Review: "Starzinger: The Movie Collection" Is an Ill-Fated Journey to the West
I was a bit too young for the first wave of anime to hit American shores, led by Speed Racer and Gigantor, but got hit right smack in the middle of the second one, led by Battle of the Planets and Star Blazers. Mixed in with those latter two titles were several unrelated TV serials that got sliced and diced in a number of ways for different syndicated TV markets. Those serials were commonly known as the Force Five TV show to a lot of kids in my generation, but I remember them repackaged as movies labeled Shogun Warriors on Showtime. One of those movies was Spaceketeers, which replaced the giant robot action of Grandizer, Starvengers, and Dangard Ace for a road trip in space with three cyborgs and a princess. Roughly thirty years later, Shout! Factory is re-importing the original anime that Spaceketeers was adapted from with Starzinger: The Movie Collection. The 2-disc set contains three Starzinger movies that recut footage from the original TV series in a different way than the Force Five broadcasts or the Shogun Warriors movie, but I’m sad to say my initial nostalgia-fueled enthusiasm soon wore off when confronted with the actual product. To borrow a phrase from DC Animation’s James Tucker, this isn’t the show that I thought I was watching when I was a kid, which applies to this title for a variety of reasons.
Released in the late 1970′s, the original Starzinger series was a remake of the famous Chinese epic Journey to the West with sci-fi trappings. Bloodthirsty mutated monsters rampage throughout the stars because the queen of the Great Planet at the center of the Milky Way has aged and can no longer send stabilizing “cosmic energy” throughout the galaxy. The young, naive Princess Aurora is the only one who can replace the Queen and bring peace to the galaxy by replenishing its supply of cosmic energy. However, the Great Planet is 30,000 light years away from Earth, and the Princess will need defenders to protect her and her starship Queen Cosmos. Enter a trio of cyborg warriors: the wild and hot-tempered Jan Kugo, the portly Don Hakka, and the noble Sir Jogo, who band together despite their differences to ensure the Princess’ safe journey. The first 2-hour movie contained on disc 1 of this set brings the band together, while the second and third movies on disc 2 follow the intrepid band’s adventures in space.
I have to admit that even at the time, Starzinger wasn’t my favorite of the Shogun Warriors movies. At the time, American importers assumed (probably correctly) that the references to the original Chinese story would have no resonance for American audiences, so they substituted references to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. This dub of Starzinger restores the original title and references, but doesn’t remove the fundamental problem that Princess Aurora does little but cry and get threatened and kidnapped by monsters until one of her cyborg protectors rescues her (though, admittedly, one might say the same of Xuanzang, the monk who leads his three protectors in Journey to the West). This might have flown better with Japanese audiences back in the 70′s, but today she just comes off as weak and completely ineffectual. Early on, she imposes a “no killing” rule on her cyborgs in the name of mercy, but it’s a rule honored so much more in the breach than the observance that I have to wonder whether this squeamishness was added by the American scripters. The first movie also drags because it seems so inevitable that enemies will turn to allies. The battle with Don Hakka and then Sir Jogo feel so contrived that there’s not enough satisfaction when they turn to the side of the angels.
Things pick up a bit in the second and third movies, which get intermittently compelling images sandwiched between slightly idiotic ones. The second movie drops the Princess and her three cyborgs in the crosshairs of a tyrannical king and queen, both seeking the Princess’ cosmic energy. In the queen’s power is deadly cyborg hireling Beramis, who soon proves herself the equal of Jan Kugo in battle and eventually captures his heart. The plot’s few surprises come fitfully and, unfortunately, mostly from extremely questionable decisions from nearly everyone. Even so, one gets a twinge of something more powerful when the power-hungry queen betrays the king, eventually leading their respective forces to turn on each other and consume themselves in a wave of hatred. Even if they’re played for operatically overscaled melodrama, these scenes are strangely compelling because they give a sense of tragic realism to otherwise cartoonish and simplistic enemies. Also oddly moving is Beramis’ loyalty to her queen and home planet, even as both are clearly doomed.
The Princess reaches the Great Planet by the end of the second movie after a few more plot twists, but its closing minutes lead to the third movie, sending her and her bodyguards to another distant corner of the galaxy. Their new destination is the one remaining planet too far to be directly affected by the harmonizing forces of cosmic energy, which is also revealed early on to be the hidden home base for the master of the mutant monsters. This leads to upgrades, bigger fights, and a lot of mooning over Princess Aurora by Jan Kugo, culminating in a moment when the population of an entire planet rises up to kill the three cyborgs. It’s also a chance for some familiar faces from the first two movies to return (right before they get their monstrous mutant asses kicked) before good triumphs for keeps and we get the series’ true ending.
Unfortunately, whatever power this story might have had is rapidly undone by an unusually substandard DVD presentation. The original full-frame series seems to have been cropped for presentation on anamorphic widescreen TVs, but I don’t know enough about the series’ many variations to say whether this was how these OVA movies were released originally. The video quality is pretty awful, even taking into account the show’s vintage 1970′s TV animation. Color saturation isn’t bad, but the video tends to be dark, linework seems to be blurrier than it should be, and many scenes show aliasing and other ugly artifacts. There is an undeniable analog charm to the older animation, especially in the large-scale space battles all drawn by hand, where a more modern series would have exploited CGI more heavily. On the other hand, that charm is slightly tempered by the numerous instances of obviously recycled animation throughout all three movies.
The DVD does not come with the original Japanese soundtrack — only a new English dub produced by William Winckler productions. I wish I could find something nice to say about it. The script translation seems accurate enough, but there seems to have been no effort to use better English idioms or supplement lines to match the lip flaps of the characters on screen. What results are incredibly stilted and wooden line readings, with awkward pacing and non-sensical mid-sentence pauses that drain the lines of their sense of drama. I can’t say whether this is the fault of the actors or the script, though the fact that those stilted line readings continue even when the cyborgs wear their face-obscuring helmets makes me think it’s a combination. Regardless of the reason, the end result is a dub that is painful to listen to. I think the art of the anime dub is one that is greatly under-appreciated, and this Starzinger DVD only underscores the skill and professionalism that anime houses like FUNimation and Sentai Filmworks give to their releases. I’m not sure that I would have found Starzinger much more palatable in its original Japanese, but I am positive that this dub does not present this material in its best light.
In the end, I’m afraid the creative choices behind this Starzinger DVD make it unsuitable for any of its potential target audiences. Starzinger is definitely a product of its time, and is dated enough that I think it will be an uphill battle to get an average modern kid to watch it. The poor dub makes it a very different (and far worse) experience for the nostalgia audience seeking a trip down memory lane, and the lack of the original Japanese soundtrack makes it unpalatable for the serious historical anime collector. While there are a few moments where I think I can just barely see the show I thought I was watching on this DVD set, such moments come far too intermittently for me to give even a half-hearted recommendation of this disc.