The Mike Toole Show
Youth in Re-Voltes
by Mike Toole,
In a couple of weeks, we'll see a brand new version of Voltron hit Netflix, bringing forth yet another iteration of World Events Productions' localization of Toei Animation's super robot series Golion. This latest version has caught my interest for a couple of reasons. First of all, it doesn't look like crap, unlike the show's previous reboots. Both character and mecha designs are strong and distinctive, and the trailer seems to promise an action-packed, humorous adventure. If DreamWorks Animation, WEP, and Studio Mir can stick the landing, they'll have created a show that my generation, the ones who grew up with Voltron, can share with our kids, making the Voltron saga a tale that spans generations. This is something I've been thinking about, because I've lately been watching this neat little robot show that's been acting as a bridge between generations for decades. It's just been happening on the other side of the planet from me.
I frequently do this panel at the conventions I appear at called Dubs that Time Forgot. The idea, initially conceived by my good buddy Dave Merrill (who also does his own Dubs that Time Forgot showcases), is simple: dig up the most obscure and interesting English versions of anime from across the decades, and introduce them to the audience. In my time presenting, I've screened clips from unsold pilot episodes, colorization test reels, ancient educational films, TV sales tapes, unreleased theatrical movies, and obscure overseas broadcasts, along with plenty of obscurities from more conventional channels like one-off TV broadcasts and 80s kiddie home video releases. It's educational, it's a lot of fun, and the supply of weirdness, even more than a decade after doing my first Dubs that Time Forgot, seems bottomless. In recent years, I've been occasionally showcasing the English versions—yes, there are more than one—of an old robot show called Voltes V.
On the surface, Voltes V is an obvious target for my panel. It's got an intriguing background, being a foundational super robot anime from the late, great director Tadao Nagahama. There have been several different dubs—a compilation movie produced for North America and sporadically aired on CBN before ultimately getting pumped out on kidvid VHS, plus several dubs created in the Philippines. An ADR and video production house called Questor International dubbed the series in 1978, but were obliged by the political climate to drop the project shortly before finishing it. But they held on to the local rights to the show, and eventually created a new dub under the moniker of Telesuccess Productions.
But what were those ‘political reasons’ that left that first dub of Voltes V unfinished? It's pretty simple: Ferdinand Marcos, the president-turned-dictator running the country at the time, ordered Voltes V (along with several other anime shows, like Mazinger Z and Mechander Robo) yanked off of the air. See, the show was immensely popular at the time, and Marcos really wasn't. There were plenty of reasons for Filipino society to be upset with their president, ranging from the imposition of martial law and related political chicanery, to brutality and human rights violations, to his infamous looting of the country's treasury. Meanwhile, the super-cool Voltes V depicted brave humans and complex, troubled alien occupiers clashing repeatedly in combat. In the run up to the show's conclusion, the heroes cast off their prejudices and unite to fight an oppressive enemy, in a final episode entitled “The Tower of Evil Crumbles!” In Questor International's dubbed version, that unaired last episode was simply titled “The Liberation.” You can kinda see why a guy like Marcos would get nervous about that sort of thing being wildly popular, especially with young people.
Pulling Voltes V off the air with just four episodes to go was obviously the wrong thing to do, and it had exactly the sort of unwanted consequences that Marcos had tried to avoid. Taking away their favorite show crystallized, in the minds of the very young, the notion of President Marcos as an oppressor. The administration insisted that the series was taken off the air due to its excessive violence and parental complaints, but this seemed like obvious buncombe, even to the little kids of the day. (My favorite: an account by a viewer who, at the tender age of four, imagined President Marcos taking Voltes and Mazinger and all of his other robot heroes and putting them in an actual prison.) This explanation was reinforced in 2014 by Senator Bongbong Marcos, the son of the dictator. It's hilarious and amazing that, more than 30 years after the show was yanked off the air, Marcos' son was grilled by the press over the incident. It really was that powerful of a phenomenon.
How powerful was it? Pictured above is a sculpture by the artist Toym Imao, depicting Marcos as the horned, villainous emperor of Voltes V. Not long after taking power from Marcos, who famously fled prosecution by his own people to Hawaii, the new president Cory Aquino cleared the way for Voltes V to return to TV airwaves. A decade later, the show was just as popular as it had been in 1978. And just like that, the youth of the 80s and the older generation, the ones making their first steps into adulthood, had something in common that they could enjoy together. Since then, the show's been endlessly repackaged for TV and video releases in the Philippines. Those lost final four episodes were dubbed for theatrical release, along with a new TV dub of the rest of the series. A new dub in Tagalog was commissioned, but faltered after eleven episodes. But that's okay, because years later, another Tagalog dub was created! Stories like this are why I seek out these old dubs. There's a fascinating secret history behind the process of packaging anime for overseas release, one that is just as fun to discover as the stories behind the creation of the original anime.
How'd it all happen, though? Why was Voltes V so popular in the Philippines on its original airing that it became a threat to the government? Easy—it's because Voltes V is a damn good series! It was one of three key super robot shows, along with Combattler V and Daimos, steered by Tadao Nagahama, a fiery, ambitious anime director who'd honed his craft splitting directorial duties on classics like Rose of Versailles (with Osamu Dezaki) and Brave Reideen (with Yoshiyuki Tomino). In Voltes V's eventual roman album artbook, Nagahama explained the show's appeal by pointing out how important it was to him to depict the perspective of the Boazanians, the villains of the series. Chief antagonist Prince Heinel isn't a typical sneering bad guy—it's revealed through the course of the series that he's an honorable soldier serving under a cowardly dictator, a man forced by his own bigoted society to hide his background, and racked by his own insecurities as a result. Facing him are the five pilots of the super robot Voltes V, who stand in the shadow of tragedy (early on, the mother of several of the pilots memorably sacrifices herself to save them) and who have checkered pasts of their own. Don't worry, though, they still get to fly an awesome robot and launch cool attacks!
Bringing this level of human drama to super robot shows gave Nagahama notoriety (he was nicknamed “the Emperor,” a moniker he shared with Akira Kuroasawa, of all people!). He was also held up as a friend to the burgeoning anime fan scene, that first wave of emerging otaku. He had a reputation for answering nearly all of his fan mail, and when fans wrote to him to ask why he'd killed off a fan favorite character in the series Daimos, he published a long, thoughtful reply in the pages of Out Magazine. Some fans reached out to him with mecha designs and story ideas of their own, causing him to bring them in as guest artists; one of them was Yutaka Izubuchi, one of the most influential anime artists ever. Another fan-turned-pro who got a break from Nagahama? Macross co-creator Shoji Kawamori. Nagahama was also both a perfectionist and an experimenter. His animators described a man who was constantly reworking his storyboards, even after they'd started work on their animation cuts. Meanwhile, Nagahama was quick to collaborate, badgering his artists for ideas and inviting them to help him hone the storyboards and layouts. When I saw voice actor Yuji Mitsuya, whose career took off after playing the lead in Nagahama's Combattler V, at Otakon some years back, he recalled being handed scripts that were covered in notes and revisions, with lines being tweaked and rewritten right up to the final recording. Nagahama was an animator, but he also had background in puppetry and theatre, influences that he ably used to heighten the drama in his show. Decades later, Mitsuya still remembers Nagahama as the most demanding director he's worked with.
As for Voltes V, its appeal is finished off by some great mecha design and a really refined, classic look for the characters, courtesy of manga star Hijiri Yuki, the creator of Locke the Superman. Its launch and attack sequences, driven by the pulse-pounding soundtrack of Hiroshi Tsutsui, always seem fresh, and Nagahama's galloping direction makes it easy to watch one episode after another.
Before I wrap things up, I'd like to share a few thoughts about the dubbed version of Voltes V. I go through so many of these odd old dubs that they don't often stick in the memory; I'll watch them once, and scrub through quickly for a few clips to use at the panel. At first glance, Voltes V seemed perfect for this—its clunky inattention to lip-sync was amusing, and its characters' Filipino accents sounded funny to my American ears. (I can only imagine how bland and weird some American dubs most sound to the rest of the English-speaking world!) But as I settled in, something funny happened—I started really watching the show. I couldn't help myself—Nagahama's intense, exciting direction and the show's visual appeal were irresistible. More than that, I found myself avidly enjoying the English dub. I took the clunky performances at face value, and soon enough, I could hear the actors growing into their roles. Voice director Noel Mallonga shows a surprising amount of gravitas as the narrator, and Dodo Cristol also stands out as the adversarial Prince Zardoz (yes, the dubbed version renames Heinell after that weird Sean Connery flick), giving the character a sense of weary sadness right from the beginning. Good, entertaining dubs can show up anywhere! After I've finished Voltes V, I guess I'm gonna have to go after the Philippines English dub of Daimos.
There's a lot of credit given over to the idea that Space Battleship Yamato is the one anime series that stepped away from goofy robot stuff, drawing in wider audiences with its intense drama and pathos in the bargain. That may be true, but man, don't sleep on Nagahama's robot romance shows! Even taking into account super robot staples like gimmicky attacks and stock footage launch sequences, they're just as important, in terms of developing anime as a medium with complex characters, engrossing stories, and great filmmaking. In Voltes V, Nagahama delivered a series that, in one corner of the globe, gave pause to a feared dictator, and brought generations of fans together. There's one last twist in the tale, too—one of his final projects before his untimely death in 1980 was Daltanias, the super robot show that World Events Productions tried to acquire and redub as Voltron before Toei mistakenly gave them Golion instead. We'll see if the new Voltron can recreate some of Nagahama's old robot romance, and bring generations of fans together in the process.
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