#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!

#84 : Blue Sonnet

BS_1Say shojo and often words like romance and magical girls become the defacto answer. Of course this is only stereotyping and not the complete truth. As an example, CLAMP creates shojo material and it is anything but light fun and flowers. More like some of the best dark and psychological material ever made. But, what if a shojo title was more like say Fist of the North Star in it’s level of action and even at times… gore. Hang on a minute… got to thumb through these old LaserDiscs here… AH HA found it! Let’s rap about a little OVA from 1989 called Blue Sonnet.

BS_2For an OVA that is five episodes in length, Blue Sonnet hits you fast and hard from the beginning with intense fervor as we dive into the opening credits. That theme song, “What is love?”… such a favorite of mine. Interspersed between the rockin’ guitars and gritty vocals we see the back story of our anti-hero Sonnet Barge. She is a teenage esper who seems to have come from the rough streets of New York and awakens her latent powers during uncomfortable circumstances, which brings more confusion into her life. After the credits we fast forward to find Sonnet showing her skills in a training example, against tanks no less (damn girl!), which highlights the cyborg enhancements she has received from a group known as Talon. She also has this weird tiara like headpiece that becomes a funky visor… stylish! From here she becomes focused on her new mission, to find Red Fang… and go to a Japanese high school as well.

BS_3Now onto our other main character and perhaps the true hero of this anime… wait… Blue Sonnet is not all about Sonnet? The original manga title was Red Fang Blue Sonnet, so either the producers or the English translation dropped out Red Fang. In a way this works out because Lan Komatsuzaki doesn’t have a clue she is Red Fang, a super esper from an ancient lineage. She is just an average high school student… yeah we have all heard that one before. Come on Lan, you can move objects and mentally sense things at a higher level than most of us. All kidding aside, her eventual meeting with Sonnet becomes fated, confusing and dangerous. Lan’s questioning of why the new girl in class has it out to get her mixed with emerging powers will turn her life upside down. Plus, she is beginning her menstrual cycle as well. When it rains, it pours.

Over the course of these five half hours, more characters become involved (including two more super powered espers!), the story gets darker and the action explodes. Almost like a video game with five levels, will you be ready for the final boss at level five? Just watch out for that tank thats called a Tarantula. Or, perhaps on another view, like an organism Blue Sonnet just keeps multiplying out of the shear reason of existence. The plot is fairly run of the mill 80s sci-fi and action, but it does it so well that it doesn’t matter. Much like punk rock, this OVA is a more simplified approach in art style and attitude, but loud and big in presence.

BS_4Let’s return to our girl Sonnet. She is after all a tool for the Talon organization and eventually she comes to question what is right and just for herself. She questions what is her true enemy and is it right that she should commit these violent acts in the name of a group that brought her out from her troubled past. Will she ever learn, as the opening credits say, What is love? And maybe more appropriate, what is my own truth for me? By the end we get a little glimpse of a vulnerability from Sonnet, but because this is a short OVA, its glanced over very quickly. Could we get an episode six to finish this off instead of all of this being up in the air? I mean there are romantic tendencies here, but I leave that to you to view as to with whom.

So on a final note… Blue Sonnet you kick ass oh so well. Now I need to re-listen/watch those opening credits yet again just because 🙂

#74 : Hikari no Densetsu

HnD_1More anime needs an emphasis on rhythmic gymnastics. And I am being serious here folks. I never in my mind would have thought that before I watched Hikaru no Densetsu, a simple sports shojo anime about this graceful and elegant sport that I would be smiling gleefully from ear to ear. And in a short 19 episode run I would be crying for just a little more. Sometimes you find diamonds in the rough and sometimes you find perfectly polished gems ready to reflect the light of the sun so clearly. Hikaru no Densetsu (Legend of Hikari) shines beautifully.

HnD_2When I gave a panel on the anime of 1986 a couple years ago, I knew I had many well known titles to talk about. 1986 is in my eyes an all-star year and with names like Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya, Maison Ikkoku, Castle in the Sky, M.D. Geist and many more all have a large reputation that cement my standing for the year. And then there was this little show on my list of ‘to watch’ anime, which was headlined by Hikaru no Densetsu. I had at that point no knowledge of this show and no serious expectations either. I found out quickly that it was about a young girl named Hikari and it centered around her school days and her talent as an up and coming rhythmic gymnast. Once I began the show I could not stop, I got the Hikari bug very quickly. Perhaps because Hikaru no Densetsu filled a void that I needed filling from my 1985 panel the year before. That void was left by Touch and the need for a quality romantic sports anime was fulfilled.

HnD_3Each episode opens with the same intro sequence, and I will say I am a sucker for that theme song. Many themes are often exciting, fun, or danceable, but Hikari’s theme is a ballad. A soft, gentile and relaxing song; what a nice change pace. Beyond the intro we learn of our main heroine Hikari Kamijo, a student who has a dream of being a great rhythmic gymnast much like the fictional champion Diana Gueorguiva. Hikari is a part of her school’s team where she is one of the many junior members under star standout Hazuki Shiina. Add to this Takaaki Ooishi, one of the two male leads, who is also a gymnast and a romantic interest for both Hikari and Hazuki. And the other male lead, who is kind of a bit of an odd ball as he is a rock musician and not a gymnast. Mao Natsukawa, who is Hikari’s neighbor, may be out of place with the rest of the cast, but he did compose one of the pieces Hikari used in her routines and also has some romantic feelings for Hikari as well. Now that’s a solid quartet.

HnD_4I have to give a salute to Tatsunoko Production, not for being a great classic studio (which you are and you know it), but for the quality of the fluidity of the movement during the gymnast routines. If it took extra effort or budget to pull this off then my hat is off in appreciation. You didn’t cheap out when the moment was needed and for that you get yet another gold star from me because I love you anyway! And I have to give a salute to those of you in Europe. You got to watch this show, amongst many other, way back in the day. LUCKY! And from some light research, both Italy and France in particular had a very warm reception towards the show. Just how popular Hikari was I can’t say for sure, but I have found many fan sites in regard to their local adaptations. Even the English fansubs I got a hold of had the French dub as well with the usual Japanese track. Very nice.

The lessons I have learned from Hikari no Densetsu… watch more sports anime, watch more shojo anime, just keep watching more anime as you don’t know what you will find. Hikari will eventual become the champion she desires to be and Hikari no Densetsu the show, deserves a trophy for being what it is. Nothing more than a simple little show that puts a smile on your face. A true winner!

 

#66 : Zillion/Red Photon Zillion

Zillion fans in the house stand tall and proud! I am one with you. A simple sci-fi shonen adventure with promotional tie-ins that never had a longterm sequel or reboot is Zillion in a nutshell. It can be cliche, sometimes cheeky and just a lot of fun in general, plus it belongs into the universe of that fallen video game giant I love so dearly… SEGA! Woohoo. Sit back, grab some snacks and chill out to that little ol’ anime from 1987, Red Photon Zillion.

Zillion_1Imagine a weapon so powerful it cannot be recreated and yet it was harnessed into three guns. These Zillion guns are in the hands of our three heroes, The White Nuts. Yeah, Nuts… after all that is the Japanese wording for Knights, think of original NES Zelda’s Dark Nuts (those Blue ones still give me nightmares on how difficult they were). The names of these three young warriors are Champ (the cool guy leader type), Apple (the tough, yet cute girl) and JJ (the main character and the clown of the outfit) and together they fight against the Nohza invaders that have come to conquer this far off planet known as Maris, the second Earth. Mix in some transforming motorcycle mechs and an aircraft that can take on extra vehicle add-ons that reminds me of the classic British marionette adventures of The Thunderbirds… are GO!

Zillion_2The origins of Zillion can call into question two sources that I am aware of, or maybe the anime was the original? Remember Lazer Tag (yes with a ‘Z’ as in Zillion… yea for puns)? That was a hot toy in the mid 80s here in the U.S. and there was an alternative in Japan that featured the Zillion name. The gun looks like the upgrade seen later in the series. That counts as possible origin #1, well what about #2? I can sum it up as one word… SEGA! Yes Zillion was featured as a video game (actually there are two) on SEGA’s then hardware the Master System or Mark III, depending on what part of the world you were in. Even former mascot Opa-Opa is a re-occuring character (I love Fantasy Zone!). And come to think of it the SEGA phaser is a dead copy to the original Zillion gun. Wait, then that means… the SEGA phaser is the ultimate weapon of the universe… take that Nintendo!

Zillion_3The production for the anime was done at an old favorite of mine, Tatsunoko Production. And ironically this show is linked with my main gateway drug of Robotech, in not one, but two ways. First much of the production design work that was going to be a part of the sequel Robotech II: The Sentinels. So recycled designs… interesting, but it works. Most likely backgrounds, mecha and maybe the Nohza themeleves, but I am only speculating. The second of course is the fact that Carl Macek, the main face behind Robotech, along with his then company of Streamline Pictures (VHS nostalgia) released the first five episodes and the OVA Burning Night. These were dubbed of course and features many of the old standard cast of Robotech. So Zillion could almost be a full circle production if you can connect the dots in a certain way.

Zillion_4Now… do yourself a favor and crank up the segments when the music plays, in particular the opening (Pure Stone) and ending themes (Push and Rock Candy) as these are very catchy tunes. Pure Stone in particular is often on repeat for me as this is a song that just makes me happy. And while many anime have great soundtracks, Zillion’s may be one of my all time favorites. Funny thing is how our cast ended up forming a band and performing in the follow-up OVA Burning Night. Catchy 80s pop-rock is cornerstone to Zillion, even the 8-bit versions on the Master System games get me singing.

While the 1980s brought us many big name franchises and singular entries that have gone into the status of legend, we have many more that even today remain cult classics. Zillion is one of these and though it may not hold the high class caliber of say certain mecha, or magical girl properties, or even Shonen Jump fighters… it has it’s place in my collection and I hope yours as well.

#56 : Genesis Climber Mospeada

mospeada_1Long ago, and yet supposedly set in the early 21st century, a band of six individuals bonded together out of fate to be a resistance squad to fight against an alien invasion. And what a rag tag group as it shows you never know who your friends will be. But at it’s heart Genesis Climber Mospeada is a mecha show with a unique transforming concept. And like the name of Mospeada being a type of motorcycle, this show has been around with me for a long, long ride. Strap on your helmets, we are about to head out on the open road.

mospeada_2As for the unique concept mentioned earlier, I have always enjoyed the gimmick of the motorcycle becoming wearable mecha armor. IT’S SO TOTALLY COOL! I remember the first time I saw the so-called transformation way back when and I said in awe, “Whoa… that’s different… I LIKE IT!” Of course this may not be the first time it happened in anime, I have no proof of what was first, but the idea would repeat itself in Megazone 23 (another favorite of mine). Of course both of these shows featured the mech designs of Shinji Aramaki, who would later become a director of a couple CGI movie adaptations that fell flat for me.

mospeada_3Our story begins with Stick (I liked the mistranslated Stig as well) Bernard, a young pilot coming from Mars who is part of a military unit intent on reclaiming Earth after the invasion of the Inbit. Tragically after being shot down by the Inbit’s insect like mechs, Stick finds himself alone as the lone survivor of the failed mission. In typical military fashion, he continues on to find the Inbit’s main headquarters of Reflex Point. But along the way he would gain allies: a desert rat scrounger (Ray), a crybaby kid (Mint), a hot shot blonde with skills (Houquet), a cowardly, but dependable mechanic (Jim) and a lounge singer who turns out to be a soldier who uses the singing act as a matter of hiding out from the Inbit (Yellow, the first individual I ever saw who pushed gender stereotypes). These six gain camaraderie by pursuing Stick’s goal of finding Reflex Point and finding others who are willing to fight for the cause.

mospeada_4One aspect that makes this show great is the fact that to me at least it feels like a western. Our cast are like strangers that come into a town every episode and while each episode is it’s own story it builds towards the whole of the totality. It’s one of those solid series that works for me on a personal level and is one of those shows that has three distinct reasons that make it shine. One is that it is a product of that fabled studio known as Tatsunoko, you got to love the tradition (Speed Racer to Gatchaman, to production on Macross and Evangelion). Two, the character designer Yoshitaka Amano. Not the lilting gothic look most of us are used to, but still the same quality. And of course the music is by old Joe… Joe Hisaishi. The soundtrack is more rock and jazz compared to his grand work with Hayao Miyazaki’s films, but still memorable.

mospeada_5Now to compare to Robotech: The New Generation, I actually have a slight favoritism toward the Americanized adaptation (let me explain). Not saying it is better by any means and I am not flying a flag on stating the original is the measuring stick to follow either. Some of the story development I just preferred in the Robotech version and I can point to two direct points. One, Yellow Belmont (Lancer) was voiced by only one person, a male. True he has the dual gender identity, but keep it honest with the singular voice, just slightly changed. Yellow can rock a dress, but he is an androgynous man , ‘The Lonely Solider Boy’ (just better consistenancy). And two, the character and saga of Rainy Boy (Dusty Ayres). His revenge story in Robotech seemed more interesting than just being a mercenary working along with the Inbit to win back his freedom. Definitely one of my favorite anti-hero characters of all time; tragic, yet powerful.

I often think that the initial anime you are exposed to leaves the most indelible marks on you as you progress into fandom. Some you may out grow due to aging or peer pressure, some you may continue to grow into your first experiences and some you end up trying it on again to find it still works the same as before. Mospeada has always been a strong contender in my book and I am sticking with you till the sun sets in the west for the final time. Long may you run Mospeada… long may you run.

#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.

#48 : Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross

Oddly enough, even though The Masters section of Robotech was a little convoluted, I always loved it. It was the characters plain and simple and their relationships. Also how a rag tag bunch of odd balls, a strong trio of female protagonists and an angsty guy who wants revenge turned from a semi-fun sci-fi mecha show into an epic tragedy where there was no clear winner was a breath of fresh air (Ideon did a similar feat, but that was years down the road for me). Of course the Americanized adaptation acted as a bridge between the original Macross and Genesis Climber Mospeada, but what about Southern Cross as it’s own independent story without shoehorning the odd glue of Robotech’s definition of protoculture?

SoCr_1Humanity has expanded out towards the stars and has settled a planet (wow, never heard that one before) named Gloire. On this planet we have a group of military defenders who keep watch  (again, never heard that one before)and one of those fine soldiers is in the brig and is about to be released and taking her place is her lady killer squad leader (NOW, thats different!). Jeanne Francais, our former prisoner, is a bit of a free spirit and occasionally a trouble maker, so it makes sense she is now head of the Tactical Armored Corps 15th Squadron. I love anime logic 🙂 But of course she would be brought back into the brig again while doing what she does best, like knocking over a military police robot. And while all this fun is happening an alien fleet approaches our peaceful planet. Peace time is now over.

Amidst the fun and antics, there is an honest serious military drama with an alien invasion. These invaders, The Zor, are eager to return to Gloire as this was their former home world. A war erupts and in this show we get a unique type of robot, the Spartan. A hovering tank that transforms into a robot. Nice touch. This is the main mecha for our girl Jeanne, but how does it fair against the Zor’s main machine, the Bioroid? And in particular a ‘red’ version… wait a red one? This reminds me of Mobile Suit Gundam for some reason? Hmm?

SoCr_2Complimenting Jeanne are two more strong ladie, who are the direct opposite in personality and method. Marie Angel is a hot shot pilot and Lana Isavia is one of the military police’s strict officers. Totally new for mecha anime at the time, these girl’s set a standard for having girl power in a robot show. THANK YOU! Joining Jeanne as well are her squad mates including tech guru Louis, ‘Casanova’ Charles, grumpy Andrzej and sensitive Bowie; plus General Rolf Emerson and a mystery man who is a captured and put under the watchful eye of Jeanne, Seifriet.  And with Seifriet, the story really begins to ramp up in intensity as well as Jeanne’s fluttering heart for her crush on Mr. Longhair.

SoCr_3And now for something a little different, what of pop culture references? Oh they exist as well. Such as when the 15th Squadron elbowed their way into a downed Zor ship and eventually getting caught into a large trash reservoir. And guess what? The walls are moving together. Sounds like one of those famous scenes from Star Wars: A New Hope. Yet I liked this one a little more as Jeanne gets a little trigger happy and all her boys and her have to deal with a ricocheting laser blast. And all that background music, I wonder if that once popular band known as the Police ever heard what Japan released. True it sounds very much like the Police’s 1983 album Synchronicity, in particular the title tracks Synchronicity I and II, that I wonder if Sting himself wrote this soundtrack.

SoCr_4When the original shows that made up Robotech eventually got a domestic release, Southern Cross would be the first one I got. Perhaps it was the cheapest at the moment, or maybe I was extra curious to see how this uncut tale actually unfolded? Again it like reading the original novel to a major motion picture and you find the details you had been searching for. Some are not too keen on Southern Cross as a series, but I can’t help but enjoy it because it has been around me for so long. Plus this series has made me a fan of character designer Tomonori Kogawa’s work.

If only this show did not have a short run, who knows what could have happened. As for what we got, and in particular the ending, I am more than satisfied (Yoshiyuki Tomino did you work on this?). Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross, you will always be one of my dark house favorites.