2017 is a great year for fans of Hollywood cinema who also happen to be Japanese pop culture junkies, as the two industries intersect quite a lot. There are plenty of obvious crossover points (Rings, Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Power Rangers, Midnight Sun), as well as less-obvious huge, iconic multimedia franchises that straddle the Pacific (Transformers: the Last Knight, Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets, the thus-far untitled Cloverfield sequel, the myriad Marvel and DC adaptations). As we’ve done with King Kong and with Star Wars, I thought it might be fun to look at the footprint one of these pop-culture juggernauts left on the land of the rising sun: Planet of the Apes. If you’ve never seen any of the movies, check them out, ’cause here be spoilers.
For personal giggles, I put a Dragonball Z scouter on my DVD-set/bust of Caesar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It’s a good nerd cred litmus test: the tech is introduced in the DBZ as equipment used by the Saiyans, a group of savage simian aliens who overthrew the more advanced species that used to rule their planet. I’m not sure if Akira Toriyama was drawing on the PotA saga for that backstory (the heyday of its mania had long passed), but when the movies first got released in Japan they certainly made a splash.
The first movie hit Japan less than two months after its US premiere, and some were surprised that the film made it that far. The original novel is by Pierre Boulle, most famous for The Bridge on the River Kwai, who, while not a POW himself, possibly harbored some resentment about the way the Japanese treated their captives during the second world war (though the Planet of the Apes novel is much more a spoof of French society). As a result, the original Planet of the Apes is often read as an allegory for Japanese prison camps, but if the intent was to make something anti-Japanese, perhaps the production wouldn’t have hired Fuminori Ohashi (who’d worked on previous Japanese King Kong flicks) as a makeup consultant. 1 At any rate, the film’s release was also a generation removed from wartime, so the relatively young target audience would be ignorant of such symbolism, even if it was intentional. They saw a fun, gripping sci-fi adventure with a cautionary twist ending (which would become a big theme in the decade of cinema to follow), and they loved it.
The movie had two separate manga adaptations: a 63-page treatment by Johji Enami in Bohken Oh (often listed as the “Adventure King” version), simultaneous with the film’s release, and a 250 page graphic novel by Minoru Kuroda for Manga Tengoku released in 1971. Enami had a background in adapting Tsuburaya’s Ultra works, and interestingly enough would go on to adapt Saru no Gundan into manga form. Possibly to avoid spoiling the impact of the then-current movie, the film’s iconic final shot is omitted, and the story ends with our protagonists riding into the sunset on horseback.
Kuroda, on the other hand, was a horror mangaka by trade, and his manga adaptation includes some grotesque embellishments, such as two human heads sewn together onto the same topless torso in a cruel medical experiment by the apes (NSFW, obviously).
The four sequel films each hit Japan within two months of their respective US debuts, and the live-action TV series hit Fuji TV the spring after its US finale. The various English-language novelizations were translated into Japanese as well, but the only other Japan-original work I’m aware of is Mitsuru Sugaya’s manga adaptation of Battle for Planet of the Apes, the final entry in the original series and the one that most directly catered to Japanese audiences. 2 I particularly love how Caesar’s hair comes to a point in the back in this manga, it’s very much in line with manga heroes like Koji Kabuto and Cyborg 009. (No surprise there that Sugaya was one of Shotaro Ishinomori’s disciples.)
Of course, to really gauge how popular something is, one has to look at its imitators. The first of these is Space Apeman Gori, a 1971 giant hero show generally regarded as the first of the “henshin” boom of transforming superhero dramas, also known as the second kaiju boom. Unlike similar hero shows, Space Apeman Gori‘s title character is the villain, a mad scientist from planet E, along with Gori’s henchman Lla. (This proved an awkward move, so after episode 20 the hero character was incorporated into the title as Space Apeman Gori vs. Spectreman, and after episode 40 it was simply retitled to Spectreman.) The primate invaders were notably not part of the original concept for the show (in the pilot version called “Jaguarman“), but were specifically added by Souji Ushio in response to Planet of the Apes. Gori has an iconic look to him, as his gorilla face clashes brilliantly with well-kept blonde locks and a pink jumpsuit, memorable enough to grace the cover of Tokusatsu Hihou‘s second issue as recently as 2015.
The show was a success in Japan and abroad, as one of the big four kaiju shows aired in the US (along with Johnny Sokko, Space Giants, and Ultraman), and along with Super Sentai inspired a parody in France called Léguman. The duo of Gori and Lla (without Spectreman) also made a significant appearance at the end of Yudai Yamaguchi’s Cromartie High School movie in 2005. Finally, it would be negligent not to mention that Gori was the inspiration for The Powerpuff Girls‘ chief antagonist, Mojo Jojo.
Japan wasn’t done with apish aliens after Spectreman wrapped, though. 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla introduced one in a long line of nefarious invaders to that franchise, and, like the cockroach aliens in Godzilla vs. Gigan, the aliens from “the Third Planet from the Black Hole” revert to their true form upon receiving injury. Not content with a single invasion, these baddies return in 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla, the Dark Horse Godzilla comics run in 1995 (again with a giant robot, making them and Shokirus the only returning characters from the films), and in IDW’s Godzilla Legends in 2012.
The most transparent attempt to exploit PotA imagery, though, came in the form of Tsuburaya’s 1974 TV series Saru no Gundan (“Army of the Apes”), which ran in Japan roughly concurrently with the US broadcast of the Planet of the Apes TV series. Tsuburaya was no stranger to ape aliens (Ultraseven had one back in 1967, after all), but this show goes with the straight-up super-evolved earthling variety, with a group of humans going into cryogenic suspended animation and awakening to the world run by chimps (this show has violent chimpanzees and chill gorillas, which is more biologically accurate). While the outrageous fashion that the apes don dates the show firmly to the 1970s, it did okay for itself on release, especially since it was up against Heidi and Space Battleship Yamato in the same time slot. Toys, manga, sonorama, board games, and more were produced, and the show squeaked out a respectable 26 episodes, but never did Ultraman numbers. It’d be nice if it got picked up by Crunchyroll or Toku just to add some variety to the available Tsuburaya programming; the only English translation is a messy compilation film from Sandy Frank titled Time of the Apes, never released on DVD and best known for its treatment on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Shotaro Ishinomori’s 1977 manga Jun (which is quite a trip) has a potential visual nod to the first movie, but it’s in a vague, artsy enough context that it *could* have been arrived at independently. Other stories with time-slips to post-human futures, such as The Drifting Classroom and Prime Rose, are sometimes presented in relation to Planet of the Apes, but honestly that’s a stretch, since even H.G. Wells was laying the groundwork for that template well beforehand.
Speaking on Ishinomori, his 1978 show Message from Space: Galaxy Wars had an ape-man in the primary cast, though that was quite possibly also influenced by Chewbacca from Star Wars.
Without new movies coming from Hollywood, it seems the Apes’ popularity had run its course. The only further influenced work I can think of is the 1989 anime movie Garaga (which is a little hard to search for since it uses the same spelling in Japanese as the popular video game Galaga). The movie has astronauts crash on a planet filled with dinosaurs, psychics, and ape men in distinctly medieval-looking armor. It was made by some of the same animation staff that worked on Thundercats, which one can sort of see in the aesthetics. It’s… well, it’s not that great of a film, to be honest.
Nowadays, we have an entire new series of Planet of the Apes films, and it’s hard to say quite what their eventual impact will be. (If nothing else, Asian Kung-Fu Generation released a song called “Planet of the Apes” in 2015.) It’s neat to watch the franchise evolve on the western front, but I hope we see some Japanese-made manga adaptations, spin-offs, and imitators in the future. It’s tradition, after all!
…by the way, why are you all telling me to watch Kemono Friends?