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Andrew Osmond on Ulysses 31 and adapting the Odyssey

This January, it was reported that Warner Brothers would make a space adventure version of the epic Greek legend The Odyssey. As of writing, the only details to hand are the production and writing credits; the best-known name is that of British co-producer David Heyman, who oversaw Harry Potter from start to finish.

Readers might reasonably wonder if the Odyssey film will be a remake of the 1980s French-Japanese cartoon Ulysses 31. As we’ve seen recently, Warners has a hugely profitable relation with anime, from Pokemon to Animatrix. It turned live-action into animation with Supernatural: The Animation, and transmuted anime into (kind-of) live-action with Speed Racer.

In fact, as far as we know, there’s no connection between this new space Odyssey and the anime. According to the press reports, the Warners project originated with Terry Douglas of 1812 Pictures, and is being written by rising newcomer James DiLapo. Before anyone cries plagiarism, the trick of turning Greek myths into SF goes back decades. Both Star Trek and Doctor Who had stabs at the idea years before Ulysses 31. Nor should we forget Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, which modelled its future-world heroine on a princess in the Odyssey. (Sadly, Ulysses 31 never got round to doing the Nausicaa story; perhaps they were scared people would say they were pilfering Miyazaki!)

More broadly, of course, Ulysses 31 is part of a tradition of putting classic stories into space. See Disney’s Treasure Planet (based on Treasure Island), or the live-action Robinson Crusoe on Mars, or the Belgian cartoon Pinocchio in Outer Space. In anime, of course, the Gonzo studio has specialised in this area, with Samurai 7, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo. But again, it’s nothing new – Japan’s Toei studio did Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon back in 1965.

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how closely Warner’s approach parallels that of Ulysses 31. If you’ve never seen the older show, it’s still possible to pick up second-hand copies of the Ulysses 31 Complete Collection DVD online – the 26-part series was released a decade ago by E1 Entertainment. It was a French-Japanese co-production between France’s DiC studio and Japan’s prolific Tokyo Movie Shinsha. In Britain, it was shown on Children’s BBC as one of the “hidden” anime imports in the years before Akira. Like many TV cartoons, it’s the opening theme that stays with you:

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Though it sounded rather different when it played in Japan on Nagoya TV:

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The story, created by DiC’s founder Jean Chalopin, updated the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey. This concerns the endless wanderings of the warrior king Odysseus (Ulysses is his Roman name), who’s endlessly waylaid by monsters and magic as he tries to find his way to his homeland. In the cartoon, Ulysses is recast as the bearded 31st-century captain of a doughnut-shaped spaceship, searching endlessly for Earth.

Fittingly called the Odyssey, Ulysses’ craft was a wondrous anime creation, the envy of any Enterprise captain. The control bridge was awash with flashing lights, overseen by Shyrka, a computer with an eerily calm, mellifluous voice. The show’s design involved French artist Philippe Bouchet, also known as Manchu, along with Japan’s Shingo Araki, whose anime work was especially important for French viewers. As well as his contributions to Ulysses 31, he also designed Saint Seiya, a phenomenal hit in the country.

In Ulysses 31’s first episode, Ulysses falls foul of the ancient Greek gods after saving his young son Telemachus from the Cyclops (a life-draining giant robot in this version, though still with a vulnerable eyeball). The angry deities sentence Ulysses to wander among unknown stars, putting most of his crew into suspended animation. Ulysses’ sole companions are Telemachus, a cute blue-skinned alien girl called Yumi, and the hapless mini-robot Nono. The latter character was hated by some viewers, but you could do far worse in toons of the time (Scrappy Doo, anyone?). Yumi’s elder brother Numinor occasionally emerged from suspended animation to help with the week’s adventure.

Some episodes hold up far better than other, but the best are highly evocative, thanks to the funky music, the frequently psychedelic visuals, and the creators’ fantasy vision. Some of Ulysses’ adventures were truly disturbing, including “The Eternal Punishment,” a harsh retelling of the Sisyphus legend, and the haunting, dreamlike, “The Seat of Forgetfulness.” “Before the Flood” saw the characters weather a deluge on a counterpart Earth inhabited by winged beings. “Strange Meeting” paid tribute to the show’s origins, sending the space-age Ulysses to aid his Homeric ancestor in ancient Greece. Unusually for an 1980s cartoon in Britain, the last part (“The Kingdom of Hades”) brought the adventures to a satisfying end.

The show is far better remembered in Britain than in America, or even Japan, though reportedly Japan screened it in two versions with different voice-casts. One had Nono voiced by the famed actress Mayumi Tanaka, who now plays Luffy in One Piece. On the English side, anyone who watched the show alongside Mysterious Cities of Gold, another Japanese/French production, would spot that they shared English voices. Among them were Matt Berman (Ulysses/Gomez), Adrian Knight (Telemachus/Tao) and Howard Ryshpan (Nono/Pedro).

And if all this talk of vintage cartoons has made you pine for children’s TV in an analog age – why, here are two old friends to play you out!

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