By now I suspect you’ve heard a new Star Wars movie has come out. My work shift at Kitt Peak National Observatory didn’t let me see it for a few days. However, I just rectified that and enjoyed being swept into a pulp adventure in a galaxy far, far away. Another thing I have been watching in the last couple of weeks has been the contemporary anime series Gatchaman Crowds. As someone who was a kid in the 1970s, there is something of a connection between the Star Wars and Gatchaman universes.
Back in 1977, when Star Wars came out, there was no on-demand video, nor was there a DVD release of a movie three to six months after it was in the theater. If you were lucky, you might see the movie on commercial television a few months to a year after release and if you didn’t catch it when it aired, it was too late. Because of the popularity of Star Wars, television stations sought just about anything that looked remotely like Star Wars to bring in advertising dollars.
As such, in 1978, Sandy Frank Entertainment bought the rights to the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which is a superhero show more akin Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers titles than Star Wars. It featured a team of teen superheroes in bird-themed costumes who fought an evil organization called Galactor. Through clever dubbing, careful editing, and judicious use of new animation, Sandy Frank recast Gatchaman into Battle of the Planets, a show about five heroes who fought aliens from the Planet Spectra. Sometimes the battles happened on Earth and other times, the battles happened on worlds that looked suspiciously like Earth. The lead villain, who looked sort of like a cross between Darth Vader and Batman was called Zoltar. The new animation featured a robot called 7-Zark-7 who looked suspiciously like R2-D2. The whole mishmash was a terrific escape for someone who was just starting the awkward journey into adolescence.
Fast forward thirty-seven years to 2015, I decided to pick up a copy of the original Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and I’ve been slowly working my way through the series and loving it in its original format. I’ve discovered that the team never left Earth and I now know Zoltar as Berg Katze, a stooge for an alien creature called X, who is trying to take over the Earth. It’s still tremendous, goofy fun, though it’s also much more coherent than the Battle of the Planets edit. It’s also much more violent.
Because of my renewed interest in Gatchaman, I became aware of a new Gatchaman series called Gatchaman Crowds. I decided to give it a try as well and I’m glad I did, though the two series are actually quite different. If Science Ninja Team Gatchaman is like the Justice Society of America, Gatchaman Crowds would be the Justice League. They’re both superhero teams and the new incarnation has many similarities to the old. The bird-themed costumes have become mecha, often with wings. They still say “Bird, Go” when they want to transform. Also, the G-Team of Gatchaman Crowds still fights a villain called Berg Katze, though the new incarnation now reminds me more of the Joker than Batman.
Whereas the original Gatchaman team faced a new plot by Berg Katze each week, the new Gatchaman team has a more sophisticated story-arc structure. The first season basically asks what happens when ordinary people are given the power to be heroes through the internet and do heroes really need secret identities. The second season, called Insight, addresses the complexities of democracy and how being united in heart and mind may be something of a dangerous dream.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was fun and definitely hearkened back to the Buck Rogers serials that inspired the original trilogy. In that vein, I gather more Star Wars movies are expected to follow. I don’t know whether or not there will be a third season of Gatchaman Crowds, however, the Gatchaman team seems to be gaining an almost iconic status, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more adventures from some Gatchaman team in the future. I look forward to the stellar wars and planetary battles each series will bring.
Images in this article are low-resolution screenshots from Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Gatchaman Crowds Insight respectively and are believed to be fair use since they are presented for identification of and critical commentary on the shows.