Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Anime Wave on American Television in the Sixties Part One

If you are a fan of science fiction and fantasy, animation, or movies in general, chances are you have heard the term anime. The word anime is Japanese. In Japan anime basically means "animation (an abbreviation of the word animeshon)"--not only is Princess Mononoke considered anime, but so is Disney's Dumbo, for that matter. Here in the United States, however, the word anime has come to specifically mean "animation from Japan," whether referring to children's fare such as the TV series Hamtaro or more adult fare such as Ninja Scroll. And while the American Heritage Dictionary defines anime as "A style of animation developed in Japan, characterized by stylized colorful art, futuristic settings, violence, and sex," this is hardly accurate. Nor does all anime feature characters with large, doe like eyes (this was am homage on anime legend Osamu Tezuka's part to Walt Disney's Bambi). If anything, anime varies more in style and genre than American animation. Regadless, in the past decade, anime has developed a fairly large following in the United States.

Indeed, I have actually seen web sites that assert that while Americans were first exposed to anime in the Sixties, said exposure was only occasional. In reality, this is far from the truth. Not only was the United States first exposed to anime in the Sixties, but there was an outright wave of anime TV series that flooded American airwaves from the mid-Sixties nearly to the end of the decade.

Of course, at the time no one called these cartoons "anime"--that term would not come into widespread use in the United States until the Nineties. At that time the cartoons were not even referred to as "Japananimation," a word which would not be coined until the Seventies and is now scorned by most fans. Indeed, I rather suspect that most kids watching the many cartoons from Japan that aired on American television in the Sixties were not even aware from which country they originated. Indeed, in the American adaptations of some of the cartoons (such as Eighth Man, great lengths was gone to obscure the series' country of origin!

The first animated cartoon created in Japan appeared in 1907. Despite this, animation in Japan would not really take off until after World War II. Indeed, the first feature length Japanese animated film, Momotaro Umi no Shinpei (Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors), would not be released until 1945. Toei Animation, one of the major Japanese animation studios and the one responsible for such TV series familiar to Americans as Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, was founded in 1956. In 1958 they would release the first colour feature length animated film, Byaku fujin no yoren. This film would also be historic as the first anime to be released in America (under the title Panda and the Magic Serpent). Released here in 1961 by Global Pictures, it performed poorly at the box office. Byaku fujin no yoren was followed in short order by Saiyu-ki, which was based on the Chinese legend of the Monkey King. It was released here in the United States as Alakazam the Great later in 1961. It fared no better here than Byaku fujin no yoren.

If anime was to have any success here in the United States, it would seem to be on television. The first anime to air on Japanese television was Mittsu no Hanashi (Three Tales). It was a black and white limited series and anthology which retold three folk tales from Japan. It first aired in 1961. The first animated TV series to air on Japanese television was Otogi Manga Calendar. It aired in black and white from 1961 to 1964. Perhaps the most historically important of the early anime TV shows to air in Japan was one called Tetsuwan Atom (that's "Mighty Atom" in English), the first anime series with continuing characters. First aired on New Years Day 1963, it was the first bona fide hit animated series in Japan. At its height a full 40% of the population watched the series. It would also be the first to reach American shores.

The TV series Tetsuwan Atom was based on a manga of the same name created by the "god of manga" Osamu Tezuka and first published in 1951. It would continue being published until 1968. It became one of the most successful manga in the history of Japan, as well as Tezuka's most famous creation. It centred on the title character, a robot in the shape of a boy who uses his enormous power for good. Among other things, the series explored such serious themes as racism, prejudice, heroism, and morality.

Given its popularity, it was a natural choice for adaptation as a television series. Tetsuwan Atom was produced by Mushi Productions, the studio founded by Osamu Tezuka to provide an alternative to Toei Animation. News of the success of the series reached America and NBC Films, then the syndication arm of the National Broadcasting Company. They quickly snatched up the American rights and called in Fred Ladd, who had considerable experience in adapting and dubbing foreign cartoons for American consumption. Among other things, they were forced to call the series Astro Boy here in the United States, DC Comics having had a character called "The Atom" since the Golden Age of Comics. Astro Boy first aired on American television in the fall of 1963. Out of the original 193 episodes of Tetsuwan Atom, only 104 would be adapted for American audiences. Among other things, Ladd had to downplay the violence that sometimes permeated the original series. In fact, six episodes would be rejected outright, dealing as they did with vivisection and a bachelor with girlie pictures on his wall among other things (Japanese network NHK had completely different ideas of what was acceptable in an animated cartoon than NBC). New episodes of Astro Boy continued to be aired until 1966, and the series would be rerun in American syndication for some time. And just as Tetsuwan Atomwas wildly successful in Japan, Astro Boy was wildly successful in the United States.

In fact, it was so successful that it would spark an entire wave of anime TV series that would make their way to America in the mid to late Sixties. The first of these to follow in the wake of Tetsuwan Atom was Tetsujin 28-go (at least in Japan). Tetsujin 28-go (literally "Iron Man Number 28") originated as a manga by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, first published in 1956. In fact, it was the first manga to feature a giant robot (Yokoyama would later create the legendary manga Jaianto Robo or "Giant Robo"). The manga centred on Tetsujin 28-go, a giant robot developed as a weapon of war by Japan during World War II. Allied bombs destroyed the facility in which the robots were being developed, leaving the 28th prototype (hence Tetsujin 28-go) surviving. Years later Shotaro Haneda, the son of scientist Dr. Haneda, learns that the mob is searching for the giant robot. Fortunately, he beats them to it. Tetsujin 28-go would then be used as a force for good.

Tetsujin 28-go was very popular, making it an obvious choice for adaptation as an animated TV series. Produced by TCJ Animation and debuting in 1963, the series also proved a success, running for 96 episodes. As fate would have it, Fred Ladd (yes, the same man who adapted Tetsuwan Atom as Astro Boy) happened to see Mitsuteru Yokoyama's artwork of Tetsujin 28-go being controlled by Shotaro Haneda. Quite aware of the success of Astro Boy, Ladd formed Delphi Associates to bring Tetsujin 28-go to the United States. Ladd renamed the TV series Gigantor and relied largely on the same team who had adapted Astro Boy. Only 56 of the 96 episodes would be adapted. Those episodes would have the considerable violence in the series toned down. Even so, Gigantor was an overly violent cartoon even for American television in the Sixties. Reviewing the series, Variety called it a "loud, violent, tasteless, and cheerless cartoon..." Regardless, following its debut in America in January 1966, Gigantor was very successful. The series has a cult following to this day. And due to Fred Ladd's foresight in preserving the series, it is one of the few early anime available on DVD.

While Tetsujin 28-go was the first anime to follow in the wake of Tetsuwan Atom, Gigantor was not the first anime aired in America after Astro Boy. That would be 8th Man, originally known in Japan as Eitoman (in English "Eight Man"). Like Tetsuwan Atom and Tetsujin 28-go, Eitoman was based on a manga, in this case one created by Jiro Kuwata and Kazumasa Hirai and was first published in 1963. The animated version, produced by TCJ Animation, ran from November 17, 1963 to December 31, 1964 on the Toyko Broadcasting System. Both the manga and the series centred on police detective Hachiro Azuma, who is fatally wounded by criminals. Azuma's body is retrieved by the scientist Professor Tani, who saves Azuma's life by turning him into a superhuman cyborg. The manga is historic in that Eitoman was the first cyborg hero in Japan. The character is also reputedly an inspiration for the movie RoboCop.

Eitoman was brought to the United States as 8th Man in 1965 by Copri International and ABC Films, anxious for a hit in the wake of Astro Boy. The series would see neither the success of Astro Boy nor Gigantor and only aired briefly on American television, usually on smaller television stations. An interesting bit of trivia is that director Ralph Bakshi did the opening sequence for the American version, 8th Man.

The failure of 8th Man in the United States would not stem the tide of cartoons coming from Japan. For the next few years there would be even more anime making its way to America. And some of it would be successful enough to have a lasting impact on Anglo-American pop culture.

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