Reviewby Theron Martin,
Space Adventure Cobra
Sub.DVD - Part 1
In the far future a seemingly ordinary guy named Johnson leads a dull life, so to break the monotony his robot servant suggests going to a special center which can give clients any dream they want. Johnson winds up dreaming that he is the swashbuckling space pirate Cobra, a dashing figure who carries out all sorts of feats of derring-do with his female android sidekick Lady Amaroid at his side and the immensely powerful Pirate Guild as his foes. When a trip to a casino goes awry after he proves too lucky for the casino manager's tastes, Johnson gradually pieces together that the dream he got wasn't really a dream; he really is Cobra, down even to the one-of-a-kind Psycho-Gun which replaces his left arm. (He normally wears a prosthetic over it.) He eventually remembers that he altered his face and voice, suppressed his memory, and went into hiding a few years earlier because he got tired of being bothered by the Pirate Guild. Now that he is back to his old self, though, he and Lady Amaroid (who was disguised as his robot servant all along) recover his custom ship, the Turtle, and set out on further grand adventures which often pit themselves against the Pirate Guild. Chief among these is a quest to discover the hidden treasure of Captain Nelson, and the only clue to its location lies in tattoos on the back of his triplet daughters.
When original manga-ka Buichi Terasawa was pressed about his favorite movie, he named Star Wars. He also admitted to taking distinct influence from James Bond movies. Both of those have a clear and strong impact in shaping this 1982-83 sci fi adventure series into what it is: a swashbuckling adventure story about a highly-capable guy who practically seems to seek out danger, employs all sorts of cool gadgets, and regularly has sexy ladies falling all over him. In fact, cross Han Solo with James Bond and give him a goofy streak and you essentially have Cobra, although the gun which replaces his left arm is a more original touch. In fact, after watching even a couple of episodes of Space Adventure Cobra, the conclusion that Vash the Stampede from Trigun (a full two decades later!) was at least partly inspired by Cobra is inescapable.
Also inescapable is that this is a fun, sexy series which is mostly accessible to younger audiences while still throwing out plenty of bones to older audiences. It offers a full load of action and thrills, suitably nasty bad guys, a plethora of full-figured beauties, and an imaginative (if somewhat inconsistent) look at the far future. It also, of course, features a man's man of a central action hero. Cobra paints an appealing picture as a compact, well-muscled man who perpetually chomps on a cigar (which can have special capabilities, like doubling as a flashlight), usually has a silly grin on his face, throws out quips with the best of them, and supports his cockiness with an ample amount of skill; in fact, despite his generally irreverent nature, he can actually come across as quite intimidating when he wants to. Though he delights in the company of beautiful woman and is a constant flirt, he also carefully keeps his distance, as he is a wanderer who cannot be tied down. (This is another place where James Bond had a big influence, as Terasawa mentions in an interview included on the disk that the one problem he always saw with Bond was that his women either had to be killed off in the end or else he would have to end up marrying them – and that usually didn't go well, either.) Usually at his side is the distinctly female android Lady Amaroid, although she typically fades into the background or disappears altogether as Cobra interacts with one gorgeous gal after the other.
Progressive the series is not. Although female characters occasionally do usefully aid Cobra, they only show real capability in brief segments (Lady Amaroid is sometimes shown fighting effectively) or as villainesses. While Cobra is not exactly chauvinistic, he does at times come off as a bit condescending, but that never seems to bother any of the ladies. In fact, the uniformity of the appearance and behavior of the female characters is almost unnerving, though perhaps not readily apparent unless one is marathoning the series. Though their exact appearances vary quite a bit, the builds of the female characters are so consistently full-figured that the artistry raises questions about whether or not petite builds have been bred out of existence by this era. More disturbing is that nearly all of the non-villain female characters have almost exactly the same personality despite their circumstances; they all speak softly and soothingly and giggle at Cobra's flirting. Again, this is not glaringly obvious but not hard to notice if one is looking for it.
Cobra breaks ranks with most other animated action series of its era (it originally aired in 1982) by not being entirely episodic. The second episode of the initial 15 episode block and its last two are, indeed, stand-alones, but the episodes in between form a substantial story arc about discovering a supposed Ultimate Weapon hidden in the treasure of a Captain Nelson, and the only clue to is whereabouts are tattoos on the back of his now-adult triplet daughters. The Next Episode preview at the end of 15 also indicates that the storyline has repercussions later in the series. Most of this makes for great sci fi action fun, but the one hiccup in the series is the thoroughly bizarre 14th episode, which deals with a Middle Eastern-styled space genie. Its use of magic strays so far beyond any semblance of just being sci fi that it feels incongruous with the rest of the series.
While the series will never be regarded as a visual masterpiece, its artistic merits are nonetheless surprisingly solid for a series of its era. Characters are well-defined, consistently-drawn, and attractive when they are supposed to be and the background art imagines a future where everything is very angular in design. Gadgets used are often very creative, such as an odd type of flying harness used by some of the Pirate Guild flunkies, a flying gun sled reminiscent of the ones later featured prominently in Akira, or the very unconventional things that Cobra's ship Turtle can do. Action scenes do not take shortcuts as often as one has come to expect from more recent anime (or at least this one disguises them better), and the animation of the way Cobra runs – learning far forward and crouching low as he does so – is especially distinctive. While the violence in Cobra is almost entirely bloodless, people are shown getting holes blown through them, which can still have a graphic punch. Exposed breasts occasionally pop up, too, and the series never suffers for a shortage of female characters in skimpy or figure-flattering clothing even when partial nudity is not involved.
The musical score primarily consists of lightly jazzy numbers, though at times it does stray into symphonic pieces done in the style of '70s-era action movies. It is neither a particular help nor hindrance to the content on screen. The opener and closer sound like numbers that might have been sung in a late '70s or early '80s night club, with the former being more active and jazzy and the latter having a more graceful, melodic flow. Neither is especially memorable. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack used gives the production a pleasingly up-to-date sound, however.
Nozomi Entertainment is releasing the first 15 episodes in a four disc DVD set with the original 4:3 aspect ratio intact. The video transfer is usually impressively sharp for the series' age, although many spots throughout the series have blurry streaks across the screen. The first disk contains two substantial Extras: the aforementioned interview with Terasawa that was apparently made for the 30th anniversary rerelease of the series in Japan and an English-dubbed pilot episode, one which has a completely different musical score and uses a few clips from other early episodes mixed together about half-and-half with new clips to make an alternate take on Cobra regaining his memories. Presumably this was made at some point during the '80s to pitch the series to American TV in a bastardized form, but the approach is awkward, uses an awful synthesized soundtrack, and struggles to capture Cobra's goofy nature. A nice touch for the release is some great case and menu screen artwork.
Could Space Adventure Cobra have possibly succeeded in unaltered form had it actually made it onto American TV back in the '80s? Given the attitude towards, and nature of, TV series animation in the States at that time, probably not. It plays just a little too much to older audiences to fly as purely kids' fare and is maybe a little too graphic for what was acceptable at the time. (The nudity could have been worked around with selective trims, painting on a bit of extra clothing, or simply skipping the episodes which featured it.) Still, it does stand up well as high-spirited, fun-loving action fare with occasional darker overtones, and its most famous story arc – the Rug-Ball matter – is yet to come.
Note: The Overall (dub) grade given below only applies to the pilot episode.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Thrilling action, nasty villains, actually has an ongoing plot for most of this run.
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