The Mike Toole Show
Rocket from the Script
by Mike Toole,
A few weeks back, the Right Stuf folks were running some sort of cheap-o blowout sale, and one of the items for sale, along with a still-absurdly-large quantity of Geneon and ADV Films DVD backstock, was this hat.
Yep, for just one dollar, you could be the proud owner of a Blue Gender baseball cap. Just donning it and wearing it at a convention or screening is as good as hollering “Hey, who remembers 2001?!” After some joking around by some of my Anitwitter cohort (at one point, the purchase of 50 hats was floated as the consequences of losing a wager), something funny happened: the cap sold out. I guess one dollar is the price that people want to pay for apparel celebrating a nearly 20-year-old show that marked Funimation's entry into the “REAL anime company, not just the Dragon Ball Z guys” race. The cap is gone, but don't worry – you can still get a Blue Gender knit hat for $3.
Seeing the hat and remembering Blue Gender was important for me, because in my mental strainings to come up with good subjects for this space, I'd been telling myself that I've already gotten stories about most of the prominent anime creators out there. Tezuka, Ishinomori, Rumiko Takahashi, Rintaro… I guess I should do a deep-dive on Naoko Yamada's work, but she's got a picture coming out later this year, so I oughta see that first. Anyway, seeing that Blue Gender hat reminded me of one of my favorite anime storytellers: Ryousuke Takahashi!
You may be wondering who Takahashi is, because in western fandom, he's never been that big of a name. Well, most people know Ryousuke Takahashi as the leader of the Akagi Red Suns, the street racing group that challenges Takeo in Initial D—wait, that's a different Ryousuke Takahashi. The one I'm talking about is the actor and star of the tokusatsu series Sazer-X. Hey, did anyone watch that show? What happened there? TOHO were all set to make their own big tokusatsu franchise to challenge Toei's Super Sentai, but then it petered out after a few seasons. Anyway, I'm not talking about that guy, either; I guess “Ryousuke Takahashi” is a common name. The Ryousuke Takahashi I'm actually talking about is the celebrated creator of Armored Trooper Votoms, the director of 80s mecha classics like Panzer World Galient, SPT Layzner, and Dougram, and a well-known script doctor who's written for fare as diverse as Akazukin Chacha, Tsukikage Ran, and ClassicaLoid.
As a young man, Ryousuke Takahashi attended Meiji University's literature department, but dropped out to go work for Osamu Tezuka, which was a common problem in the mid-1960s. He'd already been moonlighting with the studio for a while, only... wait, actually, he was attending night classes at Meiji, so I guess he was "daylighting" at Mushi Production. His debut work was as a scriptwriter for Wonder 3, a Cold War spy yarn about a talking duck, rabbit, and horse contemplating whether or not they should blow up planet earth. Man, the sixties were weird. Anyway, because of his talent for scripting and storyboarding, Takahashi was fast-tracked into an episode director role at Mushi Production; his sempai was a gregarious complainer named Yoshiyuki Tomino.
After several years of steady work—episodes of Princess Knight here, episodes of Dororo there—Takahashi found himself part of the mass exodus that happened after Mushi ran out of money and was forced into bankruptcy. His first post-Mushi work would also be his debut as a series director: 1973's Zero Tester. Zero Tester is a pretty important series, historically speaking, and one that's often overlooked because it doesn't have iconic robots or heroes like so many of its contemporaries. The series started with a simple concept: let's do a Japanese version of Thunderbirds! From this we got Zero Tester, in which three brave heroes use their fanciful rescue and transport vehicles to save the world. Not only is the show interesting to look at, combining the emerging super robot aesthetic of wildly colorful outfits and increasingly elaborate transformation scenes, it would mark the debut of an art and design firm that billed itself in the show credits as the mysterious John Dedowa. “John” was actually a pseudonym for the newly-formed Crystal Arts Studio, which would soon rename themselves Studio Nue. This secret proto-Nue contributed character designs and artwork to Zero Tester, giving the rollicking kids' show a refined, classy look. Just the second TV series from a young studio called Nippon Sunrise, Zero Tester also marked one of the debut lead roles for a twentysomething actor named Akira Kamiya, who'd later voice heroes like Kinnikuman, Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, and Ryo “City Hunter” Saeba.
From here, Takahashi remained in demand as a scriptwriter and director throughout the 1970s; you'll find him partnered up with Tadao Nagahama in Combattler V, with Yasuhiko Yoshikazu in Kum Kum, and contributing numerous episodes to the sprawling general-audience series Manga Nihon Mukashi Banashi (“Old-Tyme Manga Tales”, I guess?) . His next big directorial turn would be an interesting one: 1979's hit series Cyborg 009.
The '79 Cyborg 009 was unique in a few ways. First of all, it was a continuation, assuming the viewer had read enough of Shotaro Ishinomori's manga to understand that a team of nine super-powered cyborgs had turned against their arms-dealer bosses, the Black Ghost organization, and ultimately defeated them. This show picks up a few years later, starting with a truncated adaptation of one of Ishinomori's manga serials, but much of the remainder is Takahashi's creation. Ishinomori had tried to stay involved early in production, but early on the creator and his director butted heads—it's my understanding that Ishinomori wanted to stick to adapting his manga material, but Takahashi had his own ideas and wanted to get the big Neo Black Ghost storyline going. Ishinomori, with a busy company to run, stepped back. Also, for some reason, the main character's hair is blond in this version, when it's normally brown. We'd have to wait more than 30 years for another blond Joe Shimamura, this time in Cyborg 009 Vs. Devilman!
Takahashi's Cyborg 009 is well-remembered and reliably entertaining, one of those shows that was aired all over the planet—but not in the US, where network executives were busily torturing children with fare like The Super Globetrotters and The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Hour. Interestingly, despite the franchise's popularity (a movie was in production in '79 and debuted in 1980), Cyborg 009 didn't reach the finale of its planned 63-episode run. Much like Yoshiyuki Tomino's contemporaneous Gundam, it was abruptly cancelled with several episodes to go thanks to production and sponsorship issues.
Some work on the 1980 Astro Boy and directing/co-creating the fine Sunrise mecha epic Fang of the Sun DOUGRAM would follow Cyborg 009, but then we got Ryousuke Takahashi's masterpiece. I am, of course, talking about RPG Legend Hepoi. We all remember this classic, right?
Alright, maybe not so much. (Did anyone watch this as a kid? What was it like?) Hepoi didn't come out until 1990, because the 80s were probably Takahashi's peak period as a creator. He turned in SPT Layzner, the excellent and all-too-obscure (in the west, at least) mecha/fantasy hybrid Panzer World Galient, he wrote the screenplay and story bible for Ronin Warriors, he kicked in scripts for the likes of Dragonar and Grandzort, and of course, he created, wrote, and directed Armored Trooper Votoms.
If Gundam signified a shift away from super robots to a more realistic, gritty kind of storytelling, then VOTOMS, hitting the airwaves just five years later, is probably the apex of that shift. It takes place in a far-flung future that is intergalactic, but bombed-out and exhausted in the wake of a 100-year-war. The two major powers have agreed to a delicate cease-fire, but power struggles on both sides continuously threaten the uneasy peace. Life is anything but peaceful for Chirico Cuvie, an armored trooper (AT) pilot on the run from his old military comrades, who'd double-crossed him. All Chirico has are his formidable skills piloting a Scopedog, one of the mass-produced ATs used in the war, a few hardy allies in a small-time arms dealer and his bar staff, and the fleeting vision of a beautiful woman at the facility where his military comrades betrayed him.
From here, Takahashi creates a sprawling mythology involving underground fighting arenas, mercenary squads on a sweltering jungle planet, weird space freemasons trying to grab power behind the scenes by creating the Perfect Soldier, a combatant who can't be defeated in battle, and the mysterious primordial Ur-civilization-planet behind a vast galactic conspiracy. It's here that Takahashi's economical, taut storytelling pays off; he splits the show into four neat, distinct arcs and ultimately creates one of those wonderful anime series that you can just watch in huge chunks, episode after episode. For me, his signature achievement in VOTOMS is presenting viewers with one of the least charismatic robot heroes I've ever seen, a dour, unfriendly man who almost always wears a scowl and is unpleasant to others at best and openly hostile at worst. Still, as Chirico Cuvie gathers a few true friends and starts working his way back up the list of people who betrayed him, you can't help but root for him – even as he's beaten and chased by his tormentors' Perfect Soldier, Takahashi makes sure that you see Chirico as the ultimate underdog, a fighter who rarely escapes unscathed but who just can't be beaten.
A few things worked in Takahashi's favor with VOTOMS. The plastic model kit craze was already underway in 1982, when the show went into planning, so the studio and director were not tied to an onerous toy deal like Gundam was; also, VOTOMS' focus on older heroes (and, consequentially, older viewers) meant that Takahashi was free to create a more ambitious, complex SF story with robots that really did look like mass-produced war machines. But why is VOTOMS fondly remembered among mecha fans, but not regarded as a giant of the medium and SF storytelling in general? I have a theory about that, which I refer to as the You Were On TV In the Same Timeslot as Macross, You Poor Bastards Theory. Despite a major uphill battle for TV viewership, VOTOMS stuck around, spawning numerous OVAs and theatrical sequels, which have continued all the way into the 2010s. Most of these are never really as good as the original (only the “Last Red Shoulder” and “Roots of Ambition” OVAs, which both happen to be written by Sōji Yoshikawa, really measure up to the TV show's story), but they're still pretty solid and worth a look if you like VOTOMS.
After VOTOMS won a bunch of awards from the anime magazines and proved to be at least a cult hit, Takahashi was prompted to create a follow-up OVA series, and he gave us the spinoff Armor Hunter Merowlink. Unlike the original show's mecha pilot, the titular Merowlink is a hardened ground combat veteran who coolly dispatches towering ATs without bothering to use one of his own, sticking to large-bore rifles, traps, and explosives to chip away at his AT foes. Like Chirico, he's a great underdog; it's a shame that this show never made the trip westward. For years, it was rumored that Merowlink's original films were destroyed in a fire, but it eventually came out on DVD, so apparently good copies of the materials were eventually found.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of VOTOMS is its North American release. I had just made friends with translator extraordinaire Neil Nadelman when he got the assignment to work on VOTOMS for Central Park Media, so I got to watch it develop in real time, first as a pricey set of four VHS boxes, then an assemblage of tie-in products (CPM wisely tapped VOTOMS superfan Tim Eldred to create a comic tie-in and RPG sourcebook, but when they tried to make plans to manufacture pewter miniature ATs, toy and model sponsor Takara cried foul), and then, when Gundam finally made its way to TV, CPM briefly tried to make VOTOMS attractive to TV buyers. A dubbed pilot episode, featuring fairly decent acting but pretty horrendous opening and ending music, was commissioned, but nothing ever happened. That's a shame – getting VOTOMS on cable TV just might've put it over the top. Much later, CPM put out an ‘ammo box’ collection of the series that includes this dubbed episode, in the process kickstarting the exciting trend of DVD boxes that look like ammo cases, later continued by Madlax and Black Lagoon. But while this set seemed to at least do well enough to make a little money, the show's previous, single-disc release, from DVD Ltd., remains one of the worst commercial anime DVD releases ever seen in North America, with muddy video, burned-in subtitles, and in one instance, an entire episode that has the wrong audio track. The thing is, it's late enough in the show's run that nobody ever seemed to notice or complain. If you snapped up this cheap-o version of the show just to have a copy on hand and haven't watched it yet, you probably have it!
Much of Takahashi's other 80s and early 90s output is part of that frustrating subset of older anime that's damn near impossible to see. He helmed a 30-minute movie based on a gag manga called The Devil and Princess Mimi, which ran as an opener for The Door into Summer. There was never a home video release, just a couple of soundtrack records and a few pages of pictures in OUT magazine. Not too long after that, he did a movie for Knack Productions. Yep, the Charge Man Ken people had Ryousuke Takahashi storyboard a movie for them… another short movie based on a gag comic, this time about an observant, wisecracking compulsive gambler named Furiten. The film, Furiten-kun, ran as a double feature with Isao Takahata's excellent Chie the Brat, which should clue you in that Chie, despite looking and acting like a family movie, still has some grown-up themes. Takahashi also wrote a 1988 Tama and Friends OVA episode (who remembers the 4Kids dub of the TV series?!), and wrote a Fujiko Fujio OVA about improving your golf game. Man, it's weird that that never got licensed, huh?
Takahashi also wrote and directed an episode of Leiji Matsumoto's fine The Cockpit OAV, he did some episodes of Akazukin Chacha (hey, if they get to bring back Mahojin Guruguru and Ushio & Tora, how about some new Akazukin Chacha??) and he acted as script supervisor for the frothy, high-powered Gaogaigar. He then wrote and directed the mystical mecha series Gasaraki , which… man, laugh at this series all you want (I certainly did, after its tone abruptly changed midway through), but it's still in print and people still buy the damn thing. Takahashi's next magnum opus would be Phoenix.
We'd gotten some anime versions of Tezuka's Phoenix before – the fun but idiosyncratic film Phoenix 2772, and the competent but mostly-average Karma and Yamato chapter OVAs. But if anyone had the pedigree to make a new Phoenix anime for a new generation, it was this guy. Remember, Takahashi had worked on Astro Boy, Princess Knight, Dororo, Jungle Emperor, Goku, and Wonder 3, just to name a few. Here, he adapts some of the manga's best-known and most poignant tales—loosely-connected stories about loss, redemption, and rebirth—and gives them a great-looking and engrossing update. The DVD release of Phoenix is technically out of print at this point, but the litebox collection is pretty easy to find for under $20, and is worth seeing. One of the most intriguing things about Takahashi's Phoenix? One of its sponsors was the big public TV station WNET, who had originally intended to air it! Why didn't it go on TV? Maybe anime just wasn't cool enough anymore by the time it was finished.
What's been left to Ryousuke Takahashi in the decade or so since Phoenix? He created and directed the notably ambitious ONA Flag, about the ways modern warfare and modern media intersect. He wrote Intrigue in the Bakumatsu, and helmed Ozma, yet another recent adaptation of a classic Leiji Matsumoto story. Most recently, he wrote and supervised Young Black Jack, which I found a little unsatisfying; too often, the character acted in ways that seemed very un-Black Jack. And just a couple of years back, Takahashi was turning in early drafts for a show that would become ClassicaLoid.
Like so many of his generation of anime creators, Ryousuke Takahashi just seems like an unstoppable force—as long as he walks the earth, there's always a chance for new VOTOMS stories, and there's always a guy you can call if you need an episode of your dumb action cartoon written (and possibly storyboarded) fast. If Chirico Cuvie is the Supreme Survivor, then his creator is the Supreme Scriptwriter. This year, anime fans are watching with great interest as celebrated screenwriter Mari Okada makes her directorial debut; I hope she's as successful in the director's chair as Takahashi has been.
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