Saturday, October 14, 2017

speeding into fifty

SUMMER, 1970s: The suburban neighborhood is full of active children. Baseball, Big Wheels, yellow metal Tonka dump trucks, plastic army men, Barbies and GI Joes create a carnival of playtime - until 2:30 in the afternoon, that is. That’s when the yards clear of children, when kids up and down the street vanish into houses. It may be your house or that of some family you’ve never met. Just come on in and sprawl in front of the wood-paneled console television and start spinning that UHF dial and working the rabbit ears, because it’s two-thirty: time for Speed Racer.

Speed Racer! Pioneer in children’s action cartoons, arguably the most popular anime ever released in America, touchstone of a generation’s obsession with fast cars and gadgets, wellspring of two hemisphere’s worth of sequels and merchandise and big-budget Hollywood films and speeding tickets for millions of grownup kids. It’s been fifty years since Speed and Trixie and Spritle and Chim Chim first came racing down the track. Fifty years! Yet the series is still a pop culture icon, not just in the anime-fan world, but anywhere kids watched cartoons and occasionally got behind the wheel of the safely-parked family car and made ‘vroom vroom’ noises.

Japanese animation studio Tatsunoko Productions’ first TV show, the Astro Boy-esque Space Ace, missed international success by inches. Studio head Tatsuo Yoshida produced their next series in color and shifted the concept away from cherubic Osamu Tezuka-style space kids, skewing older, creating a slightly more mature show. Mixing motor sports with everything else the mid 1960s had to offer – spies, rock and roll, robots, rockets, beehive hairdos, gals in clamdiggers flying helicopters, and a hero who raced in white pants and loafers, always ready to leap out of the drivers seat to help a damsel in distress or battle a secret plot to take over the world, Yoshida’s concept became 1967’s Mach Go Go Go. A success for Tatsunoko in Japan and the first in a long line of popular cartoons including Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Casshan, Time Bokan, Honeybee Hutch, The Brave Frog and Macross, Mach Go Go Go would put the studio at the forefront of television animation for decades.

Elvis in Speed Racer cosplay, Toshiro Mifune as "Pops" Racer
In the mid 1960s Japan’s nascent anime industry was just shifting into color with Tezuka’s Jungle Emperor (Kimba The White Lion) and Japan Tele-Cartoons/Terebi Doga’s Kaitei Shonen Marine (Marine Boy) leading a pack of magical schoolgirls, rainbow android teams, golden skull-faced demons, Prince Planets, Asteroid Masks, and Pirate Princes through cartoon fantasies. At the same time Japan’s motorsports industry was becoming more and more popular. The postwar middle class, encouraged by Japan’s revitalized economy and the vast national infrastructure spending on roads and highways, had the income for cars and the need for speed. The first Japanese Grand Prix was held in 1963 and the Suzuka Circuit and the Mt. Fuji track (opened in 1966) were arenas where champions of Toyota, Honda, Hino Motors, Mazda, and Nissan battled each other to the finish line, cheered on by fans who enjoyed racing films starring Elvis, Frankie & Annette, and even hometown favorite Toshiro Mifune in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. The glamour, excitement, and international intrigue made auto racing the perfect hook for an animated television series.

Shonen Book's Speed Racer manga
Tatsuo Yoshida was a veteran manga artist whose work straddled the line between the cartoony Tezuka school and the grittier gekiga scene. His last great manga series, Mach Go Go Go, would appear in Shueisha’s Shonen Book from June ‘66 until May of 1968 and would break both speed records and the boundaries of televison cartoons. Assisted by his brothers Kenji Yoshida and Ippei Kuri, the Tatsunoko studio would create entire new worlds of well-designed adventure for TV anime. In Mach Go Go Go, Mechanical design was highlighted for the first time as beautifully illustrated machines took center stage, and the action revolved not around magic children, robots, or superhero space aliens, but about the mysterious world of grown-ups – families, jobs, cars, police, criminals, teams of motorcycle-riding Native American bandits, and monster cars controlled by computers competing in high stakes auto racing. Hey, it could happen.

The title of the series itself is a three-way pun: “go” can be a signifier indicating a vehicle (for instance, Captain Harlock’s spaceship referred to as “Arukaadia-go”), as well as Japanese for the number “five”, and the name of the main character, Go Mifune. You can also throw in the English definition for extra credit. So maybe it’s a four-way pun. Go figure.

Broadcasting trade publication ad for Speed Racer

Bringing the series to America was the task of Peter Fernandez and his crew of veteran voice talent; he’d just finished dubbing the seminal super-robot Gigantor (Tetsujin-28) for Trans-Lux and the Oxy-Gum-chewing Marine Boy for Seven Arts. With his background in radio drama he’d been working steadily to satisfy America’s drive-ins and UHF television stations with imported Italian space operas, Mexican monster epics, Westerns of mixed European heritage, and Japanese rubber-suit kaiju dramas. His rapid-fire line direction and the melodic tones of co-star Corinne “Trixie” Orr, along with Jack Grimes and Jack Curtis handling mysterious older brothers, helpful mechanics, and Inspector Detectors, helped fix Speed Racer firmly in our preadolescent subconscious.

two of the fine stations bringing you Speed Racer
As a syndicated television cartoon Speed Racer ran for years on Turner’s WTBS, which in the early days was known as WTCG while airing another Fernandez dub known as Ultraman. Occasionally the station would feature an on-camera Ted Turner earning his reputation as “Captain Outrageous.” Other stations like “Philly 57” (home of Star Blazers and Force Five) helped make Speed Racer a must-see for the afterschool set. As a non-network series Speed Racer was exempt from the standards and practices that kept guns, knives, conflict, and entertainment away from the Saturday morning cartoons of the Big Three networks. This incurred the condemnation of Action For Children’s Television, a consumer watchdog group who described Speed Racer as an “animated monstrosity” featuring the “ultimate in crime, evil characters, cruelty, and destruction” that nevertheless was being inflicted upon our nation’s children “five days per week in afternoon slots when children are the least supervised and the most available.” To which I say, right on.

There isn’t another show from that era – American OR Japanese – that inspires such fond memories and devotion. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget the rampage of the Car With A Brain, the cycle acrobatics of the Motorcycle Apaches, the cubist-masked terrorists hijacking airliners with boobytrapped headphones, or the top-hatted petulance of The Car Hater. The race against Laser Tanks, menacing gangs of lady assassins, stolen gem-bearing pineapples or the trials of the Supersonic Car were all branded in our memories with Mach 5 tire marks. We were touched by the melancholy tragedy of Rex Racer – separated from his family by pride and arrogance, yet never far from Speed’s side, always there to lend a hand. The Racer X plot point of a long lost family member who wears a mask and shows up to save the hero in the nick of time would return in the character of Red Impulse in Gatchaman. What kid – heck, what adult - didn’t want a car that could jump over obstacles, drive under water, cut down trees, and never needed a fill-up or an emissions test? No kid, that’s who.

Fifty-two episodes of Speed Racer were produced, many of them two-part stories, a rarity at the time for animated series. The international success of Mach Go Go Go would inspire Tatsunoko to market other works to a worldwide audience; HONEYBEE HUTCH and THE BRAVE FROG would be shown throughout the world and GATCHAMAN would become a hit in America under the title BATTLE OF THE PLANETS, going on to be released in English on four separate versions. Tatsunoko’s 1982 super space romance MACROSS would be another international hit that inspired sequels and imitations alike.

Fine role models for the youth of the world
Other Japanese anime studios would try to capture the Mach Go Go Go magic with their own racing series – the cheesy 70s mechasploitation fantasy Gattiger The Combo-Car featured a transforming combination car versus the Demon Auto Company while Hawk Of The Grand Prix did a thematic 180 and strove for racing realism, though it did feature a mysterious masked racing mentor. Fly, Machine Hiriyu was a 1978 Toei/Tatsunoko coproduction that took a goofy Time Bokan tack. The 80s saw Yoroshiku Mechadock and F! highlight plucky young go-getters racing for the checkered flag, and the late 1990s brought anime in line with modern tricked out spoiler-equipped drift-style street-racing culture in the series Initial D.

American kids raised on daily doses of Speed Racer grew up and moved through life with the show as a cultural signifier; as Dark Horse Comics manga editor (and occasional Speed Racer cosplayer) Carl Horn says in the documentary Otaku Unite, “…any standup comedian in the country can do a joke about Speed Racer, and people are going to get it.” In the 1980s MTV worked Speed Racer into the late night camp-value timeslot, eager to entertain nostalgic Generation Xers (while at the same time avoiding the shame of actually, you know, showing music videos). The Austin folk foursome Two Nice Girls served up a acoustic version of the theme song with slightly changed lyrics, while soon-to-be legendary producer Steve Albini and his industro-punk outfit Big Black delivered a punch-press paean to Speed’s cooler brother on their“Racer X” EP

Sometimes Speed is a little unsure of the adventure waiting just ahead

Meanwhile a steady stream of licensed material including buttons, posters, color comic books, T-shirts, and one of the earliest home video releases of an anime series (on double-bill VHS tapes shared with Trans-Lux’s Mighty Hercules) put Speed Racer on the shelves of kitsch boutiques and retro-themed college dorms across America alongside fellow deities Gumby and Felix the Cat.

Now Comics' licensed Speed Racer comics & merchandise delivery service

As the 1990s dawned Streamline Pictures packaged “The Car Hater” and “The Mammoth Car” on home video as “Speed Racer The Movie”, with a slight assist from Alpha Team’s techno club hit remix of the Speed Racer theme song. Yes, “Alpha Team”, named after the rival racing outfit seen in episodes 3 and 4, “Challenge Of The Masked Racer.”

Your Clinton-era lifestyle can be filled with Speed Racer; screen-printed club shirts, fake vintage tin signs, magnets, bumper stickers, belt buckles, bendy figures, a McFarlane Toys Mach 5 scaled to fit figures of Speed, Trixie, Spritle and Chim Chim, and slot car racers of the Mach 5 and Racer X’s Shooting Star can ensure no waking moment is untouched by Speed and Trixie. The five-volume DVD set from Lion’s Gate came packaged with steering wheels, diecast cars, and license plate holders, and those not content to merely watch could throw the Speed Racer Playstation game into their PSX and race against all comers.

Speed Racer returned to the Turner media empire as their Cartoon Network programmed the show for five solid years, inaugurated by a marathon spiced with a Dexter’s Laboratory spoof. Speed, Trixie, and the Mach 5 appeared in ads for Volkswagen and Geico car insurance. You could pony up a few hundred grand and drive away in your own custom street-legal Mach 5, based around a Corvette chassis and complete with buzz-saw blades. On exactly which street are those legal? Saturday Night Live’s “TV Funhouse” combined Speed and celebrity culture in “Go George Clooney”. And two pop culture worlds collided as the Speed Channel, home of America’s prospering NASCAR culture, began programming Speed Racer in between Peter Fonda biker films and coverage of nitro-burning funny cars. As long as America continues her automotive love affair, Speed Racer will have a home on our televisions.

the mysterious "Racer D"

Outfits on both sides of the Pacific have attempted to revive the franchise as a new animated series. Murakami-Wolf’s 1990s production of The New Adventures Of Speed Racer, a lackluster sequel starring feeble adulterations of our heroes and their super-car, lasted only 13 episodes. Tatsunoko’s own 1997 re-imagining of the Mach GoGo Go concept had edgy 90s character designs and a time-travel storyline that went where no autosports enthusiast had gone before. Dubbed by DIC and shown on an abortive Nickelodeon action-cartoon timeslot as Speed Racer X, it didn’t make it through the first time trials.

Speed Racer VW GTI ad 

Remakes and reinvisionings came and went but it was 2008 before a Speed Racer remake firmly gripped the public imagination. Fresh from the Matrix trilogy and their anarcho-fantasy V For Vendetta, the Wachowski siblings threw their computer-generated weight behind a Warners/Village Roadshow feature adaptation of Speed Racer. The film starred Christina “Monster” Ricci as Trixie, Emile Hirsch as Speed, Matthew Fox from “Lost” as Racer X and Tinseltown veterans like Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Richard “SHAFT” Roundtree. A near-psychedelic hybrid between live-action overacting and wild CGI environments, Speed Racer was a film audiences weren’t really ready for. 

Speed Racer screen-printed club shirt - racing helmet and/or fedora not included

Though a critical favorite in some circles, the movie underperformed at the box office – but this didn’t stop Hollywood from continuing to produce money-losing anime adaptations like Astro Boy and Dragonball Evolution and the recent Ghost In The Shell. Hot on the heels of Speed Racer’s release was a new Nicktoons animated show and a tidal wave of Speed Racer merchandise that continues to this day. And soon, along with your toy Mach 5s, your t-shirts, and your DVD and Blu-Ray sets you’ll be able to purchase the entire series on Blu-Ray packaged inside Speed Racer’s head

Bring Me The Head Of Speed Racer

That’s the world we live in, filled with Speed Racer merchandise enjoyed by two and three generations of Speed Racer fans, yet sadly lacking a real-life Race Around The World.  Will Speed Racer find it difficult to thrill in a world of electric cars, boxy SUVs, and traffic calming zones? Or will the innate desire of every child to race towards adventures waiting just ahead keep Speed Racer in the winner's circle?  And seriously, will Speed ever find out Racer X is his older brother? Because it's really obvious, Speed.

-Dave Merrill

A version of this article previously appeared in Otaku USA magazine.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

anime weekend atlanta 2017

Is it 2017 already? It seems like just yesterday that we were sorting out boxes of VHS tape and wiring together laser disc players and putting flyers in all the comic book stores, advertising our first Anime Weekend Atlanta, way back in 1995. Well, time flies when you're having fun, and suddenly it's 22 years later and we're gearing up for the latest version of our local anime con.

AWA has been at its present location since, let's see, 2003, and it's been fascinating to see the Galleria area go from being a classy upscale mall (1980s) to a potential Olympic venue and convention center (1990s) to a ghostly dead mall attached to a convention center (2000s) to now, a piece of well-preserved retail space next door to a brand new Braves stadium. How will this baseball invasion affect AWA's suburban mall vibe? Well, I guess we'll find out, won't we?

In the meantime you can mark your calendar or use the handy AWA schedule to note when I, your Let's Anime host, will be live and in person doing some anime con panels. And what am I up to?

Well, Thursday night is the SuperHappyFunSell, AWA's garage sale yard sale closet-cleaning event whereby anime fans part with previously-loved DVDs, manga, toys, games, and other former retail items. It's a furious three hours of fire sales, bargains, and the fun of not knowing what's been unearthed from storage units and garages across three or four states.

Friday night Anime Hell is back for its 20th screening at AWA! Two hours of short-form video fun involving Japan, animation, hell, and sometimes all three mixed together. Hell is preceded by Totally Lame Anime at 8 and followed by Midnight Madness at 12 midnight, so pick a comfortable chair, you might be there for a while!

Saturday at 2:30 I'll be taking you through thirty years of Japanese cartoon feature films in American theaters, a live panel version of this Let's Anime column from a few years back. Bring your own popcorn!

Saturday night it's time to come out of your shell and get to know your fellow fans! Yes, the AWA Mixer is back, this time mixed with the Bebop Lounge, to bring adult fans together to mix and mingle and knock back a few Cowboy Bebop-themed drinks. If you're a Let's Anime reader drop in and say hi!

And on Sunday, Neil Nadelman and myself will be exploring what may be the worst Japanese animated television series of all time, Chargeman Ken. Neil just translated the entire series for Discotek and me, well, I have a lot of experience with bad cartoons, so it's sure to be an afternoon of harsh truths and animation failure!

Apart from all my events, AWA is a weekend jam packed with anime excitement - voice actors, manga artists, music performances, costumes, vendors, and all the swirling nonsense that has become the hallmark of the anime convention in general and AWA in particular. Why not drop in and see AWA for yourself?

Anime Weekend Atlanta is September 28 - October 1 at the Cobb Galleria Centre / Renaissance Waverly Hotel, Atlanta GA.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Mushi Production Best Series

As an anime fan in the late 1980s I felt a certain complacency; I'd seen Robotech and Captain Harlock, Space Battleship Yamato and Bubblegum Crisis and Dirty Pair. I'd spent all night copying VHS fansubs of Ranma 1/2 episodes and the Patlabor movie and showing the Daicon III-IV videos to packed rooms at comic cons. Everybody wanted to see Akira or Project A-Ko or the Macross movie over and over again. Anime fandom was becoming... dull.

the fateful Maxell

Around that time my pal Meg sent me a Maxell T-120, and sandwiched between an episode of Babel II and an insane 1934 Buck Rogers short (produced for the 1933-34 Chicago Worlds Fair!) was something that took my preconceived notions of "Japanese animation" and kicked them to the curb. That something was a copy of a mid-80s Japanese videotape titled "Mushi Pro Best Series," and not only was it the first time I'd see Astro Boy and Kimba The White Lion in their original Japanese, it was also the first time I'd see Princess Knight and Tomorrow's Joe and Dororo. It was my first glimpse of back-catalog oldies like Boys' Detective Team and Animal 1, it was stunning proof that the live-action/anime hybrid Vampire really existed, and proof somewhere out there was an English-language version of the 1969 Animerama feature A Thousand And One Nights. This tape took my complacent seen-it-all anime snob world and blasted it out of existence, filling the void with twenty five or thirty years of cartoons I'd never heard of, that nobody I knew had ever heard of, and that I was going to spend the rest of my time finding out about. Decades later my pal Ryan would find the original VHS in an eBay auction and he'd send it my way, and now I'm sharing it with you.

Mushi Production, as you'll know if you read the book we reviewed last time, was Osamu Tezuka's animation studio. Eventually Tezuka would divide his corporate holdings into Tezuka Productions for his manga and intellectual copyrights, Mushi Production for animation, and Mushi Pro Shoji as a licensing company handling character goods, toys, and other merchandise. As one of Japan's powerhouses of "terebi manga", as it was called at the time, the studio hired a staff full of future animation legends like Osamu Dezaki, Rin Taro, Gisaburo Sugii, and Ryosuke Takahashi, and its hit series are still popular Japanese cultural icons. Mushi Pro and Mushi Pro Shoji both took a big hit in the early 1970s, and while Shoji didn't make it, Mushi Pro lived to animate another day. After a few years of inactivity, Satoshi Ito revived the studio with a smaller staff and a more fiscally responsible focus on films and specials rather than TV series.

Mushi's latter-day productions include firefly fairy tale "The Adventures of Pipi", disaster film "Typhoon In Ise Bay", civil engineering drama "Pattai Lai - Water On The South Island", the taxation information film "I Will Show You Another World", and the wonderfully titled foreign travel safety short "Gentleman Thief Gary's Japanese Capture Strategy!" But this VHS is Mushi's Best Series from '63 until '84. And what are those best series?

Astro Boy has machine guns in his butt
Astro Boy How could a Mushi Pro Best Series Collection begin without Astro Boy? Tetsuwan Atom, or Mighty Atom, or Astro Boy as we knew him, was the ten-thousand horsepower robot boy created by Dr. Tenma as an android memorial to his dead son. As a 21st century Pinocchio, Astro Boy battled evil, went to school, dealt with a bratty robot sister, travelled through time and space, and fought the greatest robot in the world! Based on the popular Osamu Tezuka manga, the '63 to '66 Astro Boy series would become Tezuka's signature creation.

spacemen with a mission, they must make a very big decision
Wonder Three Everyone who saw "The Day The Earth Stood Still" knows the score: Galactic Command representatives visit Earth to see how dangerous we are with our atom bombs. Maybe they'll squash us like bugs before we cause any trouble. This time the Space Brothers don't send Michael Rennie and a giant clunky robot; our current spacemen with a mission are three aliens who, to better blend in with Earth society, are changed into a bunny, a duck, and a horse. Befriended by Earth boy Shinichi Hoshi, whose older brother is a super spy for the secret Phoenix agency, the Wonder Three find themselves involved in adventures around the world! Wonder Three aired from June '65 until June '66 and would get an American TV release as "The Amazing Three" that would vanish from the airwaves in the mid 70s.

Jungle Emperor Tezuka's Jungle Emperor became Japan's first color TV animation in this internationally successful '65-'66 series about Leo, a talking white lion who becomes ruler of his jungle home deep in "deepest darkest" Africa. Developed with an eye towards foreign sales, it aired on NBC as Kimba The White Lion. NBC passed on Tezuka's more episodic sequel, however. Jungle Emperor's vibrant colors, dramatic storylines, and powerful Isao Tomita score made this series an instant classic that would be seen on American TV for decades and eventually make its way to VHS and DVD.

not to be confused with the Disney film
Go Ahead Leo The '66-'67 continuation of Jungle Emperor featured an adult Leo and his family as they struggle to defend the peace of the jungle. Less cartoony, more violent, and at times experimental, Leo was exactly what NBC did NOT want in a cartoon show, and the series would not air in America for nearly twenty years, finally winding up on Pat Robertson's CBN network and a series of cheap public domain home video releases.

that's one crazy monkey king
Son Goku's Great Adventure This TV series is based on Tezuka's 1950s adventure-gag manga, in turn based on the 16th century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en entitled Saiyu-Ki or "Journey To The West," itself the basis for a 1959 Toei film that Tezuka was a part of and that was screened in America as "Alakazam The Great." This particular great adventure aired from January until September '67 and is all about Son Goku, the monkey who gains amazing powers and uses them to get into all kinds of trouble along with his pals Genjo Sanzo, Hakkai, Sagojo, and Son Goku's bratty girlfriend Tatsuko. This animated series abandoned all pretense of logic or historical accuracy and instead series director Gisaburo "Jack And The Beanstalk" Sugii ran rampant with cartoony gags, crazy techniques, and breaking the fourth wall to comment to the audience. Other talent included Osamu "Golgo 13" Dezaki and Ryosuke "Votoms" Takahashi.

honey, the horse can tell
Princess Knight A girl born with a boy's spirit, Princess Sapphire must masquerade as a Prince and defeat the evil schemes of her rebellious courtiers to stay on the throne of her kingdom. Princess Knight, airing in Japan from April 1967 until April of 1968, was pitched to US television as both "Choppy And The Princess" and "Princess Knight." The show aired in a few US markets as "Princess Knight" in the 70s, and a "Choppy" compilation film made it to home video. The TV series finally appeared on North American DVD recently.  The original manga and its sequel Twin Knights are also available in English.

Boys & One Girl Detective Team
Boys Detective Team / Wanpaku Detectives This show, based on pioneering Japanese mystery author Edogawa Rampo's "Boys Detective Team" stories, would be the first anime directed by Rin Taro. Boys Detective Team starred, yes, the Boys Detective Team, sort of a Japanese Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew gang of juvenile sleuths, battling the evil schemes of the mysterious Twenty-Face Phantom, from February until September of '68. The Boys Detective Team would reappear or be rebooted or updated or whatever in the 2016 anime "Trickster".

he's an animal
Animal 1 High schooler Ichirou Azuma is the oldest of seven kids, a freestyle featherweight wrestler, and star of this series that aired from April to September of 1968. Nicknamed "Animal 1," he battles towards the '68 Mexico City Olympic Games. Loosely based on the career of Olympic wrestler Osamu Watanabe – who won every one of the several hundred matches in his entire career without ever giving up a single point!! – the original manga was by Noboru "Star Of The Giants" Kawasaki.

vampire (a show about werewolves)
Vampire Hidden among us are humans who can turn into animals; the scheming criminal Makube plots to use their power to conquer the world. Can Toppei the werewolf defeat Makube's plans? This October '68- March '69 live-action series starred Tezuka in a cameo role (Toppei comes to Tokyo to work at Mushi Pro) and some scenes were shot in Tezuka's front yard. The scenes with animals and monsters were animated, leading to jarring and unearthly effects, particularly when combined with writing/directing talent like Hiro "Female Prisoner Scorpion 701" Matsuda. Equal parts Universal horror, French New Wave, and Japanese cartoon, there's nothing like Vampire.

the titular Dororo, with stick
Dororo Future anime-world stars like Osamu Dezaki, Yoshiyuki Tomino, and Gisaburo Sugii worked on this April-September '69 adaptation of Tezuka's swordsman vs yokai revenge manga, the story of Hyakkimaru, the boy who must kill 48 demons to undo his father's curse and become whole again. Both the Dororo anime and manga would eventually find their way to North American release.

A Thousand And One Nights Released on June 12, 1969, this ambitious adult animated film was a big budget retelling of what over the centuries became an accretion of Arabic legend, the earliest iteration of which dates back to the 9th century. Tezuka and Eichi Yamamoto directed this widescreen epic, the first "Animerama" film, in a herculean effort to drag the medium of animation into the adult world. Did this film ever screen in English? We're still looking for evidence.

Tomorrow's Joe
Tomorrow's Joe Tetsuya Chiba's monumental boxing manga epic became Osamu Dezaki's signature animated TV series, as every hallmark of Dezaki's animation career – the freeze frames, the multiple cameras, the slow motion – bursts forth to tell the story of Joe Yabuki, orphan prizefighter, who battles in and out of the ring for his own destiny. Mushi's most successful non-Astro Boy television series, Tomorrow's Joe aired from April 1970 until September of '71 and remains a touchstone of Showa-era Japanese popular culture. This one was pitched to American TV as "Rocky Joe", but nobody bought it.

hail, Caesar

Cleopatra The second Animerama feature, this ambitious, schizophrenic, anachronistic historical epic features a blue Caesar, time travel, cameos from Sazae-San, and a live action framing sequence starring human actors with cartoon heads. You can literally see Mushi Production going bankrupt with every frame of this indulgent mess. Cleopatra's Japan release was September 1970, and the film would screen a few years later in America with a self-imposed X rating and a harsh NYT review.

she's playing the Lee Marvin song "I Was Born Under A Wandering Star"
Wandering Sun / Nozomi In the Sun Switched at birth, Nozomi and Miki grow up in different families but both become singers and their paths cross as they compete in the entertainment world for success and romance. Wandering Sun aired from April to September '71 and the animation staff included Yoshiyuki "Gundam" Tomino and Yoshikazu "also Gundam" Yasuhiko. This series was the first cartoon to depict the entertainment world ("The Archies" don't count) and the first shojo series to deal with realistic teenagers as opposed to magical girls or princesses. Wandering Sun was based on the manga by Keisuke Fujikawa (writer) and Mayumi Suzuki (artist), originally serialized in Shogakukan's "Weekly Shojo", and which in turn was inspired by the real life singer Fuji Keiko.

rock you like a hurricane
Hurricane Kunimatsu Blazing transfer student Ishida Kunimatsu arrives at a new school and his boisterous fighting spirit causes all kinds of trouble. However, the school principal wisely channels Kunimatsu's youthful energy into various school sports teams by promising Kunimatsu all-you-can-eat lunches! This remake of P Productions' "Harris's Whirlwind" – yes, the same P Productions behind Space Giants and Spectreman - got a name change because the sponsor Kanebo Harris dropped out, and aired October '71 until September 1972, and was based on the original Tetsuya Chiba manga. A Hurricane Kunimatsu short film appeared in 72's Manga Matsuri film festival alongside Hellhound Liner 0011!

Belladonna Of Sadness People have been using the phrase "animation for grownups" since Akira first hit Blockbuster shelves, but Belladonna Of Sadness was Japan's first truly adult animated film, a challenging, hallucinogenic watercolor nightmare unlike anything seen before, or since. Belladonna Of Sadness is based on French historian Jules Michelet's La Sorciere (1862), a seminal work portraying medieval witchcraft practices as rebellion against church and state. Today La Sorciere is seen as historically inaccurate, but on the other hand Michelet is the guy who invented the term 'Renaissance' so he must have had something going on somewhere. Largely abandoned after its June 1973 release, Belladonna of Sadness resurfaced recently with a 4K re-release to disturb a whole new audience.

those cute polar bears
Adventures of The Polar Cubs After a long interregnum, Mushi returned with more practical management and started delivering more socially acceptable animation, like this kid-friendly film about two polar bear cubs (July '79 release) and their adventures among their animal friends up north. Because polar bears have friends, right? With a few songs, some celebrity voices, and stop-motion animation, this one might as well be one of the Rankin/Bass specials Mushi helped out on, but on its own it's fairly undistinguished. A clearance-bin VHS release in the States placed it in front of a lot of American kid eyeballs, though.

Yuki says "peace, man"
Yuki Released in August of 1981, Yuki was directed by Tadashi Imai, based on a story by Ryusuke Saito, and featured character designs by Tetsuya Chiba. In the Muromachi Era (1336-1573), Yuki the snow goddess comes to a small village and challenges the evil that lives both in men's hearts and also in the volcano next door, which houses a giant Majin-style lava monster.

Star Of Cottonland Watch Mushi's director Shinichi Tsuji and original manga artist Yumiko Oshima invent "moe" in this 1984 film of a sad little kitten adopted by a handsome young man – the twist being the sad little kitten is shown as a doll-like cat-human hybrid in frilly Victorian dress. Will Chibi-neko ever become a real girl and marry her "husband", or will she instead become a real cat and pee on the couch? Will legions of gothic lolita fashion designers take their visual cues from this production? And didn't 2001's Magical Meow Meow Taruto shamelessly steal everything from this?

Of course, this videotape doesn't cover everything Mushi Pro ever produced. Both pre and post bankruptcy they worked on a wide variety of domestic and international animation, including Lensman, Rayearth, Initial D, Pokemon, Moomin, Panzer World Galient, Robot Carnival, Princess Nine, Sgt. Frog, Vickie the Viking, Trigun, Wansa-kun, Barefoot Gen, and a host of international co-productions, including the videogame tie-in Pole Position and lots of 60s-'70s TV for Rankin/Bass, including a bizarre special starring the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, and Flip Wilson called "The Mad Mad Mad Comedians."

that time Osamu Dezaki animated Flip Wilson
We'd still be talking about Mushi today if only for their hit '60s TV shows. But as this VHS time capsule shows, Mushi was much more than Astro Boy and Kimba and Princess Knight, much more than a Tezuka-only production team; Mushi was a studio that embraced the vision of other manga artists and worked hard to push the boundaries of what animation could do and where animation could go. Even in failure Mushi fascinates, and as the 4K restoration of Belladonna Of Sadness proves, one generation's supposed misstep is another generation's lost masterpiece.

Thanks again to Meg E. and Ryan J. for putting this tape in my hands, and to Osamu Tezuka and Mushi Pro for making this all happen in the first place.

-Dave Merrill

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Osamu Tezuka Story

The Osamu Tezuka Story
Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions
translated by Frederik L. Schodt
Stone Bridge Press, 2016

The Osamu Tezuka Story is, like Tezuka's body of work, a gigantic, awe-inspiring thing that both stuns and entertains. Part corporate/pop cultural history, part struggle of the artist as a young, middle-aged, and older manga-ka, the book delivers four decades of the manga publishing world and the life of its most popular creator, whose work impacted Japan and the world. As a bonus this book and its 900 pages also deliver a great upper body workout. Because... it's big.

Anyone interested in Japanese comics or animation knows Tezuka's name. Convenient Western shorthand casts him as Japan's Walt Disney, a protean creator of world-renowned characters who dragged an artform into a licenseable, immensely profitable future; but he combined Disney's innate grasp of public taste with an inhuman work ethic and a fiercely competitive drive to excel. English-language material about manga's early days is rare, apart from Ryan Holmberg's deep-dive work at TCJ, and Western fans rely on getting bits and pieces of history sideways through old fanzine articles and questionable anime blogs informed by half-remembered nerd conversations. Discussions about Tezuka usually involve some self-appointed expert claiming Tezuka invented manga (he did not), or Tezuka invented anime (he did not) or that Astro Boy was the first animated TV show in Japan (it was not) or that the first shoujo manga was Tezuka's Princess Knight (nope). Hopefully this book will nip future tall-tale-tellers in the bud, because the truth behind Osamu Tezuka's genius is vastly more interesting than any fakey list of 'firsts.'

color Astro Boy/Tetsuwan Atomu splash page from Sept. 1965 Shonen

Readers already familiar with Tezuka's exports like Astro Boy, Kimba The White Lion, Black Jack, Adolf, and Phoenix will enjoy seeing the creative struggles behind their favorites, and if they weren't already aware of the punishing demands of a professional manga artist, Tezuka's tireless pace and unstoppable mania for creation will dumbfound. The Osamu Tezuka Story details how habits of hard work were fostered early in Tezuka's life. The Osaka-born Tezuka found inspiration in the discipline of long distance running, a lifelong passion for music, movies, and insect collecting, and a love of cartooning encouraged by the adults in his life. The demands of Japan's wartime culture would, in Tezuka, result in an amazing ability to focus on tasks and maximize his own effectiveness, to juggle several different challenges at the same time, and to deliver results in widely disparate fields – talents that would serve him well in surviving the rigors of the immediate postwar period, breaking into the children's manga field and, at the same time, interning as a medical doctor. Try it sometime, kids.

#oneperfectshot | Night Call Nurses | 1972 | dir. Jonathan Kaplan | prod. Roger Corman
Choosing comics, Tezuka found himself in the center of a postwar children's magazine boom. Tezuka's Shin Takarajima, or "New Treasure Island", created with Shichima Sakai, would be a breakout hit for Tezuka. The 50s manga explosion produced an entire generation of young manga artists, battling their punishing schedules and occasionally relieving stress with three-day blowouts. Future manga stars like Shotaro Ishinomori, Fujiko-Fujio, Fujio Akatsuka, and Leiji Matsumoto appear in Tezuka's orbit as young hopefuls. Did Tezuka give his young manga acolytes aphrodisiacs to fuel their late-night manga sessions? Read the book and find out!

A popular talent feeding the pop culture needs of millions of Japanese children, Tezuka would find himself working on eight stories for eight different publishers simultaneously. Editors would haunt Tezuka's foyer fighting for priority, sometimes confining him to a hotel or, failing that, forced to track him down from place to place to beg for pages. Tezuka's organizational skills allowed him to direct production teams, with Tezuka outworking even his most dedicated assistants, and he developed a complex system to indicate to assistants the kinds of crosshatching, shading, backgrounds or environmental effects for each panel. He could direct the composition of manga pages from another room or, as communications technology improved, from another city entirely.

The late 1950s appearance of more adult "gekiga" manga challenged the competitive Tezuka to create works with more adult themes and a more realistic art style. At the same time he was working with Toei Animation on the feature length Son Goku film Saiyuki ("Journey To The West", known in America as "Alakazam The Great"). Soon Tezuka was pouring his manga profits into his other love, animation.

By 1960 Tezuka had developed a production system for working with assistants and editors, had completed his doctoral thesis, had written a live-action TV show, and was embarking on his own animation production, with facilities purpose-built into his new home. Showa-era anime buffs will be interested in the production details of Astro Boy and early shorts like "Drop" and "Pictures At An Exhibition", and fascinated by Tezuka's cost-cutting animation choices, choices that are still felt today. Tezuka's obsessive filmgoing paid dividends as he utilized cinematic techniques like montage and cross-cutting to inexpensively and quickly emphasize drama. His already overstuffed work schedule became even more hectic; story conferences would be informal, Stan Lee-style verbal exchanges where Tezuka would describe the plot and the main visuals, leaving the layout & genga for staff artists to complete. This would expand to a shift system that worked around the clock. His corporate structure split and split again, with one company handling his TV animation, one company handling his licencing, and one for his manga publishing.

early 1960s hardback "White Pilot"

Tezuka's kingdom would, like the rest of us, be battered by the shocks of the 70s. The decade would see his animation studio go bankrupt and Tezuka struggle for creative relevance in the face of personal and professional crisis, leading him to innovate new manga for children and adults and make global connections that will take him to China, Europe, and Los Angeles' nascent Cartoon/Fantasy Organization. Tezuka's animation would rebound, inaugurating a series of yearly TV specials for NHK and production on experimental, artistic works. Sequestering himself in a private studio, the decade saw Tezuka working harder than ever, inspired by deadlines and pressure yet never abandoning his painstaking attention to detail. Anime fans will appreciate the research and technical challenges he and animator Junji Kobayashi faced in creating the opening scene from his film Phoenix 2772, a dramatic "one-take" shot of differing camera angles and perspectives that took two full months. Kobayashi would later be instrumental in creating Tezuka's award-winning 1984 masterpiece, "Jumping."

Phoenix 2772's transforming robot love interest, Olga

Throughout the 1980s Tezuka continued his Phoenix manga, pushed ahead with new manga like Adolph, Neo-Faust, and Ludwig B, visited France and Brazil, produced a new color Astro Boy TV series, achieved animation awards and manga awards, and continued his all-nighters and his deadline struggles up to and through his increasing health problems. Osamu Tezuka would pass away in 1989 at the age of 60, an age that these days seems far too young. However, in those sixty years he filled every day to the fullest, leaving a life's work unmatched in any field, a life's work the 900 pages of The Osamu Tezuka Story can only begin to describe.

Toshio Ban's artwork is friendly, clean, photo-referenced to the hilt (some of the original photos can be seen in Helen McCarthy's excellent The Art Of Osamu Tezuka), and close to Tezuka's own style but not so close that the bits of Tezuka's own work seen occasionally don't stand out as wildly individualistic. The Osamu Tezuka Story proves Tezuka's own thesis of the universality of cartooning as a visual language, reminding us all of the vast market for educational, vocational, historical, and otherwise informational comics, a market that Japan has embraced wholeheartedly while the rest of the world makes do with Ikea assembly guides and comics about military courtesy or Dagwood's mental health problems.

Frederik Schodt's adaptation grapples with entire lifetimes and cultures, world wars, Japanese educational and medical institutions, the ins and outs of the manga industry, right down to specific animation techniques and obscure Japanese insects, yet never fails to keep the material relevant, interesting, and accessible to the general reader. Schodt served as Tezuka's translator on some of his American visits, giving us the unique situation where a translator is translating scenes of himself translating. Time really is a flat circle, I guess.

Every once in awhile the book feels the need to emphasize Tezuka's genius by describing his otherworldly excellence in fields unrelated to manga; astounding onlookers by mastering "extremely difficult scores" without any formal piano training, memorizing phone numbers, dictating telegrams, comprehending highly specialized texts, and caricaturing classmates from memory. Listing these prosaic "achievements" only adds a hagiographic tone to the text, and anyway, they're completely overshadowed by the tremendous achievements Tezuka actually did achieve in his actual recorded career.

Published as it is by Tezuka Productions, The Osamu Tezuka Story has a definite focus on the positive. The bankruptcies of Mushi Productions and Mushi Pro Shoji in the 1970s are mentioned but explanations are vague; the copyright disputes that kept Astro Boy out of the public eye for years are only touched on briefly, and some misfires - like the 1950s live action Astro Boy TV series that Tezuka later briefly pretended didn't exist - are not mentioned at all. And while some readers may at times want a franker, more candid account of Tezuka's life, let's face it, that isn't what corporate biographies are about; "Tokiwaso Babylon" this ain't.

What The Osamu Tezuka Story is, is a comprehensive look at the life of someone who always worked harder, who always thought he could do better, who was surrounded by amazing talent and used that rivalry to spur himself to greater efforts. It's the life of a man who survived war and occupation and disease and who lived to create, every minute of every day. A man who built studios and empires and tore them down and built them up again, because he never stopped creating. A man who could tell you the names of the stars in the sky and the names of the bugs in the dirt, and then stay up for three days drawing comics, because that was what he was, a creator.

28 years after his passing, his work remains popular and influential as reissues, remakes, and new visions bring his characters back to life. Western audiences have enjoyed their own Tezuka boom with his manga appearing here in ever increasing numbers. And with The Osamu Tezuka Story in English, we can more fully understand every part of Tezuka's boundless genius.

-Dave Merrill