The Mike Toole Show Anime... Or Not?!
by Michael Toole, Oct 23rd 2011
What is anime?
Okay, now that I've got approximately fifty percent of you whispering "Anime is: straight from Japan! Totally unexpected! Not kids' stuff." with Pavlovian fervor and cursing my name, let me explain why I'm posing this seemingly obvious question.
Earlier this week, I was looking into anime adaptations of European comics and BDs; after all, we've got our currently running Marvel anime, that hoary old Tomb of Dracula telefilm, and there was even a Little Lulu anime TV series in 1976. It would stand to reason that, given the abundance of awesome artists like Moebius, Jacques Tardi, Hugo Pratt, and of course, Peyo, we'd see some of Europe's best comics snapped up and turned into anime. Sadly, the stuff I was hoping for doesn't really exist - there's a Corto Maltese TV cartoon, but it ain't anime - it's a remarkable pile of shit from North Korea. The only recent example is Time Jam: Valérian and Laureline, a 2007 TV series based on Christin and Mézières' original comics, which came to us courtesy of French studio Dargaud and anime stalwart Satelight. But when I mentioned this series, a pal of mine on twitter waved it off, saying that it was just a co-production and therefore not really anime.
Now, wait a minute. Time Jam was directed by a guy named Philippe Vidal, sure. It was also scripted in French. But Shoji Kawamori himself took a break from ruining Macross to chip in mecha designs, and the character designs were created in part by Toshiyuki Kubooka, one of the Giant Robo pit crew. However, my friend (okay, it was AWO's Gerald Rathkolb) contended, since the series was headed by a French concern, using French source material, and helmed by mostly French artists, the anime label just wouldn't stick. Okay, I suppose that's fair enough. After all, lots of stuff was technically animated in Japan but is seldom thought of as anime: fare like GI Joe and Transformers, Spiral Zone, Galaxy Rangers, MASK... chances are, if it was created in the 80s, it was probably at least partially animated in Japan. But that alone doesn't make it Japanese animation, as we commonly use the term.
The thing is, the levels of involvement from the Japanese staff can vary tremendously from series to series. The Sunbow cartoons (Transformers and GI Joe) were still created with American scripts and storyboards, and there wasn't a single Japanese name on the production committee - it's all Marvel and Hasbro people. But take a more extreme but lesser-known example, like Mighty Orbots. Orbots was created by a guy named Fred Silverman, and the scripts were written by American writers, but the majority of the production committee? Japanese. Orbots was actually one of the first steps by Tokyo Movie Shinsha to court the overseas animation market, an endeavor they'd continue with high quality (well, at least visually) cartoons like Galaxy High and Galaxy Rangers. Orbots' mecha designers, storyboard artists, musical composers, sound and film editors? Japanese. And the show's chief director was a guy named Osamu Dezaki. "So what?" countered Gerald. "Dezaki directed Rainbow Brite, too!" "Yeah," I shot back, "but that show was mainly helmed by Bruno Bianchi, the creator of Inspector Gadget." (Aren't we nerds?) Things weren't any clearer - I thought (and think) of Orbots as anime, and Gerald does not.
Enter Daryl Surat, with an intriguing thought: what defines anime isn't only the Japanese-ness of the production stuff, but the intended audience. Therefore, one might conclude that The Mysterious Cities of Gold, which was created by a complicated mixture of Japanese and French creative staff but financed with French money, is anime, because it debuted in Japan about a year before it hit French airwaves. But this unusual criteria is a lot less kind to a production like Ulysses 31. Created one year prior to Cities of Gold in 1981, it featured the same weird mix of French and Japanese names, but while it was rolled out in much of the west by 1983 or '84 (the US would get it in 1986, as part of a Saturday-morning syndication package called Kideo TV - anyone remember it?), Ulysses 31 didn't reach Japan until 1988. So it's definitely not anime, right? After all, this neat and engaging futuristic retelling of the Odyssey was created principally for western audiences. Sure, but... I mean, for Christ's sake, look at it:
The show was scripted by Bernard Deyries and his DiC cohorts, but it simply wouldn't have looked or felt the same if the mecha designs weren't created, with their usual high standards, by Studio Nue, or if animation direction and character design wasn't handed by Shingo Araki, who'd become one of the biggest names in the anime field in the 80s. Okay, yeah, but an awful lot of Batman: the Animated Series was cooked up by SUNRISE - so how is this any different? For my money, it's the simple fact that the Emmy-winning Robin's Reckoning episode of Batman was directed by Dick Sebast. But that Ulysses 31 pilot episode? It was directed by Tadao Nagahama. Therefore, I say Ulysses 31 is anime. What do you say?
It's a fun question to think about. These co-productions aren't anything new, either. If you think of them as affairs that just involve Western financing, they go all the way back to Kimba, the White Lion - without NBC Films' funds, Osamu Tezuka and his Mushi Pro studio wouldn't have been able to afford to shoot it in color. NBC also insisted that Kimba be constructed as bite-size standalone stories, rather than a sweeping narrative, which frustrated Tezuka. The old King Kong cartoon that got released on DVD when that crummy Peter Jackson movie came out was a joint affair between the western Videocraft and eastern Toei Animation. It featured character designs by the great Jack Davis, but art direction by an awesome painter named Hideo Chiba. It was made for Saturday mornings in America, but it aired in Japan too. But what of Europe?
Well, one title that quickly comes to mind is Moomin, based on the wonderful storybooks and comics of Tove Jansson. Moomin's tales of a shy troll and his friends and family have been adapted to Japanese animation no less than three times. The first attempt, 1969's Moomin, was popular in Japan - but not so popular with Jansson herself, who disliked the show's differences in tone and character. For example, the normally reserved Moomin acts more like an irascible brat. 1972's New Moomin was quite a bit more faithful to the source material, and 1990's stab at Moomin even made it to the airwaves in English. The story has been ruggedly popular in Japan for decades, ensuring a steady stream of Japanese tourists to Finland. As for the question of whether or not you could call any of these shows anime, you definitely can with the former two, which were animated wholly by TMS and Mushi Pro and shown in Japan before anywhere else. The waters are muddied slightly in the 1990 series, which was created with the cooperation of a Dutch company called Telecable Benelux BV I still think of it as anime - if you're curious, you can buy Moomin DVDs via Amazon's print on demand service. They're not great quality, but they're legit!
Moomin wasn't Telecable Benelux's first foray into Japanese co-productions, either. Just a year prior, they scored a solid hit with Alfred J. Kwak, a TV series created in collaboration with TV Tokyo and based on a children's play and story by the Dutch artist Herman van Veen. Looking at the series, you'd be hard pressed to think of it as anime. Its Dutchness is expressed in its names, locales, and storyline, and the character designs are based on artwork by Harald Siepermann, who also signed off on the storyboards. But hang on - those storyboards were created by Akira Miyazaki, and the series was directed by Hiroshi Saitô. It debuted in Japan almost 8 months prior to its Christmas 1989 debut in Holland. Dutch fans will remember that Alfred himself was voiced by Ryan van den Akker, a well-known stage and TV actress - but Japan's version gave its title role to rising star Megumi Hayashibara. If you look at the series (clips are easy to find in a variety of languages on YouTube), it really doesn't have the look and feel we associate with anime - no big eyes, heavy highlights, or that kind of stuff - but the intricate backgrounds and sharp, cinematic style are still there. It's definitely anime in my book, but it's a unique production that's just as informed by its Dutch background as its Japanese one - kind of like how Vicky the Viking is a product of its German origin as much as its Japanese one.
Well, alright, Vicky the Viking is actually based on a children's book by a Swede named Runer Jonsson. But the anime series was one of the earlier TV co-productions, created in 1974 by Zuiyo Eizo (yep, the World Masterpiece Theatre crew!) with money and production assistance courtesy of German broadcaster ZDF. It debuted at about the same time in Germany and Japan, and while the same Hiroshi Saitô's directing style is evident, the characters definitely have a flatter, cartoonier look than most of Zuiyo Eizo's output of the day. It was rewritten with great care for the German-speaking market by a fellow named Eberhard Storeck, and its title song is still well known among German fans today. Okay, you can probably attribute part of that to the fact that Vicky is a fascinating nostalgia vehicle in Germany - in 2009, comedian Michael Bully Herbig shot a big-deal live action adaptation, Wickie und die starken Männer. It made a neat $40 million, a nice bounty for a domestic German film, and I really wish they'd release the damn thing in English somewhere. The trailer looks like great fun! Anyway, Vicky was principally created by Japanese artists - so even though it doesn't look like anime, I reckon it is. Eiichiro Oda cites it as one of his inspirations for One Piece, so check it out if you can find it.
A few more titles come to mind as we cruise through the 1980s. Spanish studio BRB internacional came up with a couple of fine ideas for kids shows - funny animal versions of classic stories! Their first stab was an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers - retitling it Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, BRB enlisted Nippon Animation to create the visuals, and in 1981, the show debuted in both Japan and Spain. The thing is, it was dubbed in Spanish first, and while the episodes were directed by dudes like Taku Sugiyama and Shigeo Koshi, they're based on scripts and storyboards by the likes of Manuel Peiró and Melesio Rosales, and the character artwork is courtesy of José Luis Rodriguez and Lorenzo Ballester. Like Vicky and Alfred, Dogtanian doesn't have that anime look, and BRB wasn't thinking of Japan first when they came up with the idea for it. Instead, the series was rapidly exported all over the world - it's a nostalgic favorite in Britain, which enjoyed a dubbed version created at Intersound by the likes of Cam Clarke and Tom Wyner. I love the series - to me, Sugiyama's hand is obvious (he has a gift for body language, and the characters of Dogtanian are generally very expressive), and Peiró and company's adaptation of Dumas's story is remarkably clever and thorough. BRB would repeat this feat in 1985 with Around The World With Willy Fog, a cartoon cat-based retelling of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. I'm also fond of this one, because again, it covers every single major event of the book, which no other TV or film version manages to do. The Japanese-ness of Willy Fog is a bit more evident - it was storyboarded entirely in Japan this time - but to me, it's still tough to call it anime. It debuted in Spain in 1985, but didn't reach Japanese airwaves until '87. I tend not to think of this pair as anime, but they're still great cartoons!
Remember back at the beginning of this column, several thousand words ago, about how I talked about wanting to find anime based on bande dessinée comics? Well, I did find one - 1988's Cubitus, based on comics by the Belgian cartoonist Dupa. This one was a challenge to track down, because it was retitled for both the Japanese market (Don-don Dommel, based on the German title of the comics, Dommel) and the English-speaking market (Wowser). The character designs were supplied by Dupa himself, but every other aspect of production was handled in Japan, courtesy of Telescreen Japan and TV Tokyo. Still, the production retains the wonderfully cartoony look of the comics, and the stories, about a zany inventor and his lovably dumb, lazy dog, are lots of fun. Thanks to its accessible look, Cubitus was beamed around the world in short order - Saban dubbed it in 1990 under the title Wowser, and it was shown on The Family Channel here in the US. The dub features a lot of LA regulars like Robert Axelrod and Reba West, and the voice of Wowser himself is a guy doing his damndest to imitate Arnold Stang! Anyway, Cubitus was clearly made for a global audience, but created almost wholly in Japan - so is it anime? What do you think?
There are even more recent examples to ponder, too. The beloved-for-dubious-reasons Sin: The Movie was based on an American video game and financed by ADV Films, but things get weird when you examine the feature itself - the animation staff is 100% Japanese, and the DVD features two scripts that don't always overlap. The English one is by ADV's Andy Orjuela, but the Japanese one isn't credited. Is Sin anime? Well, it was created in Japan and its Japanese origins are flogged, but it was made primarily for ADV and Ritual Entertainment's domestic fans. So... which is it? It's a complicated question, isn't it? How about Oban Star-Racers? This great TV series, my favorite of 2006, came straight from the mind of animator Sylvain Yeatman-Eiffel, who released an anime-influenced pilot to spark interest, but had to take his show on the road to Japan to complete the series. Yeatman-Eiffel and collaborator and Code Lyoko creator Thomas Romain are the big names, but the staff is dotted with Japanese names, and the show debuted in France and Japan at the same time. So... is it anime?
How about The Last Unicorn, which was funded by Rankin-Bass but animated by Topcraft? How about The Animatrix, or Batman: Gotham Knight, or Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, or Highlander: The Search for Vengeance, or Marvel Comics affairs like Hulk vs, which was animated entirely by MADHOUSE? These were all made for western audiences (yes, even Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust was dubbed in English and shown here long before it reached Japan) but couldn't have been made with such quality and luster without the involvement of Japanese artists. And hey, what about that Valerian and Laureline? Are these shows anime, western animation, or some sort of crazy new category, like Animation of Mixed Origin (AMO)? Sound off in the comments, and tell us all about your favorite anime of dubious origin!
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