Life in the Before Time:

Star Blazers and The Start of a Fannish Journey

by Walter Amos

1979.

Twenty years ago. (Can it really be so long?)

Jimmy Carter was President. The Shah of Iran was deposed, and Americans were introduced to a new political force: Islamic Fundamentalism. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, prompting us to boycott the 1980 Olympics. Margaret Thatcher was elected as Britain's first female Prime Minister. The first computer spreadsheet software, VisiCalc, began the process of convincing America that personal computers were more than mere toys.

But none of that mattered to me.

I was 12.

What mattered to me was Star Blazers.

Young fans discovering anime for the first time these days probably can't understand what it was like to be an anime fan back then, when most people (certainly my family) didn't even have VCRs, let alone laserdiscs or subtitles or all the other things that have made modern anime fandom possible. Journey back for a moment and hear one person's tale of a strange and wonderful Japanese TV show that changed the lives of a great many people.

Early in 1979, before Star Blazers aired for the first time (at least before I first saw it), I remember the other stuff I was into. I was always a science fiction fan, loving stuff like Star Trek (the Original Series, of course; the first Trek movie wouldn't come out for some months), as well as cartoons of all stripes. I suppose I've always had a certain predisposition toward animation in general, whether it was from Japan or not. I remember my parents finding it a little odd that I continued to watch Saturday morning cartoons well past the age at which they thought such things really "normal."

Before Star Blazers first aired I was, oddly enough, into another Japanese import showing on weekday afternoon kidvid. A live action show. I doubt one person in fifty who reads this will remember the show "Space Giants." And probably deservedly so. In retrospect the show was really pretty dorky. Space Giants was, I later learned, the U.S. adaptation of the live action Japanese TV version of a manga series created by the great "God of Manga" Dr. Osamu Tezuka, called "Ambassador Magma." Its hero, the eponymous Magma (called "Goldar" in the US) was this giant metallic robot guy (who happened to be gold colored) who could transform into a giant golden space rocket and fly all over the place. Generally he spent most of his time flying to the places where the nefarious villain Rodak ("Goa" in Japanese) was attacking the helpless people of Earth in order to subjugate them under his iron-clad (or, well, at least foam-rubber-clad) heel.

Rodak: Space Giants villain
Rodak:
foam rubber clad Space Giants villain

Now one major scene from the show involving Rodak really sticks in my mind (and is the main reason I am bringing this up at all in an article which is, after all, supposed to be about Star Blazers). In one of the early episodes we see Rodak (who is this curly-orange-haired devil sprouting little fangs and pointy ears and this ridiculous foam rubber body armor suit) briefing his faceless minions (literally! I mean all these guys were dressed in identical long black Supreme Court Justice robes and had black nylon panty hose over their faces. No, really.) on their plans to take over the Earth. While waving his arms dramatically back and forth he intones, "This is Earth, our next target. Our strategy shall be to send down giant monsters to destroy their cities. At first we shall concentrate our attacks in their Northern Hemisphere."

Now this is certainly a strategy destined to live in the annals of military history. Of course I don't know why he used the plural "monsters", because he only ever sent down one at a time. And usually to downtown Tokyo. I always wondered why he never saved up a few monsters and sent them to several cities at once. Or sent a bunch of them to gang up on Goldar who of course defeated the single monster he sent down every afternoon. Or maybe even sent the one somewhere else besides Tokyo. I mean, do you know how good the giant monster defenses must be in Tokyo considering they get hit with one at least once a month? I'd be willing to lay odds that Poughkeepsie, New York probably has no giant monster defenses of any kind whatsoever.

"But what does this have to do with Star Blazers?" I hear you cry. I'm getting there. Some time later in the year Space Giants was replaced on WTAF TV Channel 29 in Philadelphia by another Japanese import. A cartoon this time. A cartoon about a really big battleship that flew out in space and had weapons like you would not believe. Now being a cartoon, in the American mindset it of course had to be for little kids, right? Well check out the basic premise of this cartoon for kids:

Mankind is basically dead. The nefarious planet Gamilon has been dropping planet bombs on the Earth in an attempt to purge the planet of humanity so they can take over. The last remaning humans are cowering in under ground cities to escape the bombs and residual radiation, but within a year the radioactivity will seep deep enough into the surface to poison even these last redoubts so that humanity will be finished.

Desslok of Gamilon: Conqueror with Class
Leader Desslok of Gamilon:
Megalomaniac with Style
(certainly more than Rodak)

Yup, comforting kiddie pablum.

Now let's compare for a moment the basic badguy military strategies in these two shows.

Space Giants: "We will send down monsters to destroy their cities."

Star Blazers: "We will drop GIANT NUCLEAR BOMBS on them until everything on their planet is DEAD!"

Can you understand why I and so many other people glommed on to this show as the greatest thing since sliced bread? This was something sui generis, totally unlike anything anyone on these shores had seen before.

But the Star Blazers cool factor didn't end there. It had:


My favorite example of this last one: As our heroes leave Earth's solar system in an attempt to retrieve a device from a distant planet which can remove the deadly radiation created by all those nasty nuclear bombs the badguys were dropping on us, they begin to move outside the range of possible communication with Earth. Everyone on the ship is encouraged to say a last farewell to loved ones before moving out of range. At the end, the principal male hero, Derek Wildstar, is corralled by the ship's nurse, Nova, into the radio room to make his call. When she pokes her head into the room wondering why Wildstar has been avoiding making this call all day and is just sitting there not turning on the communicator Wildstar shouts mournfully,

Derek Wildstar: Lonely Soldier Boy
Derek Wildstar:
No one to talk to
on the communicator behind him

"There's no one left for me to talk to on Earth!!"

...whoa.

And at the end of the same episode, as the last images of their home disappear off their viewscreen, being replaced by static and the blackness of space, the ship's radio operator intones,

"We have now moved beyond communication range. From this point on communication with Earth will be impossible ."

...whoa.

This was heavy stuff. Certainly unlike anything I'd ever seen on TV, and I couldn't get enough of it.

Of course, the reason it was all so cool was because, unlike every other Japanese TV show imported to the US, the people who licensed this series made a remarkable and farsighted decision. They didn't screw with it. Again, this was something totally unheard of. These things almost always had to be "improved" for the American market. Compare Star Blazers to any other Japanese import of the time and you'll see what I mean. Take a few examples:

Well, with all this and more going for it, I was certainly hooked, line and sinker, on the show back then in Junior High school. Ample testament to this fact can be found throughout most of my later Junior High and High school notebooks wherein the margins were festooned with little sketches of Gamilon space destroyers and guys in Desslok-style capes. But while I knew I was hooked, what was unknown to me for a few years was just how many other people were similarly hooked.

The discovery of that fact would have to wait a few more years, until about 1981 or 82; because that was when I attended my first convention. Well I shouldn't really call it a convention, knowing better as I do now, but at the time I thought it had to be the most amazing happening ever. In New York in the late 70s and early 80s a sort of convention / dealer's show for Sci-fi fans had cropped up called "Creation Cons". Some of you may have heard of these. Basically they would usually get a guest or two from Star Trek to give a talk, show some movies, and have a large huckster's room where eager fans could buy all sorts of related merchandise. It is really these type of shows more than anything else that get lampooned in things like William Shatner's famous "Get a Life" sketch on Saturday Night Live. It was only later that I came to understand that these things were really not true conventions: nothing that ended at 7pm with no parties or fan-run programming could really be called a convention! But I didn't know any better yet.

Anyway, round about 81 or 82, Creation decided to hold its first show in Philadelphia. To publicize it they sent out little cards to various people who would likely be interested in this sort of thing, including subscribers of Omni magazine, which I was at the time. So here I am with a little card indicating the big Star Trek con was coming to downtown Philly. After the requisite whining and pleading with the overprotective parental units to be permitted to take the train downtown by myself, I was able to go. Now as I recall the little card advertising this thing focused mainly on Star Trek, Star Wars, and other well known Sci-Fi shows of the time. This is of course what I was mainly expecting to see.

Imagine then my shock and surprise when entering that magical dealers' room for the first time and finding that while, sure, there was some Trek stuff and so on, easily 75% of the dealer's tables seemed to be selling Star Blazers stuff! STAR BLAZERS STUFF!! I walked up and down the aisles like a kid in a candy store. Looking over the mysterious but beautiful color art books called "Roman Albums" (the meaning of that title not being explained to me until years later) I noticed something odd. By this point I had most of Star Blazers fairly well committed to memory, but looking over these books I saw numerous scenes obviously involving the characters from my favorite show, but not in any way resembling anything I could remember. Here was a picture of the generals in the throne room of the Comet Empire wearing uniforms unlike anything I could remember from the show. In fact the Generals themselves looked different too. And there was a picture of Leader Desslok sitting on a comfy couch having a friendly chat with . . . Derek Wildstar?!?! WHAT?? I turned to the dealer and pointed out some of these scenes and asked, "Hey what's the deal here? I have this show fairly well memorized but don't remember any of these scenes here." And I remember being told:

"Oh, those are from one of the later movies."

"What?"

"Oh yeah, Yamato is like, bigger than Star Wars in Japan. They had a third series of the TV show and a bunch of full length movies."

My young brain reeled.

"Movies . . . There are Star Blazers movies . . . WHY AREN'T WE GETTING THESE OVER HERE?!?!"

As I pondered this important question I continued to wander around spending all of my meager saved allowance on Roman Albums and art books, gleefully freeing myself from the need to continue photographing the TV screen. Oh I forgot to mention that did I? Ah let me backtrack for a moment. One of the other several things that attracted me to Star Blazers was that its spaceship and uniform designs were the coolest things since sliced bread. I simply had to learn how to draw things like that (hence the aforementioned notebook margin decorations.) Now at the time VCRs were available but they were still kind of expensive, and quite beyond my family's usual means. Not to mention that in my parents' view, anything that would allow me to watch more TV was probably evil to begin with. So with no VCR, I had to find some way of getting images of these cool ships and uniforms on record so that I could study how to draw them. I could think of no way to do this until one day, visiting a friend's house, I noticed on the table a Polaroid Instamatic photo taken of a TV screen showing another import anime series, Tranzor Z. The screen was only a 1-inch square in the middle of the photo and everything around it was black, but you could see what was on it! Inspired I began copiously wasting my father's Instamatic film attempting to preserve this remarkable show that I knew I would probably never see again. But now having found out that there were such things as Roman Albums, with wonderful full color and line art drawings of all the ships and characters in all kinds of perspectives all right there, the need for my father's camera disappeared. Hurrah!

Even as I was blowing my allowance buying these books, I noticed also that there were books with characters in them that looked very much like those in Star Blazers but were in fact totally unrelated. Shows with names like Captain Harlock, and Galaxy Express 999. I began to learn that all these were the product of the creative genius of one man, Leiji Matsumoto. At the time I had no idea what these shows were about since there was no way I knew of to see them here in the USA, but I filed them away for future investigation.

However I soon learned that I was wrong on that "no way to see them" point because, continuing to wander around the con, I noticed flyers around for a group of fans with an odd name called "the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization". Here were a bunch of people like me, who loved these weird Japanese cartoons, and who somehow could manage to get videotape copies of some of the aforementioned Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express, as well as the fabled Yamato movies I longed to see. And I later learned, people who thought very much like I did, people who also had stashes of Polaroid photos of TV screens and audio cassettes recorded off TV broadcasts in attempts to capture background music. Getting in touch with them and the nascent Star Blazers Fan Club, I was at least able to learn of the plot of some of these magical later Yamato shows. However the sad fact remained that my family was adamantly opposed to having one of those useless VCR machines in our home, so my ability to actually see these things for myself was stymied for a number of years, until I got to college.

As my High School years progressed I continued to attend Creation Cons when I could (since these were the only conventions I had any means to get to.) As other new shows such as Britain's Dr. Who became popular I noticed that these Cons began to invite guests from these other shows as well. One of these was John Leeson, the man who played the voice of the Doctor's robotic dog, K-9. This set me thinking: "Why don't we try to invite the American voice actors who portrayed the characters in Star Blazers ?" Another of the features that set Star Blazers so far apart from the rest of the afternoon cartoon wasteland was that the voice acting was absolutely superb. These characters portrayed real emotions; despair, anger, joy. The strength of emotional scenes like the ones I mentioned earlier in this article could not have come across unless that actors dubbing the show took their job seriously, unlike so many other dub jobs where no matter what the nature or content of the show concerned, since it was a cartoon it was deemed to need "cartoony" voices. (Can you imagine what Star Blazers would have been if we had lines like "Hee-yuk Guess it's time to fire that thar big ol' Wave Motion Gun yesiree Bob!")

Unfortunately such an appearance never took place, and I later learned that the American actors who had helped make Star Blazers a success had all sort of vanished off the face of the Earth, and the likelihood of ever finding most of them again was about as good as, oh, ever having an all anime convention where they would actually bring guests over from Japan. (Yeah right, like that was ever gonna happen! Sha!)

Thanks to my new found contact with the Star Blazers Fan Club, I learned a year or two later that in fact the third season of Star Blazers had finally been dubbed and was available in the US! I wrote numerous letters to good old WTAF TV 29 in Philadelphia begging, pleading with them to pick up the show for broadcast, but to no avail. I later learned that, due to different licensing methods, this show was actually only ever shown in a tiny handful of cities around the country. Of course, I also later learned that not only could we fans not find the original voice actors to invite them to speak to us at a convention, but neither could the people at Westchester Films! They were forced to use a totally different voice cast and more importantly, different script writers as well, since there were a number of huge glaring continuity errors between the fondly remembered first two series and this third one.

With the apparent failure to get Star Blazers season 3 on the air, there was little more I could do Japanese animation-wise for several years, at least until I got to college. Fortunately there I met numerous other like-minded people, people who had VCRs and cars with which we could travel to REAL conventions like Philcon in Philadelphia and Lunacon in New York. Conventions that didn't stop at 7pm. Conventions that had parties with booze! Conventions that had full-time anime screening rooms. And as a note to all you junior fans out there, these were called "Star Blazers rooms" for a number of years. It was at these cons in places like this that I finally got to see some of the other works by the amazing Mr. Matsumoto, as well as some other really mind blowing stuff like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Lupin III:Castle of Cagliostro by some guy named Hayao Miyazaki.

With all these wonderful and shiny new things, and the Yamato franchise itself coming to an end in 1984 with the aptly named movie Final Yamato, Star Blazers gradually began to fade into the background. Anime fandom continued to grow and moved on to other things. For over a decade and half, despite the odd blip here and there, nothing much happened with Yamato and Star Blazers. So let's advance my anime time clock...

past Saint Seiya...

past Laputa: Castle in the Sky...

past the invention of fan-subtitling (and all that did to broaden this fandom in which we find ourselves!)...

past Totoro and Kiki's Delivery, past Wings of Honneamise, past Nadia of the Mysterious Sea, past Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Giant Robo...

(and by the way, to those younger fans reading this, if you don't recognize any of the shows mentioned above, please CHECK THEM OUT! These things form some of the core of what made this fandom what it is today, and deserves to be recognized. There is more to anime after all than Dragonball, Sailor Moon, Ranma and Pokémon.)

It is only within the last three or four years that some remarkable things have begun happening concerning Yamato fans once again.

Yamato meets GE999
Together at Last:
The Yamato meets the Galaxy Express 999

First, Japan is experiencing a wonderful resurgence in popularity of the works of Leiji Matsumoto. Several new anime movies or videos based on his comics have been released in Japan and subsequently here including The Cockpit and Queen Emeraldus. Viz Comics is publishing an English translation of his new Galaxy Express 999 comics (which features a cameo appearance by the Yamato itself!) and both dubs and subtitles of the Galaxy Express movies. The new Yamato-based Playstation game featuring new art by Matsumoto has been a top seller in Japan for several months now and sequels are soon to be released. And perhaps best of all, a remake of the original Yamato story featuring snazzy new animation is slated for next year.

But for true old-time Star Blazers fans the biggest news has come thanks entirely to the growth of the Internet. As I mentioned earlier, it was nearly impossible to find any information about the American actors who played the voices in Star Blazers because few records were kept. The great dream of numerous Star Blazers fans of one day locating these people, inviting them to a convention, and maybe even creating that fannish holy grail: a dub of some of the later Yamato movies into English with the voices we knew and loved seemed an unattainable fantasy. However it was probably inevitable that with the explosive growth of the Internet, some highly motivated fans would create numerous Star Blazers web pages, and it was through one of these (specifically the superb Wave Motion Web Page) that the impossible happened. An e-mail was received about two years ago saying basically "Hi! I loved your web page, which I was told to check out by my brother who is on the Net, since I played Nova years ago!"

Wowsers. Now you've gotta understand, after more than 15 years of hoping to locate any of these people with no success at all, to suddenly have "Nova" basically walk up and announce herself is like, say, being Sir Galahad and spending decades in search of the Holy Grail with no luck, and then one night to hear a knock on the door from a fellow who says, "Hi there, I'm Joseph of Arimathea. Would you mind holding this cup for me?"

Being as excited as we were to find so much interest in her past work, Amy "Nova" Howard has been a guest at several regional anime conventions, to the delight of all who have had the chance to meet this vivacious lady. And better still, within just the past 8 months, with the help of Amy and further contact through the Wave Motion Web, we have also located Ken "Derek Wildstar" Meseroll and Tom "Mark Venture" Tweedy, both of whom will be making their first appearances in fandom at the upcoming Project A-Kon 10 convention. This amazing and totally unbelievable development, coupled with the resurgence of Leiji Matsumoto mentioned above and just in time for the 20th anniversary of Star Blazers, will make 1999 the most exciting time for Yamato fans since, well, since those glorious days in the early 80s when anime was new and its American fandom didn't even exist. And considering how far we have all come since those days in the "Before Time", I think that means some really amazing things are yet to come.

I can't wait.