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Jonathan Clements on Supermarionation’s Japanese connections

Gerry AndersonGerry Anderson, who died yesterday, is sure to be memorialised throughout the science fiction world for Supermarionation hits like Thunderbirds and Stingray. But his influence on the world of Japanese science fiction runs deep, and crosses over on several occasions into the world of anime.

The first otaku, that generation who came of age in the 1960s, did not merely fixate on anime like Space Cruiser Yamato. They were also enthusiastic viewers of Anderson sci-fi shows that jostled for viewers’ attention alongside Astro Boy, particularly those known in Japan as Space Ship XL-5 (1963, Fuji TV), Undersea Great War Stingray (1964, Fuji TV), and Thunderbird (sic: 1966, NHK). According to Eiji Tsuburaya’s son, the creator of Ultraman actually visited Anderson when he was working on Stingray, and took away many tips for Japanese model work.

Homages to Anderson’s work abound in Japanese science fiction – a search on his name in the Anime Encyclopedia alone throws out five pages of references, starting with fan-friendly shows like Evangelion, which lifts the uniforms from UFO and the architectural acrobatics of Thunderbirds launch sequences. Blue Submarine Number Six archly reference Stingray in its submarine pilot’s rescue of a mute mermaid. Idol Defence Band Hummingbird replaced the Tracy family with the Torishii clan, five idol singers with signature flying machines, who would defend Japan from enemy attack while… erm… singing.

Despite the immense affection for Anderson’s work in Japan, which even extends to a Thunderbirds-themed bar, he never seemed to manage a successful collaboration with the Japanese himself. His first attempt to get something off the ground was a project that began as Thunderhawks in 1977, although by the time Sukehiro Tomita and Yoshikazu Yasuhiko had finished with it, the concept of second-generation colonists under a ruthless “Queen Mother”, returning to attack the Earth, was already losing much of Anderson’s original pitch. The Japanese TV station MBS eventually soured on the idea, claiming that it didn’t see much future in SF.

Gerry AndersonWhen Star Wars proved MBS was insanely out of touch that year, the Japanese side of the production went on ahead without Anderson, turning eventually into the series Armoured Genesis Mospeada. Giving up on the Japanese, Anderson dusted off his original proposal and put it into production as Terrahawks, which was eventually sold to Japan anyway, and gained a Japan-only animated title sequence, directed by the animator Satoshi Dezaki.

One of Anderson’s most avowed fans in Japan was the putative Thunderhawks producer Banjiro Uemura, who cautiously admitted, in Japanese sources that he never thought any foreigners would read, that his Zero Tester anime series “learned from Thunderbirds.” Uemura went even further in 1982 with Scientific Rescue Team Technovoyager, which was so Gerry Andersonclearly a Thunderbirds rip-off that the copyright owners should really have sued him. However, Uemura was conveniently also the head of ITC Japan, and smartly decided not to sue himself. Instead, he sold Technovoyager to foreign affiliates, who renamed it Thunderbirds 2086, turning it into a legitimate ITC production after the fact.

I never met Gerry Anderson, although he did once stand up for me. Back in 2001, I was a scriptwriter on an ill-fated Thunderbirds game for a computer console, which was framed as six all-new episodes, where the player would take over for the actual missions. I wrote three of them: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, The Land Shark and Forest of Peril, while my sometime collaborator Simon Jowett handled the rest. Although Anderson’s position on the production was unclear, he enjoyed some sort of veto over the assets, which probably explains why his ex-wife was the only original cast member not to return for the voices. But Anderson ran into tense difficulties with some of the game producers, who had rashly approved all the story outlines seemingly without really reading them, and allowed the programmers to spend a quarter of a million pounds on development, to the extent of even recording the audio, before they queried the nature of the story. Some bright spark opined that it was all a bit… rescuey, and would be improved a bit if the Tracy family could do something a bit more manly like… fighting off an attacking robot army.

Waving a sheaf of our scripts, Anderson stood by what we had done.

“It’s called International Rescue!” he growled. “Rescuing’s what they do.” The game was quietly cancelled.

Anderson’s last dealing with the Japanese was equally ill-fated. Late in life, he tried to get an actual anime series off the ground, with a pitch for a series called Firestorm. His name, however, was worth more to Japanese producers than his ideas, a fact which became clear when original work by British designers Steve Kyte and Steven Begg was edged out of Japanese documentation. By the time the marketing began for the series, it was called Gerry Anderson’s Firestorm but was plainly anything but. When it finally limped onto the airwaves, it was just plain Firestorm, and Anderson himself was so aghast at the final result that he refused to include it in his filmography.

I am writing this obituary tonight because the first on the list did not feel able. That  was one Helen McCarthy, who, before she became more famous for talking about Japanese cartoons, used to be a big name in Gerry Anderson circles, to the extent that her London apartment served for a time as the nerve centre of his fan community. This even brought her to the attention of the British police, when two stern officers rapped on her door one night, demanding to know if rumours were true that she was running a “Gerry Adams Fan Club” from her living room. She patiently explained the difference between the creator of Thunderbirds and the President of Sinn Fein, and they went on their way.

But in declining to write anything lengthy about Anderson, McCarthy did send the following message, on which we end: “Gerry Anderson’s influence on my life can hardly be overstated. I met my best girlfriend while watching a Gerry Anderson show at a convention. The love of my life turned up on her doorstep one day to help us work on Britain’s first Supermarionation event. I formed my ideas of heroism, courage, adventure and female independence from a heady cultural mix, but the works of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were major components. Part of me will always yearn to be Lady Penelope. Part of me will always share the unquenchable hope Gerry gave to millions of kids that people can use technology for good and that the future can be brighter. Supermarionation is in my DNA. Can’t do any more now. Keyboard is soggy.”

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