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Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Review: Gatchaman Complete Collection

I grew up in Singapore watching Gatchaman II (in dubbed Taiwanese translation, with the opening and closing songs stripped!), but was probably pre-TV when SBC had started broadcasting the original Gatchaman, so when I saw that BestBuy had the complete Blu Ray collection on a sale for under $40, I picked it up. I didn't expect either Bowen or Boen to be captivated by it, but Boen loved the show, so we've been watching it every so often and are now about half-way through the series.

The physical package has all sorts of details that are only impressive if you're a comic book fan. For instance, the painted box cover and the individual box disc covers (there are 3 boxes, 2 with 6 Blu Rays and 1 with 2) are done by American artist Alex Ross. Ross grew up with the American bastardized version, Battle of the Planets, and had never seen any episode in its original form prior to this set being put together, so there's an interview on the specials disc with him explaining how that art came to be and how he came to be involved, as well as a few  brief seconds of his reaction to his first exposure to the original TV show!

Let's talk about the show proper, since I've already previously reviewed the Gatchaman OAV, which was terrible. First of all, it's a Japanese show from the 1970s. Computers are huge mainframe sized creatures with tape drives, and the fashion is also fairly obvious, with bell bottoms. But more importantly, the Japanese at that time (and probably still don't) have any objections to killing and other such violence for kids TV. So the Science Ninja Team don't just karate-chop their opponents into unconsciousness, they'll run over them with cars, slash them with boomerang weapons, blow them up with explosive yoyos, and poison or kill them with feather shurikens. (Come on, they are Ninjas!) No wonder the Americans felt like they had to dial it back. (Note that despite this heavy dose of TV violence, Japan was and still is a much safer place to be a human many decades later, indicating that fantasy violence has nothing to do with real violence --- both my kids know this)

The parenting norms have also changed. One of the characters, Ken, has a father who disappeared off to do a secret mission, faking his death, leaving others to tell him that he's dead. He reappears as the mentor figure Red Impulse, but of course this isn't revealed to Ken until a critical moment whereupon his father sacrifices himself to save the planet. Bowen didn't find this believable or acceptable, but when I was a kid it seemed plausible. Absent fathers no longer seem plausible to little kids, making me wonder what current parenting behaviors will be considered unacceptable by the time Bowen's an adult.

The animation is rough at the start of the show but steadily improves all throughout the show. (The show ran for 105 episodes!) Bowen asked me, "What's different about Gatchaman?" My response was: "Stinky and Dirty is great, but you can watch the episodes out of order or even backwards and your experience wouldn't differ very much. Gatchaman is like a novel - you can't watch it backwards or it wouldn't make any sense!"  The show, like almost all Asian TV at the time, has a long story arc (the first one took about 50 episodes to cover), and is full of state: characters change, including our understanding of their relationships, and you're expected to have watched the entire series in order, with very little of each episode spent in recap (which is good - each episode is only 25 minutes long!). For  your reference, the adult TV shows my parents were watching seemed all adapted from long form narrative novels as well, for instance Louis Cha's  天龍八部 would run for 50 episodes. I believe that having early exposure to long form narrative is good for building attention span, but I have no proof to back up that assertion.

As the name implies, there is science in the series. In one of the episodes, a monster that only eats women is revealed to do so because it has an allergy to the Y-chromosome in men. Bowen asked me if chromosomes really exist after that. In another, the Van-Allen belt is the target of the villain's machinations. There's a surprising number of references to eco-friendly/sustainable building methods and lifestyles for a show that was built in the 1970s. Geothermal, nuclear, and other alternative energy sources are discussed (and of course, destroyed by mecha monsters created by the bad guys). Not every episode had a science behind it, and in fact early episodes were clumsy, with the solutions being provided by Professor Nambu who gives the team orders.

And of course, that's the weak spot of the whole series. As a kid having an International Science Organization that runs the world seemed like the way to go, but it's pretty funny to think of scientists having enough budget and power nowdaays to have all those secret bases and fancy projects at the same time while running not one, but two commando-style para-military teams with all the fancy planes, missiles and offensive weaponry.

It's also clear that the creators of the show got exposure to American superhero comics, but didn't have the language skills to comprehend the plot, so had all sorts of irrationality built into the series that are never explained or simply don't make sense. For instance, if the Science Ninja Team was employed by the ISO, why did they have secret identities and jobs? It's clear that all the trappings of a super-hero story was there, but it didn't make much sense, since the Science Ninja Team is more like a special-forces military team than a superhero team. It's just a weird carryover.

Anyway, the show's fun, draws kids attention (but beware the violence if your memories are from the sanitized American version), and has interesting attributes not available in even some of the best American kids shows today. I'm pretty sure my kids will watch it all the way to finish, as will I.

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