Tools of the Imagination — Ulysses 31

Ulysses 31
Produced by DiC Entertainment, released 1981, available on YouTube

Classic Literature IN SPAAAAAAAAACE

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, classic literature was BIG in Japan, especially in anime.  The World Masterpiece Theater was a big success in Japan and abroad.  Likewise, In the Beginning: The Bible Stories was broadcast in most every country.  As such, it was only natural that other studios would follow suit, trolling through classic literature, until somebody arrived at the story of Ulysses.

Now, Ulysses 31 is not the first time anime will look to Greek Myth for inspiration.  But this version of the Odyssey is set in the 31st Century, with all the robots, laser swords, and other trappings you might expect from such a tale.

Ulysses is on his way back home in his magnificent space ship when his son gets abducted by the Cyclops, which is a giant robot because why wouldn’t it be.  Ulysses destroys the cyclops, freeing his son and his new found friend Yumi, but doing so engenders the wrath of the gods (for some reason), who curse Ulysses’ crew to a lifeless (and strangely floating) sleep until Ulysses can find Hades and return home to earth.

The next 24 episodes are ‘planet of the week’ adventures, where each planet is a new problem, a new scenario, and some new way the Gods try to mess with Ulysses.  He always comes out ahead, of course, until he finally arrives at Hades in the final episode and (spoiler alert) arrives safely home.

Story – 3 out of 5
Nothing worth writing home about.  The tale of Ulysses is a fine story, don’t get me wrong, but this depiction of Ulysses is a little flat and uninspired.  Some episodes are really good (the episode with Sisyphus is especially moving), while others are pretty trite.  There are no truly outstanding episodes, but nothing that glaringly disrupts the feel of the show, either.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art is pretty good for the era.  It clearly takes its cues from some more famous anime series (the lion helmets Ulysses and Telemachus wear are especially familiar-looking), but is overall quite good.  Ulysses and his crew maintain a pretty consistent set of powers, ships, looks, and their villains can be quite unique-looking.

Animation – 3 out of 5
The animation is a little uninspired, but on the good side.  Fights are a little disappointing with usually repeated movements again and again, but it’s a far cry better than many of its peers (I’m looking at you, He-Man).

Characters – 2 out of 5
The characters are almost nonexistent.  Ulysses in this series is barely given any depth and what humanity he has comes from his voice actor.  The same is true for Yumi and Telemachus.  The characters they visit from planet to planet have more character, and even then, they’re often flat one-dimensional sorts.  A few outstanding characters exist (again, Sisyphus), but they’re rare.

Acting – 2 out of 5
I listened to the American dub and it was pretty poor.  The actors tried and did okay, but the technology and demands of the time just made it too stiff.

Overall – 3 out of 5
This one is pretty decent, but will really only appeal to animation buffs, classic literature buffs, or those really jonesing for some 1980s-era anime.  It’s okay, but its niche appeal was small back when it first aired and that’s almost certainly dwindled since then.  Still, if you’re in the market for a fun reimagining of a classic character, give it a try.

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Supermusic

Before I begin, I want to say that I had a simply amazing time at Anime Mid-Atlantic this past weekend.  The panels were wonderful, the audiences at my panels were enthusiastic and responsive, it was great seeing friends there, and was overall about as good a time as one can have at one of these things.  When I imagine the damn-near perfect anime convention, I think of Anime Mid-Atlantic and this year especially.

Now, on to the blog.

Man of Steel came out on Friday.  It’s the new reboot of the Superman franchise and the long-rumored kickoff point of the Justice League franchise, Warner Bros/DC’s answer to the Disney/Marvel’s Avengers Project.  Now, I didn’t care for the movie on a number of levels, but one principle reason was the music.

Going into this movie, a lot of movie critics and speculators had talked about how John Williams’ Superman Theme from the 1978 film was and is one of the greatest, most heroic pieces of music ever written.  And they’re right.  Give it a listen:

That, right there, is quite simply one of the best pieces of music ever.  Hands down.  Bar none.  Damn straight.  And it has become so recognized as part of the Superman mythos that it was even used in the finale of Smallville.

And thus, going into this film – the Man of Steel – so many people had talked about how, to forge its own identity, this movie would have to leave behind the epic greatness that was John Williams’ music.  And yet to do so would be insane because of how iconic it had become.  No version of Superman could ever stand up to what William’s had done musically with the most famous superhero of all time.

Really?  No one?  No version existed that didn’t do a comparable job, worthy of being a successor musically to the masterpiece of Williams’ work?

That’s the theme to the Superman Animated Series by the magnificent Shirley Walker.  And it is excellent.  It is so much of what Williams’ original theme is, but with a unique feel all its own.  It’s less epic but more adventurous.  It’s the perfect theme for an animated series, perhaps even better for that particular brand of the tale than the Williams’ theme would have been.

So please don’t tell me ‘nobody could follow John Williams’.  Because somebody already has, and excelled at it.

Anime Mid-Atlantic 2013

We’re just four very short days from Anime Mid-Atlantic 2013.  AMA is one of my favorite cons and it’s one I’ve had the honor of being a guest at for years.  This year, I will be hosting several panels (detailed below) as well as finally unveiling my newest book available this summer by Haven Publishing.  But first, the panels!

Cosplay Fitness – co-hosting with the legendary Big Danny T, we will be talking about various diet and exercise protocols to best maximize one’s cosplay presentation.

Top Five Mecha Artists – a quick countdown of the best artist and illustrators in the giant robot genre.

How to Get BACK Into Anime – For the classic fan who isn’t sure where to begin with the modern anime landscape, this panel will help you re-acclimate.

Comic Animes – A quick rundown of the anime reimaginings of comic book properties.

Evolution of Anime Art – This retrospective will look at how the illustration and animation styles in mainstream anime have changed over the past 50 years.

American Animation – co-presenting with Charles Dunbar, we will be looking at anime’s US brother and how the twin markets have grown together and evolved together.

Anime Mid-Atlantic is one of the highlights of my year and if you come, I think it will be for you as well.  See you there!

Tools of the Imagination — Starcom

Starcom: The US Space Force
Produced by DiC Entertainment, released 1987, available on YouTube

GI Joe meets NASA

Starcom is a shining example of the difference between recalling something and remembering something.  People remember GI Joe; they recall Starcom.  They recall a show kind of like GI Joe, with somewhat similar toys, but details are usually pretty sparse and they usually end up just writing it off as misremembering an episode of GI Joe.

In fact, Starcom wasn’t a GI Joe knock-off but more of a Flash Gordon knock-off, meant to ignite kids’ interest in outer space.  The story was rooted (in theory) in a little bit more realism than the sci-fi fare of the time (remember when the Decepticons teleported Cybertron into earth’s orbit; if you had a week, you couldn’t list all the ways that would be a bad idea, even for the bad guys).  So while Starcom does have aliens and interplanetary space travel that takes hours instead of months, it also has an emphasis on biospheres, weather patterns, and some of the more mundane wonders of studying space.  All of it is set against the heroic efforts of the uniformly benign Starcom as they try to keep the peace against the enigmatic Shadow Force, led by Emperor Dark, who is trying to do bad because it’s a Saturday morning cartoon.

Story – 4 out of 5
Starcom’s story, while nothing truly exceptional, is better than most because of the slight nuances that play out.  It’s true that, as a kids’ show in the 1980s, nuance isn’t the best word, but the Shadow Force often have slightly more intelligent plans than their counterparts on other shows.  Moreover, they are often depicted with a greater level of understanding.  Rather than try to overwhelm Starcom, they try to use elements of a given planet to their advantage and the Starcom forces often have to use similar intellectual resourcefulness to overcome them.  Yeah, laser blasters come into play, but for a kids’ show, it’s above-average stuff.

Art – 4 out of 5
The art is stellar.  1980s cartoons made a leap forward in quality artwork, but this show really stands out.  Only theatrical releases had better artwork than this show and the detail is often on par with a lot of the anime that was being imported at this time.

Animation – 3 out of 5
While the art was stellar, the animation was nothing outstanding.  But nothing at all bad, either.

Characters – 3 out of 5
The characters of the show are a little bland and generic, but by having a tight cast of three principle heroes (Slim, Crowbar, and Dash) and three primary Shadow Force villains (Malvanna Wilde, General Von Dar, Major Romak), the characters get a little more personality than in other shows (like, say GI Joe which had over twenty protagonists in its first year alone).  Sort of like the Real Ghostbusters, the characters aren’t much, but what they are is done well.

Acting – 3 out of 5
The acting is unremarkable, even for the 1980s.  There are some cringe-worthy moments and some really stellar moments, but as a whole, nothing stands out.

Overall – 4 out of 5
Starcom remains largely an unsung hero of the 1980s cartoon behemoth.  It was a well-done show that just didn’t manage to catch on.  It’s well put together, had a fun gimmick (more on that next week), and was rooted in some good intentions.  Maybe it’ll get reimagined in the coming years.  But for now, Youtube videos will have to suffice.

In Defense Of Television

If you were asked by someone ‘what are your plans for this weekend’ and you answered ‘I’m going to a literary festival’, they’d probably congratulate you.  The same might be true if you said ‘I’m going to a film festival’ or ‘I’m going to see some off-Broadway plays’.  But if you said ‘I’m going to get caught up on Mad Men’, a scathing quip about not having better plans would often be the result.

In the US – as well as much of the western world it seems – has a love-hate relationship with television.  TV remains the most dominant form of entertainment (despite what the film and video game industries might say), and yet TV is also looked down upon culturally and artistically.  And it doesn’t take much to get a sense of why.  The recent fiasco regarding the Mermaids show on Animal Planet put a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.  The trend of abuse-masquerading-as-a-reality-TV-show seems to only be getting stronger.  The list of ‘the worst’ TV has to offer always seems to be readily available at the slightest mention.

And yet, TV also has a lot of good to offer.  I’ve been researching both Japanese and US cartoons recently, in preparation for Anime Mid-Atlantic and it astounded me to see how much fine art has been made in the world of animation; art that is largely forgotten about.  Did you know the most popular and successful animated series in Japan in the late 70s/early 80s weren’t mecha shows about giant robots, but were adaptations of classic literature?  The anime adaptation of Huck Finn and Heidi were huge successes in Japan, and subsequently worldwide.
The same is true of American animation.  Did you know that the first Lord of the Rings adaptation was in 1978, a full two decades before Peter Jackson’s version?

And today, there’s amazing television to have and enjoy.  There’s a tremendous amount of crap, to be sure.  And many of the shows that are good do have to do a little pandering and bill-paying to stay on the air.  But I defy anyone to watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Hannibal, or any other shows that are available right now, and tell me they aren’t art.  Modern classics are being aired every season and it’s a shame to miss out on them just because they’re on TV.  Listen to the dialogue of Elementary.  Watch the cinematography of CSI.  Magnificent!

Television has a bad wrap of being the lowest form of entertainment there is, and it’s a derision television doesn’t deserve.  Television is an art form, with the shameful lows and dizzying highs of any other.  And it’s an art form that should be enjoyed openly and cheerfully.