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"Gatchaman": A Groovy Kind of Sci-Fi

Anime fans today can thank their lucky stars for the monumental stateside success of properties like Akira, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Ghost in the Shell, for they created a bustling anime marketplace in the U.S. which now offers a previously unimaginable breadth of titles. The downside of this revolution is that it didn’t really take hold until about ten years ago, which means the first thirty years of anime history remain obscure to many. Thankfully Gatchaman is not only a great classic but also a hugely famous franchise, and after a wait that was much too long the complete first series is finally available on DVD.

Gatchaman was one of the very first hit anime series on U.S. TV. The original series aired in Japan in 1972, but the Star Wars sci-fi boom in the late 70s brought it to the U.S. as the very popular but heavily edited Battle of the Planets. maybe, but then what is?

The saga begins with “Gatchaman Versus Turtle King,” in which an unstoppable turtle-shaped robot steals uranium from a military base. Esteemed scientist Dr. Nambu determines it is the work of Galactor, and orders his Gatchaman team to follow the robot to Galactor’s headquarters. This delicate mission causes considerable tension between by-the-book Ken and impulsive Joe.

Next, in “The Monstrous Aircraft Carrier Appears,” Galactor kidnaps two astronauts and takes them to a massive underwater carrier along with their “earth compact,” a device that can locate energy resources such as uranium in the earth’s core. Gatchaman is dispatched to rescue the astronauts and recover the device.

In “The Giant Mummy that Summons Storms,” a giant mummy starts swatting airliners out of the sky. Ken learns from Nambu that Galactor is using the dangerous platonium X to power the mummy, and that only Dr. Takahara’s “uranless” compound can neutralize it. Unfortunately Galactor also knows this, so Ken must keep Takahara out of their hands.

Japanese science fiction is rife with political commentary, and Gatchaman is no exception. Like Godzilla before it, Gatchaman cautions about the dangers of nuclear energy in the wrong hands. This theme naturally resonates all the more strongly in Japan, which experienced the fearsome power of nuclear weapons first hand.

Gatchaman may not seem too violent to those raised on modern anime, but it’s still pretty extreme by U.S. broadcast standards. In the most egregious moment, a momentarily crazed Ken, desperately seeking info from a Galactor commander, shouts “If I have to beat it out of you I will, you worthless piece of garbage!” as he slams him over and over into the wall. In a similar scene, Joe pins a Galactor trooper against the wall with shuriken, then mercilessly beats the helpless man. Of course we expect that sort of thing from Joe. If he could travel back in time he’d teach that Miranda guy a thing or two. Every episode is full of death, but it usually occurs off screen.

Front to back: Ken, Joe, Jun, Jinpei, Ryu, disturbing rainbowAlthough all the Gatchaman members eventually get their Oscar moments, here in the beginning it’s really the Ken show. Ken is a hero’s hero: noble, brave, and kind. He can be a bit of a stick in the mud though, and sometimes more focused on the mission than his teammates. The most popular team member is probably Joe: stubborn, fearless, and always spoiling for a fight. He often comes into conflict with goody two shoes Ken, and though we see little of him here, he’ll steal the show later on. The other members are usually in a supporting role; Jun flirts with Ken and Jinpei and Ryu supply the comic relief. The pro wrestler-inspired villains are quite colorful, particularly the cool Katse, who is typically more bored than concerned with Gatchaman’s meddling. He also dresses a bit like a gay Batman.

The English dub is, well, difficult to evaluate because I don’t know if it’s being played straight or tongue in cheek. It often sounds like the old Speed Racer, with people talking mechanically and very quickly. The narrator sounds heavily medicated, and Joe, the most distinctive of the original cast, isn’t nearly macho enough. Some of this dialogue sounds way too silly in English.

The greatest joy for fans watching these discs may simply be recognizing classic scenes that you last saw many years ago and laughing at what you’d forgotten. In the very beginning a scientist gravely makes the ludicrous announcement, “The uranium we intended to use for world peace has been stolen by the monster robot.” That his distinguished colleagues take this and Nambu’s pompous pronouncement that his science ninja team will save the day with a straight face is a testament to their extreme professionalism. I mean really, science ninjas? One imagines some geeks in lab coats with tricked out slide rules.

Gatchaman‘s credit sequence looks a bit rough, but the episodes themselves are quite crisp and clean for their age. Sure the animation is simple and often limited, but it’s good for 1972 and full of interesting art design. The opening and ending themes are rather cheesy, but the score is quite good, if surprisingly subdued. Many scenes, even action ones, are without music, which I suppose is why all that dreadful synthesizer dreck got crammed into G-Force. Obviously the fantastic Battle of the Planets theme by Hoyt Curtin is nowhere to be heard. Maybe they could work it into future volumes?

What can I say? Gatchaman is a classic through and through. It’s exciting, funny, and a double-barreled blast of nostalgia. Even casual Battle of the Planets fans don’t need to read this to know they should’ve picked it up yesterday. It’s also well worth a look for fans of classic sci-fi anime and sentai shows. If you’re a young’un who rarely watches anything pre-Internet it may seem a little creaky, but even so it’s prime material for Mystery Science Theater screenings. It may not be the deepest show, but it certainly left one question burning in my mind: Where can I buy Ken’s stylin’ T-shirt? Way groovy, man.

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