The Mike Toole Show New Year's Resolution
by Michael Toole, Jan 12th 2014
I have a shocking confession to make: I still haven't seen all of King of Braves Gaogaigar. I know, right? I may as well turn in my Anime News Network employee badge, because those definitely exist. I don't know what to tell you, guys: I kept pace with the single-disc releases some years back until about halfway through, and then I just… lost focus. (And yeah, I know that there are readers out there howling in agony, because that's right when the show gets good. Stick with me, here!) Years later, I was thrilled to get the whole show in one of those crazy Right Stuf holiday sales. Finally, I would get to see all of Gaogaigar! I carefully filed the discs with my collection and haven't touched them since. That was over a year ago.
But hey, we've all got a pile, right? We've all got a big stack of unread books, unplayed games, unripped CDs, and unwatched movies and TV shows. It's the terrible price we pay, living in a world where most of us can just press a button and the fifty-two episodes of animated mayhem magically shows up at the doorstep a few days later-- and that's if we're patient enough to want to get DVDs, instead of just going to Crunchyroll and Hulu and Daisuki, where gratification is a single neat click away. I've written about the phenomenon before, and our own Justin Sevakis has even renamed one of his weekly columns after his own personal anime-cairn. But here's the plan, gang: I'm going to beat my pile.
I've been pondering this, largely because my friend Daniel Briscoe has taken to twitter to discuss his plan to beat his ponderous stacks of unloved media. He's treating it like a New Year's Resolution, the kind of sure promise for self-improvement that we all make to ourselves and inevitably fail at by the first week of March. That's a great idea, Daniel! Here, let me steal it. Let me steal it, because I have a humongous pile of unwatched anime, and generally ignore this pile in favor of buying… you guessed it… more anime. Hey, I can quit any time I want to!
The thing is, it's not like I'm losing interest in the medium. I buy new discs every month, I watch the shows (though it's beginning to look like Space Dandy is gonna be the sole new one on my plate for this winter season), and I read the comics. Just a couple of weeks ago, in anticipation of the movie screening next week, I ripped through all of anohana TV like a fat guy (i.e. me) through pizza (i.e. BBQ chicken, please). Yet Black Lagoon sits forlornly by, unfinished. (Hey, I watched all of the first series, OK? Don't judge!) I guess the question is, what does my own private pile of shame look like? Well, it looks like this:
That's not all of them, of course-- there are a few that I couldn't hunt down (I keep the cases in giant plastic tubs in the basement - the discs are kept separately in my office, so I can grab them when I need to look at something, which is constantly). But it's most of them. A rough count of all the complete anime TV series I own tells me that I've either not watched or never finished thirty-seven of them. So the plan, therefore, is to watch these shows. All thirty-seven of them-- one for every year of my damn life. But that's really only addressing half of the problem, isn't it? Even if I start playing catch-up, I'm still going to be buying new shows, quietly adding to the chore I'm undertaking, giving it Sisyphean weight. Like Daniel, I've also gotta stop acquiring new shows until I'm finished with these ones. That's gonna be hard, because I really want that Casshan blu-ray set coming from Sentai Filmworks!
Think about all the anime you own-- I know some of you are as bad or worse than me, because I've seen the photos in Shelf Life!-- and what kind of insane planning and discipline it'd take to just absorb all the unwatched stuff, before letting the mass get any bigger. That's my New Year's Resolution. (My other New Year's Resolution is 1920x1080. Haw!) My pile is pretty diverse-- there's plenty of stuff I'm really looking forward to (Princess Jellyfish, Kurokami), stuff I'm not looking forward to (Sakura Wars TV, Galaxy Angel Rune-- YES I FOUND THAT LAST DISC, thank you very much) and stuff I can't figure out why I've never managed to finish (Excel Saga, Samurai Champloo). Seriously, how is it that I've seen all of Lucky Star, but not all of Tekkaman Blade? My priorities are all out of whack.
Questions remain. If I do one title per week, I'll be all caught up sometime in September -but is it feasible to do one series per week, when some are 13 episodes and others are 26 or 52? Is it cheating to watch some of the less compelling ones at 1.5 or 2x speed? I know that some fans do this, and I have to admit that doing so really improved Tetsujin 28's overly leisurely pacing. It made for a weird, nasty surprise when I later reviewed some clips and the music sounded strangely sluggish to me, though. Finally, I implore you, my readers: Every two weeks, irrespective of the rest of the column, should I touch on the two shows I've watched, in the meantime? I just feel like treating this like a writing exercise might help.
Don't worry, we're not done yet. Along with my New Year's Resolution, I want to talk about a very controversial anime release from 2013. See, there are some unwritten rules for anime TV home video release - each set should feature at least 13 totally uncut episodes per set, bilingual (or Japanese with subtitles, if a dub is too expensive for a particular niche title), preferably with an extra or two. Fans have absolutely lost their shit, not just at technical problems, but because we ended up getting a TV broadcast version with slightly less nudity. But despite these expectations, the discs I'm gonna talk about were hacked-together digest versions of their respective shows. They only included the English dub, and a bit surprisingly, Spanish subtitles. There were no special features included, no liner notes… hell, there wasn't even a chapter search menu on these Bad Boys! But they're still serving a need, and despite their major issues, I'm weirdly glad to have Gaiking, Starzinger, and Danguard Ace.
You may have heard of these peculiar movie summaries of old robot shows a couple of years back, when producer William Winckler gave a series of entertainingly self-serving interviews about them. Winckler, who as a much younger man had produced the dub of Tekkaman, was hired by a Toei executive named Kozo Morishita to create digest versions of a number of old Toei hits, like Captain Harlock, Fist of the North Star, and the three titles above. The news of these dubs, which hit the web in 2009, was weirdly intriguing, but the entire slate of movies effectively vanished, available as they were only on an obscure Japanese broadband TV service. The three Gaiking films did eventually surface on Amazon Video's Download-to-Own service, at the bank-busting price of $14.99… each. Yeah, that was a non-starter, too. Leave it to Shout! Factory to save us all with DVD sets for twelve or fifteen bucks.
Gaiking, which I've written a bit about here, was the first one out of the gate. It made sense, since Gaiking’s had a tiny modicum of buzz for a few years, with talk of a Gale Ann Hurd-produced live-action film bubbling to the surface from time to time. (I wouldn't hold your breath on the movie, but this proof of concept trailer is pretty great!) In Japan, the series is not just known for its titular robot or that robot's super-sized carrier ship, the Daikumaryu, but for being a well-known case of a major studio trying to rip off a famous artist. You can tell just from looking that super robot pioneer Go Nagai had something to do with this series, but Toei scrubbed his name from the proceedings, ascribing the idea to scribe Kunio Nakatani, character artist Akio Sugino, and mecha designer Dan Kobayashi. Decades and a lawsuit later, the DVDs feature an additional credit-- planning for the first 26 episode provided by Dynamic, Nagai's famous company. This series is the reason why Go Nagai anime didn't dominate the airwaves in the 1980s like it did in the 70s-- the man wouldn't work with Toei until the air cleared. It took about 12 years.
But what's the deal with the stuff on the disc? Well, these films being English-only was kind of inevitable - rather than looking for an original Japanese compilation movie (I think only one single such film was made for each of these releases), Winckler and company cut together all-new feature film edits. The dubbed versions are singularly strange, featuring Japanese names, but an incongruous, goofy, totally-80s adaptation style. The actors struggle with the name of our hero, Sanshiro Tsuwabuki ("Soowabookie"), and the voice cast includes Power Rangers bad guy Robert Axelrod and science fiction writer David Gerrold. Winckler himself plays Sanshiro, gamely substituting “heck” for “hell” over and over. “What the heck?” he blurts, as he's rudely ripped away from pro baseball and introduced to his new destiny as a super robot pilot. “Aw, to heck with you,” the character opines, causing me to mutter “Go heck yourself. Eat heck and die.” under my breath for the rest of the movie's runtime.
In spite of the high weirdness of the adaptation, the actual content is pretty great stuff, a goofy, zany slice of 70s super robot action. Earth is under siege from the invading Zelans, and only the powerful Gaiking can repel them! As the series progresses, the special moves get crazier and crazier (Gaiking has an attack where its face alarmingly explodes off, revealing a creepily skeletal visage underneath; meanwhile, the 25-story-tall Star Dragon sprouts a massive axe blade from its chest). Evil alien leader Emperor Darius is genuinely disturbing, as evidenced by the photo above. Seriously, the dude's weird forehead-mouth is nightmare fuel. But in the end, Sanshiro and company prevail, and sadistically execute each and every one of Darius's generals-- and then Darius himself, using an attack called Death Fire. I'm not embellishing even a little, the bad guys scream and beg for mercy and just get gunned down. The little kid cracks a joke, and everyone bursts out laughing. I'd love to see a Gaiking Hollywood movie, but only if they made the actors wear outfits like this.
Starzinger, the next set of three compilation films, is presented in much the same manner - but with a few key differences. First of all, and most disappointingly, unlike the Gaiking set's correct 4:3 aspect ratio, Starzinger is cropped and zoomed to 16:9. It looks kind of amazingly awful, especially if you watch it on a 1080p display with an upscaling bluray player. People harp on those Dragon Ball Z sets, but looking at this, I find it hard to think of a more apropos advertisement for why clumsily converting old filmed 4:30 content to widescreen is a terrible idea. The second big difference is that the opening theme music, presented instrumentally in the other releases, is replaced entirely here with an awful Star Wars-a-like score. This is a tragedy simply because every one of the original tunes are groovy as hell, filled with sweeping organ riffs and crazy conga drums courtesy of composer Shunsuke Kikuchi, who wrote damn near the entire soundtrack to Japanese kids’ life in the 70s. Finally, unlike in the other films, these Starzinger movies periodically use hilarious pop culture references in the script! Oh, boy.
Anyway, Starzinger opens on Planet 20, just ten stops away from Planet 10, where we will be arriving Real Soon. There, Lunar princess Auroroa is counseled by her confidante, Doctor Kitty, who is unfortunately not a giant talking cat, but a typical Leiji Matsumoto cutie-pie. The galaxy is under siege by bad mojo (seriously, that's basically the problem), so Aurora volunteers to fly her awesome starship to the Great Planet and become the new galactic queen, restoring balance to the Forc-- er, universe. This is kinda neat, because it marries a conceit from Journey to the West, of which Starzinger is a sci-fi version, to Matsumoto's beloved old “ethereal space queen” trope.
But since this is a version of Saiyuki, our pretty, pink-clad Tripitaka needs retainers-- and they appear, in the form of powerful and stereotypical cyborgs. Sir Jogo is the tall, dark and mysterious one, but instead of being a crafty bandit, he's the protector of a watery planet under siege from very thirsty bad guys. He's kind of a nerd, compulsively whipping out a space calculator to run the odds every time he's faced with a crisis. The fat guy of the group is Don Hakka, who loves to eat! Eating is pretty much his entire personality, which is probably what led the dub scriptwriter to give him funny things to say. “Boy, maybe I should join Jupiter Craig!” he expounds, as he wriggles clumsily into his star fighter. Later, he'll get to go “WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?!”
But you can't have Journey to the West without The Monkey King, and that guy appears in the form of Jean Kugo (hint: “Goku,” only backwards!), a mischievous and destructive space prankster whom Doctor Kitty had locked up for his misdeeds. “This is for your own good,” Princess Aurora tells him as she fits him with the diabolical headband that will allow her total control over him! Alright, maybe it's not that dark. This team of star pilgrims encounters a variety of bad guys-- space spiders, space lizards, and even some neat-o space birds!-- on their journey to bring the princess to the Great Planet. This series isn't quite as compelling as the others, and the sheer length of the films (every one is about an hour and fifty minutes) will start to cause fatigue. But still, it's kinda neat to have this in English, bowdlerized as it is.
Last but certainly not least is Danguard Ace, a rare foray into super robot-land by Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 creator Matsumoto. In an earlier column, I'd speculated that Matsumoto's Danguard Ace manga probably featured mecha art by his pal and assistant, Kaoru Shintani-- but it turns out the actual mecha design is by Gaiking hand Dan Kobayashi. In any case, Danguard Ace, our planetary defender, is developed and built in response to Promete, a rogue planet that's approaching Earth. Again with the Matsumoto tropes-- some of his other works feature a rogue planet called La Metal, go figure! The good scientist, portrayed by this extra from a Wes Anderson film, wants to send a scientific expedition there.
Man, that is a serious beard. Anyway, Dr. Oedo here is opposed by his colleague, Dr. Nosferatu. Er, I mean, Dr. Doppler, who presumably gets louder as he approaches you.
You know, the good guys really should've seen this coming. No super-scientific genius who looks that evil can possibly be a good guy! Face it: he looks guilty. Anyway, to nobody's surprise, Dr. Doppler turns on the good guys, declaring Promete a destination only for people he deems worthy, and starts attacking the earth. He plays a role in the disappearance of astronaut Dan Ichimonji, and is kind of a dick to his kid, Takuma. Ten years later, Takuma's a grown man, a talented pilot who's still struggling with the loss of his father. After a botched training exercise, Dr. Oedo admonishes him: “Space pilots aren't distracted by lightning!” Ease up there, doc!
Silly as it is, Danguard Ace has some real ruminations on what PTSD does to people, as Takuma is first haunted by the loss of his father, then suddenly forced to confront the idea that he might be working for the enemy. This is revealed by an escaped slave of Doppler, who appears in a facemask. “I can't take this off or reveal my identity to you,” he tells Takuma. “For now, please call me ‘Captain Dan,’ which is definitely not short for ‘Dantetsu,’ the name of your missing dad.” Matsumoto and company don't hide this fact from the viewer, but Takuma really believes his father is one of the enemy robot pilots, which causes problems on the battlefield and intense depression off of it. It's surprisingly sharp subject matter for a silly robot cartoon about a giant robot with such a distinguished face.
Amusingly, while the robot is cool (he splits into several parts and requires two pilots working in tandem—two pilots who turn out to be father and son! Shades of Pacific Rim.) he takes a backseat to the character drama, as Takuma and his incognito dad fight Doppler's space fascists. The original theme music is present here, though this set still sports the zoomed 16:9 of Starzinger. Ultimately, though, I'm pretty happy to have these weird sets. Not only are the dubs fun to watch, in a supremely corny, goofy way, the discs themselves are cheap and easy to find. I grew up watching Force Five, an earlier dub of these shows (plus Grendizer and Getter Robo G), and it's been interesting to watch the internet grumble in irritation at this release-- not because it's chopped-up digest material without the Japanese track, but because it doesn't have the original dub-- you know, man, the real dub, despite being way less faithful to the original script. Nostalgia's an interesting thing.
Taking these films in leaves me with two questions: after an onslaught of 70s Toei super robot goodness, when are we going to get a streaming partner for the studio's Super Robot Girls Z, their cynical, cashing-in attempt to revive old franchises by turning robots into adorable teen girls? I don't care how dreadful it sounds, I want to see this damn thing! Secondly, Winckler and company also dubbed a whole bunch of other films at the behest of Mr Morishita. Some of them, like Fist of the North Star and Captain Harlock, are probably precluded from release here by the existing DVDs from Discotek. But what about Ashita no Nadja, Flower Angel Lunlun, and Gegege no Kitarō? The crew dubbed these, and I want to see them! How about it, Shout! Factory?.
I probably shouldn't be wishing for these films too hard. After all, I've got a lot of anime to watch! So, my discussion topic this time is: what shows do you own on DVD and have been meaning to watch, but just haven't gotten around to? Do you have a giant pile, or just a few? Or do you look at my stacks of shows and sneer, because really, too much entertainment is kind of a good problem to have? Let me know in the comments! This week, I'm gonna watch Princess Jellyfish, and next week? Maybe I'll get started on Gaogaigar.
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