Ryousuke and the real robots

Takahashi and one of his creations
Back in the 1970s, mecha shows were spinning their wheels. Essentially extended toy ads, they would follow the typical “monster of the week” formula with perhaps the odd four or six person team of heroes battling an alien invasion, mad scientist or long-slumbering band of demons resurrected from the depths of the earth. Apart from some stand out shows such as Mazinger Z, Combattler V or Voltes, the mecha genre was largely stuck in a rut.

Things began to change in 1979 however, with the premiere of Mobile Suit Gundam. With it’s character-driven stories, blurred lines between villians and heroes and robots that had at least some kind of “science” behind them. Despite being a commercial flop, it made a massive impression on the genre, much like Neon Genesis Evangelion would two decades later. Gundam would go on to become a juggernaut-like franchise, but what came in it’s wake was far more interesting. Specifically one creator, Ryousuke Takahashi and the genre he pioneered, real robot. And no, I’m not talking about this guy.

It’s quite easy to distinguish a real robot show from one of the earlier, super robot type shows. If the mechs are clunky, prone to breaking down and are mass produced like tanks for use in some kind of military context, chances are you’ve got yourself a real robot show. On the other hand, if the pilot is fond of screaming out every attack in a manner that makes their throat bleed, then you’re probably watching a super robot show.

Like so many creators who made big impacts on anime and manga, Takahashi cut his teeth working in Mushi Pro under that towering figure, Osamu Tezuka. After Mushi imploded in the mid 1970s, several of it’s ex-employees formed Sunrise Inc. – Takahashi soon joined his former co-workers. The massive bank of talent that Sunrise had at its disposal would go on to produce most of the shows that would define the next two decades of anime, including the Gundam saga. But the quality was really kicked up a notch when Takahashi was brought on board to produce some follow up series that were intended to ride the wave of Gundam’s popularity in the early 1980s.

Whilst he did work on various mecha shows that certainly aren’t in the real robot genre, such as the brilliant Panzer World Galient and the equally badass SPT LayZner – which I must talk about at some point – Takahashi is known for pioneering the real robot genre with two shows; Fang of the Sun Dougram and Armoured Trooper Votoms.

I just finished watching Dougram recently, thanks to the sterling work of X-Nebula. It’s quite a ride, Dougram is really unlike any mech show I’ve ever seen before and I’m surprised that it’s gotten basically zero exposure in the english speaking world, apart from some toys and model kits that briefly surfaced in the 1980s.

Die-cast Dougram

The setup of Dougram concerns one Crinn Cashim, scion of a very wealthy family who’s father is the head of one of the main political power blocks on Earth. In the future, Earth has some pretty serious overpopulation and resource problems and has become extremely dependent on one of it’s colony planets, Deloyer, for the majority of it’s raw materials. All the various Earth factions and corporate interests are playing some shady political games in order to control the lions share of Deloyer’s wealth and not surprisingly, the citizens of Deloyer would rather run their own affairs so various rebel groups have sprung up. Crinn, a very idealistic youth somewhat reminiscent of Che Guevara, encounters some young Deloyerans on Earth and is sympathetic to their cause, so much so that when he joins the Earth army and is posted to Deloyer, he hooks up with the rebels and steals a prototype mecha, Dougram, in the process.

Man, that’s only the first 3 episodes or so, before we even get into the various bits of drama that befall the Cashim family and the sheer amount of backstabbing that goes on between the rebels and the Earth governments. It’s not quite LoGH territory, but story wise it blows nearly every other mech show out of the water.

I’d hesitate to even call Dougram a robot show. Sure, Dougram itself is a central part of the plot but the show could nearly be described as a political or family drama that happens to have giant robots in it.

After completing Dougram, Sunrise commissioned Takahashi to produce another real robot show, Armoured Trooper Votoms. This really cemented the genre, gaining a loyal fanbase in the process. It also did away with most of the heavy military plot points that were present in Dougram, which probably made Votoms accessible to a much wider audience.

Towards the end of a centuries-long war, our main character, Chirico Cuvie – what is it with protagonists with the initials C.C.? – gets screwed over and left for dead by his army unit, a particularly nasty bunch who are out to steal as much stuff as they can in the aftermath of the war. He escapes and makes his way to a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” called Woodoo city – complete with its own band of roving biker thugs. There, he hooks up with bunch of people with questionable morals, fabulous afros and parachute pants, in order to take on his former commanders, some of whom are now in charge of Woodoo City, and find the answers to some strange things he saw right before he was betrayed and left to drift in space.

When you are used to the usual robot show protagonist, Chirico is a complete departure. Votoms continued and expanded upon, the political themes established in Dougram, being more focused and adding an element of a character driven by revenge but also the niggling feeling that there’s something not quite right about his existence.

The Votom robots themselves are interesting in that we normally see only one design throughout the entire series, perhaps one may appear with a different colour scheme, but they are largely uniform. There’s no “RX-ZZ-2000-Hyper-Votom”, success or failure is entirely up to the skill and wits of the pilot. Also, they’re prone to breaking down like a 1980s Alfa Romeo. Indeed, Chirico spends the majority of the first few episodes repairing one he found lying on a scrapheap.

After the original 52 episode run, Votoms ended up being a bigger hit than Dougram and continues to be popular to this day, with several movies, series and OVAs being produced including a spinoff show, Armor Hunter Mellowlink – the protagonist in this one is so badass he doesn’t even need a robot, going head to head with Votom suits armed only with an improbably-sized gun. A Korean animation company thought Votoms was so good in fact, that they lifted the suit designs for the eh, unique, Micro Commando Diatron V!

Takahashi would go on to direct a string of mech shows throughout the 80s and on into the 90s, right up until the present day. Some of these were a complete departure from the real robot genre, such as the aforementioned Panzer World Galient. He also worked on plenty non-mecha projects with a military theme, such as the OVA adaption of the submarine drama, Silent Service and an episode of the fantastic WWII OVA, The Cockpit. In 1998, he would revisit the real robot genre with Gasaraki, which is something I actually haven’t seen yet.

So what’s he been up to recently? Well apart from lecturing students on the business of making a successful anime series and directing lots more Votoms, he also worked on a 13 episode adaption of his old mentor Osamu Tezuka’s classic work, Phoenix, and most recently a collaboration with Space Battleship Yamato co-creator Leiji Matsumoto; Ozuma.

Odeeeeeeen!

Odin

This film has been panned by numerous reviewers, usually as the most boring thing they’d ever seen. There are stories of people at screenings of Odin writhing in physical pain on the floor after an hour, some anime cons have even run “I Survived Odin” events with free tshirts for those brave souls who stuck it out till the end.

So, naturally, I thought it would be great to watch of a Saturday evening.

The first thing that strikes you about Odin is that it looks really good. Superb, in fact. The animation was obviously high budget fare. They’d also assembled a great cast of voice actors (Norio Wakamoto, woo!) and some talented directors are involved. But, that’s where things start to fall apart; directors, plural. No less than *three* different directors are involved in this film and multiple scriptwriters each with their own visions, whims and style. Not good. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

The plot involves a new class of “photon sailer” (laser/light powered) space ship that will be exploring beyond the bounds of the solar system for the first time. With a crew of hot-shot, MacGyver-esque geniuses who seem capable of solving any problem but spend most of their time running around the ship high-fiving each other whilst hair-metal from 1985’s chart toppers, Loudness, blasts away in the background. Shortly into their maiden voyage, they receive a distress call from a space liner in the asteroid belt that’s under attack from some kind of robotic destructo-thing which is quite hostile to any form of life. The only survivor is a nordic princess who helps decipher a data crystal she has in her posession, which may contain a map showing the way to a civilisation called Odin…or, not. Christ knows.

It’s hard to recall exactly what happens in the 2+ hours running time of this film, because you start getting a mild concussion at the 00:30:00 mark. Then everything becomes a blur of the crew pressing switches, warping, running around the ship, running around an alien ship, pressing more switches and pulling levers, warping again, running around the ship again. Rinse, repeat.

Odin is very typical of the mid to late 80s anime boom, when every hair brained idea for an OVA or movie got millions of yen thrown at it. It was also, famously and quite obviously, part of producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s failed attempt to restart the Space Battleship Yamato franchise in various forms. It was even dubbed into english and released here and in the US as Odin: Starlight Mutiny, albeit with about 45 minutes (mercifully) removed.

So as a historical curiousity/train wreck, perhaps the anime equivalent of the David Lynch Dune movie, it might be worth a look. Otherwise, leave it on the shelf and back slowly away.

Dubs From Hell

Techno Police

At Eirtakon this year I presented a panel on a particular interest of mine, awful anime dubbing. It’s one of these things that always gets a good few laughs, especially when you present clips of some anime dubs that, whether through accident or design, are just hilariously inept, completely nonsensical, or downright offensive.

Quite a few people approached me after the panel and asked could they have copies of the clips I played. Since all of them are actually available on youtube, I thought I’d post some of the highlights here.

So we start off with some of the attempts that companies localising anime made to translate the opening for a particular show. Some of these were valiant attempts, others were just epically bad.

So that about sums it up… or does it? If you find this kind of thing hilarious, I recommend you check out Bad American Dubbing from the Corn Pone Flicks guys, or Mike Tool’s Dubs That Time Forgot panels. I stole some of my funnier content from these guys 😉

Phoenix: Past, Present and Future

Original Phoenix covers

Over the past while, I’ve been watching (and re-reading) Phoenix, a sprawling epic by that towering figure of anime and manga, Osamu Tezuka.

I’d read most of the manga a while ago, but I’d not seen any of the anime based on it. Phoenix concerns itself with some pretty lofty themes; birth, death, the meaning of life, mankind’s place in the universe and the quest for immortality. That last one crops up quite a bit.

The titular Phoenix is the classic fire bird that is reborn from the ashes, common to many mythologies both western and eastern – it’s called Hi-no-Tori (bird of fire) in Japanese. Throughout the chronology of Phoenix, which spans eons, the bird appears many times. Oftentimes to advise people, influence the development of life, observe or comment on man’s folly. It is also an object of desire for people throughout time, as it is said that drinking it’s blood will give one immortality. As it turns out, those that do achieve this suffer the most of all.

It’s hard to pin down what the Phoenix represents, it refers to itself many times as a galactic spirit, other times as one aspect of the life force of the universe. In any case, it is instrumental at key points throughout history.

Tezuka began work on Phoenix in the mid 60s and continued to write it up until his death in 1989. He had intended to tie all aspects of the story, past, present and future, in the final chapter – unfortunately it remained unfinished. Phoenix contained a lot of experimental artwork and themes that were very advanced for the time, so it was initially published in Tezuka’s “out there” magazine, COM. The manga has been released in english by viz and is collected into 12 volumes. I’ve managed to get 11 of these, however volume 4 seems to have fallen off the face of the planet and is extremely difficult to find.

In terms of adaptations, the first was actually a live action version, from 1978, of the Dawn chapter (volume 1 in the viz release). This is a *really* odd film, it appears very much like it was made by students and was obviously done on the cheap – locations range from some kind of rural cottage, grass huts and what appears to be an abandoned gravel quarry. It also mixes live action with anime in parts – Astro Boy even makes an appearance at one point!. Despite it’s strangeness, it’s very faithful to the source material. As an aside, the subtitles on the copy that I have are hilariously bad in parts.

Phoenix live action: Bad subs!

The first anime adaption came along in 1980, Phoenix 2772: Ai no CosmoZone, released in english as Space Firebird (very imaginative translation there guys). I’ve not seen this in it’s entirety, but from the few clips I have seen it looks extremely impressive, especially for the time.

Phoenix 2772

The english dub is also amusing, it was one of those cheapo dubs that were oh so common in the 80s, done with British actors that didn’t bother to disguise their regional accents.

Phoenix: Yamato

In the late 80s, 3 OVAs were produced, based on the Karma, Yamato and Space chapters. Directed by Rintarou, I think these convey very strongly the essence of Phoenix with high quality animation and an extremely atmospheric electronic score. If you only watched one Phoenix series, I would suggest this.

Phoenix 2004

Finally, in 2004, a 13 episode series was released. This was directed by Ryousuke Takahashi (he of Votoms, Dougram and Gasaraki fame) and covers the Dawn, Resurrection, Strange Beings, Sun and Future chapters. Whilst this was a very impressive series for the most part, I felt that they took too many liberties with certain chapters – in some cases totally changing the setting and cutting out massive chunks of the story in order to fit things in. For this reason I was left with the impression that the latter half of the series was somewhat rushed, it would have worked better if they’d covered a smaller number of chapters in the same amount of episodes.

Phoenix statue: Tezuka museum

All in all, this is a monumental series from one of the greats of anime and manga – Tezuka called it his “life’s work”. If you are up for something that will fascinate, amuse, surprise, shock and promote some interesting debate on the nature of existence, Phoenix is really worth a look.

The unstoppable Yamato

There’s been a lull in this blog recently, I’ve had a few draft posts queued up but haven’t quite gotten around to finishing them. So, I thought I’d post a quick capsule review of the new (ish) Space Battleship Yamato : Resurrection movie. This is mostly nicked from a post I made to the “What are you watching…?” thread over on the Eirtakon forum.

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Apparently, this is the first Yamato movie in about 26 years and one of the last things made by the series’ co-creator Yoshinobu Nishizaki before he was killed in a boating accident a few weeks ago. Ironically, after falling overboard from a ship called “Yamato”.

For those who may not know, Nishizaki and Leiji Matsumoto created Space Battleship Yamato in the mid 70s. To say it was a hit would be a huge understatement. The show went on to spawn 2 sequels, 5 (?) feature-length films, a ton of merchandise and a huge cult following outside Japan in the form of Star Blazers, as it was called for the english-dubbed version. Crucially, it inspired a new generation of anime fans who went on to become creators themselves. For a better insight into the whole phenomenon, Corn Pone Flicks have recently produced a fantastic documentary.

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But, back to the film at hand. After Yamato/Star Blazers’ phenomenal success throughout the 70s and into the 80s, at some point Nishizaki and Matsumoto had a falling out, the rights to the show became disputed and several court battles ensued. However, Nishizaki seemed to remain obsessed with the idea of re-making Yamato, for monetary or artistic reasons…or both, sometimes with horrifying results. Things finally came to fruition late last year.

The plot would be familiar to anyone who’s seen either the series or the films – a space-born menace threatens to destroy earth, in this case an oddly purposeful black hole. In the face of the approaching black hole that threatens to gobble up the entire solar system, the citizens of Earth are slowly being evacuated to a friendly planet in gigantic fleets of “emigration ships” that can carry 100s of millions of people. Unfortunately, an alliance of aliens (who look pretty much like humans) aren’t too happy with the prospect of new neighbours and have been ambushing the colony fleets. Which means that the World War II battleship Yamato needs to be pulled out of retirement to guard the emigration ships on their long journey, in order to save mankind. Honestly, you’d think the old crew would throw their hands in the air at this point – it’s about the fifth time this has happened.

Despite the oft-recycled plot, I was very impressed. It’s been in the works, in one form or another, since about 1994. The legal battles may have delayed its completion. But as is sometimes the case with troubled productions, a superior product has been delivered.

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We’ve got gigantic fleets of emigration ships performing slingshot maneuvers around the edge of a black hole, battles with trans-dimensional beings, noble enemies, even nobler deaths and of course the Yamato back on the big screen – one of the most iconic symbols in anime. All this is done in CG that can be a little jarring at times, but certainly not as intrusive as it could have been.

It just goes to show you can’t keep a good series down, even if it takes 26 years.