Growing up in Australia we had our fare share of Japanese cartoon series that were cut, sliced, diced and re-served by the U.S. like appealing sushi for the English speaking market. If American cartoons were from ‘the big city’ and British cartoons were from ‘around the corner’ then Japanese cartoons were certainly from space or the future… or space in the future. They were robotic humans with split-personalities and internal struggles that their moon faces and wide ‘saucer’ eyes couldn’t hide. They were spacefood, just add hot water and like a packaged cake of dry noodles, the steam would rise and there it was ready to slurp up.
Japanese cartoons had a completely different feel to other cartoons altogether. They had a soft glow to them. Even stuff that wasn’t supposed to glow, glowed. Outdoor shots look like they were lit indoors under lights. They could be cute and adorable and make you wanna cuddle up to them OR they could be dark and ominous and sort of scary and unsettling. This is what I think I liked about them. Many of the cartoons felt like they didn’t talk down to you and seemed like they were for ‘Big Kids’ and that made you wanna watch them. They were like a cute little robot animal pet, who’s eyes glowed bright and who’s tail wagged but could at any minute, snap and grow in size, turning into a giant battling robot that could destroy a legion of enemies with an in-built series of giant missile shooting guns. Aside from the series set in Space, many had quaint settings that had a fairy tale like innocence to them or were set in a ‘simpler time’ before the robots came.
Astro Boy, Voltron, Robotech, The Mysetrious Cities of Gold, Samurai Pizza Cats and Belle & Sebastien were the ones that really stay in my mind vividly, although there were many more and they increased in numbers like a self-cloning robot army in the early to mid nineties.
There was certainly something a little strange about these cartoons. This was probably a mix of cultural differences and the vastly different visual style they and and the fact that many of them were re-packaged, anglosized incarnations of their former Japanese native product. The subject matter was often quite intense and the characters would usually find themselves in some real trouble mid-episode where close-ups would show them wincing in pain and tears welling in their eyes. There was a real sense of pain in most episodes. Characters could be destroyed, killed and the show would go on. Robotech and Voltron had characters that were killed in battle and would cease to be in future episodes. They really weren’t afraid to show life and death together.
When I think back, watching Astro Boy on TV is one of my earliest recollections of watching animation as a series and actually waiting for the next episode. The theme song is just as infectious and stirring today as it was when I was 4. Here’s the end credit sequence which actually showed children how animation is made. I still think it’s the best closing credit sequence for any cartoon series ever.
One of my favourites, even though obscure, was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was The Wizard of Oz story re-told in the Japanese style. The show was re-packaged by Cinar, a Canadian company at the time, but I still remember how the show made me feel; sad, anxious, scared, hopeful and cosy all in the same half hour. Here’s the Show’s title sequence vs. The original Japanese show’s title sequence. This shows you the real difference in the way the cartoons were packaged for different cultural audiences.
Here’s the original Japanese version, which makes the English one look gawdy and super 80s.
My favourite was probably Voltron and what a concept for kids. Robotic lions of different colours that team together to make one big robot that smashes the baddies. Genius. And we lapped it up. Explosions always looked better in Japanese cartoons. They were white hot and filled with shrapnel and mini explosions within the big ones. Many studios in Japan had and still do have animators who specialise in ‘shit blowing up’ shots. Here’s the opening title of the version we got from the U.S. I still think this music is as epic and stirring as anything.
And thanks to the wonders of youtube, I for the first time (and possibly you too) can watch the opening of the original Japanese version of Voltron Beast King Go Lion. I actually think the U.S version of the opening takes the sake.
The Mysterious Cities of Gold was also a sort of strangely eerie piece that blended sci-fi with History. I remember being sort of scared by the show and even it’s unusual but catchy theme song but the giant golden condor craft always got me and those friendly kids waving at you.
Some of them were just plain weird. Just bizarre. Such as Samurai Pizza Cats. This is one that emerged in the early 90s following closely behind the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ( It even took a shot at the Turtles in the theme song) It was hyperactive, colourful, completely ridiculous but just a ball of metal, feline fun to watch. Kids would come to school and sing the theme song and even talk about how weird it was… then go home and watch it again the next morning. It was a real pre-cursor to the Pokemon epileptic series of the late 90s.
As a young child I can’t remember knowing that there cartoons were ‘FROM JAPAN’. I just knew they were from somewhere different. Maybe space. I did one day look at some little figurines I had (in the same visual style I saw on Voltron etc) and on the bottom of them was ‘MADE IN HONG KONG’ so I think I then thought the cartoons were from this mysterious land of ‘Hong Kong’ which I thought could have been the coolest country in the world.
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