With a hot new Gatchaman live-action film poised to hit Japan in August, plus a TV anime re-invention (Gatchaman Crowds) this summer and a re-release of the TV series in North America on DVD coming in the fall, interest in the exploits of the five heroic color-coded teenagers dressed as birds who murder evil henchmen by the dozen is at a fever pitch. The thing is, there’s a reason why the original TV series is so well-remembered more than thirty years after its debut – it starts off as a fun, swinging monster-of-the-week yarn before amping up the conflict between the heroic Gatchaman team and menacing interplanetary crime syndicate Galactor to ridiculous heights. How ridiculous are these heights? And how awesome would that new movie be if even one one of them were included? Let’s check it and see.
10) Robot Dinosaurs!
Episode 38, “The Mysterious Mechanized Jungle,” opens with a museum exhibitor coming to town with his compellingly realistic set of life-sized dinosaur models. These massive lizard replicas capture the Gatchaman team’s imagination, but it isn’t long before the city explodes in flames – flames issued forth from those same dinosaur models, which are obviously evil robots in disguise!
Ken investigates the exhibit of magnet-powered robo-sauruses, only to be captured. He escapes just in time to scramble Gatchaman and fire on the rampaging metal and plastic thunder lizards. Their facades slough off, revealing an even weirder-looking squad of killer robots underneath! “Big deal,” you might say about all this, but remember, this was more than ten years before stuff like the Dinobots and that one Dino-Riders cartoon. So, yes, big deal.
9) The Hunky Second-in-Command Dies, Only to Be Turned Into a Killer Cyborg
One of the most emotional parts of the original series is when Condor Joe – the Gatchaman team’s smoldering, impulsive loner – dies heroically after battling a chronic brain injury for several episodes. Joe made the perfect foil for team captain Ken – while Ken preaches justice, Joe hungers for revenge, yet when Ken’s fiery temper boils over, it’s Joe who often keeps a cool head and continues ruthlessly killing Galactor henchmen with his feather shurikens. His struggle and demise give the show’s climactic run of episodes real emotional weight.
The problem was, both Gatchaman and Joe were simply too popular at the time, so when the TV series got a sequel, Gatchaman F, a few years later, they had no choice but to bring Joe back – as a solar-powered living bomb! Okay, the “living bomb” bit is a surprise for later, but even though the team is happy to see Joe again (after they deal with his scary-looking and obviously evil red-herring replacement), they’re plainly unnerved by the fact that he’s kind of a robot now. A very handsome robot, with flowing locks and fine, chiseled features.
8) The World’s Sugar Supply Gets Alarmingly Low – Twice!
Gatchaman is a series fraught with conflict, and no conflict is higher-stakes than the one that arises when the world’s supply of sugar is about to be exhausted. The International Science Organization’s successful development of an artificial sweetener, shugare (yep, it’s pronounced “sugar ray”), seems like a peaceful solution – until Galactor swoops in and seizes the entire supply, the better to create a monopoly. Needless to say, the team has to fight hard to get that shugare back.
Something like seventy episodes later, when the supply dips again, the kid (Jinpei) and the fat guy (Ryu) on the team freak out, because no more sugar means no more candy and cake. Galactor then creates a flying, super-robotic sugar factory for the Gatcha-team to battle, and tubby ol’ Ryu does the trick by using a variation on the “sugar in the gas tank” prank, only on a terrifyingly large scale. This multi-episode chronicle of pilfered sugar is a gripping tale of industrial espionage…for kids.
7) Killer Buddha Robots
Jaw-droppingly weird enemies are a common sight in the world of Gatchaman. The show’s opening episode features a villain in an extremely turtly turtle costume, and by episode three they’re already into Space Mummy territory. But some of the bad guy robots and henchmen are more hilariously weird than others. One of them being a towering, city-smashing replica of Phra Phrom, the four-faced Buddha.
I don’t know what it is about this show and evil robot versions of religious icons and beloved cultural figures. In episode 58, the Gatcha-squad has to contend with both a team of five or six Buddha-bots, and one particularly large, regal-looking one with four horrible faces, which is actually a Thai-based recreation of the Hindi god Brahma. It’s really something when you get to see a towering representation of the god of creation firing lasers from his forehead.
6) Super-Combining Ninjas
The Gatchaman team’s signature move is this wild, crazy team effort called the Tornado Fighter. See, it’s pretty simple – they do a 5-man triangle stand, like a cheerleader team, and then somehow start spinning, even though the legs of Ryu and Joe, the two holding up the bottom, don’t seem to move. They move so rapidly, in fact, that they basically turn into a spinning murder tornado. A spinning murder tornado of justice!
It seems like a power like this would be unique, but not in the world of Gatchaman – instead, they square off against a team of enemy ninja specially trained to thwart their tornado attack. These four matching assassins combine into a single gigantic, horrible shuriken! Now, this kind of physics-defying combat is routine for Gatchaman, but the human shuriken pictured above is a particularly awesome example of the show’s disrespect for things like mass, gravity, and inertia.
5) A Secret, Evil Fashion Show
The queen of the tiny nation of Monarins is enraptured by the exploits of the famed science ninja team, and holds a fashion show to raise money for Gatchaman. Jun loves fashion, and is thrilled at being asked to participate in the affair. The rest of the team tags along to play guard duty, and it’s a good thing – Galactor boss Berg Katse knows about the queen’s financial support of the team, and is hoping to weaken them by assassinating her.
Katse executes his clearly flawless plan, which is to replace every contestant except Jun with a carefully trained assassin armed with a ring that launches tiny bombs. But are Galactor’s extremely fashionable murderers, the Devil Stars, ready to sashay down the catwalk against Bird Fashion, the trendy new fashion style… of justice?
4) Children’s Christmas Gifts Loaded With Poison Gas
Was the PTA really active in Japan in 1972? I have to think that any such TV watchdog group wasn’t being that attentive, because Gatchaman’s big holiday episode involved booby-trapped Christmas gifts. As kids, we’re often warned to be careful of sketchy Halloween candy. But sketchy Christmas presents?! I like to do the whole “shake the box” thing, but I’ve never thought to listen and see if the box is ticking. In the world of Gatchaman, it’s a real problem.
The most compelling thing about this episode isn’t just the child murder, it’s the fact that it simply wasn’t enough to get a few characters killed offscreen by Galactor’s latest attempt to cause mayhem. No – they had to show the victims slumped over the dinner table, as well. It’s shocking, kinda hilarious, but also genuinely creepy. As a kid, I would have loved this kind of insanity, but it still would’ve given me scary dreams later.
3) Music That Causes People to Die
In episode 41 of Gatchaman, we’re introduced to the Demon Vibe, a neat-o psychedelic rock band that’s taking the entire musical world by storm. Naturally, Galactor and their leader on the ground, the raving, seemingly ambisexual Berg Katse, see an opportunity to cause chaos – so Katse kidnaps Demon Vibe and straps giant helmets on them, which allows him to program them to play music. Really bad music!
How bad is the music? The Demon Vibe’s new hit, which they deliver by flying over cities in a sleek, scary-looking helicarrier, is so discordant, bizarre, and awful that it literally causes buildings to collapse and listeners to drop dead after too much exposure. In other words, it’s kinda like that latest Justin Bieber single.
2) Dr. Nambu Being a Humongous, Hilarious Dick
Dr. Kozaburo Nambu, the ostensible genius behind the team of scientific ninja called Gatchaman, is an accomplished scientist and Nobel laureate. He dresses stylishly in a powder blue leisure suit, complete with vest. He’s got that swingin’ mustache and feathered hair just like every other sexy man in the 1970s. But while his mission may be a peaceful one, the Gatchaman team sometimes find him to be as scary an adversary as anyone from Galactor.
In one episode, Dr. Nambu scolds Jun for losing her shoe in battle, appearing visibly angry while doing so. In another, he hotly orders Jinpei to cease trying to save a helpless baby seal, because the mission is more important, dammit! And in yet another, he demonstrates the graveness of the situation by replaying a tape of civilians dying for our heroes. He tries to cure Joe, who’s sickened by a terrible brain injury, by placing him in a centrifuge and attempting to violently shake the shrapnel out of his brain pan. Hell, remember that Murder Music episode above? The dude puts on a pair of fuzzy headphones and plays the killer music back for the science ninja team, just so he can observe them convulsing in agony! Dr. Nambu may be a genius, but he’s also one hell of a douchebag.
1) LAVA JESUS!
The episode opens with a sculptor toiling away at a massive granite, Rushmore-style reproduction of the face of Jesus Christ. You just know this isn’t going to end well, and soon enough, Galactor steals the sculpture and bolts it to the front of their towering, lava-powered robot. The newly-created Lava Jesus flattens a city, and Gatchaman are called to square off with this 100-foot-tall burning facsimile of the Messiah.
This episode is amazing to watch from a western point of view. Sure, only a small percentage of Japanese practice Christianity, but it’s intensely bizarre simply because no character ever thinks to remark on how weird it is that they’re basically fighting a skyscraper-sized Magma Christ. As Homer Simpson might say, it’s sacrilicious!
So, there’s ten things that make Gatchaman one of the wildest, craziest, and most undeniably entertaining and enduring animated rides of the 1970s. Best of all, I’ve really only scratched the surface of science ninja team-related weirdness – there’s an infamous episode where Joe endangers the team by insisting on rescuing a puppy, there’s the peculiar dress and mannerisms of series heavy Berg Katse, and there’s the curious story of Battle of the Planets, the original English adaptation that featured celebrity voices like Casey Kasem and Alan Young, plus terrible new animation to fill in the parts where they took out the murder (you couldn’t do murder in American children’s cartoons back then).
But for now, let’s pray for the big-screen success of Gatchaman, and cross our fingers for at least one diabolical plot involving fiery religious statues, plots to steal the world’s sugar supply, or death-inducing musical numbers.