The current wave of interest in remaking classic anime as live-action movies has a lot to answer for – not least the hopeful expressions on the faces of fans of a certain age whenever I mention South Korea’s 2009 live-action movie Marine Boy. The happy faces fall when they learn that Yoon Jong-seok’s film is a live-action thriller about a former swimming star and gambling addict turned drug mule, not a perky kid who can breathe underwater with the aid of oxygum.
Director Yoon was perfectly aware of the hopes his title would raise. He said “There’s something beguiling about its duality, how these criminals are called something that romantically brings to mind the popular cartoon Marine Boy or the star swimmer Park Tae-hwan.” The Korean press nicknamed Olympic gold medallist Park ‘Marine Boy’, after the Japanese animated character.
Yoon isn’t the first to trade on the name and its nostalgic associations. British new wave band Haircut 100 recorded a track entitled Marine Boy on their 1982 album Pelican West. An Australian underwater video and charter business trades as Marine Boy Productions, making films of undersea creatures in their natural habitat, though so far they haven’t featured any mermaids. There’s even a restaurant named Marine Boy Sushi in Cerritos, California.
Marine Boy the anime has a complex backstory. It originated in 1965 as Dolphin Prince, a groundbreaking show produced in colour at the Toei studios in Nerima for Fuji TV. Only 3 episodes were completed by director Suguru Sugiyama. They never aired. The honour of producing Japan’s first broadcast colour anime, Jungle Taitei (later known in the USA as Kimba the White Lion,) went to Osamu Tezuka’s team at Mushi Pro.
Colour was only just beginning to take over the Japanese TV market. Black and white shows would continue to be made for domestic consumption as late as 1969, when the animated version of Tezuka’s Dororo, directed by Gisaburo Street Fighter II Sugii, aired. For export, though, colour was essential. Despite making and selling top-quality animated films, Toei had shown no intention of entering the TV anime market until Tezuka and his team showed how successful limited animation could be. Mushi Pro had its eye on the export market from the beginning, and its debut TV show Astro Boy aired on NBC just months after its home debut in 1963. When Toei joined the TV anime boom triggered by Astro Boy, overseas sales were a natural extension of its foreign movie business.
So they refloated Dolphin Prince as Go For It, Marine Kid! The show was dogged by internal problems and ran for just 13 episodes, but the concept of a boy and his dolphin pal keeping the seas safe wouldn’t go away. A 36-episode sequel, Undersea Boy Marine, was directed and written by Haruo Osanai. It premiered in 1969 and a second series followed in 1971. This featured episodes recycled from the first, but introduced a new element in the form of Neptina, Marine Boy’s mermaid girlfriend.
Although the entire run wasn’t aired in Japan until 1971, the show did well in the USA from its first appearance in 1966, in Australia from 1968 and in Britain from 1969. It was the first anime to achieve any success in the U.K., and was outperformed in U.S. ratings only by Speed Racer. Interestingly, it was castigated by America’s National Association for Better Broadcasting as “one of the very worst animated shows” for putting child characters in extreme peril and expressing delight in torture and destruction of ‘evil’ characters. One wonders what the NABB would have made of Yoon’s 2009 movie, or indeed of Guantanamo Bay.
The animated Marine Boy isn’t available legally on DVD, and it appears there are no plans for a re-release, though the first episode is on Google Video. (The English-language masters are now owned by Seven Arts purchasers Warner Brothers.) A live-action version doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
Fans of the original Marine Boy should check out this 2007 post on Let’s Anime and wallow in the sheer nostalgia. For the moment, it’s all we have!