This week I finally had the opportunity to see the first six episodes of Gatchaman, courtesy of the DVD released by ADV. For those of you wondering what Gatchaman is, it was an anime series first aired in Japan in October 1972. The series was produced by Tatsunoko Productions Co. Ltd. The show's original title was Birdmen, but it was changed to the onomatopoeic word Gatchaman, meant to represent the crashing of metal objects. I have no idea why the name was changed, although it could have to do with the fact that in the Sixties a Hanna-Barbera cartoon called Birdman aired here in the United States on NBC.
Gatchaman followed the adventures of the "Kagaku ninja tai" or, in English, the "Science Ninja Team," a group of young people formed by Dr. Nambu to fight the terrorist organisation Galactor. The group was made up of five members or "ninjas," all of them with a bird theme. The Eagle, Ken, was the group's leader, also known as "Gatchaman." Jun, the Swan, was the only female member of the Science Ninja Team. Jo, the Condor, was headstrong and impulsive, the member of the group most likely to fly off the handle. Ryu, the Owl, was the group's pleasure loving pilot. Jinpei, the Swallow, was the youngest member of the group and not quite as skilled as the others--he often served as comedy relief. Together the Science Ninja Team travelled the world battling Galactor in their remarkable jet plane (it could even go underwater!) the God Phoenix.
Gatchaman proved very popular in Japan. It ran for a total of 105 episodes and two years. Indeed, Gatchaman would prove to be very influential. It was the first of the "Sentai (in English, "taskforce")" series, whether live action or animated, in which a group of individuals (usually teenagers) with super powers are gathered together to battle some evil. Gatchaman can then be considered the direct ancestor of Chodenshi Bioman and The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.
The initial success of Gatchaman led to its continuation in new series. Gatchaman II debuted in 1978 and lasted for 58 episodes. Gatchaman Fighter fighter lasted for 48 episodes in 1979. In 1994 there three OAVs or "straight to video" releases based on the series were produced
With regards to the United States, Gatchaman holds a rather unique place in anime history. First, it was one of the very few anime series to make its way to America in the Seventies. The mid-Sixties saw a good number of anime series make their way from Japan to America, starting with Astro Boy and including such shows as Gigantor and Speed Racer. By 1968 the flood of anime series to the States stopped, perhaps due to greater restrictions on violence in children's programming (Japanese anime series often being much more violent than American cartoons) and the failure of some of the anime series to catch on. In the Seventies, then, only a handful of anime made their way to the United States. Gatchaman would be released here in greatly altered form as Battle of the Planets.
This brings us to the second reason that Gatchaman holds a significant place in the history of anime in America. Of nearly all the anime which has made its way to American television, Gatchaman may have been the most altered from the original version. Ever since Astro Boy debuted in the United States, American producers have made changes to the original product. Names would be changed (for instance, Astro Boy was originally Tetsuwan Atom in Japan--changed here because there was already a DC Comics character called The Atom in the United States) and much of the violence would be cut out. In the case of Gatchaman, however, the very concept of the series would be changed and scene would actually be added! In 1978 Sandy Frank Film Syndication brought Gatchaman to the United States. In the wake of the success of Star Wars, the series' name was changed to Battle of the Planets. While the original Gatchaman featured the Science Ninja Team battling a terrorist organisation here on Earth, Battle of the Planets featured G-Force travelling to "other planets (which all looked suspiciously like Earth...)" to battle an alien threat. Scenes of the Phoenix travelling through space were added, as was a robot sidekick named 7-Zark-7 and scenes in a so-called "ready room." Ridiculous measures were taken to downplay the violence of the original series (for instance, the narrator might point out that all of the innocents killed in any given battle were actually robots....). As an adaptation of Gatchaman, Battle of the Planets was not particularly well done. That having been said, it did introduce a whole new generation of fans to anime and maintained interest in anime in America in the Seventies.
The third reason that Gatchaman occupies a unique place in the history of anime in America is that it is one of the few anime series--perhaps the only anime series--which made the trip across the Pacific not only once, but three times in different incarnations! In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Ted Turner's cable channel, WTBS, had aired Battle of the Planets. Once Sandy Franks Film Syndication's licence on Gatchaman ran out, Ted Turner bought the rights to do another American adaptation of Gatchaman. G-Force, Guardians of Space aired very briefly on TBS in 1986. G-Force, Guardians of Space was a much more faithful adaptation of the original show, even leaving some of the violence in tact. Scenes taking place in space and the robot 7-Zark-7 were gone. Unfortunately, in some respects, G-Force, Guardians of Space was a poor adaptation of Gatchaman. The dubbing and voice acting was not particularly good, and the original music was replaced by rather bad electronic music. G-Force, Guardians of Space aired for only three episodes in 1986, although the entire run would air on the Cartoon Network in the Nineties.
The United States would see yet another adaptation of Gatchaman in the form of Eagle Riders. In this case, it was not the original series which was adapted, but the two sequel series, Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter. The series debuted in the U. S. in the fall of 1996 and ran for one year here. As in the case of Battle of the Planets, Eagle Riders made siginifcant changes to the original series. Indeed, while the sequel series featured the Science Ninja Team once more battling the terrorist organisation Galactor, Eagle Riders featured an alien threat known as Cybercon. The various foot soldiers of Cybercon are all said to be androids (in the original seires, Galactor's minions are human). Much of the violence of the original series was allowed to remain intact, although many of the hand to hand combat scenes were cut.
Fortunately, this year ADV Films started releasing an uncut Engilsh version of Gatchaman on DVD in the United States. Volume One was released on June 14, 2005. At last anime fans in America can finally see the series as it was originally aired.
In many respects Gatchaman is a rather goofy series. The animation is in some respects below par by today's standards. Indeed, often stock shots are used (particularly when Ken transforms into Gatchaman). Having been made in 1972, the characters all dress in those awful Seventies fashions. The dialogue is often rather cheesy. And many times the episodes are down right bizarre--just to give you an idea of this, the third episodeof the series is titled "The Giant Mummy that Summons Storms!" That having been said, Gatchaman has an energy that only a few cartoons--American or Japanese--possess. The episodes move quickly and there is a good deal of action in every one. And while much of the dialogue is awkward, Gatchaman at least possesses some character development. Indeed, the various characters have their own motivations. Jo is seeking revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of his parents. There is a bit of a mystery as to what happened to Ken's parents (it is revealed early on that his father was a pilot). Despite its shortcomings, it is easy to see why Gatchaman was a hit in Japan and is sitll considered a classic by American anime fans.