The Mike Toole Show West Quest
by Michael Toole, Oct 24th 2010
A new cable TV network called The Hub launched last week. I was immediately interested, for a couple of reasons. Reason number one is that the Hub is, first and foremost, a network about cartoons. With Cartoon Network scaling back its original animated programming in favor of reality TV shows (huh? what?), more outlets for great animation are needed, and emerging channels like the Hub and Disney XD are cropping up to fill that void. Granted, the Hub is co-funded and controlled by Hasbro, and so is largely a vehicle for their toy-based toons like Transformers, GI Joe, and My Little Pony. Then again, the company and their partner, Discovery Channel, seem serious about creating good-quality animated works-- their My Little Pony, in particular, is steered by the great Lauren Faust, co-pilot of CN's memorable Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and it shows; it may be based on tiny pink plastic horses, but the new cartoon has a painterly quality that makes it worth a look.
Reason number two is obvious: the Hub is another channel for anime to reach us! Specifically, the network has picked Deltora Quest, OLM's 2007 TV series, to be one of its launch titles. This isn't the first time that American anime fans have heard about Deltora Quest, though. Way back in 2007, before the bean-counters at Dentsu panicked and pulled the plug on Geneon Animation, the company announced Deltora Quest as part of their upcoming release slate. This struck me as something of an odd choice, as Deltora Quest is plainly a series for ten year old boys and not the older anime fan audience that Genon preferred to target, but the show was dubbed by Calgary's Blue Water Studios and some sort of commercial release seemed inevitable. Then Geneon went bye-bye, and so did their slate of 2007 announcements. Most of these have gradually re-emerged, but Deltora Quest is one that took its time. I've been looking forward to seeing it, simply because it's something of an anomaly in the anime world. Unlike most anime, the show was not created by a Japanese person-- it's based on a series of popular children's books by Australian author Emily Rodda. Deltora Quest is by no means the only anime with origins in books by foreign writers, so let's open the book on these anime based on western literature, shall we?
It's tough to narrow down just which anime was the first to have its basis in non-Eastern works (we all know that 1960's Alakazam the Great was based on a Chinese novel, Wu Cheng-en's Journey to the West, and 1961's Sindbad was cribbed from Arabian legends). My gut reation is to point to two films from the same year: 1965. That year saw the release of Toei's Gulliver's Space Travels in theaters, a marvelously weird film that was the first to boast major artistic contributions from Hayao Miyazaki. Dubbed and released in the west as Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon, the movie was actually a wholly Japanese production-- one that, for some reason, chose to swipe the character of Lemuel Gulliver right out of Jonathan Swift's famous story. A black and white TV movie from that year is a little more in line with what I'm seeking-- '65's New Treasure Island was actually produced by Osamu Tezuka and his Mushi Productions, though it's been the source of confusion over the years. The movie shares its title with Tezuka's breakout manga work, a zippy, kinetic sequel to Stevenson's classic, but it's actually a retelling of the classic tale of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver with a cast of cartoon animals. Adding to the confusion is 1972's excellent Animal Treasure Island, a totally different version of the tale from Toei featuring animals in major roles; confusion between the two productions has kept the former in the shadows for decades. Anime scholar and American fandom legend Fred Patten has told me that Tezuka's 1965 Treasure Island was dubbed into English for the long-dead 16mm film rental market, and that his C/FO used to borrow a print of the film for their club viewings back in the late 70s and early 80s. Has anyone out there seen this? Please let me know, I'm intensely curious about it!
Er, to get back on track, we'd gradually see more and more anime based on western sources in the 1970s. An emerging studio called Zuiyo Eizo got into the act in 1969-- they partnered up with soft-drink manufacturer Calpis to create a series of shows under the Calpis Comic Theatre banner, starting with Osamu Tezuka's Dororo. The second was 1969's Moomin, based on Tove Jansson's fanciful and engrossing comic book tales about a shy troll and his friends. Calpis Comic Theatre was an immediate success, and the studio mined the likes of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and Thornton Burgess's Fables of the Green Forest for more stories before creating what is undeniably one of the best-loved works in the history of TV anime, 1974's Heidi, Girl of the Alps.
If you ask an ordinary Japanese person in their thirties and up-- not an anime fan, mind you, but a regular Ichiro or Momoko-- what the best TV anime ever is, there's a better than decent chance they'll cite Heidi, based on Johanna Spyri's children's book, if they don't point to Space Battleship Yamato or Lupin the 3rd. This isn't entirely down to nostalgia, either-- Heidi, featuring direction by Isao Takahata and key animation and supervision by Hayao Miyazaki, was an early masterpiece by the men who would go on to found Studio Ghibli. The series is as charming and light-hearted as its source material, and decades later, still holds up quite well. Heidi was beamed all over the world, shown to TV viewers in Spanish, Portugese, French, Italian, German, Greek, Dutch, Arabic, Chinese, Turkish, Tagalog, and Icelandic, among many others. I even found an Afrikaans version on DVD when I was in South Africa this past summer! Of course, we fans in the English-speaking world got the short end of the stick-- they never dubbed the TV show into English back then. "But Mike," you're saying, "what about Heidi Bowl?" Sorry, that was a different Heidi. English speakers had to be content with only an edited TV movie of Heidi to tide us over. If you're in North America, I bet you saw it on Nickelodeon as part of their Special Delivery weekend program in the 80s! I know I did. In more recent times, an English version of the TV series was shown in Cartoon Network India in 2000 and 2001. Did anyone tape it? Nah, probably not.
These prodigiously talented Zuiyo Eizo jokers would change the studio name to Nippon Animation after Heidi, and their popular adaptations of western children's books and fairy tales would later be re-branded World Masterpiece Theatre. Man, World Masterpiece Theatre is awesome! It includes voluminous TV adaptations of the likes of Lassie, Daddy Longlegs, Peter Pan, and Anne of Green Gables, and it essentially merits its own column. Irritatingly, very few of the World Masterpiece Theatre shows were adapted for the English-language market; Anne of Green Gables was a smash hit all over the world, but it never crept over the border from the story's native Canada, where it was shown in French. Tom Sawyer and Little Women were shown on HBO in the 80s, while the Family Channel picked up The Swiss Family Robinson at one point as well. That's just about all we got, which is interesting-- an awful lot of these cartoons are based on American or Canadian or British classics, so they'd be a natural fit for an English dub, but it just never happened.
Let's get back to Nippon Animation. The studio kept Miyazaki and Takahata at the top of its list of animators, and the two were called back into action for 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother and Dog of Flanders. Then, in 1978, Miyazaki created for the studio what is, in this writer's opinion, unquestionably the greatest anime TV series yet created, Future Boy Conan. Conan takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, in the wake of a war waged with electromagnetic weapons that tilted the earth's axis and shattered the continents. The title character is the only progeny of a group of would-be escapees, whose rocket crashed on a remote island after failing to reach escape velocity. When a girl his own age arrives on the island, the boy-- a hermit who's only ever known his grandpa-- is intrigued. When her pursuers, ruthless soldiers from a remnant nation, arrive, Conan is drawn into a conflict between High Harbor, a village of peaceful idealists, and Industria, a city-state led by a ruthless dictator who wants to revive old weapons to rule over what's left of civilization. Fortunately for the good guys, Conan is quick-witted, resourceful, and almost inhumanly strong, and the ensuing 26-episode adventure is chock full of breathless chases, epic fights, zany comedy, and even a touch of romance. The whole thing is based on The Incredible Tide, a short novel by the writer Alexander Key. Key is perhaps best-known in the west for Escape to Witch Mountain, which has been rebuilt in movie form by Disney no less than three times, with widely varying results. I recommend the book-- it's not terribly deep, but it's a tidy read that can be completed in just a couple of hours, with Conan and Lana's adventure only spanning a matter of days rather than the much longer period in the TV series. Miyazaki has readily admitted that he only used Key's tale as a basis for his work; the result is one of the freest adaptations of a book I've ever seen, but it works brilliantly well.
If you want to see Future Boy Conan in English, you're... well, you're out of luck. I hate to be repetitive, but Future Boy Conan never made it to English-speaking audiences; the DVDs sitting on my shelves are the Italian release. I've read a few scattered reports of the show airing in English on Animax, southeast Asia's all-anime cable network, but haven't found a single episode or even a clip. I asked my friend Chad Kime, who worked closely with me at Geneon, about the series a number of years ago when the company was busily releasing TMS's Miyazaki/Takahata joints Panda Go Panda and Sherlock Hound. He said that high licensing costs and the inability to use the show's original title (Marvel Comics has the word "Conan" all locked up when it comes to cartoons, a fact to which Detective Conan fans can well relate) had conspired to keep the series off the radar. I say it's high time we saw Future Boy Conan on TV or DVD; seriously people, I don't think anyone will mind too much if some enterprising publisher snaps the show up and just calls it The Incredible Tide.
Just as Nippon Animation's Conan was wrapping on Japanese TV, their cross-town rivals Toei were springing another TV series based on western creations, the 52-episode Captain Future. The title character was created by comics and pulp fiction maven Mort Weisinger, though most fans (and, indeed, the TV anime's credits) will tell you the character is more correctly attributed to Edmond Hamilton, the pulp sci-fi pioneer who wrote virtually all of the stories starring the hero. Captain Future was notably popular during the 1940s and 50s, even starring in his own self-titled magazine at one point. The stories, brief yarns starring the super-scientific man of action Curt Newton and his companions, robotic Grag, synthetic human Otho, and living brain Simon Wright, are entertaining fare and well-suited to the small screen. In fact, the TV series, directed by animation legend Tomoharu Katsumata (Arcadia of My Youth), is an excellent and surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original work, starting with Hamilton's first entry, "The Emperor of Space." Katsumata's quietly competent direction and Hamilton's accessible stories would turn the series into a hit across Europe, but-- guess what?-- it never really made waves in English, despite Ziv International creating an extremely watchable dub of the first four episodes, complete with catchy theme song. You know, it's a good thing that Captain Future lives in the future, otherwise he'd have to use a different name.
Captain Future was by no means the only anime with its origins in American science fiction. A large number of anime fans here in North America will probably remember Lensman, a 1984 feature film by Madhouse and Yoshiaki Kawajiri that spent time on the arthouse circuit before seeing release on home video from Streamline Pictures, and was later broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday Anime block. This film takes its story and characters from Edward E. "Doc" Smith's Galactic Patrol, itself only the central story in a five-volume saga about the Lensmen, intergalactic guardians who use super-science, their innate sense of justice, and mysterious and powerful wrist-mounted lenses bequeathed by a benevolent race of demigods to battle evil wherever it may arise. Smith, a food scientist from Wisconsin, really was ahead of his time-- he was writing about rayguns, inertialess space travel, and alien encounters in 1919. The film, while not bad at all, strays from Smith's story in a number of curious ways-- protagonist Kim Kinnison is a wide-eyed farmboy who rescues his lens from a dying Lensman, while in Smith's original stories, Kinnison was an earnest, square-jawed mensch who naturally rose up through the ranks of the patrol and earned his Lens. The Lens itself exhibits a number of powers not included in the books, and the supporting characters are frequently virtually unrecognizable except by name. The movie would lead to a TV series, which-- wait for it-- isn't readily available in English. Harmony Gold did dub the first four episodes, but they were only released on VHS in the UK-- good luck finding 'em!
Think we're done yet? Think again! Let's talk Starship Troopers. I like talking about Starship Troopers, for two reasons. The first reason is because whenever I bring it up, people always assume I'm talking about the better than average Roughnecks CG cartoon, the 1999 followup to Paul Verhoeven's ridiculous feature film adaptation. But see, I'm not talking about that one. I'm talking about the 6-episode OVA series from 1988 produced by Sunrise. Yes Virginia, there is a Starship Troopers anime, which brings me to the second reason I like to bring it up: it's awful. It's not necessarily "good" bad, though-- it doesn't have the crazed energy of Mad Bull 34 or the loony-bin plotting of Crystal Triangle that make both so eminently watchable. Instead, it has lackluster combat scenes, wooden acting, and alien adversaries that look more like humanoid vaginas than the tool-using bugs of Robert Heinlein's classic novel. Protagonist Juan Rico is just as inexplicably blonde and blue-eyed as he is in the movie, while love interest Carmen has what can only be described as a million-mile death stare. The whole reason this anime exists is because Kazuya Miyatake and Studio NUE created these absolutely awesome illustrations for the Japanese translation and release of Starship Troopers in 1981. The illustrations begat model kits, which begat substandard anime, and merrily we roll along. A few years back (actually this was in like 2003 - jesus!), I had a conversation with New Generation Pictures' Jonathan Klein-- he knew people at Sony who managed the Starship Troopers brand (this was during production of the direct-to-video movie sequel, which turned out to be awful but still quite profitable) and they were sniffing around the Sunrise production as a possible tie-in, because the words "Starship Troopers anime" sounds like a sure thing, right? Not so! The Sony folks were suitably unimpressed, and so Starship Troopers remains unreleased in the west.
There's still plenty more of western literary adaptations around the world of anime. Lots of fans know all about Ghibli's recent yen for adapting tales by the likes of Diana Wynne Jones (Howl's Moving Castle), Ursula K. LeGuin (Tales from Earthsea), and Mary Norton (The Borrowers). In addition to that, you'll find anime adaptations of Paul Gallico's Manxmouse, Ruth Stiles' My Father's Dragon, and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, if you do a little digging. Hell, if you broaden the picture to include comic books, plays, and other media, you can throw Little Lulu, Cubitus, Tomb of Dracula, and Alfred J. Kwak in there, just to name a few off the top of my head. There are even a few projects that never quite came to pass; in the early 70s Miyazaki and Takahata wanted to create a TV adaptation of Pippi Longstocking for Nippon Animation, even going as far as visiting original author Astrid Lindgren, but the project fell through. More recently, ADV Films had posted up quite a bit of pre-production work for an anime adaptation of David Weber's Mutineer's Moon. Unfortunately, we'll never get to see some of this stuff come to fruition. But hey, it's not all bad news-- the Church of Scientology were trumpeting about an anime Battlefield Earth several years back, and given the quality of the live-action film, it's probably for the best that it didn't get produced.
But what of Deltora Quest, the whole reason I started this column, and the currently airing production that I've been ignoring for the past 2,455 words? Well, the dubbed version has actually been airing in the original author Roddick's native Australia for some time, so I've already gotten to take in a few episodes, courtesy of the Region 3 DVD release. It's very workmanlike, with by-the-numbers character designs and bad guys, but the heroes, led by the fiery Lief, are a likeable bunch, and you can tell that OLM, led by seasoned director Mitsuru Hongo, are sticking to Roddick's sturdy original storyline. The story is also a pretty regular fetch-quest involving finding a bunch of jewels that will activate a magical belt, which Lief can then use to smack the shit out of the evil Shadow Lord. My only big complaint is that the English soundtrack also replaces Ko Otani's music with some pretty awful synthesizer fare, the kind of stuff that's so canned-sounding it successfully kills the show's mood at times.
Of course, the anime adaptation led me straight back to the books, which are published in North America by Scholastic. Like the TV version, they're good for a ten-year-old, solidly built little tales that can be digested in an hour or three. The 65-episode anime version covers the first eight books, which are the major part of the Deltora mythos-- Scholastic released each one individually, but has wisely reissued the lot as a single fat hardcover collection. All three copies of that beast were checked out of my local library, so somebody's reading this stuff. Ms Rodda, who's been chiseling away at her Deltora opus for over a decade, following Deltora Quest with Deltora Shadowlands, Dragons of Deltora, How to Draw Deltora Quest, and Deltora Quest and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has said that she readily agreed to authorize an anime adaptation for two reasons-- firstly, because OLM said they wouldn't alter any major portions of her story (there had been interest from western media, but these involved producers who "just wanted to tighten things up a little"), and secondly because she had her family like anime and wanted to make sure that any adaptation hitting TV would be one that kids find cool. Well, kids sure do love anime, right?
Deltora Quest is a solid success down under, with DVDs and card games on the shelves and billing on Australia's Cartoon Network. Here, it remains to be seen if it can compete with the Hub's strong Transformers, GI Joe, and My Little Pony offerings. But the neat thing is, even if it doesn't get big, there's still plenty more anime adaptations of western goodies on the way. Madhouse are in the process of wrapping up an anime OVA of the hit TV series Supernatural, complete with appearances by the show's real-life stars; at their Otakon panel, several of the questions for studio chief Masao Maruyama were concerning the franchise, so that one looks to have some potential. How about you, internet? What treasured book, comic, or story would you like to see tackled by the cream of Japan's animation business? How about an anime Da Vinci Code? Or an anime Earth: The Book? Or an anime Strunk and White's the Elements of Style?
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