The Mike Toole Show Old's Cool
by Michael Toole, May 23rd 2010
In Justin Sevakis' final ongoing BURIED TREASURE column, the writer explained that he was stepping back from producing the column on a regular basis because he had, in his own words, "pretty much [run] out of material." This statement made me sit bolt upright in my chair. "What about Locke the Superman?" I shouted, startling my two pet cats. "What about Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon? What about Noiseman Sound Insect? What about Captain Future?" At this point, I was shaken from my inner monologue at the top of my lungs by my wife, who pointed out that it was three o'clock in the morning. But I couldn't stop thinking about all of the great stuff that cried out for the kind of lovingly detailed coverage Justin provided, so I went and asked Zac for a column.
After ANN's customary rigorous editorial and financial review, Zac said yes. Wait a minute, he said yes?!
Oh, shit. What the hell have I gotten myself into?!
Anytime I overhear some kid at a convention talking about "old school" anime, they're inevitably discussing something less than fifteen years old. Azumanga Daioh? Old school. Serial Experiments Lain? Yeah, that's old school, too. Cowboy Bebop? Definitely old school! Maybe someone will really go out on a limb and point out that Dragon Ball Z is also old school, which seems somewhat more plausible as it's more than 20 years old.
However, this gets me thinking about the term "old school," and how each individual might define it. To younger fans, Azumanga Daioh really is old school, because they were under ten years old when it came out in 2002. They probably didn't see it themselves until 2004 or 2005, and it's been five years since then. Five years! That's a long time. As for myself, I've always thought of "old school" anime as being anything older than me. I guess that's a little extreme, but for some reason, I've never really been able to bring myself to think of stuff like Urusei Yatsura and Space Adventure Cobra as old; blame Matthew Sweet, maybe. I was born in 1976, so that leaves us looking at a list populated by worn but well-loved old favorites like UFO Robot Grendizer, Attack No. 1, Tomorrow's Joe, and Gatchaman.
Stretch the timeline out enough, however, and there's only one TRUE anime old school: the first wave of TV cartoons Japan produced in the 1960s. Oh sure, there was some pre-war animation, a few propaganda films, and several color theatrical features that hit starting in the late 50s, but the look and feel of anime would be defined by the first monochromatic TV cartoons. Most of them seem pretty primitive by today's standards. This is partly because Japan's anime industry was still being built as these cartoons were created-- and built by young people who, led by the indefatiguable Osamu Tezuka, were more or less making the entire craft and industry up as they went along. These old shows also tend to look dated simply because they're in black and white. Monochromatic TV was on its way out in the sixties, but there was a narrow window of black and white TV anime stretching from its origins in 1963 to 1969. That's what I want to talk about in this column-- televised anime's B&W old school, its true first wave.
The first anime TV series was Astro Boy. Everybody knows that. But what was the second anime TV series? This is where things get murky; for most Americans, the second anime TV series was Gigantor, or Prince Planet, or maybe even Speed Racer. In fact, the second anime series to hit the airwaves in Japan was Sennin Buraku, or "Village of the Hermit." You remember that one, right? Actually, most of us don't, because it wasn't really suited for export-- the show, arbitrarily about an ancient Chinese village idiot and his interactions with the exasperated town elder, is a slow-paced gag comedy chock full of weird, bawdy, and very, very Japanese humor. It has the distinction of being the first late-night anime, so those 1:30am timeslots that so many shows get relegated to these days aren't necessarily a new thing.
Sennin Buraku was followed on very quickly by Tetsujin 28 (nee Gigantor), Eighth Man, and Ken the Wolf Boy, all of which found their way to English-speaking audiences in fairly short order. But the following year would see a string of shows that didn't make it to the U.S.-- shows like 0-sen Hayate and Fujimaru. One particular show has the distinction of being the first TV cartoon ever produced by Tokyo Movie Shinsha, aka TMS, aka the studio that would go on to create generation-spanning smash hits like Rose of Versailles and Future Boy Conan. That's not all, either-- the show was the second anime TV series to be based on the works of Osamu Tezuka, following on the success of Astro Boy. It was called Big X, and it was all about the adventures of a kid who used a secret WWII-era serum to turn into a skyscraper-sized defender of justice. The show is interesting to behold, largely because it took Tezuka's idea of "limited animation" (i.e. 12 frames per second instead of 24-30) to extremes, particularly in early episodes. Even the sometimes-halting Astro Boy looks much better; Big X isn't a total disaster (maybe because it was helmed by some 21-year-old kid named Osamu Dezaki) but it would've been a hard sell to American children raised on comparatively lavish (ha!) UPA animation-- not to mention the fact that heroic Akira injects the serum by jabbing himself with a disguised fountain pen, an act which would have no doubt seen imitative kids in playgrounds across the nation injuring themselves with pen-inflicted stab wounds.
1965 was the big year, not just for black and white anime, but for TV anime in general. The most obvious evolutionary step was the emergence of a bona-fide trend, which took the form of a string of no less than five Astro Boy copycats. Well, okay, calling them "copycats" is a little uncharitable, but whereas the productions of the previous two years were all over the map-- a kid and his giant robot here, a cyborg defender of justice there, and even ninjas-- here we'd see several shows in succession, all of them about boy champions of justice with amazing super powers. Super Jetter would start the proceedings, followed by Patrol Hopper (directed by this nobody named Yasuji Mori, a pillar of the anime industry right up there with Miyazaki and Takahata that very few western fans seem to know about for some reason), and Space Boy Soran. Mere days after Soran's debut, some no-name production company called Tatsunoko debuted their first TV cartoon, Space Ace. Space Ace (no relation to the Don Bluth-animated 80s video game) actually has an intriguing history in English. It was dubbed and shown in its entirety in Australia. Fred Ladd, the man who imported and adapted Astro Boy, Gigantor, and many other productions, liked the look of the show but didn't think it would sell to American audiences increasingly hungry for color productions. Eventually Tatsunoko would re-animate the entire first episode in color to facilitate Ladd's attempt to sell the show to American TV, but there were no takers. Therefore, Space Ace remains an obscurity. But getting back to '65--after Space Ace, there was just one Astro Boy-a-like left in the succession, and that was Prince Planet.
Miraculously, Prince Planet is known to western anime fans. This is mainly because the series was dubbed and shown on American television, by Roger Corman and Sam Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures, no less. Star Blazers fans often cite the show's serialized , ongoing story as its big hook, something they'd never seen before in a children's cartoon, but Prince Planet, with its amusing gallery of recurring friends and foes, did it first, albeit with much less sophistication. Of all the shows mentioned here, Prince Planet is currently the easiest to obtain online; you still have to pay to get most of Astro Boy or Gigantor, but Prince Planet is free to watch in North America on Hulu. Despite its clunky animation and ferociously dated character designs, the show is oddly compelling-- the titular Prince isn't afraid to get rough with his cosmic powers, and the dub makes a number of clumsy sidesteps to avoid onscreen problems like the dastardly Warlock's fondness for booze ("prune juice" in the dub).
1965 also marked the debut of anime's first color television productions. Jungle Emperor (which we'd soon see courtesy of that same Fred Ladd and NBC Films as Kimba the White Lion) hit the airwaves first, but a little-known pilot called Dolphin Prince actually got produced first. Unfortunately that show wouldn't air until the following year, reworked and retitled Marine Boy. I'm not gonna talk about these anymore, because they're both getting their own columns later. What I will talk about is Hustle Punch. Man, I dig Hustle Punch! If you look at the big, popular cartoons on American TV from this era, you'll see what seems like a neverending parade of cheap, brightly-colored funny animal cartoons from a studio called Hanna Barbera. Yogi Bear, Magilla Gorilla, Huckleberry Hound, all those beloved characters who got revived as perverts and drug addicts in various Harvey Birdman episodes... yep, Hanna Barbera. TV anime didn't really have an answer to this sort of production... until Hustle Punch, the comic misadventures of a bear (Punch) and his pals as they thwart the schemes of the nefarious Dr. Gari-gari, came along. The streamlined, funny-animal style is one thing that distinguishes Hustle Punch. The other thing is its creative staff, which includes both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The show is whimsical, zany, and fast-paced, and it's a source of constant irritation to me that only four episodes of its 26-episode run are available on DVD in Japan.
By 1966, the flow of black and white anime would start to ebb as the new wave of color productions swept in, but there were still some potent hits. Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Sally the Witch, widely considered the prototype for everything from Cutey Honey to Sailor Moon, made its debut, as did Harris's Whirlwind (an interesting precursor to Tomorrow's Joe from the same creator), costumed superhero serial Meteor Mask, and Rainbow Sentai Robin. Robin is a particularly interesting and exciting example from this era, because it was well and truly the first sentai TV series. Years before he would create the original GoRanger (nee Power Rangers), artist Shotaro Ishinomori came up with the then-new idea of a large team of good guys with a diverse range of complementary powers. Brought to life courtesy of Toei, Rainbow Sentai Robin was a notable success, leading directly to Ishinomori's next project, 1968's Cyborg 009. 009 was yet another new animal-- a truly massive hit, and the first sentai production to feature matching costumes. Launched initially by Ishinomori's manga (amazingly published in English some years back by Tokyopop) and followed by two theatrical features before the B&W series hit, these exciting exploits of renegade cyborg soldiers taking on a conquest-hungry secret society have gotten the remake treatment not once but twice.
Ironically, black and white anime was just about done for by the time Cyborg 009 reached the airwaves. There would be only a few productions in 1968, but the honor of being the final black and white anime TV series goes to a little production by Osamu Tezuka called Dororo. It's fitting, in a way that black and white TV anime saw both its beginning and its end at the hands of the same iconic creator. Of course, Tezuka had actually wanted to do Dororo in color, but sponsor Fuji TV wouldn't kick in the money, so that whole "sponsor interference" thing that Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino likes to complain about is nothing new, either. This intriguing subset of Japanese animation wasn't around for a long time, but it blazed the trail and planted the seeds of almost everything that would follow. Toei came to full flower during this period, also producing numerous popular theatrical films at the time. I've already touched on TMS's beginnings. Tezuka's own Mushi Pro didn't survive the 70s thanks to mismanagement, but Tezuka Productions rose from its ashes and is still active today. Tatsunoko got its start and is still going strong. Much of the balance of the shows I've talked about were produced by a company called TCJ (Tele-Cartoon Japan). Yep, even they're still around, though they changed their name to Eiken some years back. They're working on an 8th Man redux right now.
Hopefully, internet, you now know a bit more about the interesting history of monochromatic Japanese animation. But the point of this column isn't just to educate. I'm hoping to stoke some interest, because in spite of the sometimes primitive production values, this stuff is honestly and truly amazing to watch. There are animation tricks and techniques that most anime studios of today wouldn't even attempt, and wonderful characters and stories galore in this dusty old stuff. Justin named his column "Buried Treasure" because that's precisely what a lot of older anime is-- and the worst part is, an awful lot of it is truly buried! Much of Big X's 52-episode run was never preserved and is now considered lost. Even Astro Boy, the original and (to many) the best, is not available in its entirety in English, because several episodes are just missing. Why, you ask? Nobody wanted to pay to ship or store the original film reels. Other shows sport sequences and episodes that have deteriorated over the years. Toei has released DVDs of their earliest productions, but full sets are usually not available because various episodes just aren't in good enough condition.
In the end, though, there's plenty of good old B&W anime to go around. Astro Boy and Gigantor are both available on DVD, and have each gotten airtime on Cartoon Network over the last several years, strong testament to their staying power. MGM have really gone above and beyond by making Prince Planet available online. And if you're willing to go searching, there are volumes and volumes of classic hits like Space Ace and 8th Man available on DVD in original Japanese. There are a great many of these remarkable shows, just waiting to be discovered by fans both young and old. Massive chunks of these shows remain all but unknown, not just to American fans but to fans all over the world. So don't just sit there, swashbuckler-- grab your shovel and start digging!
Astro Boy - 1963 Tezuka Productions
Sennin Buraku - © 1963 Eiken
Big X © 1963 Tezuka Productions
Super Jetter © 1965 Eiken
Patrol Hopper © 1965 Toei Douga
Space Boy Soran © 1965 Eiken
Space Ace © 1965 Tatsunoko
Space Boy Papi © 1965 Eiken
Hustle Punch © 1965 Yasuji Mori / Toei Douga
Rainbow Sentai Robin © 1966 Shotaro Ishinomori / Zero Studio / Toei Douga
Sally the Witch ©1966 Mitsuteru Yokoyama / Hikari Pro / Toei Douga
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