#30 : Mobile Suit Gundam

1979 was a breakthrough year. And Mobile Suit Gundam was a breakthrough series, or was it? I see Gundam as a continuation, an evolution and a product of it’s time expressing the then fashionable mecha genre with space opera not unlike Space Battleship Yamato or Star Wars. But where Yamato was emotional and Star Wars was heroic, Gundam was intense passion. And that passion became a franchise bigger than it’s own name, an elephant in the room that now seems to define mecha itself. But nothing compares to an original and for me when you go back  ‘the’ original, it is hard to move ahead to what seems like a copycat for cash.

msg_1The original Gundam may have broke the mold in regards to looking at the large robot as a piece of utilitarian hardware instead of this super hero deus ex machina. But, Gundam did not happen in a bubble or was a happy accident. The mecha genre had been building through the 1970s and the likes of Yoshiyuki Tomino (Gundam’s creator/director) and Tadao Nagahama both pushed story and character development through the later part of the decade. Two shows from 1977 deserve the place as major stepping stones leading to Gundam, Nagahama’s Voltes V and Tomino’s Zambot 3. If you love mecha and consider Gundam to be the true beginning of mecha as serious storytelling, you may have to scratch that surface again.

msg_2Why do I love the original Gundam so? Simple answer… it’s good. Damn good… no great. An epitome of the concept of the large epic space opera. Top it off for it being harder sci-fi as well. Warp drives and far out deep space are out. We are going to stay close to the Earth sphere for this story. Let’s strip out a bit of the super fantastic and make it about political ideals. A corrupt unified government, the Earth Federation, versus an even more corrupt family dictatorship, the Zeon (Jeon?) Empire that can likened to the Godfather or I Claudius. And everyone else is in between and by due fact of geography resides to one of those sides, which is where a majority of our main cast resides. Many aboard a Federation ship called White Base, which houses the Federation’s newest prototype, the RX78-02 Gundam.

msg_3And this tale has one of the greatest rivalry combinations pitting an electronics obsessed otaku kid who wants nothing to do with fighting or war against a blonde elitist pilot who must be in disguise in order to carry out his own personal revenge for the wrong done to his family. Amuro vs. Char, a combo remade too many times in each successive Gundam series that may look good on paper, but never approaches the original. In between both men are two women, Char’s distant sister Sayla Mass, who is close to Amuro, and the woman of mystery who flirts with the hearts of Amuro and Char, Lalah Sune. It is more than a rivalry of who is a better pilot, or for which side of the conflict they fight for. It is personal and full of blind angst that can’t be expressed except between two lost souls needing conflict to justify their existences. As Marshall McLuhan says “Violence as a Quest for Identity.” This is a bonafide soap opera.

msg_4And this is just another robot show? Well at least it was in 1979. Ratings were not too hot, but a certain group of fans caught on, very similar to original Yamato. And both would get a second chance in the theaters. My chance to experience original Gundam came after encounters with first Gundam Wing, which left me a little empty, and the first half of Zeta Gundam, which left me a little confused. I tried original Gundam next and I could not go back. Zeta Gundam made much more sense and I became a die hard fan of the Universal Century timeline with two conditions: first it has to be helmed by Yoshiyuki Tomino and two, it has to feature Amuro and Char. Gundam is not Gundam without these combinations for me similar to the way I see Macross as being the story of Hikaru, Misa and Minmei.

msg_5Of all the hype for Star Wars or the newest Gundam release, the original Mobile Suit Gundam will always stick out to me. Well Zeta Gundam is a love of mine as well, but there would be no Zeta Gundam without the original. Also no Macross as well, so it is to be said if Gundam never came out who would have known where or if my fandom would have occured. If you ask me where do you start with Gundam, I have only one answer. Start at the very beginning with the original Mobile Suit Gundam.

#29 : Lupin III (Series 1)

No anime collection is proper without the adventures of Lupan San Sei, Lupin III. A product of the late 1960s counterculture in style and attitude, only one production of the famous thief can claim to be the closest to Monkey Punch’s original manga… sort of. The original Lupin III TV series of 1971, the ‘The Green Jacket’ series, is a study of two different visions in regards to production and outlook. Beyond that, this is the series that is official swinging 60s cool.

liii_s1_1The two visions in question look at being authentic to the original source material and a softened version by following the source material’s source material. The original concept of the show was directed by Masaaki Osumi and followed the approach of Monkey Punch’s manga. That being said, for approximately the first third of the show, the direction was hard boiled and mature. Adult oriented programming is often taken for granted today as normal, but for the early 1970s, this was untested ground. Ratings suffered and Osumi was soon shown the door to be replaced by the young and hungry Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Not overly enthusiastic, they took the job and followed the marching orders to clean up the show and make it appeal more for families and children. At first there were a handful of transitional episodes that became out and out fun and non-offensive adventures of the week.

liii_s1_2And due to the split nature of Lupin III, I have a love/hate, well more disappointed than hate as I can’t hate this show. As famous as Miyazaki and Takahata are and as well produced and fun the later episodes are, I really love the original vision of Masaaki Osumi. The attitude and grittier look are just brilliant. Lupin is not as much of backstabbing bastard as the manga, but he is still a bit of a scoundrel. And this kind of goes for the so called team of four: Lupin, Jigen, Goemon and Fujiko. It seems all four of them will one up each other to be on top (maybe not so much Jigen?) and that is a nice thing to see as it is four egos on a rampage. Particularly Fujiko, who I think suffers the most during the change. The big haired bombshell who would shoot Lupin in the back and have him in the sack as well gets a hair cut and her hemlines extended. Fujiko is a strong, independent and sexy woman who may be the most cutthroat of the bunch becomes almost a backup figure. Big mistake. Let Fujiko be Fujiko.

liii_s1_3So with all the grit and angst of the original one third of episodes, it should be a dark show with nothing funny. OH NO! Funny is the word of this show from the word go. My favorite episode, One Chance to Breakout, is comedic genius. After all what would happen if Lupin gets caught by Zenigata? He stays put and acts like a crazy man for months and months and months until he decides to leave. And poor Fujiko tries to break him out and every single time Jigen pulls her back to say let Lupin do his thing. It’s mature comedy, smart comedy that if you love Monty Python or Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb you will get it and in spades. Funny and bit bizarre on the side of being experimental. It is a shame they left the original intention behind, but at least that much got through the system.

liii_s1_4Also to make a small comparison to the Patlabor OVA to Patlabor 2: The Movie, we see a couple storylines in the Lupin III TV Series that ended up being used… again! After all episodes six and seven of the Patlabor OVA are similar to the plot of Patlabor 2: The Movie (similar yes, same no, Patlabor 2 is beyond perfect). As for Lupin III, you have an episode with a guy who makes counterfeit money with a clock tower/mountain and another featuring an odd guy named Mamo. I think these sound like a couple movies that featured Lupin a couple years later? Recycling done right.

Beyond the matter the of vision or production, the adventures of Lupin have always been about style. Cool style baby, YEAH! And that style looks damn good with a green jacket, a good addition over the red (not saying one is better, but from style preference, I like green). And I give the original Lupin III credit for the audacity to push animation into a more mature waters. After all, grown up kiddies still need cartoons too.

#28 : Gauche the Cellist

Let’s see. What should I watch that is different? Hmm… Gauche the Cellist. What’s this? Let me see who directed this… OH! This is one of Isao Takahata’s pre-Ghibli works. And it’s based off a short story from Kenji Miyazawa, author of the original novel that became Night on the Galactic Railroad. Well, that settles that, I’m sold. Time to hit play and check this out. But first, I need some popcorn.

gtc_1You know what I love about you Isao Takahata? You are like George Harrison. Miyazaki is like Lennon/McCartney and getting a majority of the spotlight both within your group and friendship. His work is often more recognized and is often looked at as the frontman. But Takahata, when you speak up or make a film, it is a little different and you own the moment, much like Harrison. You don’t shy away from fame, you just do it your own way and with the quiet grace of a seasoned professional. 1982’s Gauche the Cellist would be the final production Takahata would produce before the founding of Studio Ghibli, along with the 1981 movie Chie the Brat.

gtc_2Our story concerns a small provincial orchestra caught in the act of practice. The music is Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the Pastoral Symphony. The group’s unity and sound is going well, except for one element. Gauche (Goshu is a more appropriate translation) on the cello is a little behind in his timing and more importantly behind in the feeling and passion of playing in the moment. The conductor spots this and makes a melodramatic statement. Needless to say, Gauche is a bit taken back, but he knows something is missing.

gtc_3Returning to his modest country home he pushes hard to get the best out of his playing. It is not working, until he encounters some strangers in the night. Almost like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, our hero has to face himself through lessons taught by complete strangers. But, unlike A Christmas Carol, we don’t get ghosts of particular moments of time, we get an assortment of animal friends from nature. The first being a calico cat, the second a bird, third a tanuki and finally a field mouse and her child. Each lesson brings out the essence and passion that is necessary to be a great musician, though in the most bizarre and unexpected ways. Much like listening to the forces around us, or more importantly within us, we often dig up the solutions that answer the questions, or issues we often struggle to deal with in almost a moments notice when we concentrate on our problem from an alternate angle.

gtc_4Only an hour long, I wish Takahata would have stuck with this shorter format when he released Tale of Princess Kaguya. He keeps it simple and sweet and does not over embellish for the sake of self indulgence, something I feel he and Miyazaki have done a bit of in more recent works of theirs. Although the artwork is embellished in certain areas and that deserves extra points. Leave it to Takahata to be experimental at just the right times. Oh, by the way the company that worked on this was called Oh! Production. Had to play up the double Oh… kind of like James Bond, 007… OK I have gone on a tangent.

Gauche the Cellist, you sit in the back of the room without making much noise, or fuss, but your pedigree is unquestionable. Truly a hidden gem by one of the best directors in anime. And it has Beethoven too… fancy 🙂 But sadly, no George Harrison songs 😦

#27 : The Rose of Versailles

For an updated perspective on The Rose of Versailles, click here.

rov1I’ve got my cake and I am eating it too! The French Revolution was a time of insanity. Political overthrow, bloodshed and ideals permeated the landscape of 18th century France. Fast forward to 1970s Japan, mangaka Riyoko Ikeda would pen a story of love, politics and gender identity into this historic environment. Historically accurate, hardly, but a passionate soap operatic historic shojo masterpiece, indeed. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité live on forever and ever in The Rose of Versailles.

rov2The house of de Jarjayes is expecting a child. This military family of the commander of the Royal Guard expects, no, demands a son, but alas a beautiful baby girl is delivered instead. In haste General de Jarjayes demands that this child be raised as a boy instead, after all a male heir is crucial. This child christened Oscar Francois de Jarjayes (say it three times fast, isn’t French a sexy language? L’amour!) is our heroine and by the time she comes of age she becomes the guard for a future future queen of France, Marie Antoniette (a.k.a. spoiled brat). Who says being born into nobility or privilege is an advantage? There is always a price.

rov3Oscar without question has too be one of, if not the most honored, strongest and most well rounded female characters in anime or otherwise. And beautiful as well… flaunt that hair. And with issues as well, being forced to be a man, when she is definitely a woman and has natural feminine tendencies that cannot be repressed. Trans peeps you know what I am talking about! One of my favorite moments that highlight this idea was when Oscar went to a ball and rid herself of the military uniform to wear a gorgeous gown and have all her hair done up. She looked damn good, I remember cheering at the top of my lungs… Go girl go! And she stole the show at the ball and yet no one knew it was Oscar. After all Oscar is just a boyish soldier… yeah hardly.

rov4And of course there has to be love interests. The first being her childhood friend, a commoner, André. Now these two are one good looking couple, imagine the children if things could have been. Andre is genuine, honest and always supportive to the woman he loves. Contrast this to ‘Mr. Captain von Handsome’ himself (I need to trademark that), the blonde Swede aristocrat who also has feelings for Madame Oscar as well, Hans Axel von Ferson (actually a real person as well). He is also a decent soul, but the dude needs to decide Oscar or Ms. Antoniette (brat). Of course he has pedigree over André, but where does Oscar stand? You going with the nice country boy or the sophisticated suave dude?

rov5Production was done by the awesome TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha) and two directors held the high post of being in charge. Tadao Nagahama, who is noted for the Robot Romance Trilogy (great mecha!), began the series and in traditional fashion told a very straight forward and emotional story. Sadly at about half way through production, he would succumb to a fatal case of hepatitis leaving the director’s chair to go to one of the masters, Osamu Dezaki. With more intense lighting, triple takes and pastel stills in hand (all signature to Dezaki) the show became even more dramatic all the way to the tragic ending.  Osamu Dezaki equals genius (can you tell I am a fan?). From start to finish it is 40 episodes of win; a soap opera turned up to 11. All those who are nice get a little pushed over by those who are a bit too arrogant. Madame du Barry I am looking at you! I looked up bitch in the dictionary and there was a portrait of her… no surprise 😉

For those of you in Europe I am envious that you got this show amongst many others as well back in ye olden days. Icon may be the best word to describe The Rose of Versailles. But also yardstick as well. No show can equal it before or after and true there have been elements borrowed in other shows, but it’s not The Rose of Versailles. Great shojo or otherwise have to measure up to this gem. The Rose of Versailles est très belle et magnifique. J’temps beaucoups!

#26 : Future Boy Conan

fbc_1Time to show us what you got to prove Mr. Miyazaki because you are now in charge of a full length TV series. Having worked his way for the last several years as a key animator, episode director, storyboard artist, etc., Hayao Miyazaki finally got his hands on a project where he got to take the drivers seat. The year is 1978 and the production is a loose adaptation of a sci-fi novel, The Incredible Tide by Alexander Key. The end product is a rarity as most know Miyazaki for his film work, but the hard work and passion is still there in this 26 episode adventure. Let us travel to the past to see the future in Future Boy Conan.

fbc_2If there is one thing I got from this series is that it is signature Miyazaki though and though. It looks like his work. It feels like his work. Maybe even smells or tastes like his work? The humor and hijinks are there with elements of drama as well. All of this on a much smaller budget compared to what he has had to work with on the big screen, but then again Miyazaki knows how to make every little detail count. The only big difference is the fact he had a longer time frame to tell this story. If only some of his film projects could have been TV series as well?

fbc_3Two of his later films always crept into my thoughts as I was making my way through the series. It might be me, but I could see later elements that would become Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. Nausicaa for the fact that we have a sci-fi fantasy adventure based on our planet and not some over the top space opera with robots or aliens and Castle for the adventure of a couple kids trying to restore a sense of order in the world. And of course there is the love of environmentalism and the possible corruptions of mankind when we think we have the technology to conquer Mother Nature. The World Masterpiece Theatre meta series, Nippon Animation’s yearly adaptation of western children’s novels, also comes to my mind. Future Boy Conan is an ‘unofficial’ cousin (muy opinion) due to the fact that this again is based on a book and the production was also done at Nippon.

fbc_4Enough of the details, who is Conan and what is this show about? In a post apocalyptic world after a major war, most of the continents have sank into the sea. On a small island two remaining survivors from an escape group live and thrive. One is our young hero Conan, the other is an older man who he calls grandfather, not sure if he is biologically related, but that is besides the point. One day as Conan, who by the way is an exceptional deep sea diver, was partaking a little revenge on a shark who had been causing trouble for the island discovers a girl on the shoreline. Her name is Lana and thus begins their journey to thwart the corruption of the so-named Industria. Along their journey they meet friends including the goofy Captain Dyce, feral child Jimsy (he loves frogs) and Lana’s long lost grandfather, Dr. Briac Lao to aid them on their quest.

Future Boy Conan is what a great kid’s show should be. It’s enjoyable for the whole family, fun and endearing, which of course is what Miyazaki specializes in. If you love Miyazaki’s work and you have not seen this show… then you have homework.

#25 : Robot Carnival

Robot Carnival is phenomenal… beautiful. Nine short films of pure genius. Much like picking up a package of new crayons, there is a color or two or maybe even nine that appeal to you? I have my favorites for sure, which I will disclose in time. There are many omnibus or collective productions that have come over from Japan, but Robot Carnival to me trumps them all. It is art for art’s sake and for all the directors who were a part of the production I am sure this was the assignment… ok you have about 10–15 minutes to tell a story and include some aspect of robots… have fun!

I have always enjoyed Japan’s view of what a robot is or can be. It is not some machine to be used for comedic entertainment or a scary monster that shows the darker side of technology. A robot can be a great force or nature, a superhero, a vehicle that has be piloted by someone, your best friend, but above all else a robot can also be as human as you or me. After all are we not organic machines that have emotional connection, the same can be said of something that is inorganic. Mixed with the free interpretation of what a robot can be allowed a large range of creative expression shown in Robot Carnival. No two pieces look or feel the same. But the one constant is the great music. Most of the shorts have no dialogue so in a way they are kind of like music videos. And guess who wrote the music for all of these shorts except one of them? That Jo Hisashi guy! Yes, Mr. Jo has a backlog of other soundtracks beyond the Studio Ghibli canon.

rc_1Robot Carnival begins and ends with it’s most well known creator’s vision of the “Robot Carnival” coming into town spreading it’s joy and fun. Katsuhiro Otomo (the Akira guy) shows his usual style by having this gargantuan transport vehicle partying it up as it travels through a barren landscape. The only thing is this party is laying waste and destruction in the wake of the vehicle’s journey (so Otomo). But hey look at music festivals and such after everyone leaves, it’s a major mess and trashed. Rock on the rolling Robot Carnival… ee maybe Carn-evil?

Alright I am going to go over the next grouping that I consider my also rans and then I will go in backwards order of my favorites from there. Not saying these are bad or they may not be a favorite of your’s, it is just that my tastes favor the shorts I will anounce later. Franken’s Gears is darkly funny and a complete rehash of Shelley’s FrankensteinStrange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion is funny and over the top. And Chicken Man and Redneck or Nightmare is one that I often look over and too be honest if I can give it another go I would probably favor it more. Now for my favorite four, the our seasons, fab four, the Beatles… 

Number 4… Presence: If any of the shorts is standard stock and trade shonen action and could have been turned into a longer single release OVA, this is it. Heavy action, driving music and awesome hair. Girl gets kidnapped, hero saves the day and a whole lot of fun… and awesome hair!

rc_2Number 3… Starlight Angel: Two girls having fun at an amusement park and one sees her beau being friendly to her friend (creep deserves a SLAP!) and girl gets mad, loses necklace and a robot in the park tries to return it. Then again some over the top stuff where a big bad robot takes her away and the robot mentioned previously turns into a handsome guy and saves the day… and then they fall in love. I love shojo and the work of Hiroyuke Kitazume and Starlight Angel has both. This one always reminds me of my niece and the times we (and my sister) had fun times at Six Flags and also her love of going to Disney World. To me she is the “Starlight Angel”.

rc_3Number 2… Presence: Loss, regret, can I be loved? This one could be the pièce de résistance of the whole collection for the production quality alone. Not that the other works are a slouch, but the detail work particularly with clothing and motion show a true strength of the old paint and cel technique. The story is about a man who basically is lost in his life. His marriage is dull, his wife seems to be more successful than him and all the usual responsibilities of being a man seems to have drained the life from him. He creates a female robotic companion, but when she comes to life she asserts her independence and again he becomes frustrated. This one is often looked at as an erotic piece, but I have to disagree as it is a much more metaphorical tale of looking to connect in a genuine relationship.

rc_4Number 1… Cloud: Yes, Cloud! But it’s slow and boring and doesn’t do anything. It’s basically a kid walking with minimal background changes and piano or synth music… SHUT IT. Yes it is in a ‘way’, but it is not slow, or boring, or bad, or stupid, it’s BEAUTIFUL! It is perhaps the most relaxing animation I have ever experienced, almost the equivalent of ambient music (Brian Eno anyone?). And the music makes it that more magical and this is the only production that does not feature notes from Jo Hisaishi. That, and I really like the wandering kid. He reminds me of myself as someone who is a daydreamer on a quest. So yeah, Cloud is my numero uno.

Lightning in a bottle. That saying comes to mind when I think of Robot Carnival. It may only happen once and when it does be thankful that you had the opportunity. Besides the older otaku culture who raves over this collection it can be in many ways a gateway drug to introduce Japanese animation to anyone who may not be warm to it. The limited dialog and shorter lengths makes easy digestion. But for those of us who love Robot Carnival, it is almost a religion. I am a proud fan of this one and glad to still keep my old laserdisc release even though we got a DVD release (Discotek, you made a miracle come true) as this is one of the reasons why anime is so much more than just the term anime.

#24 : Area 88

area88_1Circumstances often bring us into situations that may not always be the most ideal. Shin Kazama is a young pilot who just graduated from a flight academy in Paris. His future looks certain; he is optimistic, has a job lined up with Yamato airlines and his beautiful girlfriend is the daughter of the president of the company. All his dreams are about to come true except for the fact that he decided to join his best friend on a drunken night on the town which ended up with the naive and very impaired Shin signing a paper without really reading over it. The following morning he comes to find out he has a new destiny and that destiny is in the foreign legion air force of Arslan. Shin Kazama’s future now belongs to Area 88.

Area 88, released in 1985, is an example of an early masterpiece for the then new direct to video format, the OVA. Produced by Studio Pierrot, the same company that released the first OVA release in late 1983 (Dallos), Area 88 showed a growing maturity in a short span of time. Based off of the original manga, this pocket sized three episode (two if you have an alternate release) was one of the first productions I experienced in the beginning of my journey into the deep dive of being a hard core older otaku who was looking for options to play catch up as it were. Megazone 23 Part 1 and Area 88 (episode 1 at the time) were my homework almost a decade ago and needless to say I was happy to find alternate material to compliment the usual material I had up to that point.

area88_2Let’s look at nature vs. nurture in regards to our hero Shin Kazama. True there is the debate of are things predestined or learned all across the map, but in regards to Shin I have to point to the nurture aspect, or more precisely environmental influence. Shin’s initial nature is a gentile soul whose life has become flipped upside down. He is depressed, he is desparate. More than anything he wants to return to Japan to go back to his former life. But over time from being in the battlefield and around battle scared pilots he begins to morph into a cold blooded mercenary as it is the only way for him to survive. The only life he can conceive is being trapped in a fighter plane trying to earn enough credits to qualify for an honorable discharge. Of course he can serve three years or desert (which he tried earlier in his career) as well.

area88_3Shin is a victim of circumstance, NO! He accepted his current condition instead of holding on to his genuine truth, but war does strange things to everyone involved. The love of his life Ryoko is now being approached by the friend who sold him out, Kanzaki. As Kanzaki weasels his way up the corporate ladder and enforce his love to Ryoko he can never escape the ghost of his old friend Shin. Often times their paths cross even though they may not be looking at each other in the face. Talk about a soap opera and a half and I am eating it all up with a bucket of popcorn (I need a refill!). Much of this story can be seen in many of the mecha series of the time, as I see this as shonen-esque type show, but Area 88 is a bit more down to earth dealing with actual war machinery and a more contemporary setting (be it the late 70s/early 80s). It’s kind of like, what I read somewhere, a more realistic G.I. Joe. Very true in that observation, but I still seeArea 88 as a tale of a man who lost his faith in himself.

area88_4Another avenue I often look at with the lens of Area 88 is the concept of the war draft. Growing up a decade after the ending of the Vietnam war, the shadow of being told to go to war without question or reason was around. This was my parents’ generation and of course it was reflected in films such as Apocalyse Now and Platoon. Much like those films, Area 88 shows a young man’s life change due to the circumstance of being taken away from his environment and his dreams. The spoils of war often silence many young people who had drive and ambition. If you feel it is your duty to serve you are more than able, but we should never force anyone to do what they may not feel is truly right.

Truly a gold standard of the OVA, Area 88 tells it’s story with the right pacing and production value. Without any question it is required viewing for anyone interested in classic Japanese animation. Just one word of parting advice… never sign anything when you have been drinking alcohol. You never know what misfortunes can arise from being careless.