GATCHAMAN! The story of Tatsuo Yoshida and his greatest creation

(Written with Special Guest Co-Writer Jason Hofius)

The story of “Battle of the Planets” started in Japan with a comic studio named Tatsunoko and an artistic visionary named Tatsuo Yoshida. It was 1933 when Tatsuo was born in Kyoto, Japan; the eldest of three tight-knit brothers who, from very early on had to fend for themselves to put food on the table. He quickly discovered that he had a gift in art and soon became known as an impeccable illustrator in his hometown. Yet he knew that if he were going to survive living as an artist, he would have to go Japan's biggest city of Tokyo in the hopes of being able to provide for his family.

It was in Tokyo where Tatsuo started to draw manga (Japanese comics), and rapidly rose to top of the comics scene with adventures like “Iron Arm Rikiya” and “Boy Ninja Squad Moonlight.” Work was steady and there was an ever-increasing demand for his talents. So Tatsuo asked his brothers, Kenji and Toyoharu (the latter better known by his pen name - Ippei Kuri) to come to Tokyo to help him with his workload. Very soon, all were enjoying great success. "My brother Tatsuo had a genius for drawing," remembers Ippei Kuri. "He moved to Tokyo and worked there for a publishing company, and I joined him shortly afterwards as an assistant. When I was seventeen I was already working on my own comics, and the same publisher even asked me to write some of them."

"We were popular cartoonists by the time we founded the Tatsunoko Production Company in October, 1962." continues Kuri. But the studio would soon turn from comic illustration into a completely different field of art. The success of Osamu Tezuka, a pioneer of both manga and anime (animation), inspired Tatsuo to follow the path he had set; Tatsuo was enamored with animation and wished to see some his own creations presented as moving images. It was Tezuka who had led anime into new heights and brought worldwide attention to it with one of the first animated series in Japan, “Iron Arm Atom” (known as “Astro Boy” in the US).

The core of Tatsunoko were the three brothers: Tatsuo was naturally the president of the company, and slowly he began to withdraw from his successful manga career to concentrate exclusively on the field of animation. He noted that as more folks got televisions in the early sixties, they were likely to desire animated programs of greater production and content quality -- and he wanted to be the one to give it to them. Tatsuo established the stylistic signature look of Tatsunoko animation, which quickly evolved in each subsequent series they created. He envisioned that his studio would provide diverse, original and innovative shows that were always fundamentally entertaining.

They launched their first production, the black and white “Space Ace,’ on Japanese television in 1965; it proved to be a success that lasted fifty-two episodes. The studio quickly became a reputable staple of animation in Japan and turned out many animated classics including the exciting full-color “Mach Go Go Go” (“Speed Racer”) two years later in 1967.

Business thrived at the company as they worked on several major projects at any given time in order to satisfy the demand from the television networks. Tatsuo now worked harder than ever to ensure his studio's survival. Apart from being the President of the company, he also had a hand in nearly all aspects of production in his shows (directing, writing, character designing and much more), because he always wanted to ensure top-notch excellence.

In the early 1970s, the children that had enjoyed the animation of the sixties were growing up. In order to keep up with the times, Tatsuo desired to do something a bit more sophisticated in his latest and most ambitious production. At the time science fiction and technology were popular subjects in anime, but what he wanted to do would involve better production values and superior animation than anything the public had seen to that point.

Previous Tatsunoko shows like “Kurenai Sanshiro” and “Decision” were proving grounds for the groundbreaking visual effects and animation techniques he wished to incorporate in this yet-to-be-named new series. His initial goal was a mechanical action-type show; but he also began to toy with the idea of exploring the relationship between mankind and science in a more realistic style.

"At one of the comic publishers where we worked, the most popular story was one about a Ninja adventure." says Ippei Kuri. "So, we came up with the idea of joining Ninjas with science to create something new." All of these elements and more were woven together into a show eventually named “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.”

Tatsuo worked feverishly to make a program that was not only stylish, but that also contained a reflection of Japanese culture in the sixties and seventies. His latest concept would be entertaining, but would also convey an underlying message about the care that must be taken when using science and technology.

He began to assemble his production crew, which included his brother Ippei, "I took part in “Gatchaman” as a Producer and did my best as the leader to make sure everything got finished." Tatsuo and the rest of the staff began to design a team of five young heroes, whose costumes were inspired by American superhero comics.

Each member was unique and had a distinctive "bird" costume along with having enhanced strength. They had been specially trained and each was given a custom vehicle and weapons. This group became the first of the classic anime team archetype consisting of the vigilant leader Ken, the Eagle, the impulsive Joe, the Condor, the lovely Jun the Swan, the youngster Jinpei, the Swallow and the easygoing Ryu, the Horned Owl. The year in the show was post-2001 and the five youngsters, known collectively as the Science Ninja Team, were brought together to defend the Earth by the stern Professor Kozaburo Nambu of the International Science Organization. While the villains would use our own science against us, the team used the latest technology and their mighty God Phoenix aircraft to defeat it -- almost always.

But where there is good, there must always be evil -- and the villains designed by Tatsunoko were unlike anything ever seen. The enemy was an evil alien organization named Galactor that was guided by the evil spirit, Governor X, and his chief commander Berg Katse, both of whom wanted to conquer the Earth. Villainous Governor X was an all-powerful alien who appeared solely on computer and other image screens; he had no human form.

Berg Katse was created by Governor X; he was a mutant whose obsession with ruling Earth was topped only by his utter hatred for Gatchaman. The Katse character quickly became one of the most popular villains in the history of anime because he was suave, educated, calculated, and heartless. But the strangest quality Katse possessed was the ability to change his sex back and forth from male to female. While this ability was not something he could control, it was a useful disguise several times in his battles against Gatchaman. Together, Berg Katse and Governor X were a force to be reckoned with as they launched massive invasions on our planet with their army of gigantic mechanical robots and sinister plots.

On October 1st of 1972, “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” premiered on the Fuji Network with a 6:00 P.M. Sunday evening slot, and it immediately became a groundbreaking phenomenon. The attention to detail and hard work paid off for Tatsuo and his company; the show's characters, dialogue and mechanisms were grounded in such realism that the viewing public could not resist it. The character development, designs and music of the show engaged viewers who had never seen anything quite like it. The characters were distinctive, having depth as well as individual personal quirks. This was a show where the characters were quite real; they had to have responsibility for their actions because otherwise innocent people could pay a violent price for their consequences. It was the show that broke the mold for anime and made it more mature and more exciting -- especially compared to its American counterparts.

The first year of “Gatchaman” was planned as a finite one -- it was set to have a definite end. But the demand of the viewing public and the television network to its emerging popularity increased the original run of fifty-three shows, to a total of one-hundred five episodes by the time the second year was completed.

The first year dealt with an ending centered on the Van Allen Belt saga and the revelation & death of Ken's father, Red Impulse. With the first year in place, the second continued the team's adventures focusing primarily on the final defeat of Berg Katse and the tragic death of Joe, who had emerged as the show's most popular character. Many attribute a lot of the success of the show to the shocking sacrifice and heroic portrayal of Joe's death. During 1974, “Gatchaman's” second year was completed with even more success than Tatsunoko ever envisioned.

The studio quickly moved on with a string of further successes before tragedy struck in September 1977. The studio suffered a devastating blow when Tatsuo Yoshida sadly passed away after a bout with liver cancer.

Upon his brother's death, Kenji Yoshida took control of Tatsunoko Productions. Well aware of what the public wanted, and that the studio needed to prove itself without its famed founder, Kenji began anew with more “Gatchaman” projects. With a total of two hundred and five episodes, one feature film and three direct-to-video films over a thirty-five year span, the “Gatchaman” series has proven to withstand the test of time. These ageless characters remain an important and influential show in Japan where they set the high standards many other anime would strive to achieve. To this day, you can still see reflections of this show in “Voltron,” “Gundam” and countless other spectacular productions that put anime on the global forum. It also ushered an animation boom towards more mature programming with fluid characters that were so realistic, so human, that we could actually relate to them.

[This excerpt comes from 2002’s "G-Force Animated: The Official Battle of the Planets Guidebook" by Jason Hofius & George Khoury, from TwoMorrows Publishing. Special thanks to Jason Hofius and John Morrow.]

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