Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Battle Of The Planets


As a kid rushing home from school over a river and through some woods in a hurry was a major deal. There were significant things happening in the world of television in the 1970s and one of those significant things was the arrival of Japanese cartoons stateside. Gatchaman [1972-1974; 105 Episodes] by Tatsunoko Productions was one of those cartoons in an altered incarnation. I never actually saw Gatchaman as a child. In fact, I didn't see Gatchaman until the turn of the 21st Century. You see, in America, Gatchaman was re-cut, re-edited, re-dubbed and given additional animated footage via American studios to form Battle Of The Planets [1978-1985; 85 Episodes]. Behold one of those themes that you simply never forget thanks to late American Composer Hoyt Curtin [1922-2000].

The modifications to Gatchaman included: the Ready Room, rote ping-pong scenes, 7-Zark-7 [an explicit R2-D2 creation to connect the series with the Star Wars explosion], robo-dog 1-Rover-1 and sexy, sultry, artificially intelligent Susan. These unnecessary elements were more or less a distraction from the highlights of Battle Of The Planets, which were clearly the strength of its original work, Gatchaman, the heart of the American adaptation. And of course, G-Force never actually travelled to other planets, that was an American device. The characters of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, in Japan, were less science and more ninja when it came to the percentages, but damn that crazy team name sounded cool. The animation was far more violent in its original Gatchaman form too. The watered-down Battle Of The Planets was notable.

Battle Of The Planets was blessed with some amazing voice talent in Casey Kasem, Ronnie Schell, Alan Dinehart, Alan Young, and Janet Waldo. Many know Waldo's vocal attributes through her association with Judy of The Jetsons, Josie of Jose And The Pussycats as well as her popular Princess character on Battle Of The Planets. Waldo has had tremendous success in animation. She spoke of the issue and the producers of Gatchaman's American counterpart, Battle Of The Planets, desire to edit down the violence in the now defunct Animerica magazine with Patrick Macias.

"We were all kind of shaken by the violence, [Laughs] you know, they were pretty violent! But Jameson [Brewer; writer/ executive producer] really calmed it down and made it more innocent. I loved the animation. I thought the Japanese animation was superb and it still is one of my favorite forms of animation."

These additional animated American segments were an unfortunate, but potentially necessary misstep, which clearly altered the already superior Japanese product. The American animation was also lower grade in quality and that distinction was notable. It was intended to supplant Japanese footage containing violent imagery to satisfy the censors. American producers were looking to alter Gatchaman into a kind of space opera to catch the wave of excitement and popularity Star Wars had stirred in science fiction fans all across the country. Sandy Frank, who imported the show in 1978 to the US, certainly loved the Gatchaman product, but had to concede to certain requirements by corporate to sell this new anime to a virtually virgin American audience. It was certainly a landmark period for anime. While, Battle Of The Planets may have been diluted Gatchaman, it's probably the single biggest reason [with Starblazers] why I love anime today.

This image of Mark pays homage to Tatsunoko Productions' own Speed Racer [1967-1968].
When you come right down to it, the word anime hadn't even remotely entered my mind or vocabulary upon first introduction, but stylistically Battle Of The Planets, in retrospect, was my first lesson and discovery of the art form that is anime. It was like no cartoon I had ever seen. Tatsunoko's beautiful hand-drawn 2D animation was breathtaking. It may not have been as fluid as today's animated works, but it was easily more artistic in its detail complete with thick, black lines and pencil markings. Cel stills were like lovingly detailed paintings. It mesmerized this young boy enough to traverse some pretty rough terrain to make it home on time.

I was fast, cunning and ever so effective at becoming more and more evasive of trouble in order to get home in one piece to see shows like Battle Of The Planets. Heck, I moved like a member of the Science Ninja Team. Of course, in my mind, I was one of them. I was less afraid of the confrontation than I was of having some ass cut into my time with Battle Of The Planets. I didn't want to miss a second of it. Remember, back then there were only something like four TV stations and at that time a show like Battle Of The Planets was transmitting through to my questionable color television with plenty of snow. Fidgeting about with those metallic rabbit ears was a tricky business. The antennae had to be just right to get the best possible picture. I needed every second I could muster to establish contact with the only station worth watching and get a clean connection to the outside world. I didn't have a second to spare back then.

Thankfully, Sandy Frank saw something special in the animated series and had the foresight to give it a shot. It certainly didn't hurt that the influence of Star Wars put science fiction on the map. Don't believe me, just note the credit scroll rolling across the screen in Battle Of The Planets. Does it look familiar? Still, Frank made Gatchaman accessible and a possibility for the ultimate in kids' after school entertainment and I'm forever grateful. Latch key kids back in the day were simply over the moon to catch their latest fix of science fiction cool. We played our favorite heroes. G-Force was led by Chief Anderson [Chief Nambu in Gatchaman; a surrogate father figure to the team], head of the International Science Organization [ISO]. The team was comprised of five fearless teammates: the level cool leader Mark, the hot-tempered Jason with an itchy trigger finger, the sweet, leggy, but ever so lethal science officer Princess expert with explosives and a good panty shot [early fan service as its referred in anime], muscle guy Tiny capable of evasive action with a penchant for the daily siesta and big-hearted, but impulsive Keyop.

On top of the ultra-cool assassin-like characters, they were complemented by equally thrilling mecha designs. The Phoenix, G-1, G-2, G-3 and G-4 were recurring favorites in a world of seemingly limitless imagination. All could be neatly housed inside the mothership that was The Phoenix. Tiny handled the mothership. The G-1 jet belonged to Mark, the G-2 race car was in Jason's control, the G-3 sonic cycle was handled by Princess and the G-4 space buggy was in Keyop's care. Yes, a generation of dreamers was born. Backyard stunt fighting and vehicle power [in decorated makeshift wooden vegetable boxes] was never more fun.

In fact, anime, at this point, was significantly more akin to Marvel superhero teams in my mind than the traditional anime concepts of apocalypse, robots and teenage pilots I would discover later. These teenage character studies were about the mechanics of a team and as superhero teams went, Battle Of The Planets offered one of my favorites that easily ranked and stacked up well against the likes of the Uncanny X-Men back in the day. It was a close call.

Thinking about it now, it may have been my earliest childhood memory of my obsession with images. It was also my earliest form of blog training. I spent many a chance with my mother's Polaroid taking pictures of screenshots from Battle Of The Planets. I tried desperately to get a shot of the G-2, Jason's blue race car. Sadly the images were often abysmal, truly horrible and blurred. Thank God for technology and the evolution of the television, camera and computers. The TV wasn't up to snuff. The camera sucked, but I do love the classic look of those family photos and computers, well, what computers? It was all bad, but I still loved it. I loved every last bit of it. Ignorance is bliss as they say. We definitely weren't spoiled back in the day and yet what chance we had to see something so alien, so interesting and so beautiful as the art form that is Japanese anime for the first time was worthwhile anyway you could slice it. So, yes, my first experiences of image taking took place with Battle Of The Planets and that's the truth. How far we've come!

Much later, decades really, for a period, I was so hungry to see Battle Of The Planets again I resorted to the purchase of a Region-free DVD player from someone speaking in a Middle Eastern tongue. I did this so I could purchase every volume of Gatchaman directly from Japan. All volumes were available with each disc sporting roughly three episodes from the 105 classic stories. The sleeve art was worth the price of admission alone filled with vibrant, full color images from the enclosed installments. All 105 episodes were uncut, but in Japanese. The One To Be Pitied would walk into the room and see me watching Gatchaman and listening to the Japanese audio track with not a stitch of English. "When did you learn to speak Japanese?" I didn't care. I searched the Internet and found the entire Gatchaman series in chronological order. The print out offered an episode by episode synopsis and summary of all 105 classics as my guide. Let's face it, the series didn't require a great deal of intellect, but the characters were special and it was a visual masterpiece and I really wanted to see the series again. So, Battle Of The Planets be damned, I was watching Gatchaman in Japanese. It was an eye-opener to see these delicious works of art 7-Zark-7 free. Sadly, I got through about 45 episodes of Gatchaman before my jury-rigged Region-free DVD player went belly up. To this day, I have yet to see the entire Gatchaman series and how it all ended. Off my collection of Japanese Gatchaman went onto ebay. I lost my shirt on those DVDs. I quit. I just didn't have it in me to buy another region-free player.

For a time Gatchaman was released in its entirety here in the USA by ADV. Crazy enough I bought them all [again], but they sat, so I sold them on ebay [again]. Argh! I had moved on or so I thought. With a desire to revisit the series again, they were no longer in my Fancave and they were now out of print. Bastards! My timing has been absolutely disastrous. Ultimately, the original voice cast [see above] of Battle Of The Planets really added something special to my memories of the American version of the Gatchaman series anyway. Once again, with a seemingly endless run of bad luck, Rhino has done a horrible job stateside of releasing this American classic, Battle Of The Planets, in its entirety [85 bloody episodes]. Their efforts are just unconscionable, and I like Rhino, but what a shame really. Needless to say, I just can't cut a break and I'm partially my own worst enemy and bear some responsibility here. Nevertheless, Battle Of The Planets has never seen the light of day in its entirety. Wow. Can you believe it!? Again, I say, bastards! It's pure frustration on my part.

The true art of the series animation has continued to inspire. The likes of comic artist Alex Ross brought the series back to comic book form via Top Cow [2002-2003], years after the earlier Gold Key Comics releases [1979-1980]. Those five special characters truly captured a lot of hearts. All of the astounding action sequences aside there were special moments like this in the series.

The deceptively simple stories were always layered with complex character moments. The in-fighting and character interactions were always intense and often filled with real emotional power. The raw emotion was palpable and even as kids we could taste it. A sequence like the one above resonated with us. We could relate to those moments. Complex emotions like insecurity as portrayed by Keyop were genuine. It was great stuff for the day and for a cartoon. These little segments continued to build on some genuine insight into the character's personalities.

The classic urgent smash through glass plate!
Writer Patrick Macias noted some of the complex character studies within Battle Of The Planets in Animerica.

"They were orphans, all except for Tiny, with emotional scars and neurotic afflictions rarely seen before on TV, let alone kiddie TV. Yet even a child could perceive a lot going on beneath the costumes and colorful battle scenes. Jason was always in an ill-tempered "shoot first" mood, probably because he wanted to wrest control of G-Force from Mark, which might put him in better standing with Princess. Meanwhile, Mark and Princess were clearly meant for each other, yet they could never ever bring themselves to admit it; a great love affair in denial. Besides, Mark was too busy conducting a tortured search for his long lost father, a storyline whose emotional payoff rivals anything in The Empire Strikes Back for paternal trauma. But despite the petty quarrels and selfish motives, G-Force stuck together. Heck, they had to. The team was the only real family that Mark, Jason, Princess and Keyop were ever going to get."

Macias nicely articulates the general vibe of Battle Of The Planets. Anyone who followed the series was clearly aware of the relationship tensions that threaded the stand-alone adventures into a cohesive work. All of this happening while the young orphans battled the mecha adversary of the week sent by Spectra. Hopefully an opportunity will present itself to detail some Battle Of The Planets or Gatchaman up close in the future.

Battle Of The Planets certainly inspired me into a unique, new world of exciting, dynamic, animated science fiction. Mark, Jason, Princess, Tiny and Keyop. G-Force. Fearless young orphans protecting Earth's entire galaxy. Always five- acting as one! Dedicated. Inseparable! Invincible!

Battle Of The Planets: "BIG 10!"

Mark [The Eagle]- G-1- Jet/ Sonic Boomerang
Jason [The Condor]- G-2- Race Car/ Harpoon Pistol & Shuriken Feathers
Princess [The Swan]- G-3- Sonic Cycle/ Yo-Yo
Keyop [The Swallow]- G-4- Space Buggy/ Bolas
Tiny [The Owl]- G-5 or The God Phoenix [sometimes The Fiery Phoenix]

Gatchaman Incarnations:
Gatchaman [1972] [105 Episodes] [Japan original]
Battle Of The Planets [1978] [85 Episodes] [variation on Gatchaman]
G-Force [1986] [85 Episodes] [variation on Gatchaman]
Gatchaman II [1978] [52 Episodes] [sequel to Gatchaman]
Gatchaman F or Gatchaman Fighter [1979] [48 Episodes] [sequel to Gatchaman II]
Eagle Riders [1996] [65 Episodes] [variation on Gatchaman II and Gathcaman F]
Gatchaman [2005] [ADV English translation]


Ray Rousell said...

I used to love Battle of the Planets when I was a kid, I didn't realise it was originally called somthing else and bits added in th US. I used to hate that little robot too. Great post, bought back some fond memories.

John Kenneth Muir said...

SFF: Thanks for this thorough and detailed tribute to "Battle of the Planets," a series that I also watched and loved back in the 1970s.

I must admit, I did know how much of the show was a corrupted version of the Japanese original. For me, the attraction was mainly the great looking spaceships and vehicles.

In fact, I have a die-cast metal G-1 "Eagle Sharp" toy from the series on display in my office to this day!

Another aspect of your review really struck a chord with me too. You discussed using your Mom's polaroid and taking photos of the vehicles and other technology on the show. I totally get that! When I was a kid, I would tape record episodes of Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galatica, and then play them back later.

Today, fans don't have to work nearly so hard (or with such primitive technology...) to track and obsess over their favorite series! But I remember those days too well..and from this distance, they still seem almost magical. There was a sense of personal triumph in building a model kit of a Space:1999 eagle; or taping the laser sound effects of Buck Rogers, or photographing a spaceship from Battle of the Planets. You know what I mean? It was, as you say, the beginnings of sci-fi blogging for many of us...

Anyway, thanks for another one of your extraordinary retrospectives!

John Kenneth Muir

Unknown said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane! I have fond memories as a kid of running home every day after school to watch this show and just loving every minute of it. BATTLE OF THE PLANETS was the be-all and end-all of Japanese anime for me until ROBOTECH came along and then I became obsessed with it.

le0pard13 said...

Wonderful look back at this series and your experiences, SFF! I may have caught some of this back then, but my anime exposure came in the 60s with Tetsujin 28-go (GIGANTOR), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), and Eitoman (8 Man). I can still relate though with you and others here having to find a way to get in front of the TV set when these repurposed Japanese anime/manga series made there way here. Without question, all of these have had a great influence on us all (whether we knew it or not). Thanks so much for this.

SFF said...

Yes, the history behind Gatchaman is an interesting one indeed. The uncut originals are a little meatier than the BOTP versions, but at least we got to see it and get inspired. Thank you.


I'm right there with you John. I simply adored those vehicles. I have two different Phoenix in diecast. Two different shades of blue. I have a few resin kits of the Gatchaman vehicles as you saw in one of my earlier posts. Great stuff! Truly some of the best from Tatsunoko!

And yes, those primitive technologies were definitely the early inspiration for our blogging addictions. I loved that Polaroid! : )

Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with me. At least I know I wasn't alone in my early efforts to dream the dream. Thanks you also for the rousing compliment my friend!


Thanks JD for your kind words. Clearly you can relate! I never saw Robotech but a god friend of mine loved the series. It was one of his favorites converted to Macross I believe. Thank you as always JD.


My friend thanks for your always insightful perspective and sharing those days from your youth. That was great fun to read.

Obviously we can all relate to some degree and that's one of the things I love about visiting here.

All the best to all of you.