Around 1979 – 1980, in the height of Battle of the Planets mania, I saw a cartoon series about heroes setting off for a long voyage in an outer space battleship. It was Star Blazers — a series that helped define North American anime. But then, before I knew it, it was gone. I’d see it again in a few years, and by then I’d realize that the characters big wide eyes meant the show orginated in Japan. And I’ll talk about Star Blazers aka Space Cruiser Yamato aka Space Battleship Yamato aka Uchu Senkan Yamato) in my next installment.
But first, the series that really made me aware of Japanese animation was a show called Force Five that aired in the mornings on Toronto’s “Channel 47” (nowadays it’s called Omni 1). Actually, Force Five was a compilation of five different anime series. I know in some markets, each weekday featured a different series. But I’m not certain if that’s how Channel 47 showed it back in the early 1980s. I got the impression that they went through one series before going onto the next one.
The credit sequences announced that Force Five was from Jim Terry Productions — complete with American Eagle logo — and the writing and direction credits featured very Anglo-Saxon names. But the credits also prominently noted that the animation came from Toei in Japan. That’s still the name that comes to mind when I think of Japanese animation studios. Also, the credits mentioned the Japanese creators of the shows – folks like Leiji (or Reiji, depending on the romanization of his name) Matsumoto and Go Nagai.
Looking at those credits, I realized that cartoons with that large-eyed characters, ongoing storylines, interesting characters and giant robots likely originated in Japan.
The Force Five shows … in the order I remember them .. are:
Starvengers (aka Getter Robo G) created by Go Nagai was actually a sequel to a series never translated. It features three planes that can combine in different ways to form three different robots – Star Dragon, Star Arrow and Star Poseidon. It was a bit weird to see a first episode of the series where they were discussing unseen defeated enemies and the death of a colleague. (Although not in the video compilation, I think.) The episodes weren’t as strongly linked as some Japanese series, but I do remember a decisive ending.
The Pandemonium Empire had one very notable enemy: Captain (or Colonel, depending on whether it was the actual series or the video compilation) Fuehrer. Really, I have to share a clip.
Still that’s slightly more subtle than the Japanese name for the character: Captain Hitler.
Created by Leiji/Reiji Matsumoto, the humans were travelling to the distant planet Promete. Several episodes passed before the robot was completed and the pilot was ready. Mainly I remember it for the similiarity in names between Windstar in this series and Wildstar in StarBlazers (while the shows were created by the same person, the names were created by different “translators”), the cranky mentor Captain Mask and the horrible theme tune.
Titled Starzinger in Japan (and Sci-Bots in the UK), this was originally a science fiction retelling of the Monkey King story. Jim Terry Productions felt that the Japanese classic would have little meaning for North Americans, and so the “translated” character names resembled the names of Dumas’s Three Musketeers.
There are no giant robots in Spaceketeers which makes it unique among the Force Five shows. The plot about the heroes travelling great distances to heal the galaxy is close to the plot of Space Battleship Yamato / Star Blazers, and not surprising, the shows had the same creator.
At the time, I think this was my favourite Force Five series. It wasn’t as playground cool as Starvengers or Grandizer, but I liked the whole quest storyline and the slow introduction of the lead heroes. As a teenager, one of my few attempts at fan fiction was to rewrite and adapt this series (make it better).
Oh, and isn’t weird how beserker hero Jesse Dart (close to D’Artagnan’s name, I guess) has the same hairdo as the comic book beserker Wolverine? (Well, if the opening didn’t hide his hair in that space helmet.)
Another Go Nagai creation, UFO Robot Grendizer was a pretty exciting giant robot show. I remember the hero was an alien named Orion Quest who masqueraded as a farm-hand/cowboy named Johnny. I remember in the later episodes, the saucer that connected to Grandizer changed somewhat. And I think the heroes finally defeated the villains.
Maybe I’m wrong but I think like Voltron, Grandizer had one infalliable weapon to defeat the enemy, but he never used it until the end of the episode.
This is the Force Five series I remember least well. An uncreated creation of Go Nagai, in this show, the heroes flew around in fortress called the Great Space Dragon which launched a giant robot defender — Gaiking. As I recall, they travelled the globe investigating alien involvement in Easter Island and such places. I guess it was a super-charged X-Files.
Coming right at the end of my playground days — and really, far past the time that any rational kid had got into sports — Force Five was excellent fare for child’s play. In all the Force Five series, the heroes and villains would shout out the name of the weapon before they used it. Militarily stupid, but it worked as a kids’ game. We called out the name of the giant robot we wanted to play and the names of weapons at each other (“Space thunder!” “Hatchet boomerang!”) As I recall, yelling “Spaceketeers!” granted you access to the weapons of all three heroes in that show. (Only sporting as they weren’t giant robots.)
Speaking of playtime, a few years before Force Five, toys from most of these shows (and other untranslated anime) came to North America under the Shogun Warriors brand. Danguard Ace had a prominent role (with no connection to the continuity of the anime or any of the other robots’ anime) in the tie-in Shogun Warriors comic by Marvel. One friend had a Star Dragon (Dragun) figure. Another friend had a miniature Grandizer. I was jealous.
Looking back, Force Five has not aged well. Even at the time, I probably thought it was cheesy. Certainly the voices are generally silly. But still, it got me interested in anime.
Coming up next time: Star Blazers!