By Bert Ehrmann
January 20, 2012
When I was growing up, most of the animated TV series and films I watched were pretty tame. While these cartoons did deal with a variety of subjects that appealed to pre-teen boys — be it outer space, super heroes, gigantic robots, etc. — the message of each was very simple; the good-guys always win, your heroes will never die and in the end everything will be alright.
And while I liked this kind of storytelling when I was younger, as I began to get older I found it less and less appealing. Luckily for me, though, at about the time I began growing out of these tame cartoons a new phenomena was beginning to emerge on the scene which were cartoons that were produced in Japan and redubbed for American audiences. Known for a time as "Japanimation" and now more commonly known as "Anime," these cartoons dealt with themes that had been taboo in American produced animated fare like death, cruelty, the destruction of war and the real possibility of evil triumphing over good.
The first of these Japanese produced cartoons I remember seeing was a film called Warriors of the Wind (originally Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind, 1984). Warriors of the Wind is set in a post apocalyptic world of city states surrounded by great toxic jungles that teem with gigantic insects. An unstable balance between what's left of humanity and the insects is threatened when an aggressive leader decides to wipe out the jungle by using ancient technology that helped bring about the original cataclysm in the first place.
The version of this film I originally saw was heavily edited, ran nearly 30 minutes shorter than the original, had a poor translation and had a tendency to rename people and things from the original. Naussicca was renamed Princess Zondra. The gigantic Ohmu bugs became Gorgons… Regardless, even in this edited and slightly watered down state Warriors of the Wind was absolutely amazing to me and unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
The story of this film is surprisingly complex. The people who are trying to destroy the toxic jungle are doing so for good reasons, characters who do good are sometimes killed right alongside the bad and even though good ultimately does prevail things aren't as settled or complete as I'd become accustomed to in American produced animated films.
A few years after Warriors of the Wind I would discover an animated TV series that would shape much of my adult tastes in sci-fi and pop-culture in general; Robotech (1985). The story of Robotech is told over 85 episodes and begins with a massive alien spacecraft crash landing on the earth, the technology within being turned to militaristic purposes and an intergalactic war that follows which is told over three generations of characters.
When Robotech finally started airing in our area my dedication to the show was extreme. The only time it aired was at the ridiculously early time of 6AM, which meant that I'd have to get up a full two hours before I was used to in order to see it. Which gladly I did day after day for months. Much like Warriors of the Wind, Robotech is much more a complex story than any animated series I'd seen up to that time had been. Each episode the series was interconnected and Robotech plays out as a 30 hour long story.
Most surprising to me about the Robotech series was that characters actually died in it. I had grown used to cartoons like G.I. Joe where even anonymous background characters were able to miraculously parachute out of exploding helicopters to escape death. But in Robotech people died, lots of them and on-screen too. No one was safe and even a character I'd come to think of as my favorite wouldn't make it to the end of the show.
After Robotech, the next Japanese produced animated piece that influenced me was the film Akira (1988).
Akira was a movie that I'd heard about in magazines and via the American Akira comic book that was reprinting the original manga (Japanese comic) story. When I was able to finally buy a copy of the movie on VHS for the then astounding price of $30 (real money for someone with a $5 a week allowance) the first time I watched it I felt like I'd entered a very special club.
Akira is a bit hard to explain without giving too much away. Set against a general uprising if not overall revolution in Japan, the film follows a teen biker gang in Neo-Tokyo who accidentally becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that might either change the planet for the better or end it altogether.
Akira is a huge, incredibly detailed film and the city of Neo-Tokyo feels like a real, vibrant and dangerous place that's on the verge of destruction. And here too none of the characters are safe and even ones that I'd assumed would make it to the end of the film don't.
Robotech, Naussicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Akira are all available on DVD. I don't believe Warriors of the Wind was ever released on anything other than VHS.
*The interesting bit about the Warriors of the Wind poster is that it features characters not in the movie. Neither the guy on the flying horse, the flying horse or the robot are in the film. And while there is a young male character in Warriors of the Wind, the lead of the movie is really the girl in the background and the red monster thing with the lightsaber is really a massive Godzilla sized monster that shoots blasts from its mouth!