Monday, February 16, 2009

Aerial City 008 (Japan, 1969)

The marionette adventures of British television producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were probably nowhere more popular than they were in Japan, where the Anderson's Thunderbirds still enjoys a Star Trek level cult following to this very day. The Japanese themselves were also known to take a crack at this peculiar genre themselves, with the most widely known example being Go Nagai's early eighties puppet effort X Bomber, which was aired in the UK under the title Star Fleet. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that such series were simply an attempt on Japanese producers' parts to bite the Anderson's distinctive Supermarionation style. Japan, after all, had a long tradition of marionette theater, and also had a history of puppet-driven sci-fi themed TV series that paralleled that of their British counterparts.

The chief creative force behind such series was Kinosuke Takeda, a master of traditional Japanese puppetry who, along with his Takeda Puppet Troupe, created Japanese television's first marionette space adventure, Spaceship Silica, in 1960. He would next go on to collaborate with Astro Boy and Kimba creator Osamu Tezuka on Galaxy Boy Troop (Japanese title: Ginga Shonen Tai), which combined marionettes based on Tezuka's character designs with cell animated exteriors and action sequences. But Takeda's most elaborate effort in this arena -- and the one most clearly influenced by the Anderson's series, in particular Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet -- was 1969's Aerial City 008, a full-color series chronicling the adventures of a family living in a futuristic early 21st century megalopolis.

From the little I've seen of it, Aerial City 008 seems to neatly present the flipsides of human endeavor in much the same manner as Thunderbirds, with the technological wonders of the future being employed to clean up the messes left behind by some of the race's more ill-advised stabs at progress. In Thunderbirds, for example, you might recall that the titular rescue organization had to deal with the consequences of such crack-brained schemes as trying to move the Empire State Building on rails and launching a manned space probe to the sun. In that spirit, Operation Spring, the one episode of Aerial City that I've been able to get my hands on, chronicles the outcome of an international project that has the unfathomable goal of turning Winter into Spring. Predictably, that outcome is complete global catastrophe, with earthquakes rocking cities, hot magma vomiting up from the bowels of the Earth in all kinds of inconvenient places, and uniformed functionaries losing their shit as, all around them, sparks and steam shoot out of blinking control panels.

More close to home, the environmental meltdown has lead to an atomic cruise ship bearing the two youngest members of the series' central family, the Oharas, being trapped between two gargantuan ice bergs. It is now up to the botched project's participating nations -- each represented by a broadly stereotyped puppet representative (the Irish delegate dresses like a leprechaun and rides a bright green scooter, to give just one example) -- to combine their technological know-how to effect a rescue. Thus is a vast armada of futuristic hardware, including everything from super submarines to fanciful airships with propellers coming out of everywhere, set into action, racing against time to save the hapless passengers before the ship's damaged heating system leads to them dying of frostbite.

I have the sinking feeling that Operation Spring may be all that survives of Aerial City 008, which is a real shame, because, from what I've seen, it's an overwhelmingly charming exercise in retro futurism. Despite the dark aspects of its storyline, the show's whimsical 21st century cityscapes, neat gadgets and gizmos, and bright, candy- coated color schemes pop with all the optimism of a 1960s world's fair "kitchen of tomorrow" display. Perfectly capturing this spirit is the show's swinging, club-poppy theme tune -- composed by none other than Isao Tomita -- which would be right at home on a Pizzicato Five album.

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TheDoug said...
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TheDoug said...

Since the inception of witnessing in my youth Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's SUPER-CAR series, I was intrigued by Kinosuke Takeda's homage to their sci-fi scenario within the context of AERIAL CITY 008. Within a big screen context I've been anxiously awaiting someone to pick-up the British produced espionage-based puppet parody AGENT CRUSH. Produced by Fantastic Films International, its official website can be seen here:
[b][b] Would there be Marionette based Malaysian series as well?

Todd said...

A Malaysian one? Hmmm. I dunno. But just a couple months ago I was unaware that South Africa had produced a Thunderbirds style series, so at this point nothing would surprise me.