"Brave aren't ya, pickin' on kids!"
Why exactly does my love for a series like Tatsunoko's Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972-1974) endure? To make it even more personal, why does my love for the American adaptation of that series, Battle Of The Planets (1978) live on? Why do I care so much about these characters?
The original series created by Tatsunoko founder Tatsuo Yoshida, written by Jinzo Toriumi, directed by Hisayuki Toriumi and produced by Ippei Kuri was essentially created with the influence of American comic books.
Now I'm not a particularly big fan of contemporary superhero movies at all yet here was G-Force bedecked with vivid costumes and feathery-inspired capes like the pages of 1970s comic books come to life. The team comprised of young orphans was essentially a superhero team. Why would I care so much about this beloved series yet not be a fan of today's bloated comic book films?
Well, the series was founded upon the basic tenets and concepts of superhero stories very much in the classic vein of a Stan Lee book for one thing.
These were real people with cerebonic powers capable of doing heroic missions, but who could easily assimilate and become part of the civilian population as ordinary people like the Fantastic Four.
We were also able to invest into a series of characters that were explored in a TV series format over the course of 85 episodes (Battle Of The Planets) or 105 episodes (if you were watching Science Ninja Team Gatchaman). In film, we are rarely able to connect deeply on an emotional level to these characters. There simply isn't enough time to care that much about them or explore the characters and their strengths or foibles as comics once did on a monthly basis. It's hard to find the humanity in these films. But with Battle Of The Planets the writers or re-writers were able to ensure there were insertions of small, incredibly human moments in the span of these relatively short episodes.
There was indeed a nobility about the heroes of the 1960s and 1970s too. Tatsunoko really tapped into the strength and spirit of the righteous hero. G-Force exhibited moments of weakness and/or indecision to finish a job, but there was never a choice to be made over right and wrong. These were heroes that understood very clearly what doing the right thing meant.
Today's superheroes are often riddled with self-doubt and mental anguish over what it means to be heroic. There's something very sobering about a group of people that very clearly understood what it means to do the right thing. G-Force, today, like many of the comic book classics (The Avengers comics), is a remedy for today's fairly shallow films.
There was indeed a heroic journey in play for G-Force that Tatsunoko explored remarkably well for a children's TV series. Could the company have dug a little deeper? Certainly, but for 1972 Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and thus Battle Of The Planets delved into some surprisingly strong emotional threads and character stories surrounding family, love and loss. Kids connected with the journey of this young team. Where did they come from? Where were they going? These are questions we can only postulate and imagine within our own mind's eye.
Now consider American mythological researcher Joseph Campbell's breakdown of the Monomyth or The Hero's Journey. Many of these ideas apply even to Japan's G-Force given the influence of American heroes on its creators.
Joseph Campbell's structure was first recorded in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949). Much of what has been recorded as seventeen stages applies, but it is by no means exact and has been simplified here.
First, there is the concept of the ordinary world these youngsters inhabit. Our heroes live in this ordinary place, but are gifted with powers and cerabonic implants that make them special, perhaps a bit odd and stand out-of-place. How often does Keyop feel as though he just doesn't fit in?
Second, there is a call to adventure. While perhaps not reluctant, our heroes leave the ordinary world through transmute, and accept their destiny to battle the forces of Spectra. The new world according to Campbell, is a "fateful region of both treasure and danger... a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, ... a secret island." Consider Center Neptune as the team's springboard into this world.
Now not all of Campbell's Monomyth applies. Rarely will you find G-Force refusing a quest or mission. But thirdly, these are heroes that are always there to accept the call of heroes.
Fourth, once the mission is accepted G-Force enters the unknowns of Spectra's universe using caution at every turn and respecting the rules of that world.
Fifth, if the team ever experiences a kind of seemingly supernatural aid of allies it is through the unexpected support or appearance of the mysterious Red Impulse and Colonel Cronos.
And finally, each episode our heroes are tested, overcome adversity and sometimes (but not always) succeed in temporarily defeating the enemy. They are thus rewarded with peace and journey home in The Phoenix.
And of course we've had the allusion to the concepts of the female temptress along the way by the likes of the ambiguous Zoltar and others (consider if you will Ep24 and Jason's flirtation in Race Against Disaster) and even atonement with the father through the Mark and Cronos dynamic. It is impressive how Campbell's rules apply even here to this classic Japanese anime.
Moving on, one of the things we loved about G-Force is that the series didn't revolve around a single hero. It wasn't a "solo" show. This was a team effort of heroes who bonded, united as family and even acted as "one" when required.
There were many concepts in play for the series that were indeed unconventional in 1972. It was breaking with many of the rules associated with the myth of the hero's journey. And these are just some of the reasons we still love and identify with this special group of superheroes today. These were indeed heroes to care about like we cared about the journey of Bill Bixby's David Banner character on the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982). These are rare special shows that stand the test of time thanks to a focus on character over effects.
Unexpectedly a beautifully animated TV series arrived from the island nation of Japan in 1978 in the form of Battle Of The Planets. It still retains a special place in the hearts of many keeping in step with the spirit of superhero comics of the 1970s and the framework of the noble hero. Battle Of The Planets broke many of the rules and offered kids something truly different---noble heroes. Can you imagine?
Far from the mind-numbing assault of today's cinematic superheroes and CGI juggernauts we return to the aspirations of yesterday's superhero creators with Battle Of The Planets, Episode 16, The Alien Beetles.
The G-Force team begins the episode with inserted American animation in the ready room. Space burgers, ping pong and guitar fun for all, except Keyop. Where was Keyop?
Elsewhere a bug hunt sees Keyop and other children bring home metallic little beetles that inexplicably grow over night! Huh!? Anyone care to explain that kind of nonsense? Okay, let's not be distracted by impossible science and defiance of physics.
We get a rare glimpse of Keyop and the beautiful Princess resting at home in their ordinary lives.
Keyop and other children are kidnapped by the beetles and taken for experimentation by Zoltar's crew in what amounts to a pure alien abduction.
Electrogeneration is under way on the children. It is suggested by the Luminous One that the abducted children are essentially runaways or children of the street or homeless and will hardly be missed.
Princess discovers Keyop's roof window is absolutely obliterated yet wonders where he could be and expresses some worry, but this scene is handled terribly and somewhat inexplicably. If there's a gaping hole in your roof, do you think maybe he was abducted? Princess is smarter than that.
In an amusing scene Mark transmutes and utilizes a scanning x-ray beam from the G-1. The beam allows Mark to see inside that of an unknown craft and lo and behold the beam hits upon the beetle finding Keyop is on board in a stroke of pure luck. Amazing!
The episode includes some G-1, G-2 and G-3 action.
Zoltar and company have abducted a number of scared children, but little did they know they have mighty wonder child Keyop complete with cerebonic implants there to save them all.
Zoltar informs his Spectrans that he will utilize the energy within every living human. This is diabolical beyond comprehension to say the least.
Entering a coliseum-like structure, Mark and Princess search for Keyop and battle Spectrans reaching Keyop and the other children in a nick of time prior to energy transformation.
Reunited with his wrist band, Keyop joins the fight and protects the other children.
Just as Mark, Princess, Keyop and the children climb a long rope ladder to escape into the Phoenix, the Spectrans arrive with all manner of weaponry. Yet, inexplicably they never fire a single shot. Could the Spectrans have grown a heart for a wee second in order that the children escape unharmed? Sadly, it's rather more likely poor editing and disregard for logic in 1972.
As the Phoenix escapes Colonel Cronus arrives from the planet Riga to unexpectedly aid G-Force.
As Jason and the G-2 run interference on the ground Jason runs into trouble unable to escape the collapsing Spectran base and Tiny saves him in the G-5 utilizing the grapplers to pick up Jason and the G-2.
The Alien Beetles concludes with the rousing voice of Susan to tickle the fosdick of 7-Zark-7.
While a show for kids, Battle Of The Planets often played with the idea of the monomyth despite its lack of complexity and struck some surprisingly emotional chords given the limitations of the day. And when it fell short like it does here with The Alien Beetles, it still had some heroic and thrilling moments to fill the minds of children with magic and wonder.
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman title: The Grand Insect Operation.
Up Next: A Whale Joins G-Force.