Gatchaman: heroism, memory and the bond of friendship

The Japan Foundation's Junko Takekawa introduces the session

The Japan Foundation’s Junko Takekawa introduces the session

Flashing my Doraemon t-shirt (MIki House, for all you label fiends)

Flashing my Doraemon t-shirt (Miki House, for all you label fiends)

Photos courtesy of Anna Kindness – thanks Anna!

It’s the last day of August 2015, a public holiday in Britain; and therefore, as is the tradition for British summer holidays, the rain is falling heavy and cool. Fifty-seven years ago today I was sitting under a shelter on a Lancashire seafront, looking out at the rain and the iron-grey sky and wondering if I’d be able to play on the sand before it was time to go home.

There are more rainy day options now, but the rainy days still come. Fast forward half a century: seven years ago today one of my dearest friends was laid to rest. It was a beautiful day in Japan for her funeral but I said my farewells here, under a London sky greyed out by loss.

I was thinking of my friend on the first day of this month, when I sat beside another dear friend of hers, doing something the three of us loved – watching classic anime. It was a warm, sunny day in London and we were at BAFTA for the Japan Foundation’s Summer Explorers event where I introduced the 1978 Gatchaman movie.

As usual, I wrote far too much material for my ten-minute session. So I’m posting it below, for those who kindly expressed an interest in reading the rest of the intro at the time, and for everyone who’s interested in the history of anime. There’s a very useful link in the text that makes the time you’ll spend reading it completely worthwhile. (And do bookmark the Japan Foundation website for more great screenings & events.)

For Vaunda and Carol and I, Gatchaman was – is – something special. It caught us by the heart and spoke to something in our souls. Trying to explain what that was, how that happened, is next to impossible. So I just tried to give the audience a little historical background and some idea of the energy and excitement that made Gatchaman, and made its way onto the small screen.

It was a lovely day, and it was the best way to remember our friend.

Introducing Gatchaman

Introducing Gatchaman

Surfing That 70s Vibe: GATCHAMAN and its heritage

Come back in time with me. It’s October 1962. Postwar Japan is beginning to edge out of appalling poverty and there’s money available for what one might call the charming trivia of life: entertainment, enjoyment, if not luxury then at least the occasional non-essential bit of fun.

Much of the entertainment industry is imported from America, as a form of cultural colonisation by stealth. The movies are doing great business, and animated movies are popular. Disney has extended its pre-war box-office power in Japan, but local company Toei’s animation studio is riding high after five successful features – productions which have begun to sell (and win awards) overseas.

Smaller studios Iwanami Doga and Otogi Production have also stuck their toes into the water of the animation business, and that gifted manga artist Osamu Tezuka has poached staff from Toei to set up his own new studio, Mushi Production. Mushi’s first short feature, Aru Machikado no Monogatari, premiered last month on 20th September, and the now grown-up boy wonder of postwar comics is forging ahead with a new project that will change the animation landscape on the first day of next year: a TV series called Tetsuwan Atom.

There’s already animation on TV in Japan, but most of it is American: Mickey Mouse, Popeye, The Flintstones. The Japanese TV animation business has taken its first tentative steps with 3tsu no Hanashi, a short anthology film broadcast on the national channel NHK in January 1960, and Otogi Production’s five-minute series Otogi Manga Calendar has been running on TBS since June.

There’s a sense of optimism, of the possibilities offered by the expanding entertainment business. TV coverage of the wedding of Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito in April 1959 fuelled an explosion in the number of televisions in private homes in Japan. That new market must be fed. The traditional comicbook, novel and movie markets are always eager for new material, new talent. It’s a time of opportunity for bright young people with ideas and determination: people like the Yoshida brothers.

Determined to create “dreams for the children of the world”, oldest brother Tatsuo Yoshida and his siblings Kenji and Toyoharu founded Tatsunoko Production on 19 October 1962. The name is one of those puns that crop up in Japanese: it’s Japanese for seahorse, the company’s logo to this day, and also means “Tatsu’s child”. The studio soon acquired another name – “home of heroes”. Its tales of brave, conflicted teens striving for truth in an uncertain and deceptive world resonated with the children of postwar, pre-boom Japan.

Over half a century later Tatsu’s child is still thriving, though it passed out of family control in its fortieth year. Its activities, as stated on its website today, are still what they were in the days of paper, ink and black and white TV:

*Planning and production of theatrical and television animation

*Sales of animated productions both domestic and international

*Copyright management and copyright business

*Planning and production for original characters

*Planning and production for book, magazine and picture book publishing

Tatsuo Yoshida was a successful self-taught manga artist. Like the young Osamu Tezuka he quickly realised that the creation of characters and worlds that would take children out of the humdrum present and into a new universe of possibilities was a good way to make a living.

Before his untimely death from liver cancer aged just 45, in 1977, the company that he and his brothers created produced some of the most iconic titles in anime: Mach GoGoGo, loved in the USA as Speed Racer, Casshan, Tekkaman, Time Bokan, Yattaman and Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, also known in the West as Battle of the Planets. Middle brother Kenji took up Tatsuo’s mantle as studio head, while Toyoharu had already made a new name and reputation as producer Ippei Kuri.

Gatchaman came along ten years into the company’s history, a 70s show with roots firmly in the 60s. In 1964 Tatsuo created a live-action TV series that crashed samurai adventure into the hipster spy vibe of the James Bond movies and American TV series The Man from UNCLE. Ninja Butai Gekko (Moonlight Ninja Team, aired in Australia as Phantom Agents) were a team of modern-day samurai working as undercover agents battling evil organisations bent on world domination and criminal mastery.

They weren’t the first samurai spies; that honour went to Onmitsu Kenshi, aka Spy Swordsman, a live-action series by Senkosha Productions that ran continuously from 1962 to 1965 and spun off two feature films and a live stage show. It too was a hit in Australia. These homegrown spy samurai were just as big an influence on Ninja Butai Gekko as the international hipsters.

By the 1970s, Japan’s TV market had changed considerably from its 50s beginnings. A more affluent, more sophisticated consumer base and a growing economy made sponsors a little more willing to part with cash for TV screentime, but the technology had to be right. Colour TV was the only game in town now. Although many families couldn’t yet afford colour sets, shows had to be made in colour to sell to the stations – and sponsors – who wanted to attract the better-off viewer.

And there were other changes: tokusatsu, or live-action special effects shows, such as Ultraman marked a shift in entertainment from technology-driven aspirational spy dramas, packed with brand names and cool locations, to science fiction and fantasy. The TV kids, Japan’s first generation raised with the box in the living room from infancy, were now driving the market. In a way they still are, since many of today’s fifty- and sixty-something creatives and executives are TV kids who lived through this evolution in real time.

The society in which these children grew up was changing at a bewildering speed. August 1945 marked more than Japan’s defeat at the hands of foreign invaders; it marked a temporal shift, a point from which a society that had previously been relatively static moved faster and faster into the future.

One of the inescapable physical properties of speed is turbulence. Adults who had lived through the war had had enough turbulence to last a lifetime; children, with no previous experience, knew it as the norm. They demanded faster, brighter, louder, more vivid entertainment than a slowly adapting society could provide, and they found it on TV.

Foreign shows sold into Japan provided some fodder for their voracious appetites. British puppet drama Thunderbirds was sold overseas prior to its UK debut in 1966, and was aired in Japan the same year. (Tohokushinsha Film Corp., its distributors, have remained Japanese agents of International Rescue, releasing the latest Thunderbirds Are Go! series in Japan in 2015.) The five-member hero team, especially the teen team, became a staple of Japanese entertainment. When Tatsuo Yoshida updated his modern samurai spy drama to bring it into the age of science fiction, he spliced the British TV hit about the Tracy family striving to save others into its DNA, alongside the notion of a heroic figure battling organised evil from outer space.

Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has a Manga, Animation, Games and Media Art Information Bureau, whose very useful online resources include a History of Robot Anime. It has this to say about Gatchaman:

“1972’s Kamen Rider deeply influenced the animation industry. Its format ā€“ in which an evil organization dispatched new minions that were in turn defeated by the hero week after week ā€“ quickly became the anime industry standard formula as well.

In November 1972, another famed anime series featuring the format debuted Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman (Science Ninja Squad Gatchaman), a fusion of Japanese ninja legend and sci-fi chic. Inspired by an early-Sixties live-action series called Ninja Butai Gekko (aired abroad as Phantom Agent), Gatchaman featured a team of five teenagers who morphed into superheroes to fight giant robot monsters. Its success inspired legions of imitators both in the anime and the tokusatsu industry, eventually giving rise to the Super Sentai (Power Rangers) series of shows. Gatchaman represents one of Japanese pop culture’s single most pivotal and influential series.”

Gatchaman‘s TV debut was a huge success; the series ran for two years and 105 episodes and spun off a huge raft of merchandise, becoming a solid cash cow for Tatsunoko to this day. Two further series followed over the decade, Gatchaman II in 1976 and Gatchaman Fighter in 1979. The show was revived in a video series in 1994 and adapted into a completely new TV series, Gatchaman Crowds, in 2013. A project to make a Gatchaman film at Imagi, creators of the CGI Astro Boy, was abandoned in 2011, but there was a live-action film from Nikkatsu in 2013.

The movie we’re going to see now is a theatrical version of the original TV series, directed by the series director Hisayuki Toriumi. It premiered in Japan on 15 July 1978. Those of you into old-school anime may recognise the voice of singer/actor Isao Sasaki as bad boy Condor Joe, a role he reprised in videogames as well as voicing Christopher Reeve in the Japanese dub of Reeve’s first Superman movie, several characters in the Space Battleship Yamato franchise, and Panja in Tezuka’s Jungle Taitei aka Kimba The White Lion. He’s also worked on three of my alltime favourite series – Mysterious Cities of Gold (as Mendoza) Lupin III Part II (as George Marshall/Marcel Duran) and Legend of Galactic Heroes (as Erich von Haltenberg.)

The original Gatchaman series, like all 70s animation, was no great technical achievement by today’s standards, and the movie is of the same era; but it’s worth remembering that in its day this animation was on the razor edge of the industry. That Ministry of Culture report I mentioned earlier noted

“Tatsunoko Productions was especially successful at creating content suitable for this new all-color era. In addition to trace machines, the studio introduced a number of “special effects” to its cel animation, including the use of sponge- and brushwork to give scenes a rougher texture and airbrushes for color gradations. This allowed them to give weapons a realistic metal sheen, enhance explosions for dramatic effect, and even portray tracer bullets streaking from machine guns. The effect simply blew old-fashioned flat-plane animation out of the water. Gatchaman represented the first science-fiction series to which Tatsunoko applied their cutting-edge techniques.”

The cutting edge moves on, and the techniques that were revolutionary now look antique. But heroes never grow old.

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