The Mike Toole Show
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
by Mike Toole,
When I'm lucky enough to hit the road and head overseas, I often find myself looking for two distinct experiences. Of course, I'll seek out completely new things—unfamiliar food and drink, and local art and culture that isn't easily found in my hometown. But at the same time, I'll comb the streets for familiar sights, like local versions of all the crap I'm into: comics, toys, movies, and sports, that kinda stuff. I felt that sense of familiarity extremely strongly in the stands during the Hanshin Derby, the local grudge match between J-League soccer teams Vissel Kobe and Gamba Osaka. I'd felt it even more strongly earlier in the trip, when I caught sight of this dude.
Yes, “Sunday Birds” is a clever play on “Thunderbirds,” the great and influential 1960s British sci-fi puppet series. (What, did you really think this column was gonna be about your dad's—actually, make that your grandad's—favorite rock band?) In this case, that sense of extreme cultural familiarity was timely, because Thunderbirds co-creator Sylvia Anderson died last week. Here in Japan, it was easy to track this news down, because Thunderbirds is a big deal, an unquestionable influence on the science fiction manga and anime that would come in the decades following the show's original airing.
See, I'd originally planned to write a great big “Thunderbirds and anime!!” piece when Gerry Anderson, Sylvia's former ex-husband, died in 2012. If you do a little digging, you'll find that the Andersons' creation, a TV series about the thrilling exploits of the Tracy brothers and their missions for International Rescue, was an enormous hit in the Japan of the 1960s. Gerry Anderson's intricate “super-marionation” puppetry was easy to dub into Japanese (so easy, in fact, that various packagings of the series were dubbed a good four or five times), and other aspects of the show, like its' incredibly cool vehicle designs (I'm a Thunderbird 2 man myself; if it can't be hauled by a gigantic turtle-green cargo plane, then it ain't worth deploying!) and color-coded uniforms, were quickly and eagerly mined by Japanese creators for fare like Ultra Seven. Thunderbirds were also go in the pages of manga, as you can see below:
In the wake of that DC Comics Bat-Manga deal, I think the world is ready to see these shonen Thunderbirds manga. It wasn't just the mecha design that made the series stand out, either—the show's notion of International Rescue, a powerful global nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving mankind, was grabbed up and used over and over again. You can see this idea, in concert with the cool uniforms, dashing heroes, and rescue vehicles, over and over again in Sunrise's Brave series, particularly Fighbird and Might Gaine. Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno is an outspoken fan of Thunderbirds; not only did he eventually produce a Japanese-language documentary on the Thunderbirds phenomenon, he and his Daicon films cohorts had planned to include visual homages to Thunderbirds in their Return of Ultraman fan film-- plans that eventually had to be scrapped. SF anime's emphasis on awesome vehicles can be traced right back to the influence of Thunderbirds.
One storied anime and manga creative team didn't just stop at incorporating the Andersons' vision of rescue heroes and cool vehicles—they produced a series that, like Thunderbirds, was made with puppets. That team-up was the brave combo of Go Nagai and Ken Ishikawa, who'd previously created Getter Robo together, and their new series, X-Bomber, hit the air in 1980. Like Thunderbirds, the show had a cool, diverse cast of heroes and a bunch of awesome vehicles, but it had one very distinctly Japanese element that really helped it stand out – a combining robot hero, Dai-X. (Our old boy Dave Cabrera wrote about an awesome Dai-X toy for ANN a couple of years back.) Not surprisingly, X-Bomber's vision of “super-mariorama” (as opposed to the Andersons' “super-marionation,” which was clearly totally different!) was swiftly aired overseas. It was dubbed into English in Britain, where it aired on ITV and became a cult hit in its own right, thus completing the kind of wonderfully strange cultural uroboros that really keeps my enthusiasm for anime and manga going. Below, check out a panel from a comic that ran in a British kids' magazine. That's right, it's a comic-book version of an English-language adaptation of a Japanese live-action series that originally came from the pens of a pair of manga artists. My favorite bit of Star Fleet lore? This theme song, featuring vocals by Queen guitarist Brian May and a bitchin' Eddie Van Halen guitar solo. It'd be totally hilarious and schlocky, if it wasn't such an unbelievably awesome tune!
One fun fact to keep the snake-eating-its-tail train going: a couple of members of the British adaptation staff for Star Fleet would go on to work directly with Gerry Anderson on his series Terrahawks. Terrahawks was later aired in Japan, with brand new animated sequences by Satoshi Dezaki. All around the world, it's the same song! The next big, obvious Thunderbirds-anime connection would come in 1982, with a TV series called Thunderbirds 2086. (Hey, do you suppose that, in 2086, they're gonna have to change the title to something else? I keep expecting them to do that with Space 1999…) This one has a particularly amusing background. Thunderbirds 2086 began life with a meeting between Gerry Anderson and Japanese film and TV producer Banjirō Uemura, one of the founders of film distributor Tohokushinsha. Remember that awesome Star Wars ripoff, Message from Space? That movie ruled! It was one of Uemura's. Uemura was an outspoken fan of Anderson and his work, and Anderson was happy to get together and plan a brand new anime series based on his works. Unfortunately, after the commission of a short pilot, the sponsor, MBS, bailed on the project.
You'd think that would be the end of things, but Uemura was unusually tenacious. He was eventually able to get a new sponsor on board, the toy company Popy. (Thunderbirds 2086 was a natural vehicle for toy sales, boasting no less than 17 cool rescue and combat ships.) The thing is, a recent re-airing of Thunderbirds on Japanese TV had yielded low ratings, so Popy were lukewarm on using the Thunderbirds name for the show. A couple of alternatives were proposed (my favorite? Texas Bomber!) before the series was ultimately titled Techno Voyager. Popy were right to be worried; nobody watched the damn series, and it was pulled off the air with six episodes left in the run.
As for Thunderbirds 2086 itself, it's actually a totally solid, fun action-adventure show. It has a good assortment of mecha, and tons of creative talent, including director Noboru Ishiguro and mad animation genius Yoshinori Kanada. My favorite detail? In one episode, Ishiguro employed the talents of a young artist named Haruhiko Mikomoto, to design a one-time character. That character, Sakiko, looked like this:
The way Sakiko's hair coils is a very distinct part of Mikimoto's character illustration toolbox, and is referred to as “den den mushi hair,” (“snail hair”) a term I'd figured was some stupid made-up thing until I plugged the term into google and pulled an ocean of pictures of Misa Hayase from Macross. Now does Sakiko look a bit more familiar?!
Anyway, Techno Voyager failed in Japanese TV, but Uemura had an ace in the hole: himself. At the time, he was also in charge of the Japanese office of ITC, the licensing firm that handled all things Thunderbirds. Using this connection, the producer was able to push his unsuccessful TV show to international markets under the more recognizable Thunderbirds name – a strategy that paid off, at least in terms of getting the episodes sold globally. The entire series was dubbed in English and many other languages – the only stuff we didn't get on these shores were the toys. In my opinion, Uemura's ITC connection is the funniest part of this story – it allowed his production staff to use as many ideas and elements from the original Thunderbirds as they wanted to, right down to branding the good guys' ships and uniforms with “TB” for ThunderBirds (or “TB” for Techno Boyager, obviously) without having to really check with Anderson first.
Thunderbirds 2086 was the first time the Anderson name was used to sell an anime project, but it wasn't the last. In the early 2000s, with his career in its home stretch, Gerry Anderson once again made a play for an anime adaptation of one of his works. This time, it was in partnership with producer John Needham, who'd brought Anderson's Space Precinct to TV screens in 1994. Their new idea was a return to the formula that had originally turned the Andersons from ambitious kids' TV creators to international hitmakers—a multinational team of rescue operatives, Storm Force, with incredibly cool vehicles. The name of the series? Firestorm.
Firestorm was the kind of thing I'd normally describe with terms like “hilarious shitshow,” but I actually know people involved in its preproduction, so it's not quite as funny. Ultimately, what the show's producers wanted was the Anderson name and a sufficient amount of production materials to let them go off and finish the series themselves, without any further input from the creators. These production materials included some awesome vehicle designs and action sequences courtesy of SFX genius Steve Begg, plus additional design works by veteran Thunderbirds illustrator Steve Kyte. Their work was appropriated by the Japanese production company Transarts and used almost in its entirety without proper credit, a practice that would echo through much of the series as a whole.
I eventually went out and bought some Firestorm DVDs, because they were literally 200 yen apiece, new. That's right – in a land where “cutout bin” deals are relatively rare, here was a big one, which should clue you in on how well the show was received in Japan. The episodes I watched were workmanlike and bland, but not awful – you could see a hint of the old Anderson magic in the multinational background of Storm Force, and their still pretty damn cool vehicles. But the end result was unsatisfactory, and so Anderson demanded that his name be left off of the final product. The name is still there. Great job, Transarts! Naturally, this team of global adventurers with names like Drew McAllister and Laura Hope never appeared on TV in English.
It's a real shame that Firestorm turned out so ignominiously. Usually I'm all for collaborations like this, even if they strike out a lot. What Firestorm should have represented was a circle of creators like Anderson, fans-turned-creatives like Kyte, and Japanese pros like screenwriter Kenji Terada, all taking influence and feeding it back to each other to create something brand new – distinct from the original, rebuilt with elements provided by the people it had influenced. It just didn't turn out right. (Terada, who'd come to international fame by creating the scenario for the first several Final Fantasy games, is yet another big fat question mark in Firestorm's development. He's credited as director, but isn't generally a director by trade, and other stuff I've read seem to indicate that he only provided a first draft screenplay before bailing on the show.)
Gerry and Sylvia, the original creators of the Thunderbirds, are now both gone, but their creations live on. A recent all-CG Thunderbirds remake hit TVs last year, and remarkably, Gerry's youngest son Jamie managed to kickstart production of an all-new Firestorm pilot in 2014, this one done with puppets. Interestingly, while producer John Needham isn't involved, special effects man Steve Begg returned, after building up his reputation by working on modest little movies like Skyfall. The all-new Firestorm pilot has reportedly finished production, though I can't help but flinch at how similar the new puppet versions still look to the old anime versions.
Now, we live in a world where anime and western productions feed back on each other, riotously and constantly. But Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, by introducing that first generation of would-be otaku to the Tracy family, their fabulous rescue vehicles, and their dashing secret-agent pal Lady Penelope, helped lay the groundwork. I hope we haven't seen the last of their influence. In the meantime, I'll content myself with that most sublime of Anderson-influenced media-- the Thunberdirds! Who needs puppets when you can get Japanese TV comedians to dress up and comically ape the movements of marionettes?!
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