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Fleeting Memories

SPACE: 2999

"The year is 2999. Space War III has ended. The Galaxy is once again enjoying a time of peace. Our solar system, with Earth as its leader, is slowly attempting to forge new hope out of the ashes of devastation."

The year is 1982. Children's TV has been reduced to an arid wasteland, devoid of entertaining science fiction. Despite British TV gaining its first new terrestrial station in 27 years, the outlook is bleak. Yet, in the week before Channel Four made its debut, there was a brief flicker of hope on that grim horizon: Star Fleet.

Tucked away on Saturday mornings on the ITV network, Star Fleet premiered with little fanfare other than a cover feature in Look-In (remember "the junior TV Times magazine"?) which revealed that this quirky puppet space opera "comes to us from Japan". Star Fleet turned out to be an interesting blend of Japanese, British and American influences which won some loyal fans during its 24 episode run before disappearing into the void of TV's Twilight Zone, to be curiously neglected ever since.

Star Fleet certainly wasn't unique in having its genesis tied into the astounding worldwide success of George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977 and the subsequent revival of the space opera genre, but its inspiration harks back even further, to the sixties and another science fiction phenomenon. Thunderbirds, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's innovative 1964 puppet series about the exploits of a futuristic International Rescue organisation, was the Star Wars of its day: a global success that generated a merchandise explosion unequalled until Lucas' epic took the world by storm thirteen years later. Thunderbirds were 'Go' in Japan in 1965, and such was its popularity that new merchandise is still being released there.


The success of Star Wars and Thunderbirds' longstanding popularity inspired producer Kimio Ikeda of JIN Productions to try combining Lucas' space opera approach with the Andersons' marionette techniques to offer what he hoped would be a fresh alternative to the plethora of SF anime on Japanese TV. Despite Thunderbirds' success, no Japanese company had tried emulating Supermarionation, as the Andersons had branded their high-tech marionettes which utilised electronic solenoids to synchronise the puppets' lip movements to pre-recorded dialogue tracks. "In Japan, it seems like people were allergic to Supermarionation dramas" comments Ikeda. "I planned this project as a new genre of Supermarionation."

He faced an uphill struggle. Supermarionation is an expensive business. Unlike other genre productions, you not only have to spend money on models and special effects, but also on manufacturing your actors! Back in the sixties each Thunderbirds puppet cost in the region of 250, a single episode 22,000; luckily the Andersons had the financial backing of Lew Grade's massive ATV/ITC empire. Lacking such a wealthy backer, Ikeda realised that his financial gamble would need a big name to lure in viewers and contacted veteran manga and anime 'bad boy' Go Nagai to flesh out his vision.

"Because it seemed like an interesting idea, I took the job", says Nagai, adding "I've always liked SF, you see." Hardly a revelation to his hordes of fans. Though he enjoys a colourful reputation for the sexual and violent excesses of works like Devilman and Violence Jack, Nagai's more enduring legacy to Japanese SF is probably revolutionising the country's fascination with robots. His 1972 manga/anime series Mazinger Z introduced the concept of the robot as a vehicle, often with a symbiotic relationship with its pilot. Up till then, robots had either been sentient characters in themselves, like Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), or simple remote controlled 'toys' like Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-Go (Gigantor). Nagai gave us the robot as dream machine: shiny and sexy, its sleek curves and wicked-looking fins concealing an arsenal of ultra-cool weapons, the robot equivalent of coveted 50s American automobiles. Kids throughout Japan vicariously piloted Mazinger Z via die-cast toys, and ushered in a decade in which anime was dominated by candy-coloured super-robots. Years before The Transformers, Nagai set another trend with 1974's Getter Robo, the first transformable combining mecha, an element he would incorporate into Ikeda's puppet project.

Nagai also set his fertile imagination to inventing a varied puppet cast: "I took extra care in establishing the personalities of the characters. Unless the personalities of each and every individual character are clearly defined, the story becomes difficult to follow because there are so many characters appearing." Nagai sketched out time-honoured archetypes: a nave youth, a cantankerous fighter, a loveable clown, a beautiful princess and a wise mentor. Throw in a big walking carpet and a cute robot and it all sounds disturbingly familiar.


Despite taking the job, Nagai confesses to wondering if the technology was in place to realise it. Ikeda had the same worries: "Because this is a totally new genre, first of all I started out by recruiting my staff. My friends introduced me to the director Michio Mikami, and I got him to make up a pilot film to see if the technical effects were possible. The results were extremely encouraging."

Senior director on the series, Michio Mikami was a board member of Cosmo Productions, the company hired by JIN Pro to film the series and provide its special effects. Initially unenthusiastic about the technical difficulties involved, Mikami eventually agreed to come on board and was determined to "make something even better than Thunderbirds" - no mean feat, considering his team would be tackling cold techniques which the Andersons' effects team had refined through trial and error over a decade!

Meanwhile, Nagai's Dynamic Productions worked on pre-production, designing characters and craft and refining the storyline. The series was entitled X-Bomber and Nagai nebulously summed up its main themes as "love, dreams and adventure set in outer space", which left him plenty of room to manouevre.

Dynamic called in Keisuke Fujikawa to work on the scenario: "I've had a long association with the people from Dynamic Pro", he says. "I wrote the script for Mazinger Z and Great Mazinger." He also scripted Nagai's original Cutey Honey and UFO Robot Grendizer, while his other anime credits include CATS Eye, Dancougar and Windaria. "Then they asked if I wanted to do something new. Because this Supermarionation is a different medium from animation, I thought it seemed interesting and took the work on offer." It was decided to aim the series at junior and senior high school levels. "In reality" adds Fujikawa "most fan letters came from senior high schoolers."


Following the Andersons' model, Mikami split his staff of around 60 into two units, one for effects work, the other for puppets. (In comparison, over 250 people worked on Thunderbirds.) While the model effects were relatively straightforward, the puppets presented a much more specialised challenge. During their 12 year career in puppet production, the Andersons had evolved through two basic techniques: from 'wire' marionettes operated from a gantry above the set to the opposite end of the spectrum (excuse the pun) introduced in Captain Scarlet, rod puppets operated from beneath; in effect a more complex version of hand puppets. This offered a solution to the visible 'strings' which the team fought hard to disguise. Used to great effect on Jim Henson's Sesame Street and Muppet Show, the technique also echoes Japan's traditional bunraku puppet theatre in which the characters are operated by 'unseen' black clad puppeteers. Though the Andersons still used wire marionettes, the rod puppets reflected their desire to push puppetry ever nearer realism. The early caricatured puppets of Stingray and Thunderbirds were replaced with human-proportioned versions, effectively rendering the technique redundant in favour of live actors. In much the same way, given the limitations of the puppetry, X-Bomber's story might have been better served as an anime; but had it gone down that route, would it ever have stood out from its contemporaries?

Mikami opted for rod puppets, but wisely went for a caricatured look, playing up the strengths of manga stylisation. "We decided to make them out of rubber", he says. "It was hard to get their mouths to move. It took about half a year to make the dolls. It was really onerous." The resulting technique was imaginatively dubbed 'Supermariorama', but while titles may change, the limitations of puppetry don't. Natural looking movement remains a real challenge: "We had to put everything we had into it, just to produce a puppet-like, jerky movement," laments director Akira Takahashi, who describes the process as "trying".

Walking is notoriously difficult, which first prompted Gerry Anderson into the science fiction genre. He reasoned that flying vehicles and futuristic moving walkways would alleviate the problem. Rod puppets like those of X-Bomber rarely exist from the waist down except for special versions used in publicity photos. "The puppets were supported on rods, there was a thin cord running through the rod, and that's how the puppet was operated," remembers Mikami, "so, when we made them walk they had a tendency to goose-step!" which might have been taking the fascist overtones of the series' villains, the Gelma Empire, a little too far!

The solution was to keep walking to a minimum, using a combination of moving back projected scenery and the occasional brief glimpse of real legs. One problem that united the scriptwriter, technicians and directors of X-Bomber was getting the puppets to express emotions, something the Andersons achieved to a degree with interchangeable heads: frowning, smiling , etc. For whatever reason, probably spiralling production costs, X-Bomber didn't go down this road with the unfortunate exception of a brief scene in episode five in which the crew sport grotesque 'laughing' heads that actually make them look as if they're screaming in agony. The Andersons made exactly the same mistake in the feature film Thunderbird Six. Wisely, neither team repeated the disaster. Scriptwriter Fujikawa attempted to solve the problem via a different route. "I decided to make their lines as long as possible" he says presumably to give the voice actors more room to emote!

As effects work continued, including the construction of some seriously massive spacecraft models (up to 4 metres long), Kimio Ikeda faced the age-old producers' dilemma of balancing imagination against money. "I'm constantly worried about production costs," he said. "In the case of X-Bomber, it costs about 12 million yen to make one film. Now, that's tough." Someone was happy though: director Takahashi. "I got to spend a lot of money on the sets for the interior of the spacecraft. Fortunately, I was able to build the sets I really wanted. Normally, in television, not a great deal of money is spent on the interior sets."

As filming wrapped and post production editing began, X-Bomber faced a challenge far greater than the dreaded Gelma empire: surviving the hostile vortex of Japanese TV ratings!

Last updated 14 December 2013

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