The Mike Toole Show
The Spirit of '81
by Michael Toole,
So, what were you up to thirty years ago today? If the statistical breakdown of anime viewers is to be believed, a small majority of you weren't actually around yet. That's okay, you'll still find this little exercise interesting. The rest of you guys, the over-30 gang, were probably in a situation similar to mine: curled up in front of the television, mouth gaping, watching Saturday morning cartoons, and feeling vaguely insulted.
Yeah, even at the tender age of five, the stuff on TV was leaving me cold; I had the choice of following the tales of Dirty Dawg, a canine homeless person, as he eluded the authorities, or I could watch Wolfman Jack narrate the adventures of a time-traveling Fonzie as he whisked the Happy Days gang through time and space, kind of like some kind of crazy 1957 Milwaukee version of Doctor Who. Because apparently, everyone was on cocaine in 1981. Everyone. This scenario is exactly the sort of thing that led me down the path towards Japanese animation. But what were kids in Japan watching in 1981, I wonder? Let's look at some of the best stuff.
Well, there were a few goodies on Japanese TV, starting right in January of '81. Most notably, there was Baldios, a thoroughly run of the mill show that's only really notable for giving the world the long-dead internet meme known as Heika. But Baldios did meet its demise in a unique way - thanks to sagging ratings, the show was canceled so abruptly that the ending couldn't be rushed into production, so at the climactic moment, our heroes watch helplessly as the planet's surface is wiped out by a series of unimaginably huge tsunamis. This was supposed to spur the good guys on to rally the remnants of mankind and vanquish the invaders, but instead, as skyscrapers sank beneath the waves, we got an abrupt "END" title card. Pretty brutal stuff, actually! But January would see a couple of other productions - a TV movie adaptation of Jack London's Call of the Wild that has grown in infamy recently thanks to its bizarre animation and even weirder English dubbing, and a TV series adaptation of Johan David Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson.
Nippon Animation had a little problem when they went into production on Swiss Family Robinson: all of boys of the family were... well, boys. See, back in those days, the idea was to include girl characters to get girls interested in the show, not just as bait to entice easily-amused male anime nerds. So they solved this problem in the usual way, and just made up their own character, a little girl named Flone. I love this solution, because it's weirdly and hilariously disrespectful of the source material-- we're all moaning because a messy New York-based adaptation of Akira seems to be looming on the Hollywood horizon, but this approach certainly isn't limited to Hollywood. Anyway, the character is lots of fun-- Flone (or "Becca" if you watched the dubbed version on the Family Channel like I did) is free-spirited and outspoken, and the show is another nicely-directed chapter of the World Masterpiece Theatre pantheon, courtesy of the great Yoshio Kuroda.
February wouldn't bear much fruit - Tatsunoko would revisit their increasingly tired Time Bokan franchise with Yattodetaman, and Fuji TV kicked out a TV movie adaptation of Osamu Dazai's Run, Melos! story. Despite being directed by the accomplished Tomoharu Katsumata, it's no great shakes - the 1991 feature film version is a superior adaptation. March would heat up nicely, though-- children's cigarette lighter commercial Gold Lightan was on TV, as was future Voltron superstar GoLion, and three great films hit theatres - a lavish adaptation of Swan Lake, featuring Tchaikovsky's famous music as the soundtrack, a crazy little movie from Sanrio called Unico, and the first of three Gundam feature films. This move put Gundam back on the map for good - flourishing model kit sales and strong support of the TV series from fans brought the canceled production back to life, and the premiere of this film saw the unlikely sight of creator Yoshiyuki Tomino addressing thousands of fans in Tokyo. I wonder if he knew then just how big the franchise would get?
April was pretty important, too. Isao Takahata directed the enjoyably quirky Chie the Brat, and the TV airwaves got the likes of Leiji Matsumoto's Queen Millennia, Tiger Mask II: Tiger Masker, in which masked wrestling good-guy Naoto Date is replaced by a new hero, who wrestles for good alongside real-life wrestling stars like Antonio Inoki and Andre the Giant! Years before famous comedian Brad Garrett got his start as the voice of Hulk Hogan in Rock n' Wrestling, Tiger Mask II was setting the standard for outrageous wrestling cartoons. April also gave us Great Dog Jolly, a fanciful period adventure about a young boy setting off across the Pyrenees to reunite with his mother, accompanied by a gigantic snow white Pyrenees mountain dog. Just a year or two later, American children would delight to the adventures of Belle and Sebastian, as the show was retitled for broadcast on Nickelodeon, and just another fifteen years later, a goofy indie rock band would totally steal the name of that show for their act, thus confounding my Google searches for the series forever! Oh yeah, and April gave us Dr. Slump.
Dr. Slump was one of the first great Shonen Jump shows. Oh sure, plenty of Shonen Jump goodies had been adapted for animation before, but Slump was a massive phenomenon that tied down and dominated the coveted 6pm Saturday "golden time" timeslot for no less than five years. Akira Toriyama's first great hit would spend several seasons at the top before being immediately replaced by his next monster hit, Dragon Ball. Irritatingly, Slump never got a proper English release - Harmony Gold kicked out a pilot dub, but we never saw more, so English-speaking fans are gonna have to settle for the manga.
In May, we got all of two things: a telefilm about the life of Helen Keller, and LUPIN VERSUS HOLMES?! What the hell? What in the world is this thing? Look, I found a picture!
What the hell is it? Has anyone seen it? I WANT TO SEE THIS DAMN THING. Make it happen, Japan! Seriously, this is probably just an adaptation of Maurice Leblanc's amusingly indulgent Arsene Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes, or Helmlock Shears, or Shylock Harms, or something that wouldn't get them sued by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle estate. The story, popular in its day, gave both Leblanc's celebrated thief and Doyle's famous detective their due. I love all things Lupin, so I'm intensely curious about this one.
Back in the early 80s, things slowed down in the summer just like they do here, except on the big screen. June would bring a really wonderfully animated Tokyo Movie Shinsha TV special about the life of famous judo master Sugata Sanshiro, while July was movie month, with the second installment of the Gundam films (and the best, if you want my opinion-- the "Soldiers of Sorrow" insert song owns!) and Masami Hata's long-remembered Sea Prince and the Fire Child. On TV, we got Tomorrow's Joe II, the underrated super robot actioner GoShogun, and Captain, an innovative take on baseball that featured a new team captain every school year of the story. August would give us Bremen 4, an installment of Osamu Tezuka's absolutely fantastic TV movie series released in tandem with a 24-hour charity broadcast. We also got The Door into Summer, a film adaptation of Keiko Takemiya's unconventional shoujo manga that Justin Sevakis covers well here, and Adieu Galaxy Express 999. Adieu GE999 is kind of a foregone conclusion, an equally big-budget sequel to the previous year's most popular anime movie. I found it kind of a head-scratching retread of the original's story, only with outrageously pumped-up visuals and a cool new Darth Vader-y antagonist, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again soon, courtesy of our pals at Discotek Media. Finally, August of '81 would bring us Snow Fairy, aka Yuki.
Try to find some good, hard information about Snow Fairy. It ain't that easy! The movie, directed by sometime dissident filmmaker Tadashi Imai, hasn't gotten a DVD release, and it's barely even mentioned in the absolutely crucial book Art of Japanese Animation II: 70 Years of Theatrical Films, from Tokuma Shoten. Oddly, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube, so I guess the internet rides to the rescue again. The movie is really conventional, which I suppose is to be expected since Imai, a live-action filmmaker for the bulk of his career, relied heavily on Toei Animation to get the job done. It's an interesting little fairy tale, told with the bombastic weight of a historical record rather than the fanciful air of a fable.
What did we get in September of 1981? We got two things. Firstly, we got Ulysses 31, the completely awesome 30th-century retelling of the Odyssey from the mind of Jean Chalopin and the pens and paintbrushes of Studio Nue. This show, a worldwide success that is still one of Europe's most well-remembered anime hits, debuted in France in 1981, but interestingly it wouldn't reach Japan until '84, despite being animated there! The show also aired on American TV, with a surprisingly memorable dub produced in Montreal. The other thing we got in September was goddamned Mito Komon! Ever heard of Mito Komon? You should have - it's one of Japan's most famous TV shows, a jidai geki (historical drama) joint that started in 1969... and is still going. There are over one thousand episodes of Mito Komon, the seemingly infinite tale of Mitsukuni Mito, a 17th-century lord who wanders the land with a crew of scholars and warriors, battling corrupt officials, bent landlords, and vicious bandits at every turn. Every single episode works up to the same conclusion - the bad guys seem to have Mito and company cornered, but then someone flashes the guy's crest, which reveals him to be the uncle of the Shogun, and the evildoers realize that they're messing with the wrong guy. The cartoon follows this formula, only with cartoonier action and less serious conflict - we scoff at that weird old Mr. T cartoon from Ruby-Spears, but the anime version of Mito Komon is not so different at all! I don't know if Mito Komon's adventures were bookended by segments featuring the real-life actors doing public service announcements, but it seems plausible enough.
All of the awesome new anime shows tend to come out in October, and this wasn't any different thirty years back. We got a TV adaptation of Chie the Brat. We got Parent and Child Theatre, which would swiftly be adapted and retitled Superbook for the English-language market. We got a trio of great robot shows that have just started to reach western fans' attention thanks to fansubs: Godmars, Dougram, and Bryger. We got the giddy, dizzy shoujo adventure-comedy Honey Honey, and we got Shame on You, Ms. Machiko, a bawdy comedy about a good-natured, pretty young teacher and her lecherous, unruly classroom that's brazen enough to have a topless shower scene in the opening credits. Machiko was popular with viewers, but not very popular with Japan's PTA groups! October would round off as a monstrous month, with internationally renowned co-production Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (considered by many, including this writer, to be the most detailed and complete adaptation of Dumas's famous story for the screen) and 800-pound gorilla Urusei Yatsura. Just as Toriyama broke out with Dr. Slump, Rumiko Takahashi broke out with Urusei Yatsura, which also ran for five years and put a young director named Mamoru Oshii on the map.
Things got really quiet in November, but December would see two very interesting projects. First, we got Shunmao, the first animated co-production between Japan and China, a very unusual-looking tale of a panda. Second, we got a Baldios feature film. Yeah, remember how Baldios ended really badly and abruptly in January? Apparently, enraged fans of Baldios flooded the streets and demanded a proper ending, and they would receive one just in time for the new year. After that point, Baldios would sink without a trace, only getting new attention with the Heika meme emerged. It's interesting to contrast that with Gundam, which faced a similarly ignominious end on TV but would be resurrected in a much more dramatic way for the big screen.
Why look back to thirty years ago, though? Well, for one thing, it's fun! They've been making really good anime for as long as there's been anime, and '81 wasn't an exception to this at all. More importantly, I think that looking back can give us some valuable perspective. Think about 2011: We're only about halfway through the year, and we've already seen more than 30 TV shows and another dozen or so TV specials and movies. Contrast that with '81 and its tally of around 22 TV shows and another dozen or so movies. I'm not saying that things were better in '81, because I don't think one can really objectively say that. Also, I don't believe it. But I do think it's really interesting that the amount of anime was pretty small in '81, less than half of what we're getting nowadays, but a good nine or ten of the shows released during that year would be incredibly important for the medium.
Think about it: Urusei Yatsura, Dr. Slump, Golion, the Gundam movies, Sea Prince, GoShogun, Adieu GE999, Ulysses 31... these all went on to become classics. Can you imagine eight or ten shows coming out now being that big of a deal thirty years down the road? I think Madoka Magica just might pull that feat off. I'm wondering about Tiger and Bunny, which seems a bit flash-in-the-pan. The still-running Gintama has just edged past Urusei Yatsura in the number of total episodes. But will Toriko equal the impressive pedigree of Dr. Slump? Will Fractale be remembered as fondly as, say, Godmars? Or will something in the fall emerge as a more obvious modern classic? I'll just have to wait thirty years and ask my 5-year-old nephew for his opinion.
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