Welcome to a special update of The Owl in the Rafters – Anime In-Jokes, where I steal fellow content provider Tempest Wind’s schtick for the week! Let me start with a little anecdote as well as just a little smidgen of my usual routine before we really get into the meat of things. So far, since this March, I’ve mentioned in some capacity that two very big anime franchises have new installments airing (Saint Seiya Omega and Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) and today I’d like to briefly touch on another currently airing blast from the past, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water before moving on to the Anime In-Jokes segment.
I’ll get the rundown on Nadia out of the way as quickly as possible: The 39 episode TV series first aired in 1990, was animated by the studio Gainax, and directed by one of the studio’s founding members, Hideaki Anno. Anno is of course best known now as the director of the Neon Genesis Evangelion, for which he won Animage’s Anime Grand Prix award. He did, of course, win the very same award for Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water 4 years before the release of Evangelion. Worth noting is that the early concept for the show was developed under the title, Around the World Under the Sea by none other than Hayao Miyazaki on the premise of making a TV series based heavily on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Nadia is currently in the middle of a rebroadcast in remastered HD format. Climbing aboard the nostalgia train with Saint Seiya and Lupin III, Nadia‘s rebroadcasting has been helping make this Spring season a real treat for somewhat older anime fans.
So, here’s the anecdote: I’ve been re-watching Nadia and I’ve fallen back in love with a trio of characters that were always something of a fan favorite, the Grandis Gang. The Grandis Gang is comprised of the bossy and hotheaded bombshell leader, Ms. Grandis Granva, and her two henchmen, Hanson and Sanson. Hanson is the short stocky tech wizard, and Sanson is the taller, slimmer narcissistic muscle of the group. The three start out as a goofy bunch of villains out to take the titular Blue Water from Nadia. They naturally are thwarted at every turn, despite having a highly advanced robot at their disposal. Later in the series the villain schtick is dropped entirely and they actually turn out to be really strong heroic supporting characters.
A Nadia review is a thing for another time, however. What moved me to write this particular article is that this trio is neither the first nor last of its kind and has a somewhat amusing history to it. This format is always a feisty and short tempered female leader, often very self absorbed and/or outright narcissistic and two goons with varying personalities and body types. Most commonly there is a short stocky guy and a tall thin guy with some kind of sharp feature, generally a nose. They also pilot a robot or elaborate mechanical vehicle of some sort, and take orders from a 4th more proper villain character. So, I’d like to start with some other incarnations that American children of the 1990s and early 2000s might be more familiar with, and then track the history back to its source.
The most obvious example of this in current popular anime is of course Team Rocket, of the world famous Pokémon franchise’s anime series. While the original premise and many later tweaks to the team dynamic took on various different interpretations of this formula, at its height Jesse was the leader, James was the narcissist and Meowth was the wiseguy. Team Rocket’s constant blundering and incompetence are just parts of the cliché.
That isn’t the only case of this, however. Some of you may recall a little show that ran on FoxKids and later on ABC Family, called Flint the Time Detective. Saban, a US company best known for their creation of the Power Rangers franchise from edited clips of Japanese Super Sentai shows were also the ones behind the localization of Flint the Time Detective, producing a brand new script and audio from scratch.
Those of you who do recognize this show no doubt know exactly what I’m getting at: the villainess, Petrafina, and her two goons, Dino and Mite. Like in most of these set ups, the villains are working under a 4th character, who is a mysterious and much more threatening force that rules over them, assigning them their work from the shadows, typically through some kind of TV screen, radio, hologram, etc… For Team Rocket that role goes to Giovanni, for Petrafina and her goons, that role belonged to Dark Lord.
As a very brief what’s-what, on Flint for those who didn’t see it as a kid: The show starts with the villain team I’ve been talking about, Petrafina and her two goons, Dino and Mite, using their flying time machine to go back in time to find “Time Shifters” strange super powered little mascot characters that have been scattered throughout time and space. They come across the first of them in a prehistoric era, but a caveman and his son try to stop them from capturing the Time Shifter. Due to extenuating circumstances, Petrafina and co. are forced to use a petrification ray on both the Time Shifter and the two cavemen, hoping to dig the shifter back up in the future. Two petrified fossils are found by some kids and they take the rocks back to their uncle’s lab at the Time Bureau where he turns the Shifter and the caveboy back to normal. The caveman father is beyond rescuing however and is brought back as a sentient slab of rock, which the scientist uncle turns into a giant stone axe for the boy to wield. It then becomes Flint’s job to go back in time to find the Time Shifters and capture them before Petrafina does. The Time Shifters all have unique powers they lend to Flint when he needs them as well as two alternate forms each, a Super form used by Flint and an Evil form used by Petrafina.
I could touch on some other examples, but I feel Petrafina is the most obvious of them, and Flint the Time Detective is itself a direct reference to the next show I want to talk about. So, I’ll avoid dragging this out and head back in time to look at where this started. What most western fans don’t realize is that this is more than just coincidence or just a formulaic cliche: it’s a reference to a very specific set of anime characters that started this trend. I have mentioned a few times in other articles, a company called Tatsunoko Production Co., who are best known for some of the big classic anime titles of the 1970s in Japan, and some of the early American anime classics during the late 80s. (Mach GoGoGo/Speed Racer, G-Force/Battle of the Planets, Macross and by extension Robotech) It was this company that created a long lasting and still iconic Time Bokan anime franchise in Japan in 1975 starting with self titled Time Bokan series. (aka Time Fighters)
The premise to this first show was remarkably straight forward: the heroes travel through time looking for the lost professor who made their time machine while the villains chase after them trying to steal the Dynamond, an arbitrary magical macguffin at the center of the plot. This first team was actually just a 3-man team with no big boss character giving orders. The sexy female leader of the team was named Majo, and her two goons were Grocky (the skinny tall one) and Warusa (the short blocky one).
This series actually saw a limited release in the US under the title Time Fighters as a direct to video series starting in 1984. The US localization took only select episodes, generally the ones drawing on real world historical settings and characters, but maintained the basic plot and premise. The characters were all renamed however, and the Skull Trio became the Skulduggery Crew: Majo was renamed Lucinda, Grocky became Captain Arrow, and Warusa became Mungo. There was also a 90min film titled Timefighters in the Land of Fantasy that specifically mashed together previously omitted episodes involving characters from historical fiction like novels and fairy tales.
What really made the show a success and what lent itself to the popularity of the trio of villains, is that the show spent almost as much time focused on the antics of the villains in their pursuit of the Dynamond as it did on the heroes’ search for the professor. By the time the show had really taken off, the villains were actually more popular characters than the heroes, a trend that would sustain itself over the many series that followed.
Following the modest success of the first Time Bokan Tatsunoko created Yatterman, which has since come to eclipse the original show as the most iconic of the franchise. Of the eight different series that comprise the Time Bokan franchise, Yatterman is the only series that ran for two years instead of just one, amassing a total of 108 episodes. In recent years, starting in 2008, the title has seen a second animated TV series in 08, a live-action film in 09, a movie tie-in to the 08 anime series in 09, and appearances of main characters in the Tatsunoko-vs-Capcom fighting game for the Nintendo Wii in 08. (2010 in the US and UK)
Yatterman focused on the titular super hero, Yatterman no.1 and his female equivalent, Yatterman No.2 as they scour the world for the scattered pieces of the Skull Stone, which supposedly holds the secrets to pin pointing a hidden wealth of gold. Rather than traveling through time, the Yatterman team simply travels around the world looking for the pieces of the Skull Stone, and naturally they are pursued by a gang of three misfit criminals who want the stone for themselves.
The leader of the Dorombo Gang was Doronjo, yet another sexy but bossy woman, with very few difference between her and her predecessor, Majo. The skinny shrp nosed and mustachioed man of this series was named Boyakki, and the broad member of the team this time was named Tonzura. The Dorombo Gang were the first of the Time Bokan villains to take orders from another character, Dokurobe, a faceless criminal who would communicate new missions to the field agents of the Dorombo gang via audio and holograms of a red skull hidden in strangely camouflaged robots. In a very Inspector Gadget-esque style all his robots would explode after relaying their message, and when the smokes cleared the gang would be left in tattered clothes. For Doronjo, this was of course a big selling point, and in general her frequent circumstantial nudity became an ongoing gag with the show.
The voice actors who played Doronjo and her gang were Noriko Ohara (Doronjo), Joji Yanami (Boyakki), and Kazuya Tatekabe (Tonzura). They were also the voice actors of the equivalent characters in the original Time Bokan, and continued to play the same roles all throughout the six Time Bokan titles that followed. They were even asked to reprise their roles in the 2008 anime, and despite being in their 70s at the time they all picked up their characters again with no trouble.
As I said there were another five Time Bokan titles that regularly ran from 1979 to 1983, all with their own boy&girl duo of heroes, and some incarnation of the eccentric, bumbling, robot piloting trio of villains: Zenderman (1979), Rescueman (1980), Yattodetaman (1981), Gyakuten! Ippatsuman (1982), and Itadakiman (1983). None of the others ever came close to the same level of success of
I think by now you get the point, and I’m sure if you stop and recollect about some of the titles you grew up with you’ll start to notice this pattern cropping up all over the place in both anime and video games. I hope you’ll have fun picking through some older shows, as well as a few recent ones even, keeping an eye out for Dorombo style trios from here on out and finally knowing just why that trio never seems to get a break. So, for now it looks like The Owl in the Rafters is blasting of aga~in!