A few weeks ago, a friend was expressing her retro-crush with Battle of the Planets (which being a child of the 70s myself, I completely share and understand). And that got me thinking about my former love for anime or Japanese animation or Japanimation as it was often called in the 1980s.
When I was into anime and manga (Japanese comic books), it was still largely a cult thing. Certainly a growing cult, but not like today where manga and anime just dominate shelves of mainstream book and video stores. I seem to have drifted away from the genre, just as it achieved mainstream acceptance. Weird.
Anyway, my personal history with Japanese animation.
I was born a little too late to really get into the earliest Japanese cartoons to hit North America: Gigantor (aka Tetsuijin #28 or Iron Man #28), Astro Boy (aka Tetsuwan Atomo or Mighty Atom) and Speed Racer (aka Mach Go-Go-Go.). I think Astro Boy was the only one I had any real experience with, and even that I think was just the later 1980s incarnation.
No, the first real Japanese (not that I knew it at the time, of course) cartoon to make a real impression on me was something called Battle of the Planets. I — and a lot of my classmates — would race home from school to catch this on Global Television, channel 3.
We used to play “G-Force” as the team was called in the playground. I was usually stuck playing the overweight pilot Tiny or worse, the annoying robot Keyop. But boy, I could sympathize with Tiny’s common complaint “Aww, I’ll get to do is pilot the Phoenix.” The playground Phoenix was a swing-set, of course. And in childlike imagination, the ultra-cool Fiery Phoenix mode could be achieved by just swinging really hard and fast.
What I wouldn’t know for several years is that Battle of the Planets was translated from the Japanese series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Nor would I realize just how heavily edited it was.
As kids, we all spotted the animation in the 7-Zark-7, a robot with R2-D2’s body and Threepio’s personality, scenes didn’t match the rest of the animation. What we didn’t know is that Zark was just added by the Americans to make up time for all the violence cut from the American versions and also to reassure us that all cities were dutifully evacuated, that all exploding ships were robot planes and that despite all visual evidence to the contrary Mark’s father hadn’t really died in an exploding plane and father and son were now reunited — off-screen, of course.
Seeing many episodes again in my early 20s, it became absurdly easy to spot what was cut. G-Force would enter a room where the bad guys were lying in wait, a hero called out the villainous organization’s name “Spectra!”. Then suddenly the screen cut to an image of a Spectra mask falling to the floor. The mask had a bullet hole in it. Then back to a hero saying “Boy, they sure ran away fast when we showed up.”
Sure, the bad guys ran away so fast they just dropped their mask with a bullet hole in it. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Looking at it now, it seems like virtually all the violence was hacked out. I can’t imagine what our parents were so bothered about. It also takes a bit of imagination to see why the 9-12 year old me liked it so much. That damn robot never seems to shut up and let interesting things happen.
Still, heavily edited as it was, it was far, far more exciting than the early seasons of Super Friends. Speaking of which, the composer of the American Battle of the Planets theme, Hoyt Curtain, is the same guy who composed the Super Friends theme. And boy are they similar.
Also, the animation of Battle of the Planets / G-Force (the team name in BotP and the title of a less-censored but less-loved 1980s translation) / Gatchaman was a cut above most cartoons. Also, the characters had a little more personality than Aquaman or the Saturday morning version of Batman. And occasionally, Battle of the Planets had traces of ongoing storylines – although somewhat weakly resolved / swept under the carpet in the kid-friendly version.
The excitement, the superior animation, the characterization and the ongoing storylines are things I’d find in other cartoons. Cartoons that I was old enough to realize originated in Japan.
To be continued…. with Star Blazers, Force Five and Robotech….
Fun Battle of the Planets Trivia:
The voice of Mark in Battle of the Planets is Casem Kasem. He also played Robin the Boy Wonder on Super Friends and most famously Shaggy on Scooby-Doo. I think Mark would have been a more fun guy if he had a few Scooby Snacks and said “Zoinks!” on occasion. Mark wasn’t anyone’s first choice on the playground. Even wanted to be Jason. For much the same reason that Luke Skywalker was no one’s first playground choice. (The same tomboy always seemed to force her way into playing Han Solo or Jason.)
My friend’s band name is Science Ninja Big Ten. A double Battle of the Planets reference. The Science Ninja comes from the show’s original Japanese title and “Big Ten” is was G-Force slang for “Roger” or “Ten Four”. When I remarked on the band’s name, Chris replied “You’re the only other person in the bar who’d get the reference.” Sad but true. That’s probably why I don’t hang around bars much.