The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
Since the movie came out a couple of weeks back, the entire nerd section of the internet has been buzzing about this new Batman v Superman film. Is it good? Is it really bad? Is Ben Affleck Batman better than Ben Affleck Daredevil? And why is it called Batman v Superman, instead of Vs.? After all, the usage of a single ‘v’ implies a legal case rather than a pitched battle between superheroic titans. My god, are Batman and Superman getting a divorce?!
The point is, it's always interesting to get your favorite heroes together and try to make them fight, like you did in the playground with ants when you were four years old. (When I finally die and am called to account for my many, many sins, “ANT MURDER” is gonna be right up there.) Pitting colorful heroes against each other is a long-standing gimmick—the comic book section knows it from decades of World's Finest and Marvel Team-Up. For my money, the first modern filmed superhero versus/team-up movie is actually El Santo vs Blue Demon in Atlantis, a Mexican luchador classic from 1969. Santo tended to go solo, but good ol' Blue Demon had a whole string of films where he was the leader of los campeones Justicieros – the Champions of Justice! But what about anime? Well, we can start with the most obvious anime character of all—Sherlock Holmes.
Lupin vs. Holmes, the 1981 TV movie from Toei Animation, isn't actually the first big-deal anime grudge match, but I wanna talk about it first because I finally got to see the damn thing. See, the whole reason that Monkey Punch's Lupin the 3rd happened to begin with is because Arsene Lupin, Maurice Leblanc's original turn-of-the-century gentleman thief, was a big deal amongst Japanese readers. In fact, Lupin vs Holmes wasn't even the first anime based on the original stories—that was the similarly-obscure 1979 TV movie from Tatsunoko, Great Thief Lupin and the Mystery of 813, based on Leblanc's novel of the same name.
Lupin vs Holmes is the same kind of workmanlike, occasionally hilarious/inspired fare that Toei delivered for stand-alone TV movies throughout the late 70s and 80s – think back to “classics” like Call of the Wild and Tomb of Dracula. You'll thrill to a version of Sherlock Holmes who carries a gun and brashly threatens the Paris police, and who never, ever takes the deerstalker hat off. (It's proof that he's Sherlock Holmes, you see.) He's forced to match wits with the master thief concerning the fate of a blonde lady, which isn't surprising as this is a loose adaptation of the story “The Blonde Lady.”
One fun wrinkle: Leblanc's original story was not authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a contemporary of Leblanc! To get around this, the French author cleverly obfuscated the character of Holmes by renaming him Herlock Sholmes. I wonder how long it took people to catch on?! Anyway, this story was published in 1908. It was animated and shown on TV, after both Doyle and Leblanc estates could no longer complain about name usage, in 1981. It was never commercially released on video in japan, but I eventually found it in 2016 this way.
Ah, that artwork. I like the usage of Holmes doing the judo throw. Turns out that my constant searching had been confounded by never testing out alternate spellings of “Arsene.” Anyway, the movie's a straightforward yarn punctuated by a few absurd moments where Lupin appears to levitate to safety, before ultimately escaping the clutches of Holmes via a balloon and then a submarine. Just as in the books, the mystery story titans of Holmes and Lupin clash, but never definitively get the better of each other – the master detective can never quite trap the thief, and the thief is always forced to give up at least part of his treasure thanks to the detective.
The root of the whole “versus” phenomenon in anime can be traced back to a 1969 TV special that pitted ace pitcher Hyuma Hoshi and his Yomiuri Giants against none other than Astroboy. Thing is, while Tezuka Productions still have Star of the Giants vs Astroboy in their vaults, they only occasionally roll it out for festival viewings, so their page describing it is really just a cruel reminder that they have it and we can't watch it. In terms of what we can watch, the grudge match formula goes straight back to Toei and their animated version of Go Nagai's dark hero Devilman. In 1973, the studio produced an animated film starring Devilman and their other blockbuster televised hero, Mazinger Z, to anchor their “Manga Matsuri” film festival. Wait a minute, though – Mazinger Z is a huge robot, and Devilman is a more-or-less human-sized monster hero. How on earth can they fight side by side, wouldn't the scale just be—
Oh? They just kinda figure it out? Well alright, then. The movie is a fantastic 45-minute romp, wherein a Mazinger-led misadventure inadvertently releases Devilman's archnemesis, Silene, who teams up with Dr. Hell to harass both heroes. There's a part where Devilman alter-ego Akira has a motorbike race with Mazinger Z pilot Koji, a pitched battle for the fate of the super science lab, and most importantly, the Handshake Moment.
You see that? Magical. The movie is filled out with boffo music and animation that is similar to the TV fare, but noticeably better and cooler-looking. This film would be followed by the likes of Great Mazinger vs Getter Robo and Great Mazinger vs Getter Robo G, wherein the trio of heroic Getter pilots must team up with Tetsuya and his super-powerful Great Mazinger to do battle for the fate of our planet against… against… this guy.
These movies are pretty much uniformly awesome, hilarious, and engaging. Best of all, they're typically thirty or forty minutes long, which means that they're over quickly enough that they don't start to bore. One fun wrinkle: several are directed by Masayuki Akehi, who went on to direct… Lupin vs Holmes! Also, handshakes. Lots and lots of handshakes. Put 'er there, pal!
The next big team-up wouldn't come from Toei, but from Pierrot, and man, I can't figure out why there aren't more like this one. Building on their string of magical girl hits, the studio teamed all four of their heroines of the day—Creamy Mami, Pelsia, Pastel Yumi, and Magical Emi, for an OVA called Magical Girl Club Quartet: Alien X from Zone A. In it, the earth is menaced by monsters, and so the general of the armed forces calls the four Pierrot heroines together to fight the menace. The girls gently remind the man that, since their TV shows are all over, they don't have magical powers anymore. They're subsequently chased off by the tentacle Alien X itself; “Please don't chase us,” quips Pelsia, “there are so many other girls!”
It all leads up to a big battle with the alien involving futuristic powered suits and lots of great-looking late 80s OVA animation. While this one doesn't have the usual “they fight with each other” part of the formula, it's still neat to see the four of them interacting. Alien X has a real sense of fun, plus plenty of gratuitous Star Trek cameos.
In light of how enjoyable it is, I'm surprised that Toei hasn't cooked up some sort of TOEI TEAM UP FEATURING: Sailor Moon-Pretty Cure deal. Another great anime grudge match is Kikaider vs Inazuman, which served as an epilogue of sorts to that excellent early 2000s Kikaider anime series. Now, a feature like this isn't that surprising – both Kikaider and Inazuman have live-action tokusatsu roots, and there have been tons of tokusatsu team-ups over the years, from various permutations of Ultramen teaming up to Toei's broad Super Hero Taisen films.
Kikaider vs Inazuman serves as the grand finale to the Kikaider animation—after the title character, a morally conflicted android called Jiro, has fought alongside his robot siblings to defeat the villain, he's still being tracked by the persistent, if bumbling, private detective Hanpei Hattori. Jiro encounters the mutant Inazuman, and they must fight! Fight! Fight! But their battle will reveal the true enemies that both combatants face. This was omitted from the US release, probably owing to some sort of licensing issue. It sure would be nice if the entire thing was rescued, along with this OVA. Importantly, both Kikaider and Inazuman are products of the same creator, Shotaro Ishinomori, just as both Mazinger Z and Devilman came from Go Nagai. The important thing is, this. This, right here.
Another one of my favorite anime features involving big heroes having big head-to-head battles is Hulk Vs, in which the titular green guy squares off against both Thor and Wolverine. I've talked about co-productions like this before, which fall into an interesting gray area since financing and key creative duties come from the west, but the actual animation is done in Japan and Korea – so isn't it anime, after all? You won't find it in the credits, at least not on the box, but Hulk Vs. is actually a Madhouse film in disguise. It's one that's very much worth revisiting, since the Thor mythos has gotten considerable exposure since then, and since the Wolverine half even includes a taste of current Marvel movie darling Deadpool.
The Japanese unit director for these Hulk featurettes is Takuji Endo. I really wish the full credits for stuff like this was made available, because lots of good Japanese and Korean artists work on these movies and they don't always get their due. The comics are mined for good source material, and while there are changes (Hulk's battle with Thor is moved from Earth to Asgard, for example) they're still really fun to watch. I've spoken to a former Madhouse employee who described Hulk Vs as an ideal western-eastern collaboration – scripts, character sheets, and storyboards from the US, animation direction and supervision from Japan, and the animation itself from South Korea. The result? A movie with plenty of good stuff that animation fans from all over the world can enjoy.
Now we're getting into some pretty recent territory. Next in the parade of hero vs. hero films is the pair of Lupin the 3rd vs. Detective Conan tales from the good folks at NTV. Actually, NTV just got the deal done – the animation comes from TMS. The two films join together two of Japan's most beloved TV and comic heroes, so you'd think that the result couldn't miss. You'd be a little off the mark, though. I will say that these two features, consisting of a TV special and a theatrical film, are very interesting to watch, purely to see the characters interact, right down to the clashing character designs. But even moreso than in Lupin vs Holmes, the stakes are low-- the pair of protagonists rarely even butt heads, they just end up both working together to solve a larger problem.
I like the Lupin the 3rd vs. Detective Conan movie a bit—the biggest problem with it is simply the fact that you have to sit through the earlier TV special for the setup. The movie is decent! It's zippy and fast-paced, and the snappy exchanges between Gosho Aoyama's pint-sized homicide detective and Monkey Punch's irascible thief are funny and feel really authentic, true to their respective authors' characters. The TV special, though? It's not awful, just unbelievably and inexplicably boring. Teaming these two characters up should be lighting in a bottle; not so, in this case.
When I saw that Cyborg 009 vs Devilman was debuting on Netflix on April 1st, I figured it had to be some sort of joke. Actually, when I first heard about Cyborg 009 vs Devilman a year or so ago, I figured it had to be some sort of joke. It just seemed too much like something that would be made specifically for me and my friends and nobody else. But everything about this 3-part OVA just feels right to me, from its teamup of two legendary heroes from different but contemporaneous creators to the way that I quickly cancelled plans to see Batman v Superman to sit and watch this slugfest instead.
Know what I like most about Cyborg 009 vs Devilman? The way that the two characters immediately start fighting each other. It happens in the first episode. No slow build-up, no dancing around it, no battle-turned-teamup from the get-go—Akira “Devilman” Fudo and Joe “Cyborg 009” Shimamura, each investigating demonic forces using cyborg technology, assume that the other is the bad guy and just get to it. It's refreshing.
There are a lot of other things to like about this series, too. It's directed by Jun Kawagoe, the man who's helmed nearly every superhero/robot revival series since 2000, including the enjoyable Cyborg 009 remake from 2001, The Cyborg Soldier. The thing is brimming with great match cuts, bits of fight animation, and character lore straight out of the comics, including glimpses of characters who'd never made it to animation before. But at the same time, I can't help but think Cyborg 009 vs Devilman might be hard to follow if you aren't versed in at least some of Cyborg 009's lore. In particular, that first episode just thrusts you right into things at the end of 009's Mythos story arc, with 009 facing off against the villainous Apollo. The Devilman details aren't explained either, but there the formula is a little simpler, with Akira playing the angry loner with super powers, Ryo as his brilliant/evil partner, and Miki as the girl he has to rescue.
Eventually, the two heroes are faced with a greater threat, the evil scientist (you can tell scientists are evil in this because they wear sunglasses. It's true!) Devil Adams. Wait a minute, you're telling me that a scientist who's trying to use demons in order to create the ultimate demon cyborg is named “Devil”? What are the odds?! Best of all, you don't have to take my word for it If you have Netflix, because this thing is streaming in a good forty or fifty countries. In fact, there's just one thing missing from Cyborg 009 vs Devilman: the handshake moment. Where's the handshake?! Where's… you know what, let me fire up Photoshop. I got this.
There, I fixed it. What every one of these team-ups has, what really puts them over the top more than anything else, is a sense of fun and adventure—so what do you think, does Batman v Superman/ have that, too? Are there other team-ups I missed talking up, or that you want to see happen? And if Batman and Superman really are getting divorced, who gets custody of Beppo the super-monkey?! Let me know in the comments.
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