#141 : The Dagger of Kamui

You love ninja and samurai stories, I love ninja and samurai stories… we all love a good ninja or samurai story. Here in the west we have the epics of ancient Europe and the American western to delight our tastes in mythology, but for some of us there is a draw from an alternate source, the native myths of the East. Anime’s representation of a skilled man (or woman) is numerous: Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin and Ninja Scroll just to name a few. But what if we can marry the samurai genre with the western genre into a film? Yup, that’s been done before… ever heard of 1985’s The Dagger of Kamui?

DoK_1Even if one is not much into action, ninja skills, or sword mastery, The Dagger of Kamui can still be a worthy watch; even if only just once! The Dagger of Kamui equates the definition of the big epic expensive action film, with an art house twist. Big… no no no… more like say, HUGE! Take a break my friends because this is one of those long journeys that spans Japan, Russia and then the wild west of America. Now that is quite a tour! You even get to meet historic figures like Geronimo and Mark Twain too. What?! And this is still considered a ninja, or samurai film? Or perhaps the ultimate shonen fighter? That may be stretching it, but does it matter? Nah, not at all. Just remember, to tell a large epic journey will take some time and this film is long, two plus hours long. And no intermission either (except the pause button, shh! it’s a secret), so be prepared.

DoK_2The Dagger of Kamui is a great example of ‘the hero’s journey’. The Hero with a Thousand Faces has now reached 1,001; a quick nod to you Joseph Campbell! Our hero is Jiro who is in no better terms, a bastard. He is an illegitimate child adopted into a loving family and also an individual whose heritage is partly Ainu, the native culture of Japan that was once frowned upon. Needless to say the kid is not well liked, or respected for no fault of his own except the ignorance of those around him. These elements don’t help when Jiro returns home to find his mother and sister murdered. Take a guess who gets the blame with no due process? With a dagger in hand that will unlock many clues of his origins and destiny, Jiro goes on the run to at first find the murderer of his family and then… well, that’s the beauty of being on a quest… it’s open to discovery beyond imagination.

DoK_3The story may be huge, the music is funky, with electric guitar and traditional Japanese drumming, but the visuals are a sight to behold. This is one gorgeous movie. Backgrounds are lush. Motion is fluid. Colors are bold. The fight scenes are like expressionist paintings that have come to life that could easily pass as a psychedelic experience. No surprise really as this was made at Madhouse, a studio which seems to have two quality settings in the visual department… amazing and fantastic. That and with a director like Rintaro, the ocular experience triples if not quadruples with his use of editing, color and dynamics. Let me go back to the fight scenes again. They are not like the usual brawl. Think more in terms of a well choreographed dance in a lucid dream you can only have at midnight where all around is magic and wonder to behold and see. Conflict becomes poetic art; danger becomes beautiful.

DoK_480s anime cinema has many standout choices. Many originate from well known directors, franchises, or are just at the right place at the right time. The Dagger of Kamui can fall into line with say the Fist of the North Star film for being a big action epic where our hero has to face up against a his major arch rival in the end, but The Dagger of Kamui is a completely different beast altogether. Some action films are just that, an action film. But there are those action films that are blessed to have been created by an auteur studio and an auteur director as well. There is something special about these movies, even though they can be a little long winded. The Dagger of Kamui is one wild ride!

#131 : Gatchaman II

G2_1They’re back! My favorite sentai squad quintet of bird themed costumed, thigh high boot wearing superheroes… ee… maybe ninjas is more appropriate. Does it matter how you classify Earth’s ultimate answer to fighting the evil menace known as Galactor? As if 100+ episodes of action and adventure were not enough it seems our band of heroes get to strap on the capes yet again for another 52 episodes. Way to go! Sometimes one, or sometimes five, Science Ninja Team welcome to your sequel, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman II. Bird!… GO!!

G2_2Now here is something for you to ponder. This series is set two years later from the original Gatchaman show, which was how long series one lasted, yet it previewed on screen six years after the initial release of Gatchaman (1972 vs. 1978). Hmm? Oh well better late than never? But a sequel, really? I mean the original show ended with a number of cliffhangers: the fall of Berg Katse and even the death of the beloved tough guy, Joe the Condor being the biggest two. Where do we go from here? Well Joe makes a comeback for a start. WHAT… HOW!? Thanks to a new character by the name of Dr. Raphael, Joe is now a cyborg. Kinda like Casshan… good job Tatsunoko Studio to tie in themes from your other shows. Plus, the Gatchaman crew have new weapons (I miss the old ones!), new mechs to pilot and an all new God Phoenix with a R2D2-type robot (or maybe 7 Zark 7?), plus a new assistant in the name of Dr. Pandora. And lets not forget we need another non-binary type villain of questionable gender to accompany Leader X… enter Gel Sadra.

G2_3So with all these new changes, does anything stay the same from before? Well, Dr. Nambu still has that wicked mustache, the minion troops of Galactor still have those nasty green uniforms and Leader X still has that awesome voice, mesmerizing and menacing. Thankfully the feel of the show is very similar to the original as it was produced by the same studio, used the same voice cast and was produced in the 1970s (get funky!). So it’s just a complete carbon copy? Well… not really, but in many ways, yes. It’s been a while since I have seen series I, but wasn’t there more plot that resound around a lot of kaiju type mecha and using the Firebird Technique in the God Phoenix. HI NO TORI!!! And what about a lot of the techniques where they join together that look totally ridiculous, but we love it all because we wish we could do that. Maybe the memory is a little fuzzy… hazy more like it. But one thing I can say for sure, there was hardly any calling out of Bird GO!!! to allow the transformation process into the awesome costumes.

G2_4Yet the Science Ninja team are still the same characterizations. Ken is still honorable and cool headed, Joe is still a tough and vulnerable (yet now a cyborg… fancy!), Jun is still adorable and strong, Jinpei is still a goof ball kid (yet his voice has dropped… puberty) and Ryu is still the token big guy and perfect in his own way. The stock and trade quintet sentai squad that is the definition of sentai squads. Now drawn in a little more of a slightly more sophisticated style. The line work and designs are still the same, but comparing 1972 to 1978 shows more fluidity. A great example of my theory of anime of the 1970s, which shows the evolution from the archaic 1960s into the classical 1980s. Now remember it is only a theory and my opinion, it is ok if you disagree. So which do I prefer? Both! TV animation from the early 70s (think Ashita no Joe, Cutie Honey, Aim for the Ace) and late 70s (Rose of Versailles, Mobile Suit Gundam, Space Pirate Catain Harlock) are BOTH welcome in my house.

Gatchaman II… fun show. A great compliment to the original, but I kind of favor the original by a hair… I mean hey, it’s a classic. One thing that did get me about Gatchaman II, which was a huge surprise, was how poignant the ending was and in one case brings a tear to your eye. Such is the magic of well done anime. Now… onto Gatchaman F, or it it Gatchaman Fighter? Whenever it doubt between a choice to two, have BOTH!

#53 : Science Ninja Team Gatchaman

I have never got the whole idea of the American superhero. Batman and some of X-Men are OK, but the way our media over here has portrayed ‘heroes’ has left me a little flat… i.e. Superman. Now, I love this stuff from Japan, what if they only had something to offer? Oh wait, they do? Lots of options you say. OK then, how about a sentai task force that wears thigh high boots? After all superheroes wear only calf high boots, BORING! So what do we have to watch kids? How about Science Ninja Team Gatchaman? Bird… GO!

GM_1Gatchaman is one of the oldest series to have influence here in the west. Maybe not to the caliber of say Speed Racer, but for those of you who saw the original Stars Wars film in theaters during 1977, you were in for a surprise. The next year, we would get an adaptation known as Battle of the Planets and with all the Hanna Barbara-esque edits, the original essense of Tatsunoko’s work could still be seen. Much the same way in how I viewed Voltron back in the those innocent days of the mid 1980s. And it would be the mid 80s that G-Force Defenders of Space, another Gatchaman adaptation would grace us here in the west. And being that both of these adaptations were during the so-called wild west period of bringing animation over from Japan, a cult following would emerge for the bird costumed quintet.

GM_2As a kid and teenager I mistakingly thought when looking at the show that, “…hey! This is a copycat of Voltron.” I can’t blame my ignorance at the time, but how was a to know that Gatchaman (1972) beat out the like of Beast King GoLion (1981) by a decade. Of course, I know better now. It was Gatchaman itself that would lay the groundwork for the sentai team esthestic that would influence everything from Super Sentai/Power Rangers to mecha shows like Combattler V, Voltes V and GoLion and even shojo magical girls like say… Sailor Moon. Though previously you had titles that featured a team, like say Cyborg 009, Gatchaman would simplify the principle.

GM_3And that principle is the stock and trade quintet: The strong leader (Ken), The rebel (Joe), The cute girl (Jun), the kid (Junpei) and the big guy (Ryu). How many times have we seen this combo? I know I have, maybe it has been modified slightly for whatever show, but that is the standard. Everyone brings their individual strength towards the greater group. So the question has to be, why does this Gatchaman team exist? As created by Dr. Nambu with the aid of modern technology and ninja skills, the purpose of The Gatchaman Team is to bring down the evil organization determined to rule the world… Cobra? No, no, that’s G.I. Joe. Try again… how about Galactor? Yeah that’s the way. And with the leadership of the androgynous Berg Katse and the mysterious Leader X, how will Galactor attempt to foil Gatchaman this week?

Getting back to the beginning in regards to American superheroes, I can’t deny they are an influence on this creation by Tatsunoko Studios. But also tokusatsu/special effects shows of say Ultraman and the idea of being a ninja warrior bring a Japanese spin onto an American invention. Super powers are out, but being skilled, silent and quick are in. Also having a very groovy taste in both fashion and music. This was 1972 after all and the hippie aesthetic was still strong. And that theme song, which was the original ending credits music, is one of the best openings I have ever heard. It simply rocks and in typical seventies fashion it features a brass section, loud guitar and a driving beat.

GM_4So why do I enjoy Gatchaman? Well, why not? The premise is simple and fun and at times repetitive. Ken is not a complete goodie-goodie and has issues regarding the whereabouts of his father. Joe, is the prototypical lone wolf, but he is very endearing and his demise by the end of the show brought tears to my eyes. Berg Katse is an interesting villain with a secret of his own. The quality of the animation for it’s day is very fluid and the use of special effects like lighting (with a spot light no less) and explosions (sometimes with psychedelic like liquids) are handled in ways you don’t see in anime today. It was one of those shows that called out to me and I had to answer to it because after all. we all need heroes to look up to from time to time.

Sometimes they are five, sometimes only one; the white shadow that stalks close to the heart on my sleeve known as the love of anime. They are the Science Ninja Team and they totally belong my collection shelf.