Friday, July 22, 2016

some notes from the meeting of the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club

The following is a transcription of a recent assembly of one of the foremost Thunder Sub fan organizations, and is presented to the readers of Let's Anime as a public service in the hopes that this will further understanding of both Thunder Sub and the fans thereof.

(transcript begins)

Hello! Welcome to the biannual meeting of the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club. As you know, it's official - we are now the largest Thunder Sub fan organization in this part of the state! Captain Noah himself would be proud of your dedication. Now I'd like to bring our new members up to full cruising speed, so to speak. Thunder Sub – that's TWO WORDS, ladies and gentlemen – began as the Japanese animated TV series Space Carrier Blue Noah, back in 1979. In the midst of activity regarding another of his many animated productions involving outer space battleships, producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki somehow managed to find the time to inspire a handpicked team and start an entirely different voyage.

This wouldn't be Nishizaki's first undersea trip; as producer of the animated version of Tezuka's Triton Of The Sea, he'd learned a thing or two about getting wet. Springboarding from the sub-sea fantasy of second generation SF writer Hikari Tanaka, writers Hideaki Yamamoto (The Super Girl), playwright Seiji "La Seine No Hoshi" Matsuoka and future Pretty Cure scribe Takashi Yamada created an entirely new saga of a super-ship, mankind's last hope against an invading alien armada. With direction by Tomoharu Katsumata (My Youth In Arcadia) and veteran animation director Kenzo Koizumi – fresh from work on Grandizer, Mazinger Z vs Black General, and Daikengo – the Blue Noah was ready for launch.

It is the year 2052! When the far-away planet Gotham faced destruction via black hole, dictator Leader Zytel (or "Doctor Z" in English) ordered the construction of a gigantic colony vessel – the charmingly named "Terror Star" - to allow their civilization to escape. Using its gravity beams to decelerate from interstellar speeds, the Terror Star's insertion into Earth orbit wreaks havoc on our planet, and the Death Force air attacks just make things worse.

Fleeing earthquakes, tidal waves, and Death Force fighters, our hero young Shin Kusaka (Collins) follows the dying wishes of his scientist father and travels to the secret science base N1. Collins and his academy classmates find themselves on board the planet Earth's last hope, the super submarine Blue Noah (or as we know it, Thunder Sub), much to the surprise of the sub's skipper Captain Domon (Noah).

the valiant crew of Thunder Sub
Launched from a secret base, manned by an untried crew of recruits, equipped with an array of powerful weapons including the unstoppable, bow-mounted "Anti Proton Gun", the Blue Noah sets out on a journey through Earth's oceans, travelling from secret research facility to secret research facility, to find the device that will allow them to defeat the Death Force and their Terror Star!

Space Carrier Blue Noah would air on NTV and TBS stations in Japan from October '79 until March of 1980, premiering with a special telefilm pilot. Largely ignored by Japanese audiences, it would vanish after 24 weeks. Ancillary merchandise would include model kits, soundtrack LPs, tie-in manga, a sweet "DX" toy and an Asahi Sonorama single; a mere trickle of merchandise compared to other, more popular shows that might have involved space battleships. But hey, we here at the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club will take whatever we can get!

Regardless of public indifference, select fans like ourselves were enthralled as all 27 episodes (the pilot was cut three ways for syndication) intrigued us with the deadly rivalry between Colonel Lupus and the Thunder Sub and revealed the secret relationship between Captain Noah and default love interest Anna. We thrilled to the guerilla war waged across a ruined Earth and we shuddered to learn of Gotham's plan to install gravity converters at the poles and make Earth uninhabitable for us humans.

Western-World TV and Lionheart documentary evidence

Without worldwide syndication, the show would merely be an even more obscure footnote. Fortunately, a global thirst for cartoon programming would bring Thunder Sub to us. In the mid 1980s Nishizaki's Office Academy cut a syndication deal for Blue Noah with Western-World Television, noted for their David Warner-Carrie Fisher Frankenstein telefilm and co-producing the British nuclear-war gloom-drama Threads. If you caught the BBC's classic Dr. Who on American public television at the time, you might recognize Thunder Sub's distributor – Lionheart Television, of which Western-World owned a good chunk. Thunder Sub's TV broadcast credits don't list a dub cast, but sharp-eared viewers familiar with the TNT's 1990s airing of tokusatsu classic Ultra Seven might recognize the same voice actors in Thunder Sub, leading us to conclude Blue Noah's localization was executed by the same outfit – Montreal based Cinar. Thunder Sub's competent English cast handled the show's complex science-fictional concepts magnificently, with only a few missteps along the way (identifying Japan as "Hawaii" on a world map shows somebody wasn't doing their geography homework).

"N1" - that's not Hawaii, folks

Thunder Sub would air in a few US markets, including Atlanta's WATL 36. A compilation of the first 3 episodes would also get a UK home video release. Thunder Sub was also shown in Italy, Spain, Sweden, Russia, and the Arabic nations, but after a few seasons the show would sadly vanish, leaving nothing but traces in industry publications and snippets saved to off-air VHS tape. Still, the fact that our Real Deal Thunder Sub Club exists proves the show meant something special to at least a few of us – those of us who gasped at the Death Force's heavy water plants destroying Earth's ecosystem, who thrilled as the evil Colonel Lupus's space fighters engaged the Thunder Sub in a sequence animated by the great Yoshinori Kanada, who clutched the arms of our living room sofas and nearly upset our Capri-Suns and our Fruit Roll-Ups as the Terror Star lurched out of control straight for Earth, with only the Thunder Sub standing in its way.

Kanada blows 'em up real good

Now, as members of the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club, we're fully aware of the haters who say Blue Noah is merely an imitation of another Yoshinobu Nishizaki-produced cartoon, Space Battleship Yamato. They claim the characters are Yamato retreads, the weapons and story arcs are similar, that even the music is close enough to Yamato's soundtrack to make the most casual viewer say "Wait a minute!" and "Oh, come on!" and "Holy jeez, what a rip off!" We here at the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club have heard it all. And our reply is a polite no sir, we beg to differ; Blue Noah is NOT a rip off – Blue Noah is a blatant Yamato cash-in, an undersea exploitation vehicle steaming through a victory lap for Nishizaki, as he grabs whatever market share was left lying on the table, filling a timeslot left blank after Yamato 2 ended, keeping the advertisers happy and his Office Academy office gainfully employed.

We here at the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club think of Thunder Sub and Space Battleship Yamato as two great shows that happen to share a few elements. That is our position, and if you don't like it, there's the door. Just kidding! That door is locked.

any similarities between Thunder Sub and Space Battleship Yamato are purely coincidental

Even the angriest Yamato fans have to acknowledge vast differences between the two shows. Thunder Sub doesn't feature a kooky male ship's doctor – Thunder Sub's doctor is a woman! There isn't a cat on board the ship – there's a dog! And sure, both shows have young female leads whose main job is to look worried, but Thunder Sub dismisses entirely the Space Battleship Yamato concept of ethereal space goddesses. No cosmic mystery forces in Thunder Sub!

Thunder Sub's doctor inspects the troops 

Even the evil leader of the Death Force over there on the Terror Star, well, he's not a retread of Yamato's Leader Desslar. No, Thunder Sub's enemy commander is a real doctor, with a PhD in taking over planets, building Terror Stars, and blasting his entire culture across light years to conquer the Earth and secretly repopulate it with his own specially-bred master race of Doctor Z clones! And let me tell you when the Death Force rank and file find out, they aren't happy about it!

subordinate, Lupus, Doctor Z

In fact, the climax of Thunder Sub takes a sharp turn away from typical Space Battleship Yamato planet-exploding heroic sacrifice cliche just at the last minute! Not to spoil things for those of you in club who haven't yet achieved Full Real Deal Thunder Sub Real Dealness, but it turns out planet Earth is saved by the Death Force itself! That's a twist Yamato would never allow itself to take, and one more in the "win" column for Thunder Sub!

the Death Force and their Death Hats
But let's be fair. Frequently the animation is wonky in that very 1980 sub-contracted, barely moving, get-it-done-already way. And the kind of outer-space romanticism that Space Battleship Yamato did so well, the melancholy cosmic queens marooned on dead planets, universal love saving the galaxy, that sort of thing, well, that sort of thing is completely absent. Thunder Sub is much more invested in dressing its characters in sensible dungarees and making sure the audience knows how sonar can reflect off of differing temperature layers or clouds of plankton. If you've ever wondered what Yamato would have been like if Nishizaki hadn't joined forces with Leiji Matsumoto, Thunder Sub is the answer; gadget-heavy space checklists of moving from point N1 to point N2 to point N3 with faces set in grim determination, while the music swells in a just-this-side-of-actionable way.

And ultimately I think that's what led to Blue Noah / Thunder Sub's 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' performance on the world's TV screens. Viewers had been there and done that. As impressive as a flying submarine with an Anti-Proton Gun is, it can't match a romantic universe filled with space goddesses in diaphanous robes. Even though we here at the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club are as Real Deal as any Thunder Sub fans can be, we still have to face facts bravely, just as Captain Noah and Collins would do if they were here, and if they were real.

But take heart; the world has not abandoned Thunder Sub. Fans around the globe keep the show alive with fan sites, releases of its various national iterations on DVD, and by making their carefully hoarded off-air tapings available for all on YouTube. Even Yoshinobu Nishizaki himself didn't forget his orphaned space submarine, prominently naming an Earth flagship "Blue Noah" in his 2009 feature Space Battleship Yamato Resurrection.

somebody out there remembers us

In spite of all the haters and the larger forces of widespread public indifference, Thunder Sub is a show that refuses to go away, and that's just how we here at the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club like it. And now gentlemen, to business! Namely, an update in our never ending struggle with our cross-town rivals, those losers in the so-called Ultimate Thunder Sub Fan Crew! Here to report is our Secretary-Treasurer, who will... (transcript ends)

The Real Deal Thunder Sub Club is a select group of Thunder Sub fans. Membership is strictly limited to those who publicly demonstrate True Thunder Sub Real Dealness through a variety of methods. In fact, you may already be a member and not even know it. Do not attempt to contact the Real Deal Thunder Sub Club; they will find you.

Monday, June 6, 2016

defender of the universal remote

From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the UHF dial, from television producers starved for toyetic robot action, it's Voltron!  Here in the future we're faced with the prospect of yet another Voltron reboot, and it may be instructive to look back at a time in which Voltron conquered the hearts and minds of America through a wide variety of ancillary media.

The October 1985 issue of Scholastic's DYNAMITE thrilled 80s kids with Punky Brewster, the popular features "Bummers" and "Count Morbida", and of course this in-depth report on Voltron.

Kids could also enjoy Voltron via this "Galactic Activities" book of games, puzzles, and mazes, illustrated by the hand of Tony Tallarico whose work in the field of media tie-in comics has been examined at length by qualified researchers. 

Kids could also enhance their reading skills by reading along with the cassette tape adventures of Voltron as they faced Lotor's Secret Weapon, which probably was the conditioner he used on his majestic, flowing, luxurious mane of hair.

Kids could also enjoy educational play activity with the many Voltron toys produced by Panosh Place and by Matchbox.

You don't want to be the kid on the playground picked to be Pidge, believe me. Anyway, the unstoppable force of Voltron rolled across America demolishing everything it is path, indelibly impacting American pop culture, and leaving its spoor of abandoned metal-box Lion Force Series DVD tins in used DVD stores throughout the land.

Will the new Voltron series capture the hearts and minds and Christmas shopping lists of America as firmly as the old one did? Only time will tell, because sadly Dynamite Magazine isn't around any more to give us the skinny.  Meanwhile, here's a puzzle.

Monday, May 23, 2016

your May '16 update

Hey gang!  Been a busy season here at Let's Anime - well, busy everywhere, to be honest -  and I wanted to drop a quick note and let you know what's going on.

First off, Let's Anime now has a Facebook group so as to facilitate our permeability with regards to social media buzzword infestation topicality. Feel free to join, comment on Let's Anime stuff, start a discussion that will shake the foundations of civilization itself, et cetera.

This weekend is the 20th Anime North and as such I'll be there with guest Shaindle Minuk hosting panels and entertaining the crowds. What exactly will we be up to?

Friday night the popular Anime Hell event will be rockin' the TCC North Main Ballroom, that's what.  And then on Saturday noon Shain and I will be bringing our Mister Kitty Stupid Comics show to the big screen in one of the International Ballrooms!

It's sure to be jam packed with 70 years worth of dumb comics, including a lot of American fake manga, everybody's favorite. Then afterwards I'll lead a crew of grizzled Anime North veterans down Memory Lane as we take a look at the first Anime North back in 1997!

On Sunday it's another trip back in time with a curated visit to Bad American Dubbing, Corn Pone Flicks' mid-1990s series of documentaries highlighting bad American dubbing (what else?)

Popular anime translator Neil Nadelman is also at Anime North this year and he's bringing his famous Totally Lame Anime on Saturday night!

Neil's also moderating panel talks on two favorites, Orguss and V Gundam!

If you aren't able to make it to Anime North - and you might not be able to, weekend and Saturday passes are sold out -  then you can console yourself with a listen to the Anime Nostalgia podcast, the recent one where myself and host Usamimi discuss one of my favorite Japanese animated films, Galaxy Express 999! (warning: contains Apollo Smile)

And if you want a lurid 70s pagan psychedelic freakout as only Eiichi Yamamoto can deliver, then you owe it to yourself to catch one of the many screenings of the 4K restoration of the Animerama classic Belladonna Of Sadness that's roadshowing its way across North America courtesy Cinelicious Pictures!

Hopefully this is enough input to keep you occupied until our next Let's Anime column, which should be appearing shortly. Watch this space!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Stronger Than Poop: The Cinema Of Dr. Slump

Akira Toriyama kickstarted the 80s with a one-two manga punch of (1) wonderfully round cartoony characters squirrelling around a fully realized universe of pint-sized automobiles, fat little sunglass-wearing pigs, and the simple yet busy landscape of the best Richard Scarry book ever, and (2) poop jokes. Premiering in January 1980's Jump, Dr. Slump was an instant hit, winning awards, making an ink-stained superstar out of Toriyama, being collected into 18 tankubon collections, and starring in 284 episodes of TV anime from Toei on FUJI-TV. Oh, and eleven films. 

As an 80s anime nerd I knew of Dr. Slump thanks to Ardith Carlton namechecking the show in her seminal Comics Collector piece (Summer 1984 issue); soon afterwards I spotted the first tankubon on sale at the local Japanese grocery store, at a nostalgia-inducing yen-to-dollar exchange rate. It got got before you could say "N'cha!" and even though I couldn't read enough Japanese to find a toilet, Dr. Slump featured plenty of toilets and toilet humor and lots of other goofy SF comedy, universal enough to get laughs around the world, and I was a Dr. Slump fan but good. Viz would later publish the Slump manga in fine English editions, but apart from subtitled Japanese-language TV broadcasts in North American cultural markets and an abortive Harmony Gold pilot, Dr. Slump's animated output wouldn't get a proper English release until 2014's Discotek Media release of the first five Slump films in a two DVD set. Which is what we're talking about here, Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump (Arale) The Movies.

These Dr. Slump films all feature our Dr. Slump heroes; the inept genius Doctor "Slump" Senbei, his creation the super-robot girl Arale, Arale's inhuman toddler pal Gatchan, Penguin Village juvenile delinquents Taro, Akane, and Peasuke, and their glamorous, slightly scatterbrained teacher Midori Yamabuki as they deal with making demons cry to create love potions (the secret ingredient is boogers), racing around the world with marriage as the prize, being kidnapped by the mecha-wonderland Mechapolis, escaping the clutches of the evil Black Dragon Society somewhere in the 1930s, and outwitting Senbei's arch-rival, the insane super genius Dr. Mashirito, as he bends time and space itself for the hand of the lovely Midori. Filled with secondary and tertiary characters, these Dr. Slump films swarm with cameos by Ultramen, kaiju, Star Wars stormtroopers, droids, and aliens, as well as more familiar faces like Soramame the Clint Eastwood inspired barber and the inept, hateful "superhero" Suppaman.

Produced for various seasonal Toei Manga Matsuri screenings, these short films were originally meant to be enjoyed by cinemas filled with noisy, popcorn-huffing Japanese schoolchildren. How entertaining are they for 21st century, non-Japanese-schoolchild audiences? Your mileage may vary. Let's run down these movies in order of their entertainment value:

Farewell To Space Battleship Slump: Soldiers Of Poop
Mashirito's star turn is in Space Adventure, the best film of the bunch, which brings the full power of Toei's SF animation department to bear on bringing this space opera to thrilling, laser-blasting, star-destroying life. Midori's secret life as alien royalty is revealed and Senbei launches his own outer space battleship into the galaxy to rescue her from a fate worse than death, which is to say life with galactic emperor Dr. Mashirito, voiced by Yasuo "Lupin III" Yamada, taking the insane space dictator / momma's boy role to new heights of glam rock weirdness.

Lampooning Star Wars and Arcadia Of My Youth in equal measure, Space Adventure is required viewing for anyone who's watched Be Forever Yamato, Towards The Terra or Queen Millennia and wondered what those movies would be like with more jokes. I know I have.

The Great Race Around The World is just as satisfying; yes, it's Wacky Races, Dr. Slump style as everybody takes to the open road in a wide variety of improbable vehicles, taking an erratic route around the globe with the hand of the beautiful Princess Front of the Radial Kingdom – who, strangely enough, bears a startling resemblance to Midori Yamabuki – as the prize! Will the evil Dr. Mashirito and his evil supercars defeat our heroes? Will Princess Front be forced to marry someone she can't stand? Will Dr. Slump's depressed kei-class minivan stave off crippling self-doubt long enough to carry Arale across the finish line?

Go Speed Kinoko Go
The City Of Dreams Mechapolis is a curiousity; light on plot, it screens like it was poured right out of the wishes of its ten year old target audience. Penguin Village's kids are all sucked into outer space to Mechapolis, a mechanized-planet wonderland Disney World even more  robot-filled than the actual Disney World, where everyone's dreams come true thanks to robots. Its hazy futurism recalls other dazed and confused anime masterpieces like, say, Noel's Fantastic Trip, and the addition of a painfully long scene involving closeups of Peasuke's prepubescent junk moves from comedy to cringedy with remarkable speed. 

the city of dreams and punching

Luckily, our peek into the childrens' id helps the film recover its humor and we're treated to all sorts of robot-enabled dream scenarios, including idol singing, riding on rollercoasters until you puke, eating lots of food, zapping spaceships, and cosplaying as Ken from fellow Toei anime series Fist Of The North Star. When the surprising ruler of Mechapolis decides to turn this wonderland into a nightmare, things backfire and are only made worse by the addition of that universal Dr. Slump ingredient, poop.

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Doom That Came To Mechapolis"

Hello Wonder Island is an expanded TV episode, itself an expanded manga chapter, in which Senbei journeys to Wonder Island to gather the ingredients for a love potion, the details of which are revealed to him on a videotape recorded by his late father, who knew Senbei would have trouble with girls. It's an earlier Slump story and you can see the characters settling into their roles and the show reaching its sweet spot in terms of crazy inventions and a sexually frustrated Senbei.

The Secret Of Nanaba Castle, on the other hand, is late-period Dr. Slump, with all the signifiers that entails – the Tsun family, two Gatchans, and storylines that begin to resemble the episodic adventures of Toriyama's next series Dragon Ball. The action starts to overpower the goof as Arane and Akane, embedded in a fantasy 30s' Indiana Jones setting as the Hoyoyo Gang of Robin Hood style ninjas, steal not only sweet potatoes (as seen in the original manga story) but an amazing wish-fulfilling gem called the Rainbow Eye from, who else, the dapper millionaire Senbei Norimaki. Their midnight theft is hijacked by the evil super genius and zeppelin enthusiast The Great Bisma of the Black Dragon society (of Count Dante fame, obvs). The Hoyoyo Gang, Police Detective Taro, and various Penguin Villagers endure aerial battles, submarine adventures, and a lava-filled confrontation with the Genie Of The Rainbow Eye in their quest to recover the gem and fill 45 minutes of a film that, in spite of its action trappings, feels longer.

ninjas and blimps; two tastes that taste great together
Discotek's two-disc set looks great, is only occasionally doing a little judicious zooming to turn some of the non-anamorphic films into HDTV-friendly widescreen, and you get all five films with English subtitles and trailers for each of the movies, perfect for dropping in before a screening of a more serious 80s anime film. Which was most of them. As an antidote to Japanese animation's 80s aesthetic, which, let's face it, was heavy on long, draggy films full of planetary destruction, brave sacrifices, and Kitaro music, these Dr. Slump shorts are guaranteed filled with laughs and pep. Not to mention poop.

buy her DVD or she'll destroy you, cutely