Anime-versaries: Aces and Vampires

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Today in 1973, the TV version of Sumika Yamamoto’s tennis romance Ace o Nerae! (Aim for the Ace!) made its TV debut in Japan. It picked up themes already embedded in popular culture and boys’ manga: the plucky underdog, the devoted student, the struggle against huge odds were key elements of hits such as Ikki Kajiwara’s 1968 manga Star of the Giants (Kyojin no Hoshi) and in its turn inspired other tales of plucky underdogs honing unpromisingly raw talent through hard work and the belief of a dedicated and inspiring mentor.

Fifteen years later, Hideaki Evangelion Anno paid tribute to it in Gunbuster, a TV series originally titled Gunbuster: Top o Nerae!, which mashed the themes of Ace o Nerae and the plot of American movie Top Gun with a generous helping of science fiction, bouncing breasts and short shorts. (How did we not see Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt coming?)

Four years and a couple of days earlier, on 3 October 1969, Osamu Tezuka’s Vampire made its TV debut. Based on a manga that ended unfinished in March that year, it marked a darker direction for Tezuka’s works and an interesting mix of live-action and animated film. The themes of exploitation, discrimination  and deception that had been present in earlier work assumed centre stage. His well-established and much-loved character Rock, who started out in Tezuka’s 1940s comics as a genius boy detective and master of disguise, moved his mastery of disguise up a level with some cross-dressing exploits and displayed a cold and vicious side to his always pragmatic, calculating nature.

It also mixed Tezuka’s life and art. He had been in the habit of inserting himself into his comics, as a commentator or character, all his creative life, and in Vampire he took matters a step further by making himself both character and actor and filming literally in his own backyard. His animation and comics studios were attached to his house and he shot some of the live-action sequences in his studio and garden. His young protagonist Toppei was played by Yutaka Mizutani with Hiroshi Sato putting in a scenery-chewing turn as Rock,  backed up by a solid cast of Japan’s character greats, including Bokuzen Hidari, who had worked for Kurosawa on Seven Samurai. Rock’s girl form (or Rock chick, if you will) was provided by Ryuko Mizutani.

Aim for the Ace!  had sequels in animation, live action film and games. Vampire didn’t. But both are remarkable shows, and interesting examples of a time when TV and animation worked together to embrace a wide range of primetime audiences.

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