Friday, January 26, 2018

Anime DVDs You May Have Missed: “Ninja Robots”

Japanese Title: Ninja Senshi Tobikage (Ninja Warrior Tobikage)
Publisher: Payless Entertainment Pty Ltd (Australia)
Format: Region Free DVD, PAL, English Dubbed
Length: 20 episodes x 24 minutes
Production Date: 1985 – 1986
English Version Release Date: Late 2007
Currently in Print (as of writing): No

Note: Originally published on the “Anime Archivist” blog in July 2014.

Despite being a minuscule market in terms of physical home video media, in recent years Australia has gained a reputation for releasing some really obscure anime titles. This title probably takes the cake. In the mid 1990’s, a video production company called Alexander Entertainment Group dubbed this rather unknown and unloved Studio Pierrot robot show from 1985. The English dub, broadcast on the Cartoon Network in smaller English speaking territories such as Singapore, India and Australia, seemingly it didn’t develop a fandom of any sort and languished in obscurity. The only logical reason this show got a release here was the distributor (who makes cheap DVDs for dollar store outlets) most likely got the licence for an ultra cheap price.

Before I we get into the synopsis, I must warn you that I haven’t seen the series in its original language (the first 15 subtitled episodes were streamed on the now defunct Anime Sols website, but I couldn't be bothered evading the geoblock to watch them to be honest). All I’m going off is the English dub, which is pretty dire and muddies the plot something awful, making the show almost incomprehensible at times. Regardless, I’ll do my best to try and tell you what the show is about. Several hundred years into the future, mankind has terraformed and colonised Mars. The planet is run by a militarised dictatorial government with most of the inhabitants and immigrants being of convict stock. The only employment options are the military or construction work. Once teenagers turn 16, they must be tested to see if they are suitable to join the army. If they aren’t, then they must join the construction industry. In short, If you are over 16, work is mandatory. Joe Miya is one such 16 year old who should have turned up at an assessment centre on his birthday. Instead he is illegally using a gun to hunt down rabbits with his friends. His childhood friend, Jenny, reminds him he should have gone to the assessment centre as today is his birthday, but he ignores her warnings. He states he would rather work with his father in constriction. For the moment let’s put aside the fact Joe could just deliberately fail his military exam and would be automatically shunted into construction…

Upon hearing that new group of immigrants has arrived in town, Joe and his brother Mike go down a local bar to meet them. Joe immigrated to Mars when he was a child and misses Earth. He quizzes them about this home planet, but a fight breaks out and the military police intervene. One of the officers spots Joe and asks him why he didn’t show up for military testing and why he owns a gun. His bizarre excuse is that he forgot that today was his sixteenth birthday, an excuse which doesn’t go down well with the MPs. Both Joe and Mike assault the officers and flee from the bar in their dune buggy-like vehicle. The military police give chase across the vast barren landscape. Just about as the pair of them are about to be caught, an alien spacecraft materialises above the group, causing Joe and Mike to crash. To add to the already chaotic scene, a group of robots, also apparently of alien origin, appear and proceed to attack the alien spacecraft. The leader of Mars colony, General Hazzard, is advised by the military police of the appearance of the alien spacecraft and orders it’s capture. Planes and tanks from the Mars forces arrive and attack to robots, but the robots practically wipe out the military forces. Mike pleads with Joe to return home, but Joe states he would rather stay and watch. Unfortunately for the pair a robot attacks them and they are forced to flee. Joe spots a large gash in the spacecraft’s hull caused by a robot’s kusarigama (chain sickle – yes, the robots resemble Ninja) and runs in to take cover. There he is confronted by a group of human-like aliens; two women being protected by a few men. They threaten him with a gun and shout at him in a language he doesn’t understand. Before he can grasp the situation, the group dash though a hidden door which locks so Joe can’t enter.

One of the robots enters the spacecraft hell bent on killing Joe. He runs to what he thinks is a pile of junk in a corner for cover but discovers he is inside a giant robot (Joe seemingly can’t tell the difference between a robot and scrap metal – not too bright our Joe…). Joe manages to destroy his attacker and later outside the ship his robot transforms into a lion. Eventually he destroys enough of the robot attackers that the remainder retreat and the lion robot seems to unceremoniously eject him from the cockpit. From the entrance of their ship, a group of aliens stare down Joe, Mike their two friends Kanji and Rio (who’s curiosity drew them to the battle). Mike and Joe are later captured along with Jenny (it is never explained why she was captured as she wasn’t anywhere near the ship). The female leader of the aliens, a princess, motions the trio to enter the cockpits of three robots on board the ship. However none of them can make the robots move. The military suddenly arrives asking the aliens to let Joe, Mike and Jenny go. Despite having little understanding of what is going on, Joe flat out refuses to obey the military order, despite Mike and Jenny’s protests. Then without warning, the enemy robots appear again. Joe heads out again in his lion robot (with anger apparently the trigger into making the robots function), to repel the attackers. The military use this opportunity to invade the ship and abduct the alien princess. Joe notices the military’s plan and merges with a ninja-like robot (who has wiped out some of the enemy robot prior to this), and pursues them.

The show is already confusing enough at this stage, mostly due to the dreadful scripting of the English dub written by someone who really didn’t understand the show and the characters, or gave a airborne copulation about continuity. What happens after the first two episodes just defies belief. Pretty much every episode in this English adaptation from episodes three to ten is out of order. And this is seemingly not the fault of the el cheapo video distributor Payless. The next episode preview at the end of each offending episode matches up with the following out of order episode. So we go from Joe on Mars chasing down the military who have kidnapped the princess, to the aliens now speaking English, the Princess (called Rowena) safe and sound, the ship in space above Mars and Jenny piloting a robot in uniform. It’s utterly confusing. As far as I can make out, the episodes are arranged in the dub thus; 1 – 2, 9 – 10, 5 – 8, 3 – 4, then from episode 11 it retains the Japanese order. Is it a cock up or deliberate? I’m leaning towards the former. In the jumbled episodes we discover that Princess Rowena and her male offsider, Icelander are from the Andromeda system on a mission to find the ninja warriors who can pilot their three Ninja Robots, in order to save their planet which is being attacked by the Romalians. Apparently the ninja warriors can be found on Earth. However they are being attacked by the Romalia forces headed up by Gretan. Rowena’s ship, Xenos 5, had to make a forced landing on Mars due to an attack. When Rowena was kidnapped, Gretan does a deal with General Hazzard to capture the princess for himself. Hazzard has ambitions to conquer earth with the alien Romalian technology.

To be absolutely frank, the show is a real dog’s breakfast. Even when you take away the really substandard English adaptation, there are elements in the original Japanese show which just don’t make a lick of sense. For example how and why (and how) did the aliens capture Jenny, and why does Gretan maintain his alliance with Hazzard even though there’s absolutely no advantage to him? It would be nice to compare the English adaption beside the Japanese original to at least find some answers, but as I said before, seriously I couldn’t be bothered evading Anime Sol’s geoblock. Even when the episodes are viewed in the correct order, the English script still manages to confuse the fuck out of the audience. For example the reason behind Princess Rowena’s journey to Earth is confused several times; in one scene it is stated they are looking for the Ninja Robots (even though they are aboard the Xenos 5) and they are journeying to Earth to get a fuel source. The dialogue is just as baffling and confused. At one point Mike and Joe return home to their father. Joe asks his brother “Mike do me a favour; get the Ninja Robots”. However in the next scene they are sitting down together having a meal. In another scene an army officer confronts Joe who has just stepped outside the Xenos 5. Joe responds “I don’t know anything about aliens!”, with the Xenos 5 in full view in the background. A scene in the first episode has Hazzard introducing his offsider as Doc Doc. Doc then proceeds to call himself Doc Tac. One of my favourite lines was Icelander’s putdown aimed at Joe; “Be quiet loud boy!”. That’ll teach him. The writers also are completely ignorant in regards to basic scientific facts that even primary school children would know. Even though it is blatantly clear where the show is set, several times it is implied that Mars is outside the Solar System and at one point it is stated that Mars is 6 light years away from Earth.

The sole person who seems to be responsible for this dreadful English dub is Buz Alexander. I suspect this is a pseudonym, but I can’t be sure. If he did indeed script and direct the entire series, I can only assume he never attended film school or classes on script writing. Apart from the dreadful and nonsensical dialogue, the voice acting is pretty flat and uninspired. You have to admit that is sort of strange seeing that there are some pretty decent voice actors in the cast; Wendee Lee, Steve Kramer, Cam Clarke etc. I can only imagine this was due to the direction and possibly the production being a little haphazard. The accents of the characters are all over the place. Icelander is given some sort of faux British accent, Hazzard’s is just plain weird and two men from a ninja-like clan living at Mars’ polar region have Russian accents for no apparent reason. A lot of these accents are quite poorly done and I was initially a bit confused about where the show was dubbed. I thought it was produced with mostly Singaporean actors and American actors as the leads. Apparently it’s all American talent. As the show progresses the voice acting and scripting do improve, but only marginally.

Another element of the production which was a little substandard is the music and audio mix. Naturally the original music has been stripped out and replaced with some of the lamest, cheesy, dull synth you could imagine. Bafflingly only some of the sound effects have been replaced (the vast majority of the original effects remain) and the overall mix of dialogue, music and sound effects is rather poor. You could only conclude that this show was made on a tight budget, possibly bargain basement licence fee, translated and dubbed on the cheap, and the post-production quality amateurish at best. While this adaptation never made to North American broadcast or cable as far as I’m aware, I note that each episode ends with a CBS Broadcast International ident, which is rather intriguing. Obviously CBS thought the show was good enough to sell overseas, but not good enough to broadcast themselves. The Payless DVD versions are OK. You only get two episodes per DVD, but the discs were dirt cheap and video is much better than expected. There are a number of audio dropouts, mostly during the end credits, which isn’t a big deal. The DVD cases are pretty cheap; two of them have pretty much fallen apart, like they were made out of degradable plastic. Payless only released the first 20 episodes of the series. I emailed them back in 2008 to see if they planned to release the final 23. Their response was that the licensor would only let them have the first 20 episodes, which sounds kind of odd and was probably a bullshit answer.

Putting aside the rubbish English adaption, all you can say about “Ninja Robots” is that it’s a pretty mediocre robot show. The lead, Joe, is an annoying, selfish brat and I couldn’t warm to him. His brother, Mike, is bland and almost invisible. Jenny is easily the most likable of the trio. A fourth Earthling, Damien, from the ninja clan at the Mars polar region, also doesn’t really add much to the story or plot. He’s dubbed as a Californian surfer dude complete with clichéd dialogue. The aliens are far more interesting characters, in particular Icelander who is always bumping heads with Joe. The tension builds up nicely towards the mid-section of the show and puts the Xenos 5’s journey into peril. The major storyline in the show is who is piloting the mysterious ninja robot who helps out our heroes (which Joe calls Cybertron), but the advance of this plot point is glacial. However there are parts of the story which just don’t make any sense at all. The one that really bugged me was Gretan’s alliance with Hazzard which is clearly only beneficial to Hazzard. It is never explained why Gretan keeps bothering with him. The only thing which impressed me about this show was the fact there doesn’t seem to be much cut out of the English adaptation. In the first five minutes of the first episode there’s animal death, a panty shot and a fist fight. A scene in a latter episode has Joe spying on Jenny as she takes a shower. All of this is shown uncut. It’s a bit odd considering this adaptation was probably made in mind for terrestrial broadcast.

Overall, it’s a dreadful adaptation of a terribly mediocre anime. The crowd funding to get Anime Sols to release the show on DVD fell way short of its target goal. As a result Anime Sols didn’t stream any further episodes past the first 15. Like a lot of out of print Australian DVDs, the Payless discs are pretty much impossible to find now, though random DVD volumes do pop up on eBay from time to time. Though unless you were a fan of the show, I really couldn’t see the point in going out of your way to obtain it.

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