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Friday, June 3, 2011

Team Astro: There's No Dying in Baseball!

Well, much like when I reviewed Super Robot Wars Compact 3, I'm going to talk about something that isn't an anime or manga... But at least it's related to a manga, so it still counts. In East Asia it's not surprising to see live-action adaptations of anime & manga; I say "East Asia" because not only is Japan known for doing this, but also Korea and Taiwan (though, oddly enough, they always love adapting Japanese creations and not so much their own creations). Generally when these titles are adapted to live-action, they are done in the dramatic style that many live-action shows take on, and to fans of Japanese productions call this type of show a "dorama" or "J-Drama". I personally have only seen a few J-Dramas, but this one is interesting because you can actually watch this one legally.


Team Astro, or Astro Kyudan in Japanese (and in no relation to the Houston Astros), was originally a baseball manga that ran in Weekly Shounen Jump magazine from 1972 to 1976, predating the magazine's first true mega-hits like Ring ni Kakero, Kochikame, and Kinnikuman by at least four years. Even though it was popular during its serialization and lasted 20 volumes it still seemed to suffer cancellation in the end and the title ended up becoming mostly forgotten when those previously mentioned titles became mega-hits. Though it did receive a wideban release later on, Team Astro would still stay in obscurity until 1999 when Ohta Publishing gave the manga another re-release, this time across 5 gigantic volumes (each volume had more than 700 pages). This re-release sparked some interest and renewed popularity in the title, and in 2005 TV Asahi commissioned Production I.G. to make some animated footage based on the manga that would be used as the intro for the station's pro baseball coverage. This would then lead to TV Asahi airing a live-action J-Drama adaptation of the manga the very same year.

Back during World War II legendary pitcher Eiji Sawamura, who was the Japanese equivalent of Cy Young, was serving with the Japanese Imperial Navy. While being stationed in the Phillipines he met a young boy called J. Shuro, and he shared his love of baseball with the boy along with his dream to one day face the Americans on the baseball field rather than on the battlefield. Sawamura died during the war, though, and Shuro decided to take up his mentor's dream. Sawamura once told Shuro a premonition he had about how 9 men will be born at 9 seconds after 9:09 on September 9, 1954 (the 29th year of the Showa Era), and Shuro has made it his life goal to gather those nine men, who will be called the "Astro Supermen" and all have a baseball-shaped birthmark somewhere on their bodies. These men will create the greatest baseball team the world will ever see, and one day they'll take on not only the Americans but also the Yomiuri Giants, who are seen as the top baseball team in Japan.


Now though this title is about playing baseball, just taking one read at the synopsis should tell you that this is not going to be your usual baseball title. In fact, this title is nothing like you can imagine. Let's just say that if you found the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime series to be too over-the-top for you then don't bother watching this show, as it's even more ridiculously over-the-top. Yeah, they're playing baseball, but at the same time these games are like nothing the kinds of games you watch on TV. The general idea is that the Japanese professional baseball league has no intentions of accepting Team Astro as one of them, and are actually willing to absolutely kill these players if needed. The members of Team Astro are willing to take themselves to the brink of death every time they play so expect a lot of bleeding, hot-blooded screaming, and obviously illegal physical beat downs in the two games this show has (the first game is a non-sanctioned match while the second is advertised as a "death match", so the rules aren't exactly being fully enforced here). If you want your baseball games to be realistic then make no attempt to watch this show; on the other hand, if you're willing to accept these matches as they are and love old-school hot-bloodedness then you'll most likely enjoy this show.

And, naturally, what kind of over-the-top sports title would this be without having equally over-the-top characters and special moves? There's Kyuichi Uno, the leader and pitcher of the team, who is all about being an absolute M-A-N and truly giving it your all every time you're on the field; Kyuzaburo Ijuin, a race car driver who lost his eyesight after an accident but is able to play baseball by using his mind's eye; and "Razor Dragon" Kyuroku Takao, who is originally introduced as a villainous pitcher who is willing to kill and is actually on the opposing team for the first match. And, believe it or not, there are even more crazy people in this title! The second game has Team Astro take on Team Victory, a similarly strong team formed by Kyushiro Touge, a superhuman who hates his birthmark and wants nothing but to destroy his fellow supermen. Team Victory is filled with even crazier members, like Daimon Ijuin, Kyuzaburo's older brother, who wants nothing but to kill his little brother, Baron Mori, a long-time friend of Kyushiro's who seemingly has a split personality, and Shinjiro Ujiie, a kamikaze pilot who survived his mission and wants nothing but a battle that can finally kill him. It's these crazy characters that help make this show so enjoyable, as each of them are larger-than-life and can be easily liked or hated.


And what about special moves? Well, Kyuichi has the Giacobini Meteor Shower Swing, where he cracks a wooden bat and steps up to the plate with it; when he hits the ball, the bat shatters, making it look like there are multiple balls flying in the air. The Killer L-Pitch, which Kyuroku uses, has such a spin to it that it actually makes the ball ride up the bat, like a snake, until it potentially hits the batter. And there are other special moves out there, but what also takes these crazy moments all the way through the stratosphere are the lengths these players go to while playing. For example, in order to be able to throw a insane curveball, Kyuichi actually turns on a rotating drill and grabs the drill so that his hand ends up utterly maimed, which somehow allows him to throw it properly. In another moment a character, I won't say who due to spoilers, actually commits harakiri before stepping up to the plate so that he can truly give everything he's got in order to give his team points. Honestly, compared to Team Astro titles like Ring ni Kakero and Prince of Tennis, which mainly just exaggerate realism and physics so that certain things can be done, might actually seem realistic in the end. True, those two titles do crazy things, but neither of them go to the awesomely insane lengths that Team Astro goes to. The live-action adaptation's super-dramatic style just makes these moments come off even crazier.

This J-Drama adaptation makes no attempt to modernize the story, as it still takes place in the 70s like the original manga. Also, after looking at some untranslated images from the original manga, the J-Drama does skip out on a lot of parts (hell, the manga featured a match that took place before either of the two the J-Drama adapts), but what it does adapt is very accurately done. I can understand the skipping of these parts, though, as it would be impossible to adapt the entire 20-volume manga in just nine 45-minute episodes. J-Dramas tend to always use 45-minute-long episodes and usually don't go beyond 9-12 episodes in length, so it's more a fault with the way J-Drama's are done rather than a fault specifically with this show. You can tell that the match with Team Victory had to be done so they couldn't skip out on it. If there's one big fault with the way this specific show adapts the story it's with the ending. In the original manga, due to cancellation the original creators, Shiro Tosaki and Norihiro Nakajima, had Team Astro travel to Africa to take on a tribe of Masai Warriors (at this point you wouldn't really question it), though the manga did get one last chapter that had the team return to Japan. The J-Drama, though, goes for a completely different ending that reaches Go Nagai-esque levels of "What the hell just happened?!"


Finally, a J-Drama lives and dies off of its cast, and Team Astro has a really good one. Tsuyoshi Hayashi plays Kyuichi seemingly perfectly, making the actor himself come off as one of Japan's most manly men in Japanese manhood. The other actors all play their roles great as well, but the one actor that might make you want to watch the show, even if it doesn't interest you, is the original "street fighter" himself, J. J. Sonny Chiba, who plays J. Shuro. Chiba plays Shuro excellently, and it's interesting to hear Chiba perform a role in his native tongue rather than hear someone else dub him over. The music, done by Kei-ichi Oku, is also very fitting, though the show's highlight song isn't done by Oku. That would be the insert song, "Astro Kyudan Ouenkan" performed by Dohatsuten, a band who truly knows what "hot-blood" is. Just listen to the opening theme to the Ginga Densetsu Weed anime they did and you have proof enough of their awesomeness. The opening theme, "Yumeyo, Maiodore!" by Akihiro Namba and Spaceship Earth featuring Hasshun, is used as an instrumental song for the show and sounds appropriately old-school and fits the Production I.G. footage well.  The ending, "Good Emotion" by Namba and Spaceship Earth, doesn't exactly sound fitting for the show itself due to it's laid-back style, but considering that the ending footage is behind-the-scenes pictures from each episode it works well enough.

It's truly old-school in it's style, the J-Drama adaptation gives it even more dramatic styling than the original manga more than likely, and thankfully you can actually watch this show legally! Just go to DramaFever.com and watch it, though I must warn that with this being that site's first exclusive J-Drama the subtitling is a bit rough. DramaFever mainly does Korean and Taiwanese Dramas, and it's previous Japanese shows were either given DVD releases previously (Super Robot Red Baron, Iron King) or had been given a simulcast by another company before (Moyashimon via FUNimation). DF's general translation works fine, though there are typos here and there as well as a rare missing line, but the company's handling of names is horribly inept. Any of the Astro Supermen, even if they aren't with the team at that moment, have their names subbed as "Astro [#]" instead of their proper names. Also, last names are horribly mangled, like how Kyuichi's last name, Uno, is subbed as "Yunoki". Hell, in episode three there's an American player called Monster Joe who speaks full-on English a couple of times, and DramaFever somehow manages to sub those lines incorrectly! I'm not even sure if I blame these problems on the company getting the subs from Japan, as TV Asahi's English translation for the show's webpage is in excellent English, and even DramaFever's page for the show has the proper names. It's odd as hell, but in the end the subs are still overall good enough that you can watch the show and still understand everything that's going on.

[5/2017 ADDENDUM: Sadly, DramaFever's license the stream Team Astro expired, so it is no longer available to watch anymore... And that's terrible.]


There's just one way to describe Team Astro: It's Awesomely Insane. Not insanely awesome, though it is awesome, but rather awesomely insane because the stuff you see happening in this show just continually makes you go "What the Hell?!" but at the same time you can't help but love what you're seeing, as long as you can accept this show for all of its over-the-top insanity. J-Drama's tend to not get licensed for DVD release over here due to issues regarding the agencies these actors work for, so I doubt we'll ever see Team Astro on DVD over here.

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