Organized anime fandom, or at least the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization in Los Angeles, was formed in 1977 around the giant-robot superhero TV cartoons shown in Japanese with English subtitles on Channel 52, the Japanese community channel in L.A. Mark Merlino started recording them on his V-Cord in 1976, so for the first couple of years we had all the giant robots we wanted: mostly Brave Raideen, Getter Robo G, and UFO Warrior Dai Apolon, with a few sample episodes of UFO Robo Grandizer, Steel Jeeg, or Great Mazinger.
Then in 1978 or 1979, the giant robots began to be replaced by interstellar science-fiction adventure. Space Cruiser Yamato. Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Galaxy Express 999. With these and plenty of giant-robot episodes still to be shown at our monthly meetings, we were in Heaven.
Space Cruiser Yamato, or Uchu Senkan Yamato. By this time, we had begun shopping for manga and the few rare anime-related toys in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. The Japanese salesclerks told us that the Japanese title really translated as Space Battleship Yamato. The IJN Yamato really existed, and was the biggest battleship ever built by any country!? This was the first anime that sent some American fans scrambling to find out what the real Japanese history had been like. (I think that the second thing was to find out the difference between samurai and ninja.)
There had been a Space Cruiser Yamato theatrical movie in Europe in 1977-’78, edited from highlights of the 26 TV episodes, and shown in America in an extremely limited release and twice on Channel 5 in Los Angeles during 1978; February 26th and October 10th. As I recall, the February broadcast was before we had seen any of the individual TV episodes, but Mark Merlino video-recorded it and we watched it at the C/FO several times during 1978. We were hooked by the dramatic plot (in 2199 A.D., Earth was losing a space war and would die of radioactivity in one year unless the World War II battleship, rebuilt into a spaceship, could get to the planet Iskandar for the “Cosmo-DNX” and back in time), the eye-catching Earth Defense Force uniforms, the unusually charismatic villain Desslar/Desslok, and the awesome score by Hiroshi Miyagawa. (Uchu Senkan Yamato was playing in Japan when Star Wars was released, and the Japanese quickly imitated the symphonic scoring of Star Wars’ music by John Williams with a similar symphonic arrangement of Yamato’s music by Miyagawa on a LP record.) The 1978 movie is on YouTube today, so you can see what turned us on. But the movie was so choppy that it increased our eagerness to see the entire TV series. By the October broadcast we had begun to get the 26 separate episodes, with the Japanese thundering opening theme song sung by baritone Isao Sasaki. By the time that all of the Japanese episodes, subtitled, were shown on the Japanese-community channels, the Americanized Star Blazers version had begun to be broadcast in September 1979. It was changed so much (the Yamato became the Argo) that this became the first anime TV series that the early anime fans taunted their American-TV-watching friends with showing them the uncut Japanese episodes. (Battle of the Planets was on American TV by that time, but the Japanese Gatchaman was ancient history on Japanese TV at the moment. We did not get video copies until it was rerun on Japanese TV around 1980.)
Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Uchu Kaizoku Captain Harlock; unlike Uchu Senkan Yamato, this title was translated literally. This was our second taste of anime space opera, also based on a manga by Reiji Matsumoto. Or Leiji Matsumoto. Or Reiji … (We learned years later that Matsumoto was deliberately jerking the Americans around by alternating the spelling of his first name back & forth. Both are correct.) The first thing that impressed us about this was the design of the Arcadia, Captain Harlock’s spaceship. A spaceship with an old-fashioned Spanish galleon’s sterncastle, in outer space!? With the Jolly Roger fluttering in outer space!? Never mind; just shut up and enjoy the melodrama, which was enhanced tremendously by the operatic-quality music by Seiji Yokoyama and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 2977 A.D. (the 42-episode TV anime was produced starting in 1977; shown 1978-‘79), Earth has an interplanetary civilization but it is falling apart in complacency and laziness. The mysterious space pirate Harlock is trying to shock the public and government back into life by destroying shipments of luxury items, vices like alcohol and drugs, etc. Suddenly it turns out that Earth is being secretly invaded by an alien race; the plantlike Mazones, who look like beautiful women. Their deadly sabotage is blamed on Harlock, who finds everyone turned against him. Nevertheless, he is the only one strong enough to fight the Mazone and their Queen Rafflesia.
Shortly after Osamu Tezuka’s visit to the C/FO in March 1978, we were contacted by Teruko (Pico) Hozumi, the new Hollywood representative of Toei Doga. She asked the tiny club of anime fans to help make the American public and the movie/TV industry anime-conscious. Naturally, we were enthusiastic volunteers. Our first project was to make a big impression at the San Diego Comic-Con that July. Toei provided 16 m.m. prints of the full range of its half-hour TV episodes, which Mark Merlino ran in an unofficial anime video room, and lots of Captain Harlock and Candy Candy merchandise (model kits, toys, anime books, dolls, etc.) which I offered for sale at a dealer’s table, to see whether American comic-book fans would be interested in comics-related materials from TV series that were unknown in the U.S. The girls’ merchandise went untouched (in 1978 the Comic-Con had an almost-exclusively male attendance), but the Captain Harlock merchandise almost sold out, especially the Arcadia items.
The 42 TV episodes are still being followed up by TV and theatrical sequels. A big-budget CGI theatrical feature is due from Toei (which makes and distributes theatrical features as well as producing TV anime) this Fall.
Galaxy Express 999. Ginga Teusudo Three-Nine. Another Matsumoto winner. This appeared on Japanese-community TV while Space Pirate Captain Harlock was still running. If Harlock’s deep-space pirate ship looked impractical, what were we to make of an interstellar railroad train – with a steam engine, yet — that toured the Milky Way galaxy and went to the Andromeda galaxy, and only stopped at Earth once a year!? But Galaxy Express 999 was awesomely exotic (opening theme sung by Isao Sasaki again) and we loved it. So did the Japanese; it ran for 113 TV episodes (1978 to 1981), two theatrical features, two TV specials, and three multi-episode OAV sequels. In the far future when humanity has filled the galaxy, mankind is divided into human commoners and an elite aristocracy who can afford to have their brains transferred into incredibly-expensive immortal robot bodies. Tetsuro, a poor 12-year-old human boy (anime fans complained that his character design was unrealistically ugly; Matsumoto replied that it was a self-portrait), is urged by his dying mother to somehow get a robot body, which are rumored to be available free in Andromeda. While he is at the galactic terminal, Tetsuro is offered free passage on the 999 if he will agree to become the traveling companion of a mysterious Russian-costumed woman who looks just like his mother. (Her Japanese name could be written in English as either Maeter, which is Latin for mother, or Maetel. The translators chose Maetel, to make it a unique name.) In each episode, the 999 stops at a different planet and Tetsuro has an adventure which is a learning experience.
Captain Future. This was Toei Doga’s “authorized imitation of Star Wars”. The Toei executives reportedly said, “George Lucas says that Star Wars is his homage to all the space opera magazines and movies that he saw in his youth. Let’s find out what some of those magazines were and license them.) The Captain Future pulp magazine ran for 17 issues from 1940 to 1944; most were written by s-f author Edmond Hamilton. The publisher told him to make the series a futuristic imitation of the popular Doc Savage, so Hamilton created the incredibly handsome and brave spaceman Curtis Newton and his three always-arguing but loyal assistants; Grag the robot, Otho the android, and Simon Wright, the disembodied brain of his father’s partner floating in a customized jar, who have adventures opposing evil Space Emperors and similar villains. For the TV anime, Toei added a romantic interest and a hero-worshipping tagalong kid, Ken Scott. I had read the old pulp magazine (great fun; you can’t tell me that Hamilton didn’t have his tongue in cheek when he wrote them), and we expected to be great fans of the 53-episode 1978-1979 series; but the quality dropped off so sharply after the pilot episode that we quickly gave up on it.
Besides giant robots, space opera and Lupin III, early anime fandom sampled other TV anime, but either because it wasn’t to our taste or because we could not get more than a few episodes, we did not watch other series regularly. Matsumoto had others that were only so-so; Planet Robot Danguard Ace (the humongous giant robot Danguard Ace protecting humanity from the tyrannical Chancellor Doppler of the planet Promete) and SF Saiyuki Starzinger (The Journey to the West/Monkey King legend retold as space opera, with three cyborg/alien bodyguards escorting the Princess of the Moon across the galaxy). Some that we followed for a half-dozen or so episodes included:
Gattiger. Cho Supercar Gattiger; somewhat redundant since it means “Super Supercar Gattiger”. 25 episodes, 1977 to 1978 from Wako Productions; and was it wacky! This used the combining giant-robot formula with racing cars. We never got the first episode so we didn’t know whether a reason was ever given, but somehow the fate of the world depended on a round-the-world auto race between humanity’s team (consisting of the stereotypical teenage hero who is the Gattiger’s inventor’s son, his girl friend, his beefy best friend, and the little kid) and the Demon Empire’s or Black Demon Empire’s team, who were of course demons. The winner got control of the earth, and naturally the demons cheated like crazy. Oh, did I mention that the teenage hero’s mysterious mother is the Demon Empire’s princess? The human team’s racecars, which were also invented by the hero’s father, could go about 450 miles an hour, and at the crisis point in each episode could link together at top speed into the Supercar Gattiger. If you were driving across rocky terrain or along a twisty mountain road at 450 miles an hour, would you care to get close enough to another car to lock onto it? Anime fans either liked Gattiger for giggles, or hated it for silliness, although we appreciated that it was done as absolutely straight-faced melodrama.
Lun Lun the Flower Child. Hana no kun Lun Lun, Toei Doga’s magical little girl fantasy of 1979-’80. Toei or some other anime studio produced one of these every year from … well, the first ever was Sally the Witch in 1966 (created by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the creator of Gigantor, who acknowleged the American TV series Bewitched as his inspiration); the most recent that I know of is Magical Girl Madoka of the Magus (Puella Magi Madoka Magica), January-April 2011, interrupted by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, with a theatrical movie due later this year; and I would be surprised if there has ever been a time between them when there was not a magical little girl anime on TV. Lun Lun Flower, a sweet little Swiss teenager, is persuaded by Nouveau, a talking St. Bernard, and Gateaux, a fluffy white cat, to join them in searching all over Europe for a magic flower that will reveal the missing princess of the Flower Planet. Surprise! she turns out to be Lun Lun, although at the climax she renounces her throne to return to Earth and her adoptive parents whom she loves, and the boy whom she wants to marry. This series was mildly interesting because the writers took every advantage to work in the almost-forgotten Victorian-era “language of flowers” – the amaryllis means pride, the lavender means devotion, the magnolia means love of nature, mint means suspicion, the pear blossom means lasting friendship but not love, etc.
Banner, the Gray Squirrel. Seton Dobutsuki Risu no Bana. This was supposedly a 26-episode 1979 anime adaptation of Ernest Thompson Seton’s 1922 children’s book Bannertail: The Story of a Gray Squirrel. Seton died in 1946 and the book was forgotten in America by the 1970s; I can’t imagine why Nippon Animation decided to animate it, but the studio did a two-part series of adaptations of Seton’s forest-animal novels; Bannertail and the 1919 Monarch: The Big Bear of Tallac (as Jackie, the Bear Cub). I had not read Seton’s novel (I have since), but I knew that he was the author of “true-life” animal books for children, like Felix Salten with Bambi and Perri in Europe; so I strongly doubted that his woodland animals wore clothing and quoted Shakespeare as Nippon Animation showed them. The C/FO locked onto Banner by accident; we just happened to pick as a sample episode #13, “Lure of the Mushrooms”, in which Banner accidentally eats a hallucinogenic mushroom and freaks out! (Yes, it is in Seton’s novel; apparently it is a common danger for Eastern U.S. gray squirrels.) The other episodes were not nearly as interesting and we soon gave it up as too infantile for us. (I personally objected to the owl’s flying with a pigeon’s noisy flutter; owls are silent flyers.)
In retrospect, it’s surprising that during the first five years of anime fandom, 1976 to 1981, the Los Angeles club got almost no episodes of the original Getter Robo or Gatchaman or UFO Robot Grandizer, and we only managed to trade videos for a handful of episodes of Cyborg 009 – it was shown on NYC’s Japanese-community channel but not in Los Angeles. The availability of anime in America during the late 1970s and early 1980s was very much a hit-or-miss affair.
In 1982 two genres brand-new in anime reached us, and the earliest days of anime fandom were over: teenagers from outer space, and more realistic mobile-suit battle armor replacing the giant robots. Anime fandom would never be the same!