Sunday, January 3, 2016

Binging on Not-Quite-Nostalgia

The current rage in the entertainment world is 70s Science-Fantasy nostalgia. I admit to being susceptible to the phenomenon myself... no, I haven't seen the new "Star Wars" movie, I'll probably get around to it later this month when the crowds thin out. I'm currently binge-watching the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, a Japanese superhero cartoon that aired from 1972-1974. If I were the type to label my posts, I'd label this one with a "Helping Smut" tag, because the redoubtable Smut Clyde admitted in a comment on a recent post:

I do not know this Gatchaman.

Now, Smut is the sort of guy who'd give this guy a run for his money in the "science fiction superfan" category, so I was a bit stunned to hear that Smut wasn't familiar with Gatchaman. Well, to tell the full truth, I wasn't really familiar with Gatchaman per se until recently... let me back things up a bit to explain.

In 1977, an American television producer named Sandy Frank attended a media conference in which he viewed a Japanese animated series about a five-person superhero team which he figured he could adapt for American television to capitalize on the post-Star Wars science-fantasy trend. The episodes, imported from Japan in non-sequential order, were severely edited to remove violent and "suggestive" content to conform to "kid friendly" American television standards, and diced and spliced to "paper over" continuity errors. In an effort to "Star Wars-fy the series by ten percent or so" and clear up plot ambiguities, additional animated sequences of a "cute robot" sidekick/advisor/narrator were added in, and the original superhero series was re-imagined as a space opera, complete with added footage showing the team traveling through space. Thus, the seminal 1978 American anime adaptation Battle of the Planets was born, complete with a new introduction and theme song by Bastard fave Hoyt Curtain. The intro pretty much sums up the series, a planet hopping galactic adventure featuring five young superheroes (voiced by such stalwarts as Casey Kasem and Janet Waldo, with Keye Luke also being a notable member of the cast) dressed in bird-themed costumes, kicking alien ass:

The show certainly made an impression on me and my friends (a friend of mine recently joked that she had a crush on the "bad boy" second-in-command character when she was a kid), featuring incredible design elements and memorable action sequences. It was also a complete butchery of the original series, something which I learned from a Japanese-born high school classmate of mine (I still have a couple of old copies of Weekly Shonen Jump he gave me). Not having the foresight to see that nothing would truly go away in the coming internet age, I asked him to reveal the differences between the original and the kid-friendly, post Star Wars American re-imaging, and was surprised to discover that the original series took place entirely on Earth, with an occasional foray into Earth-orbit, with the "aliens" of the original series being a human terrorist organization and the superhero team bearing the awesome moniker of "Science Ninja Team Gatchaman".

I hadn't thought of this series for years, but was reminded of it during the pre-Christmas drive to New York to Virginia with my brother and his family, when the main soundtrack to the road trip was the kids' favorite CD, a compilation of original music from various anime... one of the songs, a pretty pop number sung by a children's chorus, particularly stood out:

I recognized the name "Gatchaman" in the chorus, and I figured I'd have to hunt down the original series on the t00bz, where nothing ever fades away. I found a bunch of episodes dubbed into English in 2005, with all of the formerly bowdlerized content restored and I've been watching at least two episodes a day during quiet moments. The original series has a few themes that I don't recall in the original "space opera" American dub- environmental conservation, international unity, and the ideal of world peace and prosperity are promulgated by the series narrator and protagonists. I have to note here that Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, with its environmentalist theme was released in 1971, making me wonder if there was a strong environmentalist movement in Japan at the time- at any rate, I really need to embed the totally groovy English version of the Godzilla vs the Smog Monster theme song (it's my blog, I can do what I want):

The heroes of the series, the eponymous Science Ninja Team, are four teenagers and one child of about ten, all trained in various "Science Ninja Techniques" by their mentor/adoptive father/Svengali Dr Nambu of the International Science Organization. The kids are tricked out in bird style- avian-themed superhero outfits with beaked helmets and bullet-and-explosion resistant "feathered" capes, the entire ensemble transforming into groovy teenage street clothes complete with bell bottoms and t-shirts bearing the wearer's rank (I'm one of five kids, it's a pity nobody released "G-Force" T-shirts back in 1978). The Science Ninja Team is the investigative unit and special forces team of the ISO, under Dr Nambu's authority (one plot point in early episodes is the need of the team to gain authorization to fire missiles). The kids are individually armed with outlandish signature weapons like razor-edged jet boomerangs, explosive bolas, and yo-yo bombs, and each has a signature vehicle which can be integrated into the team's supersonic, submersible superplane, the God Phoenix. The God Phoenix itself has an "ultimate" weapon, it can transform into a flaming flyer using the Science Ninja Technique: Firebird. Unlike the ultimate "Blazing Sword of "Voltron", which was used in every single episode, the "Firebird" isn't used in every "Gatchaman" episode. In most of the episodes, infiltration is portrayed as superior to frontal assault... these kids are "shadow warriors" after all, despite the brightly colored costumes.

The team members themselves are the typical Five Man Band featured in a lot of anime- with Ken the Eagle being the earnest hero, Jo the Condor being the passionate hothead who longs to push the big red missile button, Jun the Swan being the level-headed female electronics and demolitions expert, Jinpei the Swallow being the little guy, and Ryu the Owl being the Big Guy.

The villains of the series belong to Galactor, a crime syndicate/terrorist group headed by Leader X, a mysterious figure which relays its plans to its human second-in-command, Berg Kattse, a villain that even the Joker would advise to "get some help". Berg Katse is gloriously kinky, a fop decked out in a vulpine mask, lip gloss, purple double-breasted tunic, and red thigh-high hooker boots:

The various lieutenants of Galactor wear outlandish outfits, such as ant costumes with Elizabethan ruffs and gull masks. Each of them comes to a bad end, either being blown up by the Science Ninja Team or being executed by the insane Berg Katse for their failure. The mooks are a mix of terrorists, criminals, brainwashed captives, with the children of long-time members raised up to be elite soldiers. While most of them are mowed down by the heroes with impunity, there are a couple of episodes which achieve a genuine pathos by touching on the lives of the children raised in the organization, with no real chance of an alternative. The central mysteries of the show involve the identities of Leader X and Berg Katse, and the reason for Galactor's virtually unlimited resources and extremely advanced technology (it seems like they are years ahead of the ISO in this area). In one episode, they seem to realize that their organization has a serious ninja gap with the ISO, so they also train a bird-themed ninja squad.

While the series pretty much started out as a "monster of the week" show, with the typical plot being Galactor's use of mecha (usually animal shaped) to steal natural resources. As the episodes progress, certain threads are expanded on, with the typical "monster robot _____ heist" plot being used less frequently. A common theme in mid-series episodes is Galactor's attempts to foil the International Science Organization's attempts to develop non-polluting energy and to design clean, livable communities. One particular theme that runs through several episodes is the development of a "Mantle Project" to run cities with geothermal power and to reduce the danger posed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As the plots become more complex, cumulative character development takes place- we learn the reason for Jo's thirst for revenge against Galactor, and of Ken's yearning to know more about the fate of his father, a test pilot who disappeared while on a mission. Jun and Jinpei's relationship as adopted siblings is expanded on, and Ryu's family life (he is the only non-orphan on the team) comes into play. In several episodes, internal tensions among the team members come up, though cohesion eventually wins the day. I'm forty-two episodes (out of 105) in now, and Jo has the most complex character arc.

The visuals in the series are gorgeous, with lovely backgrounds and clean lines. The character design ranges from realistic to stylized (the "big eyes, small mouth" style common to anime), to cartoonish (it seems that the younger the character, the less realistic the design). The various mechanical designs in the show are lavishly rendered. The version of the show that I'm watching is the 2005 English dub, which hilariously has the kids using 70s slang like "groovy" and "dyn-o-mite", and on at least one occasion, Ken urges the team to "stay fresh and frosty" in a time of peril. The salty language of original is kept, with the characters sometimes saying "damnit". In one episode, Ken observes a dangerous volcanic eruption, saying, "Holy hot shit the lava's flowing right towards the city." I don't remember that from the first English dub!

Regarding the portrayal of the characters, I have to note that Jun, the female member of the team, is portrayed as a full equal, perhaps the smartest and most competent member of the team. There is an element of fanservice to the character- while kicking ass, or being thrown around the God Phoenix by shock waves or risky maneuvers, there is almost invariably a panty shot. I'm not really a big fan of cartoon titillation (though I can't say I'm 100% against it), and it seems innocent enough, but it happens with some frequency in the show. In the grand scheme of things, I think the overall character portrayal outweighs the occasional up-skirt shot, and the guys are portrayed in skin-tight uniforms, after all...

Watching the original series is not-quite-nostalgia, it's about 75% distinguishable as the series I watched as a kid, but there are some interesting revelations... it's kind of like having an old school friend of yours tell you that he wore lacy panties under his jeans throughout his high school years and, oh, he had a side job kicking the crap out of gangsters. It's a lot of fun recalling certain scenes from the old series and then having my expectations upended.

Some of the plots are really weird, with one of my all-time favorites being "The Gluttonous Monster Ibukron", which involves a scheme by Berg Katse to steal the world's sugar supply in order to sow confusion:

Another trippy episode is "The Neon Giant that Smiles in the Dark", which comes across as a tribute to "Scooby Doo", complete with jokey ending:

I'm glad I finally took the time to track down this series, which was one of the landmarks of America's import of Japanese animation. As I noted before, it's not quite a nostalgia trip. The series is a blast, a glorious mashup of American superhero comics, James Bond films, and kaiju movies. The soundtrack is outstanding, with great incidental music and instantly recognizable themes for the various characters. I wonder what would have happened if it had been imported to the U.S. before the Star Wars craze... oddly enough, there wasn't any merchandising that I recall here in the 'States, and the current models are priced for collectors, often costing several hundreds of dollars. I imagine I would have gone nuts if I'd seen a similar toy under the Christmas tree back in '76 or '7.

I almost want to apologize for this post, I can see your eyes glazing over in my mind's eye... I'm not an otaku, I swear! I have a life. Just now, though, it involves watching sixty-five more episodes of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. NERD GO!!!!!


Smut Clyde said...

More time-sinks DO NOT WANT.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Gotcha man!

mikey said...

Hey, Mr. Bastard. I don't have your email address, so I'll just leave this here.

Wanted to make sure you got a chance to sign the petition to name one of the new heavy metal elements after Lemmy....!/blogs/2016/1/Petition-launched-to-get-new-heavy-metal-element-named-after-Lemmy-Kilmister

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I'm not an otaku, I swear!

He who denies it supplies it, or so I have heard...

Smut Clyde said...

the petition to name one of the new heavy metal elements after Lemmy....

Kilmisterium? That is a splendid idea.