Travelling light years through space an alien entity known as Sosai X (voiced by Nobuo Tanaka) crash-lands in the Himayalas and creates the evil masked mutant hermaphrodite Berg Katse (Mikio Terashima). Thirty years later Berg Katse leads a terrorist organization called Galactor that holds the world in fear of its giant mechanical monster 'Turtle King.' Defending the Earth are five teenage superheroes dressed in colourful bird costumes: stalwart leader Ken (Katsuki Mori), brooding anti-hero Condor Joe (Isao Sasaki), the beautiful and valiant Jun (Kazuko Sugiyama), burly, big-hearted Ryu (Shingo Kanemoto) and Jinpei (Yoku Shioya) the lovable motormouth brat. Wielding awesome ninja powers, hi-tech weapons and a fiery spaceship called God Phoenix, G-Force see off Galactor's goons time and again. Until the day trouble comes crashing into Jun's bar in the form of Ken's old friend, delinquent teenager Sabu (Hiroya Ishimaru). He claims to know the whereabouts of Ken's long-lost father. Eager to find his dad, Ken rashly abandons his teammates who promptly fall into a Galactor trap.
Ninja stories in manga and anime were once a big draw for Japanese kids but fell from grace in the Seventies. Whereupon Tatsunoko Studios ingeniously combined the ninja genre with science fiction and superheroes in their hit serial Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. The result captured the imagination of children around the world, spawning two sequel shows: the sanitized though much-loved American version Battle of the Planets (retitled to cash-in on Star Wars, it removed much of the violence and swearing along with key plot points but added lovable robot comedy relief 7-Zark-7 (voiced by Hollywood veteran and future Scrooge McDuck: Alan Young) and his robot dog 1-Rover-1), a 1994 remake with a soundtrack by Earth, Wind & Fire (!), the enjoyable live-action Gatchaman (2013) and Tatsunoko's ambitious, controversial, mind-bending next-generation sequel Gatchaman Crowds (2015).
Before all that there was the feature-length Science Ninja Team Gatchaman: The Movie. This had the added distinction of being supervised by acclaimed live-action samurai filmmaker Kihachi Okamoto (e.g. Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1969), Samurai Assassin (1965), The Battle of Okinawa (1971)). It hit Japanese theatres in the wake of the massive success of the feature-length Space Battleship Yamato (1977). Although animation had been part of the Japanese film industry for two decades, Yamato was the film that truly kicked off the anime boom. By invoking the 'warrior spirit' of old Japan (both the samurai era and, more controversially, the Second World War) filtered through a futuristic (and therefore less overtly jingoistic) space opera Yamato resonated with young and old alike. Co-directed by Toshio Masuda, another seasoned live-action director, Yamato prompted mainstream Japanese filmmakers to take anime more seriously and inspired many young film school graduates to work in the medium.
On the surface Gatchaman's story seems less weighty than Yamato. It is a colourful superhero fantasy laden with overwrought comic book drama, angst-ridden teen heroes and cackling villains. In design terms it is a charming relic of the disco era where characters sport shaggy hair and bell-bottom pants and Jun plays funky guitar with a groove-tastic Josie and the Pussycats-like band. It is worth noting however that for a Seventies cartoon heroine Jun is portrayed as smart, resourceful and brave. In Ken's absence she immediately takes charge and brings the three bickering boys in line. For all its colourfully campy superheroics the story is layered with dark psychological undertones (e.g. Ken's traumatic relationship with his mysterious, absentee father) and subtle allusions to history. Gatchaman harks back to old ninja stories, in particular the ninja anime of Sanpei Shirato (Ninja the Wonderboy (1964), Sasuke (1968), Band of Ninja (1967)) with their child heroes and peasant rebellions against feudal tyranny, and essentially re-imagines Japan's role in the Second World War as a nobler cause. The core of the plot deals with the sacrifice and hardship endured by young men and one woman as they devote their lives to defending the world. Much is made of Ken's 'selfishness' and 'stupidity' in forsaking his duty to search for his long-lost dad. Reflecting a popular Japanese cultural notion that suffering breeds character, the film betrays a sadomasochistic edge. Not just in the amount of physical abuse endured by the young heroes but also their emotional turmoil. While the first half puts Ken through the emotional wringer, the second belongs to fan-favourite Condor Joe. Battle of the Planets fans who wondered by Joe/Jason was always drawn looking so broody and intense finally get their answer here as flashbacks reveal his parents were killed by alien assassins. The third act heaps on the tragedy for Joe to an almost comical degree. He is caught by the enemy, endures a horrific beating, falls out of plane then gets hit by a car and, as a punchline diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition! Remarkably, he soldiers on like a badass. What a guy.
While primitive by modern standards the animation has a cinematic quality. At a time when most cartoons, save Disney, where more or less cheap toy commercials, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman feels like a big-budget science fiction movie. The action is non-stop. Barely a moment goes by without a giant robot destroying something or explosions, punch-ups and violent death. All of the gory action scenes Sandy Frank excised from Battle of the Planets are uncensored here for your viewing pleasure. The film also tapes the Seventies disaster movie trend with apocalyptic images of global devastation but also adds a little campy humour (e.g. when Team Gatchaman stumble across Berg Katze rehearsing his world conquest speech). We end on an ominous if contemplative not though of course this was not the end for Gatchaman. But that, as they say, is another story.
Veteran Japanese director who used his experiences during the Second World War to shape the outlook and tone of numerous anti-war films, such as 1959's Dokuritsugu Gurentai, and 1968's Nikudan (aka The Human Bullet). Okamoto also directed gangster pictures such as The Age of Assassins (1967) and samurai epics like Sword of Doom (1966) and Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo (1970), frequently casting the great Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune. Okamoto slowed his work-rate afterwards, but still continued to direct for TV and cinema until his death.
A friend of mine was on a French ferry when he was a kid, and noticed the TV was playing the French version of Battle of the Planets. Intrigued, he wondered how the dubbing would handle Keyop. He waited and waited for him to speak and... absolutely hilarious, he says. Pity it doesn't seem to be on YouTube.