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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Jump Super Heroes: Kandou!! Legend Heroes: An Oddysey of Old-School, with Some Catchy Tunes

Volume 3 of the Jump Super Heroes Special Collection DVD series strays away from a genre theme & instead focuses on a timeframe: The 70s & early 80s.  While it isn't exactly the most inclusive look at the earliest Jump animes, it is really, really close to being it.

[NOTE: Eyectaches seem to be a less common thing in anime from the early 80s, even less so from the 70s, so only two of the titles on this DVD have eyecatches; every other title is using the title splash]


The Pyonkichi is Born Story/The Being a Flat Frog is Heart-Breaking Story
Dokonjo Gaeru has a very important place in the history of Jump animes; while it's only the second Jump anime ever made (third if you to count the Kurenai Sanshiro anime, which ran in Jump but didn't debut in it), Gaeru is the first long-running Jump anime.  From 1972 to 1974 the show ran for 103 episodes and was the first comedy anime from the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump.  The basic plot is simple: One day Hiroshi tried fighting his "rival" Gorillaimo and fared very badly...  So badly that he fell on top of a frog that was watching the fight.  Luckily (or unluckily, depending on whose perspective you're looking at), instead of dying the frog ended up being embedded on Hiroshi's shirt (his favorite one, no less), and no amount of washing will clean him off.  Calling himself Pyonkichi, the frog "follows" Hiroshi around and "helps" him out with his everyday life, alongside Hiroshi's best friend Goro, his crush Kyoko, & even Gorillaimo.  Unfortunately, while Dokonjo Gaeru was a gigantic hit both in manga & anime form (the manga ran from 1970-1976, while the anime returned as Shin Dokonjo Gaeru from 1981-1982 for another 29 episodes), creator Yasumi Yoshizawa never had another hit manga.

As for this first episode, the first story does a nice job at introducing the main characters, the extremely simple way Hiroshi & Pyonkichi meet (they never even bother to wonder how or why Pyonkichi is stuck to Hiroshi's shirt), and get some good comedy in; Pyonkichi isn't a simple conscience for Hiroshi but rather can actually do things, like pull Hiroshi around, bite things, and even swim.  The second story is, surprisingly enough, a more serious bit about Pyonko, a female frog that Pyonkichi really likes, and how, after saving her from being turned into frog soup by Gorillaimon, Pyonkichi ignores her until she leaves.  Pyonkichi purposefully does this because he knows that in the situation he's stuck in effectively means that he can never have a normal life with Pyonko again.  Even though it's still comedic, it's actually very honest in its execution and ends the episode off in a slightly somber way, though Goro punching Hiroshi in the gut while they're all crying keeps the end slightly comedic.  Overall, it's a simple but enjoyable start to what seems to be a, likewise, simple but enjoyable title.  In fact, Yoshizawa's style gives off a big Hanna-Barbera vibe, and I can honestly say that if Hanna-Barbera was to have licensed this anime back in the 70s, they could have outright lied by calling it their own creation...  And no one would have doubted them.

An eyecatch in early 70s anime looks to be a rare delicacy.

Howl, Banba Ban
Samurai Giants was the creation of writer Ikki Kajiawara (of Ashita no Joe fame) & artist Ko Inoue (this being his biggest work), and it really has some of that Joe influence.  Remember how Joe Yabuki was cocky, brash, & tough, but knew little to nothing about boxing?  Well, Samurai Giants' lead, Ban Banba, is everything that Joe was, but with the knowledge & skill of playing baseball, making him even more dangerous that Joe was at the start; unfortunately, his strong pitches have no control to them & his general attitude makes him scary to go up against.  He's so impressive & has so much potential that he's even scouted by the captain of the Yomiuri Giants, who feels that the team needs someone with the "blood of the samurai", which Ban definitely fits the mold of.  To think that this ran alongside Astro Kyudan from 1972-1974 (Giants ended in 74, while Astro ended in 76)...

Honestly, this first episode is great solely because of Ban, whose attitude is always entertaining to watch, especially since he can back up his claims (and, hell, if all else fails Ban will [accidentally?] simply beanball everyone on the other team until there's no else left to bat against).  He's completely open like a book, to the point where his infatuation with the young woman Rika Minami might be abused by Minami herself., and that's what makes Ban such a fun lead, no doubt helped by an amazing performance by the late Kei Tomiyama.  The fact that, when offered the chance to join the Giants at the end of the episode, Ban says no, claiming that his goal is to defeat all "giants" & "monsters" that stand in his way, it makes for an interesting cliffhanger, especially since Ban looks to be a part of the team in the opening footage.  Combine all of this with an amazingly addictive opening theme by Ichiro Mizuki, and an interesting use of an actual Giants game that then transitions into an animated take on the game, & Samurai Giants definitely caught my interest.  Too bad it's without any sort of English translation.


Burn Up! Sunboy
Anyone remember Gun Blaze West, a wild-west manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki (creator of Rurouni Kenshin)?  That title ended after three volumes, making it seem like manga & westerns could never mix, but in fact the two did mix just fine back in the 70s with Koya no Shonen Isamu, which ran from 1971-1974 & was the creation of writer Soji Yamakawa (not known much outside of Japan) & artist Noboru Kawasaki (who just came off of drawing the legendary baseball manga Kyojin no Hoshi/Star of the Giants at the time). Unlike Gun Blaze West, though, Isamu went for a more realistic & dramatic western feel than GBW's more traditional shonen elements.  Much like Ginga -Nagareboshi Gin- this makes the first episode of Isamu feel a fair bit different from most of the other first episodes on these DVDs, but it's also the first to end with a bit of a real cliffhanger.

Isamu is a Japanese boy living in the wild west & is being trained in gunslinging by Wingate & his brothers Ned & Rett, the three of which are hardened outlaws who have no problems with killing people & setting saloons on fire (Isamu doesn't seem to know that his mentors are bad guys).  Unfortunately, while Isamu is extremely talented at gunplay he also values life and does not want to kill anyone or anything, which all comes to a head when Rett challenges Isamu to shoot a random passerby in the desert; when Isamu doesn't he gets beat up & the next morning he tells Isamu to kill the small puppy he had just befriended the previous day.  Isamu once again says no, but when Rett is about to kill the puppy Isamu purposefully shoots the ground, scaring the puppy, but when the puppy's mother appears to get her pup Rett kills her...  And this pisses of Isamu, who shoots the gun out of Rett's hand is looks ready to kill finally.  The episode ends here, and that's really annoying because, while the episode was definitely a slow burn at times, it really let you understand Isamu & absorb the wild west atmosphere.  While there are western-influenced creations in anime & manga, such as Trigun, actual "western" anime & manga is rare, and that helps make Koya no Shonen Isamu a true original.


The Captain is Born
And now we move from the 70s to the early 80s, with more baseball.  While Tetsuya Chiba's work on drawing Ashita no Joe made him a legend in manga, he wasn't the only one from the family to make a mark in the industry.  His younger brother, Akio Chiba, showed his chops in two ways with baseball.  In 1972 Chiba debuted Captain in the pages of Bessatsu Shonen Jump, which would then become Monthly Shonen Jump.  One year later Chiba debuted Play Ball, the sequel to Captain, in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump...  While still doing Captain at the same time.  In fact, Play Ball ended in 1978 while Captain ended in 1979, and Chiba received the Shogakukan Manga Award for Shonen for both mangas in 1977.  Confused?  Well wait, because it gets better.  When Captain finally was adapted into anime it didn't go straight to a traditional TV series, but rather had a TV special first in 1980.  After that came a movie adaptation in 1981, and then in 1983 it finally became a TV series.  This makes Captain the only entry in this DVD series to be based on a Monthly Jump series rather than a Weekly Jump series.  Unfortunately, on September 13, 1984, Akio Chiba ended his own life due to issues relating to bipolar disorder, ending a career short.

So how is Captain's first episode?  Well, it's kind of odd but at the same time interesting in a simple & honest fashion.  Takao Taniguchi transfers to a new school after one year at Aoba Junior High School, which has a prestigious baseball team.  Naturally, everyone assumes that Taniguchi is an amazing player, but in reality Taniguchi is barely average, though he has sparks of amazing ability.  Taniguchi doesn't take this lying down, though he isn't exactly a positive thinker, and decides to train at home with his father, who builds a homemade pitching machine/cannon.  The captain sees Taniguchi's determination, and when the new team line-up is announced Taniguchi not only gets the third base position but also becomes to new captain of the team.  Really, this first episode gives off a similar feel to that of Big Windup!'s first episode, right down to Taniguchi's love for the sport but low esteem when it comes to his "credentials" from being a part of a prestigious school's team.  That said, Big Windup! introduced a great personal feeling with that pitcher/catcher relationship, but in Captain there is none of this.  Overall, Captain's first episode isn't bad by any means, but it's definitely a rough start.  Granted, the overall idea of Captain, where when Taniguchi graduates the new team captain becomes the new main character (rinse & repeat for a total of four captains/main characters), is really interesting so Chiba definitely had something going on here.  It also makes me want to check out Play Ball, which did get two 13-episode TV series in 2005 & 2006, which is probably the record for longest stretch between manga debut & anime debut for Jump (32 years!).


Awaken! Psychogun
All right, this is almost unfair.  I have to say this right at the start: Space (Adventure) Cobra's first episode is easily the best one on this DVD.  Osamu Dezaki's personal style just mixes in perfectly with Buichi Terasawa's futuristic world of wonder & lights, creating a title that is entrancing & amazing right from the beginning.  Sure, in many ways this title also outright screams "1980s!!!!", even though the manga debuted in 1978, but one cannot deny the style that Cobra's first episode simply oozes.  Everything about it is simply awesome.

But, to be fair, let me explain what works.  Cobra's origin story is about a normal salaryman called Johnson who decides to get a Trip Movie, a type of specifically-programmed dream, for the fun of it.  In his dream he thinks he's a legendary space pirate called Cobra who traversed the galaxy with his android girl Armaroid Lady until he became a wanted man by the Space Guild (a.k.a. the "Space Mafia").  When he wakes he's told that the dream he had wasn't what they programmed, but Johnson doesn't think about it much and goes to a casino...  Where he wins big and meets the owner, who looks exactly like the Guild member Cobra nearly killed in his dream.  Long story short, the owner's men try to kill Johnson, who accidentally kills them with the Psychogun, a gun hidden in his arm that Cobra had.  Johnson then realizes that he is in fact Cobra, who changed his face & blocked his memories so he could hide, and that the dream he had was simply his old memories coming back.  It sounds very much like Total Recall, though it predates that movie & was likely inspired by the same short story, and it's a really cool origin story for the anime.  What helps seal the deal, though, is the amount of visual glory this episode has.  Everything looks like "the future", but it's a colorful future that you simply wish you were in, and Dezaki's directing style, complete with "postcard moments", varying shot perspectives, & impeccable flow, just matches this world like no other.  Combine that with an excellent performance by the late Nachi Nozawa, & Cobra is impossible to beat on this DVD.  I'm so happy that Right Stuf will be releasing this TV series late this year!


You're a Sexy Thief
Before filling the pages of WSJ with the sweeper missions of "City Hunter" Ryo Saeba Tsukasa Hojo made his debut in 1981 with Cat's Eye, the story of three sisters, Rui, Hitomi, & Ai, who run a coffee shop called "Cat's Eye" during the bright of day & work as master phantom thieves during the dark of night.  Always on their tail is Detective Toshio Utsumi, who is also in a bit of a relationship with Hitomi, not knowing that she's one of the girls he's after professionally.  In 1983 the manga was adapted into anime with two TV seasons, ending in 1985, the same year the manga ended.  I will admit here that while Cobra is the best first episode on this DVD, Cat's Eye certainly puts up a great fight.

This episode is a fun intro to the main characters & what seems to be the general pattern the show likely follows: The girls have a valuable item to steal, Toshi is ready to catch them, and the Cat's Eye girls have to use their skills to get the item.  Even though this is Hojo's debut title, you can already see the thing he likes drawing the most, and that's sexy women.  All three members of Cat's Eye do their thieving in skin-tight leotards, and both the opening & ending footage loves showing off their curves; hell, the ending footage is essentially the anime version of "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John, but with women everywhere!  Toshio even comes off as a prototype-of-sorts to Ryo Saeba, except that he's a cop instead of a sweeper.  If there is one odd thing, though, it's that these girls are ballsy as hell.  I mean, come on, they named their coffee shop after their thief name, & Toshio is a common patron!  Hell, Toshio even calls them out on this in the first episode, and they just talk it off as sheer coincidence.  Luckily, this show utilizes Superman logic (i.e. Clark Kent can't be Superman, because Clark wears glasses!), so no one's the wiser.  The show's style works really well for it, and I can easily understand why this was chosen as one of the (only) three titles released by imaginAsian TV during their short-lived "TMS Anime Classics" DVD line; too bad we only got the first season, not to mention that these DVDs were burn-on-demand & are now uber-rare (glad I bought Orguss!).  If Cobra is the best first episode, then Cat's Eye is the second, maybe tied with Samurai Giants.


Kandou!! Legend Heroes is a really cool entry in this DVD series, and it does a great job at showcasing the kinds of titles that were running in Shonen Jump (both Weekly & Monthly) during the 70s & early 80s.  While not all of these first episodes are perfect (Captain is a little rough & Isamu has that annoying cliffhanger), they certainly do their job in showcasing their eras of Jump.  The fact that, up until yesterday, only one of these titles had been licensed for release in North America, specifically as a super-limited release at that, only showcases most of their obscurity, but their importance shouldn't be lessened by that.  Probably one of the bigger things that this DVD showcases is that, before Toei entered the Jump anime business with Dr. Slump Arale-chan (unless you want to count Mazinger Z), the main force supporting Jump was TMS; this DVD features five TMS titles, with Captain being the odd-man out (Captain was produced by Eiken, not to be confused with the manga breastacular of the same name).  Oddly enough, once Toei took the reigns in the 80s TMS seemed to back down after Cat's Eye, with their sole 90s Jump anime being Karakuri Zoushi Ayatasuri Sakon (a 1999-2000 mystery title based on the manga drawn by Takeshi Obata).  In the 2000s, TMS would do Buzzer Beater (a Monthly Jump basketball title by Takehiko Inoue) & then one long-running Jump anime in the form of D.Gray-man.  It's just odd how TMS was the force behind 70s Jump anime, while Toei took over from the 80s on.

If there is one thing that does annoy me, though, it's the simple fact that there is an important title missing: The very first Jump anime.  Shonen Jump debuted in 1968, and less than a year into its life it had a hit manga that received an anime adaptation: 1968-1973's Otoko Ippiki Gaki Daisho by Hiroshi Motomiya (his debut work), who would later create Salaryman Kintaro.  Running from 1968-1969 it was the only Jump anime from that decade (unless, once again, you include Kurenai Sanshiro), so it would seem to be a natural inclusion for a DVD that's all about the earliest Jump animes.  Unfortuantely, from what I can find out the Gaki Daisho anime never received a home video release, not even on VHS; with Chou Kosoku Galvion finally getting its first home video release this summer, Gaki Daisho can now take that claim as being one of the "rarest anime ever".  In fact, the only footage I can find of it is the opening footage, so that is probably what kept it from getting on the DVD.  Still, Legend Heroes certainly makes it mark as one of the more interesting entries in the Jump Super Heroes Special Collection DVD series.  Up next is Volume 4, where we go in the opposite direction & see what the mid-to-late 90s offered in terms of Jump anime, as well as a short detour to the early 80s, oddly enough.

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