Growing up in the U.S. in the 70s, I was a big fan of Battle of the Planets, the American version of the Japanese anime, Gatchaman. Grossly re-edited and re-voiced, I was aware that Battle of the Planets was much different from Gatchaman, but having never seen the original, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Gatchaman is now available for streaming on Hulu Plus, and I’ve finally gotten to see what the show is really about. I have to admit, the changes go deeper than I expected. I’d always assumed the alterations mostly had to do with “American-izing” the characters and stories, but there is more to it than that.
Yes, it’s still an action-oriented cartoon about five teenagers in colorful costumes, working to “save the day”. But the tone is pointedly different. Battle of the Planets came to the U.S. at a time when every media property was seen through the lens of the pop culture juggernaut, Star Wars. The team performs interplanetary travel to do battle with their enemies, and are directed by a not even thinly veiled R2-D2 rip-off, comic relief character. Ironically, the battles and fighting scenes are emphasized at the expense of story and character, but at the same time, sanitized to reduce the consequences of the violence.
The original Gatchaman has a different perspective. The name of the group might be the first and best indicator of that difference. The American team is called G-Force, connotative of high-speed, aggressive action. In the Japanese original, they’re the Science Ninja Team—the focus being on their use of scientific knowledge and stealthy, ninja training to accomplish their missions, which usually begin as intelligence operations. The Science Ninja Team must acquire special, explicit permission to use offensive weapons to engage an enemy, typically as a last resort. G-Force regularly fire off their giant missiles like it’s no big thing. The Gatchaman stories take place on Earth, not in outer space, and usually center on the protection of natural resources against those that would exploit them, and the use of scientific knowledge for good over evil. Battle of the Planets doesn’t bother with that sort of context or self-realization; it’s just a bunch of cool young heroes taking out the bad guys. At the same time, Gatchaman doesn’t shy away from the dark side of things. There’s plenty of death and destruction leveled by the evil Galactor. The Science Ninjas don’t always manage to save those they’re charged with protecting. Much of that death, loss, and the reflection upon it, are edited out of the American version. It’s easy to tell which story comes from a post-nuclear, Cold War-era Japan, and which is from a late-seventies U.S.A., at the dawn of mass merchandizing and commercialization.
Beyond the general differences in mood, the stories and characters certainly make a lot more sense in Gatchaman. Battle of the Planets’ narrative is a patchwork of action scenes sloppily tied together by added expository material featuring 7-Zark-7 (the R2-D2 clone). Gatchaman, being the original, naturally has a more logical plot in each episode, as well as on-going story arcs that span across the series. The characters too, are more cogent. Perhaps the best example is Jinpei, the young, pre-teen member of the Science Ninja Team. In Gatchaman, he is an orphan who grew up with the older Jun. He plays the role of imp, and continually seeks the respect he feels denied him by his age. It’s not Kafka, but it’s certainly a character that a young viewer can identify with, and one that adds a valuable dynamic to the group. In the American version, this character is called Keyop. He is either some kind of artificial cyborg or clone—it’s never really clear—with an odd speech pattern and no discernible personality. He’s somewhat useless, and definitely less engaging. Whatever the reason for the change (did the American producers think putting such a young character in harm’s way wouldn’t go over well?), it doesn’t serve the show.
The English subtitles for the edition available on Hulu can definitely be awkward. They feel like they were written by a non-native English speaker, and I imagine there is a good amount of intention lost between the Japanese and English. It is nice though, to be able to hear the original Japanese voice acting; even without understanding it, the acting and intention go far in expanding on the text of the subtitles.
I realize that Gatchaman has been available to Americans for quite some time, and I’m pretty late to the game. But it’s never been more accessible than now, and I’m enjoying it. It’s still a strange show—it leaves my wife dumbfounded; “Wait—they’re ninjas, but they’re science ninjas? What the hell is a ‘science ninja’? And they dress as birds? What does that have to with either science or ninjas?”—but the hand-painted artwork and deliberate pacing are a welcome change from today’s over-produced animated fare that often comes out too hi-res, polished, and sterile. And for someone weaned on G-Force, it’s great to revisit the show and have it be even better than before.