The one that started it all: Gatchaman
When I was 9 yeas old, I fell in love with Battle of the Planets. It was my obsession for years, bridging lego and girls. The show’s animation was way beyond anything from the US and the story, although formulaic, hinted at deeper meanings. And it was just outright weird. For instance, why did the bad guy Zoltar always build his giant attack ships in the shapes of animals? And why, oh why, did “he” have long, slender legs, lipstick and a mane of blonde hair?
All of these questions were answered almost 20 years later when I discovered that the show was actually an Americanized version of the Japanese anime classic Gatchaman. Even though the show was poorly translated and hacked apart to make the US version – they weren’t allowed to show human on human violence – much of the show’s original emotional impact came through.
Back in 1971, Gatchaman introduced a series of important concepts to anime: a team consisting of the rule-following leader, the angry second in command, the hot young girl, the kid and the fat guy; combining the team’s ships into a mega-ship; the androgynous villain (yes, Zoltar – Berg Katse in Japanese – turned out to be both male and female); and so on.
I’ve been lucky enough to see the entire series (105 episodes!) in the original Japanese and even though many aspects are dated, there are moments of remarkable power and emotion. And action. What struck me the most was that almost every episode ended with a big mushroom cloud, after GForce had found a way to destroy one of Katse’s mechas. I’m talking nuclear explosion big. And this from a country that had lost two cities to these kinds of explosions just 26 years earlier, when many of the show’s writers were kids.
That turned out to be a clue for me as to why they would include something so emotionally charged in a cartoon. First off, Gatchaman was watched by children and adults, and a mushroom cloud if nothing else will get a reaction. But more to the point, as Matt Alt said in my piece about Giant Robots “like children who’ve been traumatized, it can be therapy to draw what traumatized them.”
The other satisfying thing about watching Gatchaman in its original order is seeing that many of the subplots that were hinted at on BOTP – Mark’s missing dad, his relationship with Princess, the similarities between Zoltar and the Spectra spy woman – turned out to be real and, in fact, fully dealt with by the end of the series.
Plus, there’s real violence and death. Whenever Mark threw his boomerang in BOTP, it would do all it’s work offscreen – leaving the Spectra goons laying on the ground, seemingly knocked out. In Gatchaman, you get to see it slice through the dudes’ throats. Oh yeah, and one of the main characters dies. Dies. Made me cry, I’m ok with admitting.
But the greatest thing about discovering the original version of BOTP is that the show has grown with me. As a child, BOTP served me well. As an adult, it is horribly cliche and hackneyed. But now I can turn to Gatchaman and appreciate its more mature themes and characters.
And as dangerously impractical as it is, a group of teenagers kicking ass while dressed as birds is still awesome to watch.