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Did You Know This Was Anime? – Superbook

by on January 26, 2010

Devoted anime fans probably at least know the name of
Tatsunoko Production. One of the oldest animation companies in Japan, it was
founded in 1962 by Tatsuo Yoshia and his brothers Kenji and Toyoharu (a.k.a.
Ippei Kuri) and is remembered for such titles as Speed Racer, Gachaman, Space Knight Tekkaman, Yatterman, Casshan: Robot Hunter, and the recent OVA Karas. Yet its most far-reaching production, interestingly enough,
may well have nothing to do with superheroes or the Mach 5 or men in metal
suits. What else is there? Try Bible stories.

This time we’re taking a look at yet another product of the
1980’s, Superbook (alternatively
known as Anime Oyako Gekijo, or Animated Parent and Child Theater). This was actually a collaborative project between Tatsunoko and
the Christian Broadcast Network, a brainchild of televangelist Pat Robertson. Unlike
a production such as The Last Unicorn,
which was developed by Rankin-Bass for western viewers, these children’s
cartoons were originally produced with the goal of ministering to a Japanese
audience and increasing interest in the Bible.

Superbook began
broadcasting its first run of 26 episodes in 1981 on the network Tokyo12, which exists today as TV Tokyo. The series was very much an episodic affair
with a simple plot structure. The series begins with a boy named Sho Azuka and
his friend Azusa Yamato discovering an oversized tome in Sho’s home that can’t
be opened. To the children’s surprise it soon turns out to be sentient, able to
open on its own and speak to them—hence the “Superbook” element of the show.
Every episode generally begins with a brief prologue at Sho’s house, followed
by Superbook promptly transporting Sho and Azusato a Bible story from the past. As a further gimmick Sho’s wind-up toy robot
Zenmaijikake is pulled in also, at which point it becomes life-size and capable
of basic speech. Due to its status as an oversized toy that needed to be rewound almost every episode, however, it was rarely very useful aside from offering extra kid appeal. The series mostly focused on famous Old Testament stories such
as Adam and Eve, Isaac, and Noah, but it also occasionally ventured into New
Testament territory such as when it told the story of the Apostle Paul. Usually
the children would have at least some interaction with the main characters
involved, and come home after having learned a life lesson from the experience related
to the opening scene of the episode.

While the show was originally planned for Japan only, its success soon led to the Americanized version Superbook in 1982. Sho Azuka became Christopher Peepers, Azusa became Joy, and Zenmaijikake was wisely altered to the much simpler Gizmo. CBN had its own TV network to publicize the series with, CBN cable (originally CBN Satellite Service). This was the channel that would change names several times and eventually owners to become what we know today as ABC Family, but I will avoid the network’s long and storied history in this space. The series eventually entered syndication and achieved distribution on VHS tape, becoming predictably popular for inclusion in many Church libraries. 

A second season of 26 episodes aired in 1983 under the name Pasokon Travel Tanteidan, evidently known in English as simply Superbook II. This series sustained some continuity, though it shifted focus as well as modifying its gimmick. In this series Superbook falls onto a computer keyboard, allowing time travel to the past via Chris’ family computer. This is done by Chris’ cousin Uriah, with Chris and Joy relegated to spectator roles at home. Gizmo also serves more of a purpose; he is equipped with a keyboard and monitor that allows communication between the children. The series also placed greater emphasis on the Gospels and the events of the New Testament. It has this focus in common with its cousin series The Flying House, a 52 episode CBN/Tatsunoko series that involved much of the Superbook staff and replaced the first Superbook series; it focused on a different cast of three children and a token robot visiting the past via a Professor’s time machine.

Superbook’s staff includes names even dedicated anime fans
might not recognize, but there was some
notable pedigree involved. Among its three directors are Norio Yazawa
(episode director for 1980’s Astro Boy), Susumu Ishizaki (assistant director for Rintaro’s Dagger of Kamui in 1985), and Osamu Sekita (director of 2009’s Cross Game; also involved in storyboarding for Zeta Gundam and Gundam ZZ). Its script was also penned by Akiyoshi Sakai, who did similar work for Yatterman and served as a scenarist for Voltron. For its part, the English adaptation had substantial continuity with The Flying House and a handful of other early dubs. Its cast included Billie Lou Watt as Chris (Gigantor, 1963 Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), Ray Owens as the narrator and God himself (Gigantor and 1963 Astro Boy; also the English scriptwriter for Superbook), and Sonia Owens as Joy (Gigantor, Kimba). Perhaps the most notable name is Peter Fernandez, the voice of both Speed Racer and Racer X in Speed Racer as well as the voice director for both it and Gigantor. 

By any standard, Superbook was likely one of the most widely distributed Japanese cartoons outside of the United States. According to the show’s official website it has been translated into 43 languages and been broadcast in at least 106 countries, reaching an estimated audience of over 500 million people. In Japan, it had an estimated weekly audience of about 4 million. It went on to enjoy extensive success in the former Soviet Union and the Ukraine (where it inspired a fan club as well as a complimentary live-action children’s program), in addition to many other areas: the Philippines, Senegal, Kenya, many Spanish-speaking countries, and more.

In the course of my research, I learned that CBN is attempting a reboot of sorts via a new CG-animated series. For better or worse this is not another collaborative project or even a 2D animation series, but rather a CG-animated work currently being directly released to video by CBN. This new project so far has just one episode to its credit, (an adaptation of the David and Goliath story) though success may lead to further episodes. At the very least, it is not lacking in talented staff: its producer is industry veteran and Emmy Award winning writer Sean Roche, who won his Emmy for his writing and co-production work for Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? and has been involved in a multitude of other cartoons. Its co-producers and co-animators are Tom Bancroft and Rob Corley, both of whom are former animators and artists for Walt Disney Feature Animation. Whatever comes next for this aspiring modernization, the franchise has certainly already achieved the kind of broad success that most cartoons can only dream of.

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