Friday, May 3, 2019

The Rising of the Shield Hero Making of an Otaku, Part One

This is a story of a trip down the rabbit hole called anime.

At the time, though, I didn't know it was called anime.

At the time, it had giant robots and that was good enough for me.

That was all I knew when six-year-old me arrived in the U.S. in 1978.

Now, I had no recollection of ever seeing it but I must have because I knew the title. And I knew it had a giant robot.

Voltes V.

I remember telling my folks about it. They simply smiled and nodded.

Since I'd mentioned a cartoon, my dad said, "Here: have a look at these," and tuned me into American animation. Bugs Bunny and Co. Mickey Mouse and Friends. Wacky Races. Penelope Pitstop. Dastardly and Muttley. Catch that Pigeon. Superfriends. 

But little hints of the giant robot cartoon stuck in my mind. 

Seeing the Shogun Warrior toys at a toy store one weekend tickled a memory.

I had seen these before. If not that the very robot in question then something akin to it. 

"Voltes V," the memory cried out.

Yes. Voltes V.

You fleeting memory of a giant robot. 

Good ol' Voltes V.

When Marvel published the Shogun Warrior comics in '79, the memory tickle happened again. The first time I saw these early issues was on the spinner rack at a local drugstore. I remember looking over the artwork and Voltes V came to mind again.

"You know of these," it said.

At the same time, though, the artwork lacked...something.

Something was off.

Something was wrong.

At that time I didn't know what it was.

The right thing came in 1981.

We'd just installed cable TV at home and with it came Showtime.

One summer afternoon I turned on the TV and was channel surfing when I landed on Showtime and caught sight of a figure hopping around, waving his arms, and calling out "Klaatu barada nikto!"

Entranced, I watched. Watched as more characters appeared. Dubbed voiced. Thickly coiffed. Big eyed.

And then the giant robot.


Connection once more.

The voice called out: "Voltes V."

But no. 

Not this exactly. 

This was like it.

I finished the movie some hour and a half later and immediately snatched up the schedule booklet to see when it would come on again. Because Showtime replayed movies. And I had to see it again. Because reasons.

There it was. Force Five: Starvengers.

I took note of the next airing. On that day, at the appointed hour, in lieu of a VCR (we wouldn't get one for another year), I jammed a cassette recorder next to the TV cabinet's one front speaker (because some TVs came in a Mini Cooper-sized wooden cabinet with a single iPhone-sized speaker), dropped in a cassette tape, and jabbed the RECORD button.

Two tapes. Both sides.

Soundtrack for the entire movie (minus the few seconds when I had to eject and flip the tape).

And I played those tapes over and over for weeks after, all the while imagining the move.

And when Starvengers came on each time, I tried to catch every viewing.

After Starvengers, Spacekeeters and Danguard Ace followed.

I saw both but only in stages. School had started again by that time so I didn't have the luxury of parking myself in front of the TV with the recorder.

Shortly after Starvengers, another similarly styled animated show hit my radar, this time a series carried on Superstation WTBS.

Battle of the Planets.

Mark, Jason, Princess, Keyop, and Tiny.

No giant robot, but the character design was similar and the style soon locked itself in my mind.

Japanese style animation.

It was different. It was cool.

I liked.

Still, most of my cartoon watching stuck with American animation. These were the days of Thundarr and Dungeons and Dragons. Blackstarr and Spiderman and His Amazing Friends. Snorks and G.I. Joe and Transformers and The Littles and Pac-Man and still others.

Of these, only The Littles stood out as being drawn and animated Japanese style.

But that's all it did at the time. In my mind it was just another category. A cool one at that. 

But still a category.

That changed when I came home from school one afternoon in 1984, grabbed a bowl of cereal for a snack, and turned on the TV.

A sweeping orchestral score rose up, full of thumping percussion and strident brass, accompanied by images of that specific character style and--what's this? A battleship in space?

And then the male chorus burst forth.
We're off to outer space, 
We're leaving Mother Earth
To save the human race
Our Star Blazers...


Connection again.

And at once the style sank in deep. Like a shiv between the ribs, into the 6th intercostal space.

This time what I saw was different. Not like the other shows I'd been watching.

No no.

This was something else entirely.

This was something more.

What's this? People got hurt? In a cartoon?

Some might've even died?


Different indeed.

Still, it--what I'd come to know as anime--continued to scrabble for a toehold.

It had sunk in, yes. Deep, yes. But it hadn't quite stuck.

Not yet.

It would be one more year before it did.

And it would happen with HBO and a certain movie....

Next time: The Making of an Otaku, Part Two, or Arcade Games, and Mecha, and Gorgons, Oh My!

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