VHS Discoveries: Anime without Subtitles

19 May

For every single Japanese animated series or film released in the U.S. in an English-language edition, there are dozens that have never been released here and are not likely to be. I’m curious about anime I haven’t seen and have looked for intriguing examples, either on tape or DVD, in Japanese video stores in Manhattan. When the price has been right, I’ve picked them up. There are many classic series I’ve heard of but never seen, so those get high priority, but there are many I learn of for the first time when I encounter them on the shelves at Book Off or HQ Video in Manhattan.

Invariably, these tapes and DVDs, imported from Japan, are in Japanese with no subtitles. I took about ten months of Japanese lessons in 1993-94, but it wasn’t enough to give me anything close to a command of the language. Still, I know a few words and key phrases and have a good ear for picking out the frequent English words sprinkled throughout the Japanese dialogue. Some plots require subtitles to understand. Others are so filled with action or visual gags that the story tends to tell itself visually. Either way, the artwork is often the selling point and is breathtaking enough to transcend the lack of translation, particularly in the older series.

Some of the tapes I’ve found come from well-known series like Osamu Tezuka’s “Princess Knight,” about an heiress to the French throne in the 18th century who masquerades as a male, and the long-running sci-fi comedy series, “Doraemon,” about a robot cat from the future who moves in with a hapless schoolboy named Nobita.

“Doraemon” spins off a new movie every year and I have over two dozen of them on tape or DVD.

I get most excited when I find items from certain specialized genres. Giant robot series are an especially good find, including films from the “Great Mazinger” series and a tape of sample episodes from “Golden Warrior Gold Lightan.”

I also seek out historical dramas or adventures, like the classic series about a boy ninja, “Sasuke” (1968), based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato, author of “The Legend of Kamui,” which has been translated into English.

One that I’d never heard of before buying it was “Sabu to Ichi no Torimono Hikae” (Sabu and Ichi’s Arrest Warrant), a black-and-white drama series from 1968 about a pair investigating crimes in historical Japan.

The cover was so intriguing that I had to find out what it was. (Sometimes I ask a Japanese store clerk to translate the title for me.)

I’m also excited to find classic sports series like “Kyojin no Hoshi” (Star of the Giants, 1968), about a young man who becomes a star baseball player amidst ongoing conflict with the father who trained him since boyhood, and “Ace wo Nerae!” (Aim for the Ace, 1973), about class conflict between girls on the high school tennis team.

Then there’s the children’s series, “The Adventures of Hutch the Honeybee” (1970), about an orphaned bee who travels through insect communities in a thick and often dangerous forest.

For a children’s series, it was quite frank about the dog-eat-dog world of nature and included lots of violence and harsh fates.

Insect life is not a happy-go-lucky one in the world of Hutch the Honeybee.

When I don’t know the title of a tape I’ve purchased and I haven’t asked for an identification at the store, I play the tape at home to see if an announcer or narrator gives the title on the soundtrack. If that doesn’t help, I have other ways of picking up clues as to what it might be and cross-checking with various reference books at home or websites like Anime News Network, and I always manage to identify my purchases.

While I’ve bought many of these on DVD (which tend to be more expensive), the bulk have been on VHS, which have been around for much longer and which tend to be much cheaper (some have cost as little as $1.00 each), especially as the market has dwindled. These are Japanese pre-records released in the 1980s and ’90s, even when the series were much older. I watch these tapes on my Sony Bravia 32-inch screen, which is normally terribly unforgiving to VHS, and they look fantastic. I can’t explain why that would be the case, but there are times when I’d rather watch one of these original pre-records than a comparable DVD. In many cases, the tape simply offers a much richer, more film-like image. To show you what I mean, here are pictures taken with a digital camera (Canon Powershot) directly off the screen as the VHS tapes played.

Here are two from the black-and-white series, “Sabu to Ichi no Torimono Hikae”:

And here are some from “Sasuke,” the 1968 ninja series:

And when you look at anime from the 1960s and 1970s, you find much more bold linework and intense closeups. The sports series I’ve sampled tend to be incredibly dramatic (in a way that might make them laughable to western audiences) and are filled with stark expressions shown in harrowing closeups. Here are a few shots from different series:

“Aim for the Ace”:

“Star of the Giants”:

“Great Mazinger vs. Getter Robo”:

“Sasuke”:

“Sabu to Ichi”:

The backgrounds in these series were often expressionistic or downright abstract:

“Great Mazinger vs. Getter Robo”:

“Aim for the Ace”:

“Star of the Giants”:

And how about this near-lethal pitch in “Star of the Giants”:

One series I’d like to single out for special attention here is the aforementioned “Sabu to Ichi no Torimono Hikae” (Sabu and Ichi’s Arrest Warrant). This is one of the few black-and-white anime series in my collection and the tape I have offers the first four episodes. The main character in the series is Sabu, a young investigator working for a police constable in Edo (Tokyo) during the Tokugawa era in the long period before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Ichi is a blind swordsman/masseur who assists Sabu at opportune moments. (He’s similar to the famed Zatoichi, a popular blind swordsman/masseur from an ongoing series of live-action films and TV episodes from the 1960s and ’70s.) All four plots of the “Sabu and Ichi” episodes revolved around murders, but two of them were quite hard to follow without subtitles. Nonetheless, I was consistently mesmerized by the quality of the artwork, some of which recalled Japanese scroll paintings from that era.

While the animation is limited, except when it comes to action scenes, the individual shots are often quite detailed:

There are expressionistic shots:

And cinematic techniques such as rack focus:

Some photographic representations were interspersed with the drawings, as in this episode about a masked killer:

It’s clearly not an animated series for children:

There was a later live-action series based on the same source material, although I’ve never had the chance to sample that.

As these samples indicate, animated series in Japan, particularly in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, were a lot more diverse than their American counterparts and encompass a much broader spectrum than most anime fans in the U.S. are exposed to, not just in subject matter, but in terms of animation styles as well. For the most part, I’ve left out of this discussion series that eventually came out in English-language versions in the U.S., e.g. “Rose of Versailles,” or those like “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Little Women” that have been dubbed into English and shown on cable channels. “Princess Knight” was once dubbed into English but hardly shown at all and is due to be released in English later this year. The others I’ve singled out here, along with dozens of others in my collection, are the ones that don’t have much chance of ever getting officially released in English in the U.S. I’m sure there are fan-subbed versions of some of these episodes on-line somewhere, but I haven’t quite mastered the art of finding series on-line yet. Maybe when I’ve finished watching all the tapes I’ve acquired.

I’ve reviewed some of these series on IMDB:

Sabu and Ichi’s Arrest Note

Honeybee Hutch

Aim for the Ace

Kyojin no hoshi

Plus two I didn’t mention yet:

Tomorrow’s Joe

Space Runaway Ideon

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