantasy Plus Reality Plus a Genre Queen

Patrick Drazen is old enough to have gone to the movies when the first anime to get to America was being screened: Osamu Tezuka’s 1959 feature film Saiyu-ki, dubbed, chopped and issued as Alakazam the Great! This version of the Son Goku legend lay dormant in his mind until the appearance of VCRs in the mid-Eighties, when Japanese videos could be seen in the West; there was no turning back. An interest in Japanese popular culture and its connection to Japan’s history, religion, and sociology has led to two books: Anime Explosion: The What? Why? And Wow! Of Japanese Animation (2002 by Stone Bridge Press, which plans to release an expanded e-book second edition in 2013) and A Gathering of Spirits: Japan’s Ghost Story Tradition (2011, a self-published paper book and e-book through iUniverse).

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.

Unico on the Island of Magic
(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.

The group makes their way to Magic Island, Kuruku’s home, where all but Unico are turned into building blocks. In the final confrontation, Unico offers love and friendship to Kuruku, refusing to fight him. This undoes Kuruku’s power; as he dies and the building blocks return to their original selves, Kuruku admits that Unico’s compassion is killing him, yet “for the first time in my life … I feel good!” As the castle crumbles away, Cheri is reunited with her family and finds a wooden marionette. Because of her kind heart, we know that history will not repeat itself, and Kuruku will not again become an evil wizard. Unico, however, is carried off by the West Wind, as part of his fate to keep moving through the world, never finding a home.

The movie has a bright and colorful palette, but the story isn’t limited to childishness. Toby’s magic is intended to lift his parents out of poverty, but they reject his vision of an easy life through sorcery. Kuruku’s multiple symbolic deaths and rebirths are a concise Buddhist parable of karma as well as an argument for compassion. These are themes that inhabit almost all of Tezuka’s work.

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.

Barefoot Gen
(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 dropping of the bomb, however, was only the first of a parade of horrors visited on Hiroshima, and the movie doesn’t spare the viewers anything. The city filled with the rotting dead; the walking wounded moving like zombies through the ruins of the city, skin pierced with slivers of wood and shards of glass; ruins where buildings used to stand; the first appearance of the symptoms of radiation poisoning; the stench of the dead and the maggots infesting the wounds of the living. One image from the manga which carried over to the film, and must have impressed Nakazawa at the time, was of a panicked horse galloping down the road, its mane on fire.

The manga was not merely visual; it was also an audio picture of Japan at war. Nakazawa recalled patriotic songs, popular ballads, even songs about begging for food. Some of these give an extra dimension to the film.

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.

Cat's Eye
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.


  1. Great article! Still haven't seen Barefoot Gen yet, though I'll advance its placement on my queue now that I know it's a Madhouse production.

    I have one minor correction for your article though - Cat's Eye did see an on-demand DVD-R release with English subtitles (along with The Super Dimension Century Orguss and Nobody's Boy Remi); despite being published on burnable media, the shows were in fact licensed. Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis authored the DVD's unless I'm mistaken. Check out the press releases here for more information:

  2. Great reviews! I did not know all that stuff about Keiji Nakazawa, although some of it is certainly ringing a bell now that I read it all. Barefoot Gen is one of my all time favorite anime movies, and is rightfully been called "one of the most important animated films ever created".

    As for Cat's Eye...well that's something that's been on my "to buy" list for years. Maybe I'll get to it finally. Seems quite good. At least season one was released on DVD iirc, I read a review by Theron Martin on that on ANN.

  3. Right Stuf just announced they have licensed Cat's Eye.