Judge Mike Pinsky boldly fought off the Science Ninja Team to bring you this review.
"Whoosh whoosh whoosh whoosh! Roaring engines! Ninjas of Science!"—Japanese theme song
You probably remember this from when you were a kid. After the catchy theme song ("Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!"), Galactor, led by the sinister Berg Katse, sends its enormous robot turtle to steal Earth's supply of uranium. With a shout of "Bird Go!" the Science Ninja Team streaks into action, led by the intrepid Ken the Eagle, known as Gatchaman. The team takes their cool jet, the God Phoenix, straight into the heart of Galactor's giant menace, and the warriors battle Galactor's costumed army. Jun the Swan and her killer yo-yo. Ryu the Owl, the daring pilot. Joe the Condor, impetuous and wrathful. Jinpei the Swallow, the wisecracking child with deadly speed. Together, under the watchful eye of Dr. Nambu, these four are the only hope Earth has against this interstellar invasion.
Oh wait, you don't remember it quite that way?
Blame Sandy Frank. This American producer (later responsible for the sitcom Martin) made a mint through the 1970s and '80s repackaging Japanese children's shows and movies for the American market. Remember Gamera, Daiei's answer to the Godzilla craze? You saw those movies on your weekend television creature-feature show thanks to Sandy. In 1978, Sandy Frank was looking for a way to cash in on Star Wars like every other Hollywood producer. Along came Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, a Japanese television cartoon, one of an endless stream of sentai ("warrior") shows about masked teams of heroes taking on galactic invaders.
But Gatchaman was pretty violent for American children, so Sandy took out as much of the death and destruction as he could. He inserted new material meant to cash in on Star Wars, plus theme music that sounds plagiarized from SuperFriends. Now the show, which previously took place exclusively on Earth with Dr. Nambu in charge of the team, would roam the planets and offer a cute round-topped robot providing exposition from an underwater base.
So "Gatchaman v. Turtle King" became "Attack of the Space Terrapin." 7-Zark-7 (voiced by Alan Young) introduces us to G-Force, the team of "fearless young orphans" he directs from his base at Center Neptune: Mark (played by Casey Kasem), Princess, Tiny, Keyop, and Jason. This time, the team is after a bunch of stolen "Vitalumen." Because of the long Zark scenes and the truncated battle sequences, we do not see much of the team in this reworked episode, although Keyop now babbles incoherently (sounding suspiciously like a humanoid R2-D2)—the result, we are told, of his being a clone!
In 1986, a new group of producers would try it again, transforming the first episode of Gatchaman into "Robot Stegosaur," the premiere of G-Force. Thankfully, 7-Zark-7 is gone, and the story is mostly intact. Unfortunately, much of the music of the original is replaced by '80s synth-pop, the same monotonous track over and over. Although the new character names are really dumb (Ken becomes Ace Goodheart, and Joe becomes Dirk Daring—get the picture?), G-Force is still closer to the snappy heroics of the original Japanese show. Although keeping Gatchaman's distinctly 1970s storyline (involving Galactor's repeated attempts to take over Earth's fuel supplies, a metaphor for the world energy crisis of that decade) seemed a little dated.
The packaging of Volume One is characteristic of the entire series. Rhino presents Battle of the Planets as the centerpiece of this DVD collection, assuming that audiences will remember Sandy Frank's version of the show the best. While this may be true, Sandy Frank's version is also the worst of the three, mostly due to the stomach-churning antics of 7-Zark-7 and the sloppy editing meant to tone the show down to avoid controversy. The two Battle episodes on this first volume are also in the worst physical condition of the three shows, exhibiting some grain and fading on the print (although video dropouts tend to be a bigger problem on the Japanese show) and a tinny mono soundtrack whose thinness tends to become very strained when remixed in 5.1.
Each Battle of the Planets episode is presented with its Gatchaman counterpart, and one G-Force episode is offered as well per disc. The original show (as well as G-Force) is included in the "Special Features" section of the disc, as if the episodes are offered as generous bonuses by Rhino. But in truth, the original Japanese show is so much better than Sandy Frank's version that I cannot really count it as a supplement. Without the Gatchaman episodes, these discs would be unwatchable.
The dramatic difference between the two shows is even more pronounced in the second episode, "A Demonic Aircraft Carrier." After a pair of astronauts is captured and their orbital scans of uranium sites falls into Galactor's hands, the Science Ninja Team must infiltrate Berg Katse's new underwater mining operation to steal the data back. Although the astronauts are killed (and their corpses used in a ruse to capture Ken), Ken and Jinpei destroy the base. Berg Katse orders his humiliated lieutenant (already smarting from the defeat of the Turtle King last time out) to sacrifice himself by ramming into the God Phoenix, forcing our heroes to escape by again attempting the dangerous Firebird transformation. Although the episode is only presented in mono sound (with some hiss on the soundtrack) and the animation is limited (due to age and budget), there is plenty of action and suspense.
And what about "Rescue of the Astronauts," the Battle of the Planets version? After some idiotic antics with 7-Zark-7 and his robot dog—cough—1-Rover-1, we are told that the Phoenix is capable of interstellar travel (!)—although for short trips, people still use old-fashioned rockets. But when a pair of astronauts is kidnapped along with their videotape of alien bases on Mars, G-Force goes into action. Dr. Nambu is seen here for the first time (he was cut out of the first episode) as Security Chief Anderson. Mark infiltrates the underwater base of Zoltar (Berg Katse's new name, voiced in English by Keye Luke) and fights the bad guys to disco music. Although we only see him and Keyop swim away from the exploding base, Zark informs us that the astronauts are with them, safe and sound. Hooray!
Moving right along to Volume Two. Two airline pilots are making small talk when their plane encounters a strange, dark cloud. They plummet from the sky, seeing only a glimpse of the monstrous bandaged figure hovering at the cloud's center. Dr. Nambu, suspicious of the mysterious cloud that has been responsible for such damage, sends Ken the Eagle to investigate. After a touching scene with the orphaned son of the downed plane's pilot, Ken flies his prop plane into the heart of the storm and battles a spooky, rocket-powered mummy. The mummy, according to Dr. Nambu, is powered by the deadly mineral Plutonium-X. And only one man, Dr. Takahara (conveniently the uncle of that poor orphan boy), has the chemical that can neutralize Plutonium-X and stop the giant mummy before it destroys everything in its path.
Eagle Ken gets to go mostly solo in "A Giant Mummy Calls in Storms," the third installment of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Unfortunately, he does not make a friend in little Makoto, who blames our hero for his father's death—but it does provide an opportunity for us to learn of Ken's own lost father. Such character development is often important in the melodramatic world of the Japanese masked hero, who must overcome some past trauma in order to finally achieve victory over the enemy.
Pity that Mark, the leader of G-Force, does not have much of a personality. In fact, he does not even get to save Earth in the Battle of the Planets episode, "The Mummy." Mark and G-Force are sent to the newly discovered "Zarkadia," a fully civilized planet 7-Zark-7 finds hiding behind Venus. I suppose I would hide my planet too if I thought 7-Zark-7 was looking for it. The rest is pretty much the same as Ken's adventure, as Mark and the team save Dr. Sweet and little Buddy from the giant robotic mummy sent by Zoltar, and Buddy is left distraught over his lost father. But we hear nothing about Mark's father. After all, he is a "fearless young orphan," as the opening credits tell us, and we wouldn't want him to have any conflicts about that.
As with Volume One of Rhino's DVD release of Battle of the Planets, the original Gatchaman episode is far more atmospheric and emotional than the nearly incoherent American version supervised by Sandy Frank. While we have no corresponding G-Force episode on this disc (the only episode included matches up with "A Deadly Aircraft Carrier" from Volume One—why is Rhino packaging G-Force in such a mismatched fashion?), but we do get two more matching Battle of the Planets and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman episodes fighting for our attention and nostalgic feelings of warmth. Technical credits are the same as Volume One, and the video and audio exhibit the similar strengths and flaws, although this time out, the 5.1 remix for Battle of the Planets seems less pinched and hollow. Still, Gatchaman once again digs its heels into Battle's face and wins the fight.
Take, for example, the vast gulf between Gatchaman's "For Revenge on the Iron Monster Mechadegon" and Battle's "The Space Serpent." In the Japanese show, a giant robot centipede (sentai shows seem to have a fetish for giant robot animals) attacks an oil refinery and later a tanker, draining both of their oil before destroying them. Galactor's latest plot: steal the world's petroleum reserves. Dr. Nambu sends Ken the Eagle to an earthquake expert for information on how to track the monster by its seismic pattern, but the scientist is killed in the next assault, despite Ken's valiant efforts to save him. The chief's pretty (but rather young looking) daughter blames Ken for her father's death, and Ken drops her off at Swan Jun's apartment before continuing his investigation (leading to a little jealousy from his teammate).
Dr. Nambu warns Ken not to become blinded by emotion, but our impetuous hero brings the girl aboard the God Phoenix for the final assault on the giant centipede, as the science ninjas take on Berg Katse's latest masked flunky and his robot. We get to see a dark side to Ken here, as he demands the girl take her revenge on the monster, slapping her and forcing her to push the button to fire the bird missile. And she thanks him after it is all over!
Compare this to Sandy Frank's version, "The Space Serpent." Downplaying the earthquake angle (understandable, as the Japanese, due to the geophysical conditions of their country, have a more acute fear of earthquakes than Americans), 7-Zark-7, rambles like a senile monkey and tracks a massive Spectra ship approaching Earth. Mark visits old friend Dr. Harlan about the seismic disturbances, but Harlan is killed in the next attack. Daughter Debbie, who apparently knows Mark is the leader of G-Force, joins the team as it battles the "serpent" (which still looks like a centipede), which is now run by a robot flunky of Zoltar. Debbie refuses to fire the missile, to Mark's approving, "Revenge doesn't solve anything." Instead, Jason gets the honor of the kill. Then 7-Zark-7 takes a shower! Ack!
That final, terrifying scene sums up everything about the differences between Gatchaman and Battle of the Planets. Because even if you have fond memories of Sandy Frank's 1978 version, you will wonder now how you avoided crippling psychic damage while watching it the first time. That last frightening image of Zark with a towel around his waist (?), babbling at his robot dog, may stick in your mind for weeks. I know it haunts me still…
Who is the indomitable Sandy Frank, whose generous work brought Science Ninja Team Gatchaman to our shores in the form of Battle of the Planets? Since there is little available biographical information on him (even on his Web site), I will make some up.
Born in 1853 and raised by wild elephants in the jungle, Sandy Frank roamed the streets of Calcutta as a youth, working his way up to the role of footman to a mighty pasha. One night, he dreamed that the world rode on the back of a giant turtle, guarded by bird-headed warriors. When he awoke, he swore to all the gods that he would bring that vision to the people. The young Frank climbed through the mountains until he came to a Shaolin monastery, where he trained in the martial arts. Then he traveled the world, gathering the wisdom of many cultures. Along the way, he became known as the "Melodic Avenger" for his habit of challenging evildoers to guess the song he was humming in order to avoid his beating them senseless. He always won these battles, since he usually picked show tunes that were little heard among the villains he encountered—and his kung fu was mighty. Soon, Sandy Frank was known around the world as a fearsome defender of truth and justice, watching events transpire from his awesome "Cave of Wonders," from which he directed his army of agents to protect the world.
If course, since robots were uncommon in those days, it is understandable that Mr. Frank would have little idea how to use them narratively in later years. Take Battle of the Planets: Volume Three for example. In "Ghost Ship of Planet Mir," 7-Zark-7 gives us a tour of the undersea complex of Planet Mir (pronounced "myrrh," like the valuable balm), during which we pray for rust. The complex is threatened by the evil renegade Brock, in league with Zoltar. G-Force is interrupted on their ski vacation (check out Princess in a bikini), and they fly off to Planet Mir using a "time warp." From a distance, Planet Mir resembles a restaurant popover. The Phoenix wanders around in a graveyard of lost ships, then finds a whole naval fleet hiding in a fog bank. Having no idea which side the fleet is on, they go ahead and blow it up anyway. Then come the flying saucers. G-Force's heroic battle consists of Jason pushing a red button over and over like he is playing Space Invaders. Finally, the planet's defense squadron shows up to save our heroes. Then 7-Zark-7's girlfriend gets jealous that he "might flip his fosdick" over a casino slot machine. After I finish weeping, we move on to the next episode.
Robots are similarly misused in "Big Robot Gold Grab." Everyone knows that robots dig shiny objects and bits of string. Oh wait, I'm thinking of cats. Anyway, Spectra decides to go slumming and rob a gold reserve with clamshell-headed robots, instead of the usual galactic conquest stuff. Chief Anderson sends G-Force in search of any islands with "recently disturbed trees." I picture coconut palms draped on couches, nervously detailing their nightmares about 7-Zark-7. Instead, Mark, Princess, and Keyop get themselves captured by a boss who looks suspiciously like Brock from the last episode. While they fight an army of "mini-robots," Jason steals back the gold: "Daddy's gonna take you home!" There is more button pushing, and our heroes save the "civilized universe" once again. Did I mention that in one scene, Zark wears one of those safety helmets they give to emotionally disturbed children?
Compare these to the vastly more coherent corresponding episodes of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. The story makes a lot more sense in "The Ghost Ship from Hell" than in its butchered American translation. Here, we find that the International Science Organization has built a lovely fish farm and some oil wells near the dreaded "graveyard of the sea." When a ghost battleship ruthlessly (and graphically) destroys several research vessels, the Science Ninja Team is called in to stop Galactor's latest plot.
But the team treats the mission as a beach vacation, until they notice an oil slick on the water—the base is under attack! A tense underwater sub hunt follows. Then, we get the battle with the ghost ship fleet and the flying saucers. And those mysterious red fighter jets that save the Science Ninja Team? They call themselves Red Impulse, and their real mission will become clear in future episodes.
Oddly, "Big Robot Gold Grab" turns out to be the most faithful translation so far, pretty much capturing the basics of "The Grand Mini-Robot Operation," albeit setting it on another planet and adding the insufferable Zark. Of course, the original is more violent. But overall, the heist plot makes both the Japanese and American versions pretty mediocre installments of their respective series.
Rhino Video rounds out Volume Three with the G-Force episode, "The Strange White Shadow." Replaying the giant mummy story we saw in Volume Two, this is a pretty straightforward translation, except for the stupid name changes ("Ace Goodheart" makes me cringe every time) and the geeky pop music. Of particular note here is the fact that the audio mix for the voice dub is especially bad, sounding like it was recorded by karaoke machine.
My nerves wearing thin, I will move on to Volume Four. Nothing exemplifies the spirit of our soaring bird heroes better than an air show. At the test flight of a new, non-polluting airplane, piloted by Eagle Ken, the Iron Wizard Katsenberge (who does Berg Katse think he's fooling?) knocks the jet from the sky with his demonic biplane. The God Phoenix goes into action, but the enemy ship is indestructible, made of the super-metal "whisker." Can Gatchaman destroy the whisker factory and its dozens of evil minions before Galactor can build an armada?
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, where the stereo sound has an awful metallic cast to it, 7-Zark-7 oils himself (!) in excited anticipation of the launch of his new airplane design. But the evil Captain Doom from the planet Urgos is on the prowl. So it is off to Urgos to find the asteroid Captain Doom is getting his indestructible metal from. Since the base only seems to have a single guard, it is much easier to destroy than Galactor's base. But why does the calm tone of Mark's voice after the villain escapes not match the angry twitching of his body?
Captain Doom is clearly the sort of supervillain that the real (and by real, I mean completely invented and facetious) Sandy Frank must have battled throughout the 19th century, in his guise as the "Melodic Avenger" (decades prior to inventing the game show Face the Music). One day, pondering his legacy in his artfully decorated "Cave of Wonders" on the mysterious island of Garig'nu, Sandy Frank realized that his good deeds might be lost forever. In 1890, he traveled to the wilds of Northern Canada, where even today, naught lives but cannibals and country music fans, and found a local shaman who was willing to freeze Frank in a block of solid ice until the world was ready for his true vision.
The mighty hero was forgotten as the world moved on. The great block of ice into which he froze himself was eventually sold to a Good Humor distributor in Canton, Ohio, where it languished until 1954. It passed from truck to truck, often used to cool down sundae cups and Humorette pops, until it ended up in the scorching American Southwest. In 1960, fate finally caught up with Sandy Frank.
Certainly, the terrors Sandy Frank must have dreamed up while trapped in the ice must have come back to haunt him. Take a Battle of the Planets episode like "Big Fearful Sea Anemone," for example. In the original Gatchaman episode (titled "The Secret of the Crescent Coral Reef"), Galactor builds a giant anemone to assault the Science Ninja Team's new undersea base. While Eagle Ken tends to misshapen children, Jinpei, in spite of being an 18th generation Iga Ninja, mopes over the fact that he is the least popular member of the team. In the Japanese version of this story, what follows is a character development episode for Jinpei, as he grapples with adolescent popularity—and giant tentacles. At the end, he says to the others, "I feel weird." Is puberty next?
No such psychological trauma clouds poor Keyop's mind. He is even oblivious to the fact that his name is clearly a perverse anagram of C3PO (think about it), even though his speech impediment is modeled on R2D2. His crisis of faith all takes place on the muffin-shaped Galaxy 30, which consists of one planet. Meanwhile, 7-Zark-7 prepares for a robot class reunion, where we are told every robot sings "off key." Between this and Zark's reference in the previous episode to being G-Force's "mother," the gay double-entendres are getting thick.
In yet another parallel universe, where Zark mercifully does not exist, time moves more slowly: we are still back at the giant centipede episode (here, cleverly titled "The Giant Centipod"), the indifferent voice acting lends everything a lethargic air, and people move so slowly that their dialogue sometimes does not even match their mouths. Still, Ace forces "Tanya" to fire that missile, just like Eagle Ken did in Gatchaman's universe. But his heart doesn't really seem to be in it…
Volume Five. I should probably preface this installment by noting that, if you have made it all the way up to this part of the review without hurting yourself or someone you love, then you already know what is good and bad on this DVD. You are either committed to this path or not. That being said, it is still pretty clear that this volume is going to be trouble when Rhino itself keeps misspelling the name of one of the episodes ("Juniper Moon Menace," rather than "Jupiter"), as if even the company is now just going through the motions.
Now just consider the plight of poor Galactor. We are up to Episode Nine of Gatchaman, "A Demon from the Moon," and the alien menace tells Berg Katse that it is finally ready to get serious about conquering the Earth. No, really. This is it!
Galactor is thinking to himself, "Ok, so it doesn't help that Berg Katse's chief lieutenant this time looks like Bozo the Clown." He shrugs, "Still—check out that giant space scorpion tearing up the moon and shooting meteors at the Earth! Aren't you terrified? Just a little?"
A sad look glazes Galactor's eyes. "Oh, I don't know why I bother. Gatchaman and those damn kids will just find Bozo's secret underwater lair and wreck the whole plan anyway." He mopes for a few minutes, then jumps up. "I know! I'll hire that crazy guy in the poufy Renaissance pants who thinks he is the ant queen. He can build an army of robot ants and knock out the local power plant. I'll catch those Ninja Science kids off guard, while they are at the disco! I'll tell the ant queen guy to build a giant ant to attack the city! I'll call it 'The Big Battle of the Underground Monsters,' and—"
A moment passes. "On second thought, he will probably just do something idiotic, like make all the ants vulnerable to sunlight, and the whole thing will go down the toilet. I'm just going to go lie down." Galactor sulks.
Perhaps he would feel more comfortable being evil in the parallel universe of Battle of the Planets. There, the robot ant attack is pretty much the same, only it happens mostly on the planet Tramulus, which, like all planets in that universe, is lumpy and misshapen. But at least the whole "vulnerable to sunlight" angle is forgotten and Red Impulse (that mysterious flying ace who will later figure into Gatchaman's backstory) is dropped from the story, giving Zoltar more of a fighting chance.
The major drawback though to living in the Sandy Frank universe is that it is now apparently filled with horrible, miserable, execrable new animation. It is bad enough that the last couple of episodes featured badly drawn shots of Princess visiting 7-Zark-7 in his control center (and kissing him!), but "Jupiter Moon Menace" contains several minutes of hideously disproportioned and poorly animated new material, as G-Force cavorts around their new base. This stuff is so bad that it drags down the entire disc (hence the lower rating this time around). It sullies all that is pure and good in the world. It is more evil than Galactor could ever hope to be.
Perhaps Sandy Frank would have been better off remaining in that block of ice, where he was trapped in our erroneous biography of him. But it was not to be. All this bad animation and butchered storytelling is his fault. If only it had not happened. If only the Good Humor truck carrying his ice block had not passed through that radiation cloud in the Arizona desert in 1960. That was when he was defrosted, and the beneficent radiation imbued him with revitalized youth and great psychic powers. Knowing instantly what he had to do to fulfill his destiny, Frank raced to Hollywood, where he took up a post as a television distributor for various game shows and Lassie.
Hearing that his legendary adventures as a crimefighter in the 19th century had inspired movies and television shows in Japan, Sandy Frank jumped at the opportunity to spread his knowledge of cosmic joy to American children. But the radiation had warped his sense of purpose. He bought the rights to movies featuring Gamera, the mighty flying turtle, and a television program featuring five awesome bird-headed warriors, called Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. Sensing that their real messages had been lost over nearly a century, Frank had all these shows brought into line with his true creative vision, thanks to skillful editing and translation. Later, as his head cleared, he brought the world profound philosophical works like The New Zoo Revue and The Jamie Foxx Show. The rest is television history.
Oh, and before you ask, yes, there is a G-Force episode on Volume Five: the one with the ghost ship you saw in its original form in Volume Three. The sound mix is still flat enough to induce a coma, but the story is still fairly intact. These G-Force episodes, lagging behind the others, seem increasingly pointless.
In any case, as of this writing, Rhino has released one more individual disc (Volume Six, covering Episodes 11 and 12), plus a boxed set with more episodes (Rhino skips several in the running order, but adds some bonus features). But considering there were 105 episodes of the original series alone (and nearly that many from the two Gatchaman that followed), and 85 of Battle of the Planets, we are in for a very long haul. Overall, Rhino might be better off marketing this show to anime fans interested in seeing the original Gatchaman, including the 20 episodes not aired in the American version. The Sandy Frank versions have dated very poorly, even more than Eagle Ken's striped shirt and bell bottoms, and seem more funny than exciting. Fans of classic sentai action will appreciate the original Japanese version, but 7-Zark-7 really needs to be pushed out an airlock pronto.
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Scales of Justice
• Corresponding Episodes of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman
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