“Funny animals” are a staple in American animation, ranging from Bugs Bunny to Ren & Stimpy, but it is incredibly rare to see one in Japanese cartooons. Generally if an anime stars a talking animal, it means that it’s meant for pre-schoolers, something anime fans don’t take seriously. Still, back in the 1960s Toei Animation attempted to produce a talking animal show aimed at general audience. That show was Hustle Punch.
The show centers around three hobos that live in a broken car on top of a junkyard: Punch, Touch, and Boom. Punch is a bear who is literally strong-headed: his head is as hard as a rock, and nothing can knock him down. Anyone who tries to smash his head in always find themselves out of luck, as the blunt instrument constantly breaks upon contact. Punch also uses this to literally break a hole in the wall: he just runs to the wall with his head in front and just smashes through. Boom the weasel is an expert shot, using not a gun, but a slingshot. Even when Black the cat shoots his gun at them, Boom can always knock it out by aiming his slingshot at it. Touch the mouse takes advantage of her smallness in order to get into small holes and sneaking into things without the villains knowing. She tends to be naïve, often not understanding the seriousness of a situation that they frequently get into.
Professor Gari-Gari is a mad scientist wolf who wants to build a mansion over the junkyard, constantly thinking up evil plans to get the money needed to buy the property, whether it’s creating a machine that creates counterfeit 10 yen (about 10 cents in US money) or stealing priceless paintings and selling it to a high bidder. He is an inventor, creating things that can aid him into doing his deed. If Gari-Gari buys the junkyard, this of course means that the three heroes will have no place to stay, so they constantly thwart his schemes. Gari-Gari has two henchmen working for him: Black and Nyu. Black is a gangster cat who welds a gun, often shooting at Punch and the gang with it. In a cartoon fashion, he doesn’t get seriously injured whenever the gun backfires at him; it just covers his face in black soot and nothing more. Nyu is a simple-minded pig who has big strength. He’s the reluctant one in the group, not wanting to really hurt the main characters. In some episodes he helps them instead, whether he’s tricked into doing it or not. He’s prone into being flattered by Touch the mouse, using her charms on him.
The cartoon is fun to watch. The characters have simple but appealing designs, which is perfect for the TV animation process. The stories and gags are akin to talking animal theatrical cartoons put out by American studios, although they are stretched to a half-hour running time. If this show was dubbed to English, one could be fooled into thinking that this is an American cartoon; it’s probably one of the most un-Japanese looking anime ever put out at the time. The show was clearly influenced by American cartoons, but it still has its own unique charm to it that doesn’t make it a total copy-cat. Dare I say, Hustle Punch is one of my favorite anime. It’s really fun to watch these characters play off each-other.
Reading the credits in Hustle Punch is like looking at “who’s who” in anime. The series was created by Yasuji Mori (1925-1992), a long-time animator, director, and (more famously) character designer at Toei Animation and later Nippon Animation. It was Mori who set the standards for the Japanese animation style, many of which are still held today. Among the people that Mori mentored includes Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, both of whom are now big names in anime. Miyazaki, in fact, worked on Hustle Punch as an animator, one of his first jobs in the field. Isao Takahata, meanwhile, directed the opening title sequence. Another notable name is Nobuyo Ohyama (b. 1936), who made her professional debut as a voice actress on this show, voicing Punch. Ohyama is best known for voicing Doraemon, a role she held for over 25 years.
Hustle Punch ran for 26 episodes, all filmed in black and white, on Nihon Educational Television (NET) from November 1, 1965 to April 25, 1966. It originally aired on Mondays at 7:30 pm, but in the following January the schedule was moved half-hour early to 7:00 pm. After that, NET reran the show into 1967, only to languish in obscurity since then. The fact that it’s not in color hampered future repeats. Toei eventually released four episodes on DVD, as part of the “Toei Monochrome Animation” series, which featured other shows from the era. Not that a complete box-set is an impossible pipe-dream. Unusual for other studios, Toei is seemingly gung-ho on releasing every single piece of animation they have done for television, even the black and white ones. It’s only a matter of time until Hustle Punch get their turn.
First Episode with English Subtitles