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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Akira Tsuburaya's Retro-Modern Anime Club Band: Admittedly, It's Just as Crazy as The Beatles...

*mentally cues up "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by The Beatles*

♪It was twenty years ago this year
Tsuburaya wanted fans to cheer
Manga that's been in and out of style
But nostalgia's gonna make them wild
So may I introduce to you
Akira Tsuburaya's own
Retro-Modern Anime Club Band♪

With anime starting to enter the new millennium in the last years of the late-90s, there were now tons of old manga from the 60s & 70s that started having a nostalgic cachet for certain fandoms. This resulted in many companies giving these now retro titles new leases on life, especially during the early-to-mid 00s. One man who seemed to really push this concept heavily was Akira Tsuburaya, the youngest son of tokusatsu legend Eiji Tsuburaya.

You know, Mr. Tsuburaya's head actually fits rather well on the Beatles' shoulders...

♪The Retro-Modern Anime Club Band
Giving old manga a new chance
Retro-Modern Anime Club Band
They might seem passé at first glance
Retro-Modern Ani, Retro-Modern Ani
Retro-Modern Anime Club Band
With Leiji Matsumoto
Go Nagai & Saito
And Mochizuki, Yokoyama
Hirai & Ishinomori
Ken Ishikawa♪

In the early 90s, Akira Tsuburaya founded Tsuburaya Eizo/Pictures (no relation to his father's Tsuburaya Productions), which helped produce J-Dramas like 1991's Kaiki 1,001 Nights, 1997's Eko Eko Azarak, & even a 1998 adaptation of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner. Around the time of that last example, the youngest Tsuburaya decided to enter the anime industry, and while his company did help produce a couple of strictly "recent" works, Tsuburaya Entertainment's focus was definitely focused around giving old, classic manga from iconic creators new adaptations, in an interesting variety of styles at that. Therefore, let's take a general overview of what Akira Tsuburaya helped bring to anime, especially since a surprising amount of them actually saw release outside of Japan, especially here in North America.

♪I don't really want to stop the song
But I gotta let the piece go on
This all started 1998
You could purchase it on good-ol' tape
So let me introduce to you
The mighty Queen Emeraldas
Retro-Modern Anime Club Band♪

Even though late-night anime was starting to see more penetration in 1998, Tsuburaya started off with OVAs, the first of which being based on Leiji Matsumoto's manga from 1978-1979 that starred the female counterpart to his iconic Captain Harlock. While Emeraldas herself had appeared here & there via cameos in both Space Pirate Captain Harlock & Galaxy Express 999 back during the late 70s, it wasn't until the Queen Emeraldas OVA that her own story would be brought to animation, & it wound up being a rather quick pick up for international release. The first two episodes came out in Japan in June & July of 1998, and later that November ADV Films announced that it would be bringing it out Summer 1999, both on VHS & DVD, though said release wouldn't happen until that November (due to a "poor quality master"), & only on dual-audio DVD (the second ADV ever produced, in fact). Unfortunately, by the time ADV put its DVD out, a third episode came out in Japan months before in August, & a final episode would see release that December. ADV stated at OhayoCon 2003 that "the rest of Queen Emeraldas" would be released later that year, but it never ended up happening, which has resulted in the second half remaining without an official English release. With this OVA being an apparent success, it only made sense to make another female-led Matsumoto anime, so the following year saw the return of Emeraldas, but this time with some company.

While Leiji Matsumoto's various space-faring stories don't always link up 100% perfectly, there is an overall shared timeline that they all tend to follow, and one example of that is the fact that Emeraldas & Galaxy Express' iconic Maetel are sisters; not just that, but they're princesses. The story of how the two went from royalty to space-faring divas finally got told in the two-episode OVA Maetel Legend from 2000, where Emeraldas & Maetel's mother, Queen Prometheum, decides to allow the mad scientist Hardgear to turn everyone on her planet of La Maetelle into mechanized forms, as the planet is orbiting a dying sun. The Queen's daughters, naturally, didn't want such a fate to befall their home planet, so they decide to remain human & fight back against Hardgear. With animation by Vega Entertainment, which would become a consistent partner for Tsuburaya's Retro-Modern Band, & supervision by a man only known as "Dr.Serial Nishioka", who would also be a returning name for a few of Tsuburaya's shows, Maetel Legend isn't really as well-regarded as Queen Emeraldas, with the main complaint being that it's just a tad too slow & boring, especially for something that's only two episodes long. It did see license by Central Park Media & a dual-audio DVD release in 2002, followed by a re-release in 2004; at least we got all of it this time around. Following this OVA, Akira Tsuburaya's Band members finally moved over to the late-night TV anime format, and with that change came a new partner to not only help get these anime made in the first place, but also get them released, in full, outside of Japan: Enoki Films.

Continuing the Matsumoto-related focus, the third member of the Retro-Modern Anime Club Band was made to help promote a video game. Initially released on the PlayStation in mid-2000, Cosmo Warrior Zero was a third-person shooter by Taito that allowed people to play as various "Leijiverse" characters, with the primary focus being on Warrius Zero, a disgraced Earth captain who finds himself charged with taking the life of Captain Harlock. The following year saw, specifically the Summer 2001 season, saw the airing of a 13-episode TV anime adaptation of the game, which in turn made it the first time Leiji Matsumoto had an anime airing on TV in 19 years, since Queen Millennia finished airing back in 1982; once again, Dr.Serial Nishioka returned, this time as head writer. Overall, the series was generally met with positive marks by Leijiverse fans or, at least, neutral feelings; few outright hated it, from what I could find out. The PS1 game would get ported over to PC in 2002, and a two-episode OVA titled Follow Young Harlock! Cosmo Warrior Zero Gaiden came out a couple of months later. As part of a licensing deal with Enoki Films, Media Blasters would release all 15 episodes of the anime on dual-audio DVD from 2002 to 2003 (plus two dub-only VHS tapes), and in 2017 a different deal with Enoki would see Discotek Media give it a re-release.

The next member of Tsuburaya's Band would air in Japan after Cosmo Warrior Zero's finale, in the same exact time slot at that, but it would mark the first departure from Leiji Matsumoto. In his place was Mitsuteru Yokoyama, one of the founding fathers of modern manga who, sadly, doesn't receive enough credit outside of Japan. Anyway, one of Yokoyama's most iconic series was Babel II, a supernatural action series from 1971 to 1973 that ran for 12 volumes & received a similarly iconic TV anime adaptation by Toei in 1973; both series would remain Japan-exclusive, though. Another anime take on the series would come out in 1992, in the form of a 4-episode OVA, and it was this version that would see release internationally, complete with an English dub by Streamline Pictures. In 2001, though, Vega Entertainment would make a third adaptation, which would become known internationally as Babel II: Beyond Infinity; in Japan, it simply used the same name as always. This 13-episode TV anime utilized the same basic concept of young Koichi (his last name changes with each version) finding out that he's the reincarnation of the alien entity Babel, who must protect the Earth from evil alongside his three guardians: Rodem (a shape-shifting panther), Ropross (a pterodactyl), & Poseidon (a giant robot). Unfortunately, even with a memorable theme song performed by Hiroshi Kitadani's band Lapis Lauzli, this final take on Babel II wound up being the least appealing, with a very generic & lackluster execution that made what was a highly inspirational manga seem like your everyday action series. As part of the original Enoki deal, Media Blasters did give this anime a dual-audio DVD release from 2002 to 2003, but it has yet to be rescued... And some might argue that it really shouldn't in the first place.

A few months after Babel II's finish, Tsuburaya returned to Leiji Matsumoto one more time, this time on satellite network AT-X as the start of what the network called the "AT-X Chomei Sakka/Famous Writer Series", which adapted older works from famous mangaka into anime. Interestingly enough, while Captain Harlock is arguably Matsumoto's most well known creation, most don't realize that the character is older than they actually think he is. While the original Space Pirate Captain Harlock manga debuted in 1977, both Harlock & his eternal partner Tochiro Oyama were actually reinterpreted into space travelers. In reality, the two first debuted back in 1972 in the manga Gun Frontier, a western which sees Tochiro working with former sea captain Franklin Harlock, Jr., plus the mysterious woman Sinunora, as they search the eponymous western land for a lost clan of Japanese immigrants. After three volumes, Matsumoto would transition his characters over to their more recognized space counterparts, only returning to the West for a 1999 novel sequel. But in 2002, the origins of Harlock & Tochiro would be told to a new audience via a 13-episode TV anime series. Yet another Vega Entertainment production, along with Dr.Serial Nishioka reprising his role as head writer, the Gun Frontier anime wound up receiving her positive marks, possibly making it one of the best members of the Retro-Modern Anime Club Band. Once again, Media Blasters would handle the original North American release from 2003, complete with an English dub that saw Steven Blum (under his old alias David Lucas) reprise his Cosmo Warrior Zero role as Harlock, and in 2016 the series saw a return to American audiences via Discotek.

Running for only two volumes from 1967 to 1969, Genma Taisen/Phantom Demon War was co-created by writer Kazumasa Hirai (Wolf Guy, 8 Man) & artist Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009, Kamen Rider), and would only become the start of the larger Genma Wars franchise comprised of many manga sequels & spin-offs. In 1983, it was adapted into a Rintaro-directed anime movie spectacle known internationally as Harmageddon, which itself was adapted into the early FMV arcade game known internationally as Bega's Battle. Ishinomori & Hirai would occasionally return to their world of dueling psychics, one of which was 1979-1981's Genma Wars: Eve of Mythology. Breaking away from Tsuburaya's general trend of Matsumoto anime, this time for a while, it would be this spin-off manga of Genma Wars that would be adapted into a 13-episode TV anime in 2002, featuring animation by E&G Films instead of Vega Entertainment. Unfortunately, Harmageddon was generally known more for being a visual masterpiece than for being a great story, & while the TV series didn't adapt the same plot, without any great visuals to prop it up, this Genma Wars anime, even with supervision of Ishimori Pro heads Akira Onodera (Ishinomori's son) & Masato Hayase, wound up becoming an absolute laughing stock, especially outside of Japan. To many, this may be the weakest member of the Retro-Modern Anime Club Band. As yet another part of the original Enoki deal, Media Blasters did release Genma Wars: Eve of Mythology on dual-audio DVD across 2003, and the people there may have regretted doing so not long afterwards. Much like Babel II, this Enoki/MB package deal product has yet to be re-released, and most are likely happy about that.

Sadly, while Tsuburaya's Band managed to (impressively) consistently see release outside of Japan at this point, the next one would break that trend.

Mikiya Mochizuki's Wild 7 debuted back in 1969 & ran for a solid decade, totaling 48 volumes about a ragtag motorcyle squad made up of former convicts meant to stop terrorism. Created in response to how many countries were starting to rebel against corrupt politicians & rough economic recovery during the Cold War, Wild 7 became an iconic series about rebellion, resulting in a 25-episode live-action series in 1972, a two-episode OVA in 1994, & even a live-action movie in 2011, alongside various manga sequels & spin-offs. In between those latter two adaptations, however, was 2002's Wild 7 Another: Bouryaku Unga/Operation Canal (Enoki subtitles it as Swirling Canal), a 13-episode TV anime by E&G Films that brought the Dairoku Hiba-led group to international lands, specifically Nicaragua & the Panama Canal, to take back a luxury cruise liner that's been captured by terrorists. Even though Urban Vision did release the Wild 7 OVA on VHS back in the 90s, this later anime story would remain without an English release, though it was actually planned at first. I brought it up back in 2012, but Media Blasters' original deal with Enoki Films included a large part of this very Anime Club Band, but low sales (plus some less-than-stellar general reception) resulted in some shows' releases being canceled, with Wild 7 Another being one of those left without release. Interestingly enough, there didn't seem to be any sort of fan translation effort, either, so this remains a bit of a mystery for many older anime fans. Is it good? Is it bad? We English-speaking anime fans outside of Japan may never know...

[5/2018 UPDATE: Looks like English-speaking fandom WILL find out what Wild 7 Another is about, as Discotek picked it up for an English DVD release.]

Go Nagai has never been one to avoid an opportunity to create a new potential multimedia product, but when a Toei executive came to him with an offer to adapt his 1971 manga Demon Lord Dante into an anime for children, Nagai hesitated, feeling it was way too dark & adult to lighten up. Instead, he came up with a more superhero-esque creation, which became 1972's Devilman; the rest of that story is now legendary history. Unfortunately, Nagai had to leave Dante unfinished, due to the magazine it ran in being discontinued, but in 2002 he decided to continue where he left off & finally finish his original story about demons from Hell rising to stop the evil machinations of God, & using the unassuming Ryo Utusgi as the reincarnation of demonic leader Dante. Likely finding an opportunity to help promote Nagai's return, Tsuburaya teamed with Magic Bus to create a 13-episode TV anime in late-2002 that wound up telling its own finale, as Nagai wouldn't properly finish the manga until 2004. In true Nagai fashion, though, the Demon Lord Dante anime was utterly insane, absolutely blasphemous (no surprise, as it literally made God the villain who was trying to destroy the world), & the finale still felt like a true-blue Go Nagai ending, i.e. it was memorably obtuse & bonkers. Media Blasters did initially plan on releasing the anime in North America, but in the end Geneon Entertainment wound up with it, releasing it on dual-audio DVD across 2004, but the masters Enoki Films supplied were censored, primarily removing any visible nudity that was originally animated. Luckily, Discotek would come in with the save, giving Demon Lord Dante a new release in 2016, this time with the original, uncensored footage left intact.

At this point, Akira Tsuburaya's Retro-Modern Anime Club Band halts its American tour completely, though the next couple were scheduled to tour.

While Mitsuteru Yokoyama did create a number of long-running & influential titles, he also had some shorter manga that managed to have their own legacies. One of them was Mars, which ran only from 1976 to 1977 for 5 volumes, the story of the titular lead, a man who awakens on a newly-formed island with no memories. Before long, though, Mars finds out that he's actually an alien who was left on Earth with a giant robot called Gaia, & that the two were supposed to sleep until humanity became dangerous enough to deem worthy of destruction. Since Mars awoke too early, though, he winds up going against his fellow kind & decides to protect Earth, though should Mars die then a bomb inside Gaia will explode, resulting in the destruction of the entire planet. In 1981, TMS took the basic concept of Mars & expanded heavily on it, creating the mech anime Rokushin Gattai God Mars, which is easily the most iconic form of Yokoyama's work. In 1994, an attempt was made to adapt Yokoyama's original manga as a 4-episode OVA by KSS, but got canceled after only two saw release. Almost as if following a "once a decade" mandate, Mars received a third anime adaptation at the end of 2002, this time titled Shin Seiki Den/God Century Legend Mars. Co-animated by Plum & Studio Guts, this third Mars anime was, by default, the most accurate to Yokoyama's manga (amusingly enough, Keisuke Fujikawa returned from God Mars to be head writer), though there still were some changes, the biggest of which was the introduction of Muse, a mysterious woman who helps encourage Mars to fight to protect Earth; obviously, adapting 5 volumes into 13 episodes is pushing it, slightly. Overall, Shin Seiki Den Mars wasn't a bad production by any means, though it was admittedly more or less average, but at least Yokoyama's manga finally saw a mostly-accurate adaptation. Similar to Wild 7 Another, Media Blasters did initially announce plans to release this Mars anime, but was canceled in the end. While an official release still eludes this anime, at least it did receive a complete English translation via "other means". Not just that, but in November 2016, ranking site Goo held a poll that asked readers which anime had the most "miserable bad ending", & Shin Seiki Den Mars slotted in at #12, in between Zeta Gundam & Cowboy Bebop! To be fair, it is a really hard hitting & sad ending, so check the show out.

While Takao Saito's manga legacy will obviously be defined by Golgo 13, one of the longest-running manga of all time, he did also create some other notable works. One of them was Barom-1, a short superhero manga from 1970 where two high school boys, with completely different personalities, have to work together in order to fuse into the superpowered being Barom-1 in order to stop evil. The manga was turned into a 35-episode tokusatsu series in 1972, after which the series went dormant for 30 years. I have no idea why this specific series was chosen to be brought back, but at the very end of 2002 came Barom One, a 13-episode TV anime series based on Saito's original concept. I say "based on the concept", however, because this anime done by E&G Films was not based on the original manga whatsoever, instead taking the idea of two boys fusing together into a singular being & telling its own original story. In fact, the anime took the concept a little too far, I'd argue, as the leads in this story were portrayed as having been together as if it was fate, with them being born at the same exact time, growing up together, & whatnot, whereas the original manga duo were simply just two polar opposites who wound up having to work together. Regardless, Barom One was not looked upon all that highly, with the fact that it shared some of the same staff as that of Genma Wars also not helping. Just like Wild 7 Another & Shin Seiki Den Mars, the Barom One anime was the last Enoki/Media Blasters package deal license that was initially announced, only to wind up canceled, & like the former remains without any sort of English translation, minus a very old fansub of the first episode.

Go Nagai's Devilman became a manga legend by showing an utterly memorable take on the apocalypse, one that inspired numerous anime & manga to this very day. Naturally, the late Ken Ishikawa, Nagai's Dynamic Pro compatriot, seemed to take that as a challenge, & in 1975 debuted Majuu Sensen/Demon Beat War Front, his own story inspired heavily by the apocalypse of Christian mythology. It starred Shinichi Kuruma, the son of a mad scientist/cult leader whose experiments gave Shinichi the ability to summon the powers & even forms of various animals, all in an effort to find a way to summon forth God. While nowhere near an influential as Devilman, Majuu Sensen would still find the occasional reference in later works, the most well known of all being that Ryoma Nagare's design in Getter Robo Armageddon was essentially a copy of Shinichi's look, right down to the giant overcoat & long, red scarf. In late 1990, Animate-Film & J.C. Staff made a three-episode OVA adaptation of Ishikawa's four-volume manga, which tried something different by putting out all three episodes' releases simultaneously. In 2002, Ishikawa decided to finally make a sequel manga, Shinsetsu Majuu Sensen, and (likely) in an effort to help promote that work, Tsuburaya worked with Magic Bus in 2003 to produce Majuu Sensen: The Apocalypse, a 13-episode TV anime sequel to the original story. Here, Shinichi continues his fight against his father, who is on the verge of creating Noah, the ultimate life form. Effectively an alternate universe sequel compared to what Ishikawa was making (Shinsetsu took place 10 years later, while The Apocalypse was only a couple of years), this new anime took advantage of its status to tell its own completely bonkers end of the world story; in fact, every episode title was a book of the Bible, followed by a quote found within it. Similar to Shin Seiki Den Mars, Majuu Sensen: The Apocalypse wasn't a terrible production, with it mainly succeeding due to its pedigree as being based on an Ishikawa work than anything else. While this anime was never part of the Enoki/Media Blasters deal, it did see release all across Central & South America, where it was called Beast Fighter: The Apocalypse.

After a solid stretch of anime based on other people's works, Tsuburaya decided to return to Leiji Matsumoto, though this time it was neither space nor land-based for its story. Debuting even before Gun Frontier brought the world Harlock & Tochiro, Submarine Super 99 ran from 1970 to 1972 for two volumes, telling the futuristic (20XX) battle between the crew of Dr. Juzo Oki's submarine named the Super 99 & the Helmet Party run by Rudoplh Hechi, who plans to take over the world by taking control of the oceans. After Matsumoto found his true calling with the creation of the Leijiverse, his submarine manga fell into the obscure wayside, but in mid-2003 it received a 13-episode TV anime adaptation by Vega Entertainment, which also made its return to the Band ever since Gun Frontier's end; this was also the final entry in the AT-X Famous Writer Series. Similar to Barom One's adaptation, Submarine Super 99's anime was technically not an actual adaptation of Matsumoto's manga, replacing the Helmet Party & Rudolph Hechi, which were an obvious Nazi Party & Adolf Hitler analogue, with the mysterious Ocean Empire lead by the obviously evil Hell Deathbird; the character designs were also modified to reflect Matsumoto's more known style. This anime was definitely meant to appeal to an old-school demographic, especially with anisong legends Ichiro Mizuki & Mitsuko Horie singing the opening & ending themes, respectively. Similar to the prior member of the Band, Submarine Super 99 didn't see any sort of English release, nor was it even planned at any point, but it did see distribution in Latin America & European countries, like France. The ANN Encyclopedia also says that it aired in Canada in 2007, but I'd imagine it was only in French & for Québec, since there is no official English translation. Therefore, similar to Wild 7 Another, there isn't much word I can find about whether this was a good show or not, but at least showed another side of Matsumoto that most don't think about.

Following the end of Submarine Super 99, Tsuburaya Eizo took a bit of a break from producing, primarily because of sluggish sales. This resulted in the company transferring business over to film production & distribution company Artport. The first thing done was bringing back live-action production, which was stopped after 1999, which resulted in a new Eko Eko Azarak drama & Ultra Q: Dark Fantasy in 2004. After the debut of the latter, the newly-named Tsuburaya Entertainment returned to the Retro-Modern Anime Club Band one last time by going back to the Band's early days. Acting as a sequel to Maetel Legend, mid-2004's Space Symphony Maetel ~Galaxy Express 999 Gaiden~ saw Maetel return to her home planet while traveling aboard the legendary space train itself, due to a plea from Queen Prometheum, who has seemingly de-mechanized herself; upon arrival, though, things don't seem quite so ideal. This 13-episode TV series was, as titled, a side story to the main Galaxy Express 999 storyline (apparently taking place before the main story), and it's that very status that makes it possibly the least known entry in the franchise; at least Emeraldas, Harlock, & Tochiro do make appearances in it. Even though a brand new staff & animation studio (Azeta Pictures) was brought in, Maetel Legend's writer Mugi Kamio returned to lead the writing for this series, likely helping maintain some sense of continuity; Dr.Serial Nishioka also returned to supervise. Also similar to those initial Band members, Space Symphony Maetel had no involvement with Enoki Films, and when combined with the fact that Matsumoto's works were only a niche in American fandom at the time, it's no surprise that it never saw any sort of English release; it did see release in non-English countries, however.
And that brings an end to Akira Tsuburaya's Retro Modern Anime Club Band, which "toured" Japan from 1998 to 2004, plus some international appearances. Now, yes, I treated this as a parody of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" just for the fun of it, but the funniest part of all is that, much like what can happen in the music industry, Mr. Tsuburaya himself wound up in some legal trouble! From what I can tell by parsing together a translation, on December 27, 2007 a lawsuit was filed in the Tokyo District Court regarding the transition of business from Tsuburaya Eizo to Tsuburaya Entertainment. In particular, Artport alleged that Akira Tsuburaya gave a false explanation regarding why his company had to be transferred, and now was asking for 550 million yen in damages. Not just that, but since Akira Tsuburaya had since moved on to become vice president of Tsuburaya Productions, that company was vicariously liable! On July 8, 2010, the Tokyo District Court even ordered that 78 million yen be paid to cover Ultra Q: Dark Fantasy's planned expenses that were never paid for.

Isn't capitalism great?

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