James Mclean – Transmutation and Recolonization in Japanese Animation: Battle of the Planets and Anime’s Growth in the West

Japan has enjoyed a market for animation that extends far beyond its country’s borders since the beginnings of anime. While anime is usually produced predominantly for the country’s domestic market, international markets have developed a taste for Japanese anime over time, increasingly now in its subtitled, Japanese-language form (Pellitteri 2014; Ruh 2010; Daliot-Bul 2014). Prior to this, throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, the transnational flow of Japanese animation to the West and specifically to the United States had met barriers, both industrial and cultural. Anime franchises were not imported for the value found in their Japaneseness, but to be domesticated — transmutated and (re-)colonized— so to fit local cultural, political, and economic standards.

This article argues that Sandy Frank Entertainment’s unconventional adaptation practices for transforming Tatsunoko Productions’ anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (Kagaku ninjatai Gatchaman, 1972) into the American television show Battle of the Planets (1978) responded to cultural, political, and industrial tensions surrounding American children’s cartoons, and in doing so, paved the way towards a broader acceptance of anime in America. Where Gatchaman told the tale of five techno-ninjas defending Earth from the alien invasion of Galactor, Battle of the Planets Americanised the five orphan heroes (and re-located their base to the West coast of America), code-named them G-Force, and had their fight against the alien forces of Spectre span across the galaxy. Flying their transformative space-ship, the Phoenix, G-Force had each been modified with cerebonic implants that bestowed them super-powers. The focus on space-driven science-fiction tapped into the space-fantasy popularity of the recently released Star Wars (1977). Through the localization of Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets, already-transnational content from Japan was appropriated and then relocated for new local and then, later, for global (re-)distribution.  This article will demonstrate how adaptation, through deliberate cross-cultural transmutations, can re-create franchises under new domestic banners. Battle of the Planets, colonized by local cultural tastes whilst retaining an innocuous injection of Japanese otherness, presented a digestible package of national and transnational anime conventions that inculcated a “first generation wave of anime fans with indelible childhood memories” of anime (Kelts 2006, p.16). The show also revealed a pre-teen market for anime to the world (Kelts 2006), fostering fans who would become consumers of anime a decade later, leading to a re-identification and revaluing of Japanese animation in America.

This article explores this period in anime’s pre-cult history, when anime shows were subject to sometimes brutal economic and commercial applications of transnational adaptation and mutation, or to borrow a phrase from Battle of the Planets, “transmutation.” 1978 saw Gatchaman removed from its high-tech ninja roots and colonized – or, as this paper will argue, given the ongoing transnational movement of the show in an already globalized animation market, recolonized – localized into a culturally digestible American space-opera franchise. This article demonstrates that such recolonization takes place in response to the presence of extra-textual pressures. Such pressures can be economic, political, industrial, and cultural, but are always connected to the global flows of texts. Consequently, transmutations in the adaptation of animation can draw together cross-cultural material or be an adaptive response to dissonance between cultures as one attempts to overwrite, or (re-)colonize the other.

My investigation into transnational adaptation will use historical analysis to reveal key events in the history of Battle of the Planets, as well as using textual analysis to explain some of the cultural transformations within the adaptation process. Adaptation is an ongoing process that is not solely a product of time, but also of space. Ideas can traverse communities, mixing and remixing into new forms. Thomas Leitch introduced the idea that adaptation can be viewed as a form of colonization – where new content that colonizes an adaptation can change its meaning or reflect on its textual history. He argues that “Colonizing adaptations, like ventriloquists, see progenitor texts as vessels to be filled with new meanings. Any new content is fair game, whether it develops meanings implicit in the earlier text, amounts to an ideological critique of that text, or goes off in another direction entirely” (2007, p.5). Leitch’s colonization speaks to the movement of texts into new spaces, potentially into new cultures. New content is “fair game,” as is challenging the ideology of the progenitor. In doing so, the theory side-steps some of the political connotations to colonialism in relation to nationhood, violence, and Imperialism (Dissanayake 1994). For Leitch, colonization within adaptation speaks to the ongoing movement of ideas that are bound to cross spaces, national or transnational, to be transformed.

In this article, unlike colonialism, which is about invasion of foreignness in the local, transmutation and recolonization are used to emphasize the invasion (or adaptation) of locality into the foreign. The power differential remains, however, now situated in the destination not origin of the text. As Koichi Iwabuchi suggests, something new is produced in the unequal encounter between foreign and local; and foreign goods “are creatively misused, recontextualised” by local cultures (2002, p. 40). This creative misuse leads to the heterogeneity within media franchises seen by Johnson (2013); wherein, once successfully colonized by a new localization process, a text can in turn seed change in consumption within that local territory.

In general, this generates a feedback loop between the franchise and its audiences that is referred to here as recolonization. More specifically, colonization speaks to one singular movement along a chain of adaptation events, whereas products often move continually through cultures. In these ongoing adaptation and consumption processes texts can be repeatedly recolonized to fit the requirements of different local spaces. Recolonization therefore addresses the flows in transnational movements of media into new and different local spaces, and the potentially perpetual transmutations that occur through that movement. Media that successfully settle in new local spaces, seed fresh or reinvigorated styles, concepts and genres in expanding local markets. These concepts can then be infused into new local products that themselves may take part in further transnational movement, recolonized into new spaces.

In the context of this argument, therefore, transmutation will be used to speak to the process of adaptation, whereas cultural recolonization will refer to the local consumption and distribution of that product.  “Transmutation” reveals the network of influences that shaped the adaptation process for Battle of the Planets and the “creation of a [hybrid] product” (Hutcheon 2013, p.7), and recolonization will reveal how these processes can, if successful, settle, mix, or open up demand for further similarly-styled content, potentially generating new kinds of hybridized genres and texts for local and global animation markets.

 Transmutation and the theorizing of anime’s transcultural adaptation

Through the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, anime programmes were subject to harsh methods of adaptation; or, more specifically, mutation (Ladd and Deneroff 2009; West 2009; Clements 2013). Mutation is a term that has previous connotations within industrial and commercial media adaptation processes (Keene, Moran and Fung 2007, p.66); but, more importantly, mutation has also enabled global product demand (Acland 2003).  Mutation can also connote negative imagery; freakish, unexpected, visible changes, which in transnational movement can involve unapologetically brutal and highly visible industrial and economic transformations – or transmutations.

Transmutation steps away from the question of fidelity that has plagued adaptation theory (Stam 2005; Hutcheon 2013). It seeks to reveal the intertextual relays that flow transnationally within media. However, in acknowledging the potential number of inter- and extra-textual influences on adaptation, there is a risk that such widespread intertextual chains could obstruct our view of the process of adaptation (Geraghty 2008). Focusing on transmutation and recolonization thus provides a manageable framework for investigating transnational adaptation processes.

Building on Barbara Klinger’s (1994) argument for the importance of exploring the historical material reception of film, Rayna Denison argues for this approach’s suitability to adaptation studies: “Studying film adaptations as processes that take place under specific historical conditions and in relation to particular contexts allows us to uncover the values appended to films within culture” (2014, p. 108). It is through the adaptation process that we can trace anime’s meanings as a commodity; through its cultural, industrial, commercial, and reception circuits. Through these factors, we can understand both its value and its uses as a transnational franchise. Linda Hutcheon (2013) speaks of how transmedia adaptation must make narratological changes to fit its new form. Likewise, adaptation across cultures will invariably result in changes. This article takes the position that, through adaptation, media artefacts are not transported like cargo, but are transmutated to meet fresh cultural needs.

 Pre-cult anime franchises in America

Understanding anime’s cultural position in the USA when Battle of the Planets was created requires attention to the way children’s media was constructed. Barbara Klinger’s (2015) research into a text’s cultural value prior to being awarded cult status – what she dubs “pre-cult” – has significant resonance with the transnational and transcultural; where industrial value is transformed through cultural recognition, and consumer cult status can thereby be commercialized. Klinger argues that “the cult film begins its life with varying degrees of success and recognition that range from commercial failure and public disregard to mass popularity and prominence” (2015, p.45) and that “fans engage passionately with the film, watching it repeatedly, memorizing it, and infusing it with special meaning” (2015, p.46). For anime in the West, this pre-cult litmus test resonates with the era of distribution and consumption of Battle of the Planets. As part of the then undervalued genre of children’s cartoons in America (Mittell 2004), Battle of the Planets belonged to a cultural category that had suffered from public disregard and low long-term commercial expectations. The cultural affinities generated within the show’s pre-cult youth demographic would gestate intimate bonds that would see audiences become cult consumers of anime later in life (Kelts 2006). Investigating this complex matrix of historical (trans)cultural inter-relationships can reveal how different pre-cult and cult franchises exist within different cultural contexts under similar cultural conditions, while still generating different outcomes.

 The franchising relationship between Tansunoko Productions and Sandy Frank Entertainment saw the re-creation of Gatchaman as a second franchise that would shape and consolidate a new cultural articulation of Tansunoko’s product. Therefore, as important as adaptation theory is in understanding the complex transnational movement of Japanese anime, the importance of franchising is equally significant. Franchising describes industrial and cultural power, particularly the cultural power to transport and distribute media, which resonates with Leitch’s concept of colonization, and the argument for recolonization here. However, Derek Johnson notes that media franchising often has a pejorative undertone as “an industrially driven process perceived as unchecked expansion and assimilation across cultural contexts” (2013, p.2). Important for this article, however, Johnson also contends that franchising is an “economic system for exchanging cultural resources across a network of industrial relations” (2013, p.29). In the context of Gatchaman’s transnational licensing and franchising, we can identify a strong relationship between the economic and the cultural.

 Seeding the Legacy

The transmutation of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets was not the first in anime history – similar transnational forces were at work in shaping Japan’s domestic animation market at least a decade earlier. In Japan, the importation of the live-action George Reeves Adventures of Superman (1952) has been argued to have significant impact on domestic audiences in the 1950s leading to the creation “of local responses to, and adaptations of” American superheroes (Denison 2015, p.56). With their capes, skin-tight outfits, and super-human powers, Gatchaman’s team of protagonists are on such potential link in a chain of transnational influences. Another can be seen when Jonathan Clements notes that the British-made Thunderbirds (1965) “inspired a radically different type of children’s entertainment” (2003, p. xxii) when imported to Japan, arguing that the heavy use of miniaturization of scaled effects on a television series would influence future Japanese shows such as Ultraman (1966), themselves generic precursors to mecha and action anime of the 1970s. For example, the successful imports of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet (1967) ensured that ensemble casts and miniature model making would be common in 1970s Japanese live-action and anime team shows (Clements and McCarthy, 2006).

The influence of the Gerry Anderson’s puppet show would also be apparent in 1968’s live-action Mighty Jack (Maiti Jakku) in its blend of multiple heroes and model work, through which it introduced a team of agents and their flying submarine. Elements of Mighty Jack would be echoed in Gatchaman. The flying submarine, Mighty-Gō, becomes the base of the team’s operation as with Gatchaman’s main vehicle, the Godphoenix. Equally, the Mighty-Gō and Godphoenix operate both aquatically and in the air. The re-used animation for the launch of the Godphoenix from its underwater base carries an almost shot-by-shot similarity to MightyGō’s departure from its own base. Therefore, the flow of global television distribution means that the potential for intertextuality and localization is high, and – as demonstrated with Superman to Gatchaman and then Gatchaman to Battle of the Planets – fragments of texts can colonize and then recolonize again, changing television cultures as they appear and reappear over time.

 The transnationalism and industrial colonization of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman

 Science Ninja Team Gatchaman aired in Japan in 1972, a response to the live-action genre which had enjoyed popularity with television shows such as Ultraman, Ultra-Seven (1967), Kamen Rider (1971), and later Go Renjā (1975). These shows had popularized the rubber-suited monster genre, “suitmation” (Allison 2006, p.47) that had originated in the Godzilla (Gojira, Ishirō Honda, 1954) film franchise. These high-spectacle shows were expensive to make, which saw Tatsunoko Productions seek to capitalize on their popularity using the cheaper animation format. Like examples of suitmation, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman had regular encounters with giant space monsters that would terrorize Earth’s cities.

As Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro observe, Gatchaman adopted many tropes from live-action. The Gatchaman five-unit team mirrors the ensemble format of “Hero, Rogue, Big Guy, Comic Relief, and Token Girl” that made animation spy series Skyers 5 (1967) an early example of the hero team archetype (2003, p.589). The short-lived Mighty Jack, with its underwater base and vehicles, alongside the popular Kamen Rider with its hero and vehicle transformations would also be reflected in Gatchaman. These science-fiction spectacles could be easily condensed into the animation format and would seek “the attention of children, not only on screen, but in toy stores” (Clements and Tamamuro, 2003, p.147). Allison also argues that the 1970s “marked the rapid development of a consumer culture in Japan that increasingly targeted youth” (2006, p.111). Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was, therefore, an economic response to live-action television, adapting live-action spectacles in a cheaper animation format, and capitalizing on Japan’s burgeoning toy market. Gatchaman ran for three seasons. However, it was in 1977 that Tatsunoko Productions made a deal with an American company that would see a transmutated version of the show being televised globally by the time the Japanese series ended in 1980.

Sandy Frank Entertainment was an independent program distributor in America that enjoyed some domestic success through syndication package distribution (selling on purchased and packaged network shows to local television stations). The company’s eponymous CEO, Sandy Frank, would travel to national and international film fairs and festivals searching for new products he could license then sell to American television broadcasters (Hofius and Khoury 2002, p.17). By the 1970s, Frank’s company had also seen success in generating first-run syndication content (Hofius 2013). This meant the company was looking for both second-run shows and original programs to sell in syndication.

Frank had previously acquired licenses to Japanese products and had sold Japanese monster films to the American market (Albiniak 2015). In April 1977, Frank attended the annual distribution event in Cannes, the Marché International des Programmes de Télévision (MIP). Tatsunoko Productions was also at this event looking for foreign buyers. It was here Frank saw Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and contacted Tatsunoko (Hofius and Khoury 2002, Albiniak 2015). Frank did not attempt to acquire the rights, but in early May he requested prints to be delivered to his New York office (Hofius 2013). That same month, America was hit by a new pop-culture sensation: Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Seeing potential for a first-run syndication Star Wars-inspired package aimed at the children’s market, Frank looked to negotiate the rights to Gatchaman. Gatchaman producer Ippei Kuri noted Japanese animation in the US was a big gamble at the time, and Frank’s decision appears to be driven by a desire to colonize Gatchaman (Hofius and Khourdy 2002). Brian Ruh (2010) argues in this early era of anime importing, authenticity was not key as it would be just a few years later. Gatchaman thereby provided “raw-material for a new and very different show” (Ruh 2010, p.35), for which Frank’s deal gave him both rights for production and distribution, essentially the ability to transmutate the new show domestically, and then to enable its recolonization internationally under the new brand-name Battle of the Planets.

It is therefore key that economics is at the forefront when analyzing early anime adaptations in the USA (Hutcheon 2013). Media risk management strategies such as adaptive transmutation mediate high production costs in unpredictable markets. Science Ninja Team Gatchaman’s science fiction narrative aligned with that of Star Wars giving Frank a successful anime product that he saw the potential in transmuting for American science fiction audiences. Just as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman had been a cost-effective approach to adapting the spectacle of Japanese live-action television within animation, Battle of the Planets would be a cost-effective animated approach to replicating the success of space opera Star Wars.

A second factor that made Gatchaman attractive was the economics of the deal itself. Fred Ladd, an American writer and director who had worked on transnational adaptations from Japan, observes that Japan was one of the few countries with a high turnover of children’s shows and where their domestic networks would pick up a proportion of the production costs (Ladd with Deneroff 2009). Thereby “Western buyers could buy rights for territories outside of Japan at bargain prices” (Ladd and Deneroff 2009, p.70). Jason Hofius (2013) explains that, because Japanese animated programs rarely got aired in America, Sandy Frank was able to negotiate a deal for Gatchaman that was “far-reaching” in its benefits.

According to Hofius, the deal included all rights to the 105 episodes of Gatchaman that had already been produced (selling globally except in specific Asian territories and Italy, where Tatsunoko had existing distribution deals). Deals under the adapted show’s new brand and all future sales would be evenly split between Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank. This included (but according to Hofius, was not limited to) the series, merchandising, publishing, music, and music publications. It was enough for Sandy Frank to rebrand and create a new franchise. Hofius further notes Tatsunoko was too small to be able to focus on global sales and lacked the connections Sandy Frank had. The deal gave Tatsunoko international exposure and facilitated commercial distribution that would have otherwise been difficult for the Japanese production company to attain.  Consequently, this transnational deal demonstrates how economics, resources, industrial power (global connections), as well as supply and demand, enabled Sandy Frank to negotiate a deal that would give him the power to adapt Gatchaman into a highly Americanized new show. Sandy Frank was not looking to transport Gatchaman as a Japanese cultural artefact, but to modify and transmute Gatchaman. To do this, the agreement had to be economically viable to the small independent American production company, and it had to give Sandy Frank creative autonomy in adaptation in order to meet American cultural and political expectations.

In America, there were further obstacles in the transnational process. First and foremost, American television was inexperienced with foreign imports. According to Fred Ladd, domestic buyers were “accustomed to seeing children’s programs produced in the United States”, and thereby assumed even anime programs were American (Ladd and Deneroff 2009, p.52). Furthermore, Mark West argues that “Japanese imports were generally more violent than most American cartoons, and this was even after some of the violence that had been in the original Japanese version had been cut for US broadcast” (2009, p.220). This meant that anime was risky due to the conservative turn taking place around children’s television programming in the USA at the time.

In 1968, a campaign named Action for Children’s Television (ACT) was set up by American activists concerned about levels of violence and toy advertising within and surrounding children’s shows. ACT was politically active and continued to apply pressure to both government and the television industry throughout the 1970s. However, according to West, “Changes in American TV standards made it possible by 1978 to adapt Japanese TV animation again for syndicated TV broadcasting where the standards for children’s programming were not so strict” (2009, p.46). However, Fred Ladd argues that when Sandy Frank Entertainment acquired Battle of the Planets in 1977, ACT was already seeking to put pressure on domestic television stations through political influence (Ladd and Deneroff 2009). President James Carter, Congress, and the Federal Communications Commission were being petitioned to revoke the license of any television station that did not eliminate violence from children’s programs. Ladd recalls television broadcasters were fearful of airing anything that could be perceived of having violent overtones (Ladd and Deneroff 2009). Sandy Frank’s adaptation of Gatchaman took place within this period of debate, and the next section will show how the company responded to these external pressures.

In the licensing of Battle of the Planets, Sandy Frank scored a strong transnational deal due to the infancy of relations between America and Japanese animation companies (Hofius 2013). While the deal gave Tatsunoko a global reach that would have otherwise been impossible (Hofius 2013), it gave Frank creative autonomy as well as commercial power, enabling him to create a new show by reshaping the Japanese series to fit local standards. Gatchaman could be adapted into a show that would be a cost-effective imitation of a live-action cinematic science fiction spectacle. The adaptive transmutation would also require mutations that would either conform to or resist the cultural and political pressures on American television output. Consequently, the Sandy Frank company’s new version of Gatchaman opened the door to further transnational colonizations by transmuting the show’s content towards more culturally conservative children’s animation.

 The transmutation and global recolonization of Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets

In considering the transmutation of Battle of the Planets, to be able to separate out its intertextual influences from the extratextual pressures would be ideal; however, neither is discrete. The transnational adaptation of Astroboy (Tetsuwan Atomu, Fuji TV 1963-66) under script adaptor Fred Ladd, had applied comedy in his American edit “adding humor where there was none” (2009, p.37). Furthermore, careful cuts could limit excess violence in scenes. Humour and editing were similarly utilized in the transmutation of Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets by adding new scenes to the adaptation including two new robotic characters – 7-Zark-7 and his dog, 1-Rover-1. Intertextually borrowing from Star Wars’ famous droids, the inserted scenes were gentle and humorous. The added material made editing out more violent moments easier, and the robots could add narration to explain any cuts or mutations to the original story.

The influence of Star Wars did not end with these two characters. The transmutation took many visual cues from the film, playing close to Star Wars: A New Hope. For example, the cartoon’s titles bore a remarkable similarity to the stylized rolling credits of Star Wars. The lead female character in Battle of the Planets was renamed from Jun to Princess, just as the lead female character in Star Wars was Princess Leia. Jinpei, the youngest of the ninja, became Keyop, who spoke in mix of words, whistles, and beeps, conjuring echoes of Star Wars droid R2-D2. Incidental similarities also added to the perceived mutations. For instance, the villain, Berg Katze, became Zoltar and – as with Darth Vader in Star Wars – is caped and masked. Furthermore, the central ship, the Godphoenix was transmuted into the Phoenix, imitating the bird-imagery of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.

Further transmutation had to be done in order to change some of the cultural morality within the show’s narratives. This did not just simply mean removing violence but also augmenting story and character motivations to suit the more sanitized cultural expectations in the USA, largely a product of petitioning by ACT. In Gatchaman’s “Revenge on the Iron Beast Mechadegon”, Naomi, having lost her father, confronts ninja Ken, accusing him of killing her father, lashing out at the main hero. The American adaptation has “Mark” dodge these attacks before “Debbie” wanes and falls into his arms; a deft edit from the original where Ken stomach-punches Naomi, causing her to fall forward into his arms. The story ends with Naomi having to confront the monster that killed her father in a scene that sees the team pressuring her to shoot it with the Godphoenix’s bird-missiles. In the American edit, Mark tells Debbie that she cannot fire the missile because “revenge never solves anything”, while in the original, Ken slaps Naomi to focus her, then forces her hand onto the button to release the missiles and avenge her father. As these examples suggest, violence was not the sole issue; cultural morality was also an important factor. In this episode, there is a transmutation between cultural ideals of honor and revenge. Mark tells Debbie her father would be proud of her for not attacking the monster, while Ken expects Naomi to honor her father by destroying his murderer. Where Battle of the Planets has been described as a “watered down” adaptation (terminology used by fan-critics to the show, see SFF 2011, Drees 2012, Urso 2017), such changes are made to ally foreign content with local cultural tastes, recolonizing to entrench themselves in the cultural psyche.

Transmutation is not solely about making cultural concessions, it is also affected by local production practices. Brian Ruh (2010), for example, describes how some of the American writers were employed to watch the original show in order to time the actions and utterances appearing on screen, creating a template for later re-scripting world. This additional layer of translation process and work, however, was not always used later on, as the main writers sometimes made up dialogue from what they “saw (and created) onscreen” making no use the translated scripts at all (Hofius and Khoury 2002, p.35). This suggests that the transmutation method was based on visual cues that enabled localization, rather than existing Japanese cultural content. In essence, the writers could recolonize the text directly by obscuring the foreign and emphasizing the local.

The continuing transmutation of Battle of the Planets saw even the new brand altered to meet localized cultural tastes, trends, and commercial ideals. In doing so, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman’s cultural origins and otherness were suppressed (but not irrevocably lost) to its foreign audiences. This required changes of varying degrees and kinds, producing recolonizations. For example, Battle of the Planets was distributed beyond the USA and, in the UK, Battle of the Planets featured as a locally produced original comic-strip in Polystyle Publications’ TV Comic (Hofius 2013). In this new medium, Battle of the Planets was further transmutated for a new audience, and reconfigured for a UK magazine format, taking a further step away from its Gatchaman origins. As per Frank’s deal, such licensed merchandise was branded globally under the new show name, including merchandise for Gatchaman’s later seasons, which were largely unseen in the West. Battle of the Planets was a huge success under its new brand name globally, selling well in the UK and other major European countries, and finding audiences in Australia, South and Central America, and in the Pacific Rim. The show ran globally throughout the 1980s, establishing the brand well beyond the United States (Hofius and Khoury 2003). Through these travels, and the continual translations and localizations they necessitated, an overall sense of the recolonization of anime as a new form of globalized television animation can be discerned.

 Conclusion

This article has sought to demonstrate how inverting the usual view of transnational media flows to consider the potential for localization as colonization, can reveal much about the global flow of anime. Transmutating Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets allowed it to be recolonized outside of Japan, with foreign media content from voices to new animation augmenting and altering the meanings of the show. In its turn, Battle of the Planets configured television animation expectations among young American audiences. It helped seed a pre-cult taste for the anime aesthetic in the markets to which it was exported.

On one hand, Battle of the Planets is a unique study in transnational animation. It presents a case in which an American producer took advantage of favourable Western market conditions and struck a deal that provided creative and commercial control of a foreign franchise that it could reshape to capitalize on a cinematic phenomenon. Battle of the Planets became a key catalyst in the US anime-boom that would follow; it exposed local audiences to different animation aesthetics even while it obscured their origins. The boom that followed saw consumers demand transparency about anime’s foreignness. Japanese planning director Yoshiro Katsuoka observed, “When Gatchaman/Battle of the Planets went to the U.S, it was bent to suit American tastes, but the weird thing is that now American tastes have been bent to be more Japanese” (cited in Kelts 2007, p.24).

Nor have Gatchaman’s transmutations ever really ended. For instance, Gatchaman has continued as a franchise in Japan, with several further adaptations of the original show appearing to date. There were also two more American adaptations of Gatchaman followed after Sandy Frank’s agreement with Tatsunoko finished, although neither extended beyond their airing, despite being less mutated versions of the original material. The Battle of the Planets franchise has likewise continued, now including branded comics, toys, and other merchandise. More recently Tatsunoko and Canadian company Nelvana have sought to revive Battle of the Planets as a transnational brand, cross-mixing the American Battle of the Planets with its Japanese originator (Ressler 2015). As a consequence, Battle of the Planets has an extended life as a transnational franchise, continually recolonized in its movement from Japan, to America, to the rest of the world, and back to Japan (in a collaboration with Canada). These transnational production and distribution practices mean that we now have co-existing parallel Gatchaman/Battle of the Planets franchises. In these complex transnational patterns, there is a reconfiguration of the intertextual matrix of the “imported” early anime text. If successful, anime was enabled to travel onwards beyond singular notions of “localization”, exported and being recolonized in other local spaces, or even laying the seeds of change within its new markets, acclimatizing them for further imports, which over time in the case of anime has led to an eventual decolonization of the local (Ruh 2010).

The recent revivification of interest in the Gatchaman franchise did not obscure the legacy of Battle of the Planets, and the latter has entered the 21st Century under its own banner. The attempt to revive Battle of the Planets once more, this time co-supported by Gatchaman’s original Japanese studio, Tatsunoko, is an example of how flexible and heterogenic transnational animation can be, and how increased globalized industrial practices can muddy the waters of a product’s origin and identity. The need for a strong intertextual body to draw upon was key to the adaptation of Battle of the Planets, with Sandy Frank showing only mild interest in the property prior to premiere of Star Wars. Without Gatchaman, there would be no Battle of the Planets. Without Star Wars, there would be no Battle of the Planets.

Indeed, the industrial tactics utilized by Sandy Frank to tap into the success of Star Wars illustrates the attraction of animation as a form for adaptation. Animation provides a low-cost alternative to explore what would be prohibitively costly explorations of spectacle in live-action. Equally, Gatchaman itself is recognized for its use of the medium to explore tales of spectacle that would not have been possible in Japanese live-action television at that time.  Tatsunoko seeded Gatchaman with popular content seen in television’s hero-centered suitmation and miniature-model shows. Animation let television compete with the high-risk, big-budget blockbuster Hollywood film. Furthermore, both Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank saw animation as a way to extend live-action market successes in a cost-effective way, using a medium that had a clearly identified target audience at the time.

The transmutation and recolonization of Battle of the Planets further offers an example of the complex weaving of intertextuality, through commercial and creativity decision-making by localized actors, and the power relationships that motivate them. A lack of local awareness to an animation franchise’s roots can see those roots obscured and the identity re-assigned. This can lead to a new brand that can conceal the original. Indeed, it is common to speak of a transmedia franchise as a singular entity (Johnson 2013), however, this could be reductive in cases of low-budget, or high-transnational movement texts, where recolonization can change the identity of the product in the eyes of local consumers. In a globalizing arena, we can draw upon Battle of the Planets as an example of the complexity of transnational adaptation, and the importance of historical materialism in understanding the movement of animation through local spaces that forge, and even replicate, transnational franchises.

James Mclean is a PhD Researcher in the Film, Television, and Media department at the University of East Anglia. His doctorate research investigates working practices in television genre development, and he works as an associate tutor focusing on media industries and digital media. James worked for ten years in the media industries as a storyboard artist and illustrator. During this time, he worked in a variety of media including video-games, television, books, comics, and magazines. Of note, he worked on providing material for franchises such as Horrid Henry, Star Wars, Doctor Who, M.A.S.K, and High School Musical. He has a key interest in television and production practices and has publicly engaged on topics surrounding transmedia and adaptation.

 

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© James Mclean

Edited by Francis M. Agnoli and Rayna Denison, University of East Anglia

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