Andrew Osmond warns against surprise attacks by alien galaxies from beyond space
Your mission – to defend the Earth. Your allies – a tight group of heroes, kids like yourself, standing together against a never-ending stream of giant-sized monsters, from robot turtles to flying mummies. Your mother ship transmutes into a flaming phoenix. Ahead of you lies death and glory; tragedies to tear out your heart, victories over impossible odds. You are Gatchaman.
Or, in another life, you are G-Force. Recite the opening speech with us, people, if you’re old enough to remember the TV cartoons of the 1970s. “Battle of the Planets… G-Force. Five incredible young people with superpowers. And watching over them from Centre Neptune, 7-Zark-7. Watching, warning against surprise attack by alien galaxies from beyond space. Fearless young orphans protecting Earth’s entire galaxy. Always five, acting as one. Dedicated! Inseparable! Invincible!”
Most British and American viewers remember the show like this:
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Japanese viewers, meanwhile, remember it like this. (The song is quite unbeatable as a karaoke number.)
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And this August, it will look like this in Japanese cinemas. Before you start wondering about the funny English phrase in the middle, ‘Bump of Chicken’ is the rock band providing the theme song.
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Gatchaman is one of the landmarks of Japanese fantasy pop-culture, standing proud when the anime universe was a fraction of its present size. Its grandkids include Pacific Rim, Evangelion and even Power Rangers. If the plot tropes listed above sound so familiar, that’s because Gatchman helped bring them together. Broadcast in Japan in 1972, only nine years after Astro Boy, Gatchaman was made when the iconography of manga and anime – the heroes, the monsters, the drama, the fanservice – was still being assembled. The show began weeks before Mazinger Z, when an anime youth first piloted a giant robot, and a couple of years before the live-action Goranger (1975), in which five costumed heroes (four boys, one girl) fought outlandish rubber-suit monsters. Their descendants are still whupping them, 37 years later.
You can extend the chain back as well. The monsters of Gatchaman followed the tradition established by Eiji Tsuburaya, the Japanese effects equivalent of Gerry Anderson, in the kaiju (monster) cinema cycle and Ultraman on TV. Anderson himself seems to be have been a profound influence on Gatchaman. His Thunderbirds had been vastly popular in Japan from 1966, with a quintet of fearless youngsters protecting Earth in supercool vehicles.
In an online extract from the book G-Force Animated , Ippei Kuri, co-founder of the show’s production studio, Tatsunoko, cited yet another influence. Ninja! “At one of the comic publishers where we worked, the most popular story was one about a ninja adventure,” Kurei remembered, “So, we came up with the idea of joining ninja with science to create something new.” Gatchaman’s title did that literally – the full name was Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.
Kuri may have been referring to The Legend of Kamui, a massively influential ninja manga saga by Sanpei Shirato (it was animated on TV in 1969). However, the Gatchaman characters’ costumes would remind viewers of the more recent Kamen Rider, a live-action hero franchise that began in 1971. Its masked avenger-on-a-motorbike was dressed as a grasshopper; the Gatchaman heroes, with more sartorial taste, were themed around birds. The already-referenced article cites Stateside superheroes as another influence – note the proliferation of capes.
Gatchaman consisted of Eagle Ken, the leader; Condor Joe, the rebel; Owl Ryu, the big-boned pilot; Swallow Jinpei, the little fighter, and Swan Jun, the femme fatale (for baddies). In Battle of the Planets, their names transmuted into Mark, Jason, Tiny, Keyop and Princess, but we’ll get to them later. The Gatchaman heroes were masters of hand-to-hand combat (Jun’s killer yoyo was especially memorable), and had spectacular combined attacks. They formed a spinning pyramid to generate bullet-repelling whirlwinds, and transmogrified their ship into a giant fiery phoenix to make any big robot sweat.
Gatchaman began in Japan in October 1972, with a 6 p.m. Sunday slot that anime executives now would commit seppuku for. High ratings (reportedly the viewer average was 21%) meant Gatchaman’s planned year-long run was doubled, with the show running into 1974.
Gatchaman, as many fans know, omitted many elements of Battle of the Planets. There was no 7-Zark-7, or Centre Neptune, or Zark’s doggie 1-Rover-1, or the feminine computer Susan whose voice did things to Zark’s diodes. Nor did the baddies hail from planet Spectra in “alien galaxies from beyond space” (sic). Instead, the monster-making baddies were Earth-based, a crime organisations called Galactor, led by a masked miscreant called Berg Katse and his even more mysterious leader, an avian shape on a screen called Sosai X (‘sosai” roughly equates to Commander). BOTP fans know the pair as Zoltar and the Great Spirit – though Zoltar, unlike Katse, wasn’t a gender-swapping mutant transsexual!
Even in its original form, there’s much about Gatchaman that looks crude and campy now. Many of the monsters look daft, the stories far dafter. But the show is imbued with anime drama at its most operatically tragic. Major characters die after anguished farewells, in ways to permanently scar the protagonists. Anime, following the rising age-brackets of manga, was increasingly unafraid to have high body-counts, sad endings and dead heroes. The show’s first half ends with an ‘I am your father’ moment, followed very shortly after by ‘Goodbye, son.’ As for the second half – well, there are no longer five fearless Gatchamen at the end.
The show’s visceral appeal was well articulated by the vaunted American comic-book artist Alex Ross, co-creator of Kingdom Come. Though he was introduced to the series through its softened Battle version, its impact was tremendous. “I was very struck with the look of the show,” Ross says. “There’s energy, an animated quality to it that’s unlike anything you would have seen on any Hanna-Barbera show or Loony Tunes.”
Ross continues, “There’s something (about) ’70s anime that has incredible vibrancy and energy, that’s so powerful and striking and vicious… There’s a look to the faces, an energy, just when the faces would scream at one another: the way that their expressions would vibrate, the anger that was in the eyebrows of Mark and Jason [aka Ken and Joe]… There’s a quality of the line-drawing, in the inking of the characters, that has a grit to it that has been cleaned out of animation and anime in the thirty years since. Stuff has become much more refined, so you don’t have this dirtiness to the look of the artwork, but that’s so much a quality of the artwork…” (The Ross interview is here and here.)
These qualities remained even in the Westernised Battle of the Planets version, shown in Britain and America. Yes, it’s a travesty – it censored and rewrote Gatchaman with abandon, often making it crazily incoherent when you watch it as a grown-up and try to follow the ‘plot.’ As a kid, quite honestly, it didn’t matter much – though this writer still remembers responding to the power of ‘tragic’ scenes preserved in the Battle version, even with Zark adding that, actually, everyone got out at the last second/made a miraculous recovery, etc.
For what it’s worth, remember anime censorship began with the original American broadcast of Astro Boy back in 1963. Fred Ladd, the American adapter of Tezuka’s series, commented, “If Tetsuwan Atomu knelt over a body in the street and said ‘he’s dead,’ Astro Boy would say, ‘He’s unconscious, get him to a hospital!’ Even Battle’s addition of the ‘bogus’ 7-Zark-7 robot, voiced by Scrooge McDuck actor Alan Young, stood in a long tradition. Raymond Burr’s American reporter had been inserted into the US version of the first Godzilla film in just the same way.
Battle of the Planets began in Britain and America, as Gatchaman had a revival in Japan. There was a 1978 anime movie retelling, followed by a TV sequel series, Gatchaman 2 which had the story hook of bringing a certain dead hero back to life. It led directly into the (then) last series, Gatchaman Fighter. The heroes fought their very “final” battle in 1980 – reportedly, the ultimate outcome was open to viewers’ interpretation. The franchise then went into a surprisingly unbroken retirement for the next thirty years. The only exception was a three-part OAV remake in the mid-90s, clearly aimed at nostalgic fans, with updated versions of Gatchaman by Yasuomi Umetsu.
At least, that was all as far as Japan was concerned. In the West, there were not one but two dub remakes of Gatchaman in the 1980s, each featuring their own sets of actors. This writer, a Battle of the Planets fan, was baffled to buy a video called G-Force Guardians of Space, and find characters speaking with different voices and calling each other ‘Ace Goodheart’ and ‘Agatha June.’ And where was 7-Zark-7?
It was harder to see the version called Eagle Riders, which drew on the second and third anime series (i.e. Gatchaman 2 and Gatchaman Fighter), and had heroes led by ‘Hunter Harris.’ Battle of the Planets itself returned in the early ’noughties, as a startlingly well-made (but short-lived) US comic, featuring artwork by Alex Ross. It was published by Top Cow, which, judging by its name, must be a relative of Bump of Chicken.
After those brief returns, that really seemed the end for the Gatchaman team. There was an attempt to turn them into a CGI movie, not an anime but an US-produced film by the Hong Kong studio Imagi. After years of start-and-stop and a couple of fan-baiting trailers, the project was cancelled for good in 2011. (For an insider insight, see our interview with Patrick Awa, who spent more than a year on the project.)
But now, 2013 is seeing no less than three new incarnations of Gatchaman, all made in Japan. One is a series of cheerfully cheesy Flash-animated shorts called Ohayo Ninja-Tai Gatchaman, shown on the NTV network and released on Japanese DVD (with large amounts of advertising in the ‘Tsutaya’ retail chain). Despite the Flash format, the characters are clearly recognisable from the ‘70s show.
That’s in contrast to NTV’s 12-part series Gatchaman Crowds, which is playing this season. The show is set in Tachikawa City (which for anyone wondering is a real town near Tokyo – it has a funky elevated monorail running all the way to Tama Centre, home to the Hello Kitty park). The Gatchaman Crowds characters are not the ones fan know, but a new team of youngsters, with the focus – reflecting four decades of changing trends – on a 16 year-old girl, Hajime Ichinose. The show is directed by Kenji Nakamura, who is known for eye-catching series – Mononoke, Tsuritama and C-Control: The Money and Soul of Possibility.
It’s unclear as of writing if Gatchaman Crowds has a real link to the original Gatchaman – perhaps that’s to come in future episodes. However, this Summer’s live-action film version, trailered above, keeps the story very much the same. Once more Ken, Joe, Jun, Ryu, Jinpei and Jun battle Galactor for humanity’s future, though there’s a plot wrinkle –a crystal stone bestowing Gatchaman with their powers. Anime veteran Shinji Aramaki, best-known as director of the CGI Appleseed and Appleseed Ex Machina, redesigned the characters. The director of Gatchaman itself is Toya Sato, who directed a live-action TV Grave of the Fireflies, adding interesting angles to the tearjerker.
The Gatchaman cast includes Ayame Goriki as Jun – interestingly, she’s also due to appear in a now-filming live-action Black Butler. Go Ayano, who plays Joe, has appeared in several manga/anime-derived films, including live-action treatments of Gantz, Ruroni Kenshin and Usagi Drop. As for Tori Matsuzaka, who plays the leader Ken, his background is squarely in the Japanese hero tradition which Gatchaman helped define. He was the “Red” ranger in the 2009/2010 edition of Toei’s Ranger franchise, called Samurai Sentai Shinkenger. That’s Power Rangers Samurai if you’re watching in America – though of course Matsuzaka is recast in the Power Rangers version. Japanese hero quintets kick monsters for a Japanese audience, and are strategically re-marketed for kids on the other side of the world… Yes, Battle of the Planets lives on!
The Gatchaman movie opens in Japan on 24th August.