The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
Yeah, I'll talk about Ishinomori this time. Is it because he was born this week, on January 25th, 1938? Or perhaps it's because he also died this week, on the 28th of January in 1998? No, that... wait a minute. Was this guy really only 58 when he died? Good lord, that's dreadful. Think about that - if he were alive today, Ishinomori would be 73, and quite probably still a vital and formidable force in the business, with great works yet ahead of him. Sadly, the anime business is pretty awesome at nurturing impressively talented individuals and then seeing them fade away prematurely - last year's obituary list alone was an impressive and somewhat depressing who's-who of great artistic talent. But Ishinomori did absolutely astonishing things with his time on earth. This gentleman artist, who went pro under the name Shotaro Ishimori only to change it later on in life, might've been helped by the fact that he got into the manga business at the age of seventeen, at the insistence of one Osamu Tezuka. There's actually a wonderful story behind that - a story about Manga Shonen magazine, a publication that solicited works from school-age artists and awarded prizes and professional opportunities for the best stuff. The first big winner to come out of this system was some kid named Akira Matsumoto, who used his success to move to Tokyo and start working full-time. He also changed his name to Leiji. Anyway, a young artist named Shotaro Onodera submitted some samples of his work to Manga Shonen, and it just so happened that Tezuka's famous Astro Boy was running as a special feature in the magazine at the time. Tezuka's editor clued him in to the budding talent, and history was made when Tezuka hired the kid as his assistant and set him to work on the Astro Boy story Electro. The entire experience is laid out in Dark Horse's Astro Boy volume 15, so seek that out if you want the dirt.
The Tezuka apprenticeship would certainly explain why Shotaro Ishinomori's characters and style seem so similar to Tezuka's. But young Onodera was an envelope-pusher - working alongside Tezuka wasn't enough to satisfy him, so he changed his last name to "Ishimori" and went solo at the turn of the decade. He would score his first big hit and change the face of manga and anime in 1963, when he created Cyborg 009 - Japan's first tale of a team of superheroes with distinct powers and personalities, not to mention incredibly cool costumes with flowing scarves and big brass buttons. Japan's answer to the Justice League would prove indefatigable - Ishimori's sweeping, action-packed tale of nine outcasts and oddballs given cyborg superpowers by the story's villain, who hoped to used them as weapons of war only to see them rebel and fight for peace, was a success. The manga's original ending was memorably badass; it involved the heroes saving the world, but unable to save themselves. Of course, stuff like this is often too popular, so Ishimori's editor insisted that he write himself out of the corner and keep the stories coming. The manga would continue on and off for years and years, and is still being created by Ishimori Productions today.
Not surprisingly, there's Cyborg 009 anime adaptations galore. Toei made the first stab at adapting Ishimori's work in 1966 and 1967, with a pair of exciting full-color movies. These films and the subsequent 1968 black and white TV series are interesting to look at, but they're roughly animated, and the company would change the nature of some of the characters and stories to make the whole thing a little more kid-friendly. Still, these early animated works were received well, and led to more opportunities for Ishimori. Cyborg 009 would make a return to the small screen in 1979, in what is easily the most popular of the franchise's anime adaptations, a 50-episode series that picks up later in the cyborgs' lives. Ishimori's heroes - hot-blooded and heroic Joe, tacit and thoughtful Heinrich, fierce and loyal Jet, and a whole bunch of other amusing stereotypes - are trying to cope with being cyborgs in a world where the bad guys are defeated, but soon there are new bad guys - and these ones appear to be Norse and Hindu gods with earthshaking powers! This is one of those infuriating examples of a TV series that was swiftly sold, adapted, and broadcast in seemingly every corner of the earth... except North America. But that's OK, because in 1980, Cyborg 009 would return to the big screen, and this version was eventually let loose in English.
Subtitled Legend of the Super Galaxy, the movie is, unfortunately, a bit boring - it's one of those 1980-era films that were way too intent on aping the Star Wars formula, so instead of Joe and company using their awesome powers, it was mostly Joe and company shooting lasers and flying space fighters on the way to rescue a mysterious alien princess. It's not a bad movie - it's well-animated, certainly - but the way it eschews the classic Cyborg 009 formula in favor of space battles is a bit disappointing. That's okay, though, because Cyborg 009's ultimate animated form would eventually emerge in 2001. That was the year that Avex commissioned Cyborg 009: The Cyborg Soldier, a new 51-episode TV series that would retell, in lavish detail, the entire Cyborg 009 story. Accomplished director Jun Kawagoe was brought in to steer the project, a seasoned group of seiyuu stars were cast as the leads, and while not every episode was great, the series as a whole was above average and a lot of fun. It wasn't too long before it, like its predecessor, started showing up all over the world in a lot of different languages. One of these languages was English - Cyborg 009 was on Cartoon Network!
Sadly (and kind of typically), the story doesn't end that well. 009 was hastily added to the Toonami schedule, and after the first 25 episodes, the show was unceremoniously bumped to the 1am timeslot. The last few episodes weren't even aired. But hey, that's cool, because it's all on the DVD, right? Wrong. Sony employed a baffling strategy in their home video release of the series - fans could choose a 2-disc set of six episodes, bilingual (but dubtitled), or they could go with a two-volume release of edited episodes. That was it - no more of the series ever made it to video in North America. Australia was luckier - they got the first half of the series, but it's crunched onto just a few discs and doesn't look that great. I've spent the better part of the last decade trying to find someone at Sony who can talk about why they flushed this fine series down the crapper, but I've never gotten anyone to return my calls. The Cyborg 009 pantheon is rounded out by the manga. Say what you will about TOKYOPOP, but they released the original 10 volume story in English. It's not a high-quality release, but if you hunger for some 009, it's the original version of the best portion of the story. Good luck finding it - most volumes have been out of print for more than five years!
When Ishimori wasn't single-handedly introducing new styles and concepts in the world of anime and manga, he was revolutionizing another venue - tokusatsu, or special effects-driven live-action TV shows. Tsubaraya Productions would lay the groundwork for tokusatsu on TV with 1966's Ultra Q and the many subsequent Ultraman spinoffs, but Ishimori's entry in the field, 1971's Kamen Rider, was a shot in the arm for the burgeoning genre. Instead of super-science, Kamen Rider's conflicted heroes (there were two of them, which made the series even more awesome in the second half, when they would team up) used weird stolen insectoid technology and hot motorcycles to do battle with a new rubber-suited monster every week. As with Cyborg 009, it all started with Ishimori's vision and his own manga, but Kamen Rider grew into a franchise that is still strong and wildly popular today. American fans have gotten a taste of it - Saban took a stab at adapting 1988's Kamen Rider Black RX for their Masked Rider adaptation, but the show failed to catch fire. A decade and change later, Adness Entertainment would adapt Kamen Rider Ryuki into Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight, a mishmash of original footage and quite respectable new stuff shot by veteran stunt and FX man Steve Wang. This Kamen Rider was also unsuccessful, but managed to bag - I kid you not - a Daytime Emmy award for its stuntwork. So remember, folks - Shotaro Ishinomori is not just the creator of Kamen Rider, he's the creator of the Emmy award-winning Kamen Rider. New Kamen Rider shows still come out regularly in Japan, and Wang has vowed to try to create another American Kamen Rider in the future.
In the wake of Kamen Rider's success, Ishimori would create more TV heroes, guys with names like Inazuman, Robocon, Robot Keiji, and Kikaider. Wait a minute, that last one seems familiar! Kikaider and its sequel Kikaider-01 tell the tale of young men who are actually robots - robots so advanced that they develop friendships and feelings. The problem is, these robots have awesome superpowers and motorbikes and stuff, but not all of the robots are nice guys thanks to malfunctioning conscience circuits. It's up to heroic Jiro (and later, Ichiro and Saburo) to grapple with his tortured existence even as he turns into the powerful android Kikaider and does battle with renegade robots. he also wears a lot of denim and plays a mean guitar. Kikaider is a relic of the 70s, but it was actually broadcast in Hawaii with English subtitles on KIKU-TV, where it was wildly, improbably popular. The show's surviving stars visit the islands regularly, and the series was treated to a DVD release by Hawaii's JN Productions, under the title Kikaida. Some fans will argue quite vehemently that Kikaida is the correct spelling, and "Kikaider" is just a retcon that was introduced later; most of these fans are from Hawaii, go figure! Anyway, Kikaider remained popular for decades, and in 2000 it too enjoyed a new TV anime version. The show was a sleeper hit on Cartoon Network's late-night slate, and Bandai Entertainment would see that American fans got the series on DVD. Only one episode, a video-only affair featuring a team-up with Ishinomori's Inazuman, remains unreleased in the west.
So let's recap: So far, Ishimori has conquered the fields of manga, anime, and TV. His stories don't just take established conventions and build on them - they create new ones. So it was that in 1975 Ishimori created yet another new idea: the super sentai series. Entitled Secret Task Force Goranger, this TV series told the tale of five heroes who donned eye-catching, color-coded spandex costumes to battle evil. The leader had to have the red costume, and the cutey-pie girl (usually played by a minor teen idol) would be decked out in pink. Sound familiar? Yes, Ishinomori is the original creator of the now-ubiquitous Power Rangers. The really neat thing about going back and watching these shows is the way he'd try to top himself every season. First, it was in introducing a team of five heroes, not just one or two. Then the heroes would get special vehicles. Then, later on they'd get this crazy giant robot, and each year there'd be a new team with a new robot and new gimmicks, new villains and new wacky sidekicks. I've always found Super Sentai stuff to be corny and clunky, but at the same time it's undeniably entertaining. The man who started the phenomenon isn't with us anymore, but don't worry - there's still new Power Rangers stuff every year.
So Ishinomori had his hands in great works of the small screen, the big screen, and the comics realm. He was a goddamn ninja master of entertainment. I'm tempted to say that the only thing he never really touched was video games, but that's not true either! In 1990 Ishimori was tapped to create a manga adaptation of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. This adaptation was translated and published in the pages of Nintendo Power before eventually seeing release as a standalone book, which is now annoyingly expensive. In recent years, we've been fortunate to receive translated editions of Cyborg 009, as well as later Ishinomori collaborations like The Skull Man and Kikaider Code 02, but the first English edition of the great man's work is this hoary old Legend of Zelda thing.
Have I covered all of the works of Ishinomori - who, by the way, changed his name from "Ishimori" late in life because he was just that badass - yet? No, I haven't! There's tons more, in fact. Anime adaptations of his 009-1 (a fanciful, swinging, femme fatale take on Cyborg 009) and Skull Man (a dark predecessor to Kamen Rider) are available on DVD from Funimation and Section 23, respectively. Notable releases of the past decade like Gilgamesh and Genma Wars (okay, maybe that one's not so notable) are based on his works. Kamen Rider the First, a 2005 feature film reimagining of Kamen Rider, is easy to find on DVD from Media Blasters. Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight has faded from TV, but can still be found online and on DVD overseas. Even the great man's original manga is once again available to English-speaking fans, via the iOS-powered manga application from Itochu. Just recently, a new Cyborg 009 chapter was published - thirteen years after his death, you still just can't stop the guy.
Shotaro Ishinomori didn't just create new stories in the realms of anime, manga, and tokusatsu - he made the media cooler. His comic characters became icons (the Cyborg 009 gang regularly surface in TV and magazine ads, hawking a variety of electronics and goodies), and some of the actors who played his TV heroes became idols and sex symbols. We may have lost the guy in 1998 thanks to his weak ticker, but his heart still beats in the new work based on his stories that just keeps coming and coming. You can pretty much set your watch to the new wave of Super Sentai and Kamen Rider shows every year, but something else is bound to appear soon. I'm hoping for a Rainbow Sentai Robin remake, but that's just me.
Now that I've covered Tezuka and Ishinomori, I guess Go Nagai's the logical next choice. Hmmm, when's his birthday, again? One neat thing about the guy is that I won't have to write about him posthumously, so I won't spend several thousand words silently agonizing over the cool stuff he never got to create. Nagai's still creating cool stuff! Has anyone else created as much cool stuff? Let me know in the comments, or via twitter at @michaeltoole!
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