Teen trouble-shooters Junko (voiced by Mari Okamoto) and Tanpei (Yoshiko Ota) spring into action when their grandfather, crackpot scientist Dr. Kieta (Ryuiji Saikachi), disappears while field-testing his latest invention: a time machine! The machine brings back Perasuke (Junpei Takiguchi), a talking parrot from an unknown time period, who carries a mysterious energy crystal called the Dynamond. Using the gemstone to power their insect-shaped time cruiser, Junko and Tanpei set off with Perasuke and their trusty robot sidekick C-Bot (Reiko Katsura) on an epic adventure in search of their grandfather. They are pursued by sexy, scantily clad villainess Majo (Noriko Ohara) and her clumsy sidekicks Grocky (Jouji Yanami) and Warusa (Kazuya Tatekabe) who are determined to steal the powerful Dynamonds scattered across the space-time continuum. Thus begins a series of madcap battles pitting the time-travelling teenagers and their shape-shifting all-terrain spaceship against all kinds of crazy contraptions concocted by the evil trio.
Time Bokan is one of the all-time classics of Japanese animation. Some likened this gadget-driven sci-fi romp to a Japanese variation on the Hanna-Barbera classic Wacky Races but in all honesty it is far zanier and more inventive. Created by Ippei Kuri at Tatsunoko studios, home of angst-ridden superheroes in Seventies anime e.g. Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972) a.k.a Battle of the Planets and Casshan: Robot Hunter (1973), this fast-paced, frantically funny, furiously inventive time travel adventure captured the imagination of a generation of Japanese children and established a pattern copied by later, less charming, merchandise-driven cartoons like Transformers and Pokémon (1997). To paraphrase Jack Nicholson's incarnation of the Joker, where did Junko, Tanpei and their archenemies get all those wonderful toys?
Given free reign by mad genius Kuri the creative team behind Time Bokan, who included future fine artist and console game chara designer Yoshitaka Amano, let their imaginations run riot. The result were a string of astonishing psychedelic set-pieces showcasing a succession of increasingly elaborate mecha: a rampaging robot mammoth, a giant fire-breathing lion-cum-transformable jet fighter, a hippo with a rocket-launcher in its jaws. Each of these was spun off into a toy that became the latest must-have craze in playgrounds across Japan. Inevitably the success of the original television serial along with its compilation films spawned sequels. The first of these, Yatterman (1977) remains the best known partly because it was adapted into a colourful live action film by cult director Takashi Miike featuring a cameo from original voice actors Noriko Ohara, Kazuya Tatekabe and Jouji Yanami. It was followed in rapid succession by Zendaman (1978), Time Patrol Team Otasukeman (1980), Yattodetaman (1981), Ippatsuman Returns (1982) and finally Itadakiman (1983). A decade later the cross-over film Time Bokan Royal Revival (1993) drew together several disparate TB teams for an adventure a lot closer to the Wacky Races after which the last instalment to date was Thieving Kiramekiman (2000) wherein the heroes were good-natured criminals pursued by a trio of bumbling cops.
However, there was more to Time Bokan than mere merchandising. Its irreverent humour and appealing chara designs (as a child your's truly had a severe crush on the lovely Junko. For the record I regret nothing) exude considerable charm and mark this as a precursor to the time-twisting antics featured in such films as Time Bandits (1981), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and more recently Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014), although admittedly the original cartoon show predates Time Bokan. Interestingly for a plot based around time travel the screenwriters drew considerably more from fiction than actual history as Junko and Tanpei were as likely to run into Don Quixote and Count Dracula (who turns out to be a friendly vegetarian!) as historical figures like the Wright Brothers and Wyatt Earp.
Like a lot of Tatsunoko shows, the serial packed in a remarkable amount of violence, albeit of the slapstick sort, and gratuitous nudity that simply would not fly in Anglo-American children's fare. Sexy villainess Miss Majo wore kinky fetish outfits that would make Vampirella blush and routinely wound up topless as the result of some apocalyptic explosion. Indeed, as lovable as the heroes were it was the endearingly inept villains who became runaway fan favourites. Quite often the terrible trio take time out from their evil schemes to launch into full-blown musical numbers, although sadly the English dubbed version replaces the original groovy Seventies J-pop with less appealing synth warbling. The feature length compilation condenses the sprawling madcap saga into a hectic romp that might not make for the most coherent story ever told but retains the irreverent spirit of the original. Ending on a cliffhanger, the story was continued in the second spin-off feature: Timefighters in the Land of Fantasy (1976).