The Mike Toole Show Stuck Between Sequels
by Mike Toole,
Since it still hasn't quite left theatres yet, everyone's still talking about the latest Star Wars movie. I've been enjoying these newer films, because even with some messy storytelling, they're taking some risks with what are now classic, entrenched characters and situations. Part of the challenge in taking these risks is trying to balance them against the need to recapture that special something about the earlier films, that cosmic, intangible timelessness that keeps the original decades-old films so much fun to watch. But how do you achieve this if you don't necessarily have all of the original staff, or the original actors? How do you make something feel like its classic predecessor when filmmaking technology itself has changed so much?
I had to consider this as I stood outside the movie theater earlier this week, looking at a marquee that listed, just a few lines below Star Wars 8, a film called Digimon Tri: Loss. See, it was Tuesday, and that's usually the day when they wedge an anime screening into theatres. I actually like going to the movies on weeknights, so I'm pretty happy with this development—especially since lately, it seems like there's scarcely a week or two goes by without at least one anime movie in theatres. Like I said, this time it was Digimon Tri, a film sequel to a TV series from the early 2000s. How'd they get that old magic back?!
It turns out that, much like with the Star Wars movies, Toei kept the Digimon formula both fresh and nostalgic by keeping some of the classic actors, but turning over most of the production staff. Character designers Atsuya Uki and Masanori Shino turn in work that's reminiscent of the older shows, but still distinctive. There's a new director, new screenwriters, and new animation directors. And ultimately, there's just something weirdly compelling about seeing heroes from the past once again, only a little older and wiser. Then, the classic music from the original kicks in, and the deal is sealed.
One interesting angle about these new Digimon movies is the way the US producers have kept the English version surprisingly close to the old Saban dub, with its goofy name changes and spunky performances. Usually when a sequel or redux to a classic TV-edited-to-hell property gets dubbed, there's an effort to distance it from the original material. Not so here – there's a new version of the classic Digimon song that basically sounds like it has one lyric repeating over and over, and many of the actors from 15 years ago return to voice their characters, even some who'd effectively retired from voice acting years ago. Other voices get recast, but that happens—it's even an issue in the Japanese version.
What bugs me about this new Digimon series is that it almost feels like the characters aren't aged up enough. This is a show that was popular in the early 2000s, so the people who loved it as kids are now around 15 years older. If you camped in front of the tube to watch Digimon Adventure as a 9-year-old, that'd make you 26 or 27 now. But Tai, Matt, and the rest are just five or six years older! I don't want to see stories about the Digidestined and their Digimon pals supporting each other in high school, I want to see them as slacker roommates trying to matriculate through college and enter the workforce! Can't we get an 80-minute movie about Tai and Agumon trying to launch a terrible startup that doesn't solve any actual problem? Well, there are a couple more Digimon Tri movies to go, so maybe they'll address the heroes' burgeoning adulthood before it's all over.
Sometimes you get a sequel a lot more than a decade later. I think the longest gap might be the 32 years between 1975 Kotetsu Jeeg (a Go Nagai romp formulated to sell a nifty magnetic toy robot) and 2007's Kotetsushin Jeeg (a Go Nagai redux formulated to sell more magnetic toy robots to adult collectors). The Jeeg pairing is a little harder to describe than a direct sequel relationship, though—the newer series establishes the original as its canon, but changes the ending and some of the details to establish a fresh jumping-off point. The link between the two is unmistakable, though, and it's really cemented when the decades-old show's original hero, Hiroshi Shiba, shows up looking exactly like he did in the 70s, appearing out of place amongst the new show's retro-styled but still more modern character designs. Then he opens his mouth, and classic fans do a double-take, because that's not the still-healthy-and-active Tohru Furuya reprising his role, but Junichi “Space Dandy” Sawabe, who doesn't even bother to sound like the original! He's still suitably macho, though.
Kotetsushin Jeeg is ultimately Jun Kawagoe directing a fairly smart Go Nagai redux with his typical panache, but it builds up to unquestionably one of the most exciting and satisfying robot action scenes of the 2000s. A number of western publishers and streaming portals have been patiently going back and picking over the good stuff from the 2000s that missed out on the streaming window, and I'm getting impatient for a chance to see Double Jeegs legitimately. If you ever wonder how much direct influence I have over DIscotek's licensing choices, just look at the lack of Kotetsushin Jeeg and you'll realize that the ball usually ain't in my court.
Jeeg's 32-year gap between sequels only just eclipses the 29-year gap between 1963's Tetsujin 28 and 1992's Tetsujin 28 FX. Here's one aspect that makes this franchise interesting, though—while Jeeg and Digimon at least had some continuity between creative staff or production studios, there's pretty much just one thing that really connects the original Tetsujin 28 (the one that we know as Gigantor) to the newer show from the 90s. It's not the same studio, it's not the same animators, it's not the same voice cast… but Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the original creator of Tetsujin 28, has his name on both shows. That's not just for show, either; he took an active hand in the production of the newer series. It's still pretty damn weird that Tetsujin 28 FX got made, because TMS already did a new Tetsujin 28 show in 1980. But while the show that we in the west know as The New Adventures of GIgantor was initially planned as a sequel starring boy detective Shotaro Kaneda's grandson Kintaro, that plan was eventually scrapped in favor of telling a new story where the famous boy sleuth in short pants gets to sic his space-age robot on actual alien invaders.
I kinda love Tetsujin 28 FX, in which boy detective Shotaro Kaneda's son Masato leads an entire agency of cool teen and tween PIs. What I like is the show's insistence on periodically having dear ol' dad (now 45 years old; he's still got the classic 60s coif, but has replaced his short pants with a blinding white suit) pull the original Tetsujin 28 out of the mothballs to help his kid out. This show was made before 90s mecha really had a visual identity of its own, so the contrast between the old Tetsujin 28 and the new one is… jarring, to say the least. And man, check out the sheer 90s-ess of the character designs for Masato's teen detective pals!
By the way, the “F” in “FX” stands for “future,” because this show takes place in the far future year of 2002, where Masato controls the new Tetsujin 28 with a control gun instead of a control box. See, a colorful toy gun is way easier to sell at the toy stores than a box with levers on it. With its peculiar father-son dynamic, Tetsujin 28 FX is probably the closest thing to Boruto we got in the 80s or 90s. So how come we got the 1980 Tetsujin 28 remake on the tube, but not this sequel?
The hot long-gap sequel of the moment is, of course, Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card. Here, instead of putting together a new staff to adapt CLAMP's recent sequel to the original manga, Madhouse went straight back to Morio Asaka, who'd directed the generally wonderful 1998 series. Under his stewardship, the new series is every bit as whimsical and winsome and fun. Part of the fun with this series is seeing just how precisely Asaka and company recreate the original; there are multiple callouts to the old show just in the opening sequence, which, just like one of the classic openings, is sang by Maaya Sakamoto. As a result, Clear Card really takes me right back to 20 years ago.
There's just one thing missing, and that's all this crap. As kid-friendly as Clear Card still is, a lot of its tie-in merchandise seems to be expensive stuff for adult collectors, kinda like the deal with Sailor Moon Crystal. So there'll be no licensing deal for this series, no fairly decent but weirdly edited TV dub, no kids' meal toys at Hardee's, and no big fat white clamshell VHS case for the movie. Man, licensing deals like the original Cardcaptor Sakura got for North America are so rare; we got something like it with Sailor Moon in the 90s, and then with Magical Doremi afterwards, but that's just about been the extent of it. The biggest legacy of of the original Cardcaptors is that its dub is now an orphan, supplanted by the workmanlike but accurate dub created for the Asian market that's included on the Blu-Ray release of the old show.
For my money, Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card's biggest issue is similar to Digimon Tri's – you're gonna have people who are 15-20 years older than when they saw the original, watching characters who are around four years older. Goddammit, where's my show about a 28-year-old Sakura juggling her cardcaptor duties with working a decent but frustrating job and trying to plan her wedding? Anyway, the new series is fun to watch, even though romanizing Sakura's boyfriend's name as “Syaoran” instead of “Shaolin” has always kinda bothered me. I guess I gotta make peace with it, along with the weird way the subtitles identify Kero-chan's counterpart Suppi-chan as “Spinny.” My wife still has some of those old Cardcaptors dolls, too. Be careful if you're collecting them, because their hair gets brittle and starts to fall out over time. Aw, just like real human hair! Anyway, the Cardcaptors doll line was solid, but the absolute best mass-market anime dolls ever made are the Italian Slayers ones.
Take a look, y'all: Rina here looks just like the character, the costume is good, and the hair is fabulous. The same goes for Rina's pals Amelia, Zeno (yep, they made a doll of Rezo, the red priest, the first show's heavy) and even Rina's swordsman pal Guido, who has plastic sculpted hair for some reason. Also, if you have to change names around, calling the dumb swordsman “Guido” is an excellent choice. He just looks like a Guido, you know? Anyway, just over a decade after the original Slayers TV anime wrapped up with Slayers TRY, JC Staff went back to the well with the exact same staff and cast, and it was almost eerie, like no time had passed at all.
Seriously, they didn't even update the eyecatches for Slayers Revolution. Watching the new seasons (Slayers R got its own follow up, Slayers Evolution-R) is revealing in some ways—while it's great to see and hear the characters again, the “she got a flat chest LOL” style of joke-telling does seem to get stale a bit faster, and I wish the newer shows had done a little more to update the formula. Still, it was a pretty good feeling to watch the same creators do their magic just as well a decade later, not to mention having the dusty old Lina Inverse LMfigure that guards my DVD collection to this day suddenly became a hip and current figurine again. If history repeated itself and JC Staff went back and did another new Slayers season or two in the coming year, I'd welcome it.
These long-wait sequels aren't common, but they're not uncommon, either. Recently we had a new season of handsome-dude Journey to the West update Saiyuki, after a break of only thirteen years. It took the minds behind Macross about a decade to turn out Macrosses Plus and Seven, though they're both more like spinoffs than sequels. Dragonball Super was such a foregone conclusion that I'm amazed it took them so long to do it; as it winds towards its March 2018 conclusion, I find myself wondering how long the wait for another Dragonball sequel will be, now that Toei knows they can snag a huge cross-section of viewers by mixing the punchy-kicky stuff with broad, silly family comedy. Several years back we got a sequel/retake of Rurouni Kenshin's Kyoto arc, and here's the proof that sequels aren't always a good idea. I vividly recall the scene going “Oh wow, Kenshin's back! They're redoing the Kyoto arc!” and then we all got a chance to see it and it just stank to high heaven. Be careful what you wish for, because you might wish for a sequel to Kiki's Delivery Service and end up with a brutally tantalizing commercial for noodles.
The long-gap sequels are still coming, too. Fullmetal Panic is getting a long-overdue sequel this spring; its last installment was 13 years ago. Also, that FLCL sequel is still on the way. The way I see it, we already got a sequel to FLCL, it was just called Diebuster (aka Gunbuster 2). Diebuster may have been its own gapped sequel to Gunbuster, but it has a lot of thematic and visual ties to FLCL that will make themselves obvious if you watch them back to back. Not surprisingly, most of the show's main staff immediately went and made Gurren Lagann. I'm leery of that FLCL sequel; I just hope it's more like the Cardcaptor Sakura one than the Rurouni Kenshin one.
What's your dream sequel? Let's come up with some examples: we're more than ten years past Gurren Lagann. How about it? Or maybe another Big O? Me, I'm figuring that we're finally ready for a sequel to one of anime's all-time greats, a story of love, revenge, adventure, and sophisticated, kick-ass music. I think that this tale of a pair of devilishly handsome, unquestionably dangerous men vying for the affections of a driven, enigmatic woman is finally due for a new chapter. Of course, I'm talking about Skip Beat. Just look at all of the manga chapters that haven't been adapted yet! With the show available in HD with a snappy new dub, I think the timing is just perfect. They can release that right after Bones does a new Cowboy Bebop featuring Spike resurrected as a solar-powered cyborg.
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