Reviewby Theron Martin,
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman
Galactor, an evil organization bent on world domination, is using its great scientific knowledge and power to plague the world with a diverse array of robotic threats. Standing against them is the International Science Organization (ISO) and the secret team of young people assembled by Dr. Nambu: the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Led by Ken the Eagle, its other members include Jun the Swan, Joe the Condor, Ryu the Horned Owl, and Jinpei the Swallow. Their aircraft of choice is the mighty God Phoenix. Individually or as a team they battle Galactor wherever the organization rears its ugly head.
Anime doesn't get any more classic than this.
It would not be an exaggeration to refer to the 1972 debut of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman on Japan's Fuji TV as one of the seminal events in anime history. Inspired heavily by American comic books, it created the “science team” subgenre of sci-fi and set the standard formula for both animated and live-action sentai series (as well as mecha team series) for decades to come. Nearly every major cliché about “team” series can be traced back to Gatchaman: five as the standard team size, the standard set of colors (red, pink, yellow, green, and blue), the standard team composition (Hero, Loner, Beefy Guy, Woman, and Kid), that the enemy is always some highly-advanced organization with innumerable generic flunkies focused on taking over the world, that the team members have to combine their efforts to use some of their strongest powers (one has to wonder if this wasn't at least partially the inspiration for the “combining robots” mecha series which began with 1974's Getter Robo), and so forth. So popular was the series that it ran for 105 episodes—a feat unheard-of at the time—and spawned innumerable imitations.
In 1978 Gatchaman came to TV in the States (and eventually other countries, too) under the name Battle of the Planets. This “localization” is now widely derided in fan circles as one of the most grievous hack jobs ever inflicted upon an anime title, but what many anime fans under the age of 30 don't fully appreciate is exactly how cool the series was to boys growing up in the late '70s. Although super-hero team animation had been around for a while at that point, there wasn't anything else like it on American TV at the time. Now ADV has given those of us who grew up on Battle of the Planets (or the later redub, G-Force) a golden opportunity to stroll down Nostalgia Lane by presenting the original series in all its uncut and unedited glory—and this time the brand-new English dub is a faithful one.
Though targeted at preadolescent boys, Gatchaman had a remarkable level of realism for its time. The twelve episodes presented in the first boxed set are very environmentally-conscious, it is strongly suggested (though, with one exception, not shown) that people get killed, and Ken even has some father issues. This is both a kid's show and a product of its time, though, so the characterizations are laughably basic by more modern and mature standards; Joe's seeming obsession with Bird Missiles will start to engender chuckles after a few episodes, for instance. Plotting is also at times completely ridiculous (a giant cockroach robot disrupting the world by eating all its sugar cane and sugar beets?), as are the various animal-themed robot designs used by Galactor, and the only semblance of an ongoing plot comes from the questions about the identity of the fighter team Red Impulse and their enigmatic leader. And let's not even get into the various complete violations of the laws of physics. To fully appreciate the storytelling one must view it as a kid would—and in that sense it stands up pretty well as an exciting and entertaining action series.
These twelve episodes feature the introduction of the God Phoenix, the assorted individual vehicles used by each member, and eventually the team's underwater base. It also introduces the signature team tornado maneuver and the God Phoenix's ultimate firebird technique; disappointingly, the latter appears twice early but then not at all in the rest of the block. The focus is usually on Ken, with some episodes being almost exclusively about him at the expense of team action. Jun, though established early on as having meaningful skills, does little for most of the rest of this block, and Ryu and Joe are never seen in downtime unless with the whole group. Then there's Jinpei, but he's really little more than the team mascot anyway. And just to make sure that the viewer is clear about who's who, they all have their team member number on their shirts when in civvies.
The artistry in Gatchaman has held up reasonably well over the years but does still reflect the times in which it was made. Lines are thick, explosions look very rough, colors have dulled with age, and character designs are fairly basic, with most kids looking about the same. Hair and clothing styles have the dated look one would expect of an early '70s production, but the bird motif costuming is still as sharp as ever and design of equipment and some settings is inventive (the underwater facilities in a couple of episodes look curiously similar to those seen in the American cartoon Sealab 2020, which debuted at about the same time). By contrast, the animation does not hold up well. While it might have been acceptable by the standards of the time, it is woefully inadequate by current standards. Changes in facial expressions are too sudden, many of the actions scenes (especially the aerial ones) look stiff, and animation is looped in some scenes and simply reused in others; one episode has at least three absolutely identical scenes of a building getting destroyed by a meteorite, for instance. Stock footage of the transformation scenes and vehicles loading into the God Phoenix is, thankfully, not used heavily, but it's yet another of the animation shortcuts. The quality of the master print used by ADV must also be called into question, as dirt marks and other imperfections can frequently be seen if one is looking for them. This was clearly not done with a digitally remastered/restored print.
For the first twelve episodes, “Fight Galactor” serves as Gatchaman's opening theme, while “Gatchaman Song” fills the closer slot. It isn't hard to see why the two were later switched, as the spirited “Gatchaman Song” is not only the better and more memorable of the two, but also a genuine classic. No collection of All-Time Top Anime Theme Songs would be complete without it. The symphonic soundtrack is heavily dramatic, almost to the point of overbearing at times, but the series would lack much of its energy without it.
This time around, the English dub, produced by ADV, was made with an eye towards remaining as faithful as feasible to the original material. The English script remains tight, with use of equivalent English slang and the deletion of a couple of outdated references (a go-go club is changed to just a club, for instance) accounting for most of the minor deviations. The dub casting was done to match voices to roles rather than to the original seiyuu, butat this, ADV has done very well. Leraldo Anzaldua, who, prior to this, had done only bit parts in a couple of other titles, is a brilliant pick for the role of Ken. His voice has just the right quality for the hero role, he hits exactly the right mark with Ken's intensity and grandiose flair, and most importantly, he makes the “Bird, Go!” declarations sound really, really good. Endwin Neal as the villainous Berg Katse is also an excellent fit, while the rest of the Gatchaman team is reasonably appropriate. The only truly questionable casting decision is Andy McAvin, who is better-known for his villainous roles, as Dr. Nambu. Performances are generally respectable, though the Brooklyn accent used for Ryu and other accents used by some minor characters might not sit well with everyone.
Extras on the first two volumes consist of company previews, a clean closer, audio commentary by the English ADR Director and a rotating selection of English VAs for episodes 5, 6, and 11, and Gatchaman Karaoke, which plays one episode per volume with the dialogue turned off so that viewers can do their own “dubbing.” ADV's releases of the boxed sets for the series also include a third DVD entirely devoted to additional extras. In this set the emphasis is on Ken/Gatchaman, including character and equipment sketches, a character profile, an interview Leraldo Anzaldua, and audition tapes for the role of Ken. The latter reveals that some very prominent voice talent tried out for the role but reaffirms that ADV made the right choice in going with Mr. Anzaldua. Among other extras are an interview with the ADR Director, additional concept sketches, a Japanese commercial for a model of the God Phoenix, a “What We Were Watching” bit that's mostly pointless, and two unused closing credit sequences which reaffirm that Tatsunoko chose the right initial closer. The highlight feature is a succinct 11-minute mini-documentary about the founding of Tatsunoko Studios which is narrated by Luci Christian and set to the storyboard sketches for the first episode. The box itself is covered with a gorgeous team portrait by Alex Ross, who is well-known amongst American comic book fans for his stunning painted portrayals of both Marvel and DC super-heroes. A fitting choice, given that the origins of the series are grounded in American comic books.
If you have fond memories of watching Battle of the Planets or G-Force in your youth, or just want to take a look at anime history, then this newly-redubbed version of Gatchaman is not to be missed. It's hardly among the best series ever made, but it's certainly an important and influential one.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : D
Art : C
Music : B+
+ Lots of extras, all-time classic closing theme, new and faithful dub.
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