Friday, March 30, 2007

magnos the robot

Many people think of Japanese animation as high-tech, sophisticated entertainment for adults; animation that breaks the boundaries of animated entertainment and stuns audiences with originality and innovation.

These people are, of course, completely wrong.

As evidence to the contrary, I present the only possible argument; a rebuttal that is smashing in its impact and draws one to an inexorable conclusion that brutally shatters paradigms, even as it opens up new worlds of possibility.The argument? Magnos the Robot, a mid-1970s Toei giant robot show that combines all the classic elements of Japanese anime: hackneyed plot, clich├ęd characters, outlandish and impractical mechanical design, and bizarre, incomprehensible villains and monsters.

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Combined with deadpan American dubbing, the end product can only be described as kitsch.No grand vision went into making Magnos. Driven by market forces, the creators simply threw together whatever elements they could rip off from other, more successful anime shows. Giant super robots, fantastic ultra-scientific secret bases, grotesque evil creatures - they've all been done before, and done better. However, the producers of Magnos took the bizarre visuals and childish storylines of your typical robot drama and cranked everything up to eleven - and as with all kitsch, their efforts had the opposite effect. Instead of appearing fantastical and awesome, Magnos the Robot simply looks outlandish, impractical, and faintly ridiculous.
Earth is in big trouble; horrific creatures from the depths of the earth, actually ancient astronauts from outer space, have declared war on the surface world.

Even though national monuments are being blasted into pieces, the United Nations refuses to listen to Sir Miles Nevers, the only one with any sort of idea who's attacking us. Apparently the UN believes that sometimes things just explode for no reason. Is Sir Nevers a scientist, a naval officer, a industrialist? Magnos never tells us. Nevers has a gigantic nuclear powered flying battleship, a combat unit of helicopters and antiaircraft cannon, and a complicated combining-robot fighting system. However, all this equipment is completely useless, because what Nevers doesn't have is a hairy, disgruntled, denim-clad, kung-fu-fighting 70s style antihero to pilot his robot and save the world.

Enter Janus, who is a disgruntled karate champion with bad hair and a wardrobe straight out of the Levis department of your local Sears. Anybody who's ever seen any 70s giant robot show can tick off the subsequent plot elements: Janus is asked to pilot the robot. Janus refuses because he's the 70s style antihero and has seen Dirty Harry eighteen times. The horrific monsters attack and Janus is shocked at the fighting ineptitude of Nevers' gang. Janus, compelled to show these amateurs exactly how he did it in the karate ring, is forced to change into a tacky jumpsuit and is tossed into the robot cockpit, where his fighting spirit and cocky, never-say-die attitude succeed where skill and training fail.

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But wait! What about the girl? There's always a girl in these shows, and it's always the professor's daughter, and her and the hero never get along, for at least three episodes. Well, Magnos is no exception. In fact, Nevers' daughter Ester is absolutely vital to the plot. You see, Nevers built his Magnos robot in two parts, and one part is piloted by his daughter, and another part has to be piloted by a tough karate champion guy. I know some parents go to extreme lengths to hook their children up, but this is ridiculous. Actually the male-female thing fits in with the whole "magnetic" theme of the show - with a positive and a negative, Magnos evokes both your Electrical Engineering 101 syllabus and your Tantric Sex manuals.The 1970s were known as the decade of the ridiculously elaborate pilot-entering-his-giant-robot scene, and Magnos upholds the tradition magnificently. First our heroes don stupid-looking jumpsuits. They get into rocket-propelled elevators and make special arm movements, which magnetically change their jumpsuits into even stupider-looking jumpsuits. Once inside little flying cars, they're shot out of the nuclear battleship, along with the parts of their robots. The flying cars dock with the robots, and Janus and Ester wind up fighting evil inside some of the most inept looking machinery ever designed for a Japanese cartoon.

Seriously, these two robots - "Magnon" and "Magnetta"- resemble gingerbread men more than they do combat equipment. Naturally they're useless against the monsters of Xerxes Tire-Iron Dada, so they must combine into Magnos. This requires the following sequence: Janus and Ester leap out of their robots in mid-air and whirl around each other face to face, while the pieces of Magnos are shot out of the nuclear battleship. All this whirling somehow turns both Janus and Ester into some sort of rectangular yellow box, and as the pieces of Magnos come together in the sky, this rectangular yellow box becomes Magnos' belt buckle. Magnos itself is another terrible robot design - think of Go Nagai's Steel Jeeg and then exaggerate the less plausible, more outlandish features. Magnos has pumped-up steel muscles, a head that doesn't turn, blades that pop out of the hands, and tiny wrists and ankles (this becomes a plot point later, believe it or not). Meanwhile, of course, the enemies of mankind have been chilling out and watching this entire transformation take place.

Xerxes Tire-Iron Dada is far away in another galaxy, so he's forced to rely upon his minions to conquer Earth. Led by Brain, a grotesquely ugly green fellow with a giant brain that resembles an afro, they include a robot guy, a woman made out of fish parts, and some kind of lion person. They're all full of great plans for defeating Magnos and conquering the Earth. Most of these plans involve gigantic monsters made from combining Earth animals - resulting in LSD-inspired combinations like Batroacher and Octo-Crabus X-3. Yes, it's monster design via Conan O'Brien's "If They Mated."

The dubbing is terrible. The mix is awful, resulting in incidental music drowning out nearly every important line of dialogue. The actors read their lines competently enough, but the script can't decide if it wants to be silly and self-referential or deadly serious. Of course, when the bad guy is named Xerxes Tire-Iron Dada and most of Brain's lines consist of "What treachery is THIS?" it's hard to maintain a serious tone. At least somebody was having fun with Magnos. It's hard to say how seriously this was taken in Japan, anyway. After all, this IS a show where a giant bat-cockroach attacks an oil refinery, where our karate hero Janus is shown karate-chopping a bull in a flashback. The show is just wild enough, just kitschy enough to make me think that everybody was in on the joke. At least I hope nobody was taking this seriously. The animation isn't as lame as the storyline; perfectly competent Toei TV show animation, much as you'd see in any TV anime of the day. Some of the fighting scenes are actually fairly well done. "Well done" - never thought I'd use that phrase in connection with Magnos.

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(Grace Jones - big Magnos fan)

Curiously, the Spanish track on the DVD has a better audio mix than the English track. Magnos was a big hit in Italy under its original title Ga-Keen, and it would have been nice to see the Italian opening credits, maybe some Italian dialogue. But this is a bargain basement DVD release, and anyway, special features would destroy the low-rent atmosphere Magnos works so hard to maintain.Yes, I said DVD - Magnos the Robot makes a fine addition to anybody's DVD collection, as a counterpoint to all those expensive box sets full of anime designed for the hip, artsy, with-it, modern aficionado of the animated art. Magnos takes us directly back to the time when the term "Japanese cartoon" meant cheap, lurid, violent children's entertainment. If you're concerned about the image of Japanese animation as a mature art form for intelligent adults, avoid Magnos, because it will make you cry. However, if you're in the mood for outlandish junk-food cartoons about clumsy-looking giant robots battling the monsters of Xerxes Tire-Iron Dada, then Magnos is the one to watch.

(this review originally appeared at anime jump- go there now)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Anime Hell coming to fanimecon 2007!!!

I am proud to announce for the first time at a west coast anime convention that Anime Hell will be attending fanimecon this year!

What is Anime Hell


Anime Hell harkens back to the days where film enthusiasts held gatherings and showed film clips, trailer reels, and out of print cartoons and cult films to their friends and the public (in the days of actual celluloid film).

Anime Hell in its modern form began over a decade ago, as a presentation put on at various anime cons. It's sort of a visual disk-jockey kind of thing - short clips of bits from Japanese cartoons, commercials, movie trailers, educational films, short animated films, pop culture detrius, bleeps, blunders, and practical jokes. To maybe a few people's surprise, it became pretty popular.
Psycho Spot Color
Anime Hell now has many shows throughout the year, produced and hosted by a cabal (always wanted to see the word 'cabal' used in a guest bio) of friends who lend their own creative bent to each of their shows. The quick-paced and free flowing nature of each Anime Hell show that can't be experienced anywhere else or online. In addition to entertaining audiences at shows, the Anime Hell crew are dedicated to celebrating, archiving, and popularizing the bizarre and hilarious bits of human pop culture. Anime Hell is thrilled to be bringing its bit of showmanship to the west coast for the first time, so please no poking with sharp objects.

[ Anime Hell was Youtube before Al Gore said he invented the Internet, and will likely still be around after the next great Kanto earthquake sinks Otakuland to the bottom of the sea...just so you know Wink ].

Who is hosting this decadent show?

Your mindful gondolier on this ride is Ryan Gavigan. Ryan's one of the founders and con chairs of Anime Central, and has been attending and staffing various anime conventions for over 15 years. But in reality, he enjoys making parodies and collecting goofy crap, so his gravitation towards Anime Hell production seemed pre-ordained. He's been hosting Anime Hell at a number of midwestern anime conventions over the last few year and can't wait to bring the show out to this year's Fanime Con.

Reposted from the FanimeCon Forum.

Friday, March 23, 2007

the secret history of anime parody dubbing

(this article was originally written in the late 90s. Many dramatic changes have taken place in the anime parody world since then but I haven't been paying attention.)

One of the craziest things Japanese anime fans do - besides spend thousands of dollars on cartoons that are in a language they don't understand - is parody dubbing. Like making your own music videos, dubbing your own voice over somebody else's video is an idea that sort of comes naturally to the hard-core anime person. You've got two VCRs, you're pretty well versed in the process of hooking them up to make copies, and sooner or later you're going to look at that "audio input" jack and start thinking to yourself, "Hey, that could be my voice coming out of that little TV speaker, making Rick Hunter say silly things!"

In fact, if you get two or three overstimulated teenagers and make them watch some untranslated anime, it won't be ten minutes before the quips and gags start flying. It's only a matter of time before somebody digs up a microphone, somebody else cannibalizes their stereo, and there you are making your own parody dub. This is nothing new - none less than Woody Allen employed the exact same technique for the re-dubbed feature film "What's Up Tiger Lily?" - but it took anime fandom and A/V nerd know-how to take it from the pro studios and put it in our own living rooms.

Who started this wacky sub-sub-subculture? Well, the earliest evidence of parody dubbing is a legendary treasure known as "You Say Yamato". It's an episode of Star Blazers dubbed wacky, and while it undoubtedly is the granddaddy of them all, whether or not it can be called 'influential' is debatable because nobody had a copy of the damn thing, and if you didn't live in New England you didn't even get to SEE it. I myself was bugging one of the creators for a copy as early as 1985, and even my desperate pleas went ignored, because, you know, if they copied it they might get in trouble with the copyright holders. Well, that was their excuse, anyway. Having since obtained a copy, I find the legend of "You Say Yamato" looms large because of its early entry into the field and its relative obscurity, rather than because of its comedy value.

Anyway, the one that was both very early and very influential was a little thing that really had no title, but became known as "Dirty Pair Does Dishes," by a Southern California group known as Pinesalad Productions. Pinesalad had dubbed some Robotech episodes ("How Drugs Won The War" and "Why Don't You Come Over For A Sip Of Sherry, Slut."), but it was their Dirty Pair that really brought down the house. The voices were goofy, yet fitting - Kei sounds like Der Arnold and Yuri's voice is strictly Valley Girl. The soundtrack was pure 80's New Wave, and the dialog was silly and suggestive enough to make even the most sour-faced anime fan laugh.

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What's more, this one showed up just as anime tape trading was getting into high gear. DPDD was copied and re-copied and re-copied to such an extent that just about everybody involved in anime fandom from 1988-1992 had seen the darn thing so many times that it wasn't even funny. Pinesalad would go on to dub three more Dirty Pair episodes before extricating themselves from the anime parody community.

Around the same time Pinesalad was mangling the Dirty Pair, two guys in Atlanta were doing the same thing to Star Blazers, AKA Space Cruiser Yamato. They called themselves Corn Pone Flicks, and their film would be re-christened Star Dipwads. Corn Pone wasn't content to just take an episode -they took the entire film Arrivederci Space Cruiser Yamato and re-dubbed it. What set CPF's approach apart from the others was the simple yet effective tactic of editing. While other parody film producers were content to just let the video run unmolested, Star Dipwads would use the magic of editing to make the Star Force destroy their own headquarters, warp whenever the heck they felt like it, and shoot themselves in the main bridge. The Comet Empire was explained away as a giant orbiting swarm of copulating sheep, and Prince Zordar was clearly insane, asking his subordinates repeatedly to explain the existence of goats.

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The non-sequitur comedy of "Star Dipwads" entertained con audiences for years until CPF got tired of showing it all the damn time. CPF would later produce the live-action mockumentary "Making Of Star Dipwads", the half-live, half-parody prequel "A Star Dipwads Christmas", the parody subtitled "Grandizer VS Great Mazinger" and "Mazinger Z VS Devilman", and lots of straight fan subtitled videos, not to mention many short comedic films including "Corn Dog Seven" and "The Phone." The last installment in the Dipwads saga -1997's "The Return Of Star Dipwads II -The Metal Years" - continued the "mockumentary" theme as an intro to one wild thirty minutes of parody dubbing in which the Star Force spends three years fiddling with the thermostat and Captain Avatar's psychic powers are growing stronger by the minute. There was even a Star Dipwads comic!

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As the 90s bloomed so did fan dubbing. Sherbert Productions produced their own Dirty Pair parody and moved on to Ranma 1/2 and Gatchaman. Some guy down in Florida did an episode of Tekkaman where the plot concerned hair care products. Seishun Shitamasu dubbed Gunbuster into a fake Robotech. Magnum Opus Productions did their own version of "1982- Grafitti of Otaku Generation" and turned it into "Fanboy Generation", complete with fake "interviews." They just completed a smutty version of Speed Racer. A Great Lakes outfit known as "G.R.A.A.C." released their own take on Evangelion, only this one has a pronounced Hibernian accent. Yes, it's "Bad Scottish Dubbing," complete with a fair Sean Connery impression. And Birmingham's Video Mare Jigoku produced not one, not two, but three in the live-action-clips-versus-animated-clips "X-23" series. The second installment (produced in conjunction with Corn Pone Flicks) is 150 minutes long and violates literally hundreds of copyrights and 'fair-use' agreements. Guess what? Nobody cares.

Video Mare Jigoku also did a video in which the Enterprise battles Captain Harlock, inspired by seeing CPFs video where Captain Harlock battles Han Solo, which was inspired by seeing a very very early homemade video possibly by Texas fan Jeff Blend, in which the Enterprise battled the Yamato (the Yamato won). CPF later did a video where Captain Harlock single-handedly destroyed the Empire from Star Wars. Did Lucas sue? Not yet.

Some of these parodies are funny - some are tedious - some are downright abusive. But the important thing is, the kids aren't just sitting back and couch-potatoing like zombies. They're taking what they see and using it as fodder for their own creativity, and that can't help but be cool.

The technology has come a long way, too - gone are the days when you had to record your dialog onto an audio cassette (the same cassette deck that was providing many of your sound effects!) and play it back into the video. Even back then some VCRs had "audio-dub" switches - keep the video, but record new audio - that music video creators were already using to good advantage. These days the kids can mix the audio on their desktop super computers, combine it with video either out to a S-VHS or again, right on the desktop, and there you go. Titles are child's play.

The best of the parody-dubbed films these days rival even professional TV shows, at least in appearance. Seamless edits and fancy titles abound. The actual writing is still sometimes stuck in the goofy-sit-around-and-make-fun-of-the-cartoons league, but even that has its own DIY charm. This is comedy without focus groups, editorial boards, sponsors or producers - this is total artistic freedom. So what if dick jokes abound? It's FREEDOM, man. Go out there and get some!


Monday, March 19, 2007

Sonny Chiba: EATING MACHINE

These are good times for Sonny Chiba fans. More of his films are now available on region 1 DVD then ever before. Even better, many of Sonny Chiba's movies have been shown recently on IFC's Gindhouse late night exploitation block. So there are even more chances for you to see Sonny Chiba beat somebody to death with his bare hands.

Not that your typical Sonny Chiba movie is non-stop wall to wall mayhem and Karate bloodletting. In between the bone breaking punches and skull splitting kicks there are scenes of Sonny eating. That's right, eating.

Here in an early scene from THE KILLING MACHINE Sonny explains his position on stealing a bite to eat to black marketers just before beating them to within an inch of their lives.
blackmarket
hungry
And then many asses are kicked. The message is clear, food is worth stealing for and fighting for. Is it worth killing for?

Here Sonny enjoys a meal with members of his Japan Action Club later on in THE KILLING MACHINE. And they seem to be dining with Lee Harvey Oswald.

And here we see Sonny finishing a bowl of noodles just before beating the crap out of three gangsters. He lets them live. Half a dozen scenes later Sonny castrates them with a shears. No kidding.
goosedinner
In the end Sonny's appetite for justice knows no bounds. Fortunately, before the goose meets it's fate, Sonny is interrupted by a challenge from what looks like the Geico Caveman and his life partner. Thankfully, the Chiba kicks their asses and in a moment of charity tells them to go to the hospital.

If all these scenes of eating were only in one Sonny Chiba movie I'd chalk it up to some weird director's choice. But no. Here's a moment from KARATE BULL FIGHTER:

Sonny has just defeated the best Karate Masters in Japan. No wonder he's hungry.

In the previous scene the Chiba has beaten the American Army's Boxing Champion by shattering the bones in the boxer's hands. Now he explains that he won only because he had an empty stomach. All while he shovels down a hot bowl.

So, does Sonny Chiba have food issues? It certainly seems like it. Sonny grew up in post-war Japan, was he one of the hungry cherub faced street urchins we see stealing food in the black markets of his movies? Or maybe he's just hungry after working off all those calories beating people to death with his bare hands.



Friday, March 16, 2007

ULTRAMAN, MONSTERS, AND YOU

Nostalgia used to be classified as a mental illness. The wiser heads of the Victorian age rightly determined that any personality so warped as to let itself be obsessed with the past was one seriously in need of the finest counseling that the pre-psychoanalytical age could provide.
Knowing all this makes it all the more difficult to appreciate, much less write about, a show like Ultraman. Is your love of the show truly motivated by the actual quality of the show itself? Or are you using the show as an excuse to wallow in the memories of a more innocent age, spent wearing footy pajamas, on one of America's more garish sofas, eyes glued to the Superstation Channel 17 as the weird multicolored swirl of what appeared to be latex house paint formed itself into the show's title, to the accompaniment of a discordant jangle of tortured electric guitar strings? Is Ultraman your gateway drug into nostalgia addiction?

Or are we, as I suspect, dealing with the phenomena of sleep-deprived young viewers combined with a unique and frequently bizarre television show?

Ultraman first premiered in 1966 on TBS, the Tokyo Broadcasting System. The brainchild of producer Eiji Tsubaraya, Ultraman was a sequel of sorts to a show called Ultra Q, a monster-laden suspense show along the lines of our Outer Limits. What set Ultraman apart from Ultra Q was, naturally, the eponymous Ultraman, a giant silvery spaceman visiting Earth to protect us from monsters. In a nation already dutifully trooping to the theater every year for another Godzilla film, a television show featuring pretty much the same sort of thrill was a natural success. Ultra Seven followed Ultraman, which was in turn followed by Return of Ultraman, Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Leo, Ultraman Taro, and Ultraman 80. After a hiatus of nearly fifteen years, Ultraman returned to TV entertainment courtesy of the US-Japanese co-production Ultraman Powered; in recent years, new Ultra series like Dyna and Tiga have shown up regularly on Japanese (and American) television. Even though Ultraman was a Tsubaraya production, I have only Peter Fernandez to thank for it; without his work dubbing the series into English, for me and most Americans it would only be a curiosity alongside Fireman, Mirrorman, Zone Fighter, Red Baron, et cetera.

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I'm not going to bore you with descriptions of Ultraman or the Science Patrol or of their guns and spaceships and uniforms and what-not. All that stuff is pure window dressing-- merely the sugar coating the pill of delicious horror that the UHF antenna brought into your home. Who knew what that Saturday's episode was going to bring? A quivering, gelatinous thing, with antennae bristling from its rubbery orfices, menacing Earth simply by daring to exist? The corpse of a monkey-faced mummy, reanimated by ten million volts, vaporizing Tokyo police? Zebra-striped, fetish-masked aliens who walk through walls and collect shrunken scientists in test tubes? The tortured cry of a gigantic, mutated astronaut echoing through the forest? Or, best of all, the echoing laugh of the silver-hued, lobster-clawed Baltan, whose rotating eye-stalks foretold the doom of the human race?

Like the British baby-boomer children who fearfully watched Doctor Who's Daleks from behind the safety of solid middle-class British furniture, American children found that Ultraman's monsters were not only best viewed from behind the couch, but that most could be dispatched with a quick burst of Spacium energy from Ultraman's crossed forearms. In fact, Ultraman inspired my first effort at media journalism; a one-page report delivered to my first grade class on blue-lined notebook paper (though the subtextual subtleties of the show escaped my 6-year old view). The calming presence of that giant, bulb-eyed spaceman assured us all that while monsters may howl and cardboard city blocks might be demolished, safety and order would ultimately triumph.

No, the fact of the matter is that Ultraman is frequently dismissed as a monster-of-the-week show, a Godzilla imitator starring Clark Kent as a giant silvery wrestling champion defending miniature office buildings. And these dismissals are entirely fair. Honestly, it's a simplistic, frequently silly show entirely too dependent upon underpaid actors in uncomfortable rubber monster suits. And yet...

And yet, I can't forget the chill that literally tingles my spine when I recall some of the show's more effective monsters. The bottom line of this show is - maybe it's a show intended to frighten (and therefore entertain) children - but if that's the show's purpose, than it is a resounding success.

Because this is a show that scares children. The constant use of location shooting (this takes place in the real world, not some set)-- the parade of incidental characters attacked, possessed, murdered, or otherwise affected by the monsters-- the New Wave cinema verite camera techniques-- all these add to Ultraman's fear factor. Produced by a society consumed with a love of the bizarre, Ultraman could hardly expect to be anything else - bizarre is the only word for a show utterly consumed by monsters. Monsters big and small - from gigantic horned beasts that shoot fire and emit blinding flashes, to a subterranean race of what would be ordinary looking people, except they have NO EYES. Or the shiny silver alien who creates his own evil Ultraman. Or another alien who tempts a human boy to betray his planet, like Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness.

Ultraman himself is a monster. Gigantic, unspeaking, with destructive and vaguely defined powers, looking gnarled and lumpy in the close-up shots. Sure, as the franchise continued we'd get a parade of Ultraman and Ultrawomen and Ultrakids, along with backstory about their home galaxy, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseaum. Thank God that stuff never made it to the States, at least not while I was a kid. I prefer the original- unencumbered by dogma, paint peeling from his shopworn Ultra suit, dedicated to kicking monster ass, occasionally cutting loose with a few meaningless grunts. The silly or contrived moments of his TV show being counterbalanced by the creepy, the bizarre, the monstrous.

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America has produced no children's television quite so menacingly offbeat; the closest one might come is the Sid & Marty Kroftt production Land of the Lost, or the pre-hero monster comics Marvel produced in the early '60s. Horror in America is strictly for adults, or for kids smart enough to dodge parents or babysitters.

This nostalgia jag was sparked by a fat volume of Sun Special Ultraman manga from the 60s. I wasn't expecting too much; so much Ultraman stuff is out there, and very little of it really has much to do with the show I enjoyed as a child. In fact I'd had a volume of SHONEN MAGAZINE's Ultraman comics by Kazumine Daiji for years - simplistic Mitsuteru Yokoyama-style clean-line SF comics without any distinguishing characteristics. Well, this manga, by Kazuo Umezu, begins with a story where a crazed scientist takes a big swallow from a gasoline pump, and then his skin peels away and he turns into a Baltan. A disgusting, veiny, chitinous Baltan, who lets Ultraman rip one of his claws off, just so he can set fire to the gasoline draining from the wound and fly off, laughing.

Then things get really weird.

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The stories in this volume have a passing resemblance to the television scripts, but only faintly. The draftsmanship is childish and crude, except where monsters are concerned, who are delineated with a loving and detailed hand aimed directly at the primary goal; frightening children. The boys who read this would grow up to read even more outlandish and violent mens' comics; the girls would have a whole sub-genre of girls' horror comics, jam-packed with beheadings, defenestrations, and entrails, for their entertainment.

The question is, do Japanese kids hide behind the sofa when the Baltans appear on the screen? Do they get the same kind of horror-excitement charge that American children got? Or are they culturally so inured to the bizarre nature of their popular entertainment that such things are seen as a matter of course? If so, that's a shame. Perhaps you have to be raised in the more restrictive atmosphere (at least as far as television is concerned) of mid-70s America to truly appreciate the creepy vibe of Ultraman.

The other question is, what happened to Ultraman? From genuinely disturbing to shiny and genial in one - okay, two seasons? By the time the 70s rolled around, Ultraman was safe and non-threatening; he might as well have worn glasses and worked at the Daily Planet. It's probably yet another symptom of Nostalgia As Psychological Disturbance for one to prefer that Tsubaraya keep his show scary and threatening rather than safe and comforting; probably more advertising money with the safe angle, I should imagine. Maybe you can't return to the pre-teen days of being scared out of your wits by a laughing Baltan. However, sometimes, all it takes is a few panels of a out-of-print comic serial to bring it all rushing back.

Minus the footy pajamas, of course.

Don't forget to pick up ULTRAMAN volumes 1 and 2 from BCI/Navarre at your favorite local or online retailer!


Friday, March 09, 2007

Star Wars: the Japanese Version

Ah, the late '70's. Disco, custom vans, gasoline lines, and STAR WARS. And STAR WARS ripoffs. Sure, our own Roger Corman got into the act two or three or four times, and even such powerhouses as Disney and Universal were tempted into jumping on the bandwagon, not to mention the Italians with their cinematic masterwork, the aptly named STAR CRASH (cough cough). However, I maintain that for sheer entertainment value, you can't beat Japan. Long known as the home of violent giant robot cartoons and rubber-suit monster epics, this island nation turned its energies towards SF-action films and proved they can make the most original ripoffs around.
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I was lucky enough to see Toei's MESSAGE FROM SPACE in a theater, and young enough to enjoy it. Anyone older than 10 would have immediately dismissed it as a pathetic STAR WARS imitation. Years later I was able to appreciate the fact that it was one of Vic Morrow's last roles, that Philip Casnoff would go on to play Frank Sinatra, and that the script was by one of Japan's foremost comics legends, Shotaro Ishinomori. However, at the time, all I knew was that this movie had it all. Space hot-rodders, evil silver-painted aliens, the destruction of the moon, a funny robot, laser guns, swordfights, the works.


The script is actually a SF reworking of a tale from feudal Japan known as the 'Legend Of The Eight Samurai', in which a desperate monarch sends eight magic seeds out into the world. Whoever finds one of the seeds is chosen as a holy warrior and charged with saving the kingdom. Add some spaceships and explosions, and you've got MESSAGE FROM SPACE, as the peaceful planet Tulusia is conquered by the evil Govannis. The Tulusians send out the magic seeds along with the requisite beautiful young space princess, played by Sue Shiomi, fresh from the starring role in Toei's SISTER STREETFIGHTER. Chosen by the seeds are two Earth space-delinquents, a spoiled young rich girl, a sleazy grifter, a retired alcholic space general (dialogue when meeting the remaining heroes: "I must have gotten drunk, wandered in here, and fallen asleep."), his robot comedy-relief sidekick, the true heir to the Govannis throne who was deposed and left to die on a desolate planet, and lastly, the Tulusian who... well, I don't want to spoil it. Let's just say that the mixture of American and Japanese acting talent works fairly well.

The dialog is naturally goofy-sounding. When discussing combining her spaceship with the two hot-rods, our spoiled rich girl Maya says "Oh GAWD what a machine it would be!" The Western actors are pretty much left to their own devices, to over-or-under-act as they see fit. Speaking of under-acting, Vic Morrow wears a sucession of costumes, each more embarrassing than the last.

The film climaxes with a combination trench / fly-into-the-interior-of-the-enemy-base-and destroy-the-energy-core scene that will leave you wondering who ripped off who. The special effects are actually pretty good. When destroying the huge enemy space battleship at the end of the movie, they take the 10-or 12-foot model, douse it with gasoline, and set the thing on fire, and it looks great. Earlier in the film an asteroid belt scene is shot not by costly and then-ineffectual bluescreen, but by making thousands of model asteroids and having the ship (and the camera) weave in and out amongst them. There are exploding planets, space cruisers that fire giant missiles from their noses, anachronistic space-going sailing ships, and enough other flashy stuff to entertain the 7-year olds in the audience (namely me). I swear, there aren't five minutes in this movie that don't feature a laser gunfight, space combat, silver-painted aliens, or explosions.

Sonny Chiba, voted the Japanese most likely to kick your ass, plays the deposed rightful Govannis ruler, and his martial arts skill is immediately evident as he proceeds to wipe out half the Govannis base by himself during the climactic final battle. Sure, there are glowing special effects all over the place to try and compete with STAR WARS' lightsabers, but for honest-to-God swordfighting action, this movie can't be beat. Oh, and it was also directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who directed THE GREEN SLIME in 1969 and would go on to helm BATTLE ROYALE in 2000. Go Kinji!!

Toei would go on to make a TV series out of MESSAGE FROM SPACE, retaining all the models and the name "Govannis" but dumping everything else in favor of POWER RANGERS-style martial arts action and a talking gorilla sidekick. Yeah, a talking gorilla. This was around the same time they made their SPIDERMAN TV show in which Spiderman got a giant robot and a car with machine guns on it. No kidding.

THE WAR IN SPACE, on the other hand, is a tiresome and lackluster Toho production that can't decide whether it wants to rip off STAR WARS, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, or its own precursor ATRAGON (a.k.a. Kaitei Gunkan, or Undersea Battleship). Here's the plot: evil alien light fixtures bombard the Earth as shown in special effects scenes lifted from other Toho monster movies. The Earth retaliates with its secret super space battleship, the Gohten, which resembles a battleship with fancy crap stuck all over it (like the Yamato) and a big drill in the nose (like the Atragon).

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Our multinational (OK, one Caucasian) crew takes off to destroy the alien base on Venus. Along the way they launch space fighters out of an arrangement that resembles nothing more than the cylinder out of a .357 Magnum revolver. The Captain's daughter (played by cute Japanese model Yuko Asano) is captured, taken to Venus, and made to dress slutty, so before they can destroy the base, a special team of hand-picked commandos infiltrates the base, rescues the daughter from the lamest Chewbacca ripoff ever, and escapes just in time for the Captain to activate the drill in the prow of the ship and send it right into the enemy.

This destroys the entire planet Venus.

In its defense, WAR IN SPACE manages to be faintly amusing whenever the alien (you only see one) shows up. Hehas green skin, is dressed in Roman garb, and is dubbed with incredibly incoherent dialog. The effects scenes are adequate when they're not stock footage, and the scene with the axe-wielding, horned Wookiee reject is priceless. However, the exciting parts are seperated by long stretches of attempted storyline involving really boring subplots, and the movie itself is such a obviously slapped-together pastiche of other, vastly superior SF films that viewing becomes a challenge rather than a pleasure. Even the dubbed-in voices seem bored with the whole thing (as perhaps they were). After this disaster, Toho wouldn't make another SF movie for seven years. It's one of the few films I'm glad never made it to American theaters.

Discotek Media recently released a DVD version of WAR IN SPACE that looks great. Unfortunately you can't shine crap. Movie still stinks on ice.

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But enough about that turkey. MESSAGE FROM SPACE has yet to be officially released on home video over here, so your best bet is to catch it on TNT (they're running the uncut version from time to time) or shell out for the letterboxed Japanese DVD. Even though at first glance it's just another STAR WARS ripoff, I think everybody will agree that, ripoff or not, it's one darned entertaining film.

Dave Merrill


(this article first appeared in the Star Wars fanzine BLUE HARVEST and thereafter at the fine website ANIME JUMP.)



Friday, March 02, 2007

GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON

GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON


You never can tell what you're going to find in the children's section. After convincing the girl next door to sell me her Astro Boy LP for $2, I became alerted to the possibilities of finding 60s Japanese animation items on vinyl. So there I was at Wax & Facts, arguably the best record store in Atlanta, incurring the amused glances of hipsters as I pored through their bin of kiddy records. That's where I found the original motion picture soundtrack to Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon.

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This 1965 Toei film was originally titled "Gulliver's Space Journey" and was directed by Yoshio Kuroda. It was released over here by Walter Reade-Sterling and Continental, two names that have long ceased to mean anything in Hollywood, but which spent the 1960s importing Japanese films (Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster), British films (This Sporting Life) and fake Cinerama travelogues (Mediterranean Holiday).I can only imagine what it must have been like to see this thing in a theater. I wonder about this mostly because the film was shot in Tohoscope, and no extant copies (in English, anyway) are letterboxed. Once relegated to off-air videotapings and bootleg video release, now bargain-bin DVD publisher Catcom has released Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon on a double-feature DVD with the Dave and Max Fleischer Gulliver's Travels from 1939. Public domain copies of the Fleischer Gulliver's Travels have been clogging retail shelves and thrift store bins for years and years, and for years and years I've looked at every one of them in the hopes that it would be Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon instead. Now, thanks to Catcom, I can quit looking.


Catcom's DVD release is more or less a digital transfer of the same grey-market print of Gulliver that has been making the rounds on VHS for a few years - faded colors, fuzzy sound, and even a few good old-fashioned drops and calibration errors. What you're seeing on this DVD isn't very far from what I first saw the film on a VHS tape I think I swapped a subtitled copy of Nausicaa for - Toei's first excursion into science-fiction animation.

Don't let the title fool you. This isn't some tedious literary adaption, like the 1940s Fleischer Gulliver that accompanies our film on this DVD. Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon is one of the first entries in a field that would define Japanese animation - children's space adventure. However, this is a space cartoon unlike any that came before, and sadly, unlike any that came afterwards. It's dominated by character designs influenced heavily by the experimental eastern European animation of the day, and mechanical designs that are more Museum Of Modern Art than Astounding Science Fiction. There are op-art dream sequences, haunting landscapes reminiscent of Salvador Dali, and legions of abstract robots whose destruction gives new meaning to the term "cubism". Our hero Ricky is a homeless orphan in what appears to be a dilapidated European country, wandering alone and friendless. After meeting a talking dog and a talking toy soldier, they head over to the amusement park for some late-night rollercoaster action. Once the security guards get wise, they chase our heroes to an island, where they find a giant rocket ship commanded by Gulliver of Lilliput fame, who hasn't lost the itch for travel and is now going to outer space. He's headed for the Hope Star, a mysterious planet where dreams come true! Soon our heroes are blasted into outer space, braving zero gravity and mysterious time reversals. But they persevere and soon are approaching the Hope Star. Before they can land, however, a squadron of strange space ships forces our heroes to land on the Hope Star's companion planet, the Blue Star. The strange, Calder-esque beings of the Blue Star are weird, but friendly. They explain that the Hope Star is ruled by robots! Robots that they themselves built!

In true pulp-SF fashion, the King explains that years ago the citizens of the Hope Star built robots to fulfill their every need. Soon the people were lazy and had no ambition. When the robots became intelligent and took over the planet, all the people could do was flee to the Blue Star, where they endure daily flying saucer attacks from the robots. This historical background is explained in a terrifying musical number entitled "Rise Robots Rise", which is as close as anime ever gets to Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Legions of blank-faced, goose-stepping robots conquer the Hope Star, crushing all in their path. The final touch is the musical score, a surprisingly atonal Moog synthesizer freakout that undoubtedly haunts Keith Emerson's dreams to this day.

This is a good spot to mention the film's musical score, by Milton & Anne DeLugg. Mr. DeLugg has written songs for everybody from Perry Como to Frank Sinatra, from Morey Amsterdam to Soupy Sales. He wrote the music for and was the bandleader on Chuck Barris's Gong Show. Milton's talent is in full effect here - Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon is hands down the best American-made soundtrack to any Japanese animated film ever. Sprightly children's chorus singalongs, jazzy orchestral brass, atmospheric keyboard work - it's all here. Anyway, horrified by the Rising Of The Robots, Ricky and the gang decide that they've got to go to the Hope Star and do battle. Plus, the robots have captured the King's daughter. So it's off to outer space once again.

Luckily, life in this region of the universe has one weakness - plain, ordinary water! Upon contact with it, even the robots disintegrate into tiny little cubes! One can imagine Michael Kupperberg's comic-strip Picasso screaming I BREAK-A YOU DOWN INTO LEETLE CUBES!! Armed with his water pistol, Ricky's High Noon showdown with the Robot Posse leads to victory! However, the robots have a secret weapon - a GIANT robot, invulnerable to water, controlled by normal-sized robots in the head. Can Ricky defeat this behemoth? What dreadful secret haunts the people of the Blue Star? Don't reveal the shock ending of this picture to your friends!!This is a really entertaining film. Sure, this is a movie about a boy and his talking dog friend and how they go into outer space with a talking crow and a talking toy soldier and Gulliver, and there are countless children's films with plots just as wacky or wackier that in the end are tiresome wastes of time. Not Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon. This film is alternatively startling, bizarre, or fun, sometimes all three at once. There are few films, anime or otherwise, that have such a unique and powerful visual sense.


The dubbing is peculiar; I don't recognize any of the voices from Fred Ladd's TITRA studio, and a 60s Japanese cartoon without a Peter Fernandez or a Billie Lou Watt is a strange animal indeed. The voice talents are a cast of unknowns (led by a Stephen DeLugg - hmmmm) and are fairly low-key, but directed with the same staccato cadence typical of the voice acting of the period.Catcom's DVD release is of course a mixed bag. I enjoy the double feature motif and I like the extras like cartoons and commercials (the cartoons on this disk are a pair of Fleischer's Gabby cartoons, starring one of the Lilliputians from their Gulliver film, and are uniformly terrible). However, as I said before, the picture quality of Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon is on the level of a low-end VHS release. What's more, I hate their menus - select one of two choices, and all that happens is they switch colors. Unless you know which color means "selected", you won't know which one you chose until you're halfway through the opening credits of the Fleisher Gulliver. Catcom, please add a little arrow or something to help your dimmer customers out. However, in spite of the flaws in the presentation, this is a film I can't recommend too highly. It should be owned by anyone with an interest in visual culture, Japanese animation, or montage sequences about robots conquering entire planets. Now that you can get it semi-legally, nothing remains to stop you from joining Gulliver on his trip Beyond The Moon.

(Editor's note: Special thanks to Dan Baker for finding this treasure! You can get your copy online at Halfpricebooks.com.)

The Dark[er] Side of Sanrio: Ringing Bell

Once upon a time, Sanrio--best known as being the makers of Hello Kitty and friends--was in the habit of making animated features, and they were pretty darn good stuff. If you're an aging and decrepit fossil of anime fandom (that is to say, older than your mid-20s), then perhaps you remember the Unico movies or Sea Prince and the Fire Child. These movies, having never been re-released on DVD, were largely forgotten for several years, until one daring and intrepid man equipped with a VCR and a PC capture card decided to do the "fansub tape God" equivalent of Prometheus bringing fire down from Mount Olympus to give to us mere mortals: he made digital captures of his VHS tapes and made them available for download.


Okay fine, so I don't think he did Sea Prince and the Fire Child. But that's okay, because there is another Sanrio production he has made available, one whose name was thrown about for decades to me as a sort of mythical Holy Grail of Anime Nightmare Fuel: Ringing Bell. The veterans at anime cons would often bring this up when putting their "anime fandom street cred" cards on the table, as getting a hold of copies of this thing was damn near impossible. Maybe you knew a guy who knew a guy who had a fourth generation copy on VHS, only in the days of snail mail fansub distribution, a person might have to offer something of equal rarity to trade for before getting said copy. And so the Fansub Tape Gods thrived: they had the stuff which couldn't be found anywhere else, and you didn't. You were at their mercy.

So it is that finding information online regarding Ringing Bell can be kind of tricky. Running only about 45 minutes long or so, it isn't something people would normally classify as a "movie," but hey, it was the 70s and OAVs hadn't quite existed yet. It's about a cute little lamb named Chirin who loves to frolic and play, and everything seems like the Sanrio we know and love...until the big bad wolf shows up and slaughters his mother. Fed up with his lot in life, Chirin vows to become a wolf himself rather than wait to be killed and be completely powerless to stop it. It's almost a shonen-style "never give up on your dream!" tale, except for the part where you have to abandon your soul and walk the path of Hell. Ogami Itto would be proud.
If you want to learn more about this obscure bit of Sanrio lore, I reviewed it in greater detail on Show # 43 of the Anime World Order podcast. There's also a link to download it via BitTorrent!

 
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