Created: 01-01-2022
Last update: 01-01-2022


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Introducing Gatchaman

The anime series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (original Japanese title: Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman) aired in Japan from 1972 onwards, was hacked and chopped and edited into a film, and had two sequels, Gatchaman II and Gatchaman Fighter. In 1994 it was remade in modernized style as the Gatchaman OVA, three short films featuring, consecutively, a typical Galactor attack being repulsed in the typical way by the Gatchaman team; the appearance of Red Impulse; and the final defeat of Galactor. (I'll explain in a minute what all that means.) The last, though better animated, was roundly knocked by fans on the Gatchaman mailing list for its lack of characterization and the sexist portrayal of the token female.

Wikipedia tells me that a live action film was made in 2013, the year in which the Gatchaman series was also rebooted as Gatchaman Crowd, which is incredibly different from the original, and much like the standard anime series I like to rib in the anime reviews. That series also features a character called Berg Katze, but it is both an alien and a part of a communal psyche, judging from the synopsis. I've never seen this reboot, and am frankly not interested.

Like most non-Japanese people, I didn't see the original straight away, but was introduced through an American hack job posing as translation; in my case Battle of the Planets, shortened to "BotP", which at least tried to be creative by reinventing the characters and creating new ones; for the less fortunate, G-Force: Guardians of Space, famous for its constant annoying backbeat, or a hack job on the sequels: Eagle Riders by Saban, the company that found it necessary to bowdlerize Sailor Moon.

Not only was my first experience a hack job, but it was the Dutch translation of this hack job, Strijd der Planeten, that aired only about one-quarter of the original number of episodes - the first Gatchaman series ran for two years, and had a total of 105 episodes - of which I missed a number, because even though I was an actual child, my parents didn't approve of me doing "childish" things like watching cartoons, as they believed I was destined for greater things; if they'd known this "cartoon" was the dumbed-down version of a classic sentai show, they would have forced me to watch it from beginning to end. The silver lining to this cloud was that Comp-7, the Dutch 7-Zark-7, was nowhere as irritating as the English one. (Dutch Keyop still managed to annoy.)

I was abnormally fascinated by this series, and in particular by its antagonist, because while most cartoons I grew up with were standard American-to-Dutch tripe about a boring two-dimensional hero beating equally two-dimensional villains, this one had a certain pathos: planet Earth is member of an Intergalactic Federation, planet Spectra is not, and Zoltar, the masked ruler of Spectra, is constantly trying to take over Intergalactic Federation member planets or steal their resources, because his planet is dying. As Zoltar does behave like a typical arch-villain most of the time, I felt the series was glossing over the very important point that his planet is dying. Instead, it centered on the four teens and one pre-teen, who, using special technology given to them by their guardian, Security Chief Anderson, transformed into superhero-style birdsuits, hopped into transforming vehicles - yes, even their vehicles had a transformation sequence - and battled the green-clad military forces of Spectra in every episode.

These young heroes were what could be called cyborgs, their physical prowess due to bionic brain implants, except for Keyop, the youngest, who was an android, meaning, an artificially produced human who, to get the "android" idea across, interspersed his speech with bleeps and bloops. Team G-force wore numbered T-shirts with their bellbottoms, showing their team number: G1, the Eagle, was Mark, the responsible team leader; G2 was the Hawk, the eternally scowling and bitching Jason; G3 the Swan and token girl, Princess; G4, the Swallow, the aforementioned Keyop; and G5, the Owl and pilot of their special spacecraft the Fiery Phoenix, was the ironically named Tiny, a big-bodied, messy-haired idiot who, every episode, binged hamburgers while Princess played guitar and Keyop played drums, the latter always managing to knock the hamburger from Tiny's hand during a rimshot. Did I mention their vehicles? Mark has a plane, Jason, the racer, has a car, Princess has a motorcycle, and Keyop has a kind of buggy. These four vehicles transform into glamorous, armed versions of themselves - Jason's car gets a Gatling gun - but the fifth vehicle, the Fiery Phoenix, has no alternate form, and is kept in Centre Neptune, Chief Anderson's secret underseas base where the G-Force members can be found, when they're not hanging out at a snackbar. Their mentor, Chief Anderson, spends most of his time in the underseas base, but sometimes reports to his superior, President Kane.

Overseeing the team from Centre Neptune is the non-beeping, affected-sounding metal android 7-Zark-7 (cue: "I'm so worried about G-force!") and his K-9 companion, the robot dog 7-Rover-7. Ooh boy, did 7-Zark-7 rack up hate among the audience. He was always there to assure us that all was well, that the passengers on that exploding train had been evacuated just in time, that there had never been any casualties in the battles with Spectra, that the Intergalactic Federation was a model of fairness, in short, he did his best to deflate all suspense and defang any angst in the way of a parent telling children that granny is just sleeping very soundly, and their beloved dog has gone to live on a farm.

No, the Spectrans were much more interesting. As if to outdo the bird suits, every attack they mounted was from a giant robot spaceship, usually in the form of an animal. The common soldiers had "owl" helmets similar to Tiny's, and Zoltar's Anubis-eared mask suggested a cat, a bat, a fennec or any agile predator with huge ears. Given the feline eyes of his sister Mala, I wondered whether the Spectrans, who were at any rate aliens (yet, in the English version, somehow had Russian accents), were maybe cats who had become humanoid through the miracle of parallel evolution. I even assumed (since I didn't see any of the unmasking eps) that Zoltar wore a mask to hide the fact that his face was more feline than human, although it should not have mattered as he was a shapeshifter, capable of taking on any human's appearance, an ability he used to trick G-Force a number of times. Whatever their nature, I had the feeling that this interplanetary battle would be seen very differently from the Spectrans' point of view. They were antagonists, but they were more than just evil. They had a credible motive.

(Much later, I found out that beast-people, ridiculous transformation sequences and villains with a pathetic backstory are staples of anime. At the time, though, I was impressed.)

I saw the series, enjoyed it, fantasized about it, and forgot it. When BotP came out, it spawned comic books, some of very bad quality, in various languages; I had no idea it was American and even thought it might be originally French or Belgian, after buying some comics (which I now deeply regret having tossed out) of a French G-Force, named Marc, Thierry, Princesse, Kiyap and Allumette, since Belgium in the eighties was the walhalla of comic strips. (Comic lovers may have heard of Belgian classics like Gaston Lagaffe or Les Schtroumpfs, more widely known as "the Smurfs".) A decade later, the BotP craze had completely blown over, but the Netherlands had discovered the lowest common denominator of anime: gore, hentai and tentacles. One day, browsing the selection of anime VHS tapes in a Virgin Megastore in Amsterdam (neither this shop nor those tapes are around any more), I spotted three tapes that had familiar-looking characters on the covers; one, I could swear, was Princess in her swan outfit. But the tapes' titles were "Gatchaman", and anyway, I was a poor student in a hurry to get to the university, so I left them there. Later, I returned to that shop a number of times looking for those tapes, but they were gone.

Since the Netherlands was also discovering the internet and the World Wide Web, I typed "Gatchaman" into whatever search engines existed before Google.

I was amazed and flabbergasted. BotP has some funny quips and one-liners, and for a cartoon, the characters were well fleshed out; but it pales beside the much darker and less flighty original. Where to start?

G-Force are in reality the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, but the only science they get is their vehicles and bird suits, the stunts are all their own.

In the same vein, Berg Katze, the original Zoltar, is not a cat-like shape-shifting alien, just a very fast and agile human with a talent for imitation and disguises.

The team members are not looked after by their mentor, doctor Nambu, who spends much time in Crescent Coral, his underseas base where the God Phoenix is kept, and answers to director Anderson, who is only the head of the International Science Organization, which operates solely on planet Earth. No Intergalactic Federation, no jaunts to Pleasure Planet Odin; all the chaos and destruction happens right at home. No, these minors, mostly orphans, have to fend for themselves. Eagle Ken does mail delivery in his aeroplane, Condor (not Hawk) Joe is a professional racer (originally, he was to be a gardener), and Swan Jun, together with Swallow Jinpei who she adopted as a younger brother, runs a snackbar, the Snack J, where the team assemble in their free time. Owl Ryu, the only non-orphan, lives with his father and younger brother.

People die. A lot. Even if they're main characters.

Ken's father supposedly died in action, then a mysterious "captain of Red Impulse" (in BotP, Colonel Cronos, captain of fighter jet trio the Red Rangers) starts to boss Ken around, then Ken discovers his father faked his death and is Red Impulse, then Katze does something that almost destroys the world and Ken and his father have to stop it, so then Ken's father dies in action, for real this time.

Joe, the silent Sicilian, is not the bitchy pissant that Jason is. He doesn't act all huffy when told off for his regular disobedience, he disobeys because he doesn't care. He has his own demons to battle. Notably, the repressed memory that his parents, killed by Galactor, were Galactors themselves. He is obsessed with avenging his parents and especially with killing Katze, loses his obsession once he admits his dark secret to himself, then, knowing he will die soon of a brain injury, decides to try and kill Katze again, this time to save the planet.

Jun is not snappy and cheerful like Princess, but whiny and bashful as the Japanese, at that time, thought a girl ought to be, despite the fact that she is the most mature, intelligent, self-reliant, dependable member of the team.

Giving Keyop a speech defect that makes him bleep and bloop and root-toot-toot was to literally bleep out the profanities of Jinpei, who may be the youngest member of the team, but who swears the most.

Ryu is not fat and stupid like Tiny, but an amateur sumo wrestler, whose bulk is mostly muscle, and who never fell asleep on the job, only feigning it as part of a cunning plan. He did once sleep through a summons by Nambu, and was fired, then reinstated after he saved Ken from Galactor.

Spectra is in fact Galactor, a terrorist organization rather than a desperate military force trying to save its planet. Galactors are humans, and so is Katze, the masked leader and public face of Galactor. Behind the scenes, the true leader of Galactor is an alien called Overlord X, embedded in what looks like a bank of computers at Galactor headquarters in the Himalayas, who created Katze to serve him.

Unlike Zoltar, who was portrayed as a fairly capable leader, Katze is a mere tool who is frequently not up to the job, and who always leaves the underlings to die, or outright kills them. Towards the end of the series, it turns out that Katze is not a "normal" human but a hermaphroditic mutant, thoroughly miserable because of it, and terrified of being found out. During the big finale at the end, Katze discovers that Overlord X doesn't want to conquer the planet but destroy it, has a mental breakdown, and commits suicide. In other words, a tragic villain whose whole life was a game of pretend.

The Gatchaman sequels also have tragic villains: Gel Sadra, a towering figure dressed like a jester, is a little girl whose body has been force-grown, and who is now a giant with the brains and emotional level of a four-year-old. Egobossler, a military dictator, was a humble servant until he saw his mother whipped to death before his eyes by his master (and biological father). It's nothing special; tragic villains are a recurring theme in anime.

With each sequel, the Gatchaman team's weapons and vehicles changed, generally to something more extreme, and the quality of the animation, so refreshingly different from standard anime (even if characters are often drawn looking dopey or mental; looking at you, Condor Joe), declined. Like the translations, they simply paled beside the original. However, as the animation and the standard of writing took a downturn and the goodguys were "old hat" by now, the sequels did draw more attention to the villains, their different characters, and their resulting style of leadership. Katze, as stated above, is a tool, fulfilling his role out of fear and an unrealistic expectation of power (Katze seems to think that having conquered a whole planet means getting a holiday for the rest of one's life). Gel Sadra, displaying the combined fearlessness, terrible innocence and extreme emotional dependence of a child soldier, is a devoted slave to Overlord X, and an unpredictable mad emperor to everyone else. Egobossler, who fought his own way to power before teaming up with what is now Overlord Z, is a competent and genuine leader, and his version of Galactor is like Nazi Germany, in that people are proud to be Galactors, they have a culture of honour and loyalty, and they believe that they're actually the goodguys. As villains go, I preferred Katze over the others, since the racial ambiguity of the ruler of Spectra (is it a cat or a human?) is replaced by sexual ambiguity (is it a man or a woman? turns out, both) and Zoltar/Katze is easily the most pathetic villain of the three: where Zoltar suffers whatever harm comes his way to save his planet, Katze's willingness to put up with Overlord X stems from the sort of social isolation typical of domestic abuse cases. Simply put, Katze feels threatened and vulnerable and thinks that conquering the world is the only way out; besides, his maker has ordered him to do so, and refusing is not an option. In that light, Katze's selfishness, high-strung nerves and extreme assholery become logical, even relatable.

On my journey of Gatchaman discovery, I became temporarily involved in Gatchaman fandom. I joined an APA (amateur press organization, like a fanzine where all members contribute) because while text-only fan works were already spreading across the World Wide Web, the slow modems of the time were not up to graphics, so for art, paper fanzines seemed the way to go. Then I joined a Gatchaman mailing list, left the APA due to unpleasantness between fans, and later left the mailing list for the same reason. By that time, the mailing list was dying and two new ones had taken its place. Since this was the era of "very little anime and what we do have, is on grainy copied tapes", I bought a video capture card for my 486 desktop computer (considered a standard machine at the time) to capture stills from the tapes I had and put them up on a webpage, for the same reason that other anime enthusiasts were vidcapping from their preferred shows to put up galleries that were eagerly visited by prospective fans wanting to see more of this new "anime" thing. It may seem unbelievable now that any anime can be ordered, subbed or dubbed, from Amazon and other outlets, but at the time, putting up anime screenshot galleries was an important part of fandom. It is due to the Gatchaman series that I became interested in anime, and that this website exists at all; initially, it was about making a "theme page" (highlighting an aspect of the show) every three months. Storing old theme pages was the point of the Archive. The KiSS Page is a result of one fan having made a KiSS doll of a Gatchaman character (Condor Joe, of course), and I wanted to know how to make one myself. The Simania Page? I wanted to make a Katze skin.

As any Gatchaman material was put up for those familiar with the show, I didn't explain much, sticking to snark and fandom in-jokes. Said fandom has evaporated, but the material is still up. So I'm going through it, clearing up any text that seems too obtuse. This still isn't the site for really in-depth information on the show, though: for that, I refer to the relevant links section.

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