#108 : They Were 11

TW11_1Now for that age old question… what do you want to be when you grow up? The more appropriate version I would say is… when you mature what identity, or role, will you tie your life towards. For a group of young students in a far off sci-fi future these questions amongst many others will be answered as they learn to live with each other and understand what is important and true for themselves. In 1986, these students were the focus of a feature film by the name of They Were 11.

TW11_2Imagine having to pass a final exam as if your life was on the line, literally! Groupings of ten students have to board spaceships and survive on what is available and solve any problems without guidance. If you need to call for help, even just once, you have to forfeit the idea of graduation. As the story begins we have an immediate problem. This group of ten students we will be with during the story numbers one more. We have eleven students instead of ten, which means one of them is either a stow a way, an imposter and maybe even a threat. Who can it be? Everyone seems to be a suspect, yet all of them have legitimate reasons for being part of this final test. As the story unfolds, the drama grows as problems and issues ensue and trust becomes difficult between these eleven as one of them seems to intuitively understand the ship and certain circumstances better than the rest of the group. This would be enough for any other tale, but They Were 11 has even more to tell.

TW11_3The eleven students all come from different backgrounds. Many of them come from royalty, or well to do families and are in school to essentially follow their family’s traditions. These students are locked into their own paradigms and don’t have much choice for their lives. Tada, one of our main protagonists, is an exception as he is a highly gifted young man from a modest background and is making his way based on his talents instead of his lineage. Add to this, Tada begins to awaken to esper and psychic abilities, plus repressed memories from his childhood, that makes him quite suspect to the others. Frol, our other primary protagonist, is a young feminine androgyne who desperately wants to fit in and be one of the boys due to male privilege and freedom. Frol’s questioning of gender is the other major focus of They Were 11 as Frol comes to terms with the fact that in heart, soul and body a woman she is meant to be. A relationship soon develops between both Tada and Frol as they both share each other’s company, ideas and struggles.

TW11_4So many times space opera is a showdown of spaceships, laser beams, battle tactics and macho bravado, or perhaps, stern military seriousness. Many examples can follow these traits and do it successfully, but They Were 11 goes against this trend. Instead we have a story about relationship, characterization, love and sacrifice set in a future outer space environment. Sounds more like a shojo type of story than the usual shonen/seinen and by jove it is; one of my all time favorite’s of the designation. Instead of the bombast of say a full symphony orchestra, we have a string quartet. And though the size is smaller in scale, the power behind the meaning being expressed may be a little more intense. This is space opera treated as traditional drama for the stage; They Were 11 is dramatic theater, a play, set to animation.

They Were 11 tackles many difficult issues and does it all with grace and dignity. The original manga was the creation of one the best from the Year 24 Group, Moto Hagio, a woman who I have heard was the female equivalent to the great Osamu Tezuka. They Were 11 is a story that represents themes of self discovery and aspiring not to become someone, but to embrace an inner truth in ourselves that only we know to be correct. In a year that saw the release of Studio Ghibli’s first film Castle in the Sky and one of my all time favorite’s Windaria, They Were 11 represents a true dark horse that deserves more attention and recognition; an awesome and inspiring movie.

#107 : Cyborg 009 (1966 movie)

Cyborg 009 equals the epitome of ‘Old School’. Or, perhaps that is a mistranslation; I prefer ‘Old is Cool’. Because with age comes wisdom, or so I keep telling myself as I keep adding up solar cycles and still retain the heart and soul of my youth. A product of the 1960s, Cyborg 009 reflects the era with the rise and hope of big technology, growing social equality and Cold War politics. Cyborg 009 represents a story about brand new heroes in a (once long ago) modern age heading towards an uncertain future.

C009_movie_1Many adaptations of this Shotaro Ishinomori manga have see the light of day, but this film from 1966 was the very first time the cyborg soldiers of Professor Gilmore came to life on a screen brought to you by the great old studio, Toei Animation. The story begins simply with a young race car driver, Jo Shimamura, becoming involved in a nasty crash (knife in a tire, yikes!) and is subsequently hauled off in a mysterious ambulance. He soon awakens to find he now has incredible powers, including an ability to run extremely fast, and new clothes as well (I like the new threads man). Jo has had cybornetic enchantments and is now known as Cyborg 009 (you are the star of the show my friend, hooray), a tool for the evil counter organization Black Ghost (great name). 009 also meets eight other cyborgs, his new fellow comrades, who rebel against Black Ghost in the name of justice and freedom. An uprising ensues as the team of nine cyborgs kidnap Professor Gilmore and escape.

C009_movie_2Often Cyborg 009 can be seen as Japan’s version of the X-Men. Yet I see them as one of the great early examples of a sentai squad. Ishinmori should know that concept very well as he is the creator of the Super Sentai live action genre. But then again, I see the cyborgs as a reinvention of family. There is a tight bond between these nine individuals and even though they all come from different countries, ethnicities and backgrounds, they fight together and care for each other. Very forward thinking and yet perfect for the 1960s and even today to show that no matter who you are, or where you are from, we are all brothers and sister of the human race. It’s the formation of the greater family you can build when you embrace diversity and individuality. We all have a role and a part to play to help the greater good, it’s just all of us lack the technological enhancements of our brave nine heroes.

C009_movie_3There are a few oddities I caught from this release compared to the more popular, or better known releases of Cyborg 009. First, 009, is clad in white while the others have their uniforms in purple. All except 003, she gets to be closest to most adaptations with a pinkish shade of the standard red. And red is also the color of her hair, instead of the usual flaxen hue I am used to. Do blondes have more fun? Not this time around, it’s all about the auburn. And for some reason 007 (who is British, love the James Bond in joke) is portrayed as a kid. These characteristics are also carried into the second film, Cyborg 009: Monster Wars (on my radar to find) and the first TV series of 1968.

C009_movie_4Though the art style might be archaic to our more modern eyes and honestly this may not have been the most sophisticated film made at the time, Cyborg 009 makes up for it with pure fun. This feels like a period television series amped up just slightly, including cinemascope widescreen (fancy), that still retains much of the simple limited animation used during the era. Think Astro Boy and Speed Racer as a frame of reference. Yet it is a very attractive movie with bold colors and designs. If you are looking for a basic starter into Cyborg 009, this movie is a great option as it is action packed and about an hour long. Plus you’ll get to experience Cyborg 009 during the time of it’s genesis with all the hope, innocence and at times cheesiness that made the 1960s so great. For without the likes of Cyborg 009Speed Racer, or Astro Boy, we would not have the fruits of all the great animation that we treasure today. Thank you Cyborg 009 and thank you Shotaro Ishinomori.

#105 : Speed Racer

SR_1Auto racing… I love the sport. Always have, always will. Mix that love of dancing on a knife’s edge with four wheels with animation and I am one happy otaku. Speed Racer was already an established classic by the time I was first exposed to the property in the mid-1990s when it made its way to MTV and more importantly in my case, home video. My diet of Robotech and Voltron with Indycar and F1 now had a killer combination in a couple tapes I rented from the local video store. What I did not realize at the time was I was viewing a cartoon that has touched many a generation and in many ways connected me to others whose only connection to anime was this singular show. Thus is the power of Speed Racer.

1967 was a great year for motor racing. Parnelli Jones nearly won the Indy 500 with a jet turbine powered car, Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt won the 24 Hours of LeMans in a Ford GT40 (and thus was born the first champaign spray, thanks Dan!) and Team Lotus debuted the iconic Lotus 49, which featured the classic Ford Cosworth DFV engine in F1 competition. Also of note from F1 was Honda’s second victory in the hands of John Surtees at the Italian Grand Prix. But another, perhaps more subdued, victory for Japan would be the television debut of Tatsunoko’s Mach Go Go Go (well, ultimate victory for us cartoon lovers). Tatsuo Yoshida’s manga had come to life… guess it helps the fact that he is head of Tatsunoko Studios (don’t you love that seahorse logo?). Thats all fine and great, but when Mach Go Go Go’s translated/adapted version came to the west as Speed Racer in the fall of 1967, the real race truly began.

SR_2Consisting of time and true shonen standards of fun, action, adventure and friends, Speed Racer combined it all around a young man trying to become a top race car driver with one of the coolest cars ever, the Mach 5. Is it me or does the Mach 5 look like a late 1950s Ferrari Testarossa mixed with period James Bond gadgetry? Speed with his family (including everyone’s favorites Spritle and Chim-Chim?), girlfriend and friend/mechanic travel all over the globe proving his skills and many times getting into side adventures as well. Often times Speed meets up with the mysterious Racer X who is so much like an older brother to him… oh yeah, right… he is is older brother, just in disguise. Hope that doesn’t spoil the party for some of you, but it is one of those in show details you pick up on quite fast.

SR_3My greatest joy with Speed Racer is the fact that this is a series in which I can connect with people who are usually older than me. Many fans of this show may or may not be fans of Japanese animation per se, but their love and fondness for the adventures of Speed and crew cannot be denied. If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, Speed Racer was a keystone in your upbringing and to see fans still connected with this show makes me feel a little less alone in the world. Great examples of Speed Racer references include an experience from work in which I was asked about the artwork in my cube, “Are you the one with all those Speed Racer type images in your cube?” Also conversations with my dentist during appointments about animation in general. Even though he is not up to par with most anime, he did grow up with Speed Racer and still loves it. In fact both of us had to instruct the hygienist on how cool this show is. The magic of synchronicity through Speed Racer… puts a smile on my face.

SR_4This is a show that shows its age with the jerky movements, simplified shapes and that machine gun dub that makes me say they don’t make anime like they used to. I appreciate the archaic nature of Speed Racer, both in terms or visual and acting (thank you Peter Fernandez for giving us an English version). Sadly though, I don’t follow professional racing anymore due to lack of interest. And yet I have vintage races to see, AND… I still have Speed Racer amongst other car and racing related anime (Initial D as an example). All is good! …Go Speed Racer, Go Speed Racer Go!

#104 : Aim for the Ace (movie)

AftA_movie1I often find that the older I get, an interest in professional sports and following a team, or such, is not something to aspire towards. Yet I respect sport and competition and my love for anime is strong, if only there were anime about sports… oh, yeah there IS! And LOTS of them too. There are several I have enjoyed and are quite good as well. And then there are entries that are legendary, hall of famers so to speak. Aim for the Ace is part of that higher echelon of sports legends. As I make my way through the original 1973 Aim for the Ace TV series I had to stop and take a break to revisit the cinema version of 1979.

AftA_movie2The influence of this movie is epic and goes well beyond the sport of tennis and sports anime itself. I am sure Studio Gainax and a young Hideaki Anno loved this story because Aim for the Ace is written all over Gainax’s first OVA release and Anno’s directorial debut Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. The name totally gives away the influence, but also the story in and of itself is a close facsimile except tennis was swapped out for a sci-fi world with mechs. Still in both stories the concept of aiming to be your best! And not just the best in your own frame of reference, but also to your fellow peers and most importantly, to a mentor who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself. It’s a type of story that never gets old because don’t we all need a reminder to pick ourselves up and try again if we stumble?

AftA_movie3Aim for the Ace’s story begins with it’s starry eyed protagonist Hiromi Oka, a new student at Nishi High School. She and her best friend Maki join the illustrious and highly noted tennis club and soon she has her eyes on two particular individuals. The first being the all-star of the girl’s varsity team, the amazingly talented, most beautiful and girl with perhaps the best hair in all of anime (seriously where do you get all that volume and curls?), Reika Ryuzaki better known as Ochoufujin (Madame Butterfly, so fitting). The second is Nishi’s new coach, Jin Munakata, a former champion, who is a tough yet fair mentor whose presence brings out a little fear and sweat. His first objective is to test the team, to see which of the hundred or so members are most fit to play on the school’s varsity squad. Hiromi is still very much a rookie and when her time comes to test her skills, she connects with one ball that impresses the coach in more ways than one. So much so that she lands a spot on the varsity team… wha, say what? Now the drama, no, more like soap opera begins!

AftA_movie4While watching the original TV series concurrently with this film, I could not help but notice the jump in animation quality and complexity. The fluidity of the film is a quantum leap from the TV series and could be down to a number of factors. First, the idea that you go from TV to movie is obvious since there is often a budget increase. The second is the six year gap between TV to the movie. This second reason is a strong point to a theory I have about how the 1970s is perhaps the most important decade in all of Japanese animation. Stories grew into more sophistication, many traditions and cliches settled themselves during this time and drawing and animation began to mature and become more complex. Such an awesome decade and Aim for the Ace is a great example of the growth of anime during this era. Ah to be born in the ‘70s… wait I was born then… 1979 no less… so that means I am the same age as this movie… interesting!

Now for the final wrap up… Aim for the Ace, is based on a great shojo manga (check!), was made at the awesome Tokyo Movie Shinsha (check!), was directed by the creative and artistic Osamu Dezaki (check!), and it still stands the test of time (double and triple check!). Aim for the Ace wins in straight sets!

#103 : Horus: Prince of the Sun

Horus_1I often wonder, was Horus: Prince of the Sun ‘born under a bad sign’? Many circumstances attempted to derail this early gem of the modern era of Japanese animation. It went over budget, it took more time to finish and even the parent animation company of Toei and it’s producers wanted to shelf this film. Why? This film had and even still has so much potential; it took chances and sounded a battlecry for a new generation of animators. And there in lies the answer as Horus: Prince of the Sun attempted to break free of the conservative standards of the day by telling a different story in both concept and direction. The results of this would honor Horus with critical notoriety over the years as one of the crowning achievements of the 1960s.

Horus_2By 1968 Isao Takahata had become a solid veteran in the animation industry and gained a reputation as a leader of those younger up and coming members of the industry in the 1960s. With both TV and film work of various degrees under his belt there was one achievement that this young man had left to fulfill and that was to direct a feature film. This opportunity came, but at a price. As mentioned before from the start this movie had some nasty karma associated with it. Producers at Toei, money and time all had a hand in stopping this film, but Takahata with his quiet demeanor and steadfast approach to being a director made sure that this film would get made, finished and then released.

The major controversy of this film can be traced into the story itself. The Norse mythology and look that was used was nothing more than a cover for another story that existed underneath. Japan’s native population, the Ainu, had for generations been looked down upon yet their culture was rich and diverse. A new generation wanted to adapt a traditional tale of the Ainu and present a more serious subject matter to give animation a more mature option. Both progress and change are a part of civilization and this new generation of artists and animators wanted to be at the vanguard of this movement. This was the 1960s after all and be it America, Europe, or Japan, the youth of the period were questioning and protesting against the rules and the establishment of their day.

Horus_3The story is a quintessential tale of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (all hail Joseph Campbell) where our young hero Horus, sometimes translated to Hols, must integrate into the greater whole of civilization. This is a common theme I find in Takahata’s work and both sides of the extreme can be seen in Grave of the Fireflies (going against society and/or being ignored by society) on one end of the spectrum and Pom Poko (the community coming together for a common concern) on the other. Horus soon settles into a town and becomes a local hero after conquering a giant pike (fish) that prevented fish from being a food source to the local people. Soon afterwards he meets a wayward girl, Hilda, with a mysterious and unknown past and a large, very large, chip on her shoulder. Hilda is quite a complex character and her relationship with Horus is complicated and becomes a key element for the plot of the story as the film progresses forward.

Horus_4Horus: Prince of the Sun not only took more seriously the storytelling, but also on a technical level, the animation itself. This film amongst other examples of the era raised the standard of the quality of Japan’s output. Disney was the standard and Horus: Prince of the Sun is on par with the quality of the venerated classic Disney films. In certain aspects it excels, in particular with the action sequences with the pike fight and the final showdown. Of course Japan has always had an edge (my opinion) in regards to action and the movement and fluidity required to make those sequences work.

This is a film that has taken a few views on my part to fully appreciate the greatness to what Horus: Prince of the Sun truly is. Due to the issues with the production of the film it has it’s own way of unfolding the plot, which took me a little getting used to, but once I understood the whole of the scope of this film I came to love this movie. It’s classic Takahata and I recommend you to watch this one at least once to see where anime once was, where anime was going and see where this film has left it’s influence today.

… on a personal note, I dedicate this posting to the memory of Isao Takahata who passed away recently. Thank you good sir for your work and I for one will never forget the stories you shared with us all.

Isao Takahata
Oct 29, 1935 – Apr. 5, 2018

#102 : Armored Trooper Votoms: The Last Red Shoulder

VtLRS_1Do you want a proper story about revenge? How about a sequel that is more like a crucial missing chapter? Do you enjoy Armored Trooper Votoms? I hope you answered yes to all three of these questions because Armored Trooper Votoms: The Last Red Shoulder is perhaps one of the best examples of the early use for the OVA market to add depth to an already strong property. Prepare to strap into the Scopedog once again for yet another mission and this time, it gets personal.

VtLRS_2Chirico Cuvie may be the most fascinating character is mecha history. He is not heroic, hot blooded, or even a rookie to being in a mech. He is a stoic, slow burning and taciturn battle scared veteran. In more direct terms, he is one of the deadliest of the deadly, one of the Melkian army’s most feared killing machines, a Red Shoulder. Yet, Chirico and a handful of other cynical grunts are seen as undesirable for their acts of showing defiance towards the established military they are a part of. Biting the hand that feeds you! Years later and having survived the atrocities of the Hundred Years War of the Astragius Galaxy these four men reunite for a solitary cause, to go after the man who made them into Red Shoulders and then left them for dead. Their target is General Yoran Pailsen. After escaping a secret mission, torture and interegation and then the troubles of Uoodo City, Chirico joins these other three men and begin to plan. But can these four independent dissidents work well together?

VtLRS_3While Chirico may be the star of the show, he only represents half of this OVA. The second half belonging to his future adversary, the troubled and mysterious Ypsilon. We see his birth so to speak as he opens his eyes for the first time in an almost Garden of Eden like setting with the other so-called Perfect Soldier of the Votoms universe, Proto One, or in the eyes and heart of Chirico, Fyana. She mentors the naive young man before the influence of the training and brainwashing he receives from the secret society that Chirico is so interested to find out about. Watching this OVA gives a little perspective towards the humanity that was once in Ypsilon. It just goes to show that villains are just like the rest of us, just a little more perverted (hey not in that way kids) from internal or external circumstances.

VtLRS_4The beauty of this OVA is the fact that is acts like the lost 53rd episode of the TV series. Or, perhaps it should be episode 13 part 2 as this story sandwiches nicely between the first two arcs of the TV series: Uoodo City and the Kummen Jungle Wars respectively. No matter how this OVA is defined, The Last Red Shoulder is required viewing in the Votoms universe ONLY… if you complete the original TV series first. The plot and characters will make perfect sense as we see elements from the later parts of the TV series make small, but vital entrances. The production of a few more model kits may have paved the way to help finance The Last Red Shoulder, but the real substance so to speak is the revenge story and the new characters that we get to invite into our space for the time of about an hour. But as you near the end of this OVA you may crave some action and you shall be rewarded. The only question is who will make it out alive?

The rich palette of seriousness and gritty texture is what makes Votoms a special mecha property. Armored Trooper Votoms: The Last Red Shoulder smells of oil, blood and sweat, feels like bullet scared metal and looks of the dull nasty green of army surplus. War is hell and it can drive a man (or woman) to insanity, or leave personal traumas that need serious time to heal. Armored Trooper Votoms: The Last Red Shoulder brings you back into this dark world of dramatic hell that surrounds the politics and drama of the Astragius Galaxy and it does it so oh so excellently. Highly, highly recommended.

#101 : Ulysses 31

U31_1Ancient Greek mythology is awesome! Don’t you agree? Such a wonderful storehouse of great storytelling and wisdom from a bygone era. We can take these myths on the exoteric level as historic documentation to the richness of Hellenic culture and esoterically as metaphors for you, the world we live in and greater spiritual envelope of our whole universe. Film and animation have had many adaptations from Jason and the Argonauts to Clash of the Titans. Japan has animated many examples as well with Saint Seiya and Arion coming to mind. But!… there is yet another example, a collaboration between the French company DiC and an old favorite here, TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsa), that actually adapts the old myths into a 31st century universe instead of borrowing elements like the other two mentioned before. Have you seen Ulysses 31?

U31_2Hey look, it’s Space Jesus! I have heard that before in regards to our hero who does have an uncanny resemblance to the Christian icon. Yet alas, this is Ulysses my friends, the guy just has really awesome hair and that beard. He is readying his crew to return to Earth aboard the spaceship (that looks like a giant eye?), the Odyssey (well named). But first, we need to celebrate the birthday of his son Telemachus as the young boy is given a robot companion, Nono. You have to have that lovable, but kind of annoying robot character. Reminds me of Oon from Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. Soon Ulysses and his companions set off when all of a sudden Telemachus becomes kidnapped. And like an awesome dad, Ulysses sets course to save his son.

U31_3Telemachus awakes to meet two Zatrians, Yumi and her older brother Numinor, to learn that they are to be sacrificed to the Cyclops to keep the priests vision intact. Far fetched, but amazing and those priests are scary too! Ulysses soon find the children and destroys the Cyclops and in typical fashion, Ulysses has to deal with that time old issue, Karma. This act angers the gods and now Ulysses has to find his own way back to Earth, via the Kingdom of Hades. That and all his companions, plus Numinor, fall into a sleep state and will awaken once he gets beyond the Kingdom of Hades. This leaves Ulysses to work with his son Telemachus, Yumi, Nono and the Odyssey’s onboard computer, Shirka. So begins the ‘Odyssey!’ Homer would be so proud.

U31_4A strength of this show is the fact that you can casually watch any episode in any order, except episodes one and 26 as these are the bookends for the series. Hooray this show has a solid openner and a satisfying closing episode! …No loose ends here… Take Ulysses 31 in any order you like, kind of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure book series. If you are aware of many of the tales of Ancient Greek myth you will be pleased to see the variety that have been chosen. We see interpretations of Oedipus’ trial with the Sphynix, the punishment of Sisyphus, Thesseus and the Minotaur, the enchantment of Circe and many more. The most surprising episode has our heroes going back to Ancient Greece itself where they meet their legendary counterparts.

In case you are a fan of The Mysterious Cities of Gold, both dubs feature the same cast. I have never seen the original Japanese dub, but if you have give me an update; same with the French dub as well. The show looks very much the era it was made, 1981. You might say it looks very Star Wars, but I want to think it looks more like the era’s Flash Gordon since this had a European influence, though it is not campy. Sci-fi had a certain flavor from the late 70s/early 80s that cannot be recreated. The technology may not have been up to far of today and the costuming at times can be a little goofy. Yet you get a lot of heart, which is what makes the era’s sci-fi and mecha so desirable (at least for me). Ulysses 31 is a solid show where heart and soul reigns supreme. May your journey to find the Kingdom of Hades be immortal and full of discovery.