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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gaiking Movie Trilogy: A "Heck" of a Fun Time

It's been often said that when it comes to releasing anime in North America, the older it is the tougher it is to sell to fans.  Sure, some have been able to make a living off of older properties, but in those cases the titles selected generally have some sort of established fanbase...  But what about the more obscure titles?  Well, in late-2009, Toei announced that they would be working with William Winckler Productions (the studio known most for its insanely cheesy dub of the original Tekkaman that aired on TV here in 1984) & produce compilation movies based on eight anime productions: Daiku Maryu/Space Dragon Gaiking, Wakusei/Planet Robo Danguard Ace, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Ashita no Nadja (under the name The Adventures of Nadja), Fist of the North Star, SF Saiyuki Starzinger, Hana no Ko/The Flower Girl Lun Lun, & GeGeGe no Kitaro (under the name Kitaro's Graveyeard Gang [the exact version that was adapted is unknown]).  Instead of simply making one movie per series, though, Toei & Winckler Pro decided to split up each series into 2-3 movies each (Fist of the North Star was split into six!), allowing their stories to be told in greater detail.  Originally these movies were seemingly only made for viewing in Japan via a broadband rental service but Shout! Factory, who have been doing more & more Japanese productions lately, decided to give this concept a try & this year alone they have released the Gaiking, Starzinger, & (just last week) Danguard Ace movies as individual collections for only $19.99 MSRP each.  So, to go with Mecha Month, let's go over the Gaiking movies & see if there's any merit to this interesting production idea.


The planet Zela is on the verge of destruction due to a looming black hole that's slowly coming closer & closer.  Emperor Darius decides to send his forces to another planet so that the people of his planet can have a new home.  Unfortunately, Darius has chosen Earth, which was once visited by Zelans in the past, and he has no intent on co-existing with Earthlings; his first order is to kill off any & all humans that have potential psychic powers.  One of the targeted humans, Sanshiro Tsuwabuki, was attacked during his debut baseball game in the major leagues, leading to his pitching wrist getting permanently injured & ending his career before it could truly start.  Luckily, Dr. Daimonji has recruited Sanshiro to his group of humans who are willing to take on the Zelans with the help of their giant mecha base, the Space Dragon.  Sanshiro's job is to be the pilot of Gaiking, a combining robot that uses the Space Dragon's face for its chest/cockpit.

Gaiking originally aired from April 1976 to January 1977, lasting 44 episodes.  While Toei credits the creation of the show to Akio Sugino (Toei's equivalent to Sunrise's Hajime Yatate, a.k.a. a pen name for the overall staff), credit actually goes to the legendary Go Nagai.  Word is that Toei wanted a mech anime of their own, without sharing credit (which they had been doing for years), so they simply didn't credit Nagai (especially since there is no Nagai manga equivalent for the show)...  Nagai then hit Toei with a legal battle that lasted 10 years & resulted in Dynamic Pro being credited with "Collaboration" for the first half.  In 1980 Jim Terry Productions licensed Gaiking to be part of their Force Five series, which dubbed about half of the show.  Anyway, how do you turn an episodic, mid-70s super robot anime into three compilation movies?


Well, to get that question out of the way, you don't try to get all 44 episodes squeezed into the entire thing.  Instead, Toei & Winckler Pro decided to take a "best-of" approach & simply chose fifteen (or 1/3 of the show), spreading them out evenly (five episodes/movie).  Instead of simply throwing them out in actual order, though (like Attack of the Supermonsters), the movies reshuffle them a little to make them all feel slightly linked together.  Movie 1 covers episodes 1-3 & 22-23, introducing the story & characters while also introducing Face Open, Gaiking's "upgrade".  Movie 2, called Gaiking II, covers (in movie order) episodes 25, 9, & 12-14, focusing on developing the members of the Space Dragon crew & showcasing the Zelans' attempts at brainwashing humans (Darius already does this to his own people to make them into soldiers).  Gaiking III covers episodes 17, 24, 33, & 43-44, focusing on Zelan plans that work off of their previous visits to Earth before doing the last two episodes of the show.  While there is some narration that makes them sound like they happen in this exact order, usually starting with "Meanwhile...", the actual episodes themselves don't seem to have any real alterations to them.  The focus was to be as accurate to the original Japanese as possible, so in this regard the movies do succeed in giving the viewer a good feeling as to what the original show was like.


Luckily, the crew aboard the Space Dragon do help keep the movies from being a bore.  Sanshiro is your usual mech anime lead of the era, so he's brave, caring, & ready to fight at any time (though he isn't impulsive).  Along with him are the pilots of the battle vehicles that are housed within the Space Dragon: Fan Li, a martial artist who pilots the Skylar Jet (based on a Pterodactyl); Bunta Hayami, who pilots the Nesser Battle Sub (based on a Pleiosaur); & Yamagatake, Yama for short, a former sumo who pilots the Buzzler Battle Tank (based on a Triceratops).  Though not highly developed, especially Bunta in these movies, these three are still fun to watch in their own simple ways, like how Fan Li is an awesome fighter or how Yama is the lovable lug.  Handling operation of the Space Dragon are Captain Pete Richardson & Science Officer Gen Sakon (the dub makes his name sound like "Jen Sakai", though).  Pete can be just as eager & brave as Sanshiro, while Gen is more down-to-earth & calculating.  Finally, there's Dr. Daimonji (the leader of the entire crew), Midori Fujiyama (who handles logistics & becomes Sanshiro's girlfriend), & Hachiro (a small boy who is with the crew for no real reason).  These last three characters don't get any real development, Midori especially gets kidnapped more than anything else, but they aren't annoying, at the very least.

Still, Gaiking comes from a simpler era of mech anime, before overarching stories became a stronger focus (in fact, it originally aired at the same time as Com-Battler V, which helped revolutionize mech anime from a storytelling perspective), so as much as these movies try there is still a strong episodic feel between each story used; only Movie 1 manages to stave off that feeling (due to its use of double two-parters [1-2 & 22-23]).  To its credit, though, the stories chosen for these movies do tend to keep the "monster-of-the-week" feel to a minimum by focusing more on individuals.  For example, one story focuses on a single Zelan warrior who managed to fight off the brainwashing & maintain his original identity, while another puts Yama at the focus when he hears that the man who helped turn his life around has gone missing.  Also, Sanshiro isn't always the guy who deals the finishing blow; Pete & the Space Dragon almost destroy as many robots as Sanshiro does with Gaiking!  It's actually pretty cool to see the giant "battleship" get the final blow in at times, & the one in this show is definitely one of the coolest in mech anime history.  There is a feeling of repetition in the end, but at the very least it's entertaining repetition, especially when you see the mech fights.  Toei would end up going more for violence come the 80s with titles like GoLion & DaiRugger XV (a.k.a. Voltron), but Gaiking certainly showcases some early hints of that, especially in some of the ways robots get destroyed; there's no blood, but there is some neat robot violence.  Overall it's definitely old-school, in both the good & the bad, but in this condensed form it manages to be easier to take in.


Even though it is a dub the episodes are still uncut & unedited, outside of the opening & ending credits & eyecatches removed from each episode.  The show was originally directed by Tomoharu Matsumata, who also directed the original Cutie Honey, Devilman, & Mazinger Z anime series, who definitely kept things moving nicely & the show does have some really cool animation that still looks neat to this day.  The character designs were done by Kazuo Komatsubara (Getter Robo, Grendizer, Captain Harlock), who delivers a Go Nagai-esque look but also manages to keep them looking different enough in style (no doubt so that Toei could keep the Nagai connection quiet back in the 70s).  Go Nagai came up with the concept of Gaiking (a robot that wears the battleship's "face" as its chest), & it's honestly a really great design that holds up excellently in modern times.  The only real flaw would be Face Open, where Gaiking's faceplates come off, revealing a face that "only a mother could love"; me & my friends affectionately call it "Engine Face".  The music by Shunsuke Kikuchi (Doraemon, Dragon Ball, most of the Heisei Kamen Rider shows) is nice, but nothing really sticks out as amazing.  Even though the original OP & ED credits were cut from each episode each movie begins & ends with an instrumental version of the opening theme, "Daiku Maryu Gaiking" by Isao Sasaki, Columbia Yurikago-kai & Koorogi '73, & the ending theme, "Hoshizora no Gaiking" by Isao Sasaki.  Sasaki's original opening was a really fun song & the instrumental version used for the movies also sounds just as fun (it's also used in the episodes, which is always cool).  The ending also sounds really fun, which just helps add to the status of the original show as a "classic" of 70s anime.


The dub done by Winckler Pro can either be seen by two points of view: It's either badly-done or it's intensely cheesy & fun as "heck" to watch...  And I'm in the latter POV.  Yes, compared to anime dubs that are made by the likes of FUNimation, Seraphim Digital, or NYAV Post it doesn't hold up amazingly well, but it's certainly not for a lack of trying.  All of the voice actors obviously had fun doing their roles & it seems like they might have purposefully gone for a cheesy delivery, but considering that this studio's last anime work was for Tekkaman (seriously, did you watch that clip I linked to?), that's probably to be expected.  The credits don't give the exact specifics as to who voiced who, but two are pretty obvious.  William Winckler essentially voiced every main character in all of these movies they did for Toei, so in Gaiking he voices Sanshiro.  While Winckler doesn't exactly pull off a "bad" performance, there is one pretty obvious flaw to his acting: The man doesn't seem to know what "subtlety" is.  His Sanshiro is pretty straight-forward & "ready to go", and that works just fine when the character is piloting Gaiking & fighting evil or being comical...  But it doesn't exactly work in calmer or more serious moments.  Instead of simple surprise or anything like that Winckler has only one real scream: "Waaaahhh!!!"  The only other connection I can make is that Emperor Darius is voiced by Robert Axelrod, the master of evil villians.  Axelrod is completely in his element here & does a great job, though his evil laugh comes off a little stilted & unemotional (though a reveal in the very end justifies it, in my opinion).  The rest of the cast generally does an okay job, as long as you can accept complete cheesiness.  Considering the age of the show some might find the dub fitting & adding to the movies' charm, but those who are expecting absolutely serious dubbing & gravitas should probably stay away.


The Gaiking movie trilogy is a product that is going to appeal to a certain audience.  First, the viewer has to be completely okay with watching older anime, and I don't mean "old" as in five years old (which some anime fans actually define as "old").  Second, the viewer has to be fine with absolutely cheesy dubbing, the likes of which most anime fans either feel don't get made anymore or didn't even know of because they were too young to have seen them as kids.  Those who can't accept either of those two prerequisites might end up hating these compilation movies, but those are fine with what this product is will find a really fun time that also allows one to get a good idea of what the original Daiku Maryu Gaiking is like, especially since it isn't subbed in English in any form.  For those who want a "newer" form you can watch the 2005 remake, Gaiking: Legend of Daiku Maryu, which is loved by many mecha fans & even fixes some of the original's flaws (like making Face Open completely awesome).  For those who want some old-school fun, or even those who saw the remake & want to see the original in some way, these movies are definitely worth the $20 Shout! Factory is charging for the DVD release.  Personally, I'm now even more interested in buying Shout!'s Starzinger & Danguard Ace releases (I'll probably review them too), and I hope they can get all of the other movies out as well.  Hell, I already own Discotek's releases of Fist of the North Star & Captain Harlock, but I'd gladly buy those compilation movies just for the fun time I'd likely get from them.

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