Somewhat shockingly, it’s our general consensus that the best new “anime” of the season is a puppet show: Thunderbolt Fantasy. With its rocking soundtrack, bombastic characters, Yoshitaka Amano-ish (emphasis on “ish”) design aesthetics, and exaggerated action, it makes for a heck of a program.
The show is firmly rooted in a Taiwanese television tradition of budaixi (glove puppetry), both in setting and execution. It’s not an entirely alien concept for western viewers, since one of the seminal budaixi shows, Pili, was localized for Toonami back in the day:
That series, by not fitting into a neat anime box, was already a hard sell for the Cartoon Network audience, and suffered a similar fate to Ultraman Tiga in the US: censorship, joke dubbing, character gender changes, and prompt cancellation. Pili and its budaixi brethren are now starting to really gain a following in English-speaking community thanks largely to the awesomeness of Thunderbolt Fantasy, but that got me wondering: could this mean other Japanese puppet properties may start to take off as well? What all is even out there?
Let’s start at the beginning. Any good tokusatsu fan can point to a certain Toho production from November 1954 as the genesis of Japanese kaiju eiga as a worldwide pop-culture phenomenon, but many also recognize that there were some Japanese giant monster movie dry-runs leading up to Godzilla‘s debut: King Kong Appears in Edo, Giant Buddha Travels the Country, etc. One such footnote is the 1942 short Ramayana, based on the Indian epic, adapted by Gekko Kamen creator Kohan Kawauchi with effects by future god of tokusatsu, Eiji Tsuburaya. Unlike Tsuburaya’s later work, where human actors were composited into miniature sets, everything here is achieved in camera by setting aside the notion of human actors altogether, and using puppetry throughout.
Moving into the 60s, Gerry Anderson’s various TV series (Thunderbirds, UFO, Captain Scarlet) were monstrously popular in Japan, influencing subsequent major properties from Ultraseven to Mazinger Z to Evangelion, so naturally there were imitators of Anderson’s signature marionation. Even Osamu Tezuka got in on the game in 1963 (just four months after the start of Astro Boy!) with an anime/puppet hybrid called Ginga Shonen Tai (“Galaxy Boy Troop”), complete with several of Tezuka’s stock characters:
Unfortunately, most of that show is lost, much like the 1969 puppet show Kuuchuu Toshi 008 (“Aerial City 008“), based on a novel by Sakyo Komatsu (Japan Sinks, ESPy, Sayonara Jupiter), and another show from 1961 called Uchuusen Silica (“Spaceship Silica“). All of them survive partially, though, between clips preserved by collectors (and eventually youtube), as well as promotional tie-in books and magazines from the time.
It makes sense that the birthland of Gerry Anderson would be receptive to Japanese shows done in marionation, so it’s not a huge shock that one series that’s done amazingly well in the UK (and will soon get its American DVD due thanks to Discotek Media) is Star Fleet, originally titled X-Bomber in Japan. Arriving at the height of Star Wars mania in 1980, the show was the brainchild of super robot maestro Go Nagai, and featured a space opera epic complete with elements of both: one one hand there’s a furry alien, cute beeping droid, and alien princess to protect from an evil empire (a couple of voice cast in the dub were actors from Star Wars, actually), on the other hand, there’s the team of three eccentric pilots who manage the titular combining giant war machine (done, like Ramayana‘s giant, in suitmation). The show’s space-soap-opera format would’ve been familiar to Japanese viewers of Space Battleship Yamato and Gundam, but to a Thunderbirds audience it was revolutionary (I’m not sure when the UK got Star Blazers), and it caught on with the UK viewership in a big way, inspiring everything from lunchboxes to tie-in comics. What everyone surely remembers, though, was a certain fan named Brian May, of the band Queen, and his pal Eddie Van Halen, releasing a single album covering the show’s opening theme. The backing of such rock-n-roll giants helped spread notice of the show beyond the UK, and the song even made its way back to Japan, much to Go Nagai’s bemusement.
I have to wonder how receptive the UK would be to a Japanese adaptation of one of their own properties, though. Sherlock Holmes, by nature of being the single most fecund character in world literature, has numerous Japanese interpretations, ranging from a straight manga novelization of BBC’s current Sherlock drama to Osamu Tezuka’s boy-detective-turned-psychopath “Rock Holmes” to Hayao Miyazaki’s version where he’s a dog. Relevant to this conversation is the recent show from 2014 (available with English subtitles on viki!), naturally enacted with puppets, featuring a ghoulish Holmes and a catchy theme song. The show is the brainchild of Koki Mitani, who previously worked on a puppet adaptation of The Three Musketeers.
Mitani was in turn inspired by earlier puppet shows about Asian historical-fictional characters, including the Shin Hakkenden (1973… fun fact, its compilation movie was alongside Terror of Mechagodzilla at the Toho Champion Matsuri!) and Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1982), which I imagine should have significant appeal to the crowds attracted to the jidaigeki aspect of Pili or Thunderbolt Fantasy.
Speaking of kaiju, there have also been monster-oriented puppet shows at various Ultraman events. The best known is the Ultra P series, which began in 1993 and continues in live performances to this day; many of the recent chapters of which can be found camcorded on youtube. In 1996, there was also a TV version, Ultraman M730 Ultramanland, running for 131 5-minute episodes and upping the ante by making the most of the television medium. Any character (kaiju, alien, or human) from across the Tsuburaya landscape is fair game for these shows, and even non-Ultra characters like Booska and Daigoro tend to pop up in their adorable aesthetic.
The same folks also had a Godzilla puppet live performance in 2004. Details are scarce, but I’ve heard their King Ghidorah was really cool.
If only there were a short-form kids show featuring puppets with Godzilla monsters, right? Well, you’re in luck, because this was delivered in 1997 with 256 3-minute episodes of some of the wackiest Godzilla content ever produced: Godzilla Island. Nominally, one would expect this to be a mere toy commercial for Bandai’s line of vinyl figures by the same name, and while the monsters portrayed in the show do largely make use of them, several of the monsters never had figures made, and the show even used Trendmasters toys as a base every one in a while. The human actors (most notably Return of Ultraman star Jiro Dan) are portrayed as human though, rather than puppets, as there was nothing even close from Bandai to work with on that front.
The show eschews conventional continuity by being set in 2097, and focuses on a Monster Island populated by both Showa and Heisei-era creatures, as well as those from unexpected sources such as Yamato Takeru, and loosely follows an inept invasion by a pair of Xilians (in what’s also my favorite incarnation of that alien race’s costume design). From monster dance parties to kaiju vending machines, to an A Space Godzilla-esque reveal of alien Godzillas, it’s hard to not be entranced by its goofy glory, though hearing the same OP and ED every three minutes does get a little grating during marathons.
So, the next time you’re wondering why Bandai made a black Mechagodzilla or medical Jet Jaguar, well, this show is to blame (when are we going to get a Hyper Mecha King Ghidorah?!)
Godzilla Island wasn’t Toho’s final foray into advertising a major toy line, though, and the next one was dang near as odd: Kawaii! JeNny. The Japanese equivalent of Barbie (it literally spun off from that line), Jenny is a fashionable dress-up doll, and generally not the sort one would expect in a defense team piloting mecha and thwarting world conquest. However, this 2007 show features Jenny and friends as transforming superheroines battling an army of evil teddy bears (no joke), and eventually features giant robots that look like they’d be right at home in a Chouseishin series, likely because Heisei Godzilla designer Shinji Nishikawa and special effects wizard Koichi Kawakita worked on the program. Throw in Carranger scribe Yoshio Urasawa, and you’ve got a mix of talent that you’d expect to hit home… once you can convince fans (especially the dour “serious” sectors of Godzilla fandom) to watch a show with a bunch of Barbies in it.
So, those are a handful of neat Japanese puppet shows that clicked with me personally, but if you’ve got other suggestions, please leave a comment. As Thunderbolt Fantasy continues to impress, one has to wonder if it could inspire imitators and usher in a renaissance for the often-overlooked medium. Maybe some young creative watching it now will be inspired to make something like it in decades to come, just as Gen Urobuchi was inspired by Taiwanese budaixi of the past? Or perhaps, if it does well enough for Crunchyroll, whether we’ll see those Ultraman shorts show up there eventually? Time will tell, but at least for now we’ve got an interesting backlog to check out, with, if you’ll pardon the pun, no strings attached.