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Buried Treasure
Crusher Joe: The Movie

by Justin Sevakis,

I'm not a "fun" person. By that, I mean I usually find myself bored out of my mind by activities that people deem to be "fun." Sports? I enjoy watching them for about 5 minutes before my mind starts planning a revolt. Video games? I can watch them lazily for hours, but playing them is usually more effort than I'm willing to waste. Gambling? Shoot me in the face.

It's the same with movies. While once in a great while I'll enjoy some middling Hollywood fare (I loved Superbad), I tend towards the daring, the deep, the art with something to say. This isn't a blight on the mindless entertainment of the world, far from it -- I wish I could enjoy the latest Michael Bay stuff-exploding-to-rock-music-fests, but my mind is too restless to kick into the modes necessary to enjoy it. Unless I can deeply entrench myself in uncovering a film's hidden meanings or the inner workings of the characters, my mind simply drifts to other topics. Like lunch.

I'm quite aware that this puts me in some seriously annoying and pretentious company. I was about to watch an old French film at Museum of Modern Art this weekend (I fully acknowledge how indescribably snotty that sounds), and realized that in 1928, which was the provided date for the film, movies were just on the verge of having sound. I turned to ask the nearest person to me if he knew whether the film was silent or not. With a petulant sneer, the patron (who didn't even appear older than myself) replied that it was in fact, silent, with the tone implying that a less-than-literate moviegoer would do well to abandon the idea of enjoying such elevated entertainment.

So, with little reason other than protest at the company my tastes force me to tolerate, I present this week's Buried Treasure: an accessible, fun space romp with neither symbolism (that I can tell) nor deep characters. And I'm going to freaking enjoy myself.

Crusher Joe: The Movie

In 1983, sci-fi was all the rage. Star Wars had kicked the space opera into high gear, and in Japan airwaves were flooded with the latest incarnations of the genre. Macross and Gundam had recently finished their runs, both of which pretty much changed anime forever. Votoms and Orguss were on the air, and in theaters... well, there was Crusher Joe.

Based on a novel by Studio Nue member Haruka Takachiho, Crusher Joe was something a little different. The usual archetypes of the genre were nowhere to be found. Rather than the self-sacrificing, heroic newbie pilots that were starting to become an anime stereotype, these were hard-living, grumpy, self-effacing misfits who seemed to cling to space because no other society seemed to tolerate them. It was an interesting concept -- in an era where most space pilot heroes were expected to lose a beloved friend in combat and tearfully shout their name into the heavens at least once, Joe was more likely to sigh deeply and go punch somebody while uttering some profane, unprintable expletive. Without losing a friend. Just 'cause.

But I get ahead of myself. Joe is what's known as a "crusher", i.e. space bounty hunter/trouble consultant/etc... He's nineteen, and has a deep rebellious streak in him -- he's superseded his father as the top Crusher in the industry, but still has a pretty serious problem with authority. Combined with his crew, his lovely girlfriend Alfin, the gigantic and scary-looking old battle pilot Talos, the runty genius Ricky and token robot Dongo (Dongle?), the gang pilots a ship and runs whatever dirty errands those with deep pockets can afford.

In what is obviously the latest of many adventures, Crusher Joe: The Movie takes place as Joe is taking a (very highly-paid) job to bring a cryogenically frozen princess to planet Miccola for "emergency medical care". The job seems fishy, but apparently every job seems fishy in this line of work, so Joe is barely bothered with the somewhat sinister tone of the government officials asking for such an under-the-table job. While en route the princess is spirited away during a bad hyperspace leap by forces unknown, and, unexpectedly empty handed, Joe makes an easy scapegoat for the United Planets Space Force, who accuse them of piracy and strip their license.

Indescribably pissed, the team decides to... get tanked at a night club. But soon they stumble into the very information they need to potentially clear their names: they were set up by a notorious band of space pirates. The local governments slyly allow them to move in on the gang (headed by the notorious Big Murphy), hoping they'll take care of the gigantic problem they've been posing for local travelers (Big Murphy likes to blow up planets). Joe, mindful that he's being used, takes the gang on a mission into the very bowels of the pirate space fortress. Adventure ensues, and the people that Joe implicates in the schemes of the pirates go all the way to the top.

While the film clearly takes its cues from myriad pop culture influences (including spaghetti westerns, gangster movies, and of course American Sci-Fi), what strikes me about Crusher Joe is how willing it is -- repeatedly -- to "go there" ("there" being places that every other sci-fi yarn seems to skirt, but never dives into). I was absolutely flabbergasted on my first viewing, as the stupid looking space creature Big Murphy kept as a pet was SHOT TO PIECES by his even stupider bodyguard. There's a scene where the Princess (now awake) is actually SHOT. Joe's dim view of authority is usually justified by the incompetence and (sometimes) corruption that seems to permeate the universe. It's strangely anarchic for a pre-bubble-burst anime. Music swells heroically as Joe blows holes in things with a dignified impunity, knowing full well that his ego can never match the level of awful that those in power seem to inhabit. Ultimately he gets a lesson in the meaning of fatherly love, but it's clearly not the point of the film.

Crusher Joe is directed by Yasuhiko "Yas" Yoshikazu, the anime director (and occasional manga artist) who also gave us such servicable sci-fi as Arion and later, Venus Wars (itself, basically an anime Jerry Bruckheimer movie). To hear creator Takachiho tell it, Crusher Joe the fiction series was born way back in the 70's, where Japanese science fiction was still stuck in the American 50's, and the space opera was an occasional luxury tapped into by people like Osamu Tezuka and tolerated from pretty much nobody else. So, when Star Wars came and pointed out to Japan what they were missing, Takachiho collected and novelized his old, formerly unwanted writings over a stretch of two weeks. For his illustrator, he requested Yasuhiko, with whom he'd worked on the hit transforming mecha series Yuusha Raideen. The series was quite popular, and Sunrise requested to adapt the books as their first theatrical release. A young Shoji Kawamori was tapped to do mecha designs.

In a way, Crusher Joe suffers from what I call Citizen Kane Syndrome: It's been ripped off and parodied and imitated so many times by so many things that we're more likely to have seen recently that coming back to the original with fresh eyes doesn't have the mystique it once did. Crass anti-hero space cowboys are now as much of a genre stereotype as smarmy sarcastic 16-bit video game mascots. But watching it, you can't help but notice how fresh it still feels; how much energy and snide wit lies buried in every frame by its animators, no doubt laughing while they worked. It's meticulous in a way that anime no longer is today; one feels that every frame is alive in that it not only has a story behind it, but probably a few in jokes as well. Also notable is the world's first appearance by the Dirty Pair (Kei and Yuri), another Takachiho creation, who appear in a drive-in movie that Joe and the gang happen to be present for.

AnimEigo's 1997 dub features a strangely soft spoken Michael Brady in the title role, and while I had a slight problem with his somewhat stiff portrayal of a young man who's clearly brash and headstrong, the dub overall is exemplary of the legacy of director Scott Houle and his studio Coastal Recording. For those new to the scene, Coastal was famous for its incredibly watchable English versions (apparently accomplished by requiring so many takes of its actors that the overtime pay drove them out of business) and its intelligent screenplays that rewrote just enough to feel truly like real dialogue. (Coastal also did ADR work for North Carolina area film and television productions, most notably Dawson's Creek.) The recording itself is strange, and without being an expert, I have a sense that the sort of mics and equalization used was intended to imitate the halting, warm sound of an old sci-fi show done on now-ancient analog equipment. The credits gleefully point out that Dongo the Robot's voice was, in fact, voiced by an aging Amiga 3000. For whatever faults it may have, that's the sort of attitude and attention to detail that went into a Coastal dub, and what makes them so missed today.

Crusher Joe: The Movie is a marvel of classic anime and a joyous, bawdy, rebellious space romp of the type that nobody would even expect to see anymore. It's the antidote to the latest bland Evangelion rip-off, the latest sterile shonen toy commercial, the latest pandering bishounen fest. Despite its excessive length (2 hours 12 minutes!!), Crusher Joe is more fun that anime is often allowed to be.

By the way, I ended up walking out of the silent movie after about 20 minutes. Beautiful live piano accompaniment (by Stuart Oderman) aside, I was not prepared to laugh at a subtle, absurdist satire of a bourgeois society I've never observed, and likely died out decades before my birth. I mean, good lord man, I have my limits!

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it: Crusher Joe is, unfortunately, out of print. AnimEigo's beautiful 2-disc set, which also included the two OAV episodes (produced much later), can still be found online from various shops without too much trouble. There was also an ancient, heavily edited dub produced for the kids VHS (with much of the violence taken out and the result left more or less unintelligible) called "Crushers", which is thankfully almost impossible to find nowadays. The paperback English version of the first Crusher Joe book, published by now-defunct Studio Ironcat (and unread by me), can be found used online as well.

Screenshots ©1983 Takachiho & Studio Nue • Sunrise, Inc.

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