The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
A couple of weeks back at Otakon, we learned about Under the Dog, an interesting new crowdfunded anime project. The producer's weird editorializing aside, I'm intrigued by Under the Dog, not least of which due to the involvement of Masahiro Ando, the best action animation director working at the moment. They're in the throes of trying to raise half a million bucks in service of producing about half an hour of animation. That seems like kind of a meager amount of finished product for the money, but it's cool – the project producers, Creative Intelligence Arts, are just going to use it as a pilot episode to get even more funding from traditional sources, leading to more episodes.
That got me thinking about pilot episodes. You're probably familiar with what a pilot episode is, right? It's kind of a proof of concept for an in-development TV series – a single finished episode or segment, used to convince producers to pony up the cash and resources needed to produce a full season. The original Star Trek pilot is famous, both for launching an enduring TV and movie franchise and because it had weird-looking Starfleet uniforms, a smiling Spock, and a different guy as the ship's captain. But even when they don't lead to full shows, pilots are an interesting curiosity that often come to light eventually, either through studio leaks, DVD extras, or spotty, just-filling-airtime summertime broadcasts. That's how we've gotten to see amazing shit like Heat Vision and Jack and Poochinski. Just like regular old American TV, anime is chock full of interesting pilots. Let's meet some!
I've touched on a few famous anime pilot segments in this space before. I've mentioned the Lupin the 3rd test animation, which was created to sell a TV or movie project (TOHO and TMS, the producers, couldn't agree on which angle to take, which is part of what sunk the project). In writing about the late, great Shingo Araki, I mentioned his obvious touch in the pilot episode of Ulysses 31. Ulysses 31 eventually got done, but its pilot episode differs significantly from the final product, with a much more obviously-anime look.
But let's wind it back to the dawn of the medium, when pilots were often necessary to lure sponsors into the new, untested waters of Japanese TV animation. Osamu Tezuka and Mushi Production employed this approach frequently, creating nice, full-color pilot segments that were anywhere from a few minutes long to a full episode's length. Their pilot for Princess Knight was actually developed in 1966 for their planned theme park, and features weird interstitial segments narrated by a puppet. Ultimately, though, it's still a surprisingly taut, enjoyable depiction of many of the popular manga's key moments, so it was no surprise that the pilot led to a full series the following year.
Looking at that Princess Knight pilot, it's not much different from the eventual TV series. But that's not what always happens with pilot episodes. During that same period of the 1960s, Tezuka and Mushi Production threw a number of pilots at the wall. Some of them, murky shorts with titles like Flying Ben, Zero-Man, and I shit you not, Gum Gum Punch, never made it to TV series. Most of them never even got a home video release, in fact. One pilot, The Adventures of Son Goku, was rolled out to elementary schools for test screenings. Kids liked seeing The Monkey King in action, but complained that he was too nice. Sure enough, Tezuka and company reacted accordingly, making the Goku of the eventual TV series, Goku's Great Adventures, a lot more mischievous and irascible. He ended up looking a bit different , too!
The last Mushi Production pilot to make big waves in the 60s was of Dororo. The company made a 15-minute reel of color adventures starring Hyakkimaru, the cursed clockwork swordsman and his pint-sized sidekick Dororo. For years, the existence of this pilot confused the hell out of me, because it was in color, but the eventual TV series was black and white. Before everything old gradually re-emerged on DVD, I'd tell people that the Dororo series of 1969 was in color, but I was totally wrong – seeing that pilot threw me off the scent. You gotta be careful with pilots, because as we're already seeing, they don't always reflect the final product.
It wasn't just Mushi Production doing pilots during this era, either. Before they went head-on into color production with global hits like Speed Racer and Hakushon Daimaō, Tatsunoko Productions first tried to create a global product by reproducing an episode of their black and white series Space Ace, only in color. This was at the behest of Fred Ladd of Delphi Productions, who was trying to get a deal for the show done with an American broadcaster. Impressed with the quick turnaround (Tatsunoko dug up the materials and re-shot the episode in color in a matter of weeks), Ladd pitched the show to his partner, under the new title Ring-o – but it was turned down in favor of Cool McCool. In his book Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas, Ladd also mentions having a Speed Racer pilot screened for him under the title Mach 5, but that one sounds it was a just a dub of the show's first episode.
Pilot films weren't just limited to TV projects, either. Shorts have also been commissioned to help sell feature films. If you picked up the Unico movie DVD, you may have noticed its pilot film in the extras section, a surprisingly lavish and enjoyable 25-minute featurette about Tezuka's tiny blue unicorn. Like the subsequent films, the pilot was backed by producer Shintaro Tsuji of Sanrio, but unlike the movies, Mad House weren't involved. The great Toshio Hirata still directed the pilot, but you can really see Mad House's influence on the production design when they were brought in for the movie – folks like Masao Maruyama and Akio Sugino really left their mark.
One of anime's most famous (and a bit infamous) pilot films is the 3-minute short produced by the future Studio Ghibli triumvirate of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Yoshifumi Kondō for TMS based on Windsor McKay's Little Nemo comic strip. The artists produced a breathtaking, extraordinary piece of animation, but Miyazaki and company soon moved on, with the famous director describing the experience as the worst in his entire career. The Nemo project as a whole was kind of an incredible boondoggle, a pipe dream of TMS executive Yutaka Fujioka, who wanted to challenge Disney with a lavish film based on a world-famous character. Luminaries like Mobius and Ray Bradbury contributed to a project that took close to a decade to finish, and put a big dent in TMS's bottom line.
Incredibly, the “Ghibli” pilot wasn't the only one created for Little Nemo. Osamu Dezaki was recruited to direct the film after Miyazaki and company departed, and he turned out a 10-minute film that, while not quite as deft as the first one (which was, in the end, directed by Kondo), was still absolutely eye-popping. That film is noticeably closer to the final cut of the film, but still filled with ideas and imagery that never made it to the silver screen. But just like his predecessor, Dezaki left the film's turbulent production, leaving Masami Hata to get the movie finished. These pilots are both beautiful, and while I dream of TMS unearthing the original films so a HD version can be created, I'm just happy that these ones even exist and fans can find and watch them.
In 1990, pop musician Naoto Kine wrote a children's book about a little girl and her talking, samurai movie-watching, miracle-performing Schnauzer. Despite the odd concept, the book, a coming of age tale about a young girl struggling to cope with her parents’ troubled marriage, was a bona fide hit. Somehow, a DVD release of the 1995 film adaptation by Triangle Staff made its way to our shores. (The DVD cover, with its comic sans title and “Call me YOON-kers!” word balloon, remains one of my favorite ever.) But before that film saw release in Japan in 1995, a 3-minute pilot movie was struck. The pilot is an interesting little spectacle, with similar character designs but more lavish animation. It was supervised by Shinya Ohira, who ended up mostly only providing character designs for the final film. Interestingly, though, a few bits and pieces of the pilot made their way directly into the movie! Neat. As a nice little element of confusion, a tangential Junkers Come Here: Memories of You OVA was also released in 1994. It has radically different character designs, but still the same talking Schnauzer.
Actually, that Junkers Come Here OVA isn't the only one that preceded a longer production. A number of Shonen Jump properties, like Kimagure Orange Road and One Piece, also first appeared in anime form as one-shot OVAs. The big difference is that these films weren't created to pitch the shows to producers, but instead to fans. Back in the 80s, Shonen Jump embarked on a major initiative – a screening/expo tour of 22 cities, dubbed Jump Special Anime Parade. This tour featured brand-new anime versions of two Jump favorites, Kimagure Orange Road and Kochikame. Both of these would later be adapted as TV shows, but the OVAs are condensed, markedly different versions of the same story. A good decade later, the venerable manga magazine would make big waves with Jump Super Anime Tour ’98, featuring brand-new short movies of hot new manga like One Piece, Leader Takeshi, and Hunter x Hunter. I'm particularly fond of the Hunter x Hunter short, which looks and sounds quite a bit different from the subsequent Nippon Animation and Mad House versions. Both One Piece and Hunter x Hunter would quickly become anime/manga juggernauts, but that Leader Takeshi deal, a gag comedy about an oaf who tries his best to become a leader of men, never made it to the screen again.
Some pilot episodes turn out to kind of exceed the reach of their eventual descendants. My favorite example of this is a pretty debatable one, but I've always been extremely fond of the English-language pilot episode of Space Adventure Cobra that TMS created to try and sell the series to the Playboy Channel. It's a real curiosity – it's got the same designs as the Japanese episode 1, but an entirely different story and different animation. What it also has is some absolutely excellent animation, fun comedy, and a great English dub anchored by Michael Bell as Cobra. (Yes, the glowing vampire angel dude from those Legacy of Kain video games played Cobra.) Thankfully, TMS took good care of that pilot, and it's included on Right Stuf's Cobra DVD release. It's still my favorite episode of the series.
One pilot episode that I think almost definitely outdoes its eventual TV version is Vampaiyan Kids. The show, a family comedy from Production I.G, is simple enough – a family of dumb vampires survive on fruit juice instead of blood. A neighborhood boy befriends the monsters. But the pilot episode, directed by Masaaki Yuasa, is markedly different from the TV version – darker, and weirder. I'm also really fond of this pilot because it's got that weird, outlandish Yuasa style, but it doesn't really look like most of his work. Yuasa habitually relies on character designer Nobutake Ito, but in Vampaiyan Kids we get really strong, cartoony designs by Suzuka Yoshida instead. This pilot's pretty easy to find, and the kind of thing that I look at wonder how many American TV companies ended up seeing it.
Last but not least, there's Spaceship Sagittarius. I've been thinking about this show, an 80s SF comedy based on comics by Andrea Romoli for the anthology magazine Altri Mondi, because its got an upcoming blu-ray release in Japan, and because it looks almost nothing like most anime, featuring weird, rubber-limbed cartoon aliens jabbering and cracking wise at each other and having adventures across the cosmos. It's one of those anime shows from the 80s that seems to have been dubbed and shown in every corner of the world except North America. Fortunately, there's a 10-minute pilot episode produced a couple of years prior to the TV version. It's another great-looking little film, and more accessible than most since there's no dialogue.
We've seen pilots for TV shows and movies, but not all pilot films get any traction. Some of ‘em make a small impression, but circumstances keep them from getting picked up. One good example of this is Pony Metal U-Gaim, a novel little concept that basically takes Creamy Mami herself, kills her in a car accident, and rebuilds her as a cyborg that fights evil robots. This is a pitch piece from an era when animation studios would try practically anything, and it shows. But underneath the weird concept and dumb title, there's 90 seconds of absolutely amazing, exhilarating animation. It's kind of ridiculous that even this pilot film went into production, but decades later I'm glad to see it freed from its obscurity.
Lupin VIII is an old legend in Lupin the 3rd circles: a Franco-Japanese production from the same minds behind Ulysses 31, with direction by the great Rintaro. How could it possibly fail? That's easy, a legal challenge from the estate of Arsene Lupin creator Maurice Leblanc caused sponsors to flee the production. Despite that, an entire episode was produced—only no dialogue was ever recorded, so the version you might turn up by googling furiously for it will have sound effects and music only. It's a weird and watchable version of Lupin the 3rd in the far future, back in the day when you could take any old famous franchise and tack on “… only they're in the future,” kind of like the contemporaneous approach of “…only they're kids!” that brought us Flintstone Kids, Yo Yogi!, and Tom and Jerry Kids. Anyway, if you can find Lupin VIII, why not dub it yourself?
After Royal Space Force, Gainax were supposed to do another movie. Details are a bit thin about it, but it was going to be called Route 20 – Galactic Airport. After years of whispers about it, a pilot directed by Mahiro Maeda finally showed up. This one is the dark side of pilots, a promising idea that turns out to be a really dull, lackluster pitch film. There's also been talk of a Royal Space Force follow-up called Blue Uru for years, and oddly enough, Gainax are trying to get it made this year. It's gonna be a pilot film at first, of course.
Ultraman never really caught fire in the US, but it wasn't for lack of trying. 70s kids eagerly gobbled up the original series, but latter-day attempts to sell the franchise to Americans, be it the Australia-produced Ultraman: Towards the Future, the made-in-America-but-never-shown-here Ultraman Powered, or the most recent to hit US airwaves, Ultraman Tiga, audiences just never bit on the silver-and-red superhero. But there was some Ultraman animation, too: a 1980 TV series called The Ultraman, and a 1987 90-minute pilot film called Ultraman: The Adventure Begins. This show, ostensibly a co-production with Hanna Barbera (the animation certainly doesn't have that H-B quality, at least – it's definitely made in Japan!), was planned from the beginning to be the launching point for a hit Ultraman cartoon. But it never happened. The pilot movie didn't enjoy wide release, and people that saw it just weren't impressed with the three separate Ultraman heroes, including one voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, of all people.
Finally, sometimes I'll dig up an old American cartoon and start to think “Is this anime? It looks too good to be American…” That's a dumb sentiment, but one that's served me well, because I soon saw the closing credits and this screen:
This was for a pilot TV cartoon called Robo Force, the American answer to cool robots like the Transformers and GoBots. Well, these robots were ugly as sin and didn't do that much! How do you like that, Japanese toy robot makers?! I scraped the net for production credits on Robo Force, but there ain't that much out there. If I had to guess, I'd say that it was probably directed by Takenori Kawada or Tetsuro Imazawa or some other Toei Animation lifer.
I think perhaps my favorite anime pilot is one that isn't truly anime, or at least falls into that multi-nation co-production gray area. In the early 2000s, an artist named Savin Yeatman-Eiffel was assembling Molly Star Racer, a mostly 3DCG short he assembled with other future animation heroes like Thomas Romain and Stanislas Brunet. Jauntily set to the tune of a pulsing Ayumi Hamasaki soundtrack, Molly Star Racer, a quick piece about a tough redhead competing in an intergalactic race, was a viral video hit in an era before YouTube existed. It really captured my imagination, so much so that I emailed Mr Yeatman-Eiffel, who excitedly related his plans to use the pilot to sell a TV series. It worked, and years later, we got the splendid Franco-Japanese co-production Oban Star-Racers.
I love seeing anime pilot films, both because they can be very revealing about the eventual production, as the Little Nemo pilots are, and because they can be an amazing surprise, as the Cobra and Vampaiyan Kids pilots are. The thing is, there are still so many that we haven't seen. In the wake of financial troubles, Gonzo canceled their Mardock Scramble film in the mid-2000s—but some animation got made. Where is it?! Some years before his untimely death, Umanosuke Iida completed a pilot film for Gonzo, a short that would eventually become Origin ~Spirits of the Past~. Where is it?! I want to see it! But sometimes pilots are just hard to come across. Has a pilot convinced you to try watching a show? Sound off in the comments!
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